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The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 3
September 2005: Be Ready for Anything

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston

Dear Paul, Thanks for those tickets to the Mostly Mozart festival at Lincoln Center to see Mark Morris. Before taxiing uptown I was sitting with Ingrid outside our house, dressed to go, a large colorful woven bag slung over my shoulder, saying I didn't think I could make it. She talked me into it by saying that if when we got there I didn't want to go, we could turn around and come home. I'm not agoraphobic exactly, but really when I go anyplace besides the neighborhood it's to get in our car and drive out of the city. I go uptown once in a while for some appointment or other. Driving out is not always wonderful. Last week at the height of our torrid humid summer, imagining we would beat the heat at 9 a.m., we drove to IKEA near Newark just for the treat of their cafeteria-served Swedish shrimp over egg mayo on lightly toasted bread. That was my goal anyway. Ingrid toured the furnishings with Joye, a friend who lives next door. I stayed in the cafeteria. They didn't buy anything, and we forgot that by the time we drove home the temperature would soar to 100, and our car a-c, currently delivered by a fan from Garber's Hardware 5 inches in diameter made of rubber blades and plugged into the cigarette lighter outlet, while causing much witless laughter was not gonna keep us from expiring. It was some event of this nature that made me fearful of going to the New York State Theater to see Mark Morris. I wasn't sure what precisely but once we were inside and collected our tickets at the press table (so nice by the way to be called "Jill" smilingly by the young man who handed them to us) and found our seats, it became clear. It was culture shock. I've been leading lives without number in a secure sequestered space enjoying my stereo Mozart and a proscenium that lights up 20 inches in front of me and performs whatever I want to say. In our brief existence suspended between two vast eternities, we can have lacunas in time causing culture shocks we've already had over the same thing. No, but this was different. It's always different. Driving out of town is too of course. We went to the same lake in Massachusetts we did last summer but this time I wanted to come right back home. The air was as unfit and unbreathable up there as here, and if I have to stay in the house a-c the whole time I'd rather be home where the things around me are mine. Jumping in the lake was out of the question. My son Richard who lives nearby on an adjoining lake spied a loch ness turtle out there. He was looking at it through high-powered binoculars. I ran so to speak over to see for myself, picking up the binoculars in time to behold some prodigiously spreading rings made by its dive. Ingrid wanted to stay at the lake in order to lie in the scorching sun -- when it did come out, which wasn't often. My journal entries for those days say things like, "The sun struggles to come out," or "Now the skies are uncertain," or "The sky is whitish blue, not the blue of a totally out sun." When it was totally out you can be sure Ingrid was lying under it, while I was hiding from it. As I believe you know, she is Danish, and Danes have to have the sun after their wretchedly long dark winters. It's in their DNA. I was in the meantime discovering a new sleep agent. I could put on a favorite film video, turn off the sound, and fall insensible both on and through it, right to the end oblivious even during and after it has rewound itself. I recommend this only if you love the film dearly and you know the entire script by heart. At home, when my Mozart-saturated environment is over for the day, and I have watered my avocado plants (the big one replanted in an awesome pot by my daughter Winnie has turned into a forest!) and gone to my gym and had dinner and read some literature, I turn to the TV proscenium in the bedroom. At Lincoln Center, sitting in our presidential seats dead center of the first row mezzanine looking at the real thing, surrounded by the highbrow masses exuding the anticipatory fervor of ancient amphitheaters, I swooned and nearly fainted. I'm not exaggerating. You can ask Ingrid. Recovering a semblance of myself, I studied all the program notes, showing me that the entire brilliant career of Mark Morris from 1984 on -- including our evening's "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato" to Handel's 1740 choral work and considered Morris's unrivaled masterpiece -- has been going on without my knowledge. After seeing him at BAM in 1984, his first concert in a large "mainstream" theater, I realized I could exist without him. The work was campy and set to the music -- the former I had had enough of in, say, Jimmy Waring's dances, the latter I thought had been put to rest in the modrin dance idiom by Merce Cunningham. (Can't Isadora's descendants be called something in these post-post-post times besides "modern"?) Morris in '84 looked to me regressively Humphreyish at her musical best. The musical Balanchine I never counted because he came fully formed from the European traditions. The morning after Morris, at my coffee shop I saw an actor friend Phil Levy who came in wearing a T-shirt that read "RACQUET BACK." Asking him what that meant, he said, "Be ready for anything." Is that a great shirt or what? I am coming gradually to the point, having delayed saying that over the Morris I had an epiphany, and that at intermission I wanted to leave, telling Ingrid I can't stand too much beauty. I don't really listen to my Mozarts, or my Handels; they are Satie-like "furniture music," a heraldic backdrop to my writing productions. Dance is something you obviously have to look at. It won't help you write or paint or just get by living; it will only distract you. But I wasn't simply looking at "L'Allegro." In some deep inaccessible part of my brain I was busy thinking, trying to tame the beauty, i.e., make it mine. A perfect predictability in knowing that the dance sequences are going to slavishly imitate the music is constantly confounded by the surprise and suspense of their invention. Oh I could go on. But I'm eager to reveal my long sleep over dance history. A shorthand version goes like this: In the 1970s I left town and lived with rivers and birch trees, writing my way out of a cul de sac; in the 1980s I returned to town and started seeing and writing about things again. Pluralism in aces now rained. I saw no through-line in the American dance tradition, except for the inspired and sustained minimalism of Lucinda Childs's ensemble work. The premiere in 1988 of Morris's "L'Allegro" would have stopped my unending lament. The grand emotionalism of "the old days," pre-Cunningham (and I don't mean the story-telling), parallel to the abstract eloquence of Mozart, Handel et al, was back. Now of course I'm a sort of computer potato, putting out an awful lot of emotion over the performances on my screen. Then there are the videos. Recently I acquired the six volumes of "Brideshead Revisited" -- the saddest damn story in the whole world. But we drive out to see turtles and humming birds and eat Swedish salads and stuff like that and now I can say I saw the greatest dance in America, bar none. Thanks again for the tickets. Best regards, Jill J


©Jill Johnston 2005; originally published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here. Click here to read The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 1 on the Dance Insider, and here to read Number 2.

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