May 31, 2015

Beautiful Nothingness

Photo via
Translating complex philosophical ideas onto the stage can be a challenge, particularly when that stage doesn't involve words, but The National Ballet of Canada's Being and Nothingness, based on the work by Jean-Paul Sartre, offers a riveting expression of the ideas around the nature of existence, done with a definite visual poetry that makes for compelling watching. The work is being staged at Toronto's Four Seasons for the Performing Arts as part of the company's spring program (which also includes work by Alexei Ratmansky) and runs through June 6th.

Principal dancer Guillaume Cote turns choreographer for Being and Nothingness, which took shape after fellow dancer Greta Hodgkinson approached Cote about creating a solo. Cote was reading the work of Sartre at the time. As he prepared the solo, Cote says in the program notes that he was surprised by "how many aspects of Sartre's theory began to come up. There was this idea of creating an image of ourselves, an ideal of what we should be, and no longer living in the moment but rather somewhere between what we'e done in our past and what we're striving for in our future."

This "somewhere between," where the dancers look caught between past and future, is the space where Being and Nothingness derives much of its power. Soloist Hodgkinson performs with just the light of a sole bulb dangling on a long string, her body twisting and contorting, a Giacometti come to life. It's as if she is in a frantic fight against inertia and vanishing, fending off the darkness but fearful of what the light might reveal. Her arms and legs turn toward, and then away, from light, toward and back from the corners of Michael Levine's satisfyingly grim set. Cote's choreography nicely integrates the fluid, spatial elements of Tharp and Balanchine, while deftly maintaining a poetic urgency that perfectly matches the gorgeous panic of the Philip Glass Metamorphosis and Etude pieces that score the work, ones expertly performed by Edward Connell.

Kathryn Hosier and FĂ©lix Paquet (Photo by Karolina Kuras)
If, like me, you can't quite place Being and Nothingness from your reading past (I did a paper on it in university roughly two decades ago), it's worth remembering that the French philosopher starts from the point of humans being precisely zero essence; we are not "essentially" good or "essentially" bad, we simply are. In other words, life's what you make it. Sartre writes that because humans lack any pre-determined essence, they make themselves purely by acting in the world. This "world" is presented onstage through a series of vignettes, many of which feature couples in various circumstances. This reflects the dualism Sartre explores (and ultimately rejects) in his work; to put it simply, what you see is really what you get.

Thus Cote has staged a work with few light spots, though the ones there shine through brilliantly, and are complemented by intense dancing and a forceful theatricality that dips and dives around the abstract and occasionally surreal. Dancers Kathryn Hosier and Felix Paquet share a lovely, playfully romantic pas-de-deux in "The Bedroom," while Svetlana Lunkina and Brent Parolin bring a strained connection to vivid life, with the help of a carpet (frequently dragged around with someone on it), in "The Living Room." The bridges between past and present, of sitting in a purgatory of the present, couldn't have been made more searingly obvious, and the choreography and imagery presented in this vignette was particularly affecting for its visual inventiveness and seamless blend of movement and design. Further along, an ensemble of male dancers, clothed in natty grey suits designed by Krista Dowson, perform upstage (they're downstage for "The Street") and remind one of Sartre's argument that "we, as human beings, can become aware of ourselves only when confronted with the gaze of another. Not until we are aware of being watched do we become aware of our own presence."

Greta Hodgkinson and Ben Rudisin (Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic)
This idea of presence makes the solo work all the more trenchant;  Hodgkinson's intense performance that opens the show,  as well as Dylan Tedaldi's tormented solo performance in "The Sink," add challenging if beautiful layers to what is, at its essence (and yes it has one), a brilliantly inventive piece of dance theatre.  Fully immersing his head in a sink full of water and then throwing his head back, lion-like, Tedaldi gives a controlled and sure physical expression of Sartre's idea that "the gaze of the other robs us of our inherent freedom" — even if that gaze is coming from a mirror, it would seem. Freedom here looks like a joy and a torment, at once, and choreographer Cote seems to understand this perfectly.

The idea of freedom as a leviathan-like force, haunting, harrowing, beautiful and terrifying, is examined with quiet intensity in the final vignette, "The Call", where Hodgkinson and dancer Ben Rudisin wrestle with a phone call (and an ever-lengthening phone cord); it's as if they are wrestling with their own need for connection, and a repulsion at being defined solely by it, grappling for freedom and pushing against it simultaneously. Such push-pull tension fuels the piece on to a surprising, if nicely contemplative ending, elucidating the philosophical notion that "freedom is humanity’s curse as well as its blessing, and what we make of that freedom is our own."

