Perfectly Weird and Weirdly Perfect

If you haven’t seen Ride the Cyclone, get yourself to the carnival and buy a ticket! I now have a roller coaster story to add to my own.

Good theater may take us to a world we know. Great theater creates its own world and pulls us in. And this is great theater. Incredibly clever staging. Incisive and witty book. Recognizable characters who each stop the show with their song, tailor made in style to suit their persona.

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I’m reminded of Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Staging you can’t anticipate. Theater like you’ve never seen before. Canadians Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond do it for us here.

Favorite visual moment: when the girls’ white skirts are spread wide, then used as a projector screen, followed by the boy’s white shirt. Perfection.

Wait! Then there was Jane Doe’s eerie aria while she floats then twirls on high. This was no Peter Pan. More like Olympia from Tales of Hoffman infused with magic. Weird. Wonderful.

Favorite lyric: too many to isolate one. Here’s one I can remember to share. The jawbreaker lyric from “Sugarcloud.” “My life is a jawbreaker. I suck and suck and suck and suck. My heart is like a jawbreaker. It breaks and breaks.” Not to worry though. Constance comes out really well, considering she’s dead.

Oh! I didn’t tell you? Six teenagers die when a roller coaster malfunctions. In the carnival warehouse, their purgatory, a world weary fortune teller machine The Amazing Karmak tells them they can compete for the chance to go back to the living. And one will.

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So never fear. This is a comedy thoroughly and completely. It’s not morbid or a downer.

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How could it be with a gay character who channels a cross between Liza Minnelli in Cabaret and Marlene Dietrich in his hilarious lament? Or with Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg wittily skewering her companions in a Broadway style song before learning that the group will have to unanimously vote the winner back to life.

Trust me, knowing this much plot will not inhibit your own wowness with this show. I can’t begin to give you enough spoilers to do that. I will say that the lesson the show imparts is that life, “It’s Just a Ride.” Perfect.

Playtime with Mozart

Mark Morris‘ choreography is synonymous with joy.  That’s really heightened in his Mozart trio, the closing event for this year’s Mostly Mozart festival at Lincoln Center.
Morris cherry picks movements from three sonatas, each led by the piano and played with gusto and evident delight by Garrick Ohlsson.
What Morris does so well is capture the charm, rhythm, and wit of Mozart with themes and variations in the dancer’s movements.  Their movement makes the music ever fresher.
They feed each other so that we get delight to all the senses.  Even kinesthetic.  With Morris’ work, I feel it in my body.  He’s one of the few choreographers that makes me imagine I could still dance.
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Mozart wanted his music to be hummable, singable.  Tonight, it worked.  I left humming and singing that final refrain, leaping and gliding in my mind.  Playtime!

Here’s your taste:

Preserving Memory

I love a good story and a great storyteller.  This week, I had two encounters worth noting.

Tammy Denease knew her great-grandmother who was enslaved and lived to be 125.  Wow!  Mississippi, her home state, is a place that only recently actually outlawed slavery, and Tammy knew the mindset of slaves first hand.

Now in Connecticut, she tells the stories of incredible women from history, preserving the memory of their humanity, as well as who they were and what they accomplished.  At the New Haven Museum, she performed the story of “Sara Margu: Child of the Amistad.”  And what a story it is!.


Sara Margu was one of four children captured and put on the Amistad, which ironically means friendship in Spanish.  The ship was a slave vessel.  Sara’s name in her native Mendeland (now Sierre Leone) was Margu.

The Amistad story is probably more familiar now due to the Stephen Spielberg movie.  It tells of the remarkable case of a slave revolt in 1839, with the captured people taking over the ship.  Although they wanted to return to Africa, they couldn’t make that happen. The boat was captured in Long Island Sound by a US ship, and everyone on board was brought to shore in Connecticut.

The people declared themselves free, and the remaining crew and Spain labeled them property.  In an internationally famous case, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Mende people, declaring them free, becoming a major marker for abolition.

What Denease does so well is skirt the famous portions of the story for the personal, the human.  She preserves the experience of Sara Margu by telling her very particular story–the horrors of the slave ship from a child’s perspective and her healing through education.

Sara Margu worked off debts her father accrued in Mende and was taken when she was already separated from her family.  She tells how the horrors didn’t really stop when the captives arrived in Connecticut.  Many were housed in New Haven, while figuring out next steps.  She describes that people paid 25 cents to look at the Africans, as locals had never seen or heard anyone like them before.

She also recounted how Josiah Gibb wanted to help and cleverly learned how to say the numbers 1-10 in Mende, then walked through black communities saying the numbers out loud until he found someone who understood what he was saying.  That man then became the translator for the interactions in New Haven.

Sara Marrgu was moved to Farmington where she lived with a family who had a deaf son and a kind woman named Sara (where she took that portion of her  name).  She communicated naturally with the son and began to learn English.

With the trial, she understood that the central issue was, “Am I a person or am I property.”  It was election year, and President Martin Van Buren said, property.  The Queen of Spain said, property.  But the US Supreme Court disagreed by a remarkable 6-1.

The Mende people could go home, but they had no money or sailing skills to get them there.  So they did the American thing and went on a speaking tour, telling of their “adventure” on the Amistad.  Sara Margu also singly demonstrated that Africans were intelligent by reading from the Book of Psalms.  Sigh.

But however demeaning, the tour was a success.  Sara Margu and the others raised enough to return home, and although they were not allowed to eat with white members on board, the travel was much more comfortable.  The missionaries who accompanied the Mende hoped they would help the whites start a school and convert the Mende.  One responded by ripping off his clothes upon return to show his tribal markings.  But Sara Margu helped as she could.

The missiona2016-03-10 18.14.42ries then paid for her to return to the US, to study at Oberlin, a college that accepted blacks.  Sara Margu was 14 years old.  It was 1844.  Although it wasn’t all peaches and cream, despite the liberal stance, she did learn and became the first black to graduate.

She returned to Africa and felt the outsiderness of not fitting in anywhere easily.  Still, she worked in the school, embracing Christianity along with her Muslim upbringing.  She married and had a child.  Not everyone who survived the Amistad to return had such a good life, and Denease relayed those stories, too.

