The free event at the Mondavi Center at 3 p.m. Sunday — “The Dancer Films Live Event” — is part concert, part cartoon, part dance performance and part family event. There’s a film angle, too.
To explain: Newspaper readers of a certain age may recall the weekly syndicated comic strip by Jules Feiffer, which tended to run in the newspaper’s literary supplement or the week in review, rather than on the funny pages.
A frequent character in Feiffer’s weekly cartoon was a female modern dancer, dressed in a unitard. The cartoons typically ran six or eight panels. The dancer was inspired by a girlfriend Feiffer knew in the 1950s who piqued the cartoonist’s interest in dance as an art form. The cartoon dancer’s leaping, long-haired, endlessly flexible figure (accompanied by a few well-chosen words) illuminated her pithy opinions from 1957, when she first appeared in the pages of The Village Voice, until 2000, when Feiffer retired after more than four decades of weekly deadlines.
And the dancer addressed any topic under the sun. Initially, she danced to topics like the changing seasons. As one Village Voice journalist put it, “Clad in the period uniform of black feetless tights and black leotard, she leapt from one improbable position to another while intoning an ode to summer (‘In this dance I symbolize the desire to escape … from all the inadequate pleasures’) or the end of summer (‘The solstice in its declension … and insect repellant, gathered in an organic unity’).”
In 2010, a decade after he gave up the weekly cartoon, Smithsonian Magazine asked Feiffer to explain the dancer’s long-running appeal.
“It’s hard to explain,” he said. “It’s a complicated question and I’m not sure how to answer it simply, but from the time I began my Village Voice cartoon in the ’50s, modern dance was taking off and I visited periodically that world and took in dance and had friends who were dancers. I saw the dancer as an ideal subject matter for the kind of comments I wanted to make and embodied in her all the ambivalent ambiguity, doubt, self-doubt, self-reproach and all those other feelings — neurotic and not neurotic, political and non-political.
“And also because she moved all the time she was leaping and arabesque-ing and doing this and doing that, as opposed to most of my figures who just stood and talked. So it was a lot more fun drawing her than it was my other characters.”
In 2010, a group of artistically minded admirers of the series decided to create “The Dancer Films” — a cluster of six very short films (about two minutes each) taken directly from Feiffer’s cartoons. Collaborators included Andrea Weber, a star of Merce Cunningham Dance Company; Jane Ira Bloom, a jazz musician; and Larry Keigwin and Susan Marshall, celebrated modern choreographers. Some scenes were shot in a studio, others in New York locations like the Brooklyn Bridge or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
For the Mondavi Center’s live, family-friendly event, the creative forces behind the films, including director Judy Dennis and producer Ellen Dennis, will bring the Dancer to life onstage in Jackson Hall. Audience members will have the chance to join the Dancer event on stage. Feiffer, now 83, had originally planned to attend, but will not be able to travel to Davis to participate.
Tickets to Sunday’s 3 p.m. performance in the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall are free, but seating is reserved. Tickets, without a handling charge, may be picked up in advance from the Mondavi Center box office or by calling 530-754-2787. A handling charge will apply when reservations are made online at www.mondaviarts.org.