May 2008

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Seeing Mark Morris dance the part of Dido and her alter ego The Sorceress at the Boston premiere of “Dido and Aeneas” in 1989 was one of those nights at the theatre I’ve never forgotten. What a fortuitous combination of Purcell’s music, exquisitely ordered but emotionally fraught, with Morris’ infectiously seductive, inventive and extremely contemporary choreography. But the “over the top” energy came from seeing Morris in his element, embodying the de-gendering of dance that he began at the beginning of his career. He was utterly arresting as Queen Dido. I never wanted the performance to come to an end.

On Wednesday we went to see the production again. In the 19 years between these performances, Morris has continued to go both horizontal and vertical in his choreographic explorations. His sensibilities about how movement and music come together have made him a legend throughout the world. This time he did not dance the part of the Queen but conducted the musicians and singers of Emmanuel Music.

Having the part of Dido and the Sorceress danced by a woman, Amber Darragh (who was stunning in both roles), shifted the theatrical experience of the piece. Much the way you can see 10 different productions of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and find yourself enchanted by each one, I was spellbound by this version as well. I agree with Thea Singer’s comments about how the casting change shifted the performance, offering up yet another moving envisioning of this story of heartbreak. (Singer’s review appeared in the Boston Globe and has been included at the bottom of this post.)

Ever since seeing the production on Wednesday night I have been thinking about artists who can build on an existing classical form–be it poetry, music or art–and crack open new and exciting territory. The ones that work are not simply revisions or retellings–new wine in old bottles–but an elixir with the fragrance of the familiar as well as something you can’t quite identify. The foundational respect for the original work is there but in perfect balance with what has been melded in. Morris climbs into Purcell’s music and alchemizes it with contemporary movement. It is a kind of evocation.

I asked similar questions about Richard Meier’s controversial museum in Rome, the Ara Pacis. It’s a worthy topic for further exploration, so more to come on these issues.

***
In the beginning – 1989, when it premiered – Mark Morris’s magnificent opera-cum-dance “Dido and Aeneas” was Mark Morris. The then-34-year-old not only choreographed its exquisitely interlocking gestures and stomps and bold architectonic traffic to Purcell’s 1689 opera, he also played two lead characters: Dido, the noble queen of Carthage, and the Sorceress, who’s bent on Dido’s undoing because the former is so much like herself.

He stopped dancing in the piece in 2000. No one, I thought, could take the place of Morris – big-boned and master of the shimmy, curly locks flying – in the dual role. But Wednesday night’s performance, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, proved that maybe no one has to.

Mark Morris is larger than life. With him at its core, “Dido and Aeneas” was, yes, the tragic love-and-loss story Purcell had derived from Virgil’s “Aeneid,” but it was also about him: Morris’s sexuality, Morris’s daring, Morris’s preoccupation with divining the two sides of a single coin: “one noble, one ignoble, version of the same truth,” as Joan Acocella put it in her 1993 biography of him.

Yet this rendition of “Dido” – with Amber Darragh in the dual role of Queen/Sorceress on Wednesday night – may suit Morris’s stylized, ritualistic choreography even better than the original. Darragh, too, is big boned, with curls asunder (though far more refined, on both counts, than Morris). She is regal as the Queen and deliciously naughty as the Sorceress. But in this production, both female leads have shrunk; they now fit neatly into the frame of the work as a whole. Morris has, as if casting a bas-relief in reverse, brought the chorus – 10 members of the Mark Morris Dance Group – to the fore.

Even though Morris has disappeared from the stage, he is still intrinsic to the performance. Here he takes over the role of conductor of the musicians, chorus, and vocal soloists of Emmanuel Music – all of them sunk in the orchestra pit while the dancers take center stage. At the start of the evening, both the dance and the music struck me as a bit tinny, lighter than I remembered them from the Morris-centric original. But as the work proceeded, either they gathered heft or I readjusted, absorbing Morris’s new vision.

With a libretto by Nahum Tate, Purcell’s opera follows Aeneas as he joins and then leaves Dido, with whom he’s smitten following the fall of Troy, when his ships wash ashore in Carthage. The Sorceress intervenes, sending a spirit to deliver a message purportedly from Jupiter hastening Aeneas on his way to Italy to found the Roman Empire. The message comes at a particularly inopportune moment: The pair have just made love (“one night enjoy’d,” chastely in the text; a single spasm in the dance), which Dido has taken as a vow of marriage. To her, even Aeneas’s thought of leaving is an ultimate betrayal. She dies from grief.

