When Jules Feiffer was still “a kid, hanging out in the Village,” he says, “unemployed and unemployable, without the weekly cartoon in the Voice,” he met a young woman who would sleep with him. She was a modern dancer.
So besides revivals at the Thalia and nights at the White Horse hoping Dylan Thomas would drop by, he joined his girlfriend in churches and basements for dance concerts. “These were young bohemians in their first recitals,” Feiffer, now 82, recalls. “The dancers would feel compelled to explain what you were about to see. What was amusing to me was the contradiction between the way they danced, which was full of exuberance because they were young, and the message they were conveying, which was that we are all about to die.”
When the Voice hired him a few years later, in 1956, he included a Dancer character among his inky clan of neurotic explainers. Clad in the period uniform of black feetless tights and black leotard, she leapt from one improbable position to another while intoning an ode to summer (“In this dance I symbolize the desire to escape … from all the inadequate pleasures”) or the end of summer (“The solstice in its declension … and insect repellant, gathered in an organic unity”) or revolution in the streets.
Over the decades, she grew more political and less buxom (at first her boobs had a choreographic mind of their own), but she never made it onto celluloid—trans-formed like Superman into a live action figure! Until now.
This Saturday, July 9, Judy Dennis’s shorts To Spring, To Art, To the Loss of Innocence, and to other milestones premiere at the World Financial Center as part of the River to River Festival. The six two-minute films—each playing on its own screen in a continuous loop from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. for nine days—are meant to be stumbled upon the way you would a strip in the newspaper: serendipitously.
Before an edgeless, sky-colored backdrop that reflects the nowhere and anywhere of the blank page Feiffer set his characters against, the dances imagine the steps between the cartoon cells without flattening the Dancer’s trademark ups and downs of fortune and mood. To conjure the homemade feel of Feiffer’s lines, the camera resists any flashy maneuvers. We see the Dancer (the statuesque and radiant Andrea Weber) from head to toe as she lunges, twirls, and deflates to her own quizzical thoughts (voiced by actress Jennifer Dundas) or to jazz composer Jane Ira Bloom’s pleasingly casual riffs.
Feiffer is so moved by the films, which he gave his blessing to but did not meddle in, that he “can’t even talk about it,” he says—and doesn’t for several seconds. Eventually he explains, “They translated my cartoon dancer into both cartoon and something very poetic and very real, with its own sweetness and innocence.” But they kept his wit. Anyone who has ever wondered if modern dance would be better off with supertitles will giggle over a dancer who backs up her every random and extravagant move with a whole paragraph of exposition. And anyone else—who knows how little dance and talk have in common—will appreciate the goofy aplomb with which the Dancer exposes the art form’s naïve hopes and pretensions.
Susan Marshall, one of the films’ two choreographers, encountered Feiffer’s Dancer upon moving to New York in the early ’80s and “loved her, I always loved her,” she says. “She captures this great desire to express that young dancers especially have. And what shape that takes is almost irrelevant because the dance means what she wants it to mean because she feels it so deeply.” The choreographer laughs. “Dance is not the medium for abstract thought, and the fact that she feels she can express this stuff is deeply charming. That’s the comedy.”
No one left interpretative dance farther behind than Merce Cunningham, and yet Weber, an eight-year veteran of the Cunningham troupe, identifies completely with Feiffer’s creation. “It’s so funny how often I think about steps as I traipse around New York” working out her feelings and adversity to the world. “Feiffer really got that about a dancer’s spirit.”
Larry Keigwin, who choreographed two of the films as well as the upcoming revival of Rent, recognizes himself in the Dancer, too. “She’s so funny. There’s a sheer joy that can be really funny. She gets so passionate about her story that it overcomes her and she has to dance.”
And what would she have to dance about today, I ask Feiffer. His answer comes quick: “The loss of America.” We have become “a series of tribes living under the same roof.”
Still, she would be dancing: “Implicit in her very existence is a desperate clinging to hope,” he says. “However much she is smashed to the ground, she rises and dances all over again.”
In addition to the Dancer Films (July 9–17), the World Financial Center will host an exhibition of Dancer cartoons and watercolors (through August 14) and a Dance-In (July 10 at 2 p.m.), with Andrea Weber and Jules Feiffer, rivertorivernyc.com