I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Dugdale of new-to-town acclaimed theatre troupe The Trip. Their first show in Columbus runs for three more days.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Dugdale of new-to-town acclaimed theatre troupe The Trip. Their first show in Columbus runs for three more days.
How much of remembering is an act of love? That question suffuses every molecule of Variations on Themes from Lost and Found: Scenes from a Life and other works by John Bernd, the unequivocal highlight of my first day in New York this trip.
The first time I saw Ishmael Houston-Jones it was like the first time I heard Monk or Joni Mitchell; the first time I heard Amiri Baraka; the first time I saw a Rauschenberg combine. So I went into this revival presented by American Realness barely knowing anything about John Bernd, to whom tribute is being paid, and only a little more about Houston-Jones’ co-director Miguel Gutierrez. That instinct didn’t disappoint.
The cast of dancers is perfect, Toni Carlson, Talya Epstein, Alvaro Gonzalez, Charles Gowin, Madison Krekel, Johnnie Cruise Mercer, and Alex Rodabaugh. They feel like they like each other. Physical chemistry is paramount and abundant but there’s a warmth that’s much harder to capture. For a show about communion and tending to one another that sense means everything.
Sweet moments of singing syllables that boil down to “Oh, hi, heya” stretching out and sparkling like stardust (Nick Haslett beautifully reworks Bernd’s original compositions) master the supple stillness of being together many of us only strive for. There’s a gorgeous, subtle glow in the way these bodies slide through the original music; themes build, go through a chrysalis, then spark between the dancers.
Toni Carlson’s warm intensity, especially in concert with Charles Gowin, is a highlight; they ground the more abstract sequences in a heightened, best-selves version of the world we know too well.
There’s a delightful slapstick edge here, most prominent in a sequence about fighting illness by “Taking control of [your] diet” making a parody of a smoothie. This shifts into a thesis statement as everyone puts their hands on the blender like a sorcerer’s talisman and chant in tones equal parts defiance and desperation words of hope like “I will not die before I do justice to my gifts.”
The use of pre-existing songs here is remarkable, with nary a cop-out crutch or easy wink for miles.
Copland’s “Hoe Down” section from Rodeo gets jubilant irreverence. This only piece from a traditional ballet gets razor-sharp use of that post-Balanchine narrative dance language but also the childlike play at Cowboys and Indians and some frankly erotic “playing at cowboys.”
Prince’s Dirty Mind grows out of the kind of hard triplet stomping Houston-Jones says is a signature of Bernd, a thudding, sensual shudder that’s a call to attention that could turn into “Walk this Way” at any moment. With this Prince song, the dance vocabulary that served as a quicksilver carrier for many moods, flowers into an electric bacchanal. Pairing off, tossing each other around, finding space for one another’s body. The highlight for me was Epstein, split off from the others, dancing in shadow back by the audience, twitching like a power-line violently ripped from its moorings; the kind of intense, erotic defiance of gravity and death it takes this much craft to look natural. I blushed and wanted to look away but I couldn’t take my eyes off her. New Order’s Age of Consent captured the bursting joy and melancholy of that song in a way I’ve never seen any movie or TV use pull off.
The coup de grace (double-entendre sting on “grace”) came with Lou Reed’s Street Hassle. Circumventing what most people gravitate toward in this song, the hustler narrative, Variations drops us right into Part C. We get strings already growing lush and Springsteen’s cameo before the sweet, keening melancholy of “I need you, baby. Oh please, baby… Please don’t slip away.”
I know how reductive this is for such an intense and complex work. But what I left with was: no energy is wasted. Bernd was an unlikely candidate for the canon but his friends made a zine 10 years after his death in tribute. 20 years after that an oversold crowd had the privilege to sit in a church built in 1799 and marvel at all the work in this recreation.
I don’t want to get all “Can I get an Amen” on you, but… May we all be so lucky to have someone love us that much. To love even one thing we made that much. To be some small part of reflecting or amplifying that love in some small way.
“The bandleader is indicative
of nothing or everything
Depending on the day.”
