Hidden Depths

In the past year or so, I’ve not been attending so many dance performances, primarily because I was finding myself routinely bored out of my mind by most of what I was seeing. I kind of gave up on dance.

Last weekend, however, Liss Fain Dance premiered its performance installation, The Water is Clear and Still, a collaboration with designer Matthew Antaky and composer Dan Wool, with selected text from Jamaica Kincaid‘s collection of short stories, At the Bottom of the River. It sounded like a performance I ought to check out, not least because of my pal Dan’s contribution to the piece, a subtle and evocative sound score that conjured a variety of shifting moods, landscapes, and textures.

Matthew Antaky’s installation at Z Space. Photo by Frederic O. Boulay

Entering the Z Space (the old Theatre Artaud), a venue in which I’ve seen many multidisciplinary dance performances (and co-produced two!), I was immediately struck by its radical transformation. The front bleachers had all been removed, leaving a dark emptiness where the audience normally sits; and the stage, at its full 60-foot depth, had become like a dreamy, under-water forest. Antaky’s installation consisted of several towering, geometric-looking, tree-like structures made with panels of what at first appeared to be mottled green glass. Closer inspection revealed the panels to be ingeniously constructed from pipe and plastic wrap! The majestic “trunks”—all straight lines and angles—were crowned with thin, wiry branches, sparsely adorned with leaves, creating a surprisingly organic effect. Fallen leaves dotted the black Marley.

Although the audience was invited to move around the space and perceive things from different perspectives throughout the performance, the dance area, upon which no audience member ought trespass, was clearly delineated by three adjacent white rectangular spaces. Sepia-toned images of twisting branches floated like shadows across the floor, and the green lighting gave the whole environment a sub-aquatic feel. The total visual effect was quite stunning.

Six dancers moved between the spaces, seamlessly shifting from solos into duets, into solos again. A dance would begin in one space while attention was already on another, these shifts in attention prompting corresponding shifts in physical perspective. A voice was heard, at first distant and disembodied, but nevertheless fully present. Then amidst the surrounding busyness, the compelling figure of actor Val Sinckler emerged from the proverbial shadows, slowly but surely revealing the true heart of the performance.

Val Sinckler in The Water is Clear and Still

To say that Sinckler “spoke” or “performed” selections from  At the Bottom of the River might be an accurate statement, but it would utterly fail to capture the depth of her relationship to Kincaid’s “stories” (more on that later). If flesh and blood can become a text, then this is exactly what Sinckler did. She embodied Kincaid’s words and images with such clarity and presence that many in the audience, apparently, assumed she actually was the author.

My favorite part of the evening was a section called “Girl,” a story consisting of a series of directions from a Caribbean mother to her daughter (the troubled mother-daughter relationship being a recurring theme) on the proper way to do sundry tasks: “Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don’t walk barehead in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil.” During this section, the dancing and the text were at their most integrated. Sinckler moved amongst the dancers, gracefully mirroring their movements, while she offered them various instructions (“This is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well.”). It felt, for the first time in the performance, that the dancing had penetrated to that deeper layer Sinckler’s character already naturally inhabited.

It’s hard to know what to say about the text that could truly capture its power. Before this performance, I had never heard of Kincaid, though some of my more literary friends assured me she was a writer of significant talent. During the piece, there was so much going on competing for attention, it was difficult to devote enough cognitive bandwidth to fully absorb the text. And it was clear that it was a text that warranted complete attention. Although described as a collection of short “stories,” Kincaid’s writing jumps between disjointed moments without any over-arching narrative. There are fragments of conversations, recalled impressions, pictures painted. Many things are suggested, though never explicitly spoken. Scenes move between shadows and light, between the beautiful and the grotesque.

