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Friday, December 18, 2015

An American Christmas

"The Hard Nut"
Mark Morris Dance Group
Brooklyn Academy of Music
December 16, 2015

Kraig Patterson, Mark Morris, John Heginbotham  
Americans take their “Nutcrackers” way too seriously, Mark Morris seems to tell us in his campy Christmas spectacular, “The Hard Nut.”  Played straight, the story is dark sexual symbolism in a world of repression and romance.  Played for laughs, it’s a casual coming-of-age, in a world where sex is just part of growing up. That world is American suburbia in the 70’s, and for all its vulgarity, it’s much more familiar and friendly than the gentrified, stiff-necked Germany where the original is set.

The 70’s were a lost decade, when the hippie movement died but hair continued to sprout from the heads, faces, armpits and open shirt-fronts of America.  It’s all on display in the Act One party scene: afro wigs and pompadours, mustaches and sideburns, set off with too-tight pants and glittery jackets, short skirts and polka-dot pants suits.  The host is Mark Morris himself, as a fussy Dr. Stahlbaum in a hideous party jacket.  But the focus is on the children, who start out staring at the TV.  Father comes along and switches the channel to the Yule Log special, and the party is underway – an American Christmas with too many gifts, too much booze, and guests on their worst behavior. Much of the dancing consists of humping and grinding, at first surreptitious, but as the alcohol takes effect, front and center.     

Aaron Loux and Lauren Grant 
It’s up to Marie to redeem this mess, and she does it beautifully, with the aid of a nearly mechanical Nutcracker. Aaron Loux comes to life as Drosselmeier’s nephew like a toy out of the box – coaxed into manhood in a strong, flowing pas de deux with his uncle. He’s a boy toy, and his function is to plant a first kiss on the lips of Marie, which he does repeatedly and rapturously in the climactic pas de deux of Act Two. Lauren Grant as Marie responds with her own rapture – not mechanical at all, but entirely human, a frizzy-haired adolescent becoming a teenager in love, a passage out of life itself. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

In the Realm of the Senses 2

"Spectator"
Choreographed by Shuji Onodera
Japan Society, New York
November 13, 2015
by Tom Phillips 
Spectator julie_lemberger-0783Amidst flying furniture and bodies, an ordinary piece of fruit --  an orange -- commands the stage in Shuji Onodera's dance/ mime/ theatre piece "Spectator."  The orange is bowled across the floor, passed from hand to hand, or held in place while seven acrobatic performers take turns supporting it. It's an object of curiosity, then of contention as two women fight for control, with one finally plunging a knife into it, driving the other to fling a fit. The action is presided over by a pretty female narrator, who introduces herself as a writer and the piece as a love story. But then she's a waitress, and still later a housewife suspected in the disappearance of her husband, who's been cleverly stuffed into an attache case.  What's going on?  We can't really say, and that turns out to be the key to the pleasures of "Spectator."  

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Hiroshima Journal

-- By Tom Phillips

Hiroshima is the only city in the world with a trolley stop called "Atomic Bomb Dome," and I shuddered inwardly every time we passed it.  It's by the shell of a building just a quarter-mile from the bomb blast, a building that somehow remained standing, though everyone in it was killed instantly, vaporized by the heat. 

Later it survived an effort by the local government to tear it down, to remove a symbol of the city's destruction.  In the end Hiroshima decided to leave it standing, as a reminder -- a rare public protest in a country that usually prefers to cover things up. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

In the Realm of the Senses

Nansen-ji, Kyoto
-- By Tom Phillips

In college, more than fifty years ago, I was shocked to learn that the ancient Greeks gave Ethics a higher value than Aesthetics.  In my private pantheon, beauty was paramount, and included or implied every other virtue.  I believed instinctively in Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn --  "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty, -  that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

A few years later I became a student of Zen Buddhism, which seemed to treat the two as one -- beauty as a realization of truth. This year I fulfilled a lifelong dream, touring Japan and contemplating the beauty of  Zen gardens.  And it was there that I finally, sadly, laid Keats's romantic illusion to rest.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Spoils of War

