For his first New York performance, Rudy Perez presented a program of dance solos. It was the mid-1960s, and the venue was one of those "alternative" spaces that sat an audience of about 50. As he began the concert, Perez says he noticed there were only four people there -- and they were all sitting together.
"It was good for me to get through the program and make it work," recalls Perez, who turns 84 in November, "because I later found out that the four people were critics -- from the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Soho News and the Washington Post. From then on, everything kind of just took off -- it was the beginning."
And so it was. Perez, born and raised in the Bronx, became a hot commodity in New York. But it was no accident, as he'd been working towards that moment for a number of years. Of Puerto Rican descent, Perez, like many Latinos, had danced socially before making his way to the mother of modern dance, the legendary Martha Graham.
After studying with Graham for five years in the 1950s, Perez was confronted with a harsh reality. In dance, your physique determines your destiny, and he knew that because of this, he would not ultimately find his place within Graham's company. "Obviously I wasn't going to be a Graham dancer," explains Perez, "because Martha's men were tall, blonde and blue-eyed then. I realized that Judson was the only place for me at that time."
That "place" would be New York's experimental Judson Dance Theater. Founded in 1962 by David Gordon, Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, and others, Judson had defined boundary-breaking, "downtown" aesthetics. The seminal collective was ground zero for what then came to be known as performance art. It was with Judson, says Perez, that he found his path as an artist, letting go of the Graham training and "just doing it."
Just doing it proved to be an eye-opener, not only for critics and audiences, but also for Perez and other choreographers, who, after tossing aside years of rigorous training -- and with it, the often dramatic accompanying emotions -- began to dance in radically different ways. Goodbye to articulated arabesques with hands-on-forehead angst; hello to terpsichorean minimalism, which included simplistic moves such as walking and sitting in a chair -- paring down basic motions to their essence.
Composer John Cage cracked wide open this postmodern door in 1952 with his revolutionary work, "4'33"." Cage's opus consists of a pianist sitting at an instrument for a literal four minutes and 33 seconds, thus allowing the silence and its consequent ambient sounds to become the music. Last year, during the centennial of Cage's birth, there were scads of performances of "4'33"," with YouTube featuring an array of presentations, including one with full orchestra conducted by Lawrence Foster.
It makes sense, then, that Perez studied with and was mentored by choreographer Merce Cunningham, Cage's professional and personal partner. Cunningham, who died in 2009 at age 90, originated the ground-shattering theory that music, choreography, sets, and costumes can exist independently from one another.
"I always looked up to Merce, although I think Martha [Graham] was a bigger influence on me in terms of physicality and passion," recalls Perez. "But I like Merce's sense of intellect, in terms of how he felt dance was for him, that things don't have to relate to each other -- they can co-exist. I like that. I also like the challenge that a dance doesn't have to be dramatic or lyrical. For me, I like to dabble and come up with ideas and find an interesting way to put them together so that the audience finds a way to put it together, like modern art."
What Perez put together was the eponymous Rudy Perez Dance Theater, a group that was more task oriented than technique driven, and that toured the States, Germany, and Canada in the 1960s and 70s. Perez was also making and performing solo works during that period, among them "Coverage" and "Countdown," both which became part of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater repertory. "Countdown" also became the title and centerpiece of a 2005 documentary on Perez that was later broadcast nationally on PBS.
In 1978, Perez was offered a teaching position at UCLA, but when he shared the news with his mentor, he was hesitant. "When I told Merce [Cunningham] I was going to L.A., I don't think he was for it. And I said, 'Merce, it's time for me to move on -- New York has done all it possibly can for me.' And I left. But whenever he [visited L.A.] with his company," adds Perez, "I would go backstage, and I'd say, 'Merce, you're still an inspiration.' And he would say, 'You're your own inspiration.' I didn't really understand it at the time, but now that he's gone, I really think about that and all the times he said that to me."
When Perez headed west, he never looked back. Besides UCLA, he also taught at Cal State Long Beach, CalArts (which gave Perez an honorary doctorate in 2006), and USC (which houses his archives as part of the USC Libraries' Special Collections). Perez was also honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from Palm Desert's McCallum Institute, and in 2005, he received the Lester Horton Lifetime Achievement Award. Perez was also on the dance faculty at Los Angeles High School for the Arts for 10 years, beginning in 1992, the same year he was awarded an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Otis Institute of Art and Design.
