Dec 20, 2010

It's My Life. Don't You Forget.

Finding old photos deemed long-lost is both dizzyingly joyful and weirdly alarming. I found myself experiencing this tailspin recently as I inadvertently came upon photos from more than a decade ago; visions of past lives, selves, dreams, ambitions and moments came flooding back. It made me feel old and young, all at once.

I have little use for nostalgia; I'm not the sort of person to long for a time to return, or to wallow in the tail-chasing uselessness of regret. But I wonder about the effect the internet has on our collective memories. People are quick to throw up albums of their latest outing/party/dinner/etc, without considering that they just might be giving a part of themselves away forever. And while they're busy photoshopping and uploading and updating and IMing their adventures, there's a whole world around them that keeps going. I don't want to live my life online; I want to live it ... living.

After the funny, familiar, forgotten feelings passed, I wondered about scanning a few photos to share. Would I? Should I? Is it anyone's business? How much does sharing my past propel me into the future? or trap me in the past? Does the relentless documentation of the mundane boil down to simple narcissism? the primal urge to connect? a bit of both? Have Warhol's fifteen minutes been shrunk to mere pixels and megabytes, mp3s and mp4s? I grapple with these questions daily, judiciously weighing what to share, what not to share, how best to do it, and when to walk away entirely, and, you know, live my life somewhere other than online, or in the media at all. I can't help but wonder how my artwork's being influenced by all this reflection, however, or its symbiotic relationship with a larger popular culture where exposure and revelation seem to overshadow not just nuance, but the blood-and-guts beauty of day-to-day living.

As such, I've being paying a heap of attention to the news around Patti Smith's memoir of life with Robert Mapplethorpe. 'Just Kids' won the U.S. National Book Award for non-fiction in November. Patti was recently interviewed by Stephen Colbert, who, responding to his humorous query about her punk, anti-establishment ethos, said, softly but firmly, "I like my award." As if there was any question she might throw it back. The award is a testament to Smith's mastery with words. The book is a hypnotizing blend of moving personal experience and a recollections on life in late 60s/early 70s as a struggling young artist. Famous figures like Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Sam Wagstaff, Andy Warhol, and Lou Reed (among many others) float in and out, but what kept my interest flowing was Patti's poetic, flowing prose shot through with equal parts youthful zeal and lived-in wisdom. There's an old-soul quality to her work that in no way lessens her roaring passion or stirring memories of her personal and artistic development on the mean streets of the Big Apple.

Owing to this unique combination of flavours, 'Just Kids' has become one of my very-favorite books, ever. I devoured whole chapters across many late evenings when I began reading it, connecting deeply with certain aspects: involvement with artists; finding one's own artistic voice; sacrificing for vision; growing confidence; growing old; shifting priorities; retaining authenticity. As I noted the end drawing ever nearer, I wound up slowing my voracious, passionate pace, instincts automatically kicking in to postpone the inevitable final page. Time -with anyone, with any place, with any memory, with any project -is always finite. Patti herself acknowledges this as she writes of the last time she met, and spoke with, her longtime ... what? Friend? Lover? Mentor? Soulmate? All of the above. 'Just Kids' describes a life well-lived indeed, but it also bravely crosses into some personal, painful hinterlands.

That Patti was so baldly, boldly able to share a very, deeply personal part of her life with the public, without being saccharine, sentimental, or sensationalist is awe-inspiring. And yet, it feels natural. Patti honored the beauty of life she's experienced, in all its gut-wrenching, thrilling, horrifying, glorifying majesty, by writing this book. She also honored Robert's request. Nothing about 'Just Kids' feels forced, cheap, or exploitive. It's real, it's raw, it's deeply moving and desperately personal. I'm a deeply private person myself (despite all my online activities might imply) and I am really not sure I'd ever be able to write something akin to 'Just Kids', nor am I sure I'd want to. I don't be able to make the kind of promise Patti made with Robert before he died about writing a memoir of their lives, partially because I don't think I could ever do those kinds of relationships justice in written form, and, frankly, I'm not sure certain things are anyone's business.

I do, however, have photos and old journals; I have memories that flicker in and out, and boxes (and boxes!) of poetry, photographs, drawings, and paintings. This - -my life - - is the foundation of my art, and the art of many, past and present, whom I admire. Translating it all into something I feel comfortable sharing, without it seeming narcissistic, saccharine, or relentlessly navel-gazing, is a challenging, if inevitable, opportunity to open a door into a new world. It's like trying to get into the best, most dreamy spot in the world, but there's a guard dog outside, and you only know it's there by its breath; it might bite you, it might let you pet it, but you have to get past it, blood, treats, cooing, and all.

Ultimately, the best art requires a certain degree of nakedness. And nakedness requires bravery. Patti was brave enough to be naked -in 'Just Kids' unquestionably, but also through her thirty-plus years of poetry, art and music. I'm gradually learning to go naked too. Damn it's cold. But I'm getting used to it... maybe.

Dec 16, 2010

Laughter In The Dark

The man behind one of my favorite movies of all time passed away today. I write one, but really, it's a collection. Blake Edwards' influence was so massive in my life, it's easy to lose track of what he did, when. Reading the excellent obituary in the New York Times, I'm struck by not only his influence cinematically but in a larger cultural sense.

Laughter was one of the foundations of my childhood. My memories of life as a little one are coloured by giggles, smiles, and sometimes, hard-to-control howling fits that frequently happened at the worst possible times (ie church, funerals, big weddings). Humour may be personal, but its effects are universal. When I was a kid, I had a direct through-line to experiencing primal emotions with somewhat astonishing rapidity: sadness came just as fast as fits of hilarity, to be quickly replaced by joy, anger, fear. Like some manic depressive hobbit, I'd cry if someone snapped at me and laugh until my stomach ached at the silly antics of the Marx brothers and, of course, Inspector Clouseau -whom my buddy hilariously imitated, felt moustache, fake accent, and cocked eyebrow in place. Forget The Pink Panther cartoon; I'd seen the real thing (thanks to my super-duper VCR) and I was hooked.

The 1964 movie A Shot In The Dark ranks as one of my favorite comedies. It's a blend of child-like lunacy and very-adult sexiness. The story of Maria Gambrelli and the corrupt Parisiennes depicted within Edwards' world delighted me, and indeed, still does. I didn't get that sexual references as a kid, nor did I care -and really, it didn't matter. I knew it was naughty without being gross, and I liked the kind of glamorous world Edwards seemed to be both mocking and milking in his work.



That intriguing mix -playing the game of high society/fame/notoriety/in-crowd while simultaneously, unapologetically riping it to shreds -found incredible expression through his famous early work, Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961 -written by Truman Capote), through the Clouseau movies, into the mad, surreal world of The Party, and even into Edwards' angry, cynical S.O.B. (the sight of Julie Andrew's slurring "I'm going to show my boobies!" is one I'll never forget); it also seeped into 1982's Victor/Victoria, a movie I loved so much I wore out my tape from repeated viewings.

It was probably there that my fascination with gender began; what constitutes "female" / "male"? And why should it matter? Edwards' work was, and remains, curiously subversive; it's shrewd in its expression of the in-crowd as being both deliciosly desirable and disgustingly debauched, hailing and applauding the "new" and "daring" so long as it doesn't threaten their power structure or upset any positions or expectations. Phooey to that, his work said, lightly, if with a knowing wink, ever well-dressed and classy.

