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Finding my voice at poetry camp

BY: Merilyn Jackson 07.17.2012

Tom Lux— aka the Wrecking Ball— plowed over my lines.

Suck in that iambic pentameter! Or:
Notes from summer poetry boot camp

I’ve written poetry since I was a kid— not much of it very good, but I wrote it as best I could. In the ‘70s I took poetry classes and attended readings with my professor. At the original Painted Bride on South Street one June night, I met AJ Sabatini reading his poetry.

Six weeks later I broke my husband’s heart (and my professor’s) by moving in with Sabatini. Together we read poetry by Plath, Stevens and Williams, and passages from Finnegans Wake, in varying cadences to each other as foreplay. We didn’t have a TV.

Almost everyone we knew then wrote, composed or choreographed— all language forms that demand attention, interpretation, parsing and translation.

There was Jack, Maralyn, Patience, Jett, Annson, Karen and Joseph. Steve Berg, who had just started the American Poetry Review, left his shoeprints on our wall one night during an impromptu party we threw after an APR-sponsored reading by Robert Bly. Bly left a more impersonal ring on our end table from his icy glass. Unlike the wall, the table— with its cloudy nimbus moon in full eclipse— has traveled with us throughout the years.

Veiled eroticism

Some time ago, I became a little bored with writing arts criticism and began “raiding” old poems for good lines that refreshed my dance writing. Soon I was writing more and more poetry— mostly what you’d call arch-romantic stuff filled with lightly veiled eroticism. I confess I am a tease.

This year I applied to three summer poetry-writing workshops and was accepted to all three. I chose Colgate and Sarah Lawrence, since both gave me some scholarship funding. I just got back, after working with Peter Balakian at Colgate and Tom Lux at Sarah Lawrence.

I have just one question: Why didn’t I do this 30 years ago?

Colgate’s campus in upstate New York is art-gallery print beautiful. The college sits on a hill that seems a 90-degree angle when you climb it in 90-degree heat. The town of Hamilton is a 15-minute walk from the foot of its slope. And that’s about it if you’re without wheels. If you’re there for only a week there’s enough to explore on foot.

Emboldened by drink

But you find little time for sightseeing at a writing workshop. Matt Leone, who has run Colgate’s summer writing program for ten years, wedges in more talks, readings and social gatherings than a day can hold. It’s all you can do to steal an hour or two for writing.

Most of the faculty are published authors— Balakian, J. Robert Lennon, Dana Spiotta and Bruce Smith— who grew up in Philadelphia and got my Philly Girl ’tude as if we were cousins. Participants chatted with them after their readings and talks. Among the pithiest readers were Lennon— whose book of flash fiction, Pieces for the Left Hand, I gobbled at the beach in one afternoon last week— and Smith, whose Devotions are still wending homeward via the mail.

They also comprised a generous audience for the student readings each afternoon and again late into the evenings, when drinks emboldened us. These readings ranged from drab to dazzling, ho-hum to outrageous. Best of all, I got my first opportunity to read my work to an audience.

Finding my voice

Some of my fellow workshoppers weren’t sure my poems read well on the page. But when I stood up and said, “I don’t need no stinkin’ podium” and plowed into the crowd, performing my poems, they got it. I had never read to an audience before, but the minute the floor didn’t open up and swallow me, I knew I owned it. I had a voice, a pretty good one; I just had to find better ways to translate its tonalities from the stage to the page.

The workshops with Balakian had a warm and fuzzy quality, tentative and blanketed in political correctness and politesse. Balakian has a delicious international sidekick in Ioanna Karatzaferi, the Greek-born and part-time Manhattanite author and translator of more than 50 books in Greek. I had the pleasure of riding the six-hour bus to New York with her on my way down to Sarah Lawrence. I learned as much in those six hours as I did in the previous six days.

Ioanna and I shared common past adventures in political activism: she for Greek democracy, I for a free Poland. Each of us understood that meant we were working for people to be free to fuck up or succeed— their choice. By the end of the bus ride I reached the conclusion— which I think Ioanna supported— that I should follow my heart as well as my intellect in my poetic choices. That is, I should let the poems find their audiences instead of changing them to please less passionate, less nuanced readers.

Confronting the ‘Wrecking Ball’

Sarah Lawrence, just north of New York City, is more like jumping out of the print into a live, micro-version of Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill. Very tony. Its much less sprawling campus put our living quarters within a two-minute walk of the dining hall and most of our workshops and events.

Here on Sunday afternoon the poet Tom Lux, who designed and founded the Sarah Lawrence workshop 19 years ago, sat in wait for our group of 11 on a large round table. We jumped right in with no introduction.

Lux— whom I dubbed The Wrecking Ball— was fiercely devoted to the cause, the sound and the meaning of poetry. He plowed over each of our lines, questioning our choices; then, after demolishing them, he assured us that as poets we are the final arbiters. We were left to pick up the pieces and rebuild our work then, as best we could.

You could sign up for as many one-on-one conferences with other instructors as you could squeeze in. Each of Lux’s workshop participants got almost a couple of hours of his time– that made for about 20 hours out of a week that immersed us all for 12 hours a day in wrenching, hard-driving poetry-talk.

During my freewheeling one-on-one with Lux, I pulled an old poem out of the pile at random. A short one, I figured, and one that had already been published. Lux immediately liked the title, “It makes you want to find out,” he said.

My original read:

How You Warriors Came to Farm

Hearth embers singe the soles of my feet.
My hair, ashen, tangles in the treetops.
I turn my back to you.

To you, it is the steppes of Georgia.
You, Cossack, gouge furrows
Spew seed.

The bruised land yields up
unending riches:
The groans of Eve,
a loamy perfume —
so dark and hard to chew,
your eye must soften it
with salty tears.

Lux didn’t get that this poem is about a certain kind of sex (like pretty much all of my poems). Both he and another reader thought I should drop the last line. So I tried this version:

How You Warriors Came to Farm

Hearth embers singe the soles of my feet.
My hair, ashen, tangles in the treetops.
I turn my back to you.

To you, it is the steppes of Georgia.
You, Cossack, gouge furrows
along my ribs, spur your seed deep.

The bruised land yields up
unending riches:
The groans of Eve,
a loamy perfume —
so dark and hard to chew,
your eye must soften it.

What was the point of this exercise (not to mention the point of attending poetry camps)? The late Nobel laureate poet Wisława Szymborska, one of my favorites, sometimes wonders who reads poetry. Many poets tackle the subject. So here’s my attempt:

The Efficacy of Poetry

What the fuck’s it for —
poetry – anyway?
It doesn’t give back what was yours.
It doesn’t pick you up from all fours.

When we need it most:
Funerals, the end of love affairs,
the birth of a child,
the cresting of delphiniums
the blistering of desert heat —
does it deaden pain,
mollify our fear of the unspeakable
breathing of cheeses?
(Not to speak of drying your tears.)

Or these tears, cracking laughter,
triangles of reference,
The Finger of God,
chitchat on that porch,
and that halleluwhat?

What is poetry for?
Does it give us closure?
What a conceit!
Who came up with that?
I’d like to stick his hand down
my garbage disposal
before he writes his next.

The only closure is death.

And everything between birth and death

— poetry.

Five poems by Merilyn Jackson were published this year in Andrei Codrescu’s Exquisite Corpse. To read them, click here.


Posted: Sat, May. 19, 2012, 3:00 AM
By Merilyn Jackson

You could sum up the work of the genius stagecrafter and choreographer Moses Pendleton by saying he exceeds the influence of such peers as Alwin Nikolais, Elizabeth Streb, Mummenschanz, and Pilobolus, the now-41-year-old company he cofounded, then left in 1983 to form MOMIX. His inventiveness and artistry far surpass the popular Cirque du Soleil.

A Dance Celebration favorite, MOMIX opened at the Annenberg Center on Thursday night to a nearly full house with its show “reMIX.” Instead of one of his evening-length works, Pendleton offered an exotic caravan of pieces — some new, some familiar — that drew oohs, aahs, and scatterings of applause throughout.

I’d love to be able to see into Pendleton’s dreams just one night, but dreams alone don’t make theater like this. It needs imagination, an understanding of the laws of physics — inertia, centrifugal force, gravity, weight, velocity — and the grit to work out the precision timing that keeps his dancers safe, all of which someone like Streb employs with ease. But like Nikolais, Pendleton brings beauty, mystery, emotion, and uproarious fun to the table, too.