-Gabrielle Calvocoressi, “In the Darkness of the House of Pleasure”
I’m pretty sure live music was the first of these lists I started 15+ years ago (any friends going back to the email list days or early LiveJournal, feel free to correct). It’s been a guiding light. It’s how I’ve met most of my dearest friends and made many of my fondest memories. Even as I grow old and share the frustration with some trappings, I’m still invigorated by a great show. Nothing else gives me that instantaneous body-and-soul charge.
I saw around 130 shows this year. After a hard, hard deliberation – getting it down from 35 was more difficult than previous years – here are twenty still gnawing at me. Rather than ranking, they’re presented in chronological order. In Columbus, unless otherwise specified.
And, because festivals are not going away, we should celebrate what’s still good about them. My favorite 20 sets, mixed up, from my favorite festivals throughout the year. Again, all are in Columbus unless otherwise specified.
“That is, all time
Reduces to no special time. No one
Alludes to the change; to do so might
Involve calling attention to oneself
Which would augment the dread of not getting out
Before having seen the whole collection
(Except for the sculptures in the basement:
They are where they belong).
Our time gets to be veiled, compromised
By the portrait’s will to endure. It hints at
Our own, which we were hoping to keep hidden.
We don’t need paintings or
Doggerel written by mature poets when
The explosion is so precise, so fine.
Is there any point even in acknowledging
The existence of all that? Does it
-John Ashbery, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”
Visual art is a key part of my cultural diet. One I’ve come to a little later. Even when I’m with someone at a gallery and discussing what we’re seeing, there’s a particular being-alone with a piece that lends itself to introspection and takes me to the same places as poetry.
That said, there are exhibits I gleaned the most pleasure from sitting around talking about after the fact – this year’s Whitney Biennial, for instance. I wouldn’t trade the hour dissecting it with Anne at the Corner Bistro or the hour talking about it with Tutti Jackson and Jeff Regensburger at Ace of Cups for anything, but those conversations and negotiations stuck with me long after any aesthetic charge.
These are the opposite, these 15 shows nagged at me and wouldn’t let me go.Trying to add in some photographs – what has a picture doesn’t correlate to liking it more than other work, but I’m far more likely to experiment with snapping a picture in an empty gallery than a full museum where I might be in somebody’s way. Unless noted, everything here is in Columbus.
“…the river that goes
nowhere, that has survived the
astonishments and will never
venture close to that heat again, is
cool here, looking up at what,
looking back down, how is it
possible the world still exists, as it
begins to take form there, in the not
being, there is once then there is the
big vocabulary, loosed, like
a jay’s song thrown down when the
bird goes away”
-Jorie Graham, “Mother’s Hands Drawing Me”
This was a rough year for me personally and those choppy waters were dwarfed by the world on fire outside my window. The big positive was finally getting sick of years of attrition and making my world smaller through meanness and casual cruelty and disregard for other people’s feelings and numbing myself instead of feeling.
With some stumbles, I aggressively committed to therapy and tried other tools to try to get back in touch with the me who genuinely likes things. I won’t know until retrospect if I was successful. I hope being open about it – here and elsewhere – helps me stick with it. These exercises in looking-back are key to that: it’s an astonishing reminder of how much great stuff I’m lucky enough to experience every year. I talk about theatre as being the form of art most closely aligned with empathy for me: it’s impossible to ignore other living, breathing people on stage creating this feedback loop between artist and audience.
In the actual (ostensible) topic of this blog, Columbus theatre seemed to rebound after last year’s lull (with the huge exception last year of the August Wilson Festival that was the tide lifting all boats). Available Light, MadLab, Red Herring and CATCO mounted seasons that rank with their best work, The Wexner Center in Chuck Helm’s valedictory season imported the finest work from NYC and elsewhere, OSU and Otterbein continue to be fountains that refresh and replenish our cultural lives as well as the overall theatrical world. I still bemoan no new companies, no wildly new intensity, but in a year that included maybe my strongest theatrical trip to New York, Columbus brought work on our stages that went toe to toe with everything I saw in the Apple.
Everything in Columbus unless stated otherwise. If I reviewed it elsewhere, there’s a link to the original review.
“Red is only black remembering.”
