By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2013, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Author’s note, 1-16-2013: I only recently learned of the death of the veteran Pilobolus dancer Rebecca Jung from gastric cancer, at the age of 46. The following is a memory of Becky, and of our relationship.)
We were on a beach in Ocean City, Maryland, where Becky’s mother — who had just published a book on Frederick Law Olmstead, the conceiver of Central Park and so many other landmarks of the American passage — had a condo overlooking the Atlantic. Becky was recovering from Pilobolus’s relentless July season at the Joyce, a month-long crucible of the kind of rigorous, athletic, physically taxing and, at times, emotionally draining dances the company had been famous for since it was founded in 1971 by three smart-aleck jocks who stumbled into a Dartmouth dance class, soon joined by their teacher. It was the summer of 1997, and after seven years with the company, at the age of 33, Becky was burned out, a crash accelerated by having to teach the dances to the three of the company’s six performers who were new. Because here’s the thing about those dances: What elevated them from mere gymnastics and made the physical science and brainy concepts of the directors into art — besides the choreographic rigor that their Dartmouth dance teacher, Alison Chase, had instilled in the boys when she joined the company — was not just the agility but the versatility of the dancers chosen by Chase, Robby Barnett, Michael Tracy, and Jonathan Wolken to execute their vision, particularly the women, typically two to the four men. They not only had to be strong, elegant, and eloquent, with comedic as well as tragic chops, but musical and lyrical. And the feats of balance required weren’t merely physical; they also had to be able to find and make equilibrium from the sometimes competing visions of the four directors. Tracy might choreographic a sequence, the dancers spend days working over it and refining it, only to have Wolken come in and throw it out, pulling seniority on Tracy. (The directors were even in therapy, Becky had told me. They got a grant for it.) As the dance captain, Becky had to insulate her colleagues, as much as possible, from that anarchy.
So it’s understandable why that August at Ocean City, Becky slept a lot. And that she’d be annoyed when a couple of teenage boys kicking a soccer ball around kept hitting us. But when I warned them, half-kiddingly, “You better watch out, she’s a dancer,” meaning that she might just use those strong legs to kick them, and the boys just snickered, Becky upbraided me: “You have to understand that in most parts of the country, when you say ‘dancer,’ they think ‘stripper.'”
Indeed, when I first saw Becky, she was half-naked, performing Pilobolus’s signature group dance “Day Two” which, legend has it, was created by the above-named directors, co-founder Moses Pendleton (who later founded Momix and left Pilobolus), and other dancers including Peter Pucci in 1980, after they took hallucinogenic mushrooms and frolicked in a rainstorm in the Connecticut country-side. Fortunately somebody — probably shutterbug Pendleton — had a camera so they could remember the movement. These days, the company was relying on veterans to preserve the narrative idea behind the physical tableaux, and as the senior member, a lot of that responsibility fell to Becky. It was even in the context of toplessness that we had our first interview, in 1995; as I recall, there was a controversy concerning Becky and Rebecca (Becca) Anderson (now Darling) performing a normally topless duet on a television program. I wrote a brief blurb for Dance Magazine, where I’d just started working as an editor; I remember interviewing Becky from a pay phone on lower Broadway, en route to find a futon. I met her after one of that summer’s Joyce shows, and was instantly infatuated. By the time I sent her a book of poetry during the 1996 summer run — when I said hello to her after a show, she was wearing a fluffy white dress with magenta flowers, her hair in a bun, her cheeks flush — it must have been evident to Becky that I had a crush on her. Or so the mischievous glint in her eyes when she looked at me – suggesting she knew she had my number and that I was in the process of melting – suggested. By 1997, following (she later explained) a lull in romance which she wanted to break, she decided to take advantage of my hankering after her.
Becky had just returned to Pilobolus after a medical leave — here again, there was a question of cancer. This anyway was the story which was the excuse for our meeting at a cafe on the Avenue of the Americas that May or June. (When she called me to confirm the interview, I was just getting over the worse gastric illness in my life, unable to keep anything down; in her phone message, Becky said, “Are you there Paul Ben-Itzak? Are you vomiting?” Becky proved the maxim that dancers have no hang-ups discussing bodily functions. She once told me how a colleague proposed solving pre-show constipation by sticking a finger up her butt.) Becky had also come to my birthday party in the flat on W. 8th Street, presenting a catnip plant for my three feline companions, Sonia, Mesha, and Hopey. (Never mind that Becky was allergic.) Later, she’d confess to me that at a moment in our Avenue of the Americas rendez-vous when I’d excused myself to go to the bathroom, she’d telephoned her best friend to say, “I think it’s happening with Paul Ben-Itzak.” When I returned from the bathroom, my glass of white wine had been replenished. “I’m trying to get you drunk!” she announced with that mischievous grin. “You’re succeeding!” After she kissed me on the mouth before dropping me off at my apartment, she grinned again, cherubically: “Surprised?!”
