Rudy Perez is considered by many to be the inventor of Experimental Dance and along with his solo work with the Judson Church Theater in New York City in the 1960s, to have helped launch the postmodern era. Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1929, Perez is now 85 years old and still creating dances. His new work, Slate in Three Parts, premiered during a tribute evening hosted by the UCI Clair Trevor School of the Arts. The xMPL Theatre; a large Experimental Performance Lab, or black box theater, was a perfect venue to showcase works by The Rudy Perez Performance Ensemble.
The evening was a family reunion for some of us. I met Rudy Perez in New York back in the early 1970s and he moved to California the same year that I did, 1978. We never worked together, but have a great respect for each other and once performed solos on the same program. Sasha Anawalt introduced the evening with an informative history and description of Perez’s life and work. She cited an early quote of Village Voice dance critic Deborah Jowitt describing Perez’s work as “agonizing potential”. The evening’s speakers included UCI faculty members Deborah Oliver, Ulysses Jenkins, and the Dean of the UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts, Stephen Baker. They used such adjectives for Perez’s choreography as “magical”, “human”, and “extraordinarily ordinary”; all of which are accurate and none of which can truly describe what Rudy Perez creates.
We learned that as a child Rudy Perez was stricken with Tuberculosis and bed ridden for three years. Perhaps this experience planted the seed in his mind and body for the simple joy of using pedestrian-like movements in his dances. Perez’s work consists of standing still, walking, running, lying down, sitting and other movements that we use every day as human beings. After being forced to lie in bed for three years, I imagine that these movements no longer appeared simple to Perez. Perhaps his creative mind decided to celebrate them instead.
Before Dean Baker presented Rudy Perez with the Lifetime Achievement Award we were treated to Perez’s 2003 Shifts (Excerpt/reconstruction) performed by Anne Grimaldo, Jeff Grimaldo, Sarah Swenson and Michael Rowley. Four dancers and four chairs. Simple walks, brief arabesques, a hinge and a turn on two feet were the primary movements. Couples moved in unison and in the same direction; then repeated the movements in unison but now in slightly different directions, giving us a new perspective on the same theme. As Shifts concluded, dancers left one at a time until only Sarah Swenson remained to pick up her chair and simply walk offstage. No tour de forces. No celebration of technical prowess; only movement stripped bare of any excess until we were forced to look at it for what it is.
There was an excerpt from a documentary on the life and work of Perez titled Countdown: Reflections on A Life in Dance. We saw a very young Perez social dancing with friends, performing in New York and, more recently, walking down an alley with his red-tipped cane. Rudy Perez was recently diagnosed as legally blind. Neither age nor the recent loss of sight has slowed this amazing man down, as demonstrated by the performance of his 2015 premiere Slate in Three Parts. Six dancers, Anne Grimaldo, Jeff Grimaldo, Sarah Swenson, Alessia Patregnani, Michael Rowley and Jarred Cairns did Perez proud with their performances. The work was, as the title suggests, in three parts. The only thing that weakened this piece was the long pauses between each section. Simple everyday movements once again dominated the vocabulary, but in the final section, ironically titled Still, Perez sped up the pace and included forceful and accented arm movements that reminded me of the Black Panther salutes back in the 1960s. Still here? Still choreographing? Still angry? That simple one word title says much about the present day Rudy Perez.
The evening concluded with what was stated as a dialogue with Perez’s longtime friend and collaborator Jackie Apple and Rudy Perez and Ensemble. Perez refused, however, to let the evening become boring and he characteristically demanded honesty and directness. Former members of his company paid tribute by sharing wonderful memories of their mentor, teacher and friend.
Many dance artists owe their gratitude to Rudy Perez for opening the creative doors for them to dance through. Without his early and recent works they would not be able to present the kinds of choreography that they do now. Rudy Perez has spent five decades performing, creating dances and breaking down barriers. To view his work one should sit down and simply let it happen. Try not to go with any preconceived expectations, but just be in the moment. One has to be an active viewer to see how Perez makes commentaries on society and life in general. He does not spoon-feed us with descriptive narrative. Thank you Rudy Perez!