Archive for the 'Culture Vulture' Category

Culture Vulture: PLAY YOURSELF benefit reading

October 9, 2019

Fresh on the heels of its latest Broadway transfer (Jeremy O Harris’s edgy Slave Play), New York Theatre Workshop launched its 40th anniversary season Monday night October 7 with a benefit reading of Harry Kondoleon’s Play Yourself. In a program note and at the reception afterwards, the company’s quiet powerhouse of an artistic director, Jim Nicola, acknowledged that “Harry Kondoleon has been at the heart of New York Theatre Workshop longer than I have.” Indeed, Kondoleon’s 1983 Christmas on Mars was NYTW’s first production (in partnership with Playwrights Horizons), and Nicola produced the New York premiere of Play Yourself in 2002 in a beautiful staging by Craig Lucas starring the late great Marian Seldes and the phenomenal Elizabeth Marvel.

For this reading, Lee Sunday Evans (who directed one of last season’s most remarkable shows, Clare Barron’s Dance Nation) assembled a fascinating cast. Off-Broadway veteran Leslie Ayvazian played the role of Jean, an aged former Hollywood B-movie starlet who’s now long retired, half-blind, living in happy obscurity with Yvonne, her former East Village club-kid daughter, now a depressed stay-at-home. Yvonne was played by Rachel Brosnahan, who last appeared at NYTW as Desdemona opposite David Oyewolo’s Othello and Daniel Craig’s Iago, but of course is better known as the star of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. They were joined by the adorable comic character actor and former rocker Annie Golden playing Selma, an ardent fan who tracks Jean down, bringing along with her Brother Harmon, the charismatic founder of a “home for the hopeless,” played by Arian Moayed, who appeared on Broadway in The Humans and is currently on the TV show Succession. Having only had three hours’ rehearsal, the actors did an amazing job of conjuring the play to life.

Play Yourself has all the ingredients that make Harry Kondoleon’s plays distinctive — the vibrant voice, the laugh-out-loud one-liners, the off-handed poetic diction (death is referred to as “oblivion’s lily pad”), the magical transformations, the delicate evolution from familiar living-room comedy to something deeper, stranger, philosophical. At the benefit reading it sounded as fresh and funny as it was when it was written in 1986, and possibly even more pertinent now in the #MeToo/Time’sUp era with its knowing depiction of Hollywood’s callous treatment of women. I attended the reading with the Harry Kondoleon posse — his family (represented by his nephew Lucas Wittmann and his wife Victoire), his William Morris agent Jonathan Lomma, and his best friend and literary executor Stephen Soba.

Afterwards Stephen and I had a fun, spirited conversation with Ayvazian, who knocked us out playing Jean. It turns out Ayvazian knew Harry and a lot of his work. “He wrote great parts for women,” she declared. “He gave them teeth! And cunts!”

At the reception around the corner at Nai Tapas, I chatted up the delightful Ari Moayed, who reminded me that he’d been in the reading of Harry’s Zero Positive at the Public Theater a few years ago. And I had an extended passionate, intimate conversation with Annie Golden about the intense years of the AIDS crisis in NYC and the loved ones we lost to the plague (including her brother and our Harry). Big gratitude to Jim Nicola, Linda Chapman, and all the folks at New York Theatre Workshop for making this one of those fun, crazy nights that make life in New York so special.

Culture Vulture: Nicky Paraiso, Amanda Palmer, WHITE NOISE, Basquiat, and more

April 29, 2019

April has been a cultural smorgasbord!