It is an awful, awesome, awe-inspiring note Cote has chosen to end on, and it will, like Being and Nothingness itself, leave you quietly contemplating the lights, the shadows, the movements, and the stillness; you may even want to pull out that old volume of Sartre again.

May 30, 2015

Digging In The Dirt

Illustration by Kerrie Leishman via
Continuing with my tradition of being terribly late to cool parties, I recently finished reading The Luminaries (Little, Brown and Company), Eleanor Catton's Man Booker-winning novel released in 2013. I had delved into the mammoth work late last fall, and had gone through phases of intense and dedicated reading (mainly over the Christmas break), followed by weeks of leaving it aside in favor of focusing on my own work and on the million responsibilities that built up over late winter and early spring.

The Luminaries requires an intense amount of mental energy and focus; author Eleanor Catton paints a gorgeously rich and detailed world of prospectors and swindlers, dreamers and dawdlers, with each character aligned with either an astrological sign or heavenly body. Every story (and character) is carefully, deftly, beautifully interwoven, with the book eventually becoming a pattern of spiderwebs hung against a canopy of stars on a cold spring night. You want to stare and attempt clarity, even as something inside tugs that, to paraphrase Duchamp, the desire to understand it all fills you with a certain horror. It's a Victorian-style novel, yes, and it's also a ripping good crime novel, but, like any good crime piece, is also a profound meditation on the nature of greed, identity, and existence.

For book-lovers, finishing a book is akin to the ending of a special relationship, one you know is destined to come to a close, but will nevertheless leave a gaping hole in your life. It's a hole you know will be filled by many other things (and authors!) but the prospect of that hole existing is sometimes made all the worse by the anticipation involved in its digging. You carry around the ideas and people and world the author has laid out, even as you remember the experiences you had through the process of reading the book. With The Luminaries, my memory is as full with frequently-painful experiences as the book is with unsavory characters and situations. Over the course of the 800-page-plus work, I endured a series of bladder infections, a violent flu, and the start of what became a two-month health odyssey that necessitated multiple surgeries and visits to the emergency room. I also experienced the start of a serious decline in a family member's health that necessitated huge lifestyle changes for both of us. I can't begin to remember how many waiting rooms and hospital beds Catton's tome was taken to, how many times it functioned, alternately, as a soother, a lullaby, a thriller, a prayer, a pillow, a pilgrimage, or, most always, an escape.

Cover print via
As I consumed more chapters (which become progressively shorter, reflecting the movement of the heavens, apparently), I started to read more and more slowly, hoping (in vain) to draw out the last bits of goodness, like sucking at a bone for the most minute dregs of marrow left in the spiny crevices. At a certain point, as the last words of Catton's work were read late one night (and it should be noted, the book ends on a light, casual note, like an expert nurse giving a needle you didn't know you needed), I felt a sense of something lifting — not heavy or demanding, but a certain conclusion, as if a very unsettled chapter of life was drawing to a close. It's funny how we can become addicted to bad things happening, as if adrenaline keeps us awake and needing another fix of the terrible, over and over, so accustomed are we to the dramatically awful. It's so strangely hard to let those phases go sometimes, to sit back, accept what has passed, and gently remind one's self that it's time to break up.

Dear Luminaries, I love you, but this had to end. I'll always remember Moody, Anna, Lydia, Carver, Mannering, Clinch, Frost, Lowenthal, Gascoigne, Devlin, Ah Sook, Nilssen, Prichard, Quee Long, Balfour, Te Rau Tauwhare, Emery Staines, and poor old Francis Wells. They've become permanent residents in the rattling, haunted attic of my life these past months. I may be just coming out of the gutter at last; I'm definitely seeing the stars, wondering at the heavenly bodies, and remembering the glint of spider webs, the silence of moon glow, the rough-smooth texture of gold, the heavy fog of smoke, and the smell of heavy wool after a New Zealand rainstorm. These things live with me, just as much as my surgical scars do. But the story is over now.

Maybe it's time to see what the attic looks like from the garden. Maybe it's time for sunrise. It's time to dry off and see what I've mined.

May 27, 2015

She's Come Undone

Photo by Dahlia Katz
There's something strange, if marvellous, about seeing a character you think you know in a new light. Sure, your expectations are upset (who goes to the theater without a shred of them, really?) and the image you may've held in your mind's eye might become woozy, if not outright shattered -- but isn't that a good thing? What's presented before you in a live setting isn't meant to conform to your specific worldview; it's meant to challenge it, and offer new, sometimes surprising ways of looking at people and situations. This new presentation enlightens even as it may enrage, making both the micro and macro details of every day living both more understandable and inscrutable, asking us to open hearts and minds in an attempt to bridge our individual selves with a larger 'self' that connects all humans.

