Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Welcome to Wonderland.

This last summer, I wrote a post about the SBDance performance, Drosselmeyer, Inc. After that review, SBDance founder Stephen Brown contacted me to ask if he could give my contact information to Jerry Rapier, the producing director for Plan B Theatre. I agreed and soon received an e-mail from Mr. Rapier saying he’d read my post and wanted to know if he could add me to his press list. Since almost no one takes my blog seriously (in fact is any body even reading this), I was flattered by the request. That means I intend to attend as many Plan B performances as possible and to write about every single one.
That said, I have to admit that Plan B has visited the pages of Viva Variety before. About a year ago, I wrote about Radio Hour Frankenstein. So it’s fitting that a year later, I’ve returned to the Rose Wagner for this year’s Radio Hour, Alice—an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first. This was a lot of story to cram into 60 minutes. Because of that, some moments in the show were confusing and hard to follow. But I’m not sure what I would have cut. It’s hard to present a version of Alice in Wonderland without all those classic characters like the White Rabbit, the March Hare, the Chesire Cat, the Mad Hatter, and the Caterpillar. That’s a lot of character to develop in 60 minutes.
On the flip side there was a lot of good. The story really got going with the arrival of the Queen of Cups. You forget how truly scary this story is. And the Queen of Cups brings on the horror. I loved the way the story built to demands for beheading just about everyone. And Mathew Ivan Bennett’s adaptation ended big, with chilling effect.
All the performers are to be commended but I’ll call out two in particular. David Evanoff’s music is fantastic. If you were to listen to this show on the radio, you’d swear there was a whole band of musicians performing the soundtrack. Sure Evanoff is using a lot of computers, but he’s still working hard. And it’s fun to see him perform live.
Even more fun than Evanoff’s performance is that of Foley artist Daisy Blake. The sound effects make the story more exciting, but watching how it’s done is well worth the price of admission. And sound engineers Mark and Eric Robinette get big kudos for the brilliant audio.
I’ve heard a rumor that this may be the last Radio Hour from Plan B. If it is, that will make me sad. All the more reason to see this show live. It runs through October 31. At the very least, you can hear it broadcast live on KUER (90.1) on October 30 at 11:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Some serious paper cuts.

I went to the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) to see Read My Pins but I was absolutely blown away by Slash: Paper Under the Knife. This is one of the coolest exhibitions I’ve seen in a while. Mainly because it pleases on a variety of levels—whether it’s the sheer craftsmanship, the whimsy and wonder, or the focus on human experience. And it features a cavalcade of today's hottest artists, all of whom regularly use paper in their work. If you’re in NYC between now and April 10, 2010 see this show.

When you head to the galleries, don’t take the stairs. Take the elevator to the fourth floor. Because the effect when the elevator opens onto Andreas Kocks' black-splattered Paperwork #9356 (2009) is spectacular. And if that isn’t enough, you’re also confronted by The Triumph of Good and Evil (2009) by Chris Gilmour. It’s obvious that this sculpture is made from cardboard. But it’s so monolithic, that it defies the quotidian nature of the material.

While much of this show is jaw-droppingly fun, there’s plenty of work that is more subtle and just as interesting. Nava Lubelski’s Crush (2008) is a paper terrain created from cut and shredded love letters received while the artist was coming to grips with his homosexuality. Or how about the strangely beautiful Placebos (2008-09). This work was created by Celio Braga using the prescription-medicine instructions of friends and family.

Thomas Demand’s Shed (2006) was a three dimensional paper recreation of a found photograph, which was then photographed. Olafur Elisson offered Your House (2006), an editioned work of laser-cut, blank pages that created an architectural void inside the pages of a book. Tom Friedman gave us Quaker Oats (2009), which featured hundreds of Quaker Oats boxes. It looked like a frozen, digital effect from the breakfast scene in some sci-fi film.

My pick for best work in the show is Oliver Herring’s Alex (2009). Herring’s meticulous, existential works approach human experience in thoughtful, startling ways. Alex is a haunting work that stares deep into your eyes, searching for secrets.

As the ultimate museum-photography killjoys, MAD doesn’t even allow you to take pictures in the lobby. Which is too bad because the lobby featured Andrea’s Mastrovito’s Nothing Left to Do But Cry (2009), a paper, storm-driven ocean complete with sinking pirate ship all hanging upside down from the ceiling. Amazing.

Oh I know the real art critics like to trash shows like this as too friendly, too forced, too haphazard, too something. But I say critics be damned. Because sometimes, you want to be reminded that art isn’t just for the critics or the billionaire collectors. It’s also for people who want to spend an afternoon at a museum and walk away feeling inspired.

I also say museum photography bans be damned. Thanks to the magic of the internet, I can still show photographs of works from Slash: Paper Under the Knife. Well at least until I get a cease and desist order.

MAD's new building which opened in September 2008 at 2 Columbus Circle.

Me trying to take a self portrait in front of the building.

Andreas Kocks, Paper work #9356, 2009
Graphite on Hahnemuhle Cornwall paper

Chris Gilmour, The Triumph of Good and Evil, 2009
Cardboard, glue

Celio Braga, Placebos, 2008-09
Medicine instructions, clear tape, paper, c-print cutouts

Olafur Eliasson, Your House, 2006,
Laser cut and hand-bound book, edition of 225

Tom Friedman, Quaker Oats, 2009
Quaker Oats boxes, Quaker Oats, glue

Oliver Herring creating Alex, 2009
Digital c-prints, museum board, foamcore, polystyrene

Politically pinned.

There’s been a lot of press recently about Madeleine Albright’s new book, Read My Pins. And although it may add fuel to the argument that I’m really an old lady (because if there was ever museum show created for old ladies, this is it), I was intrigued. So I stopped by New York City’s Museum of Arts and Design to take a look and the corresponding exhibition.

Although located in a smallish gallery, there was plenty to see with hundreds of pins and brooches on display, many of which were inexpensive costume jewelry. However, there’s more to this show than just a bunch a pins. That’s because Albright used pins as a communication device during diplomatic meetings. It all started a long time ago when Seddam Hussein called Albright a snake. So Albright showed up at her next diplomatic meeting with Iraq sporting an antique gold snake pin (see inset photo).

After that, Albright made a habit of wearing brooches meant to communicate something about her diplomatic intensions. When Albright felt Russian officials were ignoring human-rights violation in Chechnya, she wore a trio of monkeys in classic hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil, see-no-evil poses. When she needed to convey a tough message, she often wore wasp pins to deliver an extra sting. There were pins made from chunks of the Berlin Wall. Pins designed to appeal to children. Pins given to Albright by diplomats and world leaders. Suffragette pins. Crude ceramic heart pins made by Albriht’s young daughter. Even a giant lobster pin that (if I’d been allowed to take pictures) would have inspired a post entitled Art Lobster: Old Lady Edition.

The pins were fun to look at. But the best part of the exhibit was the accompanying stories, many of which were surprisingly emotional. Take the story of a young man who lost his mother in hurricane Katrina. He approached Albright and told her that his mother was a big fan of the secretary of state and that she knew Albright loved and wore pins. In tribute to his mother, he gave Albright a diamond and jewel pin that was given to his mother by his father as an anniversary gift.

Yes, I spent an hour surrounded by women, most of whom were older. But I’m happy to embrace my inner old lady. Because Read My Pins offered a strange mix of whimsy, history, and emotion that made me happy.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Gold and the Guggenheim.

Just this past week, I made my first visit to the Guggenheim New York. I went specifically to see the exhibit Paired, Gold: Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Roni Horn.

But before I get to that, let’s talk about museum lines. Because it always amazes me how many people show up to New York museums. I arrived at the Guggenheim ten minutes before it was set to open and already there was a line around the block.

But at least waiting in line gave me a chance to enjoy the museum's architecture.

Even as I left the museum an hour later, there was a still a long line of people waiting to get in.

I don’t think the people in line were there to see Paired, Gold based on the reaction I got from the audio tour attendants when I asked if the audio tour included information about the gold show. (It didn’t, by the way.) Everyone was there to see the big Kandinsky exhibit (and it was big). I was on a tight schedule with less than a full day to hit several museum shows. So I skipped the Kandinsky and headed to the farthest reaches of the Guggenheim to see the Felix Gonzalez-Torres works.

