Illustrator Maira Kalman Moving To The Stage With Choreographer John Heginbotham

Dec 25, 2017
Originally published on December 26, 2017 9:30 am

Kalman, who has designed many New Yorker covers, The Principles of Uncertainty, and contributed to the illustrated Elements of Style, is now collaborating on a stage work with choreographer John Heginbotham, formerly of the Mark Morris Dance Group. The piece is based on The Principles of Uncertainty, and is all about living while knowing you're going to die.

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Perhaps you've seen Maira Kalman's illustrations on the cover of The New Yorker magazine or in nearly 20 children's books that she also wrote. Or maybe you read her illustrated New York Times blog, "The Principles Of Uncertainty," which became an acclaimed book.

Well, this year, she stepped onto the stage for an ongoing collaboration with choreographer John Heginbotham based on her blog. New England Public Radio's Jill Kaufman reports that's all about living while knowing you're going to die.

JILL KAUFMAN, BYLINE: "The Principles Of Uncertainty" - the show - part dance, part theater - gets its inspiration from the highly-detailed intimate scenes in Maira Kalman's illustrations, and the inherent message comes from what she wrote to accompany them.

MAIRA KALMAN: That life is precious, precarious, funny, tragic and yet, we keep going on. And how do you live, basically.

KAUFMAN: The show premiered this summer at Jacob's Pillow. It features seven members of Dance Heginbotham, a quartet of musicians and Kalman herself is onstage, not for the first time.

JOHN HEGINBOTHAM: You know what? I encountered Maira as a performer when Isaac Mizrahi cast Maira as the duck in his production of "Peter And The Wolf," which I choreographed.

KAUFMAN: John Heginbotham first met Kalman when she was designing sets for the Mark Morris Dance Group. Heginbotham danced for more than a decade with the troupe. In her own work, Kalman paints and writes about strangers, loved ones, dogs, couches, doughnuts. She uses gouache - a watercolor - for her painting.

KALMAN: It's colorful and there's a lot of movement. I think it's actually something that I've always wanted to see come to life, and to have music and dancing, words, costumes. So all of it is really taking the pages and realizing them in the real world.

KAUFMAN: What Kalman and Heginbotham bring to life is a lot like what she portrays on the page, which is not necessarily linear. It's also very different from where they began, says the choreographer.

HEGINBOTHAM: We organically started creating vignettes. We were doing these little experiments. And quite well into our process, Maira suggested, what if this is "The Principles Of Uncertainty?"

And suddenly, everything clicked into place. All of these little experiments suddenly found a home because the structure of that book is so strong in which each chapter begins with a weather report - sometimes an absurd weather report.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Pompeii, August 24, 79 A.D. Hot and humid. Chance of showers.

KAUFMAN: The show begins with the end of everything - the eruption of Vesuvius. A Sicilian melody.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

KAUFMAN: For this scene, the set is sparse, except for the dancers and an old color TV playing a video loop of the volcanic eruption.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

KAUFMAN: Kalman designed the costumes. She stays seated on stage most of the time, drawing or writing on an iPad. Phrases like, what is dance, project behind her on a screen.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Commence the dancing.

KAUFMAN: Throughout the show, there are little guideposts - a wink and a nod from Kalman saying, I know, this life, it's a lot to take in.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How can I tell you everything that is in my heart? It is impossible to begin.

KAUFMAN: This passage from the beginning of the book is read almost at the end of the show. "The Principles Of Uncertainty" is the closest Kalman has come to writing a memoir. In the book, but not in the show, we learn that her husband - graphic artist Tibor Kalman - died of cancer at the age of 49.

KALMAN: The loss of Tibor was so monumental that I didn't think I would be able to survive. I mean, I literally thought that my life would end. And what is so extraordinary about living is that you find out that you do go on.

KAUFMAN: And Maira Kalman says she thinks her husband would be pleased with the work she's done. For NPR News, I'm Jill Kaufman.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language.)

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: A previous version of the headline incorrectly referred to Maira Kalman as Maira Kaufman. ] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.