Contributors Archives

Larissa Archer

Conveying the Brilliance and the Chaos of a True Genius: John Neumeier’s ‘Nijinsky’

Lloyd Riggins as Nijinsky dancing as Petrouchka in John Neumeier's "Nijinsky" (photo by Erik Tomasson)

Lloyd Riggins as Nijinsky dancing as Petrouchka in John Neumeier’s “Nijinsky” (photo by Erik Tomasson)

A few people straggled almost unnoticed onto the stage of the War Memorial Opera House before the house lights had dimmed, and they began to talk. Even before the dancing had begun, their presence was an announcement that one had better not expect to see a traditional narrative ballet that opening night. However, the ambition to create a piece that comes close to the innovative prowess of its subject—Vaslav Nijinsky—would require more than an opening gimmick. Nijinsky is still one of dance’s towering figures, and one of the very few who merit the term “genius” both as a performer and a choreographer, blessed with abilities of the practitioner and the visionary. This is the man who envisioned a young faun as a masturbating nymph-chaser, and disguised a ménage à trois as an innocent game of tennis between two women and a man (and that was the cleaned-up version; his original idea was for an all-male cast and even less ambiguity). His ballets incited riots and still look modern today, while other examples of innovative and even revolutionary art softens and grows quaint with time.

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The Messiness of Love, Family, and Identity: Q&A with Lysley Tenorio

Lysley Tenorio (photo by Tara Runyan)

The people of Lysley Tenorio’s story collection, Monstress (Ecco), are straddlers. Most obviously, they straddle cultures. Filipino immigrants in America pine for their native land or wish, often hopelessly, to assimilate indistinguishably into the culture of their adopted home. Life in the Philippines seems just as conflicted; the West’s exported culture muscles out the endeavors of Filipinos, with the Beatles and Hollywood dominating the collective imagination there just as much as they do here.

But Tenorio’s characters also seem to straddle the high and low. He imbues them with profound (but never cheaply sentimental) longings, and with refinement of feeling and self-awareness worthy of poets—while simultaneously placing them neck-deep in kitsch, dragged down by, or simply muddling through, risible circumstances. The world they move in is one of hilariously awful B-horror flicks, faith-healer quackery, cartoon super villains, delusional celebrity-worship, exploitive daytime TV. Yet behind his characters’ preoccupation with low culture their inner lives couldn’t be more humane, or deeply humanistic: there’s tenderness toward a mother beset by alcoholism and bad judgment, (and a precocious awareness that that tenderness is deformed by its futility), the guilt of knowing one could have been kinder to a troubled sibling, the giant-hearted, doomed bravery of a love affair between two people who know they can never be together or even look upon each other.

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Soaring in the Air, Writhing on the Ground: Bad Unkl Sista’s ‘First Breath, Last Breath’

Michael Curran and Anastazia Louise in "First Breath, Last Breath" (photo by Eric Gillet)

I could tell the performance I was about to witness late last month was extraordinary even before entering the auditorium, just from watching the audience trickle into Z Space in San Francisco. There was a man who had somehow fused his beard with a slinky-like spiral pipe and wrapped it around his neck like a scarf. There were a few women in Betty Page/rockabilly outfits and the attendant shellacked beehive and Winehouse eyeliner. One girl’s hair resembled a Pantone swatch sheet—literally—small squares of dye checkered her shoulder-length crop. One man, who we found out later was the set designer for the production, had sausage links hanging from his belt loops. There were leather and piles of silver, feathers and dreadlocks, tattoos and guy-liner. I’ve never felt like such a square; even before the performance began it had rendered my life meaningless.

As a prelude to Bad Unkl Sista’s latest production, “First Breath, Last Breath,” the performers proceeded into the lobby—slowly, staring at the audience, making gong noises on obscure instruments—before moving into the proscenium theater space. The procession gave the audience something the performance could not. Up close we could see the magnificently bizarre costumes devised by artistic director, choreographer, and soloist Anastazia Louise. It was a head-scratching amalgam of Victoriana, Burning Man, and Steampunk: gas masks, fishbowl mouthpieces, hoop skirts of shredded denim, toreador and Japanese hakama pants, Puritan bonnets, and of course the signature white full-body paint of Butoh.

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The Purposes of Rituals: Alain de Botton’s ‘Religion for Atheists’

Atheists and agnostics often dismiss religion’s tenets and rituals as being fashioned to exploit the human need for such things. Our fear of death is assuaged by the promise of an afterlife. Our despair in the face of injustices that we cannot correct is resolved by the assurance that there is a spiritual magistrate in the great beyond that will set things right. Our need for “community” in an increasingly alienating world can be satisfied by formally congregating with others who share our beliefs. The meek shall inherit the earth, the first shall be the last…it all sounds perfectly, cynically, designed to capture our interest and loyalty by appealing to our weaknesses and fears.

In Religion for Atheists: A Non-believers Guide to the Uses of Religion (Pantheon, 320 pages), Alain de Botton makes the case that though our weaknesses render us vulnerable to institutions that would exploit them, we nevertheless benefit from having them addressed and catered to, and the secular world has all but abandoned us in this regard. For example, we calendarize every aspect of our external lives—we set aside time and give ourselves reminders and structure our days to address business appointments, birthdays, exercise classes, but leave our inner lives unstructured. We don’t “pencil in” time for meditation at all, let alone define which time slots we will devote to contemplation of specific aspects of our spiritual lives, like kindness, pride, love, etc. As with many goals, chores, and endeavors that we leave to chance, our souls’ exercises not committed to the diary go neglected.

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Exhilaration for Days: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at Zellerbach Hall

Ohad Naharin's "Minus 16," performed by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (photo by Paul Kolnik)

The experience of attending an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performance is slightly different from that of most other dance company productions. The audience is more diverse both in age and race, and often treats the performance not as a spectacle to sit still and watch in reverent silence, but as a series of invitations and provocations, a sort of call-and-response with movements and shouts, spontaneous applause, and whistling. That was true the first time I saw them perform at New York’s venerable City Center, and even more so earlier this month at Zellerbach Hall, as part of the Cal Performances season. Even before the performance started, there was a buzz in the air—a joviality in the ticket line and loquaciousness among the already-seated that usually only precedes the performance of a particularly famous dancer, a Carlos Acosta or Sylvie Guillem.

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Righteous Passion: S.F. Ballet’s Program 3 — ‘Trio,’ ‘Animaux,’ and ‘da Rimini’

San Francisco Ballet in Possokhov's "Francesca da Rimini" (photo by Erik Tomasson)

Helgi Tomasson, the San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer, combined elements of modern and classical ballet to create “Trio,” set to Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence. While much of the ballet recalls the aggrandized ballroom prancing one sees so often, softened arm positions and unusual footwork modernized the movements. The women’s richly autumnal-colored dresses, though shaped like a slightly less stiff version of the lampshade skirt (ballet’s frumpiest costume), were slit to the hip, and allowed a leg to swing out in many steps and kept the piece from looking as primly traditional as it might have otherwise. But while the first and third movement of “Trio” seemed trapped in a sort of generalized exuberance, the middle piece offered a heartbreaking, and ambiguous, drama.

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Dressing the Parts: S.F. Ballet’s Program 2 — ‘Chroma,’ ‘Beaux,’ and ‘Number Nine’

San Francisco Ballet in Mark Morris's "Beaux" (photo by Erik Tomasson)

The San Francisco Ballet’s Program 2, which finished its run late last month, started strong. Wayne McGregor’s “Chroma” — one of three works making up the program — looked more like contact sport than ballet, an effect strengthened by the horn-and percussive-heavy, action-film score by Joby Talbot and Jack White III. MacGregor was not trained in classical ballet, and his choreography diverges from the classical in several refreshing ways. Ballet’s traditional “lift”—the illusion that the dancers do not share our subjection to the laws of gravity—was tossed out. The dancers seemed to revel in their weightiness, often moving in ways emphasizing horizontal rather than vertical lines. Pas de deux resembled the alternately combative and aggressive sexual grappling between equally powerful forces, rather than the stylized chivalry of the traditional male-female duets. It was exciting and sometimes scary, and the only bad call was the costuming—loose mini bandeaux in flesh tones that obscured the dancers’ waistlines and gave the impression they were wrapped in giant dental dams.

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Studies in Sinister Toys and Figurines: Q&A With Michael Brennan

Michael Brennan's "Patty-Cake," oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches

If you’ve dined at any number of swanky Bay Area establishments, you might have unwittingly enjoyed your meal in a restaurant designed by one of the few people who is as well known and well respected for his fine art as for his commercial work. Michael Brennan has designed the interiors of such San Francisco hotspots as Farallon, Zero Zero, Fleur de Lys, and Bruno’s, and Alameda’s Miss Pearl’s Jam House, as well as Revival in Berkeley. He’s painted murals for many more places, too, including the Cliff House (also in San Francisco).

ZYZZYVA’s Winter ’11 issue features images of some of Brennan’s smaller-scale works. For these paintings, he often chooses as his subject small figurines and children’s toys. Brennan magnifies them in both scale and import, revealing affection for the mementos of childhood, but without sentimentalizing them or glossing over the sometimes-sinister tone these objects assume when considered out of context. Coating them in oil to add sheen, Brennan casts these toys and figures against abstract or ambiguous backgrounds, rendering them in near photographic realism. The results can alternate between the playful and the nightmarish, and recall the feeling of certainty nearly every child has that his toys “come to life” when no one’s looking. We talked with him about his work at his SOMA studio in San Francisco.

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Bending Time and Music: Celebrating ‘Masters of Venice’ at the De Young Museum

Photo by Larissa Archer

Gerhard Richter’s enormous mural Strontium glowered over Wilsey Court. The mural, made from a collection of blurred photographs representing the atomic structure of strontium titanate (a substance used to make artificial diamonds), might have been interpreted as a bit of a symbolic downer on the festivities, which celebrated both the high and the low fruits of early-Renaissance wealth. Projected on an adjacent wall was the flashier and less demanding 1964 Vincent Price horror flick, Masque of the Red Death. Downstairs, the lauded exhibition, “Masters of Venice: Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power” was open to any partygoer who wanted to view it, and at any other time that might have been more tempting, especially considering these were its last days in San Francisco. After all, how often can one see Titians, Tintorettos, Giorgiones, and Veroneses in this hemisphere? But the people who came out for the masked ball at the De Young that night seemed reluctant to defer to any artwork other than that which they had made of themselves. People concocted different “fancy dress” iterations of the past 400 years, and wore or even painted on elaborate carnival masks, a combination that evoked the formal glamour of opening night at the opera with the DIY exuberance of Halloween. There were tables holding different kinds of brie and bars serving pink and orange drinks with edible flowers and blood orange slices. Caterers with trays of mini tiramisus dodged patrons whose peripheral vision was mask-obscured; there was a lot of “Pardon me,” “oops, so sorry,” and “oh dear, can I get you another one of those?” that night.

The crowd was young—most looked to be in their 20s and early 30s—and though DJ David Carvahlo seemed to have tailored his repertoire based on the assumption that his audience had a short-term memory for pop music, the floor was packed throughout most of the night. (I attribute this in part to some guys being more willing to dance, and being much better dancers, if their faces are concealed. Likewise, women last longer on the dance floor if their dates aren’t visibly perishing from awkwardness.) Patrons not only danced but sang along to Gaga, Beyonce, and RiRi, and didn’t even object when the music occasionally degenerated into dubstep. There were very few nods to music from further back than five minutes ago. But when older tunes did play, they were either unflatteringly remixed, as in the case with Prince’s When Doves Cry (rendered near-unrecognizable via a monotonous techno beat and superfluous synth), or expertly transmogrified into songs one would have thought them to be insurmountably incongruous with, in terms of melody, tone, and even rhythm. How did Don’t Stop Believin’ slowly turn into Billie Jean? And why did it seem so natural? Many of the more recent songs were simply compounded to mystifying effect. Having told most of the popular music of the past 150 years to get off my lawn, perhaps I am less informed than most, but I was unsure whether these were arrangements Carvahlo created himself. Or is there some factory in China that produces forced and unholy (but admittedly brilliant, doubly-danceable, and ideologically confounding) mashups like All the Single Ladies/Back That Ass Up?

Few partygoers were curmudgeonly enough to resist the pull of the dance floor, and as the night progressed so grew the collection of kicked-off platform stilettos at the foot of Strontium. In one of those occurrences that are not rare but nevertheless always surprising, there was a spontaneous moment of poignancy, as if leaked in from another world: Whitney Houston had died that afternoon; most of the maskers had probably heard the news while dressing for the ball. What better tribute to the lost diva than a floor full of revelers dancing (and singing) with the abandon of the unwatched to I Wanna Dance with Somebody?

Read more from Larissa Archer at her blog, larissaarcher.com.

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How Do You Dance ‘Honor’?: SF Ballet’s ‘Onegin’ by John Cranko

Vitor Luiz and Maria Kochetkova in SF Ballet's production of Cranko's 'Onegin.' (photo © Erik Tomasson)

Often, the thing we love about the work of a great author is the ability to describe a moment, an emotion, some nuance of experience, in such a way that it is immediately recognizable to us, however foreign to our experience it actually is. We feel they somehow rummaged around in our mind and conveyed our lives back to us with different plots and more elegant language. The months after I graduated from college and was struggling to find work, feeling like I was both fabulous and doomed to uselessness, was probably the worst time to read The House of Mirth. And who would not recognize his own moments of mortified infatuation in Tolstoy’s description of Levin: “He avoided long looks at her as one avoids long looks at the sun; but he saw her, as one sees the sun, without looking.”

Ballet can elicit the same recognition: it doesn’t matter that most of us are too stiff, short-limbed, paunchy, or weak to even think without strain of the movements we see performed. Though we speak a different language, we can “read” dance and transcribe its expressions as our own. In Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet,” when Romeo has left Juliet’s bedroom and fled the city, she pulls the window curtain aside, arches her back, thrusting her chest toward the dawn light streaming into her room. Somehow, we know she is asking the gods to assist her in her helpless, entirely vulnerable state, that this is the physical manifestation of heartfelt entreaty. Though dancers portray human experience in a way that most people couldn’t and wouldn’t do themselves, they are able to evoke sympathetic experiences through their movements; we (ballet lovers, at least) watch and think, “Yes, this is what love/lust/fear/jealousy/etc. looks like,” and momentarily, feel it along with them.

But there are limitations. A story like Romeo and Juliet’s is ideal for translation through movement; the emotions are extreme, the characters’ actions are driven by those emotions rather than by complicated intellectual calculations, and the plot, is easy to follow.

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The Staying Power of Joan Baez: Marianne Aya Omac at Yoshi’s in San Francisco

Marianne Aya Omac (right), Joan Baez, and Gabriel Harris (Baez's son) at Yoshi's (photo by Jamie Soja)

As diverse as the music performed in concerts is, so are the appearances of the audiences. James Mollison documented a spectrum of what he calls the “tribes” of attendees in his photography project and book The Disciples, a rough census of personae that converge around the archetypes represented by the musical acts Mollison followed. The grouped images of said disciples invite one to guess, before reading the captions, which performers each had come out for. It’s not hard: men in trucker hats and denim overalls, Merle Haggard. Men holding up sagging jeans by the crotch and women whose skirts barely reached their own, P Diddy. Union Jack mini-dresses, leopard print and afros? Spice Girls. Cinched lumberjack shirts, curly blonde wigs and feathery cowboy hats? Dolly Parton, obviously. Kiss makeup? You got it.

Recently at Yoshi’s in San Francisco, Joan Baez performed as a guest rather than as the main act, but the audience distinctly appeared to be of the Baez tribe. The restaurant side of Yoshi’s seemed to be patronized by slick young things coifed, Spanxed, and pressed into coy “my-eyes-are-up-here-jerk” cocktail attire. But inside the jazz club, the tone was far less bothered. The patrons were older, their dress casual and accented by the occasional ethnic jewelry piece. The shoes were decidedly comfort-oriented, the hair natural in color and texture, the makeup minimal on gracefully senescent faces. Sure, they could have been there for the comparatively unknown headliner from Montpellier, France, Marianne Aya Omac, but it seemed more likely that these were the people (or a small portion of them) who for the past five decades have been following Baez, rapt by her ever-burnishing voice, loving the ground whereon she stands.

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