The late Remy Charlip always crossed from the visual to the kinetic and back again.
By Debra Cash.
Remy Charlip was a man who colored inside and outside the lines.
An imp and officially designated Library of Congress National Treasure who died this week at 83, Charlip was a dancer, theater director, and in his best-known incarnation, a children’s book author who wore sweaters striped like a box of Crayolas and crossed kindergarten with John Cage.
Like Maurice Sendak, Charlip was a gay son of Jewish Brooklyn, growing up on Herzl (!) Street in a small, cold water flat with a coal-burning stove and the bathtub in the kitchen. His father was an alcoholic, a fact portrayed with pain and adult compassion many years later, when he made his solo “Glow Worm.” Charlip said that as a child he wanted to be a clown or a farmer (he was proud of his carrot patch he’d planted in a local park). His French teacher, however, had kept a model of the Eiffel Tower he had constructed out of toothpicks in her closet, and during a meeting with Charlip’s mother, insisted that he be allowed to become an artist.
On the Jewish masquerade holiday of Purim, his cousin recently recalled, he wore her dress, and she wore his pants because they could not afford other costumes. He made up for that, big time. After attending Textile High and Cooper Union, he met Merce Cunningham through the composer Lou Harrison. Starting in 1953, he danced with Cunningham’s original company and doubled up on designing costumes and posters for the shows. At the Living Theatre and Henry Street Settlement, he turned buckets and brooms and cheap household materials into the stuff of magic for the Paper Bag Players, which he founded in 1958 with Shirley Kaplan, Sudie Bond, and fellow Cunningham dancer Judith Martin. The Paper Bag Players continues to delight children and their families; Martin predeceased Charlip by less than a month.
Charlip always crossed from the visual to the kinetic and back again. In his first children’s book—written in part to supplement his lack of dancing income—he portrayed identifiable dancer friends in Dress Up and Let’s Have a Party.
According to Cunningham archivist and dance critic David Vaughn, the genesis of Charlip’s Air Mail Dances was an Andre Kertesz postcard he sent a dancer named Nancy Green from Paris in 1972, with the instruction that the photographer’s image would be the opening pose of a dance. Eventually the procedure was distilled into Charlip drawing two dozen or so sketches of human figures—and no, you couldn’t tell whether they were male or female—on a series of postcards or a single standard sheet of white paper. He was using a technique he had perfected: “use your eyes like a pen with ink, and follow the body for line.” He then mailed these instruction sheets to a group of performers—the technique accommodated everything from soloists to ensembles of 300—who could shuffle them and create transitions among the gestures in whatever order, and with whatever latent meaning, they wished.
Air Mail Dances became part parlor game, part college composition exercise, and in every instance a testament to the variety of human imagination since no group of performers ever generated the same composition.
Start at 1:44 to see one recent version here.
And a version by the mixed ability company AXIS here.
Another, related project involved instructions that could be read on stage, or even over the radio.
There was a quintessentially New York Jewish “on one hand/on the other hand” jokiness behind much of Charlip’s whimsy, as in his 1964 picture book, Fortunately:
Fortunately, Ned was invited to a surprise party.
Unfortunately, the party was a thousand miles away.
Fortunately, a friend loaned Ned an airplane.
Unfortunately, the motor exploded . . .
The books won him huge honors and fans among children, their parents, and his peers. A library in Greenville, Delaware established itself as the Remy Charlip Library and now has a 100-foot mural painted by him on its walls. Illustrator Brian Selznick has noted that all the images of pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the source of the Martin Scorsese film Hugo, are actually portraits of Remy Charlip, to whom he dedicated the book.
A stroke in November, 2005 temporarily robbed Charlip of his ability to communicate and later, he would admit, left him wanting to die, but it rallied a circle of loving friends in San Francisco, where he had moved in 1989, who took care of his daily needs, gave him Alexander technique treatments as part of his regimen of physical therapy, and held benefits to offset his medical bills. He got better; he declined. The tributes have been pouring in.
When I interviewed him in 1986, while he was teaching at the Harvard Summer Dance Center, a residency that coincided with a display of his drawings at Widener Library, he had this to say:
The way people think they have to behave in the world is seriously misconstrued. They think learning is about concentration and suffering. What a mistake. People learn from playing. I’m interested in things that are not usually well-respected in this society, things like humor and lyricism, men being loving to one another, what it is children can do and how you can lighten their load, make them into feeling and thinking individuals. People lose the delight they had when they were young. I like to make pieces that can give people ideas of a way to be. I want them to think “I could do that!”
Thanks, Remy, for trusting that we could.