Artistic Insulation: Premature Nostalgia

To follow up on that last post – Jacky plays the chorus vocals’ of “Smooth Criminal” in haunting perfect-pitch on his shakuhachi: “Annie are you ok, are you ok, are you ok, Annie?”  It makes bugs crawl in my veins.

Christian and Catherine came to our rehearsal last Wednesday.  It was a stressful time.  We are under a strict deadline for the National Theater who is sending representatives to see our show in rehearsal this Wednesday – a show that did not exist as of last Tuesday.

They are two artists that I am coming to love dearly.  I try to spend at least a little time with them every night no matter how tired I am.  Christian saves some risotto or steamed pork rolls for me, and Catherine makes a little extra pasta.  Wine and beer magically appear next to my hand whenever we sit together under the eves of their apartment studios.

They brought their eyes with them: for Catherine it was a 35mm camera and for Christian it was a mini 3-CCD HD video camera.

I thought nothing of it, but they sat quite patiently through three hours of rehearsal.  They watched it almost exclusively though their viewfinders, but I thought nothing of it.  I admire visual artists and visual art because I don’t understand the process – I know if I like the final piece or not, but I have no idea why.  Seeing a show for me is a totally different experience.

I imagine that once a woman has given birth, she never looks at a newborn the same way.

When I met up with them at home, we talked about rehearsal and multimedia performances and acrobatics and martial arts and dance and choreography and art and family and the avant-garde and movements – dada, beat, cubist, punk, cirque nouveau…

I had two beers and went to bed and thought nothing of it.

Three days later, on Saturday, I had another beer and wine and ginseng liqueur with Catherine and Christian and a few other artists from the building.  In between topics, Christian nonchalantly mentions to me that he has edited the footage of my rehearsal into a short film and would I like to see it.

“Yes,” I say, “no, but yes.”

We go into his studio and he starts the film.

“This has been my project non-stop for the last three days,” he tells me.

What follows is overwhelming.  Legs.  Movement.  Subsonic lounge soundtrack.  Time is dilated, contracted.  I see peoples eyes, their mouths, the sweat running down their back, turning their hair into curled spiked of blackness.  There is a weary dedication to the cause of putting our work in order.  I am there too – stressed, mind whirling, ideas flying.  I try to communicate in Chinese – they strain to understand me.  We hit the floor; we run in unison; we catch each other.  We wait.  We are concentrated.  We support each other.

It is perhaps 10 minutes that captures the atmosphere of rehearsal.  What stays with me forever, though, is how it captured the spirit of comrades seven.  Premature nostalgia: the taste of future loss.

Thank you truly, Mr. Rizzo.

My New Friends: Sweet, Black Pig, and Jacky

Last night had all the makings of a great night out in Asia – a good mix of foreigners and locals, a cheery, dingy bar, and the vague promise of crashing a penthouse party later at the Hyatt.  I daresay that if we had been in Tokyo we would have managed enough audacity to pull it off but somehow, in Taipei, we didn’t quite manage enough momentum to make it past the small platoon of hospitality staff.  Everything fizzled.  We satisfied ourselves with lukewarm 7-11 beers in the lobby and then called it a night.

Quick question: if terrorists had flown planes into the World Trade Center on 11 July, what would we call america’s favorite 24-hour convenience-store franchise today?

There was some confusion today about music rehearsal.  I had heard that the Taiwanese musicians performing in our show were rehearsing tonight so I figured that I would stop by to introduce myself and hear some of their music.  They greeted me with a lot of enthusiasm and then sat down, wide-eyed and attentive.  They asked me what instrument I played in a mix of Chinese, English, and Japanese.

“Guitar,” I replied in Chinese.

“What do you want us to do?”

“Well, just hold your rehearsal like normal; I want to hear the music you normally play.”

They exchanged some confused glances and discuss matters in difficult Chinese that I did’t understand.  What followed is a cursory exhibition of Taiwanese taiko drumming and three-piece arrangements for shakuhachi, guzheng, and yangquin and more expectant wide-eyed, attentive sitting.  I filled the blossoming awkward silence with applause, but it’s difficult to muster a lengthy ovation when you are the only audience member in the room.

