Musings on The Rube Goldberg Variations

It’s complicated.

This isn’t easy to write. Not because there isn’t enough to say, but because there is so much to say about this performance. 

In the early 2000’s, Peter and I were introduced to Bach’s Goldberg Variations in NYC when we saw a 80-minute solo created and performed by our friend and choreographer, Mark Haim. It was both virtuosic and simple, and left an indelible sticky note in our minds as a piece of music that we were determined to meet again.

Shortly after, Peter announced he was heading to Indiana for the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest national finals. No, he had not submitted anything. He was just fascinated and needed to go… so he did. This launched two decades of Rube’s “mentorship” influencing our props, physicalization of everyday tasks, intentionally complicated choreographic structures, and partnering derived from action/reaction principles.

Now, almost 20 years later, The Rube Goldberg Variations is taking shape around one more seed that has been growing, or perhaps more accurately — an idea that has been escalating: Why is communication so hard?

Challenges abound among family, within relationships, in communities, and around political and ideological issues. Peter and I disagree all the time. Yes, much to the public’s surprise (but not the dancers’ and staff’s), our creative process is filled with arguments: trying on each other’s ideas even if we think they aren’t good, taking and ceding control, yelling and laughing, and ultimately finding a path forward. “I do trust you I just don’t agree with you.” We crave a way to have civil discourse, to lead AND to listen, to deeply believe in what is just and right, and to consider other perspectives. It’s hard, we don’t always do it well, and we continue to try.

By choice, people surround themselves with those of similar views. But, we also find ourselves in close proximity to those who do not share our same beliefs. And what do we do then?

Imagine a duplex: on one side there is a peace flag and a sign that reads, “Build Bridges not Walls,” on the other is a “Build the Wall” sign. Two neighbors can live side-by-side, sharing so much, yet divided by a central stair, a railing and their differing views. We did not have to imagine very hard. This house is in our neighborhood and we’ve watched it evolve for years. This house inspired questions that we asked of our collaborators and community. And out came a torrent of “neighbor stories,” from parking chairs to snow shoveling to paint colors, and the most commonly told story—dog poop. Whether in an apartment, home or duplex, everyone seemed to have a neighbor story.

But without years of artistic investigation and the particular synergies from this very season, this would all just be a question, an idea, a musing on the complications of everyday life.

In 2018, The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh created a new exhibit “Rube Goldberg: The World of Hilarious Invention” and asked us to create original programming. This led to hours of exploration with young people and the exhibition, and the honor of meeting Rube Goldberg’s granddaughter, Jennifer George. From our first meeting with Jennifer in which we pitched the idea for this show, we were off and running.

Next, our recent commission at Temple Sinai allowed us the privilege of working with the musician extraordinaire, Flavio Chamis, who also is a Bach expert with a deep understanding and love for the Goldberg Variations.

Then came the pianist. This piece is famously hard to play, and few people play it. The national search was on. After many, many conversations and thwarted pathways, all the roads led to Iowa and Nathan Carterette. Incidentally, he had just recorded a new Goldberg Variations record, and guess what the cover art is? A Rube Goldberg-inspired machine!

I should also mention that the pianist had to be open to the idea of breaking up the Variations with contemporary original recorded music. Our long-time collaborators, NYC-based Dave Eggar and Chuck Palmer had the indomitable task of creating an almost cinematic score for the journey of our “Neighbors.” This music would need to contrast, yet connect with the Bach, and set the mood for our neighborly challenges. Casting the Neighbors gave us a special opportunity to work with Mark Conway Thompson and Carolina Loyola Garcia. These two impressive and accomplished actors and movement artists bring so much to the process, and are artists we’ve been wanting to work with for many years.

Like I said, it’s complicated. So many voices and perspectives have contributed to this production, and next week we are excited to take the next step in a process that has been years in the making.

Through two dueling Goldberg worlds, we’ve created an emotionally complicated place where the “Neighbors” can co-exist, but do not see eye-to-eye. Each vignette offers a different glimpse into their relationship– avoidance, annoyance, escalation, secrets, and schadenfreude. As we explore the missing element of communication in this relationship, the dancers (our “Workers”) remove objects from the Neighbors’ confrontations and use them playfully and poignantly to find a pathway to authentic human connection.

Rube Goldberg’s themes of cause and effect, and action and reaction, are everywhere in this work, offering circuitous routes to a simple movement, melody, or emotion. They are embedded throughout the choreography and Bach’s 32-piece composition. And yes, there is a machine. But no spoilers: the machine’s task is to bring the neighbors a literal and figurative common ground, where they do not agree, but can respect their differences, honor their opinions, and clean up after their dog.

Please join us for our Rube Goldberg Variations next Thursday, April 25 through Sunday, April 28 at New Hazlett Theater. Together with our beautiful ensemble of dancers, designers, and collaborators we've created this new work on the challenges and machinations of just trying to communicate. We invite you to experience the wonderful over-complication of Rube, of the Goldberg Variations and of our own lives. Life is complicated, well...because it just is.


Michele de la Reza
Co-Founder and Artistic Director
Attack Theatre