Sunday, February 25, 2007

Fight Before Beauty

I drove up 9th, crossed Market and merged left, aiming to get one of the prized spaces near Van Ness. But blocks away, all on-street parking was taken even though it was early yet--a little past 7.

I soon realized that the problem wasn’t only that it was a wet windy night and Sleeping Beauty was opening. Davies Hall was also ready for business, a reggae concert was underway at the Bill Graham center, and who knew what City Hall was weathering. The situation was grim. Even my dependable parking lot was jammed with cars doubled down its length. Still, I slowed to check out the situation and noticed that a couple were heading from their car out of the carpark in the direction of the theater. I decided to investigate and plowed in. Right away I discovered an open space next to the old ticket booth and the new money depository. It probably was too small for any but a diminuttve car like mine. I just had to figure out how to pull in and leave room to open the door.

As I was about to try and manuever into the narrow slot, wondering if I had five dollars to cram into the machine, I caught sight in the rear view mirror of a lopsided guy wearing a cap and shuffling up to the car from out of the dark. He looked shattered and needy, too much so to be working the lot, which made me hestitate to roll down my window. Yet last time I encountered such a guy he seemed like the real deal, with a change belt to prove it. What better job could such a fellow have? Then I noticed the red and white ticket stubs clutched in his hand. Okay, so he does work the lot, I thought.

I rolled down my window.

Wanna park? he asked hungrily.

How much is it?

Ten dollars.

Oh, I said. I think I’ll look for something on the strreet.

Well, I’ll make it five, he offered quickly, not unkindly. Just back up over here.

The parking attendant was black and in advanced middle age, working hard to be official, despite a lack of focus, and proving himself flexible. I liked that spirit. But what kind of spot do you get for half price?

The rain was sifting down in a soft veil. It was difficult to see as I moved in reverse, so I inched back nervously. The attendant watched with a bruised and bewildered air. I shared the confusion--cars were everywhere and there seemed to be nowhere to turn.

Suddenly a second man, trim and Indian, lurched up out of the darkness. I slammed on my brakes. He began screaming at the ticket taker and pushed him hard. The attendant shoved back and the fight was on, awkward, muscular, and vicious as real violence is. My windows were closed but I began screaming at them to stop, instantly fogging up the car. I rolled down the windows, stuck my head out, and continued screeching.

The shambling man had stolen the second man’s bounty.

The Indian man, breathless, came up to my car ranting.

I said: You shouldn’t fight. It’s not good for your--should I say karma? That sounded patronizing and corny--soul, I said. It harms you.

Don’t you see the signs everywhere? It says not to give money to anyone claiming to be an attendant. They’re all over the lot.

Can I park there? pointing at the narrow slot open.

NO, there’s no parking, he raged.

I know you need to make the money yourself--

I don’t need to make money. I own the lot. The lot is closed. I’m going to have all these people towed. He’s blocked the cars and people can’t get out and they’re calling me on my cell phone telling me I’m liable. No one is supposed to park here until 6am tomorrow when the construction crew comes. They were supposed to put up barriers so no one can get in.

You can’t tow them, I said. They’ve gone to the symphony and the ballet. They’re at a concert.

I’ve put signs everywhere.

Maybe you could--

They’re telling me I’m responsible.

Call the police. Tell them what happened.

I’m calling them right now.

Ask them to help.

Yes, I’ll call the police. I’m sorry, I’m very sorry.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

just copying

My travesty of the day, a pastiche from the early part of "Gilead" with apologies to Maryilynne Robinson, author of this quiet, spiritual tale

"Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample on it. For me writing has always felt like praying. You feel that you are with someone. Sifting through my thoughts and choosing my words. Trying to say what was true. In writing this, I notice the care it costs me not to use certain words more than I ought to. I am thinking about the word "just". I almost wish I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughted--when it's used that way it does indicate a stress on the word that follows it, and also a particular pitch of the voice. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity or lavishness, at any rate something ordinary in kind but exceptional in degree. So it seems to me at the moment. There is something real signified by that word "just" that proper language won't acknowledge. "

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

So there's no dance in Pan's Labyrinth

Okay, so there's no dance in the stunning new film Pan's Labyrinth. But dancemakers can be inspired by its structure, especially now, when dance often seems to have lost its ability to use movement and space with deep purpose.