Morris’s “Dido and Aeneas” takes the tragedy and sculpts it – with angular friezes and two-dimensional posturing, hieroglyph arms and symbolic gesturing, some grafted from American Sign Language – into an emotionally gripping structure of fateful proportions. Its movements ache: Dido, her hands plastered vertically, fingertips to wrist, on her chest, shoots her legs open into a diamond. Often, among many players, a hand pushes up a torso, then exits, fingers splayed, as if spewed from the mouth. The movement, set in five scenes, is played out almost line for line to Purcell’s score. Even the 10 dancers in the chorus – be they courtiers, witches, spirits, or sailors – have distinct roles that correspond to the soprano, tenor, alto, or bass parts of the music.

It is that chorus, along with Dido’s sister, Belinda (the delicate Maile Okamura), that – even more than Dido – are the Everywoman of the “Dido” myth. They, taken together, are Everywoman betrayed, Everywoman abandoned by love. They are fate realized, with arms outstretched, wrists cocked, fingers archly splayed.

At the end of the drama, in a movement phrase that made me cry, Dido plucks at her palm, as if pulling an attenuated thread through cloth, then arcs backward. She delivers the echoing message: “Remember me! But ah! Forget my fate.” But it is the chorus, as its members exit somberly two by two through the slit in Robert Bordo’s beautiful blue Aegean Sea of a backdrop, who drive that message home: “With drooping wings ye Cupids come/And scatter roses on her tomb/Soft and gentle as her heart; Keep here your watch, and never part.”

Thea Singer
The Boston Globe

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A Surprise in the Peninsula

When I came in that night I found
the skin of a dog stretched flat and
nailed upon my wall between the
two windows. It seemed freshly killed –
there was blood at the edges. Not
my dog: I have never owned one,
I rather dislike them. (Perhaps
whoever did it knew that.) It
was a light brown dog, with smooth hair;
no head, but the tail still remained.
On the flat surface of the pelt
was branded the outline of the
peninsula, singed in thick black
strokes into the fur: a coarse map.
The position of the town was
marked by a bullet-hole, it went
right through the wall. I placed my eye
to it, and could see the dark trees
outside the house, flecked with moonlight.
I locked the door then, and sat up
all night, drinking small cups of the
bitter local coffee. A dog
would have been useful, I thought, for
protection. But perhaps the one
I had been given performed that
function; for no one came that night,
not for three more. On the fourth day
it was time to leave. The dog-skin
still hung on the wall, stiff and dry
by now, the flies and the smell gone.
Could it, I wondered, have been meant
not as a warning, but a gift?
And, scarcely shuddering, I drew
the nails out and took it with me
.

–Fleur Adcock

I found this poem while I was in England, and since then I’ve read it at least 30 times. It feels so personally primal, delivered with a harsh viscerality that burns right through me.

The primary image is haunting, a stripped and earthy rawness that is tinged with ambient, unformed fear. The themes speak to a deep place in me: Protection coming from where you least expect it; life outside being viewed through a hole shot through the wall; a willingness to sit with slow and odorous putrefaction; the instinct that will claim this ghoulish remnant as a talisman. The visionary quality of this poem has cast an unshakable spell on me.

Fleur Adcock has been one of my favorite poets ever since I was introduced to her haunting “Weathering” by David Whyte 20 years ago. A gentle and comforting acknowledgement of being a woman and how one can age with grace, that poem does not belong on the same page as this one—a poem that reads more like an open wound. Of course with time, we get around to encountering all the difficult passages that happen in living a life, ageing and open wounds being just two.

A note about the image: This is a portion of a large scale drawing by Chuck Holtzman hanging in the MFA in Boston, with the faint reflection of me in the glass. This drawing has become a kind of personal talisman for my art making self these last few months as I have sat in the silence.

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Has it happened, are there more blogs now than people on the planet? The uncontrollable sprawl of online scribblers has led to a lot of pondering in the media lately, with cultural critics ready to unpack and dissect the implications of this curious new form of expression and interconnection.

I have intentionally kept clear of this increasingly overexposed dissection of blogs, bloggers, blogging, the blogosphere, the battle for airtime and audience grab. It isn’t because I feel untouched by these issues because that isn’t the case. I’m a blogger like a gazillion other people. But it wasn’t until I read the New York Times magazine cover article on Sunday by Emily Gould that I realized just how much I was chafing against the increasing meaninglessness of the term “blogger.”

