THOUGH THE WORKING CAPITAL of any artist is the sum total of his experiencehis private moments of beauty and horrorhis art must stand alone no matter the who, what, where, why, when, or how that is fed into the artists bank of being. His working image comes from his personal perceptions. His aesthetic decisions
Journal (1957) was the first of Murrays ballets I saw from the front of house. I had been in Cincinnati with the Playhouse Dance Company, a performing group from the Henry Street Playhouse that presented Nikolaiss ballets for children. I arrived at the airport, taxied to the Playhouse at 466 Grand Street and snuck into the balcony. I was overwhelmed. I had never thought of Murray as being beautiful, but by God he was! Sensitive, delicate, deep, lyrical, dramatic, poetic, moving, and inexorably beautiful.
Here was rascal Murray as poet (he wrote the spoken words), as musician (he edited all the music), as designer (the costumes and décor were his), as choreographer (group dances and solos) and, above all, as performer. I had stage managed the premier in January. Then I saw it in March. I was accustomed to Murrays multi-faceted dance perceptions. I had seen his delicate insights into the human condition in his numerous small dances that had been presented as part of joint faculty and student recitals, such works as Little Man (1953) and Small Illusions (1955) whose titles almost explain the work. I saw his motional development of human drama in works like Antechamber (1953), which was preformed in silhouette to a resonant monotonous drumbeat with Murray lying on an examining table with a fist pulsing from his chest. I knew his mercurial motional translations from works like Harmonica Suite (1956), five short presentations of his cat, and his ability to add a motional voice to classical musicality in Affirmation (1954), a group work choreographed to Bach. He showed me his courageous staging in Monarch (1955), where he lay on a set piece inclined 30° to the footlights and wore the most horrendous black, felt wig. (He certainly gave us his opinion of monarchs.) And I recall Incredible Garden (1956). The stage was festooned with all kinds of lush stuff, such as cellophane ribbons. Garden was a group work but within it Murray did a solo that consisted of trembling for perhaps four minutes. (Just try it. What a tour de force!) So you see, although I was accustomed to the vision of his work, I had always, as production stage manager, been pressed by those demands. Thus, my first experience as spectator of his work in Journal gave me a life-lasting spectator experience.
Almost every aspect of Murrays work is a seesawa chimera, whose visible form changes while you look on. A thread of clowns in this chimera begins with Little Man, a Chaplinesque series that deals with the troubles and dreams of the little man, and extends through Entre-Acte (1959), wherein the vulnerable performer puts on a mask (literally) to create the various figures of a circus world and is left unmasked and naked at the curtain. Then Suite For Divers Performers (1963) introduced a more sophisticated perception of the covers that clowns maintain. Junk Dances (1964) releases the child-like glee of dance clowning against humdrum daily doings. Disguise (1971) was high camp. But it is in Hoopla (1972) that the gregarious loner, the vulnerable tough clown gives his galloping good fun to one and all before the crowd. When alone, this clown tenderly reveals dreams of starring beauty with his solos and then explores the duality of a clowns ambitions in a remarkable duet.
Then there is The Canarsie Venus (1978), the latest refinement of Little Man, replete with pedestrian gesture and naive self-preening in the beginning and in the end the wondering hurt of everyman. How much over the years Murray tells us about himself and ourselves!
Murray dares to do the undoablethat which is by the critics edicts a taboo. The minimal motion of his early Antechamber (1953) used his personal physique to artistic emphasis instead of attempting to dance over it as the establishment might prescribe. Star Crossed (1953) used the Romeo and Juliet theme when the establishment said, use new themes. Affirmation (1953) used classical music, dancily danced. Established rules said, give it a new face. In his solo in Incredible Garden (1956) he trembled for four minutes. In Chimera (1966) he created a twenty-minute solo work. In Proximities (1969), under the musical auspices of Brahms, he winked at the audience. In Disguise (1971) he presented a male dancer in leather drag. (Just look again at the date!) In Scheherezade (1974) he blended classical, ethnic, and contemporary music, motion, costume, and idea. All of these were nos in someones book. But Murray did them and pulled them off. Murray did not glibly decide to proceed with any of these nos. Each was committed to the stage under his deep conviction that each was right for that time in that dance. It is his persistence in his singular visions that pervades his art and which leaves him vulnerable, so vulnerable that he could scream out with devastating clarity in his solo in Index (1973).
