“What’s Dachau?”: Passing Over With Pilobolus Dance Theater & Sendak

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on April 19, 2000. The principal subject of this Flash — and the question above — is, unfortunately, still relevant today, in the wake of the 13 anti-Semitic terrorist attacks which have taken place in the New York metropolitan area alone over the past several weeks, at least one of them, at a Kosher deli in Jersey City, with deadly results. Today’s publication, in this revised version, is sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. (As an indication of how the DI primed exploiting the nascent Internet medium to provide our readers with supplementary information with an immediacy print couldn’t provide, we’ve included the original external links. If they no longer work, please address the sources. We also primed overnight “Flash Reviews”; the one below was written on three hours sleep after a midnight train from Jersey to NY, probably for a 7 a.m. deadline before which I — and our redoubtable webmistress Robin Hoffman — also had to edit and post two other Flashes. So to paraphrase Kate Bush: Be kind to my longeur.)

PRINCETON, N.J. — March 16, a gallery opening in Chelsea: I stand before a photograph called “Wall of Death, Dachau.” The middle-aged woman besides me asks her friend: “What’s Dachau?” April 11, a courtroom in London: British “historian” David Irving loses his libel case against U.S. author Deborah Lipstadt, who he accused of falsely portraying him as a Holocaust denier. Irving claims no Jews were gassed at Auschwitz and that Hitler didn’t know about the mass killings of Jews. April 12, the Metropolitan Museum: Museum director Philippe de Montebello releases an extraordinary list of 393 European paintings of “incomplete provenance” from the World War II era. Notwithstanding de Montebello’s statement that “this is not a list of suspect pictures,” the action is in response to recent outings of works in prominent museums alleged to have been stolen from Jews by the Nazis. April 18, 4:30 p.m., Princeton: Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, tells an audience about the “intolerable trauma that occurs when the imagination experiences a chasm without the intellectual… ability to scan it.” 9:10 p.m., Princeton: Pilobolus, Maurice Sendak, and Arthur Yorinks try to give us a language, in dance and drama and pictures, to understand the Holocaust, reprising their 1999 dance “A Selection” at the McCarter Theater.

What makes “A Selection” troubling — and provides its intellectual girth — is that, for much of the dance, anyway, who the villain is is not clear. On the surface, it must be Otis Cook, a slithery, rubbery, twisted, earthy, perverted, deranged figure who enters ominously, a coat over his head, after the rest of the personae, a sort of family, have missed the last train out of the war-torn city indicated by Sendak’s backdrop of a city aflame, evoking the landscape of Chagall’s “White Jesus.” One by one, Cook tries to separate individuals from the group: giving money to Josie Coyoc’s little girl, obsessively trying to shake hands with a suspicious Gaspard Louis, making a move on the personnage who might be the mother of the group, Rebecca Anderson. Only Matt Kent, as a father figure, seems to sense Cook’s evil.

Kent tries to wrestle Coyoc away from Cook, but the rescuing becomes a brutal one. He swings her around by her ankles, which she stops only by — even as he is still swinging her — grafting onto him first with her knees, then grabbing his torso with her arms. He chases her, and she takes refuge, brilliantly, in the huddled group — Cook, Anderson, Louis, and Benjamin Pring. It’s a serious game of hide-and-seek, Pilobolus-style: Kent scurries behind the group; Coyoc’s head sticks out between two legs in front, upside-down. He sticks an arm into the group; his arm, impossibly elongated, juts out the other side. Her hair protrudes out of the top of this circle, but the bald Cook droops the hair over his pate as if it’s his. Then Kent pulls the hair, and Coyoc, out of her hiding place.

Later — or maybe, actually, it was earlier — Kent placed a possibly unconscious Cook on an operating table and, bare-handed, sliced into his abdomen. His arm bore deeper and deeper, until his hand emerged out of Cook’s mouth. Getting nothing, he then sucked –kissed? — Cook’s stomach. When I saw this dance premiere last summer at the Joyce, this is where the ambiguity kicked in; if Cook is the villain and Kent the innocent Jew, then why is Kent carving up Cook, Mengele-style? Other questions emerged, too: If Cook is the villain, then why is he dressed in what looks like the baggy garb of a concentration camp prisoner? If Kent is the victim, then why does his pursuit of Coyoc — which we at first think might be motivated by wanting to get her out of the clutches of Cook — almost turn brutal?

There are other factors that ambiguize whether Cook is victim or persecutor. He seems a mental case and, perhaps, a homosexual — both groups that were also persecuted by the Nazis. He does a goose-step at one point early on, but is it committed or a mockery?

And yet, on last night’s viewing, the ending couldn’t be more clear. Kent and Anderson are stripped naked by Cook who, suddenly, appears above them and upstage, majestically ordering the naked couple into one line, and the other three into another. One line for the gas chamber, one for the work camps is the more than implied. Cook’s groin-gear cinches it: on his front, a jester’s head covers the crotch; on his rear, a bigger clown head mocks us with a flapping tongue. Blackout.