If you didn’t read Gould’s article, it was a tell all confession of a highly charged, high profile case of “he said/she said”, one that can happen when you live your life out loud, online, without much in the way of editing. Gould began as a blogger who openly shared the details of her relationships and personal life, was hired to be an editor at the now infamous website Gawker, pissed off a lot of people particularly when she defended the ethos of Gawker’s celebrity stalking, lost her job, became a target just as she had targeted others, and now is reconsidering just what it all meant. Gould is 24 years old, which explains a lot. Tact and temperance were not qualities I had honed when I was her age either.

But Gould’s confessional mea culpa—with a twist (there’s always a twist)—has been bouncing in my head for days. Her compulsive need to “overshare” (her term) is a feature of her personality she says, and even though she would like to search and destroy many of her earlier and unwise postings, she seems committed to continue her maturation process online, in full view of the public. Reading her New York Times account has inspired me to articulate my own reasons for writing and for making the determinations about what I share and what I do not.

I have a few favorite bloggers who are regular self-scrutinizers. D at Joe Felso: Ruminations recently wrote one of his ever thoughtful postings on his own blogging oeuvre, including some ideas about where he would like to take his site. Another favorite, G, who currently captains the excellent Writer Reading, taxonomized the categories of bloggers on one of her previous blog incarnations. (I particularly liked the label “Sheherazadists” for bloggers like G–yes, another G name–at How to Survive Suburban Life who use the blogging form to write about their life story in a series of vignette postings.) C at Mariachristina has written about the constraints of writing without the cover of an alias or avatar. She has had to truncate her observations and expressions in order to respect the privacy of her family and friends. The analytical and intellectually probing J at little essays often asks out loud what her blog should and could be, particularly during a time when she is pressured with pursuing an advanced degree in art history and expecting her second child.

I am not of the Gould mold. If anything, I am an undersharer. The oft-evoked distinction Stevens makes in “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” between inflection and innuendo has resonance for me. I want to be subjective, to a point. Idea driven, to a point. Personal, to a point.

I am not a journalist, a confessionalist, or memoirist or a dialectician. The closest analog I can find to describe my aspirations for this blog is my aspirations for my paintings: Evocative, but not manipulative. Suggestive, but not formulaic. Mysterious but not self conscious. Memorable and yet personal, sized for a human being.

One of my favorite descriptions of an artist is from Donald Winnicott and seems apropos for blogging as well:

“Artists are continually torn between the urgent need to communicate, and the still more urgent need not to be found.”

Gould’s blogging style of full disclosure is probably more in keeping with an increasingly confessional, privacy-blind culture. I for one am in search for something more. Or perhaps something less.

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A few views of the Lake District, where color and stillness speak

Ask Me

Sometime when the river runs ice, ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt — ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

–William Stafford

This is a time when words coming from me seem less than complete. During more fluid times, I have been able to find many ways to speak what feels real, to sidle up to the warm body that is my own version of Truth. Stafford, in his signature laconic voice that is both immense and tiny at the same time, captures more of this morning’s energy than my circling about trying to name what may not be nameable, trying to create order where perhaps none is meant to be. Tolle advises that not knowing is not confusion. Confusion is when you think you should know and you don’t. On this summer morning, what the river knows is enough for me.

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Maybe you are like me. Maybe you too get easily seduced by the pace and pitch of another culture. Whenever I return from being and breathing with fellow humans who don’t speak my language and are refreshingly free of the troubles that plague anyone who lives in this country right now, reentry is a slow drying out. Of course I missed my beloveds, both friends and family, but what a much needed break from an invasive, oversaturated, misaligned cultural context that feels oppressive to me. It feels like the jackhammer out your bedroom window, the one that starts at 6am and doesn’t let up all day. The one that no one asked if you minded.

I spent the last week with my daughter Kellin in Florence. She is working on her masters in art history and is currently the most single minded person of my acquaintance. Her life has been streamlined free of the time-draining distractions that certainly eat up hours of my days, like feeling obligated to read the New York Times, to answer every email and to know the standings in both baseball leagues. Climbing into her canopied life was like coming face to face with the underside of a mushroom–an intricate, fragrant, fragile complexity. It is no wonder that she hopes to spend many more years living there.


Kellin portraying Mary in a Mannerist style

Her passions are infectious, and her latest is Mannerist art. So in addition to my usual pilgrimages to see everything by Giotto and Simone Martini in both Sienna and Florence, I was given a thorough list of where to find the Pontormos, the Rossos, the Bronzinos and the Del Sartos. I’m an easy convert, but I am convinced she could win anyone over to the pleasures of these amazing artists.

We’ll be back in December when she presents the results of her research. That is just six months away, but it is a point in the future to measure my own success at simplifying, singleminding, purifying my intentions.


