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New Dance Horizons

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I snagged a ticket to “New Dance Horizons” at The Touhill a few weeks ago through my friend, Saundra. (Thanks, Saundra!) 

It was a pleasant surprise that several of my students were dancing before the show and during intermission, performing a piece called “The Bus” (or “On The Bus?”) which commented on racism and resilience. I have an image in my mind of the end of the piece, in which my student, Chastity leaned into the standing audience, doing repetitive hip rolls (?) in a clump of young dancers, with a determined, calm gaze in her eyes that made her stand out to me. Or when Tobias jumped confidently and eloquently in bare feet, coaxing a younger, little girl member of the dance troupe to perform for him. Or when Eleanor, a compassionate and sophisticated young white teen, vigorously danced the part of the driver of the segregated bus… They were all costumed in white collared button down t-shirts and navy skirts and pants, (excepting Eleanor’s driver’s cap) which to me, conjured the daily grind, the working class, the to and fro jostle of showing up ready and on-time in a world that wears a harsh and hostile face. 

This intimate, full-force performance was an inspiring prelude to three world premiere dances organized around the theme, “Women Who Inspire.” 

The first piece, by Saint Louis Ballet, was a painterly, spiritual, at once visually calming and stunning tribute to the music of Hildegard of Bingen, a “12th-Century German Benedictine abbess and mystic… who composed an entire corpus of sacred music…” The dancers wore variously saturated flesh tones that felt like the gradations of light in a Renaissance painting.

The image that sticks with me is a line of three (?) male/female partners, with the delicate and emotive ballerina balanced by her male partner as she pirouetted, developéd, and contracted in a syncopated rhythm that felt reverent and prayerful. (Hmm… I wonder how a non-religious person would interpret this piece…)

The second piece by Madco, “Art Is a Guarantee of Sanity,” was inspired by Susannah Cahalan, the author of “Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness,” who suffered psychotic episodes, among other things, as a result of the disease, Anti-NMDA-Receptor Autoimmune Encephalitis. 

The piece was incredible, and very painful for me to watch. It was so riveting, though, I couldn’t look away — in large part, out of plain admiration for the dancers’ athleticism and emotional commitment in the midst of something so physically demanding.

As a drone-like, bluish light buzzed over a dancer hinging, un-hinged-like, to the rhythm of her own loud, anguished exhales, I was struck by a dancer’s ability to express the inner turmoil of a brain so eloquently through the body, through the timing of a breath, the tilt of a walk, and most hauntingly, through intervals of graceful, almost balletic, zombie-esque seated arm movements that convey the numbing effect of high-wattage medication. 

The last piece, by The Big Muddy Dance Company, was called Destino, Roto. Choreographer Stephanie Martinez writes that she was inspired by “many people,” including “the Latino cultural influence my family brings to my life” and texts by poet Gabriela Mistral. It seemed to be the most narrative of the three pieces, and it leaned on a lot of theatrical elements: fire engine red high heels, the Mistral recordings, costume changes… I honestly found it a little confusing, but I’m eager to see more of The Big Muddy.

Just yesterday, one of my creative writing students, Ana, who is also taking dance composition, was exploding with enthusiasm over her ability to create precise formations using Google Slide. Cracks me up — the day before spring break. She’s a kick-ass dancer with blue hair and curves who happens to be a an awesome writer as well.

I was showing my class the movie Dancemaker, about Paul Taylor (she had already seen it) with a list of reflection questions about the creative process for dance/the performing arts versus the creative process for writing. I noticed she was engrossed in her chromebook during the final scene, when Taylor’s company performs a world premiere of a new piece about the transient, exploitative nature of many adult romantic relationships. “Ana!” I called out. “I never get sick of watching this… Can you?” “Eh,” she replied, “It’s kind of formulaic. You know, Mrs. O’Donnell, every dance has a formula.”

I nodded and smiled… What should I have said?? 

Farewell Chicago

brunurb P1090489 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0I have seven more nights to sleep in my Chicago bed. Seven more 5:30 am snoozes filled in by the sound of dump trucks reversing, ambulances speeding, cabbies honking, and heels clicking on pavement outside my bedroom window. Am I feeling nostalgic? Not so much, as a matter of fact. I’ve reached a point where the allure of the city, in all its gritty, gray, urban glory, has faded for me. I’m ready for a shorter commute. I’m ready for bigger patches of green grass, for big, old trees that aren’t plopped in the middle of a concrete sidewalk with a copper plate covering for protection. I’m ready for pizza that isn’t Chicago style pizza — and yes, that especially includes Imo’s, even if it does resemble “Velveeta on a cracker.” I’m ready for snow that melts, rather than transforming into a coal-black packed powder for weeks on end. I’m ready for longer springs, longer autumns, shorter, warmer winters.