On second viewing, then, I think I can at least hazard a guess about the meaning of the apparent ambiguity. Cook’s main objective, at first, seems to be to touch everyone. At one point he massages his crotch with his hand and then smells it ecstatically before eagerly thrusting the hand at others. My guess is that perhaps what the creators of the piece are saying is that evil is an infection, and can infect even the victims. (Cook also suggests a Capo, the Jewish concentration camp prisoners who collaborated with the Nazis.) How else to explain Kent’s mean-ness, and even some ambiguity in the other characters (when Kent is stripped, Anderson gathers his clothes and stuffs them into a suitcase)?

Choreographically, what stands out here is the troupe’s (in collaboration with Sendak and Yorinks’s) ability to invent still-new combinations with its inventive phrases. At one point, Coyoc stands astride — on deck?! — Cook who, flat, seems to glide across the stage. She also stands on Pring’s stomach as he arches himself London-bridge style.

The great irony in Pilobolus, these days, is that while it continues to find newly evocative ways to use that vocabulary in its serious works which, if anything, are getting even deeper and more complex — the 1997 men’s quartet “Gnomen” being another example — its comic pieces seem to this veteran Pilobolus-watcher, in a word, stale. Retro in a decidedly uncool way, last year’s “Uno, Dos, Tray” concerns two leering sailor types’ pursuit of a sexy (sorry, no other word here for the choreographic conceit), saucy waitress. They fixate on her ass; they feel it with their eyes closed, only to discover that they’re feeling each other’s – hardy-har-har; they go to kiss her only to kiss each other. This is comedy that is neither sophisticated, original, or wacky, and borders on the misogynist, notwithstanding that it was choreographed by a woman, Allison Chase, in collaboration with Coyoc (the woman last night), Anderson, Cook, Kent, Louis, and Pring. (A kudo is in order here, by the way; I think most choreographers create in collaboration with the dancers; Pilobolus and Momix are two of the only companies that officially acknowledge this debt. And while we’re on that subject, the Pilobolus directors who worked on “A Selection” were Robby Barnett, Michael Tracy, and Jonathan Wolken, along with Sendak and Yorinks. All the dancers in the piece, mentioned above, are credited as collaborators on the piece.)

The 1999 solo “Femme Noir,” also choreographed by Chase, in collaboration with Anderson and with Rebecca Stenn, while interestingly lit by Stephen Strawbridge and well-danced by Anderson (you can also see the influence of the droll Stenn, a previous Dance Insider contributor, in some of her inflections), is similarly unremarkable and based on a dated, stereotypical humour. Okay, there’s a large sombrero involved, but its use is only mildly amusing.

But there’s another problem that these works, as well as the spastically veering (Comedy? Nightmare?) 1998 “Apoplexy” have in common: Paul Sullivan’s music. Sullivan’s fantasy scores, the ones that are amalgams of spacey New Age trippy music and comic sounds — “Gnomen” is a good example, and I believe he also did the elegiac 1996 “Aeros” and the ominous and tragic “Land’s Edge” — are wonderful and Pilobolus-appropriate. My understanding of the relationship here is that Sullivan comes in after the work has been set, and creates a sound for it.

But where Sullivan’s scores seem anemic is when he imitates a particular style of music. In “Apoplexy,” for instance, when the work was being created, I’m told, the dancers worked/played to real heavy metal music, something like Metallica. But instead of just using that music, the company then commissioned a heavy metal-like score from Sullivan. (To be fair, the trippy stuff and sound effects are involved too, so maybe they had to have an original score.) Remember those ’70s television shows where they’d use faux-hip “rock-and-roll” to try to seem hip? It’s kind of like that. Or, to employ another analogy, the Latinesque music for “Uno, Dos, Tray” sounds like something you’d create on your Casio. Even the piano on “Femme Noir” is so faux Chopin that one has to ask, why not just use the original?

I press this point because when Pilobolus does set to existing music, its musicality is almost an unrivalled achievement. High praise, but what I mean is that even when creating with an unorthodox vocabulary, the directors and dancers are able to achieve a specific, multi-level musicality; sometimes it’s on the notes, and sometimes it’s to the spirit, but it’s always remarkably musical. Even the choice of music itself often has a deeper significance. “A Selection,” for example, is set to the music of Hans Krasa and Pavel Haas. According to the program notes, both were highly-regarded young composers when, in 1938, the Nazis branded their work “Degenerate Music,” putting them in very good company, but starting them on the road to destruction. They were interned first in Teresienstadt, a so-called model concentration camp (Irving would have loved it) in Terezin, Czechoslovakia used to hold up a sort of false front of concentration camp reality to the international public. (Alongside Sendak’s “The Wild Things” and “Chicken Soup with Rice” in the library with which our parents nourished our imaginations was “I never saw another butterfly,” a book of poems and drawings by children interned in the camp.) Let me just turn it over to the program notes: “There they continued, with varying difficulty, to write music until being deported to Auschwitz. They traveled to their deaths together on October 16, 1944. It would be accurate to say that the setting of this work has been inevitably shaped by a response to their music and their lives.”

