Friday, March 20, 2009

Miscel-Lanie: Feral Cats, Art Exhibits, Ballet, Theatre, Etc.

Some weeks are crazy. Go, go, go. Busy, busy, busy. But even most crazy weeks are not like the one I've just had. It started last Saturday. I finally managed all the arrangements to capture Mom - our feral cat friend - and have her spayed. Except for one little problem. No way was Mom going into our trap, thank you very much. What we found in the trap early Saturday morning was Dad, the male cat who Smudge looks just like. Well, a neutered feral cat of any gender is a blessing, so we took Dad to SNAP (Spay and Neuter Assistance Program) to be fixed.

Michael and I then zoomed home and did some housework before changing into good clothes and heading back into town. First, we attended an Artist Talk at the gallery show of our friend Lillian Warren. Lillian's new work at the Rudolph Projects | Artscan Gallery impressed me a lot. Titled "Here is Nowhere," the art explores the landscape of contemporary America with all it's sameness and anonymity.

Originally photographed or videotaped, often from within a car, the scenes have an "anywhere" feel to them. Those could be electrical lines anywhere; highway overpass buttresses anywhere; highway signs anywhere; street scenes anywhere. For me, this gives the paintings the feeling of being everywhere. Each scene looked like someplace I have been although I can't quite put my finger on where it is. The colors in the paintings are subtle, mostly early evening or early morning colors, dusky or smoky, full of purples and roses and soft blues. Everything identifiable is slightly fuzzed out, adding to the sense of everywhere-ness.

After a lively discussion with Lillian and her gathered admirers, Michael and I moved on to Gallery 3 at the Winter Street Studios where our friend Piyali Sen Das Gupta has a show mounted. Piyali, hosting an open gallery, greeted us when we arrived. Her current show features her dog, Scooby, a basset hound I have had the pleasure of meeting in person. "The Dog Stories," as she titles her exhibit, features much more than a dog; it is the story of the conjunction of a woman's life and a dog's life and how the dog fits into and enlivens the woman's milieu. The paintings are whimsical, brightly colored, and enchanting. Scooby is always somewhere in the art, always looking up from his short, basset hound position with soulful, adoring eyes at the woman or the viewer.

Although she also has drawings and prints in the show, Piyali primarily hung paintings done in egg tempera. I have learned a bit about egg tempera from Piyali over the years and admire her work even more because of the demanding nature of that medium. Egg tempera paintings take a great deal of time and layer after layer of paint that has been hand mixed using perishable egg yolks. If you haven't seen the exhibit, hurry and get over there before it comes down at the end of March. It is well worth the effort.

We visited several studios on our way out of Winter Street, discovering something to enjoy in each one. Then we grabbed a bite to eat, picked up Dad from the clinic, returned our rented live trap, and then made a beeline for home. Once there, we set Dad up with food, water, a bed, and the surgery-required litter of non-irritating shredded newspaper in our shed for safe keeping, not that he appreciated the effort much. Back into the car as fast as possible, we sped down the highway to the Wortham Theatre for a performance of the Houston Ballet.

Luckily, we managed to get there for most of the dance talk, an informative presentation on some aspect of ballet that the company offers to patrons before each performance. The show, "Masters of Movement," featured three short ballets: The Leaves are Fading, The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and Soldiers' Mass. I found The Leaves are Fading" to be the least interesting. Very pretty and romantic to the point of sentimentality, it went on too long for me. Without drama, I became bored, although I loved the flowing, gauzy costuming.

"Vertiginous" lived up to its title in every way. A new word for me, vertiginous required a trip to the dictionary when we returned home. It means "having or causing a whirling sensation; liable to falling," and that is exactly what the performers delivered, an on-the-edge thriller with five dancers who remained in motion every minute of their time on stage. Lasting only twelve minutes, it seemed to go on forever (in a good way) and left me breathless and wondering where the dancers' stamina came from. The final piece, "Soldiers' Mass" moved me to tears. Featuring an all-male cast, it recreated the experience of a unit of soldiers who all died in their first battle on the first day of World War I.

It took me until the Kyrie Eleison was sung to realize that the music actually was a mass. It had been written to commemorate these very deaths and then later choreographed by Jirí Kylián. The dancing was superb and the fear, suffering, and bravery of the doomed soldiers came across beautifully. As you might guess, "Soldiers' Mass" gets my vote as the best of the three, although the Houston Ballet did each one beautifully.

After the ballet, we headed home and turned in because we had more excitement ahead on Sunday - a play at the Alley. This performance - "The Man Who Came to Dinner" - had us belly laughing. The actors' performances were collectively excellent and some individuals were absolutely superb. Which ones, you ask? Well, go see the show and find out for yourself! (Hint: the Alley's rep company regulars outdo themselves in this production.)

I intended to catch up on my week, but find myself pooped after Saturday and Sunday. I guess my readers will have to wait for me to catch my breath before they hear anymore.


Friday, March 13, 2009

Going Green or How I Became Irish

The immigrants who settled North Dakota, my birthplace and home, came primarily from Scandinavia and Europe, with a smattering of French fur traders tossed into the mix. Thus, my Swedish paternal grandfather – Johann Sven Gustafson - and my Alsatian grandmother – Frances Froelich. I grew up in a Catholic family and attended Catholic schools bursting at the seams with the burgeoning baby-boomer generation, but even in a Catholic setting, the Irish had little presence in my life. My classmates had names like Budzeak, Chaput (pronounced Shep-ee), Eisner, Garceau, Kroeber, Prochaska, and Lizakowski.

Exposure to names like these from an early age, besides bestowing on me a facility with hard to pronounce or spell surnames, also forever marked me as an outsider in places like Houston. You see, I grew up pronouncing the oe combination with the German “A” sound, as in Fray-lick (Froelich) and Kray-ber (Kroeber,) whereas Houstonians pronounce it with the “O” sound. People are always correcting me, but I stubbornly cling to my linguistic heritage.

Back to my classroom. I will allow that one or two Anglo-Saxon names cropped up – Houlihan and Higgins come to mind – but overall, the Irish just hadn’t made much of a mark on day-to-day life in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Even today, the population with Irish ancestry in my home state hovers around seven percent.

St. Patrick’s Day had nothing to do with green beer, Irish stew, leprechauns, or parades. Instead, we celebrated it from the vantage point of our teachers, the nuns, who proudly told us that Ireland had no snakes because of St. Patrick and his miracles.

If you have seen the play “Doubt,” the movie “Doubt,” or even the trailer for the movie “Doubt,” you have an inkling of my life as a Catholic schoolgirl. Meryl Streep’s performance terrifies, but at least we know she’s acting.

My first teacher at St. Mary’s Elementary School – which I didn’t get into until second grade because of baby boom overcrowding – had the rolls-off-your-tongue moniker of Sister Theodosia. Sister Theodosia earned my unending opprobrium when she decided to give me a new name. My actual given name is Mary Lane, but my family only called me Lanie. My mother can’t explain why she saddled me with Mary at all, but, by age seven, I really didn’t think the name had anything to with me.

Sr. Theodosia, on the other hand, being certain that Lane was not a saint’s name, refused to use it and insisted on calling me Mary. Naturally, I ignored her, thinking she meant one of the many other Marys in my class of 40. Let’s see: we had Mary Margaret, Mary Ann, Mary Catherine, Mary Ellen, and three just plain Marys. I thought she should have been relieved to have at least one student whose name was unique, but she would have none of it.

It is terrible to be in trouble on your very first day at your new school when you are really a good little girl. It may even account for some of my life-long foibles. My mother tried to reason with Sister Theodosia, but the best she could negotiate for me was Mary Lane, which rolls off the tongue as Marralane. I hated it, and I hated Sister Theodosia, but I suffered it until I turned sixteen and my rebellious side blossomed. Then I reclaimed Lane and later managed, by a clever arrangement with my maiden name, to ditch Mary forever.

Now, I know you are wondering what this has to do with “Going Green or How I Became Irish.” Just this: As a nice Swedish girl from the North Dakota, I had little or no point of reference for Irish-ness. Then I landed in St. Louis for college, and, as it turned out, stayed for a lot more fun.

St. Louis is kind of the anti-North Dakota as far as the Irish go. For one thing, they started going there early, in the 18th century, welcomed by the French, with whom they had waged a futile war against England and with whom this particular bunch of Irish folk were co-religionists. And they kept coming because the people in St. Louis treated them a lot better than the people on America’s Eastern Seaboard did.

Coming from an area populated largely by blue-eyed, blond-haired people, the incidence of red hair, green eyes, and freckles in St. Louis astonished me. Not to mention the number of Catholic churches - one on every corner it seemed. Suddenly, St. Patrick’s Day had MEANING in capital letters. There were parades, there were hats, there were tee shirts, there was green beer and Irish stew, and there were buttons that said “Kiss me; I’m Irish.”

The name Gustafson closed the door on pretending to be Irish, but I enjoyed the beer, the parades, and the antics of the Irish all around me. To me it seemed as gaudy and over the top as Mardi Gras does today. It’s fun to watch, but I’m not taking my shirt off for plastic beads, thank you very much.

By skipping over nearly a decade of my life in St. Louis, we come to the significant part. In January of 1976, I met an appealing, redheaded, green-eyed fellow whose name and family, it turned out, were decidedly Irish. That December I married him and found myself suddenly Irish. As if to prove the point, our friends Steffie and Lenny Marks even gave us a set of Irish coffee goblets as a wedding present which we use to this day.

