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By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2005, 2018 Chris Dohse
(First published on October 14, 2005, this essay and Flash is re-published today with the support of Slippery Rock Dance . )
NEW YORK — I understand that there has been a debate on these pages recently about whether the quality of New York dance is declining.*
I’d like to toss out some thoughts about what I see as the rotten state of dance criticism among the mainstream publications in the city. Is it edifying to wonder which came first — the “bad” dance or the stale, moronic writing about same? Perhaps if the dozen or so minds who hold positions of power in the field, few of whom have ever made a dance or performed in one, could rise above their biases and narrow misconceptions and their narcissistic need for validation, we could stop mourning some past golden age.
I’ve perpetrated plenty of arrogant blab myself. (Search these DI archives.) I do so love the sound of my own voice. And every member of our community, no matter what their taste or status, complains that they dislike 60% or more of the work they see week after week. But at this point in my life, I don’t think the role of the critical community is to bite the hand that feeds it. Dance writers shouldn’t be barnacles clinging to a sinking ship or fat ticks sucking the life out of a dying carcass. We also shouldn’t be blind enthusiasts or cheerleaders. But I’d argue that a sane POV is one of general support for the medium and an intelligent respect for those insane enough to suffer a life creating it.
Yes, our role is to judge and evaluate, categorize and compare, but also to witness, to recognize. Not to gush and blow hot air up the fannies of certain cliques or to spot the next fad or declare a handful of personalities the brightest minds of our time simply because they fit neatly into some lineage of the canon.
In fact, throwing the canon out the window might be a healthy place to start so that we could actually see the dances that we see. In Molly Davies’s recent video installation at the Asia Society, a Japanese choreographer whose name I’ve forgotten called his work “post-historical.” He didn’t care if he was doing something that had been done before; he was following his own intuition and instincts. I like that term and hereby adopt it. (Somebody shoot me if I ever use the term “post-Judson” again.)
In the dominant/mainstream press, where I assume most dance audiences go for information about the scene, I primarily see reviews written from a position of self-congratulatory nostalgia, long-timers patting themselves on the back for having discovered the talent 20 years ago about whom they’re now cementing a hagiography without seeming to evaluate the current work for its authentic merits (or failures). These people often complain that they’re not seeing the next Tharp, the next Taylor, the next Morris (and what do they mean by that anyway?).
And we now seem to be enduring an immature, uninformed assault from certain writers who only seem to evaluate the most superficial veneer of the dances and dancers they’re watching. These writers judge dancers’ ability to point their feet, or the size of their waistlines, or their “prettiness” (based on whose model?). This isn’t criticism; it’s scorn.
Where are the writers who enter a work’s interior logic, appreciating its essential qualities and respecting its creator’s intentions and intelligence? These thinkers could herald a new age.
Time to put my money where my mouth is: Richard Daniels and his show at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church (seen September 29). Here’s a work that I don’t “like.” But that’s clearly because of my biases and preconceptions, not because the work is “bad.” Watching the two pieces on the program becomes a struggle for me, as I’m faced with style choices and tropes outside my tastes.
I chose this assignment, knowing that the movement vocabulary wasn’t my “beat,” but feeling that certain life circumstances I share with Daniels (living with HIV) would enrich my experience of his work. I don’t know him but friends of mine do. (This is the small pond of NYC dance after all.) I’m curious about the way Daniels claims in his press that “the experience of living with HIV disease led to a rebirth” and “propelled (him) to reconnect with dance as an instrument of his healing.” This sounds to me like something worth doing. The voices of long-term survivors seem to be swept under the rug today, even among the POZ brother- and sisterhood.
I trust Daniels’s intentions; I recognize them. He dances with confidence, a mature performer in solidly crafted work. The dancers believe in the material and perform it well. The choreography allows each dancer to emerge as a separate character and seems to showcase his or her unique energies.
But modern dance performed to piano, played live or recorded, makes me want to stick pins in my ears. A grand piano onstage calls forth one of the many chips on my shoulder, evoking upper class privilege or highbrow fussiness. This inner bias threatens to shut me down before the dance even begins.
The movement invention is what I like to call uptown modern, something that often looks like ballet in bare feet. The vocabulary seems to value extended line, buoyancy, “correct” execution of position and steps. I’d rather see bodies in repose or silence or floor-bound abjection; these are my tropes. Not bodies who fill the stage with doingness. I see a similar tensile quality to the styles of Zvi Gotheiner and Lar Lubovitch.
