A Dramatic (and Surprising) Week

March 19, 2007 at 8:37 pm (Arts, Comics, Family, Horror, Languages, Music)

In case you haven’t figured this out, I love being the center of attention. When I was a child, I was involved in musical theater; once I hit junior high school, I dropped out of that and got into Speech and Debate instead. And, one of my first acts upon arriving at UCSB to start my MA in Classics was to join the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble, which was a rocking good time if there ever was one. However, since coming back to LA, my opportunities to perform have been rather limited. So, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that, when given the opportunity to participate in a play with a budget that might possibly include negative numbers, and in German, no less, I leapt at the chance.

In fact, this is the second time I have walked down this rather lightly-trod path. One of the instructors in UCLA’s German department teaches German 119a and 119b every fall and winter quarter, which consists of one quarter of reading German plays and then a quarter in which we perform one of those plays. Last year, I did the entire two-course sequence, during which time I assumed the role of Sir Isaac Newton, a patient in an asylum in Dürrentmatt‘s Die Physiker, a depressing meditation on science, politics and their intersection during the Cold War. And when Lisa asked me back to take part in this year’s play, I expected more of the same. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Arthur Schitzler’s Der Grüne Kakadu is a light, witty one-act play set in Paris on the eve of the French Revolution. Although it has its share of political agitators, the events occurring outside of the eponymous bar serve as catalysts and foils for the all-too human dramas playing out inside. The Green Cockatoo is a cabaret theater, where working-class players recount tales of crime and violence for the entertainment of the jaded, aristocratic audience. As the night progresses, the line between the real and the fantastic becomes more and more blurred, with ultimately tragic (but highly entertaining and unforeseen) results for my character, the Herzog of Cadignan, the most decadent and arrogant aristocrat of them all. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and I hope that Lisa reneges on her promise to take next year off from directing, otherwise I might have to do something drastic…

As if four consecutive days of final rehearsals, followed by two nights of performance, weren’t enough, Saturday evening found Heather and me at the Norris Theatre in Palos Verdes for a performance by my niece’s ballet studio, Dance Peninsula Ballet. Like most Americans, my experience with ballet has been essentially limited to The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, and I freely confess that I was expecting more of the same: Light fantasies and predictable romances in pink tutus. This performance, then, certainly defied my expectations, although not always in positive ways.

A joint production with the Alex Dance Academy, an LA dance school combining ballet and other western dance styles with traditional Armenian dance, the pieces performed represented an equally diverse assortment of styles and cultures. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, they started with a (to my mind) rather generic Irish number, which I considered sloppily danced, at best. The numerous Armenian pieces scattered throughout the program were equally uninspiring. Before I am labeled as a close-minded, uncultured bigot, I would like to present my aforementioned two-year stint in the UCSB Middle East Ensemble as evidence that I am not biased against things Middle Eastern and Central Asian; in fact, I enjoy Middle Eastern and Central Asian music and dance a great deal, and have had quite a bit of exposure in my time. Further, I realize that we are dealing with children, not professional dancers, and that I can’t hold them to the same standard. That said, please allow me a critic’s honesty: I wasn’t impressed. In Armenian Esquisses, which I believe was a fairly traditional Armenian line dance set to Armenian pop music, the dancers seemed sloppy and disorganized; while this is the nature of such dances in the wild, if you will, I expect staged performances to look more professional. The most interesting of the pieces, Gypsy Fantasy, an Arabian Nights-inspired number, had a bizarre and rather uncomfortably sexist sequence involving a whip-toting male in the middle of a crowd of veil-clad females that included my niece. I’m all for Arabian Nights and whips (e.g., Indiana Jones). But this piece didn’t feel adventurous, it felt… exploitative.

Luckily, the evening was saved by two pieces, both choreographed by one Valerie Huston, that not only surpassed, but completely demolished, my expectations of ballet. The first, Tête á Tête, starring two guest dancers, both graduates of DPB, was quite intriguing. I’d say avant-garde, but I’m not really sure what that means in the context of dance (I mean, no one pretended to be a tree), so I’ll just leave it at “quite intriguing.” As I understood it, the piece revolved around a woman meeting a different aspect of her personality, as if in a mirror, and interacting with it in the form of the dance, only to be replaced by it (or to escape from it?) by the end of the piece. Both the choreography and the dancers themselves were playful, with just a hint of the sinister at the beginning and end, as the boundary between the two characters is broken and, eventually, contested.

The second, Velvet Touch, starring my niece as one of the supporting dancers, was equally visually and emotionally arresting. The story of a love triangle that starts in friendship, moves to jealousy and betrayal, and ends in murder, its dancers wore only black until the very end, when the betrayed woman appeared on stage wearing elbow-length red gloves, which she ultimately tied together and used to strangle the couple. This use of color reminded me of Frank Miller’s Sin City graphic novels, which also use black-and-white art, complemented occasionally by one primary color, to create a tense, and even threatening, mood (an effect that was duplicated quite successfully in the film version). Both the choreography and the acting ability of the dancers successfully conveyed the wide range of emotions, from the innocent joy of the friends before love had torn them apart, to the passion of illicit romance, inherent in this tale. Velvet Touch‘s darkness, not only in terms of its color palette, but also the music chosen and the overall theme, surprised me quite pleasantly, since I had spent the first half of the evening imagining all of the grim and dramatic stories that I would tell were I myself a choreographer! Certainly, this was my favorite of all of the pieces performed, and gives me hope that ballet and I can indeed find a common ground again in the future. Also, although I’ll grant that I may be biased, I was quite impressed with my niece’s dancing, in both this piece and the aforementioned Gypsy Fantasy, despite the latter’s weaknesses. So, if you should read this, you go, girl!

Finally, we ended the evening on a lighter note, celebrating that most Irish of saints with Josh and Mike at the Whale and Ale Restaurant in San Pedro. I was expecting an American interpretation of a British pub, with a few weapons and tartans on the wall and a crowd of twenty-somethings drinking green beer with rock blaring over the speakers. What we found instead was a remarkably tasteful recreation of a Victorian British pub, from the wonderfully period wallpaper and banisters to the hearty fish n’ chips (a necessity) and the wide selection of drinks. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was haunted, too! By the end of the evening, Mike had commandeered the piano, and we sang our way through a broad assortment of Beatles and Elton John tunes. It was a surprising end to a surprising week, and I can’t wait to get back there, although this time I plan on bringing a few more friends who will appreciate the atmosphere of the establishment (I’m talking about you, Elyse!).

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