I grew up around dairy farmers and all they talked about were cows. My uncles Garth and Wilbur were keen observers of what we now call “group dynamics”. If a cow didn’t like who was standing next to them in their stall, they would bitch and moan and the whole herd would stop giving milk. To keep the cows happy, an enormous amount of time and energy went into close observation of their individual personalities. When the right order was in place and cows were next to other cows that they respected and got along with, milk ran like a river.
It was truly mysterious why cows liked or didn’t like each other. A new cow would come into the herd and be everybody’s best friend. Another cow would arrive and get bullied. Certain cows had excellent social skills but weren’t liked. Others were socially tone deaf and hugely popular. Each cow had a very specific emotional profile. Some were grounded, some were not. Some liked country music – others liked show tunes. There were “Ringo” cows – around whom high-strung cows would relax and “Yoko” cows – who would endlessly connive to sow discord. Some cows were “introverts” and refused to leave their stalls until coaxed and reassured. Other “extrovert” cows would stand in front of the herd primping and drawing attention with heroic bovine poses. There was at least one cow in every herd who had a severe narcissistic disorder . In our herd this “diva cow” was Flossie, who would break into a hissy fit at the drop of a hat. If she didn’t like the way another cow was looking at her or if a cigarette butt hadn’t been picked up off the cow path, she would stop the whole show. Anything infintesimally wrong, anything at all – would result in her locking her legs and bellowing like a car alarm.
From a lifetime of experience, my Uncles knew that you could have a lot of ideas about how you wanted cows to be. You could try to train them into some kind of a behavioral structure, but the truth of the matter was that if you wanted milk, you had to check your ego at the herd. It was by far better to respond to Flossie’s caterwauling with fawning attention – “My dearest Flossie! Is there a speck of dust in your oats? How could I have ever been so thoughtless! Let me get rid of it right now!!!” – than to chastise her, and shut the whole herd down.
The truth of the matter was that Flossie was doing your work for you. She was an early warning signal that let you know of issues and problems only a diva cow could sense, before they became real trouble . Flossie’s “attitude problem” was a gift.
After graduating from High School in the early 70s, I joined a small modern dance company in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The Canadian government had quite a bit of money back then and many of our dances were commissions from New York choreographers. In the spring – at the very end of our season, we went on an ‘outpost tour’ of remote settlements – bouncing across the vast expanse of northern Canada in a little plane to perform for for miners, oilmen, natives and government administrators.
Our first performance was in Churchill, Manitoba, which is on the southernmost tip of Hudson’s Bay. The audience that night was full – about 300 souls – comprised almost entirely of natives from the Cree nation. For the big finale we performed ‘Country Music’ choreographed by Sophie Maslow to Cajun music by Doug Kershaw. The boys were dressed in brightly colored one strap overalls covered with fringe that made us look like big puffed up monkeys. The girls were wearing ‘Dollie Mae’ outfits with polka dot halter tops and briefs covered with fringe. They also looked like monkeys. It was a really light piece – A fun battle of the sexes! – and we had smiles pasted on our faces the whole time. The only respite from the festivities was a sad solo I performed called “Lonesome Rubin”. Outcast and alone I be-wept my miserable state to the forlorn sound of railway horns and banjos. At the end of the solo I had regained my spirits and was happy again! – performing jumps, tricks, and a variety of multiple pirouettes. “Country Music” had been our crowd stopper. People loved it. That night as we reached the final moments of the work the whole cast was putting out massive amounts of fizzy, entertainment energy. The music whipped into a frenzy and in a final slam- bang tableau, the boys lifted the girls overhead in spectacular lifts. Big air-bite smile and BLACK OUT!
We had performed “Country Music” over a hundred times that year and it had never failed to elicit enthusiastic applause. That night as we got into place in the dark for bows there was not a sound. The lights came up and we bowed in complete silence. The lights went down and we walked off stage without a single person applauding. The audience stood up and quietly walked out.
At the party after the show people seemed genuinely appreciative. They’d liked the show. I asked why no one applauded. A woman explained to me there was no tradition of applause in their tribe. It wasn’t dignified to applaud.
Over the years I have so often been reminded of this moment and how clearly it was illustrated that each culture has it’s own language.
