Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Harry made the NYT, Newsday, the Daily News, the Voice etc., and has the men in blue turning red,0,1720357,print.story,kelly-for-mayor-a-voters-guide,427148,4.html

eating sushi on the eve of May Day a Free Tibet demonstration marched by

Journalism as Literature:
A Lost Art
by Christopher Hitchens

The generic British word for journalist — now unofficially adopted by all English-speaking foreign correspondents — is “hack.” This represents an effort to draw the sting from an insult by annexing it to oneself. Other self-descriptions, such as “reporter” or “correspondent,” represent an attempt to professionalize what began as a craft or trade. One hack of my acquaintance used the word “writer” as his official occupation on his passport because, as he said, it could by the stroke of a pen be changed to “waiter” if the officials at the frontier post looked menacing or uncooperative.

Yet to be considered a “writer” is the highest aspiration of the hack. It is something that can only be said of you by others, not something you can lay claim to yourself. In the course of this spring at the school of journalism, I have been attempting to highlight those moments in American history when mere journalism rose to the level of literature. I thought this might be good for morale.

“Unacknowledged legislators” was Shelley’s term for those poets who raised the moral and political temperature. The United States Constitution does not mandate an opposition party, but its First Amendment does grant unprecedented liberty to the press. And very often, in periods of crisis, it has fallen to the wielders of the pen to fill the void or to set the example. By what I consider to be a nice coincidence, the most luminous moments of “journalism as literature” have also been the moments of courage and dissent.

Indeed, the American idea is the product of a clash between rival journalists and pamphleteers, who in pre-revolutionary days conducted a vigorous argument about the first draft of the United States. In my J-school course, therefore, we began with the work of Thomas Paine and Benjamin Rush, and continued with the tussle over the Federalist Papers as conducted in, among other places, Alexander Hamilton’s New York Post.

The crisis over slavery, another institution which enjoyed “bipartisan” support, was largely precipitated by the work of a few outstanding journalists and editors, principal among them William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass and — first martyr of the American press — Elijah Lovejoy. Of special interest is the way in which the anti-slavery movement cross-fertilized, especially through Douglass’ personality, the movement for the enfranchisement of women. This, too, was largely conducted through journals like The Revolution.

Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle (written for serialization in a paper called The Appeal to Reason), Mark Twain’s almost Swiftian writings on the Spanish-American war, the lonely but beautiful writing of Randolph Bourne during the “Great War,” and the huge one-man journalistic and literary efflorescence of H.L. Mencken in the 1920s and ’30s — these all help to establish a certain tradition.

There remains the question which I have been, in my own mind, slightly postponing. What has become of this great tradition today?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

come what MAY

the muse of dance, and Thalia (comedy) and Melpomene (tragedy) , the muses of drama, are going to have to duke it out this month, because I'm claiming Canadian writing/directing wonder Robert Lepage as one of dance's own. To my delight, Lepage, after a three-year absence, is bringing his Andersen Project to Cal Performances late in May, to be performed by Yves Jacques. Lepage's fans have missed him.

Dance, as you may know, is the real mother of Western drama, an art form that evolved in ancient Greece from Dionysian ritual performed in remote groves by raucous women who chanted, danced, worshiped, sacrificed animals and are said to have engaged in a fair amount of screeching on behalf of the god of wine and the underworld.

The goings-on apparently gave men down in the valleys a bit of a fright, and before long, the Athenians were building amphitheaters and employing participants in far more stage-managed rituals, ones that excluded women altogether. That tamed practice is the precursor to our sitcoms and daily soap operas, as well as our Broadway plays, while Jerry Springer may be the one putting us back in touch with the bestial aspects of the arts' roots.

Dance and drama are intertwined in other ways. Both depend on the body as their instrument —— the primary language for each is the physical expressiveness of the human form.

This is Lepage's metier. But the guy from up north likes to create disruption in the landscape. Lepage breaks down boundaries and injects surprises, while keeping the body at the center of his story. Perhaps that is why he calls his production company Ex Machina, from drama's "deus ex machina," meaning "god from a machine" (referring to the ancient method of using a crane to deposit actors on the Greek stage).

Although based on two tales by Hans Christian Andersen, the Andersen Project is a postmodern quest and a pensee about a solitary man confronting identity, art and history.

As usual, Lepage's visual mastery is paramount, the stage a dreamscape of projections, of movement and static figuration, and of layered light on the solitary body that at times creates a loneliness so beautiful it no longer counts as mere loneliness. And if that isn't enough, the landscape is pierced by hilarious monologues that dance their own dance.

Details: Robert Lepage's Andersen Project, 8 p.m. May 28-30, 3 p.m. June 1, Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft Way at Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, $62, 510-642-9988,

THE BODY POLITIC: This month, ODC Theater in San Francisco continues the series called "For the Record: Dancers Debate the Body Politic" in its temporary digs at Theater Artaud. May 1-3 spotlights veteran choreographer and the unsung Bacchante of Bay Area experimentation, Sara Shelton Mann, who founded Contraband in the mid-'80s, a dance troupe that often seemed to double as a social movement.

jim bostick, the reclining bacchante

This month, she completes her three-year work-in-the-making, "Inspirare," reprising part one, "Telios Telios," from 2006, part two, "Inspirare" from 2007, and debuting part three, "RedGoldSky." Shelton Mann incorporates the "total theater" principles of her mentor Alwin Nikolai, the long lines of Cunningham dance style, with ritual elements and collage (for a sneak peek, go to

Mann is followed at Artaud May 8-10 by ex-Bay Area resident Miguel Gutierrez, who is now a fixture in the Brooklyn, N.Y., dance scene. He is a dancer who has invited viewers into his living room to watch him with an intimacy rarely possible in traditional spaces.

