9 Slow Dance
Perhaps. The next evening, I accompany Pamela to what's billed as a Faculty Dance Recital held at the vibey Naropa Meditation Hall. The repurposed space at 1111 Pearl was a thriving ballroom in the 1920s. The same types of resplendent Tibetan iconography that transformed the Sacred Heart of Jesus gymnasium into a "sacred space" have been affixed in conspicuous locations, signifying that the building had been absorbed into the greater Naroposphere. Still intact are the ballroom's original dance floor, art nouveau lighting fixtures, and numerous half-moon stained glass lunettes artfully positioned over four-paned picture windows.
The evocative, high-ceilinged sanctum is a rather grand setting for Naropa's Dance/Movement Studies Program—long viewed as a poor stepchild in comparison with its precocious School of Disembodied Poetics. Don't tell that to the slew of disembodied poets who've assembled en masse in an impressive show of support. Ginsburg, Waldman, Corso et al have assumed the lotus position, roosting on gaily-embroidered prayer pillows. As the lights dim, nothing escapes the Buddha Vajradhara's knowing eyes. They see all from a Thangka painting.
Barbara Dilley, head of the department, formerly with Merce Cunningham's company, choreographs. I realize that I'd met her briefly backstage at BAM (the Brooklyn Academy of Music) in 1968 when she appeared in Cunningham's groundbreaking Rain Forest—my uncle and future Tony Award winner Richard Nelson was their lighting designer. That was daring and cutting edge stuff in a city full of it. Andy Warhol contributed the bloated, helium-filled silver balloons levitating like mini Zeppelins over a Jasper Johns-designed set.
Despite the fact that "have no expectations" is a basic Buddhist doctrine, well, I suppose I'd brought some with me to the Meditation Hall. What I was expecting was something close to what another Cunningham alumni, Jennifer Mueller, who Uncle Richard also lit, had come up with, work which wasn't entirely dissimilar to Cunningham's.
This recital is another cup of tea altogether. The performance features set pieces reminiscent of traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, which, oh by the way, last up to four hours. Tracing a square at a pace slower than Mr. Lowry on horse tranquilizers, dancers in gauzy white garb carrying candleholders drip wax onto the sprung hardwood floor. At some point, they reverse direction. Eventually, the troupe halts. Taking about five minutes to get there, they transition from standing upright to lying on the ground. In roughly the same amount of time, they progress from a supine position to a kneeling position.
Well. This. Is. Different.
"Leisurely" doesn't begin to describe the pace at which they're now rising, unfolding vertebrae by vertebrae, to an erect position. Hunching over in slow motion, seemingly frame by frame, they extend one hand behind their heads.
Standing on one leg, in the manner of some water fowl, they have arrived at the most unnatural position conceivable. They hold their places interminably. The significance escapes me, but if the purpose is establishing that time is not of the essence, no argument from me, the point has been made, decisively. The only visible movement is the almost imperceptible blur of wax dripping, drop by fateful drop.
The recital has slipped out of the realm of the physical and entered the sphere of the conceptual. I'm getting the sinking feeling that there's a lot more dancing during the first thirty seconds of center work at Ballet Arts Academy, a straight shot across 11th street, than we're going to get all night. What would make me think that? Now that I actually have some free time, I've started taking classes there ...
... My nascent career as a danseur began accidentally enough. I'd taken my guitar to a luthier above Tom's Tavern for a setup. As the tech fiddled with the truss rod, I noticed some particularly lush piano accompaniment wafting in from down the hall. Prokofiev, "Balcony Pas de Deux" from Romeo and Juliet? I set off to investigate, hardly expecting to stumble upon a Toulouse-Lautrec painting come to life.
I poked my head in the doorway. Adjusting to the semi-surreal scene, I took a quick head count: the Adult Ballet class consisted of thirty some-odd goddesses in various provocative warmups, along with two chiseled Adonises. In addition to the ballerina access and the incredible body toning, it struck me that here was an ideal venue to prepare myself for the mental and physical demands of being onstage. Dancers could and did check each other out all class long. They made no bones about the fact they were doing it. That's how they learned, from imitation. They copied each other directly, or recreated moves and facial expressions reflected in a vast expanse of mirrors. In an incubator like this, I wouldn't have to guess whether or not I could hold an audience's attention at will. I'd know. I signed up on the spot.
The ballet mistress was Barbara Demery, former Royal Ballet principle, with a voice so magisterial that you wouldn't think twice if it instructed you to walk up a mountainside on your thumbs. A steady stream of commands came my way, the formula being my name followed immediately by an adjustment request ("Lory, point your toes!" "Lory, chin up!" "Lory, spot yourself in the mirror!"). I heard my name repeated umpteen times per class―as if I hadn't just taken up ballet in my late twenties, I could actually remember more than the first few directions out of the dozens she'd call out, and she was on a mission from God to train me as a principal danseur ...
... But I wasn't across the street at Ballet Arts now. A different choreographer with the initials BD was blocking the scenes. And the "faculty dance recital" was going right over my head. That meant that instead of drawing closer to Pamela, the whole purpose of being there, I was withdrawing altogether. I made a last ditch attempt to get with the program, but things didn't get any less cryptic. Was I watching a struggle between backwards and forwards? A moving meditation? An exploration of stillness? Evidently, "contemplative dance," the arcane offshoot of modern dance I found out later I was watching, or at least my physical body was present at, encompassed aspects of all the above. Except I was a little mystified where the "dance" part came in. There hadn't been any, which is what forced me to contemplate some in my mind. It was like attending a basketball game with a little surprise: no jumping allowed!
Speaking of contemplation, basketball, and jumping, with every indication that the tea ceremony, I mean recital, was trailing off into eternity ...
