FlyOver: June 2009 Archives
Cats: Philip Bimstein, the composer, wrote a piece called Cats in the Kitchen. It was performed during the Music in Time series. It calls for oboe and flute to play along with prepared soundtrack that featured the sound of cats meowing and purring. Meanwhile, Kassys, the Dutch theater collective, parodies in Good Cop Bad Cop the unreality of reality television by imitating cats (and one dog) on stage with projections of the same characters (as people) in video interviews behind them.
Stomping and Clapping: Todd Palmer, the clarinetist, arranged Aaron Copland "Hoedown" for flute, clarinet, two violins, viola, cello, and piano. The piece called for lots of stomping and clapping that raised the excitement level, especially when pianist Stephen Prutsman raised and thwapped his shoes to the floor in appropriately operatic fashion. Meanwhile, Noche Flamenca, the Spanish dance troupe, makes its living stomping and clapping. Those lie at the heart of flamenco, the people's dance.
Popping and Locking: Japanese dancer Hiroaki Umeda combined styles of street dance with light and sound technology to create an entire environment that either engaged you or didn't, depending on your sensibility, I think. Much of his dancing was of the popping and locking sort, but better -- elegant, seamless, and poetic. Meanwhile, the American premiere of Don John by Cornwall's Kneehigh Theatre features a goofy tangent in which a schlubby, lovable and, in the end, courageous character by the name of Allen electrocutes himself twice (he's preparing for his wedding with the Polish beauty Zerlina; she's an 8 while he's more like a 3). With lightning in his veins, Allen proceeds to entertain the audience with a comic break-dancing sequence with his own version of popping and locking.
Dead people: Both fictional and real. Don John, the ultimate womanizer, meets his match when confronted by the dead father of one of the women he ravages. Actually, Don meets him in the middle of a drug-fueled psychosis and anyway, the point is that that's the end of Don John. Over at Story of a Rabbit, Hugh Hughes wraps the story of his dad dying into a story about a rabbit dying, and then all that into a story about the process of telling a story. It's all a lot funnier than it sounds. Meanwhile, the real dead people came into play with the 50th anniversary of Alvin Ailey's dance company. There was a video tribute to the American icon prior to the troupe's stellar performance in the beginning of the festival. Peter Lorre, the classic Hollywood actor, was revived for Addicted to Bad Ideas by the World/Inferno Friendship Society. Another real dead person coming to the fore was Gian Carlo Menotti. Mayor Joe Riley made a big deal about Charles Wadsworth, who's retiring this year, sticking with Charleston after Menotti, in a fit of rage over the role of his lover-son, pressured everyone involved in the American festival to defect to the Italian one. Tim Page, the overview critic for The Post and Courier, rightly noted that Menotti wasn't much good for anything in later years and probably did us a favor when he left.
Distractions: The pianist Stephen Prutsman has stopped playing at least three times due to noisy interruptions. Two of those were cell phones. To be fair, the other was just a squeaky chair, but to him, it must have sounded like a cell phone. Meanwhile, the opening of Dogugaeshi suffered from poor seating design. The festival built an ad-hoc black box at Exhibition Hall at the Gaillard and had set it up to be long and narrow, with the puppet theater at one of the narrow ends of the rectangle. That made it hard to see from the get-go. Moreover, the festival had also arranged two rows of chair per riser, each of which differed maybe by a couple of inches in height. Kindly ushers scrambled to find ways to help people see better, eventually coming on the idea of pillows to boast people up off their chairs. All has been remedied, I'm told. Then over at Beverly "Guitar" Watkins' blues concert, word has it her Telecaster took a shit that night, which explains why her performance was ungodly short. That and the sound guy never figured things out. The poor trombonist was blasting his brains out. Finally, Florin Niculescu's performance didn't get rained out thanks to quick thinking by festival organizers to move it to Charleston Music Hall. Unfortunately, if you were sitting on the orchestral level on the right side, you could hear everything over at Coast, too.
