Archive | August, 2009

HOLOCAUST MUSEUM REACHES OUTWARD

24 Aug

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By JOHN DeMERS

More than 15 years ago, during a visit to the profound and unexpectedly beautiful city of Jerusalem, I was caught off guard by the amount of hope I suddenly felt for future relations among Muslims, Christians and Jews. There’s just something about the place that news reports of suicide bombings can’t communicate, something about its unique position as holy city to the Western World’s three great religious traditions, that makes the prospects of peace so, well, obvious.

Make no mistake: all these years later, the prospects are still obvious. Yet even after one or more important peace accords, most days the reality of peace anywhere near Jerusalem, Israel and the Middle East seems as far-fetched a concept as ever before. And that despite the fact that the root word for peace in both Hebrew and Arabic forms slightly more than the second half of Jerusalem’s name. You know, as in shalom.

Right now, though, the invitation to give peace a chance – borrowing a phrase from the late ’60s and early ‘70s – is not only real in Jerusalem but in Houston as well, thanks to our city’s own Holocaust Museum. Two different temporary exhibits in the Museum District focus on contributions to the welfare and understanding of Jews by the two other faiths. The combined impact is remarkable.

As the name implies, a Holocaust Museum anywhere is about a core act of modern Jewish life, remembering the lives lost (and though this can get awfully political) the lessons learned from the extermination of millions of Jews by the Nazis throughout the 1930s and 1940s. While this sometimes militant remembrance is fitting, considering the depth of loss involved, it does have a way of setting Jews apart, even in their own lifelong communities such as Houston. As long as the Holocaust is something “that happened to us,” it is something that didn’t happen to “them.” And as long as everybody else is “them” and nothing more, not much progress seems to be possible. That’s what makes these two temporary exhibits so important. And so powerful.

Opening Aug. 28, the exhibit called “A Blessing to One Another” focuses on the legacy left by Pope John Paul II in his relationship with the Jewish people. Over the two millennia that came before John Paul II, Catholic Popes didn’t usually win any humanitarian awards for their treatment of Jews or their quasi-theological statements about their role (or non-role) in salvation history. This Polish Pope shattered all that. In his 1993 appeal marking the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto, he alluded powerfully to the shared kinship of Christians and Jews (along with Muslims!) as children of the biblical prophet Abraham, and he called for both faiths to “first be a blessing to one another.”

Gathered around this first-ever Pontiff since the first century to enter a synagogue, officially visit and recognize the State of Israel and formally express regret for the Catholic Church’s past treatment of Jewish people, “A Blessing to One Another “draws together about 70 artifacts on loan from 10 museums and private collections. It runs through Jan. 3.

If seeing Christians reach out to Jews is, for many, unexpected enough, in today’s political climate it seems even more so to see Muslims doing it. Yet that’s what we see in the exhibit called “Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews During the Holocaust,” on view through Feb. 7. In a five-year project, Colorado-based photographer Norman Gershman set out to gather the names of righteous non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust, and the names he found kept pointing him to Albania.

It was there, among largely ignored pockets of resistance to the Nazis, that nearly no Jewish lives were lost. According to the Muslim survivors and their descendants that Gershman photographed, the explanation that kept coming up was “Besa,” the deeply rooted code of honor that was incorporated into Albania’s version of Islam. As the photographer puts it: “There was no government conspiracy, no underground railroad, no organized resistance of any kind – only individual Albanians, acting alone, to save the lives of people whose lives were in immediate danger.”

Over the past 2,000 years or so, it’s a safe bet that individuals have always led the way in such efforts to just be humans under God in the same space.  The “peace” half-hidden in the name Jerusalem is a painful reminder that our governments have only rarely lived up to those efforts.

