Volume 3 Number 3
Table of Contents
Her body is lean and agile and her arms and legs are well and finely muscled. When she walks, she has an easy and relaxed gracefulness, and when she talks, her voice falls into a smooth cadence. She is a dancer. More specifically, she is a Creep.
By listening to these guys play, you would never guess that they're as young as they are. But then again, you might, because of the incredible energy that they put into playing and the enthusiasm that pours out of every note.
The piece celebrates the feminine archetype, focusing on the accomplishments of a few extraordinary women.
She shudders, twists, awkwardly yet somehow gracefully capturing frenzied energy in her jerklike motions. Her left arm leads the rest of her body, propelling her into empty space, a black stage, and she reaches out into the space, her expression tortured, as Bjork yodels to an industrial beat.
A strange eerie night indeed, and I come awake in the wee morning hours, suddenly claustrophobic in my sleeping bag.
To some in the Austin arts scene, it's ridiculous to suggest that there is a reason to talk about race (as it concerns the arts) at all. To some others in the scene, there is little else in the arts scene more worthy of immediate and in-depth discussion.
Forget novels and short stories and poetic prose. I should write a book on how to write.
The Creeps by Manuel Gonzales
Ellen Bartel is relatively new to Austin. She's lived in the Capitol City for three years. Originally from Long Island, she attended university in New York. Her body is lean and agile and her arms and legs are well and finely muscled. When she walks, she has an easy and relaxed gracefulness, and when she talks, her voice falls into a smooth cadence. She is a dancer. More specifically, she is a Creep.
Less than a month after she moved to Austin, she met and then began dancing for Andrea Ariel, and Ellen has danced with Andrea and her dance company for the three years she has lived in Austin. A year after she met Andrea, Andrea then introduced Ellen to Lisa Fairman, and shortly after, Ellen began to dance for Lisa and her company, Still Point Dance. A year and a half ago, Ellen decided that dancing in two companies and working part time wasn't enough, and so she started the improvisational dance group affectionately known as "The Creeps."
"My whole premise for forming The Creeps was based the fact that I am a choreographer at heart. But since I was so busy with two companies, I needed something to do on my own that took little to no money and little time. So I got this group, The Creeps, together. The rehearsal space is nine dollars an hour. I have no overhead, and the seven Creeps are volunteers, and it's improvisational. So I can put on a little improv show and still pay only nine dollars."
Who are The Creeps? The Creeps are seven individuals and Ellen Bartel who are part of an improvisational dance group whose concept deals with slow motion. Very slow motion. "We have nothing to do with elabroate movement. We are more concerned with producing energy. What it looks like is that no one's moving. I've seen how interesting it is to think that someone is standing still and then to look away for 15 seconds and turn back to see they've changed positions. 'When did they do that? I was just looking at him. He wasn't moving at all.' And this idea of constant energy moving through your body becomes a great image.
"And we go to parks and just do it. I have a very nice group of people that are open-minded enough to say 'Okay, we'll do it here.' We've performed on the Drag twice, right in the middle of the Renaissance Square. We're pretty normal people but suddenly we're doing these crazy things. One time we even freaked out the Drag kids." Since the formation of The Creeps, they've performed on the Drag, in parks around the downtown area, on campus, at the Laughing at the Sun found object art show, and for private parties, and most of the feedback they've received has compared them to moving statues.
When she was a small girl living in New York with her parents, Ellen once saw a homeless old man in the middle of a busy intersection slowly bend down to pick up a dime or a scrap of something. "Here's this weirdo wino guy and he just stops in the middle of the street, just bending over to get something, and that's the whole image in my head. Everybody just keeps rushing past this guy and he's in his own world and in his own frame of time and space, and that image has always stayed in my head."
She posted signs and advertisements across Austin in her first attempt to "creep." "I originally wanted to do The Creeps with one hundred people. A one-time thing. I wrote flyers and posted them saying, 'I want to do this. Join me.' I don't know what I was thinking. Four people called me. That was two summers ago. Now it has become a regular, monthly company. At first, I tried to rehearse with everyone once a month. I thought so many people would be into The Creeps that I would have to keep training new people, but it has ended up being the same seven people every time, and we don't need as much rehearsal because we can all do it now."
