Monthly Archives: May 2011

Talent and Dancers and Bears, Oh My!

Six years ago I got hooked on a television show. I am not that fond of TV; occasionally, PBS has something worth stopping what you’re doing to watch – mainly because you can come away having learned more than you knew, and that is what makes life interesting. Reality shows, on the other hand, tend to have an opposite effect: they make you stupider because, typically, they just appeal to the base emotions, never the mind or senses. Considering the popularity of such programs, people must crave the kind of stimulation where you don’t have to meet it halfway, way more than they do the intellectual kind. I have no problem with a balance of both types – although being smarter never hurt anyone – but there is a definite bias or imbalance on broadcast television for the easier passive “entertainment” which is spoon-fed and predigested, as from a parental bird. The best situation is when you get a combination of insight and emotional involvement. Arslocii.

Having said that, I am not going to opine about the meaninglessness of all TV programing. My point is to show a distinction between two shows that people often confuse, and to explain the large gap: the difference between the throw-away drivel of Dancing with the Stars (the stars to me, by the way, being the professional dancers on the show, not the has-beens or wannabes they are partnered with) versus a real dance competition, So You Think You Can Dance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help that some of the contestants on the latter end up as pros on the former – an interesting distinction between the two (if you think about it). Apparently, since DWTS is the more popular show, the audience generally would prefer to watch dancing bears paired with scantily-clothed professionals turning themselves inside-out to accommodate their inept partners than they would to watch young people who actually can dance, growing and changing into professionals before our eyes. Yes, the two have a similar format. However, SYTYCD has a visibly lighter budget to work with, but – surprise! – it makes up for it in spades by having real, heartfelt talent to share with us, and often great dancing.

I would say, gratefully, that I am happy for all shows that promote dance. But, sadly, if SYTYCD is the minor leagues to DWTS’ majors … well, then, the world is more topsy-turvy than originally thought. If the hugely talented dancers moving into the professional world are rewarded with having to make a living by dancing with the stiff in Weekend at Bernie’s, then what is all the training and effort for? Seemingly anything that draws crowds and advertising dollars is a career in TV-land. Every time I have seen parts of DWTS, what I have seen is a group of pole-dancers, because the useless celebrity partners are, basically, poles on which the real dancers cavort in their semi-nudity. Perhaps that is the appeal. Yes, these pros are athletes, but there is no there there. What do you root for? That one “personality” is not as bad as another “personality”? That the contestants can make it through a routine without embarrassing him/herself? Is the point that they can take these skills to the next wedding or bar mitzvah? In the real dance competition – that is, in SYTYCD – you actually root for the best of the best rather than the best of the worst. Maybe I am old fashioned but that’s what I thought competition meant.

Okay, I am willing to imagine that maybe the accessibility of DWTS will get people – many more people – interested in dance just because, apparently, any dolt can do it. But viewers are watching contestants who can’t straighten a limb or a back, who have frozen faces that are counting steps and presenting a thrust-out hip as “dancing,” as if they were in a grade-school recital performing with their teacher (which, by the way, they are).

If you want to see real dance, magic even, try the Pas de Deux performed on SYTYCD by Katee and Will – a ballet/modern dance, thoughtful yet emotional, choreographed by Desmond Richardson and Dwight Rhoden. Exuberant and beautiful don’t even begin to describe the complete control and rag doll-like movements of the piece.

Or, Katee again, this time with Twitch, in a bizarre dance with a door – intense, real and scary – set to Duffy’s “Mercy.” The choreography is by Emmy-winning Mia Michaels, who has done the most edgy pieces on the show, not to mention Michaels’ “Hometown Glory” piece, danced by Katee (okay, I am a fan) and Joshua, a kind of new take on Appalachian Spring, and full of yearning and searching. And prior to that was Michaels’ The Bench (“Calling You”) done by Heidi and Travis, which included a flower and a park bench as props for a contemporary reminder of love and loss, as well as flawless lyrical movements. The Table Dance (“Sweet Dreams”), choreographed by Mandy Moore and performed by Sabra and Neil as competitors using an office table as their arena, was extremely fluid, antagonistic, clever and athletic. Then there was Allison and Alex dancing a Sonja Tayeh piece, set to Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which had elegance combined with Tayeh’s signature jerky moves and so much emotion and communication that the judges ended up teary and speechless. As Nigel Lythgoe (SYTYCD producer and judge) said after that dance, ”Sometimes we concentrate on the architecture of dance … the structure of dance, and we forget about the poetry of dance …. And tonight you have shown that you can have that structure and that beautiful artistry melded together and put into a performance that was utterly fantastic.” There it is: arslocii.