What appealed when my cinematic appetites were still budding was the mix of madcap comedy and flair for the aesthetic, along with the unmissable trait that smart and beautiful were natural soul-mates. Elke Sommer's Maria (in Shot) wasn't stupid -just good at seeming like she was, especially to smitten men. In Victor/Victoria, Julie Andrews exuded a different, if no less potent form of sex appeal that clearly had roots in the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker. She played a poor pretty woman pretending to be a rich man who went onstage to be a glammy hot woman. (Oh, and she/he wound up having a macho-man fall in love with her/him.) It was funny; it was touching; it was in Paris and featured beautiful costumes, and amazing music. Casting Music Man Robert Preston as "Victor's" impressario was genius. And yes, it was entertaining as all hell, but there existed within Victor/Victoria some important questions -ones we're still grappling with, singing about, dancing around, and celebrating.

Blake Edwards will be remember in many different ways, by many different people. I remember him as being the filmmaker who taught me some of my earliest lessons about the nature of art, comedy, and what exactly Groucho Marx meant by not wanting to be a part of any club that would have me as a member. Amen to that, and thank you, Mr. Edwards. I'll be watching A Shot In The Dark tonight, on my old VCR, laughing, smirking, and remembering.

Dec 14, 2010

December, Baby

Birthdays are always time for me to reflect. This one feels better than others, probably because I've been thinking I am the actual age I'm turning through most of the year. Always being one step ahead makes the actual date feel like less of a shock. Birthdays as a kid -complete with party dress, streamers & ice cream cake -are fun but their effect feels less temporary; the older one gets, the more one feels the wear of time bearing down, and the feeling one ought to be doing something awfully important -or at least, focused. Right now I'm focusing on the champagne that's being uncorked at the end of the day. It's a start, right?

I've also been thinking of the events that have colored many a December -deaths, both recent and not, as well as births. Sharing a birthday month with Christmas, no matter your religion, is a d-r-a-g. I used to tell my mother as a child that I wanted to celebrate my birthday in July with a pool party; now I'm overjoyed if people even remember, let alone take the time to write me, or to write on that eponymous modern mode of communication, the ever-present Facebook wall (which many have done, and thank you very kindly). It's cheering and surreal, all at once.

Two of my favorite artists, people who music I grew up with, were born this month. Though the exact date of Ludwig van Beethoven's birth is disputed (possibly December 16th; he was baptized the 17th) his effect on the music world... well, earth-shattering. Plunking at the piano as a kid, LVB was always my go-to guy; I aimed to, and eventually did play Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata, along with other (very hard, but very awesome) works. I struggled to manoeuvre my small hands over the wide swaths of ivory; I swore and gnashed teeth when I couldn't put this note down with that one, let alone reach that other one. Ouch.

At some point, I knew my hands weren't made to play his work (or indeed, much classical at all) but that realization didn't dim my passion for those beautiful, indescribable sounds. I loved the energy and anger of his work; as an adolescent I swooned over the romantic melodies and dramatic qualities. I'd write great swaths of poetry while blasting the Seventh symphony, or one of the Concertos, especially the onerously misnamed Emperor. Really, I loved it all. I had a gigantic poster of Beethoven on my bedroom wall. He was my rock star. Dead? Whatever. Ugly? Whatever. I skipped my high school prom to go to a big symphonic gala featuring the famous (and mysteriously powerful) Ninth. LVB understood the frustrated anger seething through my veins and expressed it in powerful, bang-whoosh flights of orchestral mastery.




While I still love the manic, raging energy that emanates from his work with the force of a million waterfalls, I also adore (and swoon) over his capacity for tenderness. The second movement of Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto has been a favorite for over fifteen years, and indeed, it still is. I've done a lot to this piece of music: sighed, cried, drawn, written, meditated, driven in the dead of night, walked on an autumnal afternoon, cooked, and stared out windows on silently-falling snow. I should probably do that last one again before the season ends. I'm especially happy to share Daniel Barenboim's interpretation (above) as I think he really, truly captures the intricate beauty without getting bogged down in technicality; there's a lovely blend of poetry and fussiness here, but ultimately, as you'll hear, one definitely trumps over the other through sheer emotionalism. The charming unconscious-eyebrow-raises of Barenboim's tells you everything you need to know about how deeply this piece reaches into the nether-regions of the soul, pulling out things you didn't know, or want to acknowledge, gently, if firmly, ever profoundly plumbing depths that may not see the light of day again -or until you listen to it next.

That sense of keen emotional beauty is what makes my second December-born artist so special. He excelled at it, just as much as he excelled at joy. Frank Sinatra would've been 95 on December 12th. More than any other, this man profoundly shaped the way I experienced popular music; he opened doors into expression and interpretation not using any external instrument (as I'd been trained to do), but via his own body -via that remarkable voice he'd been blessed with, which alternated between tenor and baritone with effortless ease, wrapping like a cashmere glove around songs notes, and octaves, caressing ears, minds, and hearts across generations.

My first exposure to Sinatra (and to much jazz, both vocal and instrumental) was as a teenager. I was at the house of my mother's smart, cool, downtown friends and looking through their CDs (remember those?) when I came across his stuff. Naturally, I'd heard of Francis Albert. I'd heard his work, and I knew him from the celebrity roasts on television. My mother was (is) a bigger fan of Dean Martin's work, so it was familiarity-via-association. Once I put on the CDs ... that was it. I was hooked. My Sinatra obsession continued well into my twenties (and beyond), when I picked up his masterful, profoundly sad, hugely powerful albums from the 1950s: Only The Lonely, In The Wee Small Hours, Where Are You?. His poetic, masterful singing of "I'm A Fool To Want You", written about Ava Gardner (who subsequently took her place among my gloriously surreal, beautiful collection of heroes), as well as songs like "Lonely Town", "Angel Eyes" and the famous "One More For My Baby (And One More For The Road)" still stop my heart in my chest. Each is a revelation, a prayer, a blessing, darkness, and light, all at once.

Much as Sinatra excelled at expressing pain, he was equally good at doing happy, something a lot of singer and artists don't succeeed at; as I recently said on television, painting in white is hard. Few do it well, with any effect that isn't sickeningly saccharine or cloyingly cheesy. Sinatra pulled it off with just the right mix of joy and smarts. Albums like Swing Easy!, Come Fly With Me, Ring-A-Ding, and Nice And Easy demonstrate a man who can just as easily access pure, simple joy -in singing and in sound -as fear, anger, and loneliness. Sinatra-Basie and It Might As Well Be Swing (with Quincy Jones) are landmark recordings; they also have a place as two of my most cherished albums, ever. Musical mastery has never sounded better, or more obvious.

I had a recent upset at not being able to find my treasured collection of Sinatra holiday hits, if only because I love -love -his interpretation of one particular winter classic. Thank goodness for the internet:




Silly, smart, smarmy, playful, loving, celebratory... I hear a full embrace of life when I hear this song.

Maybe that's why I love both LVB and Sinatra so much: they represent the pinnacle of artistic mastery and creative human expression, integrating all the colours of the human experience with a zeal I, and many, can immediately recognize and occassionally identify with. As to December babies... we might forget their birthdays, but we never forget them.

Dec 10, 2010

Swirling

A little piece of inspiration, amidst the Christmas/holiday nutties.




The ocean has always been a source of inspiration for me. When I lived in Dublin, I used to have to take the DART south for work twice a week; I loved being along the Irish sea and looking out at the swirling waves. It was a hell of a public transit ride for a wide-eyed Canadian girl more used to seeing concrete and tracts of homogenous suburban town-boxes along commuter routes. I marveled at the many people who simply fell asleep on the ride. How can you miss this?, I thought. Maybe it's something you get used to, and sick of, the way us Canadians are about snow and winter scenes.

On the (few) days the sun shone in Dublin, the watery landscape turned into a glinting kind of jewel; I only wish I had been painting then. Still, I had my trusty Minolta with me. The photos I took are languishing somewhere in Ireland. I don't know if I'll ever see them again; the feeling of seeing that dance of sky and sea will be with me, though, forever. Another ride along the DART is inevitable, both physically and otherwise.

Dec 8, 2010

Watching The Wheels


Thirty years ago today John Lennon was shot by Mark David Chapman.

Along with local events, memorials, specials, a loving tribute, and, of course, music, everyone who was alive then remembers where they were, and/or what they were doing. Because the shooting happened in the evening, I only heard about it the next morning. As a child, I grew up thinking of John as an acidic solo artist with a strange wife who was once in a cool band that wrote really catchy tunes. He was the guy with the crooked smile who had strong opinions and an unusual voice. He wasn't Paul's cute, smooth operator but rather, an eccentric, subversive bad ass whose influence, I later realized, was much, much bigger than I could ever fully understand.

Even now, I can't wrap my head around it -this amazing life, this unique voice, this consummate artist, this motherless hell-raiser, this husband, father, icon, Beatle, not-Beatle, this gifted man creating and defining a new universe, happily moving between the world of stardom and the gritty 70s streets of New York City. I want to think of him holding his infant son's hand walking through Central Park; I want to think of him smiling and chatting with a friend of mine who'd regularly run into him in the neighbourhood; I want to think of him snuggling with Yoko, or playing the piano, or singing, or jamming with his bandmates, or going to see new bands, or drawing, sketching, jotting down words and ideas and speaking out on things he believed in, even if it made him unpopular. I want to humanize him, even while paying deference to his status and acknowledging the long, skinny shadow he casts, even -or especially -now.

John's passing was different than that of Elvis Presley (whose death I also remember); Elvis was, and will always be, the quintessential rock and roll icon. Trying to humanize him feels, for me, rather difficult, even when I'm told stories by those who knew the Memphis Flash personally. Elvis wasn't as direct (or angry) when it came to his art, and besides, I didn't grow up with someone named after him. My best friend growing up was named after a Beatle; it wasn't John, but easily could've been.

I don't remember his reaction that fateful day thirty years ago. All I remember is pulling on my ever-uncomfortable tights the morning of December 9th and hearing the news, repeated over and over, about how Mark David Chapman called out to his "hero", about the blood, about the mounds of flowers placed outside the Dakota. And "Imagine" was played over and over, along with so many beloved Beatles hits. I didn't get it, but I couldn't get over it.

By the time I reached my late teens, I asked for, and received, the CD box set of John Lennon's solo work. Now, many years later, I still listen to them, on and off, and try not to think about "what if" -because really, that feels like a creative and spiritual dead end. Patti Smith, reflecting on the passing of her longtime friend Robert Mapplethorpe, then later brother, mother, and husband, said she didn't like to think of death as a "loss", but rather, as a "gain" -for what the deceased offered the world during their brief time.

And so to John Lennon I say: thank you, times a million. You are here, and you are everywhere, and even if I didn't know it that cold December day, you were right there with me, and you still are with us, all of us, as we shiver, and cry, and laugh, and sing, and paint, draw, and go about our lives. You're not here -but you are.

Imagine; I have. And it's good.

Dec 7, 2010

Raising The Bard


Toronto's amazing, inspiring Art Of Time Ensemble has been presenting its unique vision of music, dance, theatre, and literature now for twelve years. They've featured the works of Schumann, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Gavin Bryars, Erich Korngold, and many, many others in concerts that combine music, art, theatre, and dance, to create a hybrid form unto itself. What's more, the Ensemble has involved some of Canada's biggest names from the arts world to accomplish their task of shedding light on old and new masters alike.

Their incredible rendering of Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata (which I wrote about back in March) was so popular, it was presented as part of this year's Summerworks Theatre Festival, and is on track to be part of Soulpepper Theatre Company's season in 2011. The Art Of Time toured with former Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page plus songstress Sarah Slean; award-winning author Michael Ondaatje is among their most devoted followers and has, on occasion, participated in concerts doing readings. He says of them:
Art of Time leaps over the usual barriers of culture. So Schumann and Tolstoy can rub shoulders with Ginsberg and our best contemporary musicians. The result is entertainment that is often thrilling, often full of insights—as in the old values of art that delight and instruct.
I've spent many happy evenings at their shows, scratching head, cradling heart, listening; the phrase "human being" never seemed more real and alive than at an Art Of Time show.

Their next work, coming up this week, is called If Music Be... -a tribute of sorts to William Shakespeare, featuring, among many others, the poetic footwork of Peggy Baker and the acting talents of Stratford Festival veteran Lucy Peacock, plus, as ever, the expert musical accompaniment of the Ensemble themselves. The last If Music Be... was presented in Toronto in March 2008.

I had the opportunity to exchange ideas around Shakespeare and the blend of Bard and Ensemble with two key figures for the evening: Andrew Burashko, who is the group's Artistic Director, and actor/director/dramaturge David Ferry, who directs If Music Be..., which runs at Toronto's Enwave Theatre December 9th through 11th.

Why Shakespeare?

Andrew:

I've always been in awe of Shakespeare's limitless play and poetry. To me he represents the most dazzling example of virtuosity. Also, he has influenced so many artists and inspired so much diverse art - high and low - music, theater, literature, dance. In that sense, he is the perfect subject for Art of Time - a subject that connects so many of the artistic disciplines.

David:

Well as many of the authors quoted in this piece say, (Shakespeare) invented us in so many ways; he created arguably our sense of the human being.

How difficult was the process of choosing accompanying music?

Andrew:

It was actually the reverse: I began with the music and dance inspired by Shakespeare, and then selected the sources that inspired the music and dance. To over-simplify, I thought it might be fascinating to see/hear this amazing stuff together with the source material. In other words, to show this music and dance on the heels of the actual scenes that inspired them - to see the Shakespeare as he wrote it, followed by interpretations of the same material in the forms of music and dance.

How would you describe the connection between Shakespeare and music?

Andrew:

I guess the most obvious would be the music and richness in his language, but even more than that, his ability to express the ineffable - to tug at the heart strings by transcending the limitations of words.

You have an eclectic mix of artists taking part; how much did their talents shape the program?

Andrew:

Everything begins and ends with the content - the material. I chose the artists I thought could best deliver the material. I thought of Peggy (Baker)'s piece before I thought of Peggy. In fact, I was surprised that she wanted to dance it herself. She's been slowing down - cutting the more physically demanding pieces from her repertoire as a dancer. I wasn't expecting her to be up for it.

David:

Peggy is a long-time collaborator with Andrew, as is James Kudelka. My suggestions were (actors) Tim (Campbell), Marc (Bendavid), Cara (Ricketts). Ted (Dykstra) and Lucy (Peacock) have done the material before.

How does this version of If Music Be... differ from the one you directed a few years ago?

David:

The core material is the same, with some modifications and the structuring of the material. Also, this time actors will not read but have material memorized, (which allows for) different staging. (There are) some music changes as well, (like the) addition of the Wainright pieces and Dykstra song. The relationships with the actors are deeper, as relationships are wont to grow with time.

Andrew, you come from a very music-centric background, David comes from a very theatre-centric background. Do you meet in the middle (or not)?


Andrew:

David is someone I like and respect. Also, he really gets what Art of Time is about. I compiled all the material and asked him to come in and put everything together in terms of staging and flow. He's not messing with the content at all, and I'm staying out of his way in determining the show's overall look and feel. I would love for all these disparate elements to come together to form a whole - that's his job.

For people more familiar with Shakepeare done at places like the Stratford Festival, what does If Music Be... offer?

Andrew:

This show is just as much about the work Shakespeare inspired as it is about his own work. In that sense, the audience will exposed to a lot more than Shakespeare. It's a look at his work and what it led to down the years.

