R A N D O M W R I T I N G
Letter to Alia, March 28, 2019
Thank you for getting us started. We must find a way to make the most of such a large group of dancers, without individuals getting lost.
If I’m reading the schedule correctly, we meet seven times. But I’m not clear if the Cornish dancers are included when the class is at UW. If not, then maybe we separate them for the showing. If we have ninety minutes, that’s a lot of dancing. (As long as one of Cunningham’s Events!) Maybe we have several groupings presenting several “sections.” Or, more challengingly, a Grand Mix, with individuals and groupings entering when they wish. (My first group work Lazy Madge, was structured thus. As I write, I begin to think this might be a good format. It allows for a wide variety of kinds of material, and keeps the dancers on their toes, as they have to decide when and what to do during the time allotted to performance.)
I do so like that we will be preparing for a showing, as, in my experience, having that goal focuses attention more pointedly.
Speaking more generally, I like to begin with The Dance You Love To Do. That is, giving each and all time to do some of their least conscious moving. I consider this personal crux an important starting point, the still point from which their range can expand. Then I tend to work up and down, back and forth, in no particular order, on the spectrum of Open Structures: from no instructions, through various stages of knowing what one is doing, to doing set material. I’m interested in Instructions that lead to everyone being constantly on the edge of Personal Invention. Sometimes this means saying what to do, sometimes what not to do. I like gradually to shift the source of the making of the Instructions from me onto them. With such a large group, I imagine dividing into smaller groups, having each develop first How they want to proceed, then to Proceed. With a result that could include (“should”, if we decide so), the entire range: no intent, various degrees of intent, set material. As we have the music class as collaborators, I sure hope somehow we can connect them, even if the outcome ends up being, for lack of time to mix more deeply, the parallel motion the Cage Cunningham promoted.
I’ve been teaching an improv class at NYU since the middle ‘90s. I’ve noticed in the last few years that a great deal of my approach is not new to the students. When I and other Grand Union members were teaching in the ‘70s, students were surprised to be goaded toward autonomy rather than being asked to work in rigid structures we provided. I hope the approach I've outlined above is not old hat to your students. Has finding one’s way without depending on staid forms of the past now become a staid form of the past?
One of the NYU students a few years ago said that when he entered the field he was taking it for granted that there was nothing new to be done in Modern Dance. And on a program at 92Y in NYC that I shared with a young choreographer, he presented a piece by a well-known choreographer of my generation, without attribution, that he had taken off the Internet. But my perhaps old-fashioned take on what the Modern Dance arena has best to offer, are attempts to invent interesting organizations of human bodies in action. I’ll be curious to see what those who are dancing on the home ground of Merce and John now consider the art form to be good for.
See you soon,
* * *
Letter to The New Yorker, December 2018
Douglas Dunn wrote:
In Whose Pants? (November 26) Joan Acocella draws a straight line from Dada through Merce Cunningham and John Cage to the recent improvisations of Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Reiner at the Joyce Theater. In doing so she bypasses two giant responses to Cage/Cunningham: Judson Dance Theater of the early ‘60s, and Grand Union, 1970-76. The first took the rigors of the Cunningham’s work as academic, exploding it in every direction. The latter chose not to rehearse; they walked into performance with no instructions and built forms as they went along. Both groups were made up of dancers who had been in Cunningham’s company or were strongly influenced by his work. There was confusion on the part of early dance reviewers who took Cunningham’s choreographic process using Chance Operations to mean improvisation on stage. Mr. Cunningham did not favor improvisation. He set every step. He was wont to say, “The trouble with improvisation is, you repeat yourself.” In other words, you’re less free. Also, to be fair to his legacy, Cunningham and other leaders of dance groups of that era were heading toward a democratizing of the situation; other than the director, there were no stars.
What The New Yorker printed:
Joan Acocella draws a straight line from Dada through Merce Cunningham and John Cage to the recent improvisations of Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Reiner at the Joyce Theater (Dancing, November 26th). I was in Cunningham’s dance company from 1969 until 1973; in the seventies, I was a founding member of Grand Union, a group that chose not to rehearse — we could walk into performances with no instructions and build forms as we went along. At the time, reviewers took Cunningham’s choreographic process using “chance operations” to mean improvisation onstage. But Cunningham did not favor improvisation. He set every step. He was wont to say, “The trouble with improvisation is, you repeat yourself.” In other words, you’re less free.*
*Published in The New Yorker, The Mail, December 10, 2018.
* * *
I’m asked for advice on how to use stillness in choreography. As if there are right and wrong ways of working in art? As if making a dance is a collective endeavor? As if experienced artists know something younger ones should learn? As if dance is yet another competitive market? I’m for individual vision. For listening only to inner friends and demons; for daring to offer the steps they demand. As for stillness, it’s like silence. It doesn’t exist.
