Saturday, April 30, 2011

Larger-Than-Life: Paul Taylor Dance Company

 "Polaris" Photo by Lois Greenfield
The wonderful thing about well-trained dancers? Just how wonderful they are. You can’t take your eyes off them, or stop marvelling at their ability to seem larger-than-life and super-human, creatures propelled into greatness by the strength and skill of bodies leashed to the hand of an expert teacher and choreographer. Such was the thought inspired by watching members of Paul Taylor Dance Company perform earlier this week at the Markham Theatre, located north of Toronto, as part of the New York’s troupe’s recent, four-city Ontario tour.

As soon as the curtain rose on Polaris, the first of three works choreographed by the masterful Paul Taylor, a one-evening-only program, it was evident that the dancers, posed like statues inside Alex Katz’s box-like set, were beyond the norm, even by their own modern-dance standards. To begin with, these barefoot dancers dressed in skimpy black-and-white bathing suit costumes (Katz did the costumes too) were super-muscular. No waif-like ballerinas, here. As if to emphasize that point, Taylor, the now 80-year old choreographer said to be one of the fathers of American modern dance, showcased them in a work he originally created in 1976 celebrating the interpretive and inspirational powers of dancers’ bodies. Divided into two parts, Polaris, with a commissioned score by Donald York, featured an exact sequence of movement that is repeated in the second half by a different cast of performers who are quite distinct from the first. At Thursday night’s performance, the second group looked angry where the first cast looked happy, their movements correspondingly staccato where the first group's were smooth. Call it a study in dynamics. Or, as Taylor stated in his program notes, “An opportunity ... to observe the multiple effects that music, lighting and individual interpretations by the performers have on a single dance.”

Friday, April 29, 2011

White Face, Black Shirt/White Socks, Black Shoes: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (2010)

I was not a child of Woodstock; I was too young. Sure, I loved the music of The Beatles, The Byrds and The Who, and many others, but it didn't define me. Instead, the music of my formative years was the music from 1976 to 1984 that is known as New Wave – particularly from Britain and Ireland. New Wave encompassed a vast array of musical styles, including rock, post-punk, ska, reggae, jazz, music hall and others. Bands like Elvis Costello and the Attractions, The Clash, Nick Lowe, Joe Jackson, Dave Edmunds, Ultravox (pre-Midge Ure), Joy Division, The Cure, Wreckless Eric, The Specials, Madness, English Beat, The Stranglers, The Boomtown Rats, Graham Parker and the Rumour, and Ian Dury and the Blockheads, were some of the ones that captured my ears. The music of these bands was a response to the blotted excesses of the just-passed prog rock (think Emerson, Lake and Palmer; or Rick Wakeman), but it was also an answer to the thrash and bash of punk, personified in bands like the Sex Pistols and The Damned (The Clash were punks at first too, but quickly abandoned the style). Instead of bashing away and ranting at the world, à la the punks, the New Wave artists wrote short, punchy pop, rock or ska songs played with a modicum of skill. They were equally angry (Costello's “(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea” and The Clash's “London Calling” were signature songs of the movement), but the melody and musical skills were far more appealing to me than the scream of punk. Many of the performers I'd admired got their start on a rebellious label Stiff Records, whose motto was “If It Ain't Stiff, It Ain't Worth a Fuck.” And of these bands, the one I held closest to my heart was Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Songs like “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll,” “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,” “Sweet Gene Vincent” and “Wake Up and Make Love With Me” still play 'in heavy rotation' in my listening universe.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Making it Real: Three Strong Documentaries From Hot Docs 2011

When I was growing up in the late sixties, not only were good documentaries rare, there was very little difference in style and form to distinguish them. At times, with the exceptions of Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North), Marcel Ophuls (The Sorrow and the Pity) and Frederick Wiseman (High School), they resembled magazine or newspaper articles with moving pictures added. We've obviously come a long way in both the diversity of content and the aesthetics of documentary style. But sometimes that ambition gets misplaced when the aesthetics overwhelm the content (The Thin Red Line, Manufactured Landscapes), or when directors break faith with the audience by becoming disingenuous in order to stir a partisan viewer's passions (Fahrenheit 9/11). But judging by what's being unfurled this year at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, which opens tonight with Morgan Spurlock's POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold and runs until May 8th, the wide range of fascinating subjects suggests a cornucopia of pleasures to behold. In particular, there were three very distinctly provocative films that immediately caught my attention.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Planetary Puzzle: Will the Circles Be Unbroken?

The Barbury Castle Crop Circle in Wiltshire July 1991
While I’m vacationing in the United Kingdom this week, I hope to spot a gigantic crop circle or two – and visit Stonehenge, if the Druids will let me. But there might be a curse, something that dates back to a particular September day in 1970 when my husband and I woke up to rain outside our cozy Salisbury bed-and-breakfast. Just a typical English drizzle, though wet enough to make the morning’s planned trip to the fabled stone circle much less enticing. Married for three weeks, Bob and I had envisioned this trek as a centerpiece of our honeymoon in Europe.

