Judson, secret origins and exiles

momajudsonhalprin smallFrom the exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done, running at the Museum of Modern Art through February 3: Anna Halprin, “The Branch,” 1957. Performed on the Halprin family’s Dance Deck, Kentfield, California, 1957. (Halprin’s husband was the noted San Francisco architect Lawrence Halprin.) Performers, from left: A. A. Leath, Anna Halprin, and Simone Forti. Photo: Warner Jepson. Courtesy of the Estate of Warner Jepson.

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2000, 2018 Christine Chen

(Among many other engagements in arts performance and management, Christine Chen went on to dance for STREB, run its education program, and serve as managing director for American Repertory Ballet. She is currently director of Dance and Adult Programming for the 92nd Street Y. This Flash’s re-publication is made possible by Edward Winer, Eva Wise, Aaron Winer, Nancy Reynolds, Polly Hyslop, Martin Epstein, and Linda Ramey. Unfortunately, the space crisis in San Francisco has only gotten worse; a recent national survey qualified the city as having the second most afforable housing rate in the country — for current residents, that is, whose median income is $92,000.)

SAN FRANCISCO — The Roxie Theater, Mission District, San Francisco. I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area earlier this month because I was lured by an intangible energy and essence that I sensed when I visited last spring. Specifically, I was deeply inspired when I witnessed members of the community (yes, the actual community, not just the insular dance crowd) affected by and involved with the dance world’s activities: environmentalists and labor unions rallied behind Jo Kreiter’s “Copra Dock Dances”; children and adults stood in awe as Project Bandaloop turned their world around by dancing on the side of a building at a street festival; and audiences danced and bounced in their seats, ignited by the drummers and dancers in “Extravadance,” Sara Shelton Mann’s long-awaited return after her Contraband days.

To my dismay, the scene that I returned to this fall was depressing, and my future as an artist in this city looked dismal. With the closing of performance and rehearsal spaces (Dance Mission and Dancers Group being the two most recent casualties), the arts seemed on the verge of being debilitated by the booming economy which has driven rent prices up — rendering them unaffordable for artists. (This has indeed affected all artists: last weekend, local music bands took to the streets, playing on rooftops and sidewalks throughout the city to protest evictions and the dwindling of rehearsal spaces.) I went to the Roxie Monday to see the documentary “Artists in Exile: A Story of Modern Dance in San Francisco,” hoping to be re-inspired, but fearing either an overly politicized agit-prop blame game on the space crisis or a self-serving documentary filled with in-jokes and references for which I, as a newcomer to the scene, would feel left out. My fears were allayed, and my greatest hopes were exceeded, for the producer/director team of Austin Forbord and Shelly Trott treated me to 84 minutes of pure inspiration and rejuvenation.

Forbord and Trott in “Exile” poetically and intelligently weave together a tale about the history of S.F. Bay Area dance artists with well-chosen footage from performances and rehearsals and with captivating interviews that humorously capture these artists’ varied personalities. The clips, arranged to chronologically document the S.F. legacy beginning with Anna Halprin, are compelling and well edited (though I wanted to see more!). Memorable images include: Merce Cunningham, never more dynamic or supple, improvising in Halprin’s backyard; Mangrove and Tumbleweed’s early use of Contact with context; Dance Brigade’s in-your-face political tactics; Joe Goode’s “29 Effeminate Gestures”; rambunctious dancers in urban public arenas like airport hangars and city streets; ethereal presences on the beach and (Project Bandaloop) on the face of Yosemite Falls; and Contraband’s aggressive athletes Contact jamming with moving cars. Most of the time I sat in awe of the raw physicality and urgency of the work, surprised that video could elicit such a visceral response. The movement is ferocious, potent, passionate, important, impractical, balls-out/tits-out, urban, soft, powerful, sexual, wild, political, spontaneous, vital, compelling, juicy, jugular, ridiculous, and spectacular. The interviews, too, speak volumes about the SF artists. Conversing candidly, intellectually, passionately, flippantly, reverently and irreverently all at once, the interviewees speak from respectively fitting site-specific locations — inside, outside, with props, and on ropes.

Throughout the chronicle, several themes emerge: The NYC/SF dichotomy and the poignant (and timely) questions and dilemmas facing SF artists: Why have SF artists been ignored by critics/historians/national presenters/funders? How has this affected the art and the people who have chosen to live and work here? What potential (or problematic?) role might critics play in this city? What next?

If you are from New York you probably have never heard of the dancers or groups whose names I have been throwing around, but let me assure you that Contraband is more legendary and revered in this city than Twyla is in New York. This is precisely the point of the documentary: S.F. artists have been exiled from the center of the dance world (NYC), and the influences S.F. artists have had on the dance community have been largely ignored and unrecognized. Anna Halprin influenced Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, and Simone Forti, yet they are credited as the forerunners of the postmodern movement. Terry Sengraff introduced gymnastics into her movement vocabulary and experimented in motivity and aerial elements long before Elizabeth Streb put a trampoline on the stage. The discussion goes on — New York represents fame, prestige, recognition, funding, critical acclaim, and refined skills while San Francisco represents a place to find oneself, to experiment and experience, to redefine and reinvent, to toil in anonymity, to transcend.

