Archive for April, 2012

Another Titanic night to remember

BY: AJ Sabatini 04.13.2012

Originally appeared in Broad Street Review

It was sad (so sad):
The night the Titanic went down, again


It was a night that we would remember, but the people in attendance would like to forget. Especially the hostess.

Dateline: Philadelphia, April 15, 1987. Party to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic in a loft near South Street. The invitations were embossed; the affair— as we found out— included a replication of the final night’s menu: oysters, consommé fermier, cock-a-leekie soup for first courses, a buffet with potted shrimps, round of spiced beef, corned ox tongue. A well stocked bar, champagne everywhere.

The loft was meticulously decorated for the occasion. In fact, the hostess was an artist working as a free-lance set designer and food stylist for local advertising companies. With her artist’s eye and attention to period detail, everything from the sculpted white drapery to cut glass clamshell ashtrays sparkled with the prim elegance of Edwardian First Class comfort.

Guests were invited to dress for dinner and, fully in the spirit, men wore black lapel buffed tuxedos and the women gracefully sipped cocktails in floor-length gowns, their hair coiffed (though the younger, cheekier women made themselves up with Betty Boop curls spiraling onto their cheeks). They swayed to recorded band music— and their dates, mostly what were then called yuppies— waved their ridiculously fat cigars in the air and, as guys unaccustomed to wearing tuxedos, were as puffed up as high schoolers at a prom.

A job audition

One couple actually didn’t receive a formal invitation. That would be my wife Merilyn Jackson and me. We met Lauren, the hostess, a week or so before at the home of a friend where we all drank wine and laughed, as we did a lot back then. She casually invited us to her Titanic party, and we said sure.

Now, some of our friends in those days used to refer us as the Arthur & Merilyn Show. No need to go into specifics, but antics were us. Had Lauren known us better, she might have thought twice about inviting us to what she had planned as a party to show the city’s hot, up-and-coming advertising people what she could do. This Titanic party would be her showcase. If things went well, one of these potential employers might offer her a job.

The party was slated for a Saturday night, and I spent the afternoon going to used clothing stores in search of a tuxedo, which I found for $5 by about 5 o’clock. I also picked up a pair of blue-and-grey striped, heavyweight engineer-style bib overalls, a comically large monkey wrench and a long, thick rope.

Merilyn, a beauty, rested, having already decided on a flapper chic black dress. Our imaginations, sad to say, reached Second-Class level, at best. But, then, what attracted us was the word party, not Titanic.

Water, water everywhere

By 8 p.m. or so, inspiration struck: This soiree was intended to celebrate a sunk ship, or water, water everywhere. So I filled up a few gallon containers with water and steadied them in the trunk of our unreliable chartreuse Fiat.

From Queen Village, Merilyn chauffeured us over to Kater Street, where I took the water out of the car while she parked. I dropped the bib overalls and monkey wrench– along with Deep Down in the Jungle..Negro Narrative Folklore From the Streets of Philadelphia (by the world famous Penn folklorist Roger Abrahams)– in the entranceway to the second story apartment.

From the street, it looked like a grand party was in progress. A neat young couple, dressed like movie extras, nodded to us on their way in. When the coast was clear, Merilyn slipped off her jacket, we tied the rope around my waist and she climbed, other end of the rope in hand, upstairs in her black teddy, as if the sinking ship had interrupted an intimate engagement somewhere above steerage but below the swells.

‘Where’s the dame?’

As we’d planned, Merilyn poured gallons of water over my head, soaking my second-hand tuxedo. As I trailed a few steps behind her, she burst into the party, squealing, “Help! Man Overboard,” while I, lay on my side in a puddle clutching the rope.

The hired mock maitre d’ at the top of the stairs, greeting everyone and finding their name cards, was the first one to widen his eyes in disbelief.

Moments later, dripping wet as a dog after a swim, I scrambled to my feet, shouting, “Where’s the dame? Where’s the dame?” as if completing the scenario whereby Merilyn and I had been rudely interrupted down below and I swept overboard.

It took only a few seconds for us to read the open mouths, turned heads and perturbed raised eyebrows as signs that joking still wasn’t the accepted tone when it came to the subject of what happened that night when the great ship went down.

African-American toast

But the umbrage from the cummerbunds and frowns from the gowns faded quickly and turned to laughter. Lauren greeted us and seemed amused, even if we had possibly sunk her career.

Merilyn quickly slipped back into her jacket and headed for the champagne and canapés.

