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Spiegelman, from ‘Maus’ to movement

Dancers from Pilobolus rehearse 'Hapless Hooligan in 'Still Moving,'' a collaboration with cartoonist Art Spiegelman. Dancers from Pilobolus rehearse "Hapless Hooligan in 'Still Moving,'" a collaboration with cartoonist Art Spiegelman. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Correspondent / June 20, 2010

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WASHINGTON, Conn. — The bucolic roads that meander around this verdant little town in the Berkshire foothills can be baffling to a New Yorker. Art Spiegelman knows this from experience. Every time he drives up here from his home in Manhattan, about 90 miles south, he budgets an extra half-hour for getting lost.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist has been logging those miles intermittently for the last six months, bent on an unlikely enterprise. Long accustomed to solitary artistic pursuits, so enamored of his ever-present cigarettes that they’re a recurring motif in his work, the man who made “Maus’’ is now making a dance. With choreographer Michael Tracy and Pilobolus, the collaborative, playfully athletic company based here, he is creating a multimedia homage to early-20th-century cartoons, complete with cartoon story line. “Hapless Hooligan in ‘Still Moving’ ’’ will premiere Thursday through Saturday at Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center for the Arts.

Spiegelman, who initially shot down Pilobolus’s attempts to woo him into working with them, isn’t the only one who’s a little out of his element. All concerned are leaping into unfamiliar territory with the complex project’s combination of live dancers, shadows, and — here’s the tricky part — animated graphics projected onto a 20-foot screen. If the images are to make sense, the performers must move flawlessly in concert with them.

“They haven’t done this before, I haven’t done this before, and that’s why I’m just glad that they talked me into it, even if I have to change my name after it appears onstage and start life over under a cartoonists protection program,’’ Spiegelman says, standing in the portico of the rehearsal hall during a lunch break. When he’s indoors, attending to rehearsal, an unlit cigarette often dangles from his lip. Out here he can smoke, and so he does.

Courting the cartoonist
Pilobolus began courting the cartoonist about a year ago, undeterred by his indifference to dance.

“One thing that was really interesting was they just seemed a lot more upbeat and positive than me,’’ Spiegelman says, though the contrast is unsurprising to anyone familiar with the anxious, cataclysmic worldview he exhibits in books like “Breakdowns’’ and “In the Shadow of No Towers.’’ “So instead of sitting around talking about the end of the world and how everything’s a giant oil slick, we were going, ‘Oh, isn’t this beautiful.’ ’’ He thought, he says, “maybe they’d be a good influence.’’

First, however, he had a condition: “Maus,’’ his famed chronicle of his parents’ Holocaust experience — a magnet for adaptation offers, which Spiegelman has consistently refused since the first of the cartoon’s two volumes appeared in 1986 — would have nothing to do with the project. “The main thing I said was, ‘Whatever we do, it’s not gonna have cats, mice, and swastikas, OK? Otherwise I don’t want to be here.’ ’’

The subject matter they hit on, early comics, was an obvious one for Spiegelman, who is steeped in cartooning’s past. Several years ago, he ventured into music theater with avant-jazz composer Phillip Johnston, creating a piece about comic-book history, “Drawn to Death: A Three Panel Opera,’’ which they workshopped at Dartmouth, American Repertory Theater, and elsewhere.

“In the Shadow of No Towers,’’ Spiegelman’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath, incorporates his adaptations of various vintage cartoon characters. Among them is Hapless Hooligan, based on the title character of Frederick Burr Opper’s “Happy Hooligan’’ strip, which ran from 1900 to 1932. Largely forgotten now, the slapstick cartoon was hugely popular in its day and is a favorite of Spiegelman.

Set to music by Erik Satie, Tiny Parham, and others, “Hapless Hooligan in ‘Still Moving’ ’’ is about Hapless and his mate, Lulu. A dream version of the classic cartoon character Little Lulu, she gets into an ill-advised relationship with the brutish Dick Tracy-esque man next door. The 30-minute dance begins in comic-strip format, with the dancers interacting with projected graphics and the occasional speech bubble, and wends its way toward mythology as well.