Pan is a terrifying and beautiful fairy tale about evil, rebellion, and redemption through fearless goodness, and it is a brave, timely film that never shrinks from vivid physical violence and disturbing, even unpalatable mystery. When the crisp fascist Captain Vidal kills two innocent villagers, for instance, he does it with a sensual precision, and that precision seems to emanate from an absolute and efficient cruelty almost too horrifying to contemplate. He is the inhuman in human form, the earthly equivalent of the denatured monster we meet dwelling underground and woken by young Ofelia, the Captain's stepdaughter.

Ofelia is del Toro’s heroine, and like Psyche she is sent on a mythic mission with several seemingly impossible challenges to meet. One of them is to draw a door anywhere in her room with magic chalk and enter the underworld beyond. She is told to reject all food and drink, no matter what, and to use a magical key to uncover a knife before the sands of a minute clock have all fallen. But Ofelia is human, and she eats enchanted grapes at the monster's table. As in all fairy tales, terrible events are suddenly unleashed: the monster comes to life.

This is not your run-of-the-mill bad guy. This is a vilely embryonic but ancient creature who is a physical blank. He has no eyes in his head. His eyeballs in fact sit on a dish on the table until he is conscious and can slip them into slits in his hands. He then lurches up from his chair to hunt down his young prey. He holds his palms against his head; he waves them in the air. The monster is a seeing brain stem, a cognizant physical force driven to track and consume the naive, the weak, the unsuspecting. The Captain is just as elemental, precisely as evil, and it makes the mind and soul squirm to be reminded that such people are in our midst.

As a storyteller and moralist del Toro's power resides in the fact that he makes us feel those forces through a journey to multiple physical and metaphysical levels. He moves us from place to place, takes us down into assorted underworlds, up into the confinement of Ofelia's pregnant mother, out into the woods, deep into a labyrinth. In each place different forces, often competing, are at work.

The camera catches the Captain in his enormous quarters shaving, for example. First we circle him. Then the camera sneaks up; suddenly the image stutters, lurches. Next the camera apparates to the other end of the room, eye still on the man. The effect is vertiginous. The Captain himself seems to have power over the camera while being oblivious to it, and it is one of the ways we discover that he is the devil’s double.

While choreographers can’t make audience members omniscient, they can manipulate the meaning of space. Librettist Theopile Gautier and choreographer Jean Coralli made Giselle’s village clearing in Act I a forest glade where dangerous enchantments take place in Act II. More recently, Angelin Preljocaj delineated the powerful and the powerless in his Romeo and Juliet by the kinds of steps they performed and where they performed them: the oppressive Capulets danced like Cossack soldiers across the stage while the mischievous Montague boys resembled raucous street urchins from West Side Story, darting in and out of the dominant space. Tere O'Connor establishes the archetypical amid the banal in Lawn by appearing as a hag on film, like Madge from La Sylphide, or Nature herself, darting behind trees, running out on to a large lawn, capturing lost plastic bags and napkins, while dancers on stage move with jarring dreaminess. The upshot is that each world penetrates and reflects the other, disturbing us as dreams disturb us.

Such layering isn’t the exclusive domain of loosely narrative dance, either. Merce Cunningham establishes interpenetrating realities in Ocean by arraying the dance in concentric circles. There’s the circle the dancers move in below the ticket holders, the circle (or quasi circle in Berkeley’s case) the audience inhabits, and then the upper loop where the musician encircle the entire action. Symbolism is rife here, alluding to far more than brainy movement by preternaturally adept dancers. Each stratum establishes a different realm of time and space. The dancers are at the center of a well of time, revealing our mythic beginnings with African kick steps and leading us on a journey that is hypermodern and yet ancient. The musicians allude to a sphere beyond time. We, the audience, are sandwiched between the two, which, in a nutshell, describes the plight of being human.

Last month Ellis Wood Dance performed Hurricane Flora: Inferno at the Cowell Theater. While she tapped the primal feminine with stunning abandon, Wood’s dance phrases were often too lax and unpatterned to fully harness her volatility and make it legible on multiple levels, especially competing with Ed Rawlings’ elegant video of sky and leaves. What if Woods had alluded to the actual structure of the hurricane Flora of 1963, which had depressions, convergences, a center, cyclonic loops and a calm eye? Wood might have gained eloquence had she constricted the women in space the way she constricts herself to a single spot in Stella, then sent them looping fiercely. Such limitation paradoxically leads to boundary defying resonance. Jose Limon, for instance, is able to communicate Judas’ impending betrayal in The Traitor by taut expressive opposition, his movements circling in, coiling, snapping. In Viktor Pina Bausch creates a host of associations by tightly constraining the actions of a female chorus. These women transform Odette’s iconic preening into the despondent and obsessive tics of apron-clad drudges, and the effect is both tragic and hilarious, transcending any single historical moment, or any particular group of women.

