Friday, October 16, 2015

French-style sex education for the young

By Nancy T. Lu

Have you ever tried discussing sex with your children? Many fathers and mothers, if they can, shy away from such a situation. Very often, the mere mention of sex is enough to raise eyebrows or to make people blush.

To talk openly about sex was, I remember, almost taboo even in the highly permissive French society years ago. French toddlers grew up using toilet-related coined words such as pipi (to go to the toilet) and caca (to do the other toilet job). Likewise, the exact biological terms in French for the male and female sex organs were strictly kept out of the children’s vocabulary. Boys and girls learned at a tender age to speak vaguely – in whispers, too – of the zizi.

In typically repressed style, candid questions raised by the kids received evasive replies from adults. If American parents told their little ones about the birds and the bees, their French counterparts dwelled on the tale of the seed.

But I still recall the winds of change arriving at the Theatre Present near the Porte Pantin subway station in Paris years ago. The vehicle for sex education then was an avant-garde kiddie play entitled Defense d’en Parler (literally translated “It is Forbidden to Talk About It”).

The children’s play treated sex candidly and frankly. The subject ceased to be veiled in sometimes confusing figures of speech.

I entered the theater at curtain time one day to be greeted musically thus: “Ici, ici meme, tout est permis; ici, ici rien n’est interdit. (Here everything is allowed; nothing is forbidden.)”

From the beginning, the air was cleared of any hint of repression. The aforementioned lively refrain set the mood and drove home the message.

Bernard Betremieux, the man behind the French stage production, had observed the kids’ tendency to giggle or guffaw at the mere mention of pipi and caca. It was obvious that children derive certain pleasure in talking about “forbidden subjects and things.” Theater enthusiast Betremieux decided to give children the means to express themselves.

Before the production finally materialized, Betremieux had to deal with the problem of drawing up the vital questions to be incorporated into the script. He took special precaution in formulating the sentences so as not to unduly provoke his very young and impressionable audience. He also did not want to risk the introduction of images likely to create an undesirable impact. After consulting parents and psychologists, he finalized the script of Defense d’en Parler. Nothing was left to chance.

Young spectators accompanied to Theatre Present by their fathers, mothers or aunts arrived to a warm reception by the entire cast of Defense d’en Parler. The name of each child was sung lustily to the accompaniment of a chord on the piano.

The extroverts were soon singing enthusiastically with the cast while the introverts watched quietly and smiled. At the outset, however, the general impression was that nobody aged 6 to 12 would be allowed to warm his or her seat in the gallery. Showtime was also time for play and fun.

The scenario called for the atmosphere of a children’s party. There was no dull moment. The clowning antics of the cast kept the boys and girls entertained.

Sylvie Feit and Jean-Gabriel Granet appeared before the children. But there was a reversal of roles. Sylvie was dressed like a man and Jean-Gabriel wore a feminine getup.

Then came the poser: How do you tell a man from a woman?

The warming up exercise was very natural and effective. Another leading question was raised: Have you ever seen naked men and women? “Yes, in the museum,” came one candid reply.

The amused children refused to be deceived by superficial trappings. Properly motivated, they rushed to undress Sylvie to reveal her true sex.

Stripped down to her leotard, the actress admitted to being a female. Another cast member confirmed it by drawing on her two breasts and the female sex organ.

Meanwhile Jean-Gabriel with his effeminate posturing came under “attack” by the children. Off went his hat and dress. The moment of truth arrived. “She” turned out to be a he.

Words like zizi, faucet, knife, little bird, piece of wood and even Eiffel Tower emanated from the lips of innocent children. Take note: nobody used the precise word to refer to the male sex organ.

The play continued. More questions were asked: What do you do to have a baby? Can you have a baby without getting married?

Candid replies sometimes sent shock waves across the adult audience. One girl explained that the man must plant a seed in the woman to bring about fertilization. Another child innocently put it this way: “The baby comes from the zizi of the monsieur (man) who puts it in the zizi of the femme (woman).” But listen to a young romantic: “It happens when a man and a woman make love.”

