Bob Wilson’s final dance

Written by By Heather Ann Quinlan, CNN

The stage is built, the metal framework is nailed down and the set pieces — shot through with the latest in NASA technology — have been delivered by trucks to a newly built theater to be designed by the late icon Robert Wilson.

The Italian fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna, which is partnering with Wilson to stage his final show in New York at the end of this month, has spent the past few months constructing a real-life working theater space in New York. Set to be revealed on Saturday at the New York theatre, the theatre is being designed by Wilson himself.

He will create the set for the final show of his life, a one-man show he is calling “Culture Inside Out.”

Opening in New York at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan on June 30, the show will explore a world beyond the normal idea of theater. Wilson is thinking of it as “an elaboration of the technology and environment around him.”

Artist Bob Wilson at his studio in London in 1991 Credit: Courtesy Hugh Hawkins

It is the latest manifestation of Wilson’s life in theater. From Berlin in the 1950s to London in the late 1990s, where he conducted the first opera project with an Arabic director, Wilson created an aesthetic in which the earthy, lived-in feeling of the 1930s New York theater was interwoven with state-of-the-art, technological prowess.

His sense of exploration has gone as far as delving into the space of drugs with the 1982 work “Gratitude,” when the drugs played the role of characters, and The Book of Angels, a work in which the design pays homage to religious paintings from more than a millennium ago, drawn on a small memory board with colored dots at a small table.

Few have approached theater in such a unique way.

“He was always a complete artist that knows the use of every medium he used to create something completely new. He was never afraid of any form of art,” said Zegna creative director, Gildo Zegna.

Zegna’s collaboration with Wilson started four years ago. The two met at the 2012 Venice Biennale, when Wilson was planning a show “Culture Of Invention.” Inspired by the big ideas behind the Blackman exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the early 1980s, the show has no set, its actors only appear on stage.

“You could not create something so subtle and even delicate and yet you could see the blackness, the water, the dimensions,” said Zegna.

It is this idea of technique combined with illusion that fascinated Zegna about the work of Robert Wilson. “He presents you with something small, something really simple but then you get drawn into it.”

As Wilson also created a conceptual series of portraits of Zegna, Zegna felt they were a match made in art heaven. He recruited Wilson’s longtime photographer, the Swedish-American Helmut Newton, and together they shot Zegna’s first major fashion campaign.

His years living in London have also been a stepping stone to this new show. In London, Wilson continues to explore ways to take the theater into the environment, which is part of the whole experience, said Zegna. “In this show he wants to show us how theater looks. It doesn’t make a sound or anything, it’s its own animal.”

Zegna’s show came about in part because the Italian fashion house had decided to make a return to the theater. The director Lanto, who has also worked for Al Pacino, directed Zegna’s first opera production, “La Requiem,” which was premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Zegna says the goal with “Culture Inside Out” is not to go back and create exactly what Wilson did in the past, but to expand that world. Zegna himself will be appearing in one scene, and his dancers will perform.

What Zegna hopes to have happen, he says, is something that has never been done before in his artistic lifetime: combining art and technology, and storytelling within a show.

“I would like to see something that is so life-sized you think you have just looked at it from television. Maybe we should have a project that is so large we invite everyone to go and sit in the audience,” he said.

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