Sunday, March 27, 2011

"I know now that I have not yet been in love."

Last Friday, I went with my sister and some friends to see Nederlands Dance Theater, one of the most famous and well-respected contemporary dance companies in the world. We went with high expectations. We wished to be thrilled, impressed, inspired, agog. We desired insensibility dealt by beauty. We wanted theater with capital letters.We wanted the only thing that you should want when you sit yourself down in the dark, velvet cradle, which is to be completely and generously not bored.

The shock of getting a wish granted is infrequent. How does it feel?

It feels affecting enough that you say things you might otherwise be embarrassed to air in ordinary life. Things like, "I know now that I have not yet been in love," which is exactly what one of my friends said while we stood in the lobby afterward, engaged in post-performance dissection. She said it with humor, of course, but not irony.

Art is a tool for understanding the world. It holds it still long enough so we can see it. And if a dance performance can make you understand a little more about something as vast and strange as love, even if you can't explain it, exactly, in words, then that makes the minutes spent (from such a finite store!) on a night at the theater worth it.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


For what it's worth:

burns : work will be performing an excerpt of the piece we're working on as part of a program featuring Alyce Finwall Dance Theater on the 30th and 31st at The Garage in San Francisco. The Garage is a tiny, but rather fiercely eclectic venue. It is, literally, a converted garage. Our piece is still only at the beginning stages, but we've started to explore some great ideas and this is a chance for us to take raw material and see how it fares under the eyes of an audience.

Some of my amazing dance friends work with Alyce, and these shows will hopefully help them raise funds for a tour to the Joyce SoHo in NY, so I'm really glad we get to share the experience with them.

Howl. Carson Stein and Joy Prendergast, two of my favorite people and dancers, performed at the Togonon Gallery as part of Dance Anywhere, an event that incited dance performances all over San Francisco in unexpected places and would probably have been immensely successful if it weren't for the terrible weather. Here's a video of them at work. Choreography by Malinda LaVelle.

"The Speaking Bone" Kat Howard, who has, just this week, saved my sanity when I thought I had tumbled down the rabbit-hole of a non-existent story (never underestimate the power of friends who can help you shine flashlights at dark and scary first drafts), has a story in the current issue of Apex Magazine. I am continually astonished by how Kat makes her stories bigger on the inside than their length would seem to merit. They unpack themselves inside your head as you read them and often leave an unexpected bruise.

One of my favorite people in the whole world is coming back to California. I am so happy about this that if I think too hard about it, I might burst.

For Coco. I can't wait til our clocks have the same face.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

books of pleasure, #1

I have a compulsion to finish every book that I start. The guilt ignited by a book set aside with a slip of paper marking a place somewhere before its end is enormous. You have to give it a chance, I tell myself, and unless the book is offensively terrible (and I can only think of one that was so hated that it ended up across the room, on the floor, and then in a box marked "DONATION," after 20 pages), I do. I will skim. I will even skip, whole chunks if necessary, but I will give the book its chance, all the way to the end.

(This is sometimes how I feel about dates as well, which is an altogether more worrying habit.)

But sometimes books are unadulterated pleasure, nothing but from beginning to end. These are my ten picks from a year's worth of reading (plus one sentence--or more. I cheat--from my first round review.) that I would prescribe for any kind of malaise.

1. The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan
Sagan offers such enthusiasm about the world as it is, such abundant pleasure in the discovery of knowledge, and such absolute faith in both our capacity to understand and the vastness of what we attempt to understand.

2. Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller
All of the virtue she presents begins to peel away, and still I balance on this razor of sympathy, quite sure that I'm not getting the whole story, but almost believing her anyway.

3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
This book made me say, "really?" and "I can't believe that actually happened" and "people are amazing" and "people are awful" and "I am so freaking lucky to be living in a world where this kind of thing is real, and where someone will tell the whole mucky, awesome story of it."

4. The Cardturner by Louis Sachar
It's a story about figuring out that you love somebody, and it puts in all the expected bits -- the awkward, embarrassing, thrilling parts -- as well as all the bits that are unexpected but immediately recognizable as true.

5. Doing It by Melvin Burgess
Messy, awkward, imaginary, gorgeous, fantasized, humiliating, wonderful.

6. Not Now, Bernard by David McKee
It is an unapologetically, unexpectedly, remorselessly strange story about a boy who gets eaten by a monster.

7. Blackout by Connie Willis
Blackout is responsible for a few days of sleep deprivation.

8. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
It’s saturated with the kind of revelations that explode the mundane and offers them with such humor and intelligence that it’s an absolute pleasure to discover how unfamiliar we are with the contents of our own heads.

9. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
I don't know why it took me so long to get around to reading this. It is absolutely brilliant. It made me cry.

10. Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood
The world is messed up by people who are messed up, and in the midst of all the shiny bells and whistles, the luminous, giant bunnies and self-propelled myths, what is the thing that really gets you in the gut? That would be the reduction of the world to interactions of two.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

evidence, on film

Liss Fain Dance posted video excerpts of "The False and True are One," the piece we performed at Z Space/Theater Artaud in December and (in a slightly modified version) at the Mill Valley Public Library in February.

The piece was unusual in that it invited, encouraged, and demanded a certain kind of audience participation by transforming a proscenium stage space into four rooms separated by walls of varying transparency that the audience walked through to see the dance. The choreography is by Liss Fain, the music was composed (and mixed live) by Dan Wool, the production and lighting design is by Matthew Antaky, and Jeri Lynn Cohen is our fantastic narrator who reads short stories by Lydia Davis. The piece is also about 45 minutes long, and since we never actually leave the "stage," surprisingly intense. My white silk dress was thoroughly soaked after every show.

Most of the footage is from our dress rehearsal, except for the last video, which cuts together little snippets from an actual performance (I had no idea someone was filming us from above!). Anyway. This is me, dancing.

Excerpt 1: Me, Bethany Mitchell, Shannon Kurashige

Excerpt 2: Shannon's "Caveman Duet" with Private Freeman.

Excerpt 3: Alec Lytton hauls me through the air.

Excerpt 4: Shannon, Private, Bethany, and Jennifer Beamer Fernandez dance to "Happy Memories"

Bits and pieces from the whole thing, with the audience

Sunday, March 6, 2011

I want to change the world.

This hasn't been a lifelong ambition. I was never the kind of kid who wanted to be an astronaut or the President of the United States. I never wanted to be a doctor in an impoverished country, or an activist on a crusade. I never wanted to dream up technology. I never wanted to teach young children. I never wanted to be a knight in shining armor. I had no delusions about my chances of being heroic.

I was a self-possessed child, and I took it as a matter of course that I would throw my life, the whole kit and caboodle of it, after some sort of vocation, but only because I loved it. The world could go off to another room and close the door, for all I cared.

And now I find myself rather older and still committed to the things I fell in love with while young and impressionable, but haunted and obsessed by the need for it all to matter.

I can argue for why dance should matter and why stories so often do. It's easy to list the reasons for why you should go to the theater, why you should read a book. Pleasure, obviously. And beauty. The exercise of compassion, the shock of empathy, the way you are given transportation outside of your own experience and into the lives of others. An education in being a human being.

I can tell you, emphatically and with no equivocation, that the pursuit of dance and the pursuit of writing have made me a better person. They shaped my character, enforced ideals, and trained me to think with rigor and imagination. I would not change that education for any other... And, yet...

The last time I went to the theater, I saw an extravagant production featuring one of the most famous dancers in the world. I arrived early, so I went up to the cafe and had a cup of tea and leaned over the railing of the second floor promenade to watch people wander in across the lobby. They were all, almost without exception, older, obviously well-off, and spectacularly, breathtakingly bored. They seemed prepared to see something pretty, to have a cocktail, and to go home; there was so little expectation for anything more that I found myself uncomfortably depressed.

And now I find myself worrying, more than usual, about a person's responsibility to change the world. Is it right, is it good, is it a meaningful use of the privileges that I've been given if my life pursuits have such a narrow range of effect? I sometimes think about how much easier it would be, in certain ways, to go back to school, even this late in the game, and become something more clearly beneficial. Would I feel less conflicted about the minutes that I keep inexorably spending if I were a doctor, or lobbyist, or an investigative reporter?

It might be incredibly obnoxious to say that I want to change the world, but I do. Not necessarily in any grand or great or indelible way, but relevance seems like something we owe when we are so lucky as to do the things we love.
I so very badly want for this to be true.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

point of no return

When I am writing a story, there is always a point when I know that I can no longer turn back. There is an ending and I am falling toward it, like a marble that's been dropped down a series of connected tubes. Procrastination and free will won't deter it, and neither will manipulations of things like plot and character and color of the wallpaper. In some cases, I know what the ending looks like, and sometimes I don't recognize it until it hits me in the face; but once I pass the point of no return (and that's how I think of it... sometimes I hesitate because I know that, somewhere along the way, the story will clasp me to its chest and I will be doomed, but I never know how long a reach it will have), there's nothing that I can do except go onward to the end.
I am, for some reason, completely obsessed with "All You Need is a Separation Barrier," a short audio documentary by Niall Farrell. And though I'm delighted by the Third Coast International Audio Festival site in general, it being full of treasures and useful inspiration, I keep going back to Farrell's piece and listening to the litany of walls.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

february reading

The Imperfectionists
by: Tom Rachman

I was told to read this book by several people, but I didn't actually pick it up until I heard Rachman being interviewed on the radio. It is a wonderful book. It's about the kind of things that make up real life and yet can so often be tiresome in fiction--love affairs, regrets, embarrassments, choices, work, sex and age and death. But this novel is a collection of tiny, intense portraits that you fall into. Stories that are bigger on the inside than you might expect. Reading it puts you inside the skin of eleven other people living eleven other lives, and the illusion is incredibly satisfying,

(forthcoming: May 2011)
by: Veronica Roth

Dystopic adventure romp for teenagers. A clever, if rather unbelievable, portrait of the future. I mostly liked the characters and enjoyed the story, but found the romance tiresome. I can see it being incredibly popular though, and it would be a perfect fit for kids who like both Suzanne Collins and Tamora Pierce.

Red Glove
by: Holly Black
(forthcoming: April 2011)

I think this series is absolutely delicious. I love stories about clever, clever con men with hearts of gold, and the addition of magic makes it absurdly fun. Visual candy for the imagination. I like the nastiness that the story insists on, the way it doesn't offer absolution with bloodless crimes or simple characters. The people in this world are people who I want to spend time with because I find them fascinating, not because I'd want them for friends, and that is refreshing.

Shades of Milk and Honey
by: Mary Robinette Kowal

I love Jane Austen, so I was very dubious when my friend, Kat, sent me this book. Jane Austen with magic did not sound promising (though much more promising than Jane Austen with zombies). But this was fun. Reading it was comforting and comfortable. The story was unsurprising and satisfying, and I mean that as a compliment. It takes that almost entirely made up world that we're so familiar with from movies and BBC specials and simply elevates it to another level of fantasy.

The Bradbury Report
by: Steven Polansky

Mixed bag. There were some things that I thought were spectacularly done in this novel, and some that I thought were too easy and worn. I think it might be because it takes on that ever popular idea of human clones being brought into the world for spare parts and doesn't say anything particularly new, though it does wallow in the disturbing experience of confronting your own life to a degree that I thought was quite unflinching and bold.

by: Guy Kawasaki

I read this because I'm interviewing Kawasaki for work, and was surprised by how much I ended up enjoying it. Kawasaki offers some very good advice about communicating with people, dressed up as a book about promoting ideas and yourself successfully. It's clear, unpretentious, and almost ridiculously enthusiastic.