May, 2010

deFineArtsLA Exclusive: So You Think You Can Dance With Elephants?

When I heard about choreographer Lionel Popkin’s There’s an Elephant in This Dance happening at the REDCAT this past weekend, complete with interpretive dance and elephant costumes, my imagination went wild. Dancing elephants! Sign me up! Being the enthusiastic fan of the extravagantly bizarre that I am, I was of course expecting something outrageous—chorus lines of elephants adorned in gold and green, roller-skating through arbitrarily-floating sheer fabrics of rose and yellow, a bazaar-like carnival of gleaming lights and clamorous music and pinwheels and ice sculptures and bubbles, lots of bubbles!—but of course, as I should’ve learned by now, anything that I attend at the REDCAT is nothing like what I expect. Usually, it’s better.

The dance opened with a woman, Peggy Piacenza, on a dark, empty stage, matter-of-factly putting on the pieces of a chintzy, worn-out elephant suit. She jiggled the headpiece into place, and bing! Elephant! The now-elephant contemplated her newfound existence for a moment before beginning a series of delightful, childlike dances, at moments hesitant and at others exuberant, until collapsing exhausted on the floor.

I was quickly learning that the elephants in my own mind rest in a much different place than the ones in Popkin’s. Popkin, raised in a split Hindu/Jewish home, grew up surrounded by images of Ganesh, the Hindu deity esteemed as the Remover of Obstacles and Lord of Beginnings. Popkin used his own connection to the iconography of Ganesh to explore the themes of cultural identity and self-actualization in There’s an Elephant.

Following the opening, the dance centered on the character played by Lionel Popkin himself. The wistful, plucky music of composer Robert Een’s live score accompanied by a black-and-white video of the furry dancing elephant by Cari Ann Shim Sham and Kyle Ruddick served as a backdrop for Popkin’s more serious self-exploration. Hands in pockets, Popkin planted himself center-stage and looked around inquisitively. Slowly, he began to sway, his spine swiveling at his hips just like the trunk of a curious pachyderm, whipping and contorting with increasing ferocity. Popkin was soon joined by the dance’s other players, including long-time collaborator Carolyn Hall and modern dance veteran Ishmael Houston-Jones.

Hall and Popkin took the lead in a terrific duet, wherein Hall commanded Popkin about the stage with her index finger, leading him by the mouth like a mule to a carrot. The innocent buoyancy of the dance dissolved quickly as the power struggle between the two dancers grew. Caught between resistance and longing, both dancers struggled to assert their individuality while simultaneously remaining clearly co-dependent. A beautiful play of domination, desire, and will emerged as Popkin’s character scuffled with the ever-more-clingy Hall. Finally, in a brilliant reversal of roles, it was no longer Hall’s character who led Popkin’s on her finger, but he who carried her, limp with exhaustion, into darkness.

What was so great about this dance was its capacity to mimic human capriciousness—at one moment somber and pensive, the dancers entwined in this petulant power-struggle, and at another playful and blithe. Being prone to emotional volatility myself (only sometimes, y’all) I found myself laughing out loud and then immediately sinking back with the dancers into their pining.

In the concluding act, Popkin’s character reached the final stage in his quest for self-actualization. Alone again, he encountered the elephant suit, which had maintained an eerie side-stage presence for much of the dance (aside from a charming interlude in which Piacenza romped excitedly around stage while attempting to put the thing on). Watching Popkin explore the dimensions of the suit, dressing and disrobing, at times rolling on the floor trailing the head by its trunk, gave strange feelings of awe and unease. With the last moments of the dance Popkin seemed to find peace, but only after many fits full of grace and existential yearning (I said it! Existential yearning!).

I was left not only wanting to sign up for an agro-yoga class, but feeling almost like I’d already taken one myself. That feeling you get after a not-to-strenuous bike ride on a sunny day. So what if I saw “dance” and “elephant” and I didn’t read any further—I’m glad I didn’t. There’s an Elephant in This Dance was the most pleasant surprise a trunk-lovin’ girl could’ve asked for.

For more information on REDCAT and their upcoming events, please call 213-237-2800, or visit

Posted in deFineArtsLA, Downtown, Mixed media, Music, Neighborhoods, Performance, Personalities, Theatre, Video Art, World Music No Comments »

Extra! Extra! Tickets to See Shakespeare Gone Wicked and Wilde!

wicked05011010Why Shakespeare? Why read him in high school, and teach him in college, and perform him in the park? Why not Marlowe? Or Chekhov? Ibsen? Why not go back further, and read Euripides or Sophocles? Why Shakespeare?

