Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Pauline Prophecy: Jewish-Christian Relations in Bernard Malamud’s A NEW LIFE

-- By Tom Phillips

Originally published in
A New Life, Bernard Malamud’s 1961 epic of a down-and-out New Yorker in the Pacific Northwest, is unique among his novels. The story takes place far from the urban Jewish milieu that was the author’s usual setting, and not coincidentally, it is the only work in which he fully develops a critique of American culture. Malamud studiously avoids mentioning religion until very late in the book, and then only obliquely. However a close reading, beginning with the significance of the main characters’ names, suggests an inter-religious dynamic.
Relations between Judaism and Christianity, Jews and Christians, and Jewish and gentile cultures are front and center in much of Malamud’s fiction – notably in The Assistant, the 1957 novel that immediately precedes A New Life. In A New Life these themes are concealed, or implied – probably because it was written while the author was sojourning in gentile territory, where his values came into sharp conflict with those of the dominant culture. A New Life can be read as a satire on American Philistia from a Jewish point of view, but in the end it goes beyond satire. The coupling of Seymour Levin with Pauline Josephson, the wife of his boss and enemy, and their absconding with her children, suggests a prophecy of a new age in which Jew and gentile combine in a generational assault on American values.
In short, the Sixties.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Unknown Dancer

"The Unknown Dancer in the Neighborhood"
Written and Directed by Suguru Yamamoto
Japan Society, New York
January 10, 2020

-- By Tom Phillips

Wataru Kitao as the Unknown Dancer.
Mayday! Mayday! Is a cry that comes up repeatedly in Suguru Yamamoto’s dance/drama “The Unknown Dancer in the Neighborhood.” It means “help me” in French, but it seems to fall on deaf ears in Tokyo, the setting for this theater piece by and for a new generation of Japanese artists.

Despairing dramas about alienated people were a staple of the last century.  What makes this fresh is that it suggests alienation is actually the flip side of community. We feel disconnected only because we're connected.

“The Unknown Dancer” is a whole cast of characters, played by one brilliant young dancer-actor, Wataru Kitao, equally at home with hip-hop and ballet, in male and female roles, as a child or an old person, as a human being or an animal. The ability to cross so many lines is a feat of acting empathy – the very opposite of disconnecting.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Between the Ice Sheets: June in January

Laura Peterson rehearses "Interglacial" 
-- By Tom Phillips

"Interglacial" refers to the period between geological Ice Ages -- the current period, about eleven thousand years old, the age when humankind established its dominance over the earth. That age may well be extended by the effects of humankind and its technology, pumping an ever-increasing volume of carbon dioxide into the air, trapping heat and raising temperatures, melting ice.  

It was 69 degrees on  January 11 in New York --  a record high -- when huge icebergs cracked on Canal Street in New York before an small audience in a storefront.  The ice was simulated but the sights and sounds were familiar.  It was just like the videos from Greenland and Antarctica of ice sheets "calving"-- sending  mammoth chunks of melting ice roaring and plunging into the sea.  

Laura Peterson's choreography is always an interaction with space and materials -- wood, grass, plastic, etc. -- the stuff that makes up our world.  About two years ago she started experimenting with paper, and at some point it became clear that its properties have much in common with ice.  It's smooth and slippery, it lies flat, it crackles, under pressure it stands up and forms shapes, and under enough pressure it breaks up in unpredictable ways.  

"Interglacial" was conceived to bring home the global meltdown of ice. Peterson and her dancers performed the work-in-progress today, each hour from noon to eight, free for anyone curious enough to drop in to the storefront at 323 Canal.  

Inside, huge sheets and balls of white paper played the part of the world's natural ice, and three dancers played the role of global warming.  They smoothed out the paper and used it as a dancing surface -- displaying the cool mechanics of ballet steps, civilization at its most elegant and highly-developed. Then these lovely humans proceeded to sabotage the scenery, crawling under the paper floor, standing it up into crazy conical shapes, then sending it rolling and tumbling down in broken heaps. The sound track roared and crackled, with the keening of whales in the deep background.  

The humans -- advanced as they are -- seemed utterly unconcerned with the destruction they had wreaked.  Meanwhile on the street, the June-in-January revelers paraded in shorts and tank tops, snacked on hamburgers and ice cream, drank water from innumerable plastic bottles, and filled the trash cans to overflowing.

