Saturday, June 23, 2007

Learned Hand

"The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure it is right."

Judge Billings Learned Hand, 1944, US Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, 1924-1951.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

pierre le feu

Pierre (aka Le Fou) is on fire now that he has a new home. I think of it as his master suite (some might call it a double wide) with the equivalent of four sofa beds (three dowels reaching end to end and one blanched manzanita branch) and an all-night diner off in the corner near the sunken bath (a silver soap dish).

Although getting him to move was more work than getting the men here to sweep, I ingeniously mated the old cage door with the new, took all the bells and whistles out of the small green loaner and put them into the suite. I then tantalized him with an entire spray of millet (= to a big fat belgian chocolate bar),

Next I laid on the floor, under the glass table, facing the ceiling and waited. I also watched. He'd peek into the doublewide then back off, stand behind the green bars and look longingly in at the canary seed. It reminded me of ballet satire, although which I can't say. I'll have to leave that to the Trocs. Soon he dipped his beak into the new air, but then retreated and affected nonchalance, as though the new cage might disappear if he let on he knew it was there, waiting for him.

I admit that at this point I thought briefly about social theories of control (Foucault), behavior modification (I'm putty in the presence of mint ice cream), and how we discuss freedom as though it were the ultimate Big Mac, this most paradoxical and elusive of virtues. But then Pierre took the leap and he was in. Freedom, he made clear, includes the large cage that protects him from the predator while offering lettuce, seed, water and space enough to dash from wing to wing. Like a young dancer on the Opera House stage, the small fellow stared out with an air of awe and wonderment, watching the trees and listening to the distant trills. Then, for the next hour he flew across his cage. During periodic intermissions, he swelled happily and sang.

The Greeks tend to have multiple words for things that matter, like beauty and friendship. I went in search for the roots behind the word "freedom." Here's a bit of what I discovered at

"The old Germanic words “free” and “freedom” can be traced to the Indo-European *prijos, meaning “dear”, “beloved”, “one’s own”. Akin to this word are the Sanskrit priyas and the Persian (Avestan) fryo, which have the same meaning.

When it comes to Celtic and Germanic sources, we can find the Welsh rhydd, “free” and the Germanic (Gothic) frijon, “to love”, “to be fond of”, frijaz, “beloved”, “belonging to the loved ones”, “not in bondage”, “free”, freis, “free” and freihals, “freedom”, as well as the Old English freo, “wife”. As I mentioned in my Hex magazine article Days of the Week , it has been suggested that the original meaning of *frijaz was probably something like ”from the own clan”, from which a meaning ”being a free man, not a serf” developed.

Also related to the Indo-European root word *prijos are the Gothic frijonds, the Old English freond, the English friend and the German Freund. It has been suggested that in Celtic and Germanic cultures these words were applied to the free members of one’s clan (as opposed to slaves). There is also a connection with the Old English freod, “affection, friendship”, friga “love”, friðu “peace” and the Old Norse friðr and Frigg “wife of Odin”, literally “beloved” or “loving”.

When one seeks and finds the cultural connections of these words and their derivatives, a clearer picture emerges. The terms “free” and “freedom” are revealed to be closely connected not to the modern selfish notions of “doing whatever one wants”, but to communal living and to finding the most intimate expressions of one’s relationships with their loved ones, family, clan, tribe, or nation. This is understandable as real freedom can only be meaningful in the context of society, as the ancient pagan ideas on freedom and responsibility have attested.

When it comes to those who think that new, modern definitions of freedom are better suited for them, I might add that they can always look at the Greek word idios, meaning “one’s own”, “private”, from which comes the word idiot, “the man who thinks of nothing but his own interest”."

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Dance En Creation
SF International Arts Festival
Program II
Robert Moses’ Kin
Compagnie Li-Sangha
Mhaise Productions
May 26, 2007

It was 9:30 pm on a Saturday. After finding a seat at Dance Mission for the late performance in the final days of the SF International Music and Dance Festival, I flipped through the program. I turned the pages this way, and then turned them back. I repeated the action in reverse, then started all over again. I looked at Iris’ booklet, thinking my program had fallen out, or that I was handed the wrong set of papers. But, no, we seemed to have the same thing--a cover with inserts for each of the three different companies about to perform. With nothing else to do, I poured through the background information, and buried in each page I found the key--the names of the dances to come.