On the way home from Germany, I am dragging an enormous suitcase with broken wheels and lose control. It swivels crazily, bangs against the open subway door and loudly crashes. I crumple into a seat. It’s been a long trip and a long flight. I’m exhausted and coming home.
At Balboa station, a bunch of tech people get into the car. Then at 16th a dozen Chinese guys. We fill up fast. Black guys, Mexicans, women in business suits. It’s rush hour and everybody’s going home. A construction worker covered in dust gets on at Embarcadero. The train makes a screaming noise and we pass under the bay. At Macarthur an old woman with a Hijab squeezes in. I stand up to give her my seat and the train jumps forward. My legs are pinned by the suitcase and I go down face first….a broken Oooooo shuddering from my mouth.
From nowhere, the hands of 10 strangers shoot out to break my fall. My torso, arms and pelvis are supported from every angle. The construction worker has my shoulder. The woman with the Hijab, my right elbow. Nameless others in perfect orchestration slow my downward path and my face stops inches from the floor. I’m pulled back to my feet in a state of exhilaration.
We can’t stop ourselves from doing good. It is automatic. We can’t stop ourselves from reaching out to those who are falling. As much as anything this is our nature. The world is music and we hear each other.
I’d shown some video at the fundraising party and talked about my work. There’d been some interest and a few leads to follow up on. During a break in the action, I wandered down a hallway looking for the bathroom. The house was a collection of white marble buildings nestled into a magisterial hillside. Could you even call it a house? Each room was a ‘pod’ connected to the others by glass walkways. The bathroom was a vast, bare space much larger than my apartment with walls cut from solid basalt. Rather than a sink, a solid gold spigot projected from one corner directly onto the floor where, cut into white marble, was a single drain hole. The toilet, or what I thought was the toilet, was an enigmatic grey cube placed directly in the center of the room. A digital control pad on it’s side flashed indecipherable symbols. The top of it seemed completely solid until a discreet black hole mysteriously appeared with a whisper. It was a very small hole, – a dangerously small hole – clearly not meant for use when standing. I unbuttoned my pants, carefully lined myself up and sat down. Sensing my weight, a small female voice asked how I wanted to end my session – hot air, steam, auto dry, or self dry? I wasn’t sure how to respond. I hadn’t begun my session. I noticed nozzles embedded in the walls. Was I going to get a shower? Faint music drifted in from the party. The little voice asked again how I wanted to end my session. I wasn’t sure. Nothing had happened. The obliquely angled black walls leaned in. Hidden lights in the floor gently pulsed. I was sweating.
It was flop sweat.
I was acutely aware that my natural processes, with their aural and olfactory accompaniment, were painfully out of place. Nothing in this cutting- edged environment induced a state of ‘letting go’. No cues were present encouraging me to relinquish control and get my business done.
My grandmother had a tiny bathroom at the very back of her boarding house painted entirely pink. To get to it, you had to walk down a dark, rickety tool hall where they’d locked up my Grandfathers knives after he’d gone mad. The toilet seat was covered with bright pink terry cloth and there was a picture of Jesus descending from heaven. It embodied everything that is good about bathrooms – being held in a snug, safe place and being encouraged to surrender to higher powers.
The female voice asked again how I wanted to end my session. Was this dialogue really necessary? I could hear the party moving forward. I needed to get back. A violent sucking noise occurred as I stood up and walked out of the room. I found a floor length window, slid it open and went outside. Laughter and voices filtered through the underbrush.
I stepped behind a tree and relieved myself.
© Charles Moulton 2017
In the four weeks that I was the choreographer for Peter Gabriel’s ‘So’ tour in 1986 I didn’t make any choreography. My time with Peter was spent driving around in his car talking to him about the divorce he was going through.
Here’s how it worked.
At the end of a show, Peter would be joined onstage by Youssou N’Dour – The Lion of Senegal. Together they would perform Peter’s big hit “Biko”. Half way through, Peter would face backward, stretch his arms out and fall into a crowd of eighteen thousand rabid fans who would pass him around for 10 minutes while the band vamped. Some nights they would pass him back. Some nights they wouldn’t……….in which case roadies would wade into the crowd, pry him loose and return him to the stage – often with his clothes torn off. Peter would sing a final verse, now wearing a cape, then exit stage left where I would join him. As the band continued playing, body guards hustled us to a sub-basement parking lot. When we got there, screaming fans, who had somehow snuck in, would appear from nowhere and sprint directly at us. The body guards covered our heads, picked us off the ground and we surged forward mowing down teen aged girls. Faces taught in ecstasy, they would beg for an autograph before being flattened by our flying wedge. We would get folded into our car and make an exit.
