Movement, metaphor, Merce Cunningham, and other ways to pay homage to an intergenerational friendship.
Ever been friends with someone 60 years your senior? Co. Venture, a partially-improvised object theater piece, explores the friendship between 31-year-old artist Pepper Fajans and 92-year-old dance archivist David Vaughan. The Brooklyn Touring Outfit performance took place at the Baryshnikov Arts Center earlier this November.
Fajans and Vaughan met six years ago through the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s farewell tour. Cunningham, a pioneer, helped make dance a major art form in the 20th century, and the stories about him that transpire throughout the performance show the dignity of his later years. Cunningham danced until his 80th birthday with a simple approach: as Vaughan explains in one of the monologues, unable to stand for very long, Cunningham would dance with only his hands. Vaughan then shows his own hand-dance. His fingers make elegant shadows on the wall behind his chair, where he sits for the most of the performance.
But the homage goes beyond that. Collaborations were a hallmark of Cunningham’s career, and this collaboration centers on Cunningham’s belief that movement is a metaphor for life.
Visual repetitions, made using self-referential objects, lend a sense of unity to the performance. A blank piece of plywood that appears early on is later replaced with another, this time covered in a large image of Cunningham with an alligator head. Vaughan and Fajans discuss how Cunningham’s hands in the image show wonderful tension, and how Cunningham’s left foot had sustained an injury. Fajans brings out two enlarged images of Cunningham's left foot and hand, giving the foot to Vaughan and keeping the hand for himself.
Throughout Vaughan and Fajans' ongoing conversations, objects mimic the dancers’ joint-autobiography. The performance even contains a coffee break, an homage to the pair’s rehearsal rituals. Fajans brings the coffee onstage wearing an alligator head.
The Brooklyn Touring Outfit’s mission is to make art that responds to the capabilities of their members, but Co. Venture pushes both of its dancers’ boundaries. During the performance, Fajans tells the story of the death of his father, and in a post-show talk-back, Vaughan admits the improvisation pushed him out of his comfort zone. The performance presents age discrepancies in a new light, and especially in the challenges they posed to each performer. Dance, as Co. Venture proves, isn’t just a playground for the young.
What Fajans and Vaughan don’t actually discuss is the clear juxtaposition between them—a young, mobile dancer and an aging, seated one. Fortunately, Fajans’ guiding influence is clear throughout the performance, a reminder of the years he spent pushing Vaughan’s wheelchair around the world.
What their friendship and their performance suggest is that, at every age, we each do the best dance we can.
Co. Venture by the Brooklyn Touring Outfit performed at the Baryshnikov Arts Center from November 16 to 18.