Many of the artists interviewed in this documentary look to critics to bring S.F. out of invisibility. However, herein lies the Catch 22 of the S.F. critical dilemma: artists rely on critical reviews to gain national exposure and funding, to have a written testament and record of their work, and to be canonized in dance history and discourse, yet the very absence of this pressure to produce and the reality of S.F.’s marginalization have driven the spirit and the freedom in S.F. dance.

I think, and I borrow heavily from post-colonial discourse in this, that S.F. critics need to find a new way of viewing and reviewing Bay Area work. Our artists are not playing by New York rules, so why should we as critics use these rules to evaluate the work that is being made and produced out here? If S.F. artists are frustrated with both the lack of coverage and the predominantly negative coverage (from critics expecting something else, perhaps a New York aesthetic) they have received, maybe it is our responsibility to develop, invent and germinate a new critical language: a dialogue, focus and set of values unique to the San Francisco Bay Area. With this rhetoric we can give our artists the recognition and feedback they want and deserve without paralyzing their enterprising and spontaneous spirit.

In any case, I left the theater feeling uplifted — for witnessing this history filled me with faith and confidence that the arts community would use the current space crisis as fuel for the next urgent dance movement. Sure enough, as I exited the theater I was handed a flyer for a resistance rally at City Hall. The postcard, handed to me with the simple and gentle request, “Please come,” reads, “Rally & Laugh, Drum & Dance; For life, for love, for art, for fun; Taiko/Ballet/Samba/Mariachi/Hip-Hop/Modern/Contact & Clowns/Jugglers on Stilts, Salsa in Speakers, Players and Singers; ‘if we can’t dance we’ll make a revolution’; On Wednesday, October 4 @ 10 a.m. we will propose to the City Finance Committee specific solutions for the arts & non-profit crisis in San Francisco.” This is precisely the energy and the scene the film depicts: dancers uniting and reacting to environmental realities (physical and political) and pressing issues with equal urgency and immediacy in their bodies. The gender stories have been told, AIDS testimonies given, sexuality stories tested, autobiographies politicized, and relationships dissected. San Francisco needs a new stomping ground. While leaving others to refine these (worthy) subjects in their dances, the politically relevant SF artists are reacting from the gut and are creating work in response to what needs to be reacted to right now. This is the heart and soul of San Francisco and this, I am reminded, is why I came here.

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AVID, the Arts Voyager Illustrated Diary: Thresholds, with art from Balthus, Ruth Asawa, and Ben Shahn and PBI’s Memoir ‘Two-and-a-half with a Bullet’

balthus 7 la chat du mirroir 7 small 2From the exhibition Balthus, running through January 1 at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland: “Le Chat au miroir III,” 1989–1994. Oil on canvas, 220 x 195 cm. Private collection. Copyright Balthus.

Text by & copyright Paul Ivan Winer Ben-Itzak
Art by Balthus from the exhibition Balthus at the Fondation Beyeler, Ruth Asawa, and Ben Shahn (see captions for copyrights)

Today AVID offers a dialogue between PBI’s time-traveling memoirs of growing up in the U.S. and assimilating in France and the work of Balthus, on view at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland through January 1 and, from our archives, Ruth Asawa and Ben Shahn. Like what you’re reading? Please subscribe to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager for $36/year or make a donation by designating your PayPal payment to paubenitzak@gmail.com , or write us there to learn how to pay by check. This one goes out to Linda, in memory of Bill Clark. The excerpt below, from PBI’s “Cross-Country/A Memoir of France & the U.S.,” is titled “Prelude: Two-and-a-half with a bullet,” and is 90% revised from an earlier version. 

“He’s here again: the man with the child in his eyes.” — Kate Bush

“We know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now.”     — Wallace Berry, “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three” (George Braziller, New York, 1963. Illustrated by Ben Shahn)

“Songs to aging children come / Aging children, I am one.” — Joni Mitchell, “Songs to Aging Children Come,” from the film “Alice’s Restaurant”)

Mom is crying over the wooden loom that divides the dining room from the kitchen in our San Francisco Edwardian, as the fog over Noe Valley evaporates outside the window. I look up at her from the black-speckled yellow linoleum floor.

“What’s wrong, Mommy?”

“President Kennedy has been ass-ass-i-na-ted.”

This is my first conscious memory. (Although as my old creative writing teacher Joyce Carol Oates recently pointed out on French radio, what we think are direct memories are often memories of memories, retained by constant replay. The best teachers’ lessons are meted out over a lifetime. Which is not to say that Oates wasn’t already meting them out in 1980. After I submitted a short story in which I confessed to committing “slow suicides,” she handed me an essay she’d written, “The Art of Suicide,” not a how-to-manual but a critique of famous self-immolators: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath….Her main point was that as one can’t desire a void, for the Suicide – she used it as a noun – the wish “I want to die” is really a stand-in for something else: “I want you to love me,” “I want to you to listen to me….” Three years later another Princeton professor, Robert Fagles, would walk into Tragedy class one afternoon with a Washington Post article about a college student who had killed himself after reading the Oresteia… in his translation. Holding the clipping in one hand and tapping the book gently with the other and looking each of us in the eyes, he declared, carefully enunciating each word in his tender, resonant cadence: “I want to be sure you understand what this tale is about.” When I interviewed Fagles about his new Oedipus translation the next year for the Times, he would explain: “Oedipus had to be burned to a crisp in order to emerge whole again.” My own thinking on the ultimate existential question – Albert Camus called it the only question —  has evolved, following the 2015 Paris suicide of filmmaker Chantal Akerman,  who once built a play around the letters between Plath and her mother, to consider the possibility that when an artist chooses to end her life, it may just be a creative way to formulate a period. Or to breach a threshold. And that we should allow these liberators of our own souls their franchise.)

