Sunday, June 28, 2009

Ritualizing the Rite (on Yvonne Rainer's RoS Indexical and The Rite of Spring)

Scene from ROS Indexical

Yvonne Rainer on the set of ROS Indexical

Original costumes (Himalayan chorus)
from The Rite of Spring

The chorus momentarily rests

Valery Gergiev (director), with the cast of the Marinsky Theatre Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes

Yvonne Rainer (choreographer, after Millicent Hodson), with Pat Catterson, Emily Coates, Patricia Hoffbauer, and Sally Silvers RoS Indexical and Spiraling Down / RedCat (Roy and Edna Disney/ CalArts Theater, at the Disney Center, Los Angeles / the performance I attended was the Los Angeles premiere, Thursday, June 25, 2009

By intentional coincidence, a few weeks before attending Yvonne Rainer's RoS Indexical and Spiraling Down, Howard and I attended a high definition showing of Emerging Pictures's Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes at the Music Hall Theater in Beverly Hills. That film included performances of three Stravinsky ballets by the Marinsky Ballet Company with the Marinsky Theater Symphony Orchestra, restaged in 2003 from the original choreography and danced in the original costumes. The three ballets included The Firebird, The Rite of Spring, and The Wedding, all of which were high engaging reconstructions of the originals.

Of particular importance for me, however, was seeing The Rite of Spring just previous to Rainer's homage, dissection, and spoof of that great work. The day after seeing the Rainer piece, moreover, I watched the tape of the first reconstruction of Nijinsky's original, performed in 1987 by the Joffrey Ballet in Los Angeles.

From a corps de ballet of several dozens of dancers, Rainer slimmed down her company to four dancers, Emily Coates, Patricia Hoffbauer, Sally Silvers, and Pat Catterson, the last of whom was replaced in the production I saw by Rainer herself, now age 75.

The tone of Rainer's version was established almost immediately by the four sitting around a card table, listening to something on head phones. They begin by humming and thrumming the overture to The Rite of Spring, droned so out of tune it is barely recognizable.

As the First Act, L'adoration de la Terre, begins, three of the women (in the original, many of the group dances were split by Nijinsky into groups of three) gather, as the old men do in the original, to celebrate the spring with the heavy stamp of their booted feet. Here, in spritely colored work-out clothing, the woman start by imitating but quickly move to other positions as, sometimes working in unison, but more often splitting apart into ones or twos, they reiterate some of the hand, arm, and head-gestures of the Nijinsky choreography. To her "indexing" of the original, Rainer adds often hilarious and touching riffs from Groucho Marx's daffy backward shuffles (remember his incredible dancing in the movies?) and Robin Williams (presumably from his Bob Fosse imitations in The Birdcage) to Sarah Bernhardt's melodramatic gestures. Every so often, the exhausted dancers—they are, after all, performing all the various chorus numbers—retire to a couch, where they temporarily rest, change from shoes to Kleenex boxes (suggesting, I gather, the various different tribal outfits of the original dancers) and appear to be deciding what to do with the dreadful audience response.

For Rainer has layered her performance to include the riots of the original. Early in their dances, various placards fall from the ceiling dangling like posters in the sky, announcing possible responses to the work. From the soundtrack of the BBC rendition, Riot at the Rite, we hear various shouts and hateful remarks, Nijinsky counting loudly to his performers so that they, unable any longer to hear the music, might continue the dance. At one point a mob of planted actors, a couple in the costumes of the original designer Nicholas Roerich, rush to the stage, demanding the company return to TriBeCa, where Rainer's New York home is located.

Certainly this historical intervention adds further dimension to the work. But the high British accents declaring their dismissal and outrage made the reactions seem arch and absurd; certainly French must have been more to the point, and, like others in the audience, I wish we might have had the "riot" performed in the original language.

