Don’t ask me how but in 1970s New York, modern dance had become the “New Rock & Roll.” Choreographers were so famous that they starred in cigarette ads. (And, you thought ballplayers selling Luckies was a nutty idea!) Photographs of these elite artistes, dressed in black and lounging on ballet barres, were splashed across billboards that towered over the streets of Manhattan –
After a day of improvised gesture and motif development, there’s nothing I like better than getting lung cancer.
But, the new-found popularity of modern… oh, no, excuse me, I meant to say contemporary dance coincided with the stylistic pretension known as “minimalism” in which the last thing any dancer wanted to be caught dead doing was dance. I attended dance performances in which a “dancer” just rolled an orange across the stage very, very slowly or opened and shut an umbrella over and over again or sat still in a chair – for an eternity. Stillness was the ultimate movement in the “new” dance. When one choreographer had his dancer stand, walk around the chair and sit down again, the debate raged in NOHO as to whether this represented a retrograde step or a daring leap into the choreographic future. This minimalist-dance craze swept across SOHO and NOHO even faster than chlamydia.
As long as we’re on the subject of female torsos… we rented our Bowery loft to a yoga instructor who was transitioning to yogi, i.e. a female to male transsexual. (Mind you, this was 1976, so the current “I was born in the wrong body” dementia-mania is nothing new.) “Jack” was fresh from having her breasts sliced from her female torso and was wrapped in more bandages than Tutankhamen. This creature was so cranked on pot, painkillers and testosterone that she floated several feet off the ground, vibrating in midair like a hummingbird. (You know the scene in the horror movie when the actor transforms via time-lapse photography from man to monster? Imagine a stop frame of that process mid-way. That was what “Jack” looked like – suspended between male and female, between past and present, between serenity and suicide. Unsettled and unsettling.) “Jack” was so uncomfortable around men, I was sure she would evaporate whenever I got near her. I, of course, delighted in torturing this psychosexual misfit by getting “up close and personal” as often as possible.
Lynda was slogging through a series of bottom-feeder jobs, too. No surprise that we needed extra income to pay our rent. So, we converted half our loft into a rehearsal space and rented it to every NOHO-SOHO “boho” who ran classes, conducted seminars, held séances, burned incense, massaged feet, manipulated skulls, channeled angels, cleansed auras or chanted om, aum, or papa oom mow mow. Honest to God, we rented to a troupe of world-famous tap dancers and a troupe of not-so-famous whirling dervishes. That was the last straw for our downstairs neighbor – Fu Yu. He was a world-famous photo-realist painter who worked ever-so-meticulously with an airbrush on his wall-sized paintings of female torsos. (Now, ya ask me, if ya seen one wall-sized, photo-realist female torso… but… what do I know?)
Fu Yu was mega because along with cocaine, punk and disco, photo-realism was all the rage in the soulless Seventies. But, all that whirling and tapping upstairs shook the building and shook Fu’s airbrush all over his torsos downstairs. When this happened (And, it happened lots.), he would storm upstairs and bang on our door like the long-suffering Mr. Yunioshi who lived downstairs from Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (Yeah, yeah, I know, Yunioshi is Japanese and Fu Yu is Chinese. Don’t get me started again on the Yellow Peril.)
I extended our artistic empire to a Bowery-bum drop-in center down the street. One of our loft neighbors worked there and asked me to entertain at a sobriety anniversary party. I declined since my guitar repertoire consisted of two songs – “All I Have to Do Is Dream” by the Everly Brothers and not “All I Have to Do Is Dream”by the Everly Brothers. And, I had to watch my hands to play both. I sucked. And, I knew it. Thus, I had never imposed myself on an audience. But, our neighbor assured me that this audience would appreciate anything I could offer. So, against my better judgment but already planning to dress all in black, I took the gig.
On party day, quivering with stage fright, I fought my way into the drop-in center past a line of bums waiting for their lunch. Then I fought my way into the party room past a line of junkies waiting for their methadone. There I faced a roomful of the scariest scum ever to crawl out of a Bowery sewer. But, it was like Old Home Week because I recognized most of the bums from my doorstep – faces red, swollen and scarred, eyes glassy, smiles toothless, hair plastered to their skulls with Brylcreem. And, on top of those skulls sat pointy party-hats with a big red 1 on the front. There were balloons, garlands and a birthday cake with a candle in the shape of a big red 1. Clearly, these men were celebrating their first anniversary sober. I didn’t know if it was their first year or month but judging from the smell that wafted from their persons, I guessed it was their first day sober. And, probably their last.
Lynda was a dancer and I was an actor and we would have our very own “performance space” where we would live, eat lots of brown rice, wear lots of black clothes and collaborate on lots of dance-theater “pieces” so avant-garde they’d make the fillings fall out of your teeth. And, we would only rent our “space” to deserving artists who shared our dietary and fashion sense.
When I learned that in the early 20thcentury a nickelodeon theater had occupied the ground floor of our building, Lynda and I decided this was a good omen. We determined to collaborate on a dance-theater “piece” on the theme of avant-garde nickelodeons. We never did.
The lofts above the nickelodeon theater had been sweatshops. Our top-floor loft bore the scars of that period – a long row of side-by-side footprints worried into the floorboards by immigrant girls as they sat working their sewing machines. It was a haunting artifact. Lynda and I decided this was a good omen and determined to collaborate on a dance-theater “piece” on the theme of avant-garde sewing machines or footprints or something. We never did.