After several months of frantic flyarounds for my day job, things have slowed down a bit and I’ve gotten to stay home in Chicago the past several weeks. What a luxury! And part of the upside of getting a breather from work-related stress is catching up on my reading. I assume that if you’re reading my blog, you are as preoccupied with art, culture, travel, and food as I am (otherwise, you’d be over at TMZ.com). So I encourage you to join me in savoring and languorously perusing two of the best sources of writing I’ve stumbled across in the past few weeks: the impressively thoughtful new print publication, The Chicagoan, which is a must-read for anyone concerned with the vibrant history and artistic life of our great city Chicago; and the newly-launched website Roads & Kingdoms, which is essential for those of you who think about food within its cultural and socio-political context, engagingly put together for the transmedia-savvy 21st century reader.
Last weekend, BFF Debra, the lovely Reney, and I went to see Batsheva Dance Company‘s production of Deca Dance, a “greatest hits” compilation of some of the best work choreographed by the company’s Artistic Director Ohad Naharin over the past ten years, already performed at the Spoleto Festival in 2007 and the Edinburgh Festival in 2008. Although Batsheva, founded in the 1960s by Martha Graham and the Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild and based in Tel Aviv, is one of the most important, pre-eminent arts organizations in the world, continuously travelling and presenting in the world’s cultural capitals, it’s last show in Chicago was a very long 15 years ago. So their two-show performance schedule last weekend was quite the treat for Chicago’s cultural cognoscenti. And it was quite the performance – the troupe of 17 dancers displayed both jaw-dropping technique and evocative emotion in seven complex numbers, from the energetic, mesmerizing opening number “Anaphaza” (also being performed by Hubbard Street Chicago as part of their repertoire) in which they performed intense, synchronized moves in a “wave”-like fashion until they feverishly removed their clothes, to the 35 minute excerpt from the modern ballet “Three” which seemed to be a reflection and commentary on young adult life in Israel. Deca Dance was world-class performing arts at its best, and I gave the group a sincere, well-deserved standing ovation at curtain call. Before we entered the Auditorium Theatre, though, we had to get through a pretty sizable phalanx of Chicagoans with signs, passed-out leaflets, bullhorns, and drums protesting against Israel and expressing support for Palestine. Regardless of what I personally feel about the Middle East conflict, I thought crossing those protesters’ lines was quite jarring and discomfiting. I don’t think the majority of the audience members bought tickets to Deca Dance expecting to encounter a political event prior to taking their seats in the theater. We weren’t there to be political, we were there to view the work of a globally-acclaimed, extremely-talented, culturally-significant arts group. Sure, the playwright Tony Kushner and other artists have said that all art ultimately is political (and Naharin’s work has admittedly political overtones, some subtle, some not-so), but from a paying audience member’s point of view, was it appropriate for the protesting groups to confront us in such an in-your-face fashion? Were they merely trying to raise consciousness of their cause and their opinions, or were they also implicitly indicting us, attempting to extend our support of the art, of the work, to a support of the arts organization’s politics? I respect the right of the protesting groups’ to demonstrate outside of the Auditorium Theatre, and we’re very fortunate to live in a country where they have the freedom to do so, but were they fair to the audience members? Shouldn’t audiences be allowed to embrace the art, de-coupled from its politics?
Throughout the year, my standard response to friends, acquaintances, and random cocktail chit-chatters alike when they told me they were going to New York City to see a play was: “Save your airfare. Spend it on Chicago theater instead.” 2008 was, undeniably, a phenomenal year for Chicago theater. Local boy Tracy Letts won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play for the stupendously successful August: Osage County, which was conceptualized, incubated, fleshed out, and first performed by Chicago’s leading theater company, Steppenwolf Theater. Legendary director Peter Brook came to Chicago this year (Fragments at Chicago Shakespeare), but so did acclaimed contemporary playwright Lynn Nottage, who premiered her latest work, the shattering Ruined, at the Goodman Theater. Horton Foote, still spry and vibrant at 92, was also at the Goodman, gracing activities for it’s Horton Foote Festival. Elevator Repair Company, Tim Supple, the Shaw Festival, Marta Carrasco, Mike Daisey, William L. Petersen (more of a comeback than a visit), the best and the brightest of the world’s stage were all in Chicago, interacting with a live theater audience that was as sophisticated, critical, open-minded, educated, and enthusiastic as any in the world. But the great thing about our Chicago theater community is that our local heroes continued to thrive, expand, inspire, and astound this year too. Directors David Cromer and Sean Graney staged some of the most brilliant, world-class theater in any time zone. Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey continued to demonstrate that she has the keenest, bravest, most uncompromising artistic sense among arts leaders in the city by opening a season that followed the August high with a highly-impressionistic, dense, intellectually provocative original adaptation of a Haruki Murakami novel. Great performances abounded, showcasing the almost limitless talent pool in the city: E. Faye Butler in Caroline, or Change, Hollis Resnick in Grey Gardens, John Judd in Shining City, Steve Pickering and Jen Engstrom in Fatboy, the list goes on and on. The storefront theater scene was energetic and impressively original, with inventive work coming from groups as diverse as the Hypocrites (every single play they staged this year), Collaboraction (Jon), Strange Tree Group (Mysterious Elephant), and TUTA (a haunting Uncle Vanya), introducing new theatergoers to the magic of live performance. It was a great year to be an arts lover in Chicago.
