Bob Eisen

There’s a lot of dance to watch online during these days. I just watched  parts of a 2006 piece by Bill T Jones, “Another Evening: I Bow Down.” He’s an impressive human being, Bill is. The dancers/dancing is kicked out like there is no tomorrow and I have to work at avoiding getting sucked into a place of wishing I could/could have danced like that. Same thing when I watch Cunningham dancers.

Mid April here in Chicago, when, if all had gone according to plan I would now be in New York. Which is, after all, my home. Chicago was once my home, and I have had along the way these other homes, Russia, for one, where I have found myself living six months here, six months there for the past 15 years. So being away from New York for long periods of time is not unusual for me, 73 year old vagabond that I guess I am. But that return home to New York- the consistency of which was always welcome, now gone, yes, we hope, someday to return. 

I was asked by an online cultural arts journal to write about a performing artist to find out how he or she was coping with the fact that the idea of people gathering together to view a live performance, something we all took for granted as recently as three months ago, now, seemingly all of a sudden, is out of the question. And appears to be this way into the foreseeable future. I contacted Stephanie Pacheco, director of Links Hall, a small performance space that has a long ongoing history of presenting mostly dance but also various other forms of performance work. Too, it is housed in the same building as Constellation, an organization headed by musician Mike Reed that presents music events. She suggested I get in touch with Bob Eisen, one of the founders of Links Hall, who was scheduled to perform at Links in May. I knew of Eisen’s presence in Chicago’s dance/performance community, knew that in certain circles he was something of an iconic figure. 

We rehearse for five weeks. Joanne go to California for Somatic studies and I go back to New York. We regroup end of April. Performance be on May 13. We go to New York the beginning of June. We be part of 34th Performance Mix Festival. (just insert the verbiage of “were/was going to” and lots of “thens”) 

We being long time dancing friend Joanne Barrett, and myself, the venue in Chicago being Links Hall. Of which I was a cofounder 40 years ago, and it brings me pleasure that the organization is still in operation, still presenting dance and performance, though of course it has changed a great deal; though of course nothing is happening there now.

Chapter two- People in masks, everywhere

There’s always the question of what one does with their days, when there are none of the daily guideposts, and the days run together, yesterday no different than the day before, there appearing to be no end in sight, and at times a heavy sadness seems to hang in the air. We move forward as best we can; at least that’s what people say on the radio. 

Eisen had, in an email exchange, informed me that the rehearsal he had invited me to was going to be the first time he and his dancing partner Joanne Barrett had gotten together in how long he couldn’t remember exactly, maybe 4 or 5 weeks. They got a couple, three weeks of rehearsal in at Links Hall; then, when Links and every other possible rehearsal space shut their doors, the friends Eisen was staying with, Tom and Nancy Melvin, suggested this vacant space next to Tom’s studio, not far from where they lived. Eisen had been many times to Tom’s studio, knew of the space next door, knew it was raw and dirty and messy, but, after several moppings of the floor and moving some things around, they had turned it into a workable space to dance/rehearse. Which the two of them did for a couple, three weeks, again Eisen’s memory is hazy. And, according to Eisen, they got a lot done, they were making progress. But it was never an ideal situation- it could be cold in the space, there’s wasn’t a lot of light, a lot of stuff piled here and there throughout the space. And overriding all this, something Eisen said they would talk about, was just the whole idea of making up a dance when there was no definitive prospect of when, or even if, this dance would ever be presented. So a decision was made to stop rehearsing.

As a make believe writer, the question that arises at this moment is whether to continue this story in a dramatic fashion or as a truthful narrative.

At least rehearsing together, as Eisen continued to go over to the space and work by himself. “Which I am used to doing”, Eisen wrote, “fully capable of spending hours alone in a studio, not everybody’s idea of a good time.”  It was during this time that Eisen’s thinking began to shift- from that of treating the space solely for rehearsing, in preparation for possible performance in the future at Links, to actually presenting the duet in this raw unwieldy space. The last weekend of May, Friday, Saturday, Sunday afternoons, before an invited audience of 6-8 people each day, chairs strategically placed throughout the space 6 feet apart. Did Eisen have questions about the feasibility of this actually taking place, as, after all, Illinois has “stay at home” orders in place until the end of May? “Certainly”, he wrote, “we have been conditioned, and rightly so given the circumstances, to consider gathering together, even in a small group, as something to avoid at all costs. Will anybody come, even though all the invited people will be long time friends and colleagues? I have no idea, but it gives Joanne and I something to work towards, no small thing, and I have no doubt there are folks out there who are hungry for that something that only live performance gives us, who want to get the hell out of their homes and apartments before they go completely bonkers….but like I said, I don’t know, I don’t know anything, nor do I have any idea what a little dance, charming and well crafted as it may be, that Bob and Joanne present before a handful of people, what that has to do with all the suffering and disruption going on in the world.” 