Photo from ‘Besa’ Exhibition

RAW: Three Artists

24 Aug

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RAW: Doug Cason, Mark Greenwalt and Lisa Qualls

Formalism reigns supreme in RAW, a three person show opening at the
University of Houston’s O’Kane Gallery (Downtown campus) August 27
through September 25 (reception: Thursday, August 27, 6-8 pm).
With an emphasis on classical technique these three Houston-based
artists combine symbolic metaphor with beautifully rendered pictorial
compositions that comment on modernity itself. Doug Casen brings a
lyrical eye to traditionally pedagogical content in his surrealist
creations based on various historical texts, literally and
figuratively. Mark Greenwalt derives his ideas from similar research
creating chimeras of fanciful imaginings with traditionally based
underpinnings that reference canonical sources based in art and
medicine. Lisa Qualls’ work explores cultural tropes and commonly held
stereotypes through a sensitive and practiced hand. Her works on Mylar
often read as stereoscopes creating a multifaceted interpretation of
societies assumptions on race, class and gender. – Garland Fielder

THE ANTHOLOGIST – A Book Review

24 Aug

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THE ANTHOLOGIST by Nicholson Baker. Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $25.00

By NEIL ELLIS ORTS

Some years ago, I was in the presence of two accomplished poets. I was at the beginning of my appreciation for poetry, so I listened carefully. One referenced a third, absent poet and said, “She writes in rhyme! No one writes in rhyme anymore!” I said nothing but thought: No wonder no one reads poetry anymore. The first thing the average person thinks of when they think of poetry, even in this postmodern age, is rhyme.

This conversation came to mind as I read Nicholson Baker’s latest novel, The Anthologist. Baker’s narrator, Paul Chowder, passionately, painstakingly, humorously tells us “everything I know about poetry.”

What Chowder knows is that rhyme and a four-beat line is the natural form for poetry written in English, and will use everyone from Rudyard Kipling to Ludacris to prove it. He even shows how some poems have a rest (or a “BOOM!”), an implied fourth beat on an otherwise three-beat line.

While much humor comes from Chowder’s analysis (which is nonetheless compelling), more comes from his procrastination. He has compiled an anthology of poems entitled Only Rhyme. The book is at the publisher, all ready to go save Chowder’s introduction to the volume and he can’t quite manage to write it. The introduction, in fact, is ruining his life. The writer’s block is causing him financial hardship. It has cost him his long-term, live-in girlfriend, Roz. It is making him a little crazy.

Can he make his case for rhyming poetry, and keep the respect of his academic friends? Can he acknowledge the existence of very fine non-rhyming poems—which he prefers to call “plums”—without weakening his argument? And if he finishes his introduction, will Roz move back in with him?

That third question is really the plot of the novel. Chowder is nothing if not lovesick and brokenhearted over Roz. When he isn’t analyzing poetry, he is emotionally thirteen years old, trying to win his girl, either by impressing her—finishing the introduction—or by gaining her pity—when he seriously hurts his hand, he calls her to help him bandage it up.

Baker’s genius in constructing Chowder is the complexity of his feelings for both poetry and Roz. On the one hand, he is involved in an esoteric endeavor—poetry—that in another age might have won him celebrity status. (He wonders if someday TV scripts for Friends will be more closely studied than twentieth century poetry). On the other, he has to pursue a love he once understood to be the stabilizing influence on his life. In between, we see Chowder’s world in all it’s absurdity and brilliance.

Ultimately, The Anthologist is an erudite, quirky love story, subtly revealing the ways we compensate for the desires we can’t fulfill—and essential reading for everyone who thinks poetry should no longer rhyme.

SUBCULTURE FAME – A Review

24 Aug

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By STACEY HOLZER

A few unlikely places found me this week in exploration of art and subculture.   At my first stop, the Roller Derby Championship, the Burlesque Brawlers took on the Spindletop Rollergirls.  Next up a tour of graffiti art that ended in a dialogue with Slokeone near a wall on Crawford and Elgin.  

What these two have in common is a subculture that reinvents itself by renaming its participants in a quest for fame.  Rollergirls with names like Prozac Princess and Claudia Van Damage succumbed to Death by Chocolate.   A visual experiment that brings out the rough, sexy, woman in all, this too in a city where one can experience fine dining within just a few blocks.  

The morning after, I met up with Slokeone – the leader of the pack, so to speak or at least the leader of what has become a statewide tour of graffitti art with artists travelling from all over the country to participate.  Graffitti art is from the street and in a conversation    with Slokeone, he shared his experience.  From the street without much, Slokeone discovered the hidden intrigue of dressing incognito, sneaking out into the night and creating a “piece”

It’s all about the letters and your name, over time the goal becomes to gain can control, keep clean lines, and make the piece an expression of who he was, taking it all city.   “Piece” is short for masterpiece. The image has to look impeccable from wherever you stand.  A place is staked out and sought after for location, activity in the area and image.    His work has no gang affiliation and he realizes this is vandalism if done illegally but it is still an art form, from the street, and has become for Slokeone a stepping stone to life as a positive mentor for kids with nothing else.  

After getting caught and getting older, Slokeone used his experience and his love of art to begin exhibiting his work in galleries, organizing a tour, and teaching young people there is another outlet of expression.    Touring the country Slokeone has had the opportunity to paint in many cities.  From that experience he developed a realization that his work shares a common element with more formally trained visual artists. The fade, highlighting, color play and dimension are aspects of every quality “piece” that goes up.  Ultimately a quest for recognition is what motivates graffiti art. 

For a person who is generally misunderstood or ignored by society, Slokeone is the first to give credit to the communities he empowers, the artists he works with, and God.   Overall he has done more to raise awareness and provide disadvantaged communities with a positive form of expression than many I know with more resources and connections.  Hats off to Slokeone and his krew for taking art, passing it on where many said there was no way to do so.   Graffitti art from the Pieced Together 09 tour can be viewed www.flickr.com/piecedtogether09 or visit Aerosol Warfare at 2110 Jefferson Ste 113 Houston, TX 77003 (713) 503-5714.talk to Gonzo. Read more about Contemporary art and Public sculpture at www.visualseen.net

MY DATE WITH JULIA CHILD

15 Aug

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By JOHN DeMERS

It took six weeks of planning, plus the purchase of an air ticket and the reservation of a hotel room, for me to stand at a certain front door in a posh oceanfront development outside Santa Barbara – and knock. I’d already had to talk my way past a guard for the gated community, but the biggest challenge to my gift of the gab was still to come.

“Oh hull-oo,” said the familiar voice from somewhere above my head. It was a friendly voice, but non-committal, you might say “professionally friendly.” Indeed, I did let my eyes wander north a bit, till they found the face that launched a thousand PBS telethons. Julia Child was standing at that door, in a simple, casual pants suit, with little or possibly no makeup, and her hair barely brushed to face the morning. 

The time was the mid-1980s, and I was food editor of United Press International. I’d traveled cross-country at considerable expense to interview Julia (as everyone called her from the start) for an extensive feature in a series known as Lifesize. God only knows how many publicists had put their heads together on this one. But in the end, it was only me standing at the door, babbling something that included my name, my affiliation and my appointment day and time. 

“I’m so very sorry,” Julia said. “I suppose this was all set up correctly, but I had to have knee surgery yesterday. And as you can imagine, I don’t quite feel my best today. I think you’d be much happier with our interview if you came back another day.” 

A thousand angry faces flashed through my mind, all of them belonging to the feature editor of UPI, a woman not known for compassion. I babbled a bit more, I don’t recall what: about flying to Los Angeles and driving up to Santa Barbara in a rental car, about – well, by this point, I suspect I was begging. 

Finally, Julia said, “Well, all right. In that case, let’s just see what we can do, shall we?”

For the next seven to eight hours, sitting on the couch, peeking around the house or settling at the table for a light lunch – all with Julia’s husband Paul in remarkable attendance, saying little but belonging to everything – I got to relive Julia Child’s incredible life. I heard about her mother who couldn’t boil water, about her romantic meeting with Paul in war-torn China, about her food epiphany in post-war France.  I got her take on the years of struggle toward the cookbook that became Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and the primitive TV series in Boston that became The French Chef.

And I caught her eyes seeking Paul’s across the room when I asked if she had any regrets. “Only, you know,” and she paused, as though the words caught in her throat. “Only that we never had any children,” she said, and Paul nodded. As I was just about to turn the notebook page, Julia picked up the thought again. “But, many people – many young women, especially – have told me they’ve found a career, found a life really, because of the things that I’ve done.” She giggled. “Of course, I can’t imagine why. But sometimes, I think of all those people as our children.”

This week I sat in a darkened theater in Houston, watching Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci as Julia and Paul in the new film Julie and Julia. And I realized that, in ways I can’t begin to measure, I too am one of Julia’s children.

BED, BREAKFAST Y MAS!

15 Aug

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La Gloria: Mexico’s High Mountain Retreat

By JOHN DeMERS

If you want to think about border drug violence and swine flu, stay home in Houston and watch TV. But if you want to live their opposites and a whole lot more, let Aureliano Ramirez drive you across the border at Presidio and then deep into the high mountains for a stay with Gloria Rodriguez Page just outside the tiny village of San Carlos.

Nothing here is what you’d expect.

San Carlos, for instance, has officially been named Manuel Benavides since Mexico’s anti-religion 1930s, but everyone still calls it San Carlos. Your taxi driver isn’t exactly a taxi driver, since Aureliano spent 31 years as a banker in Texas, ending up a bank president in his hometown of Presidio on the border. And even Gloria herself, who seems the benevolent queen of her 10-room, 25-acre high mountain kingdom, lives and works part-time at a diner in Alpine to make ends meet. She’s had some very good times since creating the getaway she calls La Gloria B&B in 1996 – but few of those good times have been recent.

First and always, for nearly two decades, there has been media coverage of drug violence along the border. Gloria insists that nearly all of that takes place far away in either Nuevo Laredo across from Laredo or  Juarez across from El Paso; and whether you’re walking the quiet streets of Ojinaga to pick up bread baked in a wood-fired oven or relishing the peace of La Gloria itself (an escape without phones, television or Internet), you’d be hard-pressed to doubt her word. And then there was media coverage of the swine flu epidemic, which turns up all over the world but somehow only discourages Americans from visiting Mexico.

And finally, as though the commerce gods had truly aligned themselves against her, the U.S. shut down the old Lajitas border crossing as a counter-terrorism measure several years after 9/11; you can now go into Mexico there, but you

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can’t get back. That turned an easy 20-mile drive from a popular resort area near Big Bend National Park into a trek four or five times as far, through a matching pair of border towns few Americans ever visit.

You’d never know any of this, based on Gloria’s smile.

The lady of the house may accompany you across and into the mountains, having alerted her small staff – a young married couple that lives with their children on the property. Or she may be too busy in the kitchen, making sure dinner is ready when you arrive. You heard that right: La Gloria is a bed and breakfast that actually serves you dinner. On one particular night, that meant both Gloria’s signature chicken mole and her cheese enchiladas in a lush green chile sauce, accompanied by freshly cooked pinto beans and savory tomato rice. And oh yes, there was a cool, crunchy macaroni salad with kernel corn, guacamole, pico de gallo and endless stacks of warm, fresh corn tortillas.

La Gloria being a B&B, Gloria does cook you breakfast each morning. On this day it’s a flavor epiphany disguised as chilaquiles – corn tortilla chips blanketed in red chile sauce with two fried eggs on top, then last night’s beans turned refried, with plenty of pico de gallo and a platter of cantaloupe so sweet you’d think you grew it yourself. For those few guests who can think of lunch in between such a breakfast and the dinner they know will come, Gloria encourages a stroll into San Carlos. You can certainly grab a quick taquito or two, and enjoy the villagers sitting, walking and laughing around the main square during siesta time.

A visit to La Gloria, however, is about so much more than the incredible food. A trail leading right from Gloria’s garden (which took 20 guys upwards of two years to terrace with stones and plants) leads to one of the most remarkable canyons you’re likely to ever see. With Aureliano as your guide (and if you’ve got pretty good legs), you can hike along the canyon, climbing over boulders and splashing your tennis shoes through rapids. Early on, you stroll past several generations of village families cooling off in the shallows, with the youngest kids swimming in crystal-clear pools. Eventually, though, you are on your own. Just you, your banker-turned-tour-guide, and the occasional riders on horseback herding goats up the steep canyon trail.

A short drive (maybe five minutes) from San Carlos, you find Las Pilas, a foam-bright series of waterfalls and pools formed as H2O moves naturally from high to low. Again, you have to do your best mountain-goat imitation to climb, slip and slither over rocks to reach the bottom, and then quicken your breath to make your way back up. Heading to the bottom of Las Pilas is a wonderful adventure, and a great investment of the calories you over-consumed at breakfast.

Times have been tough for several years around La Gloria in San Carlos, while Gloria’s two kids in Texas have needed college money and all the rest. Now, given new enthusiasm by Aureliano’s transport venture – making it easy to get to La Gloria from the Gage Hotel in Marathon or from the Paisano in Marfa – Gloria has cut back on her hours in Alpine to concentrate on her business in the cool, misty high mountains of northern Mexico

In the future, there are special  trips planned tying a stay at La Gloria to the famous train trip deep into Mexico’s Copper Canyon, and even multi-day horseback trips conducted by Lajitas Stables just across on the U.S. side. Perhaps some culinary weekends will follow, along with stays themed around other special interests.

The general sense around these mountains is that things will work out, as they have for a thousand years. The specific sense is that Gloria Rodriguez Page, in keeping with her faith in God and in return for all her work, investment and generosity, absolutely deserves them to.

For more information on La Gloria Bed and Breakfast, see the website www.lagloriabb.com. To call Gloria’s U.S.-based mobile phone, 432-294-4137.

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 Photos: (top) Herding Goats in the canyon, (middle) The Veranda at La Gloria; (bottom) a waterfall at Las Pilas

TIERNEY MALONE’S THE HIT – A Review

15 Aug

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At Khon’s Wine Darts Coffee Art

By STACEY HOLZER

Growing up in Chicago – the home of Al Capone, after all – I’ve been told few tall Mafia stories of my own. However, a visit to Khon’s Wine Darts Coffee Art, inspired a renewed intrigue in Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Godfather.   The walls of the small but hip coffee and wine bar in Midtown are lined with interesting segmented images of artist Tierney Malone.   Color palettes similar to sun faded signs depict collage imagery familiar yet fragmented.   Varied typographic fonts and smooth surfaces blend perfectly with the sounds of jazz that play here every Friday night. 

Based on an affinity to the story of The Godfather, Malone has created work for this series entitled La Cosa Nostra inviting the viewer to see things with a fresh perspective.    Adopting the romanticized idea of a family with a strong father from the film, Malone has adopted many fathers in his own life who have given him a sense of identity and strength over time. It’s that same sense of community and family that makes Khon’s a great place to hang out.     

Malone’s painting “The Hit” is rich with meaning alluding to the assignation scene of Luca Brasi and the first hit of Don Corleone.   Luca Brasi walks into a bar, two fishes are etched on the glass, we see the image of the fishes twice once as he enters and again after he was killed, and the scene transitions. Coppola’s use of cinematography is brilliant, fishes are an allegorical reference to Sicilian Mafia lore meaning “to sleep with fishes” Fish wrapped up in an article of clothing of the person who has been hit, whacked, killed, was then wrapped in newspaper and delivered to the boss of all bosses, signifying that the member was dead, and at the bottom of the sea.  

Don Corleone and his son stop by a fruit stand and above the fruit a boxing sign appears with an announcement for a fight between Jake Lamotta and Tommy Bell.   Malone has chosen this sign image as a connecting link between Corleone’s first hit and the idea that he was hit over and again without dying, similar to a boxer in the ring. The Genco sign at the bottom of the painting represents the olive oil company front for the family business. 

Malone’s works are simple improvisations with an eclectic American sensibility. His love of history and jazz inspire his art.  Certain songs hold an emotional gravity he is trying to achieve with the surfaces he creates.  Historical influences convey a culture that has grown up with typography.  Malone communicates with the viewer through typography and articulates that there is no need to reinvent the wheel preferring instead to draw inspiration from the heroes of cinema and music.  

He uses the familiar language of typography to convey emotion in his art.   Each viewer brings his or her own involvement to the work and Malone is happy to partake in the dialogues generated by unique experiences.  Left to its own devices, the audience is asked to trust what they see and explore and consider it make it their own.   La Cosa Nostra will be on view through August 30.  

Khon’s Wine Darts Coffee Art is a midtown mecca for all things fun.   This neighborhood bar serves great coffee, Chinese tea cakes made by the owners grandmother and is a place where locals love to congregate for an evening of darts, art or catching up with friends old and new. Kohn’s is located at 2808 Milam Street, Suite H. Read more about contemporary art in the all new summer edition of VisualSeen at www.visualseen.net

THE VOICE OF MILLER OUTDOOR

15 Aug

In 1922, a plaque was designed for a soon-to-be-opened amphitheater within Houston’s graceful Hermann Park. The plaque dedicated the outdoor venue: To the Arts of Music, Poetry, Drama and Oratory, by which the striving spirit of man seeks to interpret the words of god.

