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Flash Flashback, 9-30: Pioneers
Manifesto & Murray

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 1999, 2008 Paul Ben-Itzak

(To commemorate ten years as the leading publisher of dance performance reviews and the only publication serving principally professional dancers, the Dance Insider is revisiting its archive. This Flash was first published on December 19, 1999.)

Recently, a couple of readers have expressed that my Flashes have gotten too personal (As in, It's all about me!), and that I should cut down on the personal and cut to the meat, which is critiquing the art. (If I may quote the Russian absurdist author Bely: "?" "!")

While far more flashees have expressed that it is exactly this material that makes the flashes different and compelling and accessible, being sensitive me (It's all about me!), I feel the need to offer a brief manifesto.

To me, dance is a very personal art. Writers like Deborah Jowitt access it as dance, because they have been dancers. Critics like Anna Kisselgoff access it as art, and view it as compared to other dances or art. These are valid approaches, fitting for the authors' backgrounds and experiences. Me, I access it for how it explains, illuminates, mitigates, interprets, and helps me transcend and experience life in general and my life in particular. In emphasizing this, I believe I am not just being narcissistic, but making a case--particularly to the not-already-converted--that dance is not just for critics and dancers, but has something to offer all of us, to enrich our lives. It's an art, yes, but it can also be an adventure, an adventure that intersects with and compliments the rest of our adventure.

I also access dance more as a reporter than a critic, and as a reporter interested in people. When I am lucky enough to get to know some of the personalities of dance, it informs the work for me. I share these interactions in the hopes they will do the same for you, and show that there are real people, just like you, behind the work.

My adventure with dance, and exposure to its fascinating personalities, kicked in full throttle when I arrived in New York in 1995 to work for Dance Magazine. I was something of a neophyte on modern dance; I'd studied up on the history, but hadn't actually seen a lot.

One of my first assignments was when Joe Mazo sent me to interview Murray Louis, of Murray Louis and Nikolais Dance. I was psyched; something about him--the history, the only-in-New York name--parents in California don't call their kids Murray--even the address in downtown Manhattan thrilled me: I was beginning to report on the New York dance scene, interviewing legends like Murray Louis, people I had only read about. Wow!

The address was the first hurdle. The studios were on West Broadway back then (they are now on Houston, pronounced How-ston) which, being a neophyte at navigating New York, I thought was the western part of Broadway. When I hit the water, a kind citizen or two, or three--New Yorkers give lousy directions--set me right, and I arrived at the studio just behind a group of Korean dance students, who were flocked around Murray, bedecked in a sort of purple warm-up suit, as if he were a rock star.

Being a neophyte-to-dance straight journalist--notwithstanding that I was from San Francisco--it took me a little while to get used to Murray's calling me sweetheart; I later realized that this was his way of addressing anyone he liked, and I came to appreciate the endearment.

There was a more serious obstacle. It took Murray exactly two minutes to discover that I had only read about him.

"Have you seen my work?" he asked.

"Um, well, I've read about you, but I haven't seen the work."

Well, Murray was indignant--not at me, it should be pointed out; he was all cordiality and charm. But at my employers, for sending a neophyte who had not even seen his work. And he was right to be angry. There was also, I soon gathered, a deeper umbrage: He felt he deserved not just a news write-up, but a feature.

I hope I'm not giving the wrong impression. This was an incredibly fun and warm interview. In subsequent conversations, when I would call Murray up for an interview--after I had seen his work--he would always greet me with, "Is this the Paul that hadn't seen my work?" For those of you that haven't met Murray, I should explain that he has the voice and gentle bearing of your kindest teddy bear of an uncle, who is always ready with a touching and/or funny personal anecdote.

That first interview occurred in 1995, about two years after the death of Alwin Nikolais, Murray's longtime professional and personal partner. Murray insisted I sit in Nikolais's chair. On his desk was an open birthday card for Nikolais, displayed as if the birthday was today and the card's recipient was still alive.

I wasn't in New York when Nikolais was alive, so I can't say what their relative profiles in the company were before then. But I have observed, over the past few years, that Murray seems most passionate about preserving Nikolais's legacy, including making video collections of his work available to the public.

Friday's program at the Henry Street Settlement House--on the very spot where, in 1948, Nikolais's company got its start at the Henry Street Playhouse--was no exception. Most of the program was devoted to Nikolais's work, except for the final piece, Louis's mostly jubilant, occasionally reflective "Four Brubeck Pieces." And this piece was the most appropriate conclusion to the evening. Coming after the mechanistic Nikolais ballets, it gave the dancers a showcase for their humanity. A moment to be just regular guys and girls.

I was accompanied by a foreign journalist who said that while she was familiar with Nikolais, she had not heard much about Louis. I think this, too, is partly a result of his humility--that he is not as interested in pushing his own work as that of his colleague--perhaps one reason he is undervalued by the younger dance audience. In fact, Louis is quite a craftsman, schooling by whom a lot of younger choreographers could use. His "Sinners All," premiered a couple of seasons ago, is a dark, romantic, somber (but not depressing or morbid), profound work, full of rites. More than any of Nik's works I've seen, it mines an inner landscape. And, most deliciously, Louis himself, in dapper derby, had a cameo as a not-entirely sinister but definitely devilish, lurking character--who is seen studying a book at the beginning.

On Friday, Murray was obviously touched to be back at Henry Street, where it all began. At the reception afterwards, he talked about how the building had been modeled on a European opera house; and how it was hollow underneath, explaining the excellent acoustics. Preparing to cut the cake, he playfully put the massive knife to his throat.

And the Nikolais pieces? Hmmm. I had commented to my companion that the first time I saw these works--which rely a lot on illusion and funny props and costumes, as well as the mechanization of the dancers--I'd thought, that's old, it's been done. But I quickly realized that, of course, Nikolais and Louis were doing it before anybody--before Pilobolus, before Momix.

On Friday, seeing these works where they were created--including the 1953 Tensile Involvement and the 1956 "Kaleidescope Suite"--I could appreciate them as very much living museum pieces. (Actually, at first I wondered how they would fit all those ribbons from 'Tensile' in the stage space, much smaller than the Joyce--until I realized that they'd done it here first!) The audience at the company's engagements is typically heavy with middle-aged people who have followed Nik and Murray for years, many of them taking class with them as children. (And many of whom Louis remembers, even if he hasn't seen them for years.) While it's great to see this loyalty, it also sometimes depresses me that more young people aren't hip to him or have forgotten about him, as well as Nikolais.

There would be much to teach and thrill them. Just ask the toddler behind me, who commented during the 1985 "Crucible," "Mommy, how do they do that?"

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