…and then she danced with a boa constrictor

January 24, 2010

This is not a dream. I’m dancing. I have a senior citizen’s MetroCard for the New York City subway and a seriously compromised right knee, and across the stage toward me comes the fearsomely nimble choreographer/performer Arthur Aviles, for eight years one of the shining lights of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company. He’s grinning, cavorting around me, inviting me to join him. According to the rules of From the Horse’s Mouth, the structured improvisation we’re part of, he is free to lure me away from the pattern I’m treading into the floor, and lure he does.


From the Horse’s Mouth
was dreamed up in 1998 by Tina Croll and Jamie Cunningham. I’ve known them since the 1960s, when we were all working on programs presented by Jeff Duncan, Jack Moore, and Arthur Bauman in the small, shabby loft on 20th Street known as Dance Theater Workshop. Since the piece’s first season at New York’s Joyce SoHo, it has been seen in 34 different venues. Toronto critic Paula Citron called it one of the most memorable dance events she’d seen in 2008. Over 600 performers have appeared in it (around 30 per show). It has grown a second part that weaves through the first and turns the piece into a full-evening work. The original cast consisted of modern dancers. Now any given Horse’s Mouth may include experts in ballet, hip hop, Irish step dancing, Bharata Natyam, Balinese dance, jazz, and more.


The structure is so simple that, as Jamie says, it’s lucky that he and Tina can send out a video promo. No written description can quite reveal the rich array of dancing and talking that FTHM offers. A performer comes to the three required rehearsals with a 90-second anecdote about his or her career and two 16-count movement phrases—one in place, one traveling (these acquire variations via instructions written on slips of paper in a box onstage). There are always three people performing these actions simultaneously during the “A” sections; a fourth person is free to improvise. For the “B” sections—long diagonal parades of dancing—the participants change out of the black clothes they wear for “A” into their favorite stage attire or an outfit they’ve always yearned to wear. 


Last October, Tina, Jamie, and I sat around a table in her apartment to hash over FTHM history. The piece came into being when they decided that a collaboration should be part of their shared Joyce SoHo concert; they asked some of their friends to participate and devised a structure that, as Tina says, “would allow them to dance in their own way.” Cunningham says that the storytelling, an essential part of From the Horse’s Mouth, sprang from his experiences at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. “It was a round robin, and we all talked for three minutes, and I remember sitting there thinking, Well this is real theater. This is people dealing with real conflicts, and they’re funny and they’re serious and all of that.” He also remembers being struck by a sign outside the Integral Yoga Institute on 13th Street that affirms “One truth, many paths.” And that connected for him with the ’60s and DTW: “Jeff and Art and Jack had set up this garden in which you could grow, and there was no party line.”


Audiences love the diversity, the wit, and the personal stories of FTHM, and Tina and Jamie find the process never-endingly fascinating—whether the cast consists of, say, New York professionals or the faculty and students of a university dance program. “What’s really cool,” Tina says, “is the way it brings the community together. And how much the dancers love being with each other— meeting new people, reconnecting with colleagues they haven’t seen in 20 years!”


Having weathered 10 Horse’s Mouths, I can verify that the dressing room is a lively place—the younger performers sometimes listening agog to the reminiscences of the old pros. Borrowing eyeliner and helping with zippers become cross-generational, cross-cultural experiences. You may even be performing with someone you’ve heard of but never crossed paths with. Tina remembers the choreographer/filmmaker Yvonne Rainer, a Judson Dance Theater radical during the ’60s, finding an offstage vantage point dur­ing an FTHM performance in St. Mark’s Church in 2000 to watch a fellow participant, Carol Lawrence, the original Maria in West Side Story, dance with Grover Dale, one of its Jets. (Lawrence and Dale, who had graced the Los Angeles version of Horse’s Mouth, arrived early at the church every night to practice—real pros).


Some of my memories of the piece are uncannily like the dreams performers have about being onstage under strange circumstances. Picture this: We’re doing a week of FTHM at Jacob’s Pillow in 2001. The show is about to end. The remarkable Martine van Hamel, former principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, begins to sing very beautifully (a hidden talent she’s been grooming). Peggy Lyman, formerly one of Martha Graham’s most stunning dancers, and I are improvising together. We seem to have tacitly agreed not to upstage Martine, and we hover near the edge of the stage, finding ways to echo and respond together to her cascading voice.


It’s fascinating to watch performers with very different aesthetics and backgrounds share the stage. During those first 1998 performances, choreographer-teacher Viola Farber, who’d been a founding member of the Merce Cunningam Dance Company, ended up improvising with Carmen de Lavallade, who had danced in Lester Horton’s group in the 1950s and later performed with Alvin Ailey’s company, among many others. Farber was ill with cancer and never knew for sure whether she’d feel strong enough to show up for the performance. To see these two tall, slim, gorgeous women (both born in 1931) quietly mingling their very different artistry could stop your heart.


During our October chat, Tina and Jamie regaled me with stories of perfor­mances I had missed. I wish I’d been in L.A. when Yvonne Mounsey, onetime principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and director of the Westside School of Ballet and its adjunct company, performed a “B” section costumed as the Siren in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son (a role she played in NYCB  in the 1950s) and improvised during an “A” section with a 13-year-old Bharata Natyam dancer.


In New Paltz, belly dancer Serpentina performed with three boa constrictors. “We were all tiptoeing around,” Jamie says, “but Livia Vanaver of The Vanaver Caravan threw herself back in front of Serpentina, and the snakes wound around them both. Livia’s so gutsy!” (Jamie meanwhile was singing “the bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling,” and the bells on Serpentina’s costume tinkled in coincidental sympathy.)


The three of us crack up again when we recall Arawana Hayashi’s tale of performing Japanese bugaku in the bed linen department of a Bloomingdale’s in some kind of international festival. She was in the middle of a dance she described as “ex­cruciatingly slow” when a laden-down shopper asked her the way to the ladies’ room.


I’m gearing up for another installment of From the Horse’s Mouth, February 26, 27, and 28. It’s part of the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center’s 75th-anniversary celebration, but it also celebrates something larger—the power of dance and those who practice it to illuminate our lives. As FTHM alumna Linda Tarnay once told The New York Times, experiencing the stories, the dancing, and the unexpected collaborations is “like dying and going to dancers’ heaven.” Amen.



Deborah Jowitt writes about dance for
The Village Voice and is the author of Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance.


Photo by Tom Caravaglia, courtesy Horse’s Mouth