Dec 30, 2009
So here, in no particular order, are just a few of my favourite 2009 highlights:
The Canadian designer best known for her exquisite leather goods ventured into the world of clothing at the start of this past autumn's LG Fashion Week. The pieces were interestingly presented in artist Thrush Holmes' studio, located along Queen Street West in Toronto.
What made this marriage of fashion and art so fascinating were the various intersections between creativity and commerce; with the muted colours and billowing folds of Jensen's pieces draped onto white, faceless, feature-less mannequins, Holmes' studio resembled something of a retail space; it was less creation, and more consumption. But placed together with the work of Jensen's photographer-husband (which definitely had hints of Sugimoto in its contemplative simplicity), the set-up encouraged lingering, contemplating, and connecting different ideas and pressentations. The links between the source of her inspiration (the moody climate of the American Eastern seaboard) and the end result (simply-constructed pieces in an array of pre and post-storm colours) was made clearer, with the space transformed into an intriguing mix of old and new definitions of art, artfulness, creation and commerce. Nicely done.
The Eastern European singer, in Toronto this past June for the Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity, proved to be wonderful, charming, curios conversationalist, and it remains one of my favourite interviews. His first appearance here -he played two shows, the first being a massive, open-air show in a main square in the city's core -was met with a riotous response. Singing, clapping, dancing, climbing the scaffolding -and two of the city's main roads closed -all for a man who doesn't sing in English (okay, one song). His concert the following night -in a smaller club, the celebrate the release of his Best-Of album -was warm, ebullient, joyous, and raucous, and brought me closer to my own Eastern European background than I'd ever been before. It also re-awakened my love of dance. Easily one of the most musically fascinating -and personally important -concerts of my life.
The Robert LePage-directed work received its world premiere at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts this past fall. I had my doubts about pairing Stravinsky and the Quebec-born artist, mainly because the former's music is, to my ears, so incredibly difficult at points. Where -how -would LePage find his way into this? Find his way he did, though, with the use of creative puppetry, shadowplay, sumptuous costuming, and a pit-full of water. Using a fascinating visual palette that embraced the Russian flavour of the piece, as well as the piece's Oriental leanings, The Nightingale was a feast for the eyes, ears -and the heart. Easily one of the most memorable opera productions, ever.
From walking around Antony John's wonderous, beautiful farm, to attending the Brickworks Picnic, to tasting teas -and champagnes -at Hart House, this has been one heck of a great year, food-wise, for me. Not only have I expanded my professional (and photographic) repertoire by chasing these features, but I've received a great education in the process.
I've also become keenly aware of both my own purchasing power, and of the power of social media with regards to food. I was interviewed by AP reporter Michael Hill about my love of twecipes. And I've met and spoke with some truly wonderful people, some of whom I met via the wonders of the interwebs, including Food & Drink/Globe writer/author Lucy Waverman, Ruth Klahsen (the Queen of Monforte) and Maria Solokofski, the Guerilla Gourmet; there's been more enlightening yacks with raw milk farmer (and good food crusader) Michael Schmidt and Earth To Table authors/chefs Jeff Crump and Bettina Schormann, who were so informative, affable, and down-to-earth (irony intended) in their approach to food. More than ever, 2009 was the year in which my kitchen became my haven.
One more thing: I was profiled in Shameless Magazine. It's not very often I feel completely proud or satisfied with my work -creative, professional or otherwise (my inner critic is also a relentless bully) -but really, having this piece out there and so widely circulated was a personal boon, and the response I've received has been tremendous, and inspiring. I'm going to try to keep myself open to more of these good moments in 2010, and the decade it heralds.
Here's to continuing the magic.
Jessica Jensen / Thrush Holmes' studio photo by Kimberly Lyn.
Goran Bregovic photo by Imre Szekely.
Dec 29, 2009
Lastnight, I came home to enjoy an old documentary called That's Entertainment on television. The piece covers the bygone era of Hollywood musicals. Having sat through previews detailing the latest super-action-charged, effects-laden films, as well as the action-y, effects-filled main feature, I was struck by the simple, lovely pleasures of watching the human form move and pivot through space, to music. Somehow, the cinema of fifty-odd years ago seems purer -and for me, oddly more satisfying than many of today's flashy offerings.
That doesn't I'm a Luddite, however. I sometimes deeply enjoy the digital artistry on offer in modern films (Lord of the Rings was beautiful, perfect, and very moving), so long as it is in the service of a strong story and interesting characters. But I have to admit that I find the combination of simple, if carefully-choreographed, song-and-dance numbers from yesteryear thrilling to behold. Even with the reams of stylists, camera people, and dance captains, there is some kind of simple pleasure at work in watching old musical numbers. The mere act of watching a staged dance number -a la Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor in Singin' in the Rain, or Kelly and Fred Astaire in Ziegield Follies -has a kind of magical aura that simply can't be duplicated, even with modern Hollywood musicals like the recently-released Nine or the Oscar-winning Chicago. Call it glamour from a long-gone era; call it raw artistry; call it, as Kelly does in the telly special, a urge toward what he terms "perfection" ... whatever it is, it's magical. It re-awakens my love of dance like few others things do.
I've done a variety of dance -ballet, jazz, tap, and later on, bellydance -so that might be why seeing Astaire, Kelly, Rogers, Charisse, Miller, et al strut their stuff affects me so deeply. I've seen plenty of musical stage productions, but strangely, I never get the same feeling; it's as if the musical on-film captures not just actual dance but a moment in time, when people actually went to the cinema to see other people move around and sing to music. Looking at it from our digital super-special effects era, there's something thoroughly quaint about the whole thing -even if Astaire's famous ceiling-dance is still jaw-dropping, decades later. This is what special effects looked liked in the early 50s. People made them special -and that human effort can be seen in all it glorious, frail, masterful glory in such classic movie gems. Cinematic magic doesn't have to be complicated -at least not for me; so long as there's heart, art, and commitment, I'm happy -dancing in the dark, or otherwise.
