Have you ever heard the term ‘polymath’? Recently I took an informal poll of twelve close friends and asked if they could define it. Some couldn’t. Some thought it must be connected to arithmetic or equations. Only a few were familiar with the word, correctly defining it as ‘someone who is skilled in many fields.’
In the performing arts, we encounter polymaths all the time—choreographers who are also arts administrators, sound engineers and photographers; performers who excel at dance, music and storytelling. Versatility comes with the territory. But there are a select few who take the term to a whole other level. Remy Charlip (1929-2012) was one of these quintessential polymaths, an artist with far reaching talent and diverse creative pursuits. He was a writer, theater practitioner, set designer, poet, children’s book illustrator, costume designer and visual artist. He was a gifted dancer and choreographer – a founding member of Merce Cunningham Dance Company, a multidisciplinary contributor to Judson Dance Theater and director of his own troupe, the Remy Charlip Dance Company. He was a pioneer of innovative compositional methods, like his ‘Air Mail Dances,’ where he mailed original illustrations and images to movement artists as the inspiration and foundation for new work. And he was a queer Jewish man who spent much of his life and career in a time that is very different than today.
This November, Eye Zen Presents turns its attention to this extraordinary individual with the premiere of Rainbow Logic: Arm in Arm with Remy Charlip, the fourth installation in their current series on LGBTQ lineage. Conceived by Founder/Artistic Director Seth Eisen and produced in association with CounterPulse and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Rainbow Logic delves deeply into Charlip’s personal and professional story, and in doing so, continues Eye Zen’s long-standing commitment to exploring LGBTQ lineage and sharing it with today’s audiences.
“This is our tenth year making work about queer history and ancestry, celebrating the passion and consciousness of queer artists,” notes Eisen. Charlip is one of these descendants, a transcendent LGBTQ ancestor who made a rich artistic contribution, “Remy was a master at turning ordinary, simple things into something magical; a queer artist who could intuitively bridge worlds, balance masculine/feminine energies and bring a queer sensibility to whatever he was doing.” In thinking about the canon of queer ancestry, Eisen is also especially drawn to the obscure – the less familiar narratives; the remote biographies. For him, Charlip also fits this intention. “I feel like he was a little in the shadow of some of his more famous peers,” Eisen says, “and so, I’m hopeful that Rainbow Logic can help pass his legacy onto the next generation.”
Eisen is perhaps the ideal candidate to usher this particular story to the stage. He knew Charlip well; the two had a longtime connection, first meeting at Naropa University back in 1990. During Eisen’s freshman year, he enrolled in a class that Charlip was teaching and recalls “immediately falling in love with his embodied, interdisciplinary approach as well as his fluidity – how he dressed, how he held class, how he was in the world.” Over the next three decades, they became friends, colleagues and even neighbors after Charlip relocated from New York to San Francisco. Sadly, Charlip was the victim of a stroke in 2005, and in the face of that tragedy, Eisen transitioned into the role of caregiver. It was in the final years of Charlip’s life (he passed away in 2012) that Eisen encountered the artist’s own archive collection as he was packing up some of his personal effects. “This archive of Remy’s life’s work was more expansive than I could have ever imagined and I knew that someone needed to do something with it, it needed to be shared,” explains Eisen. With the help of an archivist, he became intensely involved with organizing and cataloging Charlip’s voluminous anthology. And in that process, the seed for what was to become Rainbow Logic was being planted.
With the idea for a piece about Charlip percolating, Eisen went into an extensive time of research and information gathering. He spent more than a year combing through Charlip’s archives along with supplementary source material. He interviewed close to three-dozen family members, lovers and collaborators in order to build an oral history. He held a series of performative artist talks to investigate different pathways in which to enter the work. How do you approach such a titanic life and career? How do you pay tribute to Charlip’s eighty-three years in a single performance work? What gets left out? What stays? Where is the line between Charlip’s voice and the voice of the new work? With these and other questions in mind, Eisen headed into a series of artist residencies—at Joshua Tree, Montalvo Arts Center, the Dresher Ensemble Artist Residency and most recently, CounterPulse—to begin construction on Rainbow Logic. And while deep in this creative process, Eisen was simultaneously assembling an all-star team of collaborators to bring this endeavor to life: performers Emily Butter fly, Colin Creveling and Paul Loper, composer Miguel Frasconi, scenic designer Terrance Graven, visual designers Diego Gomez and Rich Hutchison, lighting designer Jim Cave, video designer Ian Winters, costume designer Keriann Egeland and choreographer James Graham.
Graham came on board with the project early on, joining Eisen for the Joshua Tree residency, “Remy was a dancer/choreographer in his own right, so it follows that movement would be significant in Rainbow Logic,” Graham shares. As the two began experimenting with ideas, motifs and narrative material, Graham began contemplating artistic questions similar to those that Eisen was grappling with. How would the choreography inform and serve Rainbow Logic? Would reconstruction and restaging be part of the picture? Or would all the movement be entirely original? “We needed to respect Remy as the heart of the work, but also balance that with the reality that we are making something in the now, something new,” relays Graham, “what felt successful was to try and suss out Remy’s essence, keeping him in the room and touching base with him, while simultaneously creating new movement and dance.” What emerged through this exploration were phrases that inspect gesture and physical states of being; cultural ritualistic dances filled with emotional extremes and personal narratives; and sequences inspired by ‘Air Mail Dances,’ Charlip’s compositional technique.
This choreography blends together with text, puppetry, scenework, a toy theater (which Eisen likens to a theater maquette), object arranging, video, props, costume, and an original score in what Eisen describes as, “a transdisciplinary work about inventiveness, intuition and creativity told in a two-part narrative arc.” With a polymath like Charlip as its subject, it made sense to employ a vast array of theatrical devices and artistic components. And Eisen is specific about using the word transdisciplinary to describe how they are woven together, “all of the various elements and strategies in Rainbow Logic are layered, crossing and interacting with each other.” And it is through them that the narrative is unpacked. “First we introduce Remy as a young, queer, Jewish boy born into poverty, who early on discovers a love for art and dance, and then we fast forward to the latter part of his life,” describes Eisen, “the heart of the piece is the conversation between these two selves; what happens when the younger self and the much older self are in a position to engage with each other.”
As the premiere nears and Rainbow Logic enters its final phase of rehearsals, the excitement and anticipation is stirring for everyone at Eye Zen Presents. Eisen is keen for audiences to experience the life and work of this remarkable polymath, “I hope Rainbow Logic sparks curiosity about Remy, a man who perfected the art of being an artist and who teaches us that every moment has creative potential.”
Rainbow Logic: Arm in Arm with Remy Charlip: Weaving dance, text, puppetry, video and music, Rainbow Logic celebrates Remy Charlip’s exceptional life in dance, theater and children’s literature. Fri-Sat, Nov 4-5, 11-12, & 18-19, 8p & Sun, Nov 6, 13, & 20, 7p, $20-35.