Wednesday, December 17, 2008

My pick for movie of the season is...


Watch the trailer

With thrilling performances, a timely/timeless story and gorgeous cinematography, Gus Van Sant's biopic of Harvey Milk really won me over. It's seriously the best film I've seen all year.

Keep in mind that I haven't seen The Wrestler yet
. That opens today, and I'll see it when I get the chance.

What are you watching?

Monday, December 8, 2008

To smooth or not to smooth?

After spending a bit of time at the US Open Swing Dance Championships over Thanksgiving weekend, I kinda got fascinated with the differences between modern Lindy Hop and West Coast Swing. The two dances both evolved from similar roots, the West Coast and Jitterbug communities both inspired by dancers from the New York ballrooms of the 1930s.

There are plenty of places to find information on the evolving of styles, so I'm going to skip ahead to my short thoughts on the subject. It's a bit of a ramble, and probably going to be ongoing, but here's a beginning.

First a couple of examples of the dances as they are danced now:

West Coast Swing

Lindy Hop

There's an essential set of differences between the two dances. Lindy Hop is a primal dance, urban and boisterous. It follows the pounding of the bass and pulses like an animal. West Coast praises smoothness and sexiness; is rhythmic yet strives to defy the beat of the drum.

The comment I have heard most from West Coasters with regard to Lindy Hop is this: "we don't bounce." This follows the Southern California Lindy Hop tradition of smoothness. If we look to the old school swing dancers who were present at the birth of West Coast Swing, they praised smoothness above pretty much anything else.

The Dean Collins Lindy Hoppers - 1983

The central figure in the link between Lindy Hop and West Coast Swing was Dean Collins. Collins is credited with bringing Lindy Hop from the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem to Los Angeles. Many of his proteges still dance and teach today. There's a longer conversation in this, but I think it's better saved for a later time.

Anyway, onto more comparisons. As I mentioned before Lindy Hop is an urban dance. I think by contrast it would be easy to suggest that some influences in West Coast would remove those urban influences. It seems to me that in addition to smoothness, West Coast loves prettiness. On the other side of the fence, Lindy Hop has a sense of humor and a deep connection to its roots.

I'd briefly bring up Ballet and Modern Dance as a contrary comparison. I think I'm going to have to save those thoughts for later.

Anyway, if you have thoughts on the subject, I'd love to read them.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Fight or Fuck!

This is a notion I've been considering a lot since the passage of Proposition 8, with a large numbers of people at odds. It's not a situation with an easy answer, but it's still worth a major consideration. We have two groups with ends that are seemingly

When cultures are in opposition, they have two choices: fight or fuck!

That's a thing I learned from one of my favorite writers, Alan Moore. If it needs explanation, let's look to his classic Miracleman series (known as Marvelman in the UK) Spoiler alert for those who plan on reading these wonderful stories. Italic
Marvelman was essentially a Captain Marvel (Shazam!) rip-off that flourished in England during the 1950s. Alan Moore revamped and revitalized the character in Warrior magazine, and the series was released as Miracleman in America. It was a dark deconstruction of a four-color world, set in the late Cold War 1980s. Along with the superhero in the sparkly blue tights, there kid sidekicks grown to adults, an aging nemesis, and an impending sense of doom.

The story featured Mickey Moran, an aging reporter, who through an accident of fate remembers after many decades that he had been empowered with the abilities of Marvelman. Filled with the twistedly morbid thrills of violent action and derring-do, the story was much more interesting in regards to the question of who was more important: Mickey Moran or Marvelman? Eventually, Mickey Moran gives in to let Marvelman take over.

Meanwhile, there's a war between two alien cultures, the Warpsmiths and the Qys. The Warpsmiths were an alien culture centered upon the principles of teleportation. The Qys were a race of creatures with many bodies which could be traded at any time, essentially a magical transformation. These two cultures had been warring for ages, with no end in sight.

When it came down to it, there would be decades of bloodshed ahead. When called upon to help, Marvelman is hard-pressed to find an answer, but Marvelwoman (I mentioned grown kid sidekicks, didn't I?) appears with a response: your cultures can either fight or make love. That is, they could either continue their thanatic path or they could approach synthesis, find a way to appreciate each other. Given this simple and primal logic, the two races form a truce, and the rest is for you to read.

With Promethea, which is essentially Moore's grimoire told as a superhero adventure story, Moore considers the concept of solve et coagula. That's the idea of taking things apart and putting them back together, possibly in new and different ways. It's a recipe for creativity in short, but it would seem to be another way to approach the situation of two warring cultures.

What this means to me, with regards to the ongoing culture war is that the two movements must meet in the middle. In the long run I believe this to be inevitable, but in the meantime many battles will be waged.

There's a lot more to discuss here, but the post is long enough for now.

Also notable is A.A.R.G.H (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia). Published by Alan Moore's Mad Love Publishing. It railed against Clause 28, a British law essentially striking the word "homosexual" from any official government discussion, and with the aim of making it impossible to discuss gayness in schools. If you can find this book, it's pretty wonderful, however Moore's own work, a poem called The Mirror of Love, has been re-published by Top Shelf with new artwork by the amazing Jose Villarubia, and is well worth a read.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

An unexpected influence of mine: Sanford Meisner

In case anyone doesn't know, I'm a jitterbug. That means that I dance Lindy Hop and other dances rooted in the Jazz era. I've studied a lot of dances in my lifetime, but the dancing and music of that period have resonated most with me in my life. I teach dance and have a very eclectic range of influences.

You might think it weird, but one of the primary influences on my dancing is a guy named Sanford Meisner. Sandy was one of the prominent acting teachers of the twentieth century. He was a founding member of The Group Theatre, which was the birthplace of Method Acting in the 1930s. Meisner rejected Method Acting in the quest to find an approach to performance that was more honest.

The famed playwright Arthur Miller (you know, you must have read or heard about The Crucible or Death of a Salesman while you were in High School) said with regard to Meisner that "He has been the most principled teacher of acting in this country for decades now, and every time I am reading actors I can pretty well tell which ones have studied with Meisner. It is because they are honest and simple and don't lay on complications that aren't necessary."

I first learned about Meisner late in my college career. I had read all the requisite acting books, and done my preliminary explorations of improv technique. When I graduated from UCSB, I immediately enrolled in a Santa Barbara City College acting class in which the teacher was known for working with exercises based on Meisner's. The most fundamental exercise is known as Repetition. Two actors face each other and repeat very basic observations at each other. For instance:

"You're wearing a blue shirt."
"I'm wearing a blue shirt."
"You're wearing a blue shirt."
"Yes, I'm wearing a blue shirt."

The technique would be built upon as the class progressed. Actors would be trained to learn to make the most basic of observations and learn to pick up on the impulses that their partners feed back.

The repetition exercise might seem silly to some, but for me it was the beginning of a way of viewing the world. As I have mentioned before, it became a major influence in the way I approached the Lindy Hop.

I'm currently halfway through watching Sanford Meisner Master Class. Here's a preview:

It should be mentioned that by the time his students came up with the idea of recording his technique, Meisner had had his larynx removed due to throat cancer. He relearned speech using a technique that required him to burp his words. It was a bit unsettling for me to listen to him speak at first, but I find that the lessons are still completely worthwhile.

During an early lesson in the video, Meisner notes that "the most difficult thing to learn is the art of simplicity."

Let's be clear, just because something is simple doesn't mean that needs to be mediocre or boring. The importance of simplicity in this technique is that it is honest and true. In fact, if followed to its end, the technique of simplicity, I believe, leads to performance that is more vibrant and moving.

Now to the connections that I make between Meisner's technique and the Lindy Hop, Meisner most praised the basic idea of listening to one's partner; the notion that I could really observe very simple impulses in the circumstances of the dance (let's include the music, the room and the weather, etc.) I find that I approach the dance in a very simple way.

There's one dance exercise I've used again and again that I remember basing directly on Meisner's repetition: in a course of repeated swing-outs, one partner will initiate a basic movement - lifting the shoulder or kick-ball-changing here or there. The other partner during the next swing-out is tasked with repeating the movement. Perhaps it's not as deep as the original Repetition exercise in practice, but I think the basic skill of making and responding to basic observations is really important in the dance. It's one way to approach the simplicity I strive to realize.

I feel that when I approach a partner, that I am completely in the moment, and one hopes that occasionally that moment can be exciting.

There's much more to Meisner's ideas than I've been able to discuss in this short post. In the meantime, here's a link to a documentary that's fully available on YouTube: Sanford Meisner - Theater's Best Kept Secret.