Dec 24, 2009
Personally, I've always loved dried fruits: their pungent sweetness and gooey, ever-so dessicated texture I find intoxicating. And they're healthy too. So once I came across a recipe that integrated them with other ingredients (nuts and booze, huzzah!), and transformed the lot into a bake-free, semi-healthy holiday option, my tastebuds started leaping.
The recipe below is based on Lucy Waverman's entirely excellent recipe for sugar plums that appeared in an old issue of Food and Drink magazine. I experimented a little bit and found this combination, with dried cranberries and green cherries, gives just the right amount of sweetness; the colours also add a cheerful Christmas touch. The recipe makes enough for roughly 24 small sugar plums, or 18 medium-sized ones. I like to keep mine toytown-small (to borrow Nigella's adorable phrase) -it makes popping them into one's mouth so entirely satisfying, and after a huge holiday meal, the last thing you want is a cumbersome, vulgar-sized treat. These are also insanely easy; they don't require any baking, and are great for getting other, non-cooking types involved. The plums are also good for those who are wheat or sugar-sensitive. Oh, and they're totally delicious. Enjoy.
You will need:
- 1/4 (50 mL) halved pecans, toasted*
- 8 dried figs
- 8 dried dates
- roughly 1/4 cup (50 mL) dried cranberries (you want about a handful)
- roughly 1/4 cup (50 mL) dried green cherries
- 1 tsp (5 mL) grated lemon rind
- 1 tbsp (15 mL) cherry brandy
- 1 tbsp (15 mL) runny honey
- 1/4 tsp cinnamon
- roughly 1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Roughly chop the dates; place in a food processor with the sharp blade already on.
Cut the tough little nubs off the figs (their tops, that is), roughly chop them, then throw them in the processor too, along with the cranberries, cherries, and toasted pecans.
Blitz the processor on and off, so that you get a fine, crumb-like texture. The cherries and cranberries will be big green and red flecks. Add the grated lemon rind, cherry brandy, honey and cinnamon. Turn the processor on. It'll take a bit of time to mix everything down to a paste and properly integrate the honey throughout the mixture. You'll know it's ready, however, when the mixture starts to come away from the edges of the bowl.
When mixed, scoop out a lusciously sticky portion using a teaspoon (or other small measuring tool). With wet hands, roll into a tiny little ball and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Continue, wetting hands and teaspoon (or whatever you're using -I have a small bowl of water handy), forming little balls.
When you have 24 (or so), get started on coating them with the coconut.
Wash your hands and then spread the coconut in a decent layer across a large plate or other flat, lipped surface. Carefully roll sugar plums, one by one, in the coconut, and place back on the parchment.
Leave them to sit on the baking sheet about 10 minutes, just to make sure the coconut sets. Mind putting them away -they're delicious little morsels, but they are also very delicate. Then again, isn't every good thing at Christmas in need of a little TLC? I think that squarely includes all the talented people cooking Christmas dinner tomorrow...
From my home to yours, much joy, peace, and deep gratitude. I wish all of you a wonderful, wonderfully delicious holiday season, full of love, laughter, wine and song.
Dec 23, 2009
Typing of which, I'm also going to be posting my recipe for sugar plums shortly. Haven't done much holiday baking? Want to impress the in-laws? Oven-allergic? These little balls of joy are for you.
First, however, Holmesian goodness:
As a teen, I voraciously read Arthur Conan Doyle's tales of the British detective, and eschewed Basil Rathbone's dry, humourless interpretation for the utterly-excellent Jeremy Brett, who will, to my mind, always remain the quintessential Sherlock. Not even Robert Downey Jr. can compete -though truth be told, I don't think he's trying to. It seems as it director Guy Ritchie is more interested in using the aesthetic of Victorian London and combining it with a modern action-film sensibility, all filtered through a steampunk perspective. The only connection the film would seem to have the Conan Doyle originals is the title -and truly, that's fine by me. If it inspires younger people to return to the original source material, so much is the better. They might even discover the beautiful British series featuring Brett. There's room for all kinds of interpretations here. Why be stodgy?
The yucky-faces surely being made by Holmes purists over the new film reminds me of reactions to new interpretations in opera and theatre; heaven forbid they be done in anything but "traditional" mode! How boring. What a good way of killing creativity. Ugh. I'd think a captivating reinvention would make people more apt to go back to the source material. If the original art is strong enough -whether written, musical, dramatic, or otherwise -it can easily withstand re-envisioning. Remember Bridget Jones? Jane Austen is grinning from the great beyond. I have a feeling Arthur Conan Doyle is doing the same with the new Sherlock Holmes. If the aughties have taught us anything, it's that re-imagining and reinterpreting art from the past is every bit as vital (and hard) as creating the original stuff. At the end of the day, it's all elementary.
Dec 18, 2009
Peanuts A Charlie Brown Christmas What Are You Afraid Of
Uploaded by Warner_Bros_Entertainment. - Full seasons and entire episodes online.
It's been challenging to get in the Christmas spirit this year.
I'm marking one year since my father's passing, which makes things sad, and I'm also marking ten years next year that I'll have moved back from living abroad. Decades bring lists, reflections, and reminiscences on choices made and accomplishments won. Time, that old browbeater, keeps running by. It's been especially tough for me and, I think, many others like me in the media industry; there have been layoffs, buy-outs, so-called "re-structurings" and considerable drops in income. I'm not actually able to buy presents this year, a fact that both mortifies and relieves. Karloff might intone, "maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store... maybe Christmas means a little bit more" but of course the nature of Western society is such that the act of buying or not has been rendered not so much a choice as a duty. And yet I'm the sort who's taken a keen delight in the act of giving, which is a kind of lovely gift infused with reciprocal energy.