Recently I was a guest in a college journalism class where students were reading my book, "A Beginner's Life."  Among their questions was this:  "Did you ever get shot at?"  Well, sort of, I replied, but it's not in the book.  I was chagrined.  So I told them, very briefly, my story of the first Persian Gulf War, which I covered for the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.  Years ago I had written a chapter about it, but it wound up in the wastebasket.  It seemed just a bunch of typical "war stories," an excuse to brag that I was there.  Now I was kicking myself for trashing it.  So I went back and re-imagined it, and rewrote it, as follows: 

There is nothing in life so exhilarating, said Sir Winston Churchill, “than to be shot at, without result.”  

I couldn’t see that in my twenties, when I was of draft age and the Vietnam War was escalating.  I avoided the draft by accident – by the time it was reinstated in 1965, I was married and had a baby.  But I wanted no part of Vietnam.  When someone at CBS suggested I volunteer for the Saigon bureau, I wasn’t tempted.  I didn’t want to risk my 23-year-old life, or leave my fledgling family behind.

Twenty-six years later in 1991, the US was rushing troops into Saudi Arabia, following Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait.  Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein was massing troops near the border of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and could easily resume his march of conquest, sweeping down through the nearly unpopulated, lightly defended desert kingdom.  The US was preparing to drive him back – out of Kuwait, away from Saudi Arabia and its huge American oil operations.  

By then I had a new family, and six children altogether, two of them under six.  But this time, I felt the urge.  I had survived nearly half a century, and was willing to risk the balance of my life on a good bet that I would come home safe, and war would be an incomparable adventure.   I’d be cautious, and not take any stupid risks. I just wanted to see.

As a journalist, I wanted to witness the kind of destructive power that shapes the world we live in.  There is nothing like a war to alter the course of history.  Developments that would happen over decades in peacetime, or never happen at all, happen within days or hours in a war.  War is history speeded up, news that breaks faster than you can write it.
        
As an egoist, I wanted the badge of honor that goes with being a war correspondent, the badge my father never earned.  In my mind at least, it’s what separates the real journalists from those who would prefer to write about the world from the safety of their desks.  I also had a morbid curiosity about the death, destruction, and danger of wartime.  I’d seen the aftermath in London as a child, and I’d been on the edge of violence in Tiananmen Square, but had never been in an actual war zone.  I wanted to feel the frisson of mortal fear.            
    
As a father, my feelings were mixed.  I didn’t want my family to worry about me, though I knew they would.  At the same time, I wanted my children to have a father they could look up to, not one they felt sorry for.  I felt sorry for my father because he felt sorry for himself.  He never did the things he really wanted to do, never became the journalist he wanted to be, largely because of his own timidity. I had inherited some of that timidity, but I wasn’t going to let it rule my life.  I didn't consult my wife beforehand, or ask permission.  One day I just screwed up my courage, walked into Tom Bettag’s office, and said: “I’d like to volunteer for duty in the war zone.”

A family man himself, Bettag would go anywhere for a story, but he never would have sent me into a war zone on his own.  He warned me on the spot that we might wind up in Baghdad with bombs falling around us.  I gulped when he said that, but the die was cast.  I stuck with my offer, and he accepted.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Scraps into Art -- Poetry by Bill Christophersen

"Two Men Fighting in a Landscape" 
Poems by Bill Christophersen 
Kelsay Books, 2015


Some poets are good at conveying the menace of the city, the dangers of life.  Others are able to pull back into a contemplative, pastoral calm.  Bill Christophersen’s great challenge is to give us both states at once.  The title poem, “Two Men Fighting in a Landscape” sums it up:  A bloody battle in the foreground, dawn breaking silently on the horizon.  As the Incredible String Band sang, it’s a “troubled voyage in calm weather.”  

In “Streetscape with Blazing Locusts,” the poet tells us that he lives on a mean street, on the edge of Harlem, where not long ago he was held up at gunpoint and lost his front teeth in the ensuing struggle.  Despite friends’ entreaties, he declines to move, attached as he is to the beauty of his surroundings.  This he finds on the pavement on a brilliant day after a Halloween rainstorm, when the “..broken sidewalk squares of run-down side streets/ mimic stained-glass windows for a couple of hours.”

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

There Goes the Neighborhood

By Tom Phillips

When one has lived a long time in one place, any kind of change is worrisome.  Home is ideally the most stable part of your world, but all around, other people are messing with it, never asking your permission.  Morningside Heights, where our family has lived for 35 years, is in a continual process of change, and nothing new happens without a frisson of fear.  Even the plunge in the crime rate, which began in the 1990s and continues today, is cause for concern -- it's one of the factors that have driven real estate prices to astronomical heights, and brought in a whole new demographic and life-style.

Some day, we'll reach the tipping point where the old neighborhood is no longer recognizable.  And it may be just around the corner.  A block and a half from our house is rising an ultra-luxurious rental residence, a colossus of conspicuous consumption.  And it's rising on the very grounds of our most hallowed neighborhood institution, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.  They call it the Enclave.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Antigona Flamenca

Antigona Flamenca is back for another run through January 28, 2017 in New York.  It turns out to be a timely engagement. 

"Antigona Flamenca"
Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca
West Park Presbyterian Church, New York
July 15, 2015

Soledad Barrio as Antigona      Photo by Zarmik Moqtaderi
     Whether to go along with the tyrant in power, or risk your life defying his whims, is the argument between two sisters – and the first high point of this fiery flamenco version of Sophocles’ Antigone. 

Antigone – or Antigona, in Spanish -- cannot bear to see the body of her brother Polyneices left to rot on the battlefield, where he and his brother Eteocles slew each other battling for power in Thebes.  Ismene, her sister, would prefer not to look, to avoid the wrath of King Creon, who ordered a military funeral for Eteocles and a dog’s fate for Polyneices.   

The two sisters confront each other with electric foot-stamping and acrobatic turns -- the power of Ismene’s conventional thinking against the lonely righteousness of Antigone.  And of course it is Ismene who survives, who slides back into the chorus, observing the woes that befall others.          
    
Few dancers can match the intensity of Soledad Barrio’s flamenco, but Marina Elana as Ismene takes a good shot at it, following up a devastating monologue in English (“I’m bilingual,” she simpers) in which she bitches about her sister’s self-sacrifice. It is the viciousness of her bile, combined with the cowardice of her position, that makes the tragedy credible, and contemporary. Mean girls rule.
    
That’s true, of course, only in the short term, and in what we call the “real world.”  In the ideal, eternal world where Greek tragedy takes place, Antigone is the heroine, larger than life, greater than death.  And this is where Soledad Barrio comes in.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Harvard of the Midwest

(In 1959, anti-war protesting was introduced to Grinnell College in Iowa, courtesy of a freshman from Long Island, New York who had no idea of the fuss it would create.  Following is an excerpt from my memoir, "A Beginner's Life," new from Full Court Press.)

Grinnell in 1959 was one of the top-ranked small liberal arts colleges in the country, and my high-school guidance counselor told me not to apply, as I’d never get in with my erratic grades.  I applied anyway, and to my surprise, they treated me like a prime prospect.  A wealthy alumnus invited me for an interview in his office at Time Inc.  A few days later I got a note from him, saying I was definitely “admissible.” 
           
I had my doubts about the place, based on the cover of the catalog, which showed a clean-cut fellow in a letter sweater sitting under a tree.  But my first choice was Oberlin, and they put me on the waiting list, so I decided to take the invitation from Iowa.  A few months later I crossed the Mississippi River on the Rock Island Railroad, with a carload of easterners bound for Grinnell.    
             
We didn’t know it but we were pioneers, the vanguard of a latter-day migration engineered by the ambitious president of Grinnell, Howard Bowen.  Without announcing it, he had set out to transform Grinnell from a prestigious regional school – the “Harvard of the Midwest,” they liked to call it – to one with a national reputation.   

Flywheeling

"The Futurist"
Laura Peterson Choreography
Judson Memorial Church, New York 
July 1, 2015 

By Tom Phillips 

Fortunato Depero, "Skyscrapers and Tunnels" 1930   
The infrastructure and the past are Laura Peterson’s twin obsessions. In one dance after another, she sets out to discover what makes the world tick, whirr, click and go round; and how the present was invented in the past. She’s most fascinated by the recent past -- and how this sleek post-modern world emerged from the now-clunky-looking cocoon of modernity.

“The Futurist” is her latest X-ray of civilization, a look into the works of Futurism, a doomed movement of the 20s and 30s, personified by Benito Mussolini, who made the trains run on time. Speed, war and clockwork technology were supposed to create a super-civilization, a locomotive of brutal, unstoppable progress.


Its essence was the flywheel – a rotating mechanical device used to store and then release rotational energy. A flywheel is designed so that the further from the center the mass is, the more effect is has on the object’s momentum and kinetic energy. They’re used in giant industrial engines, cars and turbines – and they make the sound Walter Mitty daydreamed in 1939 -- “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.”  

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Boyz from the Deep

-- By Tom Phillips

Years ago, as a graduate student in psychology, I took a course called Memory and Attention, from which I remember only one basic proposition:  memory is a function of attention.   We remember what we pay attention to. 

I thought of Memory and Attention recently as I read Volume Three of Karl-Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle,” the story of a middle-aged man remembering his experience as an adolescent boy.  And because Knausgaard is often compared to Marcel Proust, who wrote a hundred years ago, I went back and re-read the first part of “Swann’s Way,” the beginning of that earlier six-volume epic, drawn from Proust’s memories from the same time of life.   

What's striking in both is the quality of their attention, the amount of experience they can extract and retain from a moment – Proust watching the twin spires of the church shift their perspective in the waning sunlight, as he walks “Swann’s Way” in the little town where he apparently spent just a few weeks of his young life.  And of course the most famous extraction of them all – the taste of the madeleine dipped in tea, the subsequent descents into the subconscious, and finally the awakening of the whole remembered scene, the town and its environs, all the feelings that were bursting the heart of a proto-poet at a tender age. The past becomes present, memory and attention are one.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Feeling Beauty

--  By Tom Phillips

What is art for?  Does it have any use at all?  Does it give us anything beyond pleasure, or a momentary release from the cares of life? 

These questions have been around for thousands of years.  Today, there is a burst of renewed interest in them, because they have moved from the realm of philosophical speculation to the solider ground of scientific research.   Here the answers are confirmed not just by experience, but by pictures of brain activity.   And these pictures show us that the experience of beauty is central not just to human pleasure, but to human growth. 

In Feeling Beauty -- The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience,  G. Gabrielle Starr weaves together the language of neuroscience with a deep understanding of the arts, and makes a convincing case that by taking us out of ordinary experience, the arts offer us a window into ourselves – what we are, and what we can become. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Heart and Spleen: Confessions of a Strike-breaker


Serenade
-- By Tom Phillips

Three years ago, mad as hell about New York City Ballet’s plan to triple and quadruple ticket prices, I and a few other balletomanes declared an audience strike against our long-time beloved ballet company.  We hoped a boycott would shake up the management, and force a return to popular prices.            
           
Three years later, they win.   Drawn by rave reviews and gorgeous pictures in the paper, I finally slunk back across my invisible picket line yesterday.  I paid 62 dollars for a seat in Row G on the side in the fourth ring – three times what I would have paid just a few years ago.  The reward was a brilliant triple bill of Balanchine classics – Serenade, Agon, and Symphony in C – from a company dancing better than it has in years.  Is this the effect of prosperity?  If so, you can’t argue with success.