The Stillness of Rudy Perez

Art in America 31 May 1971English

item doc

In the summer of 1952, at Black Mountain College, John Cage engineered a now-famous theater event. Above the collage of simultaneously performed dance, poetry, piano music and recorded music were suspended some of Robert Rauschenberg's all-white paintings. It is probably no coincidence that shortly thereafter Cage produced his ultimate exploration of silence, 4'33", during which the performer sat motionless before the piano -opening and closing the lid to indicate sections. In 1957, Paul Taylor, who had met Cage while dancing with Merce Cunningham, presented a duet in which he and his partner remained immobile for the duration of the dance.

These rigorous experiments did not have to be repeated; the point had been made. Without silence we could have no conception of sound; without stillness, no understanding of motion; and no knowledge of color if black or white didn't exist. Therefore, an art form that contained ample amounts of the complement (or antithesis) of its prime element would be not only richer, but more lifelike. Stillness was once -for the most part- what happened before a dance started or after it was over. Now it is often stressed within the work.

Rudy Perez has made some very interesting experiments with stillness in dance. Where others -Merce Cunningham, for instance- pit stillness against bursts of virtuoso movement, Perez shades it into minimal movement and back again. His brand of stillness is not so much the temporary absence of movement as the charged potential for it. For example, his "Topload/Offprint" begins with three figures in colored Mao suits (vermilion, wine, navy) sitting on chairs that are facing the audience, but arranged in an evenly spaced diagonal. They sit for what seems an eternity. You feel that a current is passing through their bodies, but is somehow being shortcircuited before it can force them into action. They look ready to explode. Finally, when Perez is ready (long after you may be), he rises to a standing pose as alert and immobile as his sitting one.

The others begin to move -their frozen positions reminiscent of the way the projected slides that precede the dance click quickly into view and hold for a second. In the soft, summery photographs, wind, light and ocean have the same arrested motion as the dancers' bodies.

Perez doesn't cast all of his dances in this move-hold-move-hold rhythm. He also uses time in huge gulps -developing gestures in meticulous slow motion. Repetition fixes the images that he wants you to hang onto. Paradoxically, the slower-than-normal speed with which he performs certain actions has the effect of condensing time for the spectator.

His movement could justly be called minimal, but in no way is it casual or natural. Everything unnecessary is stripped from his work, and the bare bones are polished until they gleam. In "Countdown", a solo, the very slow and stylized gesture of a man lifting a lighted cigarette to his lips becomes immensely important. Perez moves the bodies of his dancers through clean-lined, emblematic positions. Pointing with one outstretched arm, crouching as if to begin a race, marching, bending slowly into the floor: these are some of his motto themes. Straight lines are the rule; curves in both body and path are a luxury. When, in "Transit", Perez enters on a pair of roller skates and swoops scallops around Barbara Roan and Anthony La Giglia, the effect is of a sudden and surprising freedom. Fast dancing and out-of-control dancing are also rarities, used to make a particular point.

Perez himself is of medium height -lean, but with a large frame and heavy muscles. Built organically on his own body, his movement is deliberately heavy, yet he rarely allows his weight to drop. He moves as if he had the density of iron, places himself carefully, does not yield easily to gravity. This may be one of the reasons that his work, for me, has affinities with the primary structures of contemporary sculpture. The resemblance also has something to do with his strong, unadorned designs in space and the bright, unshaded colors and blocklike cut of his costumes.

Physical contact is something else that Perez uses seldom, and then for special emphasis. His dancers intersect; they coinhabit the space. But rarely do they touch each other. "Arcade", for instance, begins with a group marching toward the audience in babysteps, while a bravura march contrasts with their inching progress. As the dance ends, they are slowly embracing each other. After the aridity of the dance, that last moment on the stage is tremendously moving.

Perez's dances are often moving -full of repressed emotion. Just as his immobility suggests a terrific lust for motion, so his masklike face and unemotive postures suggest an ache for the release of tears or laughter. He relinquishes little of his tension. Instead, he allows music, sounds, films, slides to present the freedom that he cannot attain. His minimal gestures in "Countdown" are accompanied by Madeleine Gray's wildly beautiful singing of a couple of Auvergnois folk songs. In "Fieldgoal", the dancer's awkward and inhibited movements are accompanied by phrases from Gounod's "Sanctus". At the end of "Topload/Offprint", the Mamas and the Papas are singing their lungs out, while Anthony La Giglia slowly tips the chair on which he is sitting until it is lying on its side, and he is still sitting on it -lying on his side, too.

Since Perez began choreographing in 1963, he has always had admirers. But I can remember in 1967, when I first saw his work, talking to people who were baffled by what he was doing. Nothing happened, they complained, and hinted darkly that the reason he moved so little was that he wasn't a well-trained dancer. Hardly a fair criticism, and disproved now anyway. In the past three years, he has improved greatly as a dancer, but he continues to work in his own way -whether with a large group or with the original trio which consisted of himself, Roan, and La Giglia.

Audiences have begun to stop straining against the bounds he imposes. They realize that they are indeed watching something, instead of the prologue to it. Critics have begun to praise his work -often finding his dances a stylish and tasteful relief to the excesses of others. Suddenly he has a following. His is not a direction for all dance to take, but a quiet, private and ultimately fascinating path.