* * *
Apologia pro motu in vita sua
Modern Dance has no place in American life. As colonists we build forts, grab land, kill Indians. As pioneers we trek, we plant, we grow families. We industrialize, we technologize. We have bombs to build, wars to wage, gadgets to invent to outwit our enemies. We have plastic to mold to give us cancer that we be challenged to conjure its cure. There is no time for “frivolity.” The aesthetic life requires sensitivity of feeling based on listening, seeing, touching. Sensitivity of feeling demands a slow pace and an open mind. Success in our American world demands suppressing these delicacies. Breakneck competition is the way to achievement and to prosperity. We work hard, then celebrate with spectacle: melodramas, blockbusters, porno flics, arousing easy emotions to orgasmic peak as reward for preternatural vitality. So a few forests fall, a few species disappear. Who needs trees, we have benches made from bottle caps. Who needs cheetahs, we have robots to clean our homes. Soon our organs and limbs will be synthetic, our brains computers. Soon we will live on Mars in artificial environments, won’t we be proud, and our programmed sentiments will infuse us with numbed acceptance. Modern dance is retrograde. It sees the complex body/mind as a temple to be dwelt in, lived from, revered. It says that any possible spiritual progress must emerge from an unembarrassed physical being. Thus we dancers are un-Christian. We are not afraid of the flesh. We are interested in its sexual potential and its urges toward pleasure and ecstasy as well as in its capacity for discipline and rigor. We aim to integrate all human vital energies, transforming even the lowest and meanest into radiant beauty and meaning. How have we fallen so far off track? Modern dance is also elitist and we know now that elites are reprobate. Dedication to excellence makes for cliques and thus militates against homogenized democracy. We should be ashamed. But ashamed of what? That we constitute an insult to the psychic infrastructure of our society, even to our so-called culture, already thoroughly commodified? Or that we are so cowardly that we accept our marginal status and rest on localized laurels, dancers dancing for other dancers forever? Like scientists we investigate, we hypothesize and test our guesses, but we don’t produce results helpful in upgrading weaponry or increasing computer power. We are useless. Our dances are no more than provisional proposals of ideal or hazardous relational configurations. Reluctantly we rely on western expertise to make our lives manageable, though our practice requires nothing but human presence. We play like serious children as the machine age gyrates toward self-inflicted cataclysm. We try to resist being dragged into the vortex of responsibility as defined by property and money. Or we accede and enter the fray in order to find space to move and the wherewithal to pay one another to dance, compromising our ideals in order to demonstrate them, polluting the millennially evolved stratosphere by flying here and there to show our steps. Modern Dance isn’t even a burr under the saddle of Marlboro Man’s imperious ride into an atomic sunset. Modern Dance is mostly women and men-in-touch-with-the-feminine. The over-muscled American male has beaten the American anima down to near silence, transforming our life-giving earth into a grave. And we are dancing on it.
Excerpt from Dunn's collected writings, Dancer Out of Sight, available at Amazon.com
* * *
Response to Even Now These Images are Eroding, a dance by Dana Florin-Weiss and Hannah Verrill presented at Wiseacres on November 29, 2015.
As we enter Cathy Weis’s lovely loft studio at 537 Broadway, two young women are working the niche-like indentation in the redbrick wall. One is tall and lanky, the other short and compact. They face the wall, their bodies loose and informal, their attire trim, neither dance wear nor street wear. One throws up an arm, touches the brick with her fingers, the other swipes the arm away, or throws her own arm up, making for a moment of loose-limbed unison. One or both drop onto their heels, fall out onto one hand, away from the wall, in our direction, looking out at us with what I take to be an intentionally ambiguous expression. There are quite a few basic moves, with variations, which they repeat and repeat (this bit goes on during audience entrance and beyond, a good twenty minutes at least), but the moves and brief poses do not appear to have a fixed order. The attitude of the actions is mildly friendly, mildly annoyed, as if each is sometimes bothered by the other, sometimes glad she’s there. Along the wall, their bodies sometime overlap and sometimes separate slightly. Is this an image of two women as one, two as two, somewhere between? One frequent gesture is, facing the wall, bending all the way over, legs straight, head near floor, to throw a hand up between the legs toward us landing it on crotch and butt. Sometimes two hands overlapping. Sometimes the hand of one dancer overlapped by the hand of the other. Because the action is slapdash, the sexual suggestion, though present, is mitigated, all positions and moves equalized in import by a look of, “We’re doing these things for no reason; we know we are women, and sexual beings, but don’t count on us to conform to your idea of what that means and how we should therefore behave.”
Once away from the wall, they stand side-by-side, shoulder-to- shoulder, a few feet out from the back white wall. They are facing us on the diagonal. (It’s important to note that the audience seating is oriented toward what would normally be the upstage left corner of the square space. This untypical arrangement of audience un-squares the room and brings the studio to life in a fresh way, especially for those of us who have been attending Cathy’s Sunday Salons consistently. Thus they are facing us directly across the diagonal of the space.) They sway slowly side to side, keeping the shoulder-contact. The image is sweet, two friends enjoying each other’s touch and sense of motion. But they don’t let the feeling grow. Still swaying, gradually they screw their faces into grimaces, nipping the suggestion of affection in the bud. Continuing the sway, they repeat the plain-to-grimacing faces. The replay further formalizes the action and whiplashes or response. They are facing us, looking right at us, their gazes and demeanors emphasizing that they are not being sincere. The structure and the way they embody it says, “We are acting as well as dancing, we are not aloof, hiding in a dance bubble you look in on. We are right here with you. We know your expectations and are not about to give in to them.”