As childhood memories go, I have only two of my parents together before they split up when I was 12. An electrical storm is rattling our isolated house off Bohan-Dillon Road in rural Northern California, and Dad is late returning from a visit to the Pomo reservation, reached only by a treacherous mountain road. When he finally bursts in, drenched, Mom clutches him desperately, like a fisherman’s bride embracing an errant sailor presumed lost to the sea’s caprices. (From the reservation I also remember a succulent pig roasting on a dripping spit and the Great Chicken Pox Epidemic of 1969, which started with the Indian children and terminated with my baby brother’s pink-speckled body dangling from my mom’s arms. Now that I’ve shared Jordan’s most intimate moment of affliction — to cop a term from another Princeton prof. — here’s mine:  Being bitten on the penis by a tic while climbing the cliffs above the totem pole guarding the Timber Cove Inn, which explains my aversion for going cepes hunting with my neighbor in the South of France five decades later.)

My other memory of Mom and Dad together is of them hiking on a mountain above the Tamales Bay ranch where Hans and Dina Angress (her family hid him out in Holland during the war) hosted their annual herring festival with the dozens of children they’d adopted: Smoked herring, pickled herring, barbecued herring, fried herring, herring-shaped bread, salt-water herring taffy. (When the herring festival wasn’t on, we’d beg mom to stop at the Stewart General Store across from Fort Ross, an old Russian bastion overlooking the ocean, for beef jerky.) Dad in his broad tan cowboy hat is carefully explaining something to Mom, not looking at her, as she purses her lips and stares down at the dry brown weeds. (They would separate soon afterwards.) I resume flirting with a mulatto girl from a local school I retrieved every year on the volleyball court, not the first mulatto girl I’d fall in love with.

balthus five Les Enfants Blanchard smallBalthus, “The Blanchard Children,” 1937. Oil on canvas, 125 x 130 cm. Musée national Picasso-Paris.  Donation of Picasso’s inheritors, 1973/1978. © Balthus.  Photo: RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau Blanchard.

My courting of Christine LaMar that same school year, 1972-73 (also when my first cat, Kristen, was mauled to death by the O’Neils’ German Sheppard), was confined to stare-out contests across the aisle of the 24 Divisadero, until she blindsided me one morning by boarding the bus at Market wearing dark glasses. Deciding it was time to up the ante, I dedicated my first, handwritten novel, “The Problem Cops,” about a police duo who took on racial problems, to her. I also dedicated my ping-pong victories to Christine, announcing to my brother Aaron and best friend Eric before every match over our basement table: “I dedicate this game to Christine LaMar. If I win, I will be __ and __ . If I lose, I will be….” By the time Christine broke my heart by announcing that she was transferring to another school, I was able to declare, through tears not abated by a buttermilk donut, “If I win, I will be 187 and 9,” my final tally. It took so many dry-runs to summon the courage to call Christine and ask her out that I still recall her phone number as faithfully as Jenny’s (from the song: 867-5309): 587 – _ _ _ _. When in 1994 we organized a reunion for Rooftop – our alternative public school, one of the city’s first, was relegated to the roof of another school — I was devastated to learn that Christine had told the classmate charged with calling up other alumni that she wouldn’t be coming, as she couldn’t remember anyone. I did: Besides Christine, Monica Woo, Maura Iaconi, and Kathy D., skipping up to Jackson Park for our lunch break in a red sweater and white skirt, a beret holding back her straight brown hair, and with whom I used to exchange the kind of teasing that among 11-year-olds is another form of flirting. (Also from the lunch breaks, I recall the most popular teacher, Ernie Baumgarten — who often came to school wearing the mask of our mascot, King Kong — laying on the grass with his ear glued to a transistor to follow the Watergate hearings. At the reunion, in a Fort Mason barrack overlooking the bay, after catching up with some of us, now in our ‘30s, Ernie would commiserate, “I know that many of you are still struggling.”) I’d fall for Kathy again eight years later, in 1981 – I remember the year because we saw “Atlantic City” together, Burt Lancaster ogling Susan Sarandon bathing her naked arms with lemon juice – when she was bobbing her hair and, as often seemed to be the case that year in Noe Valley, weighing her sexual orientation. (Though this observation may be my way of processing her lack of romantic interest in me.) When I next had news of Kathy, she was trundling Agnes DeMille around Greenwich Village and living at the aging choreographer’s pad at 11th and 5th, in the same building where Duchamp schemed up R. Mutt and turned a toilet into art. When I last saw her, in 1991, it was at the memorial service for her brother, who had killed himself. Her eyes were as luminous as ever. The only Rooftop girl I ever kissed was Kerry Baum, who with Gio Coppola, Francis’s son, had formed the school’s Bopsy Twins. I’d later interview Gio’s brother Roman – who’d produced one of the first films to exploit ‘70s nostalgia, “The Spirit of ’76,” in which Olivia d’Abo time-travels back to the era and falls in love with David Cassidy – and open my interview with his mom, Eleanor, on her “Making of Apocalypse Now” documentary, by conveying my condolences on the loss of Gio, killed after being bopped on the head by a mast while sailing with Ryan O’Neal’s boy. Another Rooftopper, Chris Perry,  would grow up to be the first person I knew to die of AIDS, which I learned of while doing a story on the Quilt in 1991 and discovering his name on a panel.

