Remy Charlip: The Domain of What If

By Ariel Swartley

Imagine this: a figure in black appears on a darkened stage. His hands are what we see. They flutter and clench in the exaggerated gestures of a crooner. The illuminated face above moves, too, wildly. This is a dance of the flesh sundered from the body, of emotions unmoored. It’s hard to believe that the man the lights reveal when they come up—balding, ordinarily dressed, not young-- could have stepped so completely outside himself.

Wizards, poor things, need wands. Not Remy Charlip. Dancer, illustrator, children’s book author, theatre director, choreographer, and bodywork practitioner, he inhabits a universe in which magic is a matter of course. Trees grow feet and leave the forest, bones, properly aligned, teach the muscles to relax, a series of squiggly pencil marks becomes—look again—instructions mailed from San Francisco for a New York pas-de-deux. Or a pas-de-quatre. Charlip’s innovative “Air Mail Dances”—like Garden Lilacs, to be performed at Montalvo on April 4--allow companies to select both the number of dancers and the movements they use to pass from one sketched position to the next.

Transformation—the process by which a frog becomes a prince—may be magic’s central mystery, but for Charlip it is also a basic impulse. “I enjoy the hydrotherapy of washing dishes,” he once wrote, “because it’s the clearest model for me of the before and after process.” With a shift of perspective, drudgery mutates into gold.

For Charlip that kind of mental alchemy is art by another name. “Where do dances come from?” an interviewer asked. “Squiggles,” he replied. “The calligraphic impulse.” Seen on the page the sketches for an Airmail Dance have the fluid economy of brush painting. Charlip credits Santa Monica’s coral trees—graceful South African natives whose fleshy red flowers bloom on leafless branches—with inspiring the doubled, entwining steps of “Garden Lilacs.” Seers, in the word’s most elemental meaning, see beyond things-in-themselves to the underlying patterns. Charlip’s varied disciplines are, in his experience, naturally occurring branches on a single exuberant tree

One of our earliest, visceral encounters with transformation comes, Charlip says, in picture books, where each turn of the page “changes all that has gone before.” No wonder children feel empowered when they do the turning. His books like A Perfect Day play repetitive rhythms against visual surprise. (Parents at the picnic all look like their children!) His 1964 classic, Fortunately, was inspired by an old vaudeville routine—fortunately a boy is invited to a party, unfortunately the party’s in a far off city, fortunately he knows someone with an airplane, etc. With the illustrations mirroring the reversals, flipping from cheerful color to black and white, the book is as exhilarating to read as a swing is to ride.

Some of Charlip’s early work—dancing and designing productions for Merce Cunningham when the company’s budget was half a shoestring, co-founding New York’s still-lively Paper Bag Players, whose name indicates their early-adopters approach to the creative recycling—encouraged Charlip’s feeling for the more that can be done with less. He applies that scavenger’s facility to experience as well. Describing his solo dance, Meditation, Charlip wrote, “It was originally called ‘Some of my favorite steps done slowly and carefully because I hurt my back.’” Another, Glow Worm, turns humiliating childhood memories of abuse into an act of liberation.

Peeling a drawing, a dance, a text, down to its essential lines he sometimes seems to be taking things apart, the better to understand what makes them work. To find this rigorous taste for deconstruction in a man who draws smiley-faced hearts and likes rainbow striped sweaters could be disconcerting, until we remember that magic has always been half art, half science. Look clearly at what’s in front of you, Charlip urges; then look again, using your imagination. Adult or child, stiff or pliant, mechanic or dreamer—we all possess that power.

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