Brooklyn Touring Outfit
Baryshnikov Arts Center
New York, NY
November 17, 2016
by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2016 by Leigh Witchel
“Co. Venture” is a sweet-tempered, wistful look back – and forward. 92-year-old David Vaughan and 31-year-old Pepper Fajans perform a memory play-dance about their lives intertwined, and intertwined with another character – one no longer here: Merce Cunningham.
Pepper Fajans and David Vaughan in “Co. Venture.” Photo © Stephanie Berger
Vaughan spent more than half a century around Cunningham; he literally wrote the book on him. Fajans, a dancer but also a carpenter and jack of many trades, took care of Cunningham in his last years, and now helps Vaughan. In his plummy British accent, Vaughan read from an essay by Cunningham. “You have to love dancing to stick to it . . . it is not for unsteady souls.”
Both men are small and wiry. One might be the other’s doppelganger, separated by time and health. Fajans took a long, flexible rod and arced it slowly round the stage, then lay down, crawling under the fake wood panel as if it might have been a fake trap door.
“Hi Pepper.” Vaughan broke the silence with a forced casualness. If there was anything awkward about the evening it was the semblance of impromptu informality that was never really there. The men explained themselves to us under the pretense of talking to one another and it felt forced.
The fake wood panels were one of the first things Fajans made as an odd job for the Cunningham studio, shortly before he was asked to take care of Cunningham. The show moved into a reminiscence of caregiving that was a sweet bookend to David Neumann’s “There is no Understanding Death,” only not focusing on the dying, but the living, the assisting. It’s no surprise that Neumann, along with Cunningham alum Holley Farmer, worked on this show.
The reminiscences were not dishy. We learned that Cunningham loved “The Golden Girls” and Turner Classic Movies. Fajans was crushed the day he accidentally let Cunningham fall out of his wheelchair. Vaughan’s and Fajans’ travels on the accompanying the Cunningham troupe’s final world tour were recalled as adventures of eating and museum-going, where Fajans figured out how to negotiate Vaughan’s wheelchair by sliding on the smooth cobblestones of the old city of Jerusalem.
Puppetry, both as an extension of theater and carpentry, figured large in the show. Vaughan mentioned Fajans opening up to him about the death of his father in a motorcycle accident – a man much like Jack Kerouac in Fajan’s memories. Fajans used the panel as an illusion, a photo of his father’s head sticking out from above, but Fajan’s feet below, making him impossibly tall – larger than life. Later on, Fajans brought in a stick with a joint and handle, then a larger one that had been amplified into a marionette, with a photo of Vaughan’s head blown up beyond life size.
Cunningham was also amplified in memory, but in different ways. A photo on the back of the panel showed him in a unitard, muscular and robust even at 54, but with his head replaced by a crocodile’s. It was publicity material for “Rebus,” the dance Vaughan felt tacitly announced Cunningham’s acknowledgment that he was separate from the rest of the company.
The greatest homage to Cunningham was the honor of his aesthetic, his insistence on not hammering a connection into the ground. When the two men talked of looking out over the sea in Tel Aviv, they took the wood panel and held it under their necks, sloping down as if it were a sand dune or the shore line, but they left it to us to figure that out or not.
Fajans danced as well, a long, feral Cunningham combination, where he galloped and windmilled his arms – racing towards Vaughan with enough velocity the older man instinctively protected himself in his chair. The two also danced together, with accommodations: a poignant, jaunty Charleston, only seated.
Fajans retrieved from offstage a stick that he handed Vaughan, who rotated or held it like a fisherman’s pole. Vaughan poked Fajans, who crawled off, while Vaughan used the stick as support to get up from the chair.
When Fajans left and returned another time, he entered with a small table, now wearing Cunningham’s crocodile head. He brewed coffee, and exchanged a red cup for Vaughan’s pole while a tinny old song, “La Chanson des Rues,” played. They sat peacefully, and then Fajans brought on two more massive puppets, one of a swollen blowup of Cunningham’s foot from the “Rebus” photo, the other his hand. They sat under them like large, awkward umbrellas.
As with life after age ninety, this piece dealt a great deal with the past, but finally came to the present. Fajans asked Vaughan some questions. “How is your strength?” “How do you exercise?” Vaughan answered that he stretched. “How do you motivate yourself to do that?” “How have you kept dancing?” “Well I dance in my dreams” was the answer.
Fajans recalled the aged Cunningham falling at home. It was the result of a small stroke, but Cunningham was so aware of his body he immediately knew which muscles he had lost the use of. Fajans asked Vaughan if he missed his old apartment (yes) and what the last thing he and Cunningham talked about. Life doesn’t always provide grand closure; Vaughan was among the many that said their farewells, and on his turn Vaughan got a sentence with him to say it was always an adventure. Cunningham thanked him.
“Co. Venture” was a shorter journey, but it took us through the some of the high points of 20th century modernism, and ended with a nod to another titan, Samuel Beckett.
One man asked the other “Are you ready to go?”
The response: “Do you want to have a drink?”
They took one last look at us and the panel hid their disappearance.
copyright © 2016 by Leigh Witchel
All photos © Stephanie Berger: Pepper Fajans and David Vaughan in “Co. Venture.”