Close to 90 years later, the same inscription might have to read “spirit of man or woman,” and perhaps “the words of god, or whatever.” Yet even in its second theater built on this site, since 1968 a lovely proscenium stage with a steel canopy that locals call “the bat wings,” Miller Outdoor Theatre hasn’t adjusted its mission much. Only who’s onstage and who’s in the audience have changed mightily.

“The purpose is to present the very best possible arts, all kinds of arts, diverse and extraordinary, to the largest possible audience – and always free of charge,” says Cissy Segall Davis, a veteran of local theater for decades and now managing director of Miller Outdoor. “This board and the city are dedicated to making sure that everything held here is free and available to everyone, no matter their circumstances. This big tent is available to all.”

Summer is definitely a special time for Miller Outdoor Theatre, complete with numerous performances by the biggest guns: Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet, plus the wonderful Houston Shakespeare Festival. Yet the traditional summer season has expanded recently to last from sometime in March to sometime in November – which makes the run slightly longer than summer drags on even here in Houston.

In addition, appearances by such high-profile groups only set the stage for an even greater wealth of smaller-scale theater and dance events, along with performance troupes brought in from all around the world. This is a far cry from the beginnings of Miller Outdoor, when the emphasis was on “culture” with a capital C, nearly all of it imported from Europe. And it is especially different from the first Miller performance ever.

“It was a civic pageant,” says Cissy, though she stresses with a grin that she wasn’t around. “There were like 2,500 people in the show, and for many years those were the types of performances that took place here.”

Houstonians who fill Miller Outdoor’s 1,700 seats under the canopy or bring their picnic to the breeze-kissed hill behind it are likely to find much to love in this year’s schedule. And at least some of that is thanks to the child born in Bluefield W.Va., who came south to UT in Austin before embarking on an entertainment career. Cissy initially worked her magic for the Houston outfit called Pace, back in its motocross and tractor-pull days, before it turned to theater and concerts. And for 20 years, off and on, she was a major force behind Theatre Under The Stars, which actually began at Miller in 1968 with a production of the musical “Bells Are Ringing.”

“Today,” Cissy offers, “when I walk out and see the diversity of our audiences, all coming here to enjoy, it warms my heart. You can take a vacation right here, go to different countries and experience every kind of art, all in the same week. Why not? It’s free. That’s the best price in town.”   

 To sign up for John’s free weekly email newsletter of arts news, features and reviews, Houston ArtsWeek, go to www.houstonartsweek.com.

Reprinted from Prime Living magazine

FAVORITE PILLOW

10 Aug

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Houston’s Suchu Dance at Jacob’s Pillow

By NANCY WOZNY

It all started with a glance at the calendar, when I realized that every member of the Wozny household was headed for a more exotic locale than Cypress, except myself. The urge to dance binge came upon me big time. Within a few minutes of posting a Facebook status announcing I was in the mood for a dance fest, the lure of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the nation’s longest-running dance festival, became a reality. Plus, where else to have the best dance nerd vacay is there?

My mission was simple: see a lot of dance. With two companies per week on the big stages, free outdoor shows (weather permitting) four days a week, rehearsals and classes open for viewing, and let’s not forget the staggering amount of dance watching available (over 6,000 titles) in the Pillow Archive, I had all I needed and more.

At the Ted Shawn Theatre, I caught Jean-Claude Gallotta’s witty Des gens qui danscent (people who dance), performed by his sassy French company, Groupe Emile Dubois. Houston native David Roussève’s bittersweet Saudade combined storytelling with vignettes of movement theater performed by his global dance company. Jason Samuels Smith and A.C.G.I. (Anybody Can Get It) wowed the crowds with their stunning virtuosity. Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal proved they can pass as Italians with ease in Mauro Bigonzetti’s Cantata (seen here two years ago at Dance Salad).

Watching the Merce Cunningham Dance Company just hours before Cunningham’s death proved the most poignant experience. Sounddance (1975), the oldest dance on the program, felt the freshest. Robert Swinston (in Cunningham’s role) bursts through a wall of gold draped fabric, galvanizing our attention with a fierce authority. As the piece winds

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Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Jacob’s Pillow

to its powerful conclusion, Swinston gets sucked back through the curtain, a powerful metaphor for the passing of this titan of modern dance. Whether we are dancers, watchers or writers, an era has ended, and all of us, children of Merce, should be proud to have shared these decades together.

I had the opportunity to watch a DVD of Cunningham’s first performance at the Pillow in 1955 and was reminded what an incredible dancer he was in his youth. The Pillow Archives, directed by the esteemed Norton Owen, are a kind of dance history heaven. I fully intended to immerse myself in Ted Shawn and his men dancers until I noticed that I could watch what happened at the Pillow last week. After watching the entire season thus far, I was ready to settle into some history, which finally did include a good deal of Shawn (the Pillow’s founder), Ruth St. Denis, and vintage ballerinas Tanaquil Le Clercq and Alexandra Danilova. I also stumbled on a program from a 1979 performance of Houston Ballet, staring Thomas Boyd, now HB’s technical director, and Janie Parker. A handy video kiosk helps orient the overwhelmed visitor. And if one is still overwhelmed (as I was), Owen and his team of two capable interns are there to answer your every question.

Watching dance against a background of the Berkshire Mountains on a stage nestled in the woods is nothing short of breathtaking. Even the mosquitoes seemed to behave themselves for these marvelous outdoor shows. I had a chance to see the competent students of the Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory performing a well rehearsed “Garland Dance” from The Sleeping Beauty, Rebecca Lazier’s lyrical ode to Balanchine’s Serenade, My Serenade, set to a cranked up victrola playing Tchaikovsky, and students from the Contemporary Traditions program at the Pillow, who danced snippets of a new work by Aszure Barton and a larger work by Forsythe veteran Helen Pickett. I was enchanted by the bits and pieces of Barton’s work.

Good news, Houston: SPA presents Aszure & Artists next April. Rain brought Pam Tanowitz’s sly dance, Inside/Out, inside. The fact that I had to watch it via simulcast dripping wet didn’t effect my enjoyment of Tanowitz’s sharply crafted dance in the least. Known for her witty fusing of ballet and modern dance technique, Tanowitz deserves every ounce of the fuss she has been getting lately. The Peggy Spina Tap Company also performed indoors, and showed of a fusion of its own, between modern and tap. (FYI, Houston’s own Suchu Dance performed on this very program last season.)

Although I fully intended to avail myself of the morning open classes at the Pillow, the 8 a.m. time didn’t quite flow well with my swim time under the Berkshire skyline. Plus, I had some precious dance talk sessions with my pool mates. It’s marvelous to be somewhere with an entirely dance literate population. For official Pillow Talks, Scholars-in-Residence provide context, comments and history in their pre-show lectures. I did manage to visit Tero Saarinen’s rehearsal with the Pillow students and pronounce him my new favorite choreographer.

No trip to the Berkshires is complete without some side trips. Saturday open rehearsals at Tanglewood are a must if you want to see James Levine in a golf shirt and sweat pants. Come early for the lecture. I also made it to Tanglewood on Parade, which featured such rock star conductors as Levine, Leonard Slatkin, John Williams and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. The fireworks weren’t too shabby either. Next time, I will have to step up my picnic chops; there’s some serious action on that Tanglewood lawn. I managed to sneak into two plays at The Williamstown Theater Festival, Sam Shepard’s riveting True West, and Noah Haidle’s world premiere of What is the Cause of Thunder. (Haidle is the playwright who rocked the boat last season at Stages with Mr. Marmalade.) Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective at Mass MOCA is one monster of an exhibit and not to be missed.

Some tips for traveling in the Berkshires. The roads don’t make much sense, but resist the temptation to bring this up with the natives. The intersection concept is a bit murky there, tread lightly. In Massachusetts-eze, the words, “Do not Pass” translate into “You bet it’s OK to pass any and all slow driving Texas women.” Still, small prices to pay to be in one magnificent panoramic cultural mecca.