The 1992 (’94?) “Women’s Duet” is another example of the Pilobolus choreographers having the chops to find movement that matches the most exotic and evocative of musics. To “Rosenfale,” based on Norwegian songs, arranged by Jan Garbarek and sung by Agnes Buen Garna, they created an erotically, sensuously charged duet in which the relationship of the women is ambiguous: they might be sisters, might be lovers, might be mother and daughter, might be simply friends. Many are the choreographers who are drawn to exotica; few are those with the skill to create dance at the same high level as the music, but Pilobolus can do this.

And then there’s “Sweet Purgatory,” set to a stirring Shostakovich string quartet. Created around the time of Stalin’s purges, this music is powerful, cutting, and melancholic, bespeaking some kind of horror, or Shostakovich’s reaction to horror. When the American Dance Festival brought the piece to Russia a few years ago, audiences wept. Part of this response was due to the music, certainly, and their knowledge of what it meant when it was created; but if the dance had been inadequate, just a surface match to the music, the response would not have been felt so deep.

And again, the brilliance of both the entwined, supportive, inter-dependent choreography and the dancing in “Sweet Pea,” as it’s affectionately referred to by the performers, is that it matches the music specifically and in capturing its overall spirit. So powerfully, in fact, that when I’ve seen others attempt to create to this music — and a couple have tried to in the past couple of years, including David Brown of Monte/Brown Dance — I can’t even see their dance, but can only see and feel “Sweet Pea.”

So where does this leave us? With a company that, I think — talking now on three hours sleep, folks, after having taking the last trains (you take the Dinky at the WaWa to the junction for the big train) from Princeton to Penn Station! — is, simultaneously, an under-achiever in its recent attempts at humour, and the standard-bearer for serious dance work. (For more on this, see my Flash Review of April 3: Getting Piazzolla.) Modern, ballet — no one is creating work at this high level of musical and dramatic achievement. And, most blessedly, COMPLEXITY. Pilobolus is to most seriously-themed narrative dance like foreign films are to American flicks. Sure, the Pils prompt a visceral reaction, but the other part of their uniqueness in dance today is that they make you think — not just about dance, but about life, history, and the human psyche. And that they don’t provide easy answers. More like riddles.

Okay, I’ve found at least a temporary answer to the riddle. It strikes me — having returned from a place, Princeton, that was the site of some of both my own high thinking and undergraduate shenanigans — that this company founded by Dartmouth folks still has in its kernel the heavy and light sides of a college milieu. They can annoy you with their sophomoric hi-jinks one day, and the next astound you with a cerebral achievement that makes you think things you never thought before, and introduces questions that continue to germinate in your mind. And reminds you why you admitted them to your school in the first place!

And we need art like this, so we don’t forget.

…. As well as testimony. Here is one bit of that, a poem called “The Garden” written by Franta Bass, a child who perished in the Holocaust, and who wrote the following while interned in Terezin. It’s collected in a Holocaust classic I referred to above, “I never saw another butterfly: Children’s drawings and poems from Terezin concentration camp, 1942-1944.” (Schocken Books, 1978) Appropriate, I think — as was “A Selection” — for Passover, which starts at sundown today.

A little garden,
Fragrant and full of roses.
The path is narrow
And a little boy walks along it.

A little boy, a sweet boy,
Like that growing blossom.
When the blossom comes to bloom,
The little boy will be no more.

(Pilobolus’s Princeton season concludes tonight, with its signature “Day Two” substituting for “A Selection.” Pilobolus purists take note: Tonight’s a “family program,” meaning no nudity and you’ll have to settle for those dreaded flesh-toned “Esthers,” as the dancers refer to them. For more info on tour dates go to http://www.pilobolus.com.)

(To see the list of paintings released by the Met, go to http://www.metmuseum.org/news/index.htm. To read more about the David Irving case, click here.)

When Helen Keller lifted Merce, & more danced stories from Martha at Mother

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI on March 2, 2000. Today’s republication sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. To read more about the late Pilobolus dancer Rebecca Jung, click here.