Did I mention that I’m ready? At the same time, I’m already anticipating that moment when the absence of all that Chicago has to offer suddenly tugs at me, when suddenly I’m aware that I’ve given up a great deal and I can’t go back to it. I know it’s coming. So here’s a little list of Chi town places I’ll especially miss, hopefully with some appeal for both readers well-acquainted and completely unfamiliar with the windy city:

The Old Town School of Folk Music is one of my favorite places to see live music in Chicago. In addition to offering a wide range of classes in a wide range of instruments for both kids and adults, Old Town hosts so many great concerts. This March I saw Los San Patricios, a concert about Irish immigrants’ contributions to the Mexican-American war, jointly produced by the Sones de Mexico and the Irish Music School of Chicago and featuring a fusion of Mexican and Irish music and dance. Another favorite was a performance a few years ago by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell, performing songs from their joint album, Kin.

Joseph Kranak Signature Room CC BY 2.0LSD, as in Lakeshore Drive, is such a gem. The glint of sun on the corner of skyscrapers. Wide swaths of lake, stretching toward the horizon. Belmont Harbor, with its promise of leisurely summer days spent out on the water. An open view of Buckingham Fountain, whose spray hits the sky just so, making a rainbow. Joggers and bikers cutting their path, making the city feel lived in, alive. Warm days when the beaches are loaded with people. Cool days when the sand is iced over, windswept into craggy piles. Gray, dry  days when the city is a blend of blue, silver, and white.

Andrew Seaman Davis Theater CC BY-ND 2.0The Davis Theater, located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, is almost 100 years old, with a definite old-timey feel, established by antique posters, retro vending equipment, and four theaters displaying high, smallish screens and dingy, threadbare seats that you can’t help but love. It’s a refreshing respite from the brightly lit, commercial complexes where movies are more frequently shown today. Perhaps it’s most admirable feature, though, is the name — speaking as one, it’s hard not to love a “Davis” 🙂

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 11.32.31 AMSpeaking of Davis’s, I will sorely miss Davis Street Fish Market, purporting on their website to be “Chicago’s #1 Seafood Destination.” I have a long history with this place. I recall eating there with my parents on a college visit to Northwestern, and celebrating my graduation there a few years later. These days my husband and I like to journey over to Evanston on a Friday night for some “Crescent City Cioppino,” replete with scallops, crawfish, clams, shrimp, mussels, tomato, and fennel, or maybe some Jambalaya. Well, we used to. I suppose I’ll need a new seafood spot in the Lou.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 11.58.32 AMI’m not a big shopper, but I have some great memories of sorting through Knee Deep Vintage‘s collection of dresses, t-shirts, bags, and shoes. Open since 2008, the shop is located on 18th Street, in Pilsen, on Chicago’s south side. I bought an army green dress with a gold print, 1950s-style, with a cinched waist, stiff collar and 3-quarter cuffed sleeves, and pleated flare skirt that I was intent on sporting for Halloween, Mad Men style, but it’s just been hanging in my closet for the last five years. I finally donated it the other day. Still, it was a rare find, and I’m glad I went knee deep for it.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 12.12.52 PMDak is a Korean barbecue joint near my house whose praises I also sung on the site Food Riot. A clean, spare, small space with blonde wooden tables, gray floors, and plentiful spools of paper towels, Dak is good for two versions of wings: one with a soy/garlic/ginger sauce, and a spicy red pepper version. Rice bowls are also on the menu, containing veggies, a fried egg, and a sweet/spicy red pepper sauce, but my favorite is their Bulgogi — thinly sliced steak lightly dredged in Korean barbecue sauce served alongside a sticky mound of white rice. They also make a mean eggroll and a tasty batch of sweet potato waffle fries that are hard to resist.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 3.06.01 PMSpeaking of neighborhood haunts, it’ll be hard to part with Devon Market. The Edgewater grocery store has fresh bread baked in store, a large produce section, a wide assortment of Mexican style meats, international pantry items, and is such a bargain compared to the bigger chains.

Patrick Emerson Follow Harold Washington Library Patrick Emerson CC BY-ND 2.0How I’ll miss the Harold Washington Library, and the entire Chicago Public Library system. The sheer size and vibrancy of Chicago’s libraries, housed in so many beautiful and historic locations, is something to be savored. (I think Sulzer Regional Library in Lincoln Square is a close second for me.) And for a bit of trivia, did you know that the city’s public library system was set into motion after the Great Chicago Fire, when 8,000 books were donated from England? Now you do 🙂

Rachel 365/28 Lao Sze Chuan CC BY-NC 2.0

Lao Sze Chuan is, hands down, my favorite place to eat Chinese food in the city. They have a delectable eggplant pork dish that’s soft and buttery and decadent, a mayonnaise shrimp item that sounds disgusting but is strangely addictive, delicious crispy beef dishes, irresistible steamed dumplings, and warm pots of fresh tea. That said, their menu is extensive, and in all my times eating there, I’ve only scraped the tip of the iceberg. Don’t take my word for it — this place has received numerous awards from the city’s culinary community. It’s a fairly widespread favorite.

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 2.11.39 PMAnd… last, but certainly not least, I will miss Links Hall, a performance space for independent artists — a place to take risks, generate new work, and expose Chicago audiences to new horizons. With all its artistic offerings, I doubt Saint Louis has a place quite like it. Aw shucks.