Even Now is made up of discrete sections. The dancers go from one bit to the next the way one goes in the morning from opening the curtains to making the bed, simply and directly, without pretending that the two activities are kinetically or otherwise related. In the next section, leaving the shoulder-to-shoulder moment, they run around after each other, giving weight with their hands against the wall as they go along it a few steps, then push out into the space, circling back to the wall. Around and around they go. Again we have many repetitions of the same figure, but loosely, so that, if not annoyed by sameness, one enjoys the slight variations in each circling, and the subtle differences in how each performer handles the task. Do the minor variations in tempo mean anything? Are they chasing each other? Is one trying to outlast the other? Is their desire to be near each other in a rut?
Perhaps this is a moment to attempt to generalize about the two performers. The taller woman is slightly more confident and authoritative in her demeanor and in her kinetic attack. She becomes thereby, if only by a hair’s breadth, and despite their making all the same moves, the leader of the two. She’s the more assertive friend, perhaps, or the big sister. Or maybe she’s the lover, and the shorter, marginally less forceful woman is her beloved, looking up to her?
Suddenly they run and sit down right up against the audience members who are seated on the floor. Each draws a mustache on the other. Are they questioning their gender? Then quickly they go to stand at the back of the audience, becoming part of us, shedding for a second their roles as performers. They rush to another sit-down at the other end of audience. I cannot see them. Abruptly up, they dash out into the space and drop, seemingly onto each other, into a close entanglement. Just as they hit the floor they thrust their arms forward and up over the shoulders of the other, making a strikingly contradictory image of an embrace with swords sticking out from it. This precipitous pose of physical nearness, combined with the rigid tension of the dagger arms, subverts sentimentality, foreclosing any hint that the dance is attempting with naïve sincerity to narrate a true-life relationship of conventional feeling. The image is multivalent, and brilliantly terse.
The next and last section has them walking back and forth on parallel paths from stage center to the upstage left corner. Again, because we are seated on the diagonal, as they head for the corner, they are walking directly away form us. They always face the corner, walking forward toward it, backward away from it, with a hard, fast, robotic strut. On each pass forward, they remove, one at a time, in the same order, their three pieces of clothing, shirt, pants, and black underpants. On the way back they recover them from the floor and put them back on, barely breaking stride. I did not count, but I’d say they made at least twenty passes, many more than necessary to see the moves, one always going one way as the other goes the other way---thus, always out of sync. The suggestion of sexuality and intimacy in previous bits here is most pronounced, but now implicates the audience as well. On the one hand, the two of them are exposing their bodies to us. On the other hand, we never see their vulnerable fronts. And the moves are routinized, depersonalized, almost mechanical, qualities that adamantly undercut the erotic aspect. Finally they make a last little fast-walking circle putting on as last item their shirts, and exit through the upstage door.
On their return, the applause is hearty. Oddly, however, instead of bowing, they begin to clap back at us, as if they are not comfortable accepting our thanks.
As one who favors dancey dancing, is impatient with abundant repetition, and cringes at duets that attempt beyond movement to depict inner aspects of human relationships, I had much to overcome, or to let go of, to allow Even Now to cross my thresholds of resistance. This dance had not a single jump, but its delicate mix of formal values and amorous intimations swept me off my feet.
* * *
Monday, May 1
---Dunkin Donuts: GRAND OPENNG
---Our Lady of the Cenacle
---Trump Pavilion for Nursing and Rehabilitation
Tuesday, May 2
Ah, Rome. You're still here, dreaming the long descent from your empire, still showing these monumental but marvelous large stone buildings, and your innumerable smaller ones with their satisfying earth colors, all tantalizingly irregularly arranged under, today for example, skies of an azure hue not seen in New York City.
Step from the narrow streets into any church interior: Che grandezza! Look a hundred yards down past the pews to the altar to the explosion of gilded symmetry. Then throw the gaze way up to people in robes lolling among clouds on the insides of the huge domes as if in the sky, or higher than.
As we dine al fresco, the ochres and browns, greens and purples, and other hues of the exteriors of nearby buildings change color.
Bicyclists here, both men and women, mostly women, ride easy, upright, not forward. As if where they're going, or even if, doesn't matter. As if they're knitting.
It's not whether the wine itself is any good. It's how you drink it, how you taste it.
Wednesday, May 3
Grazia's father's apartment it but a stone's throw from the northern end of Piazza Navona (Piazza Nirvana?), just out of reach of daily throngs of tourists, on the tiny Vicolo dei Soldati, some of the walls of which curving narrow passageway are covered with ivy, or its ilk. It is within these vines that birds gather. Not the occasional seagull, with its guttural caw, a vibrato the sounds as if it's going into instead of out of the throat, the big bird arriving at street level to scavenge the garbage often late in being picked up, with usually delicious extras scattered over the piled up bags. No, I'm talking about what I assume are smaller birds, and it is their song that I wish to sing about. Here's the score: two sounds, cheep and chirp. Each is abrupt, propulsive, short. The cheep is higher, the chirp two whole notes lower. Each utterance embodies the oxymoronic combination of harshness and mellifluousness, and contains a subtle break, so that maybe their transliteration should be: che-a-eep (though that looks too long), and chir-i-up, (though the interior warble is quicker than that). Now as a solo, which is how I first heard these notes as I lay jet lag sleepless at 5 a.m., the singer was offering several cheeps in a row, then throwing in a chirp, and back to the cheeps. But shortly another bird chimed in, and a remarkable duet began. The tempo picked up immediately. The mode was antiphonal, impatiently so, as if neither could wait for the other to finish before responding. It became impossible to predict either sound. They played every variation. Unison cheeps, unison chirps, the two together, or overlapped in whole or in part. The resulting rhythms became erratic, as if the goal was to derive, from the most limited amount of material, maximum playfulness, an aesthetic I associate with Alvin Lucier, among others. Whether this singing was a morning ritual, or a one-time-only mating game, I won't know till tomorrow.
