Dance Lovers Remember Remy Charlip, 1929-2012

24 Aug

This got started the day following Remy Charlip’s funeral and celebration; I was sure it would meander, as the mind and emotion lets go at such times to encompass loss and experience and memory of the individual newly absent to life and the circle of his friends and activity.  Necessarily it will be churned out in stages, interrupted by necessary daily chores.

I can’t say I knew Remy Charlip, but I did meet him and talk with him and saw him around  at and in performances, struck by the genial nature of his presence.  He was gracious, giving and referred me to an editor who didn’t like my submission at all, no fault of Charlip’s.  The fact of his offering impressed me with a certain security of soul, innate when generosity is so manifest.

We both as disparate times served on the Isadora Duncan Dance Awards Committee. Jenefer Johnson, one of the current members, wrote Charlip wanted to give Izzies – the certificate and the “dustable” to everyone – and wanted to create a scarf for the occasion. [Maybe the Committee might consider a collective one, to drape over a recipient like the Olympics as Darrell Fisher records the moment; there would need to be a blanket when production collaborators collectively warrant the accolade.]

Rita Felciano and I attended Remy’s hillside burial at the Fernwood Cemetery in Mill Valley; her Prius took us through heavy northward traffic across the Golden Gate Bride into sunshine and the Stinson Beach turnoff, coastal trees, then increasingly up into the sun-dried hillside overlooking tree-shaded buildings in Tennessee Valley.  Fernwood Cemetery, as its website explains, is an ecologically sound resting place of individuals wanting their bodies to disintegrate into the soil minus cosmetic procedures or excessive barriers to the earth.

Cars lined the edge of the ascending road as Rita parked.  Stephen Goldstine and Emily Keeler came with Corinne Nagata, soon June Watanabe and Deborah Slater. Other individuals arrived, looking familiar, if not known by name. Joanna Haigood was there with her husband and handsome young son. More mourners arrived after us. Embraces were exchanged, the ambiance  one of  gravity and acknowledgment; if there were tears, they were muted.

A group arrived with two or three baskets and a box containing an ivory envelope and card bearing Remy’s name, dates of life and a small shot of rainbow-hued grosgrain ribbon for those present. Keith Hennessey stood beside a tall, slender giant and a dark-haired man with bronze skin.  Deborah Slater remarked, “That’s Jules Beckman.”  Before their arrival, the Rabbi Singer explained some Jewish rituals  about forming lines and requesting no photographs.  A modest-sized man of compact build, he held a black binder, wore a black hat, sported a nicely trimmed beard and a gold  circles on each ear.

The hearse door was opened. The Park Service green clad cemetery personnel carried the willow basket,  its crafted  pattern adorned by a scroll of white roses, along a mulched pathway and up to the grave’s edge.   Erica, in charge of the arrangements, later  said she had chosen the spot after vetoing the Jewish section of the cemetery as the graves  there were too close together.  She wanted space for Remy. What a space she chose!  A hillside,  a semi-circle of eucalyptus behind the grave dug by Latino personnel, down the requisite depth revealing the terra-cotta hue of the soil. It was the first time Rita and I had seen a wicker coffin;  I suspect  a first for others.

We gathered, some fifty plus, as the Rabbi’s wife sang in Hebrew in her clear, small voice, accompanied gently by the Rabbi on a large tambourine.  The Rabbi explained the ritual of helping to bury the dead as one felt able.  Behind us below the path a relatively new grave bore large headstone of granite carved with the name of the deceased and seashells.  When the wind subsided, the heat of mid-afternoon August embraced us.

Erica stood at the head of the basket speaking briefly, followed by Beckman stating qualities of character he felt Remy personified, then kissed the basket.  The cemetery personnel lowered the basket into the terracotta oblong, removing the straps.  The rabbi spoke, while three women distributed  rose petals and rose-tipped white rosebuds, devoid of scent, amongst us. We began to cast the roses onto the basket now resting deep down.  The rabbi’s wife continued to sing; we negotiated the slope to toss the flowers.

