Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Spirit of Emma Bailey

On Monday of this week, Emma Bailey, a lovely, funny, talented young woman, until recently one of my students (she graduated in 2005), died in a car accident, just outside of London, England. She was just nine days shy of her 24th birthday. Emma had gone to London to do her M.A. at Central after graduating from Queen's, but she had stayed to pursue professional work --- and, incidentally, to have a good time and to live life to the fullest. That she was successful on a large scale with this latter aspiration, at the very least, was made evident in her blog, The Emm, in which she recounted her daily adventures and thoughts in a hilarious, irreverent way. You can find one of my favourites among her many posts, "Pretty Fly for a White Girl," in which, in her typically self-deprecating manner, she recounts an audition for a hip-hop video, here. Anyone who has met Emma can imagine both how she looked at each moment of this audition, and how hard she laughed about it afterwards. This was one of Emma's great talents: the ability to laugh at herself, and in so doing, to encourage others to laugh at themselves as well. She was as passionate about life as anyone I've known; but I think she felt that it was just too rich to be taken entirely seriously, and was too full of pleasures that could be taken immediately to mope for long over what it had denied her. She would often make self-deprecating remarks about not being a thinker, but the truth is, she had a very active intellect and imagination; what she was not, was a brooder. Instead, Emma showed the rare gift of being able to turn just about every other moment of life into a sort of celebration.

At any rate, naturally I have been thinking about Emma pretty steadily ever since I heard of her death; and I was puzzled when, for no immediately apparent reason today, I suddenly had the theme from Zorba the Greek playing in my head. It's been many years since I've seen the film, although it's been only a few since I read the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, and I know that, at the time that I did (while in Greece), that catchy theme song kept popping into my head. Now, to see any connection whatsoever between the large, white-haired old man who is the title character of the novel, and young, pretty, vivacious Emma seems most unlikely, I admit. But, thinking it over, I realized that there was a connection, at least for me: the way that Zorba teaches the narrator to "seize the day," to enjoy life in the moment, was more or less the same sort of reminder that Emma represented for me. For example, Emma never seemed to let the fear of looking foolish stop her from doing anything. And Zorba says: "Every man has his folly, but the greatest folly of all ... is not to have one." He also extols, as Emma did (with poutine, with the Oilers --- although she'd clobber me for putting them in this category) the virtues of simple pleasures: "How simple a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. All that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple heart." And, of course, as Emma did, he loves to dance. For Zorba, it is the best expression of vitality's defiance of the claims that death and despair make upon our hearts.

So, I suppose, it was my effort to conjure the spirit of Emma Bailey by dwelling on comforting thoughts of the way that she had enjoyed each moment of her life to the fullest, had indeed lived each day as if it would be her last, and the way that these thoughts fought with my sorrow at her loss, that brought to mind Zorba and his dance at the moment that the narrator feels, almost, that he has lost everything. I wish I had a film of Emma herself dancing; but, for me --- for today, at least --- this may be the next best thing.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Photos from That Night Follows Day

Astonishingly, Tim Etchells himself found and read my last post within a day of my writing it, and he very graciously emailed me to thank me and also to send me a few of his own photos of the show, which he gave me permission to share on this blog. These will give a much better idea of what the show was actually like than my own blurry Q&A photo. The eight-year old girl I mentioned in my post is second from the left in the first photo, which shows the younger children taking a turn confronting us adults as a sort of half-chorus.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Letter from Belgium III

I’m just about to leave Belgium in a few hours, but I thought I’d write, before I did, about one of the two plays I’ve seen since I last posted. Both plays were part of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts (yes, one word, in that amusing way beloved by Teutonicinfluencedculture everywhere). This particular play was That Night Follows Day, directed by Tim Etchells (he who is mainly associated with “Forced Entertainment,” in England), produced by Victoria, a Flemish-language theatre company based in Ghent. It was performed entirely in Flemish (barring a couple of somewhat startling English profanities---e.g., "motherfucker" and "fucking asshole"---but with surtitles in French and English) by seventeen children aged 8 to 14, and it was one of the most arresting and provocative pieces of theatre I have ever seen.

