The following is based on an interview with Fred Strickler I videotaped, April 22, 2012, during Rudy’s class and rehearsal. For two hours he effortlessly shifted from memory to teaching to creativity, talking about his life and work while giving directions, corrections and keeping time for the dancers. To give some of that feeling, I have interspersed the interview with several sets of Rudy’s directions to the performers. Rudy’s archives await cataloguing at USC, so the photos here do not give an adequate accounting of the wonderful collaborations with set and costume designers. I performed with Rudy in New York in 1977, and was in his first Los Angeles company from 1978-81. K.G.
In the 1970’s, the possibility of decentralizing dance took on a new meaning as mid-career New York dance artists such as Donald McKayle, Rudy Perez and Jeff Slayton moved to Los Angeles. As funding was dispersed through the National Endowment for the Arts and its contribution to state and local governments, it also inspired further local and private arts funding. Artists who had made their mark in New York were welcomed and could continue to find crucial support and work in the university dance departments that were then beginning to thrive.
Arriving in L.A. in 1978 as a guest teacher at UCLA for a year, Rudy intended to remain on the West Coast. He saw this side of the country as a place to expand his artistic vision beyond the expectations of his New York audiences, colleagues and critics. His association with Judson Dance Theater had brought him to the public’s attention with haunting solos or group works filled with wry humor and indelible images, emotively powerful in their precision and distillation of movement and gesture.
After 15 years and 35 choreographies in New York, Rudy has lived and worked in Los Angeles for 34 years, creating close to another 100 works. They have been performed in every venue from small experimental spaces to UCLA’s Royce Hall and Wadsworth Auditorium, from LACE and Highways to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and MOCA, from Plaza de la Raza to Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts, as well as in New York, San Francisco, the American Dance Festival, Montreal and Munich.
Rudy’s entrance into the dance world was at 21. The son of immigrants from Peru and Puerto Rico, he graduated from Manhattan’s High School for the Arts in 1948 and began working at various day jobs. Up to that point, dancing was for social events and entertaining friends and family. “I could have gone bowling. I didn’t set out to be a dancer. It was just something I did because I had to work. It was either that or bowling, so I thought dance would be more interesting. I needed a balance in my life which dancing unexpectedly provided.”
He began his studies at the New Dance Group in 1950, continuing with Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Erick Hawkins and Mary Anthony to name a few. “The years that I trained were difficult because I didn’t really know where I fit in. I was fortunate to have good teachers. And I listened [then lowers voice in emphasis] I observed and I listened.”
Eventually, he became one of a core group of Graham students. “I was part of the special class that she had for visitors or foreign dignitaries or when the company couldn’t be there. Mary Wigman was one of the guests, and Helen Keller was there, to name a few. Those were special and that meant a lot to me that I got that far. Somehow she saw something special in me even though I didn’t get into the company. At Cunningham it was very frustrating because it was so intellectual and technically demanding. And yet, it influenced me to this day. Eventually I became a very good student. It is only of late that I give more credit to Martha. When I came out here it was all about Merce. I say that from Merce I got the intelligence, from Martha I got the passion, and from Mary Anthony I learned how to structure a class so that it’s an overall experience and deals with what is necessary for technique, improvisation and building work.”
Then, in 1960, what dance might be and mean and who was a “dancer” changed radically with the beginning of the composition classes by Robert Dunn at the Cunningham studio. His students were invited to rehearse at Greenwich Village’s Judson Church, and out of that came what we now know as the Judson Dance Theater in 1962. Rudy’s first work, Take Your Alligator (Coat) With You, premiered there in 1963 and remains in company repertory. Don McDonagh’s 1970 book The Rise and the Fall and the Rise of Modern Dance, contains an insightful chapter on Rudy including this quote: “Almost all of the elements that are to be found in his current choreography were present in some form or another in this first piece: meticulous workmanship, unusual juxtapositions of visual and aural material, and a weighty intensity,” and the sense of a great emotional reservoir welling and pressing just below the surface. Although, as Rudy has said, coming to Los Angeles freed him to push beyond his early works’ minimalist identity, these elements remain crucial to the power and artistry of his work.
“Without having the NY experience and the strength that I acquired, the ability to do things in a certain way and the challenges, I would never have accomplished what I’ve done. Never. And it hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve been lucky that I’ve had the dancers and collaborators who were really interested in what I was doing and wanted to become part of it. Because of them and the funding from the NEA and others, I created a good body of work.”
Fred: What brought you to Los Angeles?
