12 July 2012

Summer Update: New Videos, Performance Work, and Memoir

New Video/Performance Works:

The Snowy Owl was inspired by a poem from Benjamin Landry's new Suite of Movements. Ben is presently a student in the MFA Creative Writing program at UM. He asked me to advise him on a writing project involving his fascination with films of dance. Referencing a century of footage, including clips of Anna Pavlova, Josephine Baker, Fred Astaire, Martha Graham, Betty Page and Michael Jackson, he produced a wonderful, often wrenching set of poems. My sense is that the footage exists only peripherally in relationship to the poems, as if they are playing on a bad television in an adjoining room while the poet's "real" life spins its own disjointed narrative. I improvised my own disjointed narrative in the video studio, then played with the shape of his text in editing. 

Clonal Renderings began as a set of improvisational studies or "meanderings" for the camera filmed against greenscreen. I was exploring movement initiation: from the hips or center of gravity, from the head, alternating between hips and head, and a more "freeform", multisource initiation. I then asked my terrific director of photography, Jacques Mersereau, to shoot a final improv during which he followed me and zoomed in and out, making his own improvisational choices. As I began to lay out the studies on Final Cut Pro, that last take became the transitional thread between the other studies; I then added "clones" of my figure and architectural drawings to evoke a psychic blueprint or portrait of a man ceding control, or dancing with a chorus of residual beings. Are these "ghosts" or virtual spawn his past or his future?
The work will soon become a gallery installation that splits the layers of visual material into three projections on three scrims, hung one behind the other, allowing the viewer to stand in front and look through all scrims at once. 
Portraits/Portails (pour Maggie) was created in May as a gift to my dear friend Maggie Boogaart, an extraordinary dancer whom I met while in Paris in fall, 2010. Maggie learned a set of my improvs off DVDs I sent her a month before she arrived in Ann Arbor. We then shot her dancing against greenscreen, and we composed a live performance to take place in front of a video backdrop. 

Man Dancing, Dancing Man: A Memoir  
It has been my wish over the past few years to complete a memoir of my life--while I can still remember it! I have just completed a 100-page, single-spaced manuscript and am revising it daily until I can find an editor to guide me towards publishing. I am including here a section that I wrote at the Bear River Writer's Conference in early June. 

Last Dance                                                                                              


The cranked up crowd momentarily pauses and swoons in their disco finery-- tulle, lycra, oversized baubles mingling with the couture. Studio 54 on New Year’s Eve, 1979. My glorious disco days, that fleeting brush with celebrity. It hovers there, neither an embarrassing remnant of some wicked chapter of my New York years, nor something to be particularly proud of. After all, I’d waited to come out until I’d left the city for a position on the dance faculty at a midwestern campus. In doing so, I’d saved my own life, avoided the plague and was still alive to tell. A cowardly deed, thinking back on my flaming hetero past? Or a story in need of telling?

The obituary in this morning’s New York Times sets me spinning: Donna Summer, Queen of Disco, Who Transcended the Era, Dies at 63. I immediately download “Last Dance” and burn it onto a CD. The driving distance to my university campus will allow me three repeats, I pop it into the CD player of my new Honda Element and listen to it as I drive to work.


By that December, 1979, the Martha Graham Company had completed a long tour of Europe and the U.S. I was glad to be home and ready for the holidays, although still with work to do at the E. 63rd Street studio. Martha (we called her by her first name, as did all the dance world either out of a scornful, jealous cruelty or true adoration for the grande dame of Modern Dance), had been commissioned by the Sackler family to create a work for the opening of the newly reconstructed Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum. We had been working on the choreography in fits and starts while on the road, renting rehearsal space in Berkeley while performing at UCLA to spend long, tedious afternoons creating ponderous movement tableaux based on Egyptian tomb figures, all to the soaring voice of Leontyne Price singing arias from Samuel Barber’s disastrous operatic bomb, “Antony & Cleopatra”. I was cast as the young Antony in the first of two duets between the amorous couple. I remember one particularly trying afternoon sulking at the sidelines of the beautiful old Mission- style hall we’d rented, awaiting my cue while Martha fiddled with the work’s tenuous transitional passages.

Afterwards, Martha, seriously arthritic at 75 and hunched in her director’s chair, called me over. “Peter, I’ve noticed you. You seem disturbed or sad.” I can’t believe what came out of my mouth next: ”Martha, I’m not having a very good time of this”. Her sad eyes, floating in shallow saucers left from the latest face lift, grew large as she looked up at me in disbelief. “”Well how do you think I feel?” prolonging the “I” like a petulant child. Without missing a beat, she suggested I always carry with me a good mystery thriller to read while waiting. She always did. Such moments humanized the goddess for me, and I now better appreciate the distractions that allow us to suffer through what Henry James calls “the madness of art”.