All of this comes to mind with M'dea Undone,a world premiere from Toronto-based Tapestry New Opera (with Scottish Opera), and currently on now through Friday. Essentially a re-telling of the Greek myth of Medea, the story (with libretto by Marjorie Chan and music by John Harris) has been stripped of its mystical elements and placed firmly in the present, with the titular Medea (Lauren Segal) now a kind of war bride (if not an officially-married one) to Jason (Peter Barrett), a decorated military figure and close advisor to the President (James McLean). Medea is a survivor of war atrocities, and is presented as having a Middle Eastern background, giving her and the work a contemporary feel that is greatly enhanced by the company's choice of location, an old warehouse, open to the elements, at Toronto's Evergreen Brickworks. As the sounds of traffic and birds co-mingle, the voices of the ensemble rise up, offering a sound that is both against and absolutely a part of nature. This isn't theater as cold, rarified, high-art-museum stuff, but rather, a kind of a home, one that is welcoming, inclusive, and, it's worth noting, interactive. (The audience and performers freely mingled in the yawning stage space following the evening's final bows, something I wish would happen more at live cultural events. This kind of friendly, unpretentious, intimate interaction needs so much to be a larger part of the performing arts.)

Photo by Monika MacMillan
English director Tim Albery expertly makes use a set that spans the warehouse space and is composed of various staircases, bridges, and simple set pieces, allowing for a world that is at once exposed and vulnerable as it is cloistered and confined. These elements gain in importance as M'dea Undone unfolds through its tight 70-minute running time. The work is a gripping ride of tragedy, torment, and it must be said, terrifically great singing and acting. Jacqueline Woodley, as the President's daughter Dahlia (Glauce in the Greek myth) expertly twists her pretty soprano tone into a sneering, squealing expression of haughty entitlement, while McLean, as her father, veers between rumbling bonhomie and self-congratulations before moving to aching anguish. Peter Barrett, as Jason, offers a truly heartbreaking performance, his elastic tenor providing just the right amounts of tenderness, anger, outrage, and desperation, never indulging in one too long or veering into melodrama. Segal offers a towering portrayal of a woman wounded by love and war; her rich, luscious mezzo-soprano tone perfectly captures both the sensual allure of the character, with a wonderfully incisive reading of Harris' jagged score that underlines and continually re-emphasizes the character's inherent humanity.

It's this quality that makes one re-think the character of Medea herself. I've always liked and been drawn to the mystical elements of the character -- a kind of Greek-mythological Stevie-Nicks-type, casting spells and spouting incantations -- but it's the woman beneath the sparkling veils (literal or figurative) that makes M'dea Undone so special. There have been many great Medeas to have graced the stage (Diana Rigg, Helen McCrory, Seana McKenna) and all of them offer a special take on the damaged woman of Euripides' great tragedy. Tapestry's work continues this tradition, but forces audiences to see past the sorceress elements; while they are certainly central to her character, M'dea Undone asks us to consider what power the character might have if she was stripped down entirely, robbed of her spirituality, robbed of her country, robbed of her culture, and ultimately, the man she loves. What would she do? As the New York Times' Vincent Canby noted in 1994, "(t)o play her mostly as victim is to humble one of world literature's most titanic creations." No kidding.

Photo by Dahlia Katz
It's good Tapestry doesn't fall into this trap -- Medea here is certainly ill-treated but she's hardly a victim. And though the way she chooses to exercise her power is horrific, there is something horribly, disconcertingly human about it. We recognize her in a chilling way, and we know the way things will inevitably end. But, knowing the ending in no way diminishes the overall power of her choice, or of the work itself. Instead, what we are left with is an unsettling portrait of damaged people in damaging circumstances, grappling with issues of love and betrayal. As with many Tapestry productions, M'dea Undone gracefully push the boundaries of the live opera experience into new, fresh territory. It may not always be a comfortable ride, but it's one well worth taking.