For anyone outside of Boystown and Andersonville, there is so much more going on this fall in Chicago than the Madonna concert (which, for those of you who have just come back to the city from the island of Tuvalu, is scheduled for October 26-27 at the United Center). Everyone (well, the Chicago Tribune and TimeOut Chicago that is) have made up their lists of the top fall live performances (theater, opera, dance) that they recommend you attend, which is a good thing – it’s both the blessing and the bane of living in a great, lively, cultural center like Chicago, that you can go to see a show every night, and still not see it all, so guidance is imperative (plus the fact that no one really has an unlimited art consumption spending budget) . Here then, in no particular order, are From the Ledge’s picks for the must-see performing arts events of the fall – they’re an eclectic lot, showcasing both the best efforts of local Chicago talent as well as top international artists making pitstops in our wonderful town, confirming our stature in the global artistic community. Varied in discipline, theme, and artistic approach, they all, nevertheless, promise exciting, memorable, uniquely impactful nights at the theater. I’ll be at all of them, so if you see me, say hi!
The Playgoer last week posted a link to a very interesting “thinkpiece” that Scott Timberg wrote a couple of Sundays ago for the Los Angeles Times, which discussed various cultural trends that seem to be currently in play, most especially the blurring of the distinction between ”high culture” and ”popular culture”. There are a lot of intriguing tidbits in the article that I’ve been reflecting on, so I’ll probably come back to it in subsequent blog posts. One of the things that first struck me, though, is this quote from the terrific writer Pico Iyer (his twenty-year old book Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far-Eastis still, in my opinion, one of the most informed, most understanding, and most articulate observations of Southeast and East Asian cultures that I have read from someone not from those cultures), one of the culturatis and intellectual types that Timberg interviewed: “What we seem to have nowadays is more of a hierarchy of media…whereby, for example, dance, classical music, opera, and even theater and books, all of which commanded their own sections in Time magazine only a generation ago, are now regarded as lofty and remote subjects for only a handful of connoisseurs.” Timber then says that Iyer further notes that we feel guilty that we have become “elitist” if we go and listen to chamber orchestra or jazz, or any of the arts that the current cultural milieu have labeled “elitist”. It’s a fascinating, and to be honest, frustrating point for me. I have touched on a similar vein in this blogpost from last November: I’ve noticed that many of my peers, my peeps, the late20/thirty/early40somethings desired as cultural consumers, have not had consistent experiences in the theater, or at the opera and symphony, or with modern or classical dance. Actually, some of them have never had any experiences at all. Which is really disturbing for me, because for these art forms to continue and flourish in the future, they should have an influx of new, fresh, rejuvenated audiences. One thing I wanted Iyer, or Timberg, for that matter, to further expound on is the reason why our current culture have labeled these art forms as “elitist”. Is it because theater, the symphony, etc. are seen as “expensive”? Hmmm…last Saturday, I was at a FREE (yes free) Grant Park Orchestra concert, sitting in the orchestra section of the fantastically minimalist and acoustically-superb Harris Theater, listening entranced to highly-acclaimed (and current Chicago Symphony Orchestra composer-in-residence) composer Osvaldo Golijov’s searing, profound masterwork “Last Round”, based on a short story by famed Argentinian novelist Julio Cortazar, while some of my friends paid for a $60 day pass (or maybe even a $190 three-day pass) for Lollapalooza. The Hypocrites, TUTA, Greasy Joan, Red Orchid, Strange Tree Group, or any of the myriad storefront theaters who bring innovative, intelligent, exceptionally acted and directed theatrical productions to Chicago audiences, charge only 20 bucks a ticket, which is so much less than what one would be spending at Retro on Roscoe or the multitude of interchangeable summer street fairs in Chicago, and only slightly more than an IMAX ticket for The Dark Knight. Is it because theater, opera, etc., require a lot of time commitment? Well, only if you’re going to Wagner operas or O’Neill plays. Keith Huff’s Pursued by Happiness, the most impressive of the three new plays currently being staged in repertory at Steppenwolf’s First Look Repertory of New Work, clocks in at a compact 90 minutes of engaging and surprising emotional situations. Or is this purported “elitism” really a codeword for cultural forms that require focus, concentration, introspective appreciation, abstract thinking? Of course, going to a Brecht play is a different intellectual experience that going to a Radiohead concert. Both can be equally satisfying, but not a lot of people in my generation seem to want to give Brecht a chance. Yes, it is a generation that is used to mass media, commoditized consumption, and instant gratification – and have these then made it a generation lacking in intellectual curiosity bordering on laziness?
I think it’s safe to say that storytelling is almost primal. Every culture has a strong history of oral tradition; before books, newspapers, cable television, the internet, stories were handed down from one generation to the next when someone- an elder, a designated storyteller, a performer/actor- gave an oral recounting to someone else, or more likely, to a group of someone elses. A community’s collective myth, folklore, symbolism, and cultural tenets were codified, institutionalized, and transported through time via the art of storytelling. The Ijo tribe of the Niger delta recounted their Ozidi saga through a seven-day storytelling, dance, and drama event. Korea’s p’ansori tradition shared stories within a community using sung storytelling. In Siena and its surrounding Italian countryside, the veglia, a nightly communal activity made up of storytelling and verbal games, was a popular social custom during the 15th century. Storytelling and its communal nature helped established the roots of theatrical tradition, in conjunction with religious ceremony. Unfortunately in our age of soundbites, elevator speeches, adult ADD, the “in and out”, the 2 minute pitch, of everything needing to be instantaneous, storytelling can be seen as archaic, old-fashioned, unhip, a little too “kumbaya around a campfire”. If only people used to webzines and half-hour sitcoms will give it a chance- the power of a shared communal experience listening to stories leisurely and passionately told live is astounding and addicting. It is the power that the terrific theater group Serendipity Theatre Company is harnessing in its storytelling event, Second Story, one of the best-kept secrets, and one of the most interesting cultural experiences, in Chicago (although seeing the good-sized crowd last week at Red Kiva when blog mentor Tom and I attended the most recent edition of Second Story, the secret might be out- which is a great thing!).