I wished I was already intimately acquainted with the text, or (given that I wasn’t) that I was better able to focus on it during the performance. At times, I wished the only performer in the piece was Sinckler. While I appreciated the precision and control of Fain’s dancers, I didn’t find the choreography especially interesting. I wanted to see something with more edge, something that explored the full three-dimensionality of the space, that played more with the particularities of Antaky’s installation, rather than relegating it to the background shape against which some dancing took place. But mostly, I wanted to see less, and understand more. I wanted the dancing to have a smaller role in the entire performance, for it to be used more selectively (and thus, more powerfully).

But despite my best efforts to concentrate on the text, it was the dancing that ultimately managed to dominate much of my attention. I suppose, sudden or rapid changes in the visual field is something we are naturally inclined to pay attention to, like when you repeatedly find your eyes fixating on that TV in the bar, even though you have no interest in whatever is happening on the screen.

The water at the bottom of the river may indeed be clear and still, but I wonder if the most effective way to communicate that is by pointing to the obvious perturbations on the surface.

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Dance in Dublin II

Having now seen my one and only contemporary dance performance in Dublin, I feel like I should say something about it. The performance, consisting of three works, was called Fast Portraits, presented by Rex Levitates Dance Company and choreographed by Artistic Director Liz Roche.

The first piece was “These Two People” for eight dancers—two trios, one all-male in black, the other all-female in white, and a male-female duo in grey—the eight forming a sort of B&W picture together. At times, both the male and female trios acted almost as single entities so that their interactions with one another gave the impression that we were, in fact, watching just two couples oddly mirroring one another. While there were some Contact Improv techniques used in the choreography, very little involved large-scale manipulation of bodies through space. Instead, a lot of staccato impulses briefly propelled limbs into motion and hindered or shifted the core direction of the dancers’ movement, all while maintaining a level of flow and integrity in the group. The dancers also played a lot in the negative spaces and in each other’s kinespheres. We saw a lot of impulses transmitted without actual contact.

The second piece was “Solo Portrait” with director of photography Kate McCullough, whose beautifully shot short film of Roche moving whilst seated on a clear plastic chair formed the backdrop to the live dancer, who sat onstage with her back to the audience, faithfully mirroring the movements we watched onscreen. I like the use of props in dance and, for some reason, furniture in particular, but Roche’s use of the chair was not especially interesting to me. For example, there was no exploration of the various movement possibilities afforded by the chair. Rather, in typical postmodern style, Roche’s slow and deliberate gestures were more a meditation on the pedestrian. This fits with the description of the piece, “somewhere between performance and reality.” Call me old-fashioned, but as a member of an audience, I’m more interested in a dancer’s performance than her reality.

The last piece, “Fast Portraits,” picked up on the chair motif from Roche’s solo. Six dancers repeatedly displaced one another from a chair and shifted in and out of fast-moving, ever-changing trios. A lot of the techniques we saw in the first piece were utilized in the second piece, so although structurally different from one another, the two pieces felt too similar to one another. The dancers also spoke occasionally in this last piece, repeating mundane things like “Okay,” but I wasn’t sure what the point of that was. It also felt lacking in direction to me.

I had hoped for something “different and interesting” and, although I did enjoy the dancing, I would not have chosen either of these terms to describe the performance. I am happy there are dancers making work like this in Dublin, and that audiences there have a chance to see contemporary dance, but for a seasoned and vaguely jaded spectator such as myself, there was not much I felt like I hadn’t seen before.

Dance in Dublin

I’m searching my memory to recall if I’ve ever been to a dance performance in Dublin. Okay, there was that one time in primary school when we were on a school trip that included going to my very first ballet, but all that I remember about it was that some sticky drink I had been given for this special occasion spilled all over my lap in the dark theatre. I got very upset and tried to get help from my teacher, but she was just annoyed by my crying, which upset me even more. No wonder I never went to another dance performance here after that!

Since I left Dublin seventeen years ago, my interest in dance has evolved a great deal. First, I discovered Argentine Tango and became obsessed with it for several years, but whenever I returned to Dublin on visits, I could never get my dance fix. Tango had not yet made it here. On my visits in the last eight years, I’ve looked for Contact Improvisation, my current passion, but that too was always missing, though by then, there were regular milongas (Argentine Tango social dances). A little too late for me. Me and the city were just always out of sync with one another.