Some would say it’s due to his undeniable talent as a playwright and illuminator of the  human soul. Others might simply attribute his omnipresence to the best marketing team in the history of the world. Me—in case you were wondering—I think it’s the elasticity inherent in his work. Pretty much anyone could read his best plays, and get anything they want out of them. Othello, for example, could easily be read as a neo-Nazi call to arms. And I won’t even get into The Merchant of Venice.

But seriously, Shakespeare is, if nothing else, adaptable—and on every level, from script to cast. This is why we see mix-gendered versions of Romeo and Juliet, and high school-set films of The Taming of the Shrew. And this seems to be the impetus behind actress, director, and producer Lisa Wolpe’s newest venture, The Wicked Wilde Shakespeare Festival. It’s a five-week long summer theatre extravaganza of adapted Shakespeare works (with one Oscar Wilde piece thrown into the mix), playing at the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica from May 29th through June 7th.

Wolpe is the founder and artistic director of the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company, an outfit dedicated to reversing the tradition of the old Globe Theatre, and casting all women. For this festival, however, Wolpe has included the male persuasion in her own adapted and directed material, while still maintaining her playful sense of gender confusion that already runs deep in much of Shakespeare.

The fest opens with A Tyrant’s Tale, Wolpe’s abbreviated take on A Winter’s Tale, with only seven actors (the original Shakespeare version has seventeen characters and spans sixteen years). Much like Othello (but funnier), the play concerns a jealous leader—King Leontes—and the borderline paranoia he suffers over his wife’s possible infidelity. The part I’m looking forward to, though, is how Wolpe interprets one of the most famous stage directions in all of theatre: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

Macbeth3, the next in the wicked, wilde lineup, is Wolpe’s highly acclaimed post-apocalyptic adaptation of Macbeth. This reworking incorporates a whiff of Hamlet into the mix as well, with the character of Satan visiting Macbeth, and leading him into his tragic torment. Why the number 3 added to the title? You’ll just have to find out.

The festival also includes a gender-bending variation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as the anthologized Lovers and Madmen, an all-female grab-bag of Shakespeare scenes. But for now, FineArtsLA is giving away a pair of tickets to just the first two shows: A Tyrant’s Tale and Macbeth3 for this Sunday, May 30th. The double-bill begins at 2 PM at Miles Memorial Playhouse.

If you’re a regular viewer of the site, you know the rules: simply enter your first name, last name, and e-mail address into the form below, and you will eligible to receive tickets to the first half of The Wicked Wilde Shakespeare Festival, and as an added bonus, you will be automatically entered into the running for our next three ticket giveaways (hint: The Importance of Being Earnest is on the list). Why Shakespeare? Why not? Especially if it’s free.

For more information about The Wicked Wilde Shakespeare Festival, or to find out how to buy the tickets on your own, please visit their site at






                      (valid email required)

Posted in Art, Extra! Extra!, Festival, Neighborhoods, Performance, Santa Monica, Theatre, Tickets No Comments »

Save and Misbehave: Amateurs to Auteurs

9780446550277There are some people who can’t see a film without unleashing their inner critic.  So long as they’re not doing it in your ear during the film, there’s nothing wrong with a little constructive criticism. Studying up on film and all that goes into it can help those critics sound less like Randy Jackson on “American Idol” and more like Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers.  Neil Landau’s book, 101 Things I Learned in Film School is just the kind of thing you need to get up to speed so that your judging the mise-en-scene and the juxtaposition as opposed to the Cameron Diaz’ comedic timing.

Landau will be signing and reading from his book at Book Soup in West Hollywood on Thursday night, giving you a crash course in everything from camera angles to getting financing.  Landau is a screenwriter whose credits include Doogie Howser MD and Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead. We know what you’re thinking, but this book is chock full of actual advice and lessons learned.  In Los Angeles, its smart to know these things even if you work in an entirely different business – it’ll help your client base as a dentist, for example, if you can ask a producer how his or her premiere went or what the latest box office numbers were.  It’s all about the universal language of film.