Via Neri, Kellin’s street


Intrepid observer, in the Pantheon


Rome on a Saturday

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What a relief to spend the last few days in a country that doesn’t have a president named Bush. The cheery Cumbrian men who stopped in to repair a leak in the ceiling listened with patience while we complained about how difficult it is to be an American abroad, and then pointed out that the UK is far from trouble free. “Grass always looks greener on the other side, don’t it?”

Fair enough, but this grass feels so good to me right now. Eckhart Tolle talks about creating space around the emotions and thoughts that cause suffering. Just be an observer of them, the watcher. That, he says, is how you can quiet the mind’s incessant chatterings.

The same could be said for the larger zone of the collective consciousness. I am far enough away from my life to see it with a watcher’s eye. And in this place where the land is an open armed welcome and the frequency gentle, I have an excellent perch.

And then of course there is the sacred presence of the ancient evidence, the menhirs and standing stones and stone circles that jewel this landscape with an energy of connection and sanctuary. I feel I am being held tenderly by these 4000 year old structures, sharing an unspoken wisdom from witnessing the passage of time and thousands of human generations.

So for now, I am in a soft surrender. While my eyes and hands are still waiting for the electric current to return me to the studio and to my work, I have no master plan to pursue. The cosmic grid has so many access points, I know I’ll stumble onto one that suits me—in a field, in a meadow, on a fells, by the stream, in the hedge. I’m ready.

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I leave today for England, followed by a visit to Italy to see my daughter Kellin.

The first part of this trip will be spent in the Lake District in Northern England, just south of the Scottish border. I will be staying at the Lodge, in Ivegill, a place that has been masterfully magicized by dear friend Kathryn Kimball. As the gate house to the mansion that once stood down the lane (now a picturesque, overgrown ruin), it seems to serve many of us as a portal, a means of access to other dimensions of ourselves and our reality (not unlike those envisioned by J.K. Rowling.) Ivegill is a place that opens me up to powerful feelings as well as powerful peace. It is a unique brand of halcyonic inebriation, one that can hold both the dark and the light. It was here that my husband David reconstituted himself after a long and very difficult season in his life. It was here that we first learned that our friend Morris had an incurable case of colon cancer. It was here where I have been able to feel an unexpected and deep sense of calm in spite of swirling concerns of every stripe.

I’ll be posting only occasionally during the next two weeks, but will return to a more steady schedule once I am home on May 26th.


Kathryn in Keswick


David at Ivegill


Garden view of the Lodge and yoga sunroom


The “Big House” in a state of poetic decay


View across the lane, a meadow filled with two-toned cows (only in England)

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My interest is ongoing in the poetic mastery of Jorie Graham. Thanks to several readers, especially my friend Pam McGrath, who have responded to many of the issues raised about her work in the Anders essay that I posted last week. (See below for that three-part posting.)

In the spirit of of giving her more recent work a bit more airtime, here is an excerpt from a review by James Longenbach of her latest book, Sea Change, from the New York Times. In the last paragraph he addresses Graham’s proclivity to perpetually reshape the course of her work, a quality that Logenbach compares with two other favorite poets, Ashbery and Glück:

For 30 years Jorie Graham has engaged the whole human contraption — intellectual, global, domestic, apocalyptic — rather than the narrow emotional slice of it most often reserved for poems. She thinks of the poet not as a recorder but as a constructor of experience. Like Rilke or Yeats, she imagines the hermetic poet as a public figure, someone who addresses the most urgent philosophical and political issues of the time simply by writing poems.

Such poetry succeeds as grandeur; it fails as portentousness. In “Sea Change,” Graham traffics in large statements (“the / end of the world can be imagined,” “fish are starving to death in the Great Barrier Reef”), but at times her thought can seem muddled, her diction puzzlingly imprecise, as when she writes that love is “like a thing floating out on a frail but / perfect twig-end.” How do we respond to a poet who is certain about the Great Barrier Reef but evasive about what stands before her eyes?…

Why would a poet feign the inability to find the exact word for the thing at the end of a branch? Are a poet’s errors of perception comparable to the mistakes that raised the temperature of the Gulf Stream, forcing a plum tree in Normandy to blossom out of season?

Rather than answering such questions, Graham asks them, leaving herself vulnerable; what is intended as open-endedness may also feel, again, like portentousness. But the fact that some aspects of Graham’s work are more fully realized than others seems, while not uninteresting, oddly beside the point. What matters, as with Ashbery and Glück, other poets who perpetually challenge the terms of their own achievement, is the shape of the career — not only what she has done but what she will inevitably do next. There will be “a time again in which to make,” Graham writes, “the imagined human / paradise.”

