The Johnston Letter, Volume 2, Number 4: Add your light to the sum of light

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2006 Jill Johnston

To read more about Jill Johnston and more Jill Johnston Letters, click here. Today’s publication made possible by Dance Insider Co-Lead Sponsor Slippery Rock Dance. To find out how you can sponsor the longest-running dance magazine on the Internet, please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com  .

“What then must we do?” This is Linda Hunt’s big line in the 1982 film “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Hunt, you’ll remember, plays a diminutive cameraman named Billy Kwan, a role for which she won the Oscar. She, or he I should say, quotes the line, and its source — from Luke, chapter 3, verse 10 — near the beginning of the film while taking journalist Guy Hamilton, just off the plane from Australia, on a tour of Jakarta’s slums. Billy has plans for Guy, played by Mel Gibson. Here is the pre-Passion, pre-Lethal Weapon, pre-Braveheart, pre-blockbuster-addicted and drunkenly arrested anti-Semite raving Gibson as a young darkly handsome leading man in an intimate romance, directed by Peter Weir and put through his paces by co-actor “Billy,” a spiritually and socially enlightened “dwarf” as he is sometimes identified. His very first lines are his own voice-over while sitting at his typewriter creating a file for our hero, through whom Billy will live: “June 25, 1965, Dossier #10, Hamilton, Guy, born 1936 under the sign of Capricorn, occupation journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Service — Jakarta, first assignment as a foreign correspondent.” A revival of “Dangerously” in movie theaters country-wide would be appropriate right now. The political undertow, a steady pull powering the film beneath its fictional romance is the US/UK intervention in Indonesia to drive out the people-driven Communist movement, or PKI, depose President Sukarno who had been aligned with his people and install the dictator Suharto, making way of course for all manner of Western capitalist ventures.

As Guy/Mel gets off his plane and presents his papers you see on the wall behind him a huge sign: CRUSH U.S. AND BRITISH IMPERALISM. As the film ends, you see Jakarta in chaos, its military coup underway, and the beginnings of the great bloodbath, the famous massacre of many thousands of PKI or Communist party members, and the escape by air of our hero and other Westerners. When I saw the movie in 1983, I thought it was terrific. But I saw only Billy the narrator and prime mover, and the romance between Guy and Jill (Sigourney Weaver), and was mindlessly, incuriously aware of the political situation. It’s surely one of the few really convincing romantic relationships in movie annals. Looking at “Dangerously” now, I contemplate something new: of the couple, who am I? I started thinking about this while playing the video of Volume V of “Brideshead Revisited” over and over — the episode where Charles Ryder/Jeremy Irons and Julia/Diana Quick fall in love on a stormy Atlantic crossing, New York to Southampton. The political background in “Brideshead” is class and Roman Catholicism. As women, we may find Julia’s position in life ideal. The daughter of a Lord, beautiful and elegant, she commands Charles’s deference in seeking her love. This is England on the high seas, and Charles, merely from the upper middle class, and an artist, knows his place. But do we want to be Julia? As a Roman Catholic, she must marry one, or else a non-Catholic willing to prostrate himself before the Church, by pretense and/or conversion, for her to feel saved from perdition. She doesn’t so much fall for Charles, as allow him to love her. And if we read her conflict well, we know the affair can’t last.

Americans will be much more captivated by the romance of Guy and Jill in “Dangerously,” especially after 9/11, when many people in the population, once politically stupid or oblivious, like myself, woke up to our government as a rogue nation. Like Julia in “Brideshead,” Jill has the power — she is established in Jakarta before Guy gets there, she too is beautiful, is English, and she has a mysterious job at the British Embassy. Billy the puppet-master, a role attributed to Sukarno, and one Billy proudly claims himself, is already a devoted friend of Jill’s or Jilly as he may call her affectionately; and “Jilly” adores him too. By suggestion, sorcery and manipulation, he unites Guy and Jill. He wants us to see them against the poverty and corruption in Jakarta, thus Indonesia at large. Their attraction, and the huge energy it generates, exposes the Western luxury of romance in the midst of the ruins of Western indifference and exploitation. It also capitalizes LOVE as a transcendent force overcoming the misery created by state policies, local and international. A build-up under Weir’s expert direction and attention to detail sucks us into the romantic vortex. The ground is laid first by giving Guy some status to make him a viable suitor. He arrives from Australia without any contacts in his new post. You see him on his first day rushing around vainly in the presidential palace microphone in hand ready to interview someone, anyone — the other journalists already so employed. Later that day our omnipotent all-seeing “dwarf” who knows everybody finds Guy disheartened in his office, and makes him a spectacular offer. He will set Guy up for an interview the very next day with the second most important man after Sukarno in Jakarta, the leader of the PKI or Communist party. In return, Guy enlists Billy as his exclusive cameraman. But without the love of the most beautiful available woman in this politically explosive and tropically sweltering claustrophobic town, Guy’s profile is not complete. “Every man,” Billy tells Guy tantalizingly after he has introduced him to Jill, “wants to get into bed with her in the first five minutes.” Her history in Jakarta includes an affair with a French journalist, now reassigned to Saigon. Jill herself is soon to leave and return to England, and so after a glittering afternoon spent with Guy wandering through tropical groves, connecting in hilarity under a drenching downpour, and spending time in Billy’s quarters of wall-covered photos where they realize he is their medium; and a long moment locked in an open-mouthed gaze signifying romantic recognition, she disappears into the Embassy, waving Guy off as he presses her to get together again, laughingly turning him down, saying she’s leaving soon and doesn’t want to complicate things. It is her power now, to bestow her love or not, that makes the film suspenseful and exciting. She doesn’t return his calls, and he has no access otherwise.