April 6 – Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton (at the Golden Theatre) feels weirdly similar to his previous play, A Doll’s House Part 2: an extremely unlikely Broadway show starring the great Laurie Metcalf as a powerful woman in a showdown with the husband she has very mixed feelings about, with two ancillary characters to add dramatic tension and comic relief. Set on the eve of the New Hampshire primary in 2008, loosely based on real-life happenings, the play pivots on an invented encounter with Barack Obama, who shows up to offer Hillary the vice presidential slot if she’ll drop out of the race, but really exists as an extended meditation on the power of the imagination to invent multiple parallel universes. On Broadway it serves the purpose of giving New Yorkers devastated by the results of the 2016 election some liminal space to gain strength and hope from the idea of possibility and change. I enjoyed the framing device, in which we watch Laurie Metcalf come out as herself and with no more than the power of suggestion transform into Hillary Clinton; I admired the performances and the simple staging by Joe Mantello. But, like Doll’s House Part 2, it struck me as an exercise and left no lasting impression.

April 7 – In 1986 I wrote a piece for the Village Voice that began: “What becomes a legend last? Surely it’s the Off-Off-Broadway star, the performer who devotes the best part of a career to toiling for no money in the back alleys of lower Manhattan. The machinery exists to turn film and television performers into international celebrities quicker than you can say Live at Five, but some of the most original and creative actors in America continue to work year after year in basements and lofts, in semi-obscurity and near-poverty, resisting embitterment while clinging to whatever environment will allow them to become more and more themselves. Though you won’t find them in Broadway’s Theater Hall of Fame, actors such as Ruth Maleczech, Kate Manheim, Ron Vawter, Jeff Weiss, and Crystal Field are nonetheless national treasures, and any ranking of them must include the Ridiculous Theatrical Company’s leading lady Black-Eyed Susan.”

photo by Albie Mitchell for the New York Times

Nicky Paraiso belongs in that pantheon as well. Even among the colorful creatures of the downtown theater world, there is no one else like Nicky – multitalented, vivacious, ubiquitous, universally beloved by and unstintingly generous to his fellow artists. Since I moved to NYC at the tail end of 1979, Nicky has always been a fixture on the scene. He was a key collaborator for decades with Meredith Monk, Yoshiko Chuma, and especially Jeff Weiss – none of whom provide the financial security that collaborators named Shonda Rhimes or Ryan Murphy would. In middle age Nicky was barely scraping by waiting tables at McBell’s when Ellen Stewart, with her super-power for genius-spotting, zeroed in on his networking skills and made him resident curator, booking music, theater, performance art, spoken word, and miscellaneous events for The Club at La Mama and eventually becoming coordinator of the annual La Mama Moves! dance festival. All this and much more childhood and family history got folded into now my hand is ready for my heart: intimate histories at the La Mama Annex. Because Nicky is Nicky, he got John Jesurun to direct and design the show, and he corralled four respected downtown choreographers (Irene Hultman, Jon Kinzel, Vicky Shick, and Paz Tanjuaquio) to improvise onstage alongside his autobiographical monologue, in addition to a fun video appearance by two other high-powered Filipino-American downtown legends, Jessica Hagedorn and Ching Valdes-Aran. The show amounted to a kind of life review (not unlike John Kelly’s Time No Line, which played in the same space last year), an impressionistic chronology from growing up in Queens to the present moment. Touching, funny, and honest, the show among other things showcased Nicky’s wizardry as a musician. Every so often he’d wander over the piano and bang out some brief brilliant burst of music (pop, classical, cabaret, show tune) before leaping up and moving on to something else. Weirdly, he never so much as mentioned the Laura Nyro song from which he borrowed the title of his show. But I enjoyed imagining Nicky encountering Nyro’s wildly passionate original musicianship as a queer kid and using that inspiration to launch his own artistic spirit.

April 10 – I’m a big fan of Taylor Mac, but his play Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus (another highly unlikely Broadway mounting) left me cold. The performances by Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen, and a vocally overtaxed Julie White amount to an exhausting mugfest. And George C. Wolfe’s busy busy busy staging reminded me of his production of Shuffle Along: all footnotes, no show.

