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3 Reasons Why Louis C.K.’s ‘Horace and Pete’ Might be the Best Series of Our Time

April 4, 2016

Courtesy of Louis C.K.'s 'Horace and Pete' website

If there's any show that can be said to symbolize our present "golden era" of TV, it's Horace and Pete, the comedian Louis C.K.'s new series set in a Brooklyn bar. C.K. unveiled the 10th and final episode this weekend. This is is an odd thing to say when you consider the fact that C.K. released the series via his website without the need of a network, and that Horace and Pete feels more like a docudrama or an episodic piece of theater than anything I've ever witnessed on a small screen. Nevertheless, here are three reasons why Horace and Pete is brilliant:

1. It tells a story that feels old and new all at once.
I read a tongue-in-cheek elevator pitch-style description of the show in The New Yorker which I thought was right on the nose when it said Horace and Pete was "Cheers meets The Iceman Cometh." And with its story about a group of blood relations destined to repeat their cycle of woes into perpetuity, a tragic hero who ultimately falls despite striving to do the right thing (C.K.'s role as bar co-owner Horace), and "chorus" of barflies, the series veers into the terrain of Greek tragedy.

Yet at the same time, the plot bubbles and spews with today's headlines; Donald Trump's campaign is an intermittent discussion point throughout. And it grapples in an explosive but still non-heavy-handed way with the issues of our time.

One of the most thoughtful scenes, for example, presents a side of transgender politics I've never given much thought to before: the question of whether it's ethical for a transgender person to keep silent about their former gender identity to a person they're sleeping with. Horace, who's resolutely straight, has a happy one-night stand with a beautiful alcoholic. In the morning over eggs and coffee -- well, Horace has coffee; his date Rhonda (played by Karen Pittman) asks for something a little stronger and her gracious host obliges -- the conversation takes a left turn when Horace finds out Rhonda used to be a guy. At least, the possibility of a sex change is inferred, though never explicitly stated. As non-judgmental as Horace is about people who make a habit of drinking whiskey before breakfast, he gets flustered and accusatory at the thought he's somehow been "duped" into a "homosexual" encounter. Fascinating stuff. 

2. It refuses to conform to tried-and-tested formats.
The series exists in a liminal space at the intersection of TV, theater, documentary and feature film and strikes an unusual balance between the structural and content mores of these formats. Louis C.K. has created what feels like an entirely fresh way to tell a story by carefully weaving together elements from different traditions.

The series has the cuts and close-ups of a TV serial. It brings in the actualities of the documentary format. And it has the epic, sweeping quality of a movie. The theatricality of the series is what interests me the most though, like C.K.'s penchant for splicing the action with long monologues. My favorite of these is a bonkers-foulmouthed explanation of the famous Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah told by Kurt Metzger playing one of the bar's regular customers.

There's even an intermission to break up the longer episodes and the entire cast takes a bow at the end of the final show. Oh, and even though Horace and Pete is the work of one of the funniest comedians around today, there are few opportunities for laughter. Unless you count comedy in the sense of the great cosmic joke of which all humankind is a part. C.K. knows all about that, and with this series captures its essence in a bottle.

3. It features some of the most prescient writing and best performances I've ever seen in any format. Period.
What's masterful about Horace and Pete is the casting and the writing. It seems like the two are so closely intertwined (viz Metzger's Sodom monologue mentioned above, which, judging by the reactions of the other cast members in the scene, strikes me as having been partly or fully improvised) that I need to tackle them both at once.

The blend of standup comedians and dramatic actors is an unusual and powerful one. And each performer brings pathos, shadows and moments of levity to his or her role. I cannot speak highly enough of C.K., Steve Buscemi, and Edie Falco as the bar-owning brothers and their sister. Here we have a trio who show us plenty of fallibility and ugliness while at the same commanding our respect. And how tightly wound and carefully controlled the writing feels: C.K. reveals dramatic information to us incrementally, doling out hard-to-digest news about the family's troubled past in lean teaspoonfuls of strong medicine.