An item, content not known, but possibly crucially important, has been, as no one lives full time in the apartment, returned, undelivered, to the post office. We arrive there, take our paper number from the machine, wait, and finally step up to the relevant person. Ably prepared, Grazia presents a) her own US and Italian passports, b) a copy of her father's passport, and c) a letter giving her control of her father's bank account. It isn't enough! As the conversation progresses, never turning angry, but pleasant for neither party, the seated woman, looking up at us across the counter, makes, three times, with talk time between, the gesture of simultaneously lifting the shoulders, lifting the arms with the hands upturned, and protruding the jaw, her intonation matching the action: "What can I tell you, what can I do, these are the rules, you need a paper written and signed by your father delegating you to pick up this item." This typical, frustrating combination of bureaucratic strictness with, as everyone knows, loose, and more effective person to person dealing in almost every realm, is not unlike the facades in this neighborhood: the fronts of the buildings are beautifully finished in wonderful colors, no aesthetic detail unconsidered; then telephone lines and other necessary wires are strewn messily willy-nilly all over them.
Thursday, May 4
For us New Yorkers, the wondrous beauty at every turn and the relatively relaxed pace of this city are soothing. Not to mention that we have left in NYC the pressing concerns of our daily lives. So it was a jolt to visit the new MAXXI Museum. It stands apart from every architectural norm around it to the same extreme as the Bilbao Guggenheim in Spain. The new building's inspiration was surely a train wreck where the cars piled up on one another. Volumes twist, ascend unexpectedly, and stick out---way out. Stairways and ramps snake through the un-square interiors. No sense of rooms. Rather, a continuous meander, both horizontally and vertically. The highest, 5th level gallery has a sloping floor! I imagine dancing there including rolling like kids down the incline.
The main show was of work by Piero Gilardi. Why have we never heard of this man? He began in the sixties, and by the end of the decade had switched from an aesthetic to a political posture, the latter including instigation of seriously playful street events taking aim at specific issues, the participants wearing his handmade, bigger than life costumes. The costumes were on view, as were large-screen videos of the events, interviews, etc. I became interested in the fact that though the work shown and the radical architecture of the museum had neither sensuous nor intellectual appeal for me, the experience of being there penetrated. We passed the rest of the afternoon lolling midst the trees of the gardens of the Villa Borghese, exited finally at the Spanish Steps, and trekked all the way back to our part of town, all the time sensing how the jarring experience of the museum and its contents was still at work countering the re-establishment of our pleasure in the soothing antiquity of the city.
Friday, May 5
From so much walking about last year, I recognize almost every piazza, street and intersection, church and ruin we encounter, but still never know where I am. Piazza Navona, however, is at the center of my mind's map. So close to the apartment, we pass through it, or stroll around it, every day. The moment of emerging from narrow streets into its sky-bathed expanse is never less than thrilling. Today I find myself there alone and sit down on a backless bench to the left of, and of necessity close to, a dog. Medium build, short-haired, brown, slightly golden, its elderly master to its right. Both are sleepy. The dog is lying across the bench, head and forelegs extending, next to my knees, over the edge and down, as if he's studying the pavimento. Looking up, I marvel at the patience of the many vendors spread throughout the piazza, each with a cozy little setup. They sell paintings, toys, textiles. Do they enjoy being still all day, everyone else in motion around them and passing by? Two pigeons walk in jerky unison near my feet. Three young daughters dance nearby in off unison as their parents read, at length, the map. After a while the dog sits up. I look to my right at him several times before he returns my gaze, his nose and mine inches apart. An unkempt man approaches. He wants to pet the dog, so engages its owner, asking the dog's name. Billy, the old man responds, un-encouragingly. A dog being walked, much larger than my companion, goes by. Billy growls at it until his master calms him. The master then does some imitative growling of his own, gutterals that then shift into quiet singing. After another, for me, pleasant while, with some difficulty, the old man rises, encourages Billy to follow, and heads awkwardly away, Billy trailing behind. After only a few paces, Billy stops, flops over on his back and writhes furiously on the stone surface. The old man turns, Billy gets up, abruptly calm once again, as if he had not just recharged the universe, and the two set out slowly across the plaza.
