The Johnston Letter, Volume 2, Number 8
Jillions of Notes
By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2007 Jill Johnston
I was having a grand reunion in bed reading a book that for sheer size you would almost certainly not take with you on an airplane. It isn't casual reading either. It came to me during my long sojourn in bed keeping my weight off my left foot which went south while walking around freely, recovering from hip-replacement surgery. I have never read a book with such a large cast of characters, almost all of whom I know by name or have known personally -- an after-life of sorts. You can't escape realizing you've been around a long time. Carolyn Brown, the author, obviously couldn't either. The title, "Chance and Circumstance -- Twenty years with Cage and Cunningham," doesn't specify those twenty, but they encompass 1952-1972, the years Brown danced in Merce's company. The jacket flap says the book was "long awaited," and I can see why. By Christmas I might reach the last page of text, 594. Brown doesn't cheat on her difficulties, which she delivers as carefully and clearly as she once danced; or the minutiae of touring and daily encounters, often recorded in the splendid kind of prose that a dancer of her astounding perfectionism might take the time to forge. Since I savor good prose, these passages slow me up, and I'm already a slow reader. At last I began skipping some of Brown's exacting descriptions of Merce's dances -- archivally I would think a boon to anyone in the future researching Merce's oeuvre. I should perhaps say "Carolyn" as easily as I crank out "Merce," but in truth, though we have known each other by sight and name for decades and have often been in the same spaces, we had our first conversation only a year or so ago. We were at a gallery opening in New York of Jackie Matisse's work, and a party afterwards at Jackie's daughter's house. I do well in bed. I can get restless and worried, but lately CB's book provided a great daytime distraction. I can't read in the evening, when I depend on Scrabble with Ingrid, and/or my Video and DVD films -- only the uplifting ones, crafted to perfection, and with redemptive outcomes. I don't ask much. And if someone fixes my foot, I'm going outside to commune with trees and azaleas. In the apartment, I emerge sometimes for a living room event. Ingrid created high tea for three legitimately born English people, one of whom was called Rosemary, the name of my English half-sister who died recently. I behaved deplorably, acting "let out," more like shot from a cannon, not at all the gracious host who sits back and lets things evolve. In a more promising development, I am at this moment reclining in our Ikea sling chair, close to where we had tea with the English people, writing at my Dell laptop resting on tilted Levenger table surface pulled by wheels across my stomach. I have jillions of notes lying on my thigh. The book is in bed. It's too heavy to carry while walking, or rather hopping (on the foot belonging to my new hip) on my walker. In another living room event, having reasonably powerful arms and hands left over from Crunch gym workouts, I was able to wave the book at a friend, while hailing it as a "classic." My friend, a professor of linguistics, said "Classic?" In rethinking the word, I just put "Dance" in front of it. Dance literature has very few classics. America's first, Isadora's "My Life," is essentially iconic. Dancers generally have not been writers of literature or intellects. And writers have not been drawn especially to dancing, hardly the most approachable subject for putting down in words. I started doing it backwards, dancing my way into writing. Unlike Brown however, who was born into dance, I picked it up in college after falling in love with my dance teacher. My favorite thing to say about this teacher is that had she taught tiddly-winks, I would have gone there. She was my mentor and deliverer. Evidently Brown's mother was mother, mentor and deliverer all in one. I went to page 635 of the index of this fat book to collect Brown's entries on her mother Marion Rice, who was a Denishawn dancer in the 1920s and went on dancing into old age, always in the Denishawn style, with a company of her own, presenting concerts every year, her daughter Carolyn ever on hand to dance in them. Carolyn says her "very first dance performance at the age of three took place in a beautiful garden during [her] mother's first recital." She was Maia, a Flower Fairy, and she created the dance herself. During the 1930s and into the '40s she attended countless performances with her mother at Ted Shawn's Jacob's Pillow festivals. When I saw her dance with Merce in the 1950s and '60s I wondered where this barefoot "prima ballerina" had come from. Now I know how she ended up in the grotty American field of dance pioneered by Isadora, a field in which I could have danced myself, after doing nothing more than trying to please my teacher in college, had I not been fully aware that stages curtains and audiences terrified me. I put my feet to great use nonetheless. Even before my career as a dance student in New York studios during the 1950s -- a time when Merce was struggling with John's help to maintain a company, and Brown was contending with her