Yet despite the economy of the dramaturgy, abetted by the claustrophobic indoor setting of the Brooklyn bar with its flat lighting and ugly furniture, C.K. somehow makes his drama feel airy and spacious. Witness the final episode, which begins suddenly and without explanation in 1976. Here, the principal performers whom we've grown to know and love in the present-day setting -- C. K., Buscemi, Falco -- play their forebears. The scenes are without a doubt the nastiest and most suffocating of the whole series.

But then we jump forward to 2016, to find Amy Sedaris, in the role of a sweetly unhinged wannabe bartender, lightening things up. When she skips over to the bar's old jukebox and puts Simon and Garfunkel's famous song "America," about a journey to find meaning in a country that's lost its way, it's as if a feather duster had temporarily fluffed away all the creepy-crawlies from a cobwebby corner.

Speaking of which, Paul Simon's ghostly little theme song for the series, with its sparsely-chorded guitar riff and far-off lament of a vocal line, captures the "high lonesome sound" of the great roots musicians that have been singing about this country's dashed hopes and failures since the dawn of the Republic. The tune, together with this formidable series, leaves us feeling emotionally drained yet strangely complete.



VIDEO: Sneak Peek at Jay Z & Beyonce Collaborator's Puppet Show, More

April 1, 2016

Watch my monthly KQED Newsroom segment with host Scott Shafer here or below: 

Now through Saturday, Apr. 23: A House Tour of the Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Tour Guide Ludlow Londonderry at Z Space, San Francisco
The world premiere of a surreal, interactive comedy by national award-winning San Francisco playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb inspired in part by tours of kitsch historic mansions like Hearst Castle and the Winchester Mystery House. Stars Danny Scheie in a role written specifically for the Bay Area veteran actor.
Also at Z Space, Wednesday, Apr. 6 -  Tuesday, Apr. 12: Birdheart
Master puppeteer Julian Crouch (who did the Tony-nominated scenic design for Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and Lascivious Biddies rock band member, SF native, and Jay Z/Beyonce collaborator Saskia Lane join forces for a quirky table-top puppet show that weaves a beautiful story from ordinary things: crumpled brown paper, found objects, shadows and a mound of sand.
Now through Sunday, Apr. 10: Capacitor presents When We Were Small at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, San FranciscoThe Bay Area-based performing arts company presents a new show at the intersection of dance and circus arts looking at what it's like to experience the world when you're two years old.
Now through Saturday, Dec. 31: History San Jose presents Tattooed & Tenacious: Inked Women in California's History at the Pasetta House, History Park, San JoseA quirky and fascinating exhibition of photos, art work and artifacts relating to the little-known culture of female tattoo wearers and artists in the Golden State.
Saturday, Apr. 9 and Sunday, Apr. 10: Early music supergroups from England -- The Tallis Scholars and Stile Antico, First Congregational Church, Berkeley
Binge out on Renaissance hits over a single weekend with a pair of concerts by two of the world's foremost early music ensembles: Cal Performances presents the august British vocal ensemble The Tallis Scholars (Apr. 9) and the San Francisco Early Music Society hosts a visit from hip, young Stile Antico, also from England (Apr. 10).
Tuesday, Apr. 5: Armistead Maupin in conversation with Jewelle Gomez at Herbst Theatre, San FranciscoThe Tales of the City author appears in conversation with writer Jewelle Gomez to celebrate his receipt of the 2016 Mayor's Art AwardSan Francisco's highest artistic prize. Maupin is the first author to win this accolade. The event is free.

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FLAX Art Supply Opens a New Store and a New Era With Move to Oakland

The iconic FLAX store and sign on Market Street

To hear me being interviewed by KQED News host Devin Katayama about the move of FLAX to the East Bay, go here

FLAX, a venerable establishment displaced from Market Street in San Francisco by yet another condo project, has found new life in Oakland, with Thursday’s opening of a spacious and light-drenched store.

