Writing on the air: calligraphy as dance

Flying White, part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, Vancouver, February 2, 2020.

 
The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival has always had a big thing for issues and trends, but this year’s edition seemed not just woke but well into its third cup of coffee. The great majority of its two-dozen-plus offerings had Something to Say on everything from immigration to aboriginality, from eco-catastrophe to economic collapse, from gender and sexuality to social upheaval. As associate artistic director Joyce Rosario said in her program note, subversion was a distinct through-line in the PuSh program this year. Many of the offerings also gave people in the audience a chance to be complicit in the subversion.

Even the makers of something as apparently non-polemical as Flying White, a new dance-music-theatre piece presented under this year’s PuSh umbrella by the Turning Point Ensemble and Wen Wei Dance, seemed to want to make a gesture or two in the direction of subversion and engagement—to the slight disadvantage, it seemed to me, of the work itself. And one had to wonder: was this simply coincidental, or did they, out of some kind of perceived obligation, PuSh themselves?

No matter. Flying White is a vigorous and joyous integration of the venerated old and the eager now, a work whose core is music and movement of fresh, mesmerizing beauty. Choreographer Wen Wei Wang and composers Owen Underhill and Dorothy Chang have taken calligraphy, the ancient art-form of sign-making, as the imaginative catalyst for a creative collaboration that fuses music, movement and theatricality into an evening that is at once timeless and absolutely of its moment.

Wang is the artistic director of Wen Wei Dance; audiences across Canada have come to appreciate the way he blends diverse movement influences—Chinese ballet, martial arts, contemporary Western movement—into a style recognizably his own. Underhill is the artistic director of Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble, which specializes in new music of many forms and styles. Chang is a Vancouver-based composer who draws on influences ranging from pop and folk to traditional Chinese music. For this presentation, a group of TPE musicians were joined by five members of Taiwan’s Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra, which plays traditional instruments but (its publicity material says) “breathes new life into an art form that holds ancient roots.”

The same might be said of Flying White. Calligraphy is found in many parts of the world and has many styles and practitioners, though for anyone unfamiliar with the verbal meaning of the signs it is inevitably an abstract form. A program note tells us that “Flying White,” the calligraphic style that inspired this work, is “a rare and extraordinary form of Chinese calligraphy that jumps and leaps on the paper surface in graceful, beautiful strokes.” Wang describes it in poetic terms—“mobile and delicate …like meteors passing through the sky, or hair fluttering in the wind.”

Flying White is certainly rich with poetry—musical and physical poetry—but it is also something far removed from cultural stereotype. Forget the coarse canard about East never meeting West, forget ideas of cross-cultural appropriation. Underhill, Chang and Wang have found a mutuality of understanding that has enabled them to entangle the threads of their individual influences and creativities to create unexpected new synchronicities that both speak to the enduring universal instinct for abstract beauty and the expressions of the heart and underline our physical ephemerality: writing on the air.

The show comes in two sections of four short episodes, “Body and Sound” and “Silk and ink,” separated by an intermission, with Chang and Underhill providing music for four sections each. On a rectangular black performance floor so shiny that it acts like a mirror, the six dancers, in simple costumes of long black pants and (for the women) flimsy beige tops, combine in a variety of groups, duos and solos.

The fluid, full-body swirl of the movement is always light and graceful and beautiful. But there is substance and structure as well— the tension and release on which the movement is built conveys a physical urgency, lavish and blossoming, and wordless hints of meaning and mood from time to time emerge.

In a segment titled “The Impossible Return,” for music by solo cello by Underhill, a pair of male dancers reach and intertwine and turn away, and we glimpse mysterious fleeting images of love and longing: like seeing someone stroke someone else’s face on a passing bus.

Almost coincidentally, between episodes, a man and a woman explore, almost playfully, what happens if they move independently separated only by a large sheet of white paper suspended between their cheeks and shoulders. Areas of the body are fleetingly obscured by the paper, and we are forced to pay attention to detail—the curl of fingers, the twist of a torso, the reach of an arm—rather than the whole: the universal in the particular.

Occasionally, wafting, spirit-like figures—ghosts?—drift behind the orchestra. Silk drapes fall and swing. These elements, too, have no apparent narrative significance, but add to the overall sense of the mysterious, the implied existence of an otherworld we can only perceive in glimpses, and have no hope of understanding.

“Silken Air, Soft Light,” to music for the full ensemble from Chang, might be seen as a way to think about eternity as dancers evoke the living space between the depths of shining black on which they perform and the floating clouds—of heaven?—that are created by the raising and lowering of a billowing silk square.

This all makes a sweet sort of unified sense. Calligraphy can certainly serve as a vehicle for contemplation of mortality and the spiritual, after all. Taken together, the first six segments of Flying White had the effect of a period of meditation, affirmative without being in the least bit didactic, as gladdening as anything I saw at PuSh this year. The concluding pair of episodes, however, seemed out of place in relation to the flood of fresh and unusual forms of beauty that had gone before.

In the penultimate scene, “Angularity,” the dancers pull partners at random from the audience and form everyone into a large circle, with everyone joined together at the fingertips by sheets of paper that they hold aloft. The unbroken circle (I get it) briefly interweaves and undulates about the stage. Then the sheets of paper are gathered up and the audience members go back to their seats.

