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Kim Epifano/Epiphany Productions

'Einstein’s Daughters'

by Karen Hildebrand

January 18, 2003 -- Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco

Kim Epifano’s evening-length “Einstein’s Daughters” is a juicy work of dance theater. With rich imagery and metaphor worthy of a poet, she connects the theory of relativity to affairs of the heart.

The evening opens with Epifano’s vaudevillian entrance through the audience wearing a sequined gown with an accordion strapped across her chest. She is impresario, or master of the universe, spouting lines of text, singing nonsense, doubling over in hysteria like a madwoman, and making a Groucho Marx-esque joke, “I’ll tell you what’s relative -- your relatives.” When she dons a chiffon robe and crouches over a fan that is lit from beneath, the piece really gets launched. The effect is a little like sticking a flashlight in your mouth to create a monster. The transparent fabric and her long Bride of Frankenstein hair billow over her head as she tells us everything is relative, even mathematics of the heart.

"Einstein’s Daughters" is based on the suggestion that Einstein’s first wife Mileva, a gifted mathematician, was an uncredited contributor to Einstein’s theory of relativity. Apparently there was an actual Einstein’s daughter, born to Mileva before her marriage and given up for adoption. But rather than tell us a linear story, Epifano and writer/collaborator Marianna Houston offer suggestions of a romance woven with scientific theory in excerpts from letters, a treatise on the concept of infinity, and lines like, “Gravity cannot be held responsible for falling in love;” and, “Black holes conveniently solve everything.”

Eleven-year old Fredrika Keefer flies over the stage like Tinkerbell while composer and musician Kate Regan performs live on the violin. A video projection by Elaine Buckholtz flashes patterns of energy onto the rear scrim. Sri Louise scratches a formula on a chalkboard, then spins around to extend an arm into the air as if reaching for an idea.

The concepts of science are revealed through movement: velocity, gravity, energy, and light. Epifano is a fearless mover who thrusts herself through an aerial harness and sweeps through the air, head over heels, dipping recklessly close to the stage floor. (Rigger Richard Kittle, whom we see only briefly as he leans in full counter-balance with the cable that suspends the aerial dancers, is credited as a performer.)

Epifano catches the lithe Sri Louise in mid-leap and executes perfectly timed contact-based lifts and turns. Their duets have elements of capoeira, with scissor-like hand stands and rolls. They wear taffeta pinafores that shwoosh. They shake out their skirts as if brushing them free of chalk dust. At one side of the stage, the Odd Bird Band of Regan and Sally Davis, sing and play distinctive percussion as well as violin, and cello. Epifano sings in a throaty and haunting voice, lyrics that are more humming or moaning than words.

The dancers step out of their pinafores to reveal bell-bottomed lycra jumpsuits. Louise appears in toe shoes and becomes a mannequin en pointe, manipulated by Epifano into headstands and other placements. Incredibly, Louise’s agile backbend and walkover has the span of a hairpin.

Young Keefer also has a turn en pointe, wearing a bird cage on her head. Her part in "Einstein’s Daughters" is significant and she holds her own with the older women, delivering text with a stage presence beyond her years. Toward the end, she takes up the chiffon-robed position above the fan with her hair billowing to lip-sync a lecture on movement and energy. “There’s no absolute way to measure anything. The only constant is the speed of light.”

Elaine Buckholtz’s lighting design is subtle and elegant. She illuminates the dancers faces and bodies so that they shine like candles. A recurring rectangle of light on the stage floor gives the dancers a container within the container of the stage for their movement.

There is a lot going here: big ideas conveyed with beautiful visuals and sounds, and a creative use of props. It is all trademark Kim Epifano, who hails from the early years of San Francisco dance collectives, Contraband and The Dance Brigade. Yet with all its visual and aural stimulation, I longed for the dancers to break into at least one significant passage of flat out dancing. Instead, there are short clips of movement, vignettes that are well-constructed and well-rehearsed and that left this reviewer wanting more.

“Einstein’s Daughters” is visually striking, but narratively the nonlinear melange of ideas doesn’t register emotionally. Epifano has created a successful multimedia work of art that is more mathematics than heart.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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