The set was designed to resemble a school gym, but essentially the entire play was presentational, the children speaking to us in a frank, sometimes simple, but sometimes more accusatory manner which resembled, vaguely, “Self-Accusation” by Peter Handke (which I recently read on the recommendation of my friend and colleague, Kim Renders). The play began with the seventeen children (eight boys and nine girls) moving into line (heels on a painted line) facing the audience, at first silently. They were relaxed, unaffected, natural, gazing out at the audience in a way that seemed, from the beginning, to challenge all the layers of affectation we had accrued over the years. Even the youngest, a tiny, adorable eight-year old girl, possessed an apparent comfort and self-assurance for the possession of which I know some adults would kill. Then they begin speaking, at first in chorus (these first lines are taken verbatim from the website:, although they would eventually separate into individual voices:

You feed us. You dress us. You choose clothes for us. You bathe us. You lay down the law. You sing to us. You watch us sleep. You make us promises and sometimes hope we will not remember them. You tell us stories you hope will frighten us, but not too much. You try to tell us about the world. You explain to us what love is. You explain to us the meaning of war. You kiss us while we are asleep. You whisper when you think we can’t hear. You explain to us that night follows day.

Tim Etchells with three of the performers, answers questions. (Sorry, there were no production photos on line that I could upload, but look here:

As Tim Etchells explained at the Q&A afterwards, the assertions were meant to be, in a way, questions, which asked: “Do you do this? If so, why do you do this?” Now these first assertions were fairly innocuous. (Although, how could any of us be entirely comfortable with either “You make us promises and sometimes hope we will not remember them” or “You tell us stories you hope will frighten us, but not too much,” in which surely we conceal something even from ourselves?) But when it comes to “You tell us an edited version of the truth. You leave out information. You pick and choose what we should know,” there is more discomfort. And, after all the “You tell us ‘keep quiet.’ You tell us ‘stay still.’ You say ‘no!’” (this latter assertion building to an enraged chorus that makes one see how the rearing of children is as surely a mutilation of nature as the pruning of a cherry tree), one can’t help but twitch a bit as we move from “You say ‘the neighbours are just a bunch of bastards’” (the adorable tiny eight-year old girl) through to “You say ‘Whites are assholes. Blacks are stupid. Foreigners are lazy.’” For, as much as we might cluck and frown over these ideas ordinarily, presented as such, it is clear that that they are part of a continuum that leads inexorably from our incautious and ungenerous utterances.

Perhaps what was most refreshing in the show was the almost total absence of apparent self-service and affectation among the performers. I don’t mean to say that children are naturally devoid of such characteristics ⎯ indeed, I would say they display these qualities more nakedly than adults (perhaps because more ingenuously). But Etchells has somehow persuaded these children to simply come forward and say what they had to say as if they meant it; and the raw effect was to bestow a sense of depth and uncanny authority upon the children. In fact, the only time when there was the least hint of "falseness" was, just barely, when they were behaving obstreperously, "as children do."

But my main point is that there was no assuming of some vague “performative” quality with no purpose but to revel in “performativeness,” which I have seen destroy so many productions which dabble in “big questions.” Instead, every word had a specific meaning, and although the whole was totally extirpated from any naturalistic context, it was, nevertheless, a stark and thoughtful performance of one of the central truths of our civilization: how we pass on, independently of genes, what we already are to the generations who are to be.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Letter from Belgium II

A typical canal view in Ghent

Over the last few days, I’ve been in Ghent and Antwerp, both of which I admired, though Ghent was especially winning. It seems to have all the beauty of Bruges, but to actually operate as a real city, as opposed to some degraded Disneyland-like version of its former self. For one thing, the city is bigger, and yet does not have nearly as many tourists. What it does have, being a university town, is large groups of young people, and that gives the place a strong sense of vitality. Antwerp is also an extremely interesting place, and while not quite so picturesque as Bruges or Ghent (mainly, I suppose, because canals are not so integrated into the core of Antwerp as they are in those other two), it certainly has its fair share of historical buildings. Antwerp is probably at its best in the evenings when the night-life you’d expect from one of the major fashion centres of Europe comes alive.

As I’d hoped, I was able to see the production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, which was directed by Robert Lepage, at La Monnaie in Brussels the other night. This opera is nominally based on the series of paintings by William Hogarth, although the libretto, written in part by W.H. Auden (the libretto is a little reminiscent of some of Auden’s plays), moves quite a distance from anything Hogarth painted, and Lepage’s production moves further, leaving eighteenth century London almost completely behind.

Instead, Lepage has set the opera in 1950s Texas (the opera was written in 1951), and a photo of a house in the middle of a field that appears in the programme (itself a clever pastiche of a 1950s Life magazine), which I think is a still taken from the James Dean/Rock Hudson/Elizabeth Taylor movie Giant, is a good clue to the centre of gravity Lepage has chosen. The first scene takes place with an oil rig pumping away against a beautiful sky (the clouds moving slowly all the while), and Nick Darkness, the Mephistopheles of the tale, climbs straight out of an oil well, glistening and black. If this is the home in place of the country squire’s estate Auden offers, it makes perfect sense that where Auden moves the action into the fantastic and dissolute world of London to corrupt his hero, Tom Rakewell, Lepage moves into the desert, to the world of Hollywood films and Las Vegas. The brothel scene is shifted into a cheap Hollywood movie, Tom becoming a film star.

One of the best devices is when a small grey mass appears out of a hole in the floor of the desert and inflates to become Tom’s obligatory silver movie-star trailer. (Sorry: no photo available. By the way, this is also where we see all that is left of 18thC London in this production: Tom in a period frock coat, in make-up outside his trailer, with a powder wig on a nearby mannequin.)

In a perfect piece of reconceptualization, where Auden has Nick tempt Tom later in the libretto with a machine that turns stones into bread, Lepage has Nick use a television set, where the fraudulent transformation of uselessness into wholesomeness resonates convincingly, especially when we see a series of faux commercials with a Tom-like little boy advertising the virtues of the bread. The gambling scene takes place on what is apparently the rooftop of an abandoned casino in the desert; there is a terrific pool scene; and the madhouse scene at moments approaches the frightfulness of Brook’s Marat/Sade.

For all that, I have to admit to not being much more won over by Stravinsky’s music for this opera than I was when I listened to a recording of it a few years ago. I like some of Stravinsky’s other work very much, but it seems to me that he didn’t find a form of music which was as witty, brisk, dynamic and (if I may) as unheimlich as Auden’s inventions for the libretto. And, where the music in an opera is not everything one would have it be for the story, there is not much that a director can do. There were times when I desperately wanted to pick up the pace, because Stravinsky himself, it seemed, was not keeping pace with the story by providing a commensurate range of musical ideas and rhythms. It’s not that I think it is BAD music; it’s just that, for Stravinsky to match what Auden (and Lepage) had done, it would have to be on the level of his Rites of Spring or the Firebird Suite.

One other complaint I would make is a general one I have often made about opera: there is still a rather hidebound aesthetic, shared by both some of the performers and some of the audience members, which holds that beauty of tone is more important than drama or clarity or theatrical style. In other words, although this opera was in English, and I could understand most of the singers perfectly well, I could not understand the soprano (Laura Claycomb as Anne) at all and instead I read the French surtitles. This was seemingly because she was determined to perform the role not only as it if were some traditional melodic, lyrical part, straight out at the audience, without any sense of irony, but also because she felt that what the character was saying was irrelevant next to the question of how beautifully she sang it. And some in the audience clearly agreed, because the applause whore (I’m sorry, but there it is), was given her due. Dagmar Peckova, as Baba the Bearded Lady, had a much stronger grip on the nature of her role (and of the opera, and of Lepage’s wishes for the production), but again, could have used a little more clarity of tone and diction; but at least she was trying to be a part of a whole art form, rather than just being in it for her own exquisiteness. This is not just a problem in Brussels, of course, but is a battle that is being waged in opera everywhere. I suppose the problem with any revolutionary overthrow of the reactionary tastes is that many of those who buy subscriptions would not have it any other way. But I hope it is not unfair to question the honesty of their aesthetic preferences. The man next to me was, in the third act, fidgeting like a bored four-year-old (I was hard-pressed not to hiss at him: “sit still! It’s almost over”). But all the same, he shouted his “bravo” to the soprano (and if we’re going to get picky, it should have been “brava” anyway). Would he have done so, if, instead of congratulating himself for being a cultured man and paying 100 euros for a ticket to hear a sublime soprano notwithstanding his secret boredom, he instead expected an engaging and thrilling show and refused to inform his experience with ritual snobbery? I doubt it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Letter from Belgium I

(Caveat: although I am writing from my own laptop in the hotel lobby, the instructions on this blogger are all in Dutch, so please forgive me if I screw this up.)

I have been here in Brussels for a conference since Tuesday. (I was giving a keynote lecture called "Hopeful Monsters and Doomed Freaks: Evolutionary Overtones in Canadian and American Drama" which I gather will be published sometime early next year.) The conference actually ended on the weekend, but I am taking an extra week to stay in Brussels and make excursions abroad, so I thought I would provide a brief update.

Naturally, when I arrived last Tuesday, the first thing I did was stroll around the neighbourhood, keeping an eye out for any theatre posters. In an inauspicious beginning, these were the first two that I saw. Naturally, I was less than thrilled at the prospect of sitting through either of these.

However, I found out a bit later that the hotel where I am staying, and where the conference was being held, is actually in a suburb, Ukkle (I think of it as named after a ukele-playing uncle) to the south of the main city. So, instead, on Friday, the one evening I had free (after the Canadian ambassador's reception) last week, I went with a couple of friends in search of some theatre downtown. What we ended up going to was a sort of conceptual-installation-variety-performance which was based on the conceit that this was a force created to prevent the Flemish and the French sections of Belgium from killing one another. (Brussels is officially bilingual, although more French than Flemish; and all the other regions are separated into either Flemish or French, with a tiny German section in the East. But plenty of English seems to be spoken, too.)

The show was better, perhaps, in concept than in execution. There were lots of soldiers with guns, a tank at the entrance, then a supposed hospital bed where one lay down and listened to people speaking in French and/or Flemish about their feelings about the tensions between the two groups. In another room, there was a band that sang, in Flemish and French, songs that sounded a lot like the 80s new wave band, The Psychedelic Furs. There was a dance performance that we had missed already. And then there was the performance in the photo below, which basically consisted of one man, on the left, in a black suit, who sat at the table and read, aloud in Flemish, Franz Kafka's "Letter to My Father" while another man, in his pyjamas, loafed on the sofa, read silently the day's Frankfurt Times (I checked the date) and drank beer. That was it. No movement to speak of, except for a woman in a black dress who entered twice and uttered a line --- presumably representing Kafka's mother. The marble floor on which we were sitting started to feel very, very hard.

And that has pretty much been it as far as actual theatre has gone so far, although there was an execrable one-woman performance that was offered as part of the conference, about which the less said the better (the performance, not the conference, which was mostly quite interesting.)

Anyway, with the conference over, on Monday I walked around Brussels, including trips to Le Musees des beaux arts (interesting photography exhibition, some nice Reubens, although I'm afraid he doesn't do much for me, and about a third of the collection seemed to be on loan, and the 15th & 16th C section was closed, which meant no Bosch and no Brueghel, which was exactly what I wanted), then went on to the comic strip museum, which was edifying, at any rate; then I tried to go to a recommended restaurant with a name something like Spanokapita, for which I had to follow a road with a name something like "The Road of the 6 Jetsons" (this is the sort of world I live in) --- but it was closed when I got there, so I ate at a random place, which served this amazing piece of fish (though my guts were in turmoil that night, so...who knows what caused that). Then I did plenty more wandering and returned home with my feet badly blistered and fell asleep reading.

Then, yesterday I went to Bruges, which is very beautiful indeed in parts, but in the main areas is ridiculously crowded with tourists. It made Niagara-on-the-Lake, which I think of as the most tourist-plagued place in Canada (though that may just be because I've had to suffer through it during too many summers), look postively pastoral. This is something that I should have anticipated, especially in that today is May 1st, so it was undoubtedly a 4-day weekend for many people. I guess because we don't celebrate May Day in Canada this was not in my mind. Off the main areas, though, in the residential streets off the canals, it was very pleasant and very pretty. To my frustration, the Groeningmuseum was closed on Mondays (imagine my surprise to discover that this is not a museum dedicated to the creator of The Simpsons). So, again, no Bosch for me. I'm thinking about heading for Ghent tomorrow, so I can at least see some van Eyck. Since I have not seen nearly enough of the great Flemish painters, by way of retaliation, I am working on a joke about all the spray-painted graffiti I HAVE seen, which will contain some allusion to the great phlegmish painters. Details to follow.

Today, I spent the morning reading and writing and nursing my poor feet, and then this afternoon went in search of Art Nouveau architecture. The Horta museum, dedicated to the architect who pretty much invented the style, was closed (May 1st), but I saw some great buildings, took a few photos, and drank beer at a sidewalk cafe while eating the best chicken club sandwich in Christendom.

Given that it is May Day today, most theatres are dark, but I am hoping to go to the theatre tomorrow night. So far, however, most of what I have been able to find seems to be extremely talky, and after the experience with Kafka's "Letter to My Father" (which at least I know) I worry that my French is just not so good that it will withstand a whole evening of a static play made of nothing but talk. I'm sure I would end up with a headache, having understood about half of it. (Of course, you're thinking: "what about your Flemish?" but I don't like to show off.) What I need is something with lots of pretty pictures and music. Speaking of which, what I HAVE discovered is playing, which would be perfect, is a production of Stravinsky's opera "The Rake's Progress," and it is directed by Robert Lepage! (When I was in Milan a few years ago, I saw a production of Lepage's "Polygraph" which he had directed---odd to go half-way around the world and see the work of Canadians.) Apparently, this was playing throughout the conference, but nobody seems to have known about it. There will be some gnashing of teeth when people find out, I expect. Unfortunately, it appears to be sold out according to the La Monnaie/Theatre Royal website, but I will find out more about that tomorrow, and report on how that turned out in my next post.