“It’s just another sign that people are recognizing the incredible value, vitality and hotness of this city,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf told KQED’s Tara Siler at the opening-day celebration. “And FLAX is really meant for Oakland … this is a family-owned business … so it’s perfect to place this in a city with so much artistic energy and legacy — so close to public transportation and in the center of the Bay Area, where all artistic souls can get here conveniently.” 

The store’s third-generation owner, Howard Flax, said: “This is definitely an underserved market and the more that we talk to different people in the community, and the more that we get to know Oakland and the greater East Bay, there are a lot of pockets of artists here. And we just look forward to connecting with each and every one of them, and partnering and collaborating to grow the arts in the East Bay.”

The beloved family-owned business has been around for almost 100 years, starting out in New York City in 1918. Its first San Francisco shop opened in 1938 on Kearny Street. A few incarnations later, it moved to Market Street in 1981, but its lease expired last year. A Fort Mason store debuted in November.

The 15,000-square-foot Oakland location, a former auto repair shop at 15th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, offers storage, a back parking lot and proximity to public transit — all things that Flax was looking for. “We were displaced from Market Street and here we are — and there’s no going back,” Flax said. “There’s no bittersweet feelings on my part. It’s the end of an era. … We attained that iconic status in San Francisco and that’s what we plan on building here in Oakland as well.” 

Schaaf said the opening is a “happy story” for the city in all respects. “We cannot have new people come here at the expense of our longtime businesses, artists, residents,” she said. “But we also have to make sure that we build places for them to come to. One of the things that’s exciting about this store is it is in a new part of town. It did not displace another small business.”

Devin Katayama, who covers Oakland for KQED, said the move by FLAX is symbolic of a massive shift of art and artists in the Bay Area. Many have been priced out of San Francisco, and now Oakland is also becoming unaffordable. Katayama interviewed Chloe Veltman, senior arts editor at KQED, for her take on the departure of FLAX, which had searched for sites to relocate in San Francisco but couldn’t find anything.

Describing FLAX as a true “gem” in the art-supply world, she said, “It wasn’t the cheapest place to buy supplies in town, but nevertheless the community supported it and loved it because it wasn’t a chain and had been around for so long.”

For starters, it means fewer places in the city to buy art supplies. Beyond that, it’s a sign of the “relentless displacement” of San Francisco’s arts community. “On the one hand, we’re seeing a lot of exciting movement in some ways, like the development of Minnesota Street Projects — a facility in Dogpatch which houses many cutting-edge studios and galleries,” Veltman said. “And, of course, big, flashy, attention-grabby things like the reopening of SFMOMA, the rebooting of the Bay Lights. But, on the other hand, it continues to be extremely difficult for local artists and organizations to thrive in this climate.”

For example, the San Francisco Arts Commission heard from nearly 600 artists last summer that either live or recently resided in San Francisco, Veltman said. The survey found that over 70 percent of the respondents had been, or were being, displaced from their workplace, home or both. “Libby Schaaf spoke of the hotness and vitality of Oakland,” Veltman said. “Well, artists have played an immense role in making Oakland vital and hot — look at the gallery and theater and music clubs and restaurant scene, the thriving First Fridays, etc. And now everyone wants to live there.”

KQED’s Tara Siler, Chloe Veltman and Devin Katayama contributed to this post.



VIDEO: Sneak Peek at Berkeley Rep’s ‘Macbeth’ Starring Frances McDormand and more

February 19, 2016

Now through Sunday, Apr. 10: Macbeth at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Berkeley
Frances McDormand (FargoHail, Caesar!) and Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones) star in a production of Shakespeare's tragedy of ambition directed by Daniel Sullivan.

