BY Robyn Brentano in Opinion | 14 DEC 23
Featured in
Issue 239

Behind the Scenes with Robert Wilson

Fifty years after the debut of Wilson’s Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, a friend and collaborator remembers her time with the director

BY Robyn Brentano in Opinion | 14 DEC 23

I first met Robert Wilson in 1967, when we were both working at Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Welfare Island in New York. Goldwater was a dismal institution for ‘terminally ill’ people, many of whom had been abandoned by their families. We worked in the Recreation Department, which had been a basic checkers-and-card-games operation until New York University took it over and brought in a visionary director who hired artists and hippies to breathe life into the programmes.

Bob began doing some very interesting theatre work with the patients, and we quickly became friends. I could see that he had a way of reaching people: he would bring patients to the window to look at the boats on the river or have them listen to the steam rattling in the pipes or watch the plants growing in the solarium. Bob did a piece with polio patients in iron lungs, whose only movement was through the mouth sticks they used in order to draw or to turn the pages of a book. One day, he had their beds wheeled into the day room and connected their mouth sticks by string, so they could dance together. He darkened the room and made the strings glow with a black light. It was a very moving experience. Because the patients were largely paralyzed, the work he was doing with them was more mental than physical. With his unconventional frankness and tenderness, he drew out people’s hidden qualities.

Robert Wilson, The King of Spain, 1969, performance view. Courtesy: Robert Wilson Archives at the Byrd Hoffman Water Mill Foundation


When Bob started his ‘movement workshops’ in the late 1960s, I was curious to see what he was up to. I’d studied theatre in college and was very interested in the New York scene at the time (Merce Cunningham and John Cage, Judson Dance Theater, La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, The Living Theatre), so I started going over to his loft on Spring Street in SoHo (though we didn’t call it SoHo then). In November 1967, he debuted Baby Blood – a solo piece set in the loft, lit by candles and traversed by an overhead wire with metal rings on it, which Bob’s partner, the dancer Andy de Groat, moved from time to time. During one section, Bob ‘walked’ along a narrow plank wearing only dark glasses and a tank top. The concentration required was formidable, yet he seemed to be elsewhere. At the end, he rose up under black light covered with sheets of plastic splattered with Day-Glo paint. It was somehow simultaneously endearing and frightening. It was in this loft that he formed his company, the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, in 1968. Soon after, I became a Byrd performer and the group’s office administrator; I was around on an almost daily basis as we worked on The King of Spain (1969), The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud (1969) and Deafman Glance (1970), parts of which were eventually combined into his 12-hour opera, The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin (1973). The first office space was under Bob and Andy’s bed: a built-in desk, a few file drawers, a phone.

It was simultaneously endearing and frightening

In the beginning, we did everything in the loft – the movement workshops (which I liked even more than performing), making costumes, props, doing business. I was tasked with assembling and sewing costumes for some of the pieces, and I remember taking weeks to hand-stitch four enormous fake-fur cat legs for The King of Spain, performed at the now-defunct Anderson Theatre on Second Avenue. The legs were designed to be hung from the top of the proscenium stage on a rickety pair of skids that ran along tracks and required a dozen people backstage to make the knees bend and lift as the cat walked across the stage at the end of the show. I don’t think we ever rehearsed it: we all just held our breath to see if it would work! Up until that point, The King of Spain had been staged in a staid Victorian drawing room and had featured mostly silent and curious activities, such as people forming a pile of hay on one side while another group gathered around a small table to move an odd assortment of objects, as if playing chess. Mary Peer (a housewife from New Jersey) crawled out from the doorway, talking whimsically and singing to herself, until she made her way to the grand piano on stage left and began to play. Through a slit in the wall, a beautiful young man – the artist Gordon Matta-Clark – could be seen running along a sunlit beach. The arrival of the cat legs threw the entire space completely out of register. It was hilarious but also more than a little strange, as the gigantic, papier-mâché head of the King of Spain (performed by composer Alan Lloyd) leaned out from behind a very large wing-back chair that had been facing upstage throughout. The cat didn’t make it all the way across the stage, but the audience was enthralled.

