Sunday, April 25, 2010

Turning Points

On January 16, 1964, when Hello, Dolly! opened on Broadway, the show's Act II romantic ballad stressed how someone's life can be changed in the blink of an eye. Jerry Herman's lyric for the song reads as follows:
"It only takes a moment
For your eyes to meet and then
Your heart knows in a moment
You will never be alone again.

I held her for an instant
But my arms felt sure and strong.
It only takes a moment
To be loved a whole life long."
Close encounters of the most unexpected kind can rock someone's personal world. A curious twist of fate can bring about a wonderful -- or horrible -- change in one's destiny. On stage and screen, four recent productions celebrated the catalytic effect one moment in time can have on a person's future.

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I've always been a big fan of Ethel Merman's, so I was already predisposed to liking Klea Blackhurst's show about the Merm entitled "Everything The Traffic Will Allow." A life-long fan of the woman who ruled Broadway for four decades, Blackhurst has had great success paying tribute to Merman for one simple reason: she's got the pipes to do it with!

Klea Blackhurst in Everything The Traffic Will Allow

Blackhurst's delight in telling Merman stories starts at the top of the show as she paints a picture for the audience of Merman's legendary breakthrough at the opening night of George & Ira Gershwin's 1930 hit musical, Girl Crazy. Effortlessly stealing the show from Ginger Rogers, Merman launched into "I Got Rhythm" and brought down the house by holding a note at full volume for 16 bars of music.

The folks at 42nd Street Moon decided to bring Blackhurst back to town for a short run of Everything The Traffic Will Allow. Watching her perform Merman's repertoire with gusto is a special treat because of Blackhurst's obvious adoration of the Merm and her ability to belt out songs by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin with a similar verve. A quiet moment, in which Blackhurst accompanies herself on a ukulele while singing "Life Is Just A Bowl of Cherries" (from the George White Scandals) has a rare charm and wistfulness.

The following clip of Blackhurst performing Cole Porter's "Blow, Gabriel Blow" (from Anything Goes) on one of Rosie O'Donnell's LGBT cruises not only gives a sense of how much joy Blackhurst gets from the sheer physicality of singing, but also reveals a rare moment of scat singing that was written for Merman's voice.

Blackhurst's show also offered audiences the opportunity to hear some songs made famous by Merman that have faded from the public consciousness. These included "Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please" and "I've Still Got My Health" (music and lyrics by Cole Porter, from 1940's Panama Hattie), "Something For The Boys," "Hey, Good Lookin," and "The Leader of A Big Time Band" (from 1943's Something For The Boys, with music by Cole Porter and lyrics by Dorothy Fields), "Just A Moment Ago" (a song by Roger Edens that was inserted into 1956's Happy Hunting after Merman had stopped talking to the show's original composer, Harold Karr) and "World, Take Me Back," a song Jerry Herman originally wrote for Hello, Dolly! when he hoped that Merman would star in his new musical (she eventually introduced the song when she took over the title role at the end of the show's Broadway run).

In 1936, Merman opened opposite Jimmy Durante in Cole Porter's Red, Hot and Blue. Here's a rare clip of the two veterans 30 years later singing a song from Jule Styne's score for Funny Girl:

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Based on a fictional premise, but filmed in the style of a documentary, La Pivellina tells the story of an Italian circus performer (Patrizia Gerardi) who, while searching for her pet dog near a trailer park, discovers a two-year-old girl who has been abandoned and left in a playground swing by her mother. Inside the girl's jacket is a note explaining that the mother is in desperate straits and will come for the child as soon as she can.

Although not necessarily a woman of maternal instincts, Patty brings the child back to her trailer to feed it and make sure it is safe. Her husband (Walter Saabel), who is keenly aware of their meager finances and the added responsibility of caring for a child, would prefer to call the police. But Patty wants to hang on to Asia (Asia Crippa) for a while, hoping that the little girl can eventually be reunited with her mother.

Soon, Asia has worked her way into the hearts of Patty and a young boy (Tairo Caroli) whose father is also a circus worker. When a note finally arrives from Asia's mother detailing when she will come to pick up her daughter, Patty and her friends decide to throw a birthday party for Asia as a farewell. At the end of the film, when the mother fails to show up and Walter is away on a job, Patty is left to determine Asia's fate.