Now through Friday, Jul. 1: Living Digital Space and Future Parks at Pace Art + Technology, Menlo Park
An immersive-interactive light, sound and video exhibition featuring 20 works by the members of teamLab, a 400-member art collective based in Tokyo.
Now through Sunday, Apr. 28: Opera Parallele’s Champion an Opera in Jazz at SFJAZZ, San FranciscoSan Francisco's jazz center and one of the region's most cutting-edge contemporary opera companies present jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard's opera about bisexual boxer Emile Griffith.
Friday, Feb. 19: Call your Girlfriend at the Jewish Community Center, San Francisco 
San Francisco's JCC presents a live podcast taping (and webstream) of the whip-smart, feminism-infused pop culture podcast created by columnist Ann Friedman, digital strategist/Forbes “30 Under 30” recipient Aminatou Sow and radio producer Gina Delvac.
Thursday, Mar. 3 - 12: Oakland School for the Arts' School of Rock at the Curran Theatre, San Francisco
OSA snagged the rights to the first ever amateur production of this hit Broadway musical based on the 2003 movie starring Jack Black as a rock guitarist who finds himself working as a substitute teacher at an elementary school.

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How Two Santa Cruz Artists Changed the Course of Environmental History

February 11, 2016

At the University of California Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, small groups of plant species weather out a harsh winter under several feet of snow. There’s not much to see, let alone anything that resembles art. But hard though it may be to believe, the specimens are in fact part of the latest game-changing ecological art project by Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison.
To hear my radio profile of Helen and Newton Harrison for KQED FM News and The California Report, click here
One of the Harrisons many eye-catching maps: "The Sagehen ecosystem and experimental sites"
One of the Harrisons many eye-catching maps: "The Sagehen ecosystem and experimental sites"
Widely known as the parents of the eco-art movement, the Harrisons have become world-renowned for using art to tackle environmental problems on a massive, global scale. Over more than four decades, the Santa Cruz-based husband-and-wife team have inspired the public to get behind environmental issues, from climate change to the impact of urbanization on the ecosystem -- and on occasion have even successfully helped to bring about high-level environmental policy change.
“These are million-square-kilometer problems,” says Newton of the issues that he and Helen address with their work.
“What we have to be concerned about is what is happening to the entire planet,” Helen says. “What we are concerned about is the survival of the people and all living things.”
The Harrisons’ acclaim is so great that a few years ago the Getty Research Institute and Stanford University both expressed interest in housing their archives. Stanford won. “We are delighted that the Helen and Newton Harrison archive came to Stanford University,” says Peter Blank, Senior Librarian at Stanford’s Bowes Art & Architecture Library. “Their engagement with the hard questions of our day -- what are our shared responsibilities on a planet fraught with ecological uncertainties -- and the manner in which they integrate the arts and sciences has resulted in a remarkably rich body of work.” And now the artists, who are both in their eighties, are the subject of a kaleidoscopic book, which Random House will put out later this year.
A 50-year-long project in the Sierra Nevada
Under deep snow at UC Berkeley Sagehen Creek Field Station in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, groups of plant species hibernate as part of a 50-year-long environmental art project implemented by The Harrisons in collaboration with scientists and members of the Washoe Tribe.
Under deep snow at UC Berkeley Sagehen Creek Field Station in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, groups of plant species hibernate as part of a 50-year-long environmental art project implemented by The Harrisons in collaboration with scientists and members of the Washoe Tribe.
At Sagehen, the Harrisons are collaborating with a small team of scientists and members of the Washoe Tribe on a 50-year-long project. It involves physically moving groups of plant species like wild rose and red fir to higher ground with the aim of helping the seedlings become resilient both to the warming effects of climate change and at different altitudes. The Sagehen investigation is part of an even bigger project, entitled The Force Majeure, which looks at finding solutions to two problems through conducting experiments in four different parts of the world -- encroaching water levels and rising temperatures.
"These are two vast forces that we have speeded up to say the least," Newton says of co-opting the legal term "force majeure" which means a huge power that cannot be controlled, kind of like an act of god. "We consider them a force majeure. Why? Go ahead and stop them if you can. But there may be a counter-force on the horizon and that is what we search for."
The Harrisons’ deep interest in involving people of the Washoe Tribe -- who for thousands of years have called the Sagehen area and beyond their ancestral home -- adds an important dimension to the project because of the Native Americans’ deep knowledge of the local ecosystem and its indigenous species. Tribal elder Benny Fillmore says this is the first time he’s ever been asked by anyone outside of his tribe to collaborate on an art project. “I think it’s really rare in this day and age as tribal members to be given a hand in such a big project,” Fillmore says.