Rudy: I came out to teach on a sabbatical for Marion Scott. That’s what got me out here. You don’t think for a moment that I’d just get up and come out here without a job? I came out for a year, not even thinking about what I’d be doing afterwards. It just happened. One thing came after the other. And I still have a lot of that New York chutzpah. And I just got involved and investigated and connected to what was happening. So many things were here then that aren’t here now.
Fred: That’s part of why we’re doing this project. So that people can be aware of what was happening. You came at a very fruitful time.
Rudy: A very good time. The California Federation of the Arts was around. I remember Michael Alexander and Peter Coyote. All those people were involved in what was happening. And of course, Jack Jackson. I got in touch with him. I made a point to get in touch with everybody so that I would support and contribute to what was happening here. …But that was quite courageous of me to just stay here after a year.
Fred: Why do you say that? What was courageous about that for you?
Rudy: Because it wasn’t until I came that all of a sudden Santa Barbara was interested, and [UC] Riverside. And then of course, Long Beach [CSULB] and that’s where I recruited some of my dancers for a period of time. And CalArts and Irvine and so I really got around, once people were aware that I was out here. In that respect, it really made me feel good about being here.
Fred: Who else was there at that time that was of interest to you?
Rudy: Well certainly Bella and …Dance LA. And you guys – Eyes Wide Open – all of the local companies who were really doing something. Spider Kedelsky Ronnie Brosterman [Dance LA] Diane Black [Momentum]. The dance community here were certainly aware of who I was when I came here and that helped a lot. Certain doors opened.
Fred: That’s because you were somebody.
Rudy: [laughing] I never thought of myself as that. I do what I do because that’s what I do, not because I want to be famous. I was just lucky that the press was there. Very lucky that the press was there. I don’t think that’s true today.
Fred: And for you, what are the works that stand out for you that you’ve performed here or created here?
Rudy: In 1982 I premiered Red Ice with live music by Lloyd Rodgers and Cartesian Reunion Memorial Orchestra with light design by Chip Largeman. I shared that program with Bella Lewitzky, Aman and LA Ballet at the Ford Amphitheater as part of the Dance Kaleidoscope summer series.
Fred: And then you formed your own company?
Rudy: I had formed my own company right away. I had Karen and local dancers Cricket Ahrens and Don Graham and Ian Cousineau, one of my dancers who had come from New York. And so I had no problems. We had already performed at UCLA two years after I was here [Jan, 1981, Royce Hall, with sets by artist Mark Stock and music by Lloyd Rodgers performed by the Cartesian Reunion Memorial Orchestra]. But that was a very good, strong company. The work was quite different too. It was really technical, mainly because of the dancers who that ability and facility. I was on the LA Olympic Arts Festival, and the L.A. Arts Festival. That was unbelievable – unbelievable exposure because the festival itself was so broad with international artists. Bella curated the dance component of the Olympic Arts Festival and that was very nice. Bella was very gracious. She acknowledged me. We were not competitive. She accepted me as just another artist. And I appreciated that. But I’d like to think that I was kind of a spark when I came out. After that Kaleidoscope appearance the whole company took on another look. It really elevated to a whole other place. It was really unbelievable. It was really nice to see. You need to be in good company.
Fred: When you’re in the process of creating a new work like this, how do you go about it?
Rudy: It happens in the studio. It happens at the moment. It happens with just simple ideas and then developing them and finding different ways of presenting that movement. Very much into space and design and the commitment of the dancers. Those are the elements I use to engage the audience.
Rudy to dancers: How about… Let’s exaggerate, right. Good. …. [Rudy giving a movement sequence across the floor based on warm-up material] Step forward in 1st and then again in 2nd and pick up the tempo. Don’t get sloppy. Be very much aware of where you are in the space. Let’s see, let’s see…. And don’t give up!
Actor: I don’t know what it is.
Rudy: well whatever it is make something of the moment, because it happens a lot onstage, where you might get lost, you might go blank, and you don’t want people to know. Giving up is not an option. You just have to keep going. Same thing going backwards please. [Beating time on his thigh.] Don’t slide out. I was just telling Fred that when I was your age, I watched and I observed and I had to pick things up on my own to understand and become part of whatever was happening at the time. … Same thing again, 5,6,7,8 [beating time]. It’s in the torso. It’s not in the head or the neck, please.
….Ok facing the mirrors please, what do we have w/the hip? Or maybe we’ll incorporate… [Shows] Who’s got that? Move forward in the space please. [Keeping time.] Really press the walls. Other side. Ok, travel frantically toward the mirrors. Keep the clarity of the movement. here we go, 5,6,7,8. [Dancers do it.] And as always, backwards. Now exactly what is this here? It not just the elbows, but what the elbows do to the rest of the back. Backwards, 5,6,7,8. Twist the body, twist the torso.
