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.

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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.