The first half of the program, “Telling Tales,” is a suite of two duets and two solos. The duets are choreographed by Scott Rink and Dusan Tynek, the solos by Daniels, who performs them. (Tynek and Regina Larkin join him for the duets.) Pianist Nurit Tilles accompanies all on that damn grand piano that swallows too much of the space. Daniels performs his solo material with strength and ease. A narrative quality sometimes unravels the shapes of his dancing into pantomime but this emphasizes his storytelling intention. He could be a Petruchka, left alone in his master’s solitary cell. His is a dignified presence of someone who has weathered the dark.
Perhaps an anthropology of the audience would help me parse the dance’s appeal? If it’s not my cup of tea, then the people here must be here because it is theirs. I don’t see anyone I recognize from the downtown dance crowd; I see few dancers. At intermission, I don’t hear anyone talking about the work, either with praise or disdain. Rather I hear two suburban couples discuss the trouble they’ve been having with their housekeepers and nannies (uh-oh, there’s my class bias again).
For “Apollo & the Muses” the piano has been moved to an upstage corner. This quintet is choreographed by Daniels, who doesn’t perform in it, to Stravinsky’s score. Tynek and Keith Sabado share the role of Apollo, the older man shadowed by his youthful self. Sabado fills his performance with gravitas; I can see a thinking presence and experience that initiates his dancing. Larkin, Megan Williams and Emmanuele Phuon play the first three muses. (Tynek morphs into the fourth.) The architectural detail of St. Mark’s Church is a perfect fit for this classical imagery as each character comes forward to contribute his or her part of the story.
What Daniels seems to have done in these two works is to create a sort of ornament that marks his place in the world. It has the elegant, timeless quality of a snow globe. He tells his story with clarity and courage. If I am to live up to my own standard of entering the present-time truth of the material, how can I be so arrogant as to say I don’t “like” it? Its signifiers simply aren’t mine. He succeeds in his goal; I just don’t get it.
Over the past few years, my disenchantment with being a dance writer in New York has twisted my knickers so severely, perhaps I’ve become unhinged. I stopped writing completely for an entire season (2003-2004), during which I didn’t even see a dance concert. If resisting something reifies the existence of that which is resisted, complaining about the state of things won’t improve the situation. We need new possibilities. For my own writing, I’m hoping to create a new model entirely, looking at the long haul, off the grid, under the radar, even though this form is the radar. I’d be sad to see the dominant voices of today’s New York dance critical community write the history of this generation of New York dance. If this happens, the truth will not be told.
*Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org for your own copies of the articles to which Chris is referring.
By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2000, 2018 Maura Nguyen Donohue
(First published on the DI on August 4, 2000, this Flash Dispatch’s re-publication today is sponsored by Slippery Rock Dance . )
HANOI — Chao cac anh chi from Hanoi. I’ve been situated in the seat of a former enemy (to both of my half-selves, American and Vietnamese) for almost two weeks now. After only ten days in Southern China we decided to head to the capital of Vietnam so as to squeeze in a few days of language lessons. Unfortunately, Perry only seems to retain sentences that involve beer. This should make our impending visit with my mother’s family in Central Vietnam and our — ahem — wedding there interesting.
With its many lakes, shady boulevards and parks Hanoi is a more physically attractive city than Saigon. The maze of the charming 1000-year-old Old Quarter provides endless exposure to a rich cultural heritage. However, I have to admit to a heavy amount of apathy in my pursuit of contemporary performance here other than Quyen Van Minh’s Jazz Band (mostly Tom Petty and Nirvana covers). Art galleries abound but performances are harder to find. And my southern Vietnamese and American roots reveal themselves incessantly. The righteous rhetoric gets tiresome and I’ve been biased by a wonderful experience seeing work and talking to artists in the south three years ago about the challenges to artistry in a Communist country. Though people tell me today that things are better than five years ago, I must note that “better” is a relative term. That stated I was still able to enjoy yet another viewing of water puppets as well as a trip to the Central Circus and an unexpected audience for the ritual of an indigenous sect.
