For his first New York City performance, Bronx-born Rudy Perez presented a program of dance solos. It was the mid-1960s, and the venue was one of those “alternative” spaces that sat about 50. As he began the concert, Perez says that he noticed there were only four people in the audience—and they were all sitting together.
“It was good for me to get through the program and make it work,” recalled Perez, who turns 86 this month, “because I later found out that those four people were critics—from the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Soho News and the Wall Street Journal. From then on everything kind of just took off. It was the beginning.”
Indeed: Perez became a hot commodity in New York, forming his own company, Rudy Perez Dance Theater, that toured the States, Germany and Canada in the 1960s and ’70s. His solo works from that period, “Coverage” and “Countdown,” also became part of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater repertory.
In 1978, Perez was offered a teaching position at UCLA, which prompted his move west, where, nearly 40 years later, the postmodern choreographer is receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the University of California, Irvine, on November 7. Not content, however, to rest on his oodles of laurels, Perez also made a new work for the evening, “Slate in Three Parts,” which will be performed by the Rudy Perez Performance Ensemble, along with excerpts from his reconstructed 2003 work, “Shifts.”
The concert takes place at the Experimental Media Performance Lab (xMPL) at Claire Trevor School of the Arts in the Contemporary Arts Center building on the UCI campus.
A Los Angeles treasure, Perez is also somewhat of an unsung hero. And while the octogenarian has never looked back, his past is deeply embedded in his signature choreography, and is, in fact, what makes him the artist he is today.
Part DNA, part determination, and all talent, Perez, of Puerto Rican descent, like many Latinos, had danced socially, before making his way to the mother of modern dance, Martha Graham. After studying with Graham for five years in the ’50s, Perez, confronted with the harsh reality that dance, where anatomy is truly destiny, left the icon known for codifying her contract-and-release technique.
“Obviously I wasn’t going to be a Graham dancer,” explained Perez, “because Martha’s men were tall, blonde and blue-eyed then. I realized that Judson was the only place for me at the time.”
That would be New York’s experimental Judson Dance Theater. Founded in 1962 by Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton and others, Judson had defined boundary-breaking “downtown” aesthetics. Indeed, the seminal collective was ground zero for what then came to be known as performance art. It was with Judson, said Perez, that he found his path as an artist, letting go of Graham’s training and just “doing it.”
“It was a real eye-opener to see people working differently—and certainly not dancing—but sitting in a chair and being very sparse, for example. Judson helped me find my own way and it also helped me shape the extremities of what I was doing in terms of overblown dramatic stuff, to really pare things down to their minimal essence.”
This proved an epiphany—not only for critics and audiences—but for other choreographers who, tossing aside years of formal training and with that, the often histrionic accompanying emotions, began to work in radically different ways. Goodbye to articulated arabesques with hands-on-forehead angst; hello to terpsichorean minimalism, which included pedestrian moves such as walking, the simple act of chair-sitting, and whittling that act down to its core—what it takes to just sit in said chair.
It was no accident, then, that Perez also began studying with and was mentored by Merce Cunningham, who originated the revolutionary concept that music, choreography, sets and costumes can exist independently from one another.
Recalled Perez, whose honorary doctorates include those from Otis Institute of Art and Design (1992), and from California Institute of the Arts (2006): “I always looked up to Merce, although I think Martha was a bigger influence on me in terms of physicality and passion.
“But I liked Merce’s sense of intellect—that things don’t have to relate to each other, they can co-exist. I also liked the challenge that a dance doesn’t have to be lyrical.”
Perez remembered telling Cunningham he was headed to Los Angeles. “I don’t think he was for it. But I said, ‘Merce, it’s time for me to move on. New York has done all it possibly can for me.’ And I left.”
Their friendship continued, however, and whenever the Cunningham troupe came through L.A., Perez would go backstage to see his mentor. “I’d say, ‘Merce, you’re still an inspiration,’ and he would say, ‘You’re your own inspiration. I didn’t really understand it at the time, but now that he’s gone I think about that and all the times he’d said that to me.”
An inspiration, yes, to himself and many others, Perez has thrived in Southern California. In addition to the UCLA gig, Perez was, at various times, on faculty at California State Long Beach, CalArts and USC, which houses his archives, including photographs, programs, press clippings, and other materials that constitute a virtual history of postmodern dance. He also taught at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts for ten years beginning in 1992.
And after founding his eponymous troupe, the Rudy Perez Performance Ensemble in his adopted town, the maker has choreographed more than 50 works, provoking near rabid devotion from company members, some unabashedly referring to themselves as “Perezians.”
That’s apparent in his weekly performance lab at the West Side School of Ballet, where Perez has been in residence for more than 30 years, and where dancers study technique, improvisation, and movement innovation with this high priest of postmodernism.
At a recent workshop that this writer attended, his dancers—Anne and Jeff Grimaldo, Michael Rowley, Jarred Cairns, Alessia Patregnani and Sarah Swenson—were rehearsing “Slate.”
Jeff Grimaldo first danced in the Rudy Perez Performance Ensemble in 1986; his wife Anne joined the troupe two years later. “Rudy has taught tons of kids who are now working professionals around the world,” said Jeff Grimaldo.