Once we’d debarked from the 24 and scaled the six flights of stairs to Rooftop, school would start with Morning Circle, a chorus of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” followed by share-time. (I’d soon be studying auto-harp at his son Jodie Guthrie’s house,

balthus the card party smallBalthus, “The Card Party,” 1948-50. Oil on canvas, 140 x 194 cm. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid © Balthus.

forcing my instructor to teach me “Your Daddy’s Home,” and, later in Paris, would chow down with Woody’s daughter Nora.)  At one Morning Circle, a long-haired, freckle-faced kid named Aaron Burg divulged, “I had dried cat food for breakfast this morning. It’s actually quite good!” Another Aaron, my brother, signed his school picture to me that year, “Love, Aaron W..” And yet another would help launch my show-business career. A reporter for an about kids, by kids local t.v. show, “Whatchamacallit,” Aaron Wolf anchored a segment on Rooftop in which he said all we did was sit around reading comic books. (Actually, we made them. And Super-8 movies about vampire-heroes set to the theme from “Mission Impossible.” And tape-recorded Watergate spoofs in which I played Nixon: “Mitchell’s thinking of spilling the beans.” In 1985, regaining consciousness in the emergency room after passing out in the Herod-scale sunken mosaic bathtub of my dad and step-mom’s home while immersed in Swiss bubbles from her shop, Common Scents – I’d been nervous about a first date with an older woman, or maybe it was Kennedy’s bullet, the dread that anything can end when it’s only just begun — when the good-looking doctor asked me who the president was, I answered, “It’s not Nixon, is it?”) When “Whatchamacallit” refused to let us rebut, we decided to start our own show, What’s New With Kids?, which ran on radio station KPOO. (If you don’t like the news, make some of your own.) This lead to my being invited to audition for a new t.v. show, Kidswatch, and this oracular rejection note: “You seemed more like the brains behind the talent than an actual on the air personality.” But the Wolfs weren’t through with me yet. In 9th-grade drama, Aaron’s dreamy sister Naomi would play Roxanne to my Cyrano before she went on to play Rasputin to Al Gore, turning him into a girly-man with the image make-over that inadvertently launched a war and landed me on the front-page of France’s Communist paper, leading an American contingent demonstrating in Paris against the Iraq invasion in 2003.

shahn civil rights small

From the Arts Voyager archives: Ben Shahn, “Civil Rights March.” Copyright Ben Shahn.

Despite retaining all this minutia (I left out Inca Robbins’s nose-ring, marching with my mom against the war in 1966, and betraying the 25th Street Gang for the Jersey Street Gang, lured by Roxanne Sanchez), I have no other memories of my parents together from this period. Which is not to say I don’t have other charged souvenirs from the year we spent in Timber Cove in 1969: Knocking Aaron unconscious for four seconds; Aaron and I erecting our own fort in a cluster of trees overlooking the Pacific, and the set of Children’s Encyclopedias we stowed there getting water-logged; our discovering a typewriter in the secret attic that ringed the house; the towering redwoods outside our  room’s window whose foliage I made into faces; Aaron whining “Lemme go to sleep!” when I would not stop talking; looking under the bed for simians from “Planet of the Apes”; and obstinately refusing to return to school after glimpsing the slip of Mrs. Klein, who taught the lower grades in our little red schoolhouse of 40 kids. (I also associate a leather belt with this memory.)

PWI91668

Balthus, “The Cherry Tree,” 1940. Oil on wood,  92 x 72.9 cm. Roman Family, London. Copyright Balthus.

The upper grade teacher and principal, Mr. Cash, was run out of town at rifle-point after holding all the kids with brown eyes after school one day and all the kids with blue eyes the next to teach them about racism. (Which is not to say that racism was confined to rural California. Back at Alvarado School in Noe Valley the next year, 1970, I remember our work on the schoolyard mosaic mural – supervised by Ruth Asawa, the Japanese-American artist whose World War II imprisonment had taught her the importance of education – being interrupted one afternoon by the cry “A fight, a fight, a nigger and a white!”)

balthus la rue smallBalthus, “La Rue,” 1933. Oil on canvas, 195 x 240 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of James Thrall Soby. ©Balthus. Photo: 2018. Digital image, Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. Note the thick-licked, drugged-looking Black – or Arab — man assaulting the white girl, as everyone else goes blithely about their business.

