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Jules Feiffer talks about his return to dance with a new children’s book

Photograph: Jules Feiffer
Rupert Can Dance by Jules Feiffer

In the dance world, Jules Feiffer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, is beloved for his exuberant character that appeared for years in the Village Voice: This female dancer, clad in black, represented the essence of modern dance in all its joy and solemnity. When he retired at the age of 71, so did she. Feiffer, now 86, has returned to the art form with Rupert Can Dance, a children’s book that tells the tale of the bond between a young girl and her shy dancing cat.

How did you discover dance?
In a sense, dance discovered me. After I got out of the army, I met a young Sarah Lawrence student majoring in dance at a bar, and she started taking me to dances in the village. I thought the commentary and forms that they worked in were wonderful and satiric, and I was addicted to it. There were a lot of middle-class young women who were talking about bleakness and despair and ruin and doing dances to illustrate all of that, and I thought, This is just wonderful! I’ve got to grab this. It became a wonderful exercise in doing movement and gesture over the years. So much of it was stationary characters just talking, talking, talking, and I loved to draw figures in motion. I didn’t have much of an excuse to do that, so the dancer became that excuse.

Did you sketch while you watched performances?
No. Just the way people move stays in my head. Inanimate objects or things or automobiles—I can’t draw anything that doesn’t move that isn’t a person. I don’t know what clothes look like. I don’t know what cars look like. In [Feiffer’s new graphic novel] Kill My Mother, I drew the first cars I’ve ever drawn in my life, and I drew the very first airplane I’ve ever drawn. To do that, I need photographs—and lots of them—in front of me, because I have no sense of what they really look like. I have no feeling for scenery. But people—I don’t need anyone to pose in front of me to draw a figure doing anything. I will need a photograph of the clothes they’re going to wear.

What about drawing animals, like Rupert?
[Laughs] Well, you know, with my children I’ve owned cats over the years, so I’ve seen them in all kinds of attitudes. It’s not so much the drawing of the cat, it’s the attitude of the cat, because cats are all attitude, and it’s an attitude that I adore. I just love the aloofness, the elitism, the sense of superiority and demand that cats exude—when dogs just want to be around you.

It’s so true.
And I’m drawn to both of them. I’ve lived with dogs and cats for a long time.

Do you have a cat now?
We have two cats in our house. My dog got run over by a car last year, so I don’t have a dog anymore. It’s a shame.

I’m so sorry!
I’m still suffering.

Do you know about Tanaquil Le Clercq’s book Mourka: The Autobiography of a Cat? She was married to George Balanchine; Mourka was their cat, and he used to teach it to dance.
[Laughs] No! I’ve never seen that.

It’s an amazing collection of photographs.
You mean somebody did dancing cats before me? I’ll sue.

Do you think you’ll write a sequel to Rupert Can Dance?
I’ve often thought of making sequels to some of these books. Particularly Bark George, which was a bestseller out of all my kid’s books and somehow or other it’s never turned out. They’re all one-shots. I don’t know why. But basically I’m not the one who runs the show here. I don’t decide anything. I just take orders from whatever it is in myself that tells me what to do. There were endless drafts of Rupert before my editor, Michael di Capua, decided that the book was ready to go. I must have showed him four different dummies and almost entirely different stories before he thought I really had it right. Essentially, it was always about Rupert and Mandy, but I had other characters and other cats in it and all sorts of things. Rupert had many transformations. At one time, he was a very fat cat. If you’re the writer and the illustrator, when you get around to drawing it, it’s like working in the theater and you audition actors and you throw something on paper and the cat looks at me and I look at the cat and I say, “Thank you, next please,” and I draw another one.

How is it that you can understand a dancer’s spirit?
I don’t have a clue. But I think early on in life as a kid during the Great Depression, I got bit by Fred Astaire whose effortlessness at a time where just surviving was an effort filled me with a spirit of optimism that helped me get going through all sorts of travails of one kind or another. The ordinary ones of growing up an adolescent and also connection to poverty in the time of those years. Somehow there was always a sense of ebullience because Astaire seemed to make everything that was difficult look easy and that became a symbol to me in the direction that I wanted to move in in terms of my work and in my life. To transform what was hard into a full place. And that’s what I do.

Did you ever dance yourself?
No. I wish I could, but I can barely move. As I get older, I can hardly move at all! [Laughs] After a couple of Chardonnays, I move much better.

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