The Creeps rehearse at Dance Umbrella, and it is Dance Umbrella who is now sponsoring Ellen as she applies for a grant from the University of Texas at Austin for money to support her original 100 Creeps project. "I realize that I have to sound authentic. I can't just sound like some weirdo artist lost in her own world. I think with support from the school, I can better advertise and attract a hundred people. I wouldn't need a lot of money, really. Mainly support to advertise. And once I got my hundred people, I would need a gym to rehearse in, and I'd have to pay for that space. I wouldn't have to pay for a performance space because I would never put The Creeps on stage. It would get a little boring. Curtains open, Creeps, curtains close -- it's not that interesting. Part of the artistic expression of The Creeps is the juxtaposition of us moving really slow to people moving in regular time, so it wouldn't really work on stage. I called Auditorium Shores to find out what I would have to pay or what forms I might have to fill out to use the park, but they told me, 'No fees, just first come, first serve.' So it's all a matter of finding people willing to do this and follow my very simple rules, mainly to show up on time and to be there for all the rehearsals and the final performance."
As it is improvisational, Ellen directs her crew but does no real choreography for The Creeps. Outside of dancing with Andrea and Still Point Dance and The Creeps, and outside of working part time at Tesoros, to further satiate her need to choreograph, Ellen has directed and choreographed herself in as many as seven solo performances in the three years she has lived in Austin. At Lollapalooza, you could have seen her dancing on the third stage, dedicated to Austin music and spoken word and performance arts. "I saw an ad in the paper that there was going to be a third stage that said they were looking for anything, so I called them and put a dance duet in but it was more performance art, not a big production. The whole thing was terrible. First, they just called me and said, 'You're in,' click. And I was like, well, how do I get in? How do I get the other dancers in? It was a very small stage and I had to share it with bands and their equipment, the wires and speakers and monitors, and that made it hard. Dancing in 103 degree weather. It was very stressful. But we performed it again at Dance Umbrella and it went much better.
"As far as choreography goes, I think I'm going to stick to solos for a while. Just me and my own problems. Right now, I can't imagine dragging a bunch of dancers around with me and my process. I'm learning a lot. A choreographer, like a painter, creates an image and paints it with dancers. But a painter never has to argue with the colors he wants to use to make the picture. A choreographer has to talk to every single dancer and they each have different personalities. The choreographer has to find a way to communicate their ideal picture to seven different worlds, and you can only hope that the dancers are trained enough to just catch it and do it right, but they come in from work and they come in from divorce, from having a baby, from traffic, and they come in with all their baggage and you have two hours to start painting this picture with these people. It's amazing that it comes together. To appreciate how much is going on in the dancer's head: cramps, a bad ankle, bad knees, trying to produce this amazing picture they've been trained for. And then they're supposed to make it all look easy."
Hot Buttered Rhythm by Christopher Hess
Hot Buttered Rhythm will be bringing down many a house in town. By listening to these guys play, you would never guess that they're as young as they are. But then again, you might, because of the incredible energy that they put into playing and the enthusiasm that pours out of every note.
And by watching these guys play, you encounter new and amazing things with every shift of your gaze. Watching J.J. Johnson play the drums is a liberating experience. He seems at times to be flailing with abandon but at frequent and perfunctory points he pulls it all back together with a crash and a sweep before bounding into the next measure. He's got some of the fastest hands I've ever seen, but for the most part his skill lies in the subtleties of the snare and cymbals.
Brannen Temple, alongside JJ, is another study in drumming altogether. His movements are sharp and precise, and you get the feeling that he's about three steps ahead of himself and everyone else in the room at all times, and that he's all too happy to wait for them to catch up. His utter confidence shakes any room he plays with each smash of his tiny snare.
The bass players are perfect complements both to the drummers and to each other. Edwin Livingston is perhaps the most integral part of this band, in that he alternately hides in the shadows and jumps to the fore, but his presence is always felt. He slides up and down his upright like an old master, both keeping time with a hum and picking and slapping at high speed. He ties the percussion to the keyboards with a constant adjustment in tempo and volume and brings everything together.
Yogi, the other bass player, plays a 5-string electric and does a whole lotta thumping and slapping. He's good, and he and Brannen's duet was one of the highpoints of their recent Mercury Lounge gig. He gives the string solo nature, almost treating a fairly traditional funky bass as a lead instrument.
Fredrick Sanders plays keyboards in a most reserved way. His solos are infrequent and he's content to sit back on the bench a bit and feel the other guys playing. He's not hitting keys just for the sake of hitting keys because -- and this holds true of everyone -- the idea is not just all-out jam, these are rhythms and sometimes you gotta stay out of them for them to work.