If I had any fear that Becky was just messing with me — aware of my crush — it was dissipated after our first official date, a show at the Joyce followed by dinner in a trendy 8th Avenue restaurant, and a passionately groping goodbye at the threshold of her W. 14th Street garden studio, abruptly terminated because we had a long day ahead of us; I had to be at Becky’s door at 7 a.m. for the drive up to Pilobolus’s rural Connecticut studios, where I’d get to observe the company at work for a day in preparation for a story, probably for the New York Times. On the way down to CT, Becky predicted how each of the directors would react to the presence of a reporter. “Robby will hide in the room next to the studio,” and in fact this is exactly what Barnett did. We had to make a couple of pit-stops along the way — the gastro was not yet finished with me — and I made regular runs to the bathroom below the studio. I remember I wore a blue necktie hand-painted with orange baroque buildings that I’d picked up from a street artist in the Village; spending the day watching my favorite dance company rehearse, escorted by my favorite dancer, seemed an occasion for dressing up. (Years later I’d wonder if I’d crossed the path of another street artist, Jennifer Macavinta, an eventual successor to Becky at Pilobolus who would become a friend in Paris after Barnett introduced us.) Becky continued playing pranks. At the rehearsal for the Two Tall Women duet, in which the females are made to appear taller by standing on two men’s shoulders, and which requires the men to eventually step out from the long dresses that conceal them, buck naked, Becky looked at me wickedly, then at the two men Pilobolus rookies performing the roles for the first time, then at Barnett, and suggested, “They should do it naked so they’ll be prepared for the performance.”
At the end of the day, Matt Kent, one of the newbies (“They ((the directors)) like him because he reminds them of them” was Becky’s thumbnail sketch of Kent, a black belt and musician, a contortionist as dexterous as he was smart, Big Bang Theory meets Cirque du Soleil), bought a six pack. “Let’s break into Momix!” Becky proposed, and we did just that, opening the beer in Pendleton’s studio across the road from his home, wondering if the camera that’s a permanent fixture in the studio had captured our infraction. When we recessed into the woods surrounding the studio, Becky excused herself to answer nature’s call just after Kent came back from a similar mission and, returning with a pair of spectacles, announced, “Look what I found!,” causing Kent to blush. When Becky and I stopped at a gas station on the way back home to New York, I kissed her before we stepped back into the car. “What was that for?” she asked inscrutably. “It’s just been about work all day and I wanted to re-connect with you personally.” “You know,” she said, “I’m not sure how I feel about this, with you being a journalist ‘n’ all” (a native of Maryland, Becky sometimes slipped into a charming homespun drawl). As we drove down the Westside highway nearing her place on W. 14th, I told Becky a fairy-tale I’d written about a princess with a white pimple who, after initially being horrified about it, realizes when enough princes tell her so that far from being a blemish, the pimple is her most outstanding feature. She invited me in for a beer on her W. 14th Street patio, where she lit a dozen thick candles arrayed around the stone hedge that encircled the garden. I continued the story, but I think she was more enthralled by my innocence than the tale itself as she looked at me, marveling. We finally kissed, and when things escalated, she stopped me and said nervously, “The neighbors can see us.” So we moved inside.
While it would not be appropriate to discuss in detail what followed — if Becky could be direct tete-a-tete, she was shy and discrete in public — there are two details I’ll share because they reveal a kind, sensitive, and even protective side that Becky didn’t often share. It had been a while since I had been with someone, and when I told her this, Becky found a way to put me at my ease which was sweet and romantic. I also remember that, after the best of Barry White, Becky put on Puff Daddy’s riff on Sting’s “Every breath you take,” “I’ll be missing you,” and after she fell asleep the song kept repeating until dawn. (Later, Shawn Colvin’s “This Time” or “Sunny Came Home” would provide the sonic landscape for my own emotions during our topsy-turvy affair.) Before I left the next morning — I was late for a matinee of City Ballet (as it happens, with my guest the now grown-up woman for whom I’d made up “The White Pimple”), and Becky gave me a hand-printed tee-shirt a Pilobolus groupie had made with a backstage picture of the legendary Jude Woodcock, Becky’s previous Pilobolus partner and mentor, which I wore with pride in my orchestra seat at the NY State Theater, a suitless but not empty suitor — Becky felt it necessary to bring me down from the clouds: “I should warn you that I can be a monster.” If I share this confession it’s because I think it reveals the opposite. (Ditto with Becky’s later claiming as her anthem another big hit of the summer of 1997, “I’m a B….”)
