Dancing on the barricades in HOME: the metamorphosis

The metamorphosis of my immediate downtown neighborhood absorbs my attention daily, so I was glad to see an artist and her collaborators take up the subject. Stephanie LeathersHOME: the metamorphosis, which repeats once more tonight, Nov. 12, begins to look at the new developments and alteration of old buildings that is currently changing Durham overnight, night after night, and how this landscape in flux affects our bodies and the ways we move through the environment.


Ally Lloyd, front, and Myra Weise climb the fence in an earlier, Sunday SITES, dance exploration. Photo: Chris Cherry.

Leathers built this multi-media, multi-location performance work with movement culled from her Sunday SITES series of exploratory dances in places in flux (construction zones) in and near downtown Durham, and from video made during those, along with still photographs she has made around downtown, accompanied by typed poetic fragments by Chris Vitiello. Leathers is joined in her peripetic program by three other female dancers: Alison Lloyd, Kristin Taylor (particularly nice to watch) and Sydney Vigotov, and they are all joined at the final location by musician Jonathan Hunter-Watts Le Sueur.

The program begins at the new Empowerment Dance Studio at 109 W. Parrish (next to Loaf), where you can buy your ticket, and where the photographs are hung. The dancers will appear around 6:30 to lead you outside, for a movement section along the construction fence and the orange and white barricades. This was, to me, the most successful segment of the piece, because it occurs in a disorderly constricted space, with oncoming traffic inches from the dancers, while the roar and light and dirt of the rising 27-story tower continue behind them.

From there, the dance parade makes a couple of stops before reaching its final destination, the old Fishmongers at 806 W. Main, which is currently in a pleasing state of deshabille. Almost everything has been ripped out, the ceiling is down, the back is open to the front–but the black and white tile floor remains to support the building’s next identity.


Kristin Taylor dancing in the old Fishmongers space. Looks different at night. Photo: Stephanie Leathers.

Troubadour: Richard Thompson at CPA

I’m a lucky person when it comes to music. I was introduced to all sorts of sounds early in life, and never forced into a single narrow allegiance, except to quality. Some of the best listening experiences, it turns out, come when one thinks one has already heard THE definitive version, only to have it capped.

An example: the first time I heard a recording of the band Fairport Convention. I was 14, up in my friend Sheila’s room in Ithaca, New York, 1969. She had several records of the new British electric folk, recordings that included some of the marvelous ancient ballads that came to this country and took root in our mountains. But that afternoon, she put on the new Fairport Convention album Liege and Lief that included “Matty Groves,” which I thought I knew all about from the Joan Baez recording. Well! I didn’t know much. Amazing forthright singing by Sandy Denny of lyrics that varied somewhat from the version I’d heard–but it was the guitar, the muscular ringing guitar propelling and belling under the words that blew my mind. That was Richard Thompson. You can listen to that version here.


Richard Thompson. Photo: Pamela Littky.


Last night, Richard Thompson, now 67, played like that, only more so. Alone on Carolina Performing Arts‘ Memorial Hall stage, he performed songs from all his decades of music-making, from the 1960s to the 2010s. He did not play “Matty Groves,” but otherwise it was a choice selection from 50+ years as a troubadour, 50 years during which he has continually strengthened and refined his crafts, and his songwriting art has grown like a wild grapevine, sending his songs through the voices of many of the era’s singers.

Thompson’s songs are marvelous, and marvelously unclassifiable, as has been said in many ways by many reviewers: trenchant, with poetical word choices and surprising phrasing–often dark, sometimes sad or bitter or nostalgic or just aghast; but there are just enough gorgeous bright ones to get by on. Don’t want the audience to expire of emotional overload.  But the guitar! There was one man on the stage, with one instrument, but he made that box sound like five or six guitars at once. And separately: Thompson has a huge range of styles, all of which he is master. The driving force in the picking and sliding is irresistible.

Thompson was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2011, but it appears to have made no difference. His show has zero flash. He’s a workingman, a craftsman, and he stood stalwart for the long, unbroken set with three extensive encores, legs sturdy in blue jeans; muscles dancing below dark shirt sleeves rolled to the elbows, his trademark beret in place. Not a celebrity, not an entertainer, he was there to do a job of work, some of the best work there is, bringing music and stories to the people.

