The Johnston Letter: “Cunningham belongs to that great shift of focus — from representation to the concentration on materials — which is so central to the revolution in art in this century….”

By Jill Johnston
Copyright Jill Johnston 2009

(Originally published in the Village Voice and Art in America and reprinted by permission of the author, whose many milestones include being the first dance critic of the Village Voice – and thus the oracle of Judson.  Dance Insider subscribers get access to five years of the Jill Johnston Letter, as well as 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances around the world from 1998 through 2015.  Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for just $29.95/year by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. If the Merce Cunningham Dance Company no longer exists, the Cunningham works “How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run,” previously performed in Paris by the company, “Inlets 2,” and “Beach Birds” will be reprised next May 30 – June 2 at the Theatre National de la Danse Chaillot (across the river from another monument, the Eiffel Tower) by the company of the  Centre national de danse contemporaine d’Angers (whose recent directors include the influential Emmanuelle Huynh), featuring veteran Cunningham dancer Ashley Chen. Today’s publication sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock Dance .)

It is not easy to see. Outside the theater, living as we do, most of us see very little with our eyes wide open…. It is rare to see more than a general outline. Or to see more and still enter. That is the crucial transition, from seeing to entering. Not only crucial but mysterious, so I won’t say any more except to note that I think most people who go to dance concerts don’t see very well, not even dancers, sometimes dancers especially, and most often critics, who must attend special classes in becoming blind.

Mr. Cunningham presented a new dance, “Aeon,” almost 50 minutes long, to a score by John Cage and with decor by Robert Rauschenberg. “Aeon” is a dance of great scale. It moves through so much, in range of quality, physical force, the human condition, that the whole thing is staggering to think of in retrospect. Human events: the activity of dancers on a proscenium stage. Other human events: the ways people communicate with each other, or speak for themselves. Exterior events: explosions, clouds, lights, a machine, sounds. And always the dancing, the superb dancing. The stillness too, which is never a mere choreographic stop, but an act of undaunted containment, of simple yet magnificent composure, of not-being which is the essence of being. A complete act, not a choreographic or dramatic transition.

Cunningham’s own range in this dance is fantastic. Not only those typical sudden shifts from motion to stillness, but the subtle gradations of energy (I have a vivid memory of an ‘incident’ originating as a vibration in the thighs, transferred to the stomach, traveling upward to the arms and shoulders and exploding like a geyser at the top); not to mention all the complicated coordinations, and wordless drama that every movement event secretes.

Cunningham is a great dancer, and you know it not by his technical range and command alone; you feel it in the whole man, the whole man is in it every time. You may see a procession of selves and the man never makes a move not true to himself.

— From “Dance: Cunningham in Connecticut,” The Village Voice, September 7, 1961.

The exclusion of Cunningham this summer, despite the anniversary, despite the fact that Limon is a charter member of the whole affair and that Graham is almost a national monument, is a sad reminder of how impossible it is at any moment in a history of anything for certain (controlling) groups of people to see where a thing is going, to put their fingers on the heartbeat of a movement…. Maybe New London should stick to a museum policy only. In this category they can hardly miss. And Limon and Graham easily command the field where statues are in question. They both have attitudes about themselves and about dancing that have more to do with the glory of Greece and grandeur of Rome than they do with life in America at the present moment.

— From “DANCE: New London,” The Village Voice, August 30, 1962.

The dance world is embarrassingly backward. Cunningham should pack Philharmonic Hall for a week at least. He has no peer in the dance as a consummate artist. Moreover, he continues to be abreast, if not in advance of all recent developments…. Cunningham belongs to that great shift of focus — from representation to the concentration on materials — which is so central to the revolution in art in this century…. The curious thing about this kind of dancing is that emotion is created by motion rather than the reverse, which is the traditional view of modern dance. But since there is no specified emotion, I believe that what you feel in the movement is the impact of a total action. Each movement means only itself and it moves you by its pure existence, by being so much itself. It is Cunningham’s magic as a performer to make every action a unique and complete experience. The gesture is the performer, the performer is the gesture.

— From “DANCE: Cunningham, Limon,” The Village Voice, September 5, 1963.