So I eschewed buying gfits -out of basic pocket-book necessity -in favour of hosting friends for a meal this past weekend. Combining a Christmas-y get-together with my own recent birthday made for a festive, fun atmosphere; we ate, we drank, we laughed. New friendships and connections were formed, experiences and observations shared, beautiful food and drink passed around. It felt like the perfect gift. And no, I didn't post a bit of it online; no Facebook updates, Flickr photos or in-the-moment tweets. Somehow, choosing to keep the gathering out of the online public eye made it all the more intimate and special. I'd like to think one of the things I can give myself, my friends, and the world is a firm sense of borders, and an understanding of privacy. Narcissism be damned; the evening wasn't about me, or any one person, but about us, as a unit, sitting around a food-filled table, drinking, talking, laughing. I was reminded of the innate value of friendship that evening, and how it is perhaps the greatest gift of all.
Still, there is, of course, of dealing with family this time of year. Are we friends with our family? Working towards it? Given up? I hate to admit it, but the first couple of years back from my time overseas, I'd purposely vanish in a haze of rummy nog and mulled wine to avoid the stress. This is not a wise course of action. I'm happy to say my own relationship with my family has improved to a point I could've never imagined a year ago, let alone ten. The old agage that "peace begins at home" has never felt more true. And this year, I have decided that music might be the best medicine -or perhaps complement. I'm still dealing with swallowing the bitter pills of guilt for the present, and nostalgia for the past, but knowing I've formed such strong, positive relationships with good, sincere people is a great reminder that those pills are ... well, useless. I should spit them out so I can smile at the lovely sounds of Frank, Dean, Ella, Vince... et al. Next year all our troubles will be miles away. Right?
Dec 7, 2009
As it turns out, my fears were calmed and entirely unfounded –and I didn’t miss the old Dickens chestnut one bit. Parfumerie is a truly perfect choice for the silly season, and a beautifully romantic, thought-full way of ending the year. Laszlo’s endearing, romantic work centers on the activities of a Budapest beauty shop in the 1930s. As Associate Artist Paula Wing notes in the show programs, Laszlo nicely integrates all the people he knew and observed in his home city, from the “well-heeled denizens” of posh Buda, to the working-class shop clerks and service employees of bustling Pest. The tension between them, while extant, also highlights the struggles and heartaches of each, and ultimately the work celebrates humanity in a grandly messy, heady mix of zany comedy and serious drama. No wonder the work has been adapted so frequently; one musical (She Loves Me) and three films (The Shop Around The Corner, The Good Old Summertime, and You’ve Got Mail) have all taken as their basis the Laszlo original, of unknown love amidst the hustle and bustle of the season.
The plot is more of a premise, but it's rich with character exploration and theatrical possibility. The employees of Hammerschmidt and Company, a beauty shop, race around to prepare for the holidays, while revealing their inner lives in small but telling ways. Two of the shop’s employees, the scatty Rosana Balaz (Patricia Fagan) and the uptight George Asztalos (Oliver Dennis) are constantly sparring, spitting insults at one another and rolling their eyes in frustration. As it turns out, each has been unknowingly exchanging love letters with the other. This undercurrent of unspoken and unknown affection is the premise that fuels the action around the other subplots, involving the cheating wife of the owner, Mr. Hammerschmidt (Joseph Ziegler), who suspects George as the seducer. Dennis is keen at widening his big eyes and using his considerable experience in physical comedy to convey the confusion of a man who pipes up in his work but shuts down in his emotions. It’s refreshing to see Dennis finally play a romantic lead, too, particularly since he’s almost always cast as the amusing sideman.
Equally, Ziegler, who usually plays Scrooge for Soulpepper this time of year, brings a load of heart to the huffy boss. He employs stiff body language and keen, knowing silence to punctuate the new adaptation by Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins. This smart approach brings a kind of Chekhovian gloom to the proceedings (not entirely unsuitable, considering the infamous “Suicide Song” originated in Hungary) and a deep thoughtful quality to his performance, making Hammerschmidt less officious and more human, fallible, and ultimately, vulnerable.
This vulnerability especially extends to the way in which director Morris Panych has staged the scenes between the male employees. Mr. Sipos (Michael Simpson) sits on the shop’s round settee and shares a guilty secret with George at one point, their faces both portraits of pain and genuine confusion. It’s not difficult to recall a similar scene of understanding staged earlier between Mr. Hammerschmidt and his eager-beaver delivery boy, Arpad (Jeff Lillico), who acts as a kind of default son to the childless boss. Arpad runs to bring his crusty boss breakfast the night after an attempted suicide which the delivery boy helped to prevent. Ziegler balances a mix of gruff dismissal and shame-faced grief, while Lillico is wonderfully pure in channeling his character's fierce protectiveness for his boss. There is a real hum of affection and a moving frankness between the male characters that is entirely in keeping with Laszlo's loving look at human relationships.
In watching these scenes, I was reminded of Soulpepper’s production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple two seasons ago, where a similar tone of male understanding rang through many scenes. It’s this tender vulnerability that immediately gets shut away the minute any women appear, in both Simon’s or Laszlo’s worlds, as if a man betraying what could be perceived as weakness is unforgivable and entirely unfathomable. The Hungarian playwright uses the letters between George and Rosie to create a bridge, however –between genders, life experience, perspectives, and ideas, allowing a greater intimacy to creep in as a result of both characters allowing themselves to be vulnerable not only on paper, but face-to-face. You’re torn between wanting to stand up and cheer, or softly sigh, when George finally tells Rosie he’s actually the man behind the Abelard-and-Heloise poetics within the letters.
This beautiful bridging could’ve only happened with the care and class of director of Morris Panych, really. The award-winning director and playwright guides his gifted cast with a keen, knowing hand, playing up the comedy of the piece at one moment, turning down the volume to allow the drama to come through at others. We barely notice the shifting tenor of moments as he expertly navigates the emotional landscape Pettle and Robbins have laid out, and it’s a relief, because a work like Parfumerie could so easily veer into the trite and ineffectual, becoming another puffy comedy piece set in a pink-heart world. But, just as he did with The Trespassers at the Stratford Festival this past summer, Panych carefully reveals the layers of tender humanity contained within Laszlo's world -with humour, patience, understanding, and affection. With Parfumerie, we have a marvelous, moving night of truly delightful theatre, with just the right touch of holiday spirit. Tooth-rotting, cutesy sugar plum shows be damned –this is exactly the sort of Christmas meal I wanted. Thanks again, Soulpepper. Yum yum.
