Saturday, November 10, 2018

Dancing from the Shadows: Akram Khan's XENOS

Akram Khan in XENOS. (Photo: Jean Louis Fernandez)

In XENOS, dancer/choreographer Akram Khan’s solo journey into the heart of darkness, death is a perpetual presence. It haunts the stage in both poetic and elemental ways. A mound of black dirt. A phonograph doubling as a search light. Nothing is sacred. Nothing safe. There is no romancing the inevitable in this poignant meditation on the suffering of First World War soldiers; the soul is excavated, the flesh exposed and the mind racked to breaking point. Love, beauty and all we – as a so-called civilized people – hold dear end up buried and presumed lost. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. XENOS – the word is Greek for "stranger" – is like King Lear distilled to the essence of the howl, howl, howl upon the heath: an unrelenting portrait of life as viewed from the shadows.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Art of the Ordinary: A Revolution in Meaning

Andy Warhol and Brillo Boxes, the Stable Gallery, New York City, 1964. (Photo: Fred McDarrah)

Images, our great and primitive passion . . . ” – Walter Benjamin, ca. 1930
Richard Deming's new book Art of the Ordinary (Cornell University Press) explores a major revolution in the meaning of what art is and what it’s supposed to do. Its subtitle sums it up rather nicely: the everyday domain of art, film, philosophy and poetry. Cutting across literature, film, art, and philosophy, Art of the Ordinary is a trailblazing, cross-disciplinary engagement with the ordinary and the everyday. Because, writes Deming, the ordinary is always at hand, it is, in fact, too familiar for us to perceive it and become fully aware of it. The ordinary, he argues, is what most needs to be discovered and yet can never be approached, since to do so is to immediately change it.

Art of the Ordinary explores how philosophical questions can be revealed in surprising places – as in a stand-up comic’s routine, for instance, or a Brillo box, or a Hollywood movie. From negotiations with the primary materials of culture and community, ways of reading "self" and "other" are made available, deepening one’s ability to respond to ethical, social, and political dilemmas. Deming picks out key figures, such as the philosophers Stanley Cavell, Arthur Danto, and Richard Wollheim, poet John Ashbery, artist Andy Warhol and comedian Steven Wright, to showcase the foundational concepts of language, ethics, and society.

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Waverly Gallery and the Ineffable Elaine May

Elaine May in The Waverly Gallery. (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Since her early days with Mike Nichols, Elaine May has occupied a magical space where high comedy overlaps with revue-sketch comedy. At eighty-six she still possesses the combination of qualities that made her Nichols’ inspired collaborator and that made her a rara avis in movies like In the Spirit and Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks: razor wit, a loopy, uncategorizable presence, an insistent if quirky humanity, and the impulse to take wild leaps of imagination, sometimes linking traits of character that we don’t expect to find together. She always seems self-invented – as if what we see on screen or on stage is the living embodiment of her writing style. (You could say the same about Christopher Durang, which is the reason that, if you’ve seen him in a role he’s written for himself, it’s so tough to get his voice out of your head when someone else plays it.) As Gladys Green, the New York-Jewish gallery owner she plays in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, who is sinking into dementia, the pixieish May gives an enchanting performance. One might say that watching her is like getting a master class in acting, but the fact is that she’s so weirdly unlike anyone else that you could hardly tell a young actor to go and do likewise. The only actress I can think of who’s remotely like her is her gifted daughter, Jeannie Berlin, whose career May ignited by giving her the role of the abandoned bride in her unconventional 1972 romantic comedy The Heartbreak Kid.