Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Natural law vs. statutory law

The Asolo Repertory Theatre Company recently toured a production of "Antigone Now" throughout the City and at local high schools. This was a stirring production, particularly the stand-out performance by Devereau Chumrau, who played Antigone; and I was so moved by the story that I went to see it twice and asked the Education Director to send me a copy of the script.

The simple version of the story is that Antigone's brothers, who had been alternating the role of King upon the death of their father, waged a war with one another for control of their City. Following the death of both brothers, their uncle, Creon assumed the role of King and brought a tepid peace to the City. He decreed that traitors could not be afforded a proper burial. Perhaps because of the human drive to find a hero and a villain, he determined that one of Antigone's brothers could be buried and that the other was the cause of the war and must be left in the street to be consumed by buzzards. He meted out a stiff punishment, execution, for anyone who attempted to bury a traitor. Antigone could not bear to see such a fate befall her brother, so she decided to defy her uncle and ignore the pleadings of her older sister and bury her brother.

I was the most moved by Antigone's interchange with her uncle Creon, which is as follows:

Creon: Antigone. Look at me. Did you bury the body?

Antigone: Yes, I did. I buried my brother.

Creon: Did you know the law?

Antigone: I knew. Of course, I knew. Everyone knew.

Creon: And you deliberately chose to break the law?

Antigone: It wasn't a real law, just something you said. God didn't make it. Only you did, and unjust men make unjust laws. Why should I do what is wrong? Because you say so? Your law is nothing, if it goes against God. What are you anyway? Just a man, like any other. There are other laws, you know, that don't change from week to week, or king to king. Laws that no man made, and none should break. They have no beginning and no end. These are the laws I follow and no man can make me break them.

This is among the most powerful interchanges I have ever heard on stage. As an attorney, specializing in the field of ethics, and now as an instructor of constitutional law, this has particular resonance for me, especially Antigone's declaration that "unjust men make unjust laws."

Basically Antigone has beautifully articulated the notion of placing natural law above statutory law. Our Constitution has some elements of natural law, but ultimately it was written by a group of men on a sweltering summer in Philadelphia in 1787 and involves a great deal of political compromise. The law to which Antigone refers is the law of right and wrong which each of us can determine within ourselves, and which for the most part we all share as a deeper human understanding. We all know fundamentally that a proper human burial, when possible, is something that is owed to every living being. And yet, Creon felt that duty to the kingdom should override basic human decency. He decided that by virtue of his role as king, he ought to be the arbiter of who is worthy of respect and dignity.

In times of war, security is often placed above basic civil rights. In fact, on the first day of my constitutional law 1 classes, I ask the students to decide whether they agree with the following statement, "I am willing to give up some of my basic rights in order to feel safe and secure." This leads to a very interesting discussion and helps to frame much of the case law covered during the semester, particularly cases arising during a time of war.

In the name of "security," we have forced homosexuals to lie about who they are, and we have allowed our government to keep secrets. We have permitted citizens and non-citizens to be deemed "enemy combatants" and denied them a speedy trial. Not to mention the fact that in our not-too-distant past, we have interned American citizens of Japanese descent.

Now after 17 years, an unjust law, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is about to be officially repealed. As we close out the year, the fate of the wikileaks whistle blowers remains unclear, but many are calling their acts treasonous. And, of course, Guantanamo Bay remains open.

When must we adhere to "unjust laws by unjust men" and when can we, like Antigone, see a different path and choose to follow "the laws that have no beginning an no end?" It seems to me that the least we can do as citizens is determine which laws are unjust and work toward their repeal. Antigone faced death to follow her principles. Surely we can become engaged in the process and right the injustices we see.

It is crucial that we understand the law-making processes in our country and that we examine our laws with a critical eye. Antigone knew intuitively that her uncle was motivated by factors other than a clear understanding of justice. Her speech serves as a reminder of our obligations as citizens.

I salute all the men and women who fought the long and seemingly-hopeless battle to ensure the repeal of a law that forced those who are sworn to uphold the constitution to dissemble. For me, that is the greatest service they could provide this country.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


I had the pleasure of seeing the latest S/ART/Q Invitational exhibit on State Street last weekend. Instead of displaying their own work, the S/ART/Q collective members each invited an artist that inspired him or her. I was very impressed with the uniformly high-level of quality of the artwork on display. After the Jonathan Greene gallery closed a few years ago, the downtown area seemed to have lost its edginess. The S/ART/Q artists have begun to fill the vacuum. They are young, well-recognized local artists who are working to create a new "Sarasota school" of art.

I had two favorites in the exhibit, Paul Matkowky whose thick delivery of paint on each canvas, particularly in his very sensual renderings of plant life, were masterful; and Michael Panarella, who uses oil paint for portraits of women that are so messy and smeared that they appeared like watercolors that had yet to dry. Panarella's work reminds me of Egon Schiele, one of my favorite artists (http://www.egon-schiele.net/). Although the "pin up" women Michael depicts are beautiful, his work made me think about women using make-up to create an illusion. His deliberate smearing of rouge and lipstick drew attention to the seamier side of the painted face.

I started to think about a group of high school girls I saw interviewed on a morning news program recently who formed a club called "Redefining Beautiful: One Girl at a Time," which now has 200 members all of whom spend the day bare-faced once a week. The movement has spread to other nearby schools. I admit I thought they had given up make-up altogether, but apparently, they all look forward to the one day when it is sanctioned among their peers not to engage in the morning ritual of donning make-up. The girls who founded the club looked so happy, and their skin was radiant. They all talked about how empowered they felt to have the confidence to look how they wanted to look at school and not to feel the need to succumb to what one of them referred to as the "fashion show" of high school. I remember when I was finally allowed to wear make-up as a young person and how important that was to me at the time. As I have gotten older, make-up has become less significant with each passing year. Perhaps by the time, my daughter (due in two months) is in high school, the girls her age will decide that the freedom they feel from the societal expectation to wear make-up, is so liberating that they won't limit "redefining beautiful" to Tuesdays.

Long after I left the gallery, I kept thinking about women using make-up to achieve a certain pre-conceived notion of beauty. This even gives new meaning to the "lipstick" debate that seemed to dominate the airwaves after Sarah Palin burst onto the scene in 2008. It's entirely likely that Michael did not have this intention when he created his work; but it is thoughtful and provocative, exactly the kind of work we need in downtown Sarasota.

I love that S/ART/Q is displaying such high quality work on a regular basis, and I am grateful that the members have chosen to showcase other talented local artists that inspire them. It's encouraging to have such creative young artists in our midst.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Music as religion

A few weeks ago, I went to a Snatam Kaur concert as part of the local "Caravan of the Beautiful" festival. In addition to enjoying this angel-voiced singer's music, which is ubiquitous in spas and yoga studios, I was touched by a comment made that music will someday be the universal religion. As an American who was raised in a minority religion, the Jewish faith, I have always been keenly aware of my "otherness" in American culture. Now as we watch a resurgence of anti-Muslim sentiments from the "Ground Zero mosque" controversy to the koran-burning fire storm to the recent firing of NPR/Fox News contributor Juan Williams for his apparently out-of-context comments about his fear of Muslims when he boards a plane, it's hard not to wish for a religion of music that will bring people of the world together with a shared love of beautiful and transcendent sound. In celebrating his 70th birthday this month, people throughout the world have come together to celebrate the timeless message of John Lennon, "imagine all the people living life in peace," yet we continue to live in a highly fragmented and fractured society, perhaps now more than ever. Do we lack a shared vocabulary that can help us communicate broadly? Or is that shared vocabulary perhaps only communicated through the arts?

I was struck once again this month by the comments of world-renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp who spoke at the USF Women, Leadership, and Philanthropy luncheon. Before her remarks, students from the USF dance department performed divided by gender. She suggested that the choreographed piece that was exclusively male was about war, and that she would love to see the expression of aggression be diverted through the medium of dance. To me, this resonated with the comments at the Snatam Kaur concert that we are seeking a universal religion as we progress. Are we hungering for a way to express ourselves peacefully through an artistic medium? Might we need the language of the arts to help us dialogue somewhere beyond words? Is the "theater" of war actually a way of expressing ourselves when other forms of communication break down?

The third thing that I think fits into this context is the film, "Social Network," which tells the story of the founder of Facebook. As so many reviewers have pointed out, the poignancy of the film stems from Mark Zuckerberg's own inability to connect with or trust his friends and classmates while simultaneously developing a website that has managed, in a few short years, to bring the world together. At one point in the film, someone mentions that you can "friend" people in war-torn countries that may not even have clean water but who do have Facebook.

Where once children had "pen pals" to learn about and identify with other children around the world, now people of all ages can "friend" anyone and can connect on multiple levels. Among the shared experiences on Facebook, we can learn what forms of artistic expression our friends most enjoy and can share music and dance with a click of a button.

As we head into a potent election cycle and the height of the arts season, might it be worth remembering what we all share as humans? Music and dance transcend culture and religion, and in times like these, that must be a good thing.

Friday, September 24, 2010

"Ahead of her time: Bertha Palmer Then and Now"

Last Thursday evening, we hosted a program called "Ahead of her time: Bertha Palmer Then and Now," which was an exciting interdisciplinary event that brought out a very enthusiastic and engaged crowd to the Cook Theater at the FSU Center for Performing Arts.

More than a year ago, we were asked by the Bertha Palmer Executive Committee whether we might like to create programming focused on Bertha Palmer's ground-breaking speech at the 1893 World's Fair at the inauguration of the Women's Pavilion, for which she served as the head of the Board of Lady Managers. When I read the speech, I was astounded. Her words seemed to loom so much larger than the page. Here was a woman who was not afraid to share her unequivocal message of the importance of equality between the sexes at a public event, a world's fair to be exact! She notably said that with the appointment of the Board of Lady Managers, Congress had "finally discovered women." It was clear from her address that she felt that this was only the beginning of progress for women. She seemed to be throwing down the gauntlet that official recognition of the accomplishments of women from that point forward should not and could not be questioned.

And yet, as I read the speech, I realized that much of what was so striking was not just that she had the courage to say these words at a time when women didn't even have the right to vote, but also just how resonant and relevant those words are to our daily travails. These words called out to be spoken again. So, I set about trying to find an actress who would not impersonate Bertha Palmer but would rather embody her and allow her message to become at once historical and contemporary.

Local actress, Amanda Schlachter was the perfect person to breathe new life into the speech. She and I collaborated on the program, and she brought in her friend David Mercier, with whom she worked on a recent production, to work on the visuals. We chose images to reflect the period in which Bertha Palmer gave the speech, which alternated between portraits of refined ladies, many by one of my favorite artists of the period John Singer Sargent, and an array of photographs of women working in factories that David culled together. We combined those with images of the Women's Pavilion, which was an imposing building designed by a woman architect, Sophia Hayden, who was 24 at that time as well as artwork that hung in the Pavilion by female luminaries such as Mary Cassatt. With these images set to the music of "Claire de Lune," we hoped to ease the audience's minds back in time so that they would feel that they were listening to the speech at the World's Fair. But we also wanted that experience to be laced with the benefit of their knowledge of our collective history that followed the speech. So, we deliberately determined that Amanda would not be dressed in period costume but rather would be a modern woman delivering a timeless speech.

Amanda gave a brilliant delivery of the speech, which surely was more exuberant and drew more laughs than even Bertha Palmer's execution of her own words. Then, we cut to a fantastic song, by Raheem DeVaughn, called "Woman," a revelatory ode to the women to DeVaughn's life -- his wife and mother, which honors all women who bring life into the world. Together with the music, we cut to images of strong women who have had an impact on our culture, including politicians, journalists, artists, and leaders of movements. Some of the decisions were certain to be controversial, particularly including politicians from both sides of the aisle.

I then moderated a well-informed panel, including Amanda, who has been living with the words for the past several months; Professor Lynn McBrien from the College of Education faculty on our campus; and Janet Kahn, Executive Director of the Early Learning Coalition. Lynn teaches social foundations of education and also is a tireless advocate for refugees living in Africa. Janet is a local advocate for quality child care, which is truly one of the final frontiers to enable women to truly achieve gender equity. Without safe, affordable, quality child care, mothers and fathers are forced to make trade-offs between their careers and their children. As another important component, the lively audience became very involved in the discussion almost immediately, which made for an exhilarating evening.

We discussed the elements of this important speech in the context of today's society, and certain themes emerged. In a nutshell, Bertha Palmer delivered a twenty-five minute speech about the rights of women in our own country and abroad. The speech is noteworthy because of the length of her remarks, the unequivocal message that women ought to work "shoulder to shoulder" with men, and the fact that, as she said, women must "work or they must starve." She also seems to advocate that we become global citizens, attentive to the needs of women internationally. A well-traveled, international citizen herself, Bertha Palmer's vision that we consider the needs of others even beyond our borders is inspiring. She also talked about the myth of the "pedestal" and strongly advocated that those rare women wh0 have the benefits of wealth and power step down from those pedestals and consider the needs of others (she says, "freedom and justice for all infinitely more to be desired than pedestals for a few.") She concluded by saying that we ought to seek "an elevated womanhood" and work for the self-fulfillment of all of humanity. Her aspirational words continue to ring true today, and we must continue to work to reach this lofty vision.

I want to express my deep gratitude to all who were involved in making this program a reality. Of course, Amanda Schlachter for all her hard work helping to produce the event and for her wonderful performance; David Mercier for developing the visuals and sound for the event; and Brian Hersh, Director of Education for the Asolo Theatre Company, for all his support and for helping facilitate our use of the Cook Theater at the FSU Performing Arts Center, which was generously donated for our event. I also appreciated the wonderful contributions of panelists, Janet Kahn and Lynn McBrien. I hope to work with this dynamic team again!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Art and Healing Panel Discussion

This week, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion on Art and Healing at Art Center Sarasota as part of our Art for Social Change series. I was amazed by the size of the crowd who spilled into the gallery -- our largest audience yet for one of the discussions. This was a strong indication that the arts community and the healing professions are longing for a forum so that they can come together.

As I mentioned during the discussion, I was introduced to the power of the arts in the healing process one evening at a gallery in Spanish Harlem about seven years ago. On a whim, I hopped in a cab with a friend to attend a gallery opening. The gallerist hung children's drawings on the walls with little description. While I was peering inquisitively at one of the drawings, a gentleman came up behind me and asked whether I knew what the drawing was depicting. My American eyes saw only a drawing of a man and woman holding hands until the visitor in the gallery told me that the man in the drawing was leading the woman off to be raped. I was aghast in disbelief that a child had drawn such a horrific act. The next drawing seemed to me to be a beautiful, multi-colored bonfire until the man explained that it was a book-burning. Slowly, my eyes and my mind adjusted to the iconography of what I was seeing. The man at the gallery and his friend were both Darfuri refugees, and they gave an impromptu talk to the gathering. I first learned of the genocide in Darfur on that night. (I have since had the opportunity to bring another set of Darfuri children's drawings, which have been introduced into evidence at the International Criminal Court, to USF Sarasota-Manatee. We have a permanent display of ten of these drawings on the 2nd floor, should you wish to see them). These children found an outlet to express the anguish they experienced as first-hand witnesses to the horrors of genocide; and their drawings have helped educate the public for whom such matters seem only a very terrible dream.

Tuesday night's panel included two practioners and an advocate of art and healing. They work with diverse groups of people, including those who are seeking greater clarity and creativity in their lives; people who are suffering from Parkinson's disease, cancer, and other diseases; as well as those who have experienced trauma in their lives. In addition to explaining how the process of art and healing can work, we got into a philosophical discussion about the fact that in a materialistic culture, in which we are driven by a profit motive, we often lose our ability to access our creative spirits. This can, in turn, lead people to close off from their own emotions, resulting in unhealthy patterns of life and ultimately, in some instances, to a decrease in our overall physical well-being. We also discussed the process of creating the art which helps us heal as well as the importance of the outcome, that is, the work of art itself. There is no denying the power of the arts to help change our mood and our spirits, as well as to help us deal with difficult topics. Regardless of whether we create the work of art or appreciate the work of art, the therapeutic value exists.

For example, this past Saturday evening, I attended a Rogers and Hammerstein concert. Among their most famous songs is "My Favorite Things," which I sing to myself to lift my spirits and the song did just that at the recent concert. It's good to take a moment to really think about the beauty and the simplicity of the lyrics, "When the dog bites, when the bees sting, when I'm feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don't feel so bad." As our panelists said, there is something that happens on a cellular level that transforms you when you journal your thoughts or pick up a paintbrush, a camera, or a musical instrument, or when you just let go and sing. You have the opportunity to turn off your busy mind and access your soul. We connect to our core essence and that which makes us human.
I am pleased to report that the evening generated so much interest that Art Center Sarasota has decided to host a day-long workshop in December devoted to Art and Healing. I will continue to blog on this topic, and I hope it will inspire you to share your thoughts.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Comments on "Work of Art: The Search for the Next Great Artist"

As I mentioned in my last post, I was intrigued and excited about Bravo Channel's first season of "Work of Art: The Search for the Next Great Artist." This mellow, low-key show was addictive and entertaining. It had a low-budget feel to it, as first season programs often do, but if the show catches on we may never return to the quiet contemplative style the producers seemed to cultivate. It's cousin, competitive dance show, "So You Think You Can Dance," discussed in the previous blog, is flashy and often appears highly over-produced.

The producers never explained how the 14 artists were selected; we were just to assume that they were the best emerging artists currently working in the country. However, it quickly became apparent that a few were already known in the art world, e.g., Trong, Judith, and Nao, who were older and more established, but were quickly eliminated. In each case, they seemed unable to adjust to the weekly "challenges." Ultimately, these three did not successfully create work that was true to their own aesthetic, which would also meet the requirements set forth by the host, China Chow, and mentor, Simon de Pury (for example, Judith was eliminated for creating a book cover with the title written in reverse). This actually may be a testament to the artistic vision they have cultivated throughout their careers or it may indicate that they don't have artistic chops. I was thoroughly unimpressed with the work of the aforementioned artists, and I preferred the artists who were willing to test their own values and experiment in the studio. But, I prefer sponteneity and adaptability in people generally.

I am pleased to say that my favorite from the beginning, Abdi, actually won the competition. Some of his pieces early in the competition made him a front-runner for me; and then he seemed to suffer from an identity crisis midway through the competition. When the artists were asked to create a piece inspired by nature, Abdi returned trimphant with an amazing self-portrait/baptism piece inspired by the body of water visited by the artists and rendered in charcoal that he mixed with gravel obtained during the visit to the woods. With the wind at his back following his win, for the final challenge, Abdi created an entire show devoted to studies of the body based on his "baptism" piece (see above). Meanwhile, in the finale, two other artists, Miles, who had generally succeeded in each challenge despite the fact that his work, for me, was largely cold and mechanical and Peregrine whose work was generally moody and often childlike, and whom I had thought would have been eliminated in an early round, also created a show for the Phillipe de Pury auction house.

With this program, Bravo let us peek inside the studio to observe the artistic process, watch a gallery opening unfold, and later hear the "crit" of the artwork by the panel of judges. Many find the artworld largely impenetrable and are particularly baffled by the gallery process. Although, as I stated earlier, the show has been met with quite a bit of criticism, the opportunity to peel back the layers and find our way inside the hearts and minds of the artists was really a joy. Most of the artists were proud and excited to be a part of the process and their genuine love for art helped lure the audience in. Although a few of them accused one another of being "too art school," they generally got along and helped each other develop as artists.

Once again, as I stated in my earlier blog on "So You Think You Can Dance," I believe these two shows are all about accessibility. "Work of Art" could stand some retooling, and the greatest criticism I have for it is that I would prefer the camera work be improved. It was very hard to get a sense of the artwork on the screen. But what I think SYTYCD and WOA offer is merely a chance to sample an appetizer. SYTYCD gives you two minute dance routines, and WOA, an incomplete view of how the work must really come across in person. However, despite these shortcomings, these shows will probably have a positive effect on the artworld generally. Might people who love SYTYCD be more likely to take the time to check out a production by their local modern dance company, and may WOA fans decide to spend an evening gallery hopping? I conjecture that the answer must certainly be "yes!" Sure, there is a chance that the new audiences might bring new expectations with them, such as a desire to be entertained and an interest in hearing the opinions of judges; but wouldn't this suggest a greater emphasis on audience development, such as a chance to mingle with the dancers and artists or talk backs with the choreographers? And couldn't that be a good thing?

Although both shows have their detractors, I am happy that they are on the air, and I hope WOA is renewed for another season. In a medium largely dominated by melodramatic reality programs and a constant barrage of news, I am grateful that these thoughtful and highly engaging programs about the arts have found an audience. I also hope that these shows will help struggling dance companies and galleries grow their audiences as well.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The arts on reality TV

So, I'm going to confess that I am a diehard fan of "So You Think You Can Dance" and now "Work of Art." This week, we have reached the finales of both shows, so I'd like to talk about the relative merits of programs like these, despite their controversies. I plan to write about these shows in the next two blogs (the first will focus on "SYTYCD").

For those who aren't familiar with these shows, they are both based loosely on the "Survivor" reality TV model, in which people are voted off the proverbial "island." On "Survivor," team-mates decided who should go home; on "SYTYCD," it is a hybrid of seasoned dance professionals who serve as judges and the voting public who ultimately choose "America's Favorite Dancer;" and on "Work of Art," a panel of judges composed of art-world professionals and guest artists narrow the field to find "America's Next Great Artist."

Each week, the dancers and artists are put through a boot camp of sorts, either learning new choreography outside their own style of dance, or, on "WOA," artists are given a short time period, usually approximately 24 hours, to create a work of art, based on a weekly challenge, that will be worthy of gallery exhibition. "Be inspired by children's art" or "find something in nature and create a work of art," or the weirdest, "drive through downtown Manhattan in rush hour, end up at a luxury car dealership and then create something based on that experience!"

I have to admit, I almost gave up on "WOA" after the whole car dealership fiasco; but the amazing thing is that if you get enough talented people together, they do the work. The cast of these shows are, for the most part, so skilled and so hungry for success that they tend to pull off what seem to be nearly impossible feats. No matter what the producers of these shows throw at the dancers and artists, they seem to be capable of transcending the madness of the world of commercialized television, to, in many cases, create work of astonishing genius.

These shows, however, are not without their fair share of controversy. "SYTYCD" and "WOA" are widely derided by professionals in their respective industries. For example, at last year's Ringling International Arts Festival, I attended a panel discussion of choreographers. I sheepishly decided to put my arts cred on the line by asking the panel their impressions of "SYTYCD,"and was met with as polite an eye-rolling as they could muster. They agreed with me, as a general matter, that a show focused entirely on educating the public about the world of dance probably does do its fair share in terms of audience building. Yet, they felt that training audiences to watch two minute routines diminishes the work of choreographers and dancers who spend months developing lengthy performances that demand a greater depth of understanding from viewers.

I agree, to some extent, in principle, that there is a danger that the screaming teenage fans of "SYTYCD" who are implored to vote for their favorite performers may become fickle audiences seeking pop art, that is basically delivered in sound bytes for the soul. However, I have been a very devoted follower of modern dance and ballet companies for over twenty years, particularly while living in Manhattan; and as I have declared above, I love the magic that the "SYTYCD" dancers bring to the stage in Hollywood each week. There is no question that the dancers who ultimately make it to the final rounds of this show are at an elite level; in fact, this season, a principal dancer from the Miami City Ballet, Alex Wong, gave up his position with his company to audition for the show. The joy that he brought every week to each new dance style (including a masterful performance of a hip/hop number that brought the audience to their feet) demonstrated to me that he felt that he had thrown of the shackles of ballet to feast on the whole world of dance. In the weeks before a dramatic injury to his achilles heel, I was convinced that he would soon be headlining a new dance company. Only time will tell if I am right.

Last year, I got tickets to the "SYTYCD" tour with a dear friend who is a dancer, and I wore her like protective armor. I felt guilty to be at a dance performance where I could buy a cheese steak sandwich and a soda; sit with my feet up on the row in front of me; and scream like a banshee for my favorite dancers; but lo and behold, she was doing it too! It was an amazing evening where my id was fully in charge. No propriety was needed at the St. Pete Times Forum. Keep in mind that I have spent years buying tickets for dance performances, dressing up, going out for dinner, waiting for intermission for a beverage, and sitting quietly in the dark in a theater surrounded by people twice my age. Add to that, the fact that I have been to only a handful of sporting events in my life; because I find them incredibly boring. Granted, I have tried to display team spirit when I watch a game, but it just doesn't come naturally for me. All of a sudden, at the Forum, I experienced what it was like to cheer to my heart's content out of the sheer joy of watching virtuosos perform.

Yesterday, The New York Observer ran a story called "The Crisis in Modern Dance." Dance companies have been trimming their seasons and their budgets; performing less challenging work that they believe will have a greater appeal among the "masses;" and even merging with one another. The idea of artists struggling for their craft really breaks my heart. I will always be an ardent supporter of live dance performances. But the dance companies don't have to reach me -- I've been in love with the art form since I was a toddler. As older dance audiences "matriculate," so to speak, perhaps the dance companies ought to take notice of the young audiences who are addicted to the pop art sensation of "SYTYCD." I do not, by any means, mean to suggest that this is a cure-all by any stretch of the imagination. I just wonder whether dance companies might begin to relish the audience development of a show like this and try to reach these new audiences who clearly have a thirst for dance. Where do all these fans go during the parts of the year when the show is not on the air?

There is no question, the "SYTYCD" judges are self-indulgent; and they overuse superlatives and generate bizarre phrases like "hot tamale train" and "that was buck" to try to compliment the dancers. They declare each new season, "the best season ever;" they beg people to vote as if this was truly significant citizen engagement; and they employ publicity stunts to generate audiences (but to be honest, I can't wait to see who tonight's "surprise" guest is going to be!) To his credit, though, the producer, Nigel Lithgoe, actually managed to get Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton to declare July 31st, National Dance Day; and people all over the country attempted to learn a hip hop routine in celebration. Furthermore, he and other dance celebrities founded the Dizzy Feet Foundation to provide dance education to young people who can't afford it. So, as cynical as I may often feel about the commercialization of dance, the show is making a difference in the world and bringing joy to their audiences.

Additionally, I must close by discussing a few of the pieces that have been so moving that sometimes I can hardly believe what is happening before my eyes on live television. There have been many memorable pieces throughout the seasons, but two this season have been particularly noteworthy. One dancer, Robert, had already shared with the audience that his mother had suffered many miscarriages and other health problems throughout his life. He was assigned to be choreographed by Travis Wall, who was a semi-finalist a few years ago. Wall's mother runs a dance studio where a few of the other dancers on the show have trained, including another semi-finalist, whom she ultimately adopted. Apparently, this beloved dance instructor is currently in poor health, and Travis wanted to pay tribute to her in dance. He choreographed a piece for Robert to dance with Alison, another dancer who portrayed Travis's mother, which they danced to the song "Fix You." The piece was an emotional roller-coaster with the son clearly in anguish trying to support his mother through the vocabulary of dance, and it climaxed with the son placing his mother's feet on his own trying to carry her through the air as she clawed toward the sky. It was a raw and searing journey into the world of someone caring for a loved one who is ill and a beautiful depiction of the bond between a mother and son. Everyone in the audience was stunned and moved by the piece, which unfortunately has been removed from You Tube, but will surely be repeated during tonight's finale.

The second piece that really stayed with me was "Mad World" choreographed by Stacy Tookey. The dancers, Billy and Ade, portrayed a homeless man and a business man, respectively. I prefer to think of Ade as a Goldman Sachs executive who comes across a homeless man in the street who is clearly suffering. There is no question that the way in which the character of the homeless man was developed by Billy played into some of the stereotypes of those who are homeless and panhandle on the streets. However, the grace and beauty of his dancing speedily transcended those stereotypes to allow the audience to delve into this man's soul. Meanwhile, Ade's executive tries to avoid the man but ultimately becomes engaged in movement with him and then peers into his eyes. There is a moment of recognition when the businessman realizes that he has confronted a childhood friend who has clearly fallen on very hard times. He seems willing to try to help him, but then as the music ends he steps over him and walks into the darkness. It was as if the businessman saw another side of himself, which made him very uncomfortable. The two dancers achieved such a spiritual level with their dance that they moved past the small story of this interaction into the greater story of where our current economic crisis has left us emotionally. They seemed to be indicating with their movement that there is a basic human need to turn away from the dark side of our own greed.
So there you have it -- I have come out from behind my television screen to admit to the world that I love "SYTYCD." I actually believe that it is an asset to the dance world and that a new and vibrant fan base is cropping up all over the country. I hope that I am right; because I'd love to see the dance community quickly move past this crisis to a shining renaissance. Now, I must go watch the finale!

Friday, July 2, 2010

The transformative power of art

I have very mixed emotions this week, because my summer service learning course, "Ending Homelessness in our community: how can we work toward social change?" about which I have been blogging, has reached its conclusion. The students gave their presentations based on their research this week; and they had the option to choose whether to present in front of the class only or before members of our community as well. For those who chose the latter, we were joined by the Dean of Arts and Sciences, the head librarian of the Selby library (who is extremely proactive with regard to the many homeless people who utilize her services), the Mayor of Sarasota Kelly Kirschner, as well as other members of our local and campus community. The students' presentations were uniformly incredibly thoughtful and compassionate. Each student had to select an aspect of homelessness to address and to make positive suggestions, where applicable, for social change. It was so uplifting and inspiring to listen to the ideas of the students who spent the summer focusing on this issue with dogged persistance. They truly believe that we can make a difference in the lives of others.

Despite the joy I felt listening to the presentations, which represented the culmination of the summer's endeavor, at the very end, it sunk in -- I will really miss this class! It has been among the most satisfying things I have done in my professional career, and I look forward to fine-tuning it for next summer. We will continue to look at various aspects of homelessness next year, and one aspect that absolutely will not change is the opportunity the students had to learn about the "I Am HOME" art project. Quite predictably, the students were captivated with the project, which is a ray of hope in what is otherwise a very bleak picture of homelessness.

In September 2008, I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in an early creative committee meeting during which Janet Taylor, who was then an Americorps Vista employee of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness pitched her innovative idea to the group, which included Fayanne Hayes, Executive Director of Art Center Sarasota, Richard Martin, Executive Director of the Suncoast Partnership, Nikki Heil, Marketing Director of Whole Foods, and Sharon Jurascek, Manager of Tommy Bahamas. Among her creative ideas, Janet wanted to see our community embrace a project where the Suncoast Partnership would provide art supplies to homeless people with the hope that they would find dignity and healing through the artistic process. This idea really resonated with the group, and we talked about the importance of integrating the arts into the treatment plan for homeless people, who, because of their circumstances, have begun to lose the color in their lives. We also talked about how art can help them access their voice and to help them express who they are. When your identity is shattered with a loss of a job and shelter, how can you begin to put the pieces back together to rediscover who you once were and whom you wish to be?

Ultimately, the Suncoast Partnership kicked off this project. They decided to house the project at the day shelter, Resurrection House, where they could actively recruit people to come back and paint to get their feelings out, with guidance from Tamara Knapp, of Expressive Arts, who is an expert in art and healing. Additionally, Sharon Jurascek, stepped up and offered Tommy Bahamas as an ongoing venue for the "I Am HOME" artists to exhibit their work, with some of the proceeds from the sales in the store going to the project. Additionally, the Art Center was able to offer some scholarships so the interested artists could study their craft. Daniel Petrov, the Art Center Education Director, who has taught several of the "I Am HOME" artists in his art classes there and who is a gifted artist himself, has become a major advocate on behalf of the artists. He feels the artists' work accesses a very deep place within themselves and comes from their richness of experience, the kind that only those who have lacked the creature comforts of life have ever faced. Janet Taylor now tirelessly runs this project and is seeking separate not-for-profit status for the organization. She continues to dream big for the future of the organization, which has grown so much and so quickly since its inception.

Janet and Daniel spoke to my class at the Art Center, and the students were visibly moved by the experience. They loved the fact that both of these people were so devoted to the artists and to helping them come out of the shadows into the light. In fact, through their work these artists are now in the limelight in this community, because so many people here love their work and come out in droves for the art exhibitions. The artists are successfully selling their work to a willing public, and the sales often help the artists have a roof over their heads for as long as they can make these funds last.

I feel very fortunate to have made connections in the community to be able to offer these unusual experiences to students. During our weekly visits to Resurrection House, all the students were drawn to the art room, as I thought they would be. Seeing all the color and light and the sheer joy of creation taking place in a shelter that is really designed as a stop-gap measure to stabilize the homeless, is truly gratifying. Many of the students remarked at how refreshing it was to leave the classroom and get to observe and participate in something meaningful in the community.

I believe you can only begin to understand homelessness by diving into the issue and confronting it head on. This courageous group of students did just that this summer. However, it can be disheartening to see so much pain and suffering without any sense that someone is able to come out on the other end of it. Although most of the artists in the "I Am HOME" project do not have a permanent residence, they have clearly been helped immeasurably by this program. Unlike so many of the people we met who use the services at the day shelter, the artists' eyes danced and sparkled; they smiled warmly at us whenever they saw us; and they seemed genuinely as interested in understanding us as we were in getting to know them. It seemed as though they wanted to participate in our learning experience and to help us help them.

To support the "I Am HOME" artists, we plan to hang, on campus, a mandala painting, purchased with student activities funds at the suggestion of a member of the Social Justice Initiative (an on campus club of which I am the advisor). This beautiful work was painted by the "I Am HOME" artists and members of our local community on the occasion of the visit of a group of Tibetan monks who performed at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center earlier this year. Mandalas are designed to promote healing in the community for which they are made. This collective work of art symbolizes the hope shared by the “I Am HOME” artists and all members of our local community who can draw strength from witnessing the power of the human spirit to persevere in the face of adversity.

For more information about "I Am HOME," you can contact iamhomeartproject@yahoo.com or look for "I Am Home Art Project" on Facebook.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The new reality

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, I have been teaching a course entitled "Ending Homelessness: how can we work toward social change?" this summer. Last week, Sarasota City Commissioner Richard Clapp came to visit with my students to discuss a legislative response to homelessness. First of all, I must say that Commissioner Clapp is exactly the kind of person I want to have as a community leader. He listens, he cares, he volunteers to help the homeless, and he does research into the kinds of programming that he thinks might work. He has a plan to get downtown neighbors involved in one-on-one mentoring of the homeless who live in their community, and he truly believes it will work. It's such a simple, honest, and thoughtful plan, I have to agree.

Among the things he mentioned during his visit is that he thinks that many of the homeless are people who have not been able to meet with success and lack the coping mechanisms to face that reality. As he said, no one thinks as a young person that they wish to grow up and be a homeless person. I started to contemplate our culture's notion of success. What happens to people who cannot meet the challenges that come with achieving success? And who decides what success should mean?

This made me think about a few examples from programs I watched on television recently. First, the Tonys were broadcast last week, and many of the night's biggest winners, Scarlett Johannsen, Denzel Washington, and Catherine Zeta-Jones are familiar presences in Hollywood. I didn't see any of their performances live, but I did watch what I considered a butchering of "Send in the Clowns" by Ms. Zeta-Jones during the telecast. I wondered whether the Tony voters were influenced by a desire to reward the big-name stars for gracing the Broadway stages with their presence. Katie Finneran, a Broadway staple, won for her performance in "Promises, Promises," a show that was panned by critics. She delivered a heart-felt speech telling young people to do what they love regardless of what anyone tells them and said that this will lead to a "blissful life."

That's great advice for a young Katie Finneran who has yet to be discovered, but what happens to all the people who ignore the advice of parents, colleagues, and peers, who are not certain they have the talent or the stamina to withstand the massive amount of rejection that is often, and very frequently, part and parcel with pursuing one's dreams. What happens when they don't end up on the Tony stage? What happens when the deck is stacked in favor of a Scarlett Johannsen, and you are relegated to understudy to an understudy? Do we give young people the tools to not only pursue their dreams but to cope with the reality that they may not always get what they wish for? This got me thinking -- are there people sitting in a homeless shelter who once showed promise in their chosen field, but who didn't have the opportunities or the support that they needed to deal with the failure that often, and actually almost certainly, will occur on the path to achieving some measure of success?

Also, this week, I caught the first season of the television show "Hung" on HBO. I was intrigued with this show, because early reviews said that the creators tried to deal with the new reality of a post-economic meltdown. Premiering on a channel known for celebrating excess with shows like "Entourage" and "Sex and the City," this show instead depicts the life of a man whose life is on a steep downward trajectory. The show is even set in Detroit, among the cities hardest hit by the recession; and the opening credits show the lead, played by Thomas Jane, walking past run-down, dilapidated, and burnt-out buildings as he slowly removes his suit to land in the lake behind his house, fully in the buff. This show comically depicts the stripping away of the life of a man, who once showed so much promise, lettering in three sports in high school and going pro, before coming back home to coach basketball. After his wife leaves him and his house is engulfed in flames, he turns to the oldest profession to try to supplement his meager wages to pay for his second mortgage (which we learn was a balloon mortgage), home renovation while he lives behind his gutted house in a tent, and child support. This measure is certainly extreme and not to be tried at home; but it is rather refreshing to see a prime time television show eschew the usual designer cars and clothes, and focus on characters who are struggling financially. Jane's character, Ray Drekker, has some support from his twin teenagers and his quirky friend, who is similarly situated, so he manages to survive living in a tent during a Michigan winter. But in the season finale, as work continues on his home, he learns he is being laid off and must rely more heavily on his financially lucrative avocation.

As we continue to explore the roots of homelessness in my summer class, which I intend to offer next year as well, we must consider the fact that we all started out life with hopes and dreams of what we might someday achieve. The "American dream" ought to be something within reach of all Americans. But how we define that American dream seems to be changing. Are we ready to relax our definitions of success to let more people in? Are we willing to help people find the tools they need to be self-sufficient and self-reliant? Can we avoid judgment in doing so? These are the questions we must face in our new reality. A mentoring program to help people get back on their feet may well be a great way to begin.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Oil spill angst (part 2)

After our trip to the Dia Museum, we got back to the City in time to catch "Fela!" on Broadway. We tried to fit it in during our last trip late last year, so we wanted to make sure not to miss this 11-time Tony nominated show this time around. I think it will pick up best musical on Sunday, but apparently it's running neck and neck with Green Day's "American Idiot" (oh, that title! )

When you enter the theater, you quickly realize that it has been transformed into a Nigerian nightclub. Afrobeat music plays as people take their seats or mingle over cocktails in the back of the house. There were a variety of relevant news articles which were flashing on the side walls to help set the scene. I quickly spotted a headline with BP, but the article switched before I could read it. Once again, I thought about our oil spill and wondered what Fela Kuti, the Nigerian musician and cult icon, who is the subject of the play, had to say about oil in his country.

The music in this production is intoxicating; and the dancing, choreographed by Bill T. Jones, is high energy. But the most important part of the show is undoubtedly Fela himself. This is one of the most demanding roles I have ever seen on Broadway; in fact, I don't recall seeing Sahr Ngaujah, who is nominated for a Tony for this role, ever leave the stage. He is a true triple threat and is even capable of being airborne, as he demonstrated with a tremendous leap that I've only seen twenty-year-old dancers do.

That's the good news about the show, but the bad news is that much like Jesse St. James and the rest of Vocal Adrenalin (for those who watched the "Glee" finale), for all the talent of the cast, the show and sadly even Ngaujah lack "heart." I never felt emotionally immersed in the characters, although I did enjoy learning about Fela, from an historical perspective, given that he fully embraced and embodied the idea of art for social change.

In fact, he said in a 1981 documentary called "Music is a Weapon:"

"...my society is underdeveloped because of an alien system imposed on my people. So there's no music for enjoyment, for love, when there's such a struggle for people's existence. So, as an artist, politically, artistically, my whole idea about my environment must be represented in the music, in the arts. Music must awaken people to do their duty as citizens and act."

Fela's music was his very essence. He was a revolutionary, and the medium was the message. He used his music and his cult following to rise up against an oppressive government. His music was so incendiary, in fact, that he was enemy number one of the ruling elites. In Act 2, we learn that in one particular retaliatory attack, many of his 27 wives were raped, his fellow musicians were badly injured, and his beloved mother, a progressive leader of the women's movement and his muse, was tossed from a second story window and ultimately died.

In another scene, the dancers carry signs with the various companies that have raped and pillaged Nigeria -- De Beers, Shell, Monsanto, Halliburton, Merck, among others. Many of these names are all too familiar. So, this got me thinking, I wonder whether there are any cases where BP has wreaked the kind of havoc in Nigeria that it has in this country over the past 50 days.

I found an article in which a Nigerian national remarked that BP would consider the Deepwater Horizon spill "very minor by Nigerian standards" and that "generations in some areas have experienced the great outdoors as an oily mess." John Vidal, environment editor of The Guardian stated of his experience visiting the Niger Delta, in an article dated May 30, 2010, "more oil is spilled from the delta's network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico."

The locals regaled Vidal with stories of the "incessant" oil spills, and a Nigerian writer, Ben Ikari stated, "If this Gulf accident had happened in Nigeria, neither the government nor the company would have paid much attention. This kind of spill happens all the time in the delta." To them, BP is bending over backwards to accomodate the American people. Nnimo Bassey, Nigerian head of Friends of the Earth International told Vidal of the Nigerian people, "they are amazed that the president of the US can be making speeches daily, because in Nigeria people there would not hear a whimper."

Fela passed away in 1997, and perhaps his death has left a vacuum (although his son, Seun, is a musican and sings about similar themes and is a rising star in Nigeria). I wonder whether Fela was able to act as a bulwark protecting his people. I must admit that I have now learned that he is an iconic figure in the world of music, I was not familiar with his story until I read about the Broadway show. Even the Tony Awards on Sunday evening, which will feature a performance from the show as well as a good chance that the production will pick up some awards, will be another opportunity for people to learn about Fela and perhaps do a bit of their own research as well. For me, my desire to learn more about Fela has opened the door to discovering this disturbing information about oil spills in Nigeria. It is a warning that history is indeed repeating itself over and over again.

Although the Nigerians Vidal interviewed may feel that BP is doing more for us than they are for them, the company is a repeat offender and should be providing retributions in all places where they have caused environmental destruction. Judith Kimerling, a professor of law and policy at the City of New York and author of Amazon Crude stated (in Vidal's article) of BP, "they are now clearly a danger to the planet. The dangers of this happening again and again are high."

Fela's legacy lives on on the Broadway stage, and he can continue to educate us. He is inspiring a whole new audience of theatergoers to discover his music and his message. The question is who will take on the mantle to use their art or music to try to work toward the change we desperately need right now?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Oil spill angst

Although I was visiting New York last weekend, hundreds of miles from home, in the back of my mind, I couldn't help but think of the impending destruction of our beloved Gulf of Mexico. So, I found myself experiencing things through that lens.

After enjoying a rousing night of ballet, we woke up early on Saturday morning to partake of a delicious brunch at renowned purveyor of jellies and baked goods, Sarabeth's, and then hopped on the Amtrak at Grand Central Terminal for a ride along the Hudson River to Beacon, New York. Watching the mountains (an unfamiliar sight) looming over the majestic riverways made the long train ride quite relaxing and enjoyable. We arrived in Beacon for a visit to the Dia: Beacon Museum. Throughout my years in New York, a visit to the Dia was on my "to do" list, but a lecture by my cousin, who just received her PhD in Art History from Yale, was a wonderful excuse to finally make the soujourn to the Museum. The Dia is a huge space (formerly a Nabisco warehouse) that is home to enormous pieces of modern art that could never possibly be housed in museums in the City.
Among the day's pleasures was seeing three "Torqued Ellipses" and a "Torqued Spiral," by Richard Serra. I have always been intrigued by Serra's work, particularly because one of his pieces resulted in a very famous art law case. He was comissioned as part of an Art-in-Architecture public art program, and he created "Tilted Arc" for the Federal Plaza in New York. However, after eight years of controversy, the piece was removed due to public displeasure. The users of the Federal Plaza found it difficult to get around and overly cumbersome to their ingress and egress to the building. Rather than viewing this unusual piece as a point of pride; there was a battle cry to have it removed. His work is not particularly user-friendly, nor is it intended to be, as was readily apparent when I actually tried to maneuver within and around it; however, I am personally opposed to the idea of removing an artist's work, particularly where he was commissioned to create a site-specific work of art. But I digress.

My cousin's talk was about Michael Heizer's work, particularly his piece, "North, East, South, West." Although the work is behind a glass protective shield and visible only during certain short windows of the day, those who attended the talk had the opportunity to view his work, only ten at a time, before my cousin, Jenni Sorkin, began her remarks. Once we got in, I understood what all the fuss was about -- this was perhaps the most awe-inspiring and dangerous work, I have ever seen. Basically, you stand over huge gaping holes of varying shapes and are permitted to peer carefully within those cavernous spaces, but you do so at your own risk. Negotiating the way in which you choose to view a piece of artwork is an unfamiliar experience. You want to be courageous and charge up to the work, but as you venture toward the holes in the earth, you can't help but shy away from full exposure.
Each time I neared one, I thought I would approach it differently, but in the end, I reacted in much the same way again and again. By comparison, the following day, we saw the understandably crowded Picasso exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I found myself bobbing and weaving in front of each piece so as to avoid the range of view of the various visitors. Although I was slightly concerned about annoying someone by being in his/her way at the Picasso exhibit, the Heizer experience was completely different. There were, of course, approximately ten other people (visitors and an appointed caretaker from the Dia) in the space behind the glass barrier; but somehow it felt as though I was completely alone as I stared into the abyss below the surface of the museum floor. It was not a bottomless abyss, you could see where it ended twenty feet below. In fact, we learned that the custodians have fashioned a contraption to grab eyeglasses and other items that visitors have dropped to the bottom of Heizer's work. Additionally, the fire department is specially trained in rescuing visitors from the bottom; although I don't believe they have ever needed to do so.
In seeing this work, I very clearly felt a profound sense of the fragility of our existence. I thought of the first time I saw the deep gash in downtown Manhattan shortly after the Twin Towers fell. And then I thought about how close we all are to losing the vast body of water that shapes so much of our existence in Sarasota. Will we someday, in the not too distant future, peer into the Gulf with the same trepidation that a viewer feels when inching up to Heizer's work?
Heizer's work was originally developed for Sierra Nevada in 1967, and was ultimately redesigned to be displayed at the Dia in 2002. While he was not commenting on the destruction of the Twin Towers nor the Gulf oil spill, but rather man's relationship with nature and the environment more generally, I could not help but relate to the work in this way because of my own history, as both a resident of Manhattan and now Sarasota. Heizer also seeks to echo large scale monuments of the past, such as the pyramids and Machu Picchu. I, for one, am grateful that human beings are no longer subjected to hard labor to create huge monuments to leaders. Yet we are now slaves to our modern conveniences and our unquenchable desire for oil. Thus, we were willing to permit oil companies to drill enormous gaping holes in the middle of one of our most precious resources. And now that we have realized the error of our ways, there appears to be no way to reseal that hole and stop the endless barrage of oil pouring into the Gulf waters.
Had I seen the Heizer exhibit fifty days ago, my experience would have been quite different. In all likelihood, I still would have been moved to ponder the precariousness of life in our natural world. But I would have left and probably not thought much more about it. Unfortunately, however, that fact has struck much closer to home, and I am left thinking about the brilliance of "North, South, East, West" long after my visit.
Next up, we returned to the City in time to see "Fela!" on Broadway, which I will write about in my next blog entry.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I'll take Manhattan

I just got back from Memorial Day weekend in Manhattan, where I spent a decade of my life, so I will "blog nostalgic" in the next few entries. As soon as I landed, I was walking at double speed and scouring Time Out New York so that I wouldn't miss a beat; however, I soon realized that several years in Florida seemed to have altered my energy level and my ability to look past the garbage and the City smells to which I was formerly relatively oblivious.

A friend of mine told me of two welcome additions in recent months, the David Rubinstein Atrium at Lincoln Center, which offers half-priced day-of-show tickets, and Le Pain Quotidien in Sheep's Meadow. Both of these discoveries greatly enhanced my weekend, as we scored 8th row seats for the New York City ballet and delicious organic coffee smack dab in the center of the park (no need to run to Starbuck's anymore when frolicking in the park). Incidentally, I noticed that nearly everyone I saw in the park was carrying a cup of coffee, so Le Pain Quotidien is to be commended for recognizing the need for caffeine among the nature-seeking City dwellers.

The night I attended, the New York City ballet performed Donzietti Variations, which I saw last month at the Sarasota Ballet, so Iain Webb put me ahead of the game. It was interesting to compare the two versions. The most notable difference was the significance of the live orchestra. There is no question that the swells of music permeating throughout the theater added an important dimension to the performance. For the most part, other than a slightly different costume choice, the interpretations were largely the same. But, I was thrilled to see such a beautiful piece a second time. The company also performed "NY Export: Opus Jazz," to which I had also been introduced in Sarasota at this year's film festival. I was lucky enough to catch the film, "NY Export: Opus Jazz," which was created by two members (one former, one current) of the New York City ballet company, Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi, and the filmmakers with whom they collaborated. They also screened "Ballet in Sneakers," a short documentary about the making of the longer film, which gave me a lot of insight into Robbins' 1958 piece. At that screening, I saw several of the dancers in our company gathered around Bar, and it was delightful to see the connection among this group of uber-talented dancers. So, once again, my experiences in Sarasota prepared me for the evening's performance. Seeing the piece a second time did not detract from my experience in the slightest; and in fact, it was enhanced because I could compare the two versions, one shot in empty spaces around New York City, including a warehouse, an old gymnasium, and most amazingly, the High Line (the newest park in the City, which is entirely above ground on a former railroad track). I learned that the pas de deux, "Passage for Two," which forms the centerpiece of "NY Export" was one of the earliest performances by a black man and a white woman dancing together. Both of the productions I saw (film and live) adhered to this tradition, and the performance of this portion of the piece on the abandoned railway prior to the renovations, was truly inspired. It brilliantly captured the precariousness of the relationship between the dancers, whereas the performance in the theater, as beautiful as it was, was not as fully realized as the sequence in the film.
Perhaps part of what made the film's rendition of "Passage for Two" so intriguing was knowing the history of the time period. In the same year that Robbins debuted this piece, Mildred Jeter, an African-American woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, were married in DC and then moved to Virginia, where interracial marriage was not permitted. It was not until 1967 that the United States Supreme Court determined that this law was unconstitutional and struck it down. So, the performance of this achingly human piece, particularly on the dilapated highline, with a couple of different races, has a very special meaning. The two dancers performed it nearly emotionless, allowing their bodies which moved tentatively together to reflect the attraction and the fear that they seemed to be feeling. At the close of the piece, the male dancer walks off into the sunset leaving the female dancer crouched on the tracks. This underscores how difficult a relationship between men and women of different races would have been at that time. Additionally, given the current climate regarding the constitutionality of same sex marriage, this look back at our history as a country is quite poignant.
I will have more on the rest of the trip in my next post.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Music with a message and service learning

Last week was an exciting and emotionally-charged week for me. I have the great fortune of being able to lead a class of twelve students on a journey of discovery as part of a service learning class, actually the first of its kind at USF Sarasota-Manatee, called "Ending Homelessness in our community: How can we work for social change?" During the first day of class, as each student introduced him or herself, I could tell that this was going to be a very special experience for all of us, as they had such heartfelt and commendable reasons for wanting to enroll in the class. Once they learned they would be providing service to the Resurrection House, a local day shelter for the homeless, they were even more enthused about the class. Several came up afterward to thank me for the opportunity, which is always a nice thing to hear, since it really wasn't clear to me how students would perceive such an unusual class. For the second session last week, we took a group tour at Resurrection House, and the Executive Director, Volunteer Director, and Development Director pulled out all the stops to give the students an informative and very memorable glimpse into the day-to-day operations of the shelter. At the end of the session, the students signed up for various tasks at the shelter, which they would take on each week. I was glowing with pride throughout the process, because I could hardly believe how lucky I was to have such a wonderfully caring group participate in this class. Their questions were wise and perceptive and their enthusiasm palable. It truly inspired me!

In the midst of the excitement from the first week of class, my husband and I attended a Michael Franti concert in Ybor City. For those who aren't familiar with this artist, he is a soulful poet who uses his music to make a difference in the world. He said: “I want to bring people together through music and its unique power. And I hope that somehow that sense of unity extends beyond the music.” What I love about him is his positive spirit and his commitment to peace and the welfare of all. He also weaves his love of yoga, which is a transformative experience much like music, into everything he does. This was actually our second time seeing him this year. Each time, he radiates throughout his performances, and he has a refreshing group of followers, perhaps, very much like the kinds of people I might have seen at Woodstock, had I been around then. For more about Michael, see his website: http://michaelfranti.com/.
One of my favorite lines from his songs is "All the freaky people make the beauty of the world" -- I just love this message, which to me, asks the questions, why do we need everyone to fit into a corporate box? Why must we demand that people conform to social norms?
Which brings me back to the theme of the summer class -- do we do this with the homeless? Do we expect them to find a way to fit in to our expectations rather than giving them the resources they need to expand our notion of what a normal life is or should be?

One of the students in the class mentioned that an experiment was done where a number of homeless people were given jobs and apartments, and within a certain period of time, none of them were able to maintain what they were given and ended up back on the streets. One of the things I want the class to consider is whether our system is largely designed for people who are able to work within a 9 to 5 paradigm. Is it possible that we have not yet found a way to be able to help people discover their strengths and become self-sufficient? Shouldn't we first acknowledge that living a typical life with a mortgage payment and bi-weekly paycheck may be extremely difficult for many people, and then help them find what works for them so they can live on their own? As the Resurrection House leaders told us, there are as many different stories as there are people who use the day shelter. We are going to try to come up with a variety of different creative solutions that might work to relieve the financial and emotional struggles of this vast and growing population, because there does not appear to be one clear antidote to this complex problem. The students are tasked with writing papers with innovative problem-solving ideas, and then presenting those ideas at the end of the summer.

Michael Franti is a great storyteller, and early in his career he wrote a song specifically about homelessness, which I commend to everyone called "Hole in the Bucket." In the song, he sings about being approached by a person with "dirty dreads" who asks him for spare change while singing the old tune, "There's a whole in the bucket, dear Liza." Michael doesn't stop because he doesn't have change, but he is affected by the interaction with this man and finds himself humming the man's song. Later, he's out runnning errands, one of which is to get a spool of thread (although he can't remember why), and gets some spare change after making some purchases. He sings: "...what's going to happen if I give a man a quarter? Will he find a dealer and place an order? I'm not responsible for the man's depression, how can I find compassion in the midst of recession?" He walks past the man and decides not to give him his newly acquired change. Then he thinks better of it when he gets home: "my cup is half full but his is empty." When he reaches into his pocket to grab the extra change to give to the man, he suddenly remembers why he needed that spool of thread! He sings, "While I was busy thinkin' if he would buy smack, the jingle in my pocket, it slipped through the cracks," and he has the sudden realization that spare change that means nothing to him, and which he could easily lose due to some faulty threads, could be very important for this man he met on the street.

Although the common wisdom is that we should not stop and give money when asked for it by someone who seems to be living on the streets, there are few among us who probably don't feel some pang of guilt for walking past. While we should not risk our own safety or well-being, there is always that feeling that we would like to do more. Franti's song could be viewed on a metaphorical level, not necessarily as a plea to stop and give money to people on the streets, but it also could apply to giving our free time or even small donations to local charitable organizations. Time that we waste surfing the internet or small amounts of money that we forget that we have could be better spent in the service of those who have fewer resources than we do. The service learning class is an opportunity for the students to give their time to a worthy operation, and to perhaps serve as ambassadors spreading the word about their experience to others who might wish to help but not know where to begin. Rather than just letting our spare time or spare change "slip through the cracks," we can find a meaningful way to give to others.

There is so much more to say on this topic, which I will save for the next blog, but for those who are interested, I will update you about the class throughout the summer.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Power of Art in Healing

Last night, I attended a wonderful program at the Ringling College on "the power of art in healing." The guest speaker, Naj Wikoff, is a pioneer in this area, and he gave an incredibly inspiring speech (Here is a link to his bio and The Society for Arts and Healthcare website: http://www.thesah.org/about/person_detail.cfm?person_id=1501)

Wikoff began his remarks by telling us how he transitioned from wondering "how is my art going to look next to a Brancusi" to learning how to use his artistic vision to reach people in need of physical and spiritual healing. This process began when he was hired at the Cathedral Church in New York with a nebulous but gratifying job description to "uplift the human spirit through the arts." On his first day, he was asked by a co-worker to hire an artist who had AIDS, at a time, as he said, when those with AIDS were being treated like lepers. Not only did he find a way to hire the artist, but he also decided to develop a musical theater production created entirely by artists with AIDS. The project took flight as he met more and more artists, including Tony Award winners, who had allowed their diagnosis to be a death sentence. He cajoled them into writing their last songs, and they did. With each deadline that passed in preparation for the show, he convinced them that the production wasn't quite ready and needed some tweaking. In this simple act of deception, he was able to extend the quality of life for this group of artists who naturally had become very engaged in the project. He said this experience gave them the chance to be close to one another, because no one was afraid of "catching AIDS." The chance for human contact together with the opportunity to express their creativity in the face of death resulted in a transformative experience for everyone involved.

I couldn't help but think of the chillingly beautiful song entitled "Glory" from the Broadway show "Rent," in which Roger, who was diagnosed with AIDS sings about his desire to write the perfect song before he dies. ("One song glory, one song before I go, Glory, one song to leave behind, find one song, one last refrain") Ultimately, of course, it was playwright Jonathan Larsen who wrote his last song before he died prematurely of a congenital heart disorder just a few nights before his play opened in an 0ff-Broadway theater in 1996. Although Larsen couldn't have predicted that this production was to be his final legacy as an artist, his rock musical about young people dealing with AIDS, has provided an irrepressible message of hope and healing for scores of audiences (if you haven't seen it, the film version is excellent and features most of the original cast).

Then, as so often happens when a topic is on your mind, at home last night after the Ringling event, I watched this week's episode of "Glee," which perfectly reflected Wikoff's remarks. Week after week, "Glee" has bombastically addressed important social issues with great depth, emotional range, and a healthy dose of fun. In this particular episode entitled "Laryngitis," the lead singer of the glee club, Rachel Berry, dramatically loses her voice in the midst of a performance, and simultaneously loses all hope. (For those who watch the show and know Rachel's character, this is a fitting response.) She says that she doesn't know who she is without her perfect pitch. The lead male vocalist, Finn Hudson, convinces her to visit a friend of his from football camp, Sean, who became paralyzed during a game and is primarily confined to his bed. She is so moved by her interaction with Sean that she decides to give him voice lessons (after she has carefully nursed her voice back to health). In a scene which exhibited a depth rarely captured on television or any medium for that matter, he asks her to take his hand, even though he no longer has any feeling there, so that he can remember the feeling of holding hands and see his hand in hers to capture that experience in his mind. The two begin singing "One" by U2, and as their voices soar, you forget he is laying in his bed and his hand cannot feel, and instead are transported by the raw emotional strength of their rendition. The words "one love, we get to share it, leaves you baby, if you don't care for it" are so resonant in this context. They both seem to realize as they sing that without a human connection, perfect pitch or the ability to play football are meaningless. What was especially beautiful about this scene was the fact that Sean was played by an actor, Zack Weinstein, who has a spinal cord injury similar to his character's, that happened during a canoeing accident while he was studying acting at Skidmore. This week's show was his first professional acting job, and in one fell swoop he managed to draw positive attention to spinal cord injuries and to produce an amazing hour of television, which is sure to be inspiring to so many people. In his blog, he said that his resolve to be an actor only increased after his accident, and in recounting his time on "Glee," he said, "There isn't a greater high for me than what I was feeling when I was able to be completely invested in those moments." If that isn't art for social change, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"Flag" by Jasper Johns

Hello and welcome to my new art for social change blog! This is a place for us to talk about the ways in which our experiences with the arts can help us better understand ourselves and others. If asked about a piece of artwork or a play, we tend to weigh in as to whether we enjoyed it or not, but nothing further. However, if you are like me, you may feel that you would like to discuss the impact of an experience with the arts on a deeper, more meaningful level. Here's the place to do it.

First up, I was just informed on a yahoo alert that the piece "Flag" by Jasper Johns sold for $28.6 million dollars at Christie's. This hit me on a number of levels -- first the fact that I could learn of such a sale at a moment's notice while sitting at my desk in Sarasota, Florida; second, the idea that the price tag on a painting is treated as breaking news; and finally, the fact that people with money to burn are probably hankering for "the America they once knew." "Flag" is considered an iconic piece of art, and I have to say on a surface level I find it very appealing (see photograph). But truly, it is Jasper Johns' interpretation of the flag we see every day. A sale of these proportions, one might say, is a testament to old-school American values. American symbolism and capitalism inextricably linked. In fact, the reporters note that investors are pouring their money into art of late, because of the volatility of the financial markets. Surely, it makes sense that a painting of a flag is now a safer investment than buying stock in Goldman Sachs, but it is certainly quite remarkable.

At a time when we keep hearing the refrain that the America of 2010 is not "my America" -- is it possible that the purchase of a $28.6 million flag painting is an attempt to hold onto America of the past, where greed was indeed "good?" (Note, ads are already playing for Oliver Stone's current take in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" again featuring Gordon Gekko, who originally coined the phrase).

As I said, I actually love the piece "Flag," but the ironies here aren't lost on me. I just keep thinking of the number of Americans who could benefit from that kind of money. In all likelihood, this piece will end up in the hands of another collector (it was owned by the late Michael Crichton), where Americans will never see it again. So much for the American dream.