All Parfumerie photographs by Cylla von Tiedmann.
Dec 1, 2009
I took a cooking day last week, purposely walking away from email checking and online activity for the sake of spending quality time around culinary texture, shape, temperature and taste. I made bread, I roasted a chicken; all felt right with the world. Making my own bread is one of the true, deep pleasures in life; the process of mixing, of kneading, of proofing, re-kneading, of seeing how the dough responds, a living thing, to pokes and prods and gentle massage, and then witnessing its eventual evolution from dusty, dissolute ingredients to pure, cohesive ... thing... is miraculous. No wonder bread figures so prominently in some of the most important cultural stories -whether they be biblical, historical, or otherwise. The process, including the eating, is simply magical. My personal favourite of late is an oatmeal molasses bread, taken from the beautiful book From Earth To Table, by Jeff Crump and Bettina Schormann. I interviewed them both recently for a feature, and found the same abiding love of food -but more than that, a respect for journey, process, discovery.
Going forwards in my freelance journalism journey has yielded so many discoveries, and continues to. I suppose the best I can do is be patient and allow those lessons to present themselves. Walking away from the computer to bake -and then coming back to share the fruits of my labours (and then going back again) -feels like a good process, and a kind of balance I can live with.
Nov 26, 2009
Molecular gastronomy, as a rule, doesn't generally interest me. I'd love to go to El Bulli, yes, more for the experience of going, and engaging with food in a way that marries it in a very high-concept, some would argue unusual way, with the artistic aesthetic. I think the main reason it doesn't interest me is that I can't possibly replicate most of those kinds of recipes -fancy, fussy, daring -in my own kitchen. But then, why would I want to? Shouldn't food -some food -be a kind of experience? Should it not possess a kind of inimitable special-ness? Is that not what makes certain restaurants so unique? Some of the best art should, after all, be removed. Just as I can't replicate certain unusual dishes, nor can I write a symphony in the manner of Mozart, or paint a Picasso. And I don't want to. I am happy to leave some things to experts.
These considerations were in the front of my mind coming away from an evening at George, a gorgeous, Zagat-rated restaurant in downtown Toronto. Having been invited by a friend who is a member at the adjoining (and quite frankly, awesomely inspiring) Verity Club, I was curious about the mix of old and new world cuisine that George seemed so renowned for. It may not be molecular gastronomy in the true sense, but it mixed flavours, textures, colours and shades in ways I hadn't experienced -at least orally -before.
In lieu of the main menu, my companion and I opted for the 5-course tasting menu, each of us receiving one delectable -and different - treat after another. One of the appetizers was a salad and seafood affair, another wafer-thin layers of tender, flavoursome sirloin nestled in delicate tasty nests of fois gras. A lovely palate-cleanser of saffron-ginger sorbet acted as an intermission between the wondrously delicious arias. Main consisted of gorgeous, rich entrecotes of beef, cooked in that gentle, knowing way that produces blushing-pink pink that melted on the tongue. Dessert was a selection of goodies made from Meyer lemons (which my companion enjoyed thoroughly) and chili-chocolate cake (mine -and I confess to wanting another piece ever since), followed by a selection of cheese and fruit, simply, elegantly presented.
Lorenzo Loseto and his expert kitchen team lovingly create beautiful dishes that possess a kind of old-meets-new aesthetic; they marry old-world hearty flavours with new-world experimentation, adding in generous portions of clean, artistic presentation that is never fussy but rather, presents food as paintings, complete with colours, textures, shape and shadow, on the blank, smooth palette of white porcelain.
A meal at George was, easily, one of the most memorable experiences of my life, and I rate it as a true culinary destination for both visitors and inhabitants of Toronto. Comforting home-cooking it's not -but nor should it be. Unique, special artistic... delicious. I think my culinary colour range just grew -and for that, I can only be deeply grateful.
Nov 24, 2009
At the time of writing this, I have no internet connection. Rather like withdrawl from a serious drug habit, I'm shaky, nervous, unsettled, angry, ... repeat. It's interesting timing, considering that lately I've been considering my life pre and post-internet age, with the same question cropping up at the end of all considerations: what the hell did I do before it came flashing and html-ing into my life? I don't use it to surf idly -though I think there's value in that -but like many in the media world, as the basis of my day-to-day communications and work-related tasks. Everything, from pitching a story, to chasing down the key players, to prep to research to fact-checking to writing and final product requires my use of the interwebs. When did reporting and writing get so complicated? When did streamlining become mainlining? How did simplicity get so complex? The loss of the internet has left me with a host of questions related to the nature of my activities and creative choices. I resolved to do something useful with my time -useful in a way other than that as defined by internet surfing, that is -by writing both creative and journalistic stories, talking with friends, and sitting with my addiction -feeling it and not judging. Harder than it sounds. I'm restless by nature and I suppose regular exposure to the internet feeds that.
Still, lack of one connection means a different -perhaps familiar - connection, redefined and rediscovered. It was with a mix of annoyance and resignation that I came to accept the fact that I was -am -cut off. An internet-equipped friend kindly helped me in some necessary prep work but I'd turned on the telly in the hopes of filing the gaping void of non-connectedness; I don't just use the internet for information, but, like many, for connection with others -close, far, known and unknown. Television just doesn't fill the same hole. But I've come across some really, extraordinarily good programming.