Peter liked to drive around and talk after a show. The combination of noise, chaos and dope smoke got me so high that I couldn’t sleep, but none of this seemed to have any effect on him. He would calmly sip from his thermos while he drove us around town talking about his divorce which was not going well. I was keen to discuss the show and to make something together, but we never rehearsed and other than these chats about his personal life, I spent my days being paid an enormous amount to sit idly at the hotel.
After two weeks with the tour, Peter’s manager instructed me to find Vinnie and get paid. I took the elevator to the penthouse floor of the Boston Four Seasons where we were staying and walked up to room 475. The door was wide open revealing two large beds. On the bed farthest from the door was a pile of hundred dollar bills four feet thick. On the bed closest to the door was an over-sized nickle plated revolver. Soft humming came from the steamy bathroom and a deep smokers voice said – ‘ You must be Cholie’ pronouncing my name without an r so it rhymed with Olie… Vinnie came out of the bathroom wearing a towel and heavy gold chains. ”How much do you get paid Cholie?” he asked without looking at me. I knew guys like Vinnie who ran numbers in my neighborhood in Little Italy. I knew he knew exactly how much I got paid. I told him my day rate. He nodded his chin toward the bed. “Count it out ” he said. The idea of touching any of this money seemed clearly dangerous. “Count it out” he said again, letting me know there would be no argument. I picked up a stack of bills and carefully peeled off my fee, checked it three times and put it on the floor. Without looking up Vinnie said ‘Give yourself a tip” and splashed himself with aftershave. The idea of this seemed truly preposterous. What did Vinnie think was a good tip? 20%. I peeled off additional notes and placed them carefully next to my pile. Vinnie gave my stack a desultory glance, said “You’re a good kid Cholie.” nodded to the door and I left.
In my subsequent weeks with Peter Gabriel nothing happened. It seemed more important for him to have a choreographer around than to have choreography. When we played Madison Square Garden, backstage was aflutter with sports stars and intelligentsia. John McEnroe came to numerous shows as did Nicholas Negroponte and his crew from MIT. Laurie Anderson took the stage to sing along.
Peter Gabriel surrounded himself with interesting people but wasn’t particularly interesting.
This may have been the secret to his success.
Breakfast is the cruelest meal. It lives in a territory between dreams and reality – between night and day. Everyone is a child when they wake up and are granted the indulgences of a child. After breakfast they are adults. No one is spared. In the first scene of the fairy tale the characters are assembled in a cottage deep in the forest sitting around a rough-hewn wooden table. The dappled morning sunlight shines through the windows as they eat oatmeal and discuss how happy they are. They could be farmers, or dwarves or animals that speak. Their identities don’t matter. They are smiling and laughing. They are untouched. Eventually the plot will move forward and terrible things will happen. They will be separated and imprisoned. They will be acted upon in unspeakable ways. But they are safe in this moment.
Nothing bad happens until after breakfast.
Over the course of two weeks I created and shot a dance sequence for Tilda Swinton on the movie Technolust. I’d never experienced anyone with such a combination of tenacity and grace. Through the entire shoot, she worked tirelessly – learning and performing complex choreographic sequences, all the while effortlessly entertaining the cast and crew like a countess at an English garden party. She was effervescent. Her smile, her laugh, her elegant countenance oversaw the entire proceeding. When we weren’t rehearsing or on set shooting, she and I took long walks together, ate meals, went for drinks, discussed films. We spent every waking hour in each other’s company. She lavished attention on me………how clever my drawings were! how insightful my thoughts! “Hallo Everyone!” she would loudly declaim on set – “Charlie has just said the most remarkable thing!” ………..I was special to her, a friend, a collaborator, a confident. I was suffused with light in her presence. I was transfigured.
When the shoot wrapped, we warmly embraced and as she said goodbye handed me a note with her contact information. “Shall we meet in Los Angeles Charlie darling? I’ll be there for a month.”……….then breathlessly…….”Why don’t you come to my place in Scotland? Let’s do a project there!” She clapped her hands in joy as she so often did, kissed me and got into her car.
I called a week later, then sent an email. I was coming to LA. Was she around? Could we get together?
There was no response. And then a second email and further silence.
I never heard from her again.
I’ve thought about this relationship many times and the subsequent weeks-long crash I experienced after hearing nothing from her.
I am all too familiar with the needy and wounded parts of myself that in misguided effort, go out into the world to find an audience and through their adulation, healing. I have worked hard to create a sustaining life for myself. I do not have many friends, but those I do have are real. There was no malfeasance in Tilda Swinton’s action. She didn’t cross personal or professional boundaries. Her power, her stardom and the attention she lavished on me were intoxicating. I lost myself. She was the sun, and I was the center of the world, or so I wanted to believe.
My father came up hard through the depression earning money from the age of eight by tap dancing in his family’s act. They were on the bottom rung of vaudeville—barn dances, Elks Clubs, smokers, anything to turn a buck and keep going. The family wandered through the upper Midwest—Fargo, Duluth, Grand Rapids—doing their act and picking up odd jobs in slaughterhouses and canning factories. If they had money, they’d get a two-room apartment and rent out the extra room to another act. Or they lived in tent towns . . . or in bus stations.
My father had a hardcore show business ethic that was both sad and beautiful to me. His family was in terrible financial straits but the shows were never about money. He used to tell a story about a bird act that he followed in Fargo. The birds were nuts about performing. They loved it. They were so excited before their number that they would squawk and screech and pry at the bars of their cages, trying to get onstage. The act began with the six white cockatoos standing perfectly still on their trainer’s outstretched arms, poised and focused in the glistening spotlight. The birds would do songs. They sang, “Oh yes, we have no bananas.” They did dialogue, jokes and a scene. The audience loved the birds. They would applaud and laugh and whistle. In the grand finale the birds would fly into the air in precise, overlapping patterns. They fluttered out over hopeful upturned faces like a heavenly visitation. For that moment, whatever scrabble-assed depression-era hall they were playing was transformed into a place of beauty and promise.
At the end of the story my father would take a dramatic beat and ask rhetorically, “Who pays the birds?” Then shaking his head slowly from side to side he would say, “No one pays the birds. They perform for love.”
At the time this photo was taken my father was still alive. There was a great deal of pain and estrangement in our relationship then. Still . . . I am wearing the tuxedo he gave to me and I am performing many of the steps that he taught me. On the surface, my tap dancing was nothing like his. He was an entertainer. I was thunderously transgressive, “post modern” and mostly improvising, but our ethics were the same. We performed for love.
Photo: Paul B Goode
The artistic director of the Joffery Ballet, Gerald Arpino, had three wigs: his work wig, which was a sober brown; his casual wig, an insouciant, blond number; and a sleek, jet-black toupee that was reserved for galas. Through rehearsals, meetings, and parties they sat on his head as a testament to the powers of the human imagination.
His black toupee was a flat, shoe-polish black. When he made an entrance into a glittering throng of well-dressed arts supporters every eye was immediately drawn to the negative space floating on his head. It produced a miraculous absence of light–a black hole which, despite themselves, people couldn’t stop looking at. In a room crowded with money and prestige, Arpino’s toupee was a dark ornament at the center of the universe.
Arpino was a wonderful, charming man who made it seem that anything was possible. His wigs were a statement:
“Life is full of difficult homely things. Here is one of them right on my head. As ugliness knows no boundaries so does beauty. I wear this wig as a symbol of our shared ability to transform what is awkward and painful into something that is full of light and hope.”
The wigs he so generously wore were a confirmation that life is what we make of it.
He was an artist of the highest order.
We get in the car and take turns driving until dawn. We need to know that the world won’t be stolen while we’re sleeping. In the darkness, the trees have gone bare from grieving. Some are bent over. Others are trembling. They have loved us and are dying. Janice drifts off and I’m alone behind the wheel listening to their sweet, broken singing. They have always known that the world is vanishing. Yet even as they are dying…..raise their voices in celebration. I have promised to call out for them when they are gone. To search for them in the underworld and hold them in my arms as they have held me. I memorize each tree, each branch, each leaf, each trunk worn smooth with caring. I’ll know their names by heart when we meet in the garden of everything and nothing.
