In keeping with the adage “A picture is worth a thousand words,” one minute of watching the Pilobolus Dance Theater’s staging of the Art Spiegelman-inspired “Hapless Hooligan in ‘Still Moving,’” at the Joyce Theatre, trumps any verbiage about this remarkable melding of cartoon art and dance.
When cartoonist Spiegelman, whose 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, “Maus,” was serialized in the Forward, presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to the creator of the comic book character The Spirit, Will Eisner (1917–2005), at the June 3, 2002, National Foundation for Jewish Culture awards gala, held at The Plaza, he stated: “Jews are the people of the book. Jews are the people of the comic book…. Comic books are to art what Yiddish is to language.” Yet, there is nothing Jewish about the goodhearted hobo Hooligan, an Irish version of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Gimpel the Fool. Comic strip innovator Frederick Burr Opper (1857–1937), whose father was an Austrian Jewish, created this character that was short on mazel and love.
Cartoon baby Hapless arrived on the screen as a wailing infant out of a gaping cartoon mouth. The action takes place behind and in front of a huge scrim where Hapless, as danced by Pilobolus dance captain Jun Kuribayashi; his unfaithful lover, Lulu (Annika Sheaff), and the other characters morph from normal to undersize to oversize. This ravishing rollercoaster of dance includes sex, sin — was it a love encounter or rape? — humor and such disconnected elements as the Pyramids of Giza and a frame that looks like an homage to Matisse. It is no wonder that when I stood, on July 17, with ticket in hand outside the theater, I was approached several times with offers to buy it. The line around the block, hopeful for cancellations, needed no balloon cartoon caption.
In the 2005 companion book to the 2006 “Masters of American Comics” two-part exhibition at the Jewish Museum and the Newark Museum, published by Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Los Angeles in association with Yale University Press, its co-editor John Carlin, in the first chapter, “An Art History of Twentieth-Century American Comic Strips and Books,” writes: “Frederick Burr Opper… was a first-generation cartoonist who combined world-class drawing skills with innovative depiction of physical action. He was already one of the most respected illustrators [he worked on books for Mark Twain] and panel cartoonists in America when his most famous character, Happy Hooligan, first appeared [March 11] 1900…. It is hard to imagine the initial impact of these first comic strips…. In 1900, media was static, text-based and almost exclusively black and white.” Among Opper’s innovations were word balloons instead of text blocks.
Hapless Hooligan and Pilobolus’s complete Program 1 will also be performed July 24, July 29, July 31, August 2 and August 5.
At Sting’s July 13 “Symphonicity” multimedia concert, held at the Metropolitan Opera, I had hoped that the 16 Grammy Award-winning artist would include the Gershwin gems he sang at the January 27 “Hal Willner’s I Gotta Right To Sing the Blues? Music and Readings From ‘A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs,’” at Lincoln Center. The Met playbill listed only a brief Sting bio and the roster of the nearly 50-strong Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra under the baton of Steven Mercurio. The audience, which filled the orchestra through the sixth balcony, hung on Sting’s every song. Among the fans: Ingeborg and Ira Leon Rennert and their daughter, Nina Rennert Davidson, and Aaron Ziegelman, president of Gala Resources (a short-term mortgage lender) and general chairman of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. When I asked Ziegelman — who immortalized his Polish birth shtetl Luboml in an eponymous coffee table book, traveling exhibit and documentary film — “Are you a fan?” he replied, “ I love the idea that Sting was singing with a symphonic orchestra.”
Sting performed several of his blockbuster songs, both from his solo career and from his days with the group The Police — from “Englishman in New York,” “Roxanne” to his goose-bump raising love odes “Every Breath You Take” and “Fields of Gold” — but what struck a chord with the audience was his still resonant 1985 opus “Russians” for which, he admitted, “I stole a bit from Prokofiev and Mussorgsky.” Though the enemies and the players have changed, the message is unfortunately still timely:
In Europe and America, there’s a growing feeling of hysteria
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets
Mr. Kruschev said he will bury you
I don’t subscribe to this point of view
It would be such an ignorant thing to do If the Russians love their children too