Launching Yuba Lit

In January I moved to the Sierra foothills: My husband and I bought a house in Nevada City. The little 49er-era mining town of 3,000 seemed a good place to be a writer: After all, I had met the novelist Josh Weil during a residency at the MacDowell Colony, and he seemed happy and productive living in Nevada City. And I knew that the organizers of the legendary Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference, which I had attended two summers earlier, lived in Nevada City, too. And of course, the TV writer and memoirist Heather Donahue lives here, and the poet Gary Snyder lives about 20 minutes outside town, way out on the famous North San Juan Ridge. And surely other writers I was yet to learn about.

I’ve been here seven months now, and I haven’t been disappointed: The tranquility of this place, the long walks down blackberry-entangled trails, the coffee shops, the abundant bookstores . . . It seemed the only thing this missing was a community reading series. Wouldn’t it be great to bring up Bay Area writers to read and mingle with the Sierra’s many talents?

And so, announcing a new reading series for the writer-rich Sierra foothills: Yuba Lit. We have a stellar lineup of readers for our first-ever event on September 24th at 7 p.m. at the Open Book in Grass Valley, CA. Novelist Joshua Mohr will be up from San Francisco to read with Auburn novelist Christian Kiefer and Nevada City poet-treasure Molly Fisk. The $5 cover benefits the Bear Yuba Land Trust, the amazing group responsible for the beautiful trails that ramble through these hills. Members of the audience are invited to read, too, by bringing one page or one poem to share during the opening round of flash readings, for which participants will be selected by lottery.

The plan is to hold Yuba Lit every other month. Future editions will always feature three readers: One Sierra writer, one Bay Area writer, and one emerging writer (a writer who has not yet published a book). We’ll have wine–and the intoxication of great writing. I can’t wait for the first Yuba Lit.

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Friday, August 14th, 2015 · Books · No Comments »


Authenticity comes from a single faithfulness: that to the ambiguity of experience. Its energy is to be found in how one event leads to another. Its mystery is not in the words but on the page.

–John Berger

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Monday, August 3rd, 2015 · Books · No Comments »


“Critical theory seminars in the form of absurd, artist-led fitness classes”: I had fun getting “deep femme” while reporting this ditty on “Sappho and Sweat” for the New Yorker’s website.

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Sunday, July 26th, 2015 · Uncategorized · No Comments »


I don’t really know whether art can exist without a certain degree of tranquility or spiritual poise; without a certain amount of quiet you can have neither philosophy nor religion nor poetry. And as one of those specialties of modern life is to abolish this quiet, we are in danger of losing our arts together with the quiet of the soul that art demands.

–Saul Bellow

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Friday, July 24th, 2015 · Uncategorized · No Comments »


“On Modeling and Mortification” out in Gulf Coast

The gorgeous letterpress-cover summer/fall issue of Gulf Coast has just been released, containing so much good stuff: a story by Aimee Bender, a conversation on poetry with Natalie Diaz and Alan Shapiro, the winners of the Barthelme Prize–and my personal essay, “On Modeling and Mortification.”

An excerpt is online here, but you’ll need to purchase the issue (well worth doing) to read the full essay. It begins:

“I wish that everyone could have the experience of posing naked for a group of good artists at least once.

At the beginning of every session, yes, there is fear. You receive instructions— whether to do a set of two-minute “gesture” poses, or perhaps fives or tens; standing or sitting or reclining or a mix—and then you press “start” on your timer and drop the robe. It is arousing and unnerving, the first few seconds, to feel the air on your buttocks and your breasts. You reach for the sky or you lunge or you twist as though swinging a baseball bat. You are trying to do something that looks like a real, human action, something that is not two-dimensional but rather traverses three planes. Something that gives the artists a line of force to observe, or perhaps a bit of negative space to work with compositionally, or a challenge of foreshortening to solve. You are trying to do all this and you are hoping that your thigh bearing all the weight of that lunge will hold out for three minutes, and you are worried that the twist in your spine will make your latissimus dorsi spasm. By the third or the fourth pose, your muscles are warm, your neck loose, you are reasonably confident that you will not fall down, and the scratch-scratch-scratch of mark-making has cast its hypnosis. You breathe deeply and steadily. You feel a particular man or woman’s eye trained intensely on your collarbone or your crotch.