I, always one to compound disaster with calamity, returned downstairs, picked up the book, bib overalls and monkey wrench, and retreated to the bathroom to change.

Grabbing a bottle of wine, I found a corner. When a few guests drifted over to applaud my role and ask about my costume change, I read aloud the African-American “toast,” Shine on the Titanic (quoted in Deep Down in the Jungle)

A “toast” is what we might call today a rap. It’s a satire based on a character named “Shine,” who supposedly worked in the Titanic’s engine room. Shine repeatedly tries to warn Captain Smith that the ship is sinking but is ignored. At one point he rhymes:

Shine went downstairs, he ate a piece of bread.
That’s when the water came above his head.
He said, “Captain, Captain, I was downstairs eating my bread
And the motherfuckin’ water came above my head.”
He said, “Shine, Shine, set your black self down.
I got 99 pumps to pump the water down.”

‘Let it sink’

Eventually, Shine realizes what’s going on and saves himself. The refrain, “and Shine swam on” in Shine’s euphemistic way of saying, “Let the ship and the people on it sink.”

So I sat with my book, wine and monkey wrench, toasting away in my best mock-Shine style. Lauren looked on from time to time to make sure there wasn’t a third act in our show.

So now it’s the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking and Merilyn and I have just one question: Is anyone out there planning a Titanic party this month?

Posted: Fri, Apr. 20, 2012, 5:09 PM
By Merilyn Jackson
                                       Benjamin Von Wong
Wen Wei Wang’s “Night Box” had its premiere Thursday.

In recent years Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal has changed mightily; since I last saw it in Philadelphia eight years ago, the company has replaced all but one of its members, Youri de Wilde. He returned, along with many new faces and some really great legs in the cast to dance the world premiere of Wen Wei Wang’s Night Box as well as Aszure Barton’s Les Chambres des Jacques at the Annenberg Center’s Dance Celebration series Thursday evening. And what crowd-pleasers they were.

Wang’s piece opens with a cluster of dancers, backs to us, isolating torsos, arms, and necks like figures in a video game. As a foggy-night cityscape looms above them in projection, they break into club dancing. One woman is picked to be held aloft, passed from man to man. The men dance in line, holding their hands open in front of their heads. Soon the women slide (which they do in several sequences, all wearing ankle socks) into the line; they fill the men’s empty hands with their heads and form a sort of conga line.

Breaking into couples, they slow-dance, the men languidly groping the women’s buttocks, the women responding by placing their hands up closer to shoulders. Kevin Delaney opens the men’s solos, and a crackling duet between James Gregg and Celine Cassone has her in death-dropping, face-down slides and arabesques; in one, Gregg holds her upraised leg in beautiful arched placement. In all, Night Box is a sexy, noirish dance.

Barton, a rising star in Canadian and U.S. dance with her own company, is well known to Philadelphia audiences, having been here at the Annenberg and at Swarthmore College in the past year, with her signature hit Blue Soup. Her 2006 Les Chambres features strong male solo work, little white flouncy skirts and corsets (by Anne-Marie Veevaete) for the women, and a terrific pastiche of music ranging from Vivaldi arias to the opening strains of Alberto Iglesias’ film score for Talk to Her.

Brett Taylor opened his solo in a square spot with some Irish clogging. Soon the other dancers filled other spots, each alone as in a closed room. Big ronde de jambe des tournees and deep plié kicks marked some of the men’s dances, which really got the best of Barton’s and the audience’s attention in this dance. Ultimately, I wished for a better-balanced program where one of the pieces was less episodic, more flowing.

for Broad Street Review
Mar 17, 2012

I don’t know why you’d call German a guttural language, especially when you hear it sung. Depending on the singer, it can be soft and lush like Polish, leering and lurid like English, or seductive and sexy like French.

A singer who captures all these nuances and thousands more is Max Raabe, whose burnished baritone voice veers on the oleaginous with its faux-obsequiousness and then slides into girlish sincerity. Raabe does this by sending the voice exactly where he wants it. Whether he stretches his lips into a large O to throw it to the roof and back of his mouth for a falsetto or relaxes his chin into his chest to drop it into a lower register, he brings it to light with elegant deliberation.

Sometimes Raabe pitches it into his sinuses so that it takes on a more sinister quality— read the silly-sounding word dunkel in German, for sinister. In this instance, dunkel would be a perfect English word for the quality that skirts the edge of the absurd and the contradictory senses underlying everything Raabe sings.