So there you go. As I prepare to journey southward, I remember that Chicago is a loaded, special place, full of places and people and meals to be missed. What’s your favorite Chicago gem??

 

 

“Will You Take Me As I Am,” Part Two

“An artist seizes the passing moments that many of us forget, worries them through a whirl of sensitivity and sensibility, and elevates them into lasting artistic statements.” — Michelle Mercer

Thomas Hawk Indoor Fireworks, Plate 2 (CC BY-NC 2.0)A few weeks ago I shared my obsession with Joni Mitchell after discovering music critic Michelle Mercer’s “Will You Take Me As I Am, Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period,” a brief analysis of the many aesthetic and philosophical approaches that make Joni’s music strike such an original chord with her devoted fans. Part history, part criticism, part biographical portrait, the book is a somewhat rambling and sprawling portrait of Mitchell around the making of Blue and subsequent albums For the Roses, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Hejira. The organization of Mercer’s chapters often seems loose, even cobbled together, pulling together asides from her interviews with the singer-songwriter and bouncing back and forth from an array of tangential topics, but the bottom-line is that any bonafide Joni fan will delight in the specificity of Mercer’s praise for Joni’s music, finding a voice for an avid listener’s many unarticulated impressions. The last three chapters explore Joni’s stylistic evolution following Blue, the ways in which this defining work led her in new directions. Here’s a brief summary:

As mentioned in my previous post, Joni was very conflicted about her reputation as a “confessional” songwriter — she wanted her songs to be universal, to embody the experience of the listener, rendering references to specific events and people in her own life irrelevant. At the same time, the deep mining of self, the intense self-exposure that made Blue so aching and intimate, is one of Joni’s signature strengths as an artist. In “Beyond Personal Songwriting,” Mercer explores this defining feature of Mitchell’s sensibility and the forces that led her to move beyond it.

According to Mercer, one factor was that the up-and-coming songwriters of the 1970s, unlike Dylan, Mitchell, and Young in the 1960s, did not have the lyrical sophistication to transform autobiography into complex, universal truths. She writes that “the difference between earlier autobiographical songs and later ones is something like the difference between a piece of writing that evokes a ‘small sob in the spine of the reader,’ which is how Nabokov once described his writing aims, and a journal entry that vents feelings.” Another factor was the fading away of the 1960s counterculture — the previous crop of singer-songwriters implicated society in their exploration of personal struggles, and as this wave of disillusionment fell away, so did the muscle of their confessions.

So Joni responded in a couple of ways: she invented characters, rendering new songs more like dramatic monologues, and she recast her music in the rich sounds of world music. In the mid 1970s Joni recruited the band the L.A. Express for her promotional tour of Court and Spark, lending the album a new feeling of theatricality and artifice, in contrast to the idea of an exposed, vulnerable solo artist alongside her instrument, mining nothing more than her personal experience. The presence of a band also satisfied her new leanings toward more expansive, complex arrangements.

Court and Spark marked a radical departure from Blue — it was Joni’s first foray into full jazz arrangements, in addition to being chock full of characters, from music  mogul in “Free Man in Paris” to schizophrenic in “Twisted.” Her new jazz sound was casual, conversational, with a less angst-ridden orientation to romance. Mercer points out that the autobiographical still played a major role, though, such as with the title track, “Court and Spark,” based on Mitchell’s encounter with a crazy fan. Joni claims not to be influenced by the 1950s Beat poets, but according to Mercer, writers like Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg paved the way for this autobiographical approach, in which soul-searching produced the substance of art and writers sought to transcribe their consciousness onto the page as purely and transparently as possible.

“It never has been easy whether you do or do not resign, whether you travel the breadth of extremities or stick to some straighter line” — “Hejira,” Joni Mitchell

In “Breadth of Extremities,” Mercer charts the making of the album Hejira, among other pursuits, as well as Mitchell’s continued exploration of a familiar theme: the contrast between love and freedom, coming to terms with her own uprootedness. This is reflected in the album title, the word “hejira” coming from the arabic Hijra, referring to Muhammed’s migration to Medina. In other words, it’s a running away to find wisdom and enlightenment, versus a cowardly running away, or an attempt to escape. For example, in the song “Amelia” Joni conflates her desire for the open road, the inevitability with which she eventually leaves her lovers, to Amelia Earhart’s skyward journey, repeating “Amelia, it was just a false alarm” to mean, in Mercer’s reading, that just as Earhart “was swallowed by the sky,” Joni “spent [her] whole life in clouds at icy altitude” and it’s a false alarm to think that either will return home, literally or figuratively. Once again, a failed romance served as Joni’s muse — this time, her love affair with jazz drummer John Guerin.

Prior to Hejira, Joni experienced some marked extremes, beginning with a 1975 tour with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, featuring Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, and Ronee Blakely. This drug and alcohol filled “circus” is contrasted with Joni’s encounter with Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa in Boulder, Colorado. After their meeting in which he advised her to “just quit analyzing,” Mitchell claims to have “‘had no sense of ‘I’ or me, no self-consciousness for three days.'” As Mercer frames it, the writing of the album Hejira represents a sort of detox from the Rolling Thunder tour, Joni’s attempt to write herself back into the state of meditative contentment that Trungpa led her to.

