For the grace of Ralph Lemon


Ralph Lemon, the acclaimed choreographer/visual artist, recently presented How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? (October 7-10) at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. After the Fri/8 show, Angela Mattox, the space's Performing Arts Curator, led a question-and- answer session with Lemon and the performers. One audience member asked about a section where video images of animals walked across a screen. First came a dog, then Lemon clad in a rabbit suit, then a flamingo, continuing with an assortment of animals including a giraffe and a walrus. The question pertained to the motivation of the scene. Jim Findlay, the video designer, responded that Lemon’s only direction had been to create grace. At this point Mattox, the curator, began to cry, touched deeply that an artist would strive for grace. The event was moving to witness, but I left with a nagging question: what exactly is grace?
Grace carries a variety of connotations. Lithe ballet dancers are described as graceful. Many religious denominations seek God’s grace. A grace period is an extension of a due date. But grace also seems to be something less tangible, a mixture of elegance, good favor, moral stamina, and honor. I don’t know exactly what grace is. I don’t know what it means to create grace, especially in a dance context. I don’t know if Ralph Lemon’s show achieved grace.

How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? featured both a film with live narration by Lemon and a performance with dancers. In the film, Lemon talked about his eight-year collaboration with centenarian Walter Carter and his wife Edna of Bentonia, MS. Mirroring Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovksy's 1972 sci-fi romance Solaris, feeble and wobbly Walter and Edna reenacted some of the scenes in their mundane Mississippi home. In conjunction with Solaris’ romance between a cosmonaut and his dead wife and Walter and Edna’s enfeebled restaging, Lemon also spoke of the loss of his partner Asako Takami to cancer. The result was a meditation on love, loss, and reflections at the end of a lifetime.

The performance component consisted of four distinct sections. The first was a grueling tortuous dance that lasted 20 minutes. The dancers frenetically pushed themselves to exhaustion, endlessly throwing themselves through space with no seeming order. Succeeding that, performer Okwui Okpokwasili sobbed uncontrollably for eight minutes, her back convulsing as she faced away from the audience. This was followed by the above described animal video attempting grace. The show concluded with a contemplative sparse duet with Lemon and Okpokwasili. These four performance parts departed dramatically from the explicit film section, leaving the audience a performance section of perplexing bare minimalism.

Did this all add up to grace? What struck me more than such aspirations was the sheer courage involved in presenting this material. It wasn’t created to be liked. It was created as a challenge, not to the audience, but to art itself. Can a twenty-minute dance with no form that pushes the limits of exhaustion be sustained? Is it watchable? People walked out of the performance. It takes great courage to present work that is not innately likeable.

The piece was also filled with humility. Particularly in the film section, it was as if Lemon had laid down on a table before strangers, sharing his intimate experience with loss, and Walter and Edna’s lifelong voyage together. Not only does it take guts to present that kind of subject matter and make oneself vulnerable, it also demands humility.

I suspect it is near impossible to create work embodying grace, love, courage, or any of those revered and venerated noble themes. But to paraphrase another point by Lemon in the question-and-answer session, it’s the struggle that’s important, more so than whether or not we succeed. 

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