He appeared at the Merriam Theatre for one night only with his Palast Orchester, which was formed with Raabe in the 1980s and still includes many of the same musicians. I’d downloaded some of his songs on my iPod and owned some of his CDs and watched him on YouTube, but I’d never had the chance to see him in person until that night.

Courteous seduction

The experience was anachronistically transporting in the strangest way. Rather than bounding onstage like a vaudevillian or like a louche Weimar cabaret singer of the ’20s and ’30s from where many of his songs spring, Raabe seduced us with his calm intensity, elegance and faux-naif reticence. His pomaded hair, white satin bow tie, tails and patent leather shoes— even his gracile and courteous body nodding his temple away from us as he repairs to the piano to give the musicians some solo moments— all speak of a gentler time, before the unspeakable crimes committed in World War II.

Of course, Raabe carefully never allows any sort of hubris to allude to that grisly episode, as if he hoped time would have stopped while all this delicate and amusing music was popular. And in that suspension of disbelief he made us all complicit.

The wistful Küssen Kann Man Nicht Alleine (“One Cannot Kiss Alone”) is the name of his newest (and I think best) CD, written with the German songwriting sensation, Annette Humpe. Many of the songs that night came from that album.

A lover’s hurt

The title song is one of the best examples of how Raabe pits disparate ideas against one another to jar the listener. It conveys the deep hurt the lover feels when that second, most essential person has gone AWOL:

Kissing is a dual feat
I’m ready for the heat
I can sing alone
And I can break my own wishbone
On the couch with you, my sweet,
I’m ready for the heat.

With a cool hand, in both German and English, Raabe sings the sort of lilting songs that our grandparents danced to. In the end, these are almost all dance tunes. In bringing them back to our ears, I hope they find their way to our feet as well. They do find mine as I foxtrot, quick-step and paso doble around my living room alone.

Yes, you can dance alone. But how much better with a willing partner and a great kisser.

Intimate journey

As in the reading of a post-modern novel, intertextuality plays a role in that Raabe creates a level of ambiguity and reference to other times, songs and places, allowing the listener to bring his own interpretation to the lyrics and the presentation of each song. By the night’s bittersweet ending, you feel as if you have been on an intimate journey with Raabe and his band of co-conspirators, the old world/new sound charm of the Palast Orchester.

One of my favorite songs is Ich Küsse Irhe Hand, Madame, from 1928. Raabe and the Orchester didn’t play it that night, but it’s on a couple of his CDs and you can find it on YouTube by many crooners, including Raabe, and a wunderbar rendition by Richard Tauber in a clip with Marlene Dietrich from 1929.

Flirty and charismatic as only certain seven-year old boys can be, Raabe exudes an innocence dripping with teasing playfulness in songs like Ich Bin Nur Wegen Dir Hier (“I’m Only Here For Your Sake”) and In Geheimer Mission (“The Secret Mission”), the rollicking Doktor, Doktor and the devastatingly lovely Du Weisst Nichts Von Liebe (“You Know Nothing About Love”):

The greater the love, the higher the fall,
Final collision is the fight for the sofa.

Now, what could that mean?

Tomorrow’s generation

You don’t need to know much German to catch the meaning in some songs, as in Crisis:

Hallo, Guten Tag, Mein Name ist Krise,” Crisis says when he knocks on your door.

Raabe’s and Humpe’s Lullabye is one I’m learning to sing to my seven-year-old charmer.

Swarms of birds in evening light play tag high in the skies.
Mama Gnu sings baby gnu old bedtime lullabies.
Sun has wandered far to Timbuktu.
Close your eyes so dreams may come to you;
Venus watches over us from outer space;
The moon stares down in disbelief at all that is taking place.
The ocean’s full of tired fish, the squids have gone to bed,
A whale blows bubbles from behind and suddenly turns red.

I think he’ll get it.

One more reason to move to Arizona

for Broad Street Review
Posted: 3/10/12

In Warsaw 12 years ago I attended an afternoon concert and afterward dashed across the square to the Teatr Wielki to see if I could get into a Nijinsky Gala on just that one night. The box office was closed, but I stuffed 20-zloty notes into the pockets of two apple-cheeked ushers— “For piwo (beer),” I explained— and they sneaked me in.

The choreographer Emil Wesolowski’s fabulous reconstruction of Nijinsky’s Jeux was just beginning, with Slawomir Wozniak Sr. dancing lead. After Wesolowski’s over-the-top Rite of Spring, I went backstage to meet him.