For this run, Guttieriez presents "Seduction of Order," a work that contends with the beauty and the politics of the body and is set up as a diptych that is said to address both the act of performance as well as the experience of the performance. (It sounds a little like looking into dressing room mirrors that reflect each other without end.)
Details: Sara Shelton Mann, 8 p.m. May 1-3; Miguel Gutierrez, "Seduction of Order," 8 p.m. May 8-10, Project Artaud Theater, 450 Florida St., S.F., $20 advance, $25 at the door. ODC Box Office: 415-863-9834 (2-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays). ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., S.F.

THARP PREMIERE: For pure dance, dance without a bow to ritual, to words, to allusions to grand drama, Company C Contemporary Ballet's world premiere of a Twyla Tharp dance, "Armenia," at the Dean Lesher this month is a paean to nothing but the genius of a body in motion. Tharp's 14-minute elegantly floor-skimming work has all the carefree ease of signature Tharp with Rubik's Cube intricacy hiding inside. Director Charles Anderson includes his own "Echoes of Innocence," the late Michael Smuin's "Starshadows" and former Taylor dancer David Grenke's "Vespers" on the bill.
Details: Company C, 8 p.m. May 23 and 24, Lesher Center for the Arts, Civic Drive at Locust Street, Walnut Creek. $40 general, $25 students/seniors, 925-943-7469,

THE "IZZIES": And finally, a fine way to usher in May with Terpsichore on your arm is to sample the Isadora Duncan Awards, where more than 40 dancers, dancemakers, technicians, composers, dance companies and ensembles have been nominated for an Izzie in recognition of their outstanding achievement during 2007. It is the one time a year when the dance community turns out in all its wacky splendor to celebrate itself on the eve of National Dance Week, the week when free dance classes are held in studios, universities and colleges all around the Bay.

It's free and open to the public, reception at 6 p.m., awards ceremony at 7 p.m. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, 701 Mission St., San Francisco, 415-920-9181.

Ann Murphy's In Step appears monthly in Weekend Preview. Reach her at

Monday, April 14, 2008

hope. spring. eternal.

The Oakland Ballet as the Comeback Kid drew a big crowd full of tulle-bedecked children, jeans-wearing teens and casually festive families Saturday to see director Ronn Guidi's 1996 production of "The Secret Garden" at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland.

Even some of the seats at the back of the cavernous movie palace were occupied by people other than ushers, and for the first time in decades, Oakland Ballet seemed to have corralled a broad audience.

What was particularly exciting was that some of the ticket holders seemed never to have seen a live theatrical show before, like the teenage boys who laughed at what, to them, sounded like a real-time mishap backstage (the taped sound of a tree falling).

Moments later they realized their mistake when the woman who disappeared into the wings was next seen in her stage husband's arms.

Exposing people to the excitement of live performance can make restagings such as "The Secret Garden" wholly worthwhile, especially when live music is there to bolster the action, as the Oakland East Bay Symphony under Michael Morgan was. Although their playing was uneven, they supported the story with the sweeping, plaintive music of Edward Elgar and it transmitted the physicality of dance as canned music rarely can.

But it would inspire people a whole lot more if they could understand the narrative action without having to read the story. Even people who knew the tale had trouble placing the woman in the sari (danced by Michelle Brown) who tended and seemed to spiritually shelter a lonely young girl named Mary. Was the sari-clad woman real, someone wondered, or a ghost?

And the brevity with which, in the dance, the story's omnipresent housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, appears (danced with hilarious imperiousness by Oakland Ballet alum Joy Gim) also brought confusion. A synopsis would have offered some help. In its place the program listed the titles of the more than 30 scenes and read like a Morse code — "Morning, a week later" or "Mary, in India and her parents' deaths."

During intermission, one mom marched up the aisle telling her daughter that she hoped by Act II to have figured out the story. But even a synopsis wouldn't have solved all problems. Wave upon wave of fast-moving scenes read across the footlights as endless backstory. Not only did the narrative frenzy get exhausting, but the point to it all seemed a long way away. It was.

Based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 classic "The Secret Garden," the ballet revolves around the orphaned and feral Mary and, in echo, her crippled cousin Colin, both damaged by loss and adult neglect. Mirroring them are a few even sourer adults like Colin's father Archibald Craven and Mrs. Medlock. A maid, Martha, and a gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, offset the neglect with attention and care.

The garden surrounding Craven's manor that Weatherstaff tends holds another, secret garden where Colin's mother's accident occurred. Both physically and metaphorically, the garden is the heart of the story, linking love and persistent care to rebirth.

Much about Guidi's "Secret Garden" was valiant 12 years ago and remains so, embodying some of his strongest talents for mise-en-scene, for precise, commedia-style characterizations and for heartwarming story.

Seventeen-year-old Claire Lewis portrayed a captivating Mary and brought her character to devilish life with perfectly pitched gesture, strong dancing and narrative flourish. Longtime company member Michael Lowe as the rheumy Weatherstaff managed to be gently doddering and smoothly funny.

Sensuous Jenna McClintock as the wife Lilias and crisply distant Joral Schmalle as the husband Archibald Craven each brought mature depth to their roles, although Guidi's choreography never rose above the ordinary.

Guidi's greatest strength has always been as a dramatic master of the small detail. Here, as in his "Romeo and Juliet," he uses his acting knowledge to carve out characters we care about. What is missing amid Rod Steger's still-captivating scenic decor and Ariel's warm costumes is a feel for condensed meanings, dance that is sculpted as well as flowing through time.

"The Secret Garden," for all its narrative accuracy, sentimental care, strong performances and kid-friendly flourishes, never moves us. Minus that, I expect that those teenage boys won't be back in the theater anytime soon.

reprinted with permission of the Contra Costa Times