Filmed by Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, La Pivellina (which is being screened as part of the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival) treads a delicate line between a fictional narrative and a documentary style of filmmaking. As Covi explains:
"In Italy, a great many children are abandoned at this age, not just newborns. Unfortunately, it’s a current problem. Asia was almost two years old during the shooting. Our working style is probably the best for shooting with children. For children, we aren’t in any way scary. And kids need time, of course. I spent a great deal of time with her, until she fell asleep in my arms, and then with Patty in the trailer. Afterwards she would go to sleep there all the time. When we picked up the camera or the sound equipment we didn’t change to such an extent that she would have noticed.

Patrizia Gerardi and Asia Crippa

We’ve known Patty for a long time, and we think her voice and behavior resemble that of Anna Magnani, whom we adore. She has an explosive personality, though she did a lot to hold herself back during shooting. Patty was happy to appear in the film. On top of that, we shot in winter (a time when nothing’s happening in the circus business). This was a welcome change of pace during a time that is normally dead for them. We lived with them in their trailer, played cards or dice at night or went to the pizzeria. Circus people who work outdoors don’t have much to do in winter: getting their trailers ready for the summer, rehearsing and improving their acts; otherwise the shoot filled up a period of nothing but waiting time."
La Pivellina won't tear at your heartstrings as much as more manipulative narrative films. But the tragedy of Asia's fate is very real. Having been temporarily taken in by Patty, one wonders what the little girl's future holds in store for her. Here's the trailer:

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Just as Merman had the great good luck to be spotted by producer Vinton Freedley while she was performing at the Brooklyn Paramount, a 16 year old dancer had the good fortune to be spotted by ballet enthusiast Anne Bass in January of 2000 (while she was visiting the Angkor Wat Temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia). Dance enthusiasts have a keen eye for talent and, even after she returned home to America, Bass couldn't shake the memory of watching Sokvannaara "Sy" Sar perform.

Something about the boy's charisma, natural talent as a dancer, and his ability to communicate with an audience hooked Bass and inspired her to make an extraordinary gesture. Through her contacts at the World Monuments Fund, she was able to send a message to Sy's dance teacher that if the young man was interested in coming to New York to train as a ballet dancer, she would help to underwrite his expenses.

A wealthy woman, Bass understood that this was a huge challenge -- both culturally and personally -- for a 16-year-old boy with no sense of Western dance traditions. When she first noticed Sy, he was basically happy to be dancing with his friends. The last thing on his mind was competing in an international ballet competition.

Sokvannaara "Sy" Sar competing at Varna, Bulgaria
(Photo by: Stoyan Lefedzhiev)

Bass's documentary, Dancing Across Borders, follows Sy's progress from his initial discovery to his arrival in New York and a year's hard work under the guidance of ballet teacher, Olga Kostritzky. It documents his progress through to the semifinals at the International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria and follows his five years of study at the School of American Ballet in New York and his eventual maturation as a member of the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle.

Dancing Across Borders also accompanies Sy on his return to Cambodia to perform ballet as part of a celebration of the rededication of the United State Embassy in Phnomh Penh. Seeing how much he has grown upon his return to his home community to visit his parents and the students at his former school of Khmer dance is especially heartwarming.

While Bass has been active on the boards of directors of several American ballet companies, this was her first attempt at making a documentary. As she explains:
"I did not originally set out to make a film. When Sokvannara (Sy) Sar first came to New York, I photographed and filmed his dance classes in order to be able to send a record of his progress to his mother in Cambodia. I began to see more clearly that, within the facts and the context of Sy’s story -- and his development as a person and as a dancer under the guidance of a remarkable teacher -- there really was a potentially interesting film. I did not know if I would be able to grasp this potential and transform it into a convincing and enjoyable film, but I thought it might be fun to try. Since I was in the privileged position of being able both to make this attempt and to fail at it, I decided to go ahead.

Initially I had assumed that I would simply choose and hire a director to make the film that I envisioned. But it quickly became clear that, given my relationship to Sy, my intense feelings about ballet, and my strong -- even if as yet unformed -- ideas about what the film could be, it was not fair to subject experienced and professional filmmakers to what they might perceive to be the flaws and limitations of my vision and aptitude. So, early in this process, I resolved to do the work myself and, for better or worse, make the film that I wanted to make.

I wanted the film to respect the different levels of the story that I knew were implicit within it. This was very confusing because there were so many directions in which we could have gone. I wanted to avoid too much ballet because I hoped it would be more than a movie for balletomanes. I wanted to honor and express the role of teachers generally, of their dedication, and of the rapport that the best teachers are able to develop with their students. I hoped to draw some attention to Cambodia, its beauty and its heritage, and to the consequences of the lethal destruction that America did so much to catalyze. And I wanted the film to be honest and true to Sy’s character. Although he is often shown in a flattering light, I also wanted to include more of the challenging parts of his nature. I wanted the film to inspire other kids (privileged or very underprivileged) to seize whatever opportunities are in front of them, while still showing that nothing comes without discipline and relentless hard work."
Sokvannaara "Sy" Sar performing with composer Philip Glass
at the Vail International Dance Festival (Photo by: Erin Baiano)

I had a rather strange experience while watching a DVD screener of Dancing Across Borders. A close friend (who is a former ballet dancer) awoke from his nap midway through the film. Upon hearing ballet music, he came into the room where I was watching Bass's film and proceeded to offer a running commentary from the perspective of someone who trained under Alicia Alonso, won the Varna competition at the age of 17, and danced professionally with Ballet Nacional de Cuba and the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet.

While Dancing Across Borders is a film of many charms, it is hardly your typical documentary about ballet dancers. I especially like the way it shows the cross-cultural impact of dance and music on someone who grew up in a rural Asian landscape. One can see how difficult a path this has been for a young boy like Sy (who started much later than most male ballet dancers and had to learn an entirely new art form and language while adjusting to a completely different culture). Here's the trailer:

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Few things can change one's life as quickly as an automobile accident. The Magic Theater is currently presenting the world premiere of Lydia Stryk's sarcastic comedy, An Accident.

Based on what Stryk learned from her own experience of being run over in a supermarket's parking lot, this two-character play begins with a woman lying unconscious in a hospital bed. An Accident follows the bittersweet relationship that develops between Libby (Arwen Andersen) and the guilt-ridden Anton (Tim Kniffin) after he accidentally mows her down while reaching for some fresh cherries he had just purchased.

Arwen Anderson as Libby

The play is essentially a series of vignettes that begin as Libby's eyes start to flutter open and she struggles to regain her memory as well as physical control of her paralyzed body. A former television producer with a quick and sharp tongue, Libby is not the kind of patient who takes a passive approach to life. Lying in bed with only her eyes and mouth to help her, she is quick to attack, thrust, and parry with the high school history teacher by her bedside.

Curiously, though, whenever Anton manages to provoke Libby and really push her buttons, her anger and frustration help her to make a rehabilitative breakthrough. The scene in which Anton tries to perform a very new-agey healing ritual as Libby eggs him on sexually may shock some with its intensity and brazenness. But Libby's strength has always been her ability to control and manipulate people. As she regains her faculties, the return of that skill is a sure sign that she's healing and getting stronger.

Tim Kniffin as Anton

After directing the epic "...and Jesus Moonwalks The Mississippi" for Cutting Ball Theatre (where he is artistic director), Rob Melrose must have found a two-character play like An Accident to be a refreshing change of pace. Barely 80 minutes long, An Accident is beautifully framed by Erik Flatmo's unit set and York Kennedy's sensitive lighting.

Together with the rest of the creative team, Melrose has shaped a stunning dramatic vehicle for Arwen Anderson, who rises to the playwight's challenge with a remarkable combination of vulnerability and bravado. While Tim Kniffin's portrayal of Anton offers a great foil to the intensity of Libby's needs and outbursts, Anderson's performance is the kind of tour de force that Bay area theatregoers won't want to miss. An Accident continues through May 9th at the Magic Theatre (you can order tickets here).