I admit I would have preferred a concise road map of the performance with dance names and the list of dancers in the order in which they appeared. That’s what I’m used to and what I have come to expect. And while I urge the organizers to improve their programs next year (especially to jettison the mission statements that cluttered the press packet), as I was driving back to the East Bay over a freeway span miraculously rebuilt in mere weeks, I saw that there was something noteworthy in the fact that my expectations--or to be even more precise, my presumptions--had been challenged by this small matter.

We in the West can get pretty uppity about how things should be. Pretty soon we start levitating above people who do it differently or for whom the world happens to work in another way. In a festival dedicated to the African Diaspora, the matter of the hard-to-find program line-up became a symbol of how so many of us automatically assume the world should function--efficiently and with consummate linearity. Often implicit in such expectations is the naive as well as arrogant belief that these values represent the highest good. We trust that others around the globe (or even at home) agree with them (even if these same people don’t know they agree). If their ideas truly differ we may decide there’s something wrong with them, and, in the worst case, they become our enemy. That may mean we need to start a campaign against them--enemies being dangerous--and possibly invade and thereby liberate them from their benightedness. This is the childish but deadly logic of imperial power. And it can manifest itself over small things as well as large.

Driving home along that stretch of freeway, which circles above the sewage plant, I noted how happy I was to have a sutured road and a functioning sewage plant: I’m not one to scorn modern engineering. But I’m not one to ignore the role of scientific breakthroughs, like the compass, in the rise of colonialism, either, or the microchip in the current plunder of the Democratic Republic of Congo for coltan, a by-product of columbite tantalite. This is a mineral that, refined, turns into $100 a pound heat-resistant powder vital for cell phones, VCRs and computer chips. These thoughts led me to contemplate how no continent has suffered as Africa has suffered from the arrogance, racism and greed of empires or empire wannabes, whether Portuguese, French, British, Dutch, Italian, Belgian, U.S., Soviet or Chinese, while benefiting so little from modern technological advances, modern infrastructure and modern democracy.

This line of thinking wasn’t on the night’s agenda exactly, but the ghosts of 600 years of colonialism haunted the theater in an evening of often beautiful and sometimes chilling dance. The spirits were violently and explicitly present in the intensely physical work by Compagnie Li-Sangha in a dance entitled “Mona-Mambu,” where the quixotic, vicious life in Congo-Brazzaville was embodied as shards that seemed ready at almost every instant to fragment into perilous chaos. In keen contrast, the South African duo Mhayise performed a mythopoetic duet about initiation in the midst of what seemed like the conquest of the Transvaal by European settlers--figures implied by the sound of galloping horse hooves and the neighing of animals as they reared. This pair quietly evoked the power of life cycles to adapt and persist amid the destructive forces of history.

While the myriad faces of Africa (a multiethnic world as layered and complex as our own) were richly captured by the two troupes, Robert Moses' new untitled work gave us a view of the Diaspora in the New World. Full of depth and quiet, melancholic beauty, Moses’ composition sifted African dance steps and Indonesian lunges through his modern movement vocabulary. The result was a thoughtfully recombined and deeply contemporary vision of our own multiethnic reality.

Li-Sangha put together a perfect storm of elements: humor, competitiveness, sexuality, sorrow, play and explosive fury in a posse of young men. Their performance incorporated various languages, multiple dance styles and different approaches to politics, from the ballot box to internecine warfare to pack behavior that slipped from light-hearted to deadly and back. If you’ve seen contemporary crafts coming out of Africa, ingeniously created from junk like bottle caps and old flip flops, you’ve found artifacts that ply time-honored craft with post-industrial detritus. It’s that reinvention of old world amid the new--and the provisional character of reinventing from so little--that Li-Sangha evoked in their dance.

French language dominated the piece, interspersed with an African language I couldn’t name. Death lurked in the shadows, around the bend, even threatened metaphorically in the ballot box. Bach was juxtaposed with a joyous Congolese rendition of Catholic prayer, which ran up against the sounds of a Pygmy jaw harp. The Bible was contrasted to the Koran, drum percussion to the percussive battery of machine gun fire. The Congo, the troupe was telling us, is a land of tense, even irreconcilable oppositions. Tension was broken with humor and then retightened by uncertainty, whether in “shootings” that proved to be horseplay, which, ultimately, may or may not have been deadly, or an ominous ballot box that contained, in the end, not ballots but beer. This relieved anxiety on the one hand but heightened it as the hope of democracy shattered.