David:

I like to think of the evening as high-class Ed Sullivan: a great variety of fine artists that make for a stimulating, thought-provoking, accessible and entertaining night at the theatre.

Dec 6, 2010

Merci, Mr. French

2010 began with the death of an artist I admired; so it also ends.

I was shocked and saddened to learn of the death of singer Lhasa de Sela in January. Equally, on this snowy December day, I am deeply upset to learn of the death of David French.

I interviewed both Lhasa and David French, though Lhasa was a phone interview, rendering any sense of the intimacy that comes with eye-to-eye-contact impossible. We chatted about favorite singers, concerts, technology, and those lovely "a-ha!" artistic moments, and it felt like a yack with a longtime gal pal. Interviewing Mr. French was a different experience altogether -more formal, less loose, a bit more scary, but no less intriguing, inspiring, and ultimately rewarding.

One of Canada's most beloved playwrights, David French was probably best-known for works that feature the faulty, feuding, brooding, bruised and confused Mercer family. Leaving Home, Saltwater Moon, and Leaving Home are works I return to again and again through the years, finding more and more to draw inspiration from, as well as more compassion, more humour, and more humanity. Yet it isn't familiarity so much as the raw emotional honesty of his characters that draws me back. These are characters who don't merely propel plot points -they live, breathe, sweat, swear, fight, and bleed, frequently making even the best British kitchen-sink drama seem maudlin. Anger isn't the driving force behind French's characters; love is. That love is palpable in the back row as much as the front; it's present just as much on the page as on a stage. You don't have to know a lot about theatre, much less even like it, to feel that overpowering sense of love that infuses the work of David French. Maybe that's what made him not only an accomplished playwright in his own regard but a sought-after translator of works like The Seagull and Three Sisters (classics that, like his own contemporary counterparts, revolve around families and a powerful love) and a popular mentor and teacher to many aspiring writers.

His reputation as an incredible, incredibly accomplished writer was an interesting companion to the smiling, quiet figure I ran into at various theatre openings, most notably at Toronto company Soulpepper, who produced his beautiful, heart-rending works many times in the past decade. It was they who arranged our interview one rainy spring day in 2009, when Of The Fields Lately was set to open.



David arrived ten minutes before interview time, his blue shirt dotted with raindrops.

"Damn rain," he grumbled, before meeting my smiling gaze and taking my outstretched hand.

We chatted a bit as my crew got mics and lights ready. David seemed a wee bit overwhelmed by the technology, and in truth, I felt bad at his coming through the rain and patiently enduring a last-minute microphone change-up. When the interview began, I was understandably nervous, and I think he was, too. We played off each others' nerves, as I gently opened the interview, asking a few basic questions around the play. I remember being wildly worried I was making a horrible impression on this Canadian genius playwright. But the minute he smiled at me, a warm, deep smile that lit up his eyes, I relaxed.

Still, like the good writer he was, David chose his words carefully, and was always quite guarded, if equally opinionated. He frequently paused, his answers coming like the best syncopated lines from a Monk solo: when the chords inevitably hit, you knew they meant something, and damn it, you wanted to listen. His sometimes-stern, lion-like demeanor belied the pussycat heart that beat within. He had to trust you to open up to you fully.

A great way to create that trust, I learned, was to ask him about his process of writing, of creating worlds using the power of words -something he knew a thing or two about. David's love of writing was awe-inspiring. When I shared my visceral reaction to his characters, the very element I feel drives all of his work, he half-smiled, perhaps lost in his memories of their creation, before offering the honest, if deeply insightful observation that "a large part of every character I write comes from myself. I am every one of those characters".

In a way, David French lives on through "those characters" -through Jacob Mercer, through Mary Mercer, and even (especially?) Jessica, Patrick, and the rest of the jumpy Jitters team. It feels like a special blessing for those who've had the pleasure of seeing his work produced -and again, special thanks to Soulpepper, otherwise me, and thousands like me, probably wouldn't have had that opportunity. We'd be relying on reminiscence, reports, nostalgia. Producing the work of David French was, and is, a reminder of the contemporary feel, and equally, the timelessness, of human, humane creation. He was Canadian, but belonged to the world. His creations are specific to this country; the emotions and situations within are universal. He is ours; he is everyone's; he is unto himself. David had that special magic to be able to conjure those various parts of himself and translate that into a real, raw, forcefield of human energy and... love. Always love. That quality -a combination of raw skill and deep emotion -never goes out of style, in theatre, or indeed, in any art form. And it never will.

Thank you, David. For everything.

Bottom photo credit:
Noah Reid, Kevin Bundy, Mike Ross, Oliver Dennis, C. David Johnson in Soulpepper Theatre Company's 2010 production of Jitters.
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann.

Dec 5, 2010

Feel / Reveal


Watching pieces of the movie Frida recently, amidst bites of crostini, answering emails, and half-sketching, was a strange experience -and not just because of the multi-tasking.

When I saw it in the cinema in 2002 I was bowled over by the mix of images, plot, and music within Julie Taymor's vision of the Mexican painter's life. My initial viewing was at an early point in my own personal explorations into drawing and painting; after years of photography, including nearly two years spent in Ireland and England with an ancient, beloved manual-forward SLR camera, I thought it might be a good idea to strip the technology away to get to the heart of art-making. And so the drawing/painting/sketching odyssey began, and photography, however slowly, fell by the wayside, paralleling the dwindling of film stock and the rise of mobile (and, for that matter, internet) technology.

It was during a recent dinner party at my home that I felt a deep twinge of nostalgia for my old snapping days. I brought out the old Minolta at the request of one of my guests, a photo enthusiast. The weight of the camera, the ka-chunk of the shutter, the cylindrical beauty of the lens, the quasi-surprise of the prints... it was all magical to behold after so long away from it. Yet spying the light meter again created a small panic, a palpable sense of, what am I doing?! It was a curious mix of panic and passion.

Aside from the heart-stopping, beautiful viuals, what I love so much about Taymor's film is that Frida's struggles and doubts over her own artistic voice aren't ever glossed over; in one scene, when she and husband Diego Rivera go to New York City so the latter can complete a commission for the Rockefellers, a reporter asks her, "Are you an artist too?" She demures -and keeps on stabbing her brush at the canvas. Yes, no, maybe. I don't know. Keep on keepin' on. Even when bed-ridden, she continued her output, never labelling herself or her work. Just doing it.

I'm a longtime admirer of Frida's work -"admirer", actually, feels too mild, but "fan" feels too slavish. She takes her place, like Patti Smith, in my mental curio cabinet of beautifully imperfect heroes: shriekingly female but defying categorization, always personal but ever-cryptic, physical but very heady, hugely experimental but deeply traditional. A mass of genius in contradiction, Frida's work, like Patti's, has the power to bring me to tears, and frequently has.

The timing of Taymor's movie on television was curious on a personal level (never mind Taymor's directing Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark, opening next month on Broadway. More on that in a future post.). I'd been berating myself for not being productive enough artistically lately. I should be drawing/painting/etc is a frequent mental mantra. It's feels like a hard thing to go off and do, and yet it shouldn't be. That old want-to-be-doing vs should-be-doing battle is raging. The other reason productivity falls away is that I have a genuine sense of not knowing what I'm doing, that it's all for naught, that it's all horribly amateur and pointless and stupid. That voice of doubt is sometimes louder than the calm, quiet one that asks me to keep going.