Video: It's getting rarer that the performing arts don't include video now. The Ailey company used it to pay tribute to its founder. Story of a Rabbit used video, as did the dancer Hiroaki Umeda, Addicted to Bad Ideas, Dogugaeshi, and Good Cop, Bad Cop. This counts under moving images but not video per se: Pianist Ramberto Ciammarughi did a recital that evoked the great Hollywood soundtracks featuring Hollywood's great but unheralded concert pianists.
Barnyard animals: I already mentioned cats and dogs, but there's more. Obviously, Story of a Rabbit counts. But so does Deuce Theatre's political satire The Emperor Is Naked? a fictional land peopled not with people but with "sheeple." Composer Philip Bimstein's piece called Garland Hersey's Cows uses various recorded sounds of cows doing cow things. You'd be surprised how cool-sounding harmonized moos are. Dogugaeshi features mostly beautiful slides to tell the story of the art form, but it also features a beautiful silver-maned, golden-toothed fox.
Trash: One of the "cats" in Good Cop Bad Cop gets stuck in a trash bag. It's hilarious and nearly worth the price of a ticket (nearly worth it; fortunately, there's much more). Meanwhile, a turning point in Don John occurs when one of his conquests, drunk and essentially out of her mind, finds a revolver in a trash bag. And finally, the last trash reference comes from a headliner writer for The Post and Courier who thought "'Don John,' brash; 'Rabbit' trash" would be clever atop mixed reviews of both Don John and Story of a Rabbit by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Tim Page. There's a special place in Hell for headliner writers like that.
Untethered writers: 2008-2009 has been brutal to media people who covered Spoleto for years and years. I have met journalists and critics who used to represent venerable newspapers like The Post and Courier, The State in Columbia, and the Charlotte Observer, but who are now flying solo. If you Google "Spoleto Festival USA" in the news section, you'll find mostly articles in The Post and Courier (done by stringers, mostly) and City Paper (which were also written by freelancers, but not mostly). The times they are a-changing.
Originally published in Charleston City Paper
Reality TV isn't really real. Maybe you've noticed. It's more like an enormous vetting process that demands, if not humiliation, then a deep and abiding display of humility before the eyes of God, America, and Simon Cowell.
If you can endure that, and game the rules a bit, too, you might be a star.
Ironically, those rules can have little to do with the task at hand. Judges for So You Think You Can Dance, for instance, have shown less interest in a contestant's dancing ability than in his or her willingness to mug and preen and be subjected to all manner of invasive interrogation: Show us your dirty laundry or pay the price.
This was brought into sharp relief in 2007 when Danny Tidwell, an elite dancer and former member of New York's American Ballet Theater, was ridiculed by judges for appearing to be, as he awaited their decision, "God's gift to the world." He flew in the face of television storytelling convention -- arrogance is always a thin veil for deep-seated insecurity. If you don't show your true self -- the self that is ostensibly, in Tidwell's case, a vulnerable little boy -- you're not being true to yourself or to the rest of America.
And that, my friend, is bad TV.
Such is the power of television that it makes even elite dancers like Tidwell behave in ways inconceivable before his appearance on the show. And it's this power to manipulate people into pretending to be something they are not that fascinates Liesbeth Gritter.
Gritter is a founding member of Kassys, a Dutch theater company based in Amsterdam. She and partner Mette van der Sijs are making their American debut during Spoleto with the premiere of Good Cop Bad Cop.
They travel around the world creating abstract works for the stage, using live acting and lots of film to exploit the bizarro world between the authentic self and the invented self.
Their production, called Good Cop Bad Cop, was inspired by reality TV, which, while commonplace in the U.S., is still somewhat novel in the Netherlands. Gritter, being relatively new to its perverse appetite for humiliating otherwise proud individuals, believes TV encourages fear of being normal. Good Cop Bad Cop therefore examines what ordinary people do in extraordinary situations, like a reality TV show.
"People are asked all the time to comment in news stories about things
they know nothing about," Gritter says. "But because they are on TV,
they feel compelled to talk about something, even when what they are
saying is actually saying nothing at all."
When Ezra Pound said, "Make it new," he was urging modernist artists, mostly poets, to find value in the past from the point of view of the present. Orchestras and dance companies have done just that, but over time, they eventually inverted Pound's edict, as if saying to living composers and choreographers, the oldies are the real goodies.