NEW YORK — The first time I saw Merce Cunningham perform his “Chair Dance” a couple of years ago, I cried. (I know, some of you probably think I cry all the time, but really, it’s only death, Merce, Pina, New York City Ballet, and loves that might have been that drive me to tears, and not all for the same reason. Drop me a line at artsvoyager@gmail.com and I’ll shoot you the appropriate Flash Reviews and love letters.) It was partly Merce’s powerful presence, partly that he shook when he walked. I imagine I would also cry in the presence of G-d, and Merce is the dance equivalent. The dance was entirely tasteful; Merce at 78 didn’t choreograph for himself as if he were 38. It was made for a 78-year-old, and one who shakes when he walks at that. It was an act of generosity more than one of vainglory by an aging trooper who refuses to leave the stage. When I saw Alicia Alonso, the great Cuban ballerina, dance a “chair dance” at 74 or so – here, in Fokine’s “Spectre de la Rose” — I regretted it immediately. Not having seen Alonso in her prime, this enfeebled, blind ghost was how I would remember her. Last night, Merce reprised his chair dance for Martha at Mother, the occasional dance revue at a tiny Meatpacking district bar (Mother), hosted by faux Martha Graham Richard Move. (Though officially, she leaves the “Graham” off for legal reasons.) Standing at the rear of the tiny space, I cried again, tears that linger still.

Merce, however, was not crying. He showed more bonhomie than I would have, being interviewed by a drag queen channeling the woman for whom Merce was the second male dancer. “You look like someone I know,” he told Move before recalling various experiences with the real Martha. Most memorable: A visit to the studio by Helen Keller, who asked Martha if she could touch a dancer. Martha asked Merce to stand at the barre. When Keller held him around the waist and lifted him, Merce recalled, she said he felt “as light as the mind.”

As for Merce’s dancing Wednesday night, well. His “Chair Dance” at 78 entailed some movements around the chair and some in it, and a lot of hand stuff and some footwork. The shaking became part of the choreography. Last night, it was as if Merce’s landscape continues to shrink. (That’s a compliment.) We saw a face ballet at times; the eyes seemed almost to shut at points, and the face opened into a warm, cherubic grin.

The one sour point for me was Move’s presuming to perform with Merce at the end of the dance. I thank him and Janet Stapleton for bringing Merce to their event, but I thought it over-moxie for Move to dance with him; it presents them as equals, and they’re not.

A more successful collaboration was the premiere of a video created by Charles Atlas and Cunningham, which gave us a Merce’s-eye view of Paris, during a recent Cunningham tour. The camera appeared mounted on Merce, who also narrated, bemusedly.

Isaac Mizrahi MC’d the performance by Move’s company that opened the evening. Particularly sharp in this ersatz Graham troupe was a dancer who reminded me of a young Rebecca Jung, the former Pilobolus stalwart. Looking at my program now….Oh, it was Rebecca Jung. (Funny how time blurs the memory.) The ersatz bothers me–my concern is that people who don’t know the real McCoy will think that Graham was just about melodrama, when her psychodrama rings very true. But judging from the number of Graham insiders on stage–Donlin Foreman also performed last night–as well as other dance insiders in the audience (Baryshnikov among them), I’m probably in the minority on this.

The Futurist Anarchist Funeral is Now

orsay carraFrom the exhibition Félix Fénéon, Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse, on view at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris through January 27 before moving to the Museum of Modern Art in the Spring: Carlo Carrà (1881-1966), “Les Funérailles de l’anarchiste Galli (the anarchist Galli’s funeral),” 1910-1911. Oil on canvas, 198.7 x 259.1 cm. New York, Museum of Modern Art, bequest of Lillie P. Bliss (exchange), 1948. Photo ©Paige Knight. In the entry for Angelo Galli (1883-1906), in his “Dictionnaire de l’Anarchie” (Albin Michel, 2008), Michel Ragon writes: “Brother of Alessandro Galli, stabbed to death by a guard at the factory where he’d gone to check on strike-breakers on May 10, 1906. During his funeral procession, joined by an exalted crowd, violent scuffles broke out with the mounted troops. The painter Carlo Carrà, who at the time frequented the anarchist milieus, found himself among the crowd and, moved by the mass demonstration, the violence of the brawls with the police, the black oriflammes being brandished and the shrouds covered with red eyelets, painted in remembrance one of the most astonishing Futurist tableaux…,” of a mammoth scale, exposed to great success in Paris, London, and Berlin in 1912. A contributor to the newspaper Il Tempo upon its founding in 1918, on March 8, 1910 (as Guillaume Apollinaire would note in Le Petit Bleue on February 9, 1912), Carrà joined Umberto Boccioni, the poet Filippo Marinetti, and a handful of others on the stage of the Chiarella theater in Turin to deliver the Futurist Manifesto, in their words “a long cry of revolt against academic art, against museums, against the rule of professors, of archeologists, of …. antique dealers…..” Fist-fights and cane battles immediately broke out, Apollinaire noted, the “great audience tumult” only ending when the police intervened. (Guillaume Apollinaire, “Chroniques d’Art,” Gallimard, Paris,  1960.) For more on anarchists and unionists from Michel Ragon, click here. For more Ragon on art — exclusively on the Dance Insider and Arts Voyager — click here.