Aside from the “competition,” I know that these shows are about entertainment. Am I unusual in thinking that real talent – not just trial and error – equals entertainment? Understanding that people need to learn how to dance, my problem is not about them trying but rather that they are attempting to learn it on-air. It used to be that to get on-air you had to have accomplished a skill already before displaying it. That is the expectation I have – not the desire to make fun of or identify in some way with the ineptitude of the limelight-seekers learning new tricks on our time; rather, what I want is to be swept away by the magic in the confluence of a dancer’s ability, agility, emoting, and as the vessel for expression utilizing their finely tuned instrument in a meaningful moment or series of moments. In other words, art. Art, not practice or pretense. Placeness. Art is what SYTYCD delivers. Not every second of every broadcast – no human can do that. But it happens – it can happen. As in life, it is what you hope for: those moments. In the case of the dancing bears, since they don’t have the necessary equipment, these moments do not, cannot occur; the performers are merely lumbering objects in something resembling motion, flailing before our eyes.

For some arslocii nourishment instead of empty calories, try So You Think You Can Dance. It starts auditions for season 8 tomorrow night. There’s a difference right there – auditions. Like real dancers.

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On Walls

The only time I can remember being punished as a kid (I was one of those goody-goody children who didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, especially my parents’, or, god forbid,  disappoint them) was, at around the age of 4 or 5, when I took my set of crayons and drew on the wall along the staircase leading to the second floor of our house. I can understand my mother’s fury – it was, after all, a fairly new house with a nice new paint job, and my materials of choice didn’t seem like they could be removed easily (they couldn’t) – and I can accept my father’s meting out the proper penalty (it might’ve been a spanking, but even just chastising me harshly could reduce me to a puddle of forgiveness-begging). But, to this day, what I have never been able to fathom is why I drew on the wall in the first place. There was, in the house, no shortage of loose sheets of paper, and tablets. So – why the wall? And why there, in a less conspicuous place than, say, the living-room wall, or the kitchen?

I bring this incident up not because, after these many decades, I can’t shake the guilt or dissipate the trauma – frankly, it’s been almost since that time that I’ve thought about it; and, as far as I can tell, I have no residual psychological scar that makes me currently Crayola-averse, nor do I manifest any facial tick when confronted with upright planar surfaces.

What’s brought this incident to mind is a sudden convergence of moments and memories that got me to thinking about the act of wall-writing, and the why of it, as viewed through an arslocii filter.

Jumpstarting the thinking was a lazy afternoon spent watching Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld,” an adventure-epic-polemic about a post-”Inconvenient Truth” apocalypse in which the Earth has been overrun by its oceans, and is populated, for the most part, by survivalists who stay afloat by whatever means, hoping someday to spy the fabled, perhaps nonexistent Eden known as “dry land.” The key to finding this unwatery spot lies with a strange little girl, who has a habit of drawing (with crayons!) on any surface – but it is what she has drawn on a wall that seals the deal: she, who should not know anything but water life, draws trees and animals … in other words, she draws “dry land.” And that propels the action and the film’s resolution. (No spoiler alert here, but you can probably guess; let’s also add, at the risk of losing the cool cred we’ve acquired over the years, at least in our own mind, that it might be time to reassess “Waterworld,” a film that was savaged on its release, likely because critics were gunning for Costner after his “Dances with Wolves” success, and also because the film is a bit bloated – but trim it, cut out a lot of the anachronistic and over-the-top Dennis Hopper scenes, and you have a compelling actioner, with a message. Give it a try.) 

Then, also parked in front of a home-based screen flickering with moving images (pass the chips, honey) I found myself bumping into a number of good-for-you PBS documentaries, all having to do with, to one extent or another, the inscribing of things on walls: painted images and incised petroglyphs on rocks in the U.S. Southwest, similar marks on stones and surfaces in the Stonehenge area, the artwork in subterranean tombs to give the mummified pharaohs something to read on the commute to eternity (the New Yorker being out of the picture for the next 3,000 years). 

Finally, after a conversation in which the famed cave paintings at Lascaux came up (yes, we do have such conversations in the land of arslocii), we read a review of Werner Herzog’s latest film, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”: a look, in 3-D no less, at the 32,000-year-old artwork in the depths at Chauvet.

On stones, on walls, in caves, on the surfaces in movies, in my family’s home – what did all this writing mean?

The most famous images, as in Lascaux, seem to act as journal entries, or diaries, or a recording for history’s sake – if such a concept existed at a time when all of known human history had occurred in, like, just the past few weeks. There are depictions of hunters and hunted, and of life and lives being contemporaneously lived. Were these journalistic, poetic … fictional? Were they, as the markings in England are supposed to be, of a pagan or religious or ritualistic source? Were they an early version of Powerpoint? But why was the little girl in “Waterworld” compelled to draw on the walls? Why was I?

It is because it creates place. It makes nowhere not only somewhere, but our somewhere. The scribblings and carvings and massively skilled renderings say: This is a place of note, and of importance. By doing this, my creations not only tell what I am seeing and thinking and feeling, but has made this out-of-the-way place someplace special. I imbue it with my visions, and it imbues my visions with its permanence. The most haunting of all surface images can be found, ubiquitously and apparently independently, wherever surface images have been found: The painted outline of the artist’s hand. A signature. A sense of time beyond the present. I was here, the ghostly outline says; I will be here. When you see this, if anyone sees this, this mark makes this a place – my place.

It goes to the heart of many, if not most, of the arslocii locations that we have discussed, both here in this blog and on our website at www.arslocii.com: that placeness has fundamentally to do with the personal. Harvey Fite took an abandoned quarry and, with Opus 40, gave it placeness. The unknown artist who created scenes of a mythical Black Forest on the walls of a Cincinnati rathskeller turned a residential basement into a magical kingdom with a lifelong impact on those who dwelled in it. Even Springside, hemmed in by housing development and bare of all but the ebb and flow of its land masses, retains the spiritual, personal magic of A.J. Downing. The personal force of the creator, even if that creator is nature itself, intersecting with the creation’s impact on the internal personal of the perceiver/experiencer/viewer, and creating a special relationship that exceeds mere observation and appreciation: that is placeness as art.

We live, so many of us, so divorced from our surroundings, so untouched by our dwellings, so out of sync with the various cocoons we slip in and out of during each day’s worth of life (place indifference, I’ve heard it called). We reside in houses or apartments but so many of us have no feeling for them, no feeling in them. They are shelters, with white walls. The caves were shelters, too, but those “primitives” back then knew enough to put their lives on the walls, so that they knew where they were, and made where they were what they were, and what they valued. We, some of us, will “personalize” our whitewashed domains with things – posters, sports paraphernalia, framed off-the-rack sofa-color-matching “artwork” – that are made on assembly lines, that attract our most superficial needs and compress us into a conformity that appeals to us because we have no true idea who we really are. One reason that the kitchen is usually the most happy place to be – beyond the usual animal desire to congregate near hearth and sustenance – is that that is the most personalized place in the dwelling, with kids’ school artwork, doodles, handwritten notes and more magnet-ed on the fridge, scattered on the counter, pinned to the walls. 

What our caves need are paintings – our paintings. Why not paint murals of what is important to you in your bedroom or den, truly personalize it and create the life’s breath of placeness? Even choose a wall color that really says “you” – and paint it on the walls yourself. (But, certainly, I have learned my lesson: we must be wary to personalize someone else’s place, but we must personalize ours.) It may not be Chauvet, or the pharaoh’s tomb, but it will be you and yours. A life without placeness is no place at all, and lifeless. They knew that 32,000 years ago. I understood it 50-some years ago. We all sense it, if only in our dysfunction from being separated from it. How did we forget that dream? 

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The 41-Year Birth

Surreal as it seems and as strange as some might judge, I met my son for the first time in recorded history four decades after he was born. Our introduction and first view were without fanfare in a neutral public location and attended by just one other: my greatest supporter and life partner, my husband. It was a long and painful birth for a second round, but well worth the wait.

I reveal this, to the surprise of many who are close as well as not close, because, well, the secret holds no meaning anymore. Secrets are funny things, since they are devised and held for reasons: to disguise shame or perceived shame, to protect the innocent, to protect the not-so-innocent-but-need-to-get-on-with-their-destinies, to avoid scandal, to spare, to deflect, to honor (or perhaps not dishonor), to prevent upheaval, to dodge punishment, to aid or bring down political powers, to construct a subterfuge that can inform a moment or, in this instance, an entire lifetime. The life span of a secret can vary depending on its effect. The most difficult period of holding a secret like this one (a child born out of wedlock) was at the very moment it took place and for several years after. As I grew into more of an adult, the secret lost power but it had become so much a part of me that it just seemed normal. Why disclose it now, I would wonder? To what end or purpose would disclosure lead? Did I want sympathy or understanding? Not really.

I moved away from everyone I knew, especially those who were connected to my pre-secret life. In many respects, I was in the witness-protection program; aside from a few blood-relatives who knew the truth, I was someone else, someone without a past: clean slate. There is a placeness in harboring a secret, creating one reality for the external world and another within, it becoming a well-fashioned pretense, or maybe, rather, an omission. It can be a cold comfort because it is the one thing you can control but you do it alone. Even those in the know didn’t broach the subject. And it was not an easy task to be secretive for one who is otherwise honest to a fault. But, as the years ticked off, it just started to look like a given that this one would go to the grave with me. I could handle that, especially since I had already handled some of the harder stuff.