May 16, 2015

Eternity's Sunrise

(photo via)
The opportunity to sit with a piece of art, undistracted, has become a luxury, especially for those of us with stressful lives. Amidst the hospitalization of a parent, my own health woes, and a skunk-sprayed pet, having the time (mental, emotional, spiritual) and space to just sit with something artistic (and not fall asleep) has been a rare and much-longed for thing, a wish that vanishes with too much wind and implodes with too much noise. Time, place, and condition, of house, of hearth, of heart, have to be just so. It felt like a blessing to have a recent evening where all the phone calls had been made, all the dishes had been washed, and the skunk stench has dissipated enough to allow for clear thinking and open listening.

photo via
I was a huge admirer of U2's work in the 1990s; a sense of adventure, in the sonic, lyrical, and especially visual senses, pervaded every creative choice they made at that time, and I suppose it reflected a more open and adventurous approach in my own life. I also loved the bald, raw honesty of Bono's words, the way they swirled and stomped about with a ferocious kind of poetry, and the deep, dark places he and bandmates Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr. and The Edge boldly stepped into, with nary a look back. The combination of innate playfulness, balls-out experimentation, and unapologetic intelligence was intoxicating, and even now, listening to Achtung Baby or Zooropa or Pop (or even some moments on the Passengers project with Brian Eno) sends chills down my spine. It's hard to describe the incredible nature of cultural discovery that U2 (and their inspirations) provided the soundtrack for in my younger days; I delved into the work of Genet, Duchamp, Basquiat, Antonioni, and innumerable others, with Joy Division, Patti Smith, David Bowie, and The Ramones on in the background. New worlds opened up to me — new ideas inside me were enthusiastically birthed and raised — and, at the time, it felt like so much of it had sprung from randomly seeing a guy writhing around in a pink shirt, and thinking, "hey, that's a good song... I can dance to that..."

Alas, people change, circumstances change, the only constant thing in life is change, and so, my interest in 2000s U2 output plummeted. I can't explain it, except to say that I didn't feel the same kind of connection or fire-lighting inspiration. That changed, however, with the release of No Line on the Horizon; a sense of adventure was palpable in many of the songs from the 2009 album, and I loved the fact that, despite the quick hit / MP3 / downloadable / disposable nature of music in the 21st century, the work still felt like a complete thought, as an album, rather than a series of singles. There were flashes of rawness, realness, and plain old... mischief. It had stuff to dance to as well. And the cover art, by Hiroshi Sugimoto, was (is) poetic and beautiful. There was something daring about the entire venture, and it engendered a kind of new/old respect that pushed my artsy buttons.

I didn't see the mammoth 360 tour, however; it was out of reach financially, and I just didn't have the back strength to stand for any length of time. Something in me snorts at the possibility of having any kind of profound creative experience in the super-corporatized tour world of the 21st century as well (this could be cynical old age creeping in), but one moment (glimpsed via YouTube) that did impress was when you couldn't see the band at all, during the performance of "Zooropa." Done behind a huge metal sheath with the glorious sound blasting out, it was as it the band were begging its worshipful audience, "Please, forget the screens, forget the effects; just use your own imaginations, pretend you don't know us, and just listen." Absence created presence. It was, for me, truly a profound statement, one made all the more powerful for being made in such an immense space by an immensely influential group, and it's one that still resonates.

That dance, between absence and presence, powers Songs of Innocence, released last year. I put off listening to it because I wanted the space, the time, the energy to simply be with it, uninterrupted. Just sitting and spending time with an album is, ridiculously, a kind of a luxury now, so great are the demands on our attention. But, turning off social media, TV, radio, and phone, and simply letting the music wash over me, the way I did in the 80s and 90s when I'd get a new album, felt like the most cleansing kind of ritual. Amidst the tidal wave of frustrations, setbacks, and challenges of late, it was the right time to step into the world the album offered, eyes, hands, and heart wide open.



Its title, referencing the work of William Blake, is a bit misleading; this is a very adult album that looks back to find strength and wisdom in the wide-eyed, pillow-lipped, deep-breath state of youth, and uses that energy to find meaning in the present. Many of the songs have a certain wistful quality lyrically, while there are also some searingly honest moments that feel confessional through not only words but sound; "Sleep Like A Baby Tonight" defies its peaceful title by having a creepy, Throbbing-Gristle-esque electro undertow that provides just the right note of discomforting menace that paints a nightmare portrait of abuse, while "This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now" has a pulsating pseudo-dance beat that fits its anti-hero ethos and nicely salutes the sounds on Sandinista by The Clash, a fitting tribute to its Joe Strummer dedication. There's also the continuance of charming geography here. In the 1980s, there was "Red Hill Mining Town" and "Heartland"; in the '90s, "Zoo Station", "Miss Sarajevo", and "Miami"; in the 2000s, "New York", "City of Blinding Lights", and "Fez/Being Born." Now there's "California (There Is No End To Love)" and "Cedarwood Road." It's interesting to consider the contrasts between the latter two, one so rooted in the present, the other so firmly ensconced in the past; this push-pull of contrasts gives the album much of its power, with love and aggression, loss and abundance, acceptance and anger, and of course, presence and absence, providing a kind of dialectic undertow that reveals and conceals at once in a maddening, if eminently listenable dance of modernity.