Guy in the meantime has been influenced by Billy, the film’s androgynous wonder, to write his stories with more feeling and compassion. We have to keep in mind their first moments walking together through Jakarta’s slums, when Billy quoted from Luke, “What then must we do?” She, or rather he, had told Guy, still in tie and shirt, with jacket in hand slung over shoulder, the underprivileged swarming all around them in a dark evening light, that Tolstoy asked this same question, and even wrote a book with that title. Tolstoy got so upset about the poverty he saw in Moscow that he went one night to the poorest section of the city and just gave away all his money. Billy tells Guy, “You could do that now; five American dollars would be a fortune to one of these people.” Guy predictably says it wouldn’t do any good, that it would just be a drop in the ashes. “Ah,” says Billy, “that was the same conclusion Tolstoy came to — but I disagree.” “Oh?” asks Guy, “What’s your solution?” And Billy says, “I support the view that you just don’t think about the major issues, you do whatever you can about the misery that’s in front of you. Add your light to the sum of light.” Supplying Guy’s answer, he adds, “You think that’s naive, don’t you?” And Guy verifies, “Yup, we [journalists] can’t afford to get involved.” Then as we see, Billy makes sure he does, with reports to his newspaper that become increasingly sympathetic to the people.

In a middle-class piece of the U.S. known as my neighborhood, you are aware without asking that we all feel the same way: remote from government, powerless to affect its murderous policies, living in an archaic political system called democracy, waiting for the other terrorists, the ones we call evil, to get their nuclear arsenal together in some semblance of a “state” in order to blast us to kingdom come.

In Billy’s impotent world of “Dangerously,” he finds strength in immediacy. While Guy and Jill are hanging out in his quarters waiting for him, on that glittering afternoon when they form a romantic understanding, they are both leaning forward staring at one of Billy’s photographs: a poor woman from the “inner city” and her woebegone little son whom Jill says Billy has adopted. Guy imagines for a second, with a smile, that Billy “has a woman” until Jill puts him straight, explaining that he gives them food and money, “that’s all.” At the end of that day, Guy, now smitten, exists in a hung time-frame until Billy makes a final move to get the two together.

Waving a British Embassy party invitation addressed to Guy in front of his face, he asks him if he doesn’t plan to go. Guy says he has no jacket and the British are hard to understand. Billy says the British are just more subtle, you have to listen harder, and — “Jill will be there.” A fast cut shows Guy in his hotel room scrambling in a suitcase, clothes flying, looking for a forgotten formal jacket. The next cut has him at the Embassy party staring into the crowd, spotting Jill chatting in a small group, heading toward her with grim purpose, a bull, a Zeus, the god who marched or galloped toward Europa to abduct her. He segregates her by grasping one of her arms and pulling her just outside the party environs, on some alcove or balcony, and Jill succumbs to his kisses but says she can’t possibly leave with him… that “All of Jakarta will know….” He stalks away and outside to his car, which won’t start, giving Jill time to change her mind and follow him. Now Zeus has Europa in his car, and he bears her off in a propulsive burst of his engine and of Maurice Jarre’s fabulous synethesizer score — a basso ostinato drumming underneath, like an insistent rapid heartbeat; brass or horn simulations in the middle register, and on top, an insanely driving exciting soprano melodic line. The denouement we all waited for is underway.

As they hurtle toward consummation, borne on the urgency of the score, with Jill all over Guy kissing him as he tries to handle his chariot, crashing through a military barrier marked by a leaping bonfire and armed soldiers who shoot to kill, madly laughing as they escape, operatic crescendos by Jill, baritone versions by Guy, now integrated with the pulsing orgasmic score, they are heading for Billy’s bungalow, vacated by him for just such an outcome. Then all is silence as you see Billy outside his place, his hand on Guy’s car, lingering a moment, savoring his triumph with a slight smile, knowing he has made love manifest in the besieged town of Jakarta. Love amidst crisis, the most believable kind of love in films, perhaps in life. I always fell in love when I needed saving. I know, by the way, who I am in these movie couples and it is not who I am supposed to be. I was plainly never Jill, or the “Brideshead” Julia, or let’s say Faye in “Chinatown” or Ingrid in “Casablanca” or whatshername who plays the Amish widow in “Witness,” another brilliant Weir film with a romance built on a crisis. A film featuring me has never been made. After seeing the two cowboys in “Brokeback Mountain,” the most recent beautifully structured and shot film with a convincing romance played out against a calamitous background, I tried to imagine a couple of women equally credible in love and in unlikely roles. That’s as far as I got. What on earth would such “unlikely roles” be? But let’s face it; we need a “Brokeback” for women. This thought may seem altogether vain and offensively privileged in light of the worldwide assaults on women and girls, America hardly excluded — murder, sexual slavery, genital mutilations, domestic violence and much more, currently well documented with stunning statistics by the United Nations. In the Jakarta of “Dangerously,” 1965, women are not singled out or identified as a specially oppressed group; they never are where cinematic slumming occurs. But Billy’s death is specifically linked to the impoverished uneducated woman and her little boy whom he has been helping with food, money, and love. He tells us about her plight: “In another country, she might be a decent woman. Here, she begs and perhaps sells herself. Her tragedy is repeated a million times in this city.”

The death of the boy, who had become fatally ill, drives Billy to madness and suicide. “What then must we do?” he clamors over his typewriter, punching violently at the keys, detonating them, no longer able to find strength in immediacy, but compelled to think about the “major issues.” After leaving the dead boy and his grieving mother, he glares upward at a looming poster-portrait of Sukarno, once his hero, a leader of the people, now co-opted by the right in the military coup. Billy fashions a demonstration, hanging a banner outside a hotel window six or seven floors high, saying SUKARNO FEED YOUR PEOPLE, forcing him to hurl himself out the window to his death when two security guards of the new regime break into the room, aim their guns at him and start shooting. It was not just Sukarno, but Guy, by whom Billy felt undone. His handiwork matchmaking Guy and Jill looked destroyed after Guy betrayed Jill for his career, becoming just a guy you could say, no longer Billy’s creation: a man inspired by love.

Love and politics had intermingled suddenly when Jill at the British Embassy received a coded message from Singapore saying a shipment of arms is on its way from Shanghai for the PKI or Communist forces. If successfully in PKI hands, civil war would ensue, and all the Westerners in Jakarta would be slaughtered. Jill walks slowly, twisting uncertainly in a steady rain, accompanied by a somewhat muted version of Jarre’s electronic score, toward Guy’s office, evidently trying to make up her mind whether to tell him or not. But she will tell him — after they end up in bed, because she wants to save him (she says she can get him on a plane “tomorrow”). But Guy has other ideas. His eyes get big as pinwheels over the news, and he jumps at the fantastic scoop, ready instantly to risk their relationship by broadcasting the message, and to risk death by staying in Jakarta reporting a bloody civil war. Instead of course, the shipment never made it, or if it did, the military picked it up, and the fortunes of the British and other Westerners there changed. Now they didn’t have to leave but my impression is that most of them did — unwilling to witness the huge massacre of people that they divined or knew directly their governments were behind. It eliminated the mass-based political party of the poor and opened the doors wide to Western investors. Chomsky says the massacre “was greeted with unrestrained euphoria” in the West. Isn’t this how most Americans felt about our invasions and countless slayings of innocent people in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11?

The end of Billy in “Dangerously” effectively ends the movie. Both Guy and Jill are devastated by his fatal plunge to his death, and the film’s last scenes are vague codas making you wonder if Jill will take Guy back after his betrayal, and if Guy will help his case by giving up his designs to stay and report the horrors at hand, or escape Jakarta on the same plane as Jill, hoping she will have him. As Billy had said at some point, invoking Jesus or Tolstoy, who became a Christian anarchist, believing only things Jesus reportedly said, not what the Church made of him, “We must give love to whomever God has placed in our path.” In our movie-looking path, we sigh with relief seeing Guy walk across an expanse of airport tarmac, his left eye heavily bandaged after an encounter with the security police, no baggage on him except his passport, his khaki jumpsuit stained dark with sweat, reunited with Jill as she embraces him in the door of a Royal Netherlands airplane.

