Monday, December 27, 2010

Santa & Tunics in the Snow

Isadora Duncan didn’t believe in Santa Claus. She believed strongly in human will, in the power of the human spirit to transform material circumstances, in the healing properties of art and love. But she didn’t believe in Old Saint Nick.

Tunics in the Snow!
In narrating significant events from her childhood, Duncan recalls a Christmas when she was punished for challenging a teacher’s assertion that Santa Claus had brought candy for the children. She writes, “I made the first of my famous speeches. ‘I don’t believe lies,’ I shouted. ‘My mother told me she is too poor to be Santa Claus’” (Duncan, My Life).  The teacher responded by denying Duncan the candied treat and forcing her to stand in a corner. Duncan writes, “I never got over the feeling of the injustice with which I had been treated, deprived of candy and punished for telling the truth” (Duncan My Life).

I wonder what Duncan would say about the relationship between economics and Christmas holiday rituals in our contemporary culture? Surely, there is still disparity between different families’ abilities to provide lavish and abundant material rewards for children’s yearly goody behavior. I wonder, as well, about training children to expect a direct material pay-off for behaving according to adult strictures. Doesn’t quite seem consonant with understanding the true nature of charity, the impulse to give from a sense of compassion, not from an expectation of reward.

Duncan may not have subscribed to the Santa myth, but she certainly got the concept of charitable giving. In fact, her life abounds with examples testifying to the significance of selfless service. In starting her first school in 1904, Duncan advertised for unwanted children and took in those whose families did not have the means to care for them. She refrained from charging tuition and poured the earnings from her tours into running her school. She migrated to Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, desiring to bring her art to the workers and their families. Her intention was to share her talents with her students and her audiences for free.

Tunics in the Snow in Chicago
Duncan, with her uncompromising vision, firmly believed that every child had a right to develop her creative and expressive capacities to the fullest, and she held on to this egalitarian belief. She also believed that children have an innate sense of wisdom and should not be underestimated by adults. I imagine she would have appreciated my young niece’s impulse to put the expensive toys on her list for Santa, rather than asking for them from her parents, both illustrating her belief that Saint Nick is not constrained by finances and attempting to demonstrate frugality for her parents.

Despite the economic disparities that still plague our contemporary society, there are some great organizations with programs intended to bring holiday gifts to families in need. One of my enterprising yoga students corralled a group of people together to adopt a family through SafePlace, an Austin organization providing support to survivors of domestic violence.  Austinites, if you are interested in sponsoring a family for the holidays next year, there are several great organizations including SafePlace and The Christmas Bureau of Austin. If you don’t want to wait that long and are interested in ways to make a difference now, check out I Live Here, I Give Here.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tunics at the TCCC

Freedom is a major theme in Duncan dance. Whether interpreted as social freedom, personal liberty, or spiritual emancipation, I believe that freedom at all levels of human experience and organizational development was a goal for Isadora and is metaphorically embodied in her dance technique. Tunics, with their free-flowing simplicity, are unrestrictive garments that enable the body to move unencumbered. The coarse black and white striped uniforms worn by inmates at the Travis County Correctional Complex are not.  (And neither are the clunky, knock-off, black rubber crocs that they give the women to wear, for that matter—an impediment that becomes obvious every time we balance on one leg to independently rotate our ankles…).

A la Duncan's "Ballspiel" at TCCC!
I became curious about performing arts work in prisons while still living and dancing in New York, but I didn’t pursue it until I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. In the fall of 2007, during my second year in graduate school, I received a listserve email asking for performers to participate in a holiday event at the Lockhart Work Facility, a private prison in Lockhart, Texas. (I didn’t realize then that privatization of prisons was actually big business). The holiday program, sponsored by Truth Be Told, was entitled God in Human Form. We were to share some personal introduction that relayed an instance of divine expression in our lives (not necessarily religious).  I asked if I could bring in a tunic. The warden said yes.

