Wendy Whelan and Maya Beiser
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

October 22, 2019
The Day [Part 1: The Day; Part 2: world to come]

Jerry Hochman

To cut to the chase, there’s nothing terribly wrong with The Day, the new piece that’s a collaborative effort among former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan (now that company’s Associate Artistic Director), equally legendary, boundary-breaking and Obie-award winning choreographer Lucinda Childs, celebrated “avant-garde” cellist Maya Beiser, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang, and other artists too numerous to enumerate in detail here. But with that royal pedigree, and the subject matter as I understood it to be, I expected The Day to soar; that it didn’t was disappointing. Even with that caveat, The Day is a memorable, though elusive, piece of work that can be vapid one moment, and extraordinarily powerful the next.

The Day has had a lengthy gestation. As described by Beiser in the program notes, The Day is a response to two cello works written for Beisser by Lang: “The Day” and “world to come” (without initial caps).

As Beiser describes it, the second part, “world to come,” came first. She and Lang began working on it in September, 2001, and both were in New York on 9/11. With that tormenting dominant background, “world to come” became “suffused with the disappearance of thousands of people who vanished into the ashes of the World Trade Center that day.” Rather than a memorial or requiem, Beiser describes “world to come” as a prayer, introspective and personal; “a meditation on the eternal post-mortem journey of the soul as it separates from the body.”

In 2016, Beiser and Lang created a prequel, which became Part I of the dance that had its New York premiere at this Joyce Theater engagement. The composition includes both music and words – the words having been crowd-sourced by Lang from the Internet with phrases that completed the sentence “I remember the day I …” There’s no indication in the program note whether Lang’s search was restricted to memories by or of people who were killed on 9/11, and I presume it didn’t, but it doesn’t matter: as people were going about their lives and capturing memories of their own, they wouldn’t have thought that they were going to perish. So any such memories are by definition representative of ordinary people who later died in relative anonymity.

(l-r) Maya Beiser and Wendy Whelan
in David Lang and Lucinda Childs’s
“The Day”
Photo by Nils Schlebusch

But the piece’s process becomes yet more complex. The product of Lang’s research, these brief personal statements and remembrances of anonymous lives are assembled in alphabetical order based on the word immediately following “the day I.” [E.g., I remember the day I actually was able to laugh with delight; …’the day I approached one of the students; … the day I arrived; …the day I arrived at the fear of being alone; …I arrived at the prison; …I brought him a pumpkin pie…I emailed him, I entered high school, I fell in love — through to seemingly more meaningful and dramatic, albeit isolated, statements like … I found out my marriage was over.] The process seemingly eliminates any direction toward or away from any individual statement (though some had to have been discarded before or during the course of the alphabetical sequencing, which adds a measure of deliberation and intention), and, as communicated in Lang’s piece, the statements may be startling to hear or not. And that’s fine – the point is that these statements were made by people who lived, and may have died, on 9/11, and it elevates the representative lives of ordinary people into an unusual collective memorial.

However, I don’t think that this was the sole motivation for the alphabetizing of these statements. Poems that arrange the first letter of each word in each line, or of each verse, alphabetically, a type of acrostic known as an abecedarius, is not uncommon. In its earliest known form it was used in religious writings: psalms; prayers. And such alphabetically arranged prayers remain common in Hebrew liturgy (as well as, I presume, those of other religions). Regardless of the impetus (some attribute it to a sense of mysticism), its connection to sacred texts is well-documented. So although I have no basis for it, it would not surprise me if the arrangement of these statements alphabetically may have been intended as a convenient arrangement of statements of anonymous lives, but also, not inappropriately – and certainly more meaningfully, as a collective prayer.