Charles Moulton – June, 2017
In the mid-90s I set a dance to text by David Cale on Baryshnikov’s White Oak Project. It toured, was successful and Misha wanted a new piece. There are inevitably ass-lickers around people like Baryshnikov, but despite his fame and position, he was unaffected, generous and easy to talk to. In addition to his gifts as a dancer Misha was shrewd, insightful and had very good people skills.
To discuss the possibility of a new work, he invited David and me to his mansion on the Palisades overlooking Manhattan. After a wonderful dinner, we moved to his study, a two-story fieldstone structure 20 yards from the main house. The walls were covered with memorabilia—photos, drawings and paintings—each with a personal inscription: “Misha, thank you, I have been transformed by your work.” “Misha, your dancing has changed my life.” These didn’t ring false. I’d stood in line for three days to get into his first performance in the United States in 1974. He was astonishing. His technical virtuosity and sheer artistry so far surpassed what most people had seen that the entire audience gasped and shouted in amazement. There were 27 curtain calls.
Outside, the Hudson River slurred below in the early dark and snow settled in pillowy drifts. He poured us each a brandy. We sat by the fire chatting about this and that . . . his trip to Bankok with Roman Polanski, his nextdoor neighbor Mike Nichols. He showed us the photographs he had taken. Like everything he did, they were superb. Then leaning forward he said in his charming Russian accent, “Well Charlie, what about this new piece?” I don’t smoke cigars, but swept along by the occasion had accepted an extra- large Cohiba. I gagged out a plume of blue smoke and looked at him, trying to speak but my mouth would not open.
Surviving as a choreographer in New York required a never-ending stream of words, a blizzard of arguments, proposals and justifications, all necessary to keep projects moving from inception to completion. All of these words were a lie—a strange parallel fiction. In fact, I never really had any idea of what I was doing in the studio, not a bloody clue. My work was irrational. It just sort of happened in its own way. At the beginning of my career I’d made very elaborate structural underpinning for each piece but now mostly dances made themselves, and the best ones were mistakes. Plans went off the rails, things got out of control and then my collaborators and I would dig in and somehow manage to pull something together. To get by in the system where applications and descriptions were essential, I had imitated those around me and had learned to spew bullshit with the best of them.
Now sitting with Baryshnikov in his snug study, I had forgotten the English language. He sat smoking his cigar, smiling expectantly at me, but I had nothing to say. The silence grew longer and longer. With each moment, I could sense this exciting new project drifting away. The enchanting dinner, the cheery scene by the fire, our intimate moment, all of it was disappearing.
I wish that I’d had the courage to say, “Misha, I have no fucking idea what the new piece will be about. I never have any idea what I’m doing. I go into the studio and something happens.” But I had worked years for this access to Baryshnikov and felt I needed to sell him something, anything. I was eventually able to speak but can’t remember any of it. It was clearly not very convincing. The project didn’t happen and I was crestfallen. I had screwed up in every way—I hadn’t been clever – I hadn’t been irresistible – I hadn’t been anything.
Failure is a necessary part of a career in the arts and search as I did for reasons, it was impossible to know why the project went cold. My lack of a convincing pitch may or may not have had anything to do with it. You just don’t really know. So I crawled back under my rock and licked my wounds as I have so many times. Inevitably another project came up and I moved on.
After graduating from High School in the early 70s, I joined a small modern dance company in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The Canadian government had quite a bit of money back then and many of our dances were commissions from New York choreographers. At the very end of our season in the spring we went on an ‘outpost tour’ of remote settlements. We bounced across the vast expanse of northern Canada in a little plane performing for miners, oilmen, natives and a government administrators.
Our first performance on that tour was in Churchill, Manitoba which is on the southernmost tip of Hudson’s Bay. The audience that night was fairly full – about 300 souls comprised almost entirely of natives from the Cree nation. For the big finale of our show we performed ‘Country Music’ choreographed by Sophie Maslow to Cajun music by Doug Kershaw. The boys were dressed in brightly colored one strap overalls covered with fringe that made us look like big puffed up monkeys. The girls were wearing ‘Dollie Mae’ outfits with polka dot halter tops and briefs covered with fringe. They also looked like monkeys. It was a really light piece – A fun battle of the sexes! We had smiles pasted on our faces the whole time. The only respite from the festivities was a sad solo I performed called “Lonesome Rubin” . Outcast and alone I bewept my miserable state to the forlorn sound of railway horns and banjos. But at the end of the solo – I was happy again! – performing jumps, tricks, and a variety of multiple pirouettes. “Country Music” had been our crowd stopper. People just loved it. That night as we reached the final moments of the work the whole cast was onstage putting out massive amounts of fizzy, entertainment energy. The music whipped into a frenzy and in a final slam bang tableau, the boys lifted the girls high overhead in one armed overhead lifts. Big smile and BLACK OUT!