And so, it was appropos that, looking through a bookshelf for something else entirely, Peter London's No More Secondhand Art (Shambhala Publications, 1989) popped out at me. I opened it, as if my magic, to a page with the following header: "Am I Good Enough?" That would be my other mantra, a much older one that applies to several areas and pursuits. But I was fascinated by London's dissection of this question to self as applied to art-making, one that works whether you love drawing, painting, photography or performance:
We can never win the encounter with such a question, because the very underlying assumption of "Am I ------ enough?" is a faulty appraisal of the human condition and a false understanding of what it does take to engage in creative enterprises... Rather than paralyzing ourselves with the existential bone-crusher "Am I good enough?" we would do better to ask ourselves question that invoke no comparisons. Instead, we could become interested in describing the new terrain being uncovered or invented.
I dream of the day that voice stops -or at least softens. I dream of the day I'll have the most precious things any artist could ask for -time, space, resources -to do what I want most to do, when my heroes smile and say, see? It wasn't so hard after all. Because really, it's not.


Paintings:

Top: The Two Fridas, 1939.
Bottom: Viva la vida, 1954. Frida Kahlo's last painting.


Photo credit:

Photograph of Frida Kahlo by Lucienne Bloch, 1932.

Dec 3, 2010

Sashay, Art, Eh

One of the many things I learned reading Patti Smith's beautiful memoir Just Kids was that she loved Vogue Magazine as a child. Patti, the (I had supposed) anti-fashion poet? Trying to categorize her is impossible, and, I realize (as with many of the women I admire), that's just how she likes it. Appearing on the cover of her first album in a man's shirt (which she got, natch, from the Sally Anne) and rocking a strong, sexy, androgynous look ever since, Smith is one of those figures who stops me in my tracks on many levels, including how I think about fashion.

I had a conversation with a journalist-friend recently about the connections between culture and fashion, how one feeds into and is frequently informed by the other, but how frustrating it is that followers of each so rarely cross into other worlds. Save for the Gaga/Madonna/McQueen/Bjork/Warhol / Jacobs / Murakami types who a/ are super-rich b/ super well-known, and b/ don't seem to care about categorization (in a more flamboyant if no less effective way than Patti), each world lives in a separate, distinct fifedom of fabulous, heady, arty, blissful ignorance. And that doesn't seem right. Creative = Creative. And opportunities need to be created to foster that sense of the grandly creative and visionary -in any medium - and to properly to nurture and promote it. Enter Ukamaku.

My visit to the head office of the Canadian online fashion site inspired on various levels; partly because it was exciting to meet the people sewing/making the items -I consider them artists in their own right -and partly because, the way the items were displayed, it was, to my eyes, a mini-gallery of ideas and influences, the way any good exhibition is. And Ukamaku's office itself is gallery-like: housed in a sprawling linked series of buildings featuring loft-like spaces with plenty of natural light, white-washed walls, and high ceilings and wood floors, it provided the perfect backdrop to the creations of people like Heidi Ackerman, Andy Hall, Paris Li, Breeyn McCarney, and David C. Wigley, among others.

I had the opportunity to exchange ideas around fashion and the founding of Ukamaku with a few of its principal players recently. It struck me, reading over their thoughts, that these ideas could just as well be applied to the art world -be it performance, visual arts, music -as to fashion. Let's stop the lines and categories, says me. I think after reading this you might agree too.

Why did you start Ukamaku?

Chris Tham, Communications Director:

Ukamaku stemmed from our interest in creating an affordable eco-friendly brand. After looking at the costs involved with designing, manufacturing and marketing a fashion label, we decided that our talents and specialities aren't enough to cover the different aspects involved. Talking to other designers gave us the same impression. We finally realized that instead of designing and manufacturing, we could help designers with their sales, and marketing their labels with a focus on e-commerce.

George Ng, Operation Director, also Founder/Owner:

We (George and Chris) started Ukamaku after seeing a need within the fashion industry. We realized that although designers are good at fashion design, some require additional help with marketing - e-commerce in particular, due to the cost and training involved. Based on our individual interests in fashion and in e-commerce, we decided to start Ukamaku.

Who do you think it's for?

George Ng:

We created Ukamaku with two different groups of people in mind. First, Ukamaku targets customers who like purchasing high quality goods at a price that reflects the quality. These customers are people who want unique items that aren't mass produced (i.e. custom made clothing or jewelery). Customers who want to support Canadian designers are also part of this group.

We also created Ukamaku for independent Canadian designers. Canadian designers wanting to sell their items beyond their physical market boundaries. They want worldwide marketing for their items. Ukamaku gives them the opportunity to enter a new market at a faster pace and an affordable cost. Designers no longer need to spend time creating their own websites, online marketing and shipping. Ukamaku covers all of these for them.

How do you choose designs / designers to feature? How much is it about being 'trendy' vs being simply unique & well-made?

Marcus Kan, Fashion Director:

We first look at their quality and designs when choosing designers to showcase on our site. We try keeping a balance between trendy and simple fashion pieces to fulfill our customer's needs. Many of our designers do not mass produce their products, allowing our customers to purchase unique fashion pieces with high quality materials. A designer with a good reputation in the industry is desired by Ukamaku. However, we believe that new emerging designers are equally as important. We will working alongside the new designers to help improve their reputation within the industry.

The term "locavore" is being thrown around a lot in Toronto food circles -how much do you think it can (or should) apply to fashion as well?


Marcus Kan:

There are many hidden gems in the Canadian fashion industry. However, these designers do not seem to be able to gain their deserved exposure. We firmly believe that Canadians should play a role in supporting these designers. With each person pushing these designers a little bit forward, the Canadian fashion industry can be well known to the public, with some designers becoming household names. In turn, the exposure of Canadian designers would allow Canadians greater options to purchase Canadian designs.

How much do you see
ethical sourcing and production becoming the norm in Canadian fashion and overall in the fashion world?

Chris Tham:

There is a belief with the general public that Canada is environmentally friendly and an equal opportunity country. Many of our designers use environmentally friendly materials to produce their collections. We think they represent Canadian fashion very well. Being a Canadian company, we'll continue supporting the designers in using eco-friendly materials for their collections. Hopefully one day, when people think Canadian fashion, they'll think of trendy eco-friendly clothing.

Where do you see Ukamaku in five years' time?

George Ng:

Similar to the meaning of Ukamaku - "That's It!" -we'd like to see Ukamaku as the main source of Canadian fashion. We want customers to find Canadian fashion items on our site, and designers finding their customers through us. We'd love to run more fashion related events, not only in Canada, but outside of Canada to showcase the many talented designers we have in Canada.

Photo credits:
Top photo of 1950 Vogue Magazine cover from Make The World A Prettier Place.
Ukamaku office and designer photos courtesy of Magnetic Creative.

Dec 1, 2010

It's Time



I felt the need to share this on World AIDS Day. It's a simply-done work about the numerous NYC-based artists who've died of AIDS. Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, and Robert Mapplethorpe are just a few of the names here.

Yes, there are millions who've died, many of whom never achieved the fame many of the people in this film did, any who will die nameless, faceless... but to us North Americans, the victims are far away, out of our reach, outside our scope of experience. Aren't they? This film (and accompanying website) "Last Address", challenges that attitude.

With simple shots of New York life, including birds, cats, people, roads, traffic, etc, the film shows the abodes (with addresses) of all the artists who died. The absolute ordinary-ness is striking. These are people, not statistics. People like you and I.

Ordinary people get AIDS. We are all ordinary, and we can do something that is ordinary, logical, and .. ridiculously right: demand a cure. It's overdue.


Painting: © All rights reserved by Keith Haring.

Dear Katherine

Two things struck me looking through The Tattoo Chronicles, by famed tattoo artist Kat Von D (with Sandra Bark): first, this girl can draw, and second, she's so much a twenty-something woman of the 21st century.

The first observation might seem a bit idiotic at the outset; after all, Kat rose to fame based on the wildly popular television series LA Ink, chronicling her life in the City of Angels, inking up the not-so-rich and infamous. But she's also a genuinely good artist in her own right.

