December 2009, Rachel Rosenthal: TOHUBOHU!

Rachel Rosenthal's Performance Ensemble at Work in her Studio

SOLDIERS OF THE ZEITGEIST: Rachel Rosenthal’s Improvisational Performance Art Troupe

Here are some snapshots:

Two chairs are placed in front of a white fabric screen, a rectangular box centered between them. Balanced before each chair is a curved metallic shape that looks like half of a seamstress’s skirt form or perhaps a small Martin Puryear sculpture. A slit opens in the screen and a hand emerges, fingers grasping and shaking. Hovering there for a moment, it resembles a claw. Then an arm follows the hand; it is bent like the bones of a pterodactyl wing. The rest of a man’s body angles through the slit, unfolding onto the chair. Once seated, he thrusts both hands and feet through openings in the dressmaker structure and it begins to “read” as a cage. As soon as he settles into his confinement, another hand emerges through the slit, and then, slowly, another man. Seated in parallel cages, they stare ahead until one glances very tentatively at his companion in the metal prison. The other looks back. They erupt in clicks and squawks, sounds that accelerate into cacophony, then hush into silence. The one on the right shyly bends over and pecks a kiss on the other man’s head. Another peck. Another. Are they kisses? Or pecks? Affection? Or attacks? Are these men? Or birds? Or aliens? Darkness.

Another duo. A man and a woman are on stage with two folding chairs. They move through what can only be called a dance but has absolutely no recognizable dance movements. As they move, they lift the chairs and mirror each other’s active transformations of these common utilitarian objects into graceful dance partners. Then oversized crowns. Then threatening weapons. Then camouflaging walls. Then shields, barricades, armor, telescopes, cameras, masks. It is stunning innovation, all timed to the rhythms of waltz music. Darkness again.

A man rushes onto a stage, his face obscured by sequined veil, his hair hidden under flashing foil wands, his legs tottering in too-small high heels. He unwraps brilliant sari fabrics from around his torso and tosses them over the other performers. A Postmodern Mardi-Gras monster, he disrupts and transgresses with aplomb.

A woman hangs from the blue curtains that curve down from the tall ceiling. She wraps her legs in draped knots, climbs, then slides again to the floor. Her aerial contortions accompany a cowboy filmmaker, a flapper debutante who picks her teeth, and a blonde man who pulls several prosthetic feet out of his quilted pink pants. Darkness.

Now ten people lie on the floor, facing the far wall. The music rises and one of them begins a jerking roll. Another echoes his movements, then another, then—all of a sudden—all of them. One lifts an elbow, then another, then another. Now they are flying together on the ground. Now they are rising to a standing position. They move like a flock, like a gaggle, like a roiling wave. One of them distributes large envelopes to all the others. The envelopes become hymnals, then placards, then precious love letters clutched to the breast. And then the lights go out again.

These snapshots come from an afternoon workshop held on a Sunday afternoon in November, one of those impossibly sunny, clear days in Southern California. The workshop was for an improvisational performance art group known as TOHUBOHU! That Sunday it was comprised of ten of the members: Nathalie Broizat, Jarred Cairns, Doug Hammett, alexis hunt, Nehara Kalev, Josue Martinez, Craig Ng, Dan Poirier, Pamela Samuelson, Joan Spitler, and Mike Steckel. (Members Franc Baliton and Michael Morrissey were in Hawaii; member Kate Noonan was home with the flu.) The founder and director of TOHUBOHU! is the legendary Rachel Rosenthal. Seated in a chair on the audience risers in her studio theater, she directed, critiqued, and instructed as her troupe improvised its astonishing ephemeral art throughout the four-hour workshop.

TOHUBOHU! is the latest manifestation of the 83-year-old Rosenthal’s remarkable career as a performance artist. Physically compelling, verbally elegant, and spiritually resonant, Rosenthal’s performance art has inspired audiences for four decades. Now retired from the stage, Rosenthal directs TOHUBOHU! with an eye towards the scheduled launch in February 2010.