Robert Wilson, The King of Spain, 1969, performance view. Courtesy: Robert Wilson Archives at the Byrd Hoffman Water Mill Foundation


Bob’s early pieces were influenced by Andy’s sensibility and talent as a natural dancer: in his spinning movement, he channelled elemental energies into an incandescent and serene choreography that suspended all thought. When Andy came to work with Bob, he taught us how to spin by centring our awareness inside. It was an exhilarating and liberating way to move and, over time, a group of us ended up working closely with Andy and became the ‘dancers’ within the larger company. We all went to see and were inspired by the pioneering work of Cage, Cunningham and the choreographers at the Judson Dance Theater, which focused on pedestrian movement and energy for its own sake.

These indelible images passed like a dream

Our dancing also involved spontaneous imitation of each other’s way of moving. When Raymond Andrews came to work with us, he brought a deaf person’s keen intuition and powers of observation, which made us all more alert. We learned his utterances and movements, which Bob then incorporated into his silent opera, Deafman Glance, named for these very qualities. In 1971, while Deafman Glance was touring Europe, the producer abandoned the company. Bob made a deal with Pierre Cardin whereby he would create a piece for the fashion designer’s recently opened Paris event space, Espace Cardin, if Cardin would produce the show. We divided our days between the two spaces, performing Overture (1971) at Espace Cardin in the afternoons and Deafman Glance at night; we barely slept.

Sheryl Sutton in Deafman Glance, 1971, performance view. Courtesy: Robert Wilson Archives at the Byrd Hoffman Water Mill Foundation; photograph: Rosine Nusimovici

The show was a sensation in Paris after the surrealist poet Louis Aragon wrote a public letter to André Breton, published in the literary journal Les Lettres Françaises, declaring Bob the heir to the surrealists. Each night, the theatre was packed with artists, musicians, students – and some detractors – who energized us. At the time, there were about 30 Byrds in the company, and another 60 people joined the group in Paris, each bringing their own special qualities to the work. They endured the long rehearsals and the puzzlement of being in a silent opera with no storyline. It was an act of faith sustained by the energy of the process and the collective charisma of the Byrds.

Near the end of the tour, Mr. Sondak – an elderly jeweller from Coney Island who Bob had spotted in Grand Central Station and convinced to join the group to play Sigmund Freud due to his startling likeness to the psychoanalyst – decided he’d had enough and suddenly departed for New York. The dancer and choreographer Jerry Robbins was in Paris at the time, so he agreed to take Sondak’s place. I played the role of Anna Freud and, at the end of the first act, we had to walk across the stage arm in arm, very slowly, for about 15 minutes. Jerry seemed terrified and kept asking if what he was doing was OK. All those years of training and work as a choreographer had made it very difficult for him to just walk across the stage without ‘performing’.

Robert Wilson and Jack Smith in The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, 1969, performance view. Courtesy: Robert Wilson Archives at the Byrd Hoffman Water Mill Foundation; photograph: Martin Bough

I still have a vivid image of the forest scene, in which a scrim of stars descended slowly over 57 seconds. As Bob’s assistant, I had to explain this concept in broken French to the crew, who were already thinking about their dinner and wine at the nearby restaurants in Les Halles. It was a battle on the first few nights to get them to slow down but, eventually, they got it – especially when they saw a nude Adam and Eve slowly dancing through the forest. Then, performers dressed as gorillas rose through a trap door to pick up apples lying on the ground and raise them to the sky. One night, our youngest company member, Jessie (who I think was six years old at the time), performing as a little gorilla, banged her head on the edge of the trap door – she must have seen stars – but she kept going like a pro. I recall the playwright Jim Neu’s cry of ‘aaaaarrrrrg-gug-gug-gug’, as if from some primeval swamp; elegant, beautiful Liba Bayrak; Bob’s grandmother Alma, in red velvet; and performer George Ashley with a huge eye at the table with the frog. For me, these are indelible images that passed like a dream.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 239 with the headline ‘Trance States’

Main image: Robert Wilson, The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, 1969, performance view. Courtesy: Robert Wilson Archives at the Byrd Hoffman Water Mill Foundation; photograph: Martin Bough

Robyn Brentano is an institutional advancement consultant and nonprofit leader working in the arts, environment, international development, refugee resettlement, contemplative education and health care. She has directed documentary and experimental dance films and numerous visual and performing arts programmes.