For us film-infatuated Westerners, Billy’s vision and legacy of romantic love remains intact.

©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here. To read more of Jill Johnston on the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager, click here.

The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 2 July 2005: In Search of a Blank

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston

The most famous dance review of all time was a blank space about six inches long, perhaps three wide, circa 1958. The concert and choreographer were identified and the review was signed but that’s all. The “writer” was the publisher of the rag in which it appeared, telling you something. I never had the power or authority to be so smart. Recently I was invited to northeastern Vermont for an “art event” called a fulmination sculpture. The “North East Kingdom,” so also known, has always seemed an attractive place to go, if only for its exotic moniker. If I turned the event into a blank, which I have been conflicted about, I could only say I went, and that I have consigned it to blankdom. The look of the thing would be lost — its brilliant commentary. Anyway it’s the sort of literary performance that can only really be done once. (To read the full column, please click here.)

The Jill Johnston Letter, Volume 2, Number 6: Complete Surrender

jill dancing for warholFrom the DI Archives and the recent Museum of Modern Art exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done: Andy Warhol, “Jill and Freddy Dancing,” 1963. 16mm film (black and white, silent), 4 minutes. Original film elements preserved by the Museum of Modern Art Collections of the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Contribution the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2007 Jill Johnston

First published on the Dance Insider on in 2007. Today’s re-publication is made possible by Dance Insider co-Principal Sponsor Freespace Dance

When Gerald Ford died I learned that his wife Betty was once a Martha Graham auxiliary and that she had her own dance company in Grand Rapids. When her husband became president, her new press secretary asked her what she could do for her, and Betty said, “I don’t know, what am I supposed to do?” I clipped the color photo of her at the Washington Cathedral service being escorted to her seat by Mr. Bush, whose wife and parents look on around him. It’s a great shot. You can count 24 people in three rows, eight of them the living presidential couples, all in identical photo-darkgray suits and dresses, and turning to look at the new widow, except for Hillary, who hasn’t turned and is staring downward. She’s wedged between Bill and Chelsea, only a piece of her head visible. Barbara Bush, in the forefront, tilts hers slightly and wears an expression of pained sympathy. Laura Bush looks a little stunned, like, “Is that what’s going to happen to me?” Betty is really old and not her former self. I can see her dancing though. I suppose after she was done with Martha and Grand Rapids she did the Chubby Checker Twist like the rest of us. I was once an auxiliary of sorts myself, however to Martha’s competitor Jose Limon. At a holiday season party someone told me they thought I had been a dancer. I said no no, I was an auxiliary. In that capacity all I did for Jose, besides taking his classes on West 57th Street for four years, was fill in for one of his three premier females at a single rehearsal. Betty Ford first studied with Graham at the Bennington Summer School of the Dance — in 1936. A decade and a half later, when the Summer School had moved to Connecticut College in New London, I endured some classes with Graham myself, easily a terrifying experience. So when someone dies, you find things out. I scan the papers very selectively. In the case of Saddam Hussein, hanged by our government (to be elliptical about it) December 30, only four days after the death of Betty’s husband Gerald, I plundered the write-ups on him for scraps describing his early life, and found a whole “narrative” of about a dozen unsurprising facts. He was raised by a class of landless peasants, and his father deserted his mother before birth. Are these reasons to kill people? Not the way we see it. But Hussein’s first job in politics, when he was 22, was a commission to assassinate, along with nine other youths, the Iraqi general then ruling the country. “Bloodshed,” the report I read went on, “became the major theme of his life.” Rooted in a culture of tribal violence, Hussein reached the summit of his tradition upon becoming dictator — an equivalent aspiration to the “presidency” for boys in democratic systems. A great hero of Hussein’s was Stalin. We have an analogous blood-group in our lawless subculture of mafias where the gang-head is anointed “godfather.” Dictators, unlike presidents or prime ministers, have been able to murder their enemies with impunity. Now things have changed. Presidents can kill dictators and behave just like them. In order to kill with impunity however, the president has to go abroad, or I should say send people abroad to do it for him, to the dictator’s territory. He can’t do it at home yet, i.e., that we know of. He can only imprison people without due process. If JFK had been able to assassinate Castro, as planned, wouldn’t we simply have annexed Cuba? Why are we saying we want Iraqis to take over their own country after we condemned to death the man who had held them, more or less, together, and we continue to occupy them? Mr. Bush doesn’t know. His mission was accomplished when Hussein was hanged December 30. The man on whose behalf he acted is standing right behind him in the Washington Cathedral photo — his father Bush Senior. Has anyone forgotten the claim that Saddam wanted or tried to assassinate his father? Are we living in father/son dramas called governments or what? Imagine all the stories swirling around these photo-darkgray outfits. Did Betty give up dancing for the fatherless Gerald? Yes Gerald’s father, like Hussein’s, deserted his wife too. And Gerald, similarly to his stepfather after whom he was happily renamed, was asked to supplant a father called Nixon when Nixon betrayed his country. Wouldn’t Betty just have been marking time until Mr. Right came along? Dancing was never very important. And girls as ambitious as Martha Graham were rare as lemons in an orange grove. Her original competitor was not Jose Limon of course but another rare fruit, Doris Humphrey, who became Jose’s advisor when an arthritic hip stopped her from dancing. I would have been a Humphrey auxiliary had hip replacements been available then. I was solidly in the Humphrey camp, where we tribally despised the “Graham Crackers.” It would never have occurred to me that nice people like Betty were over there — across town on the East side — hugging the floor tortuously in emotive contractions. In Jose’s studio, with Doris looking on, and despite Jose’s Mexican earthiness, we were celebrating the air. It was out of the air finally that I landed and broke a fifth foot metatarsal, leaving Jose’s studio for the greater world — a room in the 42nd Street Library called the Dance Collection, which was tucked into the Music Division. One day Martha Graham’s longtime associate, advisor, musical director and publisher of the Dance Observer, Louis Horst, came into the library and asked me to write a review for him. The rest became my history, and I was no longer an auxiliary. When JFK was assassinated a few years later, the four living presidential couples and two widows in this memorial photo were leading auxiliary lives, i.e. in waiting for their futures. When Betty became first lady she lobbied successfully and proudly to have Martha Graham receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. One future I awaited myself would involve trying to understand who these people were, or what they would become, like was president or a president’s wife a calling, a directive, an accident or what? When JFK was elected — the first and nearly the last president I ever voted for — all I thought was that he and his wife looked like a beautiful couple. How could we go wrong? The Cuba mess? Heard of it; never tried to find out what it was really about. Vietnam? Very distant. The assassination? Got extremely interested, but the news behind the news was not available, and the details were soon exhausting. Quite by chance, I commemorated the event the day of the funeral with a “dance.” Curiously, in the 1960s I became a dancer, just by saying so if I wanted to — in the Dada tradition then undergoing a renasissance. I mean you could walk down the street, or do much less than that, and advertise it as a dance. Just living was dancing. I was out at Billy Kluver’s house in New Jersey for some reason, and since Andy Warhol was there also along with his camera, he shot me running around in circles in the November mud of Billy’s backyard wearing tall black boots, cutoff denims, a red jacket and a beret. A rifle, presumably Billy’s, was slung over my shoulder. At the same time, the funeral was appearing on TV in Billy’s living room. That may have been a good place to stop, but life does move us along. We know about Betty’s traumas when she was first lady and in the aftermath. Right behind Jimmy Carter in the Cathedral photo is his wife Rosalynn, her face half hidden, a sturdier woman than Betty but not nearly so fun-loving. Is that Mrs. Reagan standing behind her — in shades, at the end of the first row? I’m sorry but I’ve crossed her off, have tended to think she’s dead. I loved the California funeral on TV for her husband, though I was surely one of those who thought it was pretty dopey to elect an actor president. By now I have figured out that it’s not their fault, becoming president, but their father’s. And keep going back to the fathers’ fathers. The written JFK history is rich with them, especially his immediate one. If Hillary becomes president, and I had hoped not to mention it here, who would we blame? Her husband I guess. A number of wives around the world have pursued their husbands into the graves of presidencies. We think men die in the Senate, but look what happens to them as top gun. I voted for Bill, then regretted it the moment he followed his military into the “don’t ask don’t tell” crime against truth and thousands of our fellow citizens. Still, I favored him for having never known his father, who died in a car accident before his birth. Like Saddam and Gerald, he had special credentials for any leadership sweepstakes. I had hopes for him. But I was fooling myself because behind the unknown father stands their fathers’ fathers anyway, and if not them the whole idea of them from 4,000 years or more back. Is Hillary going to save us from this? Is it supposed to matter that she voted for the “war”? Of course it does. It means she wasn’t thinking. And if nothing else, we need someone who thinks. Which brings me to Obama, another fatherless boy, but so exotically it gives you a tremor. I cast my preemptive vote for him in a book I wrote titled “At Sea on Land,” published in 2005, having read his first memoir, “Dreams from my Father.” After a peanut grower, an actor, a lawyer (a couple of whom had also been governors), a navy pilot and a businessman, why not a writer? I know I know, Obama didn’t vote for the “war” because he wasn’t there to vote, but I’m dead certain he would not have. Now people are saying he doesn’t have enough experience to be president, but time is running out for us; and a born leader, if you recognize one, walks right into experience knowing at least that he is having one. Never mind the charisma, or admit it if you like: he’s warm, he cares about people, and he thinks internationally. If he wins, I’ll dance in complete surrender — on my new titanium hip. Lately I’ve resembled the great choreographer Doris Humphrey in her hip dotage, leaning painfully on a cane, a woman with no chance of ever dancing again. I say “complete surrender” advisedly. I found the phrase in an article about the discovery of a long-lost brother by the English novelist Ian McEwan. The story rests in my favorite realm of permanently lost fathers. A wartime mother from Reading, England, in 1942 put a want ad in a local newspaper offering her one-month-old son for adoption. Soon she was handing her newborn baby over to strangers on the Reading railroad station platform. The mother, Rose, had been having an affair with Ian McEwan’s father David, an army officer, while her husband Ernest was away at the front fighting. Two years later during the 1944 Normandy landings, Ernest died. And Rose married McEwan, with whom in 1948 she had Ian, the future novelist. The baby handed over at Reading railway station had his father’s name, David. The name of the couple adopting him was Sharp, so he became David Sharp. His new mother was another Rose. Eight years later this Rose would die. When David was 14 he discovered he was adopted, and was told only that the family “got him out of a newspaper.” Later he found the clipping, a priceless (looked at in a certain way) kind of “certificate” of origins. Squeezed between ads for musical instruments and secondhand furniture, it reads: “Wanted, Home for Baby Boy, age one month; complete surrender. — Write Box 173, Mercury, Reading.” (My italics). In later adulthood David contacted a tracing service, and located his lost family. A photo in the article shows Ian and David happily together. This may seem unrelated to my color photo of the solemn living presidents and their wives and two widows at the Cathedral ceremony for Gerald Ford. But it does explain my title, a sentiment to which I believe I should aspire.