I've been returning to drawing in a big way the last little while, and while it's rewarding, it's also incredibly hard, time-consuming, and frustrating. Kat has an incredible faculty to be able to draw both what's in front of her as well as from her considerable imagination. She shares drawings, stories, and photographs in this gorgeous red hardcover book; its pages are designed like a scrapbook, with snatches of tattoo sketches (and the finished work), highly stylized photographs, letters, and doodles. It's a fascinating chronicle of memories and experiences, and adheres closely to Kat's high-wire act of balancing relenteless self-promotion with genuine twin passions for art and human connection.

The front cover, with Kat hugging a diary to her chest, sleeve-tattooed arms enfolded around her tiny frame, angular face, black hair, leather pants and super-high red sparkly shoes tells you that while she isn't exactly the girl next door, she's not the trampy, vampy hellraiser she might like to make her out as, either. This bears out within the pages of The Tattoo Chronicles (Harper Collins), particularly the more personal bits detailing Kat's up-and-down roller coaster of a relationship with rock and roll bad boy, former Motley Crue bassist Nicki Sixx. The age difference between she and her paramour -Sixx's 50th birthday party is chronicled, along with Kat's 27th (with much frustration she tosses off a "so-the-hell-what?" at the age discrepancy at one point, the flippancy of the statement belying its worried underpinnings) -as well as the close relationship she shares with many women, including her sister Karoline, and Johnette Napolitano, who wrote the book's compelling foreword.

The Concrete Blonde singer's line that "I just do what I do and happen to be a woman" struck me, because so many of the artists I admire carry the exact same credo, and it's one, I think, that applies equally to Kat, who has blazed a trail for women who tattoo, who love it, or are fascinated by its culture.

But that accomplishment doesn't erase vulnerability or, indeed, humanity. For all her fetching style and tough-lady attitude, Kat very much comes off as an insecure, anxiety-prone twenty-something in the throes of forming identities amidst a barrage of external forces -ones that might a bit distant for some of us (TV shows, books, a Sephora make-up line) but nonetheless fascinating, and even familiar. Who can't relate to the stress of being far away from a loved one? fights? a breakup? panic over losing your sense of self that makes you you? Her Alpine-esque ups and downs with Sixx are shared with searing honesty. In one entry, dated July 7th, 2008, 4:42am, she writes:
There's no ignoring the physical distance between Nikki and I today -and it's
only been a day -God, I miss him -can't sleep. How am I gonna get through the
next two months? More importantly, how the hell did I become "that" girl? I feel
so damn clingy -needy almost ... UGH. We start filming in the morning.
Never for a moment does Kat lose sight of the ultimate prize: further fame and notoriety. Her single-minded approach can be cloying at times, but it also gives way to some truly moving passages. Kat's write-up about Glory Mkini, who comes to her for a tattoo that both pays homage to her home (Mkini is Tanzanian) and covers up a scar, is deeply moving. The personalities that dominate the book (along with their accompanying photographs) provide a fascinating hodge podge of humanity in all its confusing, contradictory, inked-up glory. And it's in these passages, in Kat's detailing her exchanges with these people and their journeys, that The Tattoo Chronicles really shines.

As to her own personal bits, Kat wallows the way any lovelorn, self-obsessed twenty-something might. It's annoying at times, but it's also related to an overall me-me-me-broadcast that defines so much Western cultural exchange within a young-celebrity context in the 21st century. Kat's entries occasionally read like Facebook status updates -not a bad thing, but hardly introspective. We don't get a true sense of why a veteran like Johnette Napolitano is her friend, and we get naive howlers like her relating her own relatively-short period of sobriety with Nikki's decades-long process. They aren't the same, Kat. They really, really aren't. Stop comparing. Stop always bringing *you* in.

But that sense of ballsy narcissism, of take-on-the-world-ness, of shrieking arrogance-meets-naivete, is really the charm of it. Just when you think you could never have anything in common with someone like Kat Von D... the "someone like" part vanishes, and, past the shoes, the makeup, the spiffy clothing, the perfect lighting, the plastic surgery, and oodles of rock and roll/celeb connections, there's this... lonely, wildly insecure, overwhelmed, for-all-her-success-hugely-naive, messed-up person... who happens to be hugely talented (and, um, rich), very curious about people, and unafraid to speak her mind. There's something heartening about seeing someone so completely, unapologetically like the rest of us non-gothy-glam schlubs... make it, while bleeding all over everyone and not trying to be cutesy about it, but hauling out the mops and shouting for a TV camera. Kat feels so appropriate for here and now, and her latest book is proof of that.

The Tattoo Chronicles is a book that inspires curiosity, thought, and guffaws for sure -but within it is the unquenchable instinct to connect, cherish and accept everyone within this crazy little globe, no matter how mnch -or little -they may have lived, or how much they have to show for it, physically and otherwise. Everyone has a story. It's nice to see them so creatively chronicled.

Nov 29, 2010

To The Left

Trying to balance fashion design and ethical sourcing and production can be a right headche for many designers. Cleverly integrating past designs and looks with modern ideas can be just as hard. I thought about these issues as I took a wander through Canadian company Ukamaku's loft-style offices recently. Located in an up-and-coming, just-gritty-enough-to-be-hip section of west-end Toronto dominated by renovated factories, Ukamaku has a mission to promote young Canadian designers in new and innovative ways. A big "way" would be online, where you can go and buy all the items featured, read the designer blogs, and see just how much Ukamaku is trying to push the envelope in Canadian fashion with their offerings.

When I visited, it struck me just how many of the designers under the Ukamaku umbrella were interested in two things: one, trying to find that fashionable/ethical balance, and two, fusing the past with the present. This concern was made most obvious in my conversation with Heidi Ackerman. The bespecled young Canadian designer, who sports a huge set of green-black wings tattooed on her upper chest, has a sexy, cosy mix of styles but a consistent high-quality frame of cuts, colours, textures, and shapes. Her patterned cowl-neck dress proudly proclaims on its label that half its materials are bamboo, with the remainder of the dress's fabrics being ethically-sourced soy. This label, running across the top of the garment, proudly adorns her other work as well. There was a real pride when Ackerman told me that, for the most part, she's able to balance her design ethos with her ethical concerns, but she quickly added that design always comes first, and always will. Her work is reminiscent of the women's pieces Sharon Wauchob designed for Edun this past fall, especially the modern, angular knits and Japanese touches. Ackerman captures something elegant, feminine, and experimental, all while balancing wearability and sustainability. Nicely done.

Worth By David C. Wigley also displayed an incredible flair for the fusion between forward-thinking and classic design. Like Ackerman, Wigley expressed a furrowed-brow over trying to balance sourcing and production with quality -and price point. Wigley's work was among the most modern and stylish men’s design I’ve seen in a while in North America; eschewing the conservative dark palette most men's designers favour, Wigley opted for an eye-popping furnace-red, sharply-cut suit. Like a lot of the Worth collection, it fuses punk-rock and dandy with more than a touch of hip-hop. This ethos extends into casual wear. My initial reaction to a Wigley-designed gold-studded hoodie jumper was, "I can see Jay-Z in this!" The response, met with a chuckle, was, “Everyone likes this one!” -and I can see why. Wigley is super-good at combining classic qualities -good tailoring, square shoulders, sharp lines -with modern sensibilities -bright colours, unique fabrics, details like studding and dyeing -and doing it in a high-quality way that is both cost-effective and entirely unique.

This talent for integration isn't specific to menswear, either; he also for gals. Wigley's angular, sexy, fitted crop dress has square, kimono-like sleeves that slit open from underneath, and sphere-like white embroidery that provides a nice contrast to the heavy charcoal color. Like other designers Ukamaku features, Wigley has a few tie-dyed pieces in his collection, notably a drapey hand-dyed silk dress that wouldn't be out of place at an event like Open Roof Films next summer.

What accounts for the return of the 60s technique? "Designers like the organic quality," Wigley told me, before adding, "you can’t control it.” It was interesting just how much this sentiment was echoed by other designers, and indeed, Marcus Kan, Ukamaku's Fashion Director. "Retro theme is a major trend in the fashion world right now," he said via email. "No one can forget the tie-dye trend back in the 80s. (It) gives off a fun, bright, care-free and funky feeling to the clothes, perfect for a Spring/Summer collection. If people are into technology more, laser print pieces is a great option. The feeling is similar to tie-dye pieces, but the laser prints are more precise and futuristic."

Precision is one thing, spotaneity quite another. As Wigley noted, you can't quite control what tie-dye on fabric will do, and that's part of the joy for him as a designer. The sense of "happy accident" with the dyeing technique mirrors the sort of spontaneous, quasi-accidental artistic accidents that happen at something like Art Battle. Painters and some designers have this much in common: they’re willing to embrace the unknown if it makes the end result more interesting. They're also willing to embrace the fantastical. While at the Ukamaku head offices, Wigley excitedly showed me another of his popular ladies' pieces, a snappy fitted red coat that had a distinct Little Red Riding Hood vibe; the "hood" part was clevlerly. stylishly replaced by a massive sprawling grand collar that flattered the wide arms and fitted waist of the very-warm looking piece. It was like Kate Hepburn meets Sioxsie Sioux. Beguiling, sexy, adventurous.

This sense of creative exploration and spirited adventurousness most clearly seen in the work of Breeyn McCarney, whose 1950s-meets-punk-rock looks definitely makes her a stand out in the super-traditional world of fancy women's wear. A myriad of cultural touchstones and figures, new and old, came to mind in looking at her stuff: Elvis Presley movies, Mad Men, Grease (the movie version), Johnny Suede, 1980s Madonna, 1990s Courtney Love, Tim Burton in Wonderland. A bright yellow party dress, a sheer, corseted, party-like black dress, another sheer lace number with big gold hearts… it was all very new and yet very vintage, all at once. McCarney has a distinct voice that defies easy categorization, which, I realized, is probably the way she wants it. Who wants to be stuffed into a box, in life, fashion, art, or otherwise?

In conversation, McCarney confessed her love of theatre, calling the dresses "costumes" and talking about the various elements of theatre she integrates into her work. Dressed in worn-looking leather boots, black leggings, and a ruffled, short-sleeved chemise with a spectacularly ruffled back, the petite designer gave off a vibe of punk, rockabilly, and pirate. In response to a question about inspiration, she, rather casually, responded with a bon mot I consider to be the good and proper mantra of artists of any discipline, at any given time:"Every day I wake up and wonder, 'Who am I going to be today?’" (I would add, "Does this still fit me?") McCarney's adventurous, cute-sexy designs are clearly aimed for the downtown party-girl crowd who wants to make a statement with the confidence of modernity and the cool elegance of vintage. She'd have to be a theatrical gal for sure to pull off the numbers McCarney designs. I leaned towards a sheer, short, simply-cut polka-dot dress with a contrasting black polka-dot cloth belt; flattering, feminine, flowy... just plain pretty, the piece proves McCarney is a designer of many moods, visions, and talents. She, along with Ackerman and Wigley, will be ones to watch as the Canadian fashion designer scene expands further. It's encouraging Ukamaku wants to be part of that road.

Later this week I'll be posting a Q&A with a few of the people behind Ukamaku -why they started it, what it means. I think you'll find it illuminating in terms of the cultural conversation around the role -and worth -of fashion in the 21st century.

Nov 26, 2010

See The World Up Close

"iPhone gloves... really?!"

That was my exact reaction reading a friend's tweet recently. Technology is everywhere; so go the accessories. Life without a cellphone (and the ubiquitous apps) seems unreal; twenty years ago, life without a Walkman was unthinkable. Technology has been so ubiquitous now that it's turned into a simple matter of choosing what we want, and when, and being absolutely confident it'll be there at our convenience.

It's hard to imagine the shock waves English photographer Eadweard Muybridge created with his early experiments in photography -experiments that lead to the creation of cinema. Can any of us imagine life without movies or still images? It's easy to take them for granted, especially since they're everywhere: TVs, movie screens, the internet, computer monitors. A work colleague of mine has a lovely photo of her daughter set as her desktop; in Muybridge's time (the mid/late 1800s), the only image of the girl that could've existed would have been a painting. Beautiful, but hardly the same thing.

The conveniences of technology, and its role in our lives -scientifically, artistically, socially -ran through my mind watching Studies In Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge, produced by Vancouver's Electric Company Theatre and presented by The Canadian Stage Company, currently on in Toronto at the Bluma Appel Theatre. The lauded work opens with a naked man carefully manoeuvring his way across the stage; I write "manoeuvring" because there is a real sense of trying to capture the basic -or seemingly-basic movements Muybridge did in his own experiments. The English-born, American-living/working photographer worked at the University of Pennsylvania between 1884 and 1887, and invented new techniques and technologies that significantly furthered the art of photography and lead directly to the world of cinema. The opening scene of Studies In Motion is exactly what its title suggests: studies (that is, people) in motion, across a grid-like space, forcing us to look at muscles, bones, structure and form, and the various shadows they cast across the bare expanse of stage -this mortal coil, perhaps or the new terrain someone might embark on whenever they try anything new.

Within the context of societal mores depicted within the play, the nudity is a source of shock, of course. One not-so-amused woman looks on pie-eyed and mouth gaping as the models demonstrate their daily business in the lab. Yet Muybridge (Andrew Wheeler) tells the shocked visitor this isn't about titillation; if he could, he'd rip the flesh off to see the bone, and then take away the bone to see pure movement itself. Models cover and uncover according to the readiness of the equipment, but they are also comfortable around their technician cohorts. Thus the straight-laced Victorian world falls away, and we are taken somewhere considerably more modern; this modern sense is reflected, meta-theatrically at least in a sense, via Crystal Pite's dance interludes, where the actors become the motion their theatrical counterparts set out to study. With a pulsating soundtrack (courtesy of composer Patrick Pennefather), the ensemble reaches, runs, stretches, and sashays through all variance of human-doings.

The team behind Studies In Motion are a talented bunch; director Kim Collier is a Siminovitch Prize-winner, and the impressive set, lighting, and video design is by Canada Council award winner Robert Gardiner. Crystal Pite is celebrated across Canada and has won a Dora Mavor Moore Award (a Toronto version of a Tony). Writer Kevin Kerr's other works include Unity (1918) and Skydive, and the show itself was previously produced at Montreal's impressive Festival TransAmériques in 2009. While there's a true sense of exploration and curiosity and even wonder, I was left cold emotionally -but then, that's probably the point. Kerr's work eerily echoes the cold efficiency with which Muybridge approached his work, and even the inclusion of the famous murder he trial he was involved with (he shot his wife's l0ver) fails to touch; it's at its most compelling when in the lab, showing movement you take for granted -human technology at work -across a massive, sprawling grid.


Gardiner's contribution was, I admit, my favorite part of the show. His eye-poppingly gorgeous grid-like design was complemented by various projections of Muybridge's original works flashed acros the long screen running the length of the stage. The natural tendencies of the eye (moving left to right, small to large) were challenged, gently, skillfully, with a notion of continually widening, then narrowing Kerr's narrative focus. The design was a dramatic dance companion to the occasionally-maudlin script, though it shuld be noted that Kerr is incredibly good at knowing when his characters should shut up and let the images do the talking. Here Collier's incredible eye for integrating the piece's various elements -dance, video, images, movement -comes forward as truly impressive, and truly remarkable. There was a nice future-looking play of words and sounds and images I experienced in watching Studies In Motion too; artists like the Lumiere brothers, Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, and in a more contemporary sense, Daft Punk, Jenny Holzer, the early 90s videos of U2 (Mark Neale's direction of "Lemon", above, was directly influenced by Muybridge's work), and the entire Krautrock and industrial movements are all here, in various guises, occasionally naked, occasionally still, probing and pulsating and prowling.

Muybridge, and by extension, Collier's work attempts to look at the mytery of humanity and existence by taking mall slices of movement and analyzing them to bits; thing is, there's an art in those small moments, in and of themselves, that doesn't require analysis so much as acceptance. We may marvel at the technical and scientific feat Muybridge achieve, but it brings us no closer to the mytery of the human heart, or indeed, the mysterious ways we're moved by art itelf.


So this, then, is the final question Studies In Motion left me with, one I'm still wrestling with: does a person make better art through isolation? isolated movement, position, placement -consciouly created -good or bad for art? I don't expect easy answer -and in fact, I'd rather enjoy the questions anyway. There's poetry in the motion, and in stillness, and having both at my disposal through this little life feels like the best kind of technology I could want, iPhone gloves be damned.

Photo credits:

Top and bottom photos courtesy of Canadian Stage Company.
Photos by Tim Matheson.

Nov 20, 2010

Healing

Music has played a large role in my life lately. In the weeks leading up to the Grinderman show last week, I interviewed Laila Biali, Micah Barnes, and James Di Salvio (Bran Van 3000) about their respective new releases, received the new album from the fabulously-rockin' Preachers Son, and have been diving headfirst into the work of recently-deceased composer Henryk Gorecki. I'm also been looking into attending more live shows, trying to get more familiar with the massive Sondheim catalogue, and preparing for the Einsturzende Neubaten concerts here in Toronto next month.

Amidst all of this, the gorgeous, babbling trumpet of Hugh Masekela has been reigning like some supreme being, dancing and swirling with magical silvery notes and the soft-sheen of hand-claps and rising voices. Masekela's music is rich but spacious at the same time, and he gives a show like no other; his warm smile and funky dance moves leaves a trail of inspiration, and I think I can say with some confidence now that seeing him here a few weeks back marked the beginning of my musical renaissance of late.

It was a miserable Saturday night when Masekela came to Toronto to complete his latest North American tour. Cold rain fell hard and noisy across the concrete slabs and high scaffolding dotting the city-scape. Crowds huddled together under the tiny awnings outside restaurants and shops, barely daring the wind and the wet, and I arrived at Koerner Hall with pant legs soaked and in a slightly chilly mood. The new space put me somewhat at ease, though. The architecture is so... pretty, all glass angles and soft colours and grand open spaces. The hall has been creatively fused with the rambling old architecture of the old Royal Conservatory building, a place I shuddered to enter as a child.

It was in the fusty old Conservatory building that I would take my dreaded yearly piano exams, and it's there I have an ashen collection of singed musical memories. Between the glaring, smile-adverse examiners, the creaky floors, the yellowed keys of ancient pianos, and the sheer terror of waiting outside a closed door as piano-playing way, way better than mine emanated from within, it's a spot I was convinced I'd always despise. It's no exaggeration to state that the Conservatory system pounded out whatever sonic creativity I had in favour of more rigorous, "proper" sounds. Stop fooling around, play what's in front of you, technique over emotion, no improvising allowed, ever. Don't do that to Bach/Beethoven/unheard-of-people-I-didn't-give-a-toss-about-anyway! Hardly worth mentioning: I don't play the piano anymore.

The building itself, which I remember as a fusty, cold, old space, has been fused with something warmly modern and welcoming; the regal (if equally cozy) Koerner Hall has top acoustics, comfy seats, and a nice smattering of old instruments in the basement, museum-style. Along with featuring Masekela that particular night, the Hall also hosts classical concerts (duh) a well as local groups like the excellent Art of Time Ensemble. Next year's lineup includes jazz, Indian sounds, and blues shows. That eclecticism is a great reflection of not only the city, but the approach the Royal Conservatory is now taking to shape the nature of cultural experience in the 21st century. It's not all poe-faced, serious, miserable, head-down-and-shut-up-ness stuff. Gosh, I almost wish I was playing piano again. Almost.

So what to say about Masekela? The term "legendary musician" feels incredibly trite for someone so multi-talented. Human rights crusader, politician, artistic ambassador, showman, loverman... where to begin? With a mellow touch, of course. Hugh and his five-man band gave one of the most beautiful concerts I've ever seen. Liberally mixing old and new favorites, Masekela proved himself a master of many sounds and emotions, from the sexy growls of his famous trumpet to yowling imitations of a steam whistle, and even to his funky dancing, Masekela proved he's a supreme entertainer and musician of the highest order.

With the accompaniment of a strong, intuitive five-man band, Masekela worked the crowd with a gentle wit and highly watchable style. He took the time to include Toronto in his roll-call of cities in "The Boy Is Doin' It", and chatted to the audience with much familiarity and warmth, easily blending humour and politics. Between quick comments on the rainy weather (which seemed, to my ears, to be a chide to the numerous latecomers) and amusing references to the G20 debacles of earlier this year ("I hope we're safe here?"), Masekela appeal to the collective conscience of his spellbound audience, wondering aloud if the natural calamities of this year were the result of the Mother Nature taking revenge against an ignorant populace. He then spoke about the history of "Stimela (Steam Train)", how it referenced South African coal mines, and how the numerous troubles of his home continent require the world's attention.



"Stimela" is a powerful evocation of time, place, and circumstance, and its live version was a wholly moving blend of sound effects, native South African rhythms and ... frankly, rock and roll. I couldn't help but think of how much the middle instrumental section resembled various favorite rock tunes (especially favorite live tunes), and I marveled at this spry, funny, smart, accomplished 71-year-old for being able to channel so many different energies and styles simultaneously, via his innate, if finely-honed ability to integrate dance, voice, and presence.

But perhaps that's the special magic of Hugh Masekela. The second half of the program was chalk-full of fun, upbeat numbers, which inspired much dancing of the onlookers in the cheapie seats, located directly behind the stage. There was something wholly encouraging about watching the skinny-tied/ironically-bearded/thick-framed-glasses hipster set sway, swivel, and shake to the earthy, sexy sounds of "Happy Mama" and the famous "Grazin' in the Grass" (which he played at the 2010 FIFA World Cup). Music makes the people come together indeed. Masekela and his band acknowledged the dancers as well as the numerous audience members familiar with his numerous references to South African culture. During "Kauleza" Masekela instructed us to call back the song's title (which translates to "Police!"), noting it was what he and his siblings would shout growing up in illegal drinking establishments. "You're not shouting loud enough!" he chided, "The police are coming!" My favorite moment was during the legendary Fela Kuti song "Lady", when Masekela imitated a haughty woman, shaking his hips, pursing his lips, cocking an eyebrow. It was a hilarious, playful blend of satire and musical mastery, and completely spellbinding.

Indeed, the whole evening seemed to be a balm to soothe my awful Conservatory memories. Musicality takes all kinds of forms, of course, but it's hard to flush bad energies away in one go. Attending Masekela's concert in my old horror-movie stomping grounds felt like a good first step toward creative musical rehab. 2011 could be the year of Koerner Hall, both for me and many others seeking the kind of inspiration -and liberation -only music can provide.

Photo credits:
Top photo of Hugh Masekela originally published in The Telegraph.
Second photo of Hugh Masekela courtesy of Rock Paper Scissors.