Sunday, January 22, 2012

sunday movie: Kissing (1900)

An article on Brainpickings sent me to this video. It makes me happy. It breaks down, in 37 seconds, the barrier that missives from the past must often shout through, the sense that those people in grainy black-and-white are not actually real.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

birthday parties

When I was a kid, I had epic birthday parties.

I think that word, in the context of birthday parties, has a whiff of terror about it now. The birthday parties that my sister and I had in childhood were not grossly extravagant or populated by hordes of schoolmates, but they were epic. Things I remember: decorating a table full of small white cakes with friends, each of us armed with colored frosting and plastic dinosaurs (I was in love with dinosaurs); a jungle themed carnival in the backyard, of which I distinctly remember a long sheet of paper painted to look like the Limpopo River; our panda bear puppet in a cowboy hat perched on a pile of straw bales; riding ponies with a (very) few of my friends across a scrubby California hill; drinking tea out of flowered cups while wearing a flowered dress and a flowered hat.

I'm sure that for our parents, the parties were stressful occasions, but for me (as far as I can remember), they were sheer pleasure.

On Tuesday, I had a birthday party that was just that. Pleasure all the way through. I went with some friends to the Verdi Club in San Francisco, where they have swing dancing and a live band every Tuesday night. The space is clean and large. The music is fantastic. The people, for the most part, are both polite and bracingly enthusiastic. They are there to dance (not to stand morose in corners or leer or wobble around in too high heels and too short skirts) and it doesn't strike them as odd that a group of young-ish people who don't know the proper steps, are nevertheless stomping and hopping and flinging themselves about however their fancy hits them. I got to hold hands with strangers, and look them in the eye, and dance with them. I got to hold hands with friends, and look them in the eye, and dance with them. We had conversations. We sat in corners and listened to music that called up all those magical, old movies where shadows and light feel more important because they're the only things there are. I felt very grown up. I felt very young. At no time did I find myself regarding a passing moment and thinking that it might be better.

It was wonderful.

Friday, January 13, 2012

quotes from a museum night

"What is she doing to that bird?"
"I think she's taking its skin off."
"Is it alive?"


"OH MY GOD, I love those purple puff things!"


"It's like Mars. In a fish."
"Are jellyfish fish?"


"This is so much time. It's so intense. I mean, I wasn't expecting it to be anything like this. I assumed it would be crazy--of course--but, this... This is something else. I mean, all these people... Can I have some of your water?"


"And it shoots water out of that hole there, so it moves backwards."
"And that thing, that part, is that shell or is that flesh?"
"That's flesh. But it hangs over the shell, there. And those are its eyes."


Sunday, January 8, 2012

sunday movie: "Arrow" by Bobbi Jene Smith

Bobbi Jene Smith is one of my favorite dancers in the world to watch. Seeing Bobbi perform is like seeing, apart from you and in the flesh, all these things that you both recognize and never knew about how it feels to be a human being.

Creators: Bobbi Jene Smith & Tom Weinberger
Performers: Bobbi Jene Smith & Christian Burns
Music: Efrim Manuel Menuck


Monday, January 2, 2012

making it up

A little while ago, two of my writer friends, Monica Byrne and Kat Howard, asked me for advice about making up dances. Monica was feeling inspired by a piece of music. Kat was staring down the conviction that Shan and I had latched onto, slowly and in pieces, that having Kat (who is a fencer, but not a dancer) give us the bones of some movement for our project would be interesting, refreshing, and important for the whole idea of collaboration.

I can't say that I have much expertise to offer.

This project that I am bumbling through (madly, happily, blindly) with Kat and Shan is the first thing I've seriously tried to choreograph. I've improvised before. I've had the opportunity to work with choreographers who offer the challenge and respect of both tempered freedom and actual collaboration. But I've never been in the position of generating movement and beating it into a coherent whole. I've never had to build all the pieces of a dance and line them up and see they fall against each other so that they not only ring the bell of idea and emotion, but also carry someone across the landscape of it.

And to have such opportunity and support and brilliant workmates on the first time out... If I look at it too closely, the responsibility of it all makes me feel like the floor will vanish at any moment and I'll be standing on black, empty space.

So, I don't have a vast and comforting history to draw on, but in the course of this first and wonderful project, I have made some movement up. And these are some of the things I thought about.