... My conscious mind hits the ejection switch, exits the Meditation Hall, and flashes back to a freakishly warm day a few Januarys back when me, Steven The Other Main Milkman, and Anne Waldman watched basketball players jump preternaturally high at an legendary event that's still discussed to this today.
It was a freakishly warm January day. Steven had the top down in his Fiat Spider convertible. We'd decided to blow off band practice for once and take in the ABA (American Basketball Association) All-Star game in Denver. The All-Star game alone might not have lured us. On the surface, it seemed like the last gasp of a dying league. Another divertissement, some preliminary competition billed as a "Slam Dunk Contest," was the deciding factor that drew us in. What the heck was that? Was it really what it sounded like? It was hard to picture an entire event based around dunks. At the time, they were banned by both the NCAA and the NBA. Their standing in the collective unconscious was one step above nonexistent. Conversely, the ABA not only allowed dunks, it flaunted them. Unfortunately, that hadn't done much to boost the fledgling league's TV ratings in any appreciable way. Marketing mavens were optimistic that the novel showcase, featuring the league's biggest stars letting it all hang out, would provide a much-needed shot in the arm.
Waiting at a stop light, who do we see standing on the corner of 13th and Spruce but Anne Waldman. At that point, I barely knew the future New York School of Poetry's grand dame. I'd rubbed elbows with her once or twice at a friend's wannabe literary salon, so we weren't complete strangers. The conversation started off with, "Hey where are you guys going?" and ended with Anne impulsively cramming herself into the Spider's minuscule back seat. Now we were chauffeuring a disciple of a tranquil religion practiced by diminutive Asians in colorful hand-carved temples to a cold concrete slab purpose built for beer-bellied Americans to worship elongated Africans. I'm guessing the phrase "slam dunk contest" appealed to her poetic side.
Next thing you know we're copping tickets from a fan waving a handful of 'em outside McNichols Arena for the princely sum of ten bucks apiece. To our astonishment, we find out they're the best seats in the house. Only there was one slight disadvantage to sitting two rows behind the All-Stars' bench. Our view of the court was presently blocked by all 6'10" with an additional 7" Afro of Julius Erving planted right in front of us in his short shorts. The immortal "Dr. J" was looking directly at Anne, smiling a big toothy grin. Without moving a muscle, the guy exuded springiness and boundless athleticism. Artis "A-Train" Gilmore, 7'2" with his own pointy Afro, sidled over to talk with Erving, followed quickly by Larry "Special K" Kenon, another tremendous physical specimen with an Afro to match.
A horn sounded. The all-star trio pranced out onto the court and began practicing their dunks. Whoa, Nellie! The warmup dunks—double clutches, tomahawks, windmills, between the legs, cradle-the-babies—had the entire arena buzzing. Oohs. Ahhs. Gasps. But one celebrated celebrated dunk artist was missing in action. There was a little murmur when the first spectators spotted him coming out of the tunnel. The crowd noise built to a crescendo before we even saw him. And then there he was, running out onto the court, hometown hero David "Skywalker" Thompson, the Denver Nuggets' very own giant killer. Game on! This 6'4" (no Afro) manchild was an anatomical anomaly. He had the hops to rise as high or higher than competitors eight inches taller. He had a 48" vertical jump. He could pluck a quarter off the top of the backboard. Yet he had kind of an "aw, shucks" modesty about him which belied his superpowers. You couldn't take your eyes off him.
The contest came down to a mano a mano duel between Skywalker and Dr. J. After the preliminaries, everyone knew it would. Skywalker led off with the world's first double-pump reverse 360° dunk, provoking a primal scream from every man, woman, child and popcorn vendor in the arena. The prodigious feat would have stood up in any dunk contest held ever since—that is, every dunk contest that didn't include Dr. J.
The Doctor remained poker-faced. He'd seen enough of Skywalker to grasp that even a human pogo stick like himself would be required to improvise something so spectacular that it had previously been deemed impossible. And then he went Buddhist. He closed his eyes for a second. Maybe he didn't know he was channeling the universe, but I recognized the look. In that single second, the universe responded. Dr. J walked calmly up to the free-throw line, paused, then started retreating, purposefully marking off the strides, going all the way back to the other end of the court. Then everyone knew what was coming—he's actually going to take off from the free-throw line and attempt to slam it home! No one had ever seen a foul line dunk, for the simple reason that none had never been attempted. Everybody was on the edge of their seats in anticipation.
Then he blasted off. His Afro was so big it was blowing! Palming the read, white and blue globe as easily as if it were a ping pong ball, he hit the free throw line, went airborne like he'd just been shot out of an enormous slingshot, and just kept on soaring, finally reaching high up over his head to slam that baby down.
Gasps of disbelief.
Delayed roars of appreciation from the same home crowd desperately pulling for Skywalker to win.
Do you suppose Anne found this now-mythical matchup every bit as riveting as we did? Well, let me put it this way. Nobody had ever heard the phrase "poetry slam" before the ABA Slam Dunk Contest. There is zero doubt that Anne was the first poet to ever see a slam dunk contest in person. She was arguably the most connected poet on earth. Not long thereafter, "poetry slams" popped up in cities all over the country. Capiche? I'll take a wild guess that the $10 Jam-balla training she'd just receuved was a perfect compliment to her $40,000 Shambala training ...
... I stop replaying highlight dunks and reinhabit the body I'd left in the Meditation Hall― just in time to catch the last candle flicker out and die. Freed from the conceptual, I turn to the practical. Me. Pamela. A stirring pas de deux in Room 509. At Beat Central, the force has been consistently with me. That's what I'd really come for, wasn't it? But, no. Not meant to be. At least not tonight. Something or other about kids, colds, temperatures. Further attempts at warming international relations would have to wait.