In the 1980s Cunningham presents a profile of extremes. His iconoclastic approach to choreography (launched in the ’50s in collusion with Cage) — the dance and music co-existing in a common time frame, but otherwise independent of each other; the application of chance procedures to the movement itself; the defocusing of the space in an allover look, no element supposedly more important than another — is still state-of-the-art work. And where Cunningham sees examples of work by younger choreographers in which dance movement is measured in meter, to the music, or in which movement appears to represent anything other than itself, he will characterize it as 19th-century work. Yet in some respects Cunningham himself exhibits 19th-century characteristics. In the ’50s, and even in the ’60s, this 19th-centuryness could hardly have been apparent, if at all, because the deep, or a priori, structure of the work, the gender-given aspect, still went unquestioned, and was therefore invisible.

Conscious gender play has in the meantime entered into the choreographic considerations of a number of younger artists (among them David Gordon, Mark Morris, Steve Paxton, Lucinda Childs). But Cunningham himself clearly continues not to question this ‘deep structure.’ Most apparent, and most boring, in the range of male/female breaching in his work is the predictable lift. “Roratorio,” with its extensive social partnering, has more than the full complements of lifts to be expected in a Cunningham dance. Again, he inherits this convention from the ballet, yet generally the way his men lift or carry or place or drag his women is much more like a vestigial echo of the ballet than anything resembling the no-nonsense support of the ballerina for the purpose of exposing her line and ‘sex’ and sweeping her through pedestals in the air. Although Cunningham’s manipulations of women are comparatively matter-of-fact, frequently like an afterthought, en passant really, they still appear to affirm, if only perfunctorily, the assumed dependency, weakness, helplessness, etcetera, of women. Certainly, his women remain armless in this way, except in the conventional decorative sense. But Cunningham would no doubt say that lifting is, simply, along with leaps, jumps, turns, etc., part of the raw material of his medium, something that bodies can do on stage, and to which he can apply his chance operations, obtaining the most interesting variations in rhythm and sequence.

“Roratorio,” like all Cunningham’s dance, brims with the most wonderful changes in speed, direction, rhythm, dynamics, groupings, as the whole piece moves stage left to right, in a linear action (not, incidentally, unlike the circular structure of “Finnegans Wake”), finally exiting to the right as the dancers carry off the seven or so stools that accompany them as they traverse the space. But the one variation you won’t find is in the lifting of women. Men always lift women, or “girls,” as Cunningham calls them throughout “The Dancer and the Dance,” the excellent book of interviews with him by Jacqueline Lesschaeve. And these days, no doubt because Cunningham, in his late 60s has lost even a hint of virtuosity in his own dancing (he essentially walks, and gestures), the vigor and expansiveness in his work is all projected through the males in his company.

At one time, say as late as 1972, when Carolyn Brown quit the company, Cunningham’s men and women were at least technically somewhat closer together. He had more mature women dancing with him then, not only technically accomplished (Brown was of prima quality) but with interesting character as well, and he and the men also of course were nearer in age. Now there are great gaps in his demography. He is 67, one of his men is 40, the rest are in their early 30s, and 20s. His men are fun to watch, his women are good, certainly attractive, but only Cunningham, immobile and arthritic as he is, carries the weight of character, of presence, of the necessary eccentric factor, that makes any company great. The general impression is of a marvelous gaunt grandfather tree, craggy and leafless, weathered and patinated, amazing in its knotty configurations, its sheer endurance, sticking way up over a band of brightly colored acorns dancing at the foot of its trunk.

There was a certain perfect reverberation between Cunningham, on stage, and Cage, in his box, in “Roratorio.” Cage delivered his Joyce text like some hoary old poet; Cunningham appeared on stage like some ancient satyr. And the panoply of noise along with the explosion of movement that surrounded them invoked that great line of Thomas: “Do not go gentle….”

— From “Jigs, Japes, and Joyce,” Art in America, January 1987.

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Making decoys with Trisha Brown and Robert Rauschenberg at MoMA in NY

trisha moma smallFrom the exhibition Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends, running through September 17 at the Museum of Modern Art: Trisha Brown, “Glacial Decoy,” 1979. With costumes, set, and lighting (with Beverly Emmons), by Robert Rauschenberg. From  performances by the Trisha Brown Dance Company at the Marymount Manhattan College Theater, New York, June 20–24, 1979. Left to right: Trisha Brown, Nina Lundborg, and Dance Insider contributor Lisa Kraus. (See below for Kraus on setting Brown’s “Glacial Decoy” on the Paris Opera Ballet.)  Photograph: Babette Mangolte © 1979 Babette Mangolte. (All Rights of Reproduction Reserved) Courtesy Museum of Modern Art.