1. The physical awfulness of grief.
I wanted to make a phrase that contained the physical reaction to loss. A year ago, my grandpa died. My physical reaction to that was so particular and peculiar and vivid that, when I think about it now, there's the factual memory (or, as factual as memory can be) and then there's the other one, all blown-out sensation, strange, high-contrast images, and terrible dreams. The feeling that I'd held my breath too long. The dream where all my bones had turned to compressed dust and were merely awaiting the disturbance that would cause their shape to fall away. How stiff the tops of my shoulders and the sides of my ribcage were, as if my whole body were filled with balloons that had been blown to squealing capacity.

2. Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, terrible television commercials, and semaphore.
Neil Gaiman casually linked to this video and introduced me to the wonderful brilliance of Laurel and Hardy dance routines. Shan and I fell down the rabbit hole of YouTube, and watched videos of L&H, Chaplin, and Keaton to excess. Such finely executed, earnestly played physical comedy is a joy. It tells the audience something, compels attention, and elicits effortless emotional response. It's like a story in mute, shining miniature. And then we saw, I think, a terrible television commercial that showed one person helplessly wilting away from another, and somehow the two things seemed to go together in both of our heads and we wanted to make a duet that ran on shrinking violets, pratfalls, and slapstick. When we started putting it together, other things found their way in: stupid mermaids, crazed folkdancers, and semaphore.

3. Personal tics.
I became obsessed with one sentence in the piece of text that Kat originally sent us for the project. "The first thing you notice about being dead is that you can still see the stars." And it made me wonder. I think that the first thing a person notices about anything is an interesting tic of personality. I wanted to know the identity of  the first things whose absence would strike us. I asked everyone to write lists of small, very specific things that they like and dislike. "I like the feeling of stepping on the gas pedal when you speed." "I don't like the smears on public windows." "I like the way you can see a person's pupil dilate after they blink when you're close enough to notice." (that last is mine... sometimes I'm impressed with my own creepiness.) And then we literally just made up gestures to match the sentences. Two hands chopping down from either side of the head. Rubbing the underside of the throat from left to right on an imaginary pane of glass. Cupping one hand over an eye and drawing it up like a weird jellyfish creature before slapping it down again.

Carson's solo is actually her likes and dislikes, strung together and built up to a full, exaggerated extreme.

4. Movement.
All the images and ideas and shiny, compelling treasures are important to me. They're important in the same way that the collage of disparate images that sit in my head when I'm writing a story are. They're the keys to telling something that will hopefully be true, the little knives that slice inside the workaday statement like, "Oh, yes, it hurts when someone dies," so the skin can be flensed and turned tender side out. But they just sit there, dull and laden with quirk, if there isn't some momentum behind them. I think that the movement itself has to be trusted, to some extent. That you have to follow the impulse that starts up in you when you hear a piece of music, or catch yourself thinking about the way a New Orleans funeral band marches. It might start out as the saddest step-touch in the world, to a sousaphone dirge, but the... I don't think the right word is joy... maybe, pleasure? the pleasure of work and of something coming together... comes from chasing after the little desires and convictions. The way my heels come together makes me want to fall on my face, which makes me want to swing my legs around and slam them on the floor which makes me want to... what?

5. Revision. And do-overs. And many more drafts than one. Also, serendipity.
This has been one of my favorite things. We go in with the bones of an idea, and our dancers take them on. At first, they're relatively faithful. They execute the choreography. But then they fill out their own images, whether they're physical geometry or more fanciful, and things bend. They become completely unrecognizable. And we watch each other and see that it might work to have an explosion, like a magnesium flare, here. Or that this phrase needs to be less jumbled, more stripped. And sometimes really weird, great things happen. Like when we asked Sarah to make a bit of movement based on the idea of flip books. Just a tiny thing that would fill maybe eight counts. And she came up with this gorgeous, three-minute long solo that looks like a sequence of Muybridge photos brought to life.

face to face

Sunday, January 1, 2012

new year's wish

I've put this up elsewhere, but wanted to copy it down here:

Happy new year, dear world. You are quite lovable. Be brave. Be bold. Be foolish and kind. May some of your wishes come true. May you journey far and return home safe. May you fall on your face and trip the light fantastic. May you live another 365 days and remember more of them than you forget.

xoxo, M.