Thursday, September 29, 2011

Kyrgyzstan Journal: Departure Day (and Valencia day)

Barcelona International Airport
Thursday, September 29, 2011

As I wait for my flight to Valencia the company gets ready in DC for a rendezvous at Dulles International Airport for the journey to Central Asia and to Bishkek, the Capital city of Kyrgyzstan. Company E's debut concert takes place in the Opera House, in partnership with the US Department of State on October 6th with our friends a partners from Samruk Dance Company.

For us its the start of an incredible journey in these next months. Christian Denice makes his company premiere. We show Roni Koresh's extraordinary "Theater of Public Secrets" (that's Amanda in the table solo in rehearsal in Philadelphia earlier this month above) and spend a week teaching and dancing.

Everyone lands in Bishkek on Saturday and I leave Spain, from Madrid (after Valencia) on Sunday for a Monday arrival. Kathryn has done a brilliant job of organizing everything from DC while I've been out of the country. Jason has set a great itinerary of classes. The Company is dancing beautifully and they're ready....

An amazing way to begin.....

Barcelona Journal: Day One -- a postscript in Images Part Two

Barcelona Journal: Day One -- a postscript in Images

Barcelona, Spain
Wednesday, September 28, 2011

In the heart of the Old City...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Barcelona Journal: The Coward of the County

Barcelona, Spain
Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Fifteen minutes before midnight, tearing down one of Barcelona's broad and beautiful boulevards at a good 45 to 50 miles and hour, weaving through the still thick traffic of a city that clearly does not believe in sleep -- or, if it does, it succumbs in shifts, staggered to ensure that its reputation as a place ever-alive is intact. Back seat of a black-and-yellow Barcelona taxi. Windows open. Night air fantastic and light, the most distant hint of salt and sea laced inside it.

The cabbie, driving left hand only, leaning forward into the wheel, tactile and present as though contemplating driving the cab with his chest. At every light he is forced to stop at he is all over the place looking for companions in next-door taxis to wave to, greet -- waving at the prettiest girl awaiting a light-change to green. Right hand never far from the volume control of the stereo -- an amped up stereo to understate it. Singing. Bobby and moving to the lyrics.

This is Catalonia, remember. Deep traditions. Passionate people. Passionate music. All day taxis were working the sound -- some to talk radio, some to music indigenously inflected. Spanish. Catalonian.

Kenny Rogers?

He hits the gas. Belén and I hit the back of the seat...

"He was only ten years old when his Daddy died in prison.
I looked after Tommy 'cause he was my brother's son.
I still recall the final words my Brother said to Tommy:
'Son my life is over but yours is just begun"

We zoom through the roundabout. Fountains in full glory. Cabbie in full throat.

"Sometimes you got to fight to be a man!"

A day that started with a bullet train from Madrid pulls to the hotel entrance and Kenny Rogers is restored to legend by a Caribbean cabbie in perfect english with EVERY lyric to "Coward of the County" at his lips.

Left hand at the wheel, Travis Tritt hits the stereo. The wind blows as the cab vanishes. You can't make this stuff up....

Welcome to Barcelona.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Madrid Journal: Of insects and artists

Madrid, Spain
Monday, September 26th, 2011

Random quote for the day: In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness,” she said, “to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”

-- Wangari Maathai -- first African woman to win the Nobel Prize for her work on the environment. Maathai died yesterday of cancer in her hometown of Nairobi, Kenya

At the end of an exceptionally interesting, challenging and full day two young choreographers completed the journey with a visit at the hotel tonight at 8:30. What might have made for a tired conversation was instead a bit of inspiration centered on issues of climate change, environment, sanctuary and that word I so love in art -- honesty.

What they shared was a dance that lives on Vimeo and thus one I can share -- and has won prize after prize in its life. Fresh. Challenging. Fascinating.

The artists are Alvaro Esteban and Elias Aguirre and their work is presented under the name EA & AE...

Madrid Journal: 21 lights. 21 Lives.

Madrid, Spain - Sunday, September 26th

21 lights. 21 lives.

“This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.

“So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless. We are living in a time when flowers are trying to live on flowers., instead of growing on good rain and black loam. Even fireworks, for all their prettiness, come from the chemistry of the earth. Yet somehow we think we can grow, feeding on flowers and fireworks, without completing the cycle back to reality. Do you know the legend of Hercules and Antaeus, the giant wrestler, whose strength was incredible so long as he stood firmly on the earth? But when he was held, rootless, in midair by Hercules he perished easily. If there isn’t something in that legend for us today, in this city, in our time, then I am completely insane.”

- - -- Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Tonight my real journey in Spain began. Belén, my guide and interpreter arrived at the hotel to take me through the streets and down into the Madrid Metro to the first performance of my time here. The evening air was full – not exactly humid, but dense nonetheless as we scampered through the streets to the underground and into it. Sleek white trains that don’t look quite like any other line I have seen – exceptionally smooth, precise and yet somehow cold. You didn’t need to hold the poles but you also didn’t have any sense of life in the system, which surprised me. It did the job, but it told you little, unlike the system in, say, Moscow, which is all personality (a word that can mean many things in this context) and battered efficiency. You could talk at a normal level in the Madrid metro. In Moscow’s it really was all sign-language and curiosity at the commuter dogs that populate the system.

From the station we came up onto a plaza of stunning fountains illuminated after sunset so that the water spurted white, magical as snow rendered viscous somehow, with stem-upon-stem of white flowers surrounding the entire central flow. Breathtaking, really.

Down narrow streets filled with slowly strolling people and young men and women together in that lovers bubble that happens as it escapes parental view we walked quickly – I’d made us late – to a theater which, as small spaces often do, just appeared, as though carved into the conscious of the neighborhood yet set in so as to be unobtrusive.

Tiny space – a bit like the Mead Theater Lab in DC. No air conditioning. Perhaps 60 seats. For most artists a box to be overcome not embraced.

Not this time.

As you entered the black box the performer sat on a saran wrapped drafting chair, diagonally placed so she was looking upstage left. Behind her on the same diagonal a large canvas, bare save for a silverback gorilla similarly facing away from you but present enough to leave you to ask what he was looking at.

Over the course of perhaps an hour a journey between Maite Larrañeta, the choreographer and performer ebbed and flowed in an intimacy only the most gifted performers can sustain. In a space so small, with a performer determined, elegantly, to confront the audience, it becomes personal, intimate.

She was, at first, the gorilla, supple, stretching technique in service of emotion so that you understood her command of movement but forgot in the moment that she was a “dancer,” and not a creature removed from her evolution and restored to something elemental.

At one moment, deep into the story, evolved into a modern woman emerged from a shower, she sat again in her chair, back almost to the audience, and took a long serrated blade and sliced long strips of flesh from her left leg, placing them languidly into a bowl by her right arm on a tiny table. The effect, in less skillful hands, would be trite. But with her, with the environment she had built, it was terrifying. You had come into her world and the slow movement of the long blade felt as it was on your own skin. Later you would look reflexively at your own leg and wonder if it were still whole.

That ability to remove the space between audience and artist is what I find myself seeking constantly. It is the intimacy between us that is so often absent in performance today, especially in the States. Its what Ohad has, what his “Mamuttot” did for an to (and still does) me. Ms. Larrañeta, in her way, achieved the same.

The title of her work is “What Would You Do if Your Were Medea?” For me there was a journey of ecology, of environmental violence against the creatures we share a planet with. For Belén it was a different journey reflective of her life and aspirations. That the two experiences were utterly different is, I think, the magic of it.

In this theater, which contained only 21 lights, there was an audience of 21 people. Each had their world, I think, altered.

At one point yesterday I was talking by Facebook message with my friend and colleague Dana Ruttenberg, who was at that moment in Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow bound for a small Russian city to perform. Our conversation was about the power and impact of performance beyond the major venues and cities, ones where you reach people one-at-a-time. Somehow the world seems to see those as less meaningful, less prestigious. I disagree. The world changes by degree, and to affect it one life at a time is an extraordinary thing.

At breakfast this morning here in Madrid I came upon the bacon waiting in the bin. Warm, greasy, sizzling. Yesterday I would have taken it.

Not today. Not yet. The story of Medea, of the deep history of literature, has pores. It has features and, in a moment in a theater of 21 lights, the faces of life.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Madrid Journal: Beginnings - a post script in images

In the heart of the old city at and after twilight. As with so many graceful parts of Europe this part of Madrid is almost all foot-traffic, cafes and elegance.

Madrid Journal: Beginnings

Madrid, Spain
Saturday, September 24th 2011

Random quote for the day: "I sometimes think the writing process is a state of total denial about what you’re doing or your motivations for doing it.”

-- Tea Obreht, author of "The Tiger's Wife" in the New York Times, March 14, 2011

Random thought for the day: If you're ever going to travel anywhere in the world where there are bugs, take Jason Ignacio with you. Guaranteed you won't get a single bug bite even if you walk into a mosquito infested, spider laden jungle so long as he's within 20 feet. Turns out his popularity as a person extends to the critter world. Moths to the flame. (and make sure you're not eating when he starts telling you about cockroaches that eat your eyebrows while you sleep.....)

For the second time in three days I find myself referencing a conversation I had with Sonya and Ariana (the US Embassy Minsk Fullbrighters) as it pertains to the world in which I find myself. In this case it was about the seemingly random provoking profound change in your life. A few years ago I went to coffee at Kramer Books & Afterwords Cafe in DC (my pseudo home, really) at the invitation of the woman who has become our Board Chair at Company E, Alexandra Migoya and her work partner Pilar O'Leary, to meet "someone you need to know." That person turned out to be Jimena Paz, a Cultural Affairs Officer at the Embassy of Spain, Washington. The conversation was enchanting, engaging and fun as it ranged through possibilities and notions, but it never dawned on me then I'd be sitting tonight on a perfect evening in Madrid, a few hundred yards from the Prado, having just arrived from Minsk, because of it.

The reference to Ariana and Sonya was the point we found ourselves sharing that every conversation in life matters because you have no idea where it will take your world and into what it may lead your life. For me the genesis of everything we are doing in Company E today has its DNA in that simple coffee with Jimena and Alex. Out of it came the entire notion of building complete concert programs in partnership with a single Embassy, of finding common-ground between your art and their vision of celebrating their country. Because CityDance's mission was, and our mission is, to build partnerships through art (I'm referring here to the dance company -- CityDance is still very much an organization of partnerships in its education work), and because we're a repertory company, the thick loam of who we are fits into the seeds of partnership. In a day and time when no one has the money to regularly travel companies of 30 - 130 people for performance the possibilities of dance, of music and of "large art" are in jeopardy.

But if your mission is to seek out brilliant choreographers and their mission is to showcase the exceptional talent of their artists, well, then you have something to talk about.

In so many ways the NEXT series of international work began, and has evolved into my sitting at this table in this city on this night because of that discussion. Who knew? (side note: is there anywhere in the world anymore where you go and DON'T hear english all around you all the time? -- I could be in DC)

I'm in Madrid because the Embassy of Spain, the Ministry of Culture and the Foundación Carolina embraced the idea of sharing with both arms, both legs and a bungee chord -- because Alex and Pilar and, especially, Jimena saw possibilities that were worth building on, budgeting for and investing in.

The next week and its 20 meetings in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia are rife with the opportunities to find those artists, those choreographers, those directors, presenters and producers who lead you to the people making dances in this country who have something extraordinary to say, to building the bridges that will have them say it through us in the United States and beyond. This is all about NEXT: Spain and it is happening entirely through the support of the Embassy of Spain in DC, the Ministry here and, at the most "on-the-ground" level, the Foundación Carolina, which has put together an itinerary that just blows my mind (one of those, "really, I get to met who????)

If the adage (if you can call it that) that Ariana and Sonya and I talked about on the lawn in Minsk has truth to it, then each of these coming individual conversations will be the beginnings of the family tree of our 2012-2013 season in exactly the same way the faith of WPAS, the Harman Center and most particularly the Embassy of Israel is for our 2011-2012 inaugural season with NEXT: Israel.

You never know who is across from you and where it can take you. The kindness and grace of people is endlessly astonishing. All it takes I think is listening to what they have to say.....(oh, and never, ever sit too close with a beer in hand, a laptop open and a group of madcap skateboarders swearing in Spanish when the trick of the night goes wrong....)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Minsk Journal: Voices in the Hallway

Minsk, Belarus
September 24, 2011

Just before 1am on Saturday (Friday night) and the bag is packed and the batteries charged on the traveling equivalent of the Apple Store (the iPhone, the iPad, the iPod and the laptop are all fired up). Anastasia, the Director of "West Side Story" asked me at dinner if I worked for Apple. Would that I'd had the brains to have faith in their stock the way I've had faith in their product over these decades. Money wouldn't be an issue EVER.The last two days, in the push to finish "Cool" I wound up being responsible, directly or indirectly, for sprained ankles on my two principal dancers and the people who have to convey all the material to the rest of the cast.

That's one of those firsts we never aspire to. The first sprain was a result of ignoring the critical adage of rehearsal: don't overwork exhausted dancers. For Mouse (my nickname for Anastasia the dancer [as opposed to Anastasia the Director] ) I'd been working with her for almost 11 hours (with lunch and dinner breaks, but still....) by the time she pulled herself up off the floor to learn one last thing. A mistake I would never make under less demanding circumstances and, circumstances be damned, won't make again. We'd been through an insane amount of material, including learning, on pointe, the first half of "Entangled," which is a dance I made for Liz and Jerome almost two years ago now in DC. All it takes is a wrong landing.....
The second was one of those things that happens in tough material being demonstrated as well as danced. But it ended the chance of finishing "Cool." And, really, that's OK. We got through an astonishing amount of material, Jason and I, in two weeks. The challenge now, from great distance, is to stay connected to it somehow to keep it fresh and alive. Odds are I'll be back here in November for the premiere of "Entangled," to clean and complete the missing parts of "West Side" and very possibly to build something new for some of the really gifted dancers here, which would be a preamble to a program we've been invited to create in June 2012.

Of all the magical things one seeks in our company its collaboration, and now that collaboration comes from the Director of the Musical Theater at which we've been working to create an evening-length concert of all live music with their orchestra to be presented on an outdoor stage and then toured around the country. Can't ever, ever ask for something more enchanting than that....But we're at the end of this second part of a three-part journey with West Side that continues for two weeks in April. When Jason and I are back the show will be largely mounted, the dialogue learned and the songs readied. It will be something to see...The postscript of the day is actually its centerpiece. Its the why of the title.At the end of the rehearsal day for the full cast today three of the dancers we'd spent these weeks with came to Jason and to me and asked if they could "borrow us" for a few minutes. They had that wonderful crazy glint in their eyes and there was only one answer to the question before turning to "Cool" (and that second sprained ankle).

There wasn't much space to find, and time was short. Around the corner we went, in between the two studios, next to the various coat and costume racks, in the strange dim light that signifies an unimportant corridor and a transitory space. If it had been previously significant for any reason the reason was that it had the most insane echo and so conversations in it were a bit like the old "Get Smart" Cone of Silence.But that changed the moment that one of the three women before Jason and I began to sing.

Eyes closed, hand just slightly raised as she took in the idea of what she sought in a note, breath low yet full, a sound grew from her which stopped all the breath I had. Gentle, assured, graceful and utterly committed to the moment she took a journey that lifted you from time. And then there were two voices. And then three. And in the space of a few minutes the world simply became perfect. The hallway, a space of annoyance instants before, became one of conspirator, grabbing onto their song and inhaling it and then echoing it back out in pitch perfect reverberation. If I have ever understood rapture it was in this moment. As they filled these spaces in Jason's and my hearts people walked back and forth from the two rooms. In most circumstances that would have upended a mood, a moment, a song. Not here. Nothing could have broken that bubble in which they embraced us. The harmonies, the polyphonies were so easy and so natural that the insane difficulty of them was invisible until, later, when walking down the street, you tried to keep that air in your lungs a moment longer.It was a gift, they said.

They'd learned it the night before and was their present to us for these past weeks. As someone who places the voice above all instruments -- and, in many ways, all other forms of artistry -- it was a gift beyond measure. Goosebumps would have trivialized it. It was beyond that if that makes any sense.These are the moments that happen only in the embrace of art. They are the simple, yet so utterly profound, moments of grace that give you the sense that you are somehow utterly, and undeservedly, blessed. If we have given Minsk anything, those three ladies gave back something that I will have just inside my skin far, far, far into the future.The Embassy car for the airport comes in two hours. A 5:30 departure for Frankfurt and a 9am connection to Madrid. A new journey begins, but the one ending here stays now, thanks to three voices in a hallway.....

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Minsk Journal: Who Wants to Go To...

Wednesday, September 21
Minsk, Belarus

Random quote for the day: “Sometimes decades pass and nothing happens; and then sometimes weeks pass and decades happen.” - VI Lenin (surely its OK to drop a Lenin quote now and again)

Given the world of 12 months ago and the one of today it seems appropriate insofar as everything is turning upside down as the quest for something vaguely approximating fairness keeps surfacing. And, no, that's not a political statement (or if it is it has the legs of a millipede).

Random image of the day: Alexandra Shpartova in rehearsal for "America" from "West Side Story."

I find, as is so often the case, that the imbalance between the world I encounter and the world about which I read is at war in my head. The macro world seems bent on splitting itself into a thousand pieces, and more often than not for completely reasonable reasons. Greece the entity is plunging towards default -- and some economists are recommending that path as the lesser of two extraordinary evils. Day-by-day we whittle away at our sense and sensibility about the planet and become mired in the semantics of climate change and lose our way with the simple fact that, whether you believe its a man-made thing or not its happening and we have the power to do something about it -- and in so doing to tackle issues of ecological justice in our stewardship of the planet, our economic situation vis a vis job growth and sustainability, our responsibility to our own health (have yet to find anyone who will tell you that breathing China's air these days is actually GOOD for you) and so much more.

It leads you too easily towards the metaphorical bottle of little blue pills on the nightstand.

Yet every time that comes at me -- which is typically every time I read the New York Times online -- its countered by a daily reality -- one profoundly grounded in art now -- that counters it so forcefully that I don't know how to reconcile the opposites. Perhaps they attract, but if so its a dysfunctional attraction. Day-by-day I encounter more people whose vision, grace, humor and talent make me believe that anything is possible -- and that anything we imagine can be made real. I see it every single day all over the world.

In the past six months I've been in Israel twice, the West Bank twice, Kazakhstan twice, Belarus twice Peru, Switzerland, Iceland, the Czech Republic and China. In a few days I'll be in Spain for a week and then in Kyrgyzstan and possibly Russia for a week at a time. And in each of those places I've been confounded and comforted by the simple kindness of people and the talent they evoke in their art, their daily lives and their perseverance.

Tonight at a reception at the US Embassy for the incoming Public Affairs Officer here, Carrie Lee, I watched a lawn fill up with arts and cultural leaders in a country whose diplomatic relations with the US suck (sorry, its the right word) and for whom the entrance through the gates is an act of courage. Yet there was nothing political about the evening -- or there was everything political about it. That's the point, I suppose -- how do we look things? There was an evening of quiet comfort and of people talking gently, sincerely and eagerly about ways that things can be made better through the simple acts of engagement that are the centerpiece of everything we hope to do at Company E. I'm not suggesting we were a significant part of the evening. We weren't and we weren't meant to be. But in being here at all we are a part of a discussion about enrichment and that, to quote JFK, "makes all the difference."

Late in the course of the reception, as the sky grew that strangely magical deep blue it does here after sunset but before dark, I had the chance to talk briefly with two Fullbrighters on the lawn hard by the wine-bar. The Chargé was off to the side doing what he does so well - making people feel at home in a diplomatically estranged environment (not an easy feat and I know no one who does it better than Mike). They've both only been here a week or two, and they're teaching English at two of the major universities. I'd met one when we shared a ride upon arrival a week and a half ago. Exactly what you hope for in a person coming into a new environment -- curious, wickedly bright, capable and gracious. I asked her how the week had been and what she said was so utterly true of every encounter I've had in these past months -- "I can't get over how nice people are here." And its utterly true of Minsk. This is a deeply affectionate country, for lack of a better way to put it. People feel so at ease with each other -- far more than we seem at home most of the time. There is a gentle physicality that conveys ease and reassurance and comfort which I think underpins the strength of the people to take on what for us would be enormous hardships.

The conversation turned to the idea that here, in a country we don't know, lay the endless possibilities of discovery. That, as I have written about "West Side Story" the old saw that there is nothing new in the world is not true at all. There is. And you find it by putting your finger on the map in places which aren't "destinations." You find it in Huancayo and Piura in Peru. You find it in a walk down the nervous streets of Algiers. You find it in Minsk and Almaty and I suspect in Bishkek. I remember so clearly that sense in Venice -- but not on the Rialto. It was in the old squares where Kelly and I found our way into a part of the city that lived in the bubble of community.

For me, in so many ways, this is where the magic of cultural engagement lies. As powerfully as I want us to perform in London and Berlin, the impact of a "very long engagement" in Belarus and Kazakhstan is the place where, I think, the impact lasts.

We talked about the idea that there is no Belarus guidebook. In a day when there are guidebooks to everything that idea was both funny and perplexing. And yet its so needed, because this is a place of endless beauty, grace, kindness and nature at work with the population. The news, when it talks about Belarus at all, is terrible -- deservedly so in the sense that there is enormous injustice here.

Yet, just when the lights go dim in your head about the possibilities of the world, you find two young Americans on an Embassy lawn in deepening twilight, or Anastasiya, the dancer who has made me see the possibilities of "West Side" in ways I would never have done without her, and you are reminded that we have it in us to make it work.

I hope that, a year or two hence, a new generation of tour books might emerge, beginning with one from Belarus -- "Who Wants to Go To...." The first title could easily be "Belarus." The answer -- "You Do."

Monday, September 19, 2011

Kyrgyzstan bound: September 29 - October 8

Contracts came in and its official -- at the invitation of the US Embassy in Bishkek the Company heads for a one-week engagement in Kyrgyzstan to start October. A week of workshops, master classes and an evening-length performance that features our premiere of Roni Koresh's "Theater of Public Secrets," and, in a real highlight for me, has the Kazakh company Kathryn and I have worked with so often, Samruk, coming over the Tien Shen Mountains to perform the dance she and I made for them at the end of May during the last of our CityDance days, "11: Thoughts on the Passage of Time." A dream come true to collaborate with Samruk, which is really my second family at this point. And, as always, its through the care and kindness and support of the US Department of State.

Pretty amazing.

Minsk Journal: West Side Story - "Cool" - a beginning

Monday, September 19th, 2011
Minsk, Belarus - 9:46pm

Random stat for the day: A gallon of gasoline contains 89 metric tons of phytoplankton. You're basically taking little bodies from the cretacious 100 million years ago and pumping them into your car.

By the way, I'm still waiting for the bozos who are theoretically assigned with putting the electric charger in my garage for my ordered but not delivered (cause I'd have no way to charge it) Nissan Leaf to actually return a call about rescheduling the appointment they missed so I can, you know, stop harvesting (or at least reduce the harvesting) of those little 100 million year old characters.

How exactly, do you wrap your head around 89 million metric tons of anything? Of course when you put that into the full tank of a Ford Taurus its actually almost 2 Billion of them, so go figure.

Guilty pleasure music note: Its not entirely clear to me why, after 30 years of dissing the Eagles I have suddenly gone very deeply retro and bought half their catalogue in the last 48 hours, but it probably has to do with extensive sleep deprivation. Gotta say, though, the bass line in "Outlaw Man" is completely insane.

OK -- day eight of the WSS marathon. Working three-a-day rehearsals now, starting at 10am and ending at 10pm with a couple of one hour breaks in between to try and kick this together. Jason and I are splitting duty so we can really get the material out of our heads and onto a seemingly endless stream of changing, but not interchangeable, bodies. The range of ability is a bit like comparing the air at sea level with that of the summit at Everest (though we're not referring to anyone as "the dead zone" at this point). But the constant is how insanely hard everyone is working. And the fact that, despite the fact that many of them have a pass on certain rehearsals because they are also, you know, in two or three shows which are also in performance at other times of the day, they show up anyway.

Honestly, my favorite are the people for the evening rehearsal who are actually ON STAGE during rehearsals who come in either before their stage time or in between or after in full costume. Hard to describe exactly the look of "Dance in the Gym" with a woman in an 18th century ball-gown and powdered wig, eyelashes that could catch a fly at 30 feet and those wide hip things they used to wear shouting "MAMBO" at the top of her lungs.

Only in the theater.

Truly, these people work so bloody hard its difficult to describe. They get one day off a week and they're there when I get in and they leave when I leave or, if they're in a production that night, way after, and we're talking 12 hour days that involve shows, rehearsals and all the stuff in between (you try putting on those costumes they run around in in period pieces and see if you can even imagine running into rehearsal with the craziness Jason is throwing at them -- great craziness, but craziness to be sure).

Today, rather than work with the full cast of "Cool" during the mid-day session I pulled my two favorite dancers into the studio and just said "lets forget everything that we think people can and can't do and make the dance we want. We'll adapt later." That in mind I think I really went out of my way to kill them -- pulling steps onto each beat in certain percussion lines and violating any sense of sanity about change of direction and things that went off the wrong foot because they made sense musically and had that innate relationship to the music they need for a dance as tortured as cool.

Beyond me how anyone makes music as brilliant as what Bernstein came up with for the entire show, much less "Cool." Seriously, how often do you actually get paid to use the best music in the world and make up a dance that pushes every limit you ever thought you had? Really?

(oh, and "Hotel California" is a pretty good way to accept permanent loss of hearing through a pair of "Beats Pro" by Dr Dre - and what's with the solo by Joe Walsh?)

Kate Jordan characterizes my infatuation with certain dancers as my "Little Adorations" (hence the name of the dance of the same name). I have one here and she's got that crazy ability to make you see movement that you'd never have gotten to on your own, but that pushes you endlessly farther than your own brain would have taken you. That's the wicked fascination with dance -- because the canvas is living and not in your control (whatever some choreographers might say). It lives beyond and above your own creative abilities and has this stunning, shocking way of making you see exactly the right step for something not because you made it, but because the person in front of you interpreting what she thought you asked for (and when neither of you speak the same language its really all body language anyway) saw and heard it in a way that was honest to her or him and that responded to the soundscape and it was just right.

Thank God for muses, I suppose.

"Cool" is such an icon its hard to describe. What Robbins made was perfect, and so I've actually forced myself not to watch that section of WSS. Its too easy to imitate it without trying, and in so doing make something that ends up being a dime-store copy, and that doesn't serve anyone. The music demands so much of the dancer that you want to find that for and with them without a Master in your head at the same time you're trying to discern what needs to be said. There's truth there as well in "Dance in the Gym" but there, in the "prologue" section, I chose to quote a step at the very beginning because it grounds the dance in the history. Its one step, and its been used endlessly in other places, but the quote was very much on purpose. And it just establishes the entire dance. Teaching them all swing was fun, except I almost knocked a girls teeth out in a spin she'd never seen before and opted to try to take her arm through her head as opposed to over it....not quite the "knocked her out" one seeks in those moments, but such is life...

Friday, September 16, 2011

Minsk Journal: West Side Story - Images

Friday, September 16th, 2011
Minsk, Belarus

I'm trying to figure out how to explain the currency situation here. Unless you've been to a place where its seriously uneconomical to print paper below a certain denomination because, you know, its not worth anything, then I'm not sure how to put this into context.

Try this: last night I spent 34,000 Belarussian Rubles on a cheeseburger. That's not a typo. Jason Ignacio, our Associate Artistic Director and my collaborator on West Side spent 35,000 on a Guinness. Yes, he spent more on a beer than I spent on dinner (can you say exchange rate problems with imported merchandise), but, that aside, together we spent over 100,000 on two cheeseburgers, one beer, two cokes and bottled water. Ummm....

What, exactly, do you do with that? And two days ago the currency was devalued essentially by half. The official exchange rate went from 5,000 to the dollar to 8,500 to the dollar. In a day.

For me that all sounds vaguely funny. Try living here and the humor stops like a car going 90 into a steel wall. How, precisely, do you buy that which you have to have to survive? I couldn't even imagine what it must take to walk into a car dealership.

Yet, with that, people are so remarkably wonderful here.

On a Friday night in Minsk, deep in the worst kind of jet lag (assuming there's a good kind) I'm at the cafe in the hotel lobby and noodling around about heading out in search of music (there's a pretty good music scene here, and the restaurants are great). But tomorrow is a full rehearsal day and its the beginning of the very hardest part of West Side -- the Somewhere Ballet. Somewhere never made it into the film of West Side. Its a feature of the musical and as such is really rarely seen and understood. And its a tricky thing because the score makes it easy to fall into cliché. Add to that the fact that your stepping in and around Jerry Robbins and you better do your job well.

So I've been through the score, both in recording and sheet music, about 50 times and sat up last night (not that there was a choice) working through storyboards and ideas and a sense of inquiry about what the music was asking and what the choreographers notes (thank you Library of Congress and the luck of living in DC) were saying.

This iteration of West Side is strangely familiar in terms of the challenges that came up almost 55 years ago -- how do you get the best out of dancers who aren't singers, singers who aren't actors, actors who aren't dancers -- and how do you do it within something called the "Somewhere Ballet." Its there and its possible, but its not something to take lightly.

My initial answer is to bring together the best man in the cast with the best woman on a day off for everyone else and set about making a dance I understand and believe in, and then go from there -- what is the art that you need to make as oppose to the art that is in front of you. Forget the limitations - find what for you is the truth and then work your way down the trail until you find what everyone you need can do, and be challenged successfully by.

And that's a key that's easy to overlook I think in a musical situation like this -- one where the work has never been done in the country, and where you're in the middle of the first American musical ever staged here. Be sure that you are cognizant of the experience for the artists -- that, at the end of the day they are rewarded, challenged, and filled with possibility. Don't expect them to be anyone else but who they are with what they have the ability to do in six months. Not today, but down the road. That's the trick. This is a new place, a new space and a new experience for almost everyone here, and so its a different, but remarkable, journey.

Yesterday we had class -- for all 50 people in the cast -- in a small studio off the deck of the main stage (rehearsal, mercifully, was on the stage itself) and it was a crazy, crazy thing to watch Jason navigate it all (and do so brilliantly). Then, in the evening, it was "America," which, in the Broadway production is only for the women (the movie version with the boys is so infectious its hard to get it out of your head). Jason is really the lead voice in that dance, and he embraced the the images below will tell you.