Saturday, March 17, 2012

History at a Dance: The National Dance Company Of Ireland

The cast of National Dance Company of Ireland’s Rhythm of the Dance

It might not be as grand a pageant as Riverdance or as flashily sexy as that show’s Michael Flatley-led spinoff, Lord of the Dance, to name two of the most popular Irish step dance shows still touring the world since their inception in mid-1990s. Yet, while smaller and more intimate in scale, Rhythm of the Dance, now in its 11th year, is equally fast and furious where Celtic hard-shoe dancing is concerned.

Choreographed by Doireann Carney, a Riverdance alumna, Rhythm of the Dance has just as many taps per second as the bigger cousin shows, if not more. Former headliner Aisling Holly was said to have 40 taps a second compared to the 28 taps a second that got Flatley into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1989 as the fastest dancer alive. Why does this matter? Because to love Irish dancing is to love the rat-a-tat of it – dancing that sounds like machine gun fire as triggered by flying feet.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Undefeated: Sometimes a Simple Story is Good Enough

A scene from the Academy Award winning documentary Undefeated

It’s no surprise that Daniel Lindsay’s and T.J. Martin’s Undefeated won the Best Documentary Feature award at this year’s Oscars. This highly inspirational tale of a white volunteer coach guiding an all-black football team to their best season in history can’t help but strike a pleasing, receptive chord in today’s polarized United States, including among the voters who chose it for the Oscar. But while the movie isn’t startlingly original or groundbreaking, it’s a gripping and even, dare I say, heart-warming film that proves once again that truth can often outdo fiction when it comes to edge-of-your seat storytelling.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Take The Last Train: The Monkees' Davy Jones – R.I.P.

Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz & Mike Nesmith: The Monkees in 1969

Davy Jones is dead! I can hardly believe it. The littlest Monkee. Broadway’s Artful Dodger from Oliver! In fact, the weekend before I heard the news about Davy, I had watched a DVD of his performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. I was watching for The Beatles of course, but there was Davy, so young and innocent. February 9, 1964 it was, and only a year or so later, he was a Monkee. Davy confessed that after seeing the reaction of the girls to the Fab Four that night, he decided on the road his career would take. Rock star! Well … sort of!

August 25th, 1969. Whew! Over forty years ago! A really hot day. In the nineties. Humidex way up there! A few friends from high school and I had spent all day at the Canadian National Exhibition, or “the EX” as it's still affectionately known. We went every year, sort of an end of summer ritual to prepare ourselves for going back to school. I thought my brother Al was with me, but when we talked about it last month he said, "No!" I know Barb was there. We snuggled and necked a bit on the train home.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The big 4-0: Lent for the modern mind

Whether or not you subscribe to the original doctrine of Lent, the ancient rite has benefits we can all appreciate. So please temporarily suspend any disbelief you have in God, god, Jesus, and other biblical prophets (no different than you would do if watching a film or reading a novel). Whether or not these figures are fictional, there is something we can learn from their stories. True learning takes effort, which could explain why the ritual of Lent hasn’t been taken up by society at large. We’ve gotten lazy, and since we no longer put in the work, we no longer reap the rewards.

One can usually count on Hallmark and Hollywood to pervert seasonal subtleties into commercial projects. But neither has embraced Lent’s profit potential, perhaps because this period is viewed as dismal rather than festive. If you walk down Hallmark’s aisles you won’t find many cards wishing you Happy Lent. It’s difficult to find portrayals of Lent in popular cinema. Once you weed out the overtly religious films, you’re left with 40 Days and 40 Nights (the abrasive Josh Hartnett movie about a man who eschews sex for Lent) and Chocolat (the lovely Juliette Binoche film about a woman who refuses to renounce chocolate, Lent be damned). Oddly enough, Binoche’s character seems to understand Lent more than Hartnett’s. The purpose of Lent is not to deny oneself just because, but to renew. As one church sign quite rightly put it, Lent is “forty days of renewal.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Talking Out of Turn #28: Oliver Stone (1986)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton, the host of On the Arts at CJRT-FM