From Timber Cove, I also remember plastering wine bottles with papier-maché to turn them into candle-stick holders as Christmas presents for my parents, and walking into the woods to chop down the biggest Christmas tree we’d ever had, so tall we had to carry it lengthwise to get it through the doorway. And Linda Murphy, our first teacher at Fort Ross, with her shoulder-length curly blonde tresses, handing out plastic blue raincoats the same Christmas and leading us in singing “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” And clinging to the mountainside along a narrow path teetering over a creek at the end of the year picnic, thinking that’s the first life I owe when I didn’t slip and plunge into the water.

I remember how privileged I felt when Miss Stettner, my kindergarten and second-grade teacher back in Noe Valley, came to visit us in Timber Cove. I have a distinct memory of her fording the rocks along the coast with her boyfriend in her knee-high black boots. (Retrieving Miss Stettner in 1991 teaching at a school where I was working in the after-school program, I would betray her request not to tell our common charges that she’d been my teacher, which she then denied. Joan Baez would have a similar Thanks for making me feel old reaction when, during a 1987 interview, I told her how my mom had introduced me to her at my first concert, by Bob Dylan, when I was four.) I remember refusing to traverse the field that lead to George Bohan’s house, even in my brand-new bicycle, because it was infested with wasps. And playing with our astronaut doll, Matt Mason, in an arroyo where we also discovered Pomo arrow-heads.  (Our pacifist parents wouldn’t let us have GI Joes or even cap guns. Back in Noe Valley, my best friend and his little brother had solved this dilemma by torching GI Joe and launching him from the roof of their garage.)

ruthnude2 smal

From the Arts Voyager archives: Ruth Asawa, “Nude.” Lithograph, 1965. Courtesy     Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

I remember returning to the woods to find the makings for a kipa for Cousin Jane and Martin’s wedding at the Timber Cove house, transformed into Fontainebleau West with all of Jane’s parents, step and birth, flown in from Boca Raton. (10 years later my mom’s young cousin, divorced from Martin, would in her turn guide me to another threshold. Seeing Camus looking out from the orange cover of Germaine Brée’s biography on the bookshelf of her Greenwich Village high-rise, and strolling on the Prospect Heights boardwalk with Jane — coquette in an orange blouse tucked into a short late-summer white dress — and her older friend Earl, a Hemingway biographer, the week before I started Princeton made me feel like I’d intellectually arrived. Even if finding a copy of “Mein Kampf” on the desk of my new roommate, Gordon Humbert Jones III, next to his neatly folded ROTC uniform made me wonder exactly where. No torching Gordon Humbert Jones III and tossing him off the roof of Princeton Inn College.) And making another kipa in the woods with Tracy Wedemeyer, who had been my girlfriend ever since we had neighboring cribs at Marin General, and the confidences we exchanged under our makeshift wedding bough. “You pick your nose too!?” (When Aaron married a Catholic girl in 1992, the red-nosed priest would let them install a kipa in the altar and crush the sacramental wine glasses with their feet. Which accommodation didn’t prevent four Jewish boys, me, Jordan, Eric, and my mom’s first ex-boyfriend Ralph – Jordan had once burst into the bedroom and cried “You’re not my daddy! What are you doing in my mommy’s bed?”  – from squirming uncomfortably when the priest began talking about the blood of Christ.) At nine, after Tracy’s family moved to Berkeley, I’d buy her a plastic engagement ring at Mr. Mopp’s. At 13, I’d have my first date as a teenager with Tracy, trying the old stretching arm around the chair and back maneuver, prompting her to lean forward in her seat in the theater where we were watching Tina Turner or Anne-Margaret bathe herself in baked beans in “Tommy,” on a double-bill with “Alice’s Restaurant.” (Where, yet another Guthrie promised, “You can get anything you want…’ceptin’ Alice.”) From the playmate who used to bite and scratch me up (“Come with me to Nursery School,” published in 1970, features a photo of Tracy using her feet to defend her swing from a pair of boys under the caption: “It’s important to take turns. Can you tell whose turn it is now?” and another of me determinedly climbing up a tree),Tracy had metamorphosed into a svelte, bronze-skinned California Girl with long straight blonde hair. When I last had news of her, she was married to a CBS Records vice-president and living in Venice Beach. When I last saw her, it was my 14th birthday, and we were both perched on the cusp of adulthood.

balthus 1 therese smallBalthus, “Thérèse,” 1938. Oil on carton on wood,  100.3 x 81.3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of  Mr. and Mrs. Allan D. Emil, with William S. Lieberman, 1987. ©Balthus. Photo ©2018. Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence.

For my third birthday, Tracy’s father Bill had given me what is now the oldest object I still possess, Ben Shahn’s illustrated book of Wallace Berry’s poem “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three”: “We know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now.” To which Bill had added an equally poignant inscription: “Years from now, you will learn of this event….  It often brings sadness, and perhaps despair, to the minds of some men, to witness the deeds of others. There are times when the goals of men seem to be so opposed to that dream of men that some of our minds hold, that indeed man seems lost. That this little book exists is a ray of proof that from this despair, beauty can still be born.” The dedication is signed “Bill, Patty (Tracy’s mom), Tracy, Bill again (her kid brother), and Breathless,” Breathless being the Wedemeyers’ Saint-Bernard. (And a sobriquet I now realize, in Francophile retrospect, may have been inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s 1959 film, at a 2003 Paris screening of which I was the only one in the audience to laugh when Jean-Paul Belmondo exhaled cigarette smoke after he’d already expired.)