Among the many delectable offerings on AUX's excellent, arty-leaning video flow was the Michael Franti video for the catchy, peppy ska-meets-funk-pop single "Say Hey". Filmed in Rio, the video is a bright, powerful shot of pure, unadulterated joy. Franti dances joyously with kids -tweens and toddlers alike -along with grandparents and assorted musicians. Damn. If I had internet, I thought, I would've missed this little gem from one of my favourite artists who released, in my estimation, one of the finest albums in recent memory. The depiction of joy in "" gave me a far greater feeling of connection and reminded me of the power of music -to move hearts, mountains, and minds.
Speaking -typing -of moving mountains, the Choral section of the Ode to Joy just finished on Bravo! and I'm recalling the tender memories I have of seeing Sir Simon Rattle conducting the very same ten years ago in Royal Festival Hall in London; it remains one of my dearest memories of London, to this day, though it was hardly the first or last time I saw the piece. The memory of my night at the Hall, however, remains seared in memory, and comes back jut that much clearer without the techno distractions I've become such a willing slave to over the past few years. Now I see Beethoven's Hair has come on -it's a documentary directed and co-produced by Larry Weinstein, a wonderful Canadian filmmaker I had the opportunity of interviewing for Inside Hana's Suitcase back in the spring. Larry had told me during our wide-spanning conversation that he loved making the doc about LVB, and tonight of all nights, here it is. Of course, I wouldn't have known about it unless my internet connection had died. I'm tempted to say I'm grateful.
Could I have heard the Ode (and learned of poor Ludwig's possible lead poisoning) chained to the elusive, semi-illusory velvet handcuffs of internet connectivity? I caught the ode - this celebration, this tribute to human capacity, capability and credo to greatness, to compassion over cruelty, to space over time, to choice over tyranny -after being forcefully cut off from a terribly isolating habit. Now alas, the addiction isn't over yet. I'm still itching to check my mail, check Facebook, see what people are doing on Twitter and blast around from site to site, ping-ponging between videos and articles and sounds and sites.
But, much as I love it, I cannot deny that the central role I've given the internet in my life has closed me off to plumbing further depths -imaginative, cognitive, sensual, creative -that I know are awaiting rediscovery. I think I need to reconnect -and not just with the bobbing heads and cold letters on my monitor, but with the reason I started this blog: a keen passion for music, art, and all the other cultural things that colour this short existence. It feels like the least I can do -for me, and indeed, for you, the reader.
Nov 3, 2009
All of this bubbled up to the surface following a recent visit to the opera. The Canadian Opera Company's production of Madame Butterfly (closing tonight at the Four Seasons Centre) is beautiful in its simplicity; Brian MacDonald's solid direction and Susan Benson's dreamy design provide a poetic austerity amidst the washed-out shades and colourings. Adina Nitescu's soprano is full, throaty, and lovely, and her acting is keenly felt, and as such, entirely moving.
Yet there is something that has always troubled me about the opera; Cio-Cio San (or "Butterfly") is so terribly naive, her blind, passionate infatuation with Pinkerton and all he represents is maudlin in the extreme, and her willingness to throw over her culture and historical heritage to win validation is deeply unnerving. Along with these troubling notions, there's the patronizing, stereotypical portrayal of Japanese culture itself. "Isn't it cute?" the libretto implies, "aren't these such nice simple people?" The atonal, rhythmic qualities of the music imitates this patronizing attitude; it's about as Japanese as the teriyaki stand in your local mall's food court.
The opera is a reflection of Puccini's awareness of the colonial reach of the U.S. -and, by extension, Italy -but it absolutely reeks of White Privileged European Male-ness. As if to balance all this vitriol, I was struck, in sitting there watching it for the umpteenth time recently, of the sheer gorgeousness of much of the music. Somehow, I reconciled my extreme discomfort with Butterfly's chauvinistic, colonial underpinnings with Puccini's genuinely beautiful, dreamy score. It didn't make any of the issues I have easier to bear, nor did it lubricate the suspension of my disbelief over the next two hours; it did, however, remind me that sometimes it's better to shut your eyes and listen to the notes, not the words. Of course, once I opened them again, I was hit, strongly, by the pretense of theatre cushioning us, so we can sigh over scenarios that would be anything but romantic in reality. There's a patronizing, reductive archness to it all that renders Butterfly's choices insincere and too easy to excuse: "well she's just a kid... "
This same frustrating sense of reduction happened again with the musical version of Debbie Does Dallas (running to November 8th at Toronto's Theatre Centre). The musical is based on the tacky 70s porn flick of the same name. Presented by the newly-formed Ghost Light Projects, the work is cute, bouncy, and empty -kind of like Debbie herself. Lead Jamie Robinson is likeable and certainly an ebullient presence onstage, but the premise -Nice-Girl Cheerleader Turns Into Wholesome Whore To Chase Her Dreams -is tiresome and dated. I enjoyed director Penelope Corrin injecting a bit of social commentary in small drims and drams throughout, questioning the outmoded idea that equates selling sexual favours with liberation. There weren't enough of those moments, alas. More brazenly unzipping the trousers of chauvinism parading as liberation might've made for a more powerful piece, even within the admittedly-small corral of the musical itself. Debbie Does Dallas may be all puffery and pom-poms, but it holds a darker, decidedly unpleasant undertone that isn't funny at all.
A much better example of liberation in action was Ghost Light's second, so-called "complementary" production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The punk rock musical features some kick-ass tunes along with a juicy lead role -uh, for a man. Still, Seth Drabinsky's angry passionate portrayal of the East German rock diva icon -not fully male, not fully female -nicely encapsulated the claustrophobic rage at the masquerade of societal gender stereotypes. He was backed up by the incredible sonic power of local Toronto band The Vicious Guns and actor/singer L.A. Lopes, who director Corrin cleverly placed in a beard and drab garb; the ensuing confusion, between Lopes' masculine appearance and high, searing soprano vocal was a kind of delicious confusion -and possessed a kind of manic, gorgeous opera all its own. The fact Hedwig spits out her memories of living in communist-era Europe also has a delicious timeliness, considering this week marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. It's as if the zeitgeist of that moment of liberation found expression in Hedwig's manic energies, sexual and otherwise.