For her, the world of the Amistad is more than a powerful legal case.  And one thing I really loved is that she doesn’t ever tell about the death of her historical figures.  Sara Margu can live on in our minds and hearts.

Carol Highsmith sees her work as preserving memory, too.  2016-03-09 18.23.41She has collaborated with the Library of Congress for 35 years, photographing America.  To the tune of 30,000 photos so far.  She is 70 and expects to continue for the next 15 years.

She just finished documenting Connecticut and told that story at the Connecticut Historical Society.  And she does consider her work documentary.  She is thinking about researchers in 500 or 1000 years wanting to understand the culture of the United States.

Diminutive in stature, but huge in confidence, bon amie, and story telling through photography, Highsmith is truly a national treasure.

She mixes and matches images because that’s how she sees America.  In her presentation, she might have an image of Lincoln’s coat he wore when he was shot next to Yellowstone and an image of the Mona Lisa on a barn.  She calls them all iconic.  And because nothing stays the same, she repeated, “that’s why we need to record ourselves.”

The entire archive of her work is downloadable and free via the Library of Congress.  You can have so much fun browsing it, looking for your state or favorite place.  Go for it.

Mona Lisa barn art, Wisconsin

Carol Highsmith, Mona Lisa barn art, Wisconsin


Today marked one of my best Christmases in many years.  Why?  Because it was all about the Jews!

Di Goldene Kale

Good thing we got our tickets to “The Golden Bride” of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene many weeks ago.  Our noon performance of this Yiddish operetta was completely sold out.  The New York Times raved about it, and the Jews all headed downtown.

2015-12-25 11.26.04First, we went for our ‘Instant Yiddish’ lesson. “If you’re not fluent after this 15-minute class, you’ll get your money back.”  A little Jewish humor, since, of course, the lesson was free.  And my friend Helen is already fluent.

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During our mini class, the teacher pantomimed his way through the history of Yiddish theater in New York.  From 1880 to the 1949s, Yiddish theater helped immigrants adjust to life in The Golden Medina–the golden land of America–and deal with homesickness and provide some much needed escape from daily hardships.  Broadway as we know it grew out of the musicals of and the immigrants producing shows for the 2nd Avenue theaters.

“The Golden Bride” was first performed in 1923, one of 18 Yiddish shows live in New York at the time.  It toured the country and was continually revived in New York until its last production in 1948.  Until now.

Adam Shapiro (Kalmen) and Company in the National Yiddish Theatre production of 'The Golden Bride (Di Goldene Kale'). Photo by Ben MoodyI can see why the show was so enormously popular.  It’s full of family drama, silly and entangled romances, Shakespearean plot mix-ups, and wonderfully catchy songs.  We were all singing along with the ovation.  Most touching was the reuniting of a divided family, which no doubt the audience could relate to.  And most familiar was the matchmaking scene, which maybe Sheldon Harnick saw before writing his song for “Fiddler.”

Al loved the appropriation of Over There and other patriotic music with plot-driven lyrics in Yiddish.  The American Dream is all over this piece from the Old Country on Act 1 and the realization of that dream in the U.S. In Act 2.

Cameron Johnson in rehearsal

Curiously, the two young-lover leads are not Actor’s Equity, the only in the cast, but they had powerful operatic voices.  We laughed that the tenor looked like a Sean O’Malley, really named Cameron Johnson.  Not terribly Yiddishkeit.

The comedy was great fun and clearly sparked the tropes we see in the Golden Age of musicals, with the serious romantic leads and the comedic secondary couple.

I really felt like an audience member from the 1920s, reveling in a sense of belonging, nostalgia for the Old Country, and pleasure and pride in the new.  Actually quite healing during an often-alienating Christmasmaniacalism season and painful world conditions.

How did we cap this experience?  With Chinese food, of course!

Fresh thinking for government?

With presidential politics revving up, maybe it’s appropriate that I saw two political plays today.  Both offer a reminder of the personal cost of political leadership.

King Charles III,” a Brit transplant to Broadway, speculates on the role of the monarchy in democratic Britain and what would happen if that crafted balance were demolished.  Despite the cloying references to Shakespeare including the iambic pentameter verse, the surprises along the. way elevate this play almost to the level it shamelessly imitates.

Two characters attempt fresh approaches to living with, and opting out of, traditional leadership roles, both rebelling in the name of decency and common sense.  That is until the forces for sameness squash the forces for change.  That tension, I will admit, created a Shakespearean calculus.

Too bad for the abrupt ending that needed audience plants to signal.  Otherwise, the audience clearly would have waited for more.  Instead we were left with an unsatisfied craving.  Or at least I was.  The rest of the audience gave the typical standing O.  Stunned, I wanted to rebel!

The inability to rebel is at the heart of “First Daughter Suite” at the Public Theatre-that hot launching pad of new musicals (most recently “Hamilton”).  Whereas Kate (Prince William’s wife) protests being ‘plastic’ and does something about it, American women in the White House have had less choice.

Somehow Chelsea Clinton escaped the roast/opera.  Music mostly discordant and lyrics often laugh-out-loud funny, the political and life traps of being a woman in the White House from Pat Nixon to the Bush generations are the fodder.

Who can forget the competition between Julie and Tricia Nixon and Tricia’s White House wedding on a rainy day?  Poor Pat.

Amy Carter, who was tormented during the Carter years by the media, gets her own dream fantasy.  The dream is complete with a hilarious, diva-dancing Betty Ford, the too-sweet Rosalynn who assures her that boring, normal life is okay, and spiky Susan Ford who contends that first-daughter Amy will never be normal.   Like Prince Harry in “King Charles III,” maybe Burger King is the answer.

Maybe Chelsea was spared because of Hilary.  Maybe because the Clinton’s protected her from the media.  Maybe because she’s come into her own.

Or maybe there’s a different path now for women in the White House…

Oklahoma, up close and nightmarish

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Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College

Unlike any version of Oklahoma I’ve seen is the current production at Bard College’s Performing Arts Center.  Yes, the voices are beautiful, the dialogue the same, and most of the songs are familiar.

But this go round, the performance is naturalistic.  No program (until the end) to distract you with any life beyond this moment.  Described as “stripped down” and “unsentimental” by the director, the approach allows “Hammerstein’s blazing, diamond-cut words and Rodgers’s soaring melodies (to be) laid bare for us to discover as if for the first time.”