(l-r) Maya Beiser and Wendy Whelan
in David Lang and Lucinda Childs’s
“The Day”
Photo by Nils Schlebusch

Unfortunately, to me the intelligence and noble motivations for the collection and arrangements of these statements don’t translate well to dance. In Part I (also called “The Day”), the statements are verbalized via alternating projected images (Projection Design by Joshua Higgason) of either Whelan or Beiser. While reading the statements in the course of a musical recording or performance has the advantage of being disembodied, and therefore not specifically attributable, when one sees Whelan and Beiser making these statements, the initial response is to think (even though one knows better) that the statements are attributable to them. [And in some cases, I’m sure not accidentally, some of the statements seem to be appropriate for one or the other speaker.] But when it becomes clear that they’re simply being read, the statements lose whatever force they may have had. That the statements are communicated without any hint of emotion is understandable (why add artifice to what is already a highly emotional situation), but after awhile the delivery becomes numbing – which may serve to emphasize the banality of tragedy, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, but which visually falls flat.

(l-r) Maya Beiser and Wendy Whelan
in David Lang and Lucinda Childs’s
“The Day”
Photo by Nils Schlebusch

While the statement-making images are projected, and during pauses in between sets of them, Beiser performs Lang’s musical composition, and Whelan dances Childs’s choreography to it – in the presence of, and at times making use of, a chair and other props (ropes, sticks) that to me made little sense – except when the chair was empty. Similarly, intermittent projections of the innards of the current WTC (The Oculus) made no apparent sense. Only the set (an assemblage of metallic linear components that may be been intended to be the WTC skeleton post-attack) seemed point-driven. Although Beiser’s cello-playing wept inconsolably, I wanted to be emotionally moved, and Part 1 of The Day didn’t do it. Between the matter-of-fact delivery of the collected statements and the unemotional minimal movement (at times surprisingly lyrical, but still emotionless), and the projected images with no meaning, after awhile I stopped caring. Normally that would be fatal to the dance as a whole.

But Part 2, world to come (initials: wtc), was better. The beginning, with the sound and projected image of a wrecking ball, captured the terror clearly, although almost too vividly. The subsequent dance contained considerably more emotional content than Part 1. Still, the music that Beiser was playing was far more intense than the choreography that Whelan was dancing. The repeated sense of being dazed, of being untethered, of wandering in either rubble or nothingness, and of ultimate spirituality, prayer, and grace, are compelling – but, visually, it’s all too diffuse.

(l-r) Wendy Whelan and Maya Beiser
in David Lang and Lucinda Childs’s
“The Day”
Photo by Nils Schlebusch

Nevertheless, both performers’ accomplishments in Part 2 are stunning. Beiser who is transported from her Part 1 platform perch upstage right to upstage left, adds through her cello playing all the drama that the dance needs, and more, as her live playing intersects with apparently pre-recorded segments and her own agonized vocalizations. Whelan, now dressed in black (as opposed to the white tunic-like costume in Part I), is a potent force of her own – although the drama is largely minimal and internalized.

But to me one of the dance’s most compelling visualizations has nothing to do with the dance or the music. As we watch the onstage action unfold in Part 2, we see the jagged outline of connected forms materialize on the stage floor (it may have been there all the time, as some of the included photos show, but I didn’t notice until Part 2). While not strictly box-like, the forms are unmistakably outlines, in white, of the footprint of the World Trade Center buildings. But I didn’t just see the WTC footprint; I saw the equivalent of chalk outlines of bodies at a homicide scene. The realization hit like … a wrecking ball. [The scenic design was by Sara Brown.]

These images, Beiser’s extraordinary presentation of Lang’s composition, and Whelan’s sensitive and ultimately heartbreaking rendition of Childs’s choreography (including the wrenching image of Whelan’s increasingly enshrouded “body” descending from what may have been a representation of one of the WTC’s collapsed floors – the converted platform on which Beiser had been positioned in Part 1), while not enough to overcome the puzzlement of much of The Day, are stirring and redemptive, and ultimately came close on their own to making The Day what it should have been all along – the prayer, introspective and personal, that Lang and Beiser originally created, and a moving dance theater experience.