The DI Interview: Sara Rudner, Marathon Woman, talks to Philip W. Sandstrom

By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2007, 2017 Philip W. Sandstrom

(Today’s re-publication of this article, which first appeared on May 10, 2007, is sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock University Dance. If you appreciate this kind of unique coverage of dance and dancers, please subscribe to the DI today at the rate of $29.95/year  by designating your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to subscribe by check.)

NEW YORK — For “Dancing-on-View (Preview/Hindsight),” being presented this Sunday by Danspace Project and the Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC) at BAC, Sara Rudner revisits the concept of her 1975 marathon show in which her company danced non-stop for five hours. In the 2007 version of this idea of long distance dancing, her company will present mostly new and some historical material that Rudner has mined and fashioned from her years of studio movement studies, her dancers, and her 1975 show. By creating new work that reflects upon its own movement and patterns in real time while simultaneously following a pre-ordained trajectory and movement structure, Rudner plans to present a four-hour dance work that will reveal itself over time while continuing to be self-referential. All parts of the dance will represent the dance as a whole, she explains. The audience can come and go as it pleases and still get the essence of the dance. This work will be re-created in Ireland by the Irish Modern Dance Theatre (IMDT), with a cast combining company members and dancers from the New York performance.

I interviewed Sara Rudner on April 22.

rudner

Going the distance: Sara Rudner’s company for “Dancing-on-VIew (Preview/Hindsight).” Adam McClelland photo copyright Adam McClelland and courtesy Danspace Project and Sara Rudner.

Philip W. Sandstrom: What sparked your interest in creating this, as you’ve described it, “long distance dancing” or “marathon dancing”?

Sara Rudner: My interest in doing this kind of work started in the mid-’70s. It was 1975, we did the first marathon; that was a five-hour event for four dancers. That was born of the ideas of context: where do you see dancing, how do you see dancing, what do dancers do, how does dancing fit into life in other ways other than going into the theater, sitting in a dark space and looking at dance?

(When she initially floated her idea of long-form dance works, Rudner explained, the existing standard was to perform two or three works per program.)

… When I told my management the kinds of projects I wanted to do — long continual pieces without a break — they said That’s not going to work, we can’t book you. So, I decided to be un-bookable, and continued to do the work that I wanted to do. (Consequently her bookings were few.) As you know, since then there has been a lot of thought on how to produce dancing and you well know how fashions come and go.

PWS: I’ve seen quite a few come and go.

SR: But I am still interested in this style, the same style (marathon-style), what I’m doing now, and what I have been doing, although I approach it differently than I did in 1975.

PWS: It sounds like you have created an installation dance of dancers commenting on dancing and choreography through the act of dancing. The genre of installation work and work such as yours has never gone in or out of style — it’s a constant.

SR: Exactly. At the time I did my first marathon, I had been thinking about Asian theater, and shows that go on all night. You bring your family, you bring your dinner, you fall asleep, you come and you go. I was thinking about various paradigms as well.

PWS: Did you derive any inspiration from Kei Takei?

SR: I don’t know Kei’s work very well.

PWS: Her “24 hours of Light” went on all day and into the night in the late ’70s early ’80s.

SR: Right, and then, Robert Wilson was also doing his lengthy shows. I think this idea was in the air, as these things tend to be.

PWS: What did you learn doing your five-hour dance “marathon”?

SR: It was a big challenge and that extra hour was even more challenging; you learn how to pace yourself, what it means to be in that paradigm. Now I am working with a number of young dancers, the oldest of whom might be 31 or 32. That’s about how old I was when I did the 1975 marathon. You learn different things as a choreographer; it was a different compositional challenge to work in that format. It’s a choice, not a popular choice, especially not financially; you can’t program something like this back to back, like a matinee and an evening. But I was very eager to pursue that again.

PWS: So how did you approach this project with this group of dancers?

SR: I start with the dancers and ask, what do you want to do? New material? Old material? What are you interested in? Then we go from there; we start having a dialogue. There will be a certain amount of improvisation; these dancers have resources that will reveal themselves in performance. Their solos will be their own, the making and the choosing.