“The scenario was a growth between two totally different dream lives,’’ Spiegelman says. “I have a totally different dream life than Michael. I’d sometimes be game to swap, but the creatures that exist in my head are not usually Pan, a sphinx, beautiful organic trees, Medusas, and mythological creatures,’’ all of which appear in the piece. “For me it’s more like old cartoon characters from 1915. ‘Happy Hooligan,’ that figures in my dream life, and ‘Dick Tracy’ figures big, so it’s a different planet of influence, and having them merge together was actually really hilarious to me.’’

Cigarettes are a comic motif in the piece (appropriate to the era, Spiegelman says, though the original Happy Hooligan didn’t smoke), and the cartoonist has fun with a brief homage to abstract animator Oskar Fischinger. Occasionally he gets out of the way and lets the dancers dance, but he has opinions about that as well. He asked that they include an apache, a dance that was popular in Paris in the 1920s and that he describes as “literally an SM version of a tango.’’

The seventh dancer
The comic-strip milieu also requires the dancers to move in a way that’s consistent with that world. “We’re trying to find a cartoon language for the dancing that matches the graphic language,’’ says Tracy, one of Pilobolus’s two artistic directors. “It’s a different language of movement for these guys.’’

It’s one they must master — whether they are dancing in front of the screen or behind it, casting their shadows — while coordinating their movements with the graphics.

“Animation is so locked in,’’ Spiegelman says. “It’s as if these six dancers had a seventh dancer, and the seventh dancer is an absolute idiot and can’t, like, adjust his movements to them, so they have to keep trying to keep that moron from looking as stupid as he is. And it’s really hard for them, because it’s so precise.’’

Such are the challenges when opposites attract. “We were approaching this incredibly complex multimedia experience from two different ends, with great skills but just slightly overlapping,’’ Tracy says. “It’s like a Venn diagram.’’

For example, Spiegelman has discovered that what he can easily make a figure do on paper is not always so simple in real life. And unlike drawings, human beings tend to be in motion.

“The reason this is called ‘Still Moving,’ ’’ he explains, “is ’cause there was a point about two days in when I was so unhappy, and Michael’s saying, ‘What can we do to make this a better experience for you?’ ‘I really don’t know, but my main problem is that these [expletive] dancers keep moving.’ It was like, ‘Can we just get ’em to hold still? Because then I can make pictures around them.’ ’’

And while Spiegelman is accustomed to telling stories, Pilobolus has a certain comfort with abstraction.

“Dance always struggles with narration,’’ Tracy says. “By its nature, dance is a, one might say, non-narrative form or medium. . . . As much as it struggles to tell details that can be written easily in words, it does have its own inner logic to it.’’

Spiegelman has said that comics, like poems, often require more than one reading. But he insists that the dance piece must have a clear and easily followed narrative. When, in rehearsal, he discovers that a character has ended up dead without having been killed first, he quickly sketches a gun to add to the visuals.

“They’re very nonlinear compared to us cartoonists,’’ he says wryly, referring to his collaborators. “For them, ‘OK, she screams, she’s dead, now we do the next thing.’ For me, there’s gotta be something that kills her if she’s gonna be dead. All visuals are there to carry meaning. That’s what comics do. It’s nice if the drawing can look nice, but it’s much more important that the drawing do its job.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes@gmail.com

Correction: Because of an editing error, photo credits for the images accompanying a story about Art Spiegelman and Pilobolus in yesterday’s Arts & Entertainment section misstated the photographer’s first name. He is Matthew Cavanaugh.

HAPLESS HOOLIGAN IN ‘STILL MOVING’

At: Hopkins Center for the Arts, Hanover, N.H., Thursday through Saturday. Sold out, but tickets may be released Thursday and Friday. 603-646-2422, www.hop.dartmouth.edu