In the conclusion, a solo dancer, nearly nude, uses his hands and body to manipulate black ink into abstract designs on a large sheet of white paper. By the end, his body is liberally smeared with ink and the paper is covered with a random scribbled blob of shimmering wet black, reflected in a mirror suspended high above the space. It reminded me of those experiments by Yves Klein and his body art performance pals in the ’60s. Post-modernist calligraphy?

These concluding episodes looked to me like deliberate gestures of subversion of the calligraphic form. They felt uncomfortable after what had gone before. But maybe that was their point. It was a PuSh show.

Crystal Pite’s Body and Soul

Body and Soul, Paris Opera Ballet, Opera Garnier, Paris, October-November, 2019, choreography and text by Crystal Pite, set design Jay Gower Taylor, costumes Nancy Bryant, lighting Tom Visser.


What has made Crystal Pite “one of the dance world’s most sought-after artists” (The Guardian) is not simply the ravishing movement sequences that she invents. Her dance-works are animated thoughts about the complicated miracle of being human in the universe—ongoing statements from an evolving worldview. She seems to want to touch the core of meaning, to glimpse, even for a moment, the why of it all (or not even that—the what of it all, the mechanics of existence). Through simple and unaffected images and metaphors that she manufactures from the unique language of human physicality—from dance—she invites us to join her in considering the enduring mysteries of the human condition.
The latest chapter in her continuing inquiry, her new evening-length work for the Paris Opera Ballet titled Body and Soul, probes ideas of conflict, control and social cohesion. Continue reading

Sons of Sissy: revisionist subversion

 

Simon Mayer says Sons of Sissy, his hybrid dance-performance piece for himself and three other male performers, was inspired by his “permanent interest in looking for what connects us and what we share as human beings instead of what separates us from one another.”
The connector he has chosen to examine here is folk dance—specifically the folk dance of his native Austria, and more specifically the schuhplattler—and folk music, art that is “made to be shared, to bring people together.”
He subjects these forms to a merciless, sometimes sardonic, sometimes absurdist deconstruction in order to explore what he calls “concrete topics”: society, spirituality and particularly history. History, he points out, repeats itself. Right-wing politicians are using tools and tactics similar to those used by the Nazis—and one of those tactics is “to get closer to the people by using folk culture as their property and tool of advertising.”
His approach to the light and the dark sides of social ritual opens up such a broad and fertile field of reflection that you hardly know where to dig first.
The schuhplattler, you might think, is folk dance at its most lumbering and artless: an ancient, barely-disguised village-boys contest of fierce masculine jollity in which the participants stamp and clap and slap their thighs and legs and march about.
Perhaps taking his cue from Orwell, who said all art is propaganda, Mayer stretches this marching aspect to its utmost, sending one of the dancers off in a long, stamping route-march round and round the performing space, a strenuous and noisy exercise in robotic self-erasure that reminds us that Hitler came from the same place as the schuhplattler.
At the same time, something quite else is going on. Mayer doesn’t mention gender, but he doesn’t need to: the topic is front and centre throughout, not only because the four male dancers perform much of second half of the show in the nude (the nudity becomes commonplace very quickly) but perhaps more importantly because, of necessity, the female roles in the traditional dances are taken by men.
We see the schuhplattler twice, once clothed and once not. The removal of clothing shows male aggression at its most elemental and its most ludicrous. But it also holds male-female convention up to the light. It may be simply coincidence that the two dancers with the longest hair are the ones who take the female roles, but we are repeatedly encouraged to reconsider conventional role assumptions as naked men clutching imaginary lapels twirl their equally naked partners in traditional choreographic interlacings.
To muddy the gender question even further, two of the naked men later engage in a slow, standing, face to face embrace. The episode had a certain poignancy given the ironies implicit in the sexual conventionality of folk art forms, but by contrast with the subtlety of the messaging of the rest of the show it also seemed suspiciously like a deliberate pushing of the envelope, just because.
The show (just over an hour without intermission) opens and closes with musical episodes of great sweetness—a laendler-like tune decorated with fluty yodeling to start (with the singer-performers playing a variety of folk instruments) and a melodious and melancholy piece of four-part harmony as the lights fade. In between, the sound is widely various, often loud (at one point one of the performers inserts ear plugs) and generated by folksy sources: blaring brass, crashing cowbells dropped repeatedly from a height.
At one point, one performer curls up on the ground and howls repeatedly in apparent—and because of its duration, genuinely moving—anguish. That element of duration is an important one. Much of what we see and hear is taken to what feels like excessive (certainly uncomfortable) length—physical exhaustion is a running theme—and we have the time to speculate on the jackboot force of relentless repetition of very simple messages.
Orwell (again) said that to use the word ‘political’ about art refers to the desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. In that sense, Mayer has created a crafty piece of subversion that offers unspoken political commentary through the unexpected and provocative revision of a fragment of established social tradition.

 

Sons of Sissy was at the Dance Centre, Vancouver, April 4-6, 2019.