Fast-forward a year or so to the spring of 2009, as I was wrapping up my MFA at UT (and after having facilitated some incredible and transformational work with incarcerated women in Lockhart through Truth Be Told), and another email makes its way through the listserves at UT. This one is asking for a co-facilitator to teach a series of theatre classes with women in the PRIDE program at the TCCC. Kat Craft, a recent MA graduate of Goldsmith’s College in London, is looking to found a theatre company to bring performance workshops to women in jails and prisons. I volunteer.

After two rounds of seasonal workshops (Summer and Fall 2009) that met twice weekly, Conspire Theatre initiated an ongoing, weekly residence at the TCCC. Last Friday, we taught our last class before a two-month hiatus with plans to return to the jail in March. Volunteer work is hard. Not just because of the expenses of time, gas, and energy—but because the desire to transform the volunteer work into a professional career path takes persistence. It also means that paying jobs might have to supersede volunteer work. At least, that was my situation for much of the fall of this year.

As my post-graduate employment opportunities have waxed, my availability to teach for Conspire has waned. Thankfully, Kat has brought in a slew of guest artists and fabulous new facilitators, looking to sharpen their teaching tools, and the women have benefited from exposure to a diverse range of facilitators and teaching styles. Still, it has been hard not to be there every week.

Blue scarf in the wind at TCCC
“Intangible Gifts” was the 5-minute writing prompt for last Friday’s class. What do we have to give others that is not necessarily an object or a material “thing?” The idea was for the women to explore the seasonal focus on giving without feeling as if their incarcerated circumstance limited their ability to give gifts. For many participants, it started as a tough prompt but, as they began writing, they came up with more ideas. A smile, a hug, a listening ear—these are all gifts we have to give.

As I think about the idea of intangible gifts, I realize that all of the time Conspire Theatre has shared at the TCCC so far is an intangible gift. In wrapping up, one of the women said that the class “lifts our spirits.” Another woman said, “You pretty much waked us up and surprised us every Friday.” And it is true—there has been a shift for many of the women who have been there for several months or more. Conspire Theatre brings laughter and play into a space characterized by hostility and fear. And the result is a softening of boundaries and a growth of support and respect among a group of women who now express gratitude for getting to know one another, even under their current circumstances.

Austinintes, if you are interested in prison theatre work, subscribe to Conspire Theatre’s blog about the classes at the TCCC. And stay posted for news about upcoming events, including a possible spring fundraiser.

Monday, December 13, 2010

"Arabian Nights" and a Salome in San Antonio

Composer Jack W. Stamps seeks to “reconcile” Eastern and Western musical forms. He is insistent on the word “reconcile,” I think, out of respect for how various cultures musically express themselves in different ways. He acknowledges the history of Western exoticism of Eastern forms, yet works to weave multiple sounds into a rich, conversational and contemporary soundscape, citing an array of rhythms and instrumental voices.

Tunics in San Antonio
Certainly modern dance is no stranger to the impulse to mix multiple cultural influences, and the form was practically invented by Western dancers trying on movement styles from cultures other than their own. Isadora Duncan donned her Grecian-inspired tunics and sought to understand and “rediscover” (her word) a supposedly lost and ancient knowledge of the body’s harmonious relationship to the natural world. Ruth St. Denis created theatrical atmospheres inspired by images from cultures ranging from Egypt to India. 

From a contemporary cultural studies perspective, these artists have been critiqued for their appropriation of “other” cultural forms, yet I sense that their impulse to explore diverse cultural perspectives must have originated from a place of deep respect. It is interesting to me to note a shift in language from terms like “rediscover” to “reconcile”—the first implies a quest for knowledge and understanding, while the second seems to be a call to end conflict and make some kind of peace.

What to expect from Stamps’ new composition “Strange Frenzy: The Dance of the Seven Veils,” partially inspired by Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All and performed in collaboration with dancer Julie Nathanielsz? Many turn-of-the-twentieth-century Western dancers took their turn interpreting Salome, Maude Allen being one of the most noted, as well as a Duncan competitor. How to imagine a turn-of-the-twenty-first-century dancer embodying such an iconic theme?