The physical language had the same crazy-quilt and paradoxical charge, brazenly athletic one moment (threatening or merely dynamic?) and ritualized the next; intensely modern, yet rooted in a deeply African understanding of the expressive body as an instrument to be played from crown of the head to flat of the foot. As a group, Li-Sangha also conjured up the legions of bright, bored and mischievous youth in any modern city, with the difference that these guys find themselves suddenly thrust into the anarchy of warfare. They made us feel the tenuousness that haunts ravaged and underdeveloped countries as no dance has communicated to me before. They also physicalized the unconquerable nature of the human spirit, which has almost as much need for laughter and invention as for food. According to the program notes, choreographer Orchy Nzaba named the piece for a Congolese expression that means the ability to see reality with clear-sightedness. It was an apt name.

Mhayise Production’s “Umthombi,” meaning “male adolescent,” approached the afflictions of colonialism with a timelessness and ritualized beauty, along with an adept use of silence, that reminded me of butoh’s response to the abomination of the A-bomb. Choreographer Musa Hlatshwayo, tall and elegant, danced beside the small, boyish Ngceba Nzama, an 11th grader from Durban, who attends the Sivanada Technical High School in KwaMashu. From the sounds of an owl, water and a distant drum to the clouds of flour that filled the air toward the end of the work, “Umthombi” honored life’s cycles. Colonialism existed as an unseen force, as cruel and impersonal as drought, or blight, and, as such, part of the existential challenge of a people to endure, outsmart and overcome their conditions.

Hlatshwayo, the initiator and elder, was dressed in ceremonial, rustic fashion, while Nzama was outfitted in shorts and a one-shouldered shirt reminiscent of the Prodigal Son but also contemporary. The older man led the way with calm, even detached wisdom, while the frightened younger man, in a mix of initiatory fear and situational terror, mirrored the older dancer in jerky, unraveling spurts, like someone jumping out of his skin or attempting to disappear. Yet transformation for the young man was underway, and this was apparent through a sense of journeying propelled by a large, even mysterious, purpose. Physically we saw the initiatory process take place as Nzama’s hand grew progressively more expressive and his arms became eloquent and wing-like, like a molting bird.

Moses has a great gift for shaping space with elegance and subtlety, and here he combined that with his sophisticated approach to music; the music served both as a map for the dance and as counterpoint to the dance’s internal rhythms. The effect, with shadows lancing the stage space, dancers performing West African steps of gathering or cleansing with an air of remembering, was to create a quiet pensée on the Diaspora. Full of ancestral echoes, the movement was not denatured but reimagined. As in Moses' very best work, it signaled a wistful belief in the transubstantiation of historic pain and sorrow into living beauty.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Pierrot Le Fou

I asked for a bird, and received a Parisian Canary. For the moment I'm calling him Le Fou, since, as Sasha says, he looks crazy, like something perpetually trapped in a windtunnel. He's tiny and his feathers are yolk yellow, white, charcoal and bark brown, all scrambled about in a frilly whirl that ought to become inspiration for next spring's fashion. He came to us wounded--his girlfriend, maybe sensing his impending departure, attacked his foot, and he dripped small amounts of blood on his perch during his first 24 hours. All the same he began singing the very day he arrived, which I took as a sign that he approved of his new surroundings. He's warmed to the call of sparrows and finches through the open door, and hasn't seemed to mind the crasser caterwaul of the foot-long crows that appear like inky blots in the air above the garden. (For the moment, the jays have disappeared.) I take him out in his cage for air, but worry as the overfed robins and the wily squirrels begin circling in. Animal curiosity or something more predatory? I don't wait to find out. I bring Le Fou inside.

This morning I put on the radio, having read that this species loves classical music. Now Fou is singing in loving, if independent, accompaniment. The song that projects grandly from his tiny mouth is exquisitely pitched and variously phrased. He inquisitively chirps as though to say--So? So? and then launches into complex arias. Right now the local classical station is playing a segment called "For The Birds," and Fou is alternately silenced and provoked to elaborate song. He really let go during the Swan Lake Waltz No. 2.

The Parisian Canary is solitary, timid and a bit high strung. I know the type.

His flying is limited to a great deal of horizontal dashing, the kind Mark Morris' dancers often do in chorus. And then of a sudden he'll flutter his wings with flourish, also like one of Mark's dancers, and remind you that beauty, joy and pleasure arrive suddenly, like bubbles from below, and just as suddenly are gone.

Thursday, June 7, 2007


A week ago I noticed commotion in the palm tree outside my window. I moved to the glass slowly and watched two creatures darting to and from a branch. A pair of mourning doves were frantically carting plant matter to the tree and hastily building a nest. But what a nest. Twigs seemed to spill out into a shapeless and carelessly crafted shanty, like shelter one would erect, stranded in the woods, as a hurricane rolled in. Next thing, the lady bird sat down, swelling like a cartoon of herself. What happened to planning? I wondered.