The production itself nicely mixes the busy confusion of sexual politics with the more tender aspects of love, never slipping into the maudlin or saccharine. Corrin innately understands the snarling energy of punk rock and its transformative power in both epic and intimate ways. You change yourself; you change the world around you. That isn't necessarily a punk ethos either; it's a human one. Reducing one's self to bits and pieces reduces the world, and our capacity to move freely in it. The wall's fallen; the web's mental. Leave your mark, Hedwig urges, and move on.
Oct 25, 2009
"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."
So wrote Oscar Wilde. It seems fitting, the day after Halloween 2009, to think about this quote. Were the ghouls, goblins, and dead Vegas girls running up porches, ringing doorbells, and dancing at parties really make-believe? Or do they reveal something deeper about the wearers? Maybe masks are, to paraphrase Wilde, the truth that dares not speak its name.
I've thought about the lines that run between, around, and through notions of play, theatre, past, present, and art a lot lately. As a woman in the twenty-first century, my sense of identity should be more fluid than ever, and yet female image -iconography -feels constricted, claustrophobic, and shrunken. The Irish great may have been using "man" in a general sense, but in considering some recently portrayals of women, I'm coming to believe the masks being presented depend entirely on who is is providing the costuming.
Pop star Lady Gaga has provided no end of interest or amusement for the media-hungry masses. Body stockings, planetary rings, masks -Stefani Germanotta is, in many senses, creating her own personal mythology and wider social iconography in a weirdly similar way to her predecessor, Madonna, who did the same thing over two decades ago. Gaga's mum may have christened her ambitious daughter with a similarly funny-sad/flaky-weighty nickname, but both have earned their wider social royalty; the latter is making it abundantly clear she never needed a counterpart Lord to have her own title. The clash between the perceived upper echelon of societal position and the Dadaist impulse of giving nonsense names is what Stephanie seems to be aiming at. Maybe. Similarly so Madge, who replaced the outdated, insincere societal version of holiness (and the saintly female icon image) nearly thirty years ago with her own brand of melted-down, rough-soft Pop Culture Femme-Prayer. 'You may adore me,' her mask implies, 'but you will never really know me.'
And so we haven't, even with babies, charity work, divorce. Madonna is shrewd enough to know that pop culture doesn't care about the deeply personal, that there's power in the unknowable. Gaga knows it too. Her hit song "Poker Face" celebrates the power of sexual power at the same time as it shakes hands with Mr. Invisible. Bearing in mind the rough sexual allusions, there's much to be said for the benefits of maintaining a "pokerface" -it is, after all, another mask. Did we hear Madge respond to ex-husband Guy Ritchie's inane "gristle" comment with any real growl herself? Maintaining the mask at all costs -even in the face of classless accusations related to pat intimacies -seems to be a necessity for the modern woman.
Cindy Sherman has made a career out of donning masks. Within the California girl, the secretary, the socialite, and the sad clown lives an awe-inspiring range of emotion and experience. This isn't just about using ingenious costuming, makeup, and photography to capture a "look" -Sherman's work goes one step further than fashion, turning the "look" into a wider storyline that is frequently disturbing, unnerving, and strangely... real. It's within the artifice that she finds a kind of truth that speaks to our perceptions around women and their relationships to image. Sherman doesn't just put something out there to be merely provocative -that's easy -but to ask questions around ideas of beauty, value, and the hypocritical politics of chauvinistic "inclusion." She does it in a way that in some ways reminds me of Madge around her Sex book days -willful, angry, daring, fearless, celebratory and challenging.
Seeing Sherman profiled recently on Art 21 (on an episode cleverly titled "Transformation"), I was reminded of something a fellow journalist had written about getting the pop culture we deserve. Publicists and managers now, more than ever, sculpt those in the public eye to be utterly envied, relentless talked about (in good or bad terms), and mercilessly duplicated. How much does someone like Lady Gaga actually control what goes out there? How little? The internet age of music and information consumption has meant that the concept of 'instantaneous' has been elevated to an artform. Only yesterday the Globe and Mail featured Halloween costumes that could easily transform you into someone famous. On the cover? Lady Gaga. Duh. Old idea; new ethos. What she is -and I'm still working it out -is somehow far less than what she represents: the colourful, noisy, thighs-splayed busting-open of a modern female identity that is merely an implosion in an old, dirty box marked "hawtness." In their staged SNL catfight, the first thing Madge grabbed, and kept trying to pull off, was Gaga's white-blonde wig. Through that small gesture of playful comedy, something whispered, "redefinition, reset, revolution... but only if I'm pulling the strings." Maybe, as a woman in the twenty-first century, that's both the beginning, and the end, of escaping that dirty little box, while keeping a poker face firmly, squarely, and sadly, in place.
Oct 21, 2009
The Guggenheim celebrated its 50th anniversary yesterday by offering free admission to all visitors.
The online world got in the spirit, with "#Gugg50" hashtags popping up on related tweets; the physical world celebrated too, with the Empire State being bathed in red to celebrate this most beautiful of cultural anniversaries. For fifty years, the Guggenheim has contributed to the international dialogue on art, culture, life, and the connections therein. It's inspired millions, and confused just about as many too. Over on my Facebook wall, there's a comment beneath the link of the Guggenheim news story reminding those who weren't aware (me) that Saturday evenings are pay-what-you-can at the Gugg; the poster has also added that he didn't think the museum was "worth" the $18 admission price. No, I wanted to respond, because what's in there is priceless.
Just like religion, we want a revelation from culture -a lightning bolt of genius, a flash of pizazz, something to wake us up and give us a knock in the knickers. At the same time, however, there's a push-pull between the known and the known; we're hungering after a purely transcendental experience, but in so doing, we don't want to be confronted with things we don't understand -things that might be bigger, wider, stronger and more formless than we're comfortable with. We want culture to conform to our very individualized, and very personal, notions around art. But this isn't what culture is about -sometimes it takes patience, persistence, and a change in perception to really see the value of something -and to recognize what's priceless to us may be worthless to another, or, more frequently, vice-versa.
