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Rockaby, a documentary film by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, shares with the viewers the rehearsal process and the first performance of a new play by Samuel Beckett written expressly for an event celebrating the author’s 75th birthday.
The world premiere of Rockaby (the play) took place during a two-day celebration on the campus of the State University at Buffalo in April of 1981, and was produced by University-Wide Programs in the Arts with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation.
The film features Billie Whitelaw, a consummate interpreter of Beckett’s dramatic works, and Alan Schneider, the director. Schneider is credited with directing all of the U.S. premieres of Beckett’s play from the mid-1950’s until 1984. The play, produced on behalf of University-Wide Programs in the Arts by Daniel Labeille, went on to be performed at the La Mama Experimental Theatre in New York, the State University of New York at Purchase, the Cottesloe/National Theatre/London, and was then commercially presented for several months at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Theater Row, NYC.
Pennebaker and Hegedus follow the artistic team to London for rehearsals, observing and recording as Whitelaw and Schneider explore in detail what they hope to bring to audiences in interpreting this brief and haunting play. The filmmakers then continue onto Buffalo filming the celebration, technical rehearsals and, finally, the world premiere.
Samuel Beckett (April 13, 1906 – December 22, 1989) was an Irish novelist, playwright, theatre director, and poet. He is famous for plays such as Waiting for Godot, and was considered to be one of the last modernist writers and a key figure in the “Theatre of the Absurd.” In 1969, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, though he declined accepting it personally to avoid making a speech at the ceremonies. However, he should not be considered a recluse. He often times met with other artists, scholars and admirers to talk about his work. His later works included poetry and short story collections and novellas. Samuel Beckett continued to write throughout the 1970s and 80s mostly in a small house outside Paris. There he could give total dedication to his art, evading publicity.
Merce Cunningham, Barbara Lloyd Dilley, Albert Reid, RainForest. Photo by Oscar Bailey 1968. Image courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Trust, all rights reserved
Choreography: Merce Cunningham
Music: David Tudor, Rainforest
Set: Andy Warhol, Silver Clouds
Costumes: Jasper Johns
Lighting: Beverly Emmons
Dancers: Carolyn Brown, Merce Cunningham, Barbard Lloyd, Sandra Neels, Albert Reid, and Gus Solomons jr.
RainForest was first performed by Merce Cunningham and Dance Company on March 9, 1968 in Buffalo New York, as part of the Second Buffalo Festival of the Arts Today. The documentary film by D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock captured this premiere performance. This film is the only existing record of a performance of RainForest by the complete original cast.
Merce Cunningham (April 16, 1919-July 26, 2009) is widely considered to be one of the most important choreographers of all time. His approach to performance was groundbreaking in its ideological simplicity and physical complexity: he applied the idea that “a thing is just that thing” to choreography, embracing the notion that “if the dancer dances, everything is there.”
Across his 70-year career, Cunningham proposed a number of radical innovations to how movement and choreography are understood, and sought to find new ways to integrate technology and dance. With long-term collaborations with artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Charles Atlas, and Elliot Caplan, Cunningham’s sphere of influence also extended deep into the visual arts world.
D.A. (Donn Alan) Pennebaker was born in Evanston, Illinois on July 15, 1925, the only child of John Paul and Lucille Pennebaker. He attended Yale University, interrupting his studies to serve in the naval air corps during the Second World War, then graduated with a degree in engineering in 1947. Soon after, a friendship with filmmaker Francis Thompson initially led Pennebaker to try his hand at making films. His first effort was Daybreak Express, a five-minute film of an elevated subway ride through New York in early dawn, set to the music of Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train”.
In the late 1950’s, Pennebaker joined Drew Associates, which made films for the ABC News and the Time-Life series “Living Camera”. While working there, Pennebaker, together with British filmmaker Richard Leacock, developed one of the first hand-held synchronous-sound cameras, allowing them to get closer to their subjects and film action unobtrusively. In the early 1960’s, they made the film Jane, documenting Jane Fonda’s Broadway debut; Primary, a film on the presidential primary run between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey; and Crisis, a film about the confrontation between Robert Kennedy and Alabama governor George Wallace over school desegregation.
In 1965, Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan’s manager, invited Pennebaker to shoot film of Dylan in his first UK concert tour. Don’t Look Back, the record of that tour, is now a hallmark of music documentary making. In 1967, Pennebaker and friends filmed a three-day music festival at Monterey, CA, using six cameras synchronized for sound to one tape recorder, thereby allowing the cameras to move, independent from the recorder, through the festival throng and on stage, capturing high-quality sound and image from concert performances by the Mamas and the Papas, The Who, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, and others in a film entitled Monterey Pop. In 2018, this film was one of twenty-five added to the Smithsonian’s National Film Registry of America’s most influential films.
In 1970, Pennebaker released Company: Original Cast Album, a documentary on the recording of a new Stephen Sondheim musical. In 1971, he filmed a debate on feminism held at Town Hall in New York that included Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, Diana Trilling, and Norman Mailer. The footage of that film remained unedited until 1976, when a young art and film graduate, Chris Hegedus, came to work for Pennebaker. She edited and helped complete the film entitled Town Bloody Hall. Hegedus went on to collaborate with Pennebaker, recording sound and co-directing and editing many films, among which are The Energy War (1978), DeLorean (1981), Rockaby (1981), Depeche Mode 101 (1989), The War Room (1993), nominated for an Academy Award as best full-length documentary, Moon Over Broadway (1998), Only the Strong Survive (2002), Elaine Stritch at Liberty (2004), Kings of Pastry (2009), Unlocking the Cage (2016).
In 1992, Pennebaker received an Honorary Oscar for his lifetime body of work.
He died unexpectedly on August 1, 2019, two weeks after celebrating his 94th birthday, surrounded by family. His wife, Chris, whom he married in 1982, survives him, together with their two children and six children from two previous marriages.
Daniel Labeille served on the faculty and administration of Auburn/Cayuga Community College where he founded the Theatre and Television/Radio Departments and directed productions. He recently directed Harold Pinter’s Betrayal for Auburn Public Theater. He was directly involved in the production of Samuel Beckett’s play Rockaby, the subject of one of the films screened at this special event.
Patricia Lent was a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (1984-1993) and White Oak Dance Project (1994-1996). She later taught elementary school at P.S. 234 in Lower Manhattan (1998-2007). In 2009, Lent was named a trustee of the Merce Cunningham Trust, and currently serves as the Trust’s Director of Licensing. Lent began teaching technique and repertory workshops at the Merce Cunningham Studio in the late 1980s. In recent years, she has staged Cunningham’s work for numerous companies, conservatories, schools, and museums worldwide.