The idyll was short-lived. The neighboring bluejays didn't take kindly to the interlopers. Within hours they began strafing the area around the tree and screeching with ballistic aggression that, at times, resembled a diabolical "Hah". Mr. Mourning Dove stood anxiously on the edge of the palm frond, nervously watching Ms. Dove. Was there a military action in the works--a skirmish, perhaps? Or, worse, an outright territorial dispute? I had no doubt that the jays, twice the size of the doves and with a belligerent disposition to match, would win.

The next day the nest was deserted.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Expect To Feel Your Legs: Notes on a Winter Butoh Performance

It’s disarming when the familiar becomes strange (as when you’ve been sitting too long and can’t feel your legs). And that’s what happened the night in February I was unable to find the 2800 block of wily Mariposa Street. This is a street that appears and disappears rather randomly along its route. It didn’t help that every instinct in me was off that night and each turn I made ill-begotten. Even my map made a mess of things, and the young gas attendant with his broken English and intelligent eyes steered me badly. When I found the theater, 10 minutes past show time, just up from the gas station, I mentally hit myself in the head.The theater had been hiding in plain sight.

As happens, my weird circumnavigations were soon echoed by the alogical, discursive but resonant journey taken by Shinichi Iova-Koga in the solo show Milk Traces. Iova-Koga is the founder of inkBoat and a performer of preternatural expressiveness and sensitivity.

I think of his brand of butoh as the visual corrollary of reading cuneiform writing with the help of a faded translation key. His works resemble the efforts of other butoh artists, but what sets him apart is how he’s willing to plunge deep enough into the unconscious to reach the strange terrain of the archetypical, endowing single instants of experience with waves of meaning and often disturbing beauty. With little fanfare, these moments can take one to the stratosphere and back, leading to such discursive thoughts as the nature of space/time and whether, as some physicists think, multiple dimensions exists simultaneously, folding in on each other like origami or the cerebral cortex. Could that mean that Iova-Koga’s poetry is able to touch some other space/time in a dimension at our elbows? At moments, as when he sat on an aluminum chair back and peered into an old suitcase, took out a delicate tea cup and drank, it seemed he did.

Here is a man who can fall over backwards in a chair repeatedly and make each instance newly clownish and shocking. He rolls and, tied to a vine of red cloths, finds his physical limits anew. His leaps are brought up short by the tether that smacks him back to his starting place. But rather than leaving us with a reductive image of freedom versus entanglement, Iova-Koga creates a deeper, more nuanced picture of leaving and return--a cycle in which bounding and rebound are equally valid, of comparable interest, and unspoiled by Romantic hierarchies.

Objects, too, are given poetic richness, from an egg and an onion to the almost physical sound of crickets. Kimono are not mere kimono; they are mythical coats oddly cut, layered or suspended. They echo a culture, its practices, its codes and the breach of those codes. They are also just the simple things themselves.

If one had any doubt that this is a master poet who can pluck runes from the air and make them materialize before us, Iova-Koga produced a small blackboard as the haunting performance came to an end and began to make crisp chicken scratches on it. Before long words took shape out of the chaos of lines: WHERE ARE YOU? I WAIT.

inkBoat performs a new work, Our Breath is as Thin as A Hummingbird's Spine, in July in SF.

From inkBoat’s website:

“Each motion or action should contain physical or psychological risk. Don’t be a technique automaton! Only a dance on the edge of control reveals the honest life. Fall into everything (or nothing). Our work is to transform (sometimes abruptly, sometimes gently) the space within the body. The mind is a place with a lot of mud. Learn to shine from within that mud.

Following imagery and surrendering to the moment, we’ll work in solo, duet and group improvisations. Through intensive reduction, our personal body reality and existence clarifies to reveal beauty, grotesqueness and humor.

Work with necessary tension, releasing the unnecessary to let the dance become permeable and malleable. We work from the center (tanden) to move the far-reaching limbs. Develop listening in relation to time, space and motion.

Expect to feel your legs."

The Hunger Artist

"So I found / that hunger was a way/ of persons outside windows/ that entering takes away." Emily Dickinson

No one who attended Thursday’s production of Humansville, or any other night’s for that matter, saw exactly the same show, not because some were privy to disasters or bits of tawdriness others missed. It was because director/choreographer Joe Goode, maker of wry, ambling tales of quotidian yearning, gave us choices—of doors to enter, scenes to view, order to follow and narrative organization to build as we progressed from one Humansville vignette or moment to another. The instructions were simple: enter by one of two doors. Walk around for a half hour. Each segment would be repeated three times, presumably affording all viewers a chance to see each of the dramas. Then take a seat.