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Our crock pot of chili and in the rear, the fixin’s for the cornbread

In Act 1, the dress is contemporary, and the songs are sung with a cowboy inflection.  “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” becomes a waltz that Curly sings while strumming his guitar.  He starts by sitting on the picnic table that I shared, while Aunt Eller mixes up the cornbread we’ll eat at intermission.  The chili cooks in crock pots in front of us all.

The actors stay in the same space with the audience throughout the show, all as us as one.  We are part of the Oklahoma Territory.  When Will starts singing about KC being up to date, you might be startled when he starts to dance with the girl right by you.  The dancing is only the most natural, not high falutin’ at all.  At the barn, it’s square dance.  No leaping over tables or show-stopping tap.  No ballet in the dream sequence.

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The band, right in front of me

Ado Annie is a young girl in a halter top and cut-off jeans, cowboy boots, and hair in a side braid.  She tries to explain herself, how she cain’t say no, a capella, her bell-like voice all wanting, before being joined quietly by the six-piece band that includes a banjo, mandolin, and accordion.  She’s just a young girl, not a joke.  Laurie is like her mentor.

The pace moves so fast there’s no time to applaud between songs.  When Laurie and Curly warn each other with the don’t’s in “People We’ll Say We’re in Love,” the singing is so intimate and sweet, we become eaves droppers.  Curly sings tenderly, right into Laurie’s ear, as if only she is supposed to hear.  But we do, too.

Laurie and Curly in an intimate moment

SPOILER ALERT–don’t read past this point if you have any intention of seeing this show.

The biggest shift for me comes with poor Jud.  And here, he is to be pitied.  Longing to be noticed, much less loved, he has a solo I’ve not heard before, “Lonely Room,” an operatic lament sung with soft anguish.

But not before Curly bewitches him with “Pore Jud is Daid”.  A kind of gay trance is created by the staging. First, they talk to each other in complete darkness, showing us what the smoke house Jud lives in is like.  Slowly, as if our eyes acclimate to the dark, we begin to make out the forms of the two men, (actually clarified by projections), sitting very close together, singing the song.

Yes, Oklahoma is about two love triangles, but in this production, the attractions among Curly, Laurie, and Judd are unsettling and completely believable.  With the song in the smokehouse, Jud and Curly are close enough to kiss.  Laurie isn’t blatantly repelled by Jud.  Her attraction to Curly seems ambivalent.  Perhaps this is the actress, who plays the part very low key.  But the attraction isn’t as straight forward as usually played.

Act 2 opens with just the dream portion of “Out of My Dreams.”  And what a nightmare it is.  The music mashes together completely discordant versions of the songs from Act 1.  Laurie stands still in ghostly light.  Curly and Jud both sing “I Cain’t Say No!” to her.  How can anything be right for Laurie, if this is the dream that shows her what she really wants?

Square dancing in the barn, “The Farmer and the Cowman”

Periodically, the naturalistic tone is shattered by the use of a mic, which I think is a big mis-step in the production.  But as that takes us out of the drama and tension building, nothing prepares us for the ending.

Damon Daunno (Curly) and Amber Gray (Laurey) star in director Daniel Fish's experimental retelling of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!

Reprise of “People Will Say We’re in Love” but at a mic by the band

At the wedding party, Jud doesn’t burn down the barn, but instead comes to the newlyweds.  He asks to kiss the bride, which Curly permits.  Jud kisses Laurie on the lips, gently, and one of her arms embraces him.  Then Jud gives Curly a gift.  Curly opens the box to reveal a gun (Curly has sold his saddle, his horse, and his gun to win Laurie’s box lunch at the social).

With no words, but in my mind, the echo of “Pore Jud is Daid,” Curly takes the gun and shoots Jud.  Both Curly and Laurie in wedding white get sprayed with blood. What was Jud thinking?  Is this the inevitable gesture to Curly, that he allows the cowboy to fulfill the promise of their song together?

The town folks, never changing a word of the script, enact the way a community closes around an insider, Aunt Eller especially, forcing an acquittal of Curly in the moment, despite one legal authority’s objections.  Jud is dead, and the girls can mourn him, as the song promises.  Laurie seems stunned, as the show closes with a rousing rendition of “Oklahoma!”  Ignore the ugly and sing, seems to be the message.  The future is bright.

But how can Laurie have a happy marriage to a man who unambiguously murders someone she has some kind of complicated feelings for?  The state may be made up of communities that protect their own, but on the micro level, this marriage has to be doomed.

Jud’s death, so easily dismissed in most productions because he is one-dimensional gross and his violence is so incongruous with the fluffy take on most of the material, here rises to the level of tragedy.

How could I feel good leaving the theater?  I had just witnessed a tragedy and miscarriage of justice.  I noticed many people smiling–the final song calls for a Yippee-yai-eh.  But the theater doesn’t permit children to attend the show.  Its intent is clearly to disturb our comfort with the traditional rendition of Oklahoma.  I’ll certainly never think of this show quite the same way again.

Cooing and Wooing

The Mark Morris Dance Group celebrated a cool spring night with breezy frolic in Acis and Galatea.  To Handel’s music with the opera singers on stage and completely involved, the performance feels anything but staged-dance-y.  The movement has a naturalism that made me want to run on stage and join them in their silly and playful movements (what fun when that happens!).  Like on a playground at times and at others, like sprites in the friendliest of woods.

Here’s a taste:

Is there any more joyful end to an Act I than this?  After a lot of billing and cooing and wooing, the complex lyrics repeat, “Happy we.  Happy, happy we” over and over in the most infectious way, so that I sprang into intermission singing and gesturing along.

Wouldn’t you?  Take a listen…along with some Rococo, period paintings by Watteau:

Act 2 was witty and physical, with a gorgeous hunk of a baritone playing the lascivious monster. Somehow, even he managed to be frothy. The dancers changed movement vocabulary around him, forming more of the moving sculptures you might associate with the Galatea story.

But that would be the Greek story of Pygmalion bringing his sculpture Galatea to life as a real woman. You might have even noticed a Galatea sculpture in the Watteau paintings in the “Happy We” video.

This opera is based on the Ovid Metamorphoses edition–much more tragic when the deceased Acis is turned into an immortal stream by Galatea, a reverse on the Pygmalion story, as here the woman is the creator, not the created.


Happy me!

Operatic Chocolate

The end of the school year blooms with Yale concerts.  For me, this year’s highlight is the one-act opera centered on, what else?  Chocolate.

The stage set-up

The stage set-up

Julia Child and chocolate cake to be specific.

Bon Appetit! features music by Lee Hoiby and a tour de force performance by mezzo-soprano Leah Hawkins, pearls and all.  Oh, and words by Julia herself.
In other words, we get a cooking lesson expanding on Julia’s natural mezzo voice.  Can’t you just hear that  pitch in your mind’s ear?
The opera captures Child’s natural charm and darling humor.  As Hawkins literally whips up the batter for a French chocolate cake, she sings her warning, that we “don’t want to play croquet in the middle” of a particular step in the process.
She wonders if we have a self-cleaning kitchen like she does.
Leah Hawkins in action

Leah Hawkins in action

Mmmm, she sighs in her lustrous voice, showing us the batter.  “Just as good if you eat it this way!”

She relishes a race where no matter what, she’s the winner: which will beat the egg whites best?  Her mixmaster or her hands?  Which, you are wondering?  Only use your mixmaster if you’ll use the results right away.
Irreverently, Hawkins drops the pans on the counter “to settle everything” she sings.  “It will puff up and sink down,” she demonstrates with hands, body, and voice.
My favorite moment was the blissful note she holds, enjoining us to make the cake “light like a soufflé.”  Aaaaah.
This opera may have the best stage business ever, culminating in the moment when Hawkins pounds her knife into the cake and scoops out a delicate piece for us all to admire.  What a tease.
In Julia’s inimitable words, “That’s all for today…Bon Appetit!”

Arts & Ideas

Every year, New Haven explodes with every form of art and generation of ideas for the two  week International Festival of Arts & Ideas.  I’ve not been able to jump in until now, but my menu selections range from contemporary dance to walking tours to unusual therapy to performance theater works to aesthetic acrobatics.

Arguendo,” performed by Elevator Repair Service, arguably has an audience-pleasing premise: the Supreme Court’s weighs in on whether nude dancers, as in adult entertainers, are protected by the First Amendment.  Lifted from transcripts of the actual proceedings and montaged in a quasi dance-performance piece, the structure seemed promising.  But other than a manic five minutes (in which the attorney defending the dancers’ First Amendment rights argues his points in the nude, while justices toss papers gleefully overhead, all talking at once), I found the production surprisingly dull.  There’s a reason I’m not an attorney.


Celebrating a gloriously pleasant Friday afternoon with members of the Hamden Walks meet-up group and about 100 other people, my first walking tour strolled along classy St. Ronan Street with an architectural historian from The New Haven Preservation Trust.  Built mostly during the Industrial Golden Age for New Haven between 1890 and 1920, there’s nothing cookie cutter about the grandeur.  Each house is quirkily different, gently breaking architectural style rules.  The street has a coherence though.  A repeated motif of diamond-shaped windows, regular set-backs from the street, and consistent distance between each neighbor creates a pleasing harmony and peaceable splendor.

2014-06-20 17.27.30St. Ronan refers to a well or spring in a Sir Walter Scott poem, and the Hillhouse family who developed the street from their farm and estate referenced that Romantic work with the picturesque homes.  You have your 1903 12,000 foot cottage, not so different from not so far away Newport.

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And next door is this storybook house a third the size.  The house originally belonged to the women’s rights activist Agusta Troup, who along with her wealthy husband, was also a union activist.  Ironic advocacy for the uber wealthy.



Keep walking to see this gambrel-intense home of a “traveling salesman.”  Yes, a Willy Loman 2014-06-20 17.35.04type lives here now.  Hmmm.

Notice the funny mix of window styles, the emphatic asymmetry.  Very playful and fun.


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And what street would be complete without its mid-century modern?  Here it belongs to the widow of a former Yale President.



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The houses and stories go on and on, but like me, you are probably ready to pause and refresh.  You might want to head to the festival of food trucks in Hamden town center.  I did!  Along with the throngs mobbing about 25 different food vendors in the park adjacent to the library.  Two cupcake trucks had long lines.  This menu board might explain why.




A whole new day, and more adventures with Arts & Ideas.  It’s summer, officially, and the longest day of the year!  So an eleven hour day of activity began with a hike up East Rock, 2014-06-21 10.54.31that odd geological monument that serves as a marker and icon of New Haven.  East Rock and West Rock are volcanic cliffs caused by plate shifts and molten lava that cooled on the exposed face.  Weird vertical thrusts from the gentle hills of the area.

That geological phenomena created a sheer face of trap, or basalt volcanic rock.  The trap is so hard it has served as a building block, as seen on this house on St. Ronan Street.  Unlike the also local brownstone, which is soft and subject to erosion, trap is used in asphalt for durable support for intense weights or for building for the ages.

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East Rock Park was designed from 1882 to 1895 by Donald Grant Mitchell, a 19th-century pop literature author who took up scientific farming and landscape design.  Interesting combination.  This natural arch occurs right by a manmade bridge designed by Mitchell.  He2014-06-21 11.19.36 also created the paths, walkways, trails, and planting schema.

No matter what you see here, the earliest paintings of East Rock showed bare rock with no trees, so that the sandstone strata at the base was visible.  We just don’t use as much wood as they did for 19th-century fireplaces, so now New England is forested in a way it wasn’t then.

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Diane Reeves, with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, performed on the Green, closing off a great day.  But the real highlight for me was Bibliotherapy.



Bibliotherapy (for adults) is the brainchild of Susan Elderkin, who has moved from England to Hamden, my home town.  In her book The Novel Cure and the workshop today, she explained how we can be healed by a book, instead of with drugs.  Right on, sister!

To get started, she and her best friend and co-author Ella Berthoud parked a vintage ambulance in a field in Suffolk, England and put out a blackboard with appointment times.  Then they started dispensing prescriptions of books to read.