April 19 – I was psyched to see Camille Vidal-Naquet’s Sauvage at Film Forum because it promised to be a sexy, gritty portrait of French gay male sex workers. In some ways it provides a fascinating glimpse of Eastern European gay-for-pay street hustlers gathering in packs for survival and scrambling to make it work under crummy circumstances. The depiction of older schlumpy customers (one in a wheelchair, one recently widowed) is honest and compassionate. But the story revolves around a wildly unbelievable main character who is a manifestation of a curiously French attachment to the notion of the noble savage, lurching from touching moments to scenes that are ugly and sensational.

April 20 – Amanda Palmer started out as a street performer in Boston and played with Brian Viglione as the punk cabaret duo Dresden Dolls for years before launching her solo career. She recorded and toured behind her 2012 album Theatre Is Evil thanks to an overwhelmingly successful Kickstarter campaign; a memoir and a TED talk detailed her road to success via her knack for The Art of Asking, and along the way she acquired a famous husband, the fantasy author Neil Gaiman. The social media savvy that made her a DIY cult figure Rockstar also generated a lot of nasty blowback that got so ferocious that Palmer had to take a break. Now, after four years, she’s back with a new album, There Will Be No Intermission, and an 18-month international solo tour, just her and her piano and her ukulele. Andy’s a diehard fan and got tickets for her show at the Beacon Theater as soon as they went on sale. The day of the concert, an email arrived announcing that the show would start promptly at 7:30 and be over at…11:30. We’d seen her in concert three times before, and I liked her fine, but I wasn’t sure I had the stamina for four hours of Amanda Palmer solo. We gave ourselves permission to bail when we’d had enough, but we stayed for the whole thing. Palmer referenced both Springsteen on Broadway and Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette (both Netflix specials), and they clearly influenced her decision to undertake the brave notion of a solo concert that combines music and storytelling (a LOT of talking) with a very specific political agenda. She’s had three abortions in her life, she’s been raped twice, and she’s had a miscarriage, and as she says in the show after those upsetting experiences she looked around for some art work (movies, books, plays, songs, albums) that reflected the range and depth of emotions she was feeling and didn’t find any. So in this moment when access to abortion is again politically under assault, she resolved to fill in the gap and Talk About It herself. It makes for a bold, challenging show that alternates between songs from her new album, selections from her back catalogue, and fun covers. For all the ways she teeters on the verge of insufferable self-indulgence – let’s just say she needs a lot of attention – she does have an extraordinary ability to read the room and disarm an audience. Early on she warned the Beacon crowd what was coming and established a rule: at any time, anyone in the audience could call out “Amanda, I’m feeling so sad!” and she would immediately respond with the jaunty opening of her song “Coin-Operated Boy.” And that did happen several times during the concert. And it made a 2000-seat theater feel like a pretty cozy living room.

April 21 – “I can’t sleep” is the first line of Suzan-Lori Parks’s White Noise (at the Public Theater), which addresses the mixed blessing of being #woke – it’s both empowering and exhausting. Leo (Daveed Diggs) is a black artist; his white girlfriend Dawn (Zoe Winters) is a lawyer. Their best friends (and former significant others) are Ralph (Thomas Sadoski), a white English professor, and Misha (Sheria Irving), a performer who hosts an edgy podcast called “Ask a Black.” The set-up feels rom-commy, but as usual Suzan-Lori Parks can’t help coloring outside the genre-lines – as staged by Oskar Eustis, the play unpredictably veers into pockets of farce, tragedy, melodrama, soliloquy, and performance-art weirdness. After Leo is roughed up on the street by cops, he conceives of a provocative art project for his own healing: he talks Ralph (who comes from a rich family) into buying him for 40 days of slavery. Being owned settles Leo down emotionally and energetically; he’s finally able to sleep. Meanwhile, Ralph surprises even himself by how much he gets into ownership, and the two women resume their on-again off-again love affair, which has its own kinky aspects. For all the elements that land as contrived and preposterous, the mood of the play matches the feeling of the American zeitgeist over the last two years, with the shredding of the social contract, white supremacist bullying fully emboldened, and (as Dawn asserts in her monologue – each character gets one) doing good is seen as suspect activity by clueless libtards.