We had performed “Country Music” over a hundred times that year and it had never failed to elicit enthusiastic applause. That night as we got into place in the dark for bows there was not a single sound. The lights came up and we bowed in complete silence. The lights went down and we walked off stage without a single person applauding. The audience stood up and quietly walked out.
At the party after the show people seemed genuinely appreciative. They’d liked the show. I asked why no one applauded. A woman explained to me there was no tradition of applause in their tribes. It wasn’t dignified to applaud.
Over the years I have so often been reminded of this moment and how clearly it was illustrated that each culture has it’s own language.
I saw the Bolshoi doing Balanchine’s ‘Jewels’ on simulcast Saturday. The Bolshoi men have the best buttocks I’ve ever seen. Every time they turned around (and they turned around a lot) it was like “WOW! Those are great buttocks”. Not only this, but their buttocks were encased in super-white tights that accentuated every twitch and curve. They would all stand facing back in arabesque clenching and unclenching their buttocks and I couldn’t look at anything else. I wonder if what the republicans have been saying is true and I’ve been around gay men too long and I’m turning gay. While I would be proud to be gay, I think it would be sad if I turned gay by falling for emotionally unavailable gay men as I imagined these Bolshoi guys to be.
In general, the dancing in Jewels was pretty good and some of the women were OK ……but the lead girl in Diamonds reminded me of an evil third grade teacher I’d had. It looked like all of the girls were smiling but underneath pretty unhappy. They looked like hungry dogs. The men seemed like they’d been eating just fine.
I started wondering how I would apply for funding if I were applying for Jewels. No question it’s a masterpiece – a supercool dance….. but I wonder how well-fed Caucasian men with great buttocks and starved Caucasian women all dancing around in meaningless patterns, speak to traditionally underserved populations? The whole thing seems so incorrect which is probably why they love it in Russia.
In the early 90s, I was invited to a dinner at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by the the fabulously wealthy Barbara Lee Diamondsteen Speilvogel . Barbara Lee had come to one of my rehearsals at the Joffrey and had expressed interest in my work. She had donated $100,000 to the Met that year and her husband, Carl, couldn’t attend the patron’s dinner so she asked me to go.
My relationship to people with money at this time was difficult. I was around affluent patrons all the time but I was poor. I lived in a 5 flight walk-up and was always in a desperate scramble for cash. To support my work, it was necessary to reach out to individuals with resource but while I did my utmost to curry favor with those who might support me, below the surface I maintained a boiling, low grade resentment. When Barbara Lee called, I had my usual mixed emotions. It was an opportunity for potential bucks but would require a good deal of ass licking.
We arrived at the Met in Barbara Lee’s limosine and wandered up a red carpet to the second floor. The patron’s dinner was a top tier affair with an elite group of movers and shakers noshing and hobnobbing together. The Ambassadors to Japan and Argentina were there. Henry Kissinger was stopping in later for dessert. Philip de Montebello, the then director of the Met, regaled the assembly with the perfect combination of insider knowledge and old world manners . He was an amazing raconteur…one moment talking about the sex life of Michelangelo, the next describing his love of ping pong . He combined perfect social skills and the “just right” playful tone.