Based at the shore of Hoan Kiem Lake is the Municipal Water Puppet Theater (Roi Nuoc Thang Long). At 40,000 dong for a first-class seat, I was able to see this troupe for 1/16 the price I paid to see them at Lincoln Center a few years ago. Water puppetry is one of the few indigenous art forms in a country that spent 1,000 years under Chinese rule, 50 under the French and another 10 dealing with the Americans. It originated among the rice farmers, who carve the puppets from waterproof fig tree lumber. The characters were modeled on the villagers, animals from their daily lives and creatures of myth and legend. 11 puppeteers operate from behind a bamboo screen in waist-deep murky water. The murk of the water conceals some of the mechanics, and allows the puppets to appear and disappear with ease. Many of the puppets have articulated limbs and heads. The series of vignettes depict pastoral scenes and legends. The show includes live music, and I was particularly pleased to hear Ru Con Nam Bo played live. I use this lullaby, played on the Vietnamese monochord, dan bau, in a work about abandoned Amerasian children, “SKINning the surFACE.”
Hanoi’s old-school circus (Xem Xiec) provided an intriguing evening. Many of the performers were trained in Eastern Europe. The relatively simple acrobatics (compared to those of neighboring China) were entertaining, but I thought I was having hallucinogenic flashbacks when the elephant started doing yoga and the monkeys riding bicycles in running shorts.
The most interesting performance I’ve seen (other than the ballets of ‘no-road-rules-traffic’ and ‘street-peddling-women-running-from-the-police-with-60-lbs-of-fruit/tea/soup /etc-in-their-baskets’) was when we accidentally stumbled into a temple ritual on our first day in town. Thanks to a side door and Perry’s newly acquired 80-cent flute, we were invited in to witness a Hoa Hao ceremony. Perry joined the musicians while sister Maeve, Dragon (an auspiciously named Yugoslavian we met at the border crossing from China) and I watched a middle-aged woman dance with incense, fire and bells for the next three hours. She worked her way through at least ten costume changes. With each new outfit came a new story told through movement and props. At one point, she was steering a boat; at another she was a woman selling towels from the bags dangling at either end of her pole. The vignettes each included a bouncing dance that seemed to represent travel and walking. In between each dance there would be a formal walk towards the altar before she’d drop to her knees and bless various gifts. These gifts (cigarettes, raincoats, fruit, cookies, noodles, money, facecloths, etc) were then distributed to the temple and to everyone in attendance. The ironic twist though is that Hoa Hao was started as a reformed Buddhism that embodied personal faith rather than elaborate ritual. Perhaps this is progress, perhaps prosperity. Regardless, they were wonderful people and we’ve since been to two of their homes for dinner. Between leaving the ceremony with bags full of goodies and being overstuffed at their homes, I’m amazed at the generosity of some in a country where the average monthly income is $50. I thought WE were supposed to be the haves giving to the have-nots!
For more information on choreographer-dancer Maura Nguyen Donohue, visit her dance company’s web site.
From the exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done, running at the Museum of Modern Art through February 3: Anna Halprin, “The Branch,” 1957. Performed on the Halprin family’s Dance Deck, Kentfield, California, 1957. (Halprin’s husband was the noted San Francisco architect Lawrence Halprin.) Performers, from left: A. A. Leath, Anna Halprin, and Simone Forti. Photo: Warner Jepson. Courtesy of the Estate of Warner Jepson.
By Christine Chen
Copyright 2000, 2018 Christine Chen
(Among many other engagements in arts performance and management, Christine Chen went on to dance for STREB, run its education program, and serve as managing director for American Repertory Ballet. She is currently director of Dance and Adult Programming for the 92nd Street Y. This Flash’s re-publication is made possible by Edward Winer, Eva Wise, Aaron Winer, Nancy Reynolds, Polly Hyslop, Martin Epstein, and Linda Ramey. Unfortunately, the space crisis in San Francisco has only gotten worse; a recent national survey qualified the city as having the second most afforable housing rate in the country — for current residents, that is, whose median income is $92,000.)
SAN FRANCISCO — The Roxie Theater, Mission District, San Francisco. I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area earlier this month because I was lured by an intangible energy and essence that I sensed when I visited last spring. Specifically, I was deeply inspired when I witnessed members of the community (yes, the actual community, not just the insular dance crowd) affected by and involved with the dance world’s activities: environmentalists and labor unions rallied behind Jo Kreiter’s “Copra Dock Dances”; children and adults stood in awe as Project Bandaloop turned their world around by dancing on the side of a building at a street festival; and audiences danced and bounced in their seats, ignited by the drummers and dancers in “Extravadance,” Sara Shelton Mann’s long-awaited return after her Contraband days.