©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here.

Judson & Johnston, together again, III: “Bach” and A Lotta Who Shot John

momajudsonrainer smallFrom 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 paulbenitzak@gmail.com, 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?

©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. First published on the DI in 2006. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here.

Judson & Johnston, together again, II: Reviving Amsterdam & Schneemann ‘Newspaper Event’ in New Amsterdam

momajudsonpapersFrom 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 paulbenitzak@gmail.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.

Back to the Future: How to access stories on the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager

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The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 4: A Tale of Two Bells

Jill bells group

“I see the bells as a silent scream.”

— Michael Gorra

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston

Flying to Cologne September 14 for an art event, accompanied by Ingrid, I had an unexpected postwar experience at the foot of Cologne’s great Cathedral, its Dom. By “foot” I mean its vicinity, and I  was always there. Our hotel was close by, and Museum Ludwig, site of the art event, a pebble’s throw away. The whole city really is in its vicinity because the structure looms everywhere, seen from all vantage points, a giant double-spired sentinel more omnipresent than our World Trade Towers were, or Empire State Building is. The Dom is very old, a structure begun in 1248, and everything way below it is new — or so it seems. In a British RAF “thousand-plane” raid March 30 1942, 90% of the city was firebombed and destroyed. Oh I’ve been in other German cities where I would look for what’s old, and notice the new. Hamburg, in 1943 one of the worst hit, leaving a charred city and 200,000 dead, was one of them. In Osnabruck for a day and a night I saw nothing old at all. I’ve been to Berlin, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt and Hanover. I’d visited Cologne once before, in 1993. But I never had an Experience, not in Germany anyway. In Britain I had the kind of emotional exculpation I’m talking about, a terrible seismic sadness, in Coventry, the midlands city firebombed the night of November 14 1940 by the Luftwaffe in a raid code-named “Operation Moonlight Sonata.” And I had it right on the Cathedral premises, or I should say the ruins. St. Michael’s, like the Dom in Cologne a medieval treasure, dated from the 1300s. All that’s left of the body of St. Michael’s are low decimated walls on three sides, and remains of a polygonal apse with tall arched open-to-the-air windows. Amazingly, its head — tower and spire, rising 295 feet — survived. Like the Dom, it’s another sentinel, here overlooking an impressive carcass, a cross at opposite end fashioned from scorched beams that fell in the November 1940 carnage; and something brand new — a shockingly modern cathedral joined by porch and built perpendicularly to the ruins, dedicated in 1962. Such an enormous architecturally necrologic “birth,” literally from the side of the ruins, was what undid me. I experienced this in 1976. After Cologne last month, I could draw a straight line between the two cities, the perfect zoom lines you see in airplane magazine maps. At home and as of yesterday I’m adding Lubeck, a moderate-sized city in northern Germany on the Baltic Sea, a place I’ve never been. Reading and scanning a book someone gave me that had been lying about in my apartment since the end of summer, showing up unaccountably here and there, I found Lubeck in it. If my lines were finer, and maps more accommodating, they would pinpoint my special interest in these cities of the Dom in Cologne, the ruins of St. Michael’s in Coventry, and most recently the Marienkirche in Lubeck. All three were damaged, one beyond repair, in a war of unprecedented terror against civilians, including six million singled out for special annihilation as Jewish, and all three have extraordinary bells. The ones in Cologne and Coventry survived, but of Lubeck’s pre-war tower bells there are only two, and these are fallen mementos, lying just where they crashed — in a wrecked but somehow aesthetic configuration, under the south tower in the Marienkirche. They are pictured in a photo on the cover of the book I finally got around to investigating. An American professor of English, Michael Gorra, wrote about his travels in Germany after spending a sabbatical year there. Books by professors are not my normal fare, but the photo, and title, “The Bells in their Silence,” could be a curiosity even for those not incurably habituated to these bronze shapes the way I am. For myself though, I’ve passed up many literary references, always quoted to invoke the romance of bells — Dante, Longfellow, Byron, Tennyson and Shakespeare among them — and Gorra’s title seemed fairly belletristic. It took my recent trip to Cologne to make the war connection. Gorra’s beautiful fallen image from Lubeck, embedded in the richly muted grey-green colors of his jacket cover, must be the memento of his travels, the symbol of his search for what Germany once was and  has become: a replete civilization, a land of rubble and devastation, finally of buried memories. One month after Lubeck in 1942, Cologne became Germany’s second city to be firebombed and depopulated by Allied forces. I was there this September to attend the opening of artist George Brecht’s retrospective at Museum Ludwig. Brecht, an ex-pat American and old friend, now 79, has lived in Cologne since 1972. Strangely, or not perhaps, he never appeared at his opening (an event marking an exhibition that’s a major deal for an artist whose work has been dedicated to showing that life is more important than art), and I replaced him, as I fancy now, with the city’s colossal Dom, the tips of whose spires we could see over a lush growth of trees from our hotel windows. The din of its bells had me excitedly opening the windows, leaning way out and shooting pictures. It would be through postcards — black and white pictures dated 1945 — that I realized I was staying in a vast war memorial, buried under the rebuilt city, hidden in the Dom by seamless repairs. Here is a postcard showing the skeletons of burnt and roofless buildings from the heights of the Dom. Here is another, of the Dom’s high Gothic interior — its floor a chunky mass of marble and wooden debris. While we were basking briefly on the Rhine one afternoon, I shot a pretty crescent-shaped iron bridge, later finding a postcard picturing the same bridge, the Hohenzollern in 1945, twisted and broken, half submerged in the river, the Dom looming in the background. At home I made a before-and-after photo album, anchored at the end by a postcard image of Cologne’s magnificent swinging bell, St. Peter, tuned to a deep C, at 24,000 kilograms Europe’s largest, inscribed: “St. Peter is my name of birth,/I protect the German earth;/Sprung of German agony,/I raise my voice for unity.”