There are facets of Murrays choreographic schema, of Murrays art view, found in Interims (1963) that appear throughout his repertoire. Some of his very early solos treated time as an ongoing, rather than a metered element, an aesthetic that Nikolais taught and that Murray made his own. Antechamber (1953) had to grow in tensions that were dependant on resonance between performer and environment so that the time element had to remain open. Much later, despite their differing concepts, the opening of Moments (1975) has the quality of time binding, and in Glances (1976) the dancers gather, wait and depart, and time is not countedtime waits for the audience to see time. The nodding gentlemen in Aperitif (1982) and an echo-image in Interims seem to acknowledge that there is no hurry to catch the beat. Then again, time in Murrays dances can be a-one-and-a-two, when a-one-and-a-two says it, as in Junk Dances (1964).
One of Interims time spins settles with the quartet facing the audience where they develop a deliberate smile. This is the kind of out of motion contact between performer and audience that threads through Murrays workthe ballerinas facial attitudes and Murrays wink in Proximities. and the business with the chair in
Murray has no vocabulary, no movement building blocks that he can order to construct different dances. He dips into the resource of his perceptions to use whatever suits the purpose of his statements. If the moment demands a familiar gesture, so be it. And on occasion he does resort to dances long out of repertoire to use a fragment to build anew.
Murrays sensing of another dancers muscles, a major building block in Interims, has been another constant in his choreographyfor example, Gladys Bailin Sterns performance in Courtesan (1954), lightning quick, balanced, and clear. Although he choreographed many pieces for Gladys, always with the vision of her full, swift exactness, he hit the jackpot in Facets (1962), a work in which he welded Gladyss motional range with his own. Ten years after its premier the ballet was especially revived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Facets is pure motion!
In the many roles he created for Phyllis Lamhut (she remained a member of his company until 1969), he took fair advantage of her quirky motional impulses, as in Interims and in her role as the frustrated housewife in Junk Dances (1964). With Phyllis and Carolyn Carlson he created the trio Illume (1966), a memorable sculpting, which utilized the physical and poetic diversity and personal facilities of all three.
I saw a Louis program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The bill was Schubert (1977), Déjà vu (1977) and Glances (1976). To me that program was what seeing dance is all about. Im a lazy spectator. To that program I didnt have to bring a thing but me. I didnt have to know who Schubert or Brubeck was. I didnt have to know what it was that Murray was déjà vuing. I just soaked in dance from beginning to end and I loved it. In the lobby after the performance a critic (I use this term loosely) had only one comment: Where is the old raw edge of modern dance? I could have mowed her down but figured it was not worth my time or energy. It was as if she had seen Picassos Girl Before a Mirror and wanted it to be the Guernica or vice versa. Pick any artist in any art and one can ask, Where is ? How deprived that criticunable to savor the dinner because the breakfast, though long since digested, had tasted good.
Murray hears music kinetically. We see the results of his listening to classical music beginning with Affirmation (1953), which he choreographed to Bach. We see the resonance he sets up between motion and music. He has an appetite for that resonance. Following Affirmation and through the several decades since, he has used the music of Bach as well as of Vivaldi, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel, and Schubert. (And I have deliberately avoided any composer with whom a junior high school band would be unfamiliar.) He adds an additional voice to whatever music he chooses. Although he loves and respects what he hears, he may fracture the classical sense of form. He does so without seeming to violate it because in those fractures he places a completely consonant vitality, something that Bach or Brahms, Beethoven or Schubert might add today. To the music Murray adds his own life view.
One can easily find within a familiar musical framework Murrays choreographic skills. Soloists frequently move against the group, much as an instrument against an orchestra. Within the group motion is frequently passed from dancer to dancer as differing voices in music toss the theme. In much the same way in his own solos, he passes the motion from body part to body part. One cant catch it with the mind. One must catch it with the body. You have got to feel the motion to see it.
Within his works the male/female duets are unhampered by pre-conceived male/female patterns. Men and women frequently perform the same motional material. They talk to each other as equals. Was Murray a voice in the feminist movement?