Neil Landau will be signing and reading from 101 Things I Learned in Film School on Thursday, May 27 at 7pm for FREE.  For more information, please click here.

Posted in Books, Bring Your Flask, Film, Save + Misbehave, West Hollywood No Comments »

If Life Were a Film Score, Then Youth Would Be Trumpets

Goldsmith-Project-May-2-1024x731“It’s hard to not to think of just a person playing the violin.” This is how my roommate James Taylor (not that James Taylor) jokingly responded after posing the question, what do you imagine while listening to classical music? James had been hired by classical music radio station KUSC to help come up with a possible interactive visualization tool for the station’s website, and was pondering ways in which to illustrate the complex string section of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

To help enliven his task, I invited James to come see the American Youth Symphony’s (AYS) final performance of their season at Royce Hall in the UCLA campus. He was unable to join me, but as soon as I sat down and took a look at the program, I realized he should have. The night was entitled, “The Goldsmith Project: The Middle Years (1971-1982)” and was dedicated to the late Oscar-winning film composer Jerry Goldsmith, specifically his works in the golden age of cinema—arguably the peak of his career. It marked the second installment of a planned three-year ‘Goldsmith Project’ the American Youth Symphony was doing in collaboration with the Film Music Society.

The opening number was not from a film, however; it was called “Music for Orchestra,” and was a single-movement commission piece Goldsmith composed for the St. Louis Symphony in 1970. This was the same year Goldsmith lost a wife to divorce and a mother to serious illness. Needless to say, the 8-minute-long dodecaphony expresses some dark themes, and as I examined the young performers (nobody a day past 27) arranged upon the stage, I was afraid the themes might prove too dark. But once I saw internationally-acclaimed conductor, and music director of AYS, Alexander Treger standing up on stage, baton in hand, fully confident in his fresh-faced ensemble, I knew I was in for a professional treat.

And such was the case. The kids—if I may call them that—finished “Music for Orchestra” flawlessly, their faces not showing the slightest hint of consternation, or effort even. As they went on to the next piece, excerpts from Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land (1954), I thought of how when I was the same age as some of the violin section, I rarely did anything without making a mistake. Meanwhile, these musicians—though even that title seems insufficient—flew through the gently epic tones of America’s most celebrated composer like it was breakfast.

Soon the much older members of the Angeles Chorale joined their youthful counterparts for the second movement of Tender Land. And it might have been the Whitman-esque phrasings in Copland’s lyrics, or the brassy Americana of his melodies, but the hall—mainly older folk—started to balloon with such a sense of hope. I couldn’t help but attribute this feeling to the mutual offerings of respect operating between the orchestra, the chorus, the audience, and even Copland himself.

Then came the film score section, led by guest conductor David Newman (that’s right…the man who brought you the legendary scores of Norbit, Scooby-Doo, Galaxy Quest, The Flintstones, and yes, Alvin and the Chipmuks: The Squeakquel). But who am I to kid? If anything Newman’s resume, and his affiliation with AYS, tells me that he’s comfortable catering to younger audiences, as well as adapting older themes into new ones. Which is almost exactly what he did. Under his direction, the young players—does that description work?—breathed life back into the forgotten, and in some cases never performed Goldsmith-penned soundtracks behind such films as Capricorn One and Papillon.

The real ticker of the night, however, came when they rolled down the giant projection screen above the stage and dimmed the lights, the orchestra members turning on their miniature stand-lights to see the sheet music for the score of the film Alien. Along with Chinatown and The Omen (which was performed later), this is probably one of Goldsmith’s best known works, only we were posed to hear the part of the score never before heard by a large audience—the part edited out of the original cut, yet inserted back in with precision for the night’s performance.

What became immediately apparent to me as I watched Sigourney Weaver and cohorts wrestle their way through a dark spaceship, the encroaching alien behind any corner, was the significance of silence in a film score. Long, sharp notes from an instrument called a serpent (a predecessor of the tuba), followed by just enough space for the action to take precedence over the music. I realized that film scores like Alien, or even more solemn ones like QB VII—another Goldsmith composition for the first-ever miniseries about the Holocaust—aren’t necessarily multi-layered. But they contain a lot of whimsy and neat tricks; they’re more interested in whisking you along the ride, rather than getting you lost inside it. They provide the space for images, so that the audience doesn’t just picture a person playing the violin. A good film composer must be versatile, proficient, and able to bend their distinct voice in service of another artist. Come to think of it, much like a young musician.