To my dismay, the scene that I returned to this fall was depressing, and my future as an artist in this city looked dismal. With the closing of performance and rehearsal spaces (Dance Mission and Dancers Group being the two most recent casualties), the arts seemed on the verge of being debilitated by the booming economy which has driven rent prices up — rendering them unaffordable for artists. (This has indeed affected all artists: last weekend, local music bands took to the streets, playing on rooftops and sidewalks throughout the city to protest evictions and the dwindling of rehearsal spaces.) I went to the Roxie Monday to see the documentary “Artists in Exile: A Story of Modern Dance in San Francisco,” hoping to be re-inspired, but fearing either an overly politicized agit-prop blame game on the space crisis or a self-serving documentary filled with in-jokes and references for which I, as a newcomer to the scene, would feel left out. My fears were allayed, and my greatest hopes were exceeded, for the producer/director team of Austin Forbord and Shelly Trott treated me to 84 minutes of pure inspiration and rejuvenation.
Forbord and Trott in “Exile” poetically and intelligently weave together a tale about the history of S.F. Bay Area dance artists with well-chosen footage from performances and rehearsals and with captivating interviews that humorously capture these artists’ varied personalities. The clips, arranged to chronologically document the S.F. legacy beginning with Anna Halprin, are compelling and well edited (though I wanted to see more!). Memorable images include: Merce Cunningham, never more dynamic or supple, improvising in Halprin’s backyard; Mangrove and Tumbleweed’s early use of Contact with context; Dance Brigade’s in-your-face political tactics; Joe Goode’s “29 Effeminate Gestures”; rambunctious dancers in urban public arenas like airport hangars and city streets; ethereal presences on the beach and (Project Bandaloop) on the face of Yosemite Falls; and Contraband’s aggressive athletes Contact jamming with moving cars. Most of the time I sat in awe of the raw physicality and urgency of the work, surprised that video could elicit such a visceral response. The movement is ferocious, potent, passionate, important, impractical, balls-out/tits-out, urban, soft, powerful, sexual, wild, political, spontaneous, vital, compelling, juicy, jugular, ridiculous, and spectacular. The interviews, too, speak volumes about the SF artists. Conversing candidly, intellectually, passionately, flippantly, reverently and irreverently all at once, the interviewees speak from respectively fitting site-specific locations — inside, outside, with props, and on ropes.
Throughout the chronicle, several themes emerge: The NYC/SF dichotomy and the poignant (and timely) questions and dilemmas facing SF artists: Why have SF artists been ignored by critics/historians/national presenters/funders? How has this affected the art and the people who have chosen to live and work here? What potential (or problematic?) role might critics play in this city? What next?
If you are from New York you probably have never heard of the dancers or groups whose names I have been throwing around, but let me assure you that Contraband is more legendary and revered in this city than Twyla is in New York. This is precisely the point of the documentary: S.F. artists have been exiled from the center of the dance world (NYC), and the influences S.F. artists have had on the dance community have been largely ignored and unrecognized. Anna Halprin influenced Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, and Simone Forti, yet they are credited as the forerunners of the postmodern movement. Terry Sengraff introduced gymnastics into her movement vocabulary and experimented in motivity and aerial elements long before Elizabeth Streb put a trampoline on the stage. The discussion goes on — New York represents fame, prestige, recognition, funding, critical acclaim, and refined skills while San Francisco represents a place to find oneself, to experiment and experience, to redefine and reinvent, to toil in anonymity, to transcend.
Many of the artists interviewed in this documentary look to critics to bring S.F. out of invisibility. However, herein lies the Catch 22 of the S.F. critical dilemma: artists rely on critical reviews to gain national exposure and funding, to have a written testament and record of their work, and to be canonized in dance history and discourse, yet the very absence of this pressure to produce and the reality of S.F.’s marginalization have driven the spirit and the freedom in S.F. dance.
