Monday, April 10, 2017

Thinking Way Outside the Box

"My mom always said life was like a box of chocolates -- you never know what you're gonna get." That piece of wisdom comes from the title character in 1994's Forrest Gump. But exactly what kind of box are we talking about? Boxes of chocolate are usually heart-shaped or rectangular. While their contents may be delicious, they're not likely to be very provocative.

Breaking free from the rigid constructs of patriarchal societies and religious dogma can be exhilarating but dangerous. Both Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) struggled against powerful church officials to prove that the earth revolved around the sun rather than accepting the conventional wisdom that the sun revolved around the earth. Just as science can disprove well-established nonsense promulgated by organized religion, the arts have the power to free up one's imagination and let it soar. In her powerful Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, Eve L. Ewing explained that:
"Art creates pathways for subversion, for political understanding and solidarity among coalition builders. Art teaches us that lives other than our own have value. Like the proverbial court jester who can openly mock the king in his own court, artists who occupy marginalized social positions can use their art to challenge structures of power in ways that would otherwise be dangerous or impossible. Authoritarian leaders throughout history have intuited this fact and have acted accordingly. It is imperative that we understand what Trump’s attack on the arts is really about. It’s not about making America a drab and miserable place, nor is it about a belief in austerity or denying resources to communities in need." 
A popular meme floating around the Internet
"Much like the disappearance of data from government websites and the exclusion of critical reporters from White House briefings, this move signals something broader and more threatening than the inability of one group of people to do their work. It’s about control. It’s about creating a society where propaganda reigns and dissent is silenced. We need the arts because they make us full human beings. But we also need the arts as a protective factor against authoritarianism. In saving the arts, we save ourselves from a society where creative production is permissible only insofar as it serves the instruments of power. When the canary in the coal mine goes silent, we should be very afraid -- not only because its song was so beautiful, but also because it was the only sign that we still had a chance to see daylight again."

Creative minds have no problem embracing the concept that some rules were made to be broken. Whether an artist decides to tackle the rules of gravity, common sense, or profit-driven product over integrity and creative process, a fertile imagination (coupled with a radical understanding of the artistic tools at one's disposal) can be a powerful force of liberation.

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There was a time, not so very long ago, when having a piano in one's living room was a status symbol. Not only did it show a serious interest in music, the presence of a spinet, upright, or baby grand demonstrated that its keys were being touched by someone who made a living by making music or, at the very least, a child whose parents were trying to nurture a budding musical talent.

Written by Irving Berlin, "I Love A Piano" was copyrighted on December 10, 1915. Its first recording was made 101 years ago by Billy Murray on January 5, 1916. Since then it has been sung by innumerable artists, including Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Barbara Cook, and inserted into such popular musicals as MGM's Easter Parade and the stage version of White Christmas.

The evolution from the harpsichord and acoustic piano to Wurlitzer's electric piano (and onward to today's electronic and digital pianos) has had a perverse impact on a beloved instrument. Advances in digital technology have made it possible for families and professional musicians to own keyboard instruments that are easily movable, capable of producing a wider variety of sounds, and much less expensive than a Steinway grand piano. Add in the cost of professional piano tuners (and the continuing cutbacks in funding for arts education in the schools) and it's easy to understand why so many acoustic pianos have ended up being broken down and hauled away to the city dump.

Born in 1962, artist Mauro ffortissimo grew up in Argentina and emigrated to the United States in 1981. A founding member of the Enso Art Collective, Miles Davis Memorial Hall, and 849 Folsom Music (a 13-member performance group specializing in music and spoken word), he lives in Half Moon Bay where, together with his wife, he runs the Enso Yoga Studio and Art Center. On April 26, his new film, Twelve Pianos, will receive its world premiere at the Castro Theatre as the closing night attraction at the San Francisco Green Film Festival.

Mauro ffortissimo with one of his pianos

Together with filmmaker Dean Mermell, Mauro decided to take 12 discarded pianos and put them to use in a manner which was not focused on finding the best possible acoustics or the most sophisticated audience of classical music lovers. Instead, he scouted out a dozen locations along the San Mateo County coastline where he could position unloved pianos so that they could be played by anyone who wanted to tickle their ivories. Whether performing alone or while dolphins leaped out of the surf below, his aim was to use the doomed pianos as a way of letting people experience music and art free from the formalities of the concert hall.

For twelve days, Mauro and his friends hauled pianos to coastal lookouts, into cypress groves, and performed for free. Despite having acquired the necessary permits, local police were not amused and ordered him to cease and desist. However, news of Mauro's activities reached San Francisco's City Hall and he was invited to bring his act to a more welcoming urban environment. With the ability to store his pianos in a condemned building that occasionally hosted underground concerts, Mauro and his colleagues from 849 Folsom Music rapturously punctured the myth that the arts are an elitist activity.

A scene from Twelve Pianos

Watching Twelve Pianos is an exercise equally steeped in sadness and joy. For anyone who has taken piano lessons or fallen in love with the sounds of jazz and classical music played on a keyboard instrument, it seems like a terrible waste to see these pianos on what is essentially their musical death march. And yet, the happiness they bring to people is undeniable (and often deeply poignant). In the film's thrilling final sequence, a friend who owns a fishing boat takes Mauro out to sea with a piano soundboard on deck so that he can communicate with some friendly whales. Here's the trailer:

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When one thinks of artists who have created work that strays far outside the box, names that quickly come to mind are Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and architects Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. And then, of course, there is Robert Lepage, the powerhouse polymath who was born in Quebec City in 1959.

Over the course of a multidisciplinary career spanning nearly four decades, Lepage has become a master storyteller with a boundless curiosity about new technologies and how he can incorporate them into his work. The American Conservatory Theater is currently presenting a limited run of his play, Needles and Opium, which originally premiered in 1991 at the Palais Montcalm in Quebec City. In 2013, following his stunning achievements with Cirque du Soleil and the Metropolitan Opera's Ring cycle, Lepage opted to revisit and reimagine Needles and Opium using technology (such as digital mapping) that was not yet available when the work was first conceived.

Wellesley Robertson III and Olivier Normand in a scene 
from Needles and Opium (Photo by: Tristram Kenton)

Following the premiere of the revised version at the Canadian Stage in Toronto, the current production of Needles and Opium has been touring the world with Olivier Normand in the dual roles of Robert and Jean Cocteau and Wellesley Robertson III appearing as the famous jazz musician, Miles Davis.

Wellesley Robertson III in a scene from Needles and Opium
(Photo by: Nicola Frank Vachon)

The story follows Davis, an American legend, as he travels to Europe in 1949 and finds his heroine in the form of French singer, Juliette Gréco. With the help of drugs, Davis lets his creativity blossom. In a parallel plot line, Jean Cocteau (a famous French filmmaker), lets opium guide him through a series of adventures in New York City.

Olivier Normand in a scene from Needles and Opium
(Photo by: Tristram Kenton)

As the two plots cross paths, Robert (a Canadian actor from Quebec who has traveled to Paris to do some voice-over work for a documentary about Miles Davis) finds himself stuck in a room at the Hotel La Louisiane in Paris battling loneliness, seeking the help of a hypnotist as he mourns a breakup with a lover, and bickering with the woman at the hotel's switchboard.

Olivier Normand in a scene from Needles and Opium
(Photo by: Tristram Kenton)

Using an English translation by Jenny Montgomery (with music and sound designed by Jean-Sébastien Côté), Lepage has accomplished something quite astounding by allowing the audience to experience what it is like to float through a dreamscape while losing track of time, space, and gravity; to sense the ecstasy of a drug taking control of one's nervous system while dealing with the folly of one's feelings about a lost love -- and to float against a starlit sky.

Working with a creative team that includes scenic designer Carl Fillion, props designer Claudia Gendreau, lighting designer Bruno Matte, costume designer François St-Aubin, and images designer Lionel Arnould, Lepage has placed the action in and around a cut-open cube that pivots and rotates within an invisible sphere against a background which can vary from the stars in the heavens to pitch blackness.

Olivier Normand in a scene from Needles and Opium
(Photo by: Tristram Kenton)

Although Lepage's surreal production is a genuine coup de theatre, it has one major weakness which is easily forgiven. Even with the use of English-language titles projected above the stage, the production values are so riveting that it doesn't take long for a person to lose interest in Cocteau and Davis and simply want to follow the dream unraveling before his eyes.

"How do you maintain a sense of intimacy with a thousand people?" asks Lepage. "You have to rely on technology to magnify you, to change the scale on which you work. I am drawn to plays in which the characters are transformed, but also to plays in which the sets are transformed and matter transcended. It's incredible to be able to travel through time and place, to infinity, all on a single stage. I think that if I remain fully aware of the stage as a place of physical transformation, I make it possible or can try to make it possible for the audience to really feel the direction in which the action and the characters are being hurtled. It's the metamorphosis brought about onstage that makes this kind of travel possible."

Olivier Normand and Wellesley Robertson III in a scene
from Needles and Opium (Photo by: Tristram Kenton)

Lepage's Needles and Opium is that rare theatrical mindfuck that makes George W. Bush's use of the term "shock and awe" seem puny, at best. It's the closest I've ever come to witnessing something akin to the dream world I inhabit in my sleep put into a theatrical framework onstage. I was particularly impressed by Olivier Normand's performance as Robert/Cocteau. Although Wellesley Robertson III never speaks a word as Miles Davis, his presence haunts much of Needles and Opium as he slides and strides across the set.

Performances of Needles and Opium continue through April 23 at the American Conservatory Theater (click here for tickets). Don't miss it!

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