PWS: When and where in the performance will this improvisation occur?

SR: Sometimes in the midst of other performance activity, because there will be a lot of multiple focus work going on throughout the entire event.

PWS: Do you have any sort of map of the structure of the dance or of the choreography?

SR: The entire event is mapped. We have a timekeeper, Gillian Vinton; it’s her job to keep track of who’s dancing what and when. It will be posted for all to see and given out in a program. It would be too hard to remember all of that and keep all of that in your mind. It’s like a score. It will be somewhat cryptic.

PWS: You mean the enigmatic phrases dancers use to identify the sections?

SR: Exactly.

PWS: So there will be some sort of artifact so we can follow?

SR: Yes, the audience will know what we call each section and where we are in real time — this will be important for the new audience members as they arrive. They’ll see that it’s 5:35 p.m., so the dancers must be at this point in the program. It’s literally a program.

PWS: How are you structuring the concert? For example, will you recap everything in the last hour for the lazy people who decided to only show up at the end?

SR: Essentially all the material in the dance will be constantly recycled in many forms, so we’re not going to do a re-cap. Everything is a variation on things that have come before. I like that. As a viewer I like my eye challenged. I like to see complex spatial organization, and rhythmic organization. I am VERY fond of making many variations on the same material. No one is expected to stay for four hours. We hope to convince people to leave and not stay so others may enter. It’s not going to be easy to look at.

PWS: Considering who’s in your cast — Rocky Bornstein, Megan Boyd, Linda Cohen, Erin Cornell, Erin Crawley-Woods, Laurel Dugan, Maria Earle, Liz Filbrun, Peggy Gould, Anneke Hansen, Patricia Hoffbauer, Rachel Lehrer, Merceditas Manago, yourself, Vicky Shick, Maggie Thom, and Lori Yuill — I think it will be very easy to look at.

SR: Oh well, that’s true; I’m talking choreographically. The audience should get the gist of it in about a half-hour to 45 minutes. We won’t have chairs for everyone so we hope that will help move people out after a certain period.

PWS: What’s your role on the day of the performance?

SR: My involvement will be that of the choreographer, although I will be doing some dancing.

PWS: So what’s it been like, putting all this together?

SR: It’s been a very lovely studio experience for all of us. Very good for all of us, very supportive, very intense. They have to learn a lot — it’s complicated, with intense movement — but it’s been a labor of love from just about everyone. It has context in the sense that we are all women and we are performing it on Mother’s Day.

PWS: So dancing with people that you like to dance with is a big part of the pleasure of doing this type of work?

SR: It’s a big part of the pleasure. It has a lot to do with why people stay and work with certain groups; the choreography has a great deal to do with it, but it’s relationships (as well). You can have all the smart ideas you want for choreography but you know who makes the dance?

PWS: And they never get thanked enough.

SR: Exactly.

PWS: You are choreographing “Dancing-on-View” for the upcoming four-hour performance at BAC, and for the Irish Modern Dance Theater. Are you setting the same piece in both places?

SR: I can’t. It’s the same idea and the same concept but I can’t because I don’t have (all) the same people, I have new dancers. The piece depends on who the dancers are and what they know. The dancers and what they know determine what the structure is and what is seen but the intention is the same and the concept is similar. The idea is that dancers dance and they are dancing whether they are seen or not.

Maybe it is born from my experience as a young practitioner working with Twyla (Tharp) in the ’60s. The studio process was essential and many of us, for many years, felt passionate about the work — performing really began to rely on the deep experience that we had in rehearsal. The spirit was there that working on the dance was sometimes as important and sometimes more important than the performance in those early years. Our performance ability and our early style rested on the fact that, even though we were dancing to Sinatra or Jelly Roll Morton, we were still the nerdy dancers. We weren’t the Broadway gypsies, so our performance style was slightly different.

The dancers here in New York, I’ve worked with very regularly in the studio, some for five years, and others, like Patricia Hoffbauer, Rocky Orenstein, and Vicki Shick, I’ve been involved with for a long time.

PWS: In the IMDT press release, you state, “My collaborators helped me experiment with the physical training principles that form the basis of my work.”

