In mid-December I attended the dress rehearsal of the Colburn School’s Winter Dance Concert at the Herbert Zipper Hall in Los Angeles. I was working on an article about these young dancers having the opportunity to perform a work by dance pioneer and Los Angeles based choreographer, Rudy Perez. Cheap Imitation was choreographed in 1983 for 7 dancers but Tamsin Carlson, the school’s Modern Dance Chair, reconstructed the work for 9 dancers ranging in ages from 14 to 19. This was the second time Carlson had reconstructed Cheap Imitation for the Colburn students; the first time occurring in 2016. There at two schools of dance at Colburn: The Colburn Dance Academy and Colburn Youth Dance, the program that Carlson is part of, but both schools are under the umbrella of Trudl Zipper Dance Institute at The Colburn School.
I first saw Rudy Perez perform at the Judson Memorial Church and it changed my entire way of looking at and thinking about dance. It was Perez and other dance artists of that time, that led me to attend performances at the Judson Church as often as possible. To understand the significance of this opportunity for the Colburn School dancers, it is first necessary to learn more about Rudy Perez and his amazing contributions to the dance world. He and I reminisced about Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, José Limón and so many others during the one-hour interview.
Born in New York in 1929, Perez began his dance training in 1945 at the age of 16 at the New Dance Group located on Manhattan’s West 47th Street. The New Dance Group was a place to study the early traditional Modern dance techniques, plus ballet and tap with company members of those pioneers: Hanya Holm, Humphrey-Weidman, Martha Graham and others. Mary Anthony, a Holm and Graham disciple on staff at the time, “was a big influence on me” he said; a big influence especially in his development as a teacher.
“I was fortunate” Perez said. “that I was around during that time when you studied in an environment where you had choices, and where you were guided. You couldn’t take just one class at a place unless you were there a certain amount of time.” At the New Dance Group, one had to agree to study with one teacher for at least 6 months. After the New Dance Group, Perez went on to study at the Graham Studio for 5 years, continued his studies with Mary Anthony, and later with Eric Hawkins.
In 1961 at a workshop at the Cunningham Studio taught by Robert Ellis Dunn, Perez met a fellow student, Elaine Summers, who invited him to participate in a work she was creating for the Judson Dance Theater, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The initial group at Judson Church was a collective of dancers, composers and visual artists; the core members included Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown, David Gordon and others. Participating in Dunn’s weekly workshops at Judson, he became more involved in the group’s activities. During this time Perez created his first piece, Take Your Alligator with You, a duet with Elaine Summers, which was later performed at Judson in 1963. By the mid-60’s, the Judson group disbanded and they all went on to perform at different venues. In 1968, Rudy returned to Judson to present two evenings of his solos and new work with himself, Barbara Roan and Anthony LaGiglia performing.
When asked what led him to create the type of work he did, Perez’s answer was very pragmatic. “The necessity to balance my life and the fact that I needed to work. I didn’t see myself so much as a dancer because I could see that people who were in modern dance were very much unlike me; but dancing helped keep me sane.” He added. “And I was very curious! I was in an environment where there were many challenges that got me trying different things.”
Over the next 10 years, Perez taught extensively and performed his works with various iterations of his company throughout New York City and elsewhere before relocating to Los Angeles in late 1978. He told me that Merce Cunningham tried to persuade him not to move to LA, but fortunately for us, he did not listen.
I asked why he chose Los Angeles and he said that before moving out here he had toured the west coast a great deal with the assistance of funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. He had a strong connection to San Diego, but it was Marian Scott at UCLA who recommended that he be the artist-in-residence for a year.
“I felt that I was going to be ok because you were out here.” Perez has often stated that he remained in Los Angeles because I was here. Little did we know until this interview that we both moved here in 1978, me in August and him in September; one month apart. “I thought that you had been here much longer.” We both laughed. Thankfully it worked out well for both of us.
Perez founded The Rudy Perez Performance Ensemble in the early 1980s, taking some of the original members from one of my repertory classes in the Department of Dance at California State University, Long Beach. Choreographed to Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar by Glen Branca, Cheap Imitation premiered at the John Anson Ford Theater. The original cast included Kim Begley, Ian Cousineau, Quentin Josephy, James Kelly, David Leahy, Melinda Ring, and Dura Snodgrass. The dance was one of Rudy Perez’s more rhythmic dance works and I, for one, had forgotten just how difficult it was.
At the Colburn School dress rehearsal, when the dancers reached about three quarters of the way through the dance, I began thinking of Cheap Imitation as an urban square dance. The rhythm was constant and driving, with movement patterns that reminded me of square dances I learned in Virginia as a teenager. Most impressive, however, was how the dancers never stopped moving. The original 7 never left the stage, but while reconstructing it for 9 dancers, Tamsin Carlson chose to give each dancer equal time onstage with a few brief moments standing on the side. Even then they kept the rhythm going with their arms and hips. She kept them visible on the sides because of how the Zipper Hall stage is designed. There is only one exit on either side of the stage and getting dancers on and off quickly proved difficult. Even with that, these young dancers were wet with perspiration when they finished the first run. I saw them perform it twice; dancing full out both times. I was unable to attend the actual performance, but they are performing Cheap Imitation again on the Spring Dance Concert, Saturday May 12th at the Ramón C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts.
