Live Ideas: Opening Keynote Conversation
If you missed Live Ideas we have posted video from many of the panels and are posting them to youtube. To see more click here.
Live Ideas: James Baldwin, This Time!
Context Notes: Baldwin Through Dance
Baldwin Through Dance: Dianne McIntyre and Charles Anderson
While belonging to rather different generations and backgrounds, both artists presented as part of this evening’s program share a deep connection with the writings of James Baldwin – yet another testament to the enduring legacy of this visionary author.
A precocious and prolific dance artist, Dianne McIntyre began her ballet training as a child, yet the opportunity to be exposed to modern dance at an early age in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio appears to have played a pivotal role in her future endeavors as a dance maker. Training from the age of 9 at Karamu – the forward-thinking community organization soon to celebrate its 100th anniversary –McIntyre’s early mentors had her performing in eclectic works set to spirituals and civil rights protest songs. Continuing her training as a dance major at the Ohio State University, she became versed in modern techniques (Graham, Limon, Cunningham and others) and was deeply influenced by guest artists such as Anna Sokolow, and particularly by Judith Dunn and Bill Dixon (respectively, a Cunningham dancer and a trumpet player) who were active in the Judson Church movement and created collaborative works set to avantgarde jazz, which Dixon performed live. Upon the completion of her studies, McIntyre moved to New York where she continued to absorb influences by working with choreographers such as Alwin Nikolais, whose improvisational techniques were of seminal importance to her own work, and Gus Solomons, Jr,. in whose company she danced for three years. Growing up in the 1960’s, McIntyre was absorbed in the Black Consciousness Movement, and moving to New York enabled her to avidly immerse herself in the wide range of works (literature, poetry, music, theatre, political writings) she had learned about during her studies in Ohio. While being a dancer in Solomons Jr.’s company, McIntyre received her first New York choreographic commissions from the Clark Center for the performing arts. Buoyed by the success of these early efforts, she decided to form a company where musicians and dancers became, as McIntyre said, “a part of the same band.”
McIntyre avidly consumed James Baldwin’s works since her childhood, and attributes her decision to live in Harlem to the author, having vicariously experienced that neighborhood already through his eyes. Baldwin’s piercing insight of his homeland and its dissonant society struck a particularly powerful cord with McIntyre, as did his uncompromising outspokenness about the challenges and difficulties related to the gender and sexuality issues which, decades later, are still topical. While the choreographer had already possessed an extensive knowledge of Baldwin’s novels and essays, it was her research for the current work, Time is Time, that led her to discover his poetry, founding herself drawn to the collection Jimmy’s Blues, and particularly to the poem titled Song (for Skip). While pursuing her idiosyncratic vision, combining lyrical movement, spoken word and live music, this poem, which unapologetically addresses racial issues in this country, became McIntyre’s point of departure for the choreography presented on this evening’s bill.
Charles Anderson, whose Restless Natives constitutes the second part of this double bill, found James Baldwin’s work similarly impactful. Anderson considers his exposure to Baldwin’s social and cultural commentary about the African-American experience in the United States to have profoundly influenced directions he pursued personally as well as artistically – both in the way of source material and in his approach to dance making. Another pivotal figure in Anderson’s early career was Ronald K. Brown, in whose company he has performed in the late 1990’s. Since 2003, however, Anderson has been focusing on creating his own dance-theatre works, beginning with a production based on Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.
A decade later, Anderson was inspired to return to Baldwin as a source for his newest creation, loosely basing the current work on Another Country. In his research, the choreographer was keen on exploring Baldwin’s relationship with other African-American social activists, and in particular, Eldridge Cleaver, who wrote a scathing critique of this novel, questioning the author’s choice of having the main African-American character die early on in the book, and accusing Baldwin of self-hatred. This conflict, as well as his own experience of living in the predominantly Republican state of Texas during President Obama’s second-term reelection, became Anderson’s springboard for this piece. For Anderson, the death of Baldwin’s protagonist, Rufus, becomes the entry point for a meditation on the metaphor that embodies the end of race and the end of possibility of seeing a second African-American president being elected during his lifetime. In theatrical terms, Anderson set Restless Natives in a speakeasy, referencing Baldwin’s novel as well as his own experience growing up in the South, where such locales were the hotbed of intense local conversations; he also worked with the performance poet Ursula Rucker – who collaborated with him on writing the text for the piece – as a catalyst for creating movement conversations about the issues of love, race and power. While staying truthful to the core themes of the book, Anderson developed an original structure for Restless Natives, deconstructing the vernacular dances from the Southern juke joints, and threading Rucker’s poetic interventions into the narrative backbone of this work.