SR: That’s Peggy Gould and Anneke Hansen — of the group, we are the ones that have worked the most intensely together. We traveled to Ireland for the past two summers. There is a different cast for IMDT. Anneke and Peggy, who are in the New York cast, will also be in the IMDT cast. Others from New York may join us but that hasn’t been finalized yet. Peggy also works with me and teaches at Sarah Lawrence. We have been working on developing pedagogic ideas for quite a number of years, along with other Sarah Lawrence faculty. (Rudner chairs the Sarah Lawrence dance department.)

PWS: Where did you meet Anneke?

SR: At Sarah Lawrence. After her graduation, Anneke approached me about working together in the studio, so I said why not? If anyone is willing to go through this, I’m willing to mentor them through it. In this cast there are about six Sarah Lawrence alums. There are also three faculty members, Peggy Gould, Merceditas Manago, and myself, and the two musicians are from Sarah Lawrence.

PWS: Although this is a bit of a sidebar, I am curious: The IMDT press release also mentions a “somatic keeper”; what’s that?

SR: I don’t use videotape.

PWS: I don’t get it, what’s the root of somatic? What does that mean?

SR: She keeps the movement in her body; it’s mostly Anneke. She knows all of the material. She keeps it in the old-fashioned way, in her body.

PWS: No Labanotation? Videotape? Sketches?

SR: We do write ourselves some notes, and for this project I have looked at some videotape of our past projects. The last taping I was able to look at was before Anneke came along; she’s only been working with me for the last five years. So there is some material that we are revisiting that was made before she arrived.

PWS: When did this particular iteration of this marathon project begin?

SR: I’ve subtitled this work ‘Preview/Hindsight’; the thought of doing another marathon was on my mind. I knew when my sabbatical would be. At the same time, John Scott (who directs IMDT) was interested in my work. In order to test the waters, and to introduce his company to my work, we did a series of workshops over the last two years in Ireland.

PWS: Who are ‘we’?

SR: Peggy Gould, Anneke Hansen, and me. We went, we taught, we tried out material, we introduced working methods. A lot of this work is about how you go about stuff, how you do the hard work of splicing different phrases, coordinating arms and legs, and keeping that stuff in your mind and in your body. That’s the work I’m interested in. Both developing movement from the ground up and looking at it visually and how parts of the movement vocabulary resonate with others. What goes together, what doesn’t, do you want to present those that don’t go together, or those that do? How you organize the space and the time, the visual field, and how you deal with it in terms that are usually considered musical, in terms of harmonies, dissonances, repletion, development, etcetera.

Last summer John Scott started talking more seriously about a production. He took me around to look at spaces; we found a lovely one where a marathon would look good.

When I first started working on the BAC effort it was to be a preview of what we would do in Ireland. Then in terms of hindsight I knew that I had to look to my past, to what I have always been interested in, and find new variations on that and new points of view of what I have been interested in. So that’s why it’s named “Preview/Hindsight.”

PWS: So, the idea started with IMDT, which led to the BAC show.

SR: It started with IMDT but it also started with my sabbatical and knowing I would have the time to do studio work. I knew I was going to do something; John’s invitation gave me that extra kick. Even though I teach at Sarah Lawrence, I (have) work(ed) in the studio in the city every week for the past eight years.

PWS: Working…?

SR: Working with dancers once or twice a week, whenever they can make it. I produce a certain amount of work, although not to this extent. I knew the sabbatical was coming up, I knew I had already been doing that work. Then there was John’s invitation. All these things floated around and now will actually result in two very different works with some of the same material but with very different people.

PWS: Earlier you mentioned two musicians; what about music? Will there be any amplified sounds?

SR: The musicians (William Catanzaro and Jerome Morris) will start this week; they’ll have about two rehearsals with us before we have open rehearsals. They are great improvisers. It will be a give and take structure where they will try a variety of things. They are both classroom musicians at Sarah Lawrence; of course, they do other things. They’ve been around dancers forever. This is not like commissioning a score and making a piece. It’s not atmospheric. It’s all acoustic.

PWS: They’re percussionists?

SR: They are percussionists. What we need for dancing, since most of it is ensemble dancing, is unifying time. The musicians will help us with that. Unified time, because it’s tightly choreographed with intricate canon work, and choreographic monkeyshines. They support our work and add a dimension in what they choose. They are our collaborators in the true sense.

PWS: Have you ever chosen music for your work before you make the dance? Or do you make a work and then find music for it?

