Theater review: Robert Wilson’s thoughts on aging in ‘Holding On’

Onstage, Robert Wilson makes eye contact. He seldom looks the audience in the eye, but he makes eye contact. And there is no sentimentality or navel-gazing or excess of swagger or bluster here. The matter-of-fact way he talks about being 80 on opening night of “Taboo, ” his 2017 collaboration with Jewish Theatre Ensemble, is a vivid and unflinching statement about a man who has never particularly spent a lot of time worrying about his place in the world.

Other things are, of course, less poignantly concerned with. Wilson faces us, the audience, with a wry smile. He knows, no doubt, he is not going to light the midnight oil, the 365-day working month, creating in the theater an opera or a stage adaptation of a Shakespeare play, the sort of artistic task that he has usually done with his past, more arduous productions.

His most recent, personal, stage venture — another collaboration, this time with Jewish Theatre Ensemble — is a drama staged in John Addison Benzin’s spacious, rectangular, space, The Yard on the St. Elizabeths Medical Campus in Southeast D.C. It is the second of a “three-part multimedia narrative” called “Taboo,” a potent mix of music, dance, sound effects, high-tech special effects and, finally, several hours of spoken text that Wilson directed to fit his concerns — the costs and risks of the arts, how we conduct ourselves when important works of art are entrusted to us, one man’s view of artists as surrogate fathers, husbands, fathers, sons, comforters, support-systems, incubators of artistic expression, giant flotsam that clog and damage and mutilate our world, and race, population and genocide — and, most importantly, his own, as always.

Holding On tells us, in relative soft-focus close-ups that flash at us in front of Wilson’s plainest face, of the circumstances of his life. He gives us all the fundamentals: his homeschool childhood in West Virginia, his father’s spleen-lung transplant and the mysteries and non-mysteries of illness and trauma, his time at the University of Virginia and Yale, and his work in the Theatre Troupe and the New York City Ballet.

There is a brief mention of his own heart problems and his relationships, but there is no specific reference to his institutional dance work at the School of American Ballet, where he is a dedicated and towering figure, and his experience with his wife, Mimi Yanowsky Wilson, who is creative director of his companies. (This is, incidentally, part of his problem: He has many wives.)

Instead, we are left with nothing more than “theater as a living entity,” — pure words, he says, at the end of a language he has first developed in anthropology, during his years as a teacher of modern dance to young people who had never seen theater before. (The words jump to life in all of his intense and moving body movements, and when he says them, which is frequently, it is like the “word of life” that went out in warning in the B.F. Skinner classification of real-world phenomena.)

In itself, it is only a slight self-aggrandizing statement, the closest Wilson has gotten yet to arguing the case for theater in the world, but it captures what his work is all about — as evoking the theater as a living thing as asking the world’s best dancers to grace a sound and light show.

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