I think, and I borrow heavily from post-colonial discourse in this, that S.F. critics need to find a new way of viewing and reviewing Bay Area work. Our artists are not playing by New York rules, so why should we as critics use these rules to evaluate the work that is being made and produced out here? If S.F. artists are frustrated with both the lack of coverage and the predominantly negative coverage (from critics expecting something else, perhaps a New York aesthetic) they have received, maybe it is our responsibility to develop, invent and germinate a new critical language: a dialogue, focus and set of values unique to the San Francisco Bay Area. With this rhetoric we can give our artists the recognition and feedback they want and deserve without paralyzing their enterprising and spontaneous spirit.
In any case, I left the theater feeling uplifted — for witnessing this history filled me with faith and confidence that the arts community would use the current space crisis as fuel for the next urgent dance movement. Sure enough, as I exited the theater I was handed a flyer for a resistance rally at City Hall. The postcard, handed to me with the simple and gentle request, “Please come,” reads, “Rally & Laugh, Drum & Dance; For life, for love, for art, for fun; Taiko/Ballet/Samba/Mariachi/Hip-Hop/Modern/Contact & Clowns/Jugglers on Stilts, Salsa in Speakers, Players and Singers; ‘if we can’t dance we’ll make a revolution’; On Wednesday, October 4 @ 10 a.m. we will propose to the City Finance Committee specific solutions for the arts & non-profit crisis in San Francisco.” This is precisely the energy and the scene the film depicts: dancers uniting and reacting to environmental realities (physical and political) and pressing issues with equal urgency and immediacy in their bodies. The gender stories have been told, AIDS testimonies given, sexuality stories tested, autobiographies politicized, and relationships dissected. San Francisco needs a new stomping ground. While leaving others to refine these (worthy) subjects in their dances, the politically relevant SF artists are reacting from the gut and are creating work in response to what needs to be reacted to right now. This is the heart and soul of San Francisco and this, I am reminded, is why I came here.
(Dance Insider Sponsor Notice) The Department of Dance at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania provides an excellent dance education with advanced training in teaching, performance, and choreography, along with elective areas of concentration in Business Administration, Wellness, Adapted Physical Activity and Dance Technology. For more information, please visit our website. (To place your Sponsor Ad on The Dance Insider, e-mail email@example.com by pasting that address into your e-mail program)
From the exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done, running at the Museum of Modern Art through February 3: Al Giese’s photograph of Yvonne Rainer’s “Bach” from Terrain, 1963. Performed at Judson Memorial Church, New York, April 28, 1963. © Estate of Al Giese/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2006 Jill Johnston
(Today’s re-posting of this article — first published on the DI/AV in 2006 as the Johnston Letter, Volume 2, Number 2 — in conjunction with the Museum of Modern art exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done, is sponsored by Slippery Rock Dance . Like what you’re reading? Please consider making a donation to the DI/AV today by designating your donation through PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check.)
I had a one-person organization a few years ago called FUM, meaning Fed Up [With] Media. I got the word from “Fee Fie Foe Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishmun.” It would be a cover for writing letters to media objecting to everything. But I never did. I’m agitated enough just trying to sleep at night. A friend called me and said, “What’re you up to?” and I said, “Surviving.” Driving down the West Side Highway, I told Ingrid, who keeps changing lanes and racing cars a lot newer than ours, “I seriously don’t feel well.” Having established that, I looked ahead and noticed an SUV license plate right in front of us. It said “SURVIVOR.” I took it personally. After talking quite a bit with people about medical issues, I made up a fantasy organization that I haven’t tried to name. I see the country crisscrossed by networks of friends and families, online printouts in hand, filibustering to help each other survive the medical profession. And of course the insurance companies which have sold us down their rivers. At my gym one day, I accosted a young man wearing a bright green T-shirt with white lettering reading, “I am a doctor, don’t trust me,” asking him if he was in fact a doctor. He was, he said, smiling broadly and meaningfully. It’s nice to see art work in the gym. While I was watching The View the other morning, admittedly a really decadent thing to be looking at, esp. at 11 a.m., I had a FUM moment. The View is that unscripted free-for-all kaffeeklatch of four or five women led by the ageless Barbara Walters. Barbara was regaling her three fellow klatchers, who sort of huddle together parabolically on a couch or around a table constantly interrupting each other, with the great time she had had at the White House