In his and Karl Baumann’s piece TableTalk, Steven Marshall, a phenomenal gymnastic dancer who performed in many of the works, splays his arms out and, with head below the rim of the table, draws us in with a powerful rippling of his shoulder muscles. He proceeds through every possible permutation of stance until finally he twirls the table on his back and carries it off.

In Tuu, with Rebecca Rasmussen, he holds and lifts her, with every press of the feet, lean of the body, fall, timed to perfection. In Dream Catcher with Cara Seymour, he commands a giant elliptically designed gyroscope, which the two pivot and swing around on in dangerous-looking variations.

Two dances by the company’s women endeared with sensuality and wit: In Marigolds, Phoebe Katzin’s fabulous orange frills enfolded the women and allowed them to shimmy the dresses down their bodies till they were rumba-like sheaths. Baths of Caracalla, by the same five women, now in white by Katzin, harked all the way back to Loie Fuller, with the women rippling their white skirts like bath towels, flags, or clouds.

Sputnik and Pole Dance were magnificent spectacles, using poles for balancing, vaulting, and flying, that Philadelphia choreographer Brian Sanders had a hand in contriving.

By the concert’s end the ethereal, Asian-inspired ambient sound and lounge music grew tedious — my only complaint — so it was a great relief in the last piece, If You Need Some Body, to hear Bach, which I normally hate for dance. It made a perfect foil for the ebullient silliness of the company of 10 partnered by floppy dummies that ended up flying joyfully from dancer to dancer.

Posted: Sun, May. 6, 2012, 4:56 PM
By Merilyn Jackson

The threesome who compose the Headlong Dance Theater brought tales of their early, communal living arrangement as well as baskets full of onions to the Performance Garage. The artists have a knack for finding meaning in small things.J.J. TIZIOUR /

After years of making more conceptual work and implementing teaching projects, the triumvirate that makes up Headlong Dance Theater — Amy Smith, David Brick, and Andrew Simonet — came together again over the weekend at the Performance Garage to dance. Their new work, directed by Swarthmore College professor K. Elizabeth Stevens, is called Desire. For what, it doesn’t say. But all it made me want to do was cry.

It was all about onions, you see. There were four huge laundry hampers full of big, juicy golden onions that pretty soon got dumped, rolling all over the stage for these actor/dancers to mash pell-mell with their bare feet — and bodies, too, once the juices started oozing and they slipped on them.

There was a microphone to one side of the stage where Smith recounted anecdotes about their early, idealistic days together. Brick and Simonet also took turns at the mic, and it was as though three siblings were telling versions of their cildhood.

They lived communally, two of them as vegans envying Brick his coffees’ real half-and-half over their soy version. They shared clothes — three pairs of shorts among them — as they sprinkled onion seeds down the rows Brick had sown. Once they graduated from Wesleyan, they migrated to Philly. Here, they sowed seeds for new kinds of dance.

What endears the Headlongers to everyone is how they take small bits of life and turn them into something meaningful, familiar, sometimes a little sinister. Masters at juxtaposing melancholy texts with nostalgic music and goofy dancing, they jut out their legs and wiggle their arms in opposite directions in simpleminded steps. They drop behind one another, gently aping the other until the one who’s being aped peels away.

In one part, a song relays that it’s a “custom to dance after funerals. We like to waltz,” and the three take turns waltzing among the crushed onions, managing to sidestep each one. They know how to lead an audience to focus on several aspects of their theater-making all at once.

The set and lighting were by Thom Weaver — three boxes sided with fabric that represent tents. Each of the dancers emerges from his or her individual spaces or retreats to them. Simonet comes out on all fours in an animal head, and later so does Brick as a unicorn. We all know they’re mythical, so is he telling us not to believe what we’ve heard and seen?

Each of them (literally or figuratively) peeled away an onion at various times throughout the show — a kind of search to find the center of meaning, the kernel of truth in who we are. Of course, an onion has no center, so it makes a good metaphor for life and all the things we do as we journey through it.

And that could make you smile through your tears.

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Watch sports videos you won’t find anywhere else

Posted: Fri, May. 4, 2012, 9:37 PM
By Merilyn Jackson

In J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the boy was dressed in leaves, as perhaps was Pan, the Greek god of nature whom Barrie had in mind. When Pennsylvania Ballet gave the ballet Peter Pan its Philadelphia premiere Thursday night at the Academy of Music with Alexander Peters as the boy from Neverland, his sprightly body was not clad in leaves, but scantily enough in shorts and straps around his chest to suggest a ruffian from the wilds.

The Oregon Ballet originally commissioned choreographer Trey McIntyre to create this Peter Pan, his first full-length ballet, but funding problems caused him to set the work on the Houston Ballet in 2002. Though he came to Philadelphia to polish his gem on this company, there were still some rough edges opening night.

The flying sequences, in which Wendy (Evelyn Kocak), John (Jonathan Stiles), and Michael (Abigail Mentzer) take off with Peter, had to be rehearsed in another theater until two days before the first performance. Pan was also the god of theater criticism, so I think he might have forgiven the slight scenery malfunctions and occasional missteps when dancers could not always find their places.

As delightful as he was aerially, the young Alexander Peters was not up to par partnering a taller Kocak. In one horizontal slide, he thudded rather than slid her; later, Kocak, with Zachary Hench as Hook, performed the slide perfectly.

With her striking, sophisticated looks, Amy Aldridge — who rose from apprentice in 1994 to principal in 2001 and is a senior company member — struck me as poor casting for Tinkerbell. However, she appeared only once, briefly, and then was represented by a flickering light. (McIntyre did not include one of the most endearing sections for young audiences — for many their first audience-participation experience — when Tink is poisoned and they have to clap her back to life.)

The great story ballets — Firebird, Spartacus, Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet — link generations across time with upswept melodic themes that weave throughout, signaling plot changes. The humorless hodgepodge score of Sir Edward Elgar’s music, arranged by Niel DePonte, was the slightest, most unmagical element of the ballet.

Nevertheless, there was plenty of magic inside the gorgeous “Grand Old Lady of Locust Street” Thursday night. Hench as Hook was commanding, the huge crocodile grouchily hungry. And wonderful group dances among the Shadows, Redskins, Pirates, Lost Boys, and Mermaids — where soon-to-retire Arantxa Ochoa does a comic turn — save this darkly imagined Peter Pan. You’ll live forever in our hearts, Peter.

Posted: Fri, Apr. 27, 2012, 2:08 PM
By Merilyn Jackson

What modern choreographer doesn’t want to sink his teeth into making a new Bolero? Sure, everybody’s done it. But Roni Koresh really made a quirky new one for Koresh Dance Company’s spring opener Thursday night at its home base, the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. Koresh titled the evening’s four works “Out/Line,” which also was the name of the first of three world premieres on the bill.

But it was his fresh take on Bolero that outshone all the other works. Bronislawa Nijinska choreographed the first Bolero, which was commissioned by Ida Rubenstein in 1928. Nijinska set it in a tavern, where Rubenstein danced on tabletop. But composer Maurice Ravel had envisioned the work in a factorylike setting, because its rhythms sounded mechanically driven. Koresh boldly strayed from the usual sensual, even erotic renditions, taking his cue from Ravel’s original vision and adding lots of humorous notes. His sensational dancers even smiled while dancing it, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a smiling Bolero before.

There were some signature Koresh gestures throughout: splayed fingers, shaky hands, elbows up, clasped hands, and eyes raised to heaven. But they seemed there as a grounding sign, a cheeky reminder that, hey, this is fun, seriously.

Mechanistically, sometimes even militaristically, the dancers emerge from the black background to the harshly lit (by Robb Anderson) foreground in solos, pairs, and trios, with, eventually, the full company, and then disappear in groups back into the black. Their chic black costumes were by Bela Shehu.

Koresh varies several simple step combinations, mostly walking-based, using them like the music, to build the sensation of the dance. Joe Cotler, Micah Geyer, and Eric Bean are the current male lineup in the now-21-year-old company and, as usual, they carry the load of partnering, though there is no heavy lifting. Here they bend forward, hands on the floor, swinging their legs behind them from side to side. They make wide-open giant steps and when the charming social dancing begins, the women partner and lead each other. Everyone waits for the final falling crescendo of the music, but Koresh adds a teensy coda note with one dancer in a spot, just for laughs.

Out/Line was the evening’s weakest piece, not only for its loud, pointlessly boring music, but also for its relentlessly pugilistic, martial-arts look and length.

The Heart had many moments of sweet appeal, but these long, episodic works are really wearing thin. Who wants to nibble at a gallimaufry of cold scraps when you can feast at a fully conceived and realized banquet like Koresh’s Bolero?

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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