I presume this “agony” is of that earlier conflagration, the Great War, since St. Peter was cast in 1923. If you have no fear of heights or claustrophobic spiral stone staircases, you could climb 509 steps to see it. Imagine a bell of that magnitude falling like Gorra’s two, and from the Dom’s dizzying summit, 157.38 meters tall. Left as a memorial, to see its shattered remains you would be peering over the edge of a deep crater. “What altar,” Gorra writes of Lubeck’s bells, “could compete with this twisted mass of bronze?” He had originally been drawn to the city because of a literary hero, Thomas Mann, born and raised there. Now he was making his last of many visits to Lubeck before returning to the States. And he saw something in the Marienkirche he had never seen before: “… a gleam of silver in the corner of my eye, and I turned to see two stainless steel spikes, put one against the other in the shape of a cross, the NAIL CROSS OF COVENTRY IT’S CALLED, MADE OUT OF METAL FROM THE RUINS OF COVENTRY’S CATHEDRAL: a gesture of reconciliation from the city that Hitler destroyed to the one on which the British took vengeance.” (Upper case mine.) So Lubeck was Britain’s first catastrophic incendiary strike against Germany — a year and four months following the demolition of Coventry. After 234 aircraft dropped 144 tons of firebombs and 160 tons of high explosives, at least half of Lubeck was destroyed. The Marienkirche had a gaping hole where its spires had been, and its roof had been blown off. I found a phone number for Gorra and put in a call to him after reading about the “nail cross,” wondering if he knew that the altar in Coventry’s new cathedral bears the same kind of cross, made of nails salvaged from the same ruins, its own. No he didn’t. Then I rushed in where fools might, imagining that bells in general, like those at Coventry or Cologne, alive and swinging, should interest him. However, the last line in his book reads, “Other bells may ring, but these (Lubeck’s) will stay silent.” He seems clearly to rest his involvement here. In their “silent scream,” Gorra finds Germany’s culpability (“… the curse that the Nazis laid upon their own house”), and his personal sorrow for the German people. In his moving words and through my discoveries in Cologne, I find my own lament. Ingrid, while traveling through Germany in 1954 with her Danish parents, saw Cologne’s ruins from the tower of the Dom, 509 steps up. She quotes her mother as saying, “This is what happens when people don’t get along.” Is this an understatement, or what? Why, I have asked, did Cologne’s Dom, damages withal, remain standing? And why, you might ask, am I so interested in these Christian edifices? I am not and have never been a Christian, and I find the history of Christianity appalling (as what thinking person does not?). The answer to both my questions lies in the bells. I’m not interested in dinner bells or hand-bells or cowbells or bell telephone, only bells in towers, and many of these, such as university towers, are secular. The Dom in Cologne survived because of St. Peter and his nine companions, several of Middle Ages vintage. It may be hard for Americans to understand how important bells are in European countries. Other traditions were imported to America, but not the concept of Europe’s consummate and ubiquitous bell population, an indispensable spiritual voice of the people — independently of religious faith or ideology. As Europe was in flames, many bells were saved by tacit or open agreement between opposing forces. In one such pact, the Allies consented not to bomb the great swinging peal in Cologne Cathedral if the Axis spared Belgium’s historic carillon in Mechlin. Many historic carillons in the Netherlands, France and Germany, were thus saved. But many carillons and swinging peals did perish, or were stolen to be melted down for armaments. Over 100,000 bells were deposited in holding areas in Hamburg and other German cities.

Thirty of these ended up in Lubeck’s rebuilt tower of the Marienkirche after the war. They had belonged originally to a 36-bell carillon in Gdansk (Danzig), Poland. When Hitler annexed Gdansk in 1939, a key moment in the outbreak of war, he pirated the contents of the city’s towers. The story goes that Lubeck received its gift in thanks for hosting many postwar refugees from Gdansk. Now I can extend my zoomy airplane magazine lines to a city in Poland, not a place I could previously even envision on a map. But I return always to Coventry for my signature experience of an event I would never know first-hand, not until September 11 2001 when I saw our Towers in New York come down. And Coventry held a second coming for me. In May of 2002, Ingrid and I were approaching St. Michael’s tower and steeple when a huge ruckus filled the air. A band of change-ringers holding ropes to 14 bells was making the most stupendous ear-rending cacophony. I never knew that bells existed here at all. They ring out wildly over St. Michael’s ruins and new cathedral body — a resurrection and the life.

©Jill Johnston 2005; originally published on www.jilljohnston.com and syndicated exclusively on the Dance Insider. Photos courtesy Jill Johnston. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here.

The Johnston Letter: “ Merce 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.

The DI, Year One: The Return of Jill Johnston — Our Man in Flat Iron Sees Anthony Through Her Eyes

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2000 Chris Dohse

NEW YORK — Forgive me, I’ve spent the weekend reading Jill Johnston and I am madly inspired to wonder how many postmodern angels fit on the head of a pin. Therefore I’m going to write the next several hundred words pretending to be her, circa 1965.

Ariane Anthony resembles Buster Keaton as much as Mary Wigman. I mean Ariane Anthony’s quality when performing quizzes Keaton and Wigman in equal proportions. Ariane Anthony & Company make Ausdruckstanz that riffles through Twentieth Century Avant-Garde “Isms” like a rack of thrift store bargains. It is a quirkfest and I like it.

To receive the rest of the article, first published on May 9, 2000, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2016, plus five years of the Jill Johnston Letter. Just designate your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $129 (institutions) Purchase by February 28, 2017 and receive a second, free copy for the recipient of your choice. Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .