In quotes…in song and incantation: the art of the Cantor

Poetry, prayer, and song punctuate Peter Rose's narrative as he recounts his mental and artistic decline, ascent, and self-overcoming in L.A., N.Y., and Berlin. These other forms of expression do not interrupt the narrative, but subtly allow him to embody another identity or voice. The Rose who recites the Talmudic prayer, shawl thrown over his shoulders, is transfigured. Though intrinsically related to his own identity, the other figure is projected through the act of 'incantation'. I want to make the distinction between the speaker, storyteller or actor who quotes and 're-cites' a poem and Rose's means of returning a poetic or spiritual text to original expression. How does he do this? One aspect is movement. He doesn't 'stand and deliver'; he draws figures with his movement, dancing into life the character of the homeless bard and the inspired cantor. The narrator is a wandering figure who has different callings, nationalities, a shifting social standing, and speaks different languages: Yiddish, Polish, German, and English.

In Peter Rose's performances, the set is constructed and deconstructed continually: the dining room of a Polish Restaurant in NYC fluidly becomes a glass domed train station in Berlin. What are his materials for construction? A set is built by stage designers. They construct a setting within a setting. But in Peter Rose's work, place lies between narrative and movement; his gestures, his dance, and his body draw imaginary lines within the room, without a set. A set is too fixed.

photo: Dirk Michael Deckbar, © 2005

Rose hooks onto specific points and particularities of any given space. He also uses props: a wash basin, a stepladder, a red shawl, candles, old black leather shoes and water. A prop is a substitute for something else: another object or even a character. An object or a person can become a love object or the 'beloved' insofar as the lover is able to project his vision and see the object as representing that vision. Rose's 'love objects' are extremely dear because throughout the performance they lend themselves to different identities through transformation and rediscovery. The ladder is platform, ledge, or perch; if raised above the actor's head it becomes a roof; if held in front of his face it becomes a prison, to name just a few of its eventual transfigurations. The basin, the 'bottomless vessel', is also the beloved. Its wide open 'face' is large enough for the actor to lose his face within or to step inside. It can also be filled with water: Rose turns it into a sacred vessel into which to recite a blessing. In another scene he achieves a visually poetic moment by lighting flames within it, allowing the basin to glow with its own light. The vessel is both open and containing: it holds fire, light, and water: cleansing water, sacred water which can also spill on the ground when the basin is knocked over: the basin can be emptied.

We are transported from one symbolic or concrete place to another through song, dance, and dramatic narration - again, as fluidly as necessary, that we may see the whole array embodied by one all-embracing figure.

A story of a man's life is recounted in the wake of the set's unfolding and its necessary disappearance. The actor depends on the expressive capacity of his body, his voice, and his limited props to externalize these settings. His movements often challenge the defined perceptual envelopes of space that keep setting and consequently consciousness in a stable state. We keep wall as wall, floor as floor, and we respect the usual height established for sitting, the usual height for wainscoting to embrace a room: Rose turns these perceptual references on their head to achieve a full and open mechanism of expression. We are compelled by an assault on our senses to re-interpret perceptual markers as the scene evoked in the performance demands.

Poetic and religious languages operate with illusion or symbolic metaphor: both call forth forms that do not exist in the concrete material world but are nonetheless, for the length of the incantation, invested with palpable necessity even if it is inescapably ephemeral. The 'cantor's' charge is to evoke these forms in the fullest possible way, to allow himself to pass through, and with enough conviction that the existential / metaphysical questions contained within his words may emerge as concretely as possible. In Cleansing the Senses Rose often assumes this role of the 'cantor'. In this role he has the chance to throw light on both the delusional and the inspired aspects of autobiographical sequences because he, the cantor, the poet, the singing vagabond or raving madman, through incantation, brings to life a different point of reference. Finally it is the way that Rose performs and embodies these poetic texts that gives ground to them as living expression rather than quotation.

The capacity to invoke and express the extraordinary might be likened to the feats of any number of comic strip superheroes. Spiderman climbs walls. Not only does he bring to us a new perspective of space of our hometown metropolis, he also swings on a thread from scene to scene and space to space with an exhilarating speed and urgency. Peter Rose also climbs walls and redefines the usual boundaries of stage, audience and fixed identity.

Unlike the superheroes whose transgressions are necessary to highlight the battle between good and evil, Peter Rose's performances focus on a range of boundaries, both concrete and physical or metaphysical: The boundaries between rooftop and ground, being animal and being human, madness and sanity, bodily death, spiritual death and resurrection, gender and the transformation into its loving twin.

Peter Rose inhabits these states of being - walking the tightrope line "in between" - in actual or symbolic settings. Again we come back to Berlin's Bahnhof Zoo, to a circus tent, to New York's Lower East Side, and to the California coast and desert. I can easily complete the analogy between Peter Rose's performances and our Superhero Spiderman by saying that Rose's naturally tough spider's thread is the narrative itself. But this is not entirely true. The storyteller's voice carries our somnambulant selves but Peter Rose's movements are too daring for a sleepwalker.

The pointing, gesturing, and urgent sculpting of space as it spins out of one man's body follows from his expressed desire to "engage the actor's limitations and invite him to overcome himself."

Rose repeatedly confronts us with his hunger for ecstasy and encountering limits. In one of Berlin's main train stations, squatting beneath the station's glass dome, the actor is mesmerized by the doves flying in and out and especially by those that repeatedly shoot up towards the roof, hitting themselves against the dome's glass only to fall back to the ground. This poetic image and dramatic paradox is further articulated through the poetry of T.S. Eliot: "The dove descending breaks the air / With the flame of incandescent terror / Of which the tongues declare / The one discharge from sin and error / The only hope or else depair / Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre / to be redeemed from fire by fire." There is a subtle irony here: the artist has found both his artistic and cultural calling, his spiritual ground, but he is unable to ground either in his current context. Rose, the actor, still insists on performing his ecstatic dance, even if alone. With an even subtler irony, Rose, with his arms raised, sings a traditional Christian spiritual, dancing in a Yiddish and ecstatic style.

read on next page: The Provocative Beast