Dancing With Jarvis Cocker: A Member Of The “Who’s Zoo” Troupe Tells All


Editor’s note: This weekend, Jarvis Cocker performed at the Whitney Museum in his Relaxed Muscle guise as part of the choreographer Michael Clark’s “Who’s Zoo” residency. The performance brought together dancers both trained and amateur, and Seattle Weekly‘s Dategirl/The Official Book Of Sex, Drugs, And Rock And Roll Lists author Judy McGuire was one of the lucky people who got a crash course in dance. In honor of Cocker’s band, Pulp, beginning its two-night run at Radio City Music Hall this evening, we got her perspective on being involved in the performance.

We were called “zombies” and “klutzes” by the Post and compared to an “encroaching plague” by Gia Kourlas at the Times, but the reality is, we were sculptors, writers, lawyers (okay, only one), painters, trendspotters (again, only one), entry-level assistants, actors, students, filmmakers, bookmakers, art dealers and historians, and the un/under-employed. We were the “non-dancer” element in choreographer Michael Clark’s “Who’s Zoo” residency at the Whitney Biennial.

Why would non-dancers be part of a dance performance? Well, I never really got a firm answer to that, but I’ve been a fan of Clark’s since I saw a documentary about his company—including the late Leigh Bowery—dancing to the Fall back in the ’80s. So when I heard they were looking for volunteers I signed on immediately. The only requirement was that one had to be able to sit down on the floor and get up quickly. I might not be able to entrachet, but I sure can stand up.

The time commitment was intense—volunteers were required to be at the Whitney for a few hours nearly every day for a month, and about ten people dropped out over the run. We spent the first two weeks learning our steps in full view of Biennial crowds. “Together, open, turn, step” became our mantra. The name of the performance started to make sense because we were like animals in the zoo, though the art fans who watched were generally better behaved than toddlers trying to force Cheetos through cage bars.

Unlike at the Tate, where Clark first attempted using large groups of the klutzy public in his performances, we weren’t trained by members of his company. Instead, several extremely patient dance students from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts signed on to turn us into, if not full-fledged dancers, at least semi-competent prancers, while Clark and co dropped in occasionally to offer a hand.

Instead of the Bowie songs he’d used at the Tate, Clark went with Pulp and Jarvis Cocker’s side project with Jason Buckle, Relaxed Muscle. We learned to together-open-turn-step in time with Pulp’s “F.E.E.L.I.N.G. C.A.L.L.E.D. L.O.V.E.,” while the real dancers glided between us, like gazelles amongst the water buffalo.

Predictably, the non-dancer skill levels were all over the place and whenever you get 45 people trying to work together—especially 45 people with enough spare time to devote a month to an unpaid art project—”personalities” emerge. Some were buttsore over the “non-dancer” label, while others got snippy with their less coordinated colleagues. But overall, this disparate group from all over the world got along shockingly well, and while there were several Showgirls moments, nobody went full-on Nomi.

Halfway through the first week of shows, we heard rumblings that Jarvis Cocker would be playing live with us for the second week. I asked Lucy, the stage manager, if this was true. She coyly refused to confirm or deny, until the following day when she allowed that yes, it was happening.

This sent the pop fans among us into a non-dancer tizzy. JARVIS COCKER would be suiting up in the dressing room right next to ours! We’d be together-open-turn-stepping under his gaze! But then it occurred to me that if they played “F.E.E.L.I.N.G. C.A.L.L.E.D. L.O.V.E.” live, there was a chance that there might be some musical deviation from the track we’d been rehearsing along with and instead of together-open-turn-stepping in formation, we’d be like a gaggle of human bumper cars careening wildly instead. Not surprisingly, this had already occurred to Clark and we were assured we’d still be non-dancing to the same recorded track.

Dreams of non-dance superstardom intact, I exhaled.

Truth be told, we non-dancers didn’t get a whole lot of contact with Mr. Cocker or Mr. Clark, for that matter. Both kept mostly to themselves, for which you could hardly blame them. However one day I was on my way to get a beer with a co-non-dancer, Deb Aruta, and ran smack into Jarvis and Jason. I was content to leave it with a shy “hi,” but Deb was not. Our friend Mike Edison, who’d just seen the show, volunteered to take the photo you see above. We chatted briefly and Jarvis kept mentioning his girlfriend. I guess he was letting us down gently, most likely because Deb kept muttering, “I’m touching you.”

Having Relaxed Muscle there reenergized everyone. Jarvis painted his face a different color nearly every show and added a ringmaster element that I hadn’t realized was missing until we got one. Clark started changing the show up, which was nerve-wracking at first, because I barely had a handle on the stuff we’d rehearsed, but eventually we all just gave into the chaos. Instead of sitting stiffly on the floor through the last number, “B-Real,” we got up on the floor with Cocker and Clark and performed a slightly varied version of the moves we’d learned—nearly all of us off-time. Then we skittered off-stage as the gorgeous members of his troupe came out and took their bow, generously clapping for us as we shambled back on for our highly disorganized goodbye to the crowd.

What had started out so regimented wound up relaxed.

Pulp plays at Radio City Music Hall tonight and tomorrow night.