So orchestras and dance companies have become, over the past half century, more like cover bands. All method and technique, but little creative spark. Why dick around with the new and convince your donors to give it a try, when you can offer Beethoven and Brahms? And The Nutcracker? Don't even think of it. Those tutus are here to stay.
Benoit-Swan Pouffer understands how art sometimes becomes a sacred cow. The artistic director of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, which performs for the first time at this year's Spoleto Festival, is keenly aware of stagnation.
"Our mission is to bring attention to new work by international
choreographers," Pouffer says from Switzerland. "We try to make a
comprehensive environment for them to work. They are all different, and
the dancers are all eclectic, and, somehow, it all works."
OK, so he has a face like Clive Owen. OK, so he has a physique like Matthew McConaughey. OK, so he’s also a gymnast — limber, strong, durable.
OK, OK, OK. Enough, already. And by the way, so what? Some of us know how to type. Really, really, really, really fast.
Who does Mr. Fabulous think he is? Don Juan?
Well, yes. In fact, he does.
Gardarsson originated the lead in the American premiere of Don John. The play is the contemporary update of the classic myth of Don Juan, the original ladykiller, the first international playboy, the proto-womanizer, the Ur-man of mystery.
“Every man has wanted to be Don Juan and love 1,000 women at some point in his life.” Gardarsson says by phone from London. “It’s really interesting to play a devil like that.”
Sheesh, Señor Gisli. You don’t have to rub it in.
Director Emma Rice adapted the story from Mozart’s operatic version, Don Giovanni. But she set the story in the context of a carnival to suggest the uninhibited and unleashed sexuality of the hero. In fact, the staging is extremely physical. Much of what’s communicated between characters happens with the body.
But the master is Don John. He’s a real 60-minute man. He prowls and then he comes over. But never too soon. He smokes, he drinks. He takes pleasure in not just his women but in seeing other men looking at him looking at women who are looking at him.
And no one stops him. Why? Because he behaves badly, and it rubs off easily. Others follow in his wake, like sloppy seconds. Yet he’s convinced he’s not such a bad guy, Gardarsson says, trying to explain some of the tangled up psychology at work inside Don John’s head. He knows he’s breaking hearts, but he’s lost. He’s looking for something, but he doesn’t know what it is.
And — in the hope that we hate him an eensy-weensy bit less — it turns out he’s in pain.
Scandal has a half-life that’s all too brief. Take Madonna for instance.
Her “Like a Prayer” video was hugely controversial. Religious ecstasy mixed with interracial schtupping led to Pepsi’s pulling out of sponsoring Ms. Ciccone’s global tour.
Then came forays into transgendered S&M. MTV wouldn’t commit to Madonna’s “Justify My Love.” But what’s a few riding crops, silver chains, and black masks compared to the trashy delights of Rock of Love? Or the raw splendor that is YouTube?
Right. And the Scandal-O-Meter amounts to a whopping … meh.
After French kissing Britney Spears was met with yawns, Madonna knew the end had come. Time to meditate, adopt children, and by the way, from now on, just call me Esther.
Like the Material Girl, Gustave Charpentier’s opera Louise had its share of scandal, too. But time hasn’t been kind.
After all, the plot centers on Louise, the daughter of traditional working-class parents, who falls in love with the boy next door, and they venture off for bohemian Paris to live a life of free love.
Shocking? Yes. Once upon a time. Now? About as titillating as Sisqó’s “Thong Song.”
A spider web is a natural paradox. It’s stronger than steel, relative to its size, and yet it’s more elastic. Can genres of music can be thought of the same way? Coming down from Bill Monroe and his lineage, bluegrass was never stronger but also pretty rigid. His inheritors tend to be the least flexible. In the hands of explorers like David Grisman, bluegrass has been deconstructed to a degree at which it might not be recognized as bluegrass anymore. If there’s a practitioner who most resembles a spider web, who challenges the tradition without dismantling it, it might be Chris Thile.
