RSS Feed

Tag Archives: music

New Dance Horizons

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 11.29.46 AM

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?? 

Strong and Wrong

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 6.44.52 PM

When novice, fourteen-year-old ballet dancers at the high school where I used to teach struck a pose both confidently and incorrectly, the dance department head used to praise them in faculty meetings for being “strong and wrong!”

That’s the phrase that came to mind when I saw the new Meryl Streep movie, Florence Foster Jenkins on Friday night, about a wealthy music lover whose passion for singing and classical music was so strong that it blinded her to her own comically imperfect technique.

In contrast, her husband, played by Hugh Grant, has come to terms with the mediocrity of his acting career, but seems to find redemption in perpetuating Jenkin’s dream of herself, literally trashing bad reviews, screening Jenkin’s concert goers and bribing potential critics to ensure that Jenkins sees herself as a true member of the 1940s New York City music elite.

Streep’s performance was predictably on point, and Hugh Grant played the dapper gentleman convincingly, but the real stars of this movie, in my opinion, are Mr. McMoon, Ms. Jenkin’s diminutive, timid accompanist, played by Simon Helberg, and the costume designer, Consolata Boyle. Both McMoon, with his quivering, fluctuating facial expressions, and Boyle, with her quivering star tiaras that jostle in time to Jenkin’s operatic “hah ah has” and nude mesh stomach overlays that display Jenkin’s sizeable midrift, play up the physical comedy that makes this movie so enjoyable.

And yet, as I laughed through it, it struck a deeper chord: how refreshing it is, when some of the most technically astute dancers starve themselves, and many of the writers the public admires end their lives in suicide, when the phrase “tortured artist” is a cliché we take for granted, and when some of my most talented creative writing students warn me at the beginning of the semester that they are perfectionists, that we sometimes need a laugh-out-loud display of really bad art, delivered with great joy, to remind us that good art, while fundamentally challenging, finicky, and demanding, is about joy, too.

When I think about my own singing journey, it amuses me to observe that the work of most of my voice lessons was learning how to relax my throat. Thinking down when you ascend the scale, yawning exercises, and the like — when I practiced them regularly enough, my range went from 2nd suprano to 1st. A pleasant surprise, the notes I could hit, by simply keeping my throat open.

I suppose that this effort — relaxing into the moment, staying open, to joy, among other things — as much as refining technique, is the challenging work of a singer, or any artist. In that sense, Florence Jenkins truly hit a high note. No joke.

Hook, The Crucible

Screen Shot 2016-07-23 at 7.44.30 PM

This lesson is for the beginning of the second week of my school year. It’s the “hook” to get students interested in the play, The Crucible. (The first week of school will be spent building rapport, practicing policies and procedures, including this lesson on Growth vs. Fixed Mindset).  I introduced the book this way last year, and for the most part it was successful… except for one student whose phone I took away in the first couple days of school and who proceeded to write that I was her personal crucible. Yup, except for that 🙂 I’ve made a few tweaks to the order of things. If you’re interested in a copy of the PowerPoint I use, comment or contact me at gingerodonnell.com.  This lesson runs about 90 minutes.

 

  1. Students google the definition of the word, crucible. There are multiple definitions. They should write all of the definitions. (5 min)
  2. As a class, analyze the different definitions. How are they connected? How can we take these different, connected definitions and create a new definition in our own words? (5 min)
  3. Tell students that they will write a paragraph (or more) about a personal crucible they have experienced, or someone they are close to has experienced, based on the definition of crucible we have created. Model this first by reading your own (this activity continues to build rapport in the beginning of the year) — I am planning to write about my sister-in-law’s first few months on a remote Pacific island in the Peace Corps (also a convenient way to plant the Peace Corps seed in my students’ minds). (15 min)
  4. Students pair up with the person sitting next to them (all my classes have seating charts, alphabetical order in the beginning of the year) and share what they wrote. (7 min)
  5. Call on four partners to share out with the class what their partner wrote. In the beginning of the year, popsicle sticks come in handy to randomly select sharers, or you can take volunteers if students are eager to share. (10 min)
  6. Explain to students that there are really two crucibles taking place in the play, The Crucible: one that forms the action of the plot, and one that is subtext. Project the definition of subtext on the board and have students write it down: an underlying meaning in a literary or dramatic work, sub meaning under, text meaning text, in other words, the meaning you find when you read between the lines. 
  7. Define Crucible #1 in The Crucible: a bunch of teenage girls and older women are falsely accused of witchcraft and the justice system doesn’t protect them. 
  8. Explain to students that a mnemonic device helps you remember something. In this case, we’re using the song “Witchy Woman” by the Eagles to remember Crucible #1 that we just defined. Play the song and provide students with a copy of the lyrics, either on the projector or on a handout.

“Witchy Woman”
The Eagles 1970s

Raven hair and ruby lips
sparks fly from her finger tips
Echoed voices in the night
she’s a restless spirit on an endless flight
wooo hooo witchy woman, see how
high she flies
woo hoo witchy woman she got
the moon in her eye
She held me spellbound in the night
dancing shadows and firelight
crazy laughter in another
room and she drove herself to madness
with a silver spoon
woo hoo witchy woman see how high she flies
woo hoo witchy woman she got the moon in her eye
Well I know you want a lover,
let me tell your brother, she’s been sleeping
in the Devil’s bed.
And there’s some rumors going round
someone’s underground
she can rock you in the nighttime
’til your skin turns red
woo hoo witchy woman
see how high she flies
woo hoo witchy woman
she got the moon in her eye

9. Define Crucible #2 (Subtext): in the 1950s, there was a witch hunt led by Senator Joseph McCarthy to hunt down communists. Professors and leaders in higher education, Hollywood, theatre, radio, and television were especially targeted. In this situation, too, the justice system didn’t protect them. 

10. Play “Get That Communist Joe” to remember Crucible #2. (20 min)

“Get That Communist, Joe”
The Kavaliers 1954

Joe, come here a minute
I get a red hot tip for you, Joe

See that guy with the red suspenders
Driving that car with the bright red fenders
I know he’s one of those heavy spenders
Get that Communist Joe

He’s fillin’ my gal with propaganda
And I’m scared she will meander
Don’t want to take a chance that he’ll land her
Get that Communist Joe

He’s a most revolting character
And the fellas hate him so
But with the girls this character
Is a Comrade Romeo

Since my love he’s sabotaging
And the law he has been dodging
Give him what he deserves, jailhouse lodging
Get that Communist Joe (Get that Shmo, Joe)

11. Students take notes on 12 PowerPoint slides, expounding on four key points (30 min)

  • Puritanism
  • Witchcraft
  • McCarthyism
  • Arthur Miller

12. HW: Read “The Great Fear” by J. Ronald Oakley (about 20 pages), a “related reading” from The Crucible and Related Readings; provide students with a bookmark defining target vocabulary words as they read and inform them that there will be a brief 5 question reading quiz next class

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.'”
%d bloggers like this: