“On Modeling and Mortification” out in Gulf Coast

The gorgeous summer/fall issue of Gulf Coast has just been released, containing work by Amy Hempel, Aimee Bender, Natalie Diaz, Alan Shapiro, and many more of my literary heroes–and my personal essay, “On Modeling and Mortification.”

An excerpt is online here, but you’ll need to purchase the issue (well worth the $$) 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.”

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

Coming from a conventional background, I assumed art issued from a gift conferred on a fortunate individual, who was then bound into a lifetime of nurturing this talent. No, said Cage and Cunningham. Art is all around us. The artist can step out of the way and let art take its course, set a process in motion but not interfere once it rolled. You could think of the artist as a worker like anyone else, pragmatic and at the same time non-judgmental, not some divinely inspired and unique being. The result of the artist’s research wouldn’t be a fixed and repeatable product, but an experience that could only occur once.

–Marcia B. Siegel in the latest Hudson Review:

Monday, March 2nd, 2015 · Uncategorized · No Comments »

Residual Movement

I feel fortunate to have a short story close to my heart, “Residual Movement,” published in the Spring 2015 issue of Waxwing here. The issue contains poetry, fiction, and nonfiction by Laurie Saurborn Young, Valerie Bandura, Matt Bell, Tom Faure, and many other writers whose subtlety and intense engagement with language I can only aspire to, and so I recommend reading through the full issue here.

Monday, February 16th, 2015 · Uncategorized · No Comments »

SF Ballet Gala

San Francisco Ballet Gala
January 22nd, 2015
War Memorial Opera House

Last night the San Francisco Ballet opened its 30th season with Helgi Tomasson at the helm with an onstage toast to his accomplishment: The transformation of a charming regional company into a sophisticated world player in the upper ballet echelon. Not surprisingly the famously reserved Icelander, who began his performing life in Tivoli’s Pantomime Theater before a sterling career in the New York City Ballet, didn’t speak. He didn’t have to. The company’s dancing had just spoken for him.

True to form, the evening was more somber and substantial than the usual gala bon bons, though the programming did not neglect to satisfy certain patrons’ sweet teeth, with Tiit Helimets and Yuan Yuan Tan spinning, arms held out like white wings and faces heavenward, in a saccharine excerpt from Helgi Tomasson’s “Caprice” (to swooning Rachmaninoff). But even if helpless ecstasy on sunset beaches isn’t your thing, you had to admire Tan’s earnest execution of the kind of role she is so often asked to sacrifice her entrancingly lithe body to in order to placate the box office gods.

I left the opera house struck by how much Tomasson’s ambitions have been aided by Tan’s gracious 20-year presence. She deserves a higher title than “principal,” something on the order of “prima assoluta.” (And she received due deference during the opening “defile” staged by Tomasson, in which everyone from the school’s tiniest students to the most veteran company members presented themselves for grand inspection, with Tan taking the crowning bow.) She is a woman of depth, though much of her repertoire does not allow her to show this. So it was doubly moving to see her as the anguished Tatiana in an excerpt from John Cranko’s “Onegin,” telegraphing with beating fists to Vitor Luiz all her frustration and anger. Covered ankle to wrist in 19th century dress, practically unrecognizable as the company’s lead glamour girl, Tan thrashed with a distress that made her vulnerability her strength.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz in Cranko's Onegin.(© Erik Tomasson)
Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz in Cranko’s “Onegin.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson.

Her command performance justified the inclusion of a distinctly un-gala-friendly pas de deux 2.5 hours into an evening in which Tomasson democratically displayed each principal. Frances Chung and newly hired Joseph Walsh were compellingly intimate in a crouching, too-long duet, Christopher Wheeldon’s “Borealis.” Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan’s musculature entranced in the bare-chested, bare-legged pas de deux from Yuri Possokhov’s “Bells.” Lorena Feijoo wins the prize for spontaneity in her girlish duet with Luiz in an excerpt from Val Caniparoli’s “A Cinderella Story.” Sofiane Sylve’s womanly pathos merged with the anguish of mezzo-soprano Erin Neff singing Kurt Weill from the pit for a section of Wheeldon’s “There Where She Loved,” with convincingly brutish Luke Ingham. Old-hand principals Joan Boada and Pascal Molat opened the evening like road-movie buddies in an excerpt from Renato Zanello’s “Alles Walzer.” And Vanessa Zahorian and Tara Domitro closed it pyrotechnically (though she a bit reservedly) in the warhorse 19th century pas de deux from “Le Corsaire.”

