David Vaughan and Pepper Fajans in Co. Venture at Baryshnikov Arts Center.
They make a charming pair: David Vaughan (b. 1924) and Pepper Fajans (b. 1985). I don’t mean “charming” as in, “let’s have them over for dinner” (although that would be nice). I mean that’s how they appear at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in the U.S. premiere of Co. Venture by the Brooklyn Touring Outfit that they founded. Vaughan, with a background as a dancer and actor, is the author of the masterly Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years and was the archivist for the Cunningham Dance Foundation until Cunningham’s death and the folding of the company. He often went along on tours to deliver talks. Pepper Fajans, a dancer-choreographer, is also a carpenter. The two men met at the Cunningham studio when Fajans was working on some panels for the video series “Mondays with Merce.”
Panels loom large in Co. Venture. At first, all we see of Fajans are his fingers, curling around either side of a tall, lightweight panel. He has a conjuring trick in mind as he glides it from side to side of the stage; once it deposits a chair; on a later trip, the board falls dramatically—and almost silently— forward to reveal Vaughan, seated in the chair, holding a very big book. From it, he reads us these gripping words of Cunningham’s: “You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”
Fajans meanwhile, sits on the floor beside him, making a long slim pole rise into an arch, dip and rise, seem to search (perhaps he’s fishing in history). Eventually it rises to surprisingly steady verticality and is tossed into the wings. Another board game, which Vaughan watches intently: Fajans lies beside the fallen panel in front of his colleague, tips it, slides under it, balances it on his hands and feet, and makes it revolve. We hear a sound like that of a train. Vaughan looks up. Only after Fajans emerges and stows the panel, do the two greet each other: “Hi Pepper.” “Hi David.” And we’re into their shared memories.
Usually Fajans brings up an experience or a moment; Vaughan absorbs it, adds to it, maybe questions it , and reveals a touch of dry wit. They converse as if they were sitting in a quiet café, reminiscing in a relaxed way, with pauses for thought. Skilled performers, they might almost be improvising. The first topic is their meeting and how Fajans moved from being Cunningham’s wheelchair chauffeur and helper to being Vaughan’s assistant. The rhythm in this first section is also shaped by additional panel-moving; once it becomes a fence behind Vaughan, over which Fajans leans to talk.
Their dialogue has that “do you remember” aura. They discuss going to a Caravaggio exhibit together and talk about the painter, and about other museum visits, with Fajans pushing Vaughan through galleries in Merce’s former wheelchair. Fajans relives the small catastrophe of that wheelchair tipping over on a rocky path with Cunningham in it and pinning Fajans underneath (Vaughan doesn’t recall that). They recollect their first meal together. When they speak about watching a sunset together by the sea in Tel Aviv, two panels slant down in front of their knees to convey the cliff on which they’re supposedly sitting, both with their hands folded, while Davison Scandrett’s lighting turns the wall behind them rosy.
Examples of Fajans’ interest in puppetry (aided by visual designer Maiko Kikuchi’s creations) are part of the choreography. He dances, making adjustments between his own body and two poles hinged together. He wields a large simulacrum of Vaughan’s head and later dons an alligator-head mask. The alligator head also appears two-dimensionally, attached to a panel, along with an image of Cunningham (I never did figure out the significance of the alligator; a McGuffin?). Fajans manipulates forking poles that bear a dark image of Cunningham’s hand, and Vaughan holds a single one adorned with a matching foot, while the two sit and talk some more.
Scandrett’s lighting makes more frequent changes as the piece develops, and Joseph Wolfslau’s sound design becomes more insistent before dropping into silence; sometimes there’s sweet music. Bit by bit, sad news of Cunningham’s last days emerges, some of which I’d rather not know. After his final stroke, Fajans says, it was if he had “danced every last dollar out of his body.” He speaks, too, of his own father’s accidental death. But he also really lets go and dances, jumping as if he could go on doing it forever. He says things like “Practice becomes who you are.” Vaughan makes his fingers flutter, a bit as Cunningham used to do in his later dancing days,
Co. Venture is not a joint autobiography; it’s about these men’s shared adventures and what they learned from each other. And it’s poetic, despite its everyday dynamic. Best of all, they hold hands and, seated in their chairs, do a nifty little soft shoe number. Near the end, Fajans wheels in a covered object and whips the cover off to reveal a trolley on which sits hot water, coffee, and other stuff. So he makes coffee. They click their red cups together and drink up. Fajans sings and Vaughan sings quietly along.
How could you not laugh or smile at Vaughan’s occasional crisp, acerbic asides, and blot an occasional tear during this artful adventure in friendship?