Saturday, May 12, 2012

Blissed Out

Ballet BC Resident Choreographer José Navas' the bliss from their limbs all movement takes was the breakout hit of the company's 2010-11 season. And of course it just happened to be on the program the one fall weekend Richard and I were away. Mercifully, Artistic Director Emily Molnar convinced Navas to expand the work into a full evening of dance, with the overall title of Bliss; last night at the Queen E we finally got to see what all the fuss was about.

The fuss almost certainly has to start with Navas' amazing musicality. The three distinct sections that comprise Bliss are each set to equally distinct musical selections. In the first, Annunciations, excerpts from Mozart's piano trios structure its three sections, and like the music the dancers move through space in ever more complex patterns, all the while appearing buoyant and serene. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the transition to the third movement, when with the full company assembled on stage, their backs to the audience, the women begin to float up en pointe one by one. The final Allegretto from Mozart's Trio in B Flat (K. 502) has not yet begun, and all we hear is the tap-tap-tap of the women's pointe shoes on the stage. "Sound's perpetual roundabout," as the poem by Edwin Muir reprinted in the program states, and from which Navas takes the titles for the first and third sections of his ballet. And, indeed, by the end of this first section, with a lone female dancer whirling about on stage en pointe, we are convinced that the dimensions of space are acoustic as much as they are visual.

The piece's second section, A Thousand Ways to Meet You Tenderly, is altogether different in tone. Set to the haunting strings of Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3, from his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, it begins with four male and four female dancers entering the stage in shafts of horizontal light, each holding a chair. The men move stage left, the women stage right, setting down their chairs and then sitting down opposite each other. With quiet deliberateness, they begin removing their shoes. Then one of the men (Gilbert Small) stands up and begins walking towards the woman opposite him (Alexis Fletcher). She meets him halfway, at which point he collapses his head into her stomach and she eases him down to the floor, resting his weight against her thighs, and laying a gentle hand across his back. This signature move is then repeated by each of the other couples (Makaila Wallance and Peter Smida; Alyson Fretz and Connor Gnam; and Maggie Forgeron and Dario Dinuzzi), and it encapsulates in miniature the overall thematic structure of this middle section of Navas' ballet, what for want of a better term we might call the weight of grief. For the men's downward collapsings into the bellies of the women is counterpointed by the women's successive leapings into the arms of the men, wrapping their legs so lightly, so delicately, around the men's waists, as if in apology for the burdensome need of their embrace. Or perhaps the move references the inherent fragility and ephemerality of the return of such an embrace. For every meeting of the dancers centre stage is balanced by a sometimes reluctant, a sometimes willed, and always emotionally devastating return to their respective chairs. It's Orpheus and Eurydice X 4, and played over and over again, the only thing worse than the repetition of loss the anticipation of its return.

Finally, in the third section we get the famous original work from 2010 that set all of the above in motion. And what a whirling, twirling feast of motion it is, with the dancers spinning on and off the stage, and into duos and trios and quartets, to the increasingly frenetic tempo of Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar's Offering and Meeting Along the Edge. (That being said, the opening of the bliss..., like the third movement of Annunciations, begins in silence, confirming Navas' belief, as revealed in a recent Georgia Straight interview, that the true test of a dance's structure comes when it is performed without music.) The razor-sharp edge of both Navas' choreographic artistry and the dancers' commanding technique is fully on display in this section, as the number of bodies on stage expands so exponentially, and the literal changes in direction of those bodies come so quickly, that any missed cue would almost surely result in a huge pile-up. Kinesthetically one can't help but be swept up into the action, and as an exhilarating high-point on which to end the evening it really does leave one feeling a kind of blissful rapture.

Kudos to all at the reinvigorated Ballet BC on another inspired season. I look forward to next year, including Navas' new take on Giselle and, in January, a partnership with PuSh.


Friday, May 11, 2012

Obama's Well-Timed Move

When I first began this blog back in 2008, I devoted more than a few posts to the US election, caught up like everyone else in the stirring political theatre that was Barack Obama's rise to power as the first black President (not to mention the little sideshow that was Sarah Palin and her TV avatar, Tina Fey). In the years since, my blogging about US politics has waned in direct proportion to my increasing disappointment in Obama's performance in the White House. Granted he's been a bit distracted from the ambitious social agenda he set for himself during his first campaign by the fact that the world economy went bust just as he assumed power, and by the two wars from which he was tasked with extracting US troops. Nevertheless, what many have characterized as his "deep thinking" on so many complex domestic issues (including gay rights) has more and more often appeared as dithering, as someone unwilling--or incapable--of taking a stand.