Rudy [demonstrating] GO, GO, really go. Take chances. [Dancers do.] Alright. …Tamsin. Tamsin, something off the top of your head that’s a nice progression from where we are. You see how she uses the space? Those are the moments that I look for. And those are the moments that are the reason I work the way I do because you see where those moments will come in? And 7 & 8.
Make every moment. Make every moment. Make every moment. And where’s your focus please? It shouldn’t be on the floor until you tip over like that [flat back arabesque]. … Something else? … Let’s take the walking forward 3’s, 2’s, 1’s in the space.
Jeff: How would you like it forward and back? Diagonals?
Rudy: it’s up to you. Complicate it. [They do ]
Jeff: Four 1’s?
Fred: And then does there come an a-ha moment when you say, “That’s it.”?
Rudy: I think after we perform it. Like say we perform something at Royce Hall and then there’s the opportunity of doing the same work that’s been successful at another venue. I’m very conscious of the environment in which the piece is being presented and to allow that to come into play.
I did get good reviews. I’ve been very lucky in that respect, you know. And the audiences have been very broad, not just other dancers, but visual artists, composers and non-dancers – just people – because in certain ways, I’m the Everyman. The one that reaches the common denominator.
Rudy to the performers: Get away from the conventional. Get to a place where things are much more natural. And get away from trying to attract the audience by doing things. I think you can only do that once you’re famous and you’re known for whatever – you do these clever little things that people identify with you.
Fred: How do you see your self as a member, not only of the dance community, and obviously you’re an important part of that, but who are you as a dance maker? Your concerns, your interests, your issues?
Rudy: I’m interested in continuing to do good work. … At another time, there was more support from the media. It was wonderful to have the opportunity. I never thought beyond that. I didn’t set out to be Rudy Perez, whatever that was or is. So I’m reinventing myself as an elder. And actually, in the archives of the New Dance Group, which I attended in the early 50’s, they have my name down as Rudolpho. Isn’t that something?
Fred: Is that your born name?
Rudy: No, Rudolph.
Fred: Rudolpho! It suits you.
Rudy: I love it! I love Rudolpho.
Fred: So what has driven you to stay in it as long as you have?
Rudy: Just being able to do it and know that there’s something I can do. That I have the capacity to do it. That’s what keeps me going. The rest is up to me. Looking at all the experience I’ve had, and seeing professional work. Seeing good work. And that’s theater, visual art or whatever. Seeing good work. Certainly very inspired by Martha and Merce. They’re very much with me. And seeing what’s happening today. It’s phenomenal what’s happening today. I could never keep up with what I see. They’re so creative and the dancers are so good. And what you can get people to do. It’s certainly what I still strive for, and I feel good about having what I have because it’s ongoing and it’s there whenever we get together.
I did the recent solo, which I had no intent, no intent of doing, but an opportunity came and I said I’m going to do it, I’m going to do another solo. It’s the first one I’ve done in years. And just the thought of being onstage gave me a kick. I loved it [laughs]. So I did this piece, which is really a bookend to Countdown, which I call Download, Overload, to Tristan and Isolde, which is a pretty emotional piece. It adds elements to the movement that are very reminiscent to Countdown. But I would say that it’s kind of an updated version of Countdown because I have a dark suit, a white shirt and dark glasses. I even use my cell phone. And I got such pleasure out of it, because so many people who hadn’t seen me in years were there and that really meant a lot to me. This performance was on the program, Now Dig This! at the Hammer Museum as part of the Pacific Standard Time Festival. My performance was made possible by a Santa Monica Artist’s Fellowship Award, and that was very gratifying.
Rehearsal included spoken text from “An Unperformable Play?” written by playwright Andy Hyman for a new work by Rudy. Lines from the script are denoted by quotation marks.
Rudy: Let’s have a duet. 2 people doing the same thing, picking up where they left off…. Closer together, duet. … … Know exactly how long to hold something and when you feel it’s time to move a little bit, so there’s some sort of kinetic thing happening here. … that was good. Ok, ladies, find an exit. Someone else come in. Leave the space empty for a moment. If anyone else is ready – think about it.
Tamsin: there’s a trio.
Rudy: do we have any other dialogue? Any other spoken text you can use? We have many ages so try something else. … No trios please. Go off, off, off. Let’s have a solo please. Let’s see if we can remember what we did, how this works for the build. [Tamsin solos]. Now Quentin and Walter are not here, we need more actors…. I want the acting element to be much more powerful than it is. Jeff, can you run in and do something? Break the ice? And for a moment, Luke can you just come in and walk across upstage with spoken word as they continue? And Tamsin leave. This is what’s gonna be happening, in and out, out and in.
Luke: “Couples in bathrooms. Wearing kimonos…”
Rudy: but let’s really hear the text.
Luke: “…saving someone’s life. It doesn’t have to be somber.”
Rudy: can we jump right onto the section where we do the Last Supper thing? And Jeff, as they come in you can exit. Find the right moment….
To the actors: I don’t think you’d be coming in that way. You’d be coming directly from the walking. This is all going to be discombobulated. Everything’s going to be…
To Fred: This is the process. Merce would work on certain sections of the repertoire and the dancers didn’t know until they got into the dressing room, the sequence of the evening. So what are we talking about here? You see other people pushing. I mean, why are we doing the same old same old? Having been exposed to that [Cunningham] knowing, my god, it’s unbelievable! Why can’t, why can’t I push it? …
Tim [Walking across upstage L to R]: “her eyes disappear when she smiles.”
Rudy: No, you’re too visible. Very slow.
Tim: “she folds herself up while sitting in chairs, taking little space as possible, so invisibility beckons. But it’s impossible not to sense her.”
Rudy: Alright, someone else. Keep going Tim, you might want to go back.
Tim: “All the same, filling the room with intense intention.”
Rudy: I want you all to take the chance. This is the place where you’re allowed to take those chances. Where else can you do this? I’m not looking for talent, I’m looking for you to jump into something and discover for yourselves what is possible for you. … Alright, let’s keep going.
Tim: “And the feeling of her heart at work, beating out the tempo of a grander future,…”
Rudy: Now make sure I see somewhat of your front, not just your side part, that somehow or another you are maybe facing the diagonal, so we can see you as a three-dimensional.
Tim: “…than any giants could conceive of.”
Rudy: stay in the space. Remember the quarter marks.
Tim: “It’s the passionate danger of a loaded string…”
Rudy: Alright Luke, what else can you see? What else can you see happening?
Rudy: what else?
Tim: “of its own volatile wishes that she dare not wish out loud.”
Luke: “Yes, that’s right, a whole change in lifestyle. I’m gonna change my lifestyle.”
Tim:…”Silence. Less the love that saturates those very thoughts. We dilute it or deflate it.”
Rudy: Ok, we’re gonna wind up. Keep going. All of a sudden, place yourself downstage, actors, as if you were reading, at a reading of a playwright. And let the performers keep going. Actors, now go off stage. Go off. You’re too in a hurry!
Rudy, at the end of the rehearsal, to the performers: Ok, that’s the general way. And it’s not an easy thing. But you know, for me, at this stage of my life after having performed my first piece in 1964. And like I was telling Fred, I don’t want to do what I’ve done before. You have to help me and in turn, help yourself grow to another place. Because you have to. There’s so much talent in this city. And the younger people today, oh my god, they’re turning heads! I mean the talent that they have. And the people who are creating. I was telling someone the other day, gee I don’t mind not doing anything. There’s such good stuff happening, I’m enjoying watching what people are doing. It’s pretty good stuff, whether it’s Waiting for Godot or Billy Elliot or whatever. I’m gonna see The Good People for the 2nd time today. I mean, unbelievable professional theater. … Now this is the passion that I have and I’m trying to let you know it’s important to sustain. And one of Fred’s questions is how do you manage to keep going for so long? Did I answer that? [laughs]
Fred: You are the answer to that.
Rudy: well anyway, that’s pretty much it guys. Thank you. And maybe you can spend a few more moments getting back to how you want to use the space, so that when Walter comes back then it’ll be his turn, or whoever else. See if you can get into your head what this piece is gonna be. We don’t know. But so much of it depends on you just being there when you should be there, doing what you do brilliantly, brilliantly. So it’s not doing things by rote. [pauses, in contemplation, then quietly] Thank you.
Applause from the performers. Rudy to one of the actors: So Tim, do you want to spend a little time on the material?
Benet, Sydonie. “Rudy Perez,” The International Dictionary of Modern Dance. St. James, MO: St. James Press, 1998. Contains chronology through 1998.
McDonagh, Don. The Rise & Fall & Rise of Modern Dance. Chicago: A Cappella Books, 1970, 1990.
Perlmutter, Donna, “Reviews: Rudy Perez Performance Ensemble,” Dance Magazine, December 1992.
Siegel, Marcia B. At the Vanishing point: A Critic Looks at Dance. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972.
Countdown: Reflections on a Life in Dance. Directed by Severo Perez. Los Angeles: Script & Post Script, 2006. www.script-postscript.com
© Copyright 2012 Karen Goodman All rights reserved
© Copyright 2012 Andy Hyman, “An Unperformable Play?” All rights reserved