The very talented Colburn School dancers in the cast of Cheap Imitation were: Hannah Berry, Jewel Curtiss, Caroline Kimbel, Caroline Larsen, Leilana Majri, Poppy Miller, Elise Noda, Jordana Owens, and Erin Sezgin. The Costumes were by Tammie Merheb.
I asked Perez if my description of the work, an urban square dance, was correct. “Close,” he said. “I think of it as a high tech square dance. I had an artistic relationship with Merce (Cunningham). I was always influenced by him, and although I’m not a technical dancer, my mindset, in terms of a coexistence, was really very caught up with that.” He heard about a dance that Cunningham had choreographed to Eric Satie’s Socrate. The music publisher, however, refused to give Cunningham permission to use it, so John Cage wrote an original score for the dance based on Satie’s Socrate and titled it Cheap Imitation. Cunningham’s titled that dance Secondhand. That was in 1970. Rudy Perez’s Cheap Imitation is not a copy of anyone’s work, but he admits to a little parody of other choreographers such as Laura Dean, and an artistic nod to his friend and colleague, Merce Cunningham.
“So, I always did this thing back and forth with Merce.” He said laughing softly. Perez was also inspired at that time by the artist David Hockney whose paintings included LA’s swimming pools and the city’s colors. The costumes for Cheap Imitation, originally designed by Susan Perry, were pale blue shorts and tee shirts, burgundy knee-high socks, white sneakers, with the dancers wearing very dark sun glasses; giving them a very LA look.
Perez feels that it is very commendable for Tamsin Carlson to challenge her students in this way. He knows that this generation of dancers are not aware of his earlier works and wishes that they had more opportunities to experience his dances. There are those who want to perform his work, but because of his eyesight he cannot personally set the work on them. Perez is 88 years old and legally blind. It is fortunate that there are dance artists like Tamsin Carlson, Sarah Swenson, Anne and Jeff Grimaldo and others who have performed with the Rudy Perez Ensemble that are working to keep Perez’s legacy alive.
Even at age 88 Perez teaches most Sundays at the Westside School of Ballet. I asked him what exactly he could see that enables him to teach a dance class. He responded with two things that Tamsin Carlson had also mentioned during an earlier conversation we had between runs of Cheap Imitation: energy and shapes. Perez can still see if dancers are putting the required energy into his movement and if they are forming the desired shapes. A little over a year ago I observed one of his classes and was amazed at the detail that he saw and the precise corrections he made. He knew when a dancer was not working to her/his full potential and when her/his placement needed assistance.
“I still have the passion and the mind!” He said.
We discussed how different today’s dance scene is from when we were studying and working in New York and Los Angeles during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. During those years dancers and other artists studied primarily with one teacher. Dancers took classes elsewhere, of course, but focused mainly on one style or company. For better or worse, that dedication to a single company or mentor is now rare.
“How does one become an artist today?” Perez asked. “A complete artist, to the extent that you can keep going? Because you [the artist] are constantly absorbing and finding new challenges. I think that without that, where is that creativity coming from? Where is that coming from today? I tell my students that we all did what we did at Judson because everyone there was looking for a new way of working, but we all could dance; we all had a strong technical background.” He said. “One of the things that I advocate as a teacher is that you don’t do what you do because you can’t do anything else, but that it’s a choice.”
I wondered if Perez had any favorites among the more than 100 dances that he created between 1962 and 2015. He said that he did not, but added. “I really enjoyed doing my solos like Coverage (1970) and System (1976) where I could just be a guy, and maybe poke fun at dance. That I loved.”
My final question to Rudy Perez was, if asked, what wisdom would he pass on to young dancers?
“You’ve got to spend some time with a particular person and certainly see what’s out there that you can learn something from.” For example, he spent five years studying at the Graham Studio. In the beginning when he discovered that he had a very tight body, he took classes with Eric Hawkins who taught a more lyrical style. “Things like that! That sort of thinking and responsibility to oneself.”
Rudy Perez has received multiple choreographic grants and awards over the years. Among them: The Los Angeles Music Center/Bilingual Foundation honored him in 1992 with the! Viva Los Artistas! a Performing Arts Award for distinguished Latino artists; in 2016, the Colburn honored him in Recognition for his Contributions to and Influence on Modern Dance in Los Angeles. He received the prestigious Irvine Fellowship in Dance; he was awarded the 2005 Lester Horton Lifetime Achievement Award and an Honorary Doctorate from California Institute for the Arts (CalArts) in 2006.
The University of Southern California’s Special Collections recently acquired the archives of Rudy Perez, which also reside in part at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Special thanks to Sarah Swenson and Tamsin Carlson for helping make this interview possible, and to Ian Cousineau for assisting Perez with proofing this interview and for providing a photo and original cast of Cheap Imitation. As always, I am grateful to my partner Martin Holman for his technical and editing assistance, and, a very special thanks to my good friend and colleague, Rudy Perez, for all he has done for dance over the past five decades and for agreeing to this interview.
For more information on Rudy Perez and his work, click here.
Feature photo: Irene Fertik
To view the LA Dance Chronicle Performance Calendar, click here.