I dont know what Murray thinks of human history except from my interpretation of what he does. From the Romeo and Juliet legend through various Greek myths runs a thread of old stories renewed, not just retold. In the ballets Star Crossed (1953), Odyssey (1960), Scheherezade (1974), Cleopatra (1976) and Canarsie Venus: Aphrodite Rising from the Sea (1978) he treats each story as if today where we stand is all of history, and we who are today can reach into any time, pluck threads from then and now as the image may dictate and weave these old stories into fresh cloth. Scheherezade even ventures into the future. He makes such time fractures seem consonant. With the same skill as the tale spinner of the Arabian Nights, wherein these tales, now centuries old, had flying machines and time warps, Murray courageously ventures where imagination points. And we go with him.
I dont know how many times I saw Interims, and yet each time I saw it was like the first timeonly better because some of it was cherished and familiar, like a favorite Christmas carol: some of it is new like crystals catching a changing light. Interims is a quartet of four soloists, each distinct in movement and character and each giving his own motion to the others, a sort of barter of motion, illustrating in a very particular manner how Murray can create to suit the particular facilities of his dancers.
Murray once said after a performance of Journal, I had to hold back. I was afraid Id levitate. Well, perhaps I remember levitating while I watched Interims.
There are memorable dances that were presented only during their premier performances. Each one has its own reason for its demise. Rialto (1961) had one performance in Chicago and one in New York. It was a romping trio, which included Murray as an amorphous, manipulative Merlin figure, Don Redlick as prince and villain, Phyllis Lamhut as lady and witchall three in satisfying juxtaposition. It had a set piece by Paul von Ringelheim made of Stonehenge-proportioned Styrofoam blocks, which first presented a storage problem and then a touring problem. Despite many presented designs and lots of discussion about inflatables and fold-up-ables, these monumental blocks were never replaced by pieces more suited to travel. While this work presented a unique duality of characters, it is likely that the unwieldy set pieces were responsible for its demise.
Paul designed another décor piece for Murray for Concerto (1966). The piece was some six feet in diameter and designed to be flown. Its structure resembled the complex formalism of the music and deserved preservation somewhere.
Illume (also 1966) was another matter. Its décor was a clear plastic drop, something that could be stuffed into a goods bag or carried in a briefcase or handbag. A trio with Murray, Phyllis, and Carolyn Carlson, it used all the wondrous shaping of trio forms that those three could sculpt. I have the distinct memory of three floating and swimming figures around and through one another, creating another of Murrays unique visions. For years following its run, Illume was a favorite with the P.R. people for the wonderful series of photographs by Max Waldman. The reconstruction of Illume was never done, possibly because the forms depended on the figures and facilities of the original three. Does every ability have a liability flip side? Here Murrays talent for using the instruments his dancers present to him makes the combination unique and therefore irreplaceable.
Then there was Disguise (1971): nightmarish discotheque costumes, dancers in camp set-up, Louiss swaggering solo, Jaded, decadent view of our society, so said reviews. After its Chicago opening run that solo was replaced in subsequent performances on that tour. I wasnt there so I didnt see anything of Disguise but the glorious preparation, the fun of concocting, and the fun of poking fun at the jaded and the decadent. It was lavish, extravagant, and high camp. The world of 1971 needed that kind of look at itself. I asked Murray why he dismissed it. He said he couldnt stand doing that dance again (his solo); it was so excruciatingly demanding on his gluts.
Catalog (1975) had a book as did Junk Dances, which commented on the then current art scene, and Hoopla, which contained not only the joy of clowning but also the tender revelation of the inner performer. Catalog dealt with the body politic at the time when the Equal Rights Amendment was under scrutiny. At the turn of the century a popular image of women was created through songs and the stage. This program is about that quiet courage and resistance that surmounted that image,
Because these pages were written in the early eighties, there are later works that have no mention. The last work of Murrays I saw was Alone (1994). In it I saw maintenance of his aesthetic of time and gesture, a clarity and directness of statement that struck from his core to mine. Is not such communication what art is all about?
PHOTO CREDITS: Except as otherwise noted, all images included here are from early 1970s publicity photos of the Nikolais/Louis organization (then known as Chimera Foundation for Dance), or from the Murray Louis souvenir booklet published in 1972 by Chimera Foundation for Dance, in which photo credits are collectively listed as David S. Berlin, Boyart Studios, Frank Cowan, Susan Schiff Faludi, Alexander Leber, Seymour Linden, Jack Mitchell, Guy Mognaz, Milton Oleaga, Gary Osius, Michael Podolski, David Shaw, Robert Sosnko, Max Waldman, Morris Weinstock, and Dan Ziskie.