The walls of the Washington Project for the Arts may still be resonating to the droll offbeat vibrations of dancer-choreographer Mitchell Rose's performance there last April. Now the gifted young man and his partner Martha Bowers are back with the presentation they call "The Primal Oom-Pah-Pah," which opened a threenight stand at WPA last night.
Shorn of the beard he wore last time, the slight, mustachioed Rose still has something of the wild-eyed look of Ernie Kovacs, one of the comic spirits his dance creations often seem to evoke. Preparing for a tech rehearsal the other day, he talked about "how he got that way." It turns out his life has been as oddball -- and intriguing -- as his work.
Born and raised in the Boston area, the son of a judge, Rose attended Tufts University, where he switched from a major in electrical engineering to dance. "I graduated as the first dance major at Tufts," he says, "and I think I might have been the last."
As a kid, he had "the usual piano lessons," and also taught himself the guitar and a few other folk instruments. But science had been his first love. "My entire life's ambition was to go to MIT," he recalls. "I don't know exactly how it got into my programming, but at 3 years old I was wearing MIT T-shirts. My brother, who's seven years older, went there and I guess he was sort of a role model. But though I had excellent grades, I didn't get in. I was crushed; I even went to the director of admissions and started a big argument with him."
Then, at Tufts, he came into contact with an inspiring dance teacher, Griselda White, and it was his turning point.
"I'm not even sure why I took dance. But I needed a phys. ed. credit, and I had a friend who'd taken Griselda's class and liked it. The first course I took was choreography. There I was doing choreography before I knew what it was -- June Taylor was my only association with the word. I had never seen a dance performance of any kind."
Spurred by instructor White and his fellow dance students ("outside of Griselda's classes there was so little for us at Tufts we ended up teaching each other"), Rose switched his major and began attending dance concerts ("I was naive; I liked everything I saw") Classes were held in the basement of a women's gym, with a linoleum floor. "The ceiling was 8-foot; we didn't do too many lifts, because people could get killed."
Rose moved on to Ohio State as a teaching associate because "I wasn't ready to go out into the world yet." But, disenchanted with Columbus and the program there, he left after three months and moved to New York, where he got a scholarship with Alwin Nikolais.
"The scholarship was mopping the floors every day at 8 a.m. -- it was slave labor, and it didn't leave me any slave labor, and it didn't leave me any time for my own choreography," Rose says. "But I became a Nik demagogue. a fanatic, and went around calling everything else bad dance, or not dance at all. I like his theories; they were very scientific. But after a year and a half I began to find it very limited. It was fun, but the same cliches all the time, and a whole studio of people trying to be Murray Louis."
Rose then studied with Merce Cunningham and Viola Farber, while working as an office boy ("I did filing; I was a vegetable"). Then he began to find sympathetic young dancers to work with, and "that's when I started the concert-a-year routine." A CETA grant a year ago put him on more solid footing, but it runs a maximum of 18 months.
"After that I'll have to begin scratching again. I don't like living in New York. I mean, now that they have Haagen-Dazs ice cream other places, a person can live anywhere, right? I'd just like to go someplace where I'd have an opportunity to dance and choreograph."
Rose's choreography, which often involves an ingenious use of props, begins with an imaginative kernel. "Usually I just get an image, spontaneously -- I'm not even thinking about dance, but I'll hear a piece of music or something and I get this image. The dance sort of grows out from it backward and forward. It's like I'm seeing a stop-action frame in a film, and as a choreographer, I'm just trying to get the action started again."
A recent new work is a solo for a woman to a Brahms piano trio, "in a style that's a cross between Red Chinese ballet -- she's got a rifle -- and '40s modern dance."
Rose also considers himself something of a "student of humor"; Woody Allen, Monty Python, Steve Martin and Gilbert & Sullivan are among his favorites. "If I had a choice of anything in the world to do, I'd like to be a director of Warner Bros. cartoons. That's my highest art form -- animation, it's a totally unlimited field. Short of that, I'd like to have a selfsufficient dance company that could tour and perform -- just like the real choreographers do."