The greatest thing about seeing this band is the realization that there are a lot of very talented and well-schooled young jazz players in town. And if the lineup keeps shifting, as the second keyboard spot has, each show may be an introduction to a new favorite.
To call it fusion would be to do it a disservice, at least in relation to most other too-clean and soulless fusion music. But you kind of have to (if you have to call it anything). It's a pretty structured exploration of rhythm and time through heavy beats and gliding lines. They'll be playing everywhere soon enough.
The Kinetics of Kinesis: Toni Bravo's Portraits of Angels by Courtenay Nearburg
In the careless spring, twilight settles over the gardens of the quiet estate, punctuated by the giggles of young girls prancing in the cool grass outside the chapel. One of the girls has a camera, and her compatriots leap and scamper, pausing to pose before formidable trees in frozen grace, arms outstretched to the branches, calling to her to capture their spirit, "Take a picture of me! Look, look at me!" An impromptu celebration of feminine beauty and innocence, just before the real show begins.
And so, Portraits of Angels, a performance by local choreographer Toni Bravo and Kinesis Dance Theatre Projects, began quite angelically, delightful by virtue of the enthusiasm and fragile ingenuity of its performers. The piece celebrates the feminine archetype, focusing on the accomplishments of a few extraordinary women -- "sheroes" -- defined in the program as "every life-giver and culture-preserver, every female who challenges status quo in betterment of human lineage."
The women honored in this tribute to femininity are Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, Artemicia Gentileski, Hildegard von Bingen, Inanna, Tomahssiasah, and Mary Joe Frug. Each piece in the performance is dedicated either to one of these women and their contributions to society or to the role of woman as mother, friend, artist, intellectual, or revolutionary. The company, ten women between the ages of nine and forty, presents these pieces in the tranquil setting of the Ceremony Hall by the Mansion at 4100 Red River, an estate shared by the Sri Armananda Memorial School and the old Mansion. The Ceremony Hall is a small chapel, and for the performance, the altar has been draped in white gauze, the windows blacked out, and a black rubber floor installed. An easel stands to the left of the altar holding an unfinished sketch, and an oriental table occupies the right corner downstage bearing a large silver washing bowl and a porcelain water pitcher. Candles light the alcove, and a woman scats a cappella over the PA system.
Kinesis dancers are young, still slightly awkward, but in a romantic sense, their innocence shining as they delight in the performance. The choreography uses sweeping, grand gestures over the floor, with delicate leaps and intricate interaction, and a consistent theme of nurturing. In the first piece, a tribute to Juana, the Mexican poet, the three women carry a cross, a shawl, and a book, each representative of the reality of a poet's search for truth and for self in an oppressive colonial society where women only found solace in religion and familial duty. In the last moments of the dance, the women come together in the center of the floor, looping their arms overhead with the symbols held high, then release to exchange their gifts with each other before exiting. A narrator explains the symbology afterwards, but it is hardly necessary.
Kinesis incorporates multicultural elements into each performance. Anuradha Naimpally portrays Artemicia, a painter in the Age of Enlightenment, in traditional Indian costume, brilliant hues of pink and green, overwhelmed by the violence and oppression of her society. Naimpally's face reflects the horror of her experience as she virtually translates the story with her hands, exhorting her peers to stand and be recognized, to take their rightful places in the world of art and literature. The "Eulogy for Mary Joe Frug," performed and choreographed by Toni Bravo, is tragic, eloquently accompanied by violinist Shane Madden, who contributed most of the original music for the performance.
Most of the pieces evoke motherhood, with the dancers guiding each other, the elders instructing the ingenues through the rites of passage. Each piece contains its own ritual, honoring the memory of its sheroe. At the beginning of Tomahssiasah's tribute, each dancer contributes a token to the medicine shrine in front of the stage. During Artemicia's piece, Bravo finishes the sketch on the easel while Naimpally dances, completing the image of woman defining womanhood. Hildegard gently teaches two students the finesse of her politics, and Amanda drives her mother to distraction, complying to her guidance at first, then wildly breaking her grip, only to return to her embrace. Inanna, the only goddess amongst these exceptional mortals, strikes out to explore the nether world, risking her pedestal on high and her immortal distinction. In the final piece, "Jacinta," grandmothers are exalted, the guardians of innocence, with comic touches supplied in the soundtrack by recordings of grandma talking about winning the lottery and living long enough to see the construction of a superhighway. The entire cast engages in spontaneous jigs reminiscent of the flapper days.