The very next St. Patrick’s Day I found myself at the Buel Street Pub with a mug of green beer, wearing a green tee shirt that said, “Kiss Me, I’m Irish,” and shouting “Erin go Braugh” although I had no idea what it meant. It turns out going green is easy once you get over being Swedish.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Marie: An Incomparable Ballet

On Saturday night, Michael and I attended the Houston Ballet's production of a brand-new ballet: Marie. Choreographed by Stanton Welch, the HB's artistic director since Ben Stevenson retired, Marie is a stunning production the caliber of Cleopatra.

I began attending the Houston Ballet in 1992 with my friend and co-worker Irene Duke. Daughter Alexandra joined us somewhere along the line, then Irene got busy and dropped out of our season ticket group. Alex and I attended together for many years, but eventually she too found it hard to fit into her schedule. For a while I bought two tickets and invited one of my friends to join me so I wouldn't be alone. I really tried to get Michael interested, but he resisted.

Occasionally, when there was a fabulous ballet, I could get him to attend with me and we developed an accord about attending performances. Each season, we go through the schedule and select four of the contemporary, mixed program type performances to attend on a mini-subscription. Michael doesn't care for the story ballets and, over 18 years, I have seen most of them more than once, so I can take them or leave them. But the contemporary programs, which often feature new work, give you three different experiences in one evening. They are often cutting-edge in terms of costuming and stylization, and they are frequently set to music no one associates with ballet, such as Moby or The Kronos Quartet.

So, for the last couple of years, Michael and I have enjoyed our four performances per season of the Houston Ballet, making a date of it on Saturday night instead of attending on Sunday afternoons like I used to. This year's contemporary performances have been outstanding. In addition, we attended the performance of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal as well as the Jubilee of Dance, an annual, one-evening extravaganza featuring the best of everything from the Houston Ballet.

We picked Marie for this year's tickets because it was a world premiere. Welch's new works showcased in the contemporary performances have been excellent and we wanted to see what he would do with this story. The run-up hype for the show referenced the recent movie about Marie Antoinette, but we hadn't seen that, so we really had no other concept of Marie Antoinette than the "let them eat bread" stuff that always portrayed her as an uncaring, unenlightened snob.

The Saturday morning Chronicle review of the opening night performance gave us our first clue that the story would take a different tack and portray the queen in a sympathetic way. We arrived early enough to attend the regular pre-show dance talk, which Nancy Wozny, an old friend of mine, gave. Nancy had as her guest one of the costuming department's top people. They discussed the intricacies of crafting this ballet and demonstrated the lengths Welch and his team went to to get all the details just right by displaying a huge book of notes and sketches just for the character of Marie. Nancy also informed us about some of the little known history of Marie Antoinette. Reading the performance notes in the program put the icing on the cake. By the time the curtain rose, I had already been convinced that everything I knew about Marie Antoinette was biased and libelous.

Moments into the performance, I no longer cared about any of that. I became totally engrossed in the story unfolding before my eyes - and my ears, for that matter. The use of Shostakovich to score the dance was perfect. The music lacked the signals that the "made-for-ballet" compositions include to elicit knee-jerk reactions from the audience. Shostakovich's music blended subtly with the dance, partnered it rather than leading it.

And the dance itself - simply exquisite. From the confusion of two sheltered youths who had not a clue how to consummate their marriage to the raucous excesses of a libertine court to the terror of the revolution and the pathos of the royal family's deaths, the choreography could not have matched more perfectly. We had the privilege of seeing Melody Herrera dance the lead role. She performed with an understated command of the role, capturing and reflecting back to the audience the myriad qualities that made up this complex girl/woman. We saw her as a joyful child Marie; as an overwhelmed and frightened maiden Marie; as a madcap libertine Marie, and as a womanly Marie with a lover. We saw her terror, then her fortitude, when the revolution swept her family into danger and prison. But most of all, we saw HER with compassion and sorrow.

I have never attended a ballet that left me weeping until I went to Marie. I have been awed, as in the pas de deux in Don Quixote. I have been baffled and put off, as by the ballet Cruel Garden about Frederico Lorca. I have laughed at the antics in Coppelia and marveled at the staging in Cleopatra. But Marie simply reduced me to tears and I couldn't stop leaking them for quite a long time after the curtain closed. I went to the Green Room to congratulate Ms. Herrera and barely got the words out without losing it again.

Why did this ballet affect me so much? I think that the combination of choreography and music, plus the authentic and heartfelt performance of Melody Herrera, put this ballet over the top into a world-class category. I imagine it will be performed over and over as the years go by because it is just that good. And I will be pleased to be one of those who saw it during it's debut run.

If you like dance, then you must go see this ballet now. I suspectshows are going to sell out as word gets around - if they haven't already. So don't dawdle, balletophiles. Buy your tickets now. Buy the best seats you an afford and if they aren't up close and personal, bring your opera glasses along. There are subtleties in this ballet that you won't want to miss!


P.S. My next blog will be about the First International Convocation of Unitarian Universalist Woman and Progressive Woman of Faith.