I have to say, the publicity for Paired, Gold made it seem like this was a fairly big show. In reality, it was two works, one by Gonzalez-Torres and the other by Roni Horn. These works were shown together because Horn influenced the work of Gonzalez-Torres and vice versa. I’d recently seen the same Gonzalez-Torres work on display at SFMOMA. So I was a little disappointed because I was hoping to see some of the artist’s work that I hadn’t seen before. But it’s still a dang cool work of art and it offered all the magic and intrusiveness that you expect from Gonzalez-Torres.

This was the first time I’d seen any art by Roni Horn. Her work, Gold Field consists of two pounds of gold (and we're talking the real stuff) pressed into a mat. I’d read about the work but had never even seen pictures of it. It wasn’t what I expected. I thought two pounds of gold would feel dense and weighty. But surprisingly, two pounds of gold pressed into a shape roughly the size of a door mat looks fragile and ethereal, almost translucent.

The Guggenheim doesn’t allow photography anywhere in the museum except the lobby (killjoys). But fortunately, they do offer press photos on their Web site. You can use the photos as long give the provided photo credit. So here’s the photo followed by the credit.

Installation view: Paired, Gold: Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Roni Horn, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 2, 2009–January 6, 2010 Works shown, foreground: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Golden), 1995; background: Roni Horn, Gold Field, 1980–82 
Photo: David Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Welcome to the new neighborhood.

After years of planning, rezoning, and what seems like endless starts and stops, the new condos next to my house are finally nearing completion. And this is what it now looks like next door.

With such a fancy dancy building next door, my house is looking a little tired. So I’m working on fixing things up. First fix was a new fence. Sure I’m still waiting for my gate even though I ordered it three months ago. But with the landscaping in next door, the new fence is looking great.

I also had my crumbly chimneys repaired and they’ve never looked better.

Next up, a new paint job.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Kiss today goodbye.

Wow. Who knew a regional production of an American musical could overwhelm me with so many memories and emotions. But Pioneer Theater Company’s production of A Chorus Line did just that.
On the way to the theater I remembered how much I wanted the original cast recording when I was in high school. That was 1976 and I lived in Worland, Wyoming. Not only could you not download the album on iTunes. You couldn’t even find the LP anywhere near my home town. But that’s what I wanted for Christmas and my mom is all about delivering on what one wants for Christmas. So she called my aunt in Denver and asked her to buy the album. My aunt bought the album and sent it to my mother with a warning that A Chorus Line was immoral and featured all kinds of objectionable material. To my mom’s credit, she still gave me the album.
During Pioneer Theater Company’s performance, I was also reminded how much I love the songs, maybe because as a member of the Polyphonics (Worland High School’s answer to Glee), one of my favorite Polyphonic performances was a medley from the show.
Thank god PTC delivered. This was a great cast. With spectacular dancing, great singing, and some powerfully emotional performances, this was a production that hit me hard. Probably because A Chorus Line presented so many great gay characters at a time when being a gay teenager was just plain impossible.
“The sweetness and the sorrow.” I couldn’t agree more.

My original cast recording (on vinyl no less) of A Chorus Line.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

I went to a dance performance and all I got was this lousy PowerPoint.

These days I hate writing bad reviews because more people have started paying attention to my blog. And I’m not the type of person that likes to talk smack. But sometimes you gotta tell it like you see it.

At least I can start with the good: The first half of Repertory Dance Theatre’s (RDT) recent program, Elements. It was a nifty little review of dance from the past 40 years. Earth (1969) by choreographer Paul Sanasardo is surprisingly current. Created especially for RDT, the work “explores the gradual evolution of man’s technology and asks to what extent man’s intricate technology will evolve?” I don’t think you could ask a question more relevant to 2009. And kudos to guest dancer Robert Goodman. Usually the outsiders seem distanced. But Goodman was spectacular.

Rainwood (1977) by choreographer Ze’eva Cohen used the sounds of birds, frogs, and insects to create a backdrop for some sterling movement. The strangeness of the soundtrack melded with the dance to create an ecological postcard, a reminder of our responsibility to the environment. Once again, it was a perfectly current statement.

And then there was The Lady of the Lake (2004) choreographed by Francie Lloyd and performed by M. Colleen Hoelscher. Let’s start with Hoelsher. Wow! This was a performance, stunningly danced with controlled athleticism and precision. I loved the moments danced on the razor thin edges of the water tank. And it can’t be easy dancing on a wet stage. Which brings me to the water. I’m not sure why we don’t see more dancers splashing around on stage because well-lit moving water is a great effect. And combined with great choreography, it’s down right spectacular. [A side note: I was disappointed to see the three front rows of the theater empty. As a former performing-arts marketer, I would have made a big publicity deal out of the splash zone. After all, the only other shows I’ve been to with splash zones are Cirque du Soleil’s O and the Blue Man Group. And this splash zone didn’t just feature water, there was rice too. See below.]