That he was at Carolina had to do with a professor named Florence Dore, who, as a Fellow at the National Humanities Center this year, is working on a multi-part project called “Novel Sounds: American Fiction in the Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Thompson took part in a panel discussion today as part of it. I’m surprised that anyone is surprised that there would be a reciprocity between storytelling in song and storytelling in novels, but there it is. And naturally the rhythms and tones of popular music infiltrate non-song writing, just as the ways of telling in novel and song influence each other. But Richard Thompson’s inclusion on the CPA schedule also fits with CPA’s admirable interest in older musicians, as well the new pathbreakers, and in presenting them these experienced artists in ways that make clear certain things one wants from art can come only from time spent living.

Thompson closed his last encore with “The Dimming of the Day.” Best version I ever heard–but we are both older now.


Eiko Speaks

A fact not widely understood about dance: for it to communicate to the viewer, its silent language must be informed by clarity of thought in the maker(s). The body is brain-powered, just as the brain is body-fueled. Communicating anything worth taking in through speechless dance requires a certain kind of honed, holistic consciousness in the maker. Ideas alone are not enough; sensation alone is not enough; kineticism for its own sake is inadequate. The great dance maker must put them all together, with urgency. The viewer should not be able to turn away. And when the dance has ended and the dancer gone, the place where she was should burn the retina with absence.

There are many ways this can happen, and different ways will reach different souls. My soul has pretty catholic tastes in all the arts, but some creators arrow directly to its core. Eiko and Koma have been chief among these since 1984, with their primal subjects, slow delicious movement, sinewy vulnerability, haunting visuals and eloquent silence. I saw them repeatedly, but never heard their voices until they accepted the 2004 Scripps Award at the American Dance Festival.

Now Eiko and Koma are each working on solo projects. Koma will be here during the regular ADF season (July 12-14); Eiko is here now. She will perform for FREE May 14-15, but last night, as part of the Durham County Public Library humanities series, she spoke. Hearing the clarity and certainty of her thoughts made the clarity of her dancing less mysterious.

2015 HONG KONG 3rd performance West Kowloon Cultural District Commissioned by M+ for Mobile M+_ Live Art, 2015 Photo_ CPAK Studio_DSC3460

Eiko Otake performing her ever-varying A BODY IN PLACES in Hong Kong, 2015. Photo: CPAK Studio, courtesy ADF.

Her purpose was to discuss a book she has translated from the Japanese, by Nagasaki atomic bomb victim and survivor, Kyoko Hayashi. In English, its title is From Trinity to Trinity; in it, Hayashi writes about herself, her life as a lifetime extension of August 9, 1945, and her visit to the “Trinity” site in New Mexico, where the first three atomic bombs were made. One was tested there; one was dropped on Hiroshima; the third went to Nagasaki. Eiko had translated the text as part of her self-designed Master’s program at NYU in 2010; it is published by Station Hill Press. In addition to her work as a performer, Eiko also teaches college courses in atomic bomb literature, in which she uses “movement and art to promote education.”

She did discuss the book, but she also verbalized some of what drives her as an artist, elaborating on several points she made last year when she spoke at the Pleiades Gallery prior to her performances of A Body in Places at the Cordoba Center for the Arts.

Thanks to a grant, she and Koma had had a studio on the 91st floor of the North Tower of the Twin Trade Towers for a time in 2000, and she got to know many people in the building. On 9/11/2001, she was in her apartment, and, she said last night, “I saw the towers in flames. I saw the towers fall. As the tower fell, I actually saw my assistants’ faces. I got confused. I thought, I must call their parents. That was my defining moment.”

9/11 was not only cataclysmic, but catalytic for Eiko. She plunged into the study of The Bomb, driven by the question of “how do people survive violence caused by humans?”

Her longstanding engrossment with the question of “how the time and the place and the body relate” expanded to include questions like “how many people who have seen me [perform] have died already?” and “how much of the gaze has been deposited in my body?”

“I decided,” she said, “to think about how artists can sustain mourning.”

It’s my belief that American culture in general denies the importance of mourning, cutting it short, always too ready for “closure,” ready to “move on.” We are lesser humans if we try to pretend away the sorrow and loss and devastation, the rage and the longing, instead of breathing through it all along with the joy.

One stop on her travels around the world with A Body in Places was Valparaiso, Chile, where Eiko was accompanied by her friend, the poet C.D. Wright, as well as photographer William Johnston (who also shot the work in Fukushima). Johnston clicked a series of frames of Wright watching Eiko, the final frame showing her gazing fixedly at the place Eiko had been, but was no longer. Wright flew back to New York. The next day, she died, leaving to Eiko the kind of resonant emptiness that Eiko evokes when her body leaves a place: an imprint of nothingness, before it is blurred by time.

Naturally, we must mourn. Mourning generates hunger, ravening hunger, for more life.

And in other news, President Obama plans to visit Hiroshima.

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