But First, a Bullfight: The Eisenstein Connection–Que Viva Kirstein! (& Mekas)

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 3019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on February 11, 2000, grace of my father Edward Winer, who passed away  this past December 7.

NEW YORK — One evening in 1933, a young man was thrown out of the New School auditorium in Manhattan after he rose to protest a showing of Sergei Eisenstein’s “Thunder Over Mexico.” The man was Lincoln Kirstein, who would later co-found the New York City Ballet with George Balanchine, and he was objecting because he knew that this copy of the film, a much-truncated extract from over 200 reels Eisenstein shot in Mexico, totally went against the legendary Russian filmmaker’s plan for “Que Viva Mexico!,” his panoramic history of Mexican civilization.

Kirstein had sat in a small projection room in New York with Eisenstein and his colleagues, Alexandrov and Tisse, a year earlier and listened as the three watched and commented upon 30 of these reels. In an article in the April 1932 issue of Arts Weekly (included in “By, With, To, & From: a Lincoln Kirstein Reader,” edited by Nicholas Jenkins), Kirstein had warned, “If anything should happen to ‘Que Viva Mexico!’ between now and the time it is cut and shown to rob it of Eisenstein’s final fingering, it would be a loss of staggering dimensions. There are no catalogues of the Alexandrian Library which Caesar’s fire ignited, and we have only the Rubens copy to show us what Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari may have been. For us their loss would have been less crippling than this film of the heart of a consciousness, this testimony of extreme distinction.”

By early 1932, Eisenstein’s backers had pulled out, and his stop in New York, where he would try to edit the rushes, was one last attempt — as Jenkins tells it — “to retain control of his film.” From the wreckage, some smaller films were created, pale shadows of the master’s intentions. This is what had broken Kirstein’s heart. He would have been heartened, then, to be in the audience at Anthology Film Archives Thursday, for a generous four-hour showing of raw “Que Viva Mexico!” footage, assembled 45 years ago by the Museum of Modern Art’s Jay Leyda and Manfred Kirchheimer. (The footage had been donated to the museum by Upton Sinclair, who with his wife had brought together the film’s original backers.)

I should pause here to explain what Kirstein means to folks like me — i.e., the non-dancers in the dance field. If dancers have their Nijinskys and Pavlovas, their Nureyevs and Fonteyns as role models, we in the dance auxiliary identify with people like Serge Diaghilev, producer of the Ballet Russes; Kirstein; and, today, Charles Reinhart, the co-director of the American Dance Festival. As someone who was drawn to dance, and particularly ballet, not because I’m a dancer but, in part, because I love good art, Diaghilev and Kirstein have a particular appeal because of their demonstrated interest in, and support of, not just dance but the visual arts. Diaghilev not only used the leading Cubist painters in the ballets he produced; he also started his own art magazine, “The World of Art,” just before the turn-of-the-last-century. Kirstein’s interest in visual art, and particularly sculpture, is widely known. But I had no idea until my dad gave me the reader, and I learned of Kirstein’s closeness to the promotion of the Eisenstein film, of how passionate he was about this medium as well.

Last Saturday, I stumbled into a showing at the Drawing Center in Soho of a hundred or so original DRAWINGS by Eisenstein (including one of a sinuous “Harlem snake dancer”). While there, I learned that Anthology would be showing the ‘Que Viva’ footage, which Leyda assembled to summarize Eisenstein’s intentions for the epic.

So I hied myself to Jonas Mekas’s treasure of an ongoing, public film archive in the East Village to look for Kirstein. I thought that if it was important to him, it had to be important to me. What I didn’t figure on was that this material would be so obviously a matter of movement.

Much of the first half of what I saw (I only stayed for part one — hey, I’ve been Flashing three nights straight!) was almost ALL about movement. (Confession: The film was also screened without a soundtrack, testing my ADHD-challenged concentration capability.) One section is a study of a Via Delarosa march by Indians that is subtly intertwined with indigenous tradition. Hundreds of Indian men retrace Christ’s arduous road, all but the few Christ enactors within their ranks walking on their haunches; that’s right, hunched. The road, the climb seem unending. There is definitely a rhythm here. Like “Serenade” — the first ballet Balanchine created in America — there is also a story, with rites. And canon!

“Serenade” ends with the ballerina being hoisted on the shoulders of her comrades and carried offstage. The prologue of “Que Viva Mexico!”, at least what we saw, is mostly taken up with bare-chested Indian males carrying the casket of a fallen compatriot down a mountain.

But the heart of what I saw last night –and the most dancey material — deals with bull-fighting, gruesomely real and hokily imagined.

First we are shown actual footage of a real bullfight. A picador gores a bull; a bull gores a picador’s horse. The matadors (? I get the human sadists in the bull-ring mixed up) then poke the bull with banderoles (these have flowers on one end, and hooked blades on the other), which stick out of his skin as he continues to try to fight them. Then we are treated to many takes of each of various aspects of the bullfight recreated by Eisenstein. We get a bull’s eye perspective, as we view the matador from atop an obviously phony bull’s head, seeing the matador from between his horns. Truly comic fodder, as is a surprisingly modern sequence in which a dapper and obviously older, and light-skinned, male spectator, dallies with a dark-skinned younger man.