The unflappable dancers, however, ultimately maintain their demeanors, bending down occasionally to return, in mime, some of the missiles presumably hurled their way. As the performers began the memorable "Dance of the Virgins," those terrifying figures who ultimately decide which of their member is to be sacrificed, Sally Silvers falls to the floor in a faint, referencing the original fall of the young woman selected to die. Throughout, Silvers humorously huffs and puffs her way through these dances, sometimes in Marx brothers style, leaving everything out that the others do except for the final position (the other two dancers are younger by at least two decades), lending her highly satiric dancing style (Silvers is also a noted choreographer) to the whole. Not to be outdone, however, the other two later fall, and in lieu of the final end of the sacrificial victim—raised in her death above the heads of the original male chorus—each of Rainer's women take turns at demonstrating their dramatic skills in dying by falling upon the couch, Silvers most riotously clumsy, with Rainer almost unable, it appears, to climb over its arms.

Yet, throughout this exhausting dance, these four women stomp, march, float through the air, twist, turn, and gesture with arms, hands, and fingers along with Stravinsky's raw, barbarously rhythmic, and often blaringly atonal chords, with an incredible energy and beauty that might almost be said to have outdo any large corps de ballets. Rainer declared at the beginning of the work that her performance might be seen as "geriatric," but if her graceful movements represent the consequences of old age, bring it on! We should all be so beautifully lithe.

Los Angeles, June 27, 2009

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Twelve Tales of Another Town: The Third Tale (The Desks)

Nissen Trampoline Company, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Throughout these memoirs I have maintained that until my days in college, I was close to a model child, obedient and well-behaved; and I truly believe to this day that I was an almost saintly son. Some memories, however, seem to contradict this vision of myself, a couple of which I shall now reveal for the first time.

I recall myself as being a fairly unreflective child, living in a world I only vaguely understood. The world about me, particularly the world I experienced in the small town of Newhall, was filled, accordingly, with a kind of magical possibility. Since I saw everything by the light of a slightly darkened bulb, I seldom comprehended the significance of things. I believe this kind of determined innocence was inculcated into my young life, encouraged, so to speak, by my parents, who themselves—when I think back on their behavior—were less sophisticated, perhaps, than many of today’s children. Like my nephews, growing up in a similar world, if an adult were to tell me to go climb a tree, I would go climb a tree—unless I was fearful of falling.

One morning, however, I awoke and in that half sleeping, half awake condition of all transcendent revelations, I suddenly arrived at a wondrous conclusion. At that time I was six years old; the year was 1953, the year of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, of Harry Truman’s announcement that the United States had developed a hydrogen bomb; the North Sea flooded Zeeland and other parts of the Netherlands, killing over 1,800 people; in Denmark, George William Jorgensen became Christine.

So excited was I with my sudden revelation that I immediately jumped up and ran into my parents’ bedroom, where they were still asleep. “Mom, Dad,” I called out. “Mom, Dad.” I can imagine them opening their eyes in slight startlement: “What is it, Doug? What’s wrong?”

I paused. “There’s no Santa Claus, is there?”

They took a few moments to digest my statement.

“You’re Santa Claus, aren’t you?”

My father awkwardly spoke. “Well, there is Santa Claus in a sort of way, the spirit of Christmas. That’s Santa Claus.”

“And there’s no Tooth Fairy either?

I don’t think they even had an answer for that one.

I merrily skipped out of their room, not disturbed, as they might have feared, in the least. It didn’t matter to me a wink. I still got gifts. How nice, I must have concluded, that my parents had given me all those things.

No sooner had they served me breakfast than I ran out to tell the neighborhood. Fortunately, I got only as far as the girl next door, Gretchen Grover. I joyfully shared my enlightenment, but she was not as pleased to hear what I had to say, and ran off into her house, crying. I was confused. And by the time I returned home my parents had already received a telephone call from her father, reporting my reprehensible behavior.

“Doug,” my mother scolded, “you can’t go around telling your friends this information.”

“Why not?”

“Because they’ll be hurt. They’ll be disappointed.”

“Why?” I exploded. “It’s the truth, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” my father added, “but it’s a truth that for now only you can know. You can’t tell your friends or your brother or sister either. Just keep it to yourself.”

Perhaps that was when I learned how to lie. I kept it a secret for years, often helping my parents hurry the gifts under the tree before we took our Christmas Eve rides. By the time we returned, so my brother and sister were always convinced, Santa had arrived.

By this time I began to realize that knowing things was not always a pleasant experience, that the confusion I’d felt as a younger child was perhaps a preferable sensation. With knowing came responsibilities.

When I was in first grade, 1954, I began to take piano lessons after school with our music teacher. My lesson was Tuesdays and Thursdays just after school let out, and immediately after Marcia Boddicker, my dearest friend, had her lesson; so I usually waited around to hear her play at a more advanced level than I, for she clearly practiced what I never did.

The Boddickers, who lived a just a few doors from our house, had a modernized farmhouse; indeed their place, although located just at the edge of our town, was still an active farm. Marica’s older sister, so I had heard my parents whisper between themselves, had had to get married while still in high school—and, more shockingly still, to the school coach, ending in her expulsion and his being fired. “What an unfortunate event to happen to such a nice couple as Marcia’s parents, Cyril and Louella,” my mother had concluded her household gossip.

I also went to school with Vincent Boddicker, a cousin, who lived a few miles away on a “real” farm (as opposed to the citified version) with six or seven brothers. I once stayed overnight with Vincent, and the next day we rose before five o’clock, ate a huge breakfast of eggs, pancakes, and various meats before we helped with the haying. I hated farms.

Years later, my companion Howard worked with one of these cousins at the University of Wisconsin library. One might say of the Boddickers, as Harvey’s Elwood P. Dowd remarked of his school friend and Vern MacIlhaney and family “there were a lot of them and they circulated. Very nice people.”

After Marcia’s lesson, we would generally play, just the two of us, on the trampoline in the school gym. I believe nearly every school in Iowa had a trampoline, and particularly every school in my hometown of Marion and nearby Cedar Rapids—for we were the home of the Grisson-Nissen Trampoline and Tumbling Company, the inventors of the trampoline and largest producer of trampolines in the world. We never once thought of the dangers that the two of us might have faced.

One evening, Marcia suggested that we visit our classroom.


“I just want to see it when no one is there,” she innocently declared.

We crept into our room through the still-open door.

“I have an idea,” I said—or perhaps Marcia came up with the plot. Does it matter? “Let’s change around all of the desks.”

“Won’t that surprise everyone tomorrow morning,” she or I added.

We did just that.

Now, I have forgotten to mention that my father was Superintendent of Schools. That night, after my homework, I began to feel the call of a guilty conscience; and finally as my brother and I, who shared bunk beds (Dave at the bottom, me at the top), were being tucked in, I admitted to my father what I had done.

Within seconds he had dragged me out of bed and commanded I get dressed. Together we returned to the school, where I was told to put all the desks in their proper place.

“I can’t remember where they go,” I cried out.

“You better, and quick!” he retorted.

I put them back as best I could.

“And in the morning, I want you to report to your teacher just what you have done.”

I don’t recall anything else. I must have reported early the next morning to Miss Donlinger. I know that I cried all the way home that night on account of the terrible thing that I had done.

Why had I performed this Ionescoian act, I now ask? Had Marcia and I placed all those desks the way we desired reality to be, putting the desks of friends next to our own? Or had we simply pulled them into a helter-skelter order? I have no answer. The only one surprised come morning was Marcia herself.

“What happened?” she disappointedly queried during recess.

“I don’t know,” I lied. “Maybe Miss Donlinger put them all back again.”

“How could she have found out?” the young Eve suspiciously wondered. “You must have told her. Did you tell her?”

As I had learned a few weeks before, it was best to keep quiet. So I said nothing for a very long while.

Los Angeles, February 20, 2003

Three years after writing the piece above, it suddenly dawned on me that, while working on a series of poems for an annual of poetic writing, produced in monthly installments by Paul Vangelisti in a Xerxoed format, Lowghost (1999), I had described my poems with the same subtitle of this essay, “Desks.” The “Desks” poems begin with a visit to Joe Ross and Laura Wilber (who later was webmaster of my Green Integer site) at their then-new home in San Diego, where I stayed the night. Left alone in their apartment for the day, I took down several of the volumes of poetry from Joe’s shelves and wrote poems—using the processes I have described in my 2004 interview with Charles Bernstein [My Year 2005]—while also attempting to put myself in the mindset of Joe while writing. Over the several months of Paul’s innovative and stimulating forum, I worked through writings in this manner of several poets and friends—Leslie Scalapino, Barbara Guest, Robert Creeley, Dennis Phillips, Ray DiPalma (producing from Ray’s work what I think is one of my most notable poems, “The Secret Saint”) and others, poems which presaged my collaborative writing of Between.

One can obviously invest too much meaning into innocent and often intuitive childhood acts, but I now wonder, was my transformation of that childhood classroom a simple act of malice or an attempt to comprehend and reformulate my relationships with my fellow students—the very proximity to one another being so important to school-age children? In reorganizing my friends’ desks, perhaps I was seeking a new definition of their relationships with me. Certainly, in later attempting to re-imagine my fellow poets’ approaches to language, I was doing precisely that. My father’s insistence that I recreate the previous order—despite my obedience of his dictate—was, accordingly, an untenable demand. For me, there was no possible return to the past.

At an early age, I now realize, I had already shaken up my world, a process later symbolized by Stacey Levine’s gift of a snow-plagued nun [see
My Year 2005].

Westchester, November 20, 2006

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Sparks (on Giuseppe Verdi's opera Il Trovatore)

Salvador Commarano (libretto), Giuseppe Verdi Il Trovatore / The Metropolitan Opera, May 8, 2009

My seeing Verdi's operatic warhorse Il Trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera had more to do with contingency than with choice (it was the only production I could see during the few days of my stay in the city). But as with many of my activities it now seems, in the context of the concerns of My Year 2009, appropriate. Like so many of the essays of this year, the plot of Verdi's opera is also about "facing the heat," the characters having to endure the punishments for their own present errors and judgment as well as the sins of their ancestors of the past.

In this case, the gypsy woman Azucena's mother has been burned at the stake for "bewitching" an infant in her care, the current Count di Luna's infant brother. To avenge her mother's death, Azucena apparently kidnapped the young boy and threw him into the flames that burned her mother to death. Only the charred remains of a baby were discovered on the pyre, and since that day the Count has sought out the murderer with intention of confirmation or further revenge.

Meanwhile, the Count has fallen desperately in love with a young woman serving his wife in the court. The woman, Leonora, meanwhile, is smitten with wandering troubadour, Manrico, who also happens to be the leader of the partisan rebel forces threatening the Count's rule—who is, incidentally, Azucena's son. Discovered in Leonora's presence, Manrico is challenged by the Count to a duel, a fight unto death. Manrico quickly overpowers the Count, but strangely resists murdering him. He releases the Count. The war between the two forces continues, with the Royalist forces winning, and resulting in Manrico's near-death. He lives only because he has been dragged from the battlefield by his mother and nursed by her back to health.

In the gypsy camp the gypsies sing of their tireless work, their spirits raised only by the site of a pretty woman, the famed anvil chorus, performed in this production as an almost sexual assertion of masculinity. Indeed, the strikes of the hammers upon the anvil sent almost real sparks into the audience, and certainly Verdi's joyous chestnut does foretell of the fire of the past and of the future.

For, as almost anyone can foretell from the brief and somewhat absurd plot spelled out above, Manrico is doomed in his love for Leonora. Azucena is captured near the camp and is held captive in di Luna's castle, and when Manrico's army is defeated, he too joins his mother within the cells of the castle.

Leonora escapes, returning to the castle and promising herself up to di Luna if he will release his prisoners. Di Luna agrees to release Manrico, and Leonora rushes to tell him. Manrico, however, is outraged at what he believes to be her betrayal of their love. Leonora, having planned all along to cheat di Luna of her presence, has taken a poison which acts faster than she has expected, and she dies in Manrico's arms. Di Luna, witnessing the death, sends Manrico to his execution, while Azucena reveals the truth: mistakenly she had thrown her own son onto the pyre and, accordingly, Manrico is di Luna's long-sought brother. Her revenge has at last been accomplished.

Yet, despite these facts, Il Trovatore is not really a revenge tragedy but a story of four failed human beings who all come together in the "Moon Count's" castle (di Luna), creating a kind of lunatic world. Three commit unspeakable acts and the fourth is apparently incompetent. Azucena has been so caught up in revenge that she has, "accidentally"—a nearly unthinkable word in the context— murdered her own son, and although she has been a loving mother to Manrico, we nonetheless must recognize her as a reprehensible being. The Count, for his part, is also caught up in the past, becoming so determined to find his brother's killer that he destroys the sibling in the act. Manrico, the troubador, is a terrible warrior, unwilling even to kill a brutal enemy in a duel; he is, moreover, a man who loses all battles, evidently, in which he participates. He is not even a good "troubador"—a devotee of courtly love—attacking Leonora at the very moment that she has sacrificed her own life for him. Leonora, in turn, enacts a suicide that has no positive results, resulting a death that saves neither her lover nor his gypsy mother. The fires within each of them, fueled by love, envy, anger, and hate, sparks each other's inevitable destruction.

The production I saw at the Met, with Hasmik Papian as Leonora, ┼Żelijo Lucic as the Count, Marco Berti as Manrico, and Mzia Nioradze as Azucena was a superb rendition of this opera, with Papian (better known for her Norma) and Niordze as standouts for their performances.

New York, May 9, 2009

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Why the Hell Did You Come? (on the composer Harry Partch)

Harry Partch Partch Dark, Partch Light, performed by the group Partch at Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) in the Walt Disney Concert Hall on May 29, 2009

A true American musical maverick similar in some respects to Charles Ives, composer Harry Partch was born, the son of Presbyterian missionaries, in Oakland, California in June 1901. Much of his youth was spent in isolated Arizona and New Mexico towns, where, reportedly, he heard and sang songs in Spanish, several American Indian languages, and Mandarin, sung to him by his mother, who had spent time in China.

He attended the University of Southern California in Los Angeles with the intention of a musical career; but in 1925 he discovered the book On the Sensations of Tone by the German physician and physicist Hermann Helmholtz, a study of the psychological effects of musical tones, and soon after dropped out of school to study by himself, exploring the musicality of speech and constructing his own instruments that "underscored the intoning voice." As Partch wrote:

I came to the realization that the spoken word was the distinctive expression my
constitutional makeup was best fitted for, and that I needed other scales and other
instruments. this was the positive result of self-examination—call it intuitive,
for it was not the result of any intellectual desire to pick up lost or obscure
historical threads. for better or for worse, it was an emotional decision.

His first instrument was the "Monotone," an "adapted viola," which later joined with numerous others including The Diamond Marimba, The Quadrangularis Reversum, the 11-key Bass Marimba, Bamboo Marimbas (nicknamed "Boo" and "Boo II"), Cloud Chamber Bowls, an instrument he called "The Spoils of War" (which included Cloud Chamber Bowls, artillery shell casings, metal whang-guns, and wooden piecings), The Gourd Tree and Cone Gongs, an xylophone augmented with tuned liquor bottles and hubcaps (The Zymo-Xyl), Kitharas, and Harmonic Canons (played with fingers, picks or mallets).

Receiving a Carnegie grant in the early 1930s, Partch traveled to London, meeting the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who game him permission to set his translation of Sophocles' Oedipus as an opera. Transcribing the inflections of the Abbey Theatre actors, Partch performed his piece on Monophone, intoning "By the Rivers of Babylon." Yeats was delighted by the effects.

Yet the grant soon ran out, and the following year, 1935, Partch returned to the US at the height of the Great Depression, and lived for nine years wandering as a hobo, doing odd jobs and designing his instruments.

Important works of this period were "Dark Brother," performed at the concert I saw by the Partch group, a piece from Thomas Wolfe's "God's Lonely Man," which reiterates Partch's own sense of isolation and separateness. Most of Partch's relationships were with males, and his feelings of disengagement with the whole of society were obviously intense.

Yet many of the works of this period are brilliantly comical, including the "Yankee Doodle Fantasy," sung in accompaniment with tin oboes and other instruments, that satirizes patriotism, serious club women, and even his 43-tone note system. Similarly lighter Partch pieces, two based on James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, "Isobel" of 1944 and "Annah the Allmaziful" of the same year, were, along with his utterly charming tribute to Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky," ("O Frabjous Day!"), highlights of the evening.

One of Partch's most strange but yet arresting works is his "Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions," based on messages left by hitchhikers just outside the Mojave Desert junction of Barstow:

The scribbling is in pencil. It is on one of the white highway railings just outside
the Mojave Desert junction of Barstow, California. I am walking along the highway
and sit down on the railing to rest.
Idly I notice the scratches where I happen to drop. I have seen many hitchhiker's
writings. they are usually just names and addresses—there are literally millions of them,
or meaningless obscenities, on the highway signs, railings, walls.
But this—why, it's music. It's both weak and strong, like unedited human
expressions always are. It's eloquent in what it fails to express in words. And it's
epic. Definitely, it is music....

Indeed, upon first hearing each of these numbered pieces, presented in a kind of sprechstimme-like performance by guitarist John Schneider, the words are almost laughable. But Patrch allows us after the original statement to hear the echoes of those words, by repeating them with emotionally-charged aftertones and dramatic additions ("ha-ha-ha," "dum-de-dum," etc) that transforms them into haunting expressions of fear and joy. The first one, for example, begins with a young man returning to Boston, Massachusetts, wishing he were dead, yet oddly adding "Today I am a Man." Is his manhood defined by his desire for death or for some sexual encounter that he has recently had? There is no one answer; but the echo of the two, filled in by Partch's joyful exclamations, alter the whole, and suddenly what might have been simple banality is awash with glorious possibilities.

Similarly, the young girl of "Considered Pretty," whose name and Las Vegas address appears merely to be a sexual invitation, is transformed by the final statement: "objective matrimony," while the sly admission that she is "considered pretty," pulls at our hearts when connected with her obvious desires.

"Jesus Was God in the Flesh" begins as a simple announcement of belief, repeated over and over like a prayerful charm song instead a statement of faith. "You Lucky Woman" recounts the self-described charms of a passing man, whose braggadocio might be completely disgusting were it not for his final challenge to the opposite sex that "all you have to do is find me." And the final piece "Why in Hell Did You Come?" is shouted out almost in irritation for those hitchhiking complaints of the writer and others suffering the itinerant life. Yet in that ironic cry we hear the numerous echoes of drifters catalogued by John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, and others.

The evening began with Eleven Intrusions of 1950, written while Partch was staying in Gualala, on California's northern coast, at a ranch owned by pianist Gunnar Johansen. There, among the redwoods, Partch created many of his instruments and worked in relative splendor in comparison to his earlier days. But the isolation apparently became oppressive, and the darkness of these Japanese-inspired works, almost haiku-like studies—each piece generally performed by two instruments that present a sequence of microtonal dissonances—of a rose, a crane, a waterfall, the wind, the street, the lover, soldiers, and other concerns reveal the darkness of a life that formerly seemed to be able to survive great depredations.

This was, I am sorry to say, my first encounter with the music of Harry Partch, a man who, as I described in an earlier essay, was rescued later in his life by my friend Betty Freeman. It will not, however, be my last Partch concert. And the day after this event I listened with wonderment to Partch's "Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales" and, again, to "Barstow" on the record Just West Coast with great pleasure.

Los Angeles, May 31, 2009