Then came the lesson in biology. Movable screens parted to reveal a huge rag doll measuring 2.5 meters in height and 1.5 meters in width. The prop was designed and made to have the female attributes on one side and the male characteristics on the reverse side. Care was taken not to give it the familiar form likely to constitute physical provocation. There was no room for erotic suggestion here.

The belly on the side showing female anatomy had a flap which could be opened at will. Inside were balloons and tubes representing the uterus, the ovaries and fallopian tubes. Ovules came in the form of Easter eggs, which were distributed on the spot among the delighted children.

The story of fertilization got described like a moving love story but in biological terms. The boys and girls danced out the meeting of the ovule and the sperm.

With the completion of the sex act, the uterus now held a fetus that slowly developed and grew, finally becoming an infant.

The flap on the belly was put back. Six months passed. The baby in the tummy began to move. Another three months later, the little one asked to see the light of day. The suspense-filled moment came. A baby acted out by an adult was born. After being slapped by one of the children, she cried.

How do you stop a baby from crying? A precocious little one suggested: “Breastfeed her!”

After sucking a bit, she cried some more. “Try the other breast,” said another observant girl.

When confronted by sons and daughters regarding sexuality, adults often have difficulty explaining the facts of life. The educational play answered many questions familiar to parents with children.

Very often, children dare not direct nagging questions on sex at their fathers and mothers. But the bliss of innocence is a thing of the past in cities where present-day realities include adult sex programs on cable television, porno shops, and red light districts, The younger generation demands to be enlightened somehow.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Chinese poets in Philippines hold poetry reading to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival

When the moon is at its fullest or roundest, modern-day Chinese poets, including local talents in Chinese verse writing, like to meet for exchanges in poetic musings and emotional outpourings in a manner reminiscent of the moonlit night practice of the ancient Chinese literati.

Much-admired classic Chinese verses, quatrains and stanzas on the August moon like the often-quoted Li Bai’s “Quiet Night Thought” and Yu Guangzhong’s “Nostalgia” gave way to original local Chinese modern poetry at the advanced Mid-Autumn Festival reunion of local old hands as well as fresh young talents in Chinese poetry writing at the Century Park Hotel last September 18.

The Manila event complete with poetry reading and singing as well as artistic exhibit of selected poems proved particularly meaningful because the Thousand Island Poetry Association, the most active group of Chinese-language poets in the Philippines, marked a 30th year milestone on this occasion. 

Ten outstanding writers of the older generation including the fondly remembered Philippine-born poet Bartolome Chua – better known as Yue Qu Liao (pen name means “moon in a waxing or waning crescent stage”) in the Chinese literati circle – founded the Thousand Island Poetry Association on Valentine’s Day in 1985. 

Philip Tan, the new president who formally joined the association back in 1988, warmly welcomed a number of young poets as new members at the Eighth Induction Ceremony this year.

The association, a virtual cradle of Chinese modern poetry development in the Philippines, has 54 active members who are all Philippine residents. A number are alumni of local schools like the Chiang Kai-shek College and the Philippine Cultural College. Their selected poems are published in a whole page section of the local Chinese-language daily newspaper World News once a month.

Back in 2009, the Unyon ng Mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL) or the Writers Union of the Philippines headed by Virgilio Almario honored Bartolome Chua with the very prestigious Gawad Pambansang Alagad ni Balagtas award, citing his lifetime advancement and propagation of modern Chinese poetry in the Philippines as well as his substantial influence on the country’s young writers in the Chinese language. Chua’s Chinese poetry collections, some of which have been beautifully translated into Pilipino by Joaquin Sy, are highly regarded and greatly appreciated here and abroad.

After Chua passed away in 2011, his very active essayist wife Rosalinda Ong Chua decided to carry on his dreams and ideals through a foundation bearing his Chinese nom de plume Yue Qu Liao. The foundation’s Chinese poetry writing competition for young poets, which is organized in cooperation with the Thousand Island Poetry Association once every two years, has succeeded in attracting a bumper harvest of entries from budding poets.

Lecture series have likewise been sponsored by the foundation to help improve the young poets’ way with words. Prominent writers and critics from China and Taiwan have been invited from time to time to give lectures. Renowned Taiwanese poet Hsu Wen-wei opened this year’s Modern Poetry Lecture Series during the August Moon Festival gathering.

During his tenure as third president of the association years ago, Bartolome Chua initiated the First Philippine Chinese Modern Poetry Exhibition. The creative presentation of the much-appreciated poems of famous members of the association was held for the second time this year.

Chua penned about 13 Chinese love poems when he was courting his wife many years ago. These romantic works, however, were all sadly destroyed in a fire. Chua’s “Love (Pag-ibig)” written after marriage became his personal favorite composition. He even painstakingly reproduced the original Chinese version for decorative display at his home. William Chua, his cardiologist and artist brother, created a sculpture showing the poet as calligrapher working on this love poem for this year’s exhibit.

The Thousand Island members proudly brought out their published volumes and compilations of poetry in the exhibit on a very memorable night that probably made the Chinese writers’ Tang Dynasty poet idol Li Bai smile with approval from above.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Flashbacks on "Lord of the Rings" Canadian composer Howard Shore

By Nancy T. Lu
The name Howard Shore came up for recognition in two categories at the Grammy Awards 12 years ago: best score soundtrack album for a motion picture for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" and best song written for a motion picture for "Into the West," track from "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

When Shore, the Academy Award-winning Canadian composer of the music for the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, was writing the score, he found the J.R.R. Tolkien classic "very inspiring." 
The winner of an Oscar for best original music elaborated during his Taipei visit in 2003: "I had the book on my desk all the time. As I was writing a theme, I read it over and over again. I kept an old copy of the book in front of me and I carried it around for three years." 
But to this music man's knowledge, some people have read the classic every year for 50 years. According to him, Tolkien took 14 years to write the classic fantasy trilogy.

Peter Jackson, the director of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, looked all over the world for a collaborator in the music area for his big movie project. When he found Shore, the Toronto-born but then New York-based composer had already written music for 60 films, including "The Fly," "Big," "Mrs. Doubtfire" "Silence of the Lamb," and "Ed Wood." At that time, the former sax player of a rock group called Lighthouse was known for his early and long collaboration with David Cronenberg. 
The then 57-year-old Shore revealed while in Taiwan that he worked on the complex music consisting of 30 to 40 thematic pieces for "Lord of the Rings" for three years. He spent only a few months writing music for other movie projects.

Of filmmaker Jackson, Shore said: "We worked very closely together on the music. We did it theme by theme. He was with me in the recording studio. He was incredibly helpful. We struck up a good friendship."

Shore presented the "Lord of the Rings" Symphony in Taipei a few days before the Taiwan premiere of "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" in December 2003.

The multi-media concert, heard and seen only in New Zealand before Taiwan, put more than 200 persons, including lyric soprano Jenny Wollerman, mezzo-soprano Sarah McOnie, a boy soprano from New Zealand, 100 musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra in Taipei, the 100-voice National Experimental Chorus, and the 30-member Kuting Elementary School Chorus, on the stage at the Taipei International Convention Center. 
John Mauceri, a name associated with musicals as well as pop and modern music, conducted the symphony in Taipei. He performs regularly at the Hollywood Bowl.

The spectacular production of the Columbia Artists Management Inc. featured 100 illustrated images from the three-part "Lord of the Rings," namely "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" and "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

The symphony with six movements, not to be mistaken for the soundtrack of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, saw Shore bring together with creativity some elements of the opera, symphony, choral music and even folk music. 
In trying to realize world music, Shore visited Taipei before the world premiere of the symphony. He wanted to explore the possibility of including traditional Chinese musical instruments during the Taiwan premiere of his symphony.

"He decided during his visit that he wanted three taiko drums, a yangchin (a plucked string instrument), an erhu (a two-string Chinese fiddle) and a Chinese flute," pointed out Wong Chi-ping, the director of the Taipei Municipal Chinese Classical Orchestra. "We, therefore, fielded six of our finest musicians to the Taipei concert event."

"The symphony has been based on the film music and it takes listeners through the emotional world of the three movies," Shore explained. "If you know the book and the film, the music takes you right back."

Of the music heard in the Taipei concert years ago, described as "a classical symphony where not one of the 100 players or instrumentalists and 100 singers was dispensable,” Shore said: "I wanted the music to feel old. The primary focus of the music is the 19th century. But a lot of the 20th century has been put into it, too."

He remarked that the choral section of the symphony with six movements is "in the tradition of the grand opera of the 19th century." But "it is also modern," he added.
Although the London Philharmonic Orchestra has recorded his music, noted Shore, "it has a new freedom to it if played away from a recording studio and in a concert."

Friday, August 14, 2015

Hiroshima – city of sad and painful reminders in war-prone world

By Nancy T. Lu

Mention Hiroshima and memories of the bombing of the city by the United States on August 6, 1945, are revived. Another bombing just days after, this time of Nagasaki, brought Japan to its knees during the final days of World War II. The country’s unforgettable wartime atrocities and defeat forced it to face postwar constraints imposed by the American Army.

Yet today, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is arguing for the expansion of its military role by going to the extent of reinterpreting Japan’s Constitution. Many – Japanese and non-Japanese included – find such controversial shift in his politics unacceptable. Japanese high school students very recently were at the center of a loud protest against alarming Japanese policy of militarization under the leadership of Abe. Abe on the occasion marking the 70th anniversary of Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945 expressed "profound grief" but avoided outright apology over atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War.  Abe, too, has been pushing for the Japanese Diet's passing of security bills to alter the pacifist Constitution, resulting in strong protests by the Japanese people fearing their country's being dragged by the U.S. into fighting wars abroad that do not directly involve them in the future.


Years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Hiroshima. This was the city over which burst the first atom bomb on August 6, 1945. Here was raised the curtain of the tragedy of mankind’s entry into the nuclear age.

Like other Japanese cities, Hiroshima – meaning “wide island” – is full of modern buildings. Its hardworking inhabitants have succeeded in rebuilding it from the ashes of the last world war.

To enter Hiroshima is to discover that the road leads directly to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. The bombed-out dome draws visitors to it with full magnetic force.

The lush foliage of the trees in the famous park strangely says little of the city’s traumatic history. But the haunting sadness in the air is almost palpable.

Some 13,000 square kilometers of Hiroshima was destroyed 69 years ago. Some 200,000 people who made up half of Hiroshima’s population died as a result of the bombing of this seat of Japanese military forces.

At the time of my visit, there were still card-bearing survivors of the grim experience. Akihiro Takahashi, the director of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, was one of them.

To meet Takahashi was to be challenged to probe an inscrutable Japanese face. He was only 17 years old when the city he called home had its rendezvous with Fate. The quiet fellow who never married had a deformed left ear. When he rolled up one sleeve of his shirt, there were tell-tale scars of his horrifying experience. He had undergone surgeries to remove shrapnels and fragments imbedded in his skin. The keloids which bothered bomb survivors were his problem, too. His nails were likewise affected permanently.

Takahashi personally guided visitors around the eerie museum which reverberated with the anguish of the atomic bomb victims. Photographic blow-ups of the mushroom cloud which formed immediately after the atomic explosion were particularly horrifying to see in the gallery with graphic glimpses of a city in shambles in the aftermath of the bombing.

Keiko Yamanouchi, a Japanese friend, recalled during the visit to Hiroshima how her family was spared this tragedy because her father was posted in China at that time. With him in China then were his wife and children. But the ghosts of the bombing incident included some of her relatives. They sealed their destiny by rushing to the beleaguered city to look for their loved ones as soon as news of the attack broke out. They became victims of atomic radiation.

Supported by photographs, life-size displays in the museum depicted in detail the tragedy that visited a people. With the detonation of the bomb, a fireball developed in the air. The thermal radiation of ultraviolet rays gave rise to a burning fire. This led to the victims’ loss of eyesight and heat burns on their bodies.

Thermal radiation heat burns on exposed human skin were observed in individuals who were as far as 3.5 kilometers from the hypocenter, the area where the bomb hit the ground. Within a one-kilometer radius from the hypocenter, most of those who sustained fatal heat burns died either on the day of exposure or just a few days afterward. Their intestines and other internal organs were seriously ruptured, too.