Then things took a turn for the worse. The second half of the show started with Artistic/Executive Director Linda C. Smith offering a PowerPoint presentation. Yes, I said PowerPoint presentation. And this wasn’t even a good PowerPoint presentation. The opening slide featured the RDT logo with absolutely zero clear space and it was so pixilated it would have been more at home in a game of Pac Man. And there was plenty of clunky type and awkward wording. I know I work in advertising and I’m probably more sensitive to this stuff than most. But representing your organization this poorly is just plain unprofessional.

Even the content was lackluster. This was all part of RDT’s Green Map Project: A new community building initiative choreographed by Zvi Gotheiner (Zvi, say it isn’t so!) and RDT Dancers. When you have to spend this much time trying to explain a performance, it’s a good sign that you might want to reconsider the whole project. Save these boring, instructional lectures for the fifth graders. No wait, don’t show this to the school kids, they may never attend another dance performance. Maybe the dancing that followed was OK, but I was so stunned by the PowerPoint presentation (yes, I said PowerPoint presentation), that it all left me cold to the point of shivering.

The final work on the program was Ghost Ship (2007) choreographed by Eric Handman. The staging for this work was beautiful and involved 120 pounds of rice falling from high above the stage, like an hourglass counting down the minutes. Neither the choreography, nor the dancing lived up to the theatrical staging. But I’m guessing dancing on rice in bare feet isn’t a whole lot of fun.

I’m a fan so I’ll be back for RDT’s next performance. Hopefully without the PowerPoint.

So you know you can dance.

This review is a little late but it’s been a busy couple of weeks. However, we can now say that the performing arts season is officially in full swing. And for me it startedwith Ririe-Woodbury’s opening show, Equilibrium. And if this show is any indication, we’re in for a great year.

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The show opened with It’s Gonna Get Loud, a world premiere by Karole Armitage. I saw a preview of this work at an open rehearsal earlier this summer. I enjoyed the rehearsal but the work was better fully staged and lit. In fact, this whole show was a reminder that lighting really matters. Armitage demanded a lot from the dancers with her rock and raging style. And the dancers delivered with strong, physical performances.

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Next on the program, a choreographoff. Four choreographers from Utah Universities were invited to create short, humorous works based on the idea of social change. The audience was invited to vote for their favorites. The winner received $1,000 and a place in Ririe-Woodbury’s repertory.

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The four works were a reminder that Utah has a seriously high level of dance talent. Two works in particular stood out. Kay Anderson (Southern Utah University) delivered on the humor requirement with Flavor of the Day, a witty, accurate assessment of the male need to get the girl. Erin Lehua Brown sparkled as the lone female resisting the advances of three men. Brown was a highlight on the entire program. It’s hard to take your eyes off a dancer this good.

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For me, the easy winner of the contest was Erik Stern’s (Weber State University) Unlikely Ritual. Stern denied gimmickry in favor of solid choreography, good dance, and style. This is the work I want to see again with its strange mob mentality punctuated with manic outbursts. It felt like a reference to all the mobiness/craziness of the modern world with its Facebook and its Twitter. I’m guessing Flavor of the Day will win based on audience reaction. But Stern’s work should be part of the company’s repertoire.

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The first half ended with the world premiere of Charlotte Boye-Christensen’s Turf. I’m sure glad the leadership team at Ririe-Woodbury invited Charlotte to be part of the artistic staff. Because her works are always smart, exciting, and captivating. Not to mention physical. And congratulations to the dancers (particularly newcomer Prentice Whitlow who's off to an awfully good start) for keeping up with the choreography.

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My favorite piece on the program was a piece we’ve seen Ririe-Woodbury perform before. But it’s definitely worth a second see. Down By the River was choreographed by Carolyn Carlson, inspired by the American Poet A.R. Ammons. This work is theatrical, demandingly precise, and a pleasure to watch, something you don't often about contemporary dance. Here again, the dancers were brilliant.