They had developed the practice on each other, addressing wallowing and romantic problems and I-hate-men moods, etc.  Susan explained that fiction doesn’t tell us what to do, but instead shows up by example (or dis-example), leaving us to decide how to proceed on our own.  She said, we could read self-help which tells us what to do–Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway— or read To Kill a Mockingbird.  You get the idea.

You know that feeling of being transported by a book.  Well, Susan studied how the brain works, so that being transported leads to transformation.  She articulated that when we read, we hear a narrative voice that displaces our own.  We “cease to be,” we “become the story.”  Reading is similar to actually doing something about the issue.  It is an “alternative form of living” that creates a vivid, shared intimacy with the book.  The book and its world keeps us from being alone with our issue, even if the plot line is wildly different from our own.

Susan says that recommending a book is “almost as good as writing it.”  She called for us to read so we can “give the gift of recommending,” which brought tears to my eyes.  When she called for a volunteer, guess who forced her way onstage?  Yep.

Through a prescribed set of questions, Susan got to know my reading habits and preferences.  Then I stated my issue simply.  Even though I’m “following my bliss,” “doing what I love,” I’m still waiting for the “money to follow.”  Susan tenderly probed, and then she filled out a literal prescription for me to read: Stoner by John Williams and to re-read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett and Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow.  I can hardly wait to see how my world might change through this focused reading.

But first, there’s more Arts & Ideas.  Tomorrow brings a rose garden, a Split Knuckle Theatre performance piece called “Endurance” that is a mash-up of office politics and the Shackleton voyage-disaster, and a tour of a 100 year old shul.  And then there’s more and more as the week progresses…not a dull art or idea in sight!



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Have you ever noticed how spring is bewitching?  I fall under its spell of simple beauty.  I have a very positive view of witches and wish I knew more of them.





Of course, the world hasn’t always been kind to the bewitching.  Connecticut seemed to take the lead on witch persecution, long before Salem, MA lost its head over witches in 1691.  The first witch was tried in Connecticut in 1642 and the first hung in Windsor, CT five years later, when witchcraft was not only condemned in the Bible, but was also a capital offense.

Virginia Wolf (a great name for an actress specializing in witches!) brings the stories of the mostly women accused of witchcraft in “Panic in Connecticut: Accused Witches Have Their Say.”

Wise women, who often also worked with herbs for medicines, were generally the ones accused.  The pattern was eerily prescient for the horrors of Salem to come.

A woman was accused when a cow died after she passed by or a child took ill after her glance.  A woman was blamed for the murder of her lodger, and the man who did the deed became a respected property owner.  Drought was blamed on witches.

A Dutch woman was accused because a girl she “possessed” started speaking with an accent.  She successfully appealed to the Governor of neighboring New Amsterdam (now New York), the powerful Peter Stuyvesant, for help.  “God help the woman who doesn’t have a strong man behind her,” she wrote.

Most of the accused were middle-aged women (who were considered no longer productive in society).  Insidiously, widows were often targets, as property owners.  The township could seize the property of a witch.

One test of a witch was the presence of “witches’ teats” from which she nourished the devil.  Wolf put perspective on this test–middle aged women often grow moles and skin tags, considered “strange markings” and a convenient excuse.  One women described in detail how all her hair was combed, as she was stripped of clothes in front of a judging set of women.  Her pubic hair was deemed “not normal,” whatever that meant.

Men were taken to trial, too, if they were in close association with an accused woman.

Neighbors turned on neighbors, suspicions dominated interactions.  Some thought their punishment would be lighter if they pulled a McCarthy and named names.

And the horrific test of a witch was present in Connecticut before Salem.  The accused witch’s thumbs were tied to opposite toes, and she was dropped in water.  If she sank, she was innocent (and dead), and if she floated, she was confirmed as a witch (and condemned to die).

Witch trials and executions were held around the state, including in New Haven, and up into Massachusetts in nearby Springfield.  All before Salem.

By 1663, the madness played itself out, as a married couple were the last to be hung (although others still went to trial).  Part of the change came with a new, learned Governor.  He was an alchemist who believed in magic and its potential.  He changed the law so that two people had to witness the bewitching event.

A year after Salem started to roar, witch persecution came back to Connecticut in 1692 and lasted about a year.  Fortunately, no witches were executed.  Many of the accused escaped to Rhode Island, known as the place of freedom, rather than be dogged by the label.  Rhode Island alone in New England (plus the Virginia colony) did not accuse or persecute witches.  I think New York stayed well out of it, as the Dutch tolerant culture was dominant even after the peaceful English transfer.

The persecution of witches ended by 1750 and the understandings of science–the discovery of germs and bacteria ironically helped save lives of these berated women.

Witches and witch hunts have been with us through history, and often focus on the poor, weak, or suppressed voices in society.

2014-05-18 16.49.28But today, I experienced a witch with a huge voice, mezzo soprano Aleksandra Romano, the niece of my friend Margaret.  At today’s Yale graduation recital, she sang three selections, each bewitching.  But the most compelling evidence of her witchcraft came with William Bolcom’s Amor.  The lyrics make the point:

It wasn’t the policeman’s fault in all the traffic roar.  Instead of shouting halt when he saw me, he shouted Amor.

Even the ice-cream man (free ice-creams by the score).  Instead of shouting Butter Pecan, one look at me, he shouted Amor.

You get the picture.  This character caused so much trouble, she was taken to court, and you guessed it, she bewitched the judge and jury.

Here’s an earlier performance she did of the song.

Romano is a bewitching talent, one you’ll likely see as she continues her career.  Good thing we’re tolerant of witches now!

A Night at the Silent Flicks

A silly smile, a goofy grin, a loopy laugh.  Through the whole performance of Orchestra New England.

Conductor Jim Sinclair arranged and narrated the program, filling it with entertaining anecdotes.  “We’re dressed for the ’20s,” Jim said, but then his tie malfunctioned, “and I’ll have to do this sans tie.”  As he took it off, a catcall came from the audience: “take it all off.”  Yes, it was that kind of evening.

What were we in for?  Musical accompaniment to three silent films.  The music was provided by an abbreviated orchestra of eight members, but the sound was just perfect.  Like those old radio shows, the percussionist Patrick Smith stole the hour, with his hilarious renditions of actors speaking, a horse clopping down the street, cops smacking into each other, doors slamming, the hot tamale, the flirting couple, and much more silliness.

