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Internship Reflection: Photography Collection Captures Innovation in the Performing Arts

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The following is a guest post by Jade Vaughan, one of the 2021 Music Division interns from the Archives, History and Heritage Advanced (AHHA) internship program. She introduces one of our newest special collections, the work of photographer Peter Angelo Simon.

The Peter Angelo Simon Performing Arts Images consist of still and moving images of operas, dance pieces, street performers, and performing artists in workshops, many of them focusing on the creative work of American experimental theater stage director and playwright Robert Wilson. The common theme that ties the collection together is innovation. Each artist documented in this collection challenged the boundaries of their art form through their original work. Simon captured their working process through his photographs and videos, and the collection is a window into this innovation.

From his days as a young photographer, Simon has had a strong desire to communicate to other people what he saw and felt. He became aware of the work of the pioneers of direct cinema in America: documentary filmmakers Robert Drew, D. A. Pennebaker, and Richard Leacock. Inspired by their honest and observational styles, Simon began producing work that gave the feeling of being there (P. A. Simon, personal communication, November 3, 2021). A person can look at a Simon photograph and feel a sense of immediacy, experiencing the innovative creation unfolding before them.

Five strips of negatives printed in black and white on a single sheet, some profile and some set pieces.
Peter Angelo Simon, photographer. Contact sheet of Robert Wilson and New York University students during a workshop of Salome at The Kitchen, 1986. Peter Angelo Simon Performing Arts Images, Music Division.

The collection consists of negatives, contact sheets, slides, digital photographs and moving images, and a 58-minute documentary film. The focus is on twentieth-century avant-garde operas and dance pieces and the directors, composers, choreographers, and dancers who made these works possible. In addition to Robert Wilson, other notable subjects include composer Philip Glass and choreographers Lucinda Childs, Merce Cunningham, Meredith Monk, and Bessie Schönberg, Many of the artists photographed by Simon worked together and inspired each another. With international recognition, their names and influence upon their fields and throughout the performing arts have been extensive; each of these artists pushed against the confines of the boundaries in their art, whether their work was acclaimed at the time or not.

Robert Wilson is heavily featured in the collection through the materials relating to the operas Einstein on the Beach and the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down, Wilson’s workshop with New York University students performing the opera Salome, and events at The Watermill Center, Wilson’s research and performance laboratory. His work is characterized by his unique use of space, time, light, and sound. When Wilson first moved to New York in the 1960s, mainstream theater didn’t resonate with him. Naturalism was the style then in vogue, but it seemed artificial to Wilson. He spoke about this in an interview with the Canadian Opera Company in 2019 when he was directing Puccini’s Turandot: “The stage is unlike any other space. The air is different, the light is different, your gesture is different, and your voice is different because it’s a stage. I hate naturalism.”[1]

Indeed, Wilson’s rejection of the mainstream can be seen clearly in his work. He collaborated with composer Philip Glass on the opera Einstein on the Beach which premiered in 1976. The piece is now considered a defining work of their careers as well as of late-twentieth-century opera. Although some might argue that it is not an opera as it does not have a traditional orchestral arrangement or even a narrative, the almost-five-hour-long performance is connected by a theme, and the movement, music, imagery, and text convey that theme. The audience creates the story.

In an interview with the Lisbon Consortium in 2012, Wilson indicated that he does not like to revisit previous works and restage them because they are about the time they were created. He feels they would not hold up to future restaging because they are meant to speak to a particular moment.[2] This does not mean that their influence will not be felt. Einstein on the Beach’s innovative rebellion against what was considered acceptable in twentieth-century opera made an impact still felt today.

Choreographer and dancer Lucinda Childs first worked with Glass and Wilson on Einstein on the Beach, but would continue to work with them on many subsequent projects. The opera was also her big break, launching her international career. During her dance training, Childs learned that dance did not need an emotional, narrative-based structure. Her style focuses on precision, simplicity, and the exploration of patterns. In the 1960s, choreography that tied dance steps to the music was seen as outdated, but Childs incorporated it in to her expression.

After the collaboration on Einstein, Childs wanted to work with Philip Glass again. The resulting 1979 piece simply titled Dance was not initially well received in the United States, but it has since become one of her most enduring works. In 1983 Childs created Available Light with composer John Adams and architect Frank Gehry. It was an initial success, but like many dance pieces, it disappeared until its revival in 2015. The collection contains videos from the 2016 performance in Paris. On reviving her work, Childs expressed sentiments similar to Wilson’s when she said in a 2011 interview with The Guardian, “I don’t feel nostalgia. What interests me is creating new work, not just seeing the old work brought back to life.”[3]

Black and white print of audience in theatre boxes
Peter Angelo Simon, photographer. Robert Wilson in the wings during the world premiere of CIVIL warS, Rome Opera House, 1984. Peter Angelo Simon Performing Arts Images, Music Division.

Perhaps Wilson and Childs look to continue creating new work because, to them, art is about trying new things. Art is about curiosity of the unknown. Art is about innovation. Childs explained this desire for innovation in an interview in 1978, commenting on her time with the Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s when she aimed to “expand the vocabulary of dance beyond what you would traditionally consider vocabulary in the sense of traditional dance.”[4] Photographer Peter Simon Angelo captured this innovative art in his work. Photographs and videos were taken from the wings of the stage, behind the scenes, or while the operas, workshops, and dance pieces were being created. To cite one example: the collection’s photographs from the 1984 world premiere of the CIVIL warS in Rome show artists huddled together in conversation or showing their backs as they look at the stage from the wings. It is a unique way to document the performing arts.

The Peter Angelo Simon Performing Arts Images will be available for research in 2022.


[1] Canadian Opera Company. (2019 September 20). Robert Wilson on His Approach to Theatre [Video].

[2] Lisbon Consortium. (2021 October 21). Robert Wilson – Interview [Video]. YouTube.

[3] Mackrell, J. (2011 September 28). How Einstein helped dancer Lucinda Childs. The Guardian.

[4] Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. (1978). Lucinda Childs Interview by Eric Franck [Video]. Vimeo.

Comments (2)

  1. Robert Willson is not known by me so I knew he is an using artist for all conventionellen Konstruktion to lose his materie and Energie to build a new performance at that time.

    Not only in my soul but also in our society is he not so much famous, so I got good information, that he is also used for social Devisionen und meditations without getting exploring solutions.

  2. Superbe!

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