Remy Charlip Tribute — H.T. Chen & Dancers

Mulberry Steet Theater, 70 Mulberry Street, New York City
February 28–March 2, 2013

“Charming” was the operative word for an evening spent with H.T. Chen & Dancers in a tribute to choreographer-author Remy Charlip at the Chen Dance Center. Part of the charm came from the setting: Performances were woven into a celebration of the Lantern Festival, the final event of Lunar New Year, and Associate Director Dian Dong graciously greeted the audience and served as Mistress of Ceremonies. After a lantern processional opening the program, Dong provided a context for the tribute and explained Charlip’s connection to Chen & Dancers.

Born in Brooklyn, Remy Charlip was a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Company and co-founded the Paper Bag Players, the renowned children’s theater company. Charlip was also a beloved author and illustrator of children’s books, including classics such as Fortunately.

39 Chinese Attitudes
Known for his innovative methods of making dances, he created his “airmail dances” after a move to California. A series of sequential designs using carton-like sketches of dancing figures, the airmail dances were interpreted by dancers and choreographers who received the dances via postcards.

Charlip’s friendship with H.T. Chen inspired Chen to the creation of 39 Chinese Attitudes, based on a score devised by Charlip of Chinese woodcuts, sports photos and fortune cookie messages. With a score by Louis Armstrong and Irving Berlin, a motion vocabulary of sliding falls, jumps and attitudes, and its smiling performance demeanor, the work pokes gentle fun at Chinese stereotypes. The dance culminated in the dancers serving plum wine and fortune cookies to the audience.

A different side of Charlip’s choreography was evident in Twelve Contra Dances, restaged by Lance Westergard. In a call and response pattern, two women begin the dance face-to-face with simple walks and jumps. As the dances progress to more complex movement and spatial designs, the structure remains, one dancer echoing the other. The simplicity of the work, musicality of the choreography, and the precise yet relaxed performance of the dancers combine to show Charlip’s touch with abstract dance.

Guest David Vaughn, archivist for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, performed Chatlip’s Ten Imaginary Dances. This series of ten written vignettes invites the audience to imagine the dance movement for themselves. Vaughn’s resonant and elegant delivery of the text delighted the audience, young and old. Elementary school children in the audience confirmed with their laughter that Charlip’s imagination connected with their own: “Ten Sardines—In this dance ten children disrobe and climb into a bathtub . . . where they have olive oil poured over their heads.”

Dong then asked the audience to use their imaginations to see into the future and picture a dance that Chen & Dancers will create next year. The new dance will accompany a research initiative to gather oral histories from Chinese immigrants in the South.

The evening ended with an excerpt from Chen’s Between Heaven and Earth, to a score by Zhou Long and Chen Yi. The dance sent the dancers suspending and spiraling to the floor and back again. A final image of multi-colored rain evoked celebration and reintroduced three charming young children who had also performed in the lantern processional. The children and company dancers embodied many of the virtues of the Chen Dance Center and its school: serious training, a natural graciousness, and a genuine desire to share their culture and traditions with everyone. It was this same generosity of spirit that that propelled the tribute to Remy Charlip, an artist whose imagination and work is too little known. Kudos.

I attended this evening with Irving Burton, now 89 years young, who had worked with Remy in their tenure with the Paper Bag Players. Both Irving and I enjoyed it so much as we both knew Remy. A great many friends were also there, so it was old home week.

—Susan Thomasson, March 10, 2003

A personal note to this review: All the Henry Street Dancers will remember the Paper Bag Players and Irving Burton. Irving and I see each other once a month at the Bergen Dancers, organized by Claire Porter and hosted by Lynn Needle. There we sometimes dance. At 89 he is his clever, witty self and we have fun!  —Ruth Grauert

See also Dance Magazineís memorial to Remy Charlip