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During a time when I am still sitting in the silence—in the thinking and feeling rather than the doing, making, manifesting—my thoughts have been drawn to examples of significant disruptions in the flow of artistic output. Not just my own, but others.

Probably the standout example from the recent past that is pointed to most frequently (and which I have written about here previously) is the painter Philip Guston. In the early 1970s his work turned rather quickly from a career of lyrical abstraction to the caricatured world of goons, rednecks and Klansmen, a Southern version of a Mad Maxian nightmare. He said he wanted to “paint things as if one had never seen them before, as if one had come from another planet…to paint as a cave man would.” I was a young painter at the time, and the shock of that shift is one of my most salient memories of reoriented response to an artist whose earlier work I adored.

Thoughts about this radical shift were prompted by reading a Ken Johnson review in the New York Times of a current show of his drawings at the Morgan Library. (An excerpt of that review is posted on Slow Painting today.) According to the review, Guston stopped painting in 1966 and did nothing but draw for two years. He wanted to “clear the decks.”

Although it took me years, I did finally come to terms with Guston’s last phase (he died in 1980.) I “came to terms” in the sense that I spent hours looking at his work and reading what he wrote about it. At a retrospective of his work at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge several years ago, I watched several documentaries made about this shift, and the evolution came to make more sense to me. As Johnson states in his review of this phase of Guston’s output, “suddenly all the ideas and preoccupations that abstraction had no use for come pouring out.”

I’m not contemplating a shift in my own work of that magnitude, but I do feel a sea change that is still unnamed and more inchoate than clear. Unlike Guston, I do not have a sense that there are ideas and preoccupations that my life long interest in non-representationalism cannot hold. But Guston’s willingness to “go naked” and follow where his sensibilities led regardless is an extraordinary gesture of guts. Overidentification with a particular aesthetic, technique or process results in the same troubles that we encounter in our psyches when we overidentify with our own story, our highly subjective (and usually painfully inaccurate) sense of who we think we are. As the spiritual traditions advise, achieving wisdom means you have to give up your story, your safe concept of what reality is. The wisdom path demands that you start the day by breaking yourself apart. Then the next morning, you wake up and break yourself apart again.

To all this I say yes. Notwithstanding, this passage about Guston’s earlier work, written by Lawrence Weschler in his book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, still rings true for what a great piece of art does for me:

I remember one time, for instance, seeing this small Philip Guston hanging next to a large James Brooks. Now, the Brooks was a big painting on every scale: it had five major shapes in it — a black shape, a reed, a green — big areas, big shapes, with strong, major value changes, hue changes. Next to it was this small painting, with mute pinks and greys and greens, very subtle. It was one of those funny little Guston kind of scrumbly paintings, a very French kind of painting…[m]y discovery was that from 100 yards away — this was just one of those little breakthroughs — that from this distance of 100 yards, I looked over, and that godd*mned Guston… Now, I’m talking not on quality, and not on any assumption of what you like or don’t like, but on just pure strength, which was one of the things we were into. Strength was a big word in abstract expressionism; you were trying to get power into the painting, so that the painting really vibrated, had life to it. It wasn’t just colored shapes sitting flat. It had to do with getting a real tension going in the thing, something that made the thing really stand up and hum… Well, that godd*mned Guston just blew the Brooks right off the wall.

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Luc Tuymans’ paintings have an atmosphere all their own. They stand out whenever I have seen them on display, with that signatory diluted palette and the painterly, brushstroked surface. His content is usually identifiable and yet the paintings have a mystery to them that makes them feel more aligned to non-representational work. Although much younger than Gerhard Richter, the giant of German contemporary painting, Tuymans shares similarities with Richter (another artist whose work I adore) in the way he uses photographs as source material, the cropping of images and the highlightly of subject matter that is often, on the surface, rather mundane.

Tuymans has achieved that rarefied success in the international art world that is reserved for a select few. I have seen his work on display in museums and galleries everywhere–Europe, Asia, Australia, the United States. So it is rather interesting that he agreed to conduct a version of the “Joshua Bell playing in the subway” experiment in his home town of Antwerp. (A description and link to the video are posted on Slow Painting.)

While the design of the “experiment” that anonymousizes great art or music in public spaces can be criticized, the issue of art and context is still relevant. And the visibility of these stagings with the likes of a Joshua Bell and a Luc Tuymans may shift what we as mere pedestrians on a city street expect. I’d like to think that more people have been opened up to the possibility of seeing and hearing a moment of greatness outside the context of a concert hall or gallery.

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