Because he shows the mythic dimension of fascism and its earthly cost, del Toro is able to invent a man who is more than a mere man, someone who can’t be reduced to a political struggle, an Oedipal wound, or a characterological flaw, even though all those things obtain. The filmmaker settles for nothing so complacent or cozy. Those who do--the mayor and priest and their consorts who sit at Vidal’s table and agree with every utterance he makes--are complicit in the Captain’s crimes.

The question for dancemakers is how to make the private resonate beyond our narrow personal boundaries? How to include the individual inferno in the public storm and vice versa, and do it through distilled action? And is that storm healthy or about to kill us?

For del Toro the answer is unequivocal--if Ofelia doesn’t take up her mythic tasks, which again and again require her to place herself in spaces so constraining that they are almost suffocating, an ancient fig tree--the tale’s tree of paradise-- will die. Sure, the future of the world doesn’t depend on choreographers adeptly expressing our contemporary plight. And we already see that if dance can’t do it, other arts (with Latin film in the lead) will take up the challenge. But because the body is the centerpiece of human existence, dance has a direct link to the primitive as well as the sublime. It may be time to look at The Green Table again and to take a page from Graham’s Into the Maze.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Happy Birthday Paul

The Bay Area's erudite dance critic and wordsmith turned 60 today, and as evening fell he was feted in his cottage by old Rhodes scholar friends, university professors, neighbors, and fellow travelers from the dance world. His Berkeley digs have the feel of a cabin in the Humboldt County redwoods crossed with a bookish, slightly British bohemianism. Throw a little of the deep South in for good measure (Paul begins to drawl when he's self-conscious). But then that's Paul's trajectory: California, England, Mississippi.

Paul, we are waiting for your book.

If you haven't had occasion to read him, go to danceviewtimes where he's a frequent contributor, or San Francisco Magazine, where he's the resident dance writer. His essays on the SF Ballet are a paragon of the rich incisiveness that ballet writing can yet rarely does achieve.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Lift a rock, watch the sky

I don't remember a time when dance didn't seize me with a wild happiness. May Day circling around a tall pole in a Manhattan playground. Doing the Hokey Pokey because that was what it was all about. Hoola Hooping to music. Ballroom dancing in a striped dress and white gloves. Riding my bike was a form of dance and so was leaping off swings with aesthetic intent.

Codified dance is only part of the story.

And thank god for television. At three I was mesmerized by Shirley Temple. She tapped down stairs that gleamed like piano keys, working her little legs hard with her partner, Bill "Bo Jangles" Robinson, performing beside her with a silken, deeply human elegance. Later, American Bandstand made lots of us hunger to be old enough to do the Mashed Potato or perfect the Boogaloo, and when the time came we honed the latest steps until they shined. Once in awhile I switched on WPIX's televised gospel singing Sunday morning to see how the Harlem choir moved as it sang--or were they singing as they moved? I was never sure. And occasionally PBS programmed modern dance, before I even knew what modern dance was. One morning it showed the seismic slitherings of Twyla Tharp's new company. The dancers let their feet wander away from their liquid torsos and then return, the whole thing resembling jazz but not jazz, performed introspectively but together, and I didn't exactly understand it, but it intuitively and irrevocably enlarged my grasp of dance.

I thought that cheerleading was a form of dance, and that marching bands that performed beautifully synchronized strutting to bright, brassy sound could be dance. Little girls teaching each other the latest steps on a North Oakland front porch was thrilling dance and so was my brother's hipswiveling moves in front of a mirror. His insecure vanity was comical but his style was just right--understated and cooly sexy.

The Catholic Church of my childhood frowned on dancing. But like sin and goodness, movement was everywhere, sensually beautiful and more heavenly than a funeral mass. Besides, how do you censure the flight of starlings and the kickstep of leaves in the wind, the telepathic on-a-dime turns by an entire herd of elk and the concerted movements of ants in a kitchen? Dance is part of our dna, with our strands of genetic information entwined in a fundamental promenade. Lift a rock and the insects dance. Watch the sky, and the stars dance too. is dedicated to the art in that vein.