We spent thirty minutes trying to hitch a ride, but finally gave in to the lure of bus that would take us to Amesbury, a town two miles away from Stonehenge. En route, I caught glimpses of the glorious Wiltshire countryside through befogged windows. About halfway there, we noticed smoke emanating from the vehicle’s muffler. Bob promptly alerted the driver. After pulling into a breakdown lane, he left the bus with the two of us on his heels. What we discovered was not only smoke, but flames shooting from the exhaust system. He went back to summon his other passengers with polite understatement: "I’m afraid we have a serious problem. Please file out in an orderly fashion."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Better Scream: Criterion's DVD release of Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1981)

Contrary to popular opinion, there have been far too few good political conspiracy thrillers over the years. Most, like The Parallax View (1974), are so content creating faceless and sinister cabals that we become helpless pawns in a predetermined chess match. While there have been some imaginative and daring experiments like John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962), or fast-paced exciting melodramas like Costa-Gavras' Z (1969), none have had the prescience and the personal obsession of Brian De Palma's consummate thriller Blow Out (1981). Released today by Criterion (on both regular and Blu-ray DVD), in a sparkling new digital transfer supervised by the director, Blow Out is the sharpest, most devastating, American conspiracy picture. It's also one that audiences and critics either ignored (or dismissed) when it was first released thirty years ago.

Although Brian De Palma was part of the American film renaissance of the seventies, which brought us such gifted and original directors as Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver), Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), Hal Ashby (The Landlord, Shampoo), Francis Coppola (The Godfather I & II), Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), he never quite achieved the critical (or audience) acclaim that his peers did. People weren't exactly indifferent to him. Often he would inspire scorn. Even violence. When I took a good friend on opening night to see Blow Out, at its conclusion, when I asked him what he thought, he took a swing at me. Luckily, I was quick to duck.

Director Brian De Palma.
Throughout his career, De Palma has had to do some ducking of his own. From his earliest underground political and social satires (Greetings, Hi Mom!) to his expressionistic horror thrillers (Carrie, The Fury) and the sexual reveries (Dressed to Kill), De Palma (unlike his contemporaries) presented himself sardonically as an ironist. Where Martin Scorsese treated violent dramatic subjects with a reverence for the art form, De Palma chose a more irreverent attitude. He treated film history as a form of farce pulling the rug out from under our more hopeful expectations. But unlike Michael Haneke (Caché), who plays intellectual abstract games with the audience (while emotionally distancing the viewer), De Palma brought a sweeping emotional intensity to his work that seductively drew you in. When he sprang sublime jokes in the climax, he cleverly implicated us in our very basic desire to watch, to indulge our forbidden desires.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Searching for the True Places: Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Mari-Beth Slade, to our group.

I spent the past week visiting my in-laws in Myrtle Beach. Amid copious outlet shopping and chain restaurant overindulgence, I assumed there was no less intellectually inspired or engaging place on earth until my mother-in-law handed me Wednesday’s paper. In the centerfold was a children’s newspaper. What a fabulous way to get children engaged in reading, current events and culture! To celebrate National Library Week, “The Mini Page” interviewed this year’s Newbery Medal winner, Clare Vanderpool, author of Moon Over Manifest (Random House, 2010). I confess I’ve not given children’s literature much thought lately, but thinking back to the emphasis my mother placed on the luxurious gold sticker than adorns Newbery Medal winners, I couldn’t wait to get to a bookstore and pick it up. I read it for nostalgia; I read it for fun; I read it because there is always a didactic element to children’s literature and I wanted to learn something; I read it because I am sick of pronouncing culture with a capital C.

Moon Over Manifest is the story of a preteen girl and her search for her home and family history. Both seem to elude her at the beginning. Her dad has just been sent to Manifest, Kansas, to live with old friends and once again, Abilene must make new friends for herself. But that doesn’t prove to be a problem for the curious and outgoing Abilene, who quickly finds her life full of people who have firsthand knowledge 
of both her father and the town secrets. Abilene’s self-directed quest is to uncover the truth about both.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Platform For Sandals

Alexander Wang Platform
As the weather heats up, so does my craving for sandals. Like most women, I rejoice in the packing away of the ugly winter clunkers and slipping into thong flip flops and sleek open-toe stilettos that bring so much pleasure to both their owners and their admirers. This spring was no different, or so I had thought. Whether flipping through magazines, window shopping or browsing online, this year’s footwear options make any pair of chunky, salt-stained, winter boots seem sexy. The platform shoe and its contemporaries, the flatform and the wedge, have once again reared their ugly heads (or feet?) as a mainstream trend.

Just to give you a little history on the evolution of this footwear. Platform shoes were allegedly used in Ancient Greek theatre to help the actors appear taller. They were also a hot commodity among high brow sixteenth century Venetian prostitutes (I believe it was important to leave in the “high-brow” part, as these shoes need all the credibility they can get). Platforms have reappeared on and off again throughout history mainly in show business or among upper crusts who did not want to get their feet dirty. A particularly strong reappearance of the platform, for fashion rather than form, was in the 1970s when they were better known as their pseudonym: disco boots. Thanks to Elton John and a few other flamboyant performers, the platform crossed gender boundaries. There were also less flashy versions available for the more “rugged” types.