Then Mercer embarks on a brief analysis of Hejira. She writes that Mitchell’s analysis of romantic love on the album reflects a “new distance…from her desires,” with songs like “A Strange Boy” as compared to ones like “All I Want” on Blue, speculating that this newfound distance is a “pervasive if subtle sign of Trungpa’s influence.” The instrumentation on Hejira is much thinner than Mitchell’s foray into lush jazz with Court and Spark, and the songs invoked a sense of wandering by mixing different keys and featuring the “unruly” (Joni’s word) bass lines of jazz musician Jaco Pastorius. The song “Refuge of the Roads” directly references Joni’s encounter with Trungpa — in the first line, “I met a friend of spirit” — and her plunge back into the evaluative, analytical, self-critical melancholy of an artist, leaving Trungpa for “the refuge of the roads.” Mercer writes that Hejira is “no less honest and hyper-expressive” than Blue, but “Mitchell suffered no crisis of self-exposure” because there is an overriding sense of self-acceptance, of making peace with the unresolved nature of love and romance. Mercer argues that this greater self-acceptance in her mid-thirties allowed Joni to focus outward on future albums like Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, outward toward social commentary and musical experimentation.

Mercer’s last chapter, entitled “Stuff Joni Likes or Even Loves,” seeks to dispel the myth of the bitter, disparaging crank that is often perpetuated by media interviews. Instead, Mercer explores Mitchell’s “lust for life” by compiling a simple list of her praise as a refreshing, interesting window into the artist’s mind, gathered from their interviews together and a few outside sources. To close out this rambling entry, here are some of my favorite “likes”:

  • “‘[Cigarettes are] a focusing drug. Everybody should just be forced to smoke.'”
  • “‘I used to look to Dylan or Neil [Young] for songwriting inspiration but now, there’s no one really cutting it, so you gotta turn to the short story tellers.”
  • “‘[Former Black Panthers] are my best audience. The ‘Joni Mitchell, she don’t lie’ school.'”

Into the Woods

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 11.27.05 AMOver the holidays I saw the new film version of the musical, Into the Woods, starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, and James Corden, among others. Having just reread the script for The Muny Opera and having assigned it to my Musical Theatre Lit students as one of several options for the 1980s decade, I knew what to expect: beautiful, intricate melodies, a hodge podge of familiar fairytale characters whose worlds collide as part of a rather abstract, original story a giant, a sky-scraping beanstalk. But the truth is, Into the Woods is a distinctly philosophical version of fairytaling — punctuated and enriched by the musicality of Stephen Sondheim, the storyline is a very broad and evocative arch, setting scenes and raising questions that linger well beyond what happens to Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, or the fate of Little Red Ridinghood when she encounters the wolf. Sondheim’s music has a way of pointing out the richness, thematically, that fairytales possess, and so it becomes okay for the plotline to skirt the surface of a variety of famous tales — to sample, so to speak. It’s all in the themes, the potential for allegory. Here are three of my favorite issues raised:

Be Careful What You Wish For

In the opening song, the disparate characters — the Baker, the Baker’s Wife, Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Jack — sing overlapplingly of their different reasons for venturing into the woods. It’s a potpourri of fervent wishes: Cinderella wishes to go to the festival, to experience the adulation of a real live prince, Little Red Ridinghood simply wants to make it safely to grandmother’s house, the Baker and his wife long for a child and seek to break the witch’s spell of barrenness by collecting odd items in the forest, Jack needs money and is off to sell his cow, Milky White. But when Cinderella wins the affection of her prince, she repeatedly runs away, evading him, leaving her shoe behind. She finds their interactions mildly disappointing, anti-climactic. We are reminded that longing is a persistent fact of life, no matter how many of our wishes are fulfilled.

Mother/Daughter Angst

How many mothers and daughters can relate to the difficulty of letting go, building walls around each other out of a ferocious love. The witch and Rapunzel illustrate this dynamic memorably — Rapunzel is the witch’s daughter, and she remains locked in a tower. When her singing attracts the attention of a prince, the witch, played by Meryl Streep, creates a thicket of thorns that he falls upon, going blind. Rapunzel is infuriated by her mother’s controlling nature, to which the witch responds, “Children Should Listen!” The witch’s pleading, desperate profession of love for her daughter is captivating in this song. It hits at something so essential, so universal: “How do you say to a child who’s in flight/‘Don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight?’”

It Only Takes a Moment

Sometimes life takes us by surprise, shifting our allegiances or our perspective in the subtlest of ways, the smallest of moments. Emily Blunt’s character, the Baker’s Wife, is in the woods to find hair, gold as corn, a cow, white as snow, a shoe of glass, and a red coat — when assembled, these odds and ends will break the spell that have made her barren. She comes across as a slightly harried, grounded, loyal, ordinary woman. But in the midst of her search, she meets a prince in the forest, and he seduces her. Suddenly she kisses him, taken aback by the swiftness with which she is swept off her feet. Spoiler alert — a few moments later, we find out that she has been trampled by the giant. This magical moment was one of her last. It’s dramatic, the idea that certain people or places can displace us, putting us in touch with feelings and desires we never knew we had, utterly confusing and disorienting us in the midst of pursuing what we think we want.