Currently the Director of Educational Programs for Ballet Austin, Toni Bravo hails from Mexico City, and has danced her way across the globe, deciding finally to settle in Austin after finishing her education at the University of Texas. She has worked with a multitude of groups here, including the Theatre and Dance Departments of UT and Austin Community College, Ballet Austin, Sharir Dance Company, the VORTEX, and even the Austin Police Department. By incorporating dance into public education, she has had the opportunity to work with the Travis County Juvenile Court and AISD. She built Kinesis from encounters with students, her work in universities, and through auditions. Her company is diverse, charming due to the youth of the performers and the enthusiasm they bring to the stage.
"It's a lot nicer to get to do everything you want instead of having to struggle just to be seen," Bravo says, on why she is working in Austin instead of New York or Los Angeles. "We do a lot of social commentary on what needs to be changed, or appreciated. It's not only entertainment."
Bravo focuses on gender issues, using dance as the medium to convey the grace and vulnerability of woman in a man's world. Portraits of Angels elegantly transforms young girls into ageless icons of strength and determination, an opportunity for the performers to see themselves in these roles, and to be seen as the sheroes of all ages.
"By working in collaboration with a variety of performers and choreographers, we provide a platform for them to develop their talents while exploring the role of dance as art form and social commentary," Bravo explains in the text of the program. The company hosts artists to teach workshops open to the community, to expose the public to a wide array of ethnicities and cultural diversity. One of the workshops coming up will be taught by Frank Ktoola, a Ugandan native, exploring the rhythms and dance styles of Africa. The workshop will culminate in a performance called Ethnic Dance Trilogy at Ballet Austin. "All of our programs are based on truly cross cultural social concerns, social dynamics, and social illnesses."
Kinesis is a model for dance companies that hope to expand the awareness of their audience to the wider possibilities of dance as political expression. Bravo successfully incorporates beauty and grace into a broader message of equality and opportunity, reaching to her audience as Artemicia reaches to hers, beckoning to them, inviting them to join her in her transcendence of pigeon-holed womanhood.
She shudders, twists, awkwardly yet somehow gracefully capturing frenzied energy in her jerklike motions. Her left arm leads the rest of her body, propelling her into empty space, a black stage, and she reaches out into the space, her expression tortured, as Bjork yodels to an industrial beat. In black t-shirt, black slacks and barefoot, slender and electric, Margery Segal is a live wire on the stage of the Hyde Park Theatre. Her choreography is mayhem, shot through with inexhaustible longing, and the duality of desire and control.
Rather apocalyptic in content, Personal Dances II, a festival of dance presented by Segal's Nerve Dance Company (Crash), lives up to its name, almost embarrassing in its intimacy. The effect can be discomforting, as if you are peeking into someone's windows, but envigorating, like getting away with it. A glimpse into what can often be an abusive world, a distant, cold, mechanical place -- and yet, one filled with characters, rich and colorful, enthused with humor and delight.
Some of Austin's most exciting artists participated in Personal Dances II. Riding on the heels of the inordinately successful FronteraFest '97, a five-week roller coaster ride of amazing theater and dance, Personal Dances was really a showcase of some of the pioneers of performance art. After writing and producing ambient love rites for FronteraFest '97, Daniel Alexander Jones was right back on stage for Personal Dances II, cajoling the audience with his innocent face and steamy choreography. Jones oozes sex with his puppy dog stare, silently begging each person to come hither, yet it is the ingenuity that is alluring, the naivete that frightens with its seductive power.
Jones is almost a clown, childlike and joyous, then melancholy and exhausted. He uses text sparingly, to establish relationships, and music is kept to minimum as well, brief spurts of disco and soul washing over the performance, seizing the performer for frenetic moments, then dying away.
Quite different from the "Aria Inertia" of Jason Phelps, a catastrophic journey into a schizophrenic mind tortured by childhood memories of sunny yellow kitchens and the atomic bomb. Styled similarly to Segal's dance performance, Phelps explodes on stage, kinky and kinetic, overflowing with his memoir, the words flooding over the frantic dance, entwining with the motion, poignant in its loneliness, and comic in its madness. Jungle music pounds through the fragmented light, Phelps' body breaks each barrier, his voice pierces the blackness. He is clearly out of control; then, washed in white light, he is arrested. Agonizingly slow, he revolves on the edge of the stage, teetering between peace and pain.
Personal Dances II celebrated individual journeys, the pathways of the soul that are so often a part of our subconcious and are never revealed to the world or even to our intimates. Segal, Jones, and Phelps explore these realms of themselves, then translate the experience into poetic motion. The result transcends modern dance and modern theatre, molding the two forms into one cathartic release of pure spirit. Nerve Dance Company has just what it claims: a lot of nerve.
A strange eerie night indeed, and I come awake in the wee morning hours, suddenly claustrophobic in my sleeping bag. The tent is breathing with the wind, swaying, sucking in and ballooning out like some kind of gigantic jellyfish. These new nylon dome jobs are built to be portable and lightweight, and that is exactly what they are in a good stiff breeze. I can hear the dog and he is restless -- pawing around, snuffling and snorting and making other kinds of weird racket, and then it dawns on me, through the slowly ebbing sleep funk, that I don't have a dog. Great, beautiful...and the obvious question arises: If I don't have a dog, just what the hell is out there banging around in my camp? The brains zips into high gear and the ears kick into hyper-sensitive mode: auditory data, sensory processing, recall of past experience and the careful application of logic; the perfect union of intense listening and deep thought, a sane and pragmatic process to discern the exact nature of my nocturnal visitor...ah, yes, the verdict (the envelope, please) and it seems that I have definitely decided (and the winner is) that I have a werewolf on my hands. Holy fucking shit, what to do now, and I am instantly deeply sorry for my swaggering arrogant daylight agnosticism, oh sweet Jesus. Think, man, think! I'm fresh out of silver bullets and, then again, I don't even own a gun. In fact, the only silver for miles that I know of is the two delicate loops in my left ear, and, although I am in pretty good shape, I just do not feel entirely capable of ambushing a werewolf and successfully stabbing the sonofabitch to death with a goddamn earring. Maybe a hastily crafted blowgun or an accurately hurled fork, end over end, embedding itself in the eyes...yeah, right. Rambo could probably deal with this nasty turn of events, but I am a mere mortal and as an ungodly stench fills my nostrils, I wonder lamely if it is me or the beast, or both of us.
The survival panic is upon me and I slip, inch by agonizing inch, into my jeans and creep, inch by agonizing inch, through the tent flap and, inch by agonizing inch, out into the inky darkness. Not that I have any addled plans to do battle with a full-grown werewolf, or even a young one for that matter, but there is the overwhelming urge to be on my feet and mobile and clad from the waist-down. I'm scared shitless to be out in the open, but the alternative of being mauled by a werewolf while laying on my back in my underwear inside a tent is sheer fucking terror, and I hate to digress, but I must, if only to prop this thing up.
Everyone, or at least everyone I know, has a weird tale about being in a life-threatening situation and, for no apparent reason at all, a strange casual offbeat notion will just pop up out of the blue and occupy the attention, and it's like, why the fuck am I thinking about this when I'm about to die...maybe heavy jolts of fear short-circuit a few integral axons or maybe the brain tries to divert itself in the face of certain death or maybe it is an ancient stalling technique to somehow occupy the modernized version of noggin while the repressed animal in us awakens and tries to figure a way out of this scrape. I don't know, but here's an example (I'm assuming you haven't followed). I'm twenty and I total my van -- a screaming slam-and-roll job, and I'm flinging around like a rag doll in a tornado and I'm worried about the state of my socks. You see, it's a foregone conclusion that I'm going to the emergency room, and Mom has always berated me about the importance of matching socke (clean underwear) and how embarassed she'll be if she ever shows up at a hospital one of these days and finds her son laying on a stretcher in mis-matched socks (dirty underwear). And I'm pretty sure my socks don't match, the underwear is being soiled at this very moment, the van disintegrates around me and you get the picture.
So anyway I'm outside the tent on my feet clad from the waist-down in the dark being stalked by a homocidal werewolf, and my thought turn to urine; because I know that as soon as the beast grabs me I'm gonna piss hard right down the leg of my jeans, and it's gonna be a big press scene and the local yokel deputy is gonna immortalize me as a middle-aged white male who died of unknown violent trauma in a huge puddle of his own piss. ("Never seen anything like it, must have been at least five or six quarts...")
Meanwhile the monster is snuffling, snorting, getting a good ripe snoutful of my scent, my spoor, and probably forming some tentative plans for the attack; licking his chops, sizing up the prey, gauging the possibilities of fight, struggle, resistance. (Well guess what you hairy motherfucker -- first you're gonna be blinded by a powerful blast of piss to the eyes, then you'll lose your footing in a slick patch of piss-mud, and finally you'll find yourself gurgling and strangling on a steamy amber ammonia froth, a virtual delige of piss.) Woah! Yikez! Egad!...and I'm back...I have established a touch-and-go control over the bladder and I realize I cannot stand this suspense any longer. Something must be done, even if it involves a sudden involuntary voiding. Waiting patiently in the dark to be ripped up by a hideous werewolf has become unbearably difficult for some reason. Action and damn the consequences and here we go: a super-human adrenaline rush lunge for the drop lamp, fumblefumbleclick and let there be light oh my God Mother Mary brace for the inevitable demonic body slame...and a squinty-eyed armadillo looks up in confusion at a quivering idiot with a wet spot on his jeans. And it's gonna be a big press scene and the local yokel deputy is gonna immortalize me as a middle-aged white male who died of a heart attack and somehow managed to drown an innocent armadillo in a huge puddle of his own piss. ("Never seen anything like it, must have been at least five or six quarts...that poor little critter.") Bullshit, that was a big evil armadillo.
More ramble, but with some detailed articulation of where that stuff from last month comes from (if you didn't read us last month, it's OK....we left off here).
The pundits line up on all sides of the race - vs - culture - vs - artistic - merit issue. To some in the Austin arts scene, it's ridiculous to suggest that there is a reason to talk about race (as it concerns the arts) at all. To some others in the scene, there is little else in the arts scene more worthy of immediate and in-depth discussion. Of course, there are more folks who are somewhere in the middle of those extremes, but some others don't/won't even comfortably involve themselves in the conversation. They, apparently, are above all that. Really, shouldn't that conversation be on-going, in-depth, and very frank?
I guess the bigger question for me is, "Can we even talk about funding, culture and race in Austin (the US, the World) and walk away from the conversation without either feeling guilty, victimized, self-righteous, attacked, ignored, angry, beaten or marginalized?" At this point, for most of us I'd wager the answer is no. But is that bad or just the way it is? And if that is just the way it is, do we just accept that as normal and struggle on?
Yes, we struggle on. But the struggle is what we should accept. In this case, and most others, accepting something as normal also means giving up, lowering expectations. Failing to work on a vision of how things could be better today is the same thing as accepting lowered expectations for what should be considered normal tomorrow. And, as cynical as I might have sounded last month, I actually have a great deal of faith in the organizations, and respect for the individuals who comprise the Austin arts community.
What I think we lack most of all is a community-wide feeling of unity. Some of us just don't trust the other players in this game. Some of us, today and historically, just do not behave in ways that inspire trust, unity, and respect from/with our peers in the public arts community. And more often than not, that mistrust has to do with issues such as competition for public funding, race vs culture, the majors vs the minors, ART and CULTURE vs art and culture, bigger and better facilities and exclusive access vs few facilities and little access to them.
I don't think we have to depend on a Marxist analysis of the situation to get a clue of where we stand here. Granted, relationships between the various arts organizations, individual artists, and our local Peer Panel/Arts Commission/City Council funding system are actually better now than they were during the glory days of the Arts Wars of the recent past. We now need to move on to the next level of understanding. That will only happen when there is a shared and inclusive vision of an active and diverse Austin arts community.
My ramble on this subject last month drew a mixed bag of response, ranging from "right on, bro," to "get the facts straight, Harold." Yes, I am sharing my thoughts on these issues because I have a vested interest. Yes, I think my insight on the health of the arts scene is valid. But no, I am not just trying to rock the boat and start arguments. I hope folks in the arts scene are reading this little mag and being motivated to consider the issues, to consider that some issues are more important to some segments of the community than to others. But, in the process, I must admit that sometimes I do end up sounding like I'm inviting confrontation. That is not necessarily my goal here.
After I received a couple of calls and a letter, the metaphor that came to mind was something close to a twisted invitation to a party. I began to feel as if my last column was an invitation for folks to continue or join in this conversation about how to make the Austin arts scene more functionally multicultural. The kicker is, perhaps my tone was more like an invitation to join the conversation so I (and those who agree with my point of view) could beat up on those who do not agree with my assessment of the scene. Well, I want to invite conversation, not a fight about the issues. Been there, done that.
One of the folks who responded to last month's ramble was concerned that I did not mention the work their organization has done to address the "diversity" issue. This person happened to represent one of the well-funded major organizations. In my column I encouraged the majors to do more to address the City's mission of diversity and inclusion in their programming, staffing, advertising, and out-reach. In his letter, he let me know just what his organization was doing to get there. And to their credit (the Lyric Opera), they are indeed making positive strides to address these issues at all levels of their organization.
One of the points I want to stress, and perhaps did not make clear last month, is that all of us are challenged to make good on our promise to serve the cultural diversity of Austin. The major organizations, the ethnic-specific organizations, and the individual artists all have the challenge of producing programming that reaches out into Austin's diverse communities. Finding ways to do that effectively, without simply doing it to approximate political correctness, is not as easy as it may seem (nor as easy as my March column made it sound). Besides some folks' simple aversion to the concept of multiculturalism (you know, the threat to the Western Cultural Cannon), the particular demographics and geography of Austin pose the greatest challenges for doing inclusive cultural work here in Austin.
Let's face it, we are out here in the provinces. We are not a first stop market for your favorite European touring concert master, your favorite jazz legend, the hottest South American pop star, or that Russian dancer you've always wanted to see. When the Louvre mounts that major retrospective tour of Degas' work, it probably won't check for scheduling here -- at least not yet. We are not Houston, we are not on one of the coasts, we do not have the cultural unity and depth of New Orleans.
We do have a city that is a destination for youth-oriented pop music, for "Texas Music," for blues (jazz on occasion), for avant-garde performance art and theater, for independent and studio movie production, and for writers and poets from around the world (at least during the International Poetry Festival). I think we can all agree that it's OK for us not to be another Houston, nor to be located on the East Coast. We are who and where we are, can't change that. What is now needed, I think, is a real assessment of what supporting "multicultural programming" really looks like in Austin, specific to the various communities who actually are here.
I think the biggest problem that most of us have had with this "multicultural" concept is agreeing on definitions. We seem to keep going back to the paranoia of having to discuss race vs culture vs artistic merit. Don't get me wrong, race and artistic merit are indeed right up there among the top issues that need to be in the discussion. Where I think many of us fail to get the larger point is that sticky issue of "culture." Many folks who read my column last month and commented, missed the importance of the need to grapple with our definitions of culture and race. Many of the cultural communities represented here in Austin truly have little or nothing to do with race. The cultural communities of, for example, traditional Texas country music, European classical music, and college radio grunge are indeed different. The kind of multicultural view of the arts that we support acknowledges the validity of all of these.
Last month I spent some amount of time criticizing Austin's major arts organizations on their lack of inclusion of non-whites in their programming, staffing, on their boards of directors, their out-reach, etc. The truth of the matter is, even the smallest organizations are faced with the same situations. Even the organizations that do "ethnic specific" programming have to deal with getting their target audiences to come to their productions.
So, yes, we all have the challenge of attracting a diverse group of folks to come to our productions, to sit on our boards, to volunteer to work and raise money for us. The "majors," however few, are called the majors because their staffing, funding, and facility needs demand the lion's share of local public art funds. And since this is the case, should not their efforts to address issues of diversity also be on a major scale, part of what they do normally (as the largest takers of the public arts moneys), and not simply efforts to appease a need to be politically correct?
Today I woke up to an epiphany.
I've been going about this whole writing/publishing thing all wrong. I shouldn't be writing clean and clear prose and stories about people I've known, places I've seen, music I've heard. I shouldn't use authors like Morrison and Faulkner and Erdrich and Hemingway and Garcia Marquez as my influences, their work as my guiding light. Forget novels and short stories and poetic prose. I should write a book on how to write.
Not only that. I should write a book that will convince everyone that writing is terrible, horrible, depraved and incorrigible work. I should make up real and pertinent and absolutely true quotes like:
A wise man once said, "The only thing worse than passing a kidney stone is being a writer of fiction. The only thing worse than being a writer of fiction is becoming a writer of poetry."
I should tell everyone that only one out every five - hundred - billion - trillion - thousand writers leads a content and happy and fulfilled life. And also that the rest are drunks, are self-abusive, have bad skin, and are losing their hair at a phenomenal rate. They're probably dead, too, and that they died lonely, friendless people. Oh, and don't forget, they shamed their families.
I should also include statistics like: you have a better chance of becoming the next Pope than getting published; 95% of all alcoholics are writers; one out of every five men lactate; and odds are that I'll make more money in selling you this advice than you will in taking it.
I should tell them the truth about writing (I mean, this is the "Verities" column, isn't it?): how it makes you hate your mother and small furry animals; how, once people find out you're a writer, you will become ostracized and will be subject to routine Sunday stonings; how you will mutter to yourself and your pet and walk around all day wearing your underwear on the outside of your Rough Riders; and the rumors are true: you will become tone deaf and most possibly develop rectal cancer.
Someone once said, "Before trying alcoholism, burn your house down and everything in it. It's quicker and probably cheaper, too." Same goes for writing. Trust me. I'm writing a book about it. And since it's going to be published, you might as well give up, 'cause that fills the book quota for the next ten years. Don't pity yourself, however. Oh no. I am to be pitied. Getting published is by far the worst thing that can happen in your life, next to maybe writing another book or dying a virgin.
As a published writer (good luck, buddy), everyone around you will be writing best-sellers left and right, will be making money hand over fist and will spend the better part of their day laughing at you behind your back and throwing all their success in your face. You won't have any friends because you will hate all those people you once knew and believed to be your friends, and in the end, you'll kill yourself -- or maybe just them -- but either way, you won't get published. Remember that above everything else: the odds are against you that you will get published. The odds just aren't in your favor. Sorry, Charlie.
The odds aren't in my favor. Huh. There was once a time when I knew little about odds or statistics or my chances. There was once a time when, if I wanted to do something, I did it. And unless I wanted to set my sister on fire or ride my bike through the house or break David Ernst's leg, no one told me I couldn't. In fact, the more important people in my life told me I could. For the most part, they still tell me I can. I just stopped listening.
When I applied for college, I applied to only two schools, and wanted to go to really only one of them. I didn't know, and at the time wouldn't have cared, that the one school I really wanted to go to only accepted around 5% of all applicants. I didn't read about the statistics until I received my acceptance letter. Back then I wouldn't have given a second thought to the statistical "truth" that only 1% of writers can make a living writing, or that the Texas Center for Writers only accepts maybe three new students each year. Even a year ago, I wouldn't have cared about any of these numbers or the facts of life. Used to be, I was never a strong believer in the facts of life. Lately, however, it's been all I can think about. More than sex, more than alcohol (although thoughts like these usually lead me to one or the other or both). I'd been thinking about my chances as a writer so much, I'd almost forgotten why I write. Instead I would concentrate on how poor I am (about as poor as dirt) and how smart I am ('bout as smart as a brick). Life was looking grim.
Then I went back to my childhood.
I took a day to myself and went and saw the new, revised, SPECIAL EDITION version of The Empire Strikes Back. My father owns a copy of the old, not so special edition, and the last time I was home, I watched it again so I could remember it the way it was before I saw it the way it is now (if that made any sense whatsoever). For the most part, I enjoyed the original tenfold more than the revised edition. Call me what you will. But, there's something about the new version. Perhaps because it was bigger and brighter, or because I paid five dollars to see it, or maybe the new digital - dolby - make - your - ears - bleed sound made the difference, but until I saw the new version I'd forgotten about the most important lesson that movie has to offer. In all honesty, for a Star Wars movie, Empire's bleak, especially compared to the first and the last. Evil triumphs over good with a hearty laugh. Han Solo is gone, sold to a giant slug; Luke's hand is chopped off and he finds out his dad's the baddest bad guy around. No furry ewoks to save the day this time. But amidst all that, Harrison Ford speaks words of wisdom greater than the Dali Lahma could utter even on his best day.
Han's got the Empire hot on his tail, the damn warp drive doesn't work, and he's headed straight through an asteroid field. Not only that, a prissy, anal-retentive, bright gold, annoying "protocol-droid" is over his shoulder rattling off statistics like my old Trig teacher. "The chances of blah blah blah blah are infinity to blah blah blah blah. We're gonna die."
You know what? This goes out to all you C3POs of the world: shut the hell up. And another thing: never, never, never tell me the odds. I have no use for odds.