“I remember the day.” So begins Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang’s crowdsourced lament, a eulogy for the lost, an encomium for those still with us, a sorrowful remembrance of a bygone world, one forever changed when some 3,000 lives perished on that horrific Tuesday in September. Making use of a single day as metaphor to cut to the heart of humanity, the 2016 Lang composition, “the day,” was commissioned by contemporary cellist Maya Beiser as a prequel to Lang’s 2003 opus, “world to come,” which was composed in response to 9/11, with “The Day” receiving its West Coast premiere over the weekend at CAP UCLA’s Royce Hall.
Conceived by Beiser, who added superstar ballerina Wendy Whelan to the mix (no longer dancing with New York City Ballet but now its associate artistic director, Whelan’s been going the terpsichorean route of Sylvie Guillem and Diana Vishneva in having contemporary dances made on her) and choreographed by the legendary Lucinda Childs, a Judson Dance Theater luminary, the multi-media collaboration unfolds like a memory, a promise, a reverie, whether painful or cherished—or both.
Complementing the work is the scenic design of Sara Brown—memorial-like in its simplicity, with the floor a sleek reflecting surface—while Joshua Higgason’s understated, yet gripping video projections move from outsized images of the performers and large arched windows that could be part of any fine dance studio, to the interior of the Oculus, the transit hub at the World Trade Center site, filled here with spectral-like figures towards the work’s end.
Natasha Katz’s lighting design, requisitely somber at times, beatifically amber at others, adds to the evocative mood of the 60-minute performance that opens with, “the day.” Featuring short phrases (heard on tape in voiceover), including lines such as, “I cried my soul out,” and “I heard about his murder,” are but two of 300 sentiments beginning with the pronoun “I.” Arranged alphabetically, these declamations create a mosaic of ordinary lives, memorializing them to a degree, no matter how simplistic—or charged—they may seem.
Spoken at six second intervals, as if a heartbeat, these texts belong to us—all of us, while the music—scorching, plaintive, affirming, spectacular—is another riff on the human condition, performed brilliantly by Beiser, who sits on a raised platform in part one, a stool in part two.
Whelan, dressed in Karen Young’s Vionnet-like flowing garb that served as shorts, a cape and a gown, is a Goddess sent to comfort—or perhaps chide us from numbness, from the sameness/uniqueness of the vocal incantations including those asserting, “I decided to quit,” “I first learned of you,” “I needed you.”
Whether Whelan’s sleek figure is seated on the stool as she slices the air with her sculpted legs or is executing whipping turns across the floor, her airplane-like arms ready for ascension, she is a warrior helping us make sense of it all. And though the words, “I dance,” would have been too literal (and were not, in fact, uttered), watching Whelan move through space and time helping to craft a poetic liturgy was revelatory, all the more so in the fact that her moves were partially improvised in the program’s first half.
Whelan was also tasked with props: lengths of elastic rope; thin dowels she brandished with the skill of an Olympian, ones she fashioned into the geometry, perhaps, of a North star, a Lady Liberty beckoning us to her steadfast shores; a sheet-covered stick figure, its white ball a head of sorts.
In the second, textless half of the piece, “world to come” (or, as Lang must have considered, “wtc”—World Trade Center), the title references the Jewish concept of the afterlife and is intended as a spiritual journey, the transition from life to death. Lang has said about the work, “It’s not depressing and it’s not about September 11th. It’s really just looking around, going, ‘These people were here, and now they’re not. Where are they?’”
With Beiser and Whelan, both clad in black, having traded positions on the stage, they were a unified/splintered force field of emotion. Beiser’s commanding presence and dazzling playing alternated between hope and despair—none more so than when she accompanied her own pre-recorded cello loops, giving keening life to Lang’s score.
Letting loose forceful tremolos, moving through minor scales and deeply felt, low-voiced pizzicatos, Beiser also added intense, wordless vocalizations as part of this extraordinary meditation, while Whelan became more agitated, as well, her fluid, pliant body an astounding vessel for Childs’ exacting choreography, whether through stylized walking, fluttering fingers or a valiant one-legged stance.
When Whelan, as if descending from on high, rolled down the platform’s ramp, wrapping herself in fabric, a diaphanous shroud, as it were, there was the feeling that this day was not quite finished: White fabric fell from the rafters, with Whelan embracing it, and as the last projected images of a pair of rippling columns faded, this was a kind of closure.
Or not. With the crumbling finale to that blindingly sunny morning in lower Manhattan never to be forgotten, the days have come and gone—and continue to come and go—and we, thankfully, are blessed with the artistry that is “The Day,” one that provided solace, if only for an hour.