For the Met commission, the fashion designer Halston was once again summoned to supply costume designs, fabric and his entourage of tailors and seamstresses to serve Martha’s vision of a sensuous desert drama framed by the two sets of lovers, before and after their Shakespearean doom struck them down. We taxied from the studio on E. 63rd to Halston’s atelier high up in Olympic Towers, where he sat like the pope of 5th Ave. looking down upon the spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. As Joe Eula sketched his elegant, jazzy calligraphies while eyeing us move Graham-style  across the mirrored, red-carpeted gallery, we watched our personas come to life, first on his sketch pad, and then on our own bodies reflected in three-way mirrors. We were transformed, sheathed in gold lycra spandex that hugged our young, meticulously sculpted physiques made into mythic fantasies of 1970’s disco Deco. Celebrities wafted in and out and paid homage to “H” while waiting for their own fittings: Liz, Bianca, Lauren, Diana, Liza, and always the house models with their perfectly etched cheekbones, swan necks, long languishing torsos on narrow hips and spindly legs made even longer by their spike heels.

At least in my own mind, I was Martha’s prized prince, the blond principal dancer delegated to help create and perform in her new ballets. I’d paid my dues, as they say, having worked my way up the ranks for the past 6 years, moving from chorus roles into the more substantial heavyweights such as Oedipus, Orestes, the Revivialist in “Appalachian Spring”, or Dimmesdale in the one-season-only clunker, Martha’s danced nightmare fantasy of Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”. I’d taught Rudolph Nureyev that role and many others, assigned to be his personal coach during his guest stints over the past 4 years or so. Bemused, mesmerized and flattered by his animal charisma and dependence upon me, I saw it as a duty rather than degradation or humiliating servitude to mime the roles in the wings for him while he soaked up the glory on stage, his left eye furtively catching my shorthand performance in the wings to cue him for his next steps.  Afterwards, he hugged me and called me his Maestro Pedro, pulling his strings for yet another puppet show.

Not a bad gig for a middle-class boy from the Rust Belt. I’d begged my mother for dance lessons at 8 and taken tap and ballet for less than a year from Miss Rosemary at a studio in northwest Detroit before opting for the violin as my activity of choice. While a senior on work scholarship at a private arts academy in the north woods, I had switched back to dance, enamored with my body’s wisdom to make its own music in space without the encumbrance of an object tucked awkwardly under my chin.  After four years at Juilliard’s Dance Division, I’d been invited by Graham herself to join her recently reassembled company upon graduation. And here I was, Martha’s apprentice and fledgling star, mingling with the rich and famous in an elite circle of celebrities and arts patrons.

The evening rehearsals behind closed doors in the MET’s new Sackler Wing proceeded, as we were told where we could or could not tread among the slabs and columns of the reconstructed temple dedicated by Emperor Augustus in 15 BC to Isis, Osiris and two deified sons of a local chieftain. Our sleek unitards reflected as if in a Technicolor Biblical epic in the mirrored wall of windows facing north into Central Park. I admired myself from afar, taking mental notes as to the exact etching of my profile as I arrived downstage left and turned to my partner, Janet, to acknowledge her regal presence with a grand gesture. We made our entrances through amber-lit portals onto a sprung floor laid for our performance. After notes from a weary Martha and a quick change in the makeshift changing rooms, I returned, as I did every night, to my one-bedroom apartment on W. 95th and Amsterdam. My cat, Ralph, greeted me at the door, and I heaped together in a large wooden salad bowl (a wedding gift I’d inherited from the divorce two years ago) various greens, a can of tune and cubes of tofu gathered from the corner Korean market downstairs. Famished from a day without lunch, I doused it in Paul Newman dressing and sat down with a pair of chopsticks to eat slowly so as to be able to sleep. Ralph watched from the sidelines.

The performance went well enough. Members of the MET board and New York high society ascended the long central staircase or took the side escalator up alongside movie celebrities and pop stars decked in their couture blacks and whites. I could make out a few faces, flashes of color and cologne just beyond the glowing membrane of illumination we danced within. They stood out there, a privileged world, and I, sealed in the amber product of their elitist artifice. Perhaps I thought to myself: This is really something. I’ll remember this, years from now.

My story nears its fateful moment. It was precisely while ascending the escalator to attend the reception after removing my sweat-streaked make-up and changing into the classic tux I’d bought second-hand at a men’s formal wear shop near Covent Garden in London. I heard my name called from below and turned to see a dark-eyed woman in white gown, a Persian sibyl wrapped in chiffon, lift her chiseled jaw up toward me to catch my eye. Did I try to go down the up escalator? No, I probably gestured to her, beckoning her upwards while trying to be calm, cool: some elegant and dance-like sign language, signaling her to meet me on the floor above.

I forget what happened next. An exchange of words about the performance, my accepting occasional words of congratulations from the guests, glances to the woman accompanying me, and she wrapped in an aura of electric yet unruffled attentiveness to the crowd around her and her own celebrity.  Was it extreme self-consciousness muted by years of overexposure? Could I even imagine how it would be to keep up with this? To attend to this high-maintenance phenomenon? I had courted fame, prayed for rave reviews and gotten a few in the New York Times, and achieved a life among the Modern Dance greats. What was there to stop me from the final fantasy?

A few nights following that we met at Halston’s long after my usual bedtime hour and were taken by limo with his party to Studio 54.  Stevie Rubell patrolled the crowd from his perch, allowing only the chosen beyond the crimson ropes and into the long, dark corridor lined with TV monitors.  His nervous, mousy body was like a manic puppet version of Napoleon or Peter Lorre directing his own crowd scene on a Manhattan film set. The throb and din of the music became louder as we approached the dance floor, an old Broadway theater with its seating removed, leveled and made into a disco palace. We were escorted to a banquette of low sofas at the rim of the dance floor, where we suavely stationed ourselves to survey the accelerating kinetics of the glamorous and the eccentric, the trust fund set and the celebrity wannabes.  After a vodka tonic and a few dances, B almost succeeded in assuming a certain anonymity among the democracy of gyrating bodies. But occasionally, I caught in her a slight wariness, a twitch of her cheek at the corner of her mouth, an alertness to possible invasion.

We were led by Stevie to the basement, where someone offered us Quaaludes, a numbing drug or tranquilizer that made everything slow down and blur around the edges, so that we floated back onto the dance floor and danced until the DJ put Donna Summer on and we rode the score upwards on its ascending key modulations and swelling orchestrations. The rotating shafts of colored and strobe lights descended from the fly space above like space-age phallic probes, and my body became weightless and supremely glamorous. On the last note, the lights went suddenly low and showers of balloons were released into the shimmering  atmosphere made foggy by poppers.  We exited together out the back door into an awaiting limo and slipped like cat burglars into Halston’s townhouse. B led me back to her guest quarters, and we quietly undressed, climbed under crisp, white label sheets.  I found her tentatively waiting for me in silk pajamas, like a quiet deer, all worldly-wise but strangely awkward, and I tried to negotiate with my naked, overstimulated body what was fantasy and what was actually possible between two lonely, exhausted people on a cold December Sunday at 3 a.m.

I was able to keep up the affair until my body gave out three weeks later. But before that, I remember meeting Diana Ross, my fellow Detroiter, at Halston’s New Year’s Eve party. Halston, who a decade later would die of AIDS like most of my male dancer colleagues, flaunted an entourage made up of his Latino lover, his team of assistants, a blond model named Karen and always a string of celebrities like Andy, Tru, and Liza. They trailed a wake of his recently unveiled fragrance behind them as thick as a musky maple syrup. B and I stood amidst the likes of Liz Taylor in purple caftan and a famous Dr. Feelgood who gave rejuvenating “vitamin” shots to all his clients. As guests clad in chiffon, Elsa Peretti jewelry and ultrasuede struck still poses against the monochrome walls before it was called Voguing, Diana and I talked of our hometown, our only common bond other than having somehow both made our separate ways from relative obscurity to that fabulous den of disco hell, Studio 54, as guests of the great H. Diana had little to say to me about our fair city… or anything else, for that matter.  I could only notice her eyelashes, how small she seemed, how sadly out of place we felt with each other. Years later, I would remember the night when I heard her voice on the car radio, driving west in rush hour traffic from my job at the university.  “I’m coming out. I want the world to know that I love you so.” By then, I had come out.

Later that night at 54, four tons of glitter were dumped onto the dancers from above. Specks of it remained embedded in my black dress shoes for months afterwards. The next morning, B and I were on the cover of the Post. Over our full-cover photo, the headlines read: Studio 54 Busted by IRS.  Shut out of our late-night haunt, we temporarily floundered, unable to make alternative plans. B called, I came on command; she led, I followed. My infatuation kept me suspended through my days in class and rehearsals, and I led a secret life. A brief nap at the end of a long day, and I’d be dressed and out for drinks at the 21 Club with Claudette Colbert, dinner with Oscar De la Renta and the Herreras, more late nights sneaking into B’s room at Halston’s. (Did he not already know? And was Martha enjoying the intrigue as well, seeing her pet corrupted by fame and celebrity just as she had succumbed to it in her Blackgama mink ad in order to keep her dance company afloat?)

