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Sunday, October 14, 2018

Civilization in Splitsville: The Collapse

SplitLucy Guerin Inc Baryshnikov Arts Center
New York 
October 13, 2018 

The piece is called "Split," and the idea is simple: To divide things in two, over and over again. And see what happens.   
Two women -- one naked, one in a modest blue dress -- dance parallel figures to the sound of drums, on a bare stage marked off by a square of white tape. The gestures suggest a range of human activities: play, sport, religious ritual, repetitive work, rest, sex, sleep, and dance itself, ballet and modern and folk. The moves are identical but look different, articulate and sensuous in the flesh, hidden or suggested in the folds of a dress. The two dancers have plenty of room to share, and seem to co-exist peacefully. After 15 minutes or so, they pause and divide the square in two, laying a line of tape straight down the center.

The next section takes place in one-half the space, and peace gives way to a relationship that looks sometimes like beggar and hoarder, sometimes like predator and prey. The fully clothed Lilian Steiner is focused mainly on eating, and the naked Melanie Lane in taking some of that lunch for herself.  Lane, described in the program as Javanese-Australian, crouches and then pounces on the fully clothed, quite White Australian Lilian Steiner, who evades, resists, repels her. They do not get along, they do not work together. But still there's room for this tense relationship to play out.  
That's until they divide the square again, and again, and again, in shorter and shorter increments of time. One-eighth of the space becomes one-sixteenth, one thirty-second, sixty-fourth, 128th, 256th. Within an hour the stage has shrunk to a box too small for two to stand abreast, so the naked woman climbs onto the shoulders of the clothed one. They topple backward as the lights go out. 
"Split" is the work of Australian choreographer Lucy Guerin and her two dancers, also from Down Under. I've never been to Australia, but from what I've read and heard, it represents a unique cultural borderland between Western modernity and Indigenous peoples -- a perfect place from which to observe the collapse of civilization. 
In recent years we've come to talk about the current phase of the earth's history as the Anthropocene Age, the fateful period when the human race proliferated and polluted its way to the top of the food chain, extinguishing other species daily while exhausting the earth's resources, all the while dreaming of ever-cleverer solutions to the crises spawned by our supremacy. 
"Split" suggests we are running out of answers. It's the most devastating argument I've ever seen for sustainable development. It is also a fine work of art, a simple concept danced and acted with total conviction; the naked, fierce Lane the perfect adversary for the prim narcissistic Steiner. The sound score by the British artist Scanner is also perfect -- elemental drumming, divided into twos, fours, eights and sixteens, even as the stage was being cut by just those proportions. This is the sort of thing we've come to expect from the Baryshnikov Arts Center, an organization with global reach and a dynamite philosophy: Aesthetics as Ethics, beauty that packs a punch.   
-- Copyright 2018 by Tom Phillips  
Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Believing in Truth

-- By Tom Phillips 
Rudy Giuliani: "Truth isn't truth"
It’s happening more and more these days – people say things that just a few years ago would have been considered insane.  At a recent party, a young female stranger – a graduate student – asked me, “What do you think about the post-truth moment?”  My flustered answer: “I’m against it.” 
On the street and even in church, on hearing that I used to write for CBS News, people have cheerfully piped up: “Oh, fake news!”  Absolutely not, I tell them.  I never knowingly wrote a word of fake news.  Oh, they reply, but you’re retired.  How about the people writing now?   
I am a member of two establishments -- the press and the church -- that depend for their existence on the idea of truth.  Both are under siege by a new wave of old politics that values visions over facts, slogans over reason, personality over truthfulness.  The press is in danger of being discredited, the church of being co-opted.  And so far, the press is holding up better, more resistant and resilient.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Pinker's Paradise

-- By Tom Phillips

Steven Pinker 
Harvard professor Steven Pinker is out with another of his weighty books about how the world is getting better all the time. This one's called "Enlightenment Now."  Readers should appreciate his contrarianism; his mass of statistics about the world's rising prosperity, improving health, reduced violence and increasing personal satisfaction is a welcome antidote to studies that show humans growing more lonely, pessimistic and frightened.

There's a fly in the cream, though. While Pinker's global stats generally show that happiness rises along with income, here in the United States, the pursuit of happiness has ground to a halt.  In recent decades, Pinker reports, American men have gotten no happier, while women have actually grown less happy. This could simply reflect the stagnation in middle-class incomes since the 1970s.  But happiness is not an isolated phenomenon -- it reflects much broader societal trends.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Mobbed Up at the White House

AKA Stormy Daniels, on CBS "60 Minutes"
-- By Tom Phillips 
“That’s a beautiful little girl.  It’d be a shame if something happened to her mom.”  

With that quote from a thug in Las Vegas parking lot, Stephanie Clifford parted the curtains on the Trump White House and the family business.  It took a porn star, a businesswoman who understands how things are done, to reveal what we’re living with and how difficult it may be to extricate ourselves.  America, these people are mobbed up.  

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Intense Now

-- By Tom Phillips 

Paris, May 1968
“In the Intense Now” is a pastiche of home movies, travelogues and documentaries, from 1968 and the time just before that climactic year. It includes snips and clips of revolutionary struggles in France, Czechoslovakia, China and Brazil, with a moody voice-over by a Brazilian film-maker, Joao Moreira Salles, who refrains from trying to pull it all together.  It is diffuse, digressive, and at least a half-hour too long, but I’m glad I saw it, because the heart of the film is a clash between two charismatic geniuses – “Danny the Red” Cohn-Bendit, leader of the student uprising that convulsed France in May 1968, and General Charles de Gaulle, President of the Republic, the great preserver of bourgeois order. The outcome is foreordained; the struggle is elemental, ecstatic, elegaic.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

President Oprah!

-- by Tom Phillips

I'm not an Oprah fan.  I didn't see her speech to the Golden Globes, just a clip of her tearful peroration.  She strikes me as a complex lady with a complicated life, who nonetheless is able to project a simple, powerful image through the media -- an image that speaks to the American value of self-reliance, and at the same time to the universal value of compassion, the virtue so conspicuously missing from today's White House. 

So: What other Democrat could beat Donald Trump at his own game?  Donald vs. Oprah! would be the ultimate talk show -- image vs. image, self-styled genius vs. self-made woman.  Brashness and bullshit vs. tears and guts.  Combover vs. hairstyle. 

And what's wrong with having a celebrity president?   Look at the present day -- a celebrity president tweets up a circus, entertaining the masses with imaginary battles against Black football players and a sinister Asian clown. Meanwhile a typical Republican administration goes about its business: taking from the poor to help the rich, giving business and the military free rein, handing out favors to wealthy donors. 

Under President Oprah!, the chief could entertain us with stirring speeches, celebrity feuds and friendships, must-read books and crash diets, while a typical Democratic administration could go about its business: taxing the rich to help the poor, reining in business and the military, and of course, handing out favors to wealthy donors. 

Don't get me wrong.  I voted for Bernie, I love Elizabeth Warren.  But in this age the President of the United States is willy-nilly the world's leading celebrity.  Why not go for someone with experience, and let Chuck and Nancy handle the politics?

Make sense?   

--  Copyright 2018 by Tom Phillips


Friday, December 15, 2017

Beyond Butoh

"Darkness Odyssey Part 2: I or Hallucination"
Kota Yamazaki/Fluid hug-hug
Baryshnikov Arts Center,  New York
December 14, 2017
--by Tom Phillips

Five dancers take part in Kota Yamazaki’s “Darkness Odyssey Part 2: I or Hallucination,” but for the most part each dances on his or her own, on a shiny floor, with a diaphanous rectangle of silver fabric hanging overhead.  The overall effect is of slow, liquid movement, but with fits and starts disrupting the surface calm.
Of the dancers Joanna Kotze commanded my attention most, stepping slowly like a long-legged wading bird, or like a child with autism, on tiptoes, whiffling her fingers under her chin and wrinkling her nose as if puzzling over an insoluble private riddle. At one point she spoke up to say she saw three power lines, or maybe it was four.

Raja Feather Kelly stood still with his mouth open for long periods. When he moved it was in long lines, opening into eccentric arabesques. Wearing a white shirt and blue pants, he rolled over with his back upright, so that his blue butt formed a dome over what looked like a featureless white face, and then began to talk animatedly with his hands. Later he lay down and said out loud that he smelled cigarette smoke, coming from next door. “Maybe it was hers?” he mused. This was the only mention of another person made by any character.  

Julian Barnett, wearing a black skirt over his pants and a diaphanous robe outside his shirt, pinched in on himself as if stuck in a contraction.  He stared and glared in stillness, then lurched around the space, moving spasmodically, as if he had something to say but couldn’t.