So what were some of Jim’s tidbits?

I had never put together that silent films transferred straight from Vaudeville.  They didn’t even have to come up with new material.  This Charlie Chaplin film from early in the scheme of things, 1916, featured the Little Tramp (who turned 100 in 2014).  The Vaudeville stuff?  The classic duck-and-the-innocent-gets-punched schtick, the swinging doors routine, and roller skating slips and falls.  Here in it’s entirety (with music by someone else) is the two-reeler (each reel lasted about 9 minutes) The Rink:

You have to admit that the “Stout Lady” was a very good sport.  And did they speed up the film to get those shots?  Goodness!  They were all such athletes.

I had not seen Harold Lloyd before, and apparently of the main silent film comics, he was the sort of “normal,” leading man type.  We saw Haunted Spooks from 1920.  It’s filled with some dated black performer/minstrel stereotypes, but also one great Little Rascal who almost makes up for the other.

Buster Keaton certainly competes in high-jinks athleticism with Chaplin.  Keaton was also an engineer and used physics to help plan his stunts.  Don’t miss the moment in Cops from 1922 when Keaton grabs on to a moving car.  This one seems to use that ‘when a moving object hits an immovable force …’ or, well, I’m not much of a scientist.  Take a look:

This film has a kind of plot that exceeds the Chaplin strung-together routines, which is definitely part of its appeal for me.  Poor Buster all the way through, and then at the end…

Now I will say that the music used on these videos doesn’t compare to the hilarity of what we heard with Orchestra New England.

The overture they started with reminded me of “Fractured Fairy Tales,” although this was “An Operatic Nightmare (Desecration No. 2),” which Jim pointed out meant there had been a No 1!  It features familiar operatic music converted to fox trot and ragtime beats.  “You can dance to it,” said Jim.  Especially fun for you musicologists out there.

Check out a taste of it here.  The overture did its job; it certainly put us in the mood.

The three films were accompanied by Jim’s compilations of Irving Berlin, Richard Wagner, Igor Stravinsky, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Charles Gounod, and more, but like you’ve never heard them before.  He was not afraid to splice and dice the music, changing rhythms, fragmenting familiar motifs, and all so cleverly done that the music seamlessly integrated with the images.

I’m not sure if it was the pictures or the sounds or the combination that made my friend and neighbor Penny and me repeatedly laugh out loud, but we certainly did, with dopey aplomb.  Wish you could have been there, too.


Good fortune

Today is the official grand opening of the new teahouse in downtown New Haven, Green Tea House.

2014-04-04 13.05.52The real good fortune came not with the mayor or the ribbon cutting, but with the Chinese Lion dance.  This dance was also performed on Chinese New Year’s to bless the businesses the  danced in front of.  That day, just too crowded to see.  Today, I was startled when I walked right up to the Lion, dancing and preening and and grooming and growling right in front of me.

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Later, the Lion came inside the teahouse to dance, nudge (me included), and generally harass the diners, as well as those of us who gathered for what came next.



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A tea ceremony was performed for six guests, including the mayor.  To really do the ceremony correctly, you want an hour, which the mayor didn’t have.  So we got a short-hand version.  The tea today was Phoenix Oolong, which is only produced twice per year in China.  I bought some to enjoy at home I liked it so much.

Tea is used after meals for digestion, relaxation, and general enjoyment in China.  No sugar or milk is used.  But from the samples I tasted today, plenty of the teas are sweet enough from the flowers and fruits mixed in with2014-04-04 13.22.15 the tea leaves.


To make tea, begin by rinsing the teapot with hot water.  This makes the teapot very hot by pouring hot water not only inside it, but also all around the outside.  Now the tea’s aroma will stand out more.




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Pour hot water over each of the sipping cups–larger and round–and aroma cups–slender and tall.

Place the tea leaves directly into the teapot.

Pour the water over the leaves and close the teapot to steep.

Now you are ready to drink your tea.  Pour the tea into the aroma cup.


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Place the sipping cup on top of the aroma cup.

Then with two hands, flip the cups over, so that the aroma cup, which still holds the tea, is on top.

Slowly let the tea pour into the sipping cup.




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Take a moment.  Close your eyes to enjoy the scent of the aroma cup.

Take the sipping cup in both hands.

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When you sip, keep the tea in your mouth, allowing it to circulate to all the flavor centers, swallow, then exhale through your nose.

Enjoy your tea for the next 45 minutes.

The first pot of tea steeps only for about fifteen seconds, then longer for each successive pot.  Notice how tiny the pot is?  You might get 10 pots from one set of leaves.

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A family might own two or three tea sets, which involves all the pieces you see here.

How very civilized.


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“Cheers” is not in the Chinese tradition, but our brief ceremony concluded with American-style good wishes for the new teahouse, adding to the Lion’s blessings.

They Called Me Lizzy

The library brought East Haddam Stage Company actor Stephanie Jackson for a one-woman show about Elizabeth Keckley.  Jackson has been performing the role around the US and Canada for about 8 years, but nothing about her today seemed like a performance.  She embodied the soul of this historical figure and mesmerized the packed house.

Keckley was a slave, who through her industriousness, bought her son’s and her freedom.  But not before suffering the violence and indignities we’ve come to associate with woman slaves. The audience was so still during this part of the show, it seemed like we were chained to the actor.  Then through the re-telling of her emancipation, the audience noticeably relaxed, chuckling and talking back to her.

Through Keckley’s smarts and hard work, she networked her way to becoming the dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln throughout her White House years. Their growing friendship and Mrs. Lincoln’s emotional reliance on Keckley were challenged after Lincoln’s assassination.

Keckley documented their relationship, which she hoped would be a justification of the First Lady’s behavior, in a book published in 1868.  Instead, the book brought Keckley derision, cost her the friendship of Mrs. Lincoln, and essentially ruined her dressmaking business.

This remarkable life was also documented in a historical novel called Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, by Jennifer Chiaverini, published last year, which focuses just on the Keckley-First Lady relationship.  The source for this show is Keckley’s work Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, her memoir.