The most purely balletic section is the lengthy footage of the paso mariposa (or butterfly pass) to which, a subtitle explains, Eisenstein “planned to give…special attention,” perhaps “for its resemblance to ballet.” One can see why: The bullfighter, facing his quarry, splays his cape behind him so that he appears to have wings on either side. He flits back and forth with lots of fancy footwork, moving backwards as the bull charges, then whips the cape over the head of the animal — who also dances. It’s total ballet. (Eisenstein’s plan was to have Dmitri Shostakovich score this film, to Indian and Latin themes. One can imagine how splendidly the Russian composer would have treated this intense section.)

Indeed, in a very human sense, the footage I saw indicates that much of this film is very balletic. Prior to seeing it, I wasn’t necessarily expecting a dance film; even such a ballet monument as Lincoln Kirstein has a right to have other interests, after all. And, as a non-dancer involved in dance, it’s Kirstein’s very catholicity of passionate pursuits that appeals to me. But I don’t think it’s too much of an extrapolation to guess that, as he sat with Eisenstein and his colleagues in that small projection room in 1932, at least one of the reasons Kirstein found “Que Viva Mexico!” “an absorbing experience” was Eisenstein’s capturing of how movement expresses culture. This same belief, I would guess, would seventeen years later help convince Kirstein of the need for a New York City Ballet — for U.S. American culture to be expressed through movement as well.

‘Up Your Ass’: Solanas @ PS 122 — No Factory Retread from Warhol shooter

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI on February 9, 2001. Today’s re-publication sponsored by Freespace Dance.

NEW YORK — The woman who shot Andy Warhol fired another shot from the grave last night on the stage of P.S. 122, with the New York premiere, 36 years after she wrote it, of “Up Your Ass.” Valerie Solanas’s protean agit-prop treatise, which received its world premiere only last year from San Francisco’s George Coates Performance Works, would have heralded the arrival of a major political satirist in 1965 had it not been lost by Warhol and posterity for so long. Presented in 2001, however, and surprisingly, it is more than contemporary: Where much proto-feminist theater and dance these days, by artists young enough to be Solanas’s daughter or even granddaughter, is just so much screaming, Solanas delivers her punches with constant hits to the funny-bone as well, making any sexist accusations of “man-hater” secondary. “Up Your Ass,” while it doesn’t hold back, holds up first and foremost as powerful artistic expression. While much has been made about how this play predates Solanas’s “SCUM Manifesto,” a seminal feminist work, “Up Your Ass” stands on its own as a piece of sharp theater and a model, perhaps, for, not a kinder, gentler feminist didacticism, but one with artistic teeth to match its political bite.

The background, briefly: Solanas submitted her manuscript, one of only two copies, to Warhol in 1965, hoping he would produce it. Instead, he lost it and, so the legend goes, it was her rage over this treatment of her script that prompted her to shoot him. Warhol’s copy was discovered after both protagonists had died, in a box under some film lighting equipment, by Billy Name. “Up Your Ass” premiered January 12 of last year in San Francisco, a few blocks from the Tenderloin hotel where Solanas spent her last hours in 1988, dying of pneumonia.

“Up Your Ass,” which might be subtitled Bongi’s adventures in hetero-macho land, is the best kind of romp — one with bite; and the best kind of screed — one with satiric chops. Coates, a performance art institution in the City by the Bay, has certainly highlighted the humor by setting much of the script to karioki (with such rock & soul standards as “Let’s Get it On,” “Because the Night,” “Fever,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” and “White Rabbit” getting new lyrics. This last becomes the score for a belly dance, “Celebration Dance: A Dance for a Turd,” the turd being on the maenu of a dinner party not for a husband to eat, but for his supplicating wife, because, she explains, “everyone knows men have so much more respect for women who are good at eating up shit.”)

Did I say men? There’s only one male actor in Coates’s production, which is not to say there’s only one male character. A chameleon cast of eight women essay a variety of men, women, and everything in between. Two actresses, Tina Marie Murray and Annie Larson, even portray men who then get dressed up in drag as women, the ensuing hilarity including a mind-fucking moment in which Larson chides Murray for sitting down with her/his/her legs spread and all but revealing the family jewels. Their hilarious banter also offers this line from Larson: “I despise men. You know, what I’d like to be is a lesbian — than I could be the cake and eat it too.”