Dancer Julie Nathanielsz in
"Strange Frenzy:
The Dance of the Seven Veils"
Modest, understated, stark, strong, playful, powerful, sensual are words that came to mind as I watched Nathanielzs skirt rhythmically across the stage, spine erect, with a whimsy of gestural suggestiveness in her hands, reflected only by the slight ruffle at the hem of her A-line, geometric-patterned shift dress. This was no Salome strip-tease. This dance mixed simple, classical vocabulary, the clean lines of a low arabesque and first position plie, with echos of gestural seduction, a twist of the hips, an unfurled wrist. Nathanielsz contrasted quick locomotive steps with sculptural stillness and an expressive range of movement quality all her own.

Isadora Duncan’s dance legacy is twofold—she simultaneously left us a very specific movement technique and an edict to develop our own, individual dance, to not copy anyone else’s movement. Duncan wrote of her vision for a school, “I shall not teach the children to imitate my movements, but to make their own. I shall not force them to study certain definite movements; I shall help them develop those movements which are natural to them” (Duncan, The Art of the Dance). In watching Nathanielsz dance, it is evident she is dancing movement that is fully her own.

Austinites, if you missed Sunday’s concert, check out San Antonio’s Musical Bridges Around the World, Artistic Director Anya Grokhovski, for future chamber music events, just a short drive down I-35. The program for Sunday's event was fantastic and featured world-class musicians, worthy of a whole other post. If you’ve not seen Julie Nathanielsz dance, keep an eye out for future events, she’s located here in Austin!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Harry Potter, the Deathly Hallows, and the Alamo Drafthouse

Who knows what Isadora Duncan would have thought of the whole Harry Potter phenomenon? Surely she would have appreciated JK Rowling’s rich mythological landscape and the neglected-orphan-turned-hero storyline that figures somewhat into her own personal narrative. Duncan would certainly have noted Rowling’s nods to Greek and Roman myths, including my favorite Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin, named as a gesture to the wolf-suckled twin brothers who founded Rome.

Tunics at Austin's Alamo
Given Duncan’s struggle with melancholy, she would also have appreciated the Dementors as invisible, but very real, sources of human depression, as well as their antidote—chocolate. She would have identified with Ron’s story, narrated in the latest film release, about a ball of light entering his chest, reminding him that his relationships are truly important and that his heart will guide him where he needs to be.  She likely would have resonated with Rowling’s mixture of pagan and Christian symbolism, as Duncan embraced both in her own art.

An avid reader and an admitted fan of both cheap fiction and dense philosophy, no doubt Duncan would have devoured the novels as soon as they were released, supporting a cultural phenomenon in which crowds horded bookstores, hungry to read the next installment of Harry’s story. Of course, given the success of the books, the film release was inevitable—or was it?

Duncan was living and working during the advent of the motion picture era, yet she famously refused to be filmed. She did not think that her dance art would translate to film, and given the limits of the technology at that time, she was largely right. Only one short film clip of Duncan dancing exists, and this was shot from behind a tree without her knowledge. From a historical distance, it is invaluable, but does the genius of Duncan’s dance art translate? Not fully.

So, what about the Harry Potter movies? Do they capture the aspect of the novels that sent a media-saturated, visual and sound-byte culture scampering to bookstores of all places? In my opinion, not really—at least, from my perspective, the first four films were overwrought caricatures and terribly disappointing.

But, these last few installments, and the yet-to-be-released Part II of the Deathly Hallows, directed by David Yates, come closer as successful film renderings of Rowling’s work. It makes me wonder what the film journey of Harry’s story would have been like if Yates had directed the whole sequence.

Harry Potter at South Austin
Alamo Drafthouse
Of course, pretty much any film is enjoyable at the Alamo Drafthouse, Austin’s local dinner-and-a-movie theatre. I can imagine Duncan would definitely have appreciated the opportunity to sip a glass of wine with a gourmet goat cheese salad or tasty artichoke pizza. And what is coming next to the Alamo? I’m looking forward to seeing Black Swan with Natalie Portman, the first film in a while that has piqued my curiosity with a bad review (listen here for NPR)! Watch out for possible thoughts on that film experience in the next few weeks.

Just a quick side note—as today happens to be my birthday! There is a fun tradition in Duncan dance culture of the Birthday Polka—click here for a free listen and improvise your own birthday dance.