Shelf Life

Shelf Life

Ralph Lemon’s Come Home Charley Patton


“My family began the black migration of Minneapolis,” writes the choreographer Ralph Lemon on the first page of his memoir Come Home Charley Patton (Wesleyan; $30). The clan originally came from Lancaster, South Carolina, which, Lemon points out, is still a segregated town: most of the blacks live on “Back Street” (now White Street), and most of the black men are in jail. Some of Lemon’s ancestors were able to pass for white, and did. Some were darker and had to sit at the back of the bus. Lemon, who was born in 1952, experienced racism during family trips to the South, but mostly learned about its deep history through conversations with older relatives, snippets of which appear in his new book.

As a young man, Lemon wanted to be a painter, but like the choreographer Paul Taylor, he discovered dance in college. After graduating, he trained with the modern dancer Nancy Hauser and joined her company, then moved to New York City, the mecca of postmodern dance. In 1985, he started his own company, working mostly with white performers, but a decade later he dissolved it in order to seek out a more personal way of making dances, less dependent on creating movement for a group of dancers in the studio and more on following his own wide-ranging musings. Over the course of a decade, from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, Lemon developed three pieces for the stage—Geography, Tree and Come Home Charley Patton—exploring his ideas about race, philosophy and identity. It is for this series (known collectively as the “Geography Trilogy”) that he is best known.

“How does one use, how can one use, how should one use a volatile historical fact as creative fodder?” Lemon asks. It’s a tricky question, and it has loomed large in his choreography. Onstage, Lemon’s materials are movement, words, and his own very personal, nonlinear way of presenting the issues that concern him: history and memory, race and philosophy, the body in motion, the act of performance itself. Through a lengthy process of writing and thinking, improvisation in the studio, and paring down over the course of numerous public workshop sessions, Lemon turns years of research into dance-theater meditations that only tangentially reveal their sources. Even after the initial performance, the process of research and distillation continues, with Lemon creating books filled with notes, reflections, lists, and cartoon-like drawings and watercolors, a kind of travelogue of his journey from the germ of an idea to its execution, from the vague to the concrete. Come Home Charley Patton is the third of these impressionistic memoir-cum-scrapbooks.

Charley Patton is perhaps the most intimate, as it deals very directly with the tormented subject of race and Lemon’s family history. It is named after a Delta bluesman, whom Lemon describes in Come Home as “more myth than real person,” a man who “married eight times and reportedly had his throat slit when he was forty-two.” His quest for the “environment of the Delta Blues” is just one way of dissecting the politics of race. Again and again, Lemon finds that it is white people who seem most attached to the history of this musical idiom. “Why is it that black folk aren’t the ones opening these blues museums that seem to be popping up everywhere?” he asks.

In the process of developing the dance-theater work Come Home Charley Patton, Lemon spent many months traveling through the South. One itinerary centered on the disappearing culture of the blues. In another, Lemon communed with the ghosts of lynching victims. At each stop he undertook “ritually structured events,” finding “confused and fleeting ways to make my presence known.” During a visit to the home of bluesman Fred McDowell’s cousin, Lemon performed his version of a “buck dance,” a cousin of tap-dancing and clogging, accompanied by a CD of McDowell’s “Going Down the River.” At the site of a multiple lynching in Duluth (which, he is careful to point out, is not in the South), Lemon staggered and fell repeatedly, re-enacting (sort of) the final moments of one of the lynched, Elias Clayton, while several drunks looked on, clearly confused. The reaction to these “events” seems to have been mostly befuddlement. Lemon doesn’t appear to be particularly interested in how others perceive what he does, nor does he dwell on detail, either in his work for the stage or on the page. This makes the reader’s job that much harder.

The book becomes more engaged, though, when Lemon begins to talk about his working process, the slow burn from research to performance. In the stage version of Come Home, Lemon performed a loose-limbed buck dance while being drenched by a man with a firehose. Again and again, he fell to the ground. The book delves into the complicated mechanics of making this happen—where do you get the hose? How wide should the nozzle be?—and the physical test it represented. Sometimes his dancer/collaborators tell stories, like Okwui Okpokwasili’s “sex story,” about her first sexual experience with a white boy, her neighbor. Sometimes, Lemon even surrenders to the seductive ambiguity of pure movement, as in the long sequences of spinning that he choreographed for Djédjé Djédjé Gervais, a collaborator from Côte d’Ivoire. Perhaps the movement is a metaphor, or maybe it’s just something too beautiful to waste. Who knows? Lemon writes that before one performance of Come Home, a small child asked a member of his company what it was about, to which he replied: “it’s kind of about being black in the South, in America, now and not so long ago, but it’s also kind of about being anyone anywhere anytime.” The book is like that, too.

In the issue of February 28, 2011, Marina Harss reviewed Jennifer Homans’s “beautifully written and deeply felt history of ballet,” Apollo’s Angels.

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