At the serious heart of “Up Your Ass” is Bongi Perez, a “queer” — in quotes because, as another reviewer has pointed out, Solanas was using this term proudly before it became the vogue among queers to do so, and when much of the Queer Nation was still in the closet — and a prostitute. Perez, some reviewers have said, is Solanas’s stand-in. “I’m so female, I’m subversive,” Sara Moore’s Bongi tells Mantra Plonsey’s Russell, a smooth hubby who brandishes a whole raw squid before singing “I don’t fuck, I make love,” to the tune of “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You.” But when Russell agrees to make an exception in Bongi’s case and have a quickie after she tempts him by opening her fly, she turns the tables on the man and fucks him in the butt.

Did you catch that? Note that I said, “after she tempts him.” I thought I was just describing what I saw, but really, all I saw was Moore open her fly. “Tempt” implies a motivation — and the motivation a man WOULD see after a woman opens her fly. A woman might see the motivation differently — perhaps, for instance, she was opening her fly to challenge him. I’m thinking of this — of the question of how open, even in supposedly post-feminist 2001, a male critic can truly be to receiving this work on its own terms, as opposed to through a defensive lens — after reading a review from the late San Francisco Examiner which was included in the press kit.

In his January 14, 2000 review, Robert Hurwitt described Bongi as “a dyspeptic lesbian hooker who delights in degrading her male johns and coming on to any woman who crosses her path. An androgynous figure in black leather jacket and trousers, she spends most of the evening casually injecting man-hating quips — many of them very funny — into the dialogue.”

Hmmm. Let’s break-down that paragraph, shall we?

In just about every line, Hurwitt describes Bongi not on her own terms, but in how her identity leaves her relating to males. She is a LESBIAN (unavailable to men for sex), a HOOKER (well, sort of available), who delights in degrading MALES WHO WANT TO PAY HER FOR SEX, and who COMES ON TO ANY WOMAN (not coming on to MEN.). To hear Hurwitt tell it, her dialogue consists almost entirely of MAN-HATING words.

Well, I beg to differ. Longtime DI readers will know that my man-hater radar is as sensitive as any Joe’s. And yet when I look at Bongi, at least as Moore’s portrayed her, I see a woman — yes, a woman, not an androgen — who, despite views she has acquired after what has obviously been some bitter experience, is still out there engaging with the world. She does accept a square woman’s invitation for dinner; she banters jocularly with an Ed Nortonesque typical hubba-hubba male; and she answers the square woman (Leanne Borghesi)’s belly dance with her own “dance of the seven towels,” plus her “modernistic fan dance. I use an electric fan.”

Indeed, if we look at the author for whom Bongi is a stand in, even as the work itself stands as a proof of her subversion, still, to try to get it out in the world, she was left relying on a man, Warhol.

Warhol is dead now, and so is Solanas. A man, Coates, certainly has brought her work back to life — enabled, of course, by a fine female cast! — but, based on the Examiner review, it seems to me that the male critical hegemony will still try to dismiss it. Hurwitt lead his article by dismissing “Up Your Ass” as “far from a masterpiece,” and saying it is “scarcely well written enough to be an interesting artifact of mid-’60s proto-feminism, let alone a work of art worth a man’s life.” He also said that “The Fuss is more than a little overdone.”

Again, I beg to differ.

I’m sure that male critics like Hurwitt would like nothing more than for “Up Your Ass” to have stayed under the nice glass case in the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, where Coates first saw it. Male critics, hell; the alumni magazine of Princeton University (edited by a woman) which arrived in my mailbox this week has, as its cover story, a fawning tribute to an alum who’s gone on to edit Maxim magazine, where a woman’s greatest value is her breasts.

Point? You may have come a long way, baby, but we as a society still have a long way to go before Eve is fully defined beyond being one form or another of Adam’s rib. Far from being a museum piece, Valerie Solanas’s “Up Your Ass” is a clarion call. NOT a clarion call for how to hate men and make it funny, but a call for how woman artists who want to continue Solanas’s fight — and folks, it ain’t over yet! — can do so with a form of high art that, because of the very humor which gives it mass appeal, has the power to truly subvert our male-centric system and move it closer to equality.

Solanas, finally, has come a long way, even if it took too long. Linda Moran, her sister, told last night’s audience after the curtain, “Valerie never had a memorial service. I think this is the most appropriate place to have the memorial. I consider this a memorial.”

“Up Your Ass” continues at P.S. 122 through February 25. The all-killer, no-filler cast also includes veteran comic Karen Ripley (in a hilarious Home-Ec send-up which concludes with a lesson in how-to-fuck-your-man), Chantel Lucier, Allison Hennessy, Sharon Boggs, and Eddy Falconer. For more info, please visit P.S. 122’s web site.

Special thanks to Rosa Mei for her valuable input on this article.

I am not ‘Explicit’: All the Nimoy Nudes too Fat to Print for the Gray Lady

nimoy fat

An image by Leonard Nimoy from his Full Body Project, from its exhibition at the R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts. Photo copyright Leonard Nimoy and courtesy R. Michelson Galleries.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2007, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

“Any time there is a fat person onstage as anything besides the butt of a joke, it’s political. Add physical movement, then dance, then sexuality and you have a revolutionary act.”              
— Heather MacAllister, founder and artistic director, the Original Fat-Bottom Revue, and subject of photographer Leonard Nimoy’s Full Body Project book and exhibit.