Among these small plates was a main-course serving—the U.S. premiere of “Souvenir D’Un Lien Cher,” to sections of Tchaikovsky’s Opus 42, by Alexei Ratmansky. Ratmansky is the choreographer in San Francisco Ballet’s rep most worth watching closely these days—he is the creator of the ambitious, ingenious “Shostakovich Trilogy” that premiered here last season and is truly the must-see ticket of the current offerings. But more than a chance to study his gift for merging a Russian sense of humanity with a contemporary take on formalism, Thursday’s “Souvenir” performance was my first chance to see Mathilde Froustey and Sarah Van Patten dance together, and it was delicious. They are both ravishingly beautiful women and movers, of course, both deeply musical and risk-taking, with outsized personalities. I had wondered if their extroverted presences would seem to compete on stage, but no. Froustey and Van Patten together consorted like childhood friends during the quiet moments of “Souvenir,” and tore through the air with complementary fierceness during the Scherzo. It was all luscious—like gorging on two desserts at once. (And I suppose a distracted viewer should mention that Carlo Di Lanno and Ingham were their dramatic partners in this mini-drama of infidelity.)

San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's Souvenir d'un Lieu Cher. (© Erik Tomasson)
Mathilde Froustey and Carlo Di Lanno (left) and Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham in Ratmansky’s “Souvenir D’Un Lien Cher.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson.

Tomasson always gives a nod to the future in his galas. In this case, a pride of young lions pawed with stunningly supple feet and lush musicality in Tomasson’s Baroque “Concerto Grosso”: Diego Cruz (much improved in recent seasons), Wei Wang, Francisco Mungamba, Max Cauthorn, and warm-hearted Esteban Hernandez. After the intermission, three up-and-coming women tore through William Forsythe’s cheeky “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude.” I thought Dores Andre, Jennifer Stahl, and particularly Sasha De Sola lived up to the dance’s title; a friend who has observed the company longer than I swears the tempo of the Schubert was not as breakneck as in performances past, and though I do hold memories of superhuman past principals Tina LeBlanc, Kristin Long, Katita Waldo, and Julia Adam burningly in mind, I am confident the young women will in time live up to them. Mungamba and the always-polished Gennadi Nedvigin added their virtuosity to Forsythe’s classicism-on-steroids.

The season begins in earnest next week with Balanchine’s “Serenade” on Program 1, and with “Giselle.” In the latter, there are seven—count ‘em seven—casts. I’m particularly interested to see Frances Chung’s debut in the career-benchmark role, and to catch Mathilde Froustey in her second go, after her very touching Act I last season. But Sarah Van Patten, Vanessa Zahorian, Yuan Yuan Tan, and Lorena Feijoo each have special strengths. (Feijoo’s rounded, forward-leaning, Romantic-period-correct arms—learned in Cuba—will make you see the ballet anew.) And Maria Kochetkova’s “Giselle” is one of the greats. You can see the scheduling here.

Friday, January 23rd, 2015 · Dance · No Comments »

Mystery deserves respect. If man were unaware of the ephemeral nature of his life and of all human things, he would not be man. Beauty, whose very essence is both impermanence and the power of the moment confronting the passage of time, would also be beyond his reach. The words of Ecclesiastes are a model for all lyric poetry, for he who speaks through them both affirms that he must die like all other men and rises above his vulnerability to destruction through the rhythm of language. In just the same way, line and color deliver us from our I, and regardless of the filth that may have nourished the creative act, they are transposed into the not-I.

Continual meditation on time is impossible because it would paralyze our actions, whispering that each of them will be in vain. People must aspire, love, hate, establish families, earn a living, struggle. Their days must be subordinated to the discipline imposed by immediate goals. The artistic temperament is characterized by a sensitivity to the current of time itself with its mesmerizing effect, as when a snake mesmerizes a rabbit. One cannot refute the reasoning of those who have seen in art and in religious contemplation a distancing from Will, the will to life, an ascent above the circle of birth and death. That is why people can be divided into two enduring types: the people of Will and the people of Meditation, which does not mean that these types exist in a pure, unalloyed state, or that they do not at times come into conflict with each other within a single corporeal shell.

–Czeslaw Milosz

Sunday, January 4th, 2015 · Uncategorized · No Comments »

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