Into The Woods is most centrally about desire, about the lengths humans will go to satisfy their deepest longings — for love, for children, for adventure or novelty. What a rich metaphor the woods make. They embody the thorniness, the chaos, the unexpected twists and turns of any long-lived pursuit. Every life involves a journey through the wild and unknown, a venture into the woods.

“Rumi: Love, Madness & Ecstasy”

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 9.16.20 PM“There is an animal called an ushghur, a porcupine
If you hit it with a stick, it extends its quills and gets bigger.
The soul is a porcupine,
made strong by stick-beating.”

This past weekend I saw “Rumi: Love, Madness, and Ecstasy,” a staged reading written by Sheri Winkelmann and directed by Helen Young, presented by Silk Road Rising Theatre. Based on the playwright’s own experience with domestic violence, the play follows the character, Sadia, an independent, open young woman who unexpectedly falls in love with a Tibetan doctor while volunteering in India. Setting aside her practical, modern sensibilities, she agrees to marry Dorjee when he moves his practice to the U.S. After a brief honeymoon period, Dorjee reveals a disturbing jealous streak and a capacity for sudden mood swings. Meanwhile, Sadia does her best to believe in him, attributing his split personality to culture shock while experiencing her own version in the form of isolation from her single, female friends and growing discomfort inside her own home. When the violence reaches a breaking point, the poetry of the famous Persian writer and Sufi mystic, Rumi gives Sadia the courage and spiritual clarity to get out.

The language of Rumi is woven into the play from the beginning — from Sadia’s initial, exuberant feelings toward Dorjee to her eventual escape. It’s a form of punctuation, sometimes initiatied by “Old Sadia,” a sort of spiritually evolved, omniscient narrator version of young Sadia, played by Amira Sabbagh, sometimes chanted by the ensemble as a form of transition music between scenes. It infuses the script with a strong musical energy, a palpable beat that brings Sadia’s spiritual journey to life while illustrating the essential nature of all human suffering, whatever the context. Lines from the poem, “Checkmate” like

“The soul is a newly skinned hide, bloody and gross.
Work on it with manual discipline,
and the bitter tanning acid of grief,
and you’ll become lovely, and very strong.”

and

“Those that make you return, for whatever reason, to God’s solitude, be grateful to them.
Worry about the others, who give you
delicious comforts that keep you from prayer.
Friends are enemies sometimes,
and enemies friends.”

are especially memorable, chanted near the end when Sadia attempts to reconcile her circumstances with her belief in God, and somehow make sense of her suffering.

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 7.55.36 AMI also appreciated the play’s attention to what are, perhaps, more puzzling, ambiguous factors in a domestic abuse situation, such as Sadia’s status as a highly educated, independent minded woman who made a bad judgment call. There is a striking line when Sadia says, “Everything in my culture tells me I should blame myself, but I won’t.” It had me wondering, is this where her education comes into play? If education and financial independence don’t necessarily insulate women from situations of domestic abuse, do they allow women to recover with their psyches more intact, with a greater degree of emotional clarity? This question was addressed during the post-show discussion when Ms. Winkelmann commented on the heightened secrecy surrounding affluent, educated women in abusive relationships, noting an increase in the number of personal acquaintances who have recently shared their stories with her. As for the redemptive power of education, the seed for this project was the playwright’s attraction to a book of Rumi poems in a Barnes and Noble, so her story certainly speaks to the way in which reading and writing allow us to explore and expose our own seemingly shameful experiences and pay them forward, facilitating the healing of others.

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 7.22.13 AMAnother aspect that Ms. Winkelmann’s script exposes in detail is the intense, predictable pattern of the abuse itself. There are several scenes in which we feel a tide turning, the couple slipping down a familiar rabbit hole of escalating insecurity and increasingly inadequate responses until the fight blows over. Then it happens again, like clockwork. This is powerful, if painful, to watch, exposing the cyclical patterns without trying to explain them. I can only imagine that survivors of abuse would find it somehow validating, as if to say, this is what it is, this is what it looks like, over and over again — and despite the insanity, it is real, recognizable, and not the victim’s fault.

A third and final point of discussion is the depiction of Sadia’s friends, and the role they play in perpetuating her feelings of shame and alienation. This tension is introduced early on, beginning with their skepticism toward Sadia’s decision to get married, as if acting boldly based on faith is an inherently sketchy choice to make. As the marriage deteriorates, they are gradually turned off by Sadia’s resolve to make it work, and eventually disassociate themselves. Are they horrible friends, or just limited ones? If they hadn’t deserted their friend in the middle of her desperation, forcing her to “return to God’s solitude,” would she have eventually decided to leave? What is the role of women in perpetuating a culture of shame? Can ordinary women help empower victims simply by withholding judgment?