amongst the Kennedys celebrating the Special Olympics. She had been one of a hundred privileged guests. Special Olympics is a body we all hail and believe in, but Barbara’s explanation of how it came into being was scandalously omissive, and touched on one of my noir issues, i.e., the one where I can’t bear what happened to someone I never knew, and where media collude in covering it up. Barbara had to say that Rosemary Kennedy, the first daughter and third child of Joseph and Rose, was the inspiration for these Olympics, but she could hardly say what happened to Rosemary — that she had been retarded and behaviorally problematic, a potential embarrassment to her ambitious father, and was lobotomized (in 1941) and subsequently put away forever in her new vegetative state. Not that this is not common knowledge. But the subject on The View was not Rosemary or even the Special Olympics or for that matter the Kennedys; it was Barbara’s career-enhancing inclusion in a White House party, thus advertisement for The View. Anyway lobotomy would raise questions of madness, which would hang in the air like string theories. Had I been in the audience of The View, I would have interrupted the klatch and declaimed the truth, then been bounced right out of the show onto the tarmac on my arthritically inflamed foot. But then, I would never be in such an audience. Movement is required, for a start. You have to get there. In the 1970s, I was pretty active. I went to a Women and Madness (book title) party wearing a “Certified Insane” sign. I had been feuding with the feminist author of the book because I thought I knew more about the subject than she did. I wasn’t too mature then. But I did know more about the subject, having actually been mad. My sign was the picket type, reading “Certified Insane” front and back in big magic letters. The author was so threatened and upset that she called the cops, I guess for disorderly conduct, certainly not for breaking the First Amendment. In my memory the cops never came, or I left before they did. I was not the sort of activist who solicited arrest. As for art work or activity, it was never a feminist interest, except when the movement turned its attention to women who were artists. Down in the equatorial dumps yesterday, I was complaining to JM on the phone from California, who wisely summed up our times, saying, “We’re in a terminal period of awfulness.” It’s in this gloom that I have kept shambling along looking for a doctor for my foot, like Diogenes bent over his upheld lantern in broad daylight searching for one honest man. The foot is not popular with doctors. It’s too far away from the heart, the organ of course of medical preference. It’s far away altogether from world concerns, the blood of the Englishmun. At 11 p.m. one evening I caught Charlie Rose on PBS schmoozing with his guests Bill Gates and wife along with Warren Buffett who had just contributed an indecent amount of money to the Gates Foundation. I like Gates and his philanthropic spirit — I always wonder where exactly the money goes (if I had any money and contributed it to something I would accompany it right to its announced destination to see if it got there and if so who handles it and how) — and now I suppose I have to like Buffett too. But Rose’s real subject was not the desperate global plights to be alleviated by these new billions, but Rose himself as a friend of his fabulously wealthy guests. You know this as you watch him descend to unmitigated vulgarity, making his guests laugh with him over things mysteriously private (undiscovered no doubt even by them, or by the perpetrator, Rose), as they are forced to engage figuratively in sucking each other off. Now what you are watching are three schoolkids (leaving the wife out of this — she appeared to stay on point), laughing over their impossible mission. And you thought it was about saving the world. So FUM them. I wake up yelling sometimes. I had a Katrina-type dream. I’m one of Thoreau’s masses, leading a quietly desperate life. In our final phase of empire, I see Nero with his banjo everywhere, and the flames licking our skylines. I see GW talking about how “sad,” how “pathetic,” the new violence in the Middle East is! I read about “our shamelessly narrow definition of ‘torture.'” I get into a conveyor belt situation at a clinic to see a rare type of doctor, a foot surgeon. First you check in with a woman at a high wooden desk that surrounds her, and she isn’t smiling. At that moment, you should walk right back out. Heck, I can still walk. I just walk minimally, and with help, to avoid the pain it can cause. At the end of the beltway, not a single functionary en route smiling, I waited with Ingrid in a large bare square office for the surgeon, who when at last he came told me surgery is not a good idea, that I don’t look my age, and I should see a neurologist. They hand you around like a plate of cookies. On our way out I saw scads of overweight dejected looking people waiting their turn on lines of chairs, gazing vacantly, mouths slightly open, surely stupefied by drugs. Next I went to a doctor of anesthesiology/pain management, an intriguing-sounding specialty. He would inject me with the bad stuff I want, but I could tell he wasn’t going to care about me. That’s the only specialty that matters to me. He gave me a