Saturday, May 6
The dawn of a do-nothing day is a threat to a striver
Sharks always encircle a tentative recreational diver
Excel as you idle? Not likely. Be a conniver
Go for a stroll along the river Tiber
//Sopressata, Salami, Prosciutto
Porchetta, Pancetta, Guanciale
//Bucatini ai funghi
//Ortica, Agretti, Cardi
Barbabietole, Finocchio, Puntarelle
Carciofi, Cicoria, Melanzane
The Academia San Luca, historically interesting as an institution, and as a result of its mission full of a stylistically wide variety of paintings and sculptures, is located in a large palazzo just up from the side of the Fontana di Trevi. You enter through a vaulted hallway that opens to a small walled garden of orange and lemon trees, then ascend five floors up a spiral ramp. The continuous progression is dizzying and claustrophobic (no exits), relieved only by a small window that marks, one assumes, each floor. Despite the blatant differences (that there is no vertiginous empty center to the spiral to keep you off balance, and there are no paintings on the walls), this rising round and round cannot but evoke NYC's Guggenheim. As I strode, however, wondering should I stop to puff, or make the effort to keep up with the other twenty people on the tour, that mental, hometown association quickly passed, and another came to mind. My mother Editha and my sister Susan came to Paris for the premier of Pulcinella in 1980. We then headed south to visit chateaux in the Loire Valley. Perhaps not having understood the car rental man in Chartres, and unable to decipher the gauge, we quickly ran out of gas. The only human in sight was a farmer tilling by horsepower at some distance. I approached across the clods rehearsing my fledgling French, but of course the case was obvious. Leaving his animals to what might for them have been a welcome reprieve, he without hurry walked me to his farmhouse, filled his own five-gallon gas can from his own private source, semi-filled our tank and sent us on our way. Of the many sites we visited the one with the most memorable name was Fontevraud. Why? Because I struggled so hard to make my mouth make the sounds of that sequence of syllables. Of the ridiculously excessive and at the same time magnificently beautiful chateaux themselves, the most lasting in memory to an American has to be Amboise. Not because the name coincides with a famous male dancer of the New York City Ballet, but rather, finally to come round to the gist of this digression, because of its remarkable spiral ramp. The chateau is set on a bluff overlooking the town and the river. You enter low and end up high. But this is no tight, canted tunnel, a la the Academia. It was designed to accommodate a four-horse carriage! So sensational are the scale, the presumption, the very ambition of this whirling tower, the towering whirl, that you might as well be being propelled like a Tantric carpet traveler along the inside-out surfaces of a Möebius strip. As I walked, with mother and sister, mind thus flying, on the slippery-from-wear dark red brick, around and around, up and up, I wondered at a life so different from mine, a not-that-long-ago carrying on with an extravagance and grandiosity hard to imagine, at least for a middle-class, mid-20th century, California kid.
Sunday, May 7
Mano/Braccio destra Braccia sinistra/Mano
Gamba destra Gamba sinistra
Dita dei piedi
Music concerts in churches are a favorite. The pews in Sant'Eustachio are not comfortable, but are full with us and others, and the orchestra and choir are large. Right away a jolly man announces that the printed program is from a previous concert so doesn't say what will be played. And then the verbal recital before each three pieces is not comprehensible even to Grazia, except that there would be something by Piazzolla. Indeed, I recognize his style, and feel more than ever that his approach works best as movie music. About an hour in, the jolly man (later extolled for being in his fifty-seventh year as a priest, though he is dressed secularly) reappears, and, in a most ingratiating and disarming manner, speaks for at least ten minutes, saying how the orchestra and choir are donating their services in the hope the we the audience will, on the way out, give money so that the church may continue its work with the destitute, categories of whom he delineates at length: soldiers, babies, street people, etc. After this long, unexpected interruption of our aural aesthetic pleasure, they take up Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp. From my experience of previous versions I judge the tempo way slow. Is the cringe-making awkwardness of the execution a result of the conductor's choice to walk instead of run? Or is this gait perhaps the outer limit for these two soloists? At moments, oh dear, they and the ensemble seem to be falling out of sync. You're looking at a building, the earth trembles. You see the structure shift. Will there now be a full on earthquake? Will the facade fall off? Will the entire edifice of 18th century music come crashing down? Back in the apartment, still not used to the ease of current miracles, I find the piece on YouTube and sure enough, here are the same intricately textured melodies and harmonies realized much lighter and faster. Whew, rebalanced are the aesthetic proportions that live within and work to maintain the integrity of my flesh and bone.
Monday, May 8
In the Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo, is a rather large relief of a seated, classically robed young woman in 3/4 view tousling gently with her extended right hand the forelocks of a friendly goat. Her head is inclined slightly as she looks down at her action. If the scene is sentimental, her touch is convincingly tender. It reminded me immediately of a painting in one of the many churches Grazia and I can't keep out of: a standing man with wings on his back is touching ever so lightly with his right index finger the right shoulder of a small boy in front of him. The boy in response begins to turn his head around and to look up at the angel. Touch in the ballet is so conventionally repetitive, finger turns, lifts, etc., that it is easy to forget to notice individual differences. I've been told that the delivery of food and drink in restaurants in the USA is considered crude by Japanese, who value the deliberateness of placing an object. Up to the mid 2000s, in my teaching of Open Structures at NYU, I was uninhibited in participating physically with students, ending up sometimes rolling about on the floor with them; now I wouldn't dare. Dance interest over the last fifty years in a more pedestrian look on stage, arms hung and swung rather than shaped and surrealistically paced, precludes stylized delicacy and other attendant Classical qualities. Within the wide variety of physical presence now in use, a touch that is sensitive, yet functional enough not to be affected, is a middle ground I find satisfying as a counter to the back-slapping manners among the males of my youth, not to mention the abrupt gestures and the all-but-if-not-violent interactions of not a few of our national sports.