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 9.22.32 PMIntense, serious questions, perhaps, but interesting and provocative ones, ones that can hardly be dismissed. And it’s not all serious — Sadia’s friends, played by Suzanne Sole and Michelle Weissgerber, provide frequent, welcome comic relief, and the Rumi lines are like little gems, sparkling turns of phrase — they get lodged in your brain, resurfacing for a while after. “Rumi: Love, Madness, and Ecstasy” gives us a different, deeper, more profound kind of love to think about for Valentine’s Day: one the one hand, the people or experiences that break us, transforming us into something better and wiser; and on the other hand, the “beloved,” or God, who pulls us through everything, far better stated in the first stanza of “Checkmate”:

“Borrow the beloved’s eyes.
Look through them and you’ll see the beloved’s face
everywhere. No tiredness, no jaded boredom.
‘I shall be your eye and your hand and your loving.
Let that happen, and things
you have hated will become helpers.”

[Photo credits: “The Heart,” petalouda62’s photostream, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, “The Reed Flute Sings in Silence,” deborahaddington.com, “Molana.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, “Which Sheds Its Rays Upon a Frozen Heart,” Poetry, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Home

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 7.11.54 AMJulie Andrews isn’t so different from her alter ego, Mary Poppins — she radiates respectability, striving to be “practically perfect in every way” with endearing panache. I could have told you that before I read her memoir, “Home”if you teach musical theatre history, she has a way of asserting her greatness, from her narration of the PBS Broadway DVD series to her vocal virtuosity to her string of original roles that lent musical comedy dramatic heft, albeit PG dramatic heft. I’d argue that the most avant-garde theatre-goer finds it hard to hate on a youthful nun, a no-nonsense nanny or an impressionable flower girl when played by Ms. Andrews. She nails the deceptively difficult task of making rather square heroines interesting and memorable. The more I learn about Julie Andrews, the more I realize that the actress shares this sunny, substantive nature. “Home: A Memoir of my Early Years,” covers her childhood and early Broadway career through her acceptance of the film role of Mary Poppins. Tenacity, talent, poise, optimism and an impressive clarity of spirit characterize her pursuit of career and family, not unlike the ingenues imagined by Lerner and Loewe or Rogers and Hammerstein. On the opening night of “My Fair Lady,” Andrews writes

“I distinctly remember feeling like a prizefighter going into the ring; I was the correct weight, I knew what I had to do, my voice had returned, and I was ready as I could possibly be. It was the only time in my entire stage career that I have felt that way.”

The reader is given a vivid backstage tour of this pivotal moment in her career, from the generous advice of composer Richard Rogers encouraging her to take the lead in Lerner and Loewe’s competing show, to her homesickness at the outset of rehearsals to her guilelessness as an actor, prompting director Moss Hart to call off rehearsals and give her a one-on-one, 48-hour acting lesson that “felt like…going to the dentist with an agonizing toothache.” The strain of the two-year run manifests itself in quirky and not so quirky ways — the urge to giggle mid-scene, vocal exhaustion, the need to cover for her co-star’s onstage pranks — but overall, this early chapter reads like a cinderella story: “for every single performance of the two years I played on Broadway, I never stopped working on Eliza. She is such a character, and I have never in my life had as good an acting lesson…”

Her memory of the fear, anticipation and excitement surrounding “My Fair Lady” is fierce, as is her memory of “Camelot,” “Mary Poppins,” a live TV special of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” and so on. The quantity and immediacy of her backstage anecdotes are a reminder that the anxious, demanding and sometimes euphoric work of performing makes for a truly unique, heightened existence, that is, if your career happens to be blessed! Remarks like “there are eight unison notes as the overture begins. Every time I heard them I would think, ‘Oh my God, we’re committed now'” resonate with ahem, yours truly, a lowly production assistant on a gargantuan production of “Miss Saigon.” Never mind that mine was the sweaty job of organizing colossal piles of guns and flags, awkwardly bossing a union crew through helicopter fly-overs, chain link fence rattling, and turn table mayhem, I get a tiny, ridiculous thrill whenever I hear the ominous drum rattling at the beginning of the overture. You know, when I’m standing in an elevator or listening to the radio… Andrews walked with giants, but her walk down memory lane doesn’t speak exclusively to theatre nerds. My fondness for musical theatre is about 10 percent love of musicals and 90 percent appreciation for what it takes to produce them. Similarly, the draw of Andrews’s memoir is her ability to eloquently deconstruct her own success story while retaining a serendipitous sense of show biz magic, probably because she still seems genuinely surprised and humbled by her accomplishments.

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 7.23.41 AM“Home” isn’t solely concerned with the home Julie Andrews found onstage. The literal meaning of the word is equally if not more important to her conception of her “early years,” as demonstrated by the opening sentence of chapter one: “I am told that the first comprehensible word I uttered as a child was ‘home.’” This is followed by a detailed outline of her family lineage and birthplace, the working class village of Walton. She writes lovingly of “Dad,” a.k.a. Ted Wells, recalling bucolic outings together in the English countryside. Dad was a “‘practical handicrafts teacher’” about whom Andrews remembers “wonderful, specific things,” such as his attentiveness to nature, poetry, music and self-improvement through study, as well as his nurturing presence. However, Andrews’s childhood is defined by struggles at home, and this is the context where she first carries the show, drawing on innate resilience, poise and sensitivity. She hints at the complex family dynamics, writing of her parents, “Someone once asked me which parent I hated the most. It was a provocative question and an interesting one, because it suddenly became apparent to me which one I loved with all my being…and that was my father. My mother was terribly important to me and I know how much I yearned for her in my youth, but I don’t think I truly trusted her.”

