Mark Morris Dance Group Fails to Justify Exalted Reputation

Lauren Grant--one of the few bright moments in an otherwise dull evening.

Mark Morris Dance Group
University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center
February 2, 2010

When it comes to dance, I’m strictly in the don't-know-if-it’s-art-only-know-what-I-like camp. If the February 2 performance at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is any indication, I’m firmly in the “don’t like” camp for the famed Mark Morris Dance Group. The show split the large audience as well; about two thirds jumped to their feet at the end, while the remainder joined me in stony silence.

Maybe I just didn’t get it, but the opening piece “Looky” seemed pointless and of interest only for its Cirque du Soleil-like costumes. Alas, Cirque performers yawn with more energy than was on stage. A series of folding chairs were the only props and dancers mostly just sat on them while one or more of their number engaged in either seemingly random movement or pantomime. The miming evoked Old West saloon activity, but for no apparent reason. Nor was there any logic to why a ripped black man pranced around the stage, or why he did not appear thereafter. Atonal piano accompanied this perplexing piece.

The second piece, “All Fours,” used Bela Bartok’s “String Quartet No. 4” literally to ground the piece. Its major theme was of two lines of dancers clad in contrasting costumes crab walking toward each other. As the lines met, those in one line rose to their feet and danced off stage while the other line continued its crawl. Morris is famed for his use of music. He choreographed the above mentioned movement (and several others) to reoccur much as a dominant melody line of a composition would do. Clever enough, except that the piece went on way too long. (We got it already!)

After the intermission—and had I not been with a group I would have certainly left at the interval—unfolded to a Schuman composition. Unfolded is the right word because half of the troupe was wearing one of the more insipid and unfortunate costumes I’ve ever seen: tight electric blue shorts topped with a midriff-bearing cross between a halter, a cape, and a tunic. It was silly enough on the women; it made the men look like cross-dressing Smurfs. The choreography was akin to Martha Graham modern dance pieces from the early 20th century; that is, a mix of classic ballet and expressive freeform in which dancers leapt to the center and scurried off at the wings. It was the sort of thing that was seen as innovative in Graham’s time, but feels like a museum piece today.

I quite enjoyed the dancing of the diminutive Lauren Grant and the lithe, tall Michelle Yard, but that’s about it. None of the male dancers stood out—most were athletic, but not particularly graceful and several were noticeably out of synch with other dancers. Whether this was by design or accident, I cannot say. What I can report is that I would have been more enthralled working with Census data at the UMass library than attending this performance.



The Dreamer
Greentrax 337
* * * *

Eric Bogle’s raspy voice is one that you can take or leave. (I like it.) But whatever you do, don’t ignore his pen. He is, simply, one of the finest songwriters alive. Long known for his dark songs, the title track of the Scottish-born Australian √©migr√© Bogle’s latest is an unapologetic embrace of idealism, hopefulness, and Woodstock-era values. Later on there’s a song about the close connection between a father and his soon-to-be-independent daughter (“Flying Away”), a gut-wrenching family reconciliation between a drifter and his offspring (“Canadian Christmas Song”), and a new version of “Standing in the Light,” which Bogle wrote for his mother a decade ago. Has Eric Bogle gone soft and sentimental” Heaven forbid! “Bringing Buddy Home” cuts through the patriotic crap to measure the full cost of the U.S. incursion into Iraq, “Someone Else’s Problem” is an indictment of the public’s daily disengagement from the eco-degradation of Australia’s Murray River, “Nothing Worth Saving” a reminder that things of value come at a cost, and “Lost Soul” a tribute to the price paid by Aboriginal peoples to obtain full humanity. Bogle’s lyrical grace remains as sharp as his observer’s eye. If you already know his music, this one is another jewel in an ever-swelling treasure chest, this time with arrangements even more on the country side of the folk ledger than usual. If you’ve never heard him, listen and learn the difference between an accomplished wordsmith and guys who just sling phrases.
There are no YouTube clips for this album, but check out Bogle's masterpiece, "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. It's one of the finest anti-war songs ever and this Canadian production does it credit. Click here.



Concert Review

The Winterpills, The Primate Fiasco, Martin Sexton,
Arlo Gurthrie

Northampton Academy of Music, January 23, 2010

One of the great contradictions of the human race is that it often takes a great tragedy to inspire its finest acts of humanity. In December, a series of arsons swept across Northampton, Massachusetts, including one that killed a father and his disabled son. These horrible incidents brought Northampton residents together in ways unseen since 9/11. Fundraising for the victims has been so robust that the target will soon be reached and excess monies will be donated to the Red Cross.

A January 23, 2010 concert certainly did more than its part to fill the coffers. Northampton’s Academy of Music was completely sold out for an evening of music headlined by Arlo Guthrie. It may seem fatuous to comment on the nature of the music for such a cause, but what more can one say to Northampton residents other than “Well done” and “Keep up the community spirit?” So on with the music….

The evening opened with The Winterpills, an eclectic group whose music lives somewhere in the seams where folk, electronica, and art rock dwell. The Academy of Music is one the nation’s oldest opera houses, a two-tiered grand dame that seats over 800. It’s not the most-forgiving venue and The Winterpills struggled through a set that was overly long and whose sound was muddy. Their music is often quite introspective and geared towards more intimate settings. There were moments to savor, especially the vocals of Flora Reed, but overall the performance was more heartfelt than affecting.

The audience came alive when The Primate Fiasco took the stage. Eclectic doesn’t even begin to describe their blend of Dixieland, Tin Pan Alley, folk, jazz, funk, and whatever else inspires them. Lead singer Dave DellaRusso has used the term “psychedelic Dixieland” to describe their sound and it’s as good as any. By whatever label you apply, Primate Fiasco is so much fun I’m surprised they’ve not been declared illegal. Know any other bands that mix a full drum kit, clarinet, trumpet, tuba, and banjo? The quintet had the old barn hopping and they went out in style—Chris Trevethan unhooked a snare, J. Witbeck hoisted his tuba, and the group marched away from its mics, stood in front of the orchestra pit, and led the house in singing a medley of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Mama Don’t Allow.” They were hot and they correctly gauged the mood of a crowd that needed to party rather than ponder.

Martin Sexton then popped onto stage for just a few numbers. He was a late addition to the bill and brought his incredible guitar work and his ethereal and idiosyncratic vocals with him. His finale was a cover of the Joe Cocker version of “A Little Help From My Friends,” complete with the falsetto backup vocals, the spazzy mannerisms, and the overall surrealism of Cocker. It too was great fun.

Then came the man everyone was waiting for: Arlo Guthrie. I hadn’t seen Guthrie in over a decade and was floored by how good he still sounds. Although he joked that he was "only what's left of what I used to be," at age 63 his voice remains strong and his guitar playing is miles beyond what it was when he ruled the pop charts. As befits a benefit (can I say that?) he did a short set, but it was a magnificent one. As always, he told delightfully loopy stories, including some great shtick about what he doesn’t remember about being at Woodstock. The music opened with “Darkest Hour,” an intensely emotional song about finding what matters in moments of despair. For the most part, though, Guthrie ignored requests to mine his backlist and sang old standards such as “St. James Infirmary.” But what better way to end the evening than with a group sing of his father’s “This Land is Your Land?” An encore ensued in which he tore up the fret board on a Leadbelly song, but the good vibes of “This Land” were the evening’s takeaway message. If tragedy can have a bright side, Arlo Guthrie provided it.



Better get it right now or there won't be an Obama '12.

As president, Bill Clinton was an intelligent man with astonishing political skills and the morals of a rabbit in heat. Barack Obama is an intelligent man, a pillar of morality, and has the political vision of a blind man. Alas, it’s easier to govern with weak morals than with poor political instincts. Obama needs to develop political savvy in a hurry or he’ll be a de facto lame duck before the spring thaw. Here are ten ways to recover:

1. Abandon nonpartisanship. I almost hurled when I heard still another plea for nonpartisanship in the State of the Union message. Nonpartisanship is the baby that was thrown out with Lee Atwater. The GOP strategy is to toss teabags at every Obama initiative. Republicans see no gain in helping him to succeed and every politician in America knows this except Obama. Obama’s choices are to play hardball or take his bat and go home. Don’t beg, seize the day.

