It’s not exactly what you’d expect a retired 78-year-old lawyer to be doing — dancing in his former law offices on Chestnut Street to a text crafted by poet CAConrad.
But that’s exactly what Jonathan Stein has been up to the last week or so — after a 50-year career with Community Legal Services, the organization that focuses on legal aid for the poor.
Conrad has taken text from three celebrated Stein cases — one a unanimous Supreme Court victory in support of immigrants, one a victory over the worst of Frank Rizzo’s racist housing policies, the last a victory that brought income and medical assistance to disabled kids — and turned Stein loose.
The result is a lawyerly improv — 27 ONWARD: Dancing in the Revolution — which can be seen by the public beginning Friday at 3:30 p.m. at the CLS offices, 1425 Chestnut St. The half-hour daily performances over the next two weeks are part of the sprawling public performance project “Rehearsing Philadelphia,” presented by Drexel University and the Curtis School of Music and largely conceived by Berlin-based artist and composer Ari Benjamin Meyers.
» READ MORE: 5 performances to see at Rehearsing Philadelphia
A solo performance that’s part of something bigger
“Rehearsing Philadelphia” will deploy about 200 artists across multiple venues with a particular focus on sites of “power” — City Hall, the school district and police headquarters buildings, Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine — and the offices of CLS, which is more a point of powerlessness.
“I was contacted not very long ago, like six weeks or so,” Stein recalled. “‘Do you want to do this?’ I said, ‘Sure. I’m game.’ You know, what the hell? I had to wait 78 years for a solo. I’ve been part of larger groups. And I’ve actually been in about two dozen dance performances since ‘89. I started dancing publicly when I was age 45.”
CLS is hardly a power center, though.
“That was really meant to be a bit of a wry comment on the anti-power,” said Miriam Giguere, head of Drexel’s performing arts department. “CLS has a history of representing poor people in the city of Philadelphia who can’t afford other legal representation. So it was the anti-power voice in the equation.”
A unique project for a poet
Conrad, the poet, is among a number of other artists who have been teamed with non-artists for various performances — through solo dance appearances, duets, ensembles, and a full “public orchestra.”
He’s never worked with a dancer before.
“He’s amazing,” Conrad said of Stein. “At first I thought it was going to be a poem. But when I started looking at it I realized, ‘No, this is too important for me to just write however I want. This is a story, and I’m not used to telling stories. This is a life of Community Legal Services and also this one particular lawyer, Jonathan Stein, who is remarkable. His accomplishments for civil rights litigation is profound.”
Stein allowed that his performances each day over the next two weeks — while brief, about a half-hour — presented a grueling schedule. So he began training, à la Mick Jagger, to take his show, if not on the road, at least to CLS on Chestnut Street.
“So it’s a little scary for me because I have to memorize texts,” said Stein this week. “I have to create movement. There’s previews, dress rehearsal Thursday, opening Friday, and then 10 performances on the weekdays for the two weeks afterwards. And I hope I’ll be standing up at the end of it. But I did some serious training. I’ve been doing Pilates and yoga and working with weights and doing aerobics, and I still do contact improvisation, which is the postmodern dance form that got invented just in 1972 by Steve Paxton out at Oberlin.”
Conrad has let Stein speak for himself, using transcribed texts from the three cases. Stein’s movements are improvisational.
“This is an actual person’s life,” said Conrad. “This is something that changed the world that Jonathan has done. It’s changed millions of lives. And those three cases that I focus on are just part of it, of course, but … he’s completely changing lives. And the fact that he’s a dancer, I wanted him to have that come into play, because these are two things that have been two halves of his life. And I wanted to bring them together for this.
“You know, he’s 78 now,” Conrad continued. “Why not bring it together? Why not have him dance inside the space where he was changing all these lives as a lawyer? It’s wonderful to watch him do it. I mean, he just dives on the floor and rolls and springs to his feet. Like you can’t believe it. He’s 78 and he’s doing that.
“Rehearsing Philadelphia,” whether it’s a performance at City Hall or at CLS, was conceived in an egalitarian spirit.
Take the public orchestra — performing at the Cherry Street Pier April 8-10 — which has been put together in a nonhierarchical spirit; it even has a nonhierarchical “manifesto” to back it up: “The Public Orchestra strives to be as diverse in all aspects as the city it is in. A sonically diverse orchestra is a diverse orchestra. Membership into the orchestra is not based on skill but rather enthusiasm and commitment. Diversity across all demographics and heterogeneity representative of the host city are the guiding principles for the makeup and instrumentation of the orchestra.”
Mary Javian, chair of career studies at Curtis, said that “the point is not to just share our creativity, it’s to unlock other people’s creativity. That is what provides meaning in an experience.”
Creativity, she said, “is forced out of us in a lot of educational settings. And as artists, it’s our job to put it back in and to let other people experience it rather than just admiring our creativity.”
Performances for “Rehearsing Philadelphia” begin Friday and follow daily with solos and duets; ensemble pieces join the schedule on the weekend, and the public orchestra debuts the last weekend, beginning April 8.
Solo performances include commissions by Ei Arakawa, CAConrad, Germaine Ingram, Fred Schmidt-Arenales, and Yolanda Wisher. “Duet” is a city-wide version of “Duet” (2014) by Meyers. Ensemble performances include newly created and adapted works by Zoë Keating and Tyshawn Sorey.
The orchestra will be rehearsed by musical director Anthony Tidd, and will include commissions by Meyers, Ursula Rucker, Xenia Rubinos, Sun Ra Arkestra, and Ann Carlson.
It is essential to check the online version of the evolving schedule, which can be found at rehearsingphiladelphia.com.