When each of us exhausted our respective supplies of Polish and English, Wesolowski took me to Wozniak’s dressing room. Still in his dance belt, Wozniak became our interlocutor. Upon hearing his excellent English, I asked if he’d been to the States.

“Oh, every year I go to dance Nutcracker in some place called Phoenix,” he replied.

When I laughed, he asked archly, “I said something funny?”

Oczywiscie (of course),” I explained. “I have a home in Phoenix where my husband teaches, but we’re never there over Nutcracker season.”

The dance world can be as small as it’s grand. Wozniak eventually moved to Phoenix permanently and now is the director of its Master Ballet Academy, where the recent Bolshoi defector David Hallberg trained as a youngster. Wozniak’s sons, now entering their 20s, are dancing with Ballet Arizona.

Sneaking in, again

Now fast-forward 12 years. I was flying from Philadelphia to Phoenix a few weeks ago, planning to see the Trisha Brown Dance Company at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts and hoping to see works by Will Bond and Michael O’Connor in Phoenix as well. I’d also hoped to pop in on David Krensing, the former Pennsylvania Ballet principal, who now lives in Tucson but teaches at Ballet Arizona on alternate Saturdays.

But once seated on the plane, when I picked up US Airways Magazine, it opened to a page about Ballet Arizona and its director, Ib Andersen. Lucky me. That weekend Ballet Arizona was dancing Sleeping Beauty, and I immediately changed my plans so I could catch the last show at 5:30 Sunday night.

Yes, Phoenix is still a sleepy town, with just about everything happening an hour or two earlier than we Eastern folks are accustomed to. The State of Arizona was celebrating its 100th anniversary— that is, it’s been around as long as Sleeping Beauty slept.

At the box office, I introduced myself and asked if they could get me in. Once inside, I went to the bank of dancers’ photos to see who was new and whom I might remember from years past. I was happy to see Paola Hartley was still there, dancing that night as Fairy of the Enchanted Garden with her Cavalier, Zherlin Ndudi. The great Astrit Zejnati was still there too.

Familiar faces

I found many new faces since I’d last seen Ballet Arizona. But Ilir Shtylla, an Albanian (like Zejnati) who first danced at Pennsylvania Ballet when he came to the States in 1999, has been with Ballet Arizona since 2003. So the Ballet Arizona boasts a strong core that upholds its institutional memory while bringing in fresh and hungry young upstarts as well.

As I pored over the photos, it was déjà vu all over again as I caught the young faces of two such young upstarts: Michal and Slawomir Wozniak, sons of the dancer I’d met in Warsaw.

In Sleeping Beauty, they performed several roles, with Michal dancing Bluebird the night I saw it, to thrilling heights in his jêtés, but also as an equally thrilling stage presence. The brothers alternated in the Bluebird role on different nights.

It was one of those unforgettable nights in the theater. The newly refurbished Phoenix Symphony Hall’s fantastic acoustics perfectly caught the conductor Timothy Russell’s sparkling reading of the Tchaikovsky score. The sumptuous sets (which filled the huge stage) and costumes were borrowed from the Boston Ballet, via the Royal Ballet circa 1970. The house was almost sold out, with many yummy little girls in gumdrop-like outfits on display.

In a big, story ballet like Sleeping Beauty, all 34 of Ballet Arizona’s dancers had roles. But best of all was Ib Andersen’s faithful yet fresh interpretation of the original 1890 Marius Petipa choreography.

From Taiwan, via Pennsylvania

It’s in the big ballets that Andersen’s light touch and meticulous attention to detail really shine. Even at over two and a half hours (minus intermission), Andersen’s Beauty never put anyone to sleep (other than the court on stage).

On my program, Natalia Magnicaballi, who’s been with Ballet Arizona since 2002, danced the Lilac Fairy and Shtylla played her Cavalier. The exquisite Taiwanese and Pennsylvania-trained Tzu-Chia Huang took command of the stage as Princess Aurora. In Act II, a century later (well, it seemed that way, waiting for him), Zejnati finally appeared as Prince Désiré (yes, can you take the subtlety?).

Zejnati’s pas de trois with Magnicaballi and Huang, after he kisses her awake, gave a taste of the glory to come in his grand pas de deux with Huang. There, his footwork and strength as a leaper contrasted with Huang’s unutterable delicacy and poise. The Wozniak brothers acquitted themselves like true Slavs in the Polonaise/Mazurka finale. I hope I’ll be lucky enough to follow their careers for many years, whether in the East or the West.



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