Right in line with this dance are the album's words. Bono has always had a special knack of making the epic, intimate, and of making the personal, universal in his lyrics. Here he's co-credited with The Edge in lyrics writing duties, but one can still discern the heart, the art, and the electric shock of a life lived so full so as to be bursting with profane (and profound) contradictions. I felt a special, and deeply personal twinge in hearing his plaintive tenor deliver the line, "I've got your life inside of me" in "Iris (Hold Me Close)", a song about his too-soon-departed mother. It's one thing to hear a favorite artist belt out something personal; it's quite another to hear them shout out the pain you happen to have felt over the course of a week filled with hospital visits, phone calls, and meetings. The absence of a mother figure, while always powering work creatively, holds a special sheen here, because it's that absence that works as a kind of guiding presence that allows forward momentum along creative avenues -- ones fraught with dangers, darkness, and dreariness, true enough, but also filled with "cherry blossoms," with seashores, with light. Those things can't exist without the other. Innocence can't exist without experience, and vice-versa. Inspiration can't exist without ennui. Absence can't exist without presence.

And so, this is an album about balance, regeneration, and contemplation, and one that, perhaps, couldn't have been enjoyed and experienced at a better moment, amidst the phone calls, the hospital visits, the surgeries, the skunk smell, and the dirty dishes. Am I a fan? No, I've never, ever felt comfortable in that camp. Am I grateful? Yes. Thank you for putting that in my iTunes, U2. My world's a little richer,  and a little brighter. Innocence is both more wide-eyed and astute, and experience has never tasted more bitter or sweet, at once. Contradiction truly is balance, and that's probably how it should be. Now I'm ready to dance.




May 1, 2015

The Real Cosmopolitan

Photo via CBC Music
It was with a heavy heart that I heard about the passing of CBC Radio host Jurgen Gothe last month.

I'd been thinking a lot about him lately, what with starting my own radio show this past January, and a recent stock-taking of old cookbooks, where I found DiscCookery amongst my culinary collection. Gothe had penned the work on the 20th anniversary of his popular afternoon radio program, DiscDrive, in 2005.

The program, aired on CBC Radio 2, was a regular part of my young life; it was always on in the house or the car after school, and even when I started going to university, I found myself turning it on during my long commutes, between blaring the Pearl Jam CD and the Tom Waits cassette tape. The program's avuncular host had a broadcasting style both elegant and casual at once, like a warm designer cardigan found in a Kensington Market stall; it was something very fine and special, though it was equally familiar, casual, and approachable.

After years of listening, it only feels right to call Jurgen by his first name, despite never working with him, and only meeting him briefly. Part of what I loved (and still love) about Jurgen is how much he defied the stereotypical "Canadian" cliche. He wasn't a maple-syrup-and-hockey-with-Tim-Horton's-tell-me-aboat-it-eh kind of guy (even though he named the Canucks as his favorite sports team). He was smart, well-spoken, curious, deeply interested in viniculture, cuisine, and the world of arts and culture as embodied in his weekday program — but that didn't make him distant; it made him cool.

The quote on the back of DiscCookery (from the Globe and Mail) called DiscDrive "(t)he most intelligent radio in the country."The program was a charming compendium of facts, stories, passions, and pursuits; he'd play Mozart and Bach alongside Grappelli and Ellington. I was introduced to Billie Holiday's magical, horn-like voice on DiscDrive, along with the sad sighs of Marin Marais' viola da gamba pieces; I ventured into jazz clubs in New York because of the curiosity Jurgen fostered. I gained a whole new appreciation in my Toronto Symphony Symphony concerts, recalling a funny anecdote Jurgen shared about Mozart as I listened to "Eine Kleine Nachtsmusik", or a food-wine pairing as one of Beethoven's rich, meaty overtures washed over me.

Radio can change the way a person experiences the world; some programs will only confirm a worldview, while others help to expand, widen, and celebrate it. DiscDrive did all that, and more, helping me say, out loud, "yes, I love these things" while simultaneously making me question the whole idea of "Canadiana" and its relationship with a rapidly changing culture.

Jurgen himself defied the "hoser" cliche by embracing a cosmopolitan curiosity that he then transmitted over the airwaves; his wasn't an attitude of superiority or snobbery. Quite the opposite. It was his warmth and joy and genuinely curious approach — all the things I try to emulate in my own broadcasting life. I miss Jurgen, and I miss Disc Drive — but the things they stood for and provided continue to inspire. My favorite sweater is so warm, and I am forever grateful.

Photo via CBC Music