An idea to show the preciousness of a crucial natural phenomenon through drops of water on sheets of paper has blossomed into a major one -time performance art and environmental-awareness project with the help of Miami’s YoungArts Foundation and one of the most famous figures in film.
The Way of the Rain Miami, created by Sibylle Szaggars Redford — the artist wife of film icon Robert Redford — will be staged Tuesday evening at the YoungArts Campus on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. The longtime actor-director will participate in the performance, which will include original music and dance in an elaborate in-the-round stage production using paintings and video created by his wife. The paintings and performance were inspired by the beauty and environmental fragility of the Southwest, and Redford’s hope of provoking environmental awareness and action.
That the project and the Redfords are coming to Miami was the doing of YoungArts president Paul Lehr, who persuaded a reluctant Sibylle Redford to stage the work here and brought in most of the collaborators. “Without Paul this would not have happened,” she says. “He asked me three times, and two times I said no.”
Lehr, however, overcame her doubts. “My adage is don’t take no for an answer when no shouldn’t be the answer,” he says.
The project hit several sweet spots for the Redfords, who are strong supporters of environmental causes and of helping young artists. Redford’s Sundance Institute fosters independent filmmakers, while his Redford Center supports films and media projects that build environmental awareness. Redford was a YoungArts master teacher in 2012, when he also received the foundation’s Arison Award, and is talking with the group about launching a YoungArts program at Sundance.
Lehr says he hopes the high -profile event will help establish his group’s new venue, in the former Bacardi Building, as a center for the arts beyond their annual week-long workshops for teenage artists. The Redfords will also appear Wednesday in a salon -style discussion, part of a series funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that has included sessions with performance artist Marina Abramovic during Art Basel last December and architects Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid in January.
“Our purpose for the campus is to have ongoing, year-round programs in all disciplines,” Lehr says. “We want to use the campus more and more so it becomes a hub for arts and culture in the community.”
The Way of the Rain was inspired by the dramatic landscape and weather on a desert plateau in New Mexico near Santa Fe, where the Redfords own a home. The sight of massive cloudbanks and sheets of rain moving across the flat, open landscape — so different from the constant gray drizzle in northern Germany, where Sibylle Redford grew up — made a powerful impression on her.
“We have these yearly monsoon rains in the summer,” she says. “We’ll have these wonderful clear days until 4 p.m. and you see clouds forming and moving in slowly, see how the rains come down in the distance. It’s one of the most incredible visual events I have experienced.”
But those summer monsoons have been less frequent in recent years, particularly as a deep drought has hit the western United States. “The desert is so dependent on these rains — it really supplies the water for the entire year, so if we don’t have this rain we are doomed,” she says. “We are in a drought even here in Northern California. . . . So I decided to figure out how to make a statement about these heavenly showers in New Mexico, and make them part of my art.”
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She started her “collaboration with the rain” four years ago, painting with thick watercolor pigment on papers she would then set out in the rain, which dissolved the paint into bright, swirling patterns. (Redford kept the prepared papers in a box, and when she saw clouds moving in, would quickly don rain pants, jacket, boots and hat, and race outside with her work, standing watch to ensure the intense downpours didn’t wash them away entirely.) Those paintings, some of which will be exhibited in the YoungArts gallery, are printed on long silk banners, called silks, that are part of the set.
Way of the Rain was presented in Albequerque last year, but the Miami staging is more elaborate. Redford was so eager to see it that when she arrived at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, she came straight to YoungArts from Miami International Airport. Wednesday afternoon she was back, talking animatedly with the production crew and discussing ideas with lighting and production designer/director Steve Cohen, who recently moved to Miami and has worked with a panoply of pop stars, including Billy Joel and Justin Timberlake.
“It’ll be like painting in big broad strokes — it has to ebb and flow with the music,” Cohen told Redford as he explained how lights and a video of the rain-painting process would play over the silks and eight screens, hung in concentric circles meant to evoke both a seashell’s whorls and a spinning hurricane.
“People are gonna walk out having seen something once that will never be repeated,” Cohen said. “Hopefully it will stay with them forever.”
Redford says her husband asked to join the performance last year. “Bob invited himself,” Redford says. “It was a huge surprise to me and a huge honor. At first I was a little nervous . . . but then I said fantastic, it might bring some attention.”
The actor will read from spiritual and environmental texts by Thomas Barry and Llewllyn Vaughn Lee. “He’s very, very supportive of me and my work,” says his wife. “I think he also feels that . . . with his input people might take it more seriously.”
Way of the Rain starts with a “big bang” section representing the creation of the universe, then moves through four segments representing the elements of air, water, earth and fire. The sequence is meant to evoke the life -giving nature of air and water, the besieged beauty of the earth and the destructiveness of fire — and its potential for rebirth.
The music will be by Will Calhoun, drummer for the rock group Living Colour, who has worked with acts ranging from Wayne Shorter and Harry Belafonte to Oumou Sangare and Public Enemy; Grammy -nominated cellist and pianist Dave Eggar, a 1987 YoungArts fellow who has also played with a host of top artists, including Josh Groban, Coldplay and Beyoncé, and his frequent collaborator, percussionist Chuck Palmer. The trio will incorporate Calhoun’s collection of percussion instruments from around the world to create a semi -improvised soundscape.
The trio met with Sibylle Redford in New York last month. “She definitely has her own strong identity and a very serious, high arts-oriented perspective,” Eggars says. “We talked a lot about how to reflect the process she went through in the composition of the music. [The piece] has a very ritualistic aspect — it’s almost like the whole audience is participating.”
Desmond Richardson, a dance artist who was a YoungArts fellow in 1986, is doing the choreography for Miami -based ballet, modern, ballroom and hiphop dancers. “Since it’ll be a mélange of music I thought we should incorporate a lot of different styles,” Richardson says. “Bringing the audience on a journey, I wanted their eyes to see many different things, not just one.”
Although the humid, ocean -bound landscape of Miami and the swampy peninsula of Florida are very different from the deserts of New Mexico and the farming valleys of California, Redford points out that rain, water and the impact of global warming are crucial to both places.
“This is a global problem,” she says. “But it’s not just Miami or Napa Valley, it’s all over the world. So where do we go from here? It’s a huge question. As an individual and an environmentalist, what do you do?”
Redford says she hopes Way of the Rain will inspire people and help them overcome feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of global warming and environmental degradation. “Our earth is in distress,” she says. “But we continue distracted with our way of life, we feel ‘What can we do?’ We turn away, we can’t deal with it.”
The ending of Way of the Rain evokes a new beginning. “It’s hope for the future,” Redford says. “It’s not about doom and gloom. Hopefully people leave having seen and experienced something beautiful. My hope is that . . . people might leave the theater feeling and thinking more deeply, what can they do to change things.”