prescription for a drug called Neurontin, and after reading the list of its side effects I threw the whole three-dollar vial of 90 Neurontins out. Then I went back to the only doctor I’ve met who looks into your eyes with kindness, and who I hope to designate my de facto primary physician. He smiles gently in the long-suffering style, and under his white coat wears subtly mismatching ties and shirts. He’s clearly a man of art. He took my foot warmly in his hands and said you have to start using it more because it’s getting osteoporotic. And he can give me bad stuff in a way that won’t kill me. However I would never forsake the help or advice of friends. I’m very sad that Neno, our flower-store friend, sold his shop and is moving on, but Ingrid saw him on the street this morning and he told her to tell Jill to walk 500 steps every day. What a great idea! I’m going to try it. I’m so mature! Later on in the 1970s, quite a while after my “Certified Insane” episode, I did something that called out the cops again, but this time it changed my life. It was not one of my more artful events; in fact to be frank it was an act of pure violence. I was visiting the Fallsburg New York headquarters of a major guru, having accompanied a devotee there. Standing in line to be “blessed” by a bunch of peacock feathers wielded in air around your head by the guru, I ducked out of the way when I saw it coming. Later, alone in the huge dining room, I suddenly, and with no sublunar reason that I can conjure up, propelled with a mighty push a tall pile of dinner plates off a table onto the floor. They crashed and fractured into a winning mass of rubble, bringing me to the attention of the meditation authorities, who called the cops. I retreated in haste to the parking lot, and lurked invisibly around my mgb, waiting for my devotee friend. Two older women standing together materialized in front of me, about 20 yards away. One I recognized as the poet and potter MC Richards, who turned to her companion and told her who I was, using the epithet, “troublemaker.” Troublemaker! Such a common tag. After that, I stopped acting out in public. And so life goes on, said Gertrude in her book on Picasso. It may all be a lotta who shot John, i.e. a lotta hooey, as Judge Judy sometimes yells at her losers. Judy is abusive and awful, and I could FUM her to death. But where did she get this pearl?
From the exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done, running at the Museum of Modern Art through February 3: Al Giese’s photograph of Ruth Emerson in Carolee Schneemann’s “Newspaper Event,” 1963. Performed at Concert of Dance #3, Judson Memorial Church, New York, January 29, 1963. © Estate of Al Giese/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of Carolee Schneemann, Galerie Lelong & Co., and P•P•O•W, New York.
By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston
(Today’s re-posting of this article — first published on the DI/AV in 2005 as the Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 1 — in conjunction with the Museum of Modern art exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done, is sponsored by Slippery Rock Dance . Like what you’re reading? Please consider making a donation to the DI/AV today by designating your donation through PayPal to email@example.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check.)
Once upon a few decades ago I wrote a column. A title for one could easily have been OLYMPIC GREASY WATERMELON — words I saw just last week, down the street on a T-shirt at my Crunch gym. The guy wearing it was at the counter where I show my plastic card to sign in. I used to think up zany titles for my columns, ones that might make you want to find out if they had any bearing on anything, thus read on. Since the column appeared in a newspaper I could be sure someone would see it. Here a click is involved. I’m trying to adjust. I adjust all the time, otherwise I’d be dead by now. I go to the gym for instance even though I can’t go places on their running and biking machines. I mingle with the biceps jocks in the pushing pulling and lifting areas. I never walked or ran or danced on my arms, which therefore don’t mind my trying to use them this way. Sometimes when I check in and a worker asks me if I want anything, like a towel, I say yeah two new legs. They smile agreeably, not collusively exactly, but patronizingly I suppose. When I was their age, God will know, I saw the likes of me as a species apart, arrived here perhaps from another planet fully formed in this steeped or percolated state. An important adjustment to make as you await new legs or launch a click column is to forget about saving the world, realizing you will only offend people. By world of course I mean self. I start every day at my c.s. or coffee shop, before going to work which entails returning home. I’ve called it Segafredo after the first name I gave it, before knowing that Segafredo is the coffee they make, not its real name. Lately I just say c.s. Practically the whole place is distressed — the walls, floor, ceiling, bathroom and my favorite table, a large round wooden leaning affair, its top thick as a butcher block, with half inch crevices unevenly crossing its scurfy surface. The bathroom is masterfully small and has a nice mirror if you can get far enough away from it to appreciate