In a timely and related note, tomorrow’s New York Times Book Review features a new historical novel that takes place inside Lincoln’s mind, primarily during the Civil War years, called I am Abraham, by Jerome Charyn.

I hope you can catch a performance of “Call Me Lizzy,” but if not, check out one of these intriguing books.

Handle with Care

The non-football-loving Jews were all at “Handle with Care” to see Carol Lawrence in a role a long way from Maria in “West Side Story.”  Cheekbones and sparkling eyes intact, Lawrence plays the dead grandma from Israel, whose body gets lost in Virginia (don’t ask).  Okay, we see her alive in flashbacks from the day before.

Despite the presence, or loss, of the dead body, this is one delightful, sweet, thoughtful dramedy.  It really doesn’t have to be handled with care.  It reflects on whether we/the universe is guided by random chaos or a master plan, free will or fate.  With a very light touch, we consider how to handle the people in our lives with care, no matter the philosophical underpinning.

The same can be contemplated about the ‘fresh’ piece pictured below, now at the Museum of Modern Art.  Although the exhibit of Ileana Sonnabend’s collection centers on a controversial Robert Rauschenberg combine, my interest went elsewhere.  The combine with its stuffed eagle is a beastly ugly piece, which the Sonnabend estate donated to MoMA to avoid the taxes on its $65 million worth.

2013-12-22 13.46.48How much more fun to contemplate the juxtaposition of materials of Giovanni Anselmo’s Untitled (Eating Structure) from 1968.  So we have  forever granite plinth with a temporal head of lettuce, strapped to the stone with wire.  When the lettuce wilts, the small stone on top of it falls off.  Well, I looked and looked for that stone.  Shouldn’t it be obvious?

I asked one, two, then three guards.  Where’s the stone?  The third explained.  This time, the wilted lettuce slipped out of the wire and fell on top of the stone, hiding it.  Aah, I get it now.  A bit of the chance element.  They won’t touch the lettuce until tomorrow, when the art handler will replace the head.  So you tell me:  master plan or random chaos?  Regardless, handle with care!

2013-12-22 13.58.54For a long time, I watched the 1972 piece by Janis Kounellis, Inventing on the Spot, originally commissioned by Ballet Rouses.  The painting on the wall has snippets of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, played by the violinist until he tires and improvised by the ballerina. 2013-12-22 13.43.31










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A mesmerizing act of free will, handled with subtlety and care, plus an experience for the senses–a synesthesia–that literally reverberates throughout the exhibition.


To get a sense of it, check out my little video:

I spent a lot of  time with the divinely silly William Wegman video Stomach Song from 1970-1.  You know, he of the witty Weimaraner photos.  Here, he makes facial expressions with his chest and belly.  The sound track is his body-face speaking, then singing a song.  You don’t have to believe me…just take a look at the video.

So as you continue through this holiday season, whether along a master plan or swinging with freedom and chaos of it all, handle it with care, joy, and if at all possible, a laugh!

Steps Away to Step Back in Time

The Orcheftra of New England performed tonight just steps away from home.  But from the moment we entered the United Church, one of three historic churches on the New Haven Green, my neighbor Penny and I entered a time machine.

ImageMr. James Sinclair, the director, was born in Cambridge, Mafsachufetts in 1724 and prides himself on bringing the latest music from overseas to the colonies and now new country.  This night was the premier of the new ‘Hayden” Sinfony in D.  And it was a charmer.

But the former-war-correspondents-turned-entertainment-critics sitting in the balcony couldn’t resist a heckle or two.  They were especially hard on the organ meister from Leipzig Mr. Hall, as they complained that Bach “has too many notes.”  They adored the soprano Mifs Alison2013-11-30 20.23.22 King, even as they chastised Mozart, the younger, whose works she excerpted.  “An upstart,” one declared.  Mr. Sinclair replied, that he is young, but has “some worthy music.”

They were not following the expressly written rules:

“Silence is requefted during the performance of the several Pieces.  No laughing, talking very loud, or squawling.  No overturning of the Benches, &c.”

My friend was concerned that “the Dogs being employ’d as Footwarmers be walked periodically, outfide the Meeting-houfe.”  We hoped we could comply.

The familiarity of several of the pieces made this particular rule difficult for me:  “That there be no whiftling during the playing of familiar Tunes…”  You know me, I’m a whiftler.

In addition to glorious music that sounded exquisite in the church, the banter and character of the performance was unforgettable.  Hope you get a sense from this slide show:

Some things that never change and those that do

On the Edward Hopper tour in Greenwich Village, I got to see some of the places where he and Jo created their lives.  He lived in the same apartment on The Row across from Washington Square for over forty years, and Jo moved in with him after they married.

Built in the 1830s, the creme de la creme of New York society lived there.  It was the site of the Henry James novel.  A hundred years later, Hopper moves in to the fourth floor walk up with a shared toilet.  In the 1950s, the landlord tried to kick him out.  They went to court, and Hopper won.  New York real estate is tough.  No indication that they ever got a private loo.

2013-09-15 11.25.30My architectural favorite on today’s tour wasn’t connected to the Hopper’s at all.  Robert Deforest, President of the Met Museum, moved from The Row to 10th Street.  You can see how he was inspired be East Indian motifs in this elaborately carved wooden window corbels.  Built in the 1880s and named one of the ten most beautiful homes in America,  NYU has now gutted the interior, so little remains of the Indian craftsmanship.  Sigh.2013-09-15 11.25.38
Worse was the famous Tenth Street Studio building, torn down and replaced by a ’50’s modernist apartment building.  It was this tear down, as well as Penn Station, that led to forming the Landmark’s Commission.

Across the street is what is left of Gertrude Whitney’s Studio Club, in which even the reclusive Hopper partic2013-09-15 12.00.34ipated.  She assembled eight townhouses and the rear stables into exhibition space celebrating living American artists and their current work.  All that’s left is the patriotic, streamlined eagle above the doorway, the staircase, and the fireplace, which is a piece of art in itself.


The stables next door?  The sign was painted for a movie.

So in this city that’s always changing, today we celebrated an artist who doggedly stayed the same–despite the discomforts of his home and marriage and in the face of art trends that turned in a very different direction.
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I saw another example of this juxtaposition at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts.  Lynda Benglis has four works there.  Look at the contrast between her famous latex pours from the late 1960s and the 1904 classically-inspired mansion that houses the art history doctoral program.  What a place to take a class, as you can see in this slide show.

