The Original Tesla

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Clean energy. Wireless charging. A world connected by invisible communication technology. For many, they’re today’s reality, tomorrow’s hope — but they were first realistically envisioned more than a century ago by a a Serbian-American immigrant whose name most of us only know because a new car is named after him.

Nikola Tesla, born in 1856, conceived some of the crucial underlying technology that makes it possible for us to flip a switch in our homes and light and heat and the internet and Game of Thrones magically appear. Dubbed “the man who invented the 20th century,” his nearly 300 patents include early contributions to radio, alternating current, and more. Some speculate that had his visions been realized, we’d have much cleaner, cheaper, non climate-change-inducing energy today, using renewable sources like wind, magnetism and hydro power and requiring less expensive infrastructure.

But Tesla’s quirky personality, perhaps even on the autism spectrum, made him a difficult fit for relationships both personal and financial. Many of the eccentric genius’s most visionary ideas (he had some crackpot notions too) were swiped, subverted or suppressed. Contemporary legends like Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse gained riches and renown, while Tesla, after achieving worldwide notoriety and his own fortune, died penniless in 1943, his closest friends being the pigeons he consorted with in the various New York City hotels he called home.

Tesla’s tumultuous story has been told in books and documentaries (including one now running on the Discovery Channel called “Tesla’s Death Ray”), but a life so colorful and complex invites a similarly multidimensional representation. In Tesla: Light, Sound, Color, premiering January 10-11 at the Hult Center’s Soreng Theater and repeating January 13 at Portland’s Newmark Theatre  and January 15 at Bend’s Tower Theatre, Eugene’s Harmonic Laboratory explores the trailblazing scientist/inventor’s world and works through a combination of dance, music, animation, and onstage physics experiments.

“He’s an unsung hero,” says Brad Garner, who choreographed and directs the show. “We wouldn’t have cell phones and power in our homes without his work. He was an immigrant with an American dream who changed the world.”

Garner, a dance prof, is one of four UO faculty members who comprise Harmonic Laboratory, a nonprofit interdisciplinary collective unaffiliated with the university founded in 2010 that creates art that eludes conventional genre categories and often tries to involve marginalized, underrepresented and emerging voices, and usually involves interactions between art and science. Previous projects include Platform Festival, (sub)Urban Projections, Four Corners, an interactive dance piece about volcanoes, another that transforms literary classics into Mozartean music, and more. The group has worked with the city of Eugene’s cultural services department and produced arts projects as far away as James Madison University in Virginia.

After receiving a Creative Heights grant from the Oregon Community Foundation, the group storyboarded concepts, then its composers, Jeremy Schropp and John Bellona, wrote music which Garner then choreographed, and finally John Park created animations. “All of us have a propensity for abstraction,” Garner acknowledges, so to give the audience historical and biographical context and a clearer narrative thread, they added explanatory slides, a silent role for a performer who represents Tesla himself, and a physicist (University of Oregon Senior Physics Instructor Stanley Micklavzina) who will demo several brief experiments onstage. Performers include dancers from Eugene Ballet and the UO, Eugene’s superb Delgani String Quartet, and more.

The show pairs original traditional artistic styles (ballet-influenced movement, Schropp’s classical-form acoustic chamber music, straightforward representational imagery) with contemporary approaches (modern dance, Bellona’s electronic sounds, abstract animations to illustrate electromagnetic energy fields, for example) to create a kind of conversation between past and present — embodying Tesla’s vast reach across the decades.

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While structured chronologically, the mixed media production is less a biography than an exploration of the cultural, social, scientific and philosophical implications of Tesla’s life and legacy. “You’re going to come away knowing more about him than you did coming in,” Garner says, “but we’re still being true to ourselves as artists.”

That’s important to Tesla’s creative team, who not only admired their subject’s achievements, but also his stubborn persistence despite setbacks.

“As contemporary artists we feel a bit misunderstood, not nearly to the extent he did,” Garner explains. Tesla provides a model of how “to stay creative when no one understands your vision.”

Tesla: Light, Sound, Color premieres at the Hult Center’s Soreng Theater Thursday and Friday and continues Saturday at  Portland’s Newmark Theatre Monday at Bend’s Tower Theatre. A version of this story appears in Eugene Weekly.

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About the author
Senior Editor | Website

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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