Letter from Manhattan
There will be many other nights like this,
And I’ll be standing here with someone new.
There will be other songs to sing,
Another fall...another spring...
But there will never be another you.
(lyrics by Mack Gordon)
Art works change over time—not because they change, but because we do. This is most clear with paintings, which—with the exception of time-based art made with materials that decay and morph—stay the same. You go to a museum to visit a beloved painting, and lo! You see something unexpected, you understand the scene differently, and it is not because the painting has changed. You have. With music you can encounter this experience while listening to a recording—or when you yourself repeatedly play a piece of music over time, hearing and bringing out different elements. In theater, you can have this relationship with a text. At the movies, or in the sculpture garden, of course you have the same thing as with paintings, recordings, and theater. But with dance! You have the dance, and you have the people in it at any given moment, and then you have, even with the same people, their own variability from performance to performance.
And yet. Somehow, over time, seeing the same work with successive generations of dancers, its architecture becomes clear to you, as well as its tone, its character, its world. A platonic notion of the work separate from its passing inhabitants takes residence. You think you know it, and indeed you do have a sense of it apart from any idiosyncrasies of individual interpretation. But still, you can go to the theater one night after decades of seeing it, and can find yourself not so much seeing as understanding in a whole new way. This can also happen quickly, with the same work, with the same cast, in the same week—from one night to the next, something changes. The dance is the same, but you are not.
Another spring. March, City Center, the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Esplanade. Paul Taylor is himself in the house (in his usual back row seat), and so, on opening night, are many of his former dancers. (You can see Carolyn Adams in an old Esplanade on YouTube, in a skittering yet gracious flurry of small gestures and quick steps; and you can see her in the audience. David Grenke, with the company from 1989 to ’96, sits down next to me.) The place is a time machine. There they are, all around me, and there they are, in mind’s eye, still on stage, dancing underneath the current company. Casts in palimpsest. Esplanade has become a recursion, but the dance stays young. It’s still spring’s harbinger.
Two things stay with me after the season, in the weeks that follow. First, the surprise of the newly revived Orbs, which dates from 1966, especially the surprise of the section called “Spring.” It is so clearly a reading of Graham’s Appalachian Spring, so clear a reminder of where Paul Taylor came from—he’s the son of Martha. As was of course Merce Cunningham, his older sibling, if you will, on that branch of modern dance’s family tree. Paul came after Merce in the Graham company, and went on to dance with Cunningham’s troupe in 1953 and ’54, including a summer at Black Mountain College. Now, half a century and more later, Taylor’s company is presenting a Graham parody of sorts—or at any rate a commentary. So too, later that month, will the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, in its newly revived version of Antic Meet, which Cunningham made in 1958.
That year, Merce famously wore a many armed sweater he sewed together himself from pieces knit by his then-apprentice Valda Setterfield, pulling it up over his head like some kind of bizarre Thurberesque hat. (The role is now danced by Daniel Madoff and Rashaun Mitchell, in alternating casts.) Now, as then, out dance four women in parachutes, who do Grahamesque gestures of heel-of-hand-to forward, tilting forward in a Graham-y way. Odd vestments, strange hat, a small tribe of female followers? The entire work is a series of references to various dance styles—and this, clearly, is a recension of sorts of his preacher role in Appalachian Spring—now a very reluctant Revivalist, trying to escape his little flock. (They look like sheep, a bit, really, in those parachutes, or birds, or pioneer women, or something!)
What’s going on in Orbs in the “Venusian Spring” section? There is a wedding scene, repeated twice. The first time, the groom refuses to kiss his blonde dumpling of a bride at the altar, and kisses the preacher, instead. He refuses to consummate the wedding, and the bride’s mother does an angsty little Graham number downstage to our left. Then there is a second wedding. The groom kisses the bride, and they seem set on a course of connubial bliss. There you have it: subtext and text. What one wanted, and what was expected. In general, and by Martha: for let us remember that she was the bride in Appalachian Spring, Erick Hawkins (whom she was to marry) was her Husbandman, and Merce Cunningham (!!!) was the Revivalist. This, at least, Martha’s boys had in common: a wicked sense of humor.
The other thing that stayed with me from the Taylor season was my new, wholly unwelcome reading of the central, slow section of Esplanade, the one that begins like a version of Doris Humphrey’s Day on Earth, but moves on to everyone crawling around in the middle of a pool of light. One recurrent trope in this movement (you find it again in Taylor’s Dust) is not seeing, but “unseeing.” A dancer—originally Bettie de Jong, tall, slim, the only woman in trousers—walks across the stage. Another smaller woman—a girl, really—repeatedly scurries around her to fling herself down at her feet, as if to stop her.
I’ve seen this many ways before, but never the way I saw it this year: I saw the tall figure walking towards the wings slowly, inexorably, in measured pace, with the other trying so very hard to stop her, hurling herself in her path to keep her from leaving. Not to get her attention, as I’d seen it before—like a child with a parent—but to stop her. From dying. From leaving forever. I’ll never see it any other way again, and I doubt I’ll ever see it without crying, as I did that night. But if you spent the spring, as I did, watching someone progress into the wings, into death, into beyond what can be seen, what else could it mean, and what else can it mean, next year, or the year after that? Don’t leave me, I thought. And thought it again, when Paul Taylor came out, frailer than last year, still so handsome, still so present. Don’t leave me. (Merce left.) You stay, please.
April, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Eiko and Koma’s Naked: A Living Installation. There they are, Butoh-white, bony to the point of emaciation, curled in a bed of black feathers and leaves, in a dim stuffy room curtained in scorched, feather-encrusted muslin. The only light is from above, and from above water drips. They move incrementally, so slowly you can look away and look back and think about something else and not miss a thing, hour after hour. You can come, you can go, you can come back; you can move to a different vantage point. No right way to experience, no wrong way to experience. You might see what I saw: creatures left for eagles to eat for dinner later, dropped into their nest to keep for a midnight feast. Refugees from disaster, manmade or natural. (It happened to be just at the time of the tsunami in Japan, though the piece was made earlier, and had been shown at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.) That couple in Pompeii, buried alive by lava, their infant cradled between them.
Later in the week, I went back. I took my husband. We went into the room separately—I sat on a bench near the left wall, he stood in back, at the right. Again I watched, and saw strangeness. And then my husband came and sat beside me and I saw sameness. As my body relaxed into his, I saw another couple sleeping, apart, yet together, touching from time to time as if in reassurance, and echoing each other’s shapes. In separate dreams, in separate hollows of pillows. Long married themselves, Eiko and Koma sleep, they breathe. Apart, together, warm, paralyzed by dreams, waking enough to stir, birds of a feather, in their feather marriage bed, the water ticking down, marking time.