Wen Wei Wang: souls unbound

 

 

March, 2019

 

A couple of years ago Wen Wei Wang made a dance called Dialogue, for six male dancers. It was about ways that we make contact with each other—or don’t. The piece threw a transformative cloak of grace and order over roughshod male energy and competition.
Now he has made Ying Yun, for five female dancers. They are not at all alike, these pieces, and yet they have a similarity, and that similarity is in their generosity and understanding of what it is to be human. They render visible the idea of souls unbound.
As a dancer, Wen Wei Wang always commanded the stage with disciplined power and inherent elegance, a coiled, oiled versatility that was a product of his background (his upbringing in China, and his experience as a dancer in styles ranging from Peking opera and Chinese ballet to a wide range of Western contemporary movement).
That breadth of experience in life and art inevitably shapes his expression as a choreographer. He respects and celebrates the individual and shows us what it is like to be truly free in the body. Being free in the body is not as easy as it might sound. And it is a paradox of sorts that this sense we get of meeting individuals at their most liberated—souls unbound—is founded on the controlled elegance and restrained power that so distinguished his performance.
The new piece investigates the lifelong influence of what he calls his close affinity with femininity and womanhood. It is dedicated to his late mother—the title, Ying Yun, is his mother’s name: Ying, he tells us, could mean hero, and Yun indicates clouds. Because of this, we are bound to be looking and listening for references to his Chinese background, and we can fancy we hear them occasionally in the street sounds on the soundtrack. We might also imagine her spirit in the projected image of a glowing sun-circle that dominates the stage for a time then diminishes to a tiny ball of glowing defiance.

As always with his work, we see a range of influences from his dancing career (ballet tropes: the dying swan, the impossibly beautiful princess) along with the torqued joints, deep, powerful squats, leaps and lunges and swirls of the modernists. The bodies of the dancers imbue this movement with an aura of the feminine—soft power, controlled with a restraint and discipline reminiscent of the work and teaching of his mentor and partner, the late Grant Strate: a solemn, alert grace.

There is generally something heroic going on in Wen Wei Wang’s work, in the sense that we witness the human creature striving nobly; it is evident here in the sustained poise and exquisite control of these women as they push to their expressive limits. We see them as confident individuals, collaborating, respecting each other’s beings, admitting us to human truths through human movement: the same grace beyond gender that we saw in Dialogue. Together on a single bill these pieces would make a powerful pairing.

Grace under fire: Wen Wei Wang

 

November 23, 2017

Wen Wei Wang’s latest choreography, Dialogue, which opened the Dance in  Vancouver biennial last night, continues his explorations of themes of inter-human interchange, our need to make connections with others and our anxiety  when attempts to connect are misunderstood.
Six male dancers lay their bodies and souls on the line in a linked series of solo, duo and group pieces that approach this universal human dilemma from various skewed viewpoints, some of them wryly comical, some of them bittersweet. They give us glimpses of human creatures in all their flawed grace.
Continue reading

Devils and angels

 

June 19, 2002

KRAKOW, Poland: The airport empties quickly after my flight’s arrival—it seems to be the last of the day—and I am the last person standing. I have neither cash nor transportation, nor do I have Polish, not that that matters: I walk up and down the length of the terminal for an hour or so and see not a soul. Continue reading

Carol Shields asks some interesting questions

October 10, 1997

What’s it like to be a man at the end of the 20th century? Carol Shields had no idea. So she put the question to a variety of men she knew—her husband Don, her friends (she doesn’t have many who are men, she says), teaching colleagues, acquaintances from her busy life as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and University of Winnipeg chancellor and English professor. Continue reading

Martin Amis, man of extremes

 

October 25, 1989

Writing about sex is something Martin Amis is famous for, but he calls it a writing challenge. Few modern writers, he says, do sex “without embarrassing us slightly.” Even Updike he finds slightly embarrassing. “Lawrence is full of it—again, embarrassing to me.”

What makes him really squirm is “when I think the writer is actually getting into what turns him on—I think you lose universality and it becomes rather pathetic. They let you look where you don’t want to see.” Mind you, people do tend to think that writers have lived through the sexual experiences they describe, which makes him afraid that “people think I must be weirder than I am.”

He’s lively and quick in conversation, with a smart wit built on shared references and shared humour. In his writing, he says, he enjoys “heading toward the cartoon and the caricature. I like extremes rather than complexities and subtleties. It suits the way I write.”

He has a Swiftian mercilessness to his satire, but thinks the term “disgust” is too strong to describe the moral stance that shines like a beacon through his work. “All writers are basically keen on life, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the business of putting it down on paper … and putting it down means celebrating it, in my case through vicious laughter.”

 

The Mark diaries

 

October 24, 1991

WINNIPEG: Mark[1] told me today he was HIV positive. We were in his car; he was giving me a ride to a radio interview about the Evy book[2]. We stopped at a gas station so he could fill up, but when he got back into the car he didn’t start it, he just kept us sitting there beside the pumps. “I just got some bad news,” he said. “Though you probably guessed.” It was a quarter to nine: the morning rush was still on, and people in the gas line were honking. I had no idea what he was talking about. Continue reading

Hugh Hanson Davidson: evergreen

 

Composer, arts activist, arts patron, philanthropist, music advisor, music critic,  traveller, raconteur, spiritual seeker. Born May 27, 1930, in Montreal, died Victoria, B.C. July 14, 2014, of complications following heart surgery, aged 84.

 

The qualities that people loved about Hugh were his generosity, his gregariousness and his gratitude for the joys of a life in art. They spilled onto you as a kind of blessing: he was the genial uncle who could always make you feel better. Uncle Hugh, not just to the family, but to us all. He was always happy to do what he could to increase the store of beauty and goodness in the world. Continue reading

The crisis in criticism.2

So can anyone be a critic?