composer husband Earle Brown to stay alive while pursuing their unprofitable callings -- I had been my boarding school's indispensable athlete for half a dozen years. And before that, when living with my grandmother in Little Neck Long Island, I ran around at will in the neighborhood of her house. In the 1960s I danced my peds off at parties. The reason my left foot is in its present abeyance is that in 1977 or so when first I took up running, I did it in work boots on a paved country road. I have reasons for most everything. In case you wondered, I called our English tea visitors "legitimate" to distinguish them from myself. I have a proud illegitimate English background -- a lengthy explanation for which exists in an essay I wrote titled "The Heroes Reconsidered" [See Archived Columns Vol.1 #10, #11 and Vol.2 #1]. On Sunday, Ingrid and I bumped into two of our legitimate English visitors -- Miles and Victor -- down at the river esplanade. I told them how I had identified them, and Miles reminded me that they might not be legitimate at all. It's true of course, you never know, and why would anyone ask, or assume? But what you do know is that you are one or the other, and that these days it isn't supposed to matter, at least in our small neck of the globe. What mattered on Sunday was getting to the river, if only on a chair driven by wheels. Lying in bed, I had heard siren songs of our belatedly seasonable spring seeping through brick and mortar and window panes. Normal things like a brilliantly blue cloudless sky enchanted me. Riding home, I got stoned over the smell of freshly cut grass. Brown's book brings me back to a time when I noticed only things happening on a proscenium stage or between picture frames or the covers of a book. I lived in an artificial world which I wrote about enthusiastically. But Carolyn has my dates wrong. I wrote for publication about dance and art, seriously that is, from 1959 to 1965, not until 1970 as she says. I have one other correction. She has Doris Humphrey's famous 1919 dance called "Soaring" co-created with Ruth St. Denis. Under Humphrey's direction, I danced in a revival of "Soaring" in 1953, so I know St. Denis had nothing to do with it, except to include it on Denishawn programs. I loved soaring, but it was just at that moment I realized I was not suited for doing it on a stage. I remember my awe watching Brown, a dancer's dancer, impossibly poised on the ball of a foot, as if actually on pointe, her lines balletically impeccable, having arrived there all of a sudden, by one of Merce's "chance" procedures, her face showing not a whit of the effort, but rather radiating an uncanny stillness. I think this combination was her trademark. I wonder how the other women in Merce's changing companies regarded such a technically superior, other-worldly presence in their midst. I knew one of them personally. Of the huge rolodex of names familiar to me in Brown's book, I was closest to Marilyn Wood, but only as a mother. We lived in Washington Heights where she had twin girls who played with my son, and I had a baby daughter. I knew Marilyn danced with Merce, but somehow never saw her do it, or have erased the memory. By 1962 when she was pregnant again, she left the company. We were both what was later called superwomen, trying to have careers and families at the same time -- a feat said to be unthinkable. Marilyn was distressingly perfect (I tried to emulate her clever moves in the mothering department), so I imagine she excelled at Merce's challenging choreography. Perhaps all his dancers were perfectionists. I'm looking at a photo of his company -- 17 people altogether: besides the dancers, two visual artists, two musicians and two managers, getting ready to board a Boeing 707 for Merce's 1964 world tour. I had met or had had encounters with most of them. At least six also performed in the Judson Dance Theater, a group so boundaryless and stage-defiant that I could slip into it somehow as a para-family member. I belonged to another group then too, and that was a loose association of Lower East Side mothers and children, along with childless women who were friends of the mothers. All these mothers and their friends were art or dance world connected. Of the sprawling set of Judson artists and choreographers, and of Merce's large company in this 1964 photo, I can't identify a single one offhand who had any children. The eldest in the latter was John at 52. I knew John, who died in 1992, aged 79, sort of well. I marvel at Carolyn's rich elevated life with him -- the fallout of devotion he had for Merce, wanting to keep everyone allied with Merce happy in furthering their professional interests. Sic Transic Gloria Mundi. I'm peering through my avocado tree (yes, it's a tree now, though it still sits like a plant on its window shelf), at a section of roof and some London plane tree branches outside. I forgot my foot for a while. It does provide a laugh sometimes. One day while talking to a foot doctor on the phone, I asked if I could call him by his first name, foreclosing his answer with "Robert" -- and he said, "You can call me Robert if you like but nobody else does, it's David."
©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com.
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