Last summer at the Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation, I met some Contact Improv dancers from Dublin and was so happy to discover that now there is indeed CI here. I resolved to make it to a jam on my next visit home. Alas, the circumstances under which I’m visiting this time have prevented me from making it to a jam so far. With less than a week left in Dublin, I have one opportunity left—on my last night—to go to a CI class. We’ll see if I make it.

But, I just discovered today that there is a contemporary dance performance happening this week by a leading Irish choreographer and I’m going to go! I’m really curious to check out the contemporary dance scene here. Hopefully, I will find something different and interesting.

Zero Point

I should just stop going to see dance. That’s, at least, what I concluded the other night after attending Zeropoint, yet another underwhelming (though aptly titled) dance performance.

While I don’t want to place the entire burden for my feelings on this most recent performance—it was, after all, just one in a series of disappointments—it certainly put a nail in the proverbial coffin for me. And it reaffirmed the growing disillusionment I’ve been experiencing lately with regards to dance, particularly contemporary or postmodern performances, which is the kind I tend to see most often.

So, what’s the problem? Why is it that while I enjoy most of the live music I attend these days, which is remarkable, given how many times a week I attend such performances, I’m routinely bored out of my mind when watching dance, which happens only a few times a month?

If dance were simply not up my alley, that would be one thing. But I actually love dance and have loved it for as long as I can remember. Back in the day when I lived with a TV, I would watch any piece of crap that had dance in it. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I watched the movie You Got Served not once, but twice, just because of its incredible dance scenes. That’s how much I love dance.

What’s the point?

The point is . . . well, the point is that it’s beginning to seem like there just is no point. I’m not “getting it” anymore. I don’t know why these dance works I’ve been seeing are being created, what, if anything the choreographer wants to communicate through the work, and what I’m supposed to take away from it.

Or, if the point is clear, then I can’t seem to figure out what the point in making that particular point is, why anybody is supposed to find it interesting, or, at least, interesting enough to pay money and sit for over an hour just to be hit over the head with it.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that a lot of the work I see tends toward the avant-garde, or has obvious pretensions in that direction. I choose to see these kinds of works because I’m looking to be challenged in some way. I’m looking for a more active engagement with the piece. I want to be stimulated, provoked, surprised. I’m not interested, for example, in watching some anorexic ballet dancer perform a series of technically perfect movements that a thousand other dancers have performed a thousand other times in precisely the same way. Yawn.

The danger with avant-garde works, though, is that they can go too far in the opposite direction, eschewing so many of the traditional conventions of their respective art form that they become abstruse and inaccessible.

As Tyrus Miller, in his essay “Avant-Garde and Theory: A Misunderstood Relation” says, many people simply don’t understand avant-garde art:

In their perplexity before a painting with a goat’s head sticking out of it, or a recording that seems to consist mostly of shrieks and vaguely erotic grunts, or a poem that seems to have been written either by a moron or some sort of highly intelligent space alien, they may feel outrage, contempt, or just indifference. A slightly more servile response—from the person who knows it is supposed to be art, but still doesn’t get it—may be to fall back on a kind of low-level theory of the avant-garde: it’s avant-garde, it’s not supposed to mean anything. A more tutored response, perhaps shored up by literature or art history courses at the university, might be: the artist must be demonstrating a theory. None of these responses, I want to underscore, is foolish, but the last of our hypothetical art-consumers—the one who thinks a theory must be behind it all—is certainly more in tune with the tone of many of the current claims made by artists and by their publicists, apologists, and detractors alike.

The artist is demonstrating a theory. I can buy that, but here’s my problem with it. The artist may not be entirely clear on what precise theory she is trying to demonstrate. Or, she might know what her theory is but not know how to communicate it to an audience. Or, the theory might just be boring, obvious, and not very well thought out. And, good God, I came to see a dance performance! Is this really the medium in which to be demonstrating your theories? Write a goddamn book, or something.

It’s possible, of course, that the artist is not trying to demonstrate a theory at all, but rather is trying to provoke a reaction. Maybe I’m supposed to feel bored, confused, or alienated because the artist is making some commentary on how boring, confusing, or alienating life is. Or I’m supposed to reflect on my own boredom, confusion, and alienation, discover its source within, and somehow find that interesting enough to pay to see the show?

It could also be that the artist just doesn’t give a shit what the audience thinks or feels, if they “get it” or not. It certainly seems that way sometimes.

According to the description of this last performance I attended, the “part dance, part video, part radical social experiment” piece was supposed to tackle “questions of nuclear meltdown, multidimensional perception, and transformational world healing.”

What I got out of it was that both the choreographer and video artist have progressive politics and think that mainstream “news reporting” in the US is a joke. Great! Me too!! I think it’s safe to say that 99.9% of the artsy-fartsy audience in this hip Mission District theater also have progressive politics and hold similar views on the news media. Isn’t it so wonderful that we can all come together and share like this?

I would have found it a little more interesting had there been some new insight offered, something to challenge or subvert my own assumptions. If there was, then I didn’t get it.

As for the dancing itself, while there were enjoyable moments, as there usually are at these performances, I rarely see anything I haven’t seen before. With performances that utilize improvisational techniques a lot, the problem is that they can start to look like a Contact Improvisation jam with lights and costumes. I love to watch my friends play and dance together, but in a contact jam I’m able to join in or leave, manners intact, whenever I feel like it. And it costs a lot less money.

So, I find myself frustrated and disillusioned. I don’t want to subject myself to any more of this pointlessness. I want to be amused, thrilled even. I want to leave the performance with unforgettable images stamped in my mind. I want to find myself returning again and again to these images and to the thoughts and associations they have ignited in me. I want it to resonate in my body. I want it to inspire me.

Maybe the next one will be better.

Klanging the Farben

Life does not wait to be written about. And books, sadly, don’t read themselves. I returned to work this week and have been a little overwhelmed with the amount of reading I have to stay on top of. I had started writing a blog post about all the incredible shows I saw last weekend and then just didn’t have time during the week to return to it.

Since then, I’ve seen so much more music that I want to write about. I just can’t keep up with myself. The weather has also been gloriously sunny, so it has been truly delightful to be back in my beloved SF.

I have a little bit of time today before heading out to Switchboard Music, an eight-hour festival of eclectic, inventive, genre-bending music featuring some of the Bay Area’s most interesting composers and musicians. I really should be reading Marx, but what the fuck!

Last weekend was a big one, as far as performances go. Since the jetlag wore off, I’ve been packing in as much as possible.

Friday night I went to see Beats Antique at the Fillmore. In the space of just a few years, this Oakland trio has gone from underground sensation in the local electronic music scene to a band of national and international popularity. The music is a tantalizing blend of breaks, hip-hop, dubstep, and glitch layered with Middle and Near Eastern riffs, and contemporary circus music. The sound is part digitally produced and sampled, part acoustic instrumentation.

After many months on the road, the trio returned to the bay for a sold-out performance at San Francisco’s celebrated Fillmore Theater, a “dream come true” for the band, according to David Satori.

Opening the show was The Real Vocal String Quartet, an innovative all-female string quartet that incorporates pop/folk singing to great effect with traditional chamber music. They also provided the string section for several Beats Antique numbers throughout the evening.

The second support act was a young man calling himself The Tailor who wriggled and writhed around onstage in a skinny pair of stripy low-riders and a wife-beater, singing and playing a looping guitar over mostly electronic prerecorded tracks he pulled up on his computer. The music had a danceable groove and was a good choice given the tastes of the audience, though several times I thought he would have been better able to play to the large crowd had he had some musicians accompanying him. There are lots of musicians who play multiple parts when they create and record their own music, but when playing out they get other musicians to take on these parts for a richer live experience. The Tailor could do with that kind of support onstage, especially at such a big venue like the Fillmore.