I was reminded of this watching Herb and Dorothy on PBS recently. The documentary, done via Independent Lens, is a fascinating look at Herb and Dorothy Vogel, two unassuming New Yorkers who wound up amassing one of the most important collections of modern art in history. Some of the pieces they collected were indeed, quite unusual. The documentary includes a hilarious old clip from 60 Minutes, featuring a befuddled Mike Wallace staring at one work (by Richard Tuttle), and exclaiming, in exaggeratedly serious-journo tones, "But it's a piece of rope..." Dorothy and Herb patiently, excitedly, explain their love of the work -they're not patronizing, but equally they're unapologetic in their passion. They don't justify why they love the work, or why they amassed so much of what many might consider to be idiotic, meaningless canvases filled with blobs, streaks, scribbles, or indeed, nothing at all. They love what they love, and for them, art doesn't have a worth past their own personal experience; it, and their passion, requires no justification to anyone. That, to me, mirrors the spiritual experience versus the religious one; it's what Karen Armstrong is on about in her new work, and it's something many thinkers (and artists) through the ages have sought to grasp, even as it slips away: a vast, bigger-than-us unknowability that requires neither justification nor classification, only acceptance. The intersection between the profound and the profane is fine; the one between art and religion even finer. We hate accepting what we can't understand, and we hate ascribing value to something we deem has none.
It was through their massive, near-obsessive collecting that the Vogels not only experienced and participated in a truly gargantuate cultural moment (however accidentally), they also formed meaningful relationships with the artists they bought from. This connectivity enlivens the collection, and indeed, changes our perception of it. The canvases, installations, and all else becomes a living body of relating and sharing; just as "the word is God," so is, it would appear, whole collections that express cultural moments and impulses. Their value is past our reckoning. It's perhaps for this reason that The Vogels eventually gave much of their work away. Yes, gave. They didn't (don't) believe in profiting from what they love, and wouldn't take money for their own personal experiences with both the art and the person who made it. Worthless? Priceless? Go to the National Gallery and find out for yourself. And while you're at it, start engaging -with dancers, singers, poets, painters, writers, performers -the ones whose work you don't understand or may not even like. Start thinking. Start asking. And, to quote a past post of mine, start embracing the questions. The next time you're at the Gugg (Saturday night or otherwise) remember those questions, and thank God you -and they -are there.
Oct 19, 2009
So it was with a mix of trepidation and curiosity that I took my traditional-opera-loving mum to see the new production of his 1908 opera The Nightingale, an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fable. She's always thought of Stravinsky as "weird" (you might too, if your favourite music is grand Italian opera) and I know she was never a fan of the Russian's challenging, difficult, definitely non-hummable music. His infamous statement, that “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all,” has been assessed and analyzed, criticized and derided, and yet I suspect he may've been onto the same kinds of thing as Marcel Duchamp, or even later, Brian Eno. Stravinsky's work isn't about making you feel comfortable, and indeed, that isn’t the point of what I'd consider good art. Spoon-feeding is atrocious; it takes a keen director, respectful of the material but strong in their own sense of individualism and craft to bring a vision that might express something through the myriad of sounds and effects Stravinsky laid throughout his scores.
Enter Robert Lepage. The Nightingale marks his return to the Canadian Opera Company after a sixteen-year absence. Just as he brought a bold, striking vision to the 1993 production of Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung so he brings a playful, if equally visionary sense to this latest work. Stravinsky was the musical revolutionary of his time; LePage is his contemporary theatrical equivalent. Neither artist has ever taken the safe road with regards to their respective arts, so it came as no surprise when it was announced last year that the Quebec born, multi-award-winning theatre director would be filling the orchestra pit of The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts with 67,000 litres of water as part of his vision for the piece. That's a whole lotta water, and people like my mother (a longtime COC subscriber) wondered if it was also a whole lotta waste-of-time.
But the idea -in its audacity, grandeur, and sheer weirdness -intrigued her, and I would imagine, many of those in attendance at Saturday's opening. Opera is meant to be big and bold and ballsy; there's no such thing as subtle opera in the larger scheme of things. The adjective "grand" is attached to opera (or at least some styles) for a reason, and it's always this sense of "the big" that pervades popular notions around the artform. I've sat through more than one production of Aida that featured live animals, including elephants, horses, and even -once -a zebra. So why not fill up the orchestra pit? Why not have puppets? Why not embrace the grand-opera mystique and majesty?
But even majesty is best used when it's done with simplicity, class, and most of all, awareness. To be big just for the sake of it smacks of narcissism; to go large without an overriding artistic idea feels simplistic. And the line between "simple" and "simplistic" is fine but it's important. Too often in the arts world -of high culture and low culture equally -the "large" aspect is blindly presented and unquestioningly embraced. Lepage doesn't offer any solutions for this modern artistic conundrum but he does have the visionary mindset to look behind and around him for clues as to how to solve it. In the program notes, he offers his theory theatre's origins: “Man was sitting around a bonfire in a cave telling stories and one day he stood up and used his shadow to illustrate his tale. Theatre was born using nothing more than light and imagination.” It's this sense of childlike play that the director transfers onto the complex musicality of Stravinsky, making for a unique opera-going experience that both pays homage to the roots (or suspected roots) of theatrical performance, and opens the door to a new way of seeing an old, frequently-stodgy artform. In other words, he reinvents the way we perceive opera and its relevance to theatre, performance, and music itself. he also make it personal, by injecting elements many of us recognize from childhood. They're simple elements, but not simplistic. Lepage trusts and respects his audience -their capacity for creation, imagination, comprehension and invention -and this abiding love of humanity shines through every aspect of the production. Clever, creative use of light, shadow, water, and the human form tease out the the complexities of Stravinsky’s work, revealing its inherent playfulness and its gentle parody of the foibles and follies of human nature.
