Tag Archives: MFAH

My Eyes, Your Body

Titian Diana and Actaeon 1556-1559 Oil on canvas Bought jointly by the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Gallery, London, with contributions from The Scottish Government, The National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Monument Trust, The Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation) and through public appeal, 2009

The great recent debacle in the ballet world, known as “Sugarplumgate” and other less friendly terms, came and went in my consciousness until I found myself at a recent performance, fixated on the circumference of a dancer’s thighs.

“Watch the dance, not the legs,” I silently yelled at my brain. What’s wrong with me? And me, of all people, a thick-thighed somatic educator, who spent two decades teaching people to accept their bodies. This can’t be true. At war with my own attention, I missed the performance entirely by trying not to be bothered by a pair of less-than-perfect legs. Too distracted by so-called imperfection, I became a victim of my own learned blindness. The perceptive illusion of the stage, making bodies appear larger, doesn’t help either. How many times have you run into a dancer in public who you thought taller or larger than you imagined?

The very next week, a whole host of emotions, from ecstasy to embarrassment, emerged while watching a large ballroom dancer wearing a fragment of a dress. I was always taught that if you gain weight, it’s time to get the tent dresses out. She moved with the message, “I am large, get over it. I am amazing. I love my body and, if you don’t get past your groundless prejudices, you are going miss this kick-ass performance of mine.” As the evening when on, I could not take my eyes off her; the rest of the show seemed to recede into the background. I left awestruck, confused, and completely exhilarated. Something about her dancing taught me to see again. Where were those skills a week earlier? Maybe my vision – or my brain – needed a shock treatment.

A casual comment by a ballet master after a local modern dance show said it all, “I am not used to watching normal size bodies dance, you know, it’s really interesting.” He nailed it. We have habituated our gaze toward a narrow set of proportions based on the kind of dance we watch and the expectations we bring to our viewing. Our eyes have grown lazy. We simply don’t see enough professional dance with a variety of bodies on stage. And I have interviewed numerous artistic directors in the ballet and contemporary genres over the years who claim they love all kinds of bodies. Sure, they hire a few shorter and taller dancers, but it’s rare that we see even average weight dancers in professional modern or ballet companies.

Certainly there couldn’t be anything wrong with me. It’s my brain, and something even larger, the human brain. (When in doubt, blame your species.) Ideas of beauty converge across multiple fields, from psychology to philosophy to evolutionary biology. Scientists have been trying to unravel the beauty problem for decades. We have biological reasons for preferring certain proportions that are more ideal to continue the species. Numerous studies propose that we like symmetry, things that match, and small bodies, because they remind us of youth. According to the late philosopher Denis Dutton’s findings, we know from early tools, that humans have appreciated high levels of skill before they had language, which explains a preference for ballet, but certainly not types of bodies doing ballet. I take no comfort from any of these findings. Why be imprisoned by one’s biology? Why shouldn’t it be possible to grab the wheel of our perception and drive the vision ship? Aren’t brain scientists telling us that neuroplasticity – the ability to rewire our brains in response to experience – is all the rage, too?

Perception’s faultiness is not only well documented by David Eagleman, of Baylor College’s medical school, and other neuroscientists, but somewhat necessary. According to Eagleman, if we actually processed all that our eyeballs take in we would never get past the front door. We are need-to-know perceivers. So taking all that inherent wobbliness to task, do we really need to add social and cultural filters to the mix? When normal folk heard about Jenifer Ringer’s supposed extra pounds, the insular world of ballet bubbled to the surface. Regular people thought the whole situation ludicrous. There’s yet another great waking up right there, in that the general American public became privy to ballet’s harsh standards.

If I’m too easily distracted by what I perceive as imperfections, then my attentive skills need some rigorous buffing up. Why not become conscious of the forces acting upon my brain or seeing? It seems the responsible choice. The aesthetics of ballet may remain a rarefied world, where the long, lean, and small-headed occasionally rise to the top. The cloud of perfection, recently stirred by the spell of Darren Aronofsky’s film Black Swan, Jennifer Homans’s masterful book Apollo’s Angels, and Alastair Macaulay’s now-famous remark, may forever haunt the dance world. But why let it? Can’t we take more control of the perceptive process and truly let go of norms we have agreed to?

A curious thing happened to me while watching the gaggle of all-sized students in Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet class in the national tour of Billy Elliot. It seemed no big deal. Could I have broken in my vision already?

Attention is a muscle that responds to discipline and persistence. I want to live in a larger dance watching world, where the entire domain of all moving bodies has something of beauty of offer. I plan to embrace imperfection; it’s what makes the world juicy. So with that mission, I dedicate this year to turning my vision filters off and my eyes on.

Reprinted from Dance/USA’s Green Room.

Post script:  Since viewing the Titian and the Golden Age of  Venetian Painting: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland at  the MFAH show, my eyes have had some further practice looking at a variety of bodies. True, none were ballet or modern dancers, still eyes need all the help they can get when it comes to physical diversity. I had forgotten how much visual art contributes to our ideas on the human form. Silly me.

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Adventures through art: Land, sea and far-off places are all part of the creative canvas

Joey Lehman Morris, “Black Mountain Detachment:Two Nights, From Waxing to Fully Stated,” 2008

I heard the ice crack today, a shrill wind too, possibly people trudging through the Arctic in snow shoes.

No, I didn’t go anywhere. I hate to travel. I do all my adventuring through art. I was at Upside Down: Arctic Realities at The Menil Collection, where precious objects from Ekven in Russia, Ipiutak in Alaska, and Old Bering Sea cultures float in a sea of white, while eerie sounds intermittently penetrate the icescape.

The Yup’ik Dance Mask from 1880 caught my attention, mostly because I’m on my way to see Emily Johnson this weekend, who is of Yup’ik descent, perform in her piece, The Thank-You Bar, at Diverseworks as part of This is Displacement: Native Artists Consider the Relationship between Land and Identity, which Johnson curated with Carolyn Lee Anderson.

I wonder, will she bring Alaska to me or her displacement from Alaska?

Artists, like everyone else, become attached to land and sea, a sense of home, place and belonging, all enchanted by our history, a longing for the past and an imagined future. “Where?” often comes before “What?” in our human inquiry.

So it makes perfect sense that the surf and turf thread surfaced in my hometown land/lake of Buffalo, N.Y.,while traipsing through the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s exhibit Surveyor. Zhan Wang’s Urban Landscape Buffalo 2005-2010, crafted from stainless steel pots, pans and kitchen utensils, re-framed my treasured birthplace, while Matthew Ritchie’s On Morning War spills a map of the universe on the walls and floor.

Place gets even more abstract with David Fulton’s painting, the surface from the shore ( across and into), as he traces the outline of lakes to achieve his delicious canvases, which conjure all manner of biological processes, from bone to waterways. “The title suggests the shifting of visual positions one experiences when standing on the constantly reforming edge of a large body of water,” Fulton explains.

Fulton’s work has always had a particular resonance for me as someone who grew up on the shores of Lake Erie. But I’ve lived in Houston longer than lived in western New York, so Texas is part of my ground story now, too. So it’s no surprise that I felt a sense of nostalgia looking at Leigh Merrill’s  photos of Texas as part of Into the Sunset at Lawndale Art Center.

Merrill’s images are constructed from hundreds of different photographs. “I wanted to create an image that showed an expansive characterization of the west, where the fiction and the ‘real’ place blended into one another,” she says. “I knew that the typical parking lot that we see with a storefront needed to be altered so that the image further disrupted our understanding of place.”

For more wild west mythology, you had better run to Romancing the West: Alfred Jacob Miller in the Bank of America Collection, because it closes on May 8 at the MFAH. There’s nothing remotely romantic aboutPLAND‘s (Practice Liberating Art Through Necessary Dislocation) approach to the West. Independent pioneer artists and curators Nancy ZastudilErin and Nina Elder make a patch of Taos, N.M., land their canvas. The team’s off-the-grid residency program welcomes Suzanne Husky and collaborative duo Joshua Hoeks and Ryan Rasmussen, who will be building necessary structures to survive on a piece of land.

Then there are those who dwell in the intersection of land and sea, likeZach Moser and Eric Leshinsky of The Shrimp Boat Projects, at The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at UH. These two actually took to the sea.

“We identified shrimping as one of the few remaining ways in our region that people were working in a direct connection to the landscape, and that, by participating in this way of working, we would have access to insights into the foundations of our regional identity,” Moser says from his shrimp boat (I imagine). “It’s our hope to come to a deeper understanding of our place that we will be able to synthesize the often competing interest of economy, culture, and ecology.”

The land/sea tangle sometimes ends up tragically, as in Jiri Kylian’sForgotten Land, which launched Houston Ballet’s season this year. Kylian’s classic ballet draws its power from the idea of the sea overtaking the land. How strange that Hurricane Rita caused the cancelation of this ballet’s premiere in 2005.

Equally poignant is HGO’s new chamber opera, Your Name Means the Sea, an HGOco Song of Houston: East  +West project, by Azerbaijan composer and librettist Franghiz Alizadeh, linking the Azerbaijani community in Houston with our sister city, Baku on May 21, 24 and 26. Song and dance carry place, which I imagine we will see when the Azerbaijan State Dance Ensemble performs at Ifest on May 7 and 8.

Earth and water doesn’t always have to be so serious. There’s a poetic wit to Joey Lehman Morris’ mountain landscapes, last seen at FotoFest in Assembly: Eight Emerging Photographers From Southern California. I like the way Morris props up Black Mountain Detachment: Two Nights, From Waxing to Fully Stated against the wall.

We do tend to prop up our mythic landscapes, don’t we? Morris took his conversation between photography, geology, time and place a step further in But First, Define the Mountainat the California Museum of Photography, UC Riverside.

I wasn’t the only one cracking a smile watching Hillerbrand + Magsamen’s Elevated Landscape video as part of Measured at Lawndale, which runs through June 4. Stephan Hillerband places a sprinkler on his raised piece of real estate, while Mary Magsmen takes an ax to the platform. Lawns manufacture fake land as silly, water gobbling inventions, never mind the chemicals it takes to keep them green.

The toxic details will be revealed in a screening of Brett Plymale’s documentary  A Chemical Reaction: The Story of a True Green Revolution on May 6.

Lawns are unreal all right, but so are invented places, like Mary Temple’s dreamy tree faux shadow installation, Northwest Corner, Southeast Lightat Rice University Art Gallery. You will recognize the place even though it doesn’t exist. It felt like home. That’s how potent place is to us.

Reprinted from Culturemap

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Greek drama gone wild: Houston arts groups get ancient, reimagine classical themes

“Diana,” archival inkjet print, 2010, from the photographic series, “House/Hold, Hillerbrand + Magsamen”

The House of Atreus gets a make-over as Houston hands the keys to the city over to Dionysus this spring, with some delicious reimagining of classical themes.

The mythmastering begins tonight at 6:45 pm, when University of Houston students re-enact an ancient Greek ritual, as the Honors College Center for Creative Work puts on their own Dionysia. The festivities begin with an Agora (food and drink) and an Ekphrastic Art Exhibit at the Honors College, which culminates in a procession to the theater for a performance of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, with a new translation by Center for Creative Work director John Harvey. Performances continue on April Saturday and Sunday at UH’s Wortham Theater and Monday at Khons.

The students are joined by professional actors, Brandy Holmes as Cassandra, and Divergence Vocal Theater founder Misha Penton as Klydemnestra. Holmes took Cassandra’s central dilemma into her own solo show.

“If you knew exactly when you would die, would you want to?” asks Holmes, in her piece Yes, Cassandra, recently performed at the Houston and New Orleans Fringe Festivals. “Cassandra wrestles with this knowledge, which eventually drives her mad.”

Can’t a girl get a break now and then for killing her husband? Penton has her own views on the other great Greek icon, and the following weekend, the Dionysia continues with Klytemnestra: The Original Subversive Female, at her new Spring Street StudioDivergence Music & Arts, on April 15 and 16.

“She is vulnerable, brilliant and cunning, yet there is something ‘other’ about her, perhaps supremely female, that stands in absolute rejection of male domination,” says Penton. “She’s the embodiment of chaos.”

Music is by Dominick DiOrio, who also composed the incidental music forAgamemnon. Dancer/choreographer Meg Booker and actor Miranda Herbert complete the Divergence team. Both are well studied in the classics, and used to artists having their way with Greek literature. “In grad school, we called it Greek schmearing,” jokes Herbert.

If Booker looks like she just stepped off an ancient Grecian urn, as well she should, she’s a fourth generation Isadora Duncan dancer.

“Duncan studied how the Greeks depicted the body in ancient art, for the line and shape in her dances. She envisioned beauty as harmony in form, not just the human body, but also the relationship between the body and both natural and architectural forms,” says Booker, Texas’ leading Duncan scholar. “Duncan wanted to recreate theater in the tradition of the ancient Greeks—to create performance that integrated text, music and dance.”

Don’t expect Booker to be all airy, either. “Duncan’s technique allows for a wide range of expression, and Klytemnestra is no light maiden,” adds Booker.

As for Penton’s classical penchant, the soprano can’t help herself.

“I’m interested in the reinvention of classic women. These characters were originally created by men, but they have immense influence to disrupt the status quo,” says Penton. “How can they be re-imagined to reveal their innate, powerful, female qualities, lifting them out of just being stories old dead guys wrote about women.”

Being abandoned on the island of Naxos by Theseus is no picnic for Ariadne. Enter Zerbinetta in Strauss’ beloved opera within an opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, and the plot thickens. With Christine Goerke (Ariadne/ Prima Donna), Laura Claycomb (Zerbinetta), Susan Graham (Composer) and Alexey Dolgov as Bacchus and the Tenor, expect a powerhouse performance by Houston Grand Opera on April 29-May 10.

Ixion got in a tiff with Zeus, and let’s just say things didn’t turn out well. Earlier this Spring Bootown, hilariously folded the myth of Ixion into a story about the unknown fate of Amazonian explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett in Cut Down. Bootown’s co-founder and Cut Down’s devised theater scribe, Philip Hays, describes the process.

“It’s not that glamorous. I was clicking around Wikipedia, and ended up in the pages on Greek Mythology. I clicked on the first name I didn’t know (Ixion),” admits Hays. “The story heightens the ‘whoopses’ of everyday and turns them into ‘oh shits’ of monstrous proportions.”

No discussion of Greek drama gone wild  in Houston would be complete without a big shout out to the brave but nutty folk of the now-defunct Nova Arts Project, who produced the most absurd version of  Sophocles’ Oedipus Trilogy ever with Oedipus 3 in 2006. Who could resist a play titled The Gods are Just Big Poop Heads, which made sweet fun of Greek freak Martha Graham?  Even the Graham company made fun of themselves with The Clytemnestra Remash Challenge.

My only regret is that no one chose the crumbling ruins tucked into thegraceful gardens of Rienzi,  known as a “folly,” as their stage. While you are at Rienzi, snoop around the collection to count the number of  Bacchus images.

Visual art goes classical bonkers every other century or so and the evidence is everywhere in Houston right now. The painters in Antiquity Revived: Neoclassical Art in the Eighteenth Century at the MFAH, running through May 30, were drawn to classical themes for obvious reasons; these are killer stories wrought with visual tension.

The thread provided by Ariadne, which helped Theseus find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth, inspired Tamalyn Miller’s curious doilies, crafted from clothesline, string and electrical wire in her Spirit House installation at Project Row Houses. “Its intricate pattern and traditional material-thread-suggest the Minotaur’s labyrinth of Greek mythology,” writes Miller, in her artist statement.

Anyone can get mythic. Lawndale studio artists Stephan Hillerbrand and Mary Magasmen, of Hillerbrand + Magsamen, honor the heroic in the ordinary in their witty and poignant series, House/Hold, opening on April 22. A bold portrait of Magsamen cradling her dog is appropriately namedDiana, after the goddess of hunting. The 12 tasks of Hercules depicts Hillerbrand posing as a superhero holding a ton of toys, of all things.

The 16th Century Italian master Titian couldn’t resist Diana and her gang either. Titian and the Golden Age Venetian Painting: Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Scotland, opens at the MFAH on May 22.

To bone up on your mythology and classical lit, keep a copy Edith Hamilton’s Mythology or Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces handy at all times. According to Campbell, myths remain active in our psyche because they are still relevant to our paths on this earth. That, and they are just damn good soul-crushing tales.

See you at the other end of the Labyrinth.

Reprinted from Culturemap.

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