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:"

" 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.