“I feel privileged to have been part of that, as Rudy is an important link to the past, and he’s also teaching future generations. To be able to say we have a master with us in L.A., with its spread out dance landscape, is extremely important.”
The press, too, has continued to heap praise on the New York transplant, with the Los Angeles Times’ former dance critic, Lewis Segal, once citing Perez as, “the conscience of Los Angeles dance.”
That Perez continues to choreograph well into his ninth decade is also nothing short of a miracle, as the artist has been visually impaired for more than 15 years.
“Since I’ve lost so much of my eyesight,” said Perez, “I’ve acclimated myself to at least know what’s going on, to visualize it in my own mind from my past experiences—what I am missing or what I would be seeing.”
As to his choreographic process—whether it develops from ideas, steps and/or music—Perez replied bluntly: “There is no idea. It’s a movement that comes from a workshop, where the dancers warm up and begin playing with movement, playing with space. I might throw something at them that might come from anywhere and then develop it.
“I like to find different ways to use that movement,” explained Perez. “A good way to describe my work is [something] like walking. There was a Japanese theater company at the Olympics Arts Festival in L.A. in 1984, and they had 24 different ways to take a bow after their performance.”
Even as Perez moves slowly and is burdened with, at best, hazy vision, he maintains it’s the work that keeps him going, with “Slate” a testament to his perseverance and spirit.
Divided into three sections, the first is “Rotation,” with music by Craig Pruess and Ananda, followed by “Options,” danced to Andy Hyman’s voice-over texts of “Rudyisms”—phrases Perez uses while leading class. The final movement, “Still,” features music by Jeff Boynton/TriAngular Bent.
Perez, clad in all white, began the workshop telling his dancers to ‘embrace the space,’ also providing a running commentary as they moved about the floor.
“You’re too dainty,” Perez admonished one performer, beating time on his own body to Ananda’s neo-mystical, polyrhythmic music. As the group walked briskly in unison, rising on arched feet, lunging forward and deploying lateral moves, a kaleidoscope of patterns began to emerge, with uplifted arms and splayed fingers unifying motifs.
“We get so caught up in taking class,” Perez said, leaning backwards against the barre, “we forget how to do the natural things.”
With this, his dancers, making fists, deftly pirouetting and, at one point, integrating props—in this case, chairs—seemed, in a strange way, to capture time.
This felt right, as time, memory and, in more recent years the aging body, are some of the concerns Perez has been dealing with in his dancemaking. His auspicious use of a chair dates back to his 1964 solo, “Countdown” (also the title—and centerpiece—of a 2005 documentary on Perez that was broadcast nationally on PBS, an excerpt of which will be screened as part of the November 7 tribute to the choreographer).
In that work, Perez, to the accompaniment of a Kiri Te Kanawa recording, Chants d’Auvergne (Songs of the Auvergne), sat in a chair, smoked a cigarette, streaked greasepaint on his face and, slowly rising from the chair, feet rooted in place, shattered the dance conventions of the era.
Decades later, Perez, at 82, in a similarly astonishing 10-minute solo, “download/overload,” again riveted with simple gestures. Performed at the Hammer Museum as part of the 2012 city-wide exhibition, Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980, the work was set to a deliciously scratchy but emotionally wrenching recording of Kirsten Flagstad singing Wagner’s “Liebestod.”
Perez, wearing dark glasses, began the mini-opus seated on a chair. Occasionally rotating his body —thrusting a bent leg forward one moment, sideways the next—he would return to face front, arms crossed, legs fanned out. Suddenly, as if possessed, Perez propelled his hands upward, unassailable, frozen, as if doing battle with the unseen.
Whether struggling to keep a stronghold on the past or grappling with the relentless march of time, the moves were written on his body, a language of the sublime, the pedestrian made profound: Perez standing, his crisp white shirt, un-tucked, slightly wrinkled, his thin red tie, a painterly splash of blood, now askew.
‘Remember me,’ he seemed to be saying. ‘I’m here. Still. Now. Remember me.’
And so we shall, with Perez saying that he would like to set “download” on a dancer, possibly at the Colburn School, some time next year, along with staging another performance of “Slate.” Tamsin Carlson, a former Perez dancer who was also a member of Cunningham’s troupe, and who currently chairs Colburn’s modern and creative dance department, is reconstructing Perez’ “Cheap Imitation” on her students.
In the interim, Perez’ journey continues to be one of finding an identity. “I think it was very unconscious what I was doing—that I was trying to find a place to fit in. I was wanting to learn, and I must say I was not encouraged in any of my endeavors, and that’s a very powerful thing to say.
“But I think a lot of it had to do with survival,” continued Perez, adding, “I didn’t really find my voice until much later. When I realized that the response the press gave to my solos—that they really picked up on them and gave me a good sense of what I was doing, how strong I was, that’s when I understood how I could take something simple and make something monumental out of it.”
Perez, not one to wallow in sentiment, is, nevertheless, fully aware of the ticking clock. “As you get older,” he said quietly, “what do you have to hold onto? I’ve been thinking about the past and how there’s so much to draw from, and I can also use that as a reference point to keep going. But it’s also about the fact that Perez has been here, he’s still here, he’s still creating.”
“A Tribute to Ruby Perez,” with choreography by Perez, at Experimental Media Performance Lab (xMPL), University of California, Irvine, Calif., for one night only, November 7, 2015