The American Youth Symphony 2009-2010 season has ended, but will start up again next year with yet another series of admission free performances at UCLA’s Royce Hall. For more information, please call (310) 470-2332, or visit

Posted in Art, Classical Music, Film, Music, Neighborhoods, Performance, Personalities, Voice, West LA No Comments »

deFineArtsLA: Stuff It!

BREWER_frick_N_frackGrowing up on a farm in South Carolina affords memories of a childhood of which few could dream—the apple orchard where barefoot we would run, yes. The chorus of cicadas droning in the sunset, yes. And the wood-paneled living-rooms adorned with the stuffed heads of dear, oh yes, sweet Carolina.

I know most of you probably think taxidermy is a little abnormal. Creepy.  Backwoods. It both fascinated and terrified me as a child. I’d look up at the buck head mounted above my grandfather’s fireplace and imagine how it got there—the old Quasimodo-type hunched over a pile of loose skin, a long needle and thread pinched in his thick fingers haunted my imagination.

Taxidermy is much more than a backwoods craft, though. It’s an art whose roots stem back to the 18th Century, when hunters began to have the skins of prized hunts mounted to preserve them as trophies. It wasn’t long before taxidermists were getting creative—take the work of Walter Potter, who constructed whimsical dioramas with mounted animals mimicking human life.

A recent trend in the field is rogue taxidermy, the fabrication of mounted animals which do not have live counterparts. If ever you visit Wyoming, you may see a jackalope, the famous horned jackrabbit so fast that it can’t be seen by the human eye.  If this Friday you visit La Luz de Jesus in Los Feliz, you can see even more. Robert Marbury will curate the “Rogue Taxidermy Show” with his partners Scott Bibus and Sarina Brewer of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists—the organization who coined the term in 2004. Taxidermists working in the field use “recycled” animals—from roadkill to discarded livestock—to create a bizarre and fantastic body of work. The show runs from May 7th through the 30th, and promises to deliver high art, in both concept and craftsmanship. They even will have a live demonstration on the 8th! If you’re an animal lover, don’t worry—no animals were killed for the sake of a mount—all the sources are recycled. It’s nice to know that 3000 miles from home, taxidermy is alive and well.

By Helen Kearns

“The Rogue Taxidermy Show” opens on Friday, May 7th and runs until May 30th at La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Los Feliz. Reception begins at 8 PM on the 7th and ends at 11 PM.  For more information, please visit, or call 323-666-7667.

Posted in Art, Contemporary Art, deFineArtsLA, Exhibitions, Mixed media, Neighborhoods, Silverlake/Los Feliz No Comments »

Open Your Eyes & Enjoy the Ride…To Watts, with “Meet Me @ Metro”

IMG_2841_1I am one of the few lucky Angelenos to live near a metro stop, so I was able to catch the Red Line straight down to Union Station to attend the Watts Village Theater Company’s site-specific performance piece: “Meet Me @ Metro” last Sunday. In the first car I took while going to the performance a crazed woman with a suitcase was dancing and babbling unintelligibly for three fascinated children and their terrified mother. I changed cars and found myself surrounded by a group of long-haired jubilant tourists, cracking jokes at the top of their lungs about Los Angeles to anyone who would listen. Through both of these experiences I avoided all eye contact, set my face in an uninviting frown, and shrank into my chair: tricks I’d learned from four years riding the NYC subway.

At Union Station I joined the throng of expectant “Meet me @ Metro” audience members at the west entrance. We were quickly wrangled into a circle by a company of horn-honking cops circling us on tiny red tricycles and handing out yellow sticky-note tickets. With so many characters riding the subway on any normal day, it took me a minute to realize that the faux cops were part of the show and not just a bunch of lunatics. I perked up out of my guarded public transit shell as soon as I knew the show had begun.

At the center of the circle, the Watts Village Theater artistic director, Guillermo Avilés-Rodríguez, explained that the mission of this show was to redefine the Watts community as a welcoming place and to literally bring people there by using theatre. And that is what they did.

Over the next two and a half hours, twenty or so performers lead fifty audience members through the bowels of the metro, on and off of trains, out into neighborhoods, and finally to a field at the feet of the Watts Towers. We were like a mob of Hansel and Gretels following bread crumbs of narrative, history, poetry, and dance, scattered along our route through an unknown wilderness. If theatre is supposed to take you to places you’ve never been, then this show did. Physically.

More than the performances themselves, we were motivated on by the encouraging smiles and sheer effort the performers put into this undertaking. “The most amazing thing about this show is that we’re doing it,” said Mr. Aviles-Rodriguez when we began, and he was right.

The actual performances at each location were confusing, hard to hear, and underwhelming in quality. The 7th and Metro Center stop just seemed to be an excuse for the MooDoo Puppet Theater to have a man on stilts hand out postcards for their show. In Pershing Square I was struck by the irony that the audience was huddled around a performer ranting like a homeless person about loving ShangriL.A., while we turned our backs to several actual homeless people on the edge of the circle who were asking what was going on.

But whether the performances were ‘Broadway quality’ or not was beside the point. Back at Union Station I had let my guard down and allowed myself to see more than just where I was headed. As we traveled from station to station, I saw more art in the world around me than I had ever noticed before. Los Angeles, and the Metro specifically, is full of murals, statues, and installation art that I had always walked by with indifference. Now each piece was a part of a show, and it was if a spotlight was shining on everything from Joyce Kozloff ‘s film mural at the 7th & Metro stop to the music of the Watts ice cream truck playing behind the performers song. And maybe I wouldn’t have seen the inhabitants of Pershing square or their plight to participate in the show if I hadn’t been brought there with more open eyes.

There is so much beauty, humor, art and humanity around us every day here in the second largest city in the United States, and it took a troupe of intrepid performers taking their spectacle out of the theater and onto the street to help me see it. I thought back to my experiences on the metro before the show began and wondered how I would have experienced them differently if I had approached them with curiosity rather than fear.

The Watts Village Theater Company and their collaborators hope to make “Meet me @ Metro” an annual performance festival. If they are lucky enough to make this happen, I encourage you to take the trip. Until then, as you make your daily commute around town, imagine a spotlight once in a while showing you art where you least expected it. I promise you it will make for a much more enjoyable ride.

- By Stephanie Carrie

For more information about The Watts Village Theater Company, please visit

Posted in Architecture, Art, Conceptual, Downtown, Festival, Neighborhoods, Old School, Performance, The Social Scene, Theatre No Comments »

Party for Music or Party for Betty… Just Party!

People who really have a hand in forming culture and changing points of view don’t come around very often and when they do, it has been noted many times before, they’re rarely recognized during their lifetime for their pioneering vision.   The genre of music that can be best categorized as contemporary classical music is not one with many beneficiaries – the large majority of classical music fans prefer to hear various orchestras perform works composed hundreds of years ago by known talents and there isn’t anything wrong with that.  However, just as there were revolutionary composers in their day (Stravinsky, anyone?), there are people working to push the envelope in ours and its lucky for them when someone comes around who can recognize their work and support their futures.

Betty Freeman was once such woman. She had her fingers on the pulse of the modern classical music scene and was a legendary philanthropist within the world of music.  A photographer and painter’s muse -David Hockney’s portrait of her hung in her Beverly Hills home until she died in early 2009, Freeman was a force to be celebrated, which is just what REDCAT is doing with their forthcoming “Party for Betty!” A special concert featuring compositions by Conlon Nancarrow, John Cage, James Tenney, and Helmut Lachenmann, Party for Betty! will highlight many compositions that were either commissioned by or dedicated to the lady herself.

Her scope was boundless and she ended up giving nearly 450 grants and commissions to various composers starting in the early 1960s.  She also hosted salons (italicized so you know to pronounce it with a British accent) in her home where contemporary classical music buffs and their amateur friends would come listen to her latest discovery.  What made her so distinct, though, was her ability to see talent where others might see some rough edges.  She took in composer Harry Partch, before he achieved his great successes, when he couldn’t afford to live on his own.

All in all, she’s just the kind of person you’d want to celebrate.  I was lucky enough to meet Betty toward the end of her life and one thing anyone could see was that she simply hadn’t slowed down.  Anyone interested in contemporary classical music would be sad to miss this concert – go for yourself, go for the music, or go for Betty. Just make sure you go.

Party for Betty! is on Wednesday May 5 at 8:30pm at REDCAT.  Please click here for more information.

Posted in Music No Comments »