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At 80, Robert Wilson Holds On to a Singular Vision for the Stage

In lieu of psychology, Wilson’s work is driven by image and sound, and was shaped by early encounters with forward-looking choreographers. After a difficult youth as the gay son of a conservative family in Texas, where he initially studied business administration, Wilson moved to New York in 1963 and discovered the work of Merce Cunningham and, especially, George Balanchine, whose large repertoire of plotless ballets have Wilson’s favor. (Nonetheless, he admitted to liking Balanchine’s ever-popular “Nutcracker” staging, a fixture of the holiday season at New York City Ballet and elsewhere.)

“That changed my life,” Wilson said. “I thought that if theater could be like that, if opera could be like that, then I was interested.”

Wilson approaches theater and opera in the same way. Even when he works with straightforward plays, as in his production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” that opened in October in Sofia, Bulgaria, sentences tend to be distorted in artificial ways.

“His take on text is almost strictly musical,” said the French performer Yuming Hey, who plays Mowgli in “Jungle Book.” In an email, Childs, the choreographer, said that “rhythm and timing are his foremost concerns” and that Wilson’s vision “hasn’t changed” much in the five decades she has known him.

In fact, Wilson’s aesthetic has been singularly consistent, down to details like the white makeup performers wear and their stylized hand gestures. To his critics, this sameness glosses over the differences between the works he stages. To Wilson, it’s just a way of acknowledging that a stage is “unlike any other space in the world,” as he told the cast of “Turandot,” and to craft visuals that help the audience “hear better than with their eyes closed.”

“To see someone try to act natural onstage seems so artificial,” he said in an interview later. “If you accept it as being something artificial, in the long run, it seems more natural, for me.”

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