SR: I’ve worked with composers before, such as Michael Soll, and I have chosen classical music and made a dance to that music or I’ve chosen music and working with a metronome. I’ve worked against the music so the music stands on its own and we dance to a different tempo.

PWS: Do you have an internal musicality?

SR: I attempt to make dance that is musical and expressive and abstract and contextualized and whatever I can pull out of movement itself. The challenge is how to make movement do this. I know it can’t do it all on its own. But sometimes I think that it can, sometimes I operate that way. Huge chunks of this dance will be done in total silence. The big question is, are people going to miss music?

PWS: I don’t think so, certainly not in New York. So, in short, setting your work to music or music to your work is not part of your process, certainly not your current process.

SR: No. I’ve been trying to set dancing to dancing; a lot of the structures in this dance are made that way. The work is done in layers: a phrase is going on in one part of the space, and another phrase, that is built upon that same material, (is going on) in another part of the space. It is all presented in reference to the dance that you’re seeing, like a riff. Layers of riffing upon riffing, all on what you are seeing, with additional material added continuously and simultaneously. Dancing to dancing, just dancing to dancing.

Disclosure: Philip W. Sandstrom and Laurie Uprichard, the executive director of Danspace Project, have had a near-familial relationship for a number of years.

The DI, Year One: The Choreographer Suicides — Ranjabati Sircar and the toll of probing the dark spaces within

“Have I missed the mark, or, like a true archer, do I strike my quarry? Or am I prophet of lies, a babbler from door to door?”

— Cassandra, from “Agamemnon,” by Aeshylus

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

Today’s re-publication of this article, which first appeared on July 8, 2000 and which also considers the work of Sean Curran, Mark Dendy, and Roger Sinha, is sponsored by Freespace Dance. For nearly 20 years, these are the kinds of stories the Dance Insider has been covering. If you value this kind of unique coverage, please support the DI today by becoming a subscriber for just $29.95/year. Your sub gets you access to more than 2,000 Flash Reviews of 20 years of performances on five continents by 150+ writers, plus five years of the Jill Johnston Letter, syndicated exclusively on the DI. You can subscribe or donate through PayPal by designating your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address if you prefer to pay by check.

NEW YORK — Every choreographer I have known is, to some degree or another, manic depressive. Clairvoyant in his or her highs, doomed in the lows. Sean Curran seems, on the surface at least, more manic than depressive. Roger Sinha, both in the choreographic text of his “Burning Skin” and in his performance of it, is more obviously darkly manic. But I am thinking of this, to tell you the truth, not so much because of the performances of these two choreographers and their companies last night at Central Park SummerStage, but because of the news I heard, belatedly, just before the concert — and which struck me like a blow to the solar plexus, taking the life out of me — of the death by suicide, at age 36, of Ranjabati Sircar.

I met Ranja in 1995, when I had just started working at Dance Magazine and was something of a neophyte to dance in general, let alone dance from the sub-continent, let alone the distinctions between the various genres of that dance, let alone choreographer-teacher-dancers, like Ranja, who melded classical forms to contemporary ideas, not always to a warm popular reception among audiences or choreographers of an older generation. On top of this burden, Ranja had familial expectations, her mother Manjushree Chaki Sircar being a well-known choreographer and teacher in Madras.

“Is it all right to smoke?” asked the tightly wound, striking young woman who entered my compact office that Fall day. “No,” said I, and for the next hour, while Ranja was forthcoming in discussing her work and Indian dance and hybrid classical-modern dance, she fidgeted and remained tightly wound. Still, we hit it off, and, after some hesitation at its appropriateness, I called her a day later an asked her to a Maria Benitez concert that night. “I would love to go!” Ranja said.

It was a moving concert: Benitez’s conception of the de Falla/Sierra 1915 flamenco ballet classic “El Amor Brujo,” about an older woman driven mad by love and her own demons, followed by a tablao-style second half. We were transported, in fact, to a tablao, notwithstanding that the performance was actually happening in Chelsea at the Joyce Theater. Ranja was positively glowing afterwards; I could feel that she wanted to dance Flamenco right then and there, and indeed she explained to me some of the linkages between that form and certain classical Indian dance forms.

