While I have long taken pleasure in the way Charles Bukowski’s poems and stories sing and dance across the page, I never imagined what it might mean to embrace them with actual song and dance. Luckily, songstress Ute Lemper and Company XIV choreographer Austin McCormick have in their respective pieces, Ute Lemper: The Bukowski Project and Lover. Muse. Mockingbird. Whore.
"There seems to be room in [Bukowski's] work that pairs well with music and movement," McCormick says. "It stands alone but can be complemented by other mediums."
In Lover. Muse. Mockingbird. Whore., McCormick puts dance to Bukowski’s prose, utilizing a culmination of the writer’s works about women. Lemper chose a different approach by singing Bukowski poems culled from three books: What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire, The Last Night of the Earth Poems and You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense. She edited the volumes down to 25 pieces and created songs straight from the text.
"I had 50 poems that had a rhythm and a pulse, and I knew I could structure them without changing, chopping or mutilating them," Lemper says. "It works really well, the poetry is so conversational, so unpretentious, it just flowed so wonderfully into a little urban, a little jazzy and a little rocky type of songs."
While both artists portray Bukowski in different mediums, they share a common theme of women. McCormick enlisted one to dance his entire piece while Lemper herself is a woman—still, their take on Bukowski’s femmes are poles apart.
"[Bukowski] was definitely someone who was filled with despair and disrespect toward woman," says Lemper, who didn’t want to focus on the author’s harsher work. "To have him being seen through the eyes of a woman is definitely a stretch and I am trying to do it as real as possible."
Widely known as a misogynist, Bukowski was unattractive and probably had a difficult time getting a date before he gained notoriety. That could also have something to do with the dark, brooding nature that "the laureate of American lowlife," as Time dubbed him in 1986, was known for. While not all of Bukowski’s prose about women is negative, he definitely has his archetypes.
Lemper’s interpretation of Bukowski’s work doesn’t focus on women alone. Many of the pieces she chose to use are more about his emotional state, like "Bluebird."
"I try to focus on the philosophical side," Lemper says. "He documents the farce of everyday life, the farce of relationships, and the farce of wasted time."
McCormick’s approach relies entirely on the subject of women, and he uses the four main models he observed in the poet’s writings: the lover, muse, mockingbird and, of course, the whore. The original piece presented itself in 2006 as one of McCormick’s senior projects at Juilliard, where it was shorter. Whereas the original featured multiple women, the full-length performance has only one woman, Laura Careless, a fellow Juilliard graduate who is also in Company XIV and danced in the original piece.
By producing this recital, McCormick really stepped out of his usual, Baroquetype fairy-tale kind of routines. Both he and Careless, who had never read Bukowski before, have pushed beyond the author’s stereotypical sexism and given Bukowski’s woman the flavor and soul that they see lay beyond his words.
"On the first reading you can think he is misogynistic and a little abusive," McCormick says. "But once you delve into his work, he is kind of a romantic at heart."
For Careless, deciphering Bukowski’s poems about women take her deeper into the writer’s words, to the point where he didn’t hate females, but more, he was complicated by his feelings and thoughts towards them.
"I struggled with the fact that he is a misogynist and I had to focus on bringing the women to life," she says.
The four women Careless portrays are based on the characters in Bukowski’s work: the redhead Bukowski fell in love with known as Scarlett, the girl in "I’m In Love," the "green antelope" in the piece "18 Cars Full of Men Thinking of What Could Have Been" and a reoccurring blond.
While Careless dances to poetry, Lemper says she will be speaking, acting and "crawling into the skin of Bukowski for an hour and half." Lemper is known for her voice and has performed the role of Velma Kelly in Chicago and Sally Bowles in Jérme Savary’s Paris production of Cabaret. A fan of Bukowski’s poems, she created this show a few years back during a literary festival in Milan.
"I was drawn to him because of the realism of his poetry," she says. "It’s like European singers, they tend to always look at the losers, never the winner, and treasure the failure and fragility of the artist rather more than most Americans do."
American or not, both shows display a softer, dare I say more feminine side to Bukowski, that isn’t often thought of. And, even 17 years after his death, Lemper and McCormick agree that he will always be in style.
"His stuff is classic in a very contemporary way," McCormick says. "And I think his work will always speak to artists who are creating."
>>Ute Lemper: The Bukowski Project Opens April 14, Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand St. (at Pitt St.), 212-598-0400; 8, $35.
>>Lover. Muse. MockingBird. Whore. Opens April 15, 303 Bond Street Theatre, 303 Bond St. (at Union Street), Brooklyn, (800) 838-3006; 8, $30.