Finally they ask me, “So why did you ask us for this rehearsal?”

Evidently, they thought that I was going to be running their rehearsal.  I was shocked to find out that they had cancelled their normal troupe rehearsal for the night just so that they could work on the music of the new production.  A miscommunication had occurred, and after a flurry of useless phone calls and discomfort, I went to my room to fetch my ipod and started playing them the music from the show.


It is a phenomenon that I am starting to recognize as an attribute of Taiwanese artists.  It is a sort of silent genius that builds up some steam and eventually swallows you whole.

I was talking with Christian about it last night – I proposed that since the performing arts are held in such low regard here, Taiwanese performers never build up that patina of showiness and affectation that plagues Western artists (myself included).  I was reminded of the night that I helped audition a seventeen-year-old hip-hop dancer for a role in our show.  I asked her to dance hip-hop in slow motion like she was playing angry in order to hide how sad she was.  “Impossible,” she replied.  “Try,” I said.  She shrugged.  I pressed play.  She danced.  It was beautiful and honest and it made want to die.  She stopped abruptly: “Like that?” she asks.  I shrug dismissively and twist my mouth into a half-frown.  “You need to work at changing up dynamics and working at multiple levels,” I say.  Inside, though, she made me cry.  Now she is the leading personnage.

I have worked years to try and get back to a sort of honesty on stage that these Taiwanese geniuses have never lost.  The tragedy is that most of them have accepted that there is no future for them in their art – that they have to leave it behind with other trappings of their abandoned youth.

Today, classical Chinese instruments played with complete mastery and abandon that gave me goosebumps.  We rehearsed each song for about 15 minutes.  They would listen to it for about 30 seconds and then jump in altogether, alternating between reproducing the original note-for-note and off-the-cuff riffing.  Any commentary I gave them after a first run-though (we need to follow the dynamic range of the piece a little more so that we don’t blow everything we have before the climax; hit the accents more; let’s be a little sparser in the chorus; can you try to switch into a higher resister when the distorted guitars enter?) were flawlessly integrated into the second.  “OK,” they tell me: “Next song, please.”

We’re not asking for easy things.  Improvisation is not the rule in Chinese classical musical training.  To complicate matters, we are asking them to cover Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and Michael Jackson; to simulate a tribal beat with monochromatic taiko drums; to write a hard-rock guzheng solo; to reproduce an industrial sonic landscape with traditional acoustic instruments.

They are reluctant – worried that their Chinese instruments will ruin the rock feel.  Perhaps they are a shy, too.  Ultimately they abandon their concerns and improvise freely.  The result is covers that, in my opinion, are vastly superior to the originals.

We are done with rehearsal, but before they go they want to play me some more of their music.  I am treated to two short taiko duos that put a Taiwanese spin on the steps towards the Japanese theatrical taiko style.  I would call it sexy and aggressive and animal.  It is even more effective that it is played by a man and a woman in a sort of alternating synchronicity.  When the duo finished, she extinguished the internal fire that was blazing inside her, puts on her glasses, and transforms back into an unassuming and timid philosophy student.

I can never look at her the same way again.

The duo is a perfect transition to the final scene that we worked on last week – I propose it to the director tomorrow.

Rehearsal finished.  I now know that when Taiwanese artists are excited about a project they will mill around nonchalantly after the first rehearsal to chat.  Today, they invited me to go training with them at the gym where we are, coincidentally, all members.  I learn that Jacky, who is the leader of the taiko group, requires all his musicians to stay in shape with daily strength training.  After two and a half years of dealing with the complacent attitudes of Japanese twenty-somethings I find this sort of passion and initiative refreshing.

Black Pig (the philosophy student) confides in me that she is happy to work this way.  “This freedom.  It is a great way to work.  I’m very happy to play music this way.  I hope to be able to perform in all ways, not just as a musician.”

And people ask me why I believe that Taipei is the future of artistic innovation in Asia.

“This is your chance,” I tell her.  “Pig’s music is one thing, but in this show we want to see everything everything that makes Pig Pig.”

One more bite of beef fried rice and we head off to the gym together.

Night Out With Danny

Last Saturday, Daniel Yeung invited me out to see a Taiwanese circus.  It was a nice night out, but it marked my first real conversation with a Chinese mainlander about Taiwan and Japan.  Given, Danny is very cosmopolitan, having finished his dancing training in Amsterdam and subsequently touring all over the world as a dancer, choreographer, and actor, but it was nice to hear a different point of view from that "jaded expatriate gaijin in Japan" perspective.

So here’s the rub: according to Danny, he views the Japanese people as a people who dream more than the Chinese, who are more interested in manufacturing a quick buck.  I felt like this was the opposite from my point of view, coming most recently from Europe and Canada, but I stopped to think about it from the Chinese perspective.  That let to a lot more questions that I had been stepping over in my first week and a half in Taiwan: Why does Taipei’s youth demographic look to Japan’s fashion and trends instead of drawing on their own cultural past?  Relatedly, why is it that despite their best efforts, Taiwanese youth are unable (thankfully) to shed their Taiwanese identity?  Why is it that Taipei has such an aura of grass-roots arts?  Why can Taiwanese women dance sexy while Japanese women are only able to dance like a woman who is dancing sexy?

It is strange, this relationship between Taiwan and Japan.  I am thinking about it a lot.  Ask someone in Taiwan what they think about Japanese culture, and you will get a pretty interesting answer.  Ask someone in Japan what they think about Taiwanese culture, and you will get a pretty vapid answer.

Lest anyone accuse me of being anti-Japanese here, I want to examine the same question from a different angle?  Why is it that people all over the world have an opinion about American culture, but your average man-on-the-street in America can offer little more than an Epcot-Center, It’s-a-Small-World caricatured culture summary of country X?

My main question: which fosters greater ignorance, the culture which is blind and deaf to its world neighbors or those cultures which form opinions based on a maelstrom of media tidbits and propaganda?

Anyways, it got me thinking.

Danny and I talked a lot about art and performance and the transition and evolution from performer to creator and he kept talking about how he started dancing at such an advanced age and that now he is really feeling older.  There were other strange facts that I picked up on; he seemed to be at a really high-level stage in his career for someone about my age, perhapd a little younger.  Fine, I figured; he was a child prodigy who has come into his own, but then, at the Taiwanese Yakiniku place in Ximen, he told me that he was actually 39.

I’ll be damned.  39.  I have never been so off on an age estimate.  It was shocking, but at the same time, it tells me that we can really make it in this industry.  I don’t know many scientists or engineers (although there are a few) who are as energetic and enthusiastic about their work as Danny is.

Here’s a last point:  of the six artists I have met at the artist’s village, only one is a woman.  She is also the only one who is in a stable relationship.  Us male artists, we all seem to be a little pessimistic about the prospects of that ‘irresponsible’ artistic life merging harmoniously with a healthy relationship.  I draw no conclusions and I offer only the facts.

TAV Friends

I can’t help but feel like I am living with geniuses in their field.  Christian Rizzo?  Catherine Ludwig?  Daniel Yeung?  Derrick Grant?  I would search for them on the internet, but I’d rather just keep things as they are – drinking beers with cool people on the roof on those rare hours off from work.  They might be groundbreaking masters in their media of choice but I enjoy arguing with them on equal footing.  Who’s to say that I wouldn’t be too humbled by their reputations to argue over some obscure facet of aesthetics?

Good conversation and fun times: the Taipei Artists Village.

Island Day

Some days you feel like an island sticking up out of the ocean of your life. Today began with an early-morning telephone conversation with The Contortionist about a professional problem.  It was one of those problems that can be confronted, dealt with, and then resolved in a 24-hour period, and ultimately, is seems that she did not suffer too much from seeking my advice.

The Political Scientist, my brilliant and poisonously cute femme-fatale friend is in the twilight of her Fulbright scholarship application, and cursed me with the opportunity to proofread a few essays, etc.  I dive deeply into these sorts of activities because I love seeing my friends rise up to seize upon opportunities that present themselves.

The Flamenca surprised me by returning from Spain early just to see me off to Taipei.  It was definitely a surprise and it took some adjustment, but in the end, I am quite happy to have her here in my last couple of days.  I worry that I bore her by working non-stop towards my departure, but we still have moments of film and art, albeit at a lower frequency than in the couple of weeks before her initial departure.

Professionally speaking, I am dealing with with pay negotiations for a special event at which I am supposed to peform next week – one of those things that I can’t go into with friends or family – but suffice to say that I am holding to my guns on this one.  Either the circus profession is going to rise up to meet my expectations, or I am going to move on to different pastures.

Ones with family?  Children?  Stability?  Hell no.  After all, I’m not 30, yet.

I am walking the streets of Tokyo alone, but I know that there are friends all around me – across oceans, perhaps, but ultimately, I can never feel all that lonely.

I watched “Step Into Liquid” tonight while drinking the entire bottle of 1994 Barolo myself (honestly, I think The Flamenca helped a little, but I sure didn’t notice much effort on her part).  I cried in parts of the movie and I am a little embarrassed to admit it.  It had little to do with the music or the stories.  I don’t even think it had anything to do with the strange emotional kinship I feel with my father who grew up in Hawaii just as modern surfing was developing – I have always felt an emotional bond to the Hawaiian side of may family, but my reaction to this film was a professional one.

The waves and the surfers were beautiful, honest, and unpretentious.  The film captured moments of pure jubilation, ecstacy, and triumph.  Everything I hope I can be as an artist exists naturally in the eyes of the world’s surfers, and I felt inspired and humbled all at the same time. I also felt old.   Very old.

At those weak moments in life when I have had far, far, far too much to drink (my 27th birthday on the eve of my handstand professor’s deportation comes immediately to mind), my closest friends have taken good care of me.  They have described my state on those nights forever shrouded in numbed blackout – invariably, I speak a lot.  I speak a lot about a lot of things, but the one thing that I seem to return to in these moments of thick tounge and loose lips a single wish.  “All I want in this world,” I am told I say, “is for my friends to be happy.”

If that is true – if I can trust my dumb, drunk self – I have some faith in my evolution as a human being.  I am sure that my subconcious conceals far darker mantras, but that seems to be the one that is most easily stirred up.

Taiwan in three days.

Life is a big wave.

To my family and friends: see you soon.

How To Eat With Your Fingers

I went to the apartment of two friends of mine from Sri Lanka whom I met through the gym.  There were six of us all together and I have not eaten so well since – well, since the last time we all got together like this.

The principle dishes were a mutton curry and a chicken curry with two vegetarian side dishes (one cabbage based, and one pepper based).  A carrot salad and cheese platter appetizer accompanied.  The aperitif was a lemon grass tea and for dessert, plain yogurt topped with avocado puree and gur, sap from the date palm tree.  After the meal, I enjoyed a hot tea and cappuccino.

There was plenty of food; I am still full almost six hours later.  What I love most about these gatherings, however, is the inevitable flow of interesting and wide-ranging conversations.  We talked about the business of gem trade-shows and the business strategies of marketing gems in the United States, Hong Kong and Japan.  I gave a brief summary of my five-year business plan for developing the circus arts in East Asia.  We discussed the similarities of selling a business plan, a circus show, and applying for scientific research grants.  My friends gave me a crash course in recent Sri Lankan and Indian history.

During the meal, however, my Indian-American friend instructed me in the proper technique of eating with your fingers.  I felt a little embarrassed at my clumsiness; like a Westerner learning to use chopsticks for the first time.  I slowly got the hang of it, but asking my friends to clarify certain points of their eating technique was fruitless – like asking someone how they manage to walk on two feet, or asking me how I manage to hold a handstand for so long.

The conversation got very interesting when we started talking about Sri Lankan and Southern Indian culture in an episodic and phenomenological way.  I knew that there were large gaps between classes in India, but I was amazed at the magnitude of these differences.  There are Indians that are richer than most Americans would ever dream, and then there are Indians who live on less than a dollar a day.  It is not unusual, I was told, to see a middle class Indian family with servants.  Some even take them abroad to carry their bags when they travel, a practice that quickly ended when servants began to run away to mow lawns for 100 times their servant pay.  It was not unusual to hear stories of servant children taken to market, only to be ‘lost in town,’ never to be seen again.  My friend tells me that the most disturbing thing he encountered in modern Indian society was the blindness to the moral implications of a system which permits such inequalities.  It made me wonder, though, are we really so much more sensitive in the West?

Conversation snaked wildly around some more topics: Americans’ love for their SUV’s, obesity-causing viruses, rat hunting in the Indian countryside, the monstrous Indian buffalo, the process of Halal butchering.

My favorite vignette of the night came as we were heading home.  My friend was telling me that women from Indian and Arabic cultures, cultures that the West views as oppressive of women’s rights, remind him of rhinoceroses.

The rhinoceros, he explained, is seen as an aggressive beast, but in reality, he is a coward.  He has a powerful sense of smell, but very poor eyesight.  When it does want to look at something, for example, it must turn its whole body to take a look at it.

His friends were watching a rhinoceros in a field one day when suddenly, a frog who had wandered far from its pond croaked loudly.  The rhinoceros jumped back, startled and turned to face the direction from which the sound came.  At that moment, the frog jumped forward causing the rhinoceros to panic and stumble backwards, tripping over its own legs, and cower in fear.  Then, by chance, the frog made a casual leap backwards.  The rhinoceros suddenly felt sure of himself and charged, kicking up a huge cloud of dust and squishing the frog underfoot.  He trotted back after he had calmed down, and nudged and prodded the squished frog around for a while before losing interest.

Actually, the story doesn’t apply much to my friend’s vision of Arab and Indian women – his point was simply that when they encounter something new, they tend to be very curious about it and throw up a big defensive show which masks a deeper uneasiness – but I liked the way he told the story on the platform of the Seibu Shinjuku Line at 11:54 at night.

Well that’s the end of the wine from Monday, and time for me to go to sleep.

I like that my fingers still smell of tonight’s dinner; it’s almost like tasting it all over again.

The Tamil phrase for ‘thank you’ is never used in daily conversation except by well-meaning foreigners who don’t know any better, but this meal and the fine company I enjoyed tonight will never be forgotten.  Cheers, everyone!

When We Outlive the Dream

I am drinking vino de tavola (Melini Chianti, 2004 from a kitty mug) in the empty apartment of The Flamenca who is in Frankfurt right now waiting for a plane that will take her to Madrid.

My circus friends are the elite.  My three best friends from circus school are working at Cirque du Soleil.  My ex-girlfriend The Contortionist is with Cirque Theatrical, at least until October when they close the curtain on her show permanently.  A beautiful, sweet friend of mine just graduated from the National Circus School of Canada.  She started in 2003/2004, my last year at the school.  Generation shifts like that make me nostalgic.

In circus school, we believe that being swept up by  companies like Cirque du Soleil or Cirque Theatrical, Cirque Human or even Cirque Traditional somehow validates you.  It makes you a success.  A few of us even achieve that dream.

So you sign for two years and your horizons widen and your bank account swells and life is good.

But then the end of 2006 looms up and stares you in the face.  For the first time, you are looking into a great unknown.  Circus is a world of connections and two years of connection-building have passed you by.  Circus art as a whole has shifted and you have gone from cutting-edge to old school in just two years.  Two crops of upcoming hopefuls, ‘next-big-things’ have been harvested from the world’s best circus schools: Montreal, Chalons, Fratellini, Brussels and Kiev.

And what are we left with?

Optimistically, circus artists’ careers last 15 years depending on their specialty and natural charm.  More than 10% of your perfoming life has just passed you by, and the next 90% gets exponentially bleaker.  Few things depreciate in value like an aging acrobat.

The circus world is changing.  We wrote a check to the world in the late 90’s saying that we were going to combine circus with modern dance and theater in order to redefine performing arts for a new millennium.  In my opinion, this check bounced.  Cirque du Soleil juxtaposed those three elements, threw in a good amount of sex and marketing, and struck entertainment paydirt.  As it turned out, that’s all the public wanted.

Or was it?

The depth of circus talent was at a peak in the mid-90’s.  Acrobats from Eastern Europe were free to set up shop anywhere in the world at the same moment that Cirque du Soleil and the National Circus School of Montreal shifted the creative center of modern circus to Quebec.  Some of these acrobats spent their childhoods in Soviet-era national training centers.  Some were born into performing families whose stage histories spanned seven generations.

Circus consumerism and corporate creative greed decimated an old-growth resource now incapable of renewing itself.  The original stars of seminal circus works that redefined the circus genre -Quidam, Allegria, Mystere, Saltimbanco, and O – are now in their thirties and well into the twilight of their professional stage life if not officially retired.

These shows, however, are never retired, so that provides a huge field of talent that must be repopulated on an annual basis.  The logistics of training in an individual artist are overwhelming, so ‘implants’ are quickly trained in as carbon-copy imitations of the previous performer.  Two years later, if you can still perform at an acceptable level you are offered an extension.  Otherwise, you are weeded out and replaced like your predecessor before you.

I admit that this characterization is a little pessimistic – few people dream of a contract extension once their two years are up.  My friends in major circus companies are now in their second and third years of their contracts.  Without exception, they are restless and anxious for their contracts to expire so that they can escape the creative straitjacket of a show engineered for mass consumption.

There is an impending crisis in the circus world.

The talent is not renewing itself fast enough for the rate of production.  The age of fledgling circus performers grows younger and younger while the number of performers needed to fill the stages of Las Vegas and other entertainment capitals keeps growing.

Cirque du Soleil draws more and more talent from traditional sports, dance, martial arts, extreme sports, parkour, and physical theater – all the while pouring more resources into the set design and conceptual development of the performance – diluting the amount of circus in a hyper-modern ‘Cirque.’

What is the result?

Disillusionment on a grand scale.  Artists who had previously bought into the mystical faux-family atmosphere of circus gypsies and the cult-like adoration of the general public find themselves expelled from the system at the end of their two-year tenure.  Few of them are able to greet enthusiastically the idea of kowtowing and handshaking their way back into the same system for a second round of digestion.

Hardly any have the college education or perspective to find a new angle on their situation.

Sadly, a many of yesterdays circus wunderkinds end up tomorrows video store clerks or massage therapists.

I would never advise a graduating circus student to turn down the opportunity of working for Cirque du Soleil or any other lucrative performing contract.  I would caution them against the lifestyle, however.  The tendency is to spend money as quickly as you make it and to pass every evening at parties.  The real circus trick is to take advantage of the light work-load and the secure employment by enrolling in higher-education – continuing to better yourself in any way possible.

Major circus companies don’t care about their individual performers any more than Microsoft cares about its individual programmers.  It just wouldn’t make sense.

Perhaps the level of unemployed young, talented circus artists will reach a sort of critical mass slowing spontaneous generation of a new wave of quality cutting-edge popular performance – a sort of entertainment ‘silicon valley.’

Personally, I doubt it.  The average age of the new generation of circus artist (those graduating from major circus schools) has slipped from around 25 years old to 20 years old in the last 10 years.  They lack the artistic, professional, and personal maturity to take control and responsibility for the state of their art.  Thus, our media remains a producer-centric world – a buyer’s market of circus talent.

Our young, motivated artists are drawn up into the corporate machinery of modern circus and emerge tired, jaded, and looking for escape.

But things are changing according to my good friend who just graduated from the school.  She is in the midst of a bidding war between two casting departments of the same company for her services, but she isn’t even sure if she wants to be gobbled up by a circus corporation.  She tells me that next year’s graduation class will be different; that they are not nearly as concerned with Cirque du Soleil or Cirque Theatrical.  Perhaps it is true.  Maybe shows like ‘Traces,’ made up entirely of members of the 2005 graduating class from the National Circus School of Montreal, are going to become the norm.

Then again, I was optimistically saying the same thing back in 2004.

Change takes time, especially when everything stays the same.

Where will we all be next year, I wonder.