-Ocean Vuong, “Daily Bread”
Visual art gets more important to me every year. It makes its mediation between the idea and the finished product impossible to ignore. It freezes memory in all its unreliable-ness in a static form forever or it deliberately stays ephemeral. Engaging with a painting or a sculpture or an installation requires going up to it alone and letting it inside you. Even if you’re talking about the piece with someone else, the work has to be grappled with alone and you’ll never adequately explain what you see.
Got waylaid by illness and obligation so I’m both late and this is going up without blurbs but please know how much each of these struck me.
As with all of my end of year lists, everything is in Columbus unless otherwise stated.
“In Beirut, as elsewhere, to set down roots may be a far more radical strategy than to try to shape the future. If we can hear the ways in which what was lovely and light as a spring a hundred years ago remains lovely today, then maybe we can reframe things for an uncertain future. Not beauty but the conditions for beauty’s becoming. Improvisation calls on a spirit of interdependence and can only happen when you are free to move in any direction.
Recorded sound vibrates between history and pleasure. Live sound exists only in the present. It cannot linger. This is one of the reasons why sound defines public space even more than architecture. Kids jamming that week’s hit, neighbors fucking behind a thin wall, the call to prayer’s divine layer competing with traffic’s blare, the loud low boom of something blowing up – and its opposite, hilltop garden quiet.
To remember the world is to remember the sound of the world. To listen carelessly is to forget. Our lives spool down to whatever medium can recall us: wet brains, hard drives, magnetic tapes, circular pieces of plastic inscribed with tiny mountains of sound that came from bodies and moved bodies, somewhere, just in time, then running out of it.”
-Jace Clayton, Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture
Music has always been the art I experience most often. It’s the mechanism through which I’ve met the largest group of my friends. Music’s sent me down roads I didn’t know I needed and brought me back when I thought I’d be lost forever. I’ve done a lot of embarrassing, annoying, flailing this year in response to my own bullshit more than any outside factor and I’m sorry for anyone who got babbling or worse, steamrolled under my selfishness and inertia.
Keeping with this year’s unwanted theme of “death, death, death,” two people close to me I didn’t see nearly as often as I should have passed away. I find myself at a loss, to sum up what either of them meant to me, but I’m very grateful I saw them both one last time.
The first is Marie Arsenault who I loved immediately upon meeting she and her husband, John Wendland, at Little Brother’s – one of the many people I met through Matt Benz and the overall Sovines contingent. Marie was responsible for many of my favorite musical moments over the years. So many sets at Twangfest in a sticky early-June St Louis: keeping an over enthused mosher from leaping into my friends until my shoulder was sore during the best Supersuckers set I ever saw; Marah tapping a vein of nostalgia and possibility and tossing the mic on the floor to draw us all around the two brothers for good measure; Robbie Fulks tearing into Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” like a ravenous wolf; Paul Burch stopping time like smoke in the air on a set promoting my favorite record of his, Fool for Love; waltzing with her in the back of the Duck Room (don’t leave us yet Chuck Berry) as Chris Scruggs played a guitar solo that sounded like diamonds falling out of the rafters with BR549; the Deadstring Brothers doing the best soulful Rolling Stones rock I’d ever seen followed by the depth charge dance party of the Dirtbombs; Grand Champeen at the after hours “Twangfest Prom” doing a version of Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right” arranged in the style of Cheap Trick and my singing Stan Rogers’ “Northwest Passage” with Carl Wilson at a table. So many conversations I can’t forget even if I couldn’t remember them in the detail they deserve.
And beyond Twangfest: seeing her here in Columbus for Surly Girl Parking Lot Blowouts and Sovines reunions; in New Orleans, drinking at Carousel Bar; at the sadly short-lived Beat N Soul where I never heard The Beatdowns and Mondo Topless sound better, and JC Brooks ripped my heart out of my chest and made me dance on it; following her travels and marveling at how much she did even after she was sick. Hers and John’s was the most fun wedding I’ve ever been to and that bar’s set fucking high – my friends love well and throw great parties. Even her memorial service was some of the most fun I’ve had all year, fun’s not a quite right word, but she was an inspiration, and she still is. I’ve been thinking about her playing “Marie Marie” every time I’ve been near a jukebox since late summer. I’ll be thinking about her when Anne and I are watching The Dirtbombs on New Year’s Eve – and thinking back to that Twangfest set where Mick Collins leaned over the audience and said, “Do you guys really know these songs?” and the afterparty where our bursting at the seams enthusiasm scared him away from the party down to the hotel’s karaoke bar.
The other was Terry Adams. One of the best writers I knew in prose and songs (his band Teenage Prayers’ record Everyone Thinks You’re the Best produced by Steve Wynn is a slept-on soul-punk classic). I met him through my pal Morgan who he moved back to Columbus for and later married. Their relationship was a marvel to me and every time I got to be around the two of them I was challenged, warmed, and filled with wanting to be better.
And those two personal examples just threw into relief the artists who meant something to the whole world. I was lucky to have gotten to see Prince, Bowie, Alan Vega (with Suicide and solo), Guy Clark, Merle Haggard, Dennis Davis (with Roy Ayers in a show I still talk about). Try to see and appreciate, even if you’re just a cheering face in the crowd, people who have meant something to you over the years. And my heart breaks for the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. I never spent as much time in that kind of DIY venue as friends of mine did – that speaks to my privilege and my mainstream, middlebrow tastes in a lot of ways – but that sort of venue (here thinking of Skylab, BLD, Firexit, a number of spots in NYC) has given me experiences I wouldn’t have had anywhere else and let some of the best artists here and elsewhere grow into themselves and flourish. Yes, there needs to be a middle ground of some kind of safety, but that type of space is absolutely, 100%, vital. We’re all poorer if marginalized artists can’t find a way to burst through the gravity that pulls them down.
Locally I feel like we’re in kind of a holding pattern, not a bad thing for now. Big Room Bar, under Kyle Sowash, has amped up its booking and come into its own. It’s a great space that my number one show-going priority in 2017 is to attend more, starting with the Bash and Pop reunion in January. Ace of Cups has continued to flourish under Bobby Miller’s booking including the birth of Sick Weekend this year which was tremendous fun and promises to be a regional garage rock show we can all be proud of. Rumba, and its relationship with Celebrity Etc is hitting a groove again and while they don’t book a wealth of things I want to see I love going there when they do. The Woodlands Family got me out more than the last few years combined with a vein of funky music no one else in this town does the same kind of justice to.
Natalie’s is still going strong with shows I was overjoyed to see this year that I wouldn’t see anywhere else and shows no signs of slowing down. I finally made it to Notes and I’m happy to report the sound was fantastic, and sightlines are excellent. I should be glad to see world-class talent without fighting for a seat, but when legends like Hamiett Bluiett, Oliver Lake, and Kidd Jordan, or Francois Moutin and Jean-Michel Pilc, are playing to a room I can count on two hands, something’s wrong with the promotion. Attention should be paid to April Kulcsar who left Brother Drake as BD retooled their approach to take the focus away from shows. She was the reason the meadery was a listening room on a lot of people’s radar and while I’m interested in seeing how she sets the world on fire as a manager/tour manager/publicist for bands losing her ear and promotional tenacity was a loss for this town as a whole.
I was talking to an old friend a while ago, and I mentioned that I’m most disappointed with myself when I forget how lucky I’ve been. I’m lucky to live in this town. I’m lucky to have Anne and more great friends than I deserve. I’m lucky to have all the opportunities I’ve had. These lists help keep me in touch with that gratitude. Thank you for reading me.
Favorite Sets from Festivals
I’ve done a lot of talking about how I think festivals do more harm than good. In general, I’m for art – music, painting, film, theatre, whatever – being part of all of our day to day lives instead of being set aside, something we do on vacation, or we treat ourselves to out of town. But that said, there’s magic in a tightly-focused regional festival, and I was lucky enough to have some amazing moments at those kinds of festivals who do that lost horizon, world-set-apart-for-a-few-days thing very, very well. I’m not going to write blurbs for all of these, but these 20 sets hit me hard and stuck with me. From the Sovines’ acoustic set in a bowling alley delving into the country song as creation myth and their catharsis of regret full rock show, to Laurie Anderson’s tangy violin filling in for Tony Conrad with Faust, to percussion sneaking up on me around every turn on a nature trail at a quarry in Knoxville, to Reigning Sound’s and Burnt Quarktet’s dance music beyond genres, I was glad to be here for all of this.