Culturevulture.net Choices 2006

Culturevulture.net Choices 2006

Editor’s Note: In years past, Arthur Lazere, the founder of this site, who died in September, would come out with a “Best Movies of the Year” list. This year, I’ve asked culturevulture.net contributors to offer their own “bests” for the year. There is no Arthur now, no one who went to all the movies, or is going to live and breathe the website like Arthur did. There remains, however, a place for good writing about the arts called culturevulture.net, and someone grateful to have been given the opportunity to carry on the site. That would be me.

In my three months “in office”, I’ve begun to understand what culturevulture.net is, what it can be, and how much time and energy that will require. I am up for the challenge. This is an exciting time to be a writer. It is even more exciting to be a webmaster, an editor, part of this boundary-free place called the internet. I think all of us who read culturevulture.net understand that the potential is there to supercede previous forms of media in relation to the arts. While arts and artists have rarely been big news or big money, they mean more to society than society is willing to admit. That’s why culturevulture exists, and why we will continue to grow and thrive.

Thanks to all the great writers, past and present, who have contributed to this site. Here’s to 2007, and a future filled with great performances, movies, books, concerts, travel, games, etc. And here’s to Arthur Lazere, who had the vision and drive to start all of this. He’ll be missed.

My own best: “Kagemi” by Sankai Juko. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco. This famous butoh company came to prominence in the 80’s, and used to promote its appearances by climbing up ropes in their otherworldly way in different very-public locations around the world—until one of the dancers slipped and fell to his death one day. Now, 30-years later, the choreography seems more serene. Although the world is certainly not a calmer place, it was comforting to slip into the trance-state offered by the company and feel that nature and man still do connect, that man and the world still have a chance. I found it hard to write at length about the work, it was as if something closer to a haiku was calling me. Here is my entire review:

“Kagemi”, the new evening-length piece by Sankai Juku, the 31-year-old Japanese Butoh company touring the US, is about mirrors, water, and a lotus leaf carpet. It is also about white light, transcendance, and the fact that a 57-year-old dancer-choreographer has moved from a young man’s angst into something more serene. There are still moments of jarring, Hiroshima-fed anxiety, when the mellow soundscore of nature sounds, synthesizer and strings gives way to techno disruption. Mostly, however, the company communicates a Zen-like demeanor. World War II was a very long time ago.

Spending an hour and a few minutes in the company of this small group of soft-footed, talcum-covered dancers is mildly hallucinogenic. The ending of "Kagemi" is as close to nirvana as any piece of theatre you’ll ever find. Witness the bows, in which the dancers uniquely sit back instead of bowing forward. They actually move away from the audience, lowering themselves in recognition of gravity as much as humility. Usio Amagatsu, the leader, lets an arm sweep like a slow-motion lariat over his head. Two of the acolytes move their palms, which wink out some kind of semaphoric ‘thank you’. The creamy light fades away.

My own personal best cultural moment of the year occurred about six months ago, when I first went on YouTube.

Since then, I have spent many idle hours browsing the website and randomly discovering mini-masterpieces among the flotsam of artistic endeavor, or artless endeavor, that YouTube, in the true spirit of democracy, broadcasts.

YouTube is for the artist in everyone. It’s a way for people to express their feelings and ideas, their passions and obsessions. It’s a place for young people to share their anxieties and old people their memories. YouTube video blogs can be hysterically funny or profoundly sad. They are often extremely touching, sometimes howling-out-loud funny, and occasionally even a bit disturbing.

My own favorite YouTube discoveries include a hilarious clip by Katja and Bracha, two young Dutch girls, lip-synching to the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout;” Lisa Nova’s early video satires (before her YouTube celebrity wilted her freshness); and a series of brilliant comic videos by a girl named Willow, subscriber name tobneornot2b.

For those of you who are already addicted to YouTube, there is nothing else to say. For any novices, I offer as an introduction a link to a YouTube video by subscriber Mike Bianchi. The video, called “YouTubers,” is a masterfully edited compilation of excerpts from YouTube video blogs. It’s also 9 minutes and 54 seconds of mesmerizing evidence of YouTube’s distinctive power to transcend the ordinariness of everyday life. There’s art everywhere, and now there is a place to go that will take us there. Just click here, and enjoy the show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXwarrIYLJ4&mode=related&search

Columbian artist Fernando Botero, renowned, or dismissed, for his signature "plump peon" human figures, blends techniques of the European Renaissance, Mexican muralists, and contemporary folk-art homoeroticism, turning the moral ethos of our times ironically upon itself. In an aesthetic both in sympathy with and antithetical to Goya, Botero has revived the religious aesthetic of the Spanish masters in his highly material-worldly, politically acerbic, poetically devastating anti-visions of man’s inhumanity to man, as gathered together and published first in the Botero New Donation 2004 catalog of works donated to the Museo national de Columbia, and in the 2006 publication of Botero: Abu Ghraib.

In Abu Ghraib Botero interlaces a cartoonishly banal secular visual language into the multiple-layered tapestry of older historical aesthetic visions, from the much-praised (and newly revised understanding) of Velázquez, the political agitation of Diego Rivera and the Mexican muralist tradition, even and most evidently in Picasso’s anti-war, anti-fascist Guernica. Of particular note in Abu Ghraib is Botero’s appropriation of the recent (homo)erotic folk-art tradition. On the one hand, the deep suffering of the victims of Abu Ghraib belies their fat figures-of-fun embodiment: fat (and therefore ugly) people aren’t really people, at least not worthy of compassion, and therefore don’t suffer. Portraying people as fat is intended to aesthetically place them at some moral remove from us.However, as girth has become increasingly eroticized in the last fifteen years, this traditional distance is being erased. On the other hand, as articulated in John Rechy’s recent article on his problems with the suspected political subtexts of the sadomasochistic homoerotic art of Tom of Finland, Botero draws out the complex, confusing,and frightening collusion of sex and violence here. In the revulsion and thrillof being spectator to sadistic pleasure, the eroticization of raw, physical power, the old pleasure of blood sports (whether watching gladiators being torn to shreds or witnessing the stylized symbolic life-and-death drama of a bullfight), Botero engages both by shock and seduction, raising many disturbing questions for all of us who sit in our global arena, passive spectators to our own dwindling humanity.

Without a doubt Houston Ballet’s performance of Glen Tetley’s masterpiece, Voluntaries, knocked my emotional socks off. The piece, created in memory of Tetley’s mentor John Cranko, soars because of its singleness of purpose. Tetley spoke of how the Stuttgart dancers were with him 100% during the process. An essence of commitment is embedded in the choreography. Held captive from the first sound of Poulenc’s organ concerto, I have never seen this company dance with such steadfast passion.

Principal Sara Webb and Connor Walsh soared into uncharted territory in their performances and took rest of the company with them. It’s a perfect example of the transformative non-verbal communication that happens in dance. We get it and yet no words have transpired. I felt uniquely privileged to be a dance writer in those moments.

Of all the performances I was privileged to attend in the past year, the Matthew Bourne "Swan Lake" that played the Orpheum early in 2006 jumps out at me. The concept was strong — incorporating both menace and humor — the dancers powerful and the take on the old Tchaikovsky warhorse decidedly unique. I’ll take barechested hunks over delicate dames in tutus any day.

SPRING AWAKENING – The Broadway season’s freshest and most original musical features a blessedly contemporary score by Duncan Sheik and book and lyrics by Steven Sater. The young cast is irresistible and, led by an appealing Jonathan Groff hits all the right notes in this story of tragic

teen angst in 1891 Germany. Standouts include a heavenly Lea Michele (channeling a teenage Idina Menzel) and John Gallagher, Jr. as a woefully anguished loner. Special kudos to Bill T. Jones for ingenious choreography that is as electric as the emotions on stage. SPRING AWAKENING is an exciting, arresting theatrical experience that promises to redefine the modern musical.

Handel’s Messiah comes dramatically alive each Christmas season in Chicago’s Lyric Opera House. It is sung by a widely diverse assemblage of three thousand singers, from sophisticated choir members, to those, like me, who participate simply to marvel at the beauty and power of the collective human voice and majestic spirit it creates. Although I sang the altos’ part this year, in my heart, I was a soaring soprano.

My mother-in-law, Gisela Mendel Booth and her former husband, Al Booth, were living in London in 1973 when they attended, and were inspired by, a small sing-a-long of the Messiah at a parish church in Kent. When they returned to Chicago in 1976, they founded the Chicago Do-It-Yourself Messiah and then, the International Music Foundation. http://www.imfchicago.org/

The Chicago Do-It-Yourself Messiah has now grown into an extraordinary institution, lead by a world-class conductor, four soloists and a complete amateur orchestra. It is presented each year, for two nights, at no charge.

There’s a moment in "Climates," the newest film by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan that few have remarked upon, but which left me slack-jawed with amazement. A simple scene in a single shot: an estranged couple set up housekeeping in a small hotel by the sea. The woman sits outside in blinding sunlight by the ocean, the man lies down on a bed in the hotel darkness, resting his head. Conventional wisdom says that photographically, a scene with such extremes of light (summer sun sparkling off water and a dim, barely-lit room) cannot be filmed without compromising by overexposing or underexposing one extreme. And yet somehow, Ceylan pulls it off. Shooting on High Definition video instead of traditional film probably helped, but in that moment I saw an entire legacy of lighting dogma destroyed, all for the sake of a beautiful little film about the end of a relationship. This is the movie that finally convinced me and many others of the promise that video holds for

the future of cinema. It’s also Ceylan’s best film to date, and my favorite film of the year.

David Hallberg’s debut as an American Ballet Theater principal was one of the year’s unforgettable events. As the year progressed, his confidence built, making the role of Death in The Green Table truly searing, and in contrast to his natural elegance and lyricism. He is an example of an incredibly gifted individual who found his calling and was nurtured by the right people and circumstances to give us an archetype for our age… for the ages.

I think the moment that stands out for me was "The Stones" at the Kirk Douglas earlier this year. My review began with the word "breathtaking" and that is the descriptor that stands out in my mind. The action burst forth and never lost pace. Characters developed as the two actors tore about the stage on skateboards, leapt up walls, shifted from restless adolescent to police detective and back again. There was never a pause.

The runner-up was "In the Continuum" which just closed at the same theater. Another two person play overflowing with energy and content.

Just two weeks before the great French filmmaker Danièle Huillet died this year — and before I had seen any of the work she made in her decades-long partnership with Jean-Marie Straub — I had the great fortune to see Pedro Costa’s 2001 documentary about them, Où gît votre sourire enfoui? Roughly an hour of a flinty old couple arguing in an editing suite over the final shape of their latest film, it is both the best film

I’ve ever seen about filmmaking and the best I’ve seen about work. It conveys the weight of aesthetic decisions and the joy of labor, all while giving hints about a great untold love story.

I have two striking moments from 2006 which remain in my memory. One was attending the British Museum exhibition of Michelangelo Drawings in London, which were accompanied by the artist’s poetry and recollections of his contemporaries. Not only was the laser-like precision of these drawings awe-inspiring but each drawing, even if it was just an arm or a hand was imbued with an intense spirituality. I suppose it was a reverence for the Creator as manifest within the human form. I came out of the exhibition, with a sense of having met the man through his drawings and words. It was like spending an afternoon with Michelangelo! I came away with a great affection for him.

The other, not entirely unconnected, was the film ‘Brokeback Mountain’ – which I found totally involving and moving as a whole. Heath Ledger’s performance, in particular, through his intense stillness, gave his role the stature of a tragic hero as he wrestled with his conflicting emotions. One of the most impressive movie performances I have ever seen.

"Love’s Labour’s Lost": This production, by Washington, DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, reaffirmed both this theater’s status as the finest Shakespeare-oriented theater in the United States, & the genius of director Michael Kahn, recently retired as head of the Juilliard Drama Division. Kahn made this almost-unreadable discourse on love’s inevitable lure a delightful riff on the infatuation of some 1960s rockers with Indian mysticism.

"3/4 of a Mass for St. Vivian": Another memory play, from Washington, DC’s Theatre Alliance, portrays the relationship between two teenage girls, one a rapscallion doomed to early death by cystic fibrosis, the other her much more sedate, innocent best friend. Amazingly, written by a 15-year-old.

"Cabaret": Molly Smith’s re-imagining of the classic Kander-Ebb musical, at Washington, DC’s Arena Stage, included echoes of 21st-century American politics among its strong acting & powerful voices.

"The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui": Catalyst Theatre did Washington theatergoers a major favor in this strong revival of Bertolt Brecht’s satiric portrayal of a Hitler-like Chicago-area vegetable gangster’s rise to monopoly power.

"500 Clown Macbeth": This Chicago-based troupe combines clowning with elements of Shakespeare’s "Scottish Play" to produce an evening both eerie & hilarious, with unexpected, spontaneous audience interaction.

"Army of Shad
ws": Newly re-released haunting 1960’s feature film about the moral ambiguities of life in the French Resistance during World War II.

"49 Up": The latest installment in a unique documentary project, following several children from the age of seven, at seven-year-intervals, through (so far) their late 40s.

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