To prolong our virtual visit to Andalucia, we decided to repair to “El Cid,” for tapas and sangria. Something about the Flamenco left us both less tightly wound, we spoke not just as choreographer and journalist but as man and woman. The sangria loosened things further and by the time I walked Ranja to the 14th Street subway stop, we had that automatic, slightly giddy, elbow-knocking intimacy that, in the right circumstances, even strangers can sometimes find when the planets are aligned.

We met up again a couple of days later for San Francisco Ballet at City Center — it was either Val Caniparoli’s African-ballet hybrid, “Lambarena,” or David Bintley’s AIDS fantasia, “The Dance House” — and I can still see Ranja, emerging from the crowd: intent look, oval face, olive complexion, intent eyes finding me right away across the crowded sidewalk.

This time we repaired to Baryshnikov’s Russian Samovar for horseradish-flavored vodka. More significantly, from a culinary perspective, Ranja shared her curry recipe with me. She could never eat at Indian restaurants in the U.S., she said, because the food was too bland, so she carried with her a curry kit packed with the various spices that go into the national dish. Having previously only used a generic Spice Islands “curry powder,” I asked her what the ingredients were: cumin, turmeric, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, mustard seed OR onion seed, cloves, and fenugreek. (The fenugreek is tricky; put it in last or it dominates the whole.) I still make Curry a la Ranja Sircar to this day.

Afterwards, sensing the imminent end of this visit and Ranja’s return to India, I invited her over for tea. We spoke about everything — life, relationships — and oh, I am trying so hard right now to remember the specifics. About visualization, I think, and astrology. If I close my eyes I can see her face in front of me…. I think we spoke of gurus… and of something magic and inchoate… and she told me about Cassandra. There’s a word in Urdu — which I know is the Pakistani and not the Indian language, but still I think it applies here — “Janoon,” which, I’m told, means obsession. Ranja’s Janoon was Cassandra, about whom she’d written and choreographed a piece, because of what Cassandra says about the position of women in society.

Given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, this daughter of the King of Troy was then deprived by Apollo of the power to make people believe her prophecies, after she refused to sleep with him. Thus, when she accurately warned the Trojans about the Trojan Horse, no one believed her warning that an armed force was hidden in the horse, and Troy was sacked, and Cassandra raped. When Troy was captured, Agamemnon took Cassandra as his prize; both were ultimately murdered by his wife, Clytaemnestra, and her lover Aegisthus. This too Cassandra predicted: “… for me waits destruction by the two-edged sword.” [Cassandra. Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1149] In many realms, Cassandra was and is looked at as “mad,” driven so by her visions.

Ranja invited me to see her “Cassandra” that week at the studio of Mary Anthony, so dear to one of my dance mentors, the late Joseph H. Mazo. From what I can recall, it was a dance of vulnerability and pain, but seemed at its beginnings, Ranja not yet able to externalize a story that obviously resonated so deeply with her.

Ranja and I lost touch until 1998, when I asked her to write a preview about the pioneering Indian choreographer Chandrelekha. Ranja made clear that there was a fission between her and the older choreographer, but that she recognized her importance on the Indian scene. When the article came in, I perpetrated what I now see as an irrevocable minor cruelty; there was no interview with the story, so I declined to use it, or to pay Ranja. This upset her, and we lost touch again. Today I grieve not only Ranja, but that I will never be able to make this right, to compensate for a minor cruelty with a later kindness. And I wonder if this was just one of a series of “small” cruelties that added up, in Ranja’s mind, to only one solution and antidote.

It’s hard to fathom suicide, and I almost don’t want to go to the dark and hopeless place Ranja found herself in on October 23, 1999, when, as police believe, she hanged herself from the ceiling fan in the flat of a family friend in Borivili. According to a report in India Today, just two days before her death, Ranja e-mailed a friend: “I am battling the dark spaces within myself.”

The same report in India Today makes all sorts of conjectures about what drove Ranja as an artist, and what in society and in her own family life — particularly her complicated relationship with her mother — might have driven her to kill herself.

Here, I can only offer the observation of someone who once observed Ranja close-up, in what seems now like a lifetime, indeed a different life ago: Alternately driven and insecure, confident and unsteady. Beautiful and yet perhaps burdened by that beauty. Heir to a pedagogic legacy, and yet burdened by that as well.