Oh Breathless, where are you now?

dad timber cove smallChild is the father of the man: Ed Winer and his three sons Aaron, Jordan, and Paul behind the house on Bohan-Dillon Road, Halloween 1969. (The red strips of felt are for devils.) Photo: Eva Wise (then Winer).

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Fall River Legend: Remembering Eileen Darby — She happened to like New York

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2014, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on November 5, 2014. Eileen Darby — pillar of the dance world, star of publishing, exemplary human being, treasured mother, dedicated friend, the spitting image of Claudette Colbert with a dash of Shirley MacLaine circa “The Appartment” thrown in — died three years ago today.

When I received the news that my friend, my mentor in life and work (we met in 1995 when she was the advertising director of Dance magazine, and she’s been the Dance Insider’s advisor since its founding in 1998), my guide, my ‘repere’ of first resort, my rock, my model for the realization of the New York fairy tale Eileen Darby had passed away, my first thought — after the shock and upset, and I am still in shock, I don’t think I’ve yet realized that Eileen is gone, it’s surreal even to be writing this, as it’s the sort of piece I would send to Eileen before anyone else for input and approval — was that Eileen would have frowned at the euphemism ‘passed away,’ as she did whenever I used it in an obituary. “Just say ‘died’!” And even the first word that comes to mind to describe Eileen — ‘class’ — is one at which she would grimace. “‘Class’ is a word used by those who don’t have it. It’s cheap.” As in, “Classy Chassy Cassie” — George Raft to waitress Ann Sheridan as she turns to pour coffee for him and Humphrey Bogart in “They Drive by Night.” And speaking of coffee, Eileen, who liked to make hers in a French press (they’re actually made in Switzerland), added the touch of stirring the grinds up to better distribute and dissimulate the flavor, a gesture I’d copy early mornings in the narrow kitchen of her spacious two-bedroom on the 8th floor of Peter Cooper, while looking out the window at the green and white road signs along the FDR Drive set against the backdrop of the East River, where Gatsby’s Green Light was mirrored by a purple neon palm tree (“Tacky!” sighed Eileen) on the deck of one of the private boats docked near the heliport: the quintessential New York scene, the New York of my dreams, which always signified this prodigal’s return to the city, Eileen’s pad the traditional gateway as she hosted me for a couple of nights after my ‘aterrisage.’ (Mornings ideally leavened by the best bagels in the world from nearby Essa’s on 21st & First; that Eileen could not eat gluten didn’t stop her from lugging a dozen of them uptown to the Literary Brownstone I was cat/house-sitting at for a bountiful back terrace 50th birthday brunch in 2010.)

During the nine years that I lived in France, our tradition was that I’d call Eileen right before my parties for last-minute aperitif advice, famously including one year her recipe for Oysters Rockefeller, but the best advice was when she counseled me to make everything ahead of time so that I could actually mingle with my guests and enjoy the party; we also liked to argue over the most authentic recipe for Manhattans (rye-based, with bourbon a suitable back-up). Even the anonymously bleak red-brown brick buildings of Peter Cooper (in which Bogie also made his swan song, as a down-and-out press agent who resided there in “The Harder they Fall”; Eileen always kept good company — or maybe it’s the other way around) — no one would ever think to break in here, Eileen pointed out — concealed, more than the occasional material treasure, a rich cosmopolitan life, above all intellectual. Early in her New York career, Eileen worked for the Modern Language Association, forming friendships with a literary coterie (some of whom would grow up to become essential elements of the city’s intellectual nucleus) that would last a lifetime. It’s this association more than Madison Avenue (or, as another pillar of that nucleus John Leonard wrote in “The Naked Martini,” “the canyons of lower Lexington”) — she spent most of her professional life in advertising and marketing, starting out with Annenberg’s Gourmet and Good Food magazines — that defined her mental life. (Sitting next to Joyce Carol Oates at a dinner organized by one of these figures, Eileen gave me a much needed ego boost by reporting that when she mentioned she was friends with one of the prodigious novelist’s former Princeton students, Oates remembered me.)

If I’ve put off writing this ‘memoriam’ — Eileen died September 27 — it’s because it means recognizing that Eileen is gone.