I ended up back at my apartment early one morning at dawn, after a surreal taxi ride all the way up Amsterdam Ave. The driver had achieved a non-stop run of green lights from Lincoln Center to 96th Street.  What planet was I on? I pulled myself from the cab and climbed the stoop to my building. The local dealer sitting on the steps intoned his dazed litany: “Loose joints, nickel bags? Some good crack…” I fumbled for my keys, entered the apartment, and dropped onto the bed. For the past month, I’d tried to sustain the practice of sleeping for a few hours in my bedroom smelling of cat and the dance clothes I’d washed while taking a shower then draped on the radiator to dry out in time for morning class. I’d then walk down Broadway to take my ballet class from Richard Thomas, grab a bran muffin and coffee, and take the 104 and crosstown busses to Martha’s for rehearsals all afternoon and into the evening. But this morning, I could not get even rise upright from the bed. I crawled on hands and knees to the bathroom. My back had become locked by spasms, and I was suddenly immobile. (As I write this, I feel my lower vertebrae begin to fuse into a fist of bone and cartilage--what Martha would call the blood memory.)  

At that moment, it occurred to me to either keep up this life and forfeit my dancing career, or stop it cold turkey and get myself back into some kind of working order and my life onto a sane schedule. I stopped calling B or answering her calls. My back gradually healed, and I slowly returned to my life as just a dancer. I was grateful simply to arise without pain and go about my day’s work, to fulfill my dancer’s dream begun a decade earlier: a middle-class boy from the Rust Belt goes to the city, makes it big, becomes an artist, a choreographer, a modern dancer.

The following summer, I accompanied the Graham Company to London again. I was exhausted, at the end of a long tour during which I’d been dancing many ballets each performance. I’d had B’s address there and decided to call her. One last fling? She invited me over to her townhouse on the Thames. We crawled into bed. There was nothing. Nothing to return to, to hold on to, to preserve or cherish. It was the last time I saw her.


Until her face on the television screen 20 years later.  My partner John’s urgent summons from the basement TV den sometime in the spring of 98:  “Pete! Come down! Quick!” I sashayed across our kitchen’s red- and black checkerboard linoleum and dashed down the basement stairs to catch a distressed image of two glamorous figures in slow motion floating from left to right on the TV screen. “It’s you and B- at Studio 54!” John exclaimed, sitting on the edge of the sofa and flapping his hands. A blow-up of a New York Post front page followed, with our faces looking indifferent, blasé, soaked in our own importance.  I recognized the collar of the purple and grey wool smoking jacket I’d bought at a second-hand store somewhere while touring across the US with the Graham Company.  The camera had caught me with eyes partly shut, as if glazed over from the Quaaludes or trying to look the part. 

Apart from that, I do recall seeing an occasional photo in a magazine and reading of B’s “epiphany” in South America after saving a group of rebels from sure death by firing squad. From that moment, she had committed herself to fighting social injustice with her fame. 

The CD on the car stereo deck repeats a third time as I near campus. A dreamy pastoral flute trill enters over shimmering strings, supporting an ooh-aah melisma, a wordless sigh. Donna croons a lyric lullaby adagio: “last chance for love… I need you by me, beside me to guide me. To hold me, to scold me, cause when I’m bad I’m so, so bad…” And then that longing pause that everyone was waiting for, knew so well, the last inhalation that seemed to stretch into infinity, towards a not-so-distant dawn, before the long ride home.  The inevitable arrives and the throbbing beat kicks in with guitar, strings, and Donna forging ahead into the main verse full throttle, a lively kick ‘em up for the pelvic pendulum. Her voice takes on a more insistent edge; the strings repeat the build-up and funky, tight riffs.  “Umm, yeah, ooh, be my mister right… my appetite… I can be sure that you’re the one for me…all that I ask is that you dance with me…” And then that first key modulation, a half-step up onto a higher plane, strings awash in light, new vistas, higher and higher, as she chants an even more emphatic “So let’s dance the last dance”, then up yet another notch, a terrace to the stars. At last the ride up to that one held note, soaring into the ether, above the clouds… then spiraling down again along the spinal circuits into the hips, hung on invisible suspenders made of silvery filaments strung up under the ribs and scapulae, the muscles spent but perfectly in tune, and the last chord, defiant, exalted, victorious.

I ascend the tiers of the concrete parking structure and pull into one of the last empty spots, letting the music run its course before turning the key in the ignition and walking out into the blinding daylight.