When I was on the board of the Canada Council for the Arts, the country’s chief arts grant-giving agency, close to two decades ago, it was occasionally suggested that we should put “an ordinary member of the public” on each of the peer juries that had the job of saying who should or shouldn’t get grants.

It was an idea with the smell of democracy about it—the general public, after all, was theoretically the intended audience for the work that was under adjudication. Wouldn’t it be useful to hear the voice of the potential consumer? Wouldn’t that help to balance out the special interests and the artsy theorists more interested in experiment and new directions than box-office success? Continue reading

The crisis in criticism.1

 

1: The critic is dead—long live the critic

 We have seen a great deal of public hand-wringing in recent years over the so-called death of criticism. In an age of instant access to the Internet, it seems that everyone’s a critic.What does it matter that you can’t spell, can’t construct a sentence, and quite often don’t know what you’re talking about? Your words are in print on-line, and that in itself seems to invest them with a miraculous credibility. Who wants to think about anything in depth when 140 characters—reductionist thinking in a virtual nutshell—is all you need to get an audience? Who needs critics?

Good or bad, all this? It depends.

Continue reading

A beer with Ronnie Biggs

In the late fall of 1994 I was in Rio de Janeiro for a meeting of the International Federation of Food, Wine and Travel Writers—a junket, really, largely financed by the Brazilian tourist authorities. Of the 60 or so people at the conference only a handful were real journalists (as opposed to people who write about restaurants and travel) and none of them were there to do any serious digging—not that the Brazilian tourist authorities would have encouraged it, though they did set up a press meeting with the local police chiefs, who gave us the usual warnings about sensible conduct on the beach.

 In terms of stories, I wasn’t really interested in the food, wine and travel angles. You can only digest so many meals and attend so many receptions. I was more interested in the underside of the place (the local criminals call tourists filet mignon). One afternoon a writer from LA and I took a taxi into the favela that was the main drugs pipeline out of Colombia, and I let it be known that I’d be interested in meeting Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber who was in hiding in Rio from British justice, if anyone knew where he might be.

I thought it was a long shot, but on the day I was due to go home someone drove up beside me as I was walking in the street beside my hotel and slipped me a piece of paper bearing a phone number. When I called it, Ronnie himself answered. “Sure, come on over,” he said. 

The nervous taxi driver insisted on dropping me a few streets away from the actual address, a twisting, cobbled street in a village-style neighborhood of Rio called Santa Teresa, and I found the house with the help of a passing local who asked if I was looking for “Mr. Biggie.” Mr. Biggie was taking a nap when I knocked, and answered the door in a green singlet and khaki shorts, his long, silver hair pulled back in a ponytail. Here’s my diary entry. Continue reading

Mavor Moore: made in Canada

 

January 6, 2007: VICTORIA, B.C.: We gathered here today to say goodbye to Mavor Moore, who died just before Christmas. I was privileged to be one of the people he wanted to speak. When his wife Sandra asked me for a title for my little talk, I sent back a note saying: what about “From Thaw to flood: defrosting the soul of a cold country”? She e-mailed back: “Cool.” Continue reading

Cage and Cunningham: radical questions

March 31, 1983: John Cage at 70 has a remarkably youthful, relatively unlined face. He keeps his hair dark (or perhaps it has always stayed that way): just a touch of grey at the temples. He has an engaging laugh. His brown eyes sparkle with the pleasure of whatever has struck him as funny (it’s usually an absurdity) and his mouth opens and this big, exultant grin happens. Continue reading

Independent scholarship in the arts

Opening article for the inaugural edition of The International Journal of Independent Scholars (ed. Guy P. Buchholtzer), 2010.

 Taking Emerson’s famous Harvard address On the American Scholar as his touchstone, the writer draws on his experiences as an author and activist in the area of the arts and cultural policy to make the case for validity of the work of the independent scholar who chooses to work outside the traditional academy. The advantages and disadvantages of independent activity and academic affiliation are examined, and the writer concludes that  “we have more in common—those of us outside the academy and those within its walls—than is sometimes allowed.” 

Continue reading

Edouard Lock: showman or shaman?

A presentation to the Royal Society of CanadaNational Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, November 19, 2004

© Max Wyman

In the late 20th and early 21st century, dance has been shaped by a few great artists with the vision and the audacity to exploit and explore the possibilities of the artform in a new fashion. Two of them have spent their careers working in Europe: Pina Bausch, who is German and works in the area of neo-expressionist theatrical modernism, and William Forsythe, an American also working in Germany, whose interests lie in expanding the expressive potential of classical ballet. A third is Canadian: Edouard Lock. Continue reading

Ron Longstaffe: savouring the aha moment

 

July 7, 2003: Ron Longstaffe died of cancer at the end of May after a horrendous hospitalization following a femur fracture that happened when he was putting on a leg-brace. He was 69, which is not much of an age these days. He was an uncommon man, not least the way in which he straddled the worlds of business, politics and the arts with such ease.

Continue reading

Confessions of a lovesick schoolboy

My teenage years, the 1950s, were spent at the all-boys Wellingborough Grammar School, in Northamptonshire, England. More than half a century later, in the spring of 2016, I was asked to contribute some reminiscences for presentation to the 50th anniversary reunion of the nearby County High School for Girls. Here is what I sent.

You girls! I look at your school photos now, and they conjure a different age: you were sweet, wonderful, mysterious beings, in those pastel-coloured summer dresses and those little white socks. In the spring, London Road and the Broadway bus stops after school looked like clusters of butterflies … Continue reading

Jeffrey Archer: doing his best

August 21, 1991: Jeffrey Archer is as vigorous and combative—and funny—as they come. He plays his upper-class enthusiasm and superiority with enormous aplomb. We’re supposed to be talking about his new book, As The Crow Flies. He won’t give me an answer when I ask him to describe himself, but when I question his son’s assessment of him as “romantic” he agrees whole-heartedly. Continue reading

Herons Creek Chronicles: Introduction

This is a work of fiction. Similar things may have happened, but imagination can play tricks. Nothing was ever quite the way we remember it.

 

All members of society are worthy of immortality. – Amadeo Modigliani

 

You know what it’s like. You’ve had such a congenial evening that you want to perpetuate it in some way, so you make a solemn pledge to do it all again three months from now, and to give it gravitas and endurance you call it something improbable like The Masters of the Universe or, in our more modest case, the Herons Creek Academy of Charm and Deportment.

I’m not sure now who suggested the name, and it doesn’t really matter, though it sounds a lot like something Meg would come up with. It was one of those moments of inspiration that seem to shine more brilliantly at the end of an evening of eating and drinking than in the grey light of the morning after, but the name stuck.

If you wanted to push the analogy you could put on a solemn face and say it was an Academy in the sense of it being a group of inquisitive and opinionated individuals coming together to explore issues of interest to them and to the world. Or you could just call it an excuse for a bunch of people who like each other to have a party.

The Board of Governors of the Academy meets four times a year, on the eves of the solstices and the equinoxes. Mostly they eat, drink and argue, in the most companionable of ways. I keep the chronicles.

 

 

 

 

St. Mark’s, Venice, Good Friday, 2014

Heeding a friend’s advice that we probably wouldn’t get a chance to light a candle at St. Mark’s, given the way that tourists are herded through the cathedral at a gallop, we chose not to join the long, long lines attempting to get in.

However, a visit was by no means out of our sights. We had picked up a leaflet in Italian of the services planned for St. Mark’s for the Easter weekend, and spotted that they were doing a 9 p.m. veneration of the church’s seven sacred relics from Christ’s Passion that evening (Good Friday)—no tourists allowed. Continue reading

Bill Reid: reluctant figurehead

Some days, Bill Reid’s Parkinson’s is so bad he can’t get anything done. This cool November day in 1984 is one of his good days. I pick him up at his apartment on Point Grey Road and drive him to his studio on Granville Island, where he shows me his current work. “There are so many things I have to do, and so many people are after me for this and that, that I decided to hell with all of them, I’ll make a frog.” Continue reading

Giving back

 

Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“Common knowledge suggests that every reward or gain comes with a commensurate sacrifice. Is that equation accurate in your experience?” Theatre director Rachel Ditor was inviting me to take part in a discussion about the notion of sacrifice that she was conducting in the pages of transmissions, a little magazine that her theatre company produced. She suggested I might consider the idea of sacrifice in terms of my career as an author of books on Canadian dance, as an assessor and former board member of the Canada Council for the Arts and as the President of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. Continue reading

A small town in Ontario

For all its situation at the nexus of political power in Canada, Ottawa is a small town. This is no Rome or Paris or London. Helsinki might be nearer the mark, though without the history. The grand look that political edifices and their surroundings bestow on their capitals peters out in short order here. Continue reading

Milton Wong: doing good by stealth

Milton Wong and I were born in the same year, and lived most of our lives in the same city, yet we didn’t have more than a passing acquaintance until we were into our mid-50s. Do I regret that now, or do I see it as a necessary progression toward the meeting that really initiated our friendship? I hover. We had both been on a lifelong journey to discover what interested and motivated us most. Perhaps we needed to wait until we had reached a tentative conclusion or two and were ready to talk. Continue reading

Gordon Smith: modest master

September 24, 1997: Midway through a new painting, Gordon Smith will often buzz his wife Marion from his studio and ask her to step across the courtyard of their West Vancouver home to give her opinion of the work in progress. “And she comes and she doesn’t say anything, then she says, ‘Oh, I haven’t got  my right glasses,’ and I think oh, God, and I say, ‘Get your right glasses,’ and she says well, and I know then—well—that it’s not right. It’s terrible.” Continue reading

Tennessee Williams comes to dinner

 

October 14, 1980: Tennessee Williams comes to the house for dinner. Roger Hodgman, who is directing the Vancouver Playhouse production of Williams’ late play The Red devil Battery Sign, brings him. With them come Williams’s current West End young man-companion and a perky student actress from UBC Roger seems to be currently dating (Roger’s wife Helen, the novelist, has left him for another woman, and she and her girlfriend, Barbara, who are soon to move to Australia, were round here recently for a riotous night of drinking—jaunty Australian reds that they brought with them—and hot-tubbing under the lodge-pole pines). Floyd St. Clair and David Watmough complete tonight’s group. Continue reading

George Woodcock, gentle anarchist

 

May 28, 1989: What a marvellous spirit George Woodcock is: insatiably curious, incurably anarchist, unstoppably generous. It’s a pleasure to have been part of his Canada-India Village Aid Society and to get to know him a little better.

His writings just pour out: 80 books and counting. He has that rare knack of making complexities accessible, of speaking clearly and engagingly without ever talking down. Continue reading

A night of torrid tango

December 4, 1987: Always sensitive to the shock of the new, I make my way to Graceland—bare concrete floor, bare steel pillars, “Vancouver’s sleekest nightspot”—for Vancouver New Music’s Tango Cabaret: “a night of torrid tango nouveau.”

US pianist Yvar Mikhashoff, bushy-haired and bespectacled, has asked 100 composers to create tangos and he plays us some of them: one by novelist Anthony Burgess, very English and subtle in its decorations, another by the astrologer who played John the Baptist in The Ten Commandments. There’s a little nothing of a tango by John Cage, one by a composer who never wrote anything but this one piece, and one by a composer who didn’t actually know what a tango was. Continue reading

A gift for Mrs. Thatcher

November 17, 1987: LONDON: To 10 Downing Street, to deliver a gift from my hairdresser Derek to Mrs. Thatcher. When she came to Vancouver last month for the heads of commonwealth conference Derek was brought in to deal with her hair. He washed it with her leaning over the bath in her hotel room. In an interview in The Province he was quoted as saying she had hair like steel wool. Embarrassed by his gaffe he has asked me to hand-deliver an apology and a package of photos while we’re here. Continue reading

Chopin: eternal Romantic

 

Bach is like an astronomer who, with the help of ciphers, finds the most wonderful stars. Beethoven infuses the universe with the power of his spirit. I do not climb so high. A long time ago, I decided my universe would be the soul and heart of man.  Fréderic Chopin

When Susan and I were interviewed once for a radio show about professional couples—couples who work in the same profession, that is—we were asked about our individual musical tastes. Susan’s choices matched her way of thinking: rational, logical, carefully structured, controlled and tasteful of emotional expression—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. Mine were more of an emotionally flamboyant kind: Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, the Romantics, Chopin above all. Continue reading

Kinky Friedman’s guitar pick

November 21, 1997: As a memento of our meeting Kinky Friedman gives me an autographed guitar pick, cut from tortoise-shell-patterned plastic. It’s a souvenir of his sometime career as a country singer, founder of the Texas Jewboys (“the only thing Texans and Jews have in common is that they both like to wear their hats indoors”) and composer of such classics as They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Any More, Asshole from El Paso and Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed. Continue reading

The truth is out there

In the 1990s Vancouver became a significant centre for TV and film production—for a time it was dubbed Hollywood North—and in the spring of 1997 our house-sitter Laura McFadzean, who lived down the road and helped run Liz Bell’s modelling/acting talent agency, mentioned that the movie people were always looking for new faces and suggested I try out for a cameo role on The X-Files. They wanted a defecting scientist with a thick Russian accent and Laura thought that because I spoke a bit of Russian I might fit the bill. Continue reading

Those dancing feet

Dancing is the loftiest, the most moving, the most beautiful of the arts. For it is no mere translation or abstraction of life. It is life itself.–Havelock Ellis, The Dance of Life.

Come and meet
Those dancing feet
On the avenue I’m taking you to
Forty-Second Street.–42nd Street
, by Al Dubin and Harry Warren

If you only knew me to look at me, and tried to work out what I did for a living, the notion of a career in dance is not the first conclusion you would jump to. So when people discover that I’ve spent my life writing about dance, one of the first things they ask, in somewhat incredulous tones, is: Were you ever a dancer? Continue reading

Allen Ginsberg likes my tie

May 1, 1985: Allen Ginsberg peers closer, intrigued by the pattern on my tie. He’s under the impression that it’s marijuana leaves, and the idea clearly pleases him. It’s not. It’s some kind of innocuous autumn design. But the idea that I’d greet the guru of the dope generation wearing appropriate clothing gets us off to a warm start. Bushy greying beard, the collar of his white shirt buttoned down over a narrow striped tie, pens and glasses-case making the shirt’s breast pocket bulge, he’s here to do a reading and some workshops at Hollyhock, the new-age retreat on Cortes Island.

Warmth, individualism and the honest statement of the human heart are the topics we talk about over the abundant food and drink at the communal table at Warren Tallman’s house, and the conversation blossoms in the early afternoon into an all-too-sane attack on the iniquities of neo-conservatism and the vast power of the military-industrial arm.

Ginsberg is a quiet, generous man. His conversation is playful, filled with irony. But he can be serious as well. He used to say he wanted to save America’s soul. Today he amends that. What he wants to do is “uplift America’s spirit.” He doesn’t really believe, he says, in “the permanent entity of a soul. But there is a spirit, from the Latin animus, a breath, and there is inspiration, unobstructed breath. And it would be interesting to open up America’s breath, inspire America.” To what, exactly? “To a sense of majesty, of patience, generosity, friendliness, sensitivity.”

On the table is a copy of his new Collected Poems. How do you achieve all these things through poetry? It’s a tough task, he agrees. “So you formulate individualistic art. Lay your heart bare. Do what Whitman asked for: claim candour. You get your message across by revealing an actual human heart instead of an institutional art. Having a good heart, finally, is what’s important. If the ship has sunk and there’s only a lifeboat left, what are you going to do, despair, or run for the raft?”

 

‘When will the Beatle bubble burst?’

I’d been writing about the entertainment business in London for less than a year when the Beatle boom began. The editor of the magazine I was working for asked me to take a look at the new group and tell him what I thought. I watched them on the live national variety show, Sunday Night at the London Palladium, and wasn’t impressed. Those suits, those haircuts, that name—“They’ll never make it,” I told him. “Can’t sing. Stupid name. Won’t last.” “Don’t you believe it,” he said. “They’re going to be important. Spend some time getting to know them.” Continue reading

Namibia, February, 2016

Extracted from notes made during a cruise from Barbados to Cape Town. It seems important to mention that a flying one-day visit is no way to form an accurate impression of a society, but one day was all we had in each of the countries we visited down the west coast of Africa in early 2016. These notes, drawn from immediate experience, are nothing more than vignettes. And you know what they say about first impressions …

 

The many faces of Africa: Namibia is yet again an entirely different country. We dock at Walvis (whale fish) Bay, a neat, clean, orderly-looking town–a legacy of the Dutch and Germans–and head out to Walvis Bay lagoon, a protected ocean wetland that is spectacularly rife with flamingoes, and then into the Namib desert, which stretches in a broad strip right up the centre of the country until it joins the Kalahari. Continue reading

Luanda, Angola, February, 2016

Extracted from notes made during a cruise from Barbados to Cape Town. It seems important to mention that a flying one-day visit is no way to form an accurate impression of a society, but one day was all we had in each of the countries we visited down the west coast of Africa in early 2016. These notes, drawn from immediate experience, are nothing more than vignettes. And you know what they say about first impressions …

 

In Togo our bus came with two armed guards in the back seats. In Luanda we get a police outrider and an unmarked two-man police car for the three buses on our “highlights of Luanda” day out. This is a two-faced city: a glitzy business district of office towers and apartment blocks that looks like a prosperous downtown in any tropical capital (though lots of crumbling tenements totter cheek by jowl with the shiny and the new); and slum areas like anything you’d see in Rio or Nairobi–sprawling Potemkin villages hidden by ten-foot fences that allow only fleeting glimpses inside through occasional narrow entryways.

A wide and splendid boulevard with parks and squares runs for several kilometres along the beaches, then gives out abruptly at the shanty towns, where you can see evidence of ongoing slum clearance. Apparently there’s a brouhaha over the lavish spending on the boulevard while social programs remain short-changed. A city and a country in transition? Luanda has the highest cost of living in the world, despite 40 per cent unemployment (at least) and rampant corruption, latest evidence of which is a case involving the misappropriation of billions from the Bank of Angola resulting in 50 convictions and counting. Independence for Angola was 41 years ago but the history has been, to say the least, unhappy. Our tour guide, Andre, says he was forced to become a child soldier at 14 and served for three years in the civil war–though he worked in Army logistics so “I never had to fight my brothers.” He eventually smuggled himself into the UK and got himself a solid education in media studies at Goldsmiths.

We visit a pretty Catholic church and tour the military museum that’s housed in the old Portuguese fortress that overlooks the city (statues of Vasco da Gama and other colonizers, and displays of military might ranging from ancient cannons to a heap of smashed-up US helicopters). A vast park in the centre of town houses the mausoleum of Agostino Neto, who led the guerrilla war against colonialism and was Angola’s first president. The scale is bigger than Lenin’s tomb in Moscow and the security is fierce–no photography allowed anywhere on pain of camera confiscation, and a police mirror search under the bus for any hidden bombs we might be bringing in.

The catafalque at the heart of the building is ringed with lavish wreaths from appreciative nations and organizations, with pride of place going to the one from Russia. The obsession with security continues with a ban on any photography during our drive through the city’s up-market residential area where all the Angolan elite live. Heaven forbid that evidence of the inequities here would ever make it onto Facebook or YouTube.

São Tomé, February, 2016

Extracted from notes made during a cruise from Barbados to Cape Town. It seems important to mention that a flying one-day visit is no way to form an accurate impression of a society, but one day was all we had in each of the countries we visited down the west coast of Africa in early 2016. These notes, drawn from immediate experience, are nothing more than vignettes. And you know what they say about first impressions …

São Tomé, capital of the island state of São Tomé and Príncipe, is a calmer side of Africa- a  town of parks and avenues and stately buildings left over from Portuguese colonial times. Yes, the usual atrocities occurred and the islands were largely populated by slaves brought in to work the sugar plantations, but there’s more of a sense of order and contentment than we saw in Togo and Benin. Continue reading

Togo and Benin, February, 2016

Extracted from notes made during a cruise from Barbados to Cape Town. It seems important to mention that a flying one-day visit is no way to form an accurate impression of a society, but one day was all we had in each of the countries we visited down the west coast of Africa in early 2016. These notes, drawn from immediate experience, are nothing more than vignettes. And you know what they say about first impressions …

They called Lome, Togo, the pearl of Africa when the French were here, but what elegance there might have been has long since eroded. The haze over the city is dusty, spicy and sharp: a mix of traffic pollution, the sand dust that blows in from the Sahara and smoke from the smouldering garbage dumps at the edge of the city. Everything’s coated in fine sand; drifts of it collect in corners.

The people have an accusing look. No one smiles. They live in grit and filth. A woman with a bucket of orange packages on her head gives me the finger when I smile at her. We are clearly not welcome, and we should hardly expect to be, flaunting our cosseted little lives along the chaotic streets where people are eking out an existence hawking (often from the top of their heads) anything that might conceivably have a market: urns of tea by the cup, cosmetics, fruit, cigarettes, school supplies … A taxi driver wants $50 US to drive us a couple of miles to the fetish market (oh, curb your enthusiasm – this is where they sell monkey skulls and porcupine skins for the voodoo ceremonies).

Stencilled signs on walls and buildings everywhere declare that “it is forbidden to urinate here,” not that it matters – it seems half the male population is competing to pee for Togo. The US embassy, a great concrete and glass building in a fortified compound, looks as if it has been plunked down in this desolate urban landscape like something from another planet. This must be the foreign service’s very definition of a hardship posting. (continue reading below)

 

One of the attractions of this itinerary was the promise of encounters with voodoo, and in Lome we are taken to a “genuine, non-tourist” voodoo ceremony. Hmm. The village is authentic enough, but the event seems disappointingly sanitized – a few people give the impression of being put into a trance by the pounding drumming and singing, and a couple of young men pretend to stab themselves with sharp sticks under the influence, but nothing more than that. No chickens or goats are harmed in this production (though someone on the ship said they witnessed an adult male circumcision at a similar event a month or so ago).

We actually came closer to the real voodoo in Benin the following day, when we went to Ouidah, where voodoo is said to have begun. We visited the Sacred Forest where all the voodoo gods live (and are represented by giant effigies in an astonishing array of styles, from classical Egyptian to 1960s junk sculpture). Here behind a little hut deep in the forest we came across the colourfully clad king (wearing a pork pie hat decorated with sequin elephants and a dangling all-around fringe so you couldn’t see his face) and his court preparing to welcome visitors, though Susan and I were for a while the only ones around. We all stared at each other as if we were in an interplanetary encounter, the two of us taking photos, one of the courtiers fishing his cellphone out of his robes to check they had the time right.

Benin was otherwise not much of a step up from Togo – both pretty much failed states, former French colonies stripped of their assets and long neglected – but affecting in a different way. This was the place where 10 million slaves were sent to Brazil, the West Indies and the US. We drove along the four miles of sandy path that they were forced to walk to get to the ships (passing hordes of local school kids on foot, scribbling the experience in their notebooks) and walked under the Gate of No Return, a wide arch covered with ochre bas reliefs of the departing slaves, on the big, wide beach where they were mustered and taken to the black hulks that carried them away. Many of them thought they were going to be eaten, and killed themselves on the beach by drowning or swallowing their tongues or suffocating themselves with sand and soil. The nearby resort where we stopped for local beer and fried plantain is called the Hotel of the Diaspora. The memory hasn’t died, and those kids will make sure it doesn’t.

 

Brazil, February, 2016

Extracted from notes made during a cruise from Barbados to Cape Town.

Our first taste of the Amazon: by boat past the long Belem waterfront – a working port, barges, abandoned hulks, little darting pirogues, floating gas stations with convenience stores, occasional little shanty slums, up-river tourist boats with rows of hammocks slung in their dark interiors, occasional inlets that photograph like gritty Canalettos, then we cross the wide estuary and head up-river ourselves, through channels past waterside houses built on stilts and often brightly decorated.

The air is humid, the heat oppressive. We disembark onto a narrow boardwalk over swampy marshland and file into the jungle. There’s a bit of a community here, a few simple buildings where we sample some of the local fruits, then it’s a 90-minute trek (a lot too much for some of our number) through the brush and jungle in search of flora and fauna. I hang back, taking photos, and encounter a solemn girl of maybe nine who’s sitting on a porch holding out toward me a shining black and gold beetle the size of a golf ball. We catch up with the others and she stays with the group throughout the tour, sometimes running ahead to climb into the canopy with a couple of teen boys, sometimes disappearing, always popping up with something new to show us, a real child of the jungle. “This is probably going to be the happiest time of her life,” says Susan. (continued below)

 

 

By the time we have to catch the tender (the ship’s lifeboats do double duty) for the long ride across the harbour back to the ship the wind and tides are brisk, and the water is tossing and bumping the tender against the dock – it’s a challenge for many to actually get on, and once they’re on it’s a challenge to keep their lunch down. We hear that the tender behind us took three hours to make the crossing and a passenger was hurt. Not exactly what you think you’re signing up for. “Don’t push me! Don’t push me!” cried one elderly lady, looking so frail she might crumble, as we stumbled off the tour boat when it returned to the dock.

The rest of our visit to Brazil – Fortaleza, Natal and Recife – was, well, Brazil, of which we have never been particularly enamoured. Highlight was walking the back streets of old Natal, where we had been told not to go – just the two of us on a stroll. It’s a rundown industrial area, decaying facades, all kinds of graffiti, discarded condoms, a dead rat squished in the centre of the cobbles, and as we walk past a seafood wholesale storefront, give our usual smiling “bom dia” and are gestured in by one of the guys sitting out on the sidewalk. He takes us deep into the building, hauls open a vast reinforced door, and there’s the walk-in freezer, filled with fish, some hanging from the ceiling, some in boxes, some in untidy piles. He gestures in the direction of the fish. Are we supposed to walk in? Is this a tourist abduction? Will the ship sail on without us, leaving us to freeze with the dorado? But no. He just wants us to photograph his fish, and we part the best of friends, his warning to beware of “many ladrones in these streets” ringing in our ears.