Now comes the game-changing move of Obama's announcement this past Monday of his endorsement of same-sex marriage. While I believe the President is being sincere in stating that his own views on this matter changed over the course of the past four years (not least as a result of conversations with his wife and children on the subject--and on this see Edmund White in Salon), the timing of his announcement also reveals Obama's political savvy. As several political pundits have already noted, Obama risks nothing legislatively in supporting same-sex marriage (marriage laws are under state jurisdiction). However, he has succeeded in putting Mitt Romney into a something of a corner over the issue even before the latter has officially secured the Republican nomination. At the same time he has made this election about something other than the economy, an issue on which Obama's strategists must know he's vulnerable.

To be sure, Romney's response can and will (in some version) likely be: "It's still the economy stupid." But mere deflection might not be enough for both the socially moderate and socially conservative elements inside the Republican party, who will likely want some clarification of Romney's own stand on same-sex marriage. Hence that corner that Obama has placed Romney in: his clarification can only be an unequivocal denunciation of same-sex marriage rights. And while this might help him carry swing states like North Carolina (which voted for Obama last time, but which has also just enacted a state ban on gay marriage), it also further sharpens the contrast between Romney and Obama as candidates. And here the social issue might possibly redound onto the economic one, with Obama and his team able to paint Romney as not just as an elitist rich man seeking more tax cuts for the one per cent, but also as a moral conservative willing to extend a program of economic disenfranchisement to one of social exclusion.

And, let's face it, the marriage issue will also re-energize Obama's left-liberal base, who were in danger of abandoning him or simply not bothering to vote this time around. That Obama's announcement came just before the big fundraising shin-dig at George Clooney's Hollywood pad is no accident. Timing in politics is everything, and Obama, the first social media President, is aware of how fast things move in this digital age. And on the same-sex marriage issue, time just might be on his side, as the pace of public opinion is moving so quickly, and overwhelmingly, in the direction of its acceptance.

Here's hoping that momentum continues--and in the right direction--through to November.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012


“I’ve always been an activist.”
            - Vito Russo

Last night barbara findlay and I were part of a post-screening Justice Forum panel at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival's Vancouver premiere of a new documentary about the life of US film historian and queer activist Vito Russo at the Denman Cinemas. Forum coordinator Meghna Haldar had asked me to prepare a brief blog post that would "go live" on the DOXA website immediately after the screening. You can find it here, or simply read what I had to say below.

Like many, my knowledge of Vito Russo has largely come from reading his pioneering study of homosexual representations in the movies, The Celluloid Closet. And, I’ll be honest: at first I didn’t always like what I was reading. As a young gay cinephile coming of age during the heady years of the New Queer Cinema, when edgy works by Todd Haynes, Derek Jarman, and others deliberately trafficked in dark, disturbing, and altogether abject images of queer desire, his bitching about the negative portrayal of gays and lesbians on screen seemed, well, a tad antediluvian. But then I was reading the book in the early 1990s, more than a decade after it had first been published. And I was reading it solely as a work of film criticism, rather than as what it now—and especially after watching Jeffrey Schwarz’s amazing documentary—seems more accurate to call a work of activist cultural history. The positive images debate in gay film criticism, which Vito’s book in many ways helped to inaugurate, was necessary at that particular historical juncture precisely so that today we can go to the movies, or turn on our TVs, and watch a gay superhero or a lesbian vampire and not blink an eye because of their sexuality. Indeed, the critical reception of a recent film like Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, embraced as a brilliant love story pure and simple, rather than as a specifically gay love story, arguably wouldn’t have been possible without the work of Vito Russo. He got us to pay attention and to care about our representation in popular media—so that we’d then have the luxury, as we do now, of not caring. As Vito is quoted as saying early on in Schwarz’s film, he saw himself working for future generations, so that younger LGBTQ people wouldn’t have to grow up the same way, and in the same world, as he did.