"Interglacial" isn't done. Watch for it near you.

-- Copyright 2020 by Tom Phillips

Monday, December 30, 2019

War Babies: Prophets of Peace

 (This article was originally published in the Toronto Star, Sunday 12/29/2019)

Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, c.1963

The 1960's turn sixty in 2020, with their meaning and value still in hot dispute. It might help to divide the decade in two; the first half peace and love, the last fear and loathing. Still, in both phases, the Sixties were an age of prophecy.

Bob Dylan sang “The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”  Simon and Garfunkel saw “the words of the prophets written on the subway walls.”  New voices came out of nowhere, and found rapt listeners in the massive generation born after World War Two, the baby boomers. 

The prophets were not boomers themselves.  They were the big brothers and sisters of the boomers, the relatively small generation born during the war.  As elders, they knew from an early age that their voices would be heard. And they knew the world they were born into was not fit for future generations. Children of war, they became prophets of peace.  

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Butoh a la Vangeline

"Hijikata Mon Amour"
NY Butoh Institute Festival 2019
Theater for the New City, New York
October 26, 2019

-- By Tom Phillips

Japan and France have long been yoked together by their mutual obsession with each others' elegant style. The US and Japan are connected forever by the atom bomb. "Hijikata Mon Amour" is a Triboro bridge connecting those three cultures, and -- in the subversive, twisted way of Butoh -- an attack on all of them.
                                                 Photo by Matthew Placek 

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Puppet Love at Lincoln Center

Sonezaki Shinju (The Love Suicides at Sonezaki)
Sugimoto Bunraku Puppet Theater
Rose Theater, Lincoln Center, New York
October 19, 2019

-- By Tom Phillips                                                                                                                                                           
"The Love Suicides at Sonezaki," which opened Lincoln's Center's White Light Festival last night, tells the tale of a young Osaka shop clerk and a teenage prostitute, who kill themselves rather than face life apart. It was banned in Japan in 1723 after a wave of copycat love suicides, and not performed again until 1955. The US premiere of this production showed us nothing so much as the chasm between the worlds of 18th-century Japan and 21st-century America.

That said, tribute must be paid to the brilliance of these Japanese puppeteers, practicing an art unknown in the West. Disappearing inside black shrouds, they work in teams of two or three to manipulate half-size human forms around the stage. The puppets' faces and hands are immobile, so it is just with body language -- subtle movements of the limbs, head and torso -- that they show an astonishing range of emotions: erotic passion, anguish, anxiety, rage, indignation both phony and real, amazement, disappointment, despair, and on and on: there's nothing humans feel that these wooden figures can't express. 

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Where Butoh Lives

-- By Tom Phillips

Melissa Lohman -- "Vessel and Void" 

Butoh is an art form that rose from the ruins of the atomic bombing of Japan -- an event that recalled the Big Bang at the beginning of time, and presaged the Resurrection of the Dead.   Both the beginning and the end were evoked last night at the second annual New York Butoh Institute Festival. 

This year’s festival features 14 performers – all female – from all over the world.  While Butoh is a Japanese art form, it lacks the strict formal traditions of Kabuki or Noh theatre. Instead it has a spirit, available to any culture that has survived destruction.  New York, which constantly destroys and rebuilds itself, is an ideal venue.

Melissa Lohman’s opening solo “Vessel and Void” was a New Yorker’s take on the Beginning – when a light shone in the darkness, and became flesh.  In an empty black space with a spotlight above, she lay white and prone on a what looked like a thick black duffel bag, over which she humped and crawled until she was seated on the floor and it was standing on its end like a thick black phallus.  Rising to her feet, showing mostly her back and sides, she made much of the body’s bilateral symmetry. The two columns of her back rose and fell independently like climbers on Jacob’s Ladder, to the sound of a single column of air, something like a Japanese bamboo flute. Her minimal script repeated the polarity of something and nothing – asking “what is this?” Toward the end her movements became more expansive and playful, and the score switched to what sounded like wind chimes – again columns of air but with a greater incidence of chance and play.  This was a creation story without a fall, a dance of mischief and joy. Bowing at the end, she patted her duffel like a fellow performer. Thanks, bro.