Before the Joyce season, Becky had one more rubicon to cross: Pilobolus’s annual appearance at the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina, where it was introducing a jazzy Chase solo for Tamieca McCloud and what would become a classic male quartet, “Gnomen,” which exploited Kent’s ambi-dexterity as well as the solidity of Mark Santillano and the quiet eloquence of Trebien Pollard and Gaspard Louis, like Kent new to the company. (And — I point out because it’s relevant to the aesthetic appeal of the company, as is Becky’s being half-Chinese — like McCloud, African-Americans.) Becky was anticipating that this farewell season would be difficult, so she asked me to fly to Durham for moral support. (“Jonathan will look at you weirdly,” she warned, and indeed at a cast party given by supporters in a house in the woods above the theater, it seemed that Wolken couldn’t stop glaring at me, an interloper in his fief. Tracy, meanwhile, gave me what seemed like “nudge-nudge” winks whenever we crossed paths. Chase just smiled broadly.) I also felt a little weird; this time it was me who felt awkward about revealing the journalist – subject relationship, as my visit and hanging out with Becky couldn’t help do. Becky insisted on seeking the opinion of Charles and Stephanie Reinhart, the festival’s long-time directors, on the subject, and tried to re-assure me: “They think it’s fine — they don’t see any conflict.”
The first sign of conflict between us arose after we returned. Durham had probably been too much concentrated time together for two people just getting to know each other; while for the most part the days in North Carolina were romantic and I was still floating on a cloud of euphoria, we also started to get on each other’s nerves; at one point Santillano scolded Becky, “Give the guy a break!” Becky rested her head on my shoulder on the returning plane, which made me feel closer to her. Nervous for re-assurance, I called her that evening, no doubt waking her up, to tell her what a great time I’d had, but when I referred to “our relationship” she shot back, “What relationship? We don’t have a relationship.” To crib a phrase from “Rent,” we may all have baggage but this was the first intimation that our baggage didn’t go together: I’d been in situations before where the woman didn’t want to commit and was scared to get into another one. Becky had issues with commitment. The conflict produced the first of several break-ups over the next three months.
Our relationship (I permit myself to use the word here because Becky would later use it in referring to us with a mutual friend and colleague) did not end well; our respective weaknesses and vulnerabilities did not match.
When I learned of Becky’s death, a miraculous thing happened. Liberated from the earthly detritus of our relationship, positive details — of her, of our time together — I’d completely forgotten about re-surfaced. Maybe it’s that once someone departs, they only leave behind the good residue. Maybe it’s that Becky is the first person I was intimate with to die. But now I find the kindnesses coming back to me, from the minor to the major. During the throes of one break-up, Becky told me: “You ARE a good catch, you’re just not a good catch for me,” trying to send me off with confidence that I would find someone who appreciated me. And even her final act of closing me out — for after we took turns ending the relationship, it was finally Becky who closed the door for good — may have been the ultimate kindness, protecting both of us, realizing that at some level there was a feeling (or at least an attraction) too strong to make it possible for us to just be friends.
But, to end on a positive note — and to return to discussing Becky as dancer — once she told me, “You make me feel like a woman,” or it may have been, “You remind me I’m a woman.” If I share this very intimate detail, it’s not to brag of any prowess on my part, nor to reveal any intimate detail, but rather to provide some insight into what it takes to be this specific kind of dancer. Becky explained to me that finding clothes that fit her was a challenge, because the regime of being a Pilobolus dancer meant she didn’t have a typical female body: Her shoulders were strong for carrying rather than supple and ‘womanly,’ for example. (One thing she was looking forward to after leaving Pilobolus was that she could finally wear more feminine clothing.) And here’s another thing about Pilobolus, and the uniquely rigorous physical and intellectual calls it makes on a dancer, particularly a female dancer. The company, like Momix, gets a bad rap from a lot of snooty modern dancers (no doubt secretly jealous of the Pils’ popular appeal and box office success) who dismiss the work as ‘accessible,’ entertaining gymnastics. But — as I noted above and as bears repeating — it’s dancers like Becky Jung who have always saved the work from being mere circus tricks and dazzling athletic feats. Sublimely supine in duets like “Shizen,” a veritable canvas in serious dances like “Sweet Purgatory” (‘Sweet P,’ as the dancers nick-named it, was one of Becky’s favorites), droll in “‘Solo’ from ‘Empty Suitor’,” Becky was the ultimate vessel who put the theater (and comedy) in Pilobolus’s singular brand of physical theater.
In the midst of our relationship — born in late Spring, ended by early fall — I noticed on Becky’s bookshelf the volume of dance poetry I’d given her. “Ah, you got it!” “Sorry but I don’t read books,” Becky informed me. I think she lacked confidence in her own intelligence. But in fact, it’s artists like Becky who are essential to revealing the intelligence in dance.