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,
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
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
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.