— Ivan Talijancic
Context Notes: Nothing Personal
One writes out of one thing only–one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art. The difficulty then, for me, of being a Negro writer was the fact that I was, in effect, prohibited from examining my own experience too closely by the tremendous demands and the very real dangers of my social situation.
Nothing Personal is a series of essays from 1964, both photographic and literary, by childhood friends Richard Avedon and James Baldwin. Baldwin and Avedon attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx together, and worked there on the school’s literary magazine. Over twenty years later, the two again joined forces on a project that functions as a snapshot time capture of the mid-1960s (Avedon’s photographs are mostly sleek portraits, many in extreme close-up, of key intellectuals, politicians, civil rights activists and artists; or grainy documentary shots of patients in a mental institution; or children and parents playing in the ocean), and a searing personal statement of a bleak America full of loneliness, despair and violence (Baldwin’s contribution being a series of four brief, untitled essays interspersed throughout, appearing in sections between pages of Avedon’s black and white photographs).
The book immediately brings to mind an earlier renowned collaboration of photographer and writer in American documentary photojournalism and non-fiction writing, that of James Agee and Walker Evans, and their 1941 volume Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, capturing the plight of sharecroppers during the Dust Bowl. Avedon would later explore this form of photographing working class culture further in the 1970s, with In the American West, in the tradition of both Evans and Dorothea Lange’s documentation of the Great Depression. In addition, Avedon’s photographs (and perhaps to an extent Baldwin’s writing) certainly seem to be in conversation with Robert Frank’s seminal book The Americans, which was published in 1959, a quiet, subtly critical exposure of race, politics and consumption across the United States. It is not, then, difficult to imagine Nothing Personal as Avedon and Baldwin’s contribution to an artistic and literary tradition of cultural critique by the creative class, a pointed look into the face of an America that was increasingly hostile to anything but capitalist pursuits (Baldwin writes: “the relevant truth is that the country was settled by a desperate, divided, and rapacious horde of people who were determined to forget their pasts and determined to make money”).
Much of Baldwin’s writing focuses on the notion of past and present, “the romanticized, that is, the maligned past, and the denied and dishonored present”, and what our nation’s collective and wretched history has done to its people (“death for the Indians, enslavement for the blacks, and spiritual disaster for those homeless Europeans who now call themselves Americans and who have never been able to resolve their relationship either to the continent they fled or to the continent they conquered”). In his opening essay, Baldwin states:
“To be locked in the past means, in effect, that one has no past, since one can never assess it, or use it; and if one cannot use the past, one cannot function in the present, and so one can never be free. I take this to be, as I say, the American situation in relief, the root of our unadmitted sorrow, and the very key to our crisis.”
This is a crisis of justice and freedom, certainly and inevitably informed by race. Baldwin presents an experience of living as a black male, facing the unkind, unloving city of New York, one in which he must don a daily uniform of psychological armor in his fight for survival and self-protection (“the America of my experience has worshipped and nourished violence for as long as I have been on earth”), depicting a country that is both metaphorically frozen and depressingly sad, exposing and criticizing American culture and the moral complacency of its population (“a sunlit, optimistic land, lulled for so long, and into such an euphoria, by prosperity”). The second essay begins: “A European friend of mine and myself were arrested on Broadway, in broad daylight, while looking for a taxi.” After being released (the policeman “seemed extremely disappointed that I carried no weapons, that my veins were not punctured [from dope]”), one of the officers “[gave] my friend a helpful tip: if he wanted to make it in America, it would be better for him not to be seen with niggers. My friend…has since made something of a point of avoiding white Americans.” Here and everywhere, Baldwin’s anguish is palpable. His writing hums with the frustrated disillusionment of racial equality, the dispiritingly empty promises of a country founded on supposed universal human rights.
Only in the very last paragraphs of the final essay do the words and images mingle on the same pages, in which Baldwin talks of light, trust and love, and Avedon shows us moments of simple human contact at the beach: a man touches his wife’s pregnant belly, both of them hugely smiling, her body full of potential life; a small child hugs a woman; a man holds a baby high in the air over his head, the toddler balanced precariously in the palm of his right hand. Baldwin ends with a shift toward the possibility of finding love (“It is a mighty heritage, it is the human heritage, and it is all there is to trust…this is why one must say Yes to life and embrace it wherever it is found–and it is found in terrible places; nevertheless, there it is”), and though it is fragile, and as a society we may yet fail to realize the importance of Baldwin’s crucial human morality, it is a hopeful cautionary tale: “The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” Baldwin’s parting message is a beautiful and simple one: in love we can, if we so choose, survive.
New York Times: Trying to Bring Baldwin’s Complex Voice Back to the Classroom
Felicia Lee writes about the presence of James Baldwin’s writing in the class room on the occasion of his 90th birthday. Read the full article here>
Online Photo Gallery: Live Ideas
Photographer Ian Douglas spent seven days working with the staff of New York Live Arts to capture images from the Live Ideas festival, including behind-the-scenes moments and intimate performance shots.
Take a moment to peruse this photo recap of our inaugural Live Ideas festival exploring The Worlds of Oliver Sacks featuring Douglas’ images, as well as a few by photographer Cherylynn Tsushima.
Stream video from the inaugural “Live Ideas” Festival
Were you unable to attend last week’s inaugural Live Ideas festival? Webcasts from six events from the festival are now available for streaming on our YouTube channel. More footage will be posted in the coming weeks, so check back soon for new content.
Currently available webcasts:
Robert Krulwich of Celebrates Oliver Sacks’ early works to close the ‘Live Ideas’ festival
Journalist Robert Krulwich has long highlighted the work of Oliver Sacks on his popular RadioLab program. On Sunday April 21 at 8pm, to close the Live Ideas festival, Krulwich will join Sacks on stage to explore the neurologist’s early works.
For a preview of Sunday night’s program, please enjoy past Radiolab episodes, blogs and video featuring Sacks: http://www.radiolab.org/people/oliver-sacks/ and http://www.radiolab.org/people/dr-oliver-sacks/.
To purchase tickets to Robert Krulwich of Radiolab Celebrates Oliver Sacks, visit: newyorklivearts.org/liveideas.
Director’s Note: ‘Re:Awakenings (Theater)’ by Karen Kohlhaas
A Kind of Alaska, at the time it was written, was the first and only work of Harold Pinter’s that was based on the work of another author.
In the 1990 revised edition of Awakenings, Oliver Sacks wrote:
Early in 1982 I received a packet from London, containing a letter from Harold Pinter and the manuscript of a new play, A Kind of Alaska, which he said had been inspired by Awakenings. In his letter Pinter said that he had read Awakenings when it had originally come out in 1973 and had been deeply moved; but that he had then ‘forgotten’ it and that it had stayed ‘forgotten’ until it suddenly came back to him years later. (I was reminded here of the genesis of Rilke’s Duino Elegies which had submerged for so long and then re-emerged, explosively, ten years later).
Pinter had awoken, he said, one morning the previous summer, with the first image of the play—the patient awakening—and the first words of the play ‘Something is happening’ clear and pressing in his mind; and the play had then ‘written itself’ in the days and weeks that followed.
In his biography Harold Pinter, British theatre critic Michael Billington wrote:
No one would claim for a moment that artists suffer in the same way as the tragic victims of sleeping sickness, but maybe one reason why Pinter empathises so strongly with Deborah in the play—who awakes at the age of forty-five after a tewnty-nine year ‘sleep’—is that as a writer he understands what it is like to live in a half world between furious bursts of activity. There are other obvious reasons why Pinter’s imagination would have been sparked by the subject: it triggers all kinds of reflections on the strange no man’s land between the conscious and the unconscious worlds and the peculiar nature of human memory in which past events retain their morning freshness. But what makes the play so moving is that Pinter both subordinates himself to the material and yet allows it to express his own preoccupations.
Pinter bases Deborah on a collection of experiences of the awakened encephalitis lethargica patients, particularly Sacks’ description of “Miss R,” an adventurous young woman from a wealthy New York area family, who enjoyed social activities and lived life to the fullest before she was stricken with the disease.
Locating the story England, Pinter condenses Deborah’s reaction to the drug L-DOPA into minutes instead of months, as we see her experience many of the effects recorded by Sacks that the drug, as well as the phenomenon of awakening, had on the patients: chattering, disorientation, hysteria, glee, paranoia, randiness.
Oliver Sacks wrote, about A Kind of Alaska:
I felt Pinter had somehow perceived more than I had written, had penetrated, divined, inexplicably into the heart of the matter, the inmost truth…it was a very Pinterish play: his mind, his language were everywhere apparent—no one but Pinter could have written the play. And then again, paradoxically, it was in another sense not really Pinterish, for the play was utterly transparent and transcendent; the author was there, invisibly, behind it, above it, but (to paraphrase Joyce) he had refined himself out of existence.
More than a meditation on Sacks’ patients and the heartbreaking story of their awakenings and eventual declines back into their disease, A Kind of Alaska asks our universal question about the passage of time, “Where did my life go?”.
— Karen Kohlhaas
Karen Kohlhaas recently directed the Off-Broadway world premiere of Annie Baker’s play BODY AWARENESS for Atlantic, and also directed actress/comedienne Judy Gold in the Drama Desk Award nominated one woman show 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother by Kate Moira Ryan and Ms. Gold which played at the Montreal Comedy Festival, Ars Nova in NYC, ran 6 months Off-Broadway at the St. Luke’s Theatre, and is now on a national tour.
Other Off-Broadway and regional productions include Harold Pinter’s The Hothouse(Atlantic), Keith Reddin’s Synergy (Alley Theatre, world premiere) and FRAME 312(Atlantic, NY premiere); David Mamet’sBoston Marriage (New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater, NY premiere) andThe Water Engine (Atlantic); three productions of An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein in New York and Sydney; and Kate Moira Ryan’s OTMA (U.S. premiere). She has also directed at Naked Angels, New Dramatists, Ensemble Studio Theatre, and other New York theaters.
The current PinterAlaska production reprises her 2010 staging of the short play with the Atlantic Theater Company at the Classic Stage Company.
To purchase tickets to Re:Awakenings (Theater):
Composer’s Note: ‘Re:Awakenings (Music)’ by Tobias Picker
In composing Awakenings, I was inspired by the exquisite art and stunning imagery of Oliver Sacks’ prose, and above all by the lives of the uniquely tragic patients he writes about. His book, Awakenings, written in the form of a series of case studies and footnotes, suggested the musical structure and characteristics of the score.
While not specifically programmatic, I hope that the music may express some understanding of the patients as well as the sense of nostalgia, anger and longing they felt for their stolen past.
Awakenings opens with 12 ‘frozen’ chords of varying volumes – materializing as if dropped into a dark, timeless, “unmusicked” silence. The ensuing music can be heard as an evolution and elaboration of these chords.
Like sonic ‘statues’ they serve as guideposts appearing, reappearing, generating, commenting upon and melding into the ongoing polyphony. Scored for a chamber orchestra of 15 musicians, Awakenings has seven movements, three interludes and numerous fragments and notated silences all played without pause.
Imagining the inner worlds of the newly-awakened was one of the great challenges and joys that Aletta and I experienced in our collaboration. Dr. Sacks describes patients who, when awakened, were sometimes afflicted with often bizarre Tourette’s-like tics.
One of them, Hester Y, displayed multiple simultaneous but independent tics, which gave the impression of a complex polyphony; Sacks describes her tics as “of many unrelated tempi and melodies proceeding independently having distinctive styles and rhythms or movements- like a clockshop gone mad”.
Before being treated with L-Dopa, another patient, Miss D. could respond to one stimulus alone. Only music could propel her through space. “As I am unmusicked, I must be remusicked,” she said. When “unmusicked” she felt “like a still photo, a frozen frame.” When “remusicked” she could “dance out of the frame” and move freely.
– Tobias Picker
Tobias Picker is a composer who studied at the Manhattan School of Music, The Juilliard School and Princeton University. Mr. Picker’s works have been performed by The New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and most recently The Rambert Dance Company which commissioned the Awakenings ballet suite. Tobias Picker is Artistic Advisor of NYC’s Dicapo Opera Theatre.
To purchase tickets to Re:Awakenings (Music), visit: newyorklivearts.org/liveideas.