First published on the Dance Insider on May 15, 2007. To learn how you can obtain your own copy of our archive of more than 2,000 reviews by 150 artist-critics of performances, films, exhibitions, and books from five continents published on the DI /AV since 1998, as well as PB-I’s Buzz column of rants, raves, and news, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

PARIS — In my recent Flash Journal from this city of light, reporting on the physical discomfort inflicted on the audience by two successive programs from Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s company Rosas, I noted that even without a pain factor many non-dance-world people, particularly in the United States, are already uncomfortable with dance, and that a likely explanation for this is their discomfort with their own bodies. This discomfort didn’t come from nowhere; it has many causal agents, one of which is the media’s treatment of the body. Take the New York Times’s prudish coverage (in more than one sense of the word) Sunday of photographer Leonard Nimoy’s new Full Body Project, a photography story (never mind that the Times mis-filed the piece under ‘fashion’) in which the photographs could not be fully shown because, reporter Abby Ellin noted, “Their explicitness prevents the images from being reprinted here.”

Why?

Why as a reporter can’t you show the readers what you’re talking about?

Why is nudity from an artist presented in an artistic context explicit? Particularly when there is no sex involved. If appropriately applied to pornography, this word has no place describing the human body en soi.

Why does the Gray Lady — which some would posit as the most sophisticated newspaper in the United States — turn pale when it comes to treating its readers as adults, who are able to accept that in a story about photographs of nude full-bodied women it makes sense to present the photographs of the nude full-bodied women? Why does the Times instead choose to infantilize its audience by photographing the artist standing in front of the least revealing photo the paper could find, and even then with the artist’s head concealing the model’s breast?

Ah! It’s the children, the Times might say; we’re a family newspaper! We know adults can take this, but what about the kids? Well, I hate to play the Europe card, but I have news for you: I am currently looking at the cover of Le Monde 2, the Sunday magazine of France’s largest newspaper, from February 16, 2004. It features ballerina Sylvie Guillem, in all the splendor of her naked glory, in the air, balancing on a camera balanced on a tripod — in a self-portrait. True, in the cover photo, a profile view, Guillem’s long trellises cover part of her breasts. But in the — very artistic — portfolio inside the magazine, also taken by the dancer herself, they are not obscured. Might these photos titillate some readers? Perhaps. But titillation was not the intent of either the artist nor the subject (in this case the same person). The intent was simply to reveal herself — “at the risk of displeasing” the reader, as Le Monde put it in the cover line. (The etoile also appears to be wearing no make-up; thus for a performer, she is truly naked.) If someone part of whose business is creating physical beauty felt vulnerable to this risk, imagine, then, the risk taken by the women in Nimoy’s Full Body Project — not because they’re fat but because, well, who among us civilians is comfortable baring ourselves like this — no cover, no dissimulation? Neither they — nor the photographic artist — deserve the shame implied by the Times’s suggestion that they were doing something ‘explicit,’ with all the dirtyness that connotes in American society. The shame here is not on the models nor the artists, but on the Times.  Even moreso when one considers that a newspaper whose promotion of the fictive causes of a real war lead to the deaths of a million innocents has no moral authority to imply that art created by innocents is profane.

And bringing it back to dance, and the discomfort many feel with it, there’s a correlation: In Europe, where there’s no, or anyway less shame associated with the body, dance houses are typically full; the language is not alien to people outside the dance world’s rarefied circle. As opposed to the United States, where dance is treated as the poor sister (the Times doesn’t even see fit to list its dance stories on the Home page of its web site), here in Europe it’s not just part of the culture; it’s got a place of honor in the culture.

Dance also has a direct relation to joy. Take a look at the Leonard Nimoy image we’ve reprinted on this page, inspired by Matisse’s painting “La Danse (I).” Is this about explicitness, or is this about joy — and body-pride?

I wish that in deciding whether to include unadulterated images in its story on his artistic and morally estimable project, the Times would have been guided less by its archaic ‘standards’ and more by Leonard Nimoy’s words to the Times reporter:

“The average American woman, according to articles I’ve read, weighs 25% more than the models who are showing the clothes they are being sold…. So, most women will not be able to look like those models. But they’re being presented with clothes, cosmetics, surgery, diet pills, diet programs, therapy, with the idea that they can aspire to look like those people. It’s a big, big industry. Billions of dollars. And the cruelest part of it is that these women are being told, ‘You don’t look right.'”

For dancers, whether aspiring or working, the implications are double.

Leonard Nimoy’s Full Body Project was published in 2007, and exhibited October 25 – December 15 of that year at the R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts.