Rain Early, Skies Clear
OK, so Juliette Mapp’s Anna, Ikea, and I is probably the longest work I’ve seen on a Danspace program, and, yes, I confess to checking my watch around the hour-and-a-half mark. But you know what? I was having a wonderful time.
Mapp brought a lot of baggage to this brave, honest, deeply felt tale of her life in dance. I’m not talking just about the spare items from Ikea that furnished her first real New York apartment or the Bob Dylan songs that have meant a lot to her. Distinguished mentors, former students, and present colleagues are on hand to help her recreate landmark career moments. And it’s nice that many of them sit around—watching her, thumbing through the books she’s read since the Iraq War started, and occasionally correcting a fact in her spoken narrative.
One very influential piece of luggage contains the choreographer’s memories of comments that Viola Farber—Mapp’s teacher every day of her four years at Sarah Lawrence—made about her student’s choreographic efforts. The late Farber, a deeply moody woman who was once one of Merce Cunningham’s stellar dancers, apparently began a criticism by delivering, sweet-voiced, an elaborate metaphor to set up the confidence-piercing dagger she finally slipped in. Returning from a stint in Korea, she described the food and the pleasure of expecting wooden chopsticks, warm in her hand, only to find that metal chopsticks were the rule, and metal chopsticks “like your dance” are always disappointing. Mapp, already somewhat hardened, tells of trudging home, thinking, “at least she didn’t compare me to a fork.”
Mapp doesn’t harp on Farber’s cruelty; it’s just one of many themes woven into her artistic journey, and over the course of the piece, as she recounts her own efforts to learn to teach (and teach humanely), Mapp comes to understand Farber’s striving for almost unattainable perfection and to appreciate her articulation of the fleeting joy and freedom that beautiful dancing gives both the performer and the watcher. Anna, Ikea, and I is witty, moving, and rich on many levels. We see Mapp and John Jasperse, with whom she danced from 1996 to 2005, performing a snatch of his choreography; he struggles with a blanket, while, beside him, she tries to imitate not his actions but the blanket’s. She executes a simple, repeating sequence of her own early work, flanked by one of her teachers, Vicky Shick, and her onetime student Anna Sperber. Later, Sperber, plus three others who studies with Mapp (Anna Carpatayan, Natalie Green, and Stacy Grossfield), stand in a square with stacks of folded pads on their heads and dance slowly and calmly, ignoring all the wildness and cymbal crashes in the “Spring Rounds” section of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (minimalism must have been Farber’s bête noire).
Because at 19 Mapp took a summer workshop with Trisha Brown and fell in love with her processes and her choreography, we get to see —oh joy!— Brown’s divinely epigrammatic Spanish Dance, performed by four veteran Brown dancers (Diane Madden, Iréne Hultman, Vicky Shick, and Wendy Perron) plus Mapp, wearing the appropriate plain, long-sleeved white tops and white pants and chugging across the space to form a close-hitched train of women while Bob Dylan sings “Early Mornin’ Rain.” Shick’s wise, gentle choreography is also represented, and Layard Thompson joins Mapp in riffing off Deboray Hay’s work. Most surprising of all is an excerpt from Merce Cunningham’s Septet in honor of Farber’s dancing prowess—only instead of the grainy archival footage we expect to see, a blank frame is projected high up on a wall, while below, four un-Cunningham dancers (Madden, Shick, Sperber, and Levi Gonzalez) soberly perform live.
There’s also some fine new (?) choreography by Mapp to Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.” In it, she’s joined by her peers Paige Martin, Miguel Gutierrez, and Gonzalez. The short piece builds from a simple balletic exercise into something full and elegantly designed and then sinks back to its chaste beginning. And, at the end of the evening, while Joe Levasseur’s excellent lighting goes from bright and warm to chill, the whole cast gradually joins in the simple, repeated foot action that once drove Farber crazy and, in retrospect, jump-started Mapp’s career.
Sperber is a busy presence in this—sometimes inscrutable, always interesting, whether she’s passing a jar of dried corn around her body (Mapp’s mother was crazy for corn), performing Martha Graham’s classroom warmup, napping on the Ikea bed, or galloping around and kicking out in martial-arts fashion before doing some stunning staggers and falls (which Mapp identifies as Faye Dunaway getting shot in Bonnie and Clyde). As the lights are about to fade, Sperber repeats something she’s done earlier; she sits on a chair reading (Mapp tells us) a book by Primo Levi, while she waits for a subway train to come. The image not only resonates with Levy’s memories; it recalls one of Mapp’s stories about Farber’s responses to her work and hints at the dogged journey that her own career has been and the perpetual promise of light at the end of the tunnel.
Mapp refers several times during the evening to Carolyn Brown’s marvelous book Chance and Circumstance, an account of Brown’s years in Cunningham’s company. But I get the impression that she hasn’t read the book about Farber by Jeff Slayton, who danced with her, and was married to her for nine years. To exorcise Farber further—and understand her more—she might take a look at it. It’s called Prickly Rose. Mapp isn’t the only one to have felt the thorns and scented the buried sweetness.
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