When the break comes, you slip on your robe, roam the room. Often, something that you hate about yourself—the spread of your thigh, the sprawl of your nipples—surprises you as beautiful on the artist’s page.”

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Wednesday, June 24th, 2015 · Books, Misc. · No Comments »


What a wild month May was. I unexpectedly wrote two Sunday Profiles for the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, published within a few weeks of each other. First, what was originally assigned as a shorter feature became a tale of unexpected survival through dance when the choreographer Robert Moses, on the rise after a recent commission for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, opened up. Here’s a little taste of that profile:

“Choreographer Robert Moses paces like a boxer preparing for the ring, breaking into spurts of movement that twitch and flow and transform a stocky 52-year-old body into an instrument of anxious grace.

“Get your rhythms in your weight,” he calls sternly to his two dozen students after he demonstrates the phrase, a whirlwind of rippling torso and whiplash legs. “Questions? Going once, going twice? Fine, sold.” A mordant smile cracks above his silver whiskers.

The dancers look relieved. Moses is a firm but reliable father figure to his troupe, Robert Moses’ Kin, which will present its 20th anniversary season Thursday through next Sunday at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum. He’s also a pillar of Bay Area dance who’s beginning to break out on the national scene with his work, a hybrid of ballet, modern and street-jive that vacillates between tension and tenderness.

His work reflects a richly observant and conflicted mind, forged in a North Philadelphia ghetto and impervious to compromise. Moses rarely discusses his life story. But when a visitor to his small office in the Flood Building asks, like his dances, it all comes pouring out.

“Do you want long or short?” he asks, laughing in his warm but nervous way. “We had a mom-and-pop store, but my father was dead. Heart attack, but really he drank himself to death. Store was across the street from the projects. We had chicken wire up so people wouldn’t just snatch stuff and go out. Let’s see, what else can I tell you about that?” ”

The full story is here.

Then, I had the great privilege of interviewing the dance revolutionary Anna Halprin on the occasion of her 95th birthday, and doing my best to telescope a wildly wise and innovative life:

“Fifteen years ago, choreographer Anna Halprin opened the door to her mountainside home in Kentfield, buck naked. “Just a moment!” she said impishly to a startled reporter, and slipped on a kimono.

This time around, on a recent weekday, the 94-year-old Halprin is fully dressed in a turquoise tunic and silver necklace, but her uninhibited way of being is still obvious. Relaxed from a morning regimen of lap-swimming and hula hoops, she takes a seat overlooking the famous “dance deck” at her Marin County home, where in the ’50s and ’60s she essentially invented postmodern dance.

“Martha Graham used to say it takes 10 years to make a dancer,” Halprin says and then giggles. “I said, ‘No, I think it takes more like 10 seconds.’”

Of course, she quickly qualifies, a lot happens in that 10 seconds, a transformation of awareness that had profound implications for 20th century art. Before Halprin, American dance was cast in Graham’s regal mold, presented formally onstage, and performed by highly trained bodies that acted out the choreographer’s vision in a rarefied movement language. Halprin’s rebellion was to declare that any movement, performed with presence and intention, could be a dance, and anybody could be a dancer.

“She really was the genesis of so much postmodern dance,” says her biographer, Stanford Professor Janice Ross — though for many decades, the dance establishment in New York, a powerful world that tends to cast developments outside its sphere as “provincial,” discounted her place in dance history.

That has changed. This summer, to mark Halprin’s 95th birthday, fans and followers will host hundreds of events in 15 countries. Documentaries on Halprin will screen in Colombia and South Korea, and her works will be restaged in France and Israel. People in 46 nations, and in the Bay Area on Mount Tamalpais, will participate in her Planetary Dance on June 7. Tamalpa Institute, the training program based in Halprin’s home studio, will hold a benefit tribute to its founder on July 12, the day before her birthday.

Even the New York establishment that has so long ignored Halprin is paying its respects. Last fall, avant-garde choreographer Stephen Petronio announced that his “Bloodlines” project, which traces the lineage of 20th century experimental dance, will include works by textbook luminaries Trisha Brown and Merce Cunningham — and Anna Halprin.

It’s a remarkable resurgence for an artist who, raised by Russian immigrant Jews in the Chicago suburbs of Wilmette and Winnetka, made a life of art secluded in the woods with her husband, the influential landscape architect Lawrence Halprin.”

Here’s that full story.

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Friday, June 5th, 2015 · Dance · No Comments »


New Essay on Ohad Naharin/Batsheva Dance Company out in Hudson Review

I am so deeply grateful for the chance to write about Batsheva Dance Company in “Sadeh21″ for the Hudson Review. To be given the space (3500 words) a work of art like this deserves is rare, and to have an opportunity to explore how the choreographic approach of Ohad Naharin connects to ideas about art from Flaubert and Chekhov just feels miraculous. My review, “Ohad Naharin in San Francisco,” is out now in the Hudson Review’s Spring issue, which also includes a consideration of the poet Dunstan Thompson by Dana Gioia, a review of the new Saul Bellow biography by James Santel, and an essay “On the Experience of Fiction” by Antonio Munoz Molina.

The Hudson Review has graciously produced my article on Batsheva and “Sadeh21″ for the web here.

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Tuesday, May 26th, 2015 · Dance · No Comments »


What the fiction writer will discover, if he discovers anything at all, is that he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth. The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what-is. What-is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them.

–Flannery O’Connor

Words are all we have, and they better be the right ones.

Evan S. Connell

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Thursday, April 9th, 2015 · Books · No Comments »


Shostakovich Returns

It’s hard to do Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy justice, but I was so knocked out by it last year that I had to try. This is a review I wrote of last year’s San Francisco Ballet premiere timed to serve as preview for this year’s encore run. A little excerpt:

“The ballet has no plot per se, but Ratmansky ingeniously and very subtly suggests a story. The first panel of the trilogy is danced to Symphony No. 9, an eerily bright romp that was commissioned to celebrate Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany. The dancers wear a murky mix of brown and green, with just a flash of gold on the underside of their skirts (this is ballet, after all). The women wear their hair is in peasant braids and cavort with the men like rustic folk to cheerful Haydenesque themes.

Before long the mood – and the music – darkens, and a principal couple comes in (the always-dramatic Sarah Van Patten and the dashing Carlos Quenedit on last year’s opening night), looking warily over their shoulders. They seem to ask, is all this cheerfulness too good to be true? Two pizzicato notes are plucked by the cello between melodic refrains and the dancers look suspiciously left and right—not when the notes are plucked, but in the pauses when we hear, in our imaginations, the ghostly echoes of those two notes. Then they join the dance.

Here we see Ratmansky’s brilliant musicality. A lesser choreographer would have made that wary principal couple either flail despondently or smile obscenely, foregrounding the symphony’s more disquieting tones. But Van Patten and Quenedit hit the perfect note of ambiguity: were they mildly enjoying the coerced jigs? They remain unreadable to those around them and to us, conveying that they themselves may be unclear how it feels to participate.”

You can read the full piece on KQED Arts here.

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Monday, April 6th, 2015 · Dance · No Comments »


A bit of time has passed since I’ve posted any updates about what I’ve been working on.

–I talked with photographer Lucy Gray about her new book Balancing Acts, which follows three superlative ballerinas (Tina LeBlanc, Katita Waldo, and Kristin Long) raising children over the course of 15 years. As I wrote in my intro for this roundtable interview with the dancers in the San Francisco Chronicle, the book is so much more than a sentimental celebration. It’s a work of advocacy for working mothers of all kinds. Brava, Lucy Gray.

–I wrote a profile of New Yorker illustrator Mark Ulriksen. Terrifically sweet and hard-working guy.

–I received an email from the Hudson Review asking if I had any dance review ideas to propose. I wrote back saying I’ve been thinking about Ohad Naharin’s Sadeh21 for five months (I saw it in San Francisco last November), and taking notes for an essay. The Hudson Review said to take up to 3,500 words and send the piece within a week. I worked on it all day, every day. I could never have invested so much work without knowing a publication of that quality would, in great likelihood, take it.

The essay on Naharin’s Sadeh21 will be out in the next issue of the Hudson Review. I’m beyond grateful to the editors.

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Wednesday, March 11th, 2015 · Books, Dance · No Comments »


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