UC Berkeley Sagehen Creek Field Station scientists Jeff Brown and Faerthen Felix. The scientists are collaborating with Newton and Helen Harrison on one part of their massive, global "Force Majeure" project. Here we see them posing in front of another site-specific art project on site at Sagehen.
UC Berkeley Sagehen Creek Field Station managers Jeff Brown and Faerthen Felix. Sagehen is collaborating with Newton and Helen Harrison on one part of their massive, global "Force Majeure" project. Here we see them posing in front of another site-specific art project on site at Sagehen, "Invisible Barn".
The Harrisons’ ability to connect people and ideas that normally wouldn’t come into contact with one another is one of their greatest assets. Sagehen field station manager, Faerthen Felix, says the station’s relationship with the Harrisons is helping to find a wider audience for important but usually dry scientific data. "The problem is that science is by nature a non-emotional process," Felix says. "You have to be dispassionate. The data has to speak for itself. But that’s not what humans are like. Emotion is what drives us. And emotion is the raw material that artists use."
Felix's colleague, Jeff Brown, says the Harrisons’ art -- for instance, the huge, colorful, topographical maps they create for many of their projects -- helps transform cold science into a meaningful story. “They’re allowed to get visceral,” Brown says. “They’re allowed to get emotive. They’re allowed to connect with people in ways science just can’t.”
Shaping environmental policy in Holland
This quality has enabled the Harrisons to shape environmental policy. In the mid-1990s, a branch of the Dutch government challenged the artists to solve an enormous urban planning problem: how to build hundreds of thousands of new houses while protecting the country’s lush green lowlands. The Harrisons created beautiful aerial landscape videos to bewitch the initially skeptical officials. They also audaciously exhibited a big map of Holland -- printed backwards. “The planners got mad at us and they said, ‘Why have you done this?’ Newton recalls. “And we said, ‘Well you’re planning your country backwards, so we printed your map backwards.’”
To get their message across to the Dutch authorities, the Harrisons audaciously created and exhibited a map of Holland --printed backwards
To get their message across to the Dutch authorities, the Harrisons audaciously created and exhibited a map of Holland --printed backwards
“It wasn’t that easy to convince the politicians,” says Adriaan De Regt, who was a cultural official for South Holland at the time the Harrisons undertook their Green Heart of Holland project. “It took some time before they saw that the plan from the Harrisons was a good idea.”
The American couple eventually won over the Dutch officials, who adopted their vision. Bill Fox, who runs the Center for Art and the Environment at the Museum of Nevada and has worked closely with the Harrisons in recent years, says the Harrisons’ work is persuasive because it successfully bridges the worlds of politics and science. “They create these beautiful maps and poetic texts, and do these exhibitions about the problem that really creates empathy for a place,” Fox says. “Once you begin to care about place, you will care about what happens to that place.”
Fomenting environmental activism in San Diego
The Harrisons first met in 1950 at Helen’s family farm in Connecticut. Newton was a budding sculptor still in his teens, and Helen, a few years his senior, a teacher, philosopher and student of English literature. The couple didn’t formally start working on art projects together until 1969, when they both landed jobs at the University of California, San Diego. Newton taught art and Helen ran educational programs.
It was a combination of biological research and the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s seminal book about environmental destruction, that pushed them towards working on art projects in service of the environment together. “We made a decision to do no work that didn’t benefit the ecology, as neither of us could face that alone,” says Newton. “That’s how our collaboration began.”
Electrocuting catfish in London
People exploring the Harrisons' "Portable Fish Farm" installation in 1971
People exploring the Harrisons' "Portable Fish Farm" installation in 1971
Sometimes the couple’s art has gotten them into trouble. In 1971, the Harrisons were part of a high-profile exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery. For their installation about the sustainability of farming practices, they electrocuted catfish and made stew for museumgoers. It caused an uproar. Helen says that although the fish were humanely killed, many people couldn’t see past the shock value. “People wanted the government to cancel our show,” she says.  The tabloid press went berserk. Newton lights up at the memory. “Helen made a weird version of bouillabaisse,” he says. “It smelled so good that nobody went to the other exhibitions.”
Composer Edward Lambert even turned the debacle into a chamber opera entitled The Catfish Conundrum two years ago, with Newton Harrison and the catfish among the characters represented on stage.
Watch a video of the entire opera, performed in 2014 by The Music Troupe of London:

It wasn’t just audiences that balked at the Harrisons’ work in the early days. Because of the couple’s scientific leanings, the art establishment was also fairly hostile towards them in the early years. “It took a while for museums to decide that artists could work in these fields and be artists,” says the Harrisons’ longtime New York dealer Ronald Feldman. “So they had a rough road to get attention for their work as artwork.”
Today, things are different. The Harrisons’ maps, videos and other visual artifacts can fetch up to hundreds of thousands of dollars on the art market, according to Feldman. And Newton and Helen are considered trailblazers. “Many artists work very well with the sciences,” Feldman says. “Newton and Helen have opened that door for everybody.”
The Harrisons aren’t as mobile as they used to be and Helen’s health is particularly fragile. They’re still doggedly focused on their ecological mission, though Newton cautions it’s not up to him and Helen to save the Earth. “You need a big community,” he says. “And that community is slowly forming and the question is will it form quickly enough? Or is mass extinction a fact?”
Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison with Laura and Benny Fillmore of the Washoe Tribe
Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison with Benny Fillmore of the Washoe Tribe and his daughter, Helen.

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Taylor Mac Preps for 24-Hour Singing Marathon

January 25, 2016

Taylor Mac in A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1776-1806 as part of Curran: Under Construction (Photo: Jim Norrena)
The term “pop music” is a 20th century invention -- it originated in England in the 1950s to describe the rock and roll frenzy that was sweeping the nation. One of the many inspired things about the first part of New York drag artist Taylor Mac’s lunatic-brilliant A 24-Decade History of Popular Music is how it reminds us that pop music in this country is actually much older than that. Another, is a sense that the greatest hits of the 1770s and 1780s -- the tunes that rocked the taverns and bawdy houses of our fledgling republic back in the days when England was pretty unpopular and a mohawk was a member of a native American tribe rather than a way to wear your hair -- could easily go viral today.
Mac is training for a 24-hour marathon performance of his A 24-Decade History of Popular Music in New York later this year, in which he will devote an hour of stage time to each decade from 1776 to the present day. For now, he’s getting into shape for this feat by undertaking just the first two parts -- or six decades / six hours worth of songs -- in San Francisco as part of the Curran Theatre’s Under Construction series of experimental performance. I caught the first three decades (1776 - 1806) on opening night and can’t wait to go back for Part Two (1806 - 1836) in a few days.
In his show, we first encounter Mac when he appears high above the stage on a balcony above the Curran's orchestra section. Wearing an elaborate hooped dress fashioned from brightly-colored foil ribbons and a voluminous wig that makes him look like Marie Antoinette had an accident in a Mexican bodega, the artist begins an epic journey through 240 years of U.S. musical history that’s as timeless as it is prescient.
That’s in part because of music director and pianist Matt Ray’s creative song arrangements, which make crusty old tunes like “Yankee Doodle” and “Amazing Grace” sound like like they were written just in time for this year’s Grammys. The performances carry it too: Although the show is currently in workshop mode, with Mac, Ray and the band still ironing out a few wonky transitions, the team manages to breathe new life into both well-known and obscure 18th century ditties. And it's Mac’s mercurial tenor that anchors the experience: the drag queen’s voice is as colorful as his flamboyant sense of style. There’s crushed velvet and feathers in Mac’s mellifluous ballad singing and 8-inch spiked heels in his drinking song belt.
Taylor Mac in A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1776-1806 as part of Curran: Under Construction
Taylor Mac in A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1776-1806 as part of Curran: Under Construction (Photo: Jim Norrena)
It isn’t just the music that makes three hours of sitting on an uncomfortable plastic chair on a rickety riser breeze by, or Mac’s eye-popping wardrobe. (In addition to the gaudy get-up mentioned above, there’s an “architectural” dress involving a pair of enormous doric columns, each with a plastic doll’s head dangling from the bottom, and another costume topped with an amazing wig made of wine bottle corks and sheaths of barley.) The thematic through-line connecting the musical numbers also helps to take A 24-Decade History of Popular Music beyond regular drag cabaret.
Mac underpins each decade of the musical journey with commentaries on broad social issues, which he spices with liberal amounts of scathing humor and personal anecdote. The first decade roughly and comically charts the founding principles of post-Revolutionary U.S.. In the second decade, Mac takes a piquant look at women’s lib. Part Three is all about booze, where the ripe innuendos of raucous drinking songs like “Nine Inch Will Please a Lady” clash against the stiff, bonneted warblings of a scandalized Temperance Choir (a small guest ensemble of classically-trained singers.) By the time we reach the end of the show, the do-gooder choristers get their comeuppance, pelted in a hailstorm of ping-pong balls. In addition to having fun with a piece of political history, the gambit neatly plays out a more contemporary stand-off between the scrappy, underground world of drag performance and the straight-laced mores of today's arts establishment. Here, the political becomes personal, as Mac himself has been faced with negotiating these two worlds in his own career.
The socio-political content at times feels a little strained, like when Mac spins a long feminist diatribe out of a mopey little ditty about a young woman fretting about why her beau hasn’t come home from the fair. But Mac’s ability to work the crowd, in particular his obsessive, sweetly overbearing use of audience participation, mitigates this shortcoming. He makes this otherwise sprawling historical project feel intimate and personal.
Mac’s insistence on bringing the crowd into the proceedings might seem tiresome and gimmicky to some -- one person complained to me about being pulled into a conga line and forced to wear a pair of fairy wings. But overdoing it, going over-the-top, “carrying on for just a bit too long,” as Mac himself puts it, is part of his stage technique. It’s there to make a broader point about just how topsy-turvy the world is. And like an old song that’s so familiar that it’s stuck in all of our heads, we’re all in this thing together, like it or not.
Taylor Mac's A 24-Decade History of Popular Music runs through Saturday, Jan. 30 at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. Details here



Silicon Valley Ballet Makes History with Cuban ‘Giselle’

October 14, 2015

A rehearsal for Silicon Valley Ballet's production of 'Giselle'
(Photo: Chloe Veltman/KQED)
The following story aired on KQED's Morning Edition on October14, 2015. To access the audio version, please click here

Loipa Araujo is an exacting ballet coach. She has to be: the great Cuban National Ballet star has less than a month to teach the members of Silicon Valley Ballet how to dance Giselle — the Cuban way. “Some of them have done another version of Giselle,” Araujo says of the beloved classical ballet during a break in their downtown San Jose rehearsal space. “They have to completely forget that and be open to this new Giselle.”

Relations between the U.S. and Cuba have improved of late. And now Silicon Valley Ballet is doing its part to help move the reconciliation along. The company is unveiling a legendary Cuban version of Giselle. The ballet tells the tragic tale of a peasant girl who goes mad and dies of a broken heart after being betrayed by her lover — an audience favorite since it was first performed in the 1840s. 

The Cuban National Ballet is particularly associated with Giselle because of the unique drama and flawless technique of the company’s co-founder, Alicia Alonso, who danced the title role to great acclaim with the Ballet Theatre in New York (known these days as American Ballet Theatre) back in the 1940s. The young Cuban prodigy caused a sensation when she stepped in at the last minute for an injured Alicia Markova during the 1941-42 season. “One thing that was extraordinary about her version was the mad scene,” says Toba Singer, a Berkeley based dance scholar who frequently writes about Cuban ballet. “Alicia Alonso really gave her own interpretation to it and it was marvelous.” 

The ballet star returned home to Cuba in 1948 to found the institution that would eventually become the Cuban National Ballet. At 93, Alonso still tours with her company, and her version of Giselle is a hallmark of the company’s repertoire. “I’ve seen many, many other versions of Giselle, and I do think our Cuban version, the version of Alicia, has this very clear dramatic line,” Araujo says. “All the characters are very well defined.”

The dancers of Silicon Valley Ballet are also working intensively with Araujo and her team of dance coaches from Havana on technical specifics particular to the Cuban version. They pay close attention to seemingly tiny details, like keeping their arms rounded rather than straight in one key scene in the second act. “In this version, every single thing you do, even how you bow or how you look at somebody, has a meaning,” says principal dancer Ommi Pipit-Suksun, who is one of the dancers charged with bringing the challenging principal character to life on stage in Silicon Valley Ballet’s production. “It’s not just an empty gesture. It has a lot of nuances; many layers and not just steps.” 

Despite paying close attention to the nuances of this Cuban Giselle, Pipit-Suksun isn’t interested in slavishly imitating Alonso. This ballerina intends to make the role of Giselle her own. Silicon Valley “Copying somebody is never a good thing,” Pipit-Suksun says. “That emotion has to be real. It has to come from you. They can guide you — you should do this and that — but ultimately it’s up to you.” 

This landmark collaboration represents a big comeback for Silicon Valley Ballet, which came close to shutting down this past spring. The company was already in a deep financial hole when its present artistic director, international-acclaimed ballet star and Cuban native Jose Manuel Carreno came on board in 2013. “We’ve been through rough patches,” Carreno says.

Carreno and his community leapt into action earlier this year. The company rebranded itself from Ballet San Jose to Silicon Valley Ballet and set about fundraising. The company scored $640,000 during the first 10 days of its fundraising campaign, and has so far raised nearly $3 million of its $3.5 million goal. This includes a $50,000 grant to stage Giselle from the Knight Foundation. “We’re stepping up, the company is moving, is getting better, we’re working on it,” Carreno says. “It’s exciting.”

But Giselle isn’t only a turning point for the dance company. As one of the first major cultural collaborations between the U.S. and Cuba in more than half a century, the production is politically significant.

For many years, the U.S. government would not grant visas to Cuban dancers. “It’s a historic moment for American audiences,” says Singer. “This means we can have access. This is their finest work and we’re going to have a chance to see it.”

It’s been very risky for most Cuban artists, like Silicon Valley Ballet principal dancer Maykel Solas, to pursue careers in the U.S. Solas has been with the company for 10 years. In his early days in this country, he was worried about how the Cuban authorities would treat his family. “I stopped talking with my mum for months,” Solas says. “I was afraid they would say something to my mum or to my family.”

With Cuba and the U.S. on friendlier terms — the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet both performed at the International Ballet Festival in Havana in 2010 — the possibility of heightened cultural exchange between the U.S. and Cuba in the coming years is a tantalizing prospect for ballet professionals and fans of the art form from both nations.

Silicon Valley Ballet plans to participate in the aforementioned festival next fall. “If we have good relationships, everybody can go back and forwards,” Solas says. “Everybody can learn from everybody.”

Yet visas remain hard to come by. It’s been a long and arduous process for Silicon Valley Ballet to procure the necessary paperwork to enable the Cuban coaches to join the company in San Jose for this production of Giselle. Although diplomatic relations are currently in the process of being restored between the U.S. and Cuba, it will be quite some time before artists can move freely between the two countries.

Silicon Valley Ballet’s production of Giselle runs Oct. 16-18, 2015 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets and more information, visit 

Jose Manuel Carreno appeared as a guest on KQED Forum on Oct. 8, together with Silicon Valley Ballet board chair Millicent Powers. Listen to their interview with host Michael Krasny here.

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