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

film director and screenwriter Oliver Stone

One chapter, titled The Ghosts of Vietnam, features interviews with a variety of authors (Robert Stone, Brian Fawcett) and filmmakers (Louis Malle, Robert Altman) who dealt in their work with various aspects of the legacy of the Vietnam War and how it was felt in the Eighties. The American obsession with Latin and South America during the Reagan years seemed to be an ill-advised attempt to exorcise the ghosts of the earlier conflict. One filmmaker who has continually dealt with the legacy of Vietnam and the Sixties in general is Oliver Stone. Although Stone began a profitable career as a screenwriter (Midnight Express, Scarface, The Year of the Dragon) when we met he had just written and directed a low-budget drama called Salvador, with James Woods as print correspondent Richard Boyle. In fact, by the time Salvador finally found release, Stone had already completed his Vietnam War drama Platoon which dealt with his own personal experiences in the Vietnam War.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Mark Rylance: Everyman in Extremis

Mark Rylance in Measure for Measure, at the Globe Theatre in 2004.

A friend who saw Christopher Walken play William Hurt’s roommate in the original Broadway production of David Rabe’s Hurlyburly in the mid-eighties once told me that Walken was so utterly relaxed that he scarcely seemed to be acting at all. My friend described a moment when Walken, in the middle of listening to a conversation, looked down at his watch, conveyed that he was late for a meeting, and disappeared, his rhythm so natural and free of even the subtlest dramatic rigging that it looked as if he’d improvised it – decided at that moment, on that evening, to leave the stage. I’ve seen Walken on stage twice, and I can imagine what my friend was talking about. Both times he was playing Chekhov, whose brand of naturalism demands that performers throw off theatrical self-consciousness and bury themselves in their characters. When he played Astrov in Uncle Vanya at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the late Nineties, he executed one of the two most sublime drunk scenes I’ve ever seen live (the other was by Alan Bates in another Russian work, Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool, on Broadway, the last play he appeared in before he died), and its special quality of improbably sustained distraction, the feeling of not just balancing on eggshells but pirouetting on them, was the result of an almost Zen intensity of relaxation.

Actors call this kind of spontaneity, which derives from a thorough and acute awareness of the dramatic situation and the energies of the other actors on the stage and a focus so complete that it seals out any other world – even in the presence of a live audience – acting in the moment. Mark Rylance possesses that ability in a greater degree than any other actor I’ve ever seen, even including Walken. Rylance is a Midwesterner but he’s spent so much of his career (which spans more than three decades) in London that audiences can be forgiven for thinking he’s a Brit: he was the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre for ten years, where he famously played Hamlet and Angelo in Measure for Measure, and his last Broadway role, as the alcoholic trailer dweller Rooster Byron in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, is an English play that originated in London's Royal Court Theatre. His technique transcends national distinctions. It’s steeped in the kind of physical fluency that the British are far more deft at than Americans, yet when you see him in a comedy he seems to be continuing the legacy of the great silent movie clowns. Not so much Chaplin (who, of course, hailed from the English music hall) as Keaton, and even more the lesser-known but brilliant Harry Langdon – seen at his best in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp and the two comedies he did for Frank Capra, The Strong Man and Long Pants – whose persona was the most debased and battered of them. In Matthew Warchus’s 2008 Broadway revival of Boeing-Boeing (also a transplant from the West End, with only Rylance repeating his performance), Rylance suggested some loopy hybrid of Langdon and a maddened Alec Guinness from his Ealing Studios days (I’m thinking especially of Guinness’s performance in The Man in the White Suit), an Everyman in extremis whose panic and determination have pitched him right on the edge of hysteria.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Newgrass Bluegrass: Punch Brothers' Who's Feeling Young Now?

Who’s Feeling Young Now? (Nonesuch 2012) is the third album by the rising bluegrass band called Punch Brothers. It’s a valiant record full of stories of hard fought battles between the sexes and the insecurities of being a parent. It’s also an album of cloistered conceits and an expression of an uncertain future all under the peculiar sound of instruments best suited to mountain music and country-dances. The Punch Brothers formed in 2006 after a series of meetings that involved large quantities of wine and food and complaining about failed relationships. Led by Chris Thile (mandolin, lead vocals) and Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Punch Brothers is essentially a rock band with acoustic instruments. The group, which also features Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar) and Paul Kowert, (double bass), perform their own music with scarcely a traditional bluegrass song in site. It is for this reason that Punch Brothers deserves attention rather than dismissal. The result is contemporary songs performed with a bluegrass aesthetic.