Andrews’s mother was a traveling vaudeville singer who, in her own words, married Dad because he was “safe” and eventually remarried her partner in the vaudeville act, a performer named Ted Andrews. As a result of her parents’ separation, Julie spent the bomb blitzes of World War II traveling back and forth between Dad and “mum and Ted.” Ted gives her singing lessons and realizes the strength and range of her voice. When taken to a vocal specialist, it is discovered that the eight-year-old Andrews has a fully formed, adult larynx. This revelation sets serious vocal training in motion, providing a much-needed emotional release for a deepening series of ruptures in her family. At nine or ten years old, Puccini arias make Andrews burst into tears, “overwhelmed by the sadness of the lyric combined with the pure sweetness of the melody.” This frustrates her mother but invokes sympathy in her voice teacher, an opera singer referred to as “Madame.” Madame gently steers Andrews toward Handel and says “never be embarrassed when you are moved by music… You will sing them when you are older and your voice is more mature. Right now it would just pull you to pieces vocally. It’s too emotional; too beautiful and sad.”

In a direct but graceful way, Andrews documents the numerous sources of sadness inside her childhood home — secrets, abuse, the emotional ambiguity of her parents’ relationships — then moves briskly to the next event, giving the reader a private, uncontained view of a life in process. For example, walking with her newly remarried mother near the family’s new home in Kent — both the “garden of England” and in 1943, “right in the middle of the flight path between Germany and London” — it is suggested that Julie settle on a more appropriate term of endearment for her step-father. “Uncle Ted” becomes “Pop” with the same suddenness that “Julia Elizabeth Wells,” originally named for dad and her two grandmothers, is handed the name “Julie Andrews.” She candidly covers the many sides of Pop, from their initial dreaded voice lessons, to performing duets with him for Queen Elizabeth, to his ongoing role in organizing their act, to instances of sexual abuse and his descent into full-fledged alcoholism.

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 7.15.29 AMThere’s more where that come from, deeper secrets and other, ongoing hardships. But Andrews’s sufferings are a stark contrast to the Midas touch of her singing voice, her extraordinary friendships with fellow artists, the joyful experience of being a mother herself, and her second wind as a writer. There is a triumphant tone to what she has managed to ask and receive of her life, despite the limitations of her childhood home. About “My Fair Lady,” she describes the rare experience of “threading the needle” — hitting every moment of the show spot-on. It’s a metaphor for her life’s striving, described as “riding the ecstasy all the way home,” the “joy of being a vessel, being used, using oneself fully and totally in the service of something that brings wonder.”

[Creative Commons Licensed photos: Wikipedia and Harper Ganesvoort’s photostream, as well as the cover of the book]

Something Added

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.27.29 AMOne of my English professors used the phrase “something added” to sum up the value of books. I have expanded it to include food, and for that matter, anything artistic, insightful, or whimsical that we encounter on a daily basis — works of art, fleeting images from our day, snippets of conversation, or home cooked meals. The value of these things lies in their being “added,” a reminder that our work-centered, often self-centered culture is filled with side notes. There is a creative pulse worth taking, observing, contemplating. Last week I was doing research for an article on brownies (what else?) and I found this lovely blog: http://www.101cookbooks.com. In the author’s words, it “chronicles a cookbook collection, one recipe at a time.” I love blogs that document ongoing, behemoth projects — http://101books.net is another good one — and it got me re-evaluating my broad, blurry approach to blogging. At a certain point, though, follow through is everything. As much as I enjoy reading your admirable, impeccable, immaculately groomed sites featuring elegant variations on a well-defined theme, I’m going all-inclusive with this post as a mark of solidarity with my fellow generalists. I invite you to enjoy my sloppy smorgasbord of inspiration this past week. Something added is always welcome 🙂