As for my time at the Pillow, I have returned with my dance battery fully charged. My only regret is having to depart before Rachel Maddow comes to speak this week. No matter, I can watch it next summer in the Archives. Dance feels like a big place there, one to linger in and savor. The place may have been named for a mammoth rock, but it’s all about movement. Ella Baff, the Pillow’s executive director, has it right when she ends every curtain speech with the feisty command, “Let’s dance.” Words to cherish.

THE NEW FACES OF OLD FRIENDS

10 Aug

By JOHN DeMERS

There I was last week, recording a Houston ArtsWeek radio interview with June Christensen of Houston’s Society for the Performing Arts along with John Breckenridge of Theatre Under The Stars – and I found myself thinking about two strange things. One is that both of these arts professionals serve as CEOs of their organizations, which kinda made me wish I could be a CEO of something before I die. But the other, surely more profound, was the realization that both of these new friends are taking the place of old friends – in fact, of two of the very first people who welcomed me to Houston.

Toby Mattox and Frank Young are still very much alive, so this isn’t one of those columns; I see them now and again working the lobby at some performance or other. It’s what they did best in an older and probably simpler time, making Houston a much better city while they were at it. Each, in a sense, was an arts pioneer. And each left us, in retirement, with an essential part of our arts lives that might never have existed had they not been around.

Life works that way. We’re not given anything, as a country or a city or as individuals, unless somebody works hard and makes sacrifices to give it to us.

Long before I interviewed June about the work she now does at SPA (in fact, about the work she did alongside Toby for 18 years), I of course interviewed Toby. And first, naturally, I wanted to know what SPA actually was. What it wasn’t was a group with a specific art form to trumpet – not the opera, the ballet or the symphony, in other words. It was a collection of those things, and a whole lot more.

SPA was (and still very much is) a “presenting organization.”  It – meaning mostly Toby for 25 years, and, since October 2007, June – researched what performing artists were available in the marketplace, what guarantees and other arrangements might lure them to Houston, what deals with Dallas, Austin or San Antonio might make travel to Texas less of a burden, and what dates on an ever-shifting calendar might serve all concerned. Everyone wants a sellout, for all the right reasons. Nobody wants an empty theater. And the daily flight toward the first and away from the second must be dizzyingly complex.

In some ways, I’ve always thought, I would love to do that job. In others, I’ve always known when reality set in, I should run fast and far the other way.

Toby didn’t run away. He rode herd on not only each season’s calendar full of diverse artists – and everybody knows how artists can be, and if not them, their agents – while also delicately balancing the demands of his local board. I’m sure the SPA board has no egos on it, naturally, but other boards I’ve worked with in my life certainly did. Navigating not one but two minefields, Toby helped pass on to June the honor of “Bringing the World’s Best to Houston.” Since its beginnings four decades ago, SPA has presented more than 750 performances – with 17 more scheduled this season. And I, for one, am grateful.

Appropriately, John Breckenridge worked almost the same number of years alongside Frank Young at TUTS as June worked alongside Toby at SPA – so much for questions about continuity, right? Still, if anyone was the face of his organization more than Toby was, it had to be Frank. TUTS was his vision from the beginning, back when the whole idea was to produce free performances at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Thus the name, Theatre Under the Stars, long since wrestled indoors to the old Music Hall, occasionally to the Arena (Miss Saigon in the round there was my first TUTS performance) and finally to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. It’s probably because of Frank, more than any other loud and persistent voice, that a public-private partnership was formed to give us the Hobby Center in the first place.

TUTS faces serious challenges these days, far beyond its upcoming six-show season, as of course does SPA. And sometimes, for John as indeed for me, the glory days of stars and Disney world premieres and TUTS shows heading for Broadway must seem ancient history. Money is tight for all the arts, impossibly tight sometimes – from the corporations who once funded individual shows or even whole seasons to the Houston families that now have to choose between season tickets and, well, you get the idea. Part of me wishes I had my old friends Toby and Frank back to help us through these hard times – or at least to give what would probably be their 1,784,413th curtain speeches and promise us in the audience it’ll all turn out all right.

At the same time, they faced their challenges and we have to face ours. These are, make no mistake, new and different challenges. Nearing the end of our radio interview, I glance at June and then at John – and I decide that as long as we have SPA and TUTS, it’ll all turn out all right.