More importantly, perhaps, Perez founded a new company in Los Angeles, the Rudy Perez Performance Ensemble, and has choreographed more than 50 works since moving to the City of Angels. Much in the way Cunningham was a source inspiration for Perez, Perez himself has become a much-admired mentor, inspiring near fanatical devotion from his dancers.
Jeffrey Grimaldo first performed with Perez' L.A. troupe in 1986, with his wife, Anne Grimaldo, joining the company two years later. The couple unabashedly refer to themselves as "Perezians." "Rudy has taught tons of kids who are now working professionals around the world," says Grimaldo. "I feel privileged to have been part of that, as Rudy is an important link to the past, and he's teaching future generations. To be able to say we have a master with us in L.A., with its spread-out dance landscape, is extremely important."
"I've learned everything from Rudy," adds Grimaldo's wife, Ann, "choreography, performance, bringing theater into my dance, being natural and not just being a dance-y dancer. There's a whole technique Rudy brought to us, to Los Angeles, and to modern dance. I feel proud that I'm part of his history and development."
The press has consistently been good to Perez, with the Los Angeles Times referring to the choreographer in 1987 as "the conscience of Los Angeles dance."
That he continues working is something of a minor miracle. In addition to facing a dire arts economy that shows no signs of abating, Perez has been visually impaired for more than a decade, his vision hazy at best. But it's the dance that keeps him going.
In 2009, when he turned 80, Perez celebrated the milestone with a site-specific performance at Pasadena's All Saints Church. It was presented by the Armory Center for the Arts under the auspices of Jay Belloli, then director of gallery programs at the Armory and since retired. Belloli's relationship with Perez dates back to 1992, when he first presented the choreographer's full evening work, "The Dance-Crazy Kid From New Jersey Meets Hofmannsthal." Belloli cited Perez as a major choreographer of the late 20th and early 21st century. "How Rudy uses space, how he uses movement, how he uses movement as defining space, how he uses music," exclaimed Belloli, "it's extraordinary. L.A. is lucky to have him."
Not one to rest on his laurels, Perez performed a 10-minute solo, "download/overload," at the Hammer Museum's Billy Wilder Theatre as part of last year's city-wide exhibition, "Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980." The concert also featured a number of musicians, dancers and spoken word artists who had been mentored by the octogenarian. But it was Perez who commanded the evening's attention. Set to a deliciously scratchy but emotionally wrenching 1936 recording of Kirsten Flagstad singing Wagner's "Liebestod," the solo featured Perez, wearing dark glasses and seated on a chair during part of the work. Occasionally rotating his body -- thrusting a bent leg forward one moment, sideways the next -- he would return to face front, arms crossed, legs splayed. Suddenly, as if possessed, Perez propelled his hands forward, then upward, unassailable, frozen, as if doing battle with the unseen.
Whether struggling to keep a stronghold on the past or grappling with the relentless march of time, the moves were all written on his body, a language of the sublime, the pedestrian made profound: Perez standing, his crisp white shirt untucked, slightly wrinkled, his thin red tie, a painterly splash of blood, now askew. 'Remember me,' he seemed to be saying. 'I'm here. Still. Now. Remember me.'
And he is. Still here. And he's still leading his weekly performance lab, "Sundays With Rudy," at Westside Academy of Dance. It's in these workshops where performers (including Anne and Jeff Grimaldo) not only study technique, improvisation, and movement innovation with the master, but also are invited to join the ensemble in informal showings. These showings are slated to be part of a 2014-15 exhibit of the Rudy Perez Archives at USC Libraries' Special Collections. Included in the display are photographs, programs, press clippings, and other materials that constitute a virtual history of postmodern dance. In addition to the legacy performances, there will be a panel of speakers and a demonstration.
While dance, the most ethereal of art forms, is passed down from body to body -- and it is the aging body that Perez now confronts -- it is still the process, more than the performance, that matters most to this gifted artist.
"As you get older," points out Perez, "what do you have to hold onto? I've been thinking about the past and how there's so much to draw from, and I can also use that as a reference point to keep going. But it's also about the fact that Perez has been here, he's still here, he's still creating."