The former frontman for Nickel Creek was evidently stunned to be so well-received by Spoleto fans this week. “Thanks to those people who thought this was a good idea,” he said at the end. “We did.” The rest of us did too. It’s really not that surprising to find Thile on a Spoleto bill. Especially after witnessing his latest creation, The Blind Leaving the Blind. It’s a long work, perhaps too long for purists. But draped over its bluegrass bones are influences ranging from Bartok to Bach to Keith Jarrett. It was a lovely piece that to my ears sounded a bit studious at times but nonetheless striking in its ambition and affection of bluegrass. Thile doesn’t want to get away from it; he just wants it to grow.
And I say all this because on Wednesday night, about half way through, I noticed something. It was a long and single fiber of spider web miraculously attached to the scroll of the double bass, the other end wafting in the breeze. The Punch Brothers are really the Spider Men.
Originally published in Charleston City Paper
(Note: As you can see from the mess below, this story got some facts wrong. Since posting this story, new and correct information has come to light. In an effort to be honest and transparent, I have struck-through the errors and indicated the corrections by using italics.)
Like you need more evidence that the media world is changing.
We noticed early on that the 2009 Spoleto Festival USA has been conspicuously absent from the pages and website of The New York Times. There was a piece on Wadsworth's retirement two weeks prior to the start. The only item after that came today, relaying the news of Wadsworth's successor, Geoff Nuttall. Then again, everyone knew that around 9 p.m. Sunday when the festival PR people sent out a media blast making the announcement.
Sources inside the festival say no amount of effort could get the
Gray Lady to send a reporter or a critic. (Correction: PR director Paula Edwards told me Spoleto had no luck persuading the newspaper to come down; when I asked if the reason stemmed from the paper's struggling financial state, she said yes. I have since learned from a colleague at the Times that this is not true; Spoleto's programming wasn't compelling enough to warrant sending anyone to cover the festival).
Not Wadsworth's retirement,
not the American premiere of Don John, and not the re-staging and re-visioning of an obscure French opera, Louise. In retrospect, though, we might have seen this coming. The Times reported a loss of $75 million for the first quarter of the year.
And last May, the paper sent a reporter and not a critic (Clarification: My colleague tells me the reason for sending a reporter and not a critic has nothing to do with finances; it has to do with last year's news story on the reunification of the American and Italian festivals). The Post and Courier's
Adam Parker was the only reporter from a print publication to attend
the festival's annual board meeting on Memorial Day. The pressure to
maintain its visibility in the media is so strong that festival
officials were disappointed that City Paper didn't attend. 2009 may be the first year since Wadsworth began the chamber music series that someone from the Times has not been presence. (Correction: This is not the first year the Times has not sent a critic or reporter). I know it's the first time in recent memory (Clarification: this is my memory which has shown on this occasion to be unreliable). Such is the state of even the august Times that it can't afford to send a critic down for a few days (Correction: see first correction above). Evidently, it's watching every penny (Correction: see first correction above).
(I regret the above errors and any harm they may have caused.)
Geoff Nuttall, the first violinist for the St. Lawrence String Quartet, will be the next director of Spoleto’s chamber music series. The announcement was made Sunday at the farewell concert to Charles Wadsworth, the festival’s long-time director. The concert lasted two and a half hours and was followed by a champagne and cupcake reception on the street outside the Memminger Auditorium in Charleston, S.C.
Nuttall, who’d just dyed his hair blond the day before and now resembles that dude from the Food Network, Guy Fiery (pictured), was gracious in accepting the audience’s approval. Wadsworth assured the audience he was the right man for the job.
Nuttall’s appointment has been in the making for at least two years, according to comments Nuttall made on stage tonight. But speculation had been brewing since last year when he was named associated director of the series, the first time the then-79-year-old Wadsworth had needed a deputy.
This year Wadsworth announced he would be leaving the festival after this year, sparking further guessing that Nuttall would be tapped.
“I’ve known Geoff and the St. Lawrence String Quartet for 18 years and I respect him as one of the most committed, sensitive, and dedicated artists in the world today,” Wadsworth said in a prepared statement. “I feel completely happy that Spoleto’s chamber music series could not be in better hands.”
