About a year ago, Pilobolus, the renowned dance troupe that arrives at New York’s Joyce Theater next week, contacted Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist of the Holocaust-themed book “Maus.” The troupe’s members wanted Spiegelman to make a dance with them, and were even willing to give him creative carte-blanche. No questions asked.
“I said, ‘I don’t collaborate,’” said Spiegelman, 62, in a recent phone interview. “They said, ‘Well, this would be for a dance.’ I said, ‘I don’t dance.’”
It was a rough start. But Pilobolus choreographer Michael Tracy, who has been with the company since its founding 39 years ago, persevered.
“[Pilobolus has] been together for so long that we’ve started to reach outside of our own borders,” Tracy said, noting that the troupe has collaborated with non-dance world artists like Steven Banks of “SpongeBob SquarePants” and Maurice Sendak, both of whom are illustrators too. “We really look for great storytellers,” Tracy said, “and Art is one of the greatest.”
So Tracy invited Spiegelman to the Pilobolus studios in Connecticut last fall, hoping he’d re-consider. Spiegelman was open to the idea and made a few visits to decide if he’d commit. But “there was one condition,” Spiegelman said. “That it didn’t have swastikas or mice in it.”
Ever since winning the Pulitzer in 1992 for “Maus,” a two-volume graphic novel whose first part appeared in 1986, the book has defined his career. Spiegelman used recorded conversations with his father, Vladek, a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz, to tell a Holocaust story in a medium that few thought possible—a comic book. The idea seems unnerving still.
Spiegelman has since made other work; he is a regular artist for The New Yorker, for instance, and continues to produce children’s books with his wife, Franciose Mouly, the art director of that magazine. But “Maus” still hovers over his entire oeuvre. His only other book-length graphic novel since “Maus II” (1992) is “In the Shadow of No Towers,” (2004) a memoir of life after Sept. 11, which makes more than a few references to the Holocaust.
And currently in the works is “Meta Maus,” a 25th-anniversary behind-the-scenes account of the making of “Maus,” to be published next year. “If I wasn’t lost in Pilobolus land,” Spiegelman said, “I’d probably be farther along” with that project.
Spiegelman’s new dance, titled “Hapless Hooligan in ‘Still Moving’,” is a half-hour noir-ish love story based on two of Spiegelman’s favorite comic strip characters. The main character is based on Happy Hooligan, one of the earliest comic strip characters ever created, in 1900, by the cartoonist Frederick Burr Opper. Much like Charlie Chaplin, Hooligan is a naïvely optimistic tramp for whom the odds are constantly stacked.
In the dance, Happy — changed to “Hapless” by the famously morose Spiegelman — falls in love with Lulu, a character inspired by the mid-century comic book character Little Lulu. She’s the smart but mischievous type who unfailingly gets herself into trouble. Yet somehow she always manages, with her wits, to find a way out.
Of course, Spiegelman liberally re-interprets these characters, finding a way to kill them half-way through the show. So for the second half of the dance, they appear only as ghosts.
“It’s a meditation on life, death and smoking,” Spiegelman said. He added that while Hapless Hooligan isn’t necessarily Jewish (if anything, Spiegelman said he’s more likely Irish, as was Opper’s original), he is a sort of alter ego of himself.
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And what kind of Jew is he?
“I’ve got the diaspora shakes,” Spiegelman said, referring to his unyielding anxiety. He added that his Jewish identity is less a matter of observance or institutional affiliation—on those scores, he admits that he’s lacking — than one of mentality. “I’m sorry I can’t be more specific about my Jewishness,” he said, “but I guess it just permeates my whole character.”
Of course, his parent’s experience in the Holocaust left a significant impact on his identity. His father, his biological mother, who later committed suicide, and his father’s second wife were all Holocaust survivors. For that reason, he says, “My main relation to my Jewishness has something to do with people who say, ‘Oh, they kill you for such things.’”
No matter the reception of “Hapless Hooligan” when it opens on July 12, it should not be forgotten how difficult — at times, doomed — the project seemed during its making. “There were definitely moments when [Spiegelman] was like, ‘OK, I’m done,’” said Pilobolus dancer Jun Kuribayashi, who plays Hapless.
Spiegelman also had difficulty conceiving a story for a dance company. He was not used to working with three-dimensional characters — that is, live human beings — whose essential mode of communication was through movement, not dialogue or thought-bubbles. “We’re 3-D and he works in 2-D,” said Kuribayashi. “He was kind of overwhelmed.”
The dilemma was solved when a company member suggested that the dancers get behind a giant, 20-by-20 foot scrim. When their bodies were cast only as shadows, Spiegelman could visualize them in a way he was used to: as flat comic strip characters on a page.
Tracy then enlisted the help of two animators, Dan Abdo and Jason Patterson, who helped Spiegelman draw directly onto the scrim in real-time, using an iPad-like digital tablet. The dancers and Tracy would then create dance steps one movement at a time as Spiegelman scribbled onto the screen behind them, live. In parts of the dance they appear only as shadows behind the screen, while in others, they dance in front of the screen.
“He could draw these bright yellow flowers that the dancers could then throw,” said Tracy. “It was almost as if his cartoons were coming alive.”
Spiegelman also seemed content with the results, and even became something of a dance convert in the process. “It involves so much understood precision,” he said. “It was a lot larger project than I had expected.”
Pilobolus’ season at The Joyce Theater runs from July 12 through Aug. 7. Spiegelman’s “Hapless Hooligan in ‘Still Moving’” appears only on select dates. Tickets range from $35 to $59. Call (212) 242-0800 for more information.