Stake Your Reputation On It

The internet died (again).  I was hoping to be free in August, but it looks like I will be very busy in Taiwan; probably teaching workshops in theater and acrobatics at a dance college there while starting the writing and production of the new show in October.

We are now applying for our last batch of production grants and Taiwan, and one of the grants is specifically designed to invite representatives from other arts organizations to our Festival at the end of October.  One of the requirements, however, is a letter of interest from said company.  I’m reaching out to my Japanese contacts with a pre-written letter (to make it as painless as possible).  And all this needed by Friday!

Casting for the festival is progressing.  The Rocker just proposed another tissus artist for our artist database, but we already have people who are much, much better.  I keep trying to add to the list of available artists, but it looks like I have topped out at around 90 extremely high skill-level professional artists.  I got the OK from The Rocker to contact my friend for animation.  The Rocker said I don’t need to worry about getting his approval, but I’ll probably run it by him anyways if I think that the reputation of his organization is at stake.  Reputation determines how willing top artists are to work with us and so far I think we are managing this well.

The Human River

I had a Russian circus coach in his sixties, Alex, who could still do standing backflips.  He was able to pluck you out of the air one-handed if you were about to land on your head; it was like being caught by an oak tree.  He looked like a bear, he walked like a zombie, and his secret to maintaining his form was taking good care of his intestines.

People have strange ideas about how their bodies function.

It was a Russian coach fad at my school; fasting one day a week and fasting one week a month.  It was all part of a solemn ceremony which culminating in a glorious herbal enema to keep your colon clean, supple, and rubbery like a nubile squid.

I wasn’t ready to go that far, but he afforded me this advice:  Eat a grapefruit every morning; don’t eat anything cooked, never talk during a meal, always eat meat last, and enjoy a handful of organic peanuts before physical activity (softdrinks are poison, and processed food is good to make your stomach feel full, but it won’t do anything for your body).

He was my teacher, I listened, and it made sense, at least when training 12 hours a day like the good circus school students that we were.

This kind of ascetic eating regimen fit with his personality.  Even his sense of humor:

One day, the denizens of a small village awoke to a loud, rhythmic pounding.  Each pound was punctuated by a man’s screams of pain.  The villagers, shivering in the morning chill and dressed only in their nightclothes, left their huts to find the source of the screaming.  In the middle of the public square, a man was repeatedly striking his phallus [Alex always said phallus when he told this joke or any other joke that featured a penis.  He always lowered his voice and blushed a little when he said it.  Ever seen an embarrassed bear?] with a blacksmith’s hammer.  The patriarch approached the man to ask him why in the world he was punishing his member so.  “Doesn’t it hurt terribly?”  “Of course,” replied the stranger, “but nothing compares to blissful respite that comes between each strike.”

My Lithuanian roommates have explained that this is actually a very Eastern European kind of joke.  They tell another one that I like:

A wife walks out onto her porch where her husband is looking at the sky with a serene smile on his face.  “Why are you so happy?” she asks.  “Our neighbor’s house is burning down.”

I told this joke in Boston to a mixed audience of Canadians, Americans, and Bulgarians, and sure enough, the Bulgarians laughed while the North Americans waited for the punchline.

My point was that people have lots of different theories one how to best care for their body.  The FDA of America has a great one, which happens to be very different from that which is professed by their Japanese counterpart.  But I think that having your own cartoonish view of the human body is helpful, as long as it makes sense to you and it keeps you healthy.

For me, I believe that the key to everything is water.  Lots of water.  If I can keep a steady flow of water through my body, I find I can train harder without being sore the next day, I am more flexible, I have more energy, it is easier to maintain my weight (or lose weight when necessary), and I can drink alcohol with no ill effects in the morning.

For me, I see the body as a riverbed which is constantly polluted by our everyday actions (like every other riverbed you have ever seen).  If you can keep that river flowing at nearly flood levels, all those pollutants (lactic acid, alcohol, excess nutrients, etc) will be washed away.  I also see water as a sort of lubricant for cells, particularly muscle cells, that help them to work more efficiently.

I know that this is all a huge oversimplification and sounds a lot like a placebo (based strongly in sports medicine and common sense, of course), but it does serve as a nice little feather to hold onto when I force my body to do impossible things.

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College Redux

Do you feel old?

I discovered a little pocket of international youth in Tokyo while biking home with The Political Scientist last night.  About five minutes from our house is an international dorm for one of Tokyo’s language exchange universities, and they just happened to be having their first barbecue party of the year that night.

We stopped by for a drink and some multilingual ambience in the 60 minutes before the police biked over in formation to close us down.

It was silly and fun, talking with college sophomores.  It made me remeber what I was like 8 years ago.  It made me remeber my friends from circus school from 3 years ago, where I was the oldest by far (I was 23 in my first year, the median age of my class was 18).

I think that there is a difference between ‘feeling old’ and just ‘seeing youth.’  At least in my case, I am still dealing with the same questions at age 28 that I was at age 20, but I take them much more seriously.  I also have about 3000 more days of mistakes and good fortune and love in which to float; I have a deeper emotional pool in which to splash.

The difference between ‘extremely happy’ and ‘extremely sad’ has increased by orders of magnitude, and the size of the world has shrunk accordingly.  I have been penniless; I have been more wealthy than I deserved; and I found that my sense of personal worth or well-being did not seem to be correlated to any fluctuation therein.

28 minus 20 equals a lot more emotional and mental space in which to wander and a lot more voices from your past to guide you on your way; it seems the magnitude of your observable future is linked to that of your recall-able past.

(My new Uzbekistani friend from the party challeneged me to a handstand contest last night, and I am sorry to report that he lost.  He expects a rematch as hope springs eternal.)

Playboy, Humor, and Cultural Comparisons

All the Nudes Without Fear or Favor

I have a collection of Playboy magazines that consists of one issue bought in every country I have ever visited.  I collect them not for the articles, and only partly for the pictures.  The main reason I collect them is because I am interested in how editors in different countries market the commodity of sexy women to the consumer.

I could probably do such informal marketing research with something like bread or breakfast cereal, but starting an entry with “I have a collection of bread…” sucks.

My most prized artifact is (appropriately enough) a sextet of July, 2003 Playboys (Holland, Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany) from my first European tour. All of these issues received the same photo essays from Playboy central, USA, but different offices’ photo editors had freedom to choose how to present that material.

Editors sometimes featured different photos; a photo that was a full-page spread in one issue is part of a montage in another.  In the French issue, an essay seemingly about girls that sit and lie on racecars was 75% text while in Italy not a single paragraph distracts from all the breasts.

Most editors chose the USA head office’s Spanish-American beauty as their Playmate of the Month, and ran a companion “Our Country’s Playmate of the Month” pictorial.  The notable exceptions were Germany, whose German Playmate elbowed America’s sweetheart out of the picture entirely, and Spain, who saved some trees by forgoing their National Playmate pictorial to run more photos of American-born Iberian thigh.

I think that it is a trap to draw conclusions from such informal study.  I don’t even try.  What interests me is the fact that differences exist, and then figuring out what those differences are.  I recognize that they arise as much from the tastes of a particular editor as from the tastes of a given nation’s audience, but I do content that the two are related.

I also used to save a daily newspaper from each country, but that newsprint doesn’t conserve nearly as well as the glossy pages of “Entertainment for Men.”

Is it unreasonable to imagine that the same unintentional international editing in Playboy exists in the pages of an “objective” daily journal?  The commodity of information is as vital (though arguably less popular) than the commodity of sex, but the pressure and desire to take editorial license are surely greater in the former than the latter.

In his essay “Imaginary Homelands,” Salman Rushdie uses a metaphor of a movie theater to describe the uselessness of defining the human experience in terms of the present.  To do so is like trying to watch a movie with your nose pressed up against the screen.  I think that the same is true when we are speaking of cultural differences.

What can be simpler to understand than a Playboy?  And yet, if you never read anything but Playboys from your own country, you might be surprised to find that different editions from other countries are anything more than word-for-word translations (as if such things could exist; read Umberto Eco’s Mouse or Rat for a great treatment of the subject) of captions and articles.  Looking over my international collection of Playboys (not nearly as often as I’d like, I’m afraid) I get a very different picture of the subtlety of multinational culture.  For me, it is an abstract picture that is always in motion.  Usually, I see no identifiable patterns or forms, and even if one does emerge, I force myself to look see it as just a transient, meaningless island of logic that caught my eye.  But like any abstract object, it makes a distinct impression on the viewer.

Imagine the complications that would arise if we had the time to explore less intuitive cultural institutions country by country; legislation, foreign policy, environmental issues, etc.  How far would we need to step back to see this picture?  We are forced by circumstance to make sense of these patterns, forming policy based on blind hopes.  Is it any wonder we have had the level of success that we have?  Can future generations afford to be as rooted in one country as their great-grandparents, grandparents, and even parents have been?

Yo momma’s so Japanese she has a Louis Vitton carrying case for her Hello Kitty purse!”

Another unit-less but omnipresent social metric is humor.  When I was growing up between Japan and the USA, the notion that two types of humor (at the time, I took these to be “British” and “the rest of the world’s”) seemed bizarre.  Something was either funny or it was not.

I guess that that is true, actually, something is either funny or it is not, but it is the audience that defines what is funny, not the performer.

In Barcelona, I made thousands of Euros performing on the Ramblas with my best friends.  After about a month of perfecting the show, we took it on tour.  To our surprise, the show that we had been working on and fine-tuning over hundreds of performances was a total flop just across the border in Italy – it just wasn’t funny anymore.  Sure, an audience in an Italian beach town is different from the cosmopolitan Barcelona public, but we felt that we had to tweak our show a little in order to meet local tastes.

Our research methodology: watch a lot of TV in our hostel when we were not performing.  Comedy shows and MTV (as internationally syndicated and altered as Playboy) were indispensable.  What is funny in Italy?  What is sexy in Italy?  What is taboo in Italy?  Unsurprisingly, once we had adapted our show to fit the style we saw on the TV screen, our show was a success again.

As a side note, does this bother anyone else?  The optimist in me maintains that it is culture itself that creates TV programs and not the TV programs that create the culture, but I have my doubts.

As a performer, I have seen this time and time again.  Japanese audiences clap less than Western audiences at acrobatic shows because they feel like they would be disturbing the performers.  For the Ukrainian trapeze artist, though, it feels like the audience is not enjoying the show.

With humor it is even more complicated.

What strikes me about Japanese humor is that it is devoid of irony.  Turn on the TV or watch Japanese people out drinking together, and you will quickly get a sense of how physical, simplistic, and childish Japanese humor is by Western standards.

Conversely, American humor, more than any other country I have visited, depends almost exclusively on sarcastic irony and, to a far lesser extent, on absurdity.  Think of an American sitcom, and now remove any joke that involves a sarcastic statement or action.  What’s left?  Now think of funny Americans: Jon Stewart and the Daily Show cast, Jim Carrey, stand-up comics, Jerry Seinfeld, Mad TV, Saturday Night Live.  Sarcasm is an intellectual tool, and humor in America often comes down to a duel of wits with the winner getting the laugh.  “Yo momma” jokes exhibit this most clearly, but our friends from “Friends” are in the same tradition.  My ninth grade English teacher taught that irony is the basis of all humor, which I still think is true, but sarcastic irony is only one flavor.

Sarcasm does not work in Japan or Taiwan.  If a twenty-year old says sarcastically that she is 35, her friends’ jaws will drop, and they will nod their heads saying that she really doesn’t look it.  Say something absurd, that you are 100, for example, and people will accuse you of lying before finding any humor in the absurdity.  Walk out of the Bolshoi Ballet saying “I could do better than that” and your date would likely respond with, “You are a dancer?”

It is no wonder to me, then, that Japanese people do not get American humor.  Often, my Japanese friends will sheepishly ask me why Americans laugh at a certain movie.  After my explanation is lost on them, they nod their head. “They say the opposite of what they mean.  I see now.”

After seeing how the humor of “Friends” dies in translation (the Japanese language is largely flat-toned with little rhythmic variation, so “Really, I love you so much” and “REEEEEALY, I love you SOOOOOOO much” sound roughly equivalent to the Japanese ear), it made perfect sense to me that it is watched more as a drama than a sitcom in Japan.

The absence of irony is present in other aspects of life as well.  I think that it is part of what accounts for middle-aged women dressing in pink and carrying Hello Kitty accessories.  I think it also contributes to Japanese women consider Louis Vitton bags as exclusive status symbols despite the fact that everyone has them.  It is also no wonder that Americans, born and bred on cynical sarcasm, are quick to rip into this soft underbelly of Japanese popular culture.

Here is the point: all I can say about humor in Japan versus humor in America is that they are different.  The Western half of me is tempted to write off Japanese humor and irony-free pop culture as naïve and childish. Conversely, there is a large part of me that sees the American dependence on sarcasm and absurdity in its humor as symptomatic of the wall of defenses that they seem to build up over the course of their lifetime.  I know that such interpretations ossify negative stereotypes and reflect my own personal frustrations more than reality.

For example, we could just as easily view Americans as being childish and naïve for being such one-trick-ponies in their battles for supremacy of wit.  We could also see the Japanese sense of humor, toothless and immature, as being symptomatic of the wall of defenses that the Japanese are expected to build up over the course of their lifetimes.

It is clear that the difference exists, but any interpretation can be countered with an infinite series of on-the-other-hand’s.  My personal conclusion from all of this is that it is the duty of someone from Culture A to be aware of how their culture is perceived by Culture B, Culture C, and Culture D, and also to be conscious of their personal perceptions of those other cultures.  One both sides road are two equally dangerous traps: the trap of Cultural Bigotry and the trap of Cultural Fetishism.

Despite my best intentions, I am sad to say that I have fallen victim to both traps in the recent past; it is easier to see when two other cultures are misunderstanding each other than when you are the one misunderstanding and being misunderstood in return.

Chaotic Anarchy of a Busker Festival in Japan!!! (Finishes promptly at 5:30PM. Artists are asked to please enjoy clean up after themselves.)

It took me 2500 yen and two-and-a-half hours by train (one-way) to arrive in Hitachitaga to see 90 minutes of street shows at their annual street festival.  My business was actually to meet with Christian, the artistic director of Cirque Francais, one of our main shows at the First International New Circus Festival of Taiwan.  Before that, however, I was able to see their show, a compact, efficient, and wild little street ditty with three performers and a lot of bare flesh (mostly Christian’s).

The show itself was 100% French street-show, and I felt some continental nostalgia.  Raw, spontaneous, and in-your-face, it was a welcome change from the mediocre street shows that pop up at Japan’s numerous tourist-traps like mildew in a shower.  Standard Japanese street fare is the victim of generations of inbreeding.  Each one reads like a dictionary of jokes that the performer has seen somewhere else, written down in a little notebook, and regurgitated out onto a public that really doesn’t know the difference.  In these shows, you would never see a thong-clad, graying, long-haired, man of sumo-wrestler girth held up on a slack-wire by six members of the audience while juggling torches and spitting fire as morbid clown-cheerleaders look on.

Cirque Francais, however, had more than enough of that to go around.

Japanese street artists just don’t have the experience to know when they are doing something that sucks.  Any performer worth his hat-full of change knows that an audience is a poor judge of quality; make their kids smile, and they feel that they have gotten their dollar’s worth.  It is a different breed of performer that actually wants to hone their craft, to transform a five-meter square of sidewalk with spectacle and art.

It is a brutal business at its best, full of politics and oneupmanship.  Second-tier artists at European festivals and street-performing hubs (Amsterdam, Paris, London, Barcelona) find that the environment is competitive and fractious.  Fill a chalk circle with twenty minutes of a quality show, however, and you will garner the respect and friendship of performers and audiences alike.

The key point is that a great show is inimitable.  It is not infantile jokes or standard issue physical tricks that make a show great, it is the performers themselves with their personality and generosity that are really earning their living out there.  This is where Japanese street performers (national and foreign) fail miserably.  They recycle their rubber-thumb jokes and borrow from some secret canon of balloon-animal humor and sell their juggling 101 tricks shamelessly and they make an OK profit for a days worth of work, but like so many other things in modern Japanese culture, they are just putting on the Western costume of something rather than redefining it for themselves.

I feel like there is no forum for grass-roots artistic innovation in Japan.

Christian would probably disagree with me, however.  I think that Japan is one of his favorite places to perform, and I can see why.  His company is importing a valuable artistic commodity that is utterly lacking in Japanese performances: chaos and rebellion.  The Japanese people who are drawn to Cirque Francais’ unmistakably European style are those Japanese artists who are looking for something more real.  It is a shame that the best performing artists in Japan must look outside their own county to find it.

And on to Korea

As The Rocker says, “Apply for things and forget about them.  You’ve lost nothing if they never happen, but when something does come through, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

And so we wait for confirmation on project after project: a 1-hour made-to-order multi-media/acrobatic show at an international film festival in Taipei, various residencies in Japan, the budget for an international new circus festival in Taiwan, the possibility of performing or creating a new show in Singapore.

I also wait for responses from several proposals I have sent out on my own: residency at MIT, working with my former dance company in Boston, even applying for a Data Analysis Specialist position at Mauna Kea Observatory in the naive hopes that this life of show production and promotion might someday provide me with an easy exit ramp back to the life of a responsible, financially-secure scientist.

Last night, after returning from a limited Golden Week roadtrip with The Political Scientist and her friend, I received word that the Chuncheon International Mime Festival was indeed counting on me to present at the end of May as a graduate of the National Circus School of Canada, a former freelance performer for the Canadian circus company Cirque Theatrical at the 2005 World Expo in Nagoya, and assistant director/new project coordinator for the National Theater of Taiwan.  All this despite their notice in April that due to budgetary constraints, they would not be able to sponsor me after all.

It was a last-minute change, the kind that I have had to learn to accept in my profession.  The only way around it is to maintain flexibility in your commitments at all costs.  Luckily, on the particular week in question, I was able to reschedule all commitments except for one, so on to Seoul.

It has been a long time since I was last in South Korea.  The las time was in 1991 as an incredibly awkward 14-year old travelling with my family.  I remember nothing of the language, except for “thank you,” and nine of the numbers from one to ten (I have no idea which number I am missing).

Whenever I travel to a country, I like to learn enough of the language to order a local specialty in a bar or make a request of a DJ.  I think that if you know that much of a language, you are well on your way to fluency.

“Excuse me, a drink please.”

“……………..”

“What do you recommend?”

“……………..”

“One of those, then.”

“……………..”

“Thank You!”

or,

“Excuse me, do you have ‘Dirty Water’ by the Standells?”

“…………….(negative)”

“It’s ok.  Sorry to bother you, but do you have ‘Kids in America’ by Kim Wilde?”

“…………….(affirmative)”

“Excellent!  Thank you!”

By living abroad in non-Anglophone countries for the last 6 years, I have learned that I had been far too anxious when it came to learning foreign languages.  It took me about one week to learn ‘bar Mandarin.’  I didn’t understand responses word-for-word, but body language clears up a lot of ambiguity.  The only problem was that I had no idea what they brought me that night and was unable to order it again.  I just asked for recommendations everywhere I went.

So for Korea, I am supposed to talk about my studies at the National Circus School, what the “theatrification of Circus” involves, and what it is that characterizes the Canadian thrust of the movement.  I have 24 hours to get my mind straight about this subject, compose an article and lecture and then send it to the festival for translation into Korean.

I will also probably have to provide a technical demonstration, though I am not really sure what that might entail, as theatrification is not a real word.

The Delicate Process of Negotiating Without Getting Fucked or Fucking Anyone

After finding out last month that I owed 7,500 dollars in Japanese taxes, I will now be broke at the end of June.  The Rocker asked me to prepare a budget for him my participation in the show in Taiwan.  I’m uncomfortable discussing money matters with friends, so I erred on the side of business.

Despite my situation, I tried to give fees based on what I would ask of any other organization interested in working with me, except for the performance fees, which kept at the “artistic rate” throughout, and for the workshop rates which I kept lower as well.  I assumed that room, transportation, and per-diem are covered as well.

New show creation and performance

I benchmarked myself to a USD $52,000 annual salary – that gives a weekly rate of USD 1,000 for the bigger jobs.  To come up with an “artistic rate,” for my show fee I chose the lower end of what my friends have told me that they earn on a for-show basis with smaller, more artistic circus companies – about USD 120 per show.

Development

I went with about 5x the US federal minimum wage, or USD 15 per hour.

Including my USD 200 expenses to date, I quoted him a fee of USD 9,300 for my work on the show itself.

Festival management

Festival management and performance

I quoted USD 300 per week for the part-time work from April to October and then added artistic show rates for the shows that I would be MCing and performing in and fees for each master class I would be teaching and each workshop for the general public.

The total there came to another USD 8,200, or, a grand total of about USD 17,500 for 5 months of work.

Judging from The Rocker’s initial estimates and the amount of work we are talking about, this lump sum seems very fair to me.  Of course, I have not counted any of the work that I have done on the side for preproduction of a Japan or US tour; that we can work out once (if?) we know that we have sold the show.

I’m also starting to prepare a budget for the invited acts based on my initial conversation with recent graduates.  My rough-draft schedule for the festival is ground-acrobat- and clown-heavy and lacking a bit on the aerial arts.  Beefing up the cabaret with aerial stuff might be a good tactic, but we need to ensure that there is enough space in the budget for, say, 5 of these artists.  If we run into trouble, we could try the approach of offering what we can to a lot of good people and just seeing who is willing to come for that price.

My friend from Montreal is also preparing his fee estimate to help me with festival organization.  I sent him my logic above and he commented that the organizing fee seems very low and that the Taiwanese producers are already playing with the number of shows they want us to do in order to lower our total fee without reducing our fee-per show.  We may need to tweak our fees a little bit in anticipation of having less shows if they play that game – I was assuming they were going to have us do something every day, but it looks like this may not be the case.

The bigger issue is that the Taiwanese producers are already doing a lot of the prep work that we were supposed to handle.  My lower fees and time estimates are my efforts to hold on to as much of the responsibility as possible without stepping on anyone’s toes.  Essentially, I am trying to be as useful as possible without costing them too much with the understanding that if the outdoor shows work well, we will be in a good position with the contacts we make to organize future events in Taiwan/Asia/Japan.  I would rather do a good job now for little pay and be invited back for more pay in the future than to ask for a lot of pay now and run the risk of being cut out in the future.