Friday, July 22, 2011

Victoria Harbor sunrise: an iPhone video or two...

The magic of an iPhone at sunrise over Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong on a Saturday morning in July....

Jet Lag: Strange Magic

Hong Kong
Saturday, July 23
5:48am local time

If there is a blessing to jet lag it is found in sunrise. The inability to sleep, the narcoleptic roll of the eye and the strange lights that flash behind closed lids, the twitching muscles seeking to right themselves somehow from 14 hours and 32 minutes of continuous flight through an eternal day over Arctic Canada and the sum total of the Russian and Chinese Pacific are rendered a joy at daybreak in the right place.

6:20 on Saturday morning, the hotel window at dawn
The 42nd story of a hotel with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the magic of Victoria Harbor is one such place. A unique place, laced with imagery of times distant and near. The Kowloon Mountains thrust up just past the endless verticality of man, and the long shrouded-images of the China of my childhood, forbidding and forbidden, Maoist and menacing are recalled through the mists of what was then British Hong Kong.

"They'll never get it back" I remember my Dad saying of this tiny English colony in the early 1980s, meaning what were then the Red Chinese. Yet they did get it back, in 1997, nine years after the fall of the Soviet Union, another "impenetrable" fortification of totalitarian power. I remember the images of Prince Charles at the ceremony ending British sovereignty. 

Oddly, history suggests that it was the raising of the question of sovereignty in the New Territories by the-then British Governor of Hong Kong which led to the final return of all of Hong Kong. Hong Kong itself, and the Peninsula, were, under treaty, permanently ceded to the UK. 

Ultimately, of course, that was not how it happened. Victoria Harbor, the Harbor 42 stories below me, is one of the great ports of commerce the world has ever known. Through it, through the endless shipping that courses the Harbor, a harbor of deep green water the color of which scarce seems un-colored, vast amounts of what I knew in my childhood flowed. Everything was "made in Hong Kong" and now I see where it left the land and journeyed the sea to the port and store (usually toy store) in which I found it in mid-Manhattan. 

The way we terraform land, and bend it, will never cease to amaze me. Here is the map of Hong Kong harbor in 1845. Below it, a portrait view of largely the same scene, just higher in the air, today (the joy of an iPhone at 6am...)

In this moment we are just passing through, Jason Ignacio and I, from Hong Kong to Guangzhou to teach and talk at the eight Annual Modern Dance Festival in Guangzhou, now the largest contemporary festival in China --  a very different China from the one that wanders my childhood. It is one I have been curious to know all my life, and yet for all my travels I have never been to China. Technically I still haven't. That's for tomorrow. Today is for Hong Kong.  

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Green water

Sunday, July 17
Bern, Switzerland

Its raining in Bern. A lot. But in the skylit atrium of the Allegro Hotel the jazz duo (sax and upright acoustic bass) are playing American standards with lyric lines about "blue skies" and "sunshine" -- and the tag line of "lets call the whole thing off." Its funny, because my first memory of Europe, after landing in Frankfurt after my junior year of college, was that there were jazz bands everywhere. The lingua franca of Europe -- or at least of German-speaking Europe, seemed then, and seems still, to be jazz. And its good jazz. Straight-up, right on the money jazz. 

Childhood allusions abound. Its all about trains here. And, as a child, I was all about trains (and dinosaurs) all the time. The brand was always Marklin -- the perfectly made, endlessly durable (even with me around) miniature scale railroads that ran the length of the apartment on 86th and East End. Lord forbid you close a hallway door and disrupt and disconnect the rail line that ran from my bedroom to the far end of the living room, with a determined stop kitchen-side to take on Ice Cream. 

Boarding today after the flight in from Dulles to Zurich and looking out from the second level window of the spot-on-time train was a walk into the notion that life really is a movie, and that it runs in the glass windows of your field of vision all the time, like an endless array of screens snapping you back-and-forth from today to yesterday, way, way back and, sometimes, way, way forward. 

The engines which dominated those model railroads of my yesterday were hard at work outside my window on the Intercity rail from Zurich Main Station to Geneva Airport. The tiny workhorse red diesels which now seem almost always to be marked "cargo," the strangely cigar shaped electric engines dragging long strings of passenger cars I coveted as a kid, the trestles and the tracks -- all of these were floating past the windows of my car (the floating part was probably just jet-lag at work, but, hey, its fantasy). 

Overhead the rain patters away at the glass like an oscilloscope -- reflecting and radiating the sounds of the sax and the plucking of the bass. Disney must have been in Bern in a jazz-soaked deluge when he thought of the "Toccata and Fugue"sequence for "Fantasia." The wait-staff, from the waffle-makers to the hostesses to the bus-boys walk with that snap to their step that says "I love jazz." 

Today and tomorrow -- my two brief summer days in Switzerland -- are about tour planning for October with the exceptional team at the US Embassy here. In a country known for its organization pulling a major tour together to take place about 75 days from now is not a small task -- but its a great one. Wandering the town is a bit impractical right about now barring a broad and wide umbrella, but the soundscapes and the scenery solves the problem of how to prepare and from where to draw inspiration. 

I remember the inspiration of those small red trains and those enormous tall trestles, the reinforced-with-lego-blocks and books and toy boxes trestles as they rose from the ground to the coffee-table, physics unheeded and the practicality of obliterating an entire living room in pursuit of the ultimate construction forgotten. 

One night, deep into one of my Mother's legendary all-night cocktail parties at 535 East 86th street, long after I was supposed to be asleep, I remember cranking up the power on track two, the track for that little work-horse red engine, and sending it forth into the Living Room just to see what would happen. Power on I snuck down the hall and took station behind the cement support column that stood strangely in the front hall (it was a 26 story building after all, so something had to be holding it up), my childhood friend and sweetheart Amy at my side, to see the outcome of a railroad at work in the midst of a five-sheets-to-the-wind gaggle of adults. 

We got to our post as the train rounded into the Living Room unnoticed. My Mom always insisted that if I built it she'd leave it, but that it had, as she said, its time and place. As the engine and its load headed up that trestle one thing was clear -- it would never survive the encounter with the glasses hard-on the track. But then that was the point, wasn't it? 

Cresting the top it went straight into the forest of glass and, as the first of them went over, the room got very, very quiet. Things went spilling, slopping and slipping onto the table, a little Noah's flood all my own. 

You could even here everything spilling -- it was that kind of quiet. And then, inevitably -- the same way as the sound of rain on the skylights in Bern, you heard the familiar refrain " PAUL! GOD DAMMIT!"

That was always the cue to scramble -- but as Amy and I bolted for the bedroom (why we thought that would save us I really never have figured out) I remember seeing something just pouring over the lip of the coffee table. We'd created our own little river by the rail bed. But the color was wrong. It was supposed to be blue. Or clear. This stuff, whatever it was, was green. "Wrong color" I remember I heard in my head. "Next time I'll have to fix that."

Today, on a great trestle high over a great full, flowing river on the outskirts of Bern, heading to two days of meetings about art and imagination, I looked down into that water and learned that we'd been right all along. 

Better than imagination lay reality. The river was running green. 

Monday, July 4, 2011

In the Lost Sacred Inka City of Machu Picchu

Minsk, Belarus | July 5, 2011

During the week of June 26th Company E had the opportunity to take its art -- and its cameras -- into the Sacred Inka city of Machu Picchu to film and photograph. FilmWORKS Creative Director Francisco Campos-Lopez and Artistic Director Paul Gordon Emerson filmed and photographed with Associate Artistic Director's Jason Garcia Ignacio and Kathryn Pilkington, and founding company members Amanda Engelhardt and Rob Priore for two extraordinary days.

Told throughout the filming that "no one has ever been granted this kind of access before" Company E found its inspiration inside the ancient walls and pathways of a city deserted almost 500 years before....

Mid 50s: A West Side Story

Mid 50s: Bound for Minsk, Belarus to choreograph West Side Story

There is a sense, as there always is in mid-flight, that time and distance have no meaning any longer, transcended by moments of suspension, carried into rare air and the demarcation line of earth and space. You see it through the window, that thin blue line, and are made to understand that strength and frailty, too, live separated only by tiny sequences of metal and rivets strung together and the keen eye of a pilot and the programs he deploys to keep you within that blueness. Call it a tipping point you hope very much not to tip, a teeter-totter that doesn’t.

It comes to mind not because of physics or fantasy. Within it are images of balance that we seek and yet seek to destroy as well – living on the edge, tripping beyond it. These are the places logic tells you not to go, but passion provokes you far, far beyond. Call it what you will, it's the thing that drives us to do what we should not if we want that little blue line to keep us safe.

Yet though we rarely go there ourselves, we seek it out in others, in stories, in fantasy, in ideas and dreams. We look for it in other eyes, in places where passion is the purpose, the point, and where we can, at least for a moment, taste and touch what is beyond our courage so often.

When I was in my early and mid-teens, when basketball was my obsession, I went over to the West Side, down to the mid 50s seeking out courts where the game was really played hard. Hells Kitchen was a real name then, and I remember the tangible fear of walking down streets where it was evident I didn’t belong. Holding that worn out Wilson basketball in the crick of my left arm, bent elbow nutcracker-ing it to my side, sweat from July summer afternoons licking the nape of my neck and ears, I would walk west off the 1 train until I came to the courts, courts which would reveal themselves behind high chain-link fences and the odd, urban echo of the balls bouncing – no, not bouncing – being beaten hard into the ground, a kind of vengeance behind each dribble, a dare to the ball to come back for more. “FRAZIER!” A great pass, a wicked pump fake and Clyde was invoked. “PEARL!” – the sound of a freeze-you-in-your-shoes move, a spin at the hip, a defender laid out. It was all Knicks all the time over there. Those were the glory days of New York Basketball, and whether you loved Willis or Dollar Bill or The Dream (Dean Memminger), you never, ever wanted to be anyone but a Knick. Didn’t matter what side you played on, you were a New Yorker and everyone else was the enemy.

At courtside, waiting to get a game, you had this strange sensation, if you closed your eyes, that everyone was the same. Black. White. Latin (not a lot of Latin ballplayers on those courts at that time); white kids wanted to be The Captain (Willis Reed) as much as black kids wanted to be Mike Riordan (before he got traded to the Bullets for the Pearl), the deadly jumper at the last second taking the game. And everyone invoked the same Gods of the game – it was like soldiers going into battle and praying to the same God to stand by them. Someone was going to get favor. Someone was going to get whacked.

In those, days, on that asphalt, there was one guy we all wanted to be. One Knick who epitomized the game as it was meant to be on those courts, the guy who took the toughest player on the other side and just beat him senseless all game. People would talk about him – not kids like me, other NBA players – in a way that made you think that they were just afraid of the guy. His name was Dave DeBuschere and he was the Knicks enforcer. He played what we called BIG D – big defense. It wasn’t that he was a dirty player. I never, ever remember seeing him shove a guy or hit someone late after a whistle. It wasn’t like that. It was that he was relentless. No one got by DeBuschere. You just didn’t. On the West Side people said “he played the game right.” I remember him talking in an interview about his stomach muscles being so sore after a game that it was like they were going to cramp. It was different over there, on the West Side. It was about defense, about standing your ground. You earned respect for getting knocked down and getting up and keeping your mouth shut.

For me, as the littlest guy on the court always, the only way I got respect was to get hit, or to take a hit, and just live with what came. I remember getting hit so hard by a kid determined to just go through me (he was at least 8 inches taller than me) that my feet just left the ground. I heard it more than I felt it, and I swear the guy didn’t so much go into me as through me – an Agent Smith kind of morph where he came out on the other side and left me absolutely flat on my back.

We lost that game. Bad. Really bad. Like, I’m not even sure we scored – that kind of bad. But at the end, when I went back over to the side, along the chain-link, the guy who had taken me out came over to me. I think I figured I was about to get punched in the face for something.

“What do you weigh, man, like 50 pounds?”

I had no idea what to say. Like I said, I figured my teeth were about to be rearranged.

“This isn’t your neighborhood. You can get in it just by walking the wrong side of the street and you so little nobody would know nothing. Why you here?”

I said something about just wanting to play the game – some dumb response to impending doom.

“Well, OK. I can’t do nothing for you outside this fence, but when you’re in here, you’re OK. Anybody gets run down like you do all the time and gets up for more can play – at least until you end up in the hospital or something.”



Not altogether sure what had just happened I started to sit down and wait my turn when the guy called out to me. “Hey – little man – Little D – we’re down a man. Why don’t you come get in this game with us.”

These are things I haven’t thought about for a long time, memories about being too young, too stupid to understand that a basketball wasn’t a halo and couldn’t protect you from trouble late at night in Hell’s Kitchen. But I never, ever had any trouble from anyone. Maybe I was too little, or maybe it was because I just was so obviously out of place nobody cared. Maybe the kid who ran me over, and who called me Little D from then on, was looking out for me. I don’t know. Maybe it was just luck.

Whatever the reason, it was certainly the place I learned to take a hit. Here, in the first days of July with a new Company and new dreams to stretch out to, and old hits to step beyond, it’s funny that that one day is what comes to mind.

I’m on a plane, at 35,000 feet, just a few days removed from filming in Machu Picchu, heading to the opposite side of the world in just about every way. And in a darkened cabin I’m trying to understand why that memory, of all those that could come, is the one that is present now.

A few weeks after my day as Little D I was up at my Dad’s on 95th street. We didn’t see each other often, and so when we did there were always many questions about what I was doing with my time and my world, about what I cared about and why. My basketball obsession made no sense to my Dad. He listened, he tried to understand it, but you could see by the look in his eye that it was parental affection that made him interested, not the game itself (and that was OK).

For some reason I told him the Little D story.

He was quite for a moment when I finished it. I remember a cigarette in his hand, the sunlight through the window making everything hazy and Marko, our Collie, chewing on something on the carpet.

“What street is the court on?” I told him.

After a few minutes (or at least they seemed like a few minutes – Dad had a way with that) he got up and walked over to one of the shelves housing his endless, elemental record library. He squatted down to the second level and scanned the labels, right index finger tabbing right, ticking away at the spines in such a way that it sounded like a train running a track, cigarette in between his teeth, until he got to the place he was looking for. He glanced over at me, a little out of the corner of his eye.

“Its time you listened to this,” he said. “They filmed the movie version of it blocks from the playground you were in, where Lincoln Center now stands.”

He pulled out the album, a red cover with a fire escape staircase and big black block letters on it.

“It's a musical named ‘West Side Story.’