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My day wrapped with a new opera of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, my favorite of her novels. Some things never change, like the poignant charm of this Austen story, which worked fairly nicely as an opera.

Being Shot out of a Cannon

The International Arts & Ideas Festival wrapped up tonight after 3 weeks of performances, events, lectures, exhibits, tours, and general good feeling.  My last volunteer gig was with L’Homme Cirque–the one man circus.  Combining mime, clowning, tight rope walking, and bonne amie, this circus appealed to all ages.

David Dimitri has brought his act, his tent, and his high wire with him to the U.S., starting with New Haven.  If he comes your way, don’t miss him.

I saw something I’d never seen before–a man being shot out of a cannon.  You do have to see it to believe it!

The Joys of NY Theater

Far From Heaven–a film with a monstrously overwrought score  has been turned to a sadly beautiful musical at Playwrights  Horizons.

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In the post-show discussion of today’s very early preview, with the director, artistic director of Playwrights, composer Scott Frankel, and lyricist Michael Kortle, they talked about using the architecture of an existing property, like a film, as a starting point.  Frankel commented that he looks at a contemplative close up in a film as an opportunity to unrepress the character’s feelings in a song.  That really worked in this show, as it did in their Grey Gardens.  They also talked about converting stylized 1950s dialogue into lyrics and period-driven rhythm.  They have something very good here, liberating a really good story from its hideous soundtrack and adding in their smart songs.  It’s almost there.

I brought up how I found the ending too abrupt, that the central character moved faster than I did.  I made the comment with some trepidation, since the discussion had been so laudatory to that point.  They not only responded well, but also took a poll of the audience who agreed and offered several more suggestions.  I feel great that I might have helped the show along, but they were already thinking along the same lines.  By Tuesday, it will be on its way to being fixed.  So go see it, and let me know.

The heck of it is, one of them said they should hire me.  The road not taken…being a dramaturg.  I always thought I’d be good at that, being a natural critic and all.

So then to a more traditional musical good time with On Your Toes at City Center.

In the Encores Series, they put on forgotten musicals in a Mickey-and-Judy let’s-put-on-a-show kind of way.  It all comes together in just twp weeks, then runs for only one week.  Of course, they’re working with Christine Baranski , Kelli Barrett with her huge, sweet voice (a great complement to wondrous Kelli O’Hara this afternoon), a temperamental Russian ballerina played by the hilarious Russian ballerina Irina Dvorovenko from American Ballet Theatre, and old Broadway pros Karen Ziemba, Randy Skinner, and Walter Bobbie.  How can you go wrong?

I wore a smile through the Rodgers and Hart songs with their lush sound and clever lyrics, and the Russian ballet, choreographed by Balanchine of course, was laugh out loud funny.  Even better than the finale “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” was the tap-ballet dance-off–a literal show stopper.

How could they pull this all together in two weeks?  That’s the magic of New York theater.


Not By Bread Alone

Not by Bread Alone.  What an experience.  Imagine acting, when you’ve never seen acting before.  That’s what kept going through my mind, as I marveled at the deaf-blind actors of the Israeli theater troop Nalanga’at.  A combination of a performance piece, vaudeville, silent film, pantomime, and of course, a Jewish wedding (complete with confetti and glitter), the experience was not quite like anything I’ve seen or heard before (all puns intended).

The courage and trust of each actor, interacting with each other (and a guide) in ways that revealed their personalities: the Romantic, the Clown, the Shy One.  They shared their dreams, so ordinary, so tender–to have a really great haircut, to eat popcorn at the movies, to get married.  Each said or signed what bread means to her or him.  One courted her beloved by playing a song from a long ago Russian memory, while he laid his head on the electric keyboard to feel the rhythm.

What brought tears to my eyes, that never quite left during the performance, was toward the beginning.  Each actor was kneading dough, then breaking and rolling the dough into balls for rolls that would bake in the ovens onstage.  But not until 10% had been given to someone less fortunate or more in need–someone hungry, an abused child, a pregnant woman, the birds.  Of course any of us in the audience would have assumed the actors themselves would have been the people in need.

But waste no pity on these people.  They express themselves.  They have a voice.  They create a vision.  My heart was captured by these sometimes awkward, sometimes childlike, sometimes full-of-grace actors who put their hearts out to touch mine.

At the end, I was one of the first to go on stage to talk with the actors, through their interpreters, while holding a hand.  Then I broke bread, hot from the oven, with another audience member, before dipping in olive oil and savoring.  The entire audience lined up to do the same.  I imagine them still working their way through the crowd, so many wanted a touch and a taste.

Even exiting had a sweetness.  Two young men, deaf and signing, with true joy thanked me for coming, asked about the bread, and wiggled their fingers above their heads when I said it was delicious.

An experience like this reminds me to be at my most open, my most kind, my most grateful for the simplest, most tender moments.  To hold a hand.  To say thank you.

Fall for dance?

Tonight was Fall for Dance, and I think I may have been a kill-joy for my friend.  Rather than falling in love, I was untouched.

Perhaps I’m just out of step (all puns intended) with modern dance these days.  Two of the 3 works we saw were so inextricably linked with pop culture that I can hardly call them dance.  One seemed more like hip-hopped gang ritual and the other like a trick pony, which sparked ooh’s, ahh’s, and applause from the audience.

I remember criticisms of Pilobolus back in the ’70s.  That’s not dance, moaned the critics.  And maybe it wasn’t.  Now, 2 generations of dancers later, I see Pilobolus watered down by gymnastics and Cirque du Soleil, making those ’70s dances look like Balanchine.

So, hungry for Dance with a capital D, I find myself liking Rite of Spring more and more, the piece my friend liked the least.  At least the work had a coherent whole, with performances that served the whole, that created an effect.  For me, that effect was visually intriguing, like game pieces moving on a chessboard.  My friend found it repetitive and dull.  We agreed it didn’t really go anywhere.  Still, these will be the images I’ll remember from tonight’s performances.

Rite of Spring
Choreography by Shen Wei