Rabbi Singer intoned the Hebrew burial phrases, repeated by one or two women near me, the words, their cadence rising and falling ,the occasional gutteral confluence, most of us unable to continue beyond the Rabbi’s instruction with the burial exclamation.

Erica picked up one of three green handled shovels and cast a few terra cotta clods into the grave, followed by Jules Beckman and Keith Hennessey.  Hennessey stood with the shovel near the mound helping women who needed it when they came forward to participate.  One  young woman, bare shouldered in an ankle-length black and white striped dress, stepped forward, grasped the shovel  resolutely casting two shovels full.  She energized my lurking impulse and I stepped forward.  While Keith held my forearm I grasped three or four clods, tossing them towards the head and at the foot of the basket, a moment and sensation not soon forgotten, and found my hands pressed together, Hindu namaste style.  June Watanabe followed.  As we backed towards the path, the group moved forward to participate.  Stephen Goldstine walked slowly down the incline to cast his share while at the head of the basket the tall, slender giant dug into the dry, uneven mound several times, intently casting the contents at the grave’s head.

In the midday warmth returning along the path and reaching the paved road, there were many embraces and low conversation. Rita drove the circle above the incoming road, past and around the historic cemetery with its ornate nineteenth century markers; the car descended to the entrance, back to the junction of the Stinson Beach Road where a roadside stand was selling peaches; on to the highway towards the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marina cutoff and the new tunnel approach replacing the hazardous, creaky Doyle Drive.

Rita left me off at ODC’s Theatre on 17th Street as Margaret Jenkins and her daughter crossed 17th at Shotwell and strolled towards the entrance.  I followed their example, met by a pretty dark-haired young functionary who advised me where I could stow my inevitable portmonteau with little danger of loss.  Down the slight ramp there were four tables, two on each side, devoted to substantial finger food – slivers of pastrami and beef, hum mus, olives, sweet pepper slices, cauliflower and pea pods, french, rye bread, pita – two and three platters of each with generous spoons to assist in noshing.  Near the corner windows  bottles of water, white and red wine rested on a formica surface; against the wall, orange and kiwi slices, strawberries, large soft molasses and raisin oatmeal cookies, layered in circular pattern.

Helen Dannenberg stood by a door with her customary majesty; I noticed Joe Goode. Theresa Dickinson came up to talk to Carlos Carvajal who sat beside me.  The tall stranger sat down on the other side, introducing himself.  Patrick Scully,  one of the scores of individuals whom Remy encouraged and embraced in his whole hearted, but penetrating way, came from Minneapolis where he started a performing space called Patrick’s Cabaret  flourishes. It sports a website where Scully speaks eloquently about that active, non-profit enterprise.

When the gathering moved in to the theatre, Jules Beckman sang “Everything Must Change,” which Remy had taught him.  Joanna Haigood, in a warmly colored knit jump suit danced her half of the duet she had danced with Remy, “When the Lilacs Bloom” full of felicity and warmth.  Then I left for an appointment.

Unlike this ramble, Rita Felciano’s account in The Bay Guardian is brief, superb, and interspersed with You Tube footage, well worth watching.  Paul Parish’s celebration in The Bay Area Reporter places Remy in history, lists his accomplishments, mentions his honors, Remy’s ability to make art while celebrating various niches in life and endeavors.

Allan Ulrich in the San Francisco  Chronicle and The New York Times paid tribute to Remy Charlip, noting his 38 children’s books and his Air Mail dances, his years with the Merce Cunningham Company, his founding of the Paperbag Children’s Theatre.

Missing  in the accounts was what for me was one of  Charlip’s major collaborations, “Growing Up in Public,” and tribute to and a vehicle for the late Lucas Hoving.  Like Charlip, Hoving chose to live out his final years in San Francisco, a  much loved, teaching figure, tenderly cared for at the end.  Unlike Charlip, however, Hoving was not widely celebrated, perhaps because of generational and national differences, along with the relative immaturity of the dance community at that time. Following Hoving, Charlip embraced the community and it in turn encircled him in this most fitting tribute to his gentle, whimsical, faun-like life with its unique brand of  patriarchy.

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