Ropes hang, partitioning off a raised platform that is a ramp. Curiosity rises in dimension with the angle of the ramp, a shiny black surface, and in scale with vertical ropes that provide clear boundaries. The expectation is that a dancer will ascend and descend the ramp or move to connect the distance between the ropes.
The expectation is that the cellist will be primarily heard and not seen, a musician on the edge of the periphery. The relationship between dancer and cellist seems outside of expectation because the stage is vast. Will the epic scale of the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre swallow the two performers? The program notes list words by the composer, statements in alphabetical order that begin with “I.” The crowd-sourced phrases from the internet complete the sentence, “I remember the day I.” The text covers several pages.
The performance begins, and through the course of seventy-five minutes, the unexpected happens. My body reacts to the movement of the cellist as she rises and descends the ramp. The comprehension of the “I” statements is lost at times but the sound creates a rhythm; alternatively, the dancer’s manipulation of the costume vividly illustrates a statement, and I hear it, sense it and understand. The Day, a collaboration by cellist Maya Beiser, dancer Wendy Whelan, choreographer Lucinda Childs, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang, transforms a grand, meditative, mournful, and passionate journey into a meaningful and personal snapshot of time.
The projection design by Joshua Higgason shifts through monochromatic images while interacting closely with the movement. Whelan and Beiser are seen in a deserted studio and layers of images dissolve into closeups of Whelan’s hands entwined with ropes or maneuvering long metallic rods that add diagonal heft, elongating the body we see on stage while magnifying the details. Beiser, seated on the platform, adds live music to the recorded vocals and music by David Lang, a passionate response that elevates and bridges to connect the performers. (Beiser also performs recorded vocals, text and multitrack cello.)
Whelan begins in a white drapey costume by Karen Young. We see skin and legs and a swivel stool that is a partner to the dancer, supporting and making possible dynamic movement that embraces the body or sustains the moment. The white fabric at times is representative, as in ‘“I bought 6 yards of cream-colored fabric” or “I first met him.” When it is rolled into a ball, we grasp the appearance of a head, a person, or an infant cradled and calm. A white-gloved hand appears from off stage, accepting the garment as it is cast off, or bringing it back to life.
Lucinda Childs’ choreography delves into repetition; Whelan revolving around herself, right shoulder in conjunction with right leg, and then turning 180 degrees, accenting a half of the body, like a frieze marching across a wall in an abrupt perspective that rests in tiny fractions of stillness or arises with strident command.
A sharp shaft of red light highlights two ropes that cut horizontally through the space, one of the few moments when color is used in the lighting design by Natasha Katz. The ropes are Whelan’s partner, and support her in a similar manner as the swivel stool, though sight unseen. The mystery is that we don’t know who is on the other end.
The second half of the evening is David Lang’s world to come, a commission from Carnegie Hall begun after the devastating events of September 11, 2001. The piece is meant as a prayer, introspective and personal. The performers switch relationship; Beiser is seated on the swivel stool and Whelan begins on the ramp. Childs’ choreography leads Whelan back to the same statement in movement, a short phrase that places an angled arm near her forehead, and then resolves with measured steps. There is comfort in the tiny articulations of arms and the phrase that rises up again.
The Day is insistent and emotional, tempered with repetition in sound, movement, and images; the music is felt, a resonant longing that makes one feel very close to what is happening on a very large stage, an experience that has made the evening somehow intimate and personal.
Running Time: One hour and 15 minutes, with no intermission.
The Day played on Friday, December 6, and Saturday, December 7, 2019, at 8 p.m. in The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre – 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets to future Kennedy Center events, call the box office at (800) 444-1324, or go online.