Tuesday, May 9
During the day, vendors stand before small storefronts encouraging us strolling vacationers to buy intriguing gizmos. He lifts an arm and throws a little wad of something onto a tiny platform. As it hits it turns into, what, a fried egg? A plop of vomit? (If I look too closely he'll only harangue me more.) He spins tops and herds mechanical animals toward my feet. To proceed I must break into a momentary Paso Doble. Nighttime selling is a different matter. The Piazza Navona turns into a vast ship. It's the one Virgil arrived on, still moving, now slowly, through its self-paced, historical arc. The slender obelisk of the central fountain is its transfigured mast. No longer confined to their storefronts, vendors cruise the deck. Well knowing our aimlessness, our less than heroic ambitions, they stalk us. Mysteriously, the silhouetted man propels at great velocity in a straight vertical line, high into the night sky, a filament of colored light. It is difficult for your eye not to be caught by this abrupt, unexpected visual accent. You follow the object up, becoming aware, above it, a pleasurable side effect, of a cobalt sky appointed with several surprisingly bright stars. Unlike its blue-streak, accelerating ascent, the toy descends slowly, twirling like a mini helicopter, often wandering far from its point of lift off. The thrower moves as necessary, sometimes having to run to catch it, its point of touchdown bringing him fortuitously near new prospective customers. At the feet of anyone who doesn't immediately buy, appears suddenly on the pavement, a skein of pointed lights, blue or green. Either by the action of the peddler's hand, or on it's own, the web-like display moves erratically over the stone surface. It's at first a scary, elusive image, like insects running amok. But the activated filigree soon loses its ominous suggestions and becomes beautiful. A chant accompanies this earthbound dance of interconnected pearls. I don't understand the words, but the gist is of course commercial. Were I a kid I doubt I'd mind the hard sell, and for sure would insist on having one of each of these giocattoli eccezionali.
Wednesday, May 10
Standing out, by its sheer size, in the overstuffed bookshelves of Grazia's father's apartment, is a veritable tome with a leathery green and red spine. On this spine, a designation too slight for the width of the book, I read, in golden letters: Torquato Tasso. What a pleasure, the simple saying of these two words. And somewhere in the deeper vaults of my memory bank I find them stored, all by themselves, but with no supporting documents. The book, it turns out, is a collection of essays about, not of poems by. Getting used now to the loss of enjoyment of previous pathways of pursuit and discovery, I immediately go online. Did I know that "until the beginning of the 20th century, Tasso remained one of the most widely read poets in Europe." No, I did not. There's no need for me any more to anticipate the delight of browsing non-existent stores of used books in lower Manhattan. Right here on the screen we have:
Ecco mormorar l'onde
E tremolar le fronde
A l'aura mattutina, e gli arboscelli,
E sovra i verdi rami i vaghi augelli
E rider l'Oriente;
Ecco si specchia nel mare,
E rasserena il cielo,
E le campagne imperla il dolce gelo,
E gli alti monti indora:
O bella e vaga Aurora,
L'aura 'e tu messaggera, e tu de l'aura
Ch'ogni arso cor restaura.
Now the waves murmur
and the boughs and the shrubs tremble
In the morning breeze,
And on the green branches the pleasant birds
And the east smiles;
Now dawn already appears
And mirrors herself in the sea,
And makes the sky serene,
And the gentle frost impearls the fields
And gilds the high mountains:
O beautiful and gracious Aurora,
The breeze is your messenger, and you the breeze's
Which revives each burnt-out heart.
Thursday, May 11
The "Fast-Train" Rome/Naples is fast. It covers the 140 miles in an hour. It was between Paris and Lyon years ago that I first experienced being unable to appreciate landscape as it raced by; I was unable to enter into the moods of stationary cows. Missing by absence the time I would be wasting in NYC watching NBA playoffs, I discover edited down replays on YouTube. All but scoring plays, and many of those, edited out, you're left with what you might think would be enjoyable, nothing but "fast-train" action. But it's too much too fast, all flow, no ebb, no time to savor, to coast down before the next up. Taking in the team's setup as they bring the ball down the court, the personality differences in each free-thrower's style, these and other quieter moments of the game, it turns out, are part of the pleasure of appreciating the awesome prowess of contemporary athletes.