After my return to New York in 2010, our get-togethers usually involved Cosmos mixed by Eileen in her apartment. (Paul: “It’s fine, but could I have an ice cube?” Eileen, while fetching ice cube in its own petite glass tea-cup from the fridge: “I never use plastic ice trays, because the plastic leaches into the ice.” Grandfather-clock-sized cuckoo clock in entree-way with a different bird popping out of its trunk every hour: “Tweet! Tweet!”) En route to Eileen’s I sometimes stopped for a slice of $1 pizza at the corner of 23rd and Park, really just an excuse to have a NY moment as I chomped the slice down while gazing uptown at the Chrysler Building. I seized another gem of a moment one early morning in 2012 while transferring from Greenpoint digs to Eileen’s place, drinking my thermos coffee on the boardwalk while gazing across the river at Brooklyn; the evening before, on the type of vanishing ramshackle pier you used to be able to access by climbing through an improvised hole in a wire fence made by other pioneers, I looked across the river from the other side at the sprawling Peter Cooper buildings and tried to reconnoiter Eileen’s place to toast her. On my last visit to her place, push/wheeling my luggage from Penn Station south and eastward, I paused in an anonymous parking lot off 7th avenue to munch a slice of whole wheat bread and cheddar while contemplating the water towers set against the grey-charcoal late-summer sky; never mind if I was getting doused by a downpour — I felt euphoric to be on my way to Eileen’s and a much more elevated air.) I felt a bit guilty about always inviting myself over as opposed to inviting Eileen out, but really, who could desire a more idyllic New York scene than drinking Cosmos while overlooking the East River from Eileen’s vast windows, the shelves on the opposite side of the room crammed with the genre of books that marked the second half of the 20th as the New York socio-politico-literary century? It also allowed us to ‘control’ the environment.

Even if, by her own admission, Eileen did not go out a lot in her final years in New York, she insisted that she liked knowing that it — it being New York — was there if she wanted to take advantage of the city’s myriad stimulations. (When she did go out, she usually had adventures. On one blustery New York late afternoon of the type that turns the city’s belly into the vortex of a canyon, Eileen’s response to a woman who stopped her to compliment her tan beret was to give it to her.) Sometimes Eileen would order Chinese food delivered for our confabs and insist I take the leftovers with me; sometimes she’d cook up a Portuguese specialty stew combining pork, beans, and usually sweet potatoes or yams. We consumed these feasts on a simple, huge but elegant light mahogany rectangular table which Eileen proudly boasted was built by hand by her late second husband Roger, as manually adept as he was mentally sharp. (Eileen insisted that her daughter Diane, about whom she also never stopped boasting, got her smarts from her father, but, ‘Mom’s math’ not withstanding, I’m sure a healthy dose came from her sharp mother, not so incidentally a ‘numbers-cruncher’ sans pareil, who helped make the owners of Dance magazine rich.) The table (long enough so that Eileen could keep her work papers on one end and dine on the other) was one of the few things she took with her when she moved from New York to Miami Beach to be with Diane, along with Beat era paintings that she and her first husband, Jimmy, had collected in the late 1950s ‘at the scene’ in San Francisco, where they met at Enrico’s or another North Beach club. (Jimmy would later work at the Old Spaghetti Factory.) Another in Jimmy’s party was courting Eileen, but Jimmy took his time and persisted, and they ended up together. I think Eileen never stopped loving Jimmy (she might refine that to just appreciating the adventures they had together). I liked the synchronicity between that Jimmy was the first president of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady, and that from 1995 to 2001 I lived next door to the legendary recording studio on W. 8th Street, where my favorite singer, Carly Simon, also recorded her early albums “Carly Simon” and “Anticipation.” (Another synchronicity: Carly’s children played with Diane when they were neighbors on the Upper West Side.) It seems that Eileen and Jimmy were everywhere where the Scene was being created in the late ’50s and early ’60s — they probably helped create those scenes in San Francisco and Greenwich Village (not to mention Ebiza), where they rented the classic cold-water flat for $25 a week. It’s no accident that when Hollywood tried to make a movie musical about the Village at that time, they called it “My Sister Eileen.” (Later Eileen would visualize, and she and Roger would subsequently — consequently? — find, the brownstone of their dreams, complete with yard. Eileen was sure she was psychic, and the many many times she anticipated what I was going to say confirmed this gift.) As far as Roger was concerned, she appreciated that when he accepted an executive post with Metropolitan Life, his condition was that his (by then ex-) wife Eileen and daughter would get the apartment in Peter Cooper, then owned by the insurance company. “He wanted to make sure we were taken care of — that’s the kind of man he was.” This is typical Eileen; far from harboring rancor towards her exes, she appreciated how they’d enriched her life and that of her daughter. She also didn’t waste negative energy on those who might have exasperated the rest of us. If it’s true that on the political level Eileen didn’t ‘suffer fools gladly,’ as a colleague has recalled (nor on a societal level; looking out her window on the FDR Drive, packed at NY’s extended rush hour, she’d excoriate the commuters who gassed up the planet instead of taking public transportation), when confronting a fool face to face, her advice was to smile and say “Thank you” or “That’s nice.” It wasn’t so much that Eileen believed in turning the other cheek, but that here too, she didn’t like to waste energy.

