Last summer, I started writing this ode to my work-in-progress experience of New York City. Finishing it now, back in this resilient, awesome city, I’m very much inspired by N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, which I read last month, and I’m reflecting on the incomplete ways I’ve lived, seen, and listened to New York, New York.
Adjusting to New York means learning the right place to stand on the subway platform, so you get off closer to where you’re going.
Adjusting to New York means memories accumulate around subway stations. Circles of experience spread out from each green-painted stop, like pebbles dropped into a New York City-shaped lake:
Bedford, Lorimer. Greenpoint. Prospect. Kosciuszko. Far Rockaway.
Queensboro, Roosevelt Heights.
Marble Hill, Fordham.
Adjusting to New York, Manhattan has become my well-worn jacket. Brooklyn, the outfit for memorable Nights Out. Queens and the Bronx, the clothes I love but need to wear out more.
Adjusting to New York means not acknowledging Staten Island. (I will step out of St. George Ferry Station, I promise, next time I take the ferry, yes, whenever that is)
Adjusting to New York is remembering the Marriott Marquis bathrooms, a pristine oasis. My ongoing relationship to that hotel, from the novelty of my time as a guest there fourteen years ago to my reluctant, nostalgia-tinged visits now, is recalibration to New York. Sometimes when I walk by Broadway and 42nd Street, I get a whiff of that Big Apple high that tourists chase.
Adjusting to New York means passing by buildings charged with significance, getting struck by that world-historical feeling of smallness while walking through Williamsburg, or West Village, or Strivers Row. Layers upon layers make up this city, where there is always construction within hearing distance and scaffolding on at least one building on every block.
Adjusting to New York is trying to match movie-Manhattan to your Manhattan and grasping an inkling of the thread between the two. The grasping happens most often when I cross Manhattan Bridge on the train, nighttime glinting off the skyscrapers. The inkling: a glamorous city, a collective thought-form living in the imagination of every person who’s listened to Frank Sinatra sing “New York, New York” or Alicia Keys belt over “Empire State of Mind.”
Adjusting to New York means shifting your gaze. I started out looking up, then looking ahead. And now I look out, ahead, and up again when I can.
Adjusting to the city means its blocks become textured and vibrant. They solidify, into brick, steel, and glass. They become squares, parks, and lunch spots; coffeeshops, bodegas, and markets; baristas, shop-owners, neighborhood characters, spontaneous sightings of friends, and fascinating conversations with strangers.
Adjusting to New York prompts an appreciation for bagels with schmear and lox, chimis, empanadas, folded pizza slices, pastrami sandwiches, and Gray’s Papaya. (Or Papaya Dog. I don’t discriminate.) Finding the right Halal truck for each neighborhood I frequent.
Adjusting to New York means favorite restaurants close. Adjusting is walking past their reanimation into fast-casual chain outposts.
Adjusting to New York becomes a deepening appreciation for the branches of the New York Public Library; it means having a favorite. And it means having favorite bookstores: Book Culture, The Strand, Mercer Street Books, Bluestockings, Housing Works in SoHo, Book Club in the East Village.
Adjusting to New York means developing a working knowledge and appreciation of New York’s Jewish-American culture, overhearing crunchy words like “shvitzing” and “mishpoche.” Adjusting to New York means a working knowledge and appreciation of New York’s Latino communities: Boricuan, Dominican, Colombian; hearable in the bass lines and rhythms permeating my apartment walls. Adjusting to New York means knowing New York as the rich epicenter for Black culture and history that it is, and realizing with disbelief that I am in the same place where Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Robinson, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, James Baldwin, Marsha P. Johnson, and countless legends broke ground.
Adjusting to New York means adjusting to numerous-ness, to barely contained multitudes. Out of one, many.
Adjusting to New York means relishing moments. Bubble tea in Riverside Park, season-blind iced coffee in a snow-covered Washington Heights. The spring bloom on Wave Hill, on the plots by the Museum of Natural History. SummerStage, Shakespeare in the Park, Fall For Dance, every treasured Playbill. Steps, BDC, Gibney, ATDF. Sweaty Thursdays swing dancing on 31st, followed by 2am diner fare. Ducking into MoMA or Chelsea Cinepolis to escape the humidity. Autumn afternoons at Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, “Autumn In New York” in my headphones. The Christmas lights on Columbia’s trees, the icicles hanging from Bryant Park’s fountain.
Adjusting to New York is accepting there’s always more of New York I haven’t walked. It’s accepting the messiness of its reality and recognizing my inclination to romanticize and simplify. It’s “I Heart N.Y.” but piecemeal, block by block.
New York City as its true self will never fit neatly into the contours of my mind: it will always push it to bigger bounds, excelsior. This city alters me; it locates me in its excess, spread out on its street grids. I will never finish adjusting to New York. Adjusting is the act of living here.
I don’t remember the first time I heard John Phillip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” It was probably at a Main Street parade, or maybe a football game. I might have even played it in middle school band (s/o to Ms. P.S.). The march saturates America and all of its pageantry: the Fourth of July, of course, but also parades, Friday night games, salutes, festivals.
But the first time I listened to “The Stars and Stripes Forever” was when I heard the electronic band Matmos’s rendition.
What the hell is happening here. It’s devilish. My ears were confused. “Strangely done,” says the lone bewildered commenter on this video.
The music critic Mark Richardson wrote that it skewers John Philip Sousa “with dinky sounds and unsteady rhythms,” and to me the song does sound like some steampunk contraption shambling down the street, ready to break down at any moment – while remaining completely mesmerizing. The addition of a ripcord drum solo over a far-off piano recording at the track’s very end clinches it for me.
But Sousa’s hundred-year old march can handle destruction. In fact, I think it makes it better, as if Matmos is puncturing holes in it to see what emerges from the outlines. What do you hear?
Sousa began composing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” en route to America, returning from a trip abroad after learning of his manager’s death. After landing in New York, Christmas Day 1896, he put it down on paper. On creating the march, he said:
I began to sense the rhythmic beat of a band playing within my brain. It kept on ceaselessly, playing, playing, playing. Throughout the whole tense voyage, that imaginary band continued to unfold the same themes, echoing and re-echoing the most distinct melody. I did not transfer a note of that music to paper while I was on the steamer, but when we reached shore, I set down the measures that my brain-band had been playing for me, and not a note of it has ever been changed.”
Sousa’s words echo some aspects of his march: its rhythmic interplays, the tensions and releases of harmony. And it really does keep “playing, playing, playing.” This march is an ear-worm masterpiece like Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” is or Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away With Me.” Its strident meter demands a bodily response to move, clap, march, all together now. And by its end, the melodic strains all braid together into a rush of counterpoint and texture.
The name “Stars and Stripes Forever,” of course, refers to the American flag. By 1896, there were 45 stars, with the recent addition of Utah as a state, and we have the red and white stripes for the thirteen original colonies.
The title is also fabulously unspecific. When hearing this march, I think of other stars and stripes. The six rainbow stripes of the Pride flag, originally designed by Gilbert Baker, or the tripartite bi flag, or the pink and blue of the trans and gender non-conforming flag. The Star of David of Judaism, or the star and crescent of Islam. But also: the crossed stripes and stars on the Confederacy flag, that persistent symbol of Southern white supremacy, or the “thin blue line” flag variation for police.
When we sing and play “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” which ones are we singing for? Which stars? Which stripes? And for ever?
Performances of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” produce an immense amount of cultural energy, lending distinct American ~vibes~ to any event. I think this makes it ripe for agency: the chance to make its music into something more representative of us, not just the U.S.
John Daversa’s version of Sousa’s march won the 2019 Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement. In this track, as with the entire album, Daversa and his band play with immigrant musicians who came to America under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. And if you’re listening to it right now, I bet you’d agree that it is not the same notes Sousa heard from his “brain-band” (which was probably pretty white).
The tempo of the march quickens – then expands like a billowing ribbon. Horns and winds sing out, their staccato notes righteous fists in the air. The first appearance of the final trio melody is languid and cool, and when it’s time for it to come around again, it instead cedes space to a fluid solo saxophone improvisation. The drums skitter, the trumpets flourish in and out: it’s the excess of Sousa, married to the swung magic of jazz (a Black American music), played by immigrant Americans. The precarity of DACA under the Trump administration underscores the weight a recording like this carries.
The late scholar Jose Esteban Muñoz, a queer Latino man, wrote about disidentification, a particular way marginalized people relate to art and culture that isn’t created with them in mind. Disidentification involves “recycling” and “scrambling” the meanings of things, to both expose their “universalizing and exclusionary machinations,” and also to “recruit its workings to account for, include, and empower minority identities.”
I hear Daversa’s arrangement as a disidentificatory performance, and I see my own passion for this march as a disidentification. I hear Matmos, two gay men, play “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” and I hear the march’s American excess harnessed towards queer ends. I hear virtuosic solo renditions, like that by Chet Atkins linked above, and I am reminded of Whitman’s truism, “I contain multitudes.”
Every time I listen to “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” I hear a volume inside of it large enough for every person in America, under any star, and of every stripe. Its claim to “forever” should be voided – there are countless works by marginalized composers that must be supported and celebrated. Though as I can hear in the above performances, this march, with its century-long history and its blazing polyphonic energy, still holds disidentificatory, transformative potential. Let it be one of the many rhythms that accompany the antiracist, queer, ever-expanding work of singing, shouting, and playing, playing, playing America.
This is my constant question nowadays. The first couple weeks in New York, it was a steady stream of PB&Js, bananas, and potato chips. Home in California, my cravings persist! Oranges, protein bars, copious leftovers. I’m actually eating TJ ghost pepper chips putting the finishing touches on this.
In these blogs, I see delicious theatre. I savor spicy musical moments. Books are four-course meals, or slight bites. When I consume arts and media, apparently I take that verb literally.
There’s no live shows to see, but I’ve kept reading, listening, and streaming, snacking as much with my heart and mind as with my stomach. Over the past weeks I’ve been picking at this blog as a sort of digest for everything I’m seeing. I’ve always been a slow eater.
Like many others, I’m snacking on familiar dishes, things I’ve seen and read before. While finishing Emma (read my review here!) I began re-reading two books: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass which is part of a larger trilogy called His Dark Materials. It’s a field day for British books, I guess.
The Golden Compass
The Golden Compass’s lead, Lyra Belacqua, lives in a universe where everyone’s soul exists externally as a daemon, an animal form. Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon, grow up parentless in Oxford, kept there by her distant uncle Lord Asriel. When children begin vanishing, hushed by the theocratic Magisterium, Lyra tries to get to the bottom of it. But the truths she finds are messy, and the foundations of her life are called into question. The book, and His Dark Materials generally, unspools into a wild theological epic.
I have a distinct memory of finishing the last book at my friend Max’s house. My brother Rex was tutoring him, and while I waited for them, I read and read. By the end, I had pretty much melted onto the hardwood floor of Max’s living room. Reading the first novel again, I’m snowballing into the same mountain of affection that overwhelmed me all those years ago, and which will for sure repeat itself.
It’s a remarkable tale. Lyra’s journey is fleshed out with gestures towards the shape of her arc and the texture of her world, and her encounters with increasingly alien strangers illustrate the jarring miracle of seeing yourself through another’s eyes. There’s a rush reading this book, like feeling the ground quake with energetic current. To paraphrase a line, there are all kinds of things going on beneath it.
To the Lighthouse
To The Lighthouse follows the Ramsays, a family vacationing on a Scottish isle with young artists like Lily Briscoe, a reserved painter, and Mr. Carmichael, an aloof poet. They eat dinner, they take walks. Later, some do sail to a nearby lighthouse. World War I happens. Some live, some die, and some return to the island, changed.
There’s little narrative or world-building flourishes to be found here, and where The Golden Compass feels cinematic, To The Lighthouse is symphonic. My pleasure in reading it came from the rich timbre of Woolf’s writing and the counterpoint melodies of her characters’ relationships.
I took my time reading it, following a Goodreads book club, and I was grateful for the tempered pace. Woolf’s extended metaphors, sudden perspectival shifts, and fragmented writing are… a lot. But it’s as if she’s set each word in a specific position to summon the ineffable. Change the formation, and the feeling won’t show.
The core of To The Lighthouse are its two female leads. Mrs. Ramsay is this novel’s matriarch, assembling life into a glowing domestic tableau. “Men, and women too, letting go of the multiplicity of things, had allowed themselves with her the relief of simplicity.” The pages brim with her satisfaction and her exhaustion. But her fountain of effort comes at a cost. In one chilling moment, Mrs. Ramsay, alone, contracts into a “wedge-shaped core of darkness.”
Lily Briscoe is unmarried in Mrs.Ramsay’s matrimony-infused world; she’s a painter despite criticisms that “women can’t paint.” Her artistic struggle strikes fierce and true:
Always (it was in her nature, or in her sex, she did not know which) before she exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all blasts of doubt.
To The Lighthouse
Through art, Lily attempts to fasten the changing world to her canvas without reducing it. Reacting to Mrs. Ramsay’s firm, totalizing control, Lily aims for something more like coherence.
Lily tries to join opposites throughout the whole book, something I found a strong resonance with. Writing this blog about books and movies while a pandemic rages around us takes willpower that I don’t always have. But art inspires and moves me, and I’d like to respond in turn: to react to the call of good art and say, “Hey, that’s me!”
“Isn’t it lovely,” one Sondheimlyric goes, “how artists can capture us?”
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Lexi’s rereading Harry Potter and watching the movies after each one, so I joined her for a couple. For me, Prisoner of Azkaban is the most iconic film of the franchise, if only for Hermione’s world-shaking sucker punch. But it’s where we get “He was their FRIEND!” in the snow, and the ginormous “EXPECTO PATRONUM!“ We get the Time Turner sequence! We get Gary Oldman as Sirius (“TWELVE YEARS!”), David Thewlis as queer-coded badass professor Remus Lupin, Michael Gambon stepping in as Dumbledore. Cuaron has a wonderful vision for Harry’s third year.
Watching it, I kept thinking of the phrase “tempus fugit.” Time dominates the story, from Sirius’s torturous sentence in Azkaban to Hermione’s double-stuffed classes. The movie’s threaded with poetic images of time. Seasons are marked with Whomping Willow timestamps; Harry’s figure is obscured by suspended pendulums and clockwork machines. In Prisoner of Azkaban, people record and rewrite time, reaching forward into a dark future only partially illuminated. The movie reflects that, however distorted it is from the book proper.
I could go on, but I love one final sequence. Harry and Sirius face a swarm of Dementors by a forest lake, but they’re saved at the last moment by a blindingly strong Patronus charm. When Harry reflects back on it with Hermione, he swears it was his father who conjured it.
On his second go around of that lake scene, a temporal re-write courtesy of the Time Turner, Harry insists his father will appear. “Any minute now.” But the Dementors are relentless. “You’re dying,” Hermione says, “both of you.” Harry, realizing, finally runs forward and casts the Patronus.
Harry supersedes his father, and this deathly scene flips into a vital milestone in Harry’s arc. Cuaron films it with a literal perspectival shift: before, Harry was helpless, tiny on screen watching the Dementors inflict their deadly kiss on Sirius, but now, he runs forward, filling our field of view and acting to save the both of them. That one quote by Herb Blau, calling live performance the act of dying in real time, came to mind. I got shivers seeing Harry go from seeing himself dying to taking action: not by buying more time, but fighting for it, remaking it.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
A couple weeks later, it was time for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, or, Harry Potter and the Terrible Haircuts. Whereas Azkaban was dark and airy, this one’s moody and wet. All the rainstorms, all the tears; The Second Task in the Black Lake, the Pensieve with its liquified memories. There’s potions and seaweeds and baths–do all these fluids reflect the students’ raging hormones? Discuss.
Daniel Radcliffe does a wonderful job drawing Harry’s outbursts from a reasonable place, and Robert Pattinson as Cedric Diggory shows off some nuance that foreshadows his artsy post-Twilight films. (Anyone see the Lighthouse? That was wild.)
In this series, Harry is always singled out as the Chosen One (“Kill the spare,” Voldemort’s chilling command in the graveyard, cements that), but there’s also many trios, like the Deathly Hallows. Goblet‘s full of them: three magical schools, the Triwizard Tournament, three Tasks, in all of which Harry Potter is a weird outlier.
Thinking outside of the narrative, I imagine the difficulty of plotting out a fourth episode in Harry Potter. Nature abhors a vacuum. Fantasy abhors fourths? After all, it’s trilogies like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings that seem to stand out in pop culture.
Goblet pushes a lot of weight as the hinge between two ostensible trilogies. It’s a threshold, with the Wizarding World expanding, spreading before Harry’s eyes. It’s no longer just Hogwarts, it’s two other schools. It’s also the Ministry, and the Death Eaters, and the press. Goblet of Fire sets up the political systems that dominates Order of the Phoenix and on.
The director, Mike Newell, adapts this book with equal amounts of angst, comedy, and thrill. He’s not as virtuosic as Cuaron in my eyes, but it’s a difficult step in Harry’s journey to manage. Harry’s increasingly aware of his reputation, whether towards his bland crush Cho Chang or as the surprise Triwizard champion, and perhaps in conversation with this theme, Newell devotes screen-time to the various physical arenas of Harry’s world, from the World Cup to the Wizengamot. To continue my own metaphor, if Harry graduated to an actor in Azkaban, here he’s seeing the audience watching him as he wades into deadlier waters.
Other Cinematic Snacks
Lexi and I also watched Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi’s satire of Nazi Germany. Firstly, excellent work from the child actors. Roman Griffin Davis, as the titular Jojo, and Archie Yates as his friend Yorki, are perfect. Thomasin Mackenzie as Elsa, a Jewish girl hiding in Jojo’s attic, is steely yet warm. And Taika Waititi, a brown, Jewish, Indigenous actor, plays Jojo’s imaginary best friend Adolf Hitler, a pure middle finger choice to IRL Adolf Hitler.
This film balances between comedy and wartime atrocity, and Waititi for the most part doesn’t shy away from either end. Watching it in quarantine, I took a lot away from it:
My family loves putting movies on to have them on. My mom, in an astonishing feat, watched three movies in a row one night. I tuned in for the first two, which were Marriage Storyand The Willoughbys, two Netflix offerings that couldn’t have been further from each other in tone, content, and style, but I guess technically they were both about familial relations (?)
I can see why Marriage Story had so many accolades. There’s glints of tremendous acting, especially from Laura Dern as the #girlboss lawyer representing one half of the couple and I was impressed by Scarlett Johanson and especially Adam Driver as the main duo.
Noah Baumbach’s direction is rough-hewn realism, and the moments when his hand does show lance at the heart. A sliding driveway door dividing the divorcing couple; Charlie shouting “Fuck the space!” off-kilter in a claustrophobic office; close ups on strained faces during courtroom proceedings. Marriage Story is a show that must go on, through blood and tears.
The Willoughbys, an animated not-really-stop-motion movie based on a Lois Lowry novel, is about four children who are virtually orphans. They live with selfish, neglectful parents, and at one point the kids try to become real orphans, if that gives you a sense of the humor this film sits in. During the climax, the children face a deadly situation and I seriously felt that The Willoughbys hadn’t closed off the option of killing off the Willoughbys.
At its best, The Willoughbys simultaneously channels the likes of Willy Wonka and Series of Unfortunate Events. It’s a lovely hour and a half of fun adventure and inventive art design, with an ebullient Maya Rudolph as their wholesome nanny and Ricky Gervais as the movie’s deadpan cat narrator.
And to close off, some of the music I’ve been listening to:
Fiona Apple’s raucous, urgent Fetch The Bolt Cutters. Burn everything down; this is it.
M. Ward’s Migration Stories, a record of rivers and constellations and wide open spaces.
Random Access Mash by the old-time quartet Hard Drive. Stylish fiddle-driven music that quicken the pulse and kickstart your rhythmic muscles.
Hamilton Leithauser’s two albums, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, with Rostam, and his newest, The Loves of Your Life. Great retro rock vibes for my mornings.
Anyways, all these snacks give me a lot to chew on. The chewing gives me something to do, and reminds me of the books I will eventually discuss in person with y’all, and the plush movie theatre seats I’ll eventually be able to sink into, and the crowded, electrifying music concerts I’ll eventually attend.
The arts are as necessary to me as air to breathe, water to drink, and, of course, food to eat. So until eventually arrives, I’ll keep snacking.
It’s been over a week since I last rode the subway.
There’s a special feeling to transit. As much as I love walking, riding in a subway train is a unique pleasure. There’s the speed– the world moving past you, fast. There’s the relinquishment of being a passenger.
Adjusting to self-isolated life comes with countless tiny challenges: worry, boredom, lethargy, claustrophobia. I think of the people moving outside– grocery store employees, public utility workers, and of course, medical workers caring for the sick– who face the opposite problem, dodging illness and misfortune as they carry on. Inside, I’m anxious and static. Safe, but stuck uncomfortably indoors.
Time dilates. Without a set work schedule, my sister and I have naturally started waking up in the late morning, dozing off after midnight. Last month, I read an essay on the relationship between labor and time. I didn’t expect to experience its unravelling so soon.
My subway rides were elastic slots of time, phases of my day when the cone of my attention narrowed onto whatever I had on me. The A train, I realize now, was my prime location for listening to new albums (the loud ones), reading books and articles, catching up on podcasts, planning my schedule, taking cat-naps. I didn’t feel the pressure to multitask since I was already “doing” something: commuting.
At home, my attention wants to splatter haphazard. Nerve-wracking headlines easily suck me in. I’ve tried to ride with the changing tides of my attention, reading and watching and listening to many things to pass the hours at home (and I will write about those here soon, with all that distended time I mentioned).
But I miss dance classes. And I really miss live performances. I miss taking the train in the anticipation of being with other people, in a studio or at a theatre.
As a dancer, I’m grateful for the virtual classes popping up on Instagram. So far, I’ve done:
a ballet barre sequence,
a handful of Cunningham warm-ups,
four or five hours of yoga,
a Pilates mat class,
and I got to Shim Sham and line dance with some fellow self-isolated dancers!
Scrolling my feed, I tune into live-streams or watch videos by performers I follow, many of whom are musicians. Last week, the Norwegian guitarist Sondre Lerche played a set while Lexi and I ate lunch. I listened to Chris Thile and Sara Watkins duet over Instagram.
Through the ingenious Stay At Home Festival, I watched a handful of acoustic musicians: Tatiana Hargreaves with Reed Stutz, Nic Gareiss, Jenna Moynihan. I wanted to catch a half-hour set by banjoist Jake Blount, but I missed it! (Lexi and I had School of Rock on and I didn’t check the time.) Moping the next day, I checked if maybe he posted any footage – he didn’t. 😦
A part of me relished in my disappointment. It’s been so long since I felt the sadness of missing out– to my surprise, I missed FOMO! This sore feeling underscored the fact that, even if these Instagram live-feeds weren’t live in the sense I was used to, in the sense I craved, the sense of other bodies in the room sharing a rarity together, they felt more alive than video clips…
The theatre scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte roughly defines a performance as a transient event involving the “bodily co-presence of actors and spectators.” Feedback loops spring up between audience and actors, and in this “autopoietic process,” complete control disappears. Any meaning made and perceived is in flux. Anyone present is “neither fully autonomous nor fully determined.”
During these Instagram sets, people were still present… just alive somewhere else, throwing their voices and their images over the distance like photons from the sun. With my own bodily presence, I gave what I could– snaps, a whoop, foot taps, comments and likes.
The channel between my phone and their phones blew up with extra sensory significance for me. The clank of lunch plates, the give of my sister’s couch, a mantelpiece behind the fiddler, skidding feet on hardwood floors, the dusting of tree pollen in Durham, all flowed together.
On the surface, comments floated over the feed, as blooms of heart-eyed emojis and thumbs up came and went. Hiccups in the WiFi would change the rhythm. Pixelation waxed and waned, the image and sound quality never “fully determined.”
A robust, unpredictable feedback loop of the kind Fischer-Lichte writes of didn’t happen. They couldn’t see me like I did them, and Instagram can’t approximate the spark of physically being together. But I think a sensory charge of some kind arose. I thought of this quote by the writer Mark Grief:
We all have a power to find the meaningful aspect of a thing by going onto or into it; by spreading the surface of the world with experience, and pressing your imagination and emotions into any crack.
Today being World Theatre Day, I grieve the many productions cancelled due to COVID-19 across the globe, and I stand with my fellow performers as we face an uncertain future. An art whose very substance involves bringing people together can’t function during this period of self-isolation.
But in the meantime, I’m trying to glean performance when I can, savoring the bits of dance and theatre and song I find at home and online. Until I can experience a moment at the theatre, until I can sweat at Steps again, I will gladly tune into Instagram live-streams, play on my ukulele, and dance with Lexi in my living room.
Fischer-Lichte wrote that in performance, spectators can “feel like wanderers between two worlds,” caught between the action and the meanings it creates. In self-isolation, I’m finding myself stuck within four walls while reading, streaming, listening, and yes, writing my way out.
But I know eventually I’ll see you on the other side of this. We’ll feel the FOMO for New York’s nightly bounty of musicals, concerts, ballets, plays. We’ll sit on the A train as we ride downtown to see a show together.
I originally meant to publish this after Leap Day. On February 29th, which was a blustery, average day, I kept thinking of the little quarter days we “missed” over the past four years, sequestered by the calendar until 2020. I finish it two weeks later, deep in the COVID-19 crisis which has sequestered most of us at home for longer durations than usual.
To my friends in the performing arts, and the workers-from-home, and those self-quarantining– hang in there! Between a few necessary outings into Manhattan, I’ve been reading, and sort-of writing. (Unlike Hamilton, the action on the streets is not exciting.)
Before all the theaters and music venues shut down, I had several fun evenings in late February. I write about four below. To start though: a review of my February book.
Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan, finished February 16th
“Everything in it was turning into everything else.” This magnificent essay collection works a series of miracles. Any subject that John Jeremiah Sullivan covers, he makes lustrous, indispensable: whether it’s Axl Rose, American healthcare, The Real World, or Indigenous cave art– and these are only a handful from Pulphead’s broad offerings. It’s actually frustrating how good it is. Sullivan’s writing enthralls, folding anecdote, fact, image, and citation over and over each other like delicate literary pastry layers. Thick description, but make the description itself an artful portrait. I craved these essays while reading them, like croissants, or a favorite song, or a place.
Portrait of a Lady On Fire, February 18th
There’s a couple films that have infected how I see the world afterwards: Parasite, Yorgos Lanthimos’ austere The Favourite, Madeline’s Madeline by Josephine Decker, Wes Anderson’s supersymmetric tableaus.
Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of A Girl On Fire is the most recent entry in this list. I walked out of it reoriented. It gets under your skin to vein and bone, to muscled senses disused in modernity. You’re wrought to “the directness of sense, like the solidity of object.”
The film follows an artist, Marianne, visiting an island in order to paint Heloise, the eponymous lady, for a faceless Milanese suitor. Heloise wants nothing of the marriage and refuses to sit for portraits, so Marianne acts as a “walking companion,” painting in secret. A third woman lives with them, the young maid Sophie, and for most of the movie, we see only these three. Marianne falls for her enthralling subject, and what ensues is a tale of forbidden love: Marianne and Heloise.
This picture functions on several levels, including and beyond the narrative one. Portrait reiterates the power of images, of gleaning meaning through what you see. You can watch it as a meditation on how we present ourselves, inwardly and to each other: our secret faces, our changing faces. “What image do you want of me?,” asks Marianne at one point, knowing that the picture will eventually precede her own presence in Heloise’s memory.
There are so many shots that allow you to revel in the moving image. Heads popping out from beachfront grasses. Heloise, through a bonfire, a warped aura of flames. Sophie, Marianne, and Heloise at the kitchen table, at work. Marianne’s hand, hesitantly held before a blank canvas. Portrait is a masterclass in seeing with the whole of yourself, training your eye towards new, wondrous ends.
Shoutout to the exquisite costumes by Dorothee Guiraud. Bristling Heloïse wears a cloak on her walks, a dark thing beset by a pattern of knifelike blue roses, mirroring the slow bloom of cool romance. Marianne is practically dressed (with historically accurate pockets!) clothed in warm wool, the color of glowing embers. Winsome Sophie wears a bodice she likely embroidered herself, with flora creeping up her torso.
The film begins with Marianne teaching young painters, directing the girls to “start with the outline,” and in my attempt to respond to this movie, I’ve done only that. The full Portrait is moving. It captures something of artistry, of femininity, of queerness that is so assured, and so right. An aside: I expected a “queer awakening” arc, but I got the sense that both women knew they loved women beforehand and were certain of their lesbian orientations, which is refreshing.
“Your presence is made of fleeting moments which may lack truth.” Marianne says this midway through. Whether the statement is true or not, the movie encourages you to explore this notion in earnest, asking you to consider its presence and its uncertain truth. Heloise replies that the moment may be fleeting, but it can be laced with “deep feeling” nonetheless.
Go see this movie! And fall into its depths as it flies fast across your eyes.
Live From Here, February 22nd
I started following Live From Here in its previous incarnation as A Prairie Home Companion: a radio show featuring music, comedy, and the quirky, affecting storytelling of the “News From Lake Wobegon.” Mandolinist Chris Thile revamped the show in 2016, tuning it towards more musical ends, and has hosted weekly sessions ever since, airing live on the radio.
This performance had a general theme of “mirrors.” It was Thile’s birthday earlier in the week, and he shared the sobering experience of watching his reflection age. He and his screaming good house band performed a Bach mirror fugue, in two parts– first straight, then reflected.
New Yorker writer Rachel Syme spoke about a memorable broken SoHo mirror and a New York fashionista in whom she sees a future reflection of herself. In the first excerpt she asked, “What’s your favorite mirror in the city?” For me: a certain bathroom in Columbia’s music building. My showmate Madison likes the windows outside her dental school.
Comedian Josh Gondelman mused on quirks he’s acquired from his wife of five years. He vicariously has opinions on things he has know experience with (“Fiona Apple? Even if I haven’t listened to anything by her? Genius.”), and he unwittingly made some new archenemies. Once, he met some friendly folks at a party, only to discover they’re on her blacklist– they once applauded her for her “brave” haircut.
The musician features were the clear standouts of the evening for me, with Nathaniel Rateliff and Haley Heynderickx both performing. Rateliff sang three songs from his new album, backed by an unassuming string ensemble. “All Or Nothing” especially struck, its swung, stepwise chord changes lapping at my ears like cool waves on a mountain lake.
Haley Heynderickx sang from her record, I Need to Start a Garden. Her smooth guitar picking and vivid lyrics painted bug-filled rooms and femme divinities. “Oom Sha La,” slow-mo existential crisis at the sock-hop, jammed. Shoutout to her brass ensemble, the Westerlies, for their surprising accompaniments. Also, Heynderickx’s small exclamation of “woot! rock and roll!” whenever she took the stage after the house band’s jams was everything.
Singer and multi-instrumentalist Aoife O’Donovan also shared main mic duties with Thile, accompanying the band on guitar and singing harmonies. She premiered a song from her upcoming EP and sang a touching rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Foolin’ Myself.”
Watching Live From Here, you get little reminders that it’s primarily made for the ears. “Intermission” was a band jam where audience members were free to leave their seats. Gondelman tailored some of his jokes to the radio audience (“For those of you listening, physique doesn’t quite describe my appearance, which is more like a phyzoosh.”) My showmate Madison felt the slight sense of discomfort of hearing certain words spoken that you’d rather read on paper; the misfortune of hearing “bauble” said aloud, for example.
In all, Live From Here digs deep into the promise held in its title– life alive, here and now. And after the radio session finished, we were treated to an exclusive encore performance of Sufjan Stevens’s epic “Impossible Soul.” (I died.) It was a magical joy to be present in the room with these mega-talents. Life sounds great, especially when it’s Live From Here.
Birds of Prey, February 23rd
I am not a diehard fan of superhero films, but man are they funnn. Birds of Prey stood out to me and Madison as a comic book movie directed by, written by, and starring a mostly female team. (Chinese-American director Cathy Yan helmed the film and Christina Hodson wrote.) Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman are the other two standouts of the superhero film canon in this regard, with Black Widow coming up later this year too. Huzzah for women in the creative chair!
Birds of Prey is wildly fun; a joyride with creative fight choreography, firework production design, and jammy (if obvious) soundtrack picks. The film can drag a bit with its semi-convoluted storytelling: the plot’s knotty, with Harley getting involved with a stolen diamond and various mercenaries after her head. But once it gets rolling, it absolutely rocks.
Margot Robbie plays the titular anti-heroine with unabashed fun, digging into the character— a PhD in psychology who falls for her criminal, abusive patient— and swirling out of it a star. Manic, not-quite pixie, surreal dreamer into girls and boys. Plus she orders her Chinese extra spicy.
It’s refreshing seeing these details fleshed out, however trivial, because while I didn’t see Suicide Squad, I heard that that Harley was basically made for the basest male consumption. She was effectively a dead-end. With Birds of Prey, which Robbie executive produced, Harley, as a character, has a cinematic future ahead of her– she’s emancipated.
Ewan McGregor has an amusing turn as Romy Sionis, the film’s kingpin villain. He plays Romy as extravagant and prissy, and there’s a maybe-gay-thing with his underling, Szasz. The character is incessantly cruel and sexist, and his scenes nod to the casual misogyny that can pervade masculinity, straight or otherwise, in its worst tendencies. In these moments, Yan centers Birds of Prey’s women, focusing on their resilience and power, both collectively and individually.
The Birds of the movie’s title queer the typical superhero super-group, and I WISH we had more from them! Rosie Perez plays a middle-aged detective who inevitably gets more sh*t done without her self-congratulating coworkers at the police office. Jurnee Smollett-Bell portrays the sonically dangerous Black Canary as a rough, competent vigilante. My fave was Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress, awkward and badass, grappling with childhood trauma and looking out for Cassandra, the street kid who gets caught up in the whole mess when she’s just trying to get by. The film takes its time getting all these women on the same side, but the climactic fight scene that results is an absolute banger.
Birds of Prey hasn’t had the best commercial success, but I wholeheartedly recommend it. Savor its delicious fight scenes, its capital-S Style. I lost it laughing hard at Harley shoving some guy’s face repeatedly into a steering wheel. Despite the brief moral crisis, it was good to indulge my evil laugh watching this movie, cheering these women on.
Sean Watkins & The Bee Eaters, February 28th
I first went to a Jenkins House Concert last year, to see the DuoDuo quartet. On the last Friday of February, I finally returned! This time, I saw Sean Watkins & The Bee Eaters. Watkins is a ridiculously talented guitarist, widely known through his time with the progressive bluegrass band Nickel Creek, and he recorded last year with the equally talented Bee Eaters.
Jenkins House Concerts are a whole new level of intimate. True to name, they’re concerts held in a literal house. You sit and listen to the performers in the living room of the friendly and musical Jenkins family. You get the heartwarming, slightly intimidating sense of walking into a neighborhood potluck (which is also what precedes the show).
To my musician peers, my description here probably sounds like me making a mountain of a molehill. But growing up, live music tended to come through loudspeakers, in public spaces. The first music performance my memory deems a “concert” was at Outside Lands. So, to enter an Upper West Side brownstone filled with gregarious music lovers– all whiter and much older than me, to be completely transparent– for the sole purpose of listening to acoustic music with minimal amplification, was, and continues to be, a novel experience.
The music itself was magnificent. Sean Watkins is a quiet dude whose songs speak magnitudes. His accomplished flatpicking transports your ears to new places. The Bee Eaters, a trio hailing from NorCal, feature a cellist (Tristan Clarridge), a fiddler (Tashina Clarridge), and a player of the hammer dulcimer (Simon Chrisman).
Their set encompassed a lot in two hours: there were originals, some covers, an Irish reel (Lord Gordon’s), bluegrass and old-time standards. One song sounded like a whirlwind of flowers; another one felt like “the sound of turning/taming all night” (my notes smudged here). A sustained run of sprightly triplets became a line of eyes and hooks through one piece, fastening it tight. They ended their set– not really, since they instantly and inevitably did an encore– with a song buoyed by a “lofty trampoline swing.”
“Big Five,” named for its 5/4 signature, really hit. After setting the downbeat in catacomb-echo tones, they shunted into offbeats, playing in the syncopated shadows. The composition changed shape as I listened; it felt like listening to the bones of the earth shifting below me.
They also performed a couple songs from Sean Watkins’s wheelhouse. My heart leapt recognizing the opening runs of “21st of May,” a Nickel Creek song that Watkins wrote from the perspective of a Rapture preacher. He also sang a slow ballad backed by his wife, and a couple tunes from his previous solo album.
Madison– my frequent performance companion, the legend– remarked that it’s refreshing to be able to talk with the musicians after a concert like “they’re just regular people.” And conversation is a nice frame for the whole evening. Listening to their set, especially the improvisatory breaks, felt like overhearing especially intriguing conversations.
At times, all four improvised simultaneously, a clear soloist featuring while the other three held the pattern or responded, navigating the myriad musical choices of the tune and finding the ones that make sense. During one song, Tristan and Tashina both played the same musical riff simultaneously, prompting an amused chuckle from Tashina. (Was not at all surprised to learn they were siblings; I’ve noticed a similar mental sync between Lexi and me when we choreograph.)
Shout out to the openers for Sean and the Bee Eaters as well! Elise Leavy, an accordionist who played guitar that night, opened the latter part of their set. Leavy has a captivating voice, and shared a connection with the Bee Eaters, who hosted music camps in California she attended as a kid. Stephanie Jenkins opened the night with a lovely rendition of “Silver Dagger,” the old-time standard that’s been covered by Joan Baez and Fleet Foxes.
These musicians have lived and breathed music their entire lives, and work on a level where they can reach for the song in their heads, nab it, and share a semblance of it with us. (Same goes for the Live From Here folks.) It’s fortunate to have my ears in the same room.
The night ended with dessert, some birthday wishes for the Jenkins’ newly-turned septuagenarian neighbor, David, and many a conversation.
Stay well everyone.
Current Reads: Emma by Jane Austen, and Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse
Current Listen: Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson. Also, the slow country burn of Mike and the Moonpies’ “You Look Good in Neon”
How we all doing this February? It’s been lightning quick for me, and in the first two weeks, I’ve already seen a handful of performances and a movie. Check out what I’ve seen below, and as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and responses!
Cambodian Rock Band, February 5th
The first thing I hear at Cambodian Rock Band, currently playing at the Signature Theater, is the pre-show announcements. They’re delivered in Khmer, the most common Cambodian language, but with key words like “cell phone” and “emergency” in English. I hear them, and cue early memories overhearing family conversations in Tag-lish, latching onto phrases I recognize.
A GIF of Oscar winner Bong Joon-Ho has been going around, of him saying that beyond the inch-high barrier of subtitles there’s a whole world of excellent international cinema. These pre-show announcements wink at a similar sentiment. Cambodian Rock Band is an exceptional Asian/Asian-American narrative that can only be told onstage.
Lauren Yee’s script follows Chum (Joe Ngo), a Cambodian expatriate, returning there to bring his activist daughter Neary (Courtney Reed) home. She’s been working on the prolonged trial of Comrade Duch, a former Khmer Rouge official who oversaw the murder of thousands of innocent people. Familial tension flares up as Chum resists dredging up fraught memories while his daughter seeks retribution on his behalf.
Under Chay Yew’s nimble direction, Cambodian Rock Band asks the audience to listen and listen hard. It opens with two live performances of psychedelic Khmer rock songs, and sound saturates the ensuing play: muscular guitar riffs, the bristle of electricity, record player crackles. (Mikhail Fiksel’s design and Matt MacNelly’s music direction do wonders here).
Rock music is a lifeline for Chum under the dictatorial K.R. takeover. The band’s platform is foregrounded most of the play, embodying rock’s capacity for hope and release, inherent in its roots as Black American music. In Cambodian Rock Band, this American import keeps the death-filled “silence, the quiet, and the space in between” at bay.
There’s a motif of co-opting the vocabulary of oppressors, foreign or not, for the sake of self-expression. Through rock music (the U.S. is a fickle, unreliable presence), through English, through the Khmer Rouge’s strict cultural redefinitions (new names, zero history). To be legible under this suffocating regime requires a pandering, a monitored sacrifice of personhood.
The play is almost stolen by the charisma of Comrade Duch himself, fantastically played by Francis Jue, with witty quips and sheer presence. He plays cowbell with the band. But it’s a powerful moment when Chum interrupts Duch, telling him, “Get out of my story!”
At its best (which is virtually all of it), Cambodian Rock Band brings to fore the immense trauma beneath Chum and Neary’s relationship to Cambodia, emphasizing the necessity of listening to his story in all its harmonics. Yee, a genius, has harnessed the cathartic power of live music, balancing profound emotional depths with spine-tingling musical highs. Please go see this so I can fangirl about it with you.
The Golden Spike, February 6th
The day after, I went to see a musical in development at BRICLab: “The Golden Spike,” written by Don Nguyen with folk Americana musicians The Lobbyists. It follows the story of Sun Wu, a Chinese American working on the Transcontinental Railroad, told by his great-granddaughter as she reads through his journal. As an immigrant swept up in the exploitative project of rail-building, Sun Wu lives through discrimination and dangerous conditions.
“The Golden Spike” is a twisting ride I will be following as it continues to develop. The plotlines are still being untangled, and there are many: Sun Wu meets his steely love, Jiao Zhou, at a laundry appointment; he’s an English-speaking labor leader, speaking out against worker mistreatment; he builds rapport with Irishmen, fellow immigrants working alongside him. Only the first act was staged at the reading I attended, and it builds up a lot of narrative momentum that waits to be resolved.
Despite the brevity of the reading, there were glimmers of compelling artistry. A slick salesman sings a slippery patter song – “Ya Got Trouble” shunted about a thousand miles West. (It’s about snake oil.) A brusque Irishwoman opens up to Jiao about her trials in life, delivering a quiet, show-stopping ballad. The whole, entire cast sings, acts, and plays multiple instruments, from fiddle to drums to cello. It’s a doozy. Watch out for this train of absolute talent.
Dancewave Cafe, February 8th
In Brooklyn, there’s a beautiful new studio called Dancewave, and in February they kicked off a showcase series for the Park Slope dance community! Friends of mine were dancing, and Madison and I trekked down to see.
“Dancewave Cafe” presented nine pieces, varying across the board in genre, duration, mood, and effect. It began with a glittering chiaroscuro video, ended with a Most Wholesome group jazz number. It flit between improvisation groupwork, virtuoso hip-hop, and postmodern inquiries along the way.
Marion Spencer’s “Marrow,” set on Dancewave’s Adult Modern students. Spencer’s subtle choreography let the dancers put their stamp on the material, whether in evocative group phrases or individual improv.
“Scope,” a duet by Emily Climer and Katie Skinner. The images these two made were mysterious, tender, and expressive, like they’re talking to the audience with words only their bodies can say.
“Wannabe” choreographed by Victoria DeRenzo, a muscular duet accompanied by interviews on Ginger Spice’s departure from the Spice Girls… yah. What a juxtaposition, and a thought-provoking one.
“somewhere between here & now,” by my friend Debbie Mausner! A sextet (three dancers, a flock of balloons, bubbles, an air mattress). A buoyant, fleeting collection of moments caught in movement: sighing arms, jutting limbs, a wind blowing through trees.
1917, February 9th
The film 1917 suspends time. Cut and shot like a mostly uninterrupted long take, its two hours follows two days in the lives of two WWI soldiers. I spontaneously saw it on the Sunday of the Oscars and fell headlong into its immersive vision. The title seems like a tacked-on timestamp, an attempt to anchor something cut out of different temporal fabric.
In moving interrupted from scene to scene, Sam Mendes’ war film flows like a concert work, expanding time into the here and now. The two soldiers, Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake are tasked with delivering an urgent message, the delivery of which could save an entire battalion, sixteen hundred lives. If they make it in time.
The film seems to contrast different types of time. There’s a drifting focus on the bodily habits of human life – resting, eating, singing, jumping, drinking, pissing – in contrast to the death-filled ticking of wartime. I thought of Madeleine L’Engle’s twin conceptions of time, kairos and chronos. Chronos is familiar, “wrist-watch time.” Kairos is “real time,” L’Engle writes, “pure numbers with no measurement.” The propitious moment, when the “time is ripe.”
In one scene, Schofield, separated from Blake, hitches a ride on a caravan. “Got somewhere you have to be?” someone sarcastically asks him when he nervously checks his watch. (Schofield decides to go on foot instead.) Later, a pivotal moment in the film occurs when the camera closes in on the wristwatch, rendered useless by a gunshot. An ad for 1917 has the tag line “Time is the enemy,” and one type of time has been slain here. Kairos stays alive, bearing our two heroes along.
1917 toes the line of heroizing war. In a New York Times op-ed, Cathy Tempelsman writes that the film thrills with visual storytelling but numbs audiences to the emotional horror of WWI. The frequent disconnect between naive commanders and the infantry they sent to certain death is misrepresented here. Susan Sontag wrote that narrative is probably “more effective than an image” at representing suffering, and it’s safe to say 1917 could’ve had more of the former.
In that same line, she also wrote that it’s “partly a question of the length of time one is obliged to look, to feel,” and Mendes’ long take skewers the viewer with images of fearful beauty. Empty bunkers, huddled troops, and oozing puddles haunt the film. A dark window reveals a razed city, intermittently lit with the lightning of flares, pools of light blooming like petals. A river scene evokes Millais’ painting Ophelia, bodies floating, beneath drifting cherry blossoms. The heart stops, the image entices. But the time is still running, for this war and all of them.
Bridesmaids, February 11th
Tuesday night, my sister danced in Steven Blandino’s dance narrative, Bridesmaids, restaged at Symphony Space. Both times I’ve seen it, it delivers a rush of energy through Steven’s inspired movement and honest storytelling.
Bridesmaids collects the disparate experiences of five long-time friends surrounding one wedding. The bride is ostensibly the main player, but the focus of this hour-long concert work billows out to include the different relations her and her bridesmaids have to commitment and matrimony.
For one, love is a ghostly memory. Another yearns for a partner in a world hostile to queer love. One experiences the joy and struggle of living with and loving one’s self. You know, light stuff. (Though I’d be remiss not to mention the comedy and lightness– there’s a bridal party set to “Love Shack” that is all kinds of hilarious.)
The movement morphs, quickly and assuredly, to suit each story like an evening glove, and Steven’s phenomenal cast wears it all with style. Moments of intense physical theatre channel Pina Bausch, instantly balanced with sequences of jazz technique and contemporary kinetics. One standout moment occurs when the five women surround a frozen bride and groom, shuddering like broken hearts. Shivering boughs, whirling away into the storm.
Flower petals feature prominently, with dancers throwing fistfuls into the air or gathering them from the ground. And like flowers, the pleasure of watching the narratives of Bridesmaids lies in seeing them blossom and fall– and blossom again. Steven does magical work staging these stories of love and relationships, and I can’t wait for the next time Bridesmaids blooms.
That’s all for now. Watch this space after Leap Day!
Hello 2020! It’s shaping up to be as thrilling and jam-packed with happening as 2019. For the first week of 2020, I spent New Year’s Eve in New York, I moved apartments with some help from my friends, and I got to dance a small showcase. On the world stage, there’s been The impeachment trial, an emerging pandemic, and Australian wildfires. So, a lot. I started writing this 2019 review on January 1st, but it’s only now, the start of February, that I’ve finally been able to finish it.
No concrete resolutions for me, but I would like to review a lot more. To self-review, be more aware of my actions and habits, and review the things around me, as I set out to do in September. I channel the ever-green words of Ferris Bueller:
Writing this, I realize it ended up being much longer than my 2018 review, but I’ve divided it up by media (books, performance, film/tv, music). If you’ve also read, listened to, or seen any of these things, please let me know what you think! Or if you find something fascinating and wanna hear about it, message me and I will gladly ramble. As opposed to my music-saturated 2018, 2019 was defined most by the books I read, so let’s begin at the library…
The Big Four
I like big books.* I read four of them in 2019. For winter, I re-read Moby Dick, which set the course for the following literary behemoths.
I dried off and read a sequoia of a novel, The Overstory by Richard Powers, simply ‘cause one of its blurbs called it Melvillian. I’m an easy mark. The introduction of my copy of Moby called Middlemarchthe best English novel (in contrast to Moby, the best novel in English), so I read Middlemarch next. And my most recent big read was Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman, a 2019 Man Booker nominee that has been called an encyclopedic, experimental, Great American Novel. Naturally, I climbed right aboard.
I’ve written about Moby Dick and Middlemarch already, so let’s talk about the other two here. The Overstory slowly nudges the reader away from human life, going deep into the woods. An ensemble of people are saved by trees, broken by trees, guided by trees. The green around us has knowledge, and ancestry stretching back into deep time. Whatever you make from a felled tree should at least be more beautiful than what you cut down, says one character, and The Overstory, printed on pressed mulch and leaves, models that lesson. It’s an ode to forests and a warning of the dire consequences we face as we continue to raze them.
I’ll be writing a review for Ducks, Newburyportas well; I just finished it and I’m still reeling. Okay, so— the bulk of its thousand pages is a single sentence. Ellmann has written a running log of one Ohio mother’s perceptions and memories, punctuated by the phrase “the fact that” and intercut with the journey of an Appalachian mountain lionness. It sounds insufferable, I know, but it re-calibrates your very act of reading. Ducks subsumes you, repurposing the act of scrolling a newsfeed towards an analog feed, one where domesticity, trauma, and Americana jam together in a single lane.
If anything emerges from these four books, it’s that they complement each other very well. Where Moby was for the sea, Overstory was for the trees. Similarly, Middlemarch was a portrait of a village and its relationships versus Ducks finding a profusion of activity within one woman’s mind. Anyways, I tempered these literary deep dives with…
*and I can not lie.
In 2019, I realized I love essay collections. (In the collage above, you can see my current essay read, Pulphead.)
Impossible Owls,by Brian Phillips, leapt out as my clear standout of early 2019. His careful investigation of a range of topics—UFO conspiracies, Alaskan dog-sled races, hometown disappearances—whet my reader’s curiosity and opened deeper lines of inquiry. It made me feel small in a disorienting way, how I sometimes felt as a kid surrounded by mysteries baked into the world around me.
In fall, I had the pleasure of being givenTrick Mirror. Jia Tolentino is one of the smartest writers alive today. Reading her is like watching an eagle snatch her prey: Tolentino aims her sharp wit at modern habit, tearing at our scenery with clarity, ferocity, and dry humor. Massive kudos to anyone who can name some of the ever-present, always-screaming tension that living in America entails, which is exactly what Jia Tolentino did for me in Trick Mirror
Against Everything – Mark Greif: SOLID third place. Lucid, combative, pretentious (it starts off with a reference to Kafka). Opens your brain every which-a-way, and makes me want to read Walden.
Feel Free (left unfinished) – Zadie Smith: Zadie Smith is a dependable observer of all things fascinating. and she writes about dance here too!
Tonight I’m Someone Else – Chelsea Hodson: I share this pensive book with Kylie Jenner! Kylie’s got taste. Suggested reading for lost, wandering twenty-somethings by an author who’s done her fair share of lost wandering.
Look Alive Out There – Sloane Crosley: Laugh out loud funny. Like overhearing a conversation with outlandish details that can’t be real but you realize humans are weird, it could happen. Like laughing at an ad of a lady laughing with salad but also vibing with the lady laughing with salad. You feel me?
Stories, Poetry, and Graphic Novels
Night Sky with Exit Wounds – Ocean Vuong: “The body is a blade that sharpens by cutting.” Lines like these cut to my BONES
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden– Denis Johnson
Gender Queer – Maia Kobabe: Understated, earnest depiction of the author’s genderqueer upbringing.
Grand Union – Zadie Smith: More on the experimental side. Her portraits of New York here are outstanding.
Luisa, Now and Then – Carole Maurel: A French coming-of-age tale adapted by Mariko Tamaki. An older Luisa meets her younger self through time travel shenanigans, and together, she navigates her relationships, her orientation, and herself.
Bluets – Maggie Nelson
Don’t Call Us Dead – Danez Smith: Like Vuong, Danez Smith can turn a phrase into something beautiful, excruciating, and cathartic.
Non-Fiction: Memoirs, Academic Texts
Wasn’t That a Time – Jesse Jarnow: I read about my favorite radical 50s vocal group – the Weavers!
Regarding the Pain of Others – Susan Sontag
Utopia In Performance – Jill Dolan
Disorientations (left unfinished) – Jose Esteban Muñoz: this book by the late Muñoz distills an impossible number of ideas on queerness, art, and politics into text that is rich and concise.
Go the Way Your Blood Beats – Michael Amherst
Movies & TV
I’m not big into TV, but I saw lots of movies in 2019!
My top three all came at the end of the year: Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. Parasite was an uncompromising, unsettling thrill ride. It demanded a comedown afterwards, I was so rattled— both times I saw it. I loved Knives Out for its hairpin plotting, the playful acting, and its overall sense of fun. Seeing Little Womenwas an exercise in emotional stamina. Watching it with my friends in a crowded Upper West Side theatre was by turns heart-wrenching and gut-busting, and the applause at the end felt as much for the film as it was for having survived it together.
I also saw…
The Farewell – TEARS (and Asian-American-identity-realness)
Midsommar– SCREAMS (and floral-relationship-crises. And Florence Pugh slayage)
Booksmart– LAUGHS (and kickass women!)
Joker – THREE HOURS
Us– GOOD MUSIC (and sparked this idea about movement/identity/truth that immediately evaporated as I walked out the theatre. s/o to movement director Madeline Hollander)
The Lighthouse– TWO BROS, CHILLING IN A LIGHTHOUSE (definitely not five feet apart, definitely sorta gay. breakneck acting, Robert Pattinson what!! Willem Dafoe what!!)
Cats– JELLICLE CATS.
Frozen 2– DISNEY! (more catchy songs! Exceptionally gorgeous animation– those fluid dynamics tho. Plus anti-imperialist themes…? within Disney parameters)
Avengers: Endgame– MR STARK I’M FEELING GOOD
Rise of Skywalker – GO REY (but okay, where the HECK is ROSE)
On the small screen, i.e. my laptop, or Steph’s TV monitor, I followed a couple shows. Mr. Robot, my favorite action-adventure TV series about a weirdo hacker taking on American capitalism, concluded its run with a damn good fourth season. Crazy Ex-Girlfriendalso wrapped up and I have never been more proud of a television character as I was seeing Rebecca Bunch navigate her mental health. Steph and I binged through The OA, Netflix’s extravagant, otherworldly sci-fi drama, may it rest in peace.
Streaming services delivered fresh, quality content this year, from what I saw. Shrill, on Hulu, put out an irresistable first season showcasing a wonderful Aidy Bryant and razor-sharp TV writing. Russian Doll was triumphantly good. Triumphant in how good it looked (LES! Natasha Lyonne hair!), how good it sounded (Music! Natasha Lyonne’s accent!), how it felt (Mortality! Natasha Lyonne!). Euphoriawas phenomenal, also exploring themes of mental health. Watching it while reading Middlemarch produced some fruitful parallels between the two adolescent dramas.
Steph and I binged through Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s second season like candy, and The Good Placeconsistently served up delicious morsels of comedy plus ethics.
In 2020, I’m looking forward to seeing In The Heights (!), the new Emma adaptation, and anything A24 puts out (i’ve become slowly converted ever since Hereditary). I also wanna pick up a new TV show. I still need to watch Watchmen, Westworld, and Atlanta, and I’ve heard great things about Fargo.
I saw several performances over the course of 2019, bookended by a dance-theatre narrative in January (The Girl with The Alkaline Eyes) and a searing Broadway drama in December (Slave Play).
Attending Broadway productions is a rare blessing. It’s a privilege of living in New York and an activity I was able to indulge in four times this year: The Prom, Oklahoma!, Be More Chill, and Slave Play. My fave was certainly OK!, but I also have an enduring infatuation with The Prom. Off-Broadway, I saw the City Center revival of Call Me Madam, featuring the wonderful leading lady Carmen Cusack. It had a flimsy story but some real gems, like the counterpoint showtune “You’re Just in Love.” And in an entirely different theatrical mode, the New York premiere of Soft Powerpresented a new vision of what Asian America can look like in the contemporary musical form. I teared up seeing so many actors, singers, and dancers who looked like me.
In summer, I had the fortune of catching three wonderful performances in Central Park: the exceptional, Black-led production of Much Ado About Nothing, the Public’s exuberant adaptation of Disney’s Hercules, and, in a different type of performance, the dream-rock bands Japanese Breakfast and Hatchie on Summerstage.
That reminds me: I saw so many wonderful concerts! There’s a particular pleasure in making a night for music played by real, live people. I attended a memorable house concert on the Upper West Side: a twinkling evening of music by the peerless DuoDuo Quartet, consisting of harp, guitar, cello, and a percussive dancer. (You can probably guess through whom I heard of it– thanks, Nic!) Later, in Brooklyn I saw Twisted Pine, which I wrote about here, then not long afterwards, my other acoustic music obsession, Upstate!
And of course, I caught a mighty number of dance performances. Some highlights…
In August, I presented my dance thesis on queer tap dance and I got to visit Chicago! while I was there I saw the concurrent Explode! Queer Dance Festival. In that single weekend alone I saw some of the best dance of 2019.
Solo Square Dance, by the percussive dancer and scholar Nic Gareiss, resonated with texture, expanding beyond its roomful of sound to enfold everyone present within it. On the night of the festival, hosted by the fantastic drag queen/dance scholar LaWhore Vagistan, I was sucked into a whorling postmodern duet by Jennifer Monson and nibia pastrana santiago, and enervated by the complex rhythmwork of female-led Ayodele Drum & Dance. FLY/DROWN, a site-specific solo, closed the weekend. The hypnotic work by Jennifer Harge evokes the labor of Black mothers now and for centuries, and its images still linger behind my eyes.
New York continues to be filled with great dance. Steph and I stopped by Lincoln Center to see Justin Peck’s Principia (ehh), and The Times are Racing (ayy), as well as an encore of Kyle Abraham’s The Runaway, his muscular, mutating commission for NYCB. I got to see countless performances with and by my friends through venues and companies like Current Showcase, Bridge For Dance,100 Grand, and Triskelion’s Split Bill. My sister performed in Bridesmaids, a heart-wrenching dance narrative by Steven Blandino, at Dixon Place, soon to be restaged this month.
Caleb Teicher’s night at Lincoln Center burns bright as a summer highlight: it drew from early work (the jazzy Small and Tall) and new (Bzzz, their electrifying 2018 showstopper), but it was the expanded quartet edition of Meet Ella, a Lindy Hop tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, that stood out. Broadway figure Kevin McCollum has said that musical successes “ascend to heaven in the end”: by the finale, set to Ella’s acrobatic rendition of “How High The Moon,” Meet Ella is past heaven and swinging in the stars. Another standout for me came in this year’s Fall For Dance program. Monica Bill Barnes’s The Running Show leapt into my heart with its winning combination of podcast-like commentary, quirky athletic movement, and the dancers’ endearing personal stories.
The music I listened to this year was led by two frontrunners: Twisted Pine and Vampire Weekend. During my four years at Columbia, Vampire Weekend was synonymous with freshman year. They seemed bound to stay in the past, but they’ve had a lingering afterlife, fully revived with their new album last year. Twisted Pine I’ve written about: they’re my latest paragon of progressive bluegrass excellence (in 2018, it was Nickel Creek).
Both bands synthesize a gorgeous blend of music and lyrics, sparking back and forth between the two in unexpected, fruitful ways. In other words, 2019 was the year of excellent songwriting, babyyy
Dreams – Twisted Pine
Thank you, random Spotify 80s cover playlist, for introducing me to one of my favorite bands yet. Start with their cover of Heart of Glass!
Father of the Bride – Vampire Weekend
VW is back! And they’re jammy! And funky! And I made a dance to one of their songs with my sister!
FIBS – Anna Meredith
Last year it was Varmints, this year it’s FIBS. Sonic ebullience, fireworks for your ears.
Oklahoma! – Original Broadway 2019 Cast Recording
My Broadway soundtrack of the year. The cast is absolutely incredible, but the stars for me on this album are Daniel Kluger’s crystal clear orchestrations and the seven piece string band.
Twisted Pine– Twisted Pine
See above. This album is all originals, and really shows off their songwriting chops. They’re masterful on their instruments, switching between pop, bluegrass, blues, and jazz song structures like it’s nothing. “Hold On Me,” the album opener, is ex-quis-ite.
Healing – Upstate
Discovered in Twisted Pine’s musical neighborhood. Upstate is led by a tight three-part vocal harmony built by three phenomenal women.
Legacy! Legacy! – Jamila Woods
I first listened to this at Trader Joe’s and wooof cue shambling through the produce section. Jamila’s lyrics enfold the personal, the political, the historical and the present. The music surrounding her is a jam, and so catchy.
Keepsake – Hatchie
It’s Dreamy jangle Pop, ayyyy. I live for this wave of guitars strumming just washing up against my earbuds. I let the guitars do the crying for me, especially on album highlight, “Stay With Me”
Anything Worth Doing – Rachel Sumner
This EP by former Twisted Pine band member is chilly, elegant, and glowing with talent. Perfect soundtrack for autumn.
Julien – Carly Rae Jepsen
Queen of indie pop Carly came back with another album of dancey, electropop gems. “JULIAN!!!!”
The Pains of Being Pure At Heart (self-titled)
Atlanta Millionaires Club – Faye Webster
Cheap Queen – King Princess
Cuz I Love You – Lizzo
The Quebe Sisters (self-titled)
Mack the Knife: Live in Berlin – Ella Fitzgerald
2019 – Lucy Dacus
Like last year, the following songs were capsules of little memories I collected along the year:
Funky Kentucky – Twisted Pine
Sunset walking in Queens
Sure – Hatchie
Sympathy / Flower Moon / Harmony Hall – Vampire Weekend
INTENSE MIDNIGHT LISTENING PARTY!
Dreams – The Cranberries / Twisted Pine / Japanese Breakfast
Dolores O’Riordan wrote one of my favorite songs of all time, and these three renditions are all striking in their own way
Bad guy – Billie Eilish
That bass tho (people say the little electro riff sounds video gamey but i also hear a klezmer version?)
How High the Moon (Live in Berlin) – Ella Fitzgerald
Stratospheric!!! I’m so glad to live in a world where Ella’s voice existed, and we thankfully caught it on recording.
Loved Ones (Saudades) – Arnando Young
Heard at a dance performance. Magical chord changes
Best Part – H.E.R & Daniel Caesar
Caliche – Emily King
This song indelibly associated with 125th St station, when the rhythm kicked in right as I arrived
All Er Nuthin – Oklahoma! 2019 Cast Recording
Hell yeah, perfect camping road trip music. Don’t know why i gravitated towards this one but you know, Ali Stroker probably played a large part.
You Happened – The Prom, Caitlyn Kinunnen
SHOWTUNES show OUT! Harmonies on point. And when Izzy and Caitlyn sync together at the end? Bliss.
Sawbones – Anna Meredith
This song has teeth! It bristles! It’s rearing back on its haunches! It’s leaping towards you in slow-motion, flying forever!
Venice Bitch – Lana Del Rey
Nine minutes of woozy, moody, Cali vibes. Nothing gold can stay…
That’s a wrap for 2019! In searching through my photos and memories for all of these, I realized just how much stuff I was blessed with seeing last year. 2020 looks like it’s off to a promising start already though: I’ve finished two books and seen a play and a concert already and we’re only one month in. Follow here for my (hopefully) frequent updates on what I’m seeing, hearing, and doing in 2020!
“You will certainly go mad in that house alone, my dear. You will see visions. We have all got to exert ourselves a little to keep sane, and call things by the same names as other people call them by.”
Middlemarch, George Eliot
A village matron says this to a skeptical Ms. Dorothea Brooke when she insists on living on her own. The quote, especially that last line, clings to me. At this point in the novel, Dorothea has proven more than capable at living independently (and she would probably be happiest that way). But outside the narrative, I push against names having these “sane,” agreed-upon definitions. Words and names are a relatively new development in the grand scheme of things. Why should they be favored above visions? Visions have been around much longer anyhow; they tell the proverbial thousand words and then some.
In September, I finished three books, one after the other. Not intentionally: I started them all separately and coincidentally ended them all together in a bookworm binge. Otherwise, they share little in common. One is a short tract on a color, one an academic book from the field of performance studies, and one is an 19th century English novel I found referred to in Moby Dick’s introduction.
I’m just gonna rush ahead so I can yell about Middlemarch by George Eliot. The amount of times I have name-dropped continue to namedrop it in conversation is excessive. My apologies to anyone I’ve subjected my manic quotations to this summer. It’s been over a month since I turned the last page and I’m still thinking about it.
And for every performance I’ve been to this fall, I’ve had Utopia in Performance on my mind. Jill Dolan is an Austin-based theatre scholar whose work I found via my thesis, and in this book she writes on her idea of the “utopian performative”: moments of theatre when utopia pervades audience and performers alike. During this September binge, I also read Bluets by Maggie Nelson. I had been meaning to read her for a while now, and this was a deep dive into her amorous, confounding obsession with blue.
Diving’s apt here: these books were immersive. “We dive in and come up dripping,” once wrote the dance writer Deborah Jowitt. She was writing about getting lost in a dance, but I felt a similar sort of way with these three works of literature.
In Utopia in Performance, Dolan soaks you with her theatrical experience. She frames each chapter around a set of performances, drawing from Broadway (Def Jam Poetry, The Laramie Project), experimental dance (Ann Carlson’s Blanket), one-woman monologues (Peggy Shaw, Anna Deveare Smith), and more. Threads from performance studies, aesthetic philosophy, and dramaturgy all make appearances as Dolan writes about the “never finished gestures toward a potentially better future” the above productions made manifest.
The utopian performatives Dolan speaks of aren’t definite by any means. If anything, they’re ineffable – immediate slivers of feeling that don’t linger around to become “transhistorical or essentialist.” They’re the transportive journeys hundreds of strangers take at their local playhouse, in shared instances of heightened life.
Dolan suggests that these moments lay the conditions for social progress at a human scale, allowing individual theatregoers to radically envision better ways of living. “The performatives I’m engaging here aren’t iterations of what is,” she writes, “but transformative doings of what if.”
Bluets, to be honest, felt like assigned reading at first. I picked it up because I saw many people I admire reading it, and I don’t think I gave it the amount of attention I should have. It’s filled with spindly things that demand your whole self: color-tinted film clips, collections of blue objects, knotty philosophical tangents, generous scenes of intercourse.
It conjures a similar feeling to the utopian performative Dolan writes about. Reflecting on Bluets now, I dwell on one section glossing on “Divine Darkness.” Nelson quotes the theologian Dionysius of Areopagite: through “not-seeing and unknowing, we attain true vision and knowledge.” Like Dolan’s indescribable feeling of utopia, for Nelson, the experience of blue provides a similar, shimmering experience of the sublime.
Now. How to talk about Middlemarch. What do I talk about when I talk about Middlemarch, quoting it in random bits of conversation? To paraphrase its own words, endless vocatives would still leave me slipping helpless. It’s certainly a slow burn, running over eight hundred pages. But it blazes through it all with a stirring, scorching fire.
Middlemarch reads as if George Eliot wrote an entire Midlands community into existence. Eliot’s prose brims with typical Victorian abundance, but she – the reclusive author, Mary Ann Evans, wrote successfully under a male pen name – uses every ten dollar word to the fullest. The novel’s subtitle, “A Study of Provincial Life,” sums up her exploration of the institutions dominating small town life: namely, marriage and money.
That many of the novel’s central figures are in their early twenties is likely part of why I’m so moved by Middlemarch’s gravity. Characters are never really my focus when I read (I’m more of a plot and world-building fan), but I latched onto Middlemarch’s young protagonists. There’s the benevolent, idealistic Dorothea; the fresh-faced ambitious doctor Tertius Lydgate; solid, sensible Mary Garth; lilting Rosamond Vincy and her hapless brother Fred.
Middlemarch is an account of their ill-advised matrimonies, their mountains of debt, and their talks with disappointed parents. It’s about the bad decisions, the wandering eyes, the declarations of love, the many obstacles and joys within the realm of adulthood.
Despite being centuries old, Middlemarch resonated with my memories watching Korean dramas, teenage TV series (hi, Euphoria), and many narrative arcs depicting a tight-knit rural town. (I’ll mention that Middlemarch has received the BBC treatment as well as a modern day, gender-bent YouTube adaptation, both of which I’d like to check out!)
George Eliot even pulls off the paradox of making the ostensible villains deeply sympathetic. Casaubon, the tired scholar Dorothea rushes to marry, is given a dimension revealing his desperation for academic validation. The village banker, Mr. Bulstrode, grapples with the public’s “fabric of opinion” of him torn asunder by his past mistakes. John Mullan writes in LitHub that readers of Middlemarch are “made to realize that [they] are watching helplessly. The novel understands misunderstanding.”
With her omniscient, observant eye, Eliot created a novel for all phases of adult life. In a piece for The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead expresses her lifelong appreciation for the novel. For Mead, Middlemarch struck not only a chord, “but a symphony,” adding that as years pass, she continues to relish the novel’s “quiet celebration of the unremarkable” through the changing lenses of age.
Middlemarch unearths tremendous truths from its characters’ particular situations. I found myself ambushed by sentences that felt more like gut-punches:
“She even acted her own character, and so well that she did not know it to be precisely her own.”
“We are all humiliated by the sudden discovery of a fact which has existed very comfortably and perhaps been staring at us in private while we have been making up our world entirely without it.”
“This was a point on which even sympathy might make a wound.”
“Strange that some of us, with quick alternate vision, see beyond our infatuations, and even while we rave on the heights, behold the wide plain where our persistent self pauses and awaits us.”
(And less a gut-punch than a tickle:)
“It had already occurred to him that books were stuff, and that life was stupid.”
I lack the ability to express how important Middlemarch felt while reading it, the way its raw and incandescent power impacted me. And that might be what I take from finishing these books all together: recognizing when words need to get out of feeling’s way.
Near the end of the Middlemarch’s first act, Dorothea starts to imagine the stark contrast between her idea of Casaubon and who he really is. She begins
“to conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling–an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of object–that he had an equivalent centre of self whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.”
It’s a wonder, really, that authors can even evoke such intense feelings like the ones I had reading these three books. They catch the ephemeral “directness of sense,” the not-knowing of life, provoking visions within their words like water in cupped hands.
The theatre artist Herb Blau wrote that “live performance [is] watching the actor dying onstage.” A depressing thought, but weirdly inspiring, in a manic kind of way? Everyone’s dying – but hey, some perform! With autumn foliage in peak season, the tree leaves’ death swirls seem to dance with similar Shakespearean melodrama.
Earlier this month, I attended two shows that seemed to crinkle time up with their liveness. I saw my current favorite band, Twisted Pine, at the Brooklyn Jalopy, on a Tuesday the 3rd. Two days later, I went to the New School’s MFA production of Oliver Twist. Seeing performances always revives me, and I caught these in an exhausting week spent fighting random weather changes and a cold.
Twisted Pine is a string band my ears can’t get enough of: Spotify did its matchmaking, and now I listen to them at least five times a day. That is not an exaggeration.
It’s a supremely talented quartet, with mandolin (Dan Bui), fiddle (Kathleen Parks, also lead vocals), bass (Chris Sartori), and originally a guitar, but now a flute (Anh Phung). They sprinkle their brand of energetic bluegrass with delicious notes of jazz and pop. The first song I heard of theirs was a barnstorming take on Blondie’s new wave bop, “Heart of Glass,” if that gives any indication to what they sound like.
On the mic, Parks’ vocals flex in and out of rhythm, drawing melodic curlicues alongside her sharp, percussive fiddling. On mandolin, Dan Bui riffs up and down his fretboard with quick, intricate playing. Phung, the jazziest, keeps things spicy on flute with trills, accidentals, and funky harmonic resolutions, and Sartori stands out on bass, plucking out velvet runs as he sets the foundation for each song.
What I dwell on from their set at the Jalopy were the unexpected turns; moments only possible then and there. Most of Twisted Pine’s songs have jam breaks where a member features – their songs are chock-full of virtuosic solos. But live improvisation is phenomenal in every sense. For much of the night, they departed from any well-worn grooves.
During the steely “Don’t Come Over Tonight,” Parks brought in some intriguing pedal loops and reverb effects, at one point sounding more like alt rock than acoustic folk. The energy, the harmonies, and the choices they made entering songs they’ve undoubtedly played hundreds of times were so different from what my ears were used to that I barely recognized the opening chords to one of their original songs, “I Miss Talking.”
They ended with their cover of Bill Monroe’s “Kentucky Waltz” (winkingly done out of waltz time), undoubtedly one of my favorites of theirs. Listening to Sartori solo, I was mesmerized by his dense, driving riffs that lived in a groove miles above what’s on their record.
I’m used to this feeling of “performance surprise” with dance concerts – given my history seeing and performing dance, I clearly grasp a difference between screen dance and live dance. But listening to Spotify, a CD, or a vinyl, I rarely interrogate the experience of listening to what’s essentially “dead,” over-and-done sound. In the face of the outstanding musicianship by bands like Twisted Pine, files and play-counts die away. The only music that matters is living right then and there.
(Plus: the opener, Hannah Read, was also unbelievably talented, and performed a lovely set accompanying herself on both fiddle and guitar, and inviting her Scottish schoolmate to play saxophone. A very wholesome night all around!)
Two days later, my friend Bronwen invited me to The New School’s MFA production of Oliver Twist. I have a growing appetite for Victorian lit, but I’ve never read Oliver Twist, nor have I seen Oliver! (gasp.) For my first dive, The New School provided a solid immersion.
We walked into this show completely unprepared – we both had no idea it wasn’t a musical. (It was Neil Bartlett’s adaptation, originally premiered 2004. This production was directed by Melissa Maxwell.) Bronwen knew the stage manager and it was free so… why not, right?
The first indication for the kind of Oliver we were watching came early on. Right before Oliver’s iconic beg for “more, please,” a jarring noise railed out into the house. I couldn’t make out what it was – a gunshot? The clank of hulking machinery? (The sound design was by David Margolin Lawson, accompanied by spare but vivid lighting by Harry Feiner.) The shock of it primed us for Dickens’ unsettling narrative, its mystery only heightening any tension.
Oliver’s upbringing in a torturous orphanage, his escape to London, and his subsequent recruitment into a pickpocketing gang were enacted vividly by the young cast. Oliver was played with suitable tenderness by Hannah Adrian, and I especially enjoyed the comic semi-comic portrayal of the orphanage dictators, Mr. and Mrs. Bumble, by Billy Berger-Bailey and Yun-Chin Chang, respectively.
Whether by planning or necessity, many of the roles were gender-bent, prompting some perhaps unintended, but quietly appreciated, queer connotations. Caroline Hertz projected a distinct presence as the compassionate Mr. Brownlow, in a textured, deep-green suit (costumes designed by Grier Coleman).
This production used a peculiar vocal device for direct quotes from the novel. When reciting Dickens’ commentary, the cast spoke in pitched voices out to the audience. The effect resembled Gregorian chant, or maybe the breathy, run-on delivery of a preacher. Being raised Catholic, I found it creepily effective. It heightened those moments where Dickens decries the vices of human beings – suspicion, greed, deception, theft.
In Oliver Twist, thievery is everywhere. Mr. Fagin’s kids nab trinkets from Londoners, the Bumbles profit off the labor of orphans, and the lives of good people end abruptly. Oliver Twist is a dreadful portrait of one boy’s life in a world subject to the whims of scarcity and profiteering.
In one wrenching bit, a street-seller spins a bloody rumor into a sales pitch for stain cleaning fluid… Watching it, a viral Internet catchphrase came to mind: “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism.” The Marxist-tinged meme in no way encapsulates what Dickens does in Oliver Twist, but the association underlined the persistent relevance of this unflinching description of Victorian disparities.
The jolting clank rang out again later in the play, during a moment of hard-won softness. A bright flash froze the moment in place. Only then did I realize what I was hearing and seeing: the snap of an old, mechanical camera. It seemed to say that in our stolen time here on earth, we can still take our photographs, and our music, and our stories, along with us as we go on living and dying.
Happy September! It’s that time of year again: when the leaves start to change, the Pumpkin Spice Lattes come out, and I dredge up my blog from its inactive depths. 😉
This time around, I have a clearer goal in mind: I want to write about any shows, music, films, and performances that I get to experience each week. If I’ve met with you in person recently, I’ve probably mentioned this in conversation, trying to speak it into existence so I actually follow through this time.
I love gushing about good art. (Especially the performing arts!) On this blog, I’ve written about The Prom, Moby Dick, Fall For Dance, and others. If people ask me about a favorite musical, or song, or book, I ramble. I verbally spout. It does take me a bit to get past generic sighs of “OoOoh my God, right? It’s so gorgeous,” and dig into details. These blogs will hopefully help me practice doing that. They’ll be a natural extension of my Goodreads book reviews, if you’ve been following me there.
Many artists I know or follow have seasonal periods of huge output within their respective fields. Visual artists have Inktober, where they post a sketch per day. November is National Novel Writing Month for, uh, novelists. I am neither of those. (Aside: for choreographers, there is the lesser known NACHMO, or National Choreography Month, in January!)
In school, I learned that I like to read and write essays about things that I enjoy, so that’s what I do here. This won’t be a “post-a-day” kind of deal… more of a weekly thing, though if there’s a lot on my mind and I AM in the mood, well, I’m not gonna wait to get it out on here.
I hesitate to call this endeavor “criticism” project, if only for that term’s ickier connotations. My favorite critics, in their own, subjective ways, engage with a work of art to find its nuances, its provocations, its mystery spots. For me, the best criticism partners with what it’s talking about: sometimes it’s a pas de deux, sometimes a relay race, sometimes it is necessarily a duel. There’s a line by the writer Roland Barthes I hold in mind: “Remember that to criticize is to call into crisis.” The criticism on this blog will mostly stem from the crisis of me having a lot of feelings and a lot of thoughts about stuff.
A good performance, or book, or movie, etc., etches onto my brain and spawns countless thoughts, associations, and experiences. The dance writer Ann Daly wrote that criticism “is about sorting out the morass of perception into something orderly and interesting.” Gonna try and do that here. Wish me luck, Ann!!
I’m putting out these blogs as conversation-starters, too. I want to open up the internal conversation these works spark up for me to anyone who reads these, so please – comment or email or message if you have thoughts.
Nothing to write about at THIS very moment, but stay tuned 🙂 I’m finishing George Eliot’s great English novel Middlemarch, and Steph and I have Fall for Dance tickets! In the meantime, check out these articles I read last week that I loved:
“The Master and Form: Ballet is Not Bondage” by my friend Maya Weiss! Brilliant review of a problematic dance work, expertly situating it within a broader trend of objectification and power imbalance in ballet and concert dance.