2. Abandon party rebels. Fake Democrats are as bad as real Republicans. No more making deals with people such as Ben Nelson or Joe Lieberman. Put their sorry butts in the frying pan and turn up the heat. You do this by…

3. Taking away the candy. Enough with the lamentation that Democrats can’t move forward because the big, bad Republicans will filibuster. Ronald Reagan’s party never held a super majority in the Senate and at no time during his presidency did the GOP control the House. Reagan moved his agenda by blackmail—give me what I want, or I’ll veto what you want and let you explain it to voters. Obama should apply this strategy first to erstwhile allies (Nelson, Lieberman, Conrad) and let key Republicans (Snowe, Collins, Gregg, Vitter) know that their states’ pet projects are next on the cutting block. When they cry "foul," plead budget deficits!

4. Get a Democratic Dick Cheney. Obama needs to be proactive and stop allowing the GOP to define him. Presidents generally appoint hit men to do this. Unleash Joe Biden or Rahm Emanuel and let them hurl Cheneyesque sound bite bombs. Put the GOP on the defensive. Tar them as the party that says “no,” the lapdogs of Big Business, and the mouthpieces of the rich and heartless. Take the low road; politics is dirty business, so roll up the sleeves and grab some mud.

5. Forget about Wall Street. Bank and stock bailouts are a mistake. When will Democrats learn that there’s very little connection between the Dow Jones and job creation? Wall Street does not invest in America; small business creates jobs and very few of them are traded on Wall Street. Obama doesn’t even need Wall Street to loosen money for business loans anymore; the government owns controlling interest in enough banks that it can mandate capital flow and fire recalcitrant boards.

6. Play the class card. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to dismiss a few boards of directors. Voters need to feel that Obama is on their side, not the side of Big Business. Launch rhetorical blasts against pharmaceutical and insurance firms. Close the tax loopholes and enact penalties for any businesses that move jobs out of the United States; add incentives for those who create jobs and keep them here. Hint that you intend to take a critical look at NAFTA and membership in the World Trade Organization. Dangle the possibility of living wage laws and a workers’ bill of rights. Announce that the age of privilege is over and the age of the common American has dawned. Call out corporate greed at every opportunity. Evoke Franklin Roosevelt’s dictum that a government controlled by organized money is as dangerous as one controlled by organized crime.

7. Adopt sensible protectionist policies. Free trade is the biggest fraud ever perpetuated on American workers. The current logic of free trade is to protect cheap imports so Wal-Mart can underpay its workers and sell Americans low-quality goods that drive up the deficit. The horse has left the barn for many manufactured goods, but there’s no reason not to protect bio-medical technology, newly developed high-tech products, green technology, and any other goods that are currently competitive. When investors moan, counter that the health of the U.S. economy is more important than the health of their portfolios and that it’s up to the leaders of China, Mexico, etc. to take care of their own economies.

8. Put in place incentives to save. Americans need to reduce their personal debt but current policies encourage overconsumption. How about threatening banks with a rise in the prime rate unless they raise interest rates paid to savers? Why hold onto money if it earns less than 1% in interest? Raise that to 5% and savings rates will go up.

9. Get out of the rights game. Voters simply don’t like things that smack of special privilege. Repackage rights as “privacy.” Don’t support gay “rights;” say that it’s nobody’s business what two consenting adults do. Don’t say that women have the “right” to an abortion; say that it’s immoral for one person to force their beliefs on another. Insist that every group must be treated equally, not that any one group gets special consideration. Remind Americans that no one has freedom of religion unless everybody does. Remind them also that once government regulates one kind of behavior it opens the door to regulating other kinds.

10. Get out of Iraq—now! Call it George Bush’s mistake and announce the time has come for Iraqis to control their own destiny. Hold parades for the troops. This sinkhole in no way justifies the $9 billion per month we’re spending, let alone the lives lost. Put the money toward the deficit. Don’t look back.


I won’t be watching the Super Bowl. I could get on my moral high horse and say that I’m boycotting it because CBS is going to show an anti-choice commercial—the same CBS that rejected a gay rights ad, by the way—but the honest truth is simpler: football bores me. So I’ll be AWOL while more than 100 million Americans sate themselves on the game, commercials, pork rinds, and cheap beer. But this time of the year I do recall the last time I was even in the same room as a Super Bowl broadcast: January of 2001.

The NFL hasn’t done well exporting its product to the rest of the world, which insists on seeing “football” as soccer. The rules of what the global community calls “American gridiron” are as incomprehensible to most as the intricacies of cricket are to Yanks. Nine years ago I was a Fulbright scholar living in Wellington, New Zealand, and was (literally) coerced into viewing the 2001 game. I received a formal “invitation” from the U.S. Embassy to attend a Super Bowl party; less formally the local Fulbright office was told to “strongly advise” all American scholars that it would be a “good idea” for them to attend. One of the things I particularly dislike about football is that it’s intrinsically intertwined with the kind of religion, nationalism, and militarism values nexus that’s antithetical to, well, the kind of person who believes in the goals of the Fulbright program. Nationalism was indeed the reason why American scholars were commanded to attend the embassy’s Super Bowl party. We were there to project American solidarity before nervous New Zealanders. The Super Bowl came just weeks after the Supreme Court anointed George W. Bush as the victor in the disputed 2000 election. This was horrible news in Wellington; Kiwis liked Bill Clinton and they adored Carol Mosley-Braun, his ambassador to New Zealand, and had hoped that an Al Gore victory would mean she would stay on.

Super Sunday did not begin well. In a harbinger of what would become President Bush’s paranoid style of dealing with the world, I was accosted by a U.S. Marine for taking pictures of the outside of the embassy. Apparently my photos constituted a “security risk.” Inside, the mood was one of startling and tense contrasts—officious members of the Bush transition team looking like Stepford diplomats with their paint-on smiles and matching flag lapel pins stood on one side of the room, and the skeletal and disconsolate remnants of the Clinton staff was hanging out with dazed New Zealand staffers on the other.

Someone on the Bush team had gone to considerable trouble and expense to make Super Bowl Sunday a “typical” American event, but this proved hilariously hard to replicate in a place over 7,100 miles from Los Angeles. There were, for instance, hotdogs, which became one-bite items left on plates. Seconds were politely refused when offered by uniformed waiters and with good reason: the wieners were what one might get if a bratwurst was blended with corrugated cardboard. They were, however, positively scrumptious compared to the “rolls,” rock-hard zeppelins that were several inches longer and thicker than the hotdogs and might have been fresh a week or so earlier. The less said about the ketchup and the relish, the better.

All I recall about the game was that it was the first time I ever saw a theater-sized flat-screen TV panel. To say that academics are not your typical football crowd is an understatement; if they like sports at all, most prefer baseball’s cerebral dimensions to football’s brute physicality. I had to ask who was playing and was surprised to learn that one of the teams was the Baltimore Ravens. I was vaguely aware that the Colts had fled Baltimore, but I had no idea there was another club on the Chesapeake named for Edgar Allen Poe’s poetic feathered foil.

The Fulbrighters preferred chatting with each other about our respective research projects and paid scant attention to the game. From the adjoining room we could hear the flag-lapel crowd hooting and booing. To complete the ghettoized scenario, the baffled New Zealander staff was huddling en masse by the food table. I struck up a conversation with one young diplomat, who asked me the charmingly phrased question, “Whom do you favor in the gridiron match?” When I told him I had no idea who was playing, had no interest in the outcome, and was far more interested in learning about New Zealand life, his face brightened and the verbal floodgates opened. In the true spirit of Fulbright ideals, a cross-cultural exchange ensued over topics such as national idiosyncrasies, film, books, and cultural misunderstandings. The food came under the microscope, with New Zealanders proclaiming the baked beans tasty, the potato chips (“crisps”) too salty, and the hotdogs and coleslaw unidentifiable.

One man looked furtively over his shoulder and confessed that he and other New Zealand staffers had been “ordered” to attend the event, and that none had ever before seen American football. Anxiety ran deep over the highhanded attitudes of the incoming American staff. (History proved the staffers prescient.) As conversation gravitated toward politics we Fulbright scholars were asked to explain the Bush-Gore election. (None of us could!) Every now and then several of us would wander into the adjoining room for appearances’ sake, but the only part of the broadcast that received favorable comment from New Zealanders was the halftime extravaganza—back then, Britney Spears was all the rage in New Zealand as well. I don’t recall who actually won the game, but I do remember an impromptu lesson on the glories of Jonah Lumu and New Zealand rugby. To this day I follow New Zealand’s national rugby team, the All Blacks, more than the the NFL. Thus, while millions of Americans are indulging in today’s game, I’ll retreat to my memories. I do confess, though, I hope there are some of those nine-year-old hotdogs hanging around. I’d like to ship them to CBS executives in the hope that they come down with botulism.