Rosenthal was born in France in 1926. Her father, an assimilated Russian Jew, was a successful pearl and gem merchant. The young girl grew up in a privileged environment, giving annual ballet recitals for over a hundred “high society” guests assembled in her parent’s Paris hme. When Hitler began his nightmarish march across Europe, the family fled to Portugal, then Brazil, then New York City, where the young Rosenthal studied at the High School of Music and Art. But she longed for Paris and spent the next eight years “improvising” a life that shuttled between the two artistic capitals.

While in Paris, she was part of the café life and remembers joining a group that included Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. “Everybody was in a circle, talking about existentialism.” Rosenthal also recalls that “Ionesco, Adamov, Artaud, Beckett were all very accessible. We are used to thinking of Picasso and Matisse as dead, but they were not dead when I was there.” Antonin Artaud--the poet/actor/surrealist/psychotic who ran the absurdist Alfred Jarry Theater from 1926-28 and wrote about the Theater of Cruelty in the 1930s—was to be an enduring influence on Rosenthal’s theatrical work.

While in New York, the young artist studied painting with Hans Hoffman and dance with Merce Cunningham. Her association with Cunningham led to creative connections with his partner, avant-garde composer John Cage, and, through them, with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Rosenthal and Johns had studios in the same Lower Manhattan building in the 1950s. Rauschenberg’s space was around the corner. Rosenthal, Johns, and Rauschenberg became close friends.

Rosenthal moved to California in 1955. She worked briefly in traditional theater, but it was never a “fit.” So she founded Instant Theater, a company that created what were being called Happenings: “improvised collages of images and text that drew upon techniques of invoked chance pioneered by her old mentor Cage.” She directed and acted in Instant Theater for ten years. That work, and her early exposure to feminist art, transformed her into a performance artist.

Her performance approach, as well as the influences of both Rauschenberg and Artaud, return in Rosenthal’s current work with TOHUBOHU! Like Rauschenberg’s combines from the late 1950s, TOHUBOHU! traffics in the art of bricolage. The company is composed of painters, dancers, aerial artists, bakers, and the young man who operates the Tyrannosaurus Rex model at the Natural History Museum. They collect the detritus of popular culture: everything from broken telephones and old bathrobes to bent birdcages and plastic trees appeared on stage during that afternoon workshop. They stir in recorded music of every genre as well as taped spoken word. (Was that William Burroughs I heard declaiming one of his Manhattan poems?) Then they add live music, vocalization, and song. They compose sets of boxes and flats and folding chairs. And then they learn from their mentor how to structure all of these diverse elements into a resonant and conceptually significant art form.

Much of what has been said of Antonin Artaud’s revolutionary proposals for theater can also be said of Rosenthal’s TOHUBOHU! Like Artaud, TOHUBOHU! produces “mythic spectacles” that include “verbal incantations, groans and screams, pulsating lighting effects, and oversized stage puppets and props.” Also like Artaud, Rosenthal’s improvisational group endeavors to “connect people with something more primal, honest and true within themselves, something that has been lost for most people.”

Rosenthal’s TOHUBOHU! may be the actualization of the best of Artaud’s intentions. Surely anyone who witnesses the improvised creation of this unique ephemeral art will indeed be connected with something deep and true within themselves.


Betty Ann Brown

Betty Ann Brown is an art historian, critic, and curator. She received her Ph.D. in the History of Art in 1978 and joined the CSUN faculty in 1986. Brown has curated retrospective exhibitions for Hans Burkhardt, Roland Reiss, Linda Vallejo, June Wayne, and John White, as well as numerous themed exhibitions, including Time, Space & Matter: Five Installations Exploring Natural Phenomena (Lita Albuquerque, Suvan Geer, George Geyer, Mineko Grimmer, Tom McMillan, and Christine Nguyen) and Fantastic Feminist Figuration (Jodi Bonassi, Bibi Davidson, Enzia Farrell, Laura Larson, Dierdre Sullivan-Beeman, Tslil Tsemet, and Lauren YS.)

view all articles from this author