It is at this point Jo, that I want to stop writing, will be happy if anybody even makes it this far, even though I had plans to have this sort of mythical person writing the article actually come to that first rehearsal we had last Tuesday, and write about it, how we worked together, how we developed that new material, I wanted her to write how interesting it all was, then getting to proceeding in a “dramatic fashion” to a darker part of myself where if I am writing this I must have thought it, that when it came to the material we had worked on long ago, the partnering work we both like, that you were going to say, with reason, that it’s just not appropriate to continue working in such close physical contact, and what was I supposed to do with this information, except in a fit of nastiness tell you there was no sense continuing, and I was telling this to Tom and Nancy at dinner the night before, expressing my fear of this possibility, and Nancy said if that turned out to be the case I should make up a dance, with love she said, where we stayed 6 feet apart, and she’s right and I didn’t feel good having such thoughts, and you would leave Tom’s studio and I would be there with this mythical person, and I was going to offer this person one of my Impossible Burgers, me standing in line at the Burger King drive up window being at one time part of this story but like my previous life in New York City, is gone, the YMCA shuttered, but this person didn’t want an Impossible Burger, basically this person just wanted to get out of an awkward situation, and I was going to write, very dramatically, about how this person walked down the long flight of stairs, onto a by no means deserted Lawrence Avenue, past the Family Dollar store, past the furniture store, past the busy (what does that say?) pawn shop, reflecting I imagined, on how while I was a healthy productive creative person and apparently had not just lost a job, I was, nonetheless, someone, who like millions of people around world, has had my life disrupted by this pandemic. What this person thought of me after all this, I do not know, nor what this person was going to write for this cultural arts journal.

I ended up going to two rehearsals at this makeshift space where Eisen and Barrett were rehearsing. The space was big, dark, messy, yes a bit dirty, just as Eisen had described. But they certainly were at home there, utilizing every nook and cranny, and filling it with the energy of two people creatively working together, laughing, huffing and puffing, inventing, along with splashes of tedium, frustration and woe. So how is this performing artist, Bob Eisen, coping with this situation? No question he’s lucky that his friend Tom Melvin has this space available; but on top of that is the fact that Eisen has the wherewithal to make something like this happen. Is this the future of live performance? No one knows. 

I did go to the “studio” today, made sense, had a good time anyway, of the body parts material. Will show you on Tuesday. We will have to play with how exactly to fit your material, the slow mo stuff, into what I am doing. Ayako wrote me and said she was going to come on the Sunday!

News bulletin: What up until now had been scattered work stoppages in Amazon distribution centers are becoming more and more widespread. It was reported that a large distribution center outside Atlanta was effectively shut down when the entire workforce walked off the job, complaining of ongoing unsafe working conditions, repeated work injuries, and an increasing number of workers testing positive for COVID-19. The center serves as the main distribution point for all Amazon deliveries in the greater southeastern region of the country, for all practical purposes bringing to a halt deliveries to thousands of Amazon customers. There were also reports, in a related story, of workers walking off the job at numerous Whole Food Markets stores, mostly in northeastern states, but also in Detroit and Chicago. Whole Foods, a subsidiary of Amazon, has become a distribution center for groceries, promising two hour home delivery service to Amazon Prime members. What effect this will have on an already cratering US economy is as yet unclear. Also not known is how Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, will respond to these developments. Complicating matters are President Trump’s, heretofore no fan of Bezos nor the Washington Post, which is owned by Bezos, recent overtures to Bezos to work together to help stabilize the economy, particularly with the 2020 election close at hand. 

Special thanks to Joanne Barrett, Tom and Nancy Melvin, Kay LaSota, Links Hall Studio.

Emily Goucher for help with design and layout. 

Karen Bernard for keeping it going.

instagram: @melvinstudiochicago


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