Originally published in Charleston City Paper
Remember I told you about trying to get a picture of Micheal Harrison’s silver comb-like thing with variously sized “teeth.” That’s the best gadget of Spoleto in my view and quite simply awesome. Harrison uses it to press down and suspend selected keys on the piano. That way he’s free to create a swirling mass of vibration and harmonic overtones.
Like I said, awesome.
Back to the picture. I couldn’t get one at the recital, and in retrospect it’s a good thing I didn’t surreptitiously snap one with my cell phone. I wrote Harrison about the device and asked if he would provide a small image to accompany my post on Spoleto Buzz. Requests like this happen all the time behind the media scene and I had no reason to think Harrison wouldn’t comply (I expected a jpeg taken with his phone).
But Harrison couldn’t because he made a promise.
While Harrison is up front with audiences about why and how he invented a novel system of tonality — he calls it “just-intonation” — his teacher, La Monte Young, wasn’t so open-minded. Young was evidently guarded about who should know about his alternate tuning system and why. He invented the original forms of those silver comb-like things, and entrusting Harrison, asked that he never reveal how they were made.
Which means he can’t share pictures of them, and certainly not with the media. Which is understandable, I think, however strange it might appear to be. Here’s how Harrison explained it:
Thank you for your review of Revelation. I am happy to hear that you have taken such an interest in the custom device that I use as an integral part of performing the work. As your friend Ron Wiltrout noted in his separate posting, I am usually extremely forthcoming about the nature of my work and even the specifications of my tuning system. However, the original form of the device that I use was invented by my mentor La Monte Young, and upon entrusting me to use it, he specifically requested that I keep the technique absolutely confidential. So I hope that you will understand that under the circumstances I will not be able to email you a photo. Nonetheless I greatly appreciate your support and enthusiasm about the work. With all best regards, Michael
Originally published in Charleston City Paper
Hugh Hughes made me cry. It’s a good thing.
Story of a Rabbit is about death and trying to understand it. It’s about life and trying to understand it. It’s about finding a dead rabbit one day and then confusing the memory of that death with the memory of your beloved father’s death, because you can sooner face one than the other.
Acting as his alter ego, Shon Dale-Jones presented what really amounts to a plain sad story — my dad died and it devastated me. If that were it, I might say Story of a Rabbit was a cheap way to pull at my heart strings, a short-sighted attempt to substitute sentimentality for artful stagecraft.
But there is art here that hangs on two lines of action, two deaths. In between Dale-Jones provokes all kinds of questions about memory and time and the nature of being. Are we more than the sum of our parts? How can order matter when in the end, all is disorder? And isn’t there something funny about a Welshman impersonating an “emerging artist from Wales,” who is himself telling you a story and then takes a moment to explain how he just told you that story?
Despite its subject matter (death) and postmodern sensibility (hyper-awareness of artifice), Story of a Rabbit is remarkably funny. Dale-Jones gets a lot of comedy out of turning the old saw show-don’t-tell on its head. For most of the first half, he explains what each of the items on stage are for, the problem of sight-lines in theater, and the structure that goes into a story (he uses a flip-chart to outline the main parts, as if it were Cliff’s Notes: “subject, narrative, ourselves”).
He reminds us throughout that each of us has his own way of experiencing a story, that we remember events differently, even ones we experienced at the same time. And he asks repeatedly that we think of our own experiences, our fathers, someone we loved and lost. He uses the word “reading” to describe how we interact with the play, which to my mind reflects the time he spent in literary theory-soaked Paris studying theater. He’s fascinating by fragmentation — of knowledge, of wood into sawdust, of bodies decomposing into oblivion. But even as things fall apart, they can be put back together again.
This may sound glib and academic, but it’s not. For all its abstraction, this one-man play strikes the heart deep. After all, it’s about loss. The telling and not showing is almost like a dramatic build up to when Dale-Jones finally shows and doesn’t tell. And that’s when I started crying. It was gorgeous when it happened (three times) and I don’t want to spoil it for you.
Also remarkable is what Story of a Rabbit manages to say about the human imagination. Even when the bones of the story are exposed, we still see a story. We fill in the gaps. We don’t even know who Hughes’ dad is. We never get a full portrait of the man. But the specifics of the individual are secondary to the qualities we imbue him with.
Originally published in Charleston City Paper
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