Almost eleven years ago, I reached out to find this child, believing that at age thirty he would not be psychologically damaged by my existence. Also, I wanted him to know that my intention was not abandonment, that the secret didn’t apply to him. He was a gift, a gift to his parents, to the world, to the future. Not mine, but someone else’s. Alas, it was not the right time for him, and I respected that, again feeling it to be his right and his choice. Obviously, thirty years prior he had had no choice, and I had very little, too, although more than he did. I was saying, in essence: “I am putting myself out there and if you want to find me, I would welcome and encourage it, but it is your choice.”

Eleven years later, he made the choice. A little slow on the uptake but, thankfully, he made his move before my decrepitude. I applaud his intestinal fortitude (must take after me), and it turns out that he is such a really great man to boot. And handsome, too. It has to be that perfect storm of nature and nurture. Arslocii.

I have no idea where this is headed, I’m just along for the ride. Much like the curious twists and turns of what life hands out, I roll with the tides. What a weird trip it has been. My hope is to encourage a relationship, not become boring to him, to engage him in a different way from his already extremely rich tapestry of a busy life. I am in it for the long term for whatever he can eke out. We talk on the phone, his is a voice I immediately recognized – a little of my dad, a little of his dad – but he is his own person. I know him, yet I don’t, but the learning has begun.

And this new relationship in my life called on Sunday to wish me a happy Mother’s Day. Whoa, not something I ever imagined happening. The secret is out, a new approach begins, a connection is made.

Life, huh?

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Spring

It is as if you are going from a two-dimensional world into a three-, not just a changeover into Technicolor, as Dorothy did when she crash-landed in Munchkinland. Spring fleshes out our world, and it isn’t just a matter of paint, although the hues are stimulating in their own right. There are two things that happen: one is the arrival of stronger light-filled days as the sun traverses its lengthening arc, and the result is the return of shadows. Shadows always create a sense of depth and substance; “he casts a long shadow” is precisely what is happening in the landscape, filling out from its wintry flatness. The other thing that happens is, that as trees and shrubs leaf out, they create more volume instead of just line, sort of like a puffed-up blowfish in danger mode. The tree’s armature of organic lines is truly welcome in the starkness of winter, but come spring, it renders foreground, middle ground and background more fully by obscuring what’s around and behind it and, also, the distances between things.

I am watching the process in its state of becoming. The trees look like largish twigs, as they have for about five months now, then, miraculously, small protuberances begin emerging from every terminus. The Q-tip-like branches, over the course of weeks, slowly start to resemble the magician’s bouquet sprouting from his thin cane. Already in early leaf, spatially defined clusters appear, causing the eye to dart from one feathery group to another, some close, some distant and less distinct. The same thing occurs with smaller shrubs as they veil the unveiled, adding perspective and mystery to that which previously had been bare bones. All this layering creates depth.

In a woody-plants class for landscape architecture, our final project was a spring-bloom journal. The task was to watch buds daily for a month and record the changes of the shapes of the soon-to-flower plants. Not at all like watching paint dry; the buds seemed initially unchanging and then, boom, they would engorge and expand. When their protective bud skins could no longer contain them they would start to burst, tiny seams appeared at first and then, one day, a pivotal one, there was more flower than bud (and you wondered how the bud contained it all in the first place). The transformation, much like a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly, is amazing, transfixing. As the project was intended, it taught us about growth and change, and how every plant has its own unique pace and style. However, we never strayed from the minutia of the bud to talk about the macro of the plants changing the environment. That’s the part I like: the way these processes and their results draw our world in 3-D, creating complexity. The potential for placeness.

It is the alteration of spatial perceptions and also the formation of places, environments – maybe somewhat the same as they were last spring, but maybe not, there just might be new surprises to behold. Anyway, who can recall the fullness of the landscape after living with it for five months as mostly stick figures? This fleshing out is a friendly and welcome face. Living in an environment with less dramatic seasonal effects would seem, sadly, less stimulating. It is the spring and its magic that gets me up in the morning, that excites the senses into action: the moist fresh air with a bouquet, the umpteen shades of green and delicate pastels, the sounds of returning birds as placeness is being arranged for them, the quality of the light – plentiful and warm – and the layering of objects in space, not lined up fully visible in one glance but, rather, playing peek-a-boo with your eyes and enriching your world. It happens so gradually, you might miss it.

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