But to get back to Napoli: the archeological museum is fascinating, the authentic pizze unsurpassed, the shimmering sea inspiring, and Caravaggio's "Le opere di Misericordia" in la chiesa Pio Monte della Misericordia rewarding of long viewing. Equally interesting is the traffic. How people relate on the street, with and without vehicles, is not a new interest. Two years ago in Vietnam I stood a good while looking down from my eighth story hotel window onto a large, complicated intersection with no stoplights. Hordes of motorbikes, only the occasional car, flowed through without stopping. They slowed or sped up, went straight or swerved, generously and gently making way for one another in unhurried, work-oriented travel. The rare honk was not “Get out of my way”, but “Please be aware that I'm here”. In NYC I no longer strike with fist or foot cars that cut me off, but they still do so, and with unapologetic vehemence. On the narrow streets of Rome the relations of vehicles and pedestrians is milder. You hear them behind you approaching, you stop, step aside. The communication is not antagonistic. In Napoli there is the same ethos of accommodation, but with a difference: everyone cuts all the action closer, much closer. Motorbikes weave around the cars. You don't rest your arm on the taxi's windowsill. Braking is last-second, and the space between bumpers minuscule. Stop lights do no more than continuously blink yellow, leaving it up to each walker and driver to assert or not, to pause or to move. There is an expected rhythm. When a car ahead of us waited too long for pedestrians, all hell all around us broke loose, raucous honking and yelling. Implicit protocol had clearly been breached. This hell seemed a mini version of the one I sensed the entire town to be on the verge of. As if at any moment a cultural earthquake might erupt, everyone and everything descending, or ascending, into a chaotic, pagan, apocalyptic free-for-all.
Friday, May 12 & Saturday, May 13
The extant temples of Paestum are three
Under huge lintels, fluted columns stand: massively
Though toward the top they narrow slightly
The famous Tufatore is a commercial success
Fortunately aesthetically he's also one of the best
A lovely example, his sailing body, of action at rest
They say, what's more, that his dive affiliates life and death
The stones of Roman roads are five-sided
Lizards scatter over them, directions undecided
A slender snake and I all but collide
Hard to know whose response is more excited
Grazia says, Never seen you so wide-eyed
Sunday May 14
In San Pietro in Vincoli is the over-life-size Moses by Michelangelo. Having just descended from Mt. Sinai, the commandment tablets held under his right arm, the leader of the exodus sits, fingering his long beard and looking to his left. He is outraged because his followers have, in his absence, reverted to pagan ritual. Reportedly, he breaks the tablets (and according to Woody Allen remembers in his fury only ten of an original twelve edicts). But Moses worries that if he loses control any further he might well break the bond between him and his followers. In Moses and Monotheism Freud describes the statue just so, as that depicting a man torn between anger and calculated restraint. To me the figure appears less riled, even calm, with the turn of the head to the left thoughtful rather than fraught. And indeed there is reason to consider Freud's view (based on the very concepts he gave us) "projective." Having taken on Jung as his heir apparent, he discovers after some years that Jung is sleeping with a patient and is lecturing out of keeping with psychoanalytic theory. Thus Freud finds himself, as he begins his essay on Moses, in a comparable situation: angry at his follower, but not wanting to disrupt the network of relations that is furthering the progress of his ideas. Is his interpretation of the statue biased by his inner conflict?
Monday, May 15
Harry Levin comments:
"...that the sense of sin is more intimately related to inhibition than to indulgence; that the most exquisite consciences are the ones that suffer most; that guilt is a by-product of the very compunction which aims at goodness and acknowledges higher laws; and that lesser evils seem blacker to the innocent than to the experienced."
"...a man blessed in every other regard, but cursed with the crowning misfortune of a cold heart, so that everything seems unreal to him."
"When works of fictitious literature are constructed, their plots are predetermined by our reliance on the limiting concept of causation; whereas the functioning of the universe is free to achieve the perfection of indeterminacy."
"'Then we sallied forth into the streets, arm in arm, continuing the topics of the day, or roaming far and wide until a late hour, seeking, amid the wild lights and shadows of the populous city, that infinity of mental excitement which quiet observations can afford.'"
Tuesday, May 16
In the Piazza Sant'Eustachio, at an outside table of the Bar Ginger, sits a lithe young woman with a dog, its leash tied to a chair leg. A sheep dog it is, black and white, with a vivacious personality, rather more eager to play then the woman has time for. But occasionally she takes a red ball, offers it to him, he lowers to the ground like a camel, mouths it. Shortly she takes the ball back, repeating the game now and then. These intermittent interactions, and the charisma of the dog, are drawing attention. But so is the woman herself. On the edge of beyond elegant, she is wearing rose-colored, sparkling leggings, black and white pumps, and a nearly sheer, black, taffeta-like blouse. She's tall and attractive, managing by her manner to stay just this side of flaunting her appeal. So much is this pair of beauties the focus of all of us eye-wandering do-nothings, both stationary and passing by, that a shadowy figure moving quickly under an obscuring sidewalk bridge on the far side of the piazza goes unnoticed. But not unnoticed by me. I see and recognize her immediately: it's Audrey Hepburn. Knowing that my friend Jim will be forever grateful, I jump up and rush toward her. She's dressed all in black, her face appearing and disappearing under a wide, loose-brimmed hat. I confront her, take her by the upper arms, say, "Jim says hello!" Her delicate features begin immediately to form a look of disgusted boredom, but then right away the look dissolves and she smiles. I begin to swoon. Simultaneously she moves forcefully upward and toward me, kisses me high on the left cheek and into my ear whispers a short sentence. Before I'm able to recover, she flees around a nearby corner and is gone. What did she say? I'll never tell.