The dining tables had been set up inside the museum in front of a grand Spanish sacristy. Wine flowed. People got loose . I did my artist thing – talking to as many people as I could. Eventually dessert arrived – architectural towers of chocolate and iced cream with raspberry sauce, all held in death defying stacks with clever sugar ornaments and nougat skewers. Next to me the wife of the ambassador to Japan began cutting through a crunchy layer of meringue when her fork slipped and her entire dessert plate went ass over tea kettle. It performed a perfect double rotation before landing with a wet smack on the lap of the woman sitting next too her – the Chairwoman of The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. The bodies around the table froze as the poor woman stared down at her $50,000 couturier dress, now slathered in raspberry sauce. In that moment, I felt an evil thrill. I was hoping in that the group would cringe in unison and pull back in horror – that they would be embarrassed, awkward and that the woman herself would be humiliated. “Take that rich people!”……but nothing of the kind happened. As the waiters rushed in for damage control, the Chairwoman let out a laugh of pure magic. The financier sitting next to her said – ‘The same thing happened to my bank last week’. Everyone hooted and yelled in appreciation. The women of the group shuffled protectively around the Chairwoman with napkins. They were warm, self effacing and humorous. Philip de Montebello stood up and said – “Now we really have a party!”. He called for more champagne – then led us up a flight of stairs to the Velasquez exhibit where we took off our shoes, smoked cigars and sang until 5am.
I turned down a ride with Barbara Lee and walked home mulling over how disappointed I was that rich people seemed so skillful, so well adjusted, so happy – and that I felt so poor so needy so awkward……..
It wasn’t until many years later, after much more life had passed that I realized that no matter what socio-economic status someone has, everyone suffers. We are all subject to the same humanness. No one escapes from suffering. It takes different forms for each of us. We all live and we all die.
It is 3am. We are wide awake laying in bed. The terrible images won’t leave us alone. No one can sleep. We will get up and started working. It seems like the only alternative. A single daffy bird begins to sing. It’s still pitch dark. There’s no apparent reason to sing. The dawn is a long way off. Birds are in touch with a lot that we’re not in touch with. They find their way by listening to waves, or the wind, or they read the clouds…. They have some organ that senses the magnetic resonance of the earth. But tonight, it is a single bird that is awake, not a crowd of birds, not a flock. Why this particular bird?
Before going to bed last night, I had a vision. I don’t know if I can really communicate this very well. I imagined that we were camping here. Even though we own this house and have lived her for 5 years …. I imagined that the three of us – Grey Boy, Janice and me – were making camp in this place and that at least for this night – we were OK
For just that moment…….
Charming, gregarious and playful, John Cage seemed to never work. The ringleader of a glittering group of artists, writers and culturati, he was the aesthetic ground upon which the Cunningham Company was founded. In the modest apartment he shared with Merce, he would make lunch, play chess against three opponents simultaneously, drink wine, and laugh his soaring joyful laugh. While we slaved away in the studio, working ourselves to the bone, John would be out picking mushrooms or meeting with Bucky Fuller. He was always having fun.
The day of a show on tour, he would walk around the venue collecting anything that made sound—sticks, tin cans, old paper bags. He would throw the I Ching, then amplify and play these “found instruments”. I brought him bits of dead cactus that I found in the desert surrounding Arcosanti in Arizona. He played the thorns with small watercolor brushes, which made a resonant bell-like sound.
His music didn’t “add up” in any traditional way. There was no emotional climax, no story. It refused definition. Music was about the performer and audience in relation to NOW. It was about being ALIVE. And because everything was music, it seemed as if everyone felt free to join our performances. Two crows mysteriously appeared in the auditorium during a show in Kansas City. Women screamed and fled. Stray dogs wandered onto the stage at an outdoor amphitheater in Israel. The awkward stagehands chased the whining dogs back and forth across the stage creating a bizarre slapstick. During a lecture demonstration at Beverly Hills High School, Cage worked behind the audience who were seated on bleachers. He would slowly lift a very heavy athletic bench onto its end, then let it fall at a precise moment according to his stop watch. The sound was like a cannon shot and the whole audience would jump out of their seats. After two or three of these the principal of the school called the police who arrived and tried to arrest Cage. The principal had no idea that Cage was part of the show—how would he? John was going through his all denim phase. He looked like a mad custodian. Our redoubtable manager, Jean Rigg, stepped in and a noisy argument ensued. As voices were raised the performance continued. All the while Cage was trying to explain the principles of the I Ching to the two officers. It was always like this . . . always off balance, always astonishing.
Driven to madness by the irritating crunches, beeps and unintelligible noise of his non-music some audience members would angrily stomp out of every show. Others would come to the lip of the stage and yell at us. A few of these Cage haters would stay for the duration, red faced and splenetic, to angrily jump up and vilify him at the post show Q and A. “This wasn’t music and dance – it was nonsense – it was insulting – it was boring” – and on and on they would sputter and fume.
