Jada Griffin


Who is Ambrosia? A Surrealist Essay.

  Ambrosia hadn’t always been Ambrosia. She had come to America with her parents from Russia and had entered through Ellis Island in 1922. While traveling with a dance troupe in Los Angeles she met photographer Sasha Hammid who had found her exotic and become captivated by her face. She told him of her unhappiness with her name and had asked him to choose another for her. He went to mythology as a source and from then on Tsilia Cherkasky was know as Ambrosia - food of the gods from the Roman and Greek and thought to confer immortality. The name was a perfect fit because Ambrosia refused to accept that crossing of the threshold as an absolute passing into nothingness. She had even always considered that she could outrun death for she lived passionately in the moment. Her life became an act of poetry that she could not well describe in words. Instead, because of her excruciating sense of personal vulnerability, she had forced herself to become a dancer. A dancer not in the sense of classically trained ballet, but as an improviser moving in natural time that was in tune with the rhythms of the earth. Her dance was a perfect dance of no form because it was in constant motion and so contained all possible forms. Living as if she were on fire, Ambrosia could not ever sit still to the sound of beating drums. She loved to exhibit the exuberance of her body and believed in committing the flesh to a trance like ecstasy that was at once religious and sexual. Like a voodoo shaman, she could forget herself in the act of movement and become overtaken by a transcendent force larger than her particular being. She would dance with such connection and fearlessness that witnesses knew they had seen God.


Well built, Ambrosia wore her blouses with a deep cleavage. Lovers would give her sets of jewels made from polished agates and she was often seen wearing a pair of white ceramic earrings each shaped like the opened palm of a hand. Her heavy hips and powerful legs were well-suited to the long and voluminous peasant skirts she liked to wear. She had curly dark hair, which she would just let be and rarely cut, like a flower child, but long before the ‘60s. Ambrosia was the center of attention whenever she entered a room. You could see by the way she handled her body that she was possessed by rhythm even without sound.  Larger than life, she was a personage more than an individual. Archetypal, mythological, responding to the logics of love and inspiration more than a linear sequential thinker.


Ambrosia thought of herself as a creature of the sea. She had a large collection of shells and on the ceiling of her bedroom was an enigmatic painting of imaginary floating forms in an ocean of blue. She wanted to be freed from gravity and to move in 3-dimension like a water goddess. Often oblivious of danger, Ambrosia knew that every creative act could be cleansing. She would descend into it as if it were the deep and mystical waters of the Ganges in Varanasi.  After a particularly committed dance action she felt renewed by the process and would anticipate her next display with the desire of an addict.


I speak of Ambrosia in the past tense, not because I painted her first in the continuing series of women figures but, ironically, because she has left us before any of the others. Ambrosia knew that art, like love, is more than the essentials that we need for survival. Yet humans cannot very well survive without it. This truth was often so eloquently expressed in the stories of ancient cultures that she found so alluring.  For Ambrosia, dancing was like breathing or knowing a foreign language even, something she could not easily cease to experience.  “You may have an occupation, but I am a dancer,” she was often heard to say.  Dance was intrinsic to her very sense of self and she would not hesitate to perform bare-breasted with her arms raised like some topless Maja Vestida in action. One of her last stage performances was as a nude torso illuminated by special lighting against a black set and wearing only black stockings and a facemask. The dance had originally entered her when she had grabbed it by the tail as it was rushing past in a torrent of inspiration sent by some distant muse searching for a physical body in which to express itself.  She could perform it equally as well backwards as forwards like a film clip that could be played either way by the cameraperson.


Women in particular understood the spirit of Ambrosia’s communication and yet her avant-garde work was not always well funded by her public. Ambrosia could often not pay her rent and would go hungry; using what little money she might have to feed her beloved cats. Early on October 13th, 1961, Ambrosia was found in a coma on the floor of her Greenwich Village apartment by the man who was to be her fourth husband, Japanese composer Teiji Ito, some 18-years her junior. Ito had thought Ambrosia was playing a practical joke because it was a Friday, but later that evening Ambrosia was pronounced dead of a brain hemorrhage brought on by extreme malnutrition. At her memorial service a brass quintet played Hayden’s Trumpet Rondo, a composition that her lover later remembered she had wanted to be played for her wedding procession. Her ashes were scattered in Japan at Mount Fuji

Janice GriffinComment