Wednesday, May 17
Having arrived here means that you have sustained your attention over seventeen days of sent notes. Possibly superfluous for you, these entries have been necessary for me. Necessary because you are my USA, a place no longer, as during the years of intense touring, like any other, but a home that pulls when I'm away. The time in Rome has been rich, but more than usually also, for me, fish out of water. I'm happy to have upcoming small gigs to return to, and I look forward to the comfort and stimulation of your company.
* * *
Douglas graduated with an AB in Art History, Princeton University, Class of 1964. This is the text of comments he made at a memorial gathering on March 11, 2017 on the Princeton campus in honor of Yu-Kung Kao. Professor Kao, who taught Chinese literature and history, was a lifelong lover of the ballet. He helped guide the dance program at Princeton that began in 1969 under the direction of Ze-eva Cohen. He died on October 29, 2016.
Good afternoon. I am pleased to part of this celebration in honor of Gene Kao.
It was Thanksgiving vacation. I had stayed on campus to work on my junior paper. Procrastinating, I wandered around in the late fall air with Jim Freeman, a student of Chinese. He was about to leave for extended study in Taiwan. He asked if I would accompany him to visit one of his professors who was in the hospital suffering from an undiagnosed, possibly terminal illness. In order to support my friend I reluctantly agreed. I stood near the entrance while Jim sat close to him and talked. After a few minutes the man spoke loudly across the room to me. “Have you ever taken a ballet class?” Not only had I not done so, I had never attended a dance concert of any sort. “No,” I responded. “If I get out of here,” he continued, “will you promise to go to class with me?” How could I refuse? “Yes,” shyly I answered. Jim went off to Taiwan. I returned for spring term unhappy, wondering if I might drop out. One day there is a knock on my door. Standing there is the professor from the hospital. He introduces himself as Gene Kao. He has with him two pairs of black tights and another student, John Thorpe. In keeping with my promise, we walk to the Princeton Ballet Society, located, despite having nothing to do with the university, right next to the Dinky station. There are at least a dozen young girls wearing white outfits in the class, all of them familiar with Gene, as he has been taking class there for a while. John is not intrigued and does not return. Entranced, I become a regular, and now have an oblique reason to continue my Princeton education. Little do I know that this moment, thanks to Professor Kao, is the beginning of my lifelong career as a dancer and choreographer.
We went to see the New York City Ballet often. On one occasion I was waiting on Nassau Street and Gene was late. Finally he comes running urgently down the sidewalk. Once on our way I say, “I never thought I would see you run to catch a bus.” Smiling, he responds, “The difference between you and me is, if I missed it, I wouldn’t care.”
* * *
Wandering home from the interview, it hit me that we touched on, but did not leverage fully, a rather savory category: the primary social meaning, for me personally, of dancing then and now. I’m talking about a vague sense of importance that buoyed the NYC dance arena, and thus me, being in it, for the first twenty years or so. I took joyously for granted a feeling of connection with other dancers and choreographers, even those I did not know personally. Touring widely in Europe furthered this semi-conscious current of, dare I say power? At least of acceptance, of filling a useful place in the hearty arts of the west. An important aspect of this usefulness was the “uselessness” of the dancing: no theme, no social purpose, no message or idea for viewers to take home to nail on the wall. Dancing for dancing, leavened with a bit of wit. Empty art. Form as form. Daily diving into aesthetic bliss. For me personally, and, if I read it right, for the field too, this sense of estimable relevance has waned.
Yet another after-the-fact notion arises, the very kind of change I think you’re addressing. Early on I paid a great deal of attention to various visual stimulants leading up to working: post cards, paintings, people on the street. Still loving to look, lately I’ve become aware that all I really need to get going is to enter the studio. Maybe in fact I was not reliant on pre-piece voyeurism, was just enjoying being visually occupied. In any case, this is a definite shift. With hardly a reference to what else I do during the day or at night, there is now an unmediated flow right into the steps.
I offer these belated thoughts in appreciation of your project on the aging of dancers and choreographers.
[Email to Gia Kourlas - July 2017]
* * *
If the dancer decides to dance beyond the years of peak prowess, there is, I see now, on the heels of talking to you, a tendency, indeed a need, to stay positive. I can no longer make that move, but I can make this one, so I'll put my attention here, on what's possible, and ignore what's not. Thus I maintain a level of emotional stability and confidence that keeps action happening. Stepping back, however, dropping this pragmatic pretense of all is well (there were always limitations, now they're just different), I think we can say that the change for the dancer from youth to creeping decrepitude deserves to be called, without exaggeration, an unmitigated disaster. To push off suddenly in a new direction, to go airborne and soar, to dive to the floor and rebound...to have risen to this scale of gesture and then to see and feel it declining, is, emotionally speaking, a crushing defeat, a depressing state of affairs, a symbolic ending of living. For the human animal, no other physical activity, and no degree of mental gymnastics, come close to replacing the daily ecstasy of unimpeded kinetic exploration, of ebullient interaction with immediate and infinite space and time. Let's make no bones about the apocalyptic status of this shift. And let's take, therefore, a moment to acknowledge and to sympathize with those lovers of full-body articulation who fulfill their potential, who achieve personal dance-mastery, and then face, without choice, however abruptly, and for however long, a searingly painful fall from grace.
[Email to Gia Kourlas – July 2017]
For further reading, click HERE to be directed to a Wordpress.com website from 2010.