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.30.06 AMI saw the national tour of this musical at The Oriental Theatre (in Chicago) this weekend. It won the Tony for best musical, and now I understand why. It is an understated, humorous love story carried by beautiful music. The staging is also beautiful: the actors play their own instruments and move seamlessly in and out of scenes set in a pub turned music shop turned recording studio. All this is accomplished with wooden chairs, mirrors, tables, and a few supertitles. The audience mingles onstage as the ensemble warms up, visiting the onstage pub during intermission. The staging/choreography was subtly timed, almost self-effacing, which enhances the music.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.32.21 AMMy main squeeze and I visited an art gallery, Hilton-Asmus Contemporary, that converted itself into a movie theatre for a free pop-up film festival dedicated to John Ford. We saw Ford’s 1940, Academy-Award winning classic “How Green Was My Valley.” The surrounding photographs by Dennis Manarchy of the American West — cowboys suspended in swirls of sand and looming clouds, an enormous buffalo posing demurely — granted the film’s black-and-white images of coal mines, craggy countryside, and weary villagers a sort of unspoken kinship.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.34.23 AMDeb Perelman’s recipe for a chopped Mediterranean salad is my October lunch of choice: A hearty, healthy, slightly briny salad with chopped cucumbers, olives, feta, pickled red onions, and peppers is as colorful as an art gallery, eh? That, and it gets tastier with time. See link at the bottom of this page.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.35.19 AMRead this book by Muriel Barbery, author ofThe Elegance of the Hedgehog. It profiles the last waking hours of a famous food critic. He waxes poetic about various meals seared in his memory, digging for a delicacy that has slipped to the recesses of his mind. Meanwhile, various members of his household — from doting wife to bitter children to the bemused Venus hanging over his desk — express their grief, hatred, and utter indifference toward the dying aesthete. It’s wry, diverting, and food-filled.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.37.55 AMI found a killer tomato sauce. By “found” I mean the google search I did worked out very well for me. This sauce is all over food blogs, which is promising, because a delicious sauce has a way of getting all over everything. You literally take a 28 oz can of whole tomatoes, dump them in a pot, and simmer for 45 minutes with an onion, peeled and halved, and several pads of butter. That’s all. It’s unbelievable. In this case, the “something added” philosophy falls flat. You could add a little salt, pepper, or possibly some parmesan cheese, but that’s a highly emphasized maybe. It’s an exercise in silky, luxurious minimalism. See link at the bottom of this page.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.39.14 AMCooking with apples is an autumn ritual for me. I have made several batches of sweetened applesauce and I am reminded that this humble dessert need not be relegated to school cafeterias. The version I adapted from “Apple Cookbook” by Olwen Woodier is thick, rich, loaded with fresh, tart apples, and spiked with cinnamon, ginger, and brown sugar. You peel, core, and slice about 10 medium apples, place them in a large pot with three T. of apple juice or cider, and simmer until they break down. Instead of puréeing the soft apples, I simmered them a little longer and mashed them with a potato masher right in the pot. Stir in 1/3 c. brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger and cinnamon, as well as several T. butter. I like to use really tart apples. A warm bowl for breakfast hits the spot.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.45.19 AMSpeaking of soft, comforting foods that signal shorter, darker days, I was inspired to make “baked polenta with vegetables” from a cookbook called “The Pleasures of Cooking for One.” (For more where that came from, see my book review). I was drafting an article about polenta, then scrounging in my cabinets for dinner, and voilà, the food muse materialized. In the form of instant polenta. This creamy, cheesy “cornmeal mush” used to be the Venetian grain of choice. Now pasta exists, but it still makes a decadent receptacle for leftover vegetables (and, as it turns out, a cushy sop-up for my “killer” tomato sauce.)

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.47.40 AMI recommend this documentary called “Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream.” It uses NYC neighborhoods as a lens for broader economic disparity. Park Avenue on the upper East side of Manhattan is contrasted with Park Avenue in the Bronx, a ten minute  drive away. One Park Avenue consists of high rise apartment buildings populated by some the world’s most politically powerful billionaires, and the other displays a community lacking basic resources and social agency. The proximity of these two streets is startling, a symbol of the boldness with which high concentrations of political and socioeconomic power are seized and retained. It’s like a Monopoly board, literally. I had just taught a class to a group of high school freshmen on Chicago’s far West side who, generally speaking, were several years behind reading level — a direct correlation to the schools in their neighborhood. Everyday we witness these inequalities in our respective cities. From the power base of New York City, the contrasts are even starker.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 10.48.44 AMFellow writing enthusiasts, are you familiar with Becoming A Writer, by Dorothea Brande? Five bucks at Armadillo’s Pillow bought me a reissue of the 1934 classic. Its scope is fundamental and timeless, that of helping writers to cultivate self-awareness: of their passions, subconscious feelings and perceptions, convictions. In the foreword, John Gardner writes that “the root problems of the writer are personality problems… and [Ms. Brande’s] whole focus, and a very valuable focus indeed, is on the writer’s mind and heart” (15). In the sea of information about writing, this sounds like clarity, consistent with the wisdom that, to quote a line from Theodore Roethke, “we think by feeling.”

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 11.06.08 AMIt’s interesting to think about the fleeting words or images that leverage us to take action. In Becoming A Writer, Brande writes that “the author has at his command, in the mere exercise of stringent honesty, the best source of consistency for his own work. If you can discover what you are like, if you can discover what you truly believe about most of the major matters of life, you will be able to write a story which is honest and original and unique. But those are very large ‘ifs,’ and it takes hard digging to get at the roots of one’s own convictions” (123). I feel like this little man furrowing my brow over which apple to pick. I’m just trying to decide what I want for lunch.

Links:

[Photo credits, in order: Craig Damlo’s photostreamBroadway Tour’s photostreamdrmvm1’s photostreamJon Pinder’s photostreamartizone’s photostreamkahala’s photostreamMGF/Lady Disdain’s photostreamArchives New Zealand.]

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