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Umami by Laia Jufrese

23 Aug

Snapseed 5I first came upon Laia Jufrese’s Umami (translated by Sophie Hughes) thanks to the Seattle Public Library’s personalized recommendation system, Your Next 5 Books. Of the five books recommended, Umami zoomed to the top, as I have a soft spot for precocious 12-year-old narrators and an inclination toward foodie things. (You can see the whole list they recommended to me here.)

Umami is not a food novel in the sense of Like Water For Chocolate (which is not a criticism of either book and is just an observation) and it doesn’t just follow the travails of Ana, the Agatha Christie-gobbling, traditional Mexican-gardening tween. There are five narrators in this achronological story, each grappling with grief. Ana is creating a milpa in her parents’ underutilized garden, part of the mews in which they live. Doctor Alfonso Semitiel, an anthropologist who studies pre-Hispanic food systems and brought the term “umami” to the Western world, owns the mews and lives there too. He named each of the houses of the mews after each type of taste: Sweet, Bitter, Sour, Salty, and Umami.

Alfonso is a widower, Ana’s little sister Luz mysteriously drowned two years before the novel opens, and Ana’s friend Pina (named after the contemporary dancer Pina Bausch) and Pina’s father Beto have been abandoned by her mother Chela. Ana, Alfonso, and Luz all narrate their own chapters in the first person. Pina and Marina, another resident of the mews who babysits Ana and who suffers from depression, are narrated in the third person. There’s a lot going on here, and it took me a while to get into the flow of the book. Though I enjoyed Pina and Marina’s chapters, Ana, Alfonso, and Luz were more compelling to me. Their wordplay was snappier (though Marina invents names for colors, like “obligreenation…Green out of obligation”), their interests more idiosyncratic. It’s hard to feel close to every narrator, and the voices were not wildly different. Ultimately, what pulled me through was the mystery of Luz’s drowning, gradually revealed through her narration, using the fairy tale-ish perspective of a five-year-old. The other hook came somewhat late in the book, two creepy AF dolls, one of which can breathe.  The fabulist in me was charmed by this surprise, and they become quite a heartbreaking addition, in the end.

 

Degenerate Art

19 Jun

Now that I’ve graduated from the MFA (hooray!), I had time this month to catch two exhibits just before they closed. Today, M. made sure I did not miss the Degenerate Art Ensemble at the Frye Art Museum. Metamorphosis and fairy tale play a large role in their work, which is great fuel for my own writing. One installation drew upon Little Red Riding Hood: an enormous fabric statue of Little Red lifting up her hoop skirt formed a stage for projections and videos. Light from the projections shined through her skirt. The concept reminded me of the Anna’s womb-like skirts in The Tin Drum. The video’s dark playfulness and source material also brought me right back to Angela Carter’s various takes on Little Red and werewolves, the subject of my MFA essay, along with Ovid’s tale of Lycaon. (Wolves do seem to keep reappearing now, wherever I go. In Blind Assassin, my first delicious summer read, a character says, “All stories are about wolves.” And there’s also a new exhibit on wolves at the Burke that I should eventually see.)

Another favorite piece was a quiet video of the Slug Princess, in a yellow knit, slightly bulbous costume with a long shimmery trail, dancing among wisps of grayish-green crackling grass and gobbling cabbages. The actual costume on display immediately reminded me of Nick Cave’s sound suits, which I first encountered in the SAM’s permanent collection when M. and I moved here two years ago. There’s something about those sound suits that just make me go: Yes, yes that is completely right. So I was a happy camper taking my folks to the SAM exhibit when they came to town for graduation. One sound suit that stays with me is one made of vintage metal spinning tops – such playful armor! But all the brightly colored knit suits seemed like more accommodating protection.

Garden of Earthly Delights

17 Jan

Well, it has been eons since I’ve written anything here. Since I last wrote, I’ve gotten married, been to Spain, changed day jobs, spent two weeks in Wilmington, DE for work, and…whew. That’s enough of an update on the personal end of things.

Tonight, M. is taking me to Martha Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights. On our honeymoon, we gaped at Bosch’s masterpiece in the Prado, but had to jostle with the expected swarm of tourists to enjoy all its bulbous glory. Now we are going to see this dance based on the painting, originally performed in 1985 and now resurrected for your viewing pleasure. The website has a fun feature where you can click on each part of the painting’s triptych and gaze at all Bosch’s details, both glorious and horrible. (Click on “the painting”.) Enjoy!

Death of a Dancer

6 Sep

(A long-ish, journal-y post. A quasi-personal essay. And a plea to myself.)

On my super-basic website, in the about me section, I wrote that I’m a writer, dancer, and teacher. I should probably change that seeing as I haven’t danced in almost a year.

I’ve danced on and off most of my life, most intensively in the last ten years. In high school, I replaced theater with dance as an outlet for the unverbalizable (is that a word?), choreographing wordless stories and sublimating excess energy. I took a brief hiatus in college, first to “adjust” (read: be lazy), then because I was rejected from Mosaica, the school dance group (needed to mend the ego with nutella sandwiches), and finally because of major surgery (a potentially book-long story I won’t explain here). While still in physical therapy I took exactly one horrible ballet class, and later attempted to join some rogue “dance jam” group (compiled of Mosaica’s rejects), a bunch of university students that didn’t wash their hair and rolled around on the floor of some loft housing 12 or 20 people and their 50 cats. Didn’t jive with me; I didn’t last long.

Sometime in my third year of college I finally found a niche, though, a modern dance class that didn’t bore me, didn’t feel awkward, and was just the right amount of pain. A good pain. A healthy pain. When I fell into depression (a string of bad relationships + grandfather dying), I doubled up on classes (“I’m so glad,” said my teacher, taking my check, “winter’s a wonderful time to work, don’t you think?”) and threw myself into the thing, plunging to the wood floor and relishing in the buckets of sweat released, the bruises gained. My teacher told me I was making remarkable progress, which always feels nice.

Graduation, France, and back to NYC. I took Graham classes. In general I don’t like Graham, I feel as if my bones are exposed and I think the discomfort is inherent and intentional and disquieting, but not in a good way. It’s melodramatic and, with the wrong teacher, down-right irritating. Luckily there’s one teacher in NYC that teaches Graham while doing Marlon Brando and John Wayne impressions and I took his classes semi-regularly, and laughed at his assurances that “if it feels wrong and painful you’re probably doing it right.” It was almost as good as the class in Montreal. I felt good about myself, I went back to my old studio from highschool and choreographed another piece for their anniversary weekend, had a wonderful (albeit self-conscious) time performing that and being in a larger piece by the director of the company, with out-and-out professionals. But after that performance last October I haven’t been back to a dance class.

So what happened? School happened. No dance classes nearby, nothing apparently convenient on the way, so I learned how to swim instead at the TC pool (useful, sure, but not the same as a satisfying dance class). Am I being lazy? Yes, definitely. I’m worried about taking down the label “dancer”– it might be the last nail in the coffin, though it feels like such a lie to keep it up there. And though dance has been this peripheral thing, not nearly as constant as writing, which as been front-and-center for a while, but this thing at the sidelines, it is frantically waving and quietly shouting (kind of like those nighmares where you scream, but no sound comes out), asking me not to just drop this part of myself. Well, we’ll see. If there’s a self-help group for lapsed dancers, I want in.

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