But I wonder—to adapt a line from Larry Kramer referenced late in the film—if Vito’s grandchildren are fully aware of the debt we owe to him and his generation of queer activists? For, as Schwarz makes abundantly clear in frame after frame and interview after interview, Vito was first and foremost an activist. He was either a founding member or on the front lines of three incredibly important LGBTQ social justice organizations in his lifetime: GAA; GLAAD; and ACT UP. How many of us can say the same? Vito joined, and was often the guiding spirit, of these movements because he was angry. What are we angry about? Or, perhaps more to the point, what will it take to get us angry again? In this age of anti-retroviral cocktails and same-sex marriage has smug complacency become our default queer emotion? I hope not. The AIDS crisis may seem like a distant memory to some of us here in the West, but the fact of the matter is that homophobia is alive and well. And, as Vito reminds us, homophobia is what kills.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Positive I.D. at InspiraTO Festival in June

The folks at the InspiraTO Festival, where my short 10-minute play Positive I.D. is premiering in Toronto at the Alumnae Theatre next month, sent along this very cool poster image yesterday. They encouraged us to attach it to any blog or facebook posts or tweets that we might make in the coming weeks to publicize our work and the Festival as a whole. I'm always of two minds in talking about my work, but I'll do anything for an audience. So I'm reprinting here what I posted to InspiraTO's own facebook page just a few minutes ago:

The idea for Positive I.D. came to me after watching one too many CSI episodes. Police procedurals are a staple of television and the movies. But they are also among the most generically constrained of entertainment forms. There is one basic plot (crime, investigation, arrest), and most shows follow this standard arc. There is also little variation among the characters, especially characters of colour (with The Wire being an important exception). This idea of being locked into a role struck me as worthy of exploration on the stage, which is all about playing one’s part. Hence the challenge I set myself in writing this play: in the space of ten minutes introduce the audience to three stock characters (a cop, a victim, an accused); somehow add nuance to our understanding of them via their charged encounters with each other; but also show how, in the end, they (and maybe we) are unable to see and move beyond the limits of the role assigned to them. We’ll see how well I’ve done when the Festival opens. I’ll be there on the 2nd, with lots of family in tow (having already warned them about the dialogue being mostly profanity). In the meantime, I wish Madeleine and Kate and the rest of the cast all the best for the rehearsals. Break a leg everyone!


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Things I Learned in San Francisco When I Wasn't Eating

At SFMOA: that Mark Bradford's early works on and with paper, and Agnes Martin's famous grid paintings are formally quite similar--and equally sublime in terms of their effect on the viewer.

At the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts: that Depeche Mode must have the most obsessively devoted (and culturally diverse) fan base of any synth-pop band from the 1980s; that football fans in Brazil take their sport very seriously; and that there were (and are) at least two audiences for the Arab Spring (live and mediated), neither of which is necessarily very emancipated.

At the DeYoung Museum: that Jean-Paul Gaulthier (who dressed Depeche Mode in several of their videos) designed his first corset and bustier ensemble not for Madonna, but for his childhood teddy bear--and that troubling the boundaries between animal and human is as important to him in terms of his overall aesthetic as overturning conventional notions of masculine and feminine.

At the Berkeley Rep: that high concept and low tech can combine beautifully to tell a story in words, song, and movement on stage; that no one does romantic tragedy better (or blacker) than the Russians; and that Mischa Baryshnikov really does have an extraordinarily charismatic performative presence, turning the simple act of shaving into something to make anyone swoon.

At the War Memorial Opera House: that Marius Petipa's Don Quixote, and not George Balanchine's, is the version that has entered into most contemporary ballet companies' repertoires, including San Francisco's, and that its story and choreography owe much to the traditions of commedia.

In Union Square: that Anna Halprin is still living (at 91), and still leading her massive group planetary dances, this one to close out the latest incarnation of the Bay Area Dance Week (which just happened to coincide with our trip).

In the San Francisco Chronicle: that Judy Davis, in town to receive a special award for her career in movies from the San Francisco Film Festival, held out for the longest time against David Lean's desire for her to wear mascara during the shooting of A Passage to India, only acceding when he told her that Terrence Howard had in Brief Encounter.