Confronting Cage in this way was a big mistake. He was, above all else, a brilliant speaker, so quick and clever that he could win any argument. I felt sorry for the poor souls who took the bait and went to battle for their ideas of balance, harmony and resolution. Cage’s brilliant ripostes would have the audience rolling in laughter, leaving his attackers to slink off in ignominy.
John Cage was curious about everything. He took my questions seriously, asked me about my opinions and made suggestions for my reading. It was a long list including Meister Eckhart, DT Suzuki, Wittgenstein, Fuller and many others. He taught me chess and we played often. In things musical he was ultra-modern but in chess, he was a romantic. We analyzed the games of Morphy and Capablanca who had perfected the art of the dramatic and unexpected sacrifice. He would play me without 2 of his major pieces and beat me easily. Then he’d play me again with only pawns and beat me again. If I hung around long enough and stretched things out just right he would serve his delicious mushroom loaf.
During the summers when the company was on unemployment, I would glue myself to him. He didn’t have a driver’s license so I chauffeured him around town. He loved Art Brown’s, a stationary store on 45th street where he would get his favorite pens. As we drove uptown, we played chess on a portable board. He looked out the car window and kept up a running commentary, pointing out people, their clothes, buildings, trees, dogs, museums, automobiles—anything and everything. John Cage was completely and totally in love with the world.
I have never been any good at chess and playing with John—an exploration of chance procedures—did little to improve my game. It didn’t make any difference. When I left his apartment it felt like I was flying. John Cage made me feel that anything was possible. Music was all around us. It was everything. The whole world was music—all we had to do was listen.
When I joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1973, it was the center of an extraordinary community of composers, visual artists and performers all of whom seemed open, friendly and willing to talk to a teenager.
Two weeks after joining the company we performed a series of studio shows called ‘Events’. Consulting his innumerable stenographer’s notebooks, Merce would take his individual works apart on the day of the show and re-order them. Solos, duets and trios would be scrambled and re-arranged to create one of a kind performances. Each Event was accompanied by the work of a different composer who one after the other took it on as a personal challenge to be as obstreperous and transgressive as possible. Charlemagne Palestine used his appearance to manifest a traumatic psychodrama with his personal collection of dolls. He screamed. He implored. He broke down in tears. Robert Ashley interviewed an ex- girlfriend, while drinking a pitcher of martinis. As the evening progressed he got enormously drunk, slurred his words and fell out of his chair.
There was a sense about these performances that at any moment something could go terribly wrong … that we were always on the edge of disaster and anything was possible. It was the most thrilling experience imaginable.
The excitement of working with Merce quickly gave way to the realization that his dances were relentlessly difficult. What had seemed from a distance to have been accomplished with such ease required discipline and tenacity that I neither understood nor was prepared for. I launched myself into a Spartan life – dedicating myself to the elongation of my thighs and arms, the rotation of my legs and the curve and twist of my spine. The limits of the body in space and time were all that had interest to me. It was how I spoke and what I listened to. I subjugated myself to shape, the moment and the suffering of time passing. Around me young men and women in class and rehearsals shared this conspiracy of sensation – all pulling together to articulate the most complex angles and relationships of the body in space. Each dancer in their own manner surrendered themselves to the agility and organization of their physical experience – tilting off balance, contorting into extreme positions, leaning into and beyond their present into a more perfect future…… Every day I worked until I could no longer stand.
Merce’s dances didn’t ‘add up’ in any traditional way. There were no indications or sign posts to direct the audience to a ‘meaning’. That wasn’t the point. Each individual was intended to take from the experience whatever they wished. Dancing in his work you were not a character or a representation – you were yourself. Not knowing who I was at the time put me in some considerable difficulty and I under went a series of violent transformations. For purely practical purposes I learned to appear as a single person, existing in one body in a specific time and place…but I was more accurately a churning of humors and personae, a collection of paroxysms, visitations, visions, epiphanies, black outs, sweats, delusions, manias, irrational beliefs, sudden blinding understandings, great orchestral crashes. I had no idea how to think about or organize my inner life but Merce’s work promised a perfect solution. He had created an austere and elegant world without need or sadness. Inside of his dances or moving across the floor in the beautiful phrases he taught, the world blurred, edges fell away and my fragmentary being came into focus. (more…)