Remy Charlip, RIP

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday August 21, 2012
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Abraham "Remy" Charlip, one of the most important and best-loved dance artists ever to work in the Bay Area, died last week in San Francisco at age 83. Born in Brooklyn, he grew up during World War II, and graduated college in 1949. He had spent his major career in New York (a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, founder of the Paper-Bag Players, early member of the Living Theater), then had a soloist's career in Europe before moving here in his seventh decade. He immediately became a mentor and example for the independent dancers here, rather as Marcel Duchamp had been the touchstone for the New York school of painters, poets, and modern dancers of whom he had been one of the most brilliant.

He was Jewish, gay, precocious, and gifted in many arts, especially drawing, narrative, and dance, which he combined, practiced and taught in many ways. A full-scale obituary has appeared in the New York Times. I refer you to it for his many awards (three Isadora Duncan Awards, several Obies, an exhibition at the Library of Congress), the programs he directed (National Theater for the Deaf; the Sarah Lawrence College program in children's writing; the Paper Bag Players, which he founded, the longest-running children's theater company, still in existence) and the hundreds of dances he created. This is going to be about the part of the iceberg underneath the surface.

If the Little Prince had had a Court Jester, the job would have belonged to Remy Charlip. He was a major talent, but he worked so systematically in minor forms �" children's books, music-hall turns, cabaret performance, children's theater, whimsical dance �" that his elusiveness seems like a survival strategy for a gay boy who wanted to make his mark on the world and express the condition of being gay in the postwar/Cold War era when the closet dominated everything, and direct expression would be suicidal. His life and work illuminate the experience of a whole generation of gay artists and critics who took shelter in the palace of art because they could not live deliberately �" and if they would not "live a lie," they could reframe the problem as living a fiction, turning life into art.

Dance-maker and artist Remy Charlip.

Like Erik Satie, he restricted himself to minor forms but instilled them with such astounding sensitivity and other-worldliness that he set an example for how to stay fresh, original, and honest that had a huge impact on other artists. He also started the idea that even the most humble moment in life contains the germ of a dance.

Charlip invited us to attend to the world inside, especially in the moments we aren't supposed to notice. "Waking up, cooking your breakfast, going to the toilet can be dances," he said. Crossing the border from sleeping to waking, from hunger to satisfaction, from distress to relief �" these are important daily transitions. Charlip came up with rites of passage to honor these changes of psychic state, to make modest liturgy for the times when the body tugs at the mind and asks to be paid attention to. Getting out of bed could be a dance. Indeed, now his "Dance in a Bed" is being danced all over the world, using the brilliant drawings he created, put together any way the performer wants. The 16 figures he drew may be used in any order, with any transitions, using any music, performed anywhere the dancer likes. He called this an airmail dance, and he drew many of them.

As soon as he arrived here (during the AIDS era), Charlip started showing up at everyone's rehearsals. He was a bullshit detector. He was interested in dance as a cleansing art. He found the rowdy Contraband performing apocalyptic rituals, dancing in the dirt, and howling their grief in derelict vacant lots. Among many others, they inspired him, and he inspired them, since he consistently emphasized humanity over technique, generosity over impressiveness, fidelity to heart's truth overall. Together with Marin County's Anna Halprin, the mother of postmodern dance, whose work with dance as healing had attracted him in the first place, Charlip organized benefits for dancers with AIDS. Keith Hennessy, who founded the alternative venues 848 Performance Space and Counterpulse, cites him as a major mentor.

Charlip was an early champion of the idea that anyone could dance, if they moved in the right spirit. Axis dis/Abled Dance Company keeps several of his airmail dances in their repertory.

One of his last dances, for the Gay and Lesbian Dance Festival, was explicitly gay �" in every sense, since it was so performed to continuous wonder and howls of laughter. In it, Remy, like Marcel Marceau's Biff, enters a terrifying world where his loneliness is interrupted by a naked man, who embraces him then abandons him, to be succeeded by another, who also leaves him. He's Overjoyed, he's Desolated, alternately, each time more so than the last, til finally a cohort arrive and carry him off in a Bacchanalia of naked men. The drawing shown here is both a self-portrait with four naked dancers, and also a score for a moment in the dance of the same name.

As I write this, he is being buried in Marin County. May the satyrs, fauns, angels and archangels accept him into Paradise.