your dubious morning visage. The front end of the toilet lid is all of six inches from the wall it faces — a hastily hammered raggedy-edged vertical stretch of graffiti-decorated plaster board. The friends I make at the c.s. are a bit like those you meet on shipboard or airplane. You may see them there repeatedly but not anyplace else. If you leave the c.s. with one of them you are probably in trouble. Not that you can’t get in trouble inside too. I made a big adjustment when I started hiding more or less at the back, in relative darkness, at the large leaning wooden table, next to the kitchen, armed with my newspaper, papers in general, my journal and book du jour. Just last week, opting to sit at one of the two small round window tables up front, I had an adventure. Two points of interest suddenly converged — a striking lady of years sitting at another table, and an arresting quote in my biography of T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence is my latest love. I fall in love with dead people — as who does not. It isn’t just my percolated state. And I still have arms for embracing the living. I should have used them, strengthened by Crunch machines and all, to embrace Bertha Harris before she died last month. I may have been making up for it at the c.s. by approaching this beautiful picture of decrepitude, a lady of surely eighty plus, stark white hair straggling to shoulders, a vase of flowers at one elbow, a bleached face, a look pensive and defeated, with my quote by T.E. Lawrence. I had just excitedly come across it. Having adjusted to an unexciting life, this wasn’t easy to handle. I almost ran the four yards to her table. A little earlier I had introduced myself by way of passing her and commenting on her pretty vase of flowers, which came, she remarked impassively, from a friend’s garden. Now, breathless after four yards, I laid my book in front of her, open to the page with the quote. She read it and said she wanted to copy it. I gave her my pen and she found a piece of paper in her bag. The quote goes: After 70 an unearthly richness attacks most of our elders and they become wells of satisfaction to me. Only then one gets to like them too much and away they go and die. After that great deed I finished reading my book and went to work. I have something new at home — a giant pot housing my avocado plant. The pot blocks out one third of the light from one of our two tallish windows facing south. By “our” I mean myself and Ingrid, who set up this space for a click column. She designed the whole website . My son Richard did the technology. On Ingrid’s part, it’s a conspiracy of sorts. Back in 1969 long before we met she saw one of my columns on an Amsterdam newsstand. By 1980 when we got together I was no longer writing them and between then and now I have written books and sundry articles in many publications. Now, as it seems, Ingrid has revived Amsterdam, and resurrected the reason she wanted to know me. I’m a very obliging person, during the day at least, full of eagerness to adjust. At night I’m focused on nothing more or better than begging every power in creation to help me sleep. When I get up I celebrate survival with agreement. I haven’t entirely adjusted to my new pot, which my daughter Winnie brought here one day with her son my grandson Ben, creating an astonishing replanting scene involving hacking apart the old pot long cracked down one whole side of it anyway and banging in a board to extend the window shelf. Wrapping up this column replanting, I have more watermelon news: Those three words, OLYMPIC GREASY WATERMELON, seen on a T-shirt at Crunch, describe a game played by Olympic hopefuls or Crunch trainers involving two teams standing at pool’s edge poised for a greasy watermelon to be thrown into the water whereupon they all dive in and grapple to secure this dirigible fruit and bear it off to the opposite team’s goal. That was a good day at the gym. I might forget sometimes to set a pile of blocks at my grand weight of 15 pounds and start pulling on the cords. One day the cords wouldn’t budge. I thought the mechanism was broken or something, and consulted a biceps jock standing nearby. He said it was set at 100 pounds! At the c.s., I have had worse moments but the other day, working at the back next to the kitchen I was in for a pleasant surprise. A woman with upswept white hair approached me on her way to the bathroom. She was wearing a copious long white like peasant dress, dotted all over with appliquéd flowers. I didn’t recognize her until she said she wanted to thank me for that quote. She was the quote lady! Today she was smiling, and she inquired animatedly, “How did you know I was over 70?” Making me sort of gape. “How old are you in fact?” I asked her. And she came up with 71! But really even smiling and wearing a cheerful dress she couldn’t be a day under 80. She wandered off murmuring over the quote, the “wording of it…so unusual.” The word “attacks” struck her fancy the most. “At 70 an unearthly richness attacks our elders.” I wish I could tell Lawrence. He was still alive when I was born. I’m clicking away. It’s a new age, heading for the open seize, in publishing.
©Jill Johnston 2005. Originally published on www.jilljohnston.com ; first published on the DI/AV in 2005 as Volume 1, Number 1 of the Jill Johnston Letter.