Much as she herself made fun of it, Eileen’s practical side was also revealed in little manias like insisting that the guest unfortunate enough to spill water on her floor be made to traipse over it afterwards with paper towels under his stockinged feet while maintaining his glass on a paper plate to avoid recidivism. And her practical-political side was revealed during elections. In the Bush era of lock-step banana Republicans, she campaigned relentlessly under the banner of “Vote Party!” While her contemporaries were e-mailing silly jokes to their friends and colleagues, Eileen’s solution to the Times’s segregating Krugman and Hebert behind a pay-wall was to share their columns with her circle. But if Eileen was a liberal, she was not opposed to having fun. When she treated me to Cosmos and Manhattans during Christmas 2010 at Smith & Wolensky’s, a favorite since her Annenberg years when she’d entertain clients there, I was not at all surprised that a man 20 years her junior tried to pick her up. Partly because of her gluten-free diet, Eileen had the energy and sparkle of a woman 30 years younger; if it sounds strange to be shocked and stunned at the sudden death of someone 78 years old, it should be pointed out that, notwithstanding her self-deprecating comments that she was becoming batty in her dotage, Eileen hadn’t yet passed through the ‘elderly’ and decrepit stage. Which, fortunately, didn’t mean she never talked about her childhood; I remember and carry forward her memories of Star the goat on her grandparents’ farm, a farm ‘right in the middle of a city,’ in this case Fall River; of a father, born at the turn of the last century, who, marking the ingenuity he’d bequeath to his sons Raymond (“so smart”) and Billy (“perpetually handsome, always with a dazzling younger woman on his arm” — Eileen) and their ‘little sister,’ turned to manufacturing all sorts of parts (related to fire-arms for the military, I believe) at the outbreak of World War II. Too old to serve, he still wanted to be ‘useful.’ When Eileen wanted to move to New York City, instead of trying to bar the way, her family moved with her, setting up shop in New Jersey. They were not misguided in wanting to keep an eye on her as little sister soon became the bell of the Gotham ball; one night, even Knick star Walt Frazer turned from basketball court dazzle to dazzling courtship, ultimately escorting her home in a taxi.

Eileen’s allure (which no doubt owed something to the regal Cabral blood from Portugal, which reference I’ll also use as an excuse to vaunt her hand-made Portuguese tea-cups, a pair of which she gave me) — and smarts — were eventually passed on to Diane. Eileen wasn’t just automatically proud of Diane because a mother should be; I have a feeling she’d have remarked her brilliance even if they weren’t related. That they were merely gave her bragging rights — never empty, but always supported by the beyond-her-years observations Diane had made since childhood and the School of Ethical Culture. But she was just as apt to point out that Diane had studied with Chomsky at MIT as that Diane is the kind of intelligent, intrepid, and resourceful woman who sometimes scares insecure (and sexist) men away, because she can do anything; she once took apart and repaired the engine of a glass-bottomed boat stalled in the middle of the Everglades.

I am sure that Diane is hurting now, and all I can offer is some inadequately anodyne second-hand words of guidance:

**After she moved to Miami Beach, Eileen never stopped saying how happy she was to be near her daughter.

**When you have a problem you can’t resolve, let your brain continue to work on it overnight while you’re sleeping.

** (This might apply to me more than Diane, but… just in case:) Whatever it is, no matter how bad it feels, it won’t last.

** You’re better than that.

** You’re gorgeous *and* smart.

** If it pleases you, don’t deprive yourself of the occasional trip to the Azores, dear to Eileen.

In December 1996, a colleague invited me to a New Year’s Eve party on E. 4th Street. I’d been complaining to her that I never met any women. I told another female friend about the party. Meanwhile, I started the evening at a holiday party hosted by a pal of Eileen’s in Chelsea, a tranquil event with some of Eileen’s older and, let’s say, more staid friends, and Diane. When I was about to leave for the East Village fete, Diane gave me a look as if to say “Get me out of here!” (a comment not on her mom, nor her mom’s friends, but on what even Eileen admitted was the relative tameness of her friends’ New Year’s parties). When we walked into my friend’s fiesta, where my other female buddy and one of her girlfriends had already arrived and introduced themselves as “friends of Paul,’ the hostess took one look at me, entering the party accompanied by the instantly most stunning woman in the room, and burst out laughing, my complaint now seeming ludicrous.

We capped the evening by dancing at an anonymous club in the wall at the corner of Avenue B and 7th. What I remember most about Diane that evening is her calm and repose. I know that, having already lost her father, Diane must be living the most turbulent moments of her life right now. My wish for her is that, without forgetting, she find assurance, if not solace — where is the solace in such a profound loss? — in that repose which is still within her somewhere. That she know that she will continue to make her mother proud — or, if you prefer, to live a life that would make her mother proud. And for the future, if I can be so bold and presumptuous, I think her mom would want for her that she is able to find a way, without giving up the tropical climes so important to her, to be surrounded by, or at least have some smart people in her life. (I think Eileen would have similar advice for her nieces, Caroline, whose independence as a teenager on her own in Paris she never stopped vaunting, and Susan, whose smartness she also frequently praised.) Because the fools are plenty, the sages few.

PS: Wondering whether to use ‘wise’ instead of ‘sage’ reminded me of another citation from Eileen which I have often had resort to. It’s from W.B. Yeats, concerns ‘wise love,’ and (paraphrasing) goes something like this:

In wise love, the beloved, refusing to see the daily self of the other, sees his higher self, and reflects it back to him.

For myself, I’ll remember a brilliant Summer Day in 2012 when, the light suffusing 23rd Street as I made my way Eastward towards the river through the throngs and past the second-hand stores to Peter Cooper for Cosmos with Eileen, I was never happier.

Eileen, you really hit the nail on the wall!