In so doing, the composer's seemingly-barren, cold modern music is infused with a new richness. In The Fox, a Russian folk tale based on Russian Folk Tales by the writer Aleksandr Afanasyev, he creates a world where we see folk tales being literally shared -told, re-told, re-interpreted and recycled -with choruses of singers dressed in traditional Russian garb standing on side platforms. Fables about wily foxes, proud roosters, crying babies, and curious cats are shared, expressed, and laughed over. Another layer of theatre is literally grafted on top of this via a large, cinematically-shaped screen running the length of the stage, over top of the orchestra. Using shadows made by hands and later bodies (thanks to puppeteers), we see a cat’s tail swishing about, a rabbit’s eyes dancing to and fro, a rooster guarding his hens; each movement matches and accentuates elements in Stravinsky’s score. Here is a whole new way of experiencing the Russian composer -as well as the operatic form itself : as mischievous, theatrical, imaginative, perhaps even fun. Opera? Fun? Hell yeah. Even my mother said as much at intermission.
For The Nightingale, Lepage has taken Andersen’s fable about the golden-throated bird and the Chinese Emperor who covets her and turned it into a magical metaphor about the relationship of man and nature. As the singers control their puppets, with the aid of five talented puppeteers, I couldn't help but notice the near-identical dress between the performers and their doll-like counterparts. Puppet designer Michael Curry has fashioned a series of creations that gorgeously complement their human counterparts in both appearance, and, thanks to choreographer Martin Genest, movement. Each puppet is like a child, with a larger grown-up version of itself controlling, manipulating, sounding, and speaking for it. It reminded me a bit of when my own mother would take me to the opera when I was very young, in fact. There was something sentimental and touching about the way each singer cradled and carefully controlled their smaller, ornately-dressed selves.
With lights from the orchestra musician’s music stands reflected in the water, I found myself musing, amidst the swirling raucousness of the music: art is reflected in nature; nature shows art what is truly is; nature reflects but has its own qualities one can't totally control -and that is a good way of approaching (if not describing) the best sort of art. All this, from filling up an orchestra pit, though the genius was in the design. The reflections (intensified at the opera's end by Diwali-eque floating candles) were not incidental; Etienne Boucher's specific, focused lighting strongly recalled the work of Bill Viola, with all of its spiritual, simple-meets-challenging aspects, encompassed within a live performance presentation.
The Nightingale involves so much more than mere, simplistic effect; it is a wonderous, child-like vision of an eternal dance between the natural world and the constructed one. Via the shadowplay of the first half, and the waterplay/puppeteering of the second, we're reminded again and again to re-connect with our own playful instincts –ones, it must be said, that are as ancient as those first stories he refers to in the notes. Sometimes it’s via the most unexpected and challenging means that we come to find our own common humanity, and come to recognize our own nightingale, singing, flying, just waiting to be heard.
As to my mum? She's still not a Stravinsky fan. But she adores Lepage. Bien sur.
All photographs from The Nightingale And Other Short Fables courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company, photographer Michael Cooper.
Oct 16, 2009
When I lived in London, I used to go to the National Portrait Gallery on my lunch breaks and visit the beautiful series of poet portraits that hung in the Romantics section. I recall a good forty-five minutes vanishing as I'd sit gazing at Byron, Shelley, and Blake.
Later when I moved back to Toronto, I'd take advantage of the Art Gallery of Ontario's free Wednesday evenings (it was and remains a bit of a shock to me to pay admission, so utterly spoiled was I by London's free galleries and museums). I would go directly to the small but lovely collection of Monet paintings, where I would sit and gaze silently, worshipping shape, colour, texture, the magic of the rich, gooey shades changing form and implication with my own positioning, the gallery's lighting, and even how many people were or were not crowding around the painting with me. I loved spending this slow, meditative time with art. I don't do it enough anymore. There's always another event to get to, another work to see. My leaning toward Pop and abstract art, with its sometimes-bouncy, breezy energies and kinetic shapes and sparky ideas, frequently mocks and milks the 'faster-stronger-higher' ethos of contemporary society, but such works demand equal amounts of care, contemplation, and stillness.
It's hard for me to say if one form of art or era lends itself better than another to slow art, or if it should. I'm sure it's personal. But in this world of instant gratification and simple solutions, it's nice to find the slow-down-and-smell-the-flowers ethos being applied to so many facets of culture. I'm reminded of a line I heard in a production of Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, on now in Toronto. Sholom Aleichem (real name Sholom Yakov Rabinovitz) was a Yiddish writer from Eastern Europe who wrote numerous stories focusing on the day-to-day live of his fellow Jews in the late 19th century. From these tales sprang the beloved character of Tevye the Milkman who populates many of Aleichem's stories, and is the protective father in Fiddler on the Roof; it's no irony that Theodore Bikel, who has played Tevye thousands of times, is performing as Aleichem. The production is a slow if loving meditation on the nature of writing, and performing, taking into account the importance of culture, community, and family. Aleichem comes from a world where concepts of "instant" and "faster" are unknown; things are steeped and brewed in the long, slow-moving stream of cultural lore long before they fully ripen. The line, delivered towards the end of the show, invites us to embrace the idea of accepting "fewer answers in life, and more questions." How wonderful. And how very exemplary of the Slow Movement.
It's an old idea, but it still resonates: it isn't the destination, it's the footsteps; it isn't the result, it's the journey. In trying times, we all want to cling to the familiar, the knowable, the easy and yes, the fast. But these aren't the things that are going to feed us. Just as deep hunger is not satiated with greasy fast food, our spiritual, emotional, and cultural needs (I'd argue they're all one in the same) aren't satisfied with simple answers. And so it behooves us to accept the questions -and perhaps, us exemplifying those questions. The Museum of Modern Art seems to understand this; we're not only looking, we're in the process of becoming. Nothing can be more timely, or timeless.