In what now seem our all-too-brief but nonetheless intense conversations of five years ago, it seems Ranja and I only started to ask the important questions…. Okay, now it comes back, one thing we talked about, both of us, was how we were trying to live healthier lifestyles; she in particular to give up smoking…. It seems Ranja hit a black impenetrable wall in her own searching and maybe… maybe, for as I write this I am still too stunned, numbed really, from the news of her suicide to barely begin processing what it means… but it seems that even if Ranja was not able to find the insight that would save her from her own hands, she offers one insight, I think, to choreographers — not just artists, but choreographers specifically.

Roger Sinha’s piece, “Burned Skin,” had to do with insecurity about identity — no, with self-hate of one’s racial identity, based on an apocryphal tale of an Indian boy who jumps into a vat of boiling water because he’s heard it will turn his skin white. Alternating with scenes of Pascale Leonard’s serenely brewing chai, the dance that ensues is nonetheless manic, as Sinha tries on all sorts of racial archetypes, from a swaggering, chick-chasing Dean Martin in shirt and tie to a kilted Scotsman. It’s a comic romp, but performed with a mania that suggests the character is not so much whimsically playing with other identities, trying on other masks, as running from his own.

Sean Curran presents a similar contradiction. His Chaplinesque stage persona never really completely hides — and perhaps this is why it resonates! — some sort of tragic, invisible burden. He’s ultimately a sad clown. In “Folk Dance for the Future,” when he gives up and then hangs his head after suggesting he might follow Amy Brous’s pivot-less somersault, it’s funny, but it’s painful too. Curran’s kinetic skill and particularly his gift for inventing new dance geometries is apparent in “Abstract Concrete,” premiered last night, and it’s an enjoyable diversion, expertly danced by a group of performers who are clearly getting inside Curran’s choreographic vision… but it has nowhere near the emotional resonance of his recent “Six Laments.” This dance — and particularly Curran’s own performance, as he gets up, stumbles, and gets up again, repeatedly, always looking over his shoulder, it’s surmised at a departed friend, as if he is being reminded every time he stumbles that the friend is no longer there — is anything but a facile tragedy with cheap plays to the emotion; it’s obviously based on real experience.

I’m thinking also of Mark Dendy. As hysterically funny as “Dream Analysis” was — this 1998 hit conjures Nijinsky, Martha Graham, and Judy Garland among others — it is ultimately a psycho-familial journey that also drove Dendy nearly to hysteria. During the creation, he told me when I interviewed him for the New York Times, he was haunted in his nightmares by an aunt who he also conjured in this dance, the idea being that she couldn’t believe he was going to bare her story in his dance.

Since “Dream Analysis,” interestingly, Dendy has followed an easier route, a pure dancey direction. In one sense I want to scold him for this — Why is he relying on his natural musicality for easy successes, when he can go so much deeper? — but after the death of Ranja, I can see the danger inherent in mining those deep waters.

Here’s what all this is leading up to, at least as close to coherence as I am able to express it this morning. Recently I have been discussing with another choreographer-dancer-teacher from the sub-continent how dance is not looked at seriously by society in general as a career. You’ve probably all heard this after you tell someone you’re a dancer: “Okay, but what’s your real job?”

The suicide of Ranja Sircar — and to a less obvious extent, the work of the artists I saw last night — gives me this epiphany: Dancing, and particularly choreographing, is not only not “not a real job.” It is an expedition no less fraught with peril than the most snake-ridden excavations of Indian Jones. Not all of these prophetic men and women, thank G*d, find their visions so ultimately and unremittingly black and hopeless that they are moved to take their own lives. But I have no doubt that the small deaths are real, and the stakes high.

Notes (from original article): Ranja’s mother passed away this spring. Thanks to Anita Ratnam for her insight.

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freespace smallSubscribe to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager today for just $29.95/year or 29.95 in Euros and get complete access to our 20-year archive of more than 2,000 exclusive reviews of performances on five continents by 150 writers, plus commentary, art, Jill Johnston & more. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to find out about payment by check. Institutional rate of $99 or 99 Euros/year gets full access for your entire company, school, etcetera.  Sponsorships start at just $49/month and include placements like that above for DI sponsor Freespace Dance. Photo of Freespace Dance’s Donna Scro Samori and Omni Kitts by and copyright Lois Greenfield. Sign up as a sponsor before May 1, 2017 and receive a second month free. Contact paul@danceinsider.com . Subscribe before May 1 and receive a second, gift subscription for free.