I chose to enter via the park, having an old allergy to crowds, and as I made the choice I was already embarking on a self-conscious assessment of why I was choosing what. I plunged into the darkened Forum space and immediately encountered cellist Joan Jeanrenaud on a small platform. Standing a long time listening to her haunting harmonic composition, I nearly forgot that time was limited. I snapped to and headed off to my right, disarmed to find that her music, thanks to the soundman Greg Kuhn, was even bigger miked into the adjacent area. There I found a comically static and visually complex scene with Marit Brook-Kothlow and Felipe Barrueto-Cabello, impassive and chair-bound, as the anguished-couple-who-will-never-meet-soul-to-soul.

Soon I understood that it was precisely this kind of dislocation of sound and image that gave an edgy charge to the installation. Several times I noted in myself a Pavlovian hunger to scramble after what was hidden from view yet heard, suggested in fragments in a mirror, or filmed one place and projected elsewhere. Human yearning was built into the very physicality of the installation and endowed Humansville with juicy paradoxes. The conceptual framework also gave the production heft, making vignettes feel more substantial.

Since his artistic beginnings in the Bay Area, Goode’s work has been obsessed with the questions of what does it mean to be a gay man who hungers for intimacy? What is true desire? What is intimacy between men, between gay men and women? In Humansville, Goode asserts there is connection in the mere effort to connect.

Although solemn-faced Brook-Kothlow and Barrueto-Cabello were seated four feet from each other and never interacted, their shared plight did, to a degree, connect them. A projection of the moon hung above to their right, and words accumulated over each head: “patient” for Brook-Kothlow; “itchy” for Barrueto-Cabello; “gives everything” for her; “too upset to notice” for him. The anguished face of a woman in a headscarf crying an extended, silent cry flamed up. The sadness of the lovers’ dilemma, the frustration of human longing—it was all there. But Goode is not one to get too lugubrious. On an opposing screen, video images of a seductive woman appeared: “Touch me,” she insisted. People touched. “Thank you,” she replied. “Touch me here,” she continued. “Thank you,” she purred.

My next foray led me to a place where irony and American gothic merged in prototypical Goode fashion. Around the corner, Jessica Swanson was holding court in a suburban 50s bedroom (lattice and rose wallpaper), personifying a shrill Bobby-soxer with a routine of iconic pin-up gestures, gasps and coos that she engaged when not on the phone to her boyfriend. A little window in the set allowed passersby to peer into the scene. Simultaneously, we could overhear a harpie (Patrica West) screeching in another alcove to a maitre’d about botched reservations, forshadowings, perhaps, of the teenager as middle-aged woman.

Further on, two men (Melecio Estrella and Alexander Zendzian) dressed in only boxers were installed in adjacent cells with what seemed to be Piramus and Thisbe-style holes through which to talk. Although trapped and separate, one asked the other how he’d managed to escape. They hurled themselves against the floor and wall, performed neck stands and heaved and fell. Slender rectangular windows in the rear wall let us see audience members passing along a hallway dividing the installations. Suddenly we all became voyeurs, peering in on the action, as well as the viewed.

As part two got underway, the audience seated, Jeanneraud resumed her composition, echoing the beginning. We were presented with video images of the lovers’ faces merging in an oddly literal fashion, a presage of the over-earnest hunger for connection that stuck to part two like flypaper.

That hunger was especially apparent in Goode’s voiceover. He brought us back to the theme of unbounded female giving versus male withholding, but with a smarmy tone that suggested there’s more to the story than even he knows, a recurring problem in his texts: “She makes me believe that sharing is possible,” he gushed. The tale about a sexy young guy (Estrella) playing peek-a-boo by the pool with aging peepers was similarly undigested, combining snarky cleverness with emotional piety.

But much of the ensemble dancing was forthright, and the company, with the addition of Andrew Ward, moved with a new sinewy power. The hightlight was Brook-Kothlow plastering her flesh inch by inch against elegant Barrueto-Cabello’s. In fact, it was one of the loveliest and more naked studies of human yearning I’ve seen in years. Set design was brilliantly realized by Erik Flatmo, with video design by Austin Forbord, lights by Jack Carpenter and costumes by Wendy Sparks.

BTW: Humansville is a real city in Missouri, population 946.