What is Parks saying, that blacks should give up and that White Makes Right is manifest destiny? Even as my friend Jay and I stood in the lobby of the Public having a juicy conversation about the play and our quibbles with certain plot points (yeah, right, an unpublished author can write a story and get it published in the New Yorker in less than six weeks), I received the play in the Brechtian sense I believe it is intended. Brecht was no fan of dramatic naturalism and emotional plausibility. His fantasy was that critical thinking — that is, imagining how things could be different than they are now — acquired through theatergoing could spur critical thinking on political and social issues. Critical thinking means being alive and alert at the theater rather than dozing through a pleasant entertainment.

At a typical play, according to Brecht, most people say to themselves: “Yes, I have felt like that too — Just like me — It’s only natural — It’ll never change — The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are inescapable — That’s great art; it all seems the most obvious thing in the world — I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh.” He wanted spectators at his theater to say: “I’d never have thought it — That’s not the way — That’s extraordinary, hardly believable — It’s got to stop — The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are unnecessary — That’s great art: nothing obvious in it — I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh.”

April 26 – What can I say about the Jean-Michel Basquiat show at the newly renovated Brant Foundation Art Study Center in the East Village? Being in the presence of almost 70 Basquiat paintings over the four floors of the gallery made me absolutely crazy with joy. I don’t know how to explain it, because normally I live with a distinct aversion to chaos. But when I look at Basquiat’s work, especially the gigantic paintings busy with lists and icons and as many overlapping narratives as a medieval tapestry, I don’t see chaos but feel privileged to be viewing the inner workings of…not just a mind but a heart and a sensibility super-alive to child-like playfulness and sophisticated art-music-life references.

The Brant Foundation show is running for another couple of weeks, through May 15. Tickets are required, it is ostensibly sold out, but the waitlist shifts all the time; be patient with the confusing and arduous process and you might well end up in the door after all. The show includes some famous Basquiat works (Hollywood Africans, on loan from the Whitney, and the untitled skull painting that sold for a record-breaking $110.5 million) but also lots of stuff I’d never seen before, some stuff that hasn’t been exhibited in New York before. (The show was put together by Dieter Buchhart for the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.) My friend Clint described me as looking like St. Teresa de Avila in a state of rapture. There is, of course, the gift shop on your way out the door that sells among other things a Basquiat yoga mat. I didn’t get one, but you know, I have a birthday coming up….

Speaking of my birthday, if anyone wanted to gift me with a pair of tickets to see Lizzo at Brooklyn Steel on Sunday May 12, I wouldn’t say no. Her single “Juice” has already established itself as candidate for The Song You’re Going To Be Hearing All Summer Long. Her video featuring stars from RuPaul’s Drag Race is hilarious:

April 27 – Curse of the Starving Class was the first in a sequence of five semi-autobigraphical family dramas that represent the single strongest period of Sam Shepard’s long, anything but homogenous playwriting career. Set in the semi-rural Southern California of Shepard’s adolescence, it portrays an almost cartoony family of Mom, Dad, Brother, and Sister just on the verge of combustion from a flammable combination of dreams, despair, hormones, addiction, financial distress, and genetic predisposition for self-destruction. Julian Crouch’s set for Terry Kinney’s revival at Signature Theatre captures the fragility of the environment spectacularly well, and the zeitgeist ensures that Shepard’s fable of family life as metaphor for American life and/or Western capitalism stays pertinent. Having studied and written about Shepard for 35 years (the first edition of my biography was completed in 1984, the revised edition in 1997), I view productions of his work from so many different angles. I had mixed feelings about this one, mostly because of quibbles with the casting. Gilles Geary gives a one-note dead-eyed performance as Wesley, the poetic-souled son, and both Maggie Siff as his mother and Lizzy DeClement as his sister were too perky and clean-cut for my taste. Meanwhile, David Warshofsky as the dissolute, mercurial dad was just about perfect. I somehow hadn’t realized how consistent this string of family plays returns to the concept of role reversal – it shows up most clearly in act two of True West but it starts with Curse, continues in Buried Child, and returns in A Lie of the Mind (and beyond, in The Late Henry Moss). The pleasures of a Sam Shepard play almost always include boldly visceral real-time theatricality: a nude body, a live animal, the smell of breakfast cooking.

April 28 – Thaddeus Phillips (above) is a travelling man, and his solo performance 17 Border Crossings at New York Theater Workshop does what it says on the tin. With the simplest of means, and in close collaboration with lighting designer David Todaro and sound designer Robert Kaplowitz, Phillips recollects a globe-sprawling array of encounters (most but not all his own) with customs and immigration officials, some of them uneventful if humorous, others hair-raising. It’s a sweet short (90-minute) exercise in theatrical storytelling that starts with a burst of Shakespeare, segues into a succinct history of passports, and carries on unpredictably from there. My plus-one was Laurie Anderson, who introduced me to Arto Lindsay (they’d just had a meeting with some cutting-edge sound designers). I in turn introduced Laurie to Jackie Rudin (see below), who had just seen Laurie at the Kitchen in Anohni’s performance She Who Saw Beautiful Things. After the show, Laurie and I had a delicious dinner at Piccolo Strada, the minuscule trattoria a few doors down from the theater.

 

Culture Vulture: Aretha Franklin, Morgan Bassichis, Bi Gan, and Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern

April 15, 2019

Another rich cultural weekend:

Friday night: at the Angelika Film Center saw AMAZING GRACE, the long-lost documentary of Aretha Franklin recording her 1972 gospel album. Sublime!

Saturday night: KLEZMER MUSIC FOR BEGINNERS, performance at the Abrons Arts Center by Morgan Bassichis and Ethan Philbrick. Hilarious, fun, informative, and surprising — klezmer arrangements of Amy Winehouse!

Sunday night: LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, not the O’Neill play but the second film by the extraordinary Chinese director Bi Gan — every bit as trippy and beautiful as his debut, KAILI BLUES, with again a bravura long take. In KAILI BLUES it was a 40-minute shot; in LONG DAY’S JOURNEY, halfway through the movie, the main character needs to kill some time and goes to the local cinema. When he puts on his 3D glasses, it’s a cue for the audience to do the same. What follows is a mind-boggling 59-minute film-within-a-film, shot in one insanely complicated long take (part of which has the camera attached to a drone). David Lynch meets Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Sunday afternoon: after a Gays Against Guns action at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where I participated as one of the white-clad non-speaking Human Beings representing Americans killed by gun violence at their places of worship, I strolled through the Museum of Modern Art. In the “New Order: Art and Technology in the Twenty-First Century” exhibition, I was intrigued by a series of holograms created by Louise Bourgeois.

But I was most curious to check out “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern,” a fun counterpart to “The Young and Evil” show at David Zwirner Gallery, which surveyed the same tight circle of artists and friends.

Who knew Paul Cadmus had designed costumes for the ballet? See-through overalls for a dance called “Filling Station.”

Jared French designed costumes for another ballet, one of which looked to me like “Billy the Kid as a Big Girl.”

Karl Free’s costumes for a cringe-making ballet called “Pocohontas” included this strikingly beefcakey rendition of Captain John Smith.

Kurt Seligmann designed some wild costumes for “The Four Temperaments,” including this one called “Fourth Variation/Choleric.”

My admiration for Pavel Tchelitchew continues to expand with this design for a character known as Nervous System in a ballet called “The Cave of Sleep.”

Elsewhere in the show I admired Paul Klee’s “Actor’s Mask.”

Also this touching painting by Ben Shahn titled “Willis Avenue Bridge.”

 

Culture Vulture: A TASTE OF HARRY Queer/Art salon

April 6, 2019

Last Sunday, March 31, Queer | Art presented a salon called “A Taste of Harry: Selected Readings from the Work of Harry Kondoleon” hosted by Mitchell Lichtenstein at his lovely townhouse in the West Village. Five artists from Queer | Art’s mentorship program – Moe Angelos, Jess Barbagallo, Morgan Bassichis, Mashuq Mushtaq Deen, and Everett Quinton – performed a series of excerpts from Harry’s work for an invited audience of 50 guests that included family and friends, theatrical luminaries (John Guare, David Henry Hwang), and Queer | Art supporters.

The very entertaining program comprised excerpts from plays, poems, and fictional work selected by Harry’s good friends Mitchell, Don Shewey, and Stephen Soba. Mitchell directed the reading, and Don co-facilitated a discussion afterwards with Queer | Art’s managing director Travis Chamberlain. For fans, it was fun to revisit Harry’s work; for others in the room, it was a revelatory introduction to his distinctive voice. Big gratitude to Mitchell and his partner Vincent Sanchez for hosting and providing delicious hors d’oeuvres and beverages, to Travis and his staff for shining a light on an artist who has been gone for 25 years but whose work lives on, and to Ira Sachs for conceiving the mission of Queer | Art – see the mission statement reprinted in the program (below).

Culture Vulture: Walt Whitman, Netta Yerashalmy, R. Crumb, Okwui Okpokwasili, and more

March 22, 2019

[Note: this post contains some NSFW images.]

 

The last 10 days have been unusually dense and rich with cultural experiences. I NY!

March 9: My husband Andy sings with the Dessoff Choirs, the prestigious choral group that has been performing continuously for 95 years. The current musical director, wunderkind Malcolm J. Merriweather, brings an ambitious taste in repertoire, a theatrical flair for staging, and impeccable musicianship to the mix. He chose to devote the entire current season to settings of Walt Whitman on the occasion of the great American poet’s bicentennial. Today’s concert at Union Theological Seminary started at 4pm (one of Merriweather’s strokes of genius – it’s a perfect time to assemble an audience without competing with shows observing the traditional 8:00 curtain time), after a fascinating lecture by Whitman scholar Karen Karbiener. I arrived a bit late and didn’t get to hear Malcolm (below) perform Kurt Weill’s settings of two Whitman poems (including “Oh Captain! My Captain!” which she reminded the audience was about Abraham Lincoln) but caught enough of her talk to pique my interest in checking out his pre-Leaves of Grass prose writing.

The concert began with “Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf,” finishing another Malcolm project to perform all of Bach’s motets. Gorgeous. Then came the world premiere of “Whispers of Heavenly Death,” an exquisite short piece for piano (Steven Ryan), chorus, and solo soprano (Tami Petty) composed by Dessoff member Ian Sturges Milliken (who’s 35!), followed by Jeffrey Van’s 1994 “A Procession Winding Around Me,” four Civil War poems accompanied only by guitar (Lars Frandsen) that had many of us in tears with its extraordinary compassion: “My enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead.” (The lines from “Reconciliation” about how “war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost” reminded me of Lee Breuer and Bob Telson’s epic The Warrior Ant, which counsels that “All wars are lost.”) The score also included a passage requiring several performers to whistle (including my talented husband).  After intermission came Rene Clausen’s very beautiful “Three Whitman Songs” (1992), and the concert concluded with Charles Villiers Stanford’s 1884 “Elegiac Ode,” sort of stuffy and Victorian and not to my taste.

The final concert of the Whitman season will be May 31.

March 10: The annual music issue of the New York Times Magazine always intrigues me with its theme of “The 25 Songs That Matter Right Now.” (A more accurate headline would admit “That Matter to 25-Year-Olds Right Now.”) It’s an opportunity for anyone who doesn’t read Pitchfork religiously to catch up on what’s hot and provocative in contemporary pop/hip-hop. I got a lot out of reading Lizzy Goodman’s profile of emerging pop-country star Kacey Musgraves (with an astonishing photo of her alongside two contestants from RuPaul’s Drag Race, below), Nikole Hannah-Jones interviewing Meek Mill, Wesley Morris riffing on a non-hit Lady Gaga number from A Star Is Born, and learning about a few artists brand new to me (Tierra Whack, Rosalía). But the best thing about the feature is listening to the Spotify playlist of all 25 songs, some of which I’ll never need to hear again (“Baby Shark”) and some that will definitely join my music library (James Blake’s “Assume Form,” Sharon Van Etten’s “Comeback Kid,” Robyn’s “Honey,” Julia Holter’s “I Shall Love 2”).

Kasey Musgraves with Monet X. Change and Trinity the Tuck, photo by Devin Yalkin

March 12: I’m super-picky about TV shows. Hardly any appeal to me, and it takes a lot for me to get past the first episode of any series. All-time favorites: The Sopranos, Six Feet Under,  and Looking, the only ones I’ve seen from beginning to end. New favorite: High Maintenance. Recently, enough people have raved about it to lure me into Schitt’s Creek; I’m liking it, but I suspect that I will lose interest halfway through Season 3, as I did with Girls and Orange is The New Black. Tonight I gave Russian Doll a shot. Color me intrigued. I’ll watch more.

March 14: On the strength of Keith Hennessy’s recommendation, I bought a ticket to Netta Yerashalmy’s six-part four-hour performance Paramodernities at New York Live Arts, in which the Israeli-born New York-based Yerushalmy pays tribute to six canonical dance artists: Nijinsky, Martha Graham, Bob Fosse, Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, and Alvin Ailey.  Waiting for the show to begin, I found myself thinking, “Why am I here? This isn’t really my world. Okay, two intermissions, I can leave whenever I want…” But I stayed to the end and was really glad I did.

Each of the six sections responded to the legendary dance/choreographer differently. None was exactly a reproduction; each was an homage to the subject, or better yet an essay, given that Yerashalmy enlisted a dance critic/scholar as key collaborator for each section, which I loved as a critic/scholar/word-person myself. Their contributions really helped expand the frame of the work and felt deeply collegial. I think it’s especially valuable in dance to have a bridge of words between the audience and work that is (usually) non-verbal.

Not overly reverent, Yerashalmy “queered” each investigation. For instance, in the first section, she originally planned to perform Nijinsky’s 1913 Le Sacre du Printemps but decided instead to have Marc Crousillat perform in her costume (a red smock) while she lounged onstage watching; meanwhile, her life partner David Kishik, a philosophy professor at Emerson College, sat at a table playing cassette tapes of his scholarly remarks about Nijinsky read by someone without an accent (Michael Cecconi). The next piece looked at Martha Graham through the lens of “Trauma, Interdiction, and Agency in ‘The House of Pelvic Truth.’” The response to Fosse’s work on the 1969 film Sweet Charity struck me as the weakest, trafficking in shallow readings of Fosse, but its cast of four dancers included Joyce Edwards, a fiery and funny presence I want to see more of.

The evening built from there. The section on Merce Cunningham had the two dancers (Crousillat and Brittany Engel-Adams) chatting extemporaneously with the charming critic Claudia LaRocco, with a five-minute interlude by a guest artist, in this case Bill T. Jones himself, who read from snippets from his published journals relating to Merce, including a story about John Cage showing him around their loft and pointing to a closed door: “That’s where Mercy sleeps.”

In “The Choreography of Rehabilitation: Disability and Race in Balanchine’s Agon,” NYU professor Mara Mills (on video) told an elaborate and riveting story about Balanchine’s relationship with Tanaquil Le Clercq, his fourth wife. When Le Clercq was fifteen years old, Balanchine asked her to perform with him at a benefit for The March of Dimes; he played a character named Polio, and Le Clercq was his victim who became paralyzed and fell to the floor until children tossed dimes at her character, prompting her to get up and dance again. Twelve years later, Le Clercq contracted polio while on tour with Balanchine’s company in Europe and was paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of her life. Balanchine suspended his career and spent a year with her at a rehab center in the South (whites-only, incidentally) learning exercises to try to restore her mobility. When he returned to work, he used those exercises to create the 1957 piece Agon, the first ballet to feature a black male dancer in a leading role (Arthur Mitchell, who would go on to found the Dance Theater of Harlem). This section also included text by Georgina Kleege, a blind author who appeared onstage with a support cane, which she put down in order to do some simple choreography with two other dancers. (The Saturday night performance would feature audio description of the entire event for visually impaired audience members.)

The final section focused on Ailey’s 1960 Revelations. Duke University professor Thomas DeFrantz spoke very frankly and powerfully about how Alvin Ailey made space in Revelations for black gay male experience/existence, likening it to his savvy grandmother’s making it safe for young Tommy to be openly gay in his Indiana family. In this section, as in two previous sections, seating was set up onstage and the audience invited down to sit there. The evening ended with the dancers (three black men, one black woman, and Yerashalmy) dancing up the aisles through the audience, followed by DeFrantz (above, toting his laptop) chanting over and over again: “DON’T YOU WANT TO BE FREE? DON’T YOU WANT TO BE FREE?”

March 16: In the afternoon Andy and I fled the St. Patrick’s Day parade madness in midtown to the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea, where we looked at two terrific exhibitions. “Drawing for Print: Mind Fucks, Kultur Klashes, Pulp Fiction & Pulp Fact by the Illustrious R. Crumb,” curated by Robert Storr, displayed rare sketchbooks and tearsheets from the prolific artist’s early years – underground comix at their most sexually and racially provocative.

“The Young and Evil,” a group exhibition curated by Jarrett Earnest, focuses on a fascinating cohort of artists whose social, sexual, and professional pathways were intricately intertwined, as this diagram cleverly illustrates.

Some fantastic drawings and paintings by Paul Cadmus, his lover Jared French, and Pavel Tchelitchew; beautiful portraits by George Platt Lynes (who lived for many years in a thruple with writer Glenway Wecott and publisher Monroe Wheeler); work by artists new to me (Margaret Hoening French, Bernard Perlin, George Tooker, Jensen Yow); and an astonishing vitrine of explicit erotic art work by various members of this crew commissioned by pioneering sex researcher Alfred A. Kinsey and rarely seen outside of the Kinsey Institute in Indiana. The title of the show comes from an extremely edgy-for-its-time 1933 gay novel co-written by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler (the latter also famous for his pre-Vito Russo study Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies).

Cadmus by Platt Lynes

Cadmus for Kinsey

Tchelitchew, GOD OF RAIN

Tchelitchew erotica

From Chelsea we headed over to the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side to catch Adaku’s Revolt, the latest performance piece by Okwui Okpokwasili and Peter Born. Although it was commissioned for the French Institute Alliance Française’s Tilt Kids Festival, the show was every bit as sophisticated, dense, and imagistic as their terrific previous pieces (Bronx Gothic and Poor People’s TV Room). Adaku’s Revolt tells a story about a young black girl (played by AJ Wilmore) who resists “normative standards of beauty” – i.e., having her hair straightened with the dreaded hot comb. But the narrative is decidedly non-linear, utilizing physical rigor, dance, music, text, and imagery in unpredictable combinations, adding up to a very satisfying and original hour-long piece of theater with five excellent performances (including Okpokwasili) and imaginative staging and design by Born. We enjoyed discussing it over a delicious North African meal at Nomad in the East Village.

 

 

%d bloggers like this: