The late dancer and artist Remy Charlip was known for his many contributions to the art world, whether writing and illustrating picture books, choreographing or performing avant-garde dance or founding a children’s theater group. Now he is the subject of another artist’s imagination, someone who learned from the master.
Seth Eisen, a Bay Area-based teacher, choreographer and chronicler of LGBT artists, has created “Rainbow Logic,” a performance piece that uses dance, video, music, dialogue, projected images and puppetry to tell Charlip’s story. Three actors portray scenes from his life, the people he encountered and his relationships with men. The piece, co-presented by the Contemporary Jewish Museum, has its world premiere Nov. 4-20 at CounterPulse in San Francisco.
“His way of seeing the world was very unusual and really nuanced, so I use the visual media to try and tell the story in the way he might have told it,” said Eisen, who considered him a mentor. Charlip died in 2012 in San Francisco, where he had lived for over 20 years.
According to Eisen, Charlip’s story is an important one among gay Jewish artists, whose stories, he believes, generally go untold.
“It’s a very fascinating story from the point of view of our history, and dance history, and theater history,” he said.
As Eisen began preparing the piece, he interviewed 30 people across the country about the late artist and studied his archives for a year before starting to write. He describes the finished work as being about “a queer Jewish kid who discovers himself and finds his family.”
Charlip was born Abraham Remy Charlip in Brooklyn, New York, in 1929 to Russian Jewish immigrants; his father was a house painter and his mother a grocer in their family store. He earned a fine arts degree from Cooper Union, studied dance at Juilliard and was a founding member of what became the Merce Cunningham Dance Co.
He got wide notice in the 1970s for his “Air Mail Dances,” an unconventional form of choreography in which Charlip drew poses and mailed them around the world to dancers and dance companies, who were left to interpret the ideas on their own.
In addition to his career in dance, Charlip was a prolific children’s author, publishing nearly 40 books, including “Fortunately” and “Thirteen.”
He suffered a stroke in 2005 from which he never fully recovered. During that time, Eisen helped Charlip organize his archives of work.
“I relate very much to him, that’s one of the reasons I chose him as my teacher,” Eisen said. “We both came from a visual arts background and then had a dance and theater background.”
Like Charlip, Eisen is the gay Jewish son of Eastern European immigrants. He was born in Philadelphia and Judaism was an important part of his upbringing. “We talked about God, we went to services, we were practicing Jews,” he said of his family.
He graduated from Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1989, going on to study theater and dance at Naropa University, a small liberal arts college in Boulder, Colorado.
After graduating in 1994, Eisen moved to the Bay Area to be close to his brother, who had cancer. He has remained ever since, starting out as a solo performer dancing Butoh, a Japanese style of dance known for its diverse range of motion. Later, he joined Circo Zero, a circus company, where he produced many performances.
In 2007, Eisen formed his production company Eye Zen Presents, focusing on LGBT artists and their history.
A central motif in “Rainbow Logic” — the title comes from the way Charlip meticulously organized his art and his life — is exploring the relationship between younger and older people in the gay community, particularly as it concerns preserving continuity from generation to generation. “Who really does carry on our legacy?” Eisen muses. He is answering that question himself by showcasing Charlip’s voluminous works and contributions to the art world. “Even with all the success he had,” he said, “he still remained largely unknown.”
“Rainbow Logic,” Nov. 4-20 at CounterPulse, 80 Turk St., S.F. $20-$35. www.eyezen.org