Beats Antique put on a great show accompanied by RVSQ on strings, as mentioned, Dan Cantrell on accordion, and a horn section that included Sylvain Carton on baritone sax and Peter Jacques on clarinet and trumpet.

A major factor contributing to Beats Antique’s meteoric rise is, no doubt, Zoe Jakes’ sultry tribal belly-dancing, which she performs throughout their shows when she’s not banging on a big drum and grimacing like a rockstar. On Friday, Jakes brought a bunch of friends with her to perform, so the crowd got to see some great dancing that ventured beyond tribal style. At one point, a hot guest dance troupe came out to perform a mixture of belly and hip-hop. Let me tell you, these ladies could shimmy and grind like nobody’s business.

Saturday night I managed to squeeze in two performances, Schick Machine by the Paul Dresher Ensemble, which was definitely the highlight of the weekend, and jazz guitarist Alex Pinto at my favorite local haunt, The Revolution Café.

Schick Machine is a collaboration between Paul Dresher, a well-known local composer and inventor of some of the wildest instruments you’ve ever seen or heard, Daniel Schmidt, another inventor and builder of musical instruments, Matt Heckert, maker of kinetic sculptures, and writer/director Rinde Eckert. The one-man show is performed by Steven Schick, a master percussionist with an astounding ability to extract every texture of sound from objects, be they simple household objects, sparser inventions born of an idiosyncratic mind, or wildly inventive creations that are both visually stunning and rich with sound possibilities.

Schick moves around from station to station in his subterranean (I imagine) sound laboratory that looks almost like the whirring, spinning, grinding internal workings of a giant piano organ. At times he conducts a kind of locomotive symphony between the different parts of the huge machine, at other times he plays a single instrument tenderly and slow, and the playing becomes a kind of meditative dance.

Renowned writer/director Rinde Eckert is known both for the physicality and musicality of his theatrical work and has collaborated with the Paul Dresher Ensemble on projects in the past.

In Schick Machine, an unseen voice introduces the character Lazlo Klangfarben (“klangfarbe” means “timbre” in German), an eccentric and solitary genius whose obsessive creative machinations have brought forth into existence the “Schick Machine,” an innovation that can reconcile the past and future. Lazlo is unsure whether the time is right to unleash his creation on the world, whether humanity is truly ready for such a powerful invention. Lazlo’s own sense of belonging in the world outside of his laboratory is also in question. We learn that connection and intimacy are problematic, that his wife has already left him.

Eckert’s philosophical ponderings through the character of Lazlo punctuate Schick’s virtuosic playing, and add the kind of intellectual depth and emotional poignancy these wild inventions demand. His words capture beautifully the emotional resonance Schick extracts from each instrument and the narrative provides a frame for Schick’s sonic explorations.

After Schick Machine, we headed over to the Rev for Alex Pinto’s CD release party. As always, the tiny venue was packed to the gills. Pinto is an accomplished young jazz guitarist who blends Hindustani classical music with contemporary jazz and indie rock. In addition to his original jazz compositions, he also does a number of very sweet interpretations of some Radiohead songs. He just released his debut album, Inner State. Definitely one to watch out for!

Sunday night it was time for a contemporary dance performance to balance out all the music. The Contact Improv Research Forum, which organizes the annual West Coast Contact Improv Festival, had a curated show at CounterPulse and Sunday was its last night. One of the biggest challenges for improv-based dance performance is to create something that does not look like a contact jam with lights and costumes, especially because the audience at these shows tends to be mostly other CI dancers who probably don’t want to pay three times as much to see what they could see at a regular jam.

This challenge is all the greater when the performance is conceptually heavy, as was the case with the first performance, Kristen Greco’s The Red Door. The piece was inspired by Jung’s Red Book, though I’m not sure if knowing this contributed anything to my appreciation of the dancing. One of the performers, Antonio Alemanno, switched roles between dancer and musician and even did a kind of contact dance with his upright bass, which I enjoyed. There were also some nice solos, most notably, from the Santa Cruz-based dancer Daniel Bear Davis, whom I just love to watch.

The second performance that evening, Sense Object, is a work-in-progress by Miriam Wolodarski with juggler/dancer Zack Bernstein, who often dances with Scott Wells and Dancers. I loved the names of the three scenes: “1. The polite dinner guest always speaks with restraint. 2. Another person is a foreign country. 3. Say something! Can’t you see I’m hiding?” It was a whimsical dance theatre piece that had me laughing out loud several times. A favorite moment was Wolodarski’s contact dance on and with a huge ladder. I look forward to seeing how this piece develops.

While I’ve seen a bunch more performances since then (it’s been a whole week, for God’s sake!), I will write about them later. The Switchboard Music Festival starts in a few minutes and I want to post this before I leave the house for that. More reviews coming soon!!

Welcome Home

It’s not a balcony, but a big, drafty bay window with a view of many rooftops and two green peaks to the west. There is no golden temple, no sense of a continental vastness beyond. Just over those hills, where the sky has finally broken blue, the Pacific stretches out for thousands of miles.

It has been raining almost constantly since I’ve been back. Today, Sunday, we are enjoying some respite. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Last night I battled the wind and rain for two blocks to Dance Mission on 24th Street to see a dance performance by some friends. I had not seen people move their bodies in this way in some time.

The night before, I went to see one of my favorite local bands, a nine-piece Balkan brass ensemble that are so tight, you could gather them up and hug them all at once. Despite the jet-lag, I danced like a crazy fool.

In the time it has taken me to write this, they sky to the west has almost entirely disappeared behind a thick blanket of cumulus clouds. It will probably rain again in a few hours.

Sadness, Anticipation

Sounds like it could be the name of an Astor Piazzolla: Sadness, Anticipation. I could certainly dance a tango to it. A slow, intense tango. An achingly passionate tango with a kind of precision that could only come from deep melancholy.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a tango quite like that.

Sadness

It’s nighttime and I’m standing alone on my balcony, enjoying the last of a particular treat bestowed upon me by a good Thai friend. I lean out and look to the west, toward Doi Suthep with its golden, mountain-top temple glowing high above the lights of the nearby apartment blocks. I know it will be one of my last nights to have this particular view of the world. The rains come, fourth night in a row.

Anticipation

It’s nighttime and I’m walking along 22nd Street in the Mission, taking it all in, adjusting to my new but familiar universe. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, so perhaps that buzz I’m sensing is because there are many more people out and about. Or maybe that buzz is just the Mission on a Thursday night. I’m back, and despite having just stepped off the plane, there’s at least three different music venues I want to hit. First on the list: Kaleidoscope…

I’m Not an Artist, I Just Play One on TV

Last month in Chiang Mai, I had some friends, Ichi and Magic, come visit from down south. We threw a party. With art and performances and stuff. Lots of people came. It was cool.

That’s me making a long story short. Now, here’s the long version…

Art & Performance Party at Baan Jing Jung

I met Ichi in 2010, when I was first living in Chiang Mai. He was one of the friends in our “Chiang Mai Vortex,” as we called it. A bunch of them were living at Baan Jing Jung, an artsy guesthouse just outside the old city. We were all creative types—artists, musicians, dancers, acrobats, writers, performers—who hailed from Thailand, USA, Canada, Kenya, Germany, Australia, and Ireland. Somehow, we all found each other in Chiang Mai and quickly became a hodge-podge family of sorts.

Ichi, an artist, designer, and DJ from Germany, is one of the few from our vortex still in Thailand a year later, though he is now based on Ko Phi Phi, an island on the Andaman coast. In January, he arrived in Chiang Mai with his friend Matinee AKA Magic, a beautiful Thai dancer who incorporates magic tricks into her dance performances. They were staying at the old haunt, Baan Jing Jung.

Co-host and magic dancer, Matinee Imchum

Ichi suggested we do “another one of those parties” at Baan Jing Jung while he and Magic were in town. Last year, we had collectively thrown a performance party at Baan Jing Jung that came together quite magically and blew all of us who were involved away. As they did not have very long in town, we decided to have the party six days later. I started inviting artists and performers to participate and, surprisingly, almost everybody I asked said yes.

Six days later, we had done everything we could have done in the time allowed. Ichi had designed a poster and flyer, I had been promoting like crazy online, and Magic had been networking around town. I was quite surprised that over fifty people had said they were coming on Facebook and I wondered how many of those would actually show up.

Nicholas Wiszynski

Nobody was prepared for the numbers that ended up coming. I was hoping for forty or fifty at best but well over a hundred people came. The place was so jam-packed with people that some late arrivers were unable to make it further than the garden path.

Chiang Mai, it seems, is thirsty for art and performance.

The evening started with Nicholas Wiszynski and a magic show that had everyone mesmerized and enthralled. Nick frequently had us in stitches too. A real professional. Then our English friends Shelley Halstead and Neville Powis followed with some hilarious improvised physical theatre.

Saran Suwannachot performing Fon Jerng

Suran Suwannachot, a local painter and musician, was next with a performance of a Lanna martial art called Fon Jerng. From the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries in northern Thailand, the Kingdom of Lanna reigned, which had its own distinctive language and culture. Chiang Mai was the kingdom’s capital and the people here are still very proud of their Lanna heritage.

Mostly when you see Lanna performances, they are of women dancing. It is rare to see men perform. Some of our Thai guests told me afterwards they had never seen or even heard of Fon Jerng before, so it was a real revelation to all of us gathered there. Many told me afterwards this had been their favorite performance of the evening.

The flying Kimberly Grace

Next, we had some drumming and storytelling by Paul Monson, who directs the newly formed Chiang Mai Playback Theater, an improvisational theater group in which audience members recount personal stories that are then “played back” for them by actors. The group were having their inaugural performance the following week, so adding another performance at such short notice would have scattered their energies too much, but Paul kindly stepped up to perform for us anyway.

Supreeda Wongsansee dancing Flamenco

Lorenzo Becchi from Italy, Kimberly Grace from Canada, and Daniel Anner from Belgium followed with a breathtaking acrobatic partner yoga performance.

Act I ended with Supreeda Wongsansee, who is possibly the only woman from Thailand who dances Flamenco. Her stunning performance was way too short as far as I was concerned, but that’s the way it was.

Act II, which featured a few short dance performances, was to take place inside the guesthouse. With the number of people in attendance, it wasn’t clear how we were going to fit everyone. We decided to have a leisurely intermission in the hopes that some people would leave before we had to herd everyone inside.

Contemporary dance by Komsun (Max) TimaryormThe available space in the guesthouse was somewhat challenging to work with. We had one big L-shaped room that had a staircase in the main corner. The smaller rectangular space in front we had designated as the performance space, so we asked everyone to crowd in together and sit behind on the floor and up along the staircase.

Komsun (Max) Timaryorm was first up with an impressive contemporary dance performance. Then Matinee (Magic) Imchum did a hot magic dance, followed by me and Edward Tio with two improvised Argentine Tangos, the second of which I performed blindfolded! I like to show off sometimes.

In the garden, two of my Thai artist friends exhibited their work. Orpan (Tikky) Sompim had some pastels and was drawing portraits of party guests all night. Sep Ilan (Pilan) brought fabulous new ink drawings he created just for our event and showed them with some matching dolls he had made.

Sep Ilan (Pilan) and his “Staying Alive” exhibit

Last, but not least, Meela Fenderhardt had a few old poems of hers hidden in various spots along the garden path. The lighting was not so good there, so I wasn’t sure if anybody actually saw any of it until just the other day when one friend mentioned how much she loved the poetry and that it had been one of her favorite contributions to the party. I’m guessing she figured out who had written it…

By all accounts, the evening was a major success and I was very happy to hear so much generous feedback from so many people. A common reflection on the event was that it had been “inspiring” and everyone wanted to know when the next one was going to be. While I remained coy in response to these enquiries, I had already decided that night I would try to do one for my birthday six weeks later. It sounded like a great way to usher in a new year.

Saran Suwannachot

So, here we are on the 25th. It’s my birthday. I’m throwing a party. A big-assed party. With art and performances and stuff. Lots and lots of people are going to come. It will be cool.

Thank you to Mark Meurs for the photos (including effects) and Noriko Yabata for the videos.

The Time I Almost Ran Away with the Circus

I was very fortunate to spend some time recently in Chiang Mai with Cambodian circus theatre troupe Phare Ponleu Selpak. Their week long visit here was coordinated by Ratchanok (Nok) Ketboonruang and her local art collective, CNX Art Connex.

I first learned about CNX and their work last December, when Japanese Butoh master Katsura Kan performed his Time Machine and taught a Butoh and Contemporary Dance workshop in Chiang Mai. I had just returned to Thailand after spending five months back in the Bay Area and was very excited when I heard that someone of his stature in the dance world was in town.

I immediately started spreading the word amongst the folks in my local dance community, Dance Chiang Mai, many of whom showed up to both the performance and workshop. Nok was very grateful for my help with promotions and thus began a series of conversations on life, dance, and art.

As I got to know Nok better, I started to learn about CNX Art Connex and their goals. She and I, we discovered, share a common vision for contemporary arts in Chiang Mai and find ourselves playing similar roles in our respective communities.

“Distant Haze” by Phare Ponleu Selpak

We became fast friends with an unspoken pledge to work together and support one another in our projects.

I had not heard of Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) when Nok started to tell me about CNX’s next project in Chiang Mai. PPS’s newest production, Distant Haze, which CNX was bringing to town, sounded interesting. Billed as a circus dance theater performance about children’s experience during the Khmer Rouge years, the few photos I saw from the performance captivated my imagination. I committed to helping out however I could with the production.

By then, I was part way through a long essay I’m (still) writing about Katsura Kan and his visit to Chiang Mai. Nok and I agreed that I should also write about PPS’s visit.

I was granted special permission to spend some time with the troupe and record a series of interviews with them, a privilege for which I’m very grateful. PPS are truly an inspiration, not merely because of the important socially conscious work they do, but also because of how, as human beings, they move through the world. It was always a delight to spend whatever time I could with them, to be in the presence of such joy.

They arrived to Chiang Mai late on a Monday night toward the end of January. On Tuesday evening, I made my way to the Alliance Française with much anticipation. There, at the pre-show Artist’s Talk, I got my first glimpse of the troupe and their talents. I also learned a great deal about PPS’s history and the incredible work they do with children and young adults in Cambodia.

I fell in love right away.

While seeing Distant Haze on Saturday night was certainly a major highlight of the week, so too was the day I spent with PPS out at a juvenile detention center on the outskirts of town. PPS brought a lot of joy and inspiration to the detained youth that day. I felt incredibly lucky to be there, especially as a Westerner.

One thing that really struck me about the experience at the center was the level of politeness and respect the detained youth displayed for their visitors, as well as the easy affection they showed to one another. I tried to imagine witnessing similar scenes at a juvenile detention center in the US, but it just seemed incongruous and not at all likely.

Over two weeks later, I’m still feeling the vibrations from the week that PPS spent in Chiang Mai. If you’d like to learn more about PPS and their time here, please read the essay I wrote (yes, this was just a preamble!) here:

Circus with a Social Conscience: Cambodian Theatre Troupe Brings Message of Hope to Thailand

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