Men, women and children within a certain radius of the hypocenter were seen stripped of their clothes or found half-naked after the attack. Their flesh melted like wax because of the heat. The frantic search for loved ones took place everywhere. But very often, relatives passed by each other without any sign of recognition.

As told in one picture, the blast left the shadow of a valve clearly burned and imprinted on a gas tank behind it. A human shadow was likewise found on the steps at the entrance to the Sumitomo Bank. Before they were destroyed, the leaves of a plant cast a permanent shadow on an electric post near the Meiji Bridge. Dark patterns of a kimono were transferred to the skin of the wearer as a result of the intense heat.

The city was taken totally by surprise. The most unfortunate were those who were caught in the path of direct thermal radiation. Being in the shadow of a concrete post at the time of the bombing meant being protected to some extent.

According to reports, granite stones within one kilometer of the hypocenter melted in the heat. Roof tiles within 600 meters of the hypocenter developed glass bubbles. Old and huge trees stood with their inside burned.

The blast blew people off the ground for several meters. Even those inside houses were carried away by the impact of the bombing.

Many who got trapped in buildings burned to death. Others were injured by deeply penetrating broken glass shards and fragments.

Wooden houses within a radius of 2.3 kilometers were almost totally razed to the ground. Concrete buildings around the hypocenter were suddenly without any ceiling. Doors and windows were blown away. Fires raged even inside edifices outside a radius of one kilometer. It was believed that 60 per cent of the deaths were caused by thermal radiation burns. A tour guide described how people jumped into the river to seek relief from the burns only to drown.

Residual contamination affected those who resided within the radioactive range. “Black rain” fell on the western part of the city. Thus, even in areas quite remote from the hypocenter, strong residual radioactivity was detected. Considerable damage was sustained.

That autumn and winter, the survivors showed various symptoms of acute sickness such as nausea, diarrhea, weakness and bloody discharge.

Aside from causing destruction and bodily harm, the unprecedented bombing brought about the breakup and separation of families and relatives. With the disintegration of neighboring community and society, the start of the rehabilitation of survivors proved very difficult.

For months, the blighted landscape raised doubts on the future of Hiroshima. Would plants ever grow again on the destroyed land? Many thought that no life would ever thrive again on this stretch of wasteland. However with the coming of spring the following year, tiny shoots brought hope once more to the scorched earth and the people there.

Perhaps more people should visit Hiroshima to be moved to help give peace a chance in this troubled world. Japanese schoolchildren, in fact, are awakened to the price of war and aggression during educational trips to Hiroshima.

Daily stories of nations fighting and of war zones being created on different continents not just with the involvement of militiamen but also with the intervention of world leaders engaged dangerously in global politics have been increasing. Despite crippling sanctions by the West, power figures of smaller countries like Iran and North Korea have not been stopped from going ahead in developing nuclear weapons that will bring the world closer to a holocaust.

Hawks are dramatically taking over the reins of governments. The doves are too weak to be heard. All told, let Hiroshima be a city of reminders in a war-prone world. Or is it asking too much?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Conductor Maazel: Mutual respect with orchestra is key to success in making beautiful music together


By Nancy T. Lu

        The late Lorin Maazel of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra seemed a maestro very likely to intimidate musicians. But many on this side of the globe would still welcome a close encounter with a conductor of his fame.

Back in 2006, Maazel found himself getting reacquainted with a changed Taipei after 15 years. The “consummate musical technician” arrived on the island to “inspire the musicians” of the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) of Taiwan and to get them “to make music in a meaningful and inspired way.”

Of what the NSO regarded as a milestone-setting experience, American conductor Maazel said: “This will be a celebration of music at a high level and I will do my best to see to it that it will be so.”

The then 76-year-old Maazel, who brought the Pittsburgh Orchestra to Taipei on his previous visit, wanted to give the local musicians, represented mainly by two Taiwanese concertmasters that rehearsal day in March, a good reason to feel undaunted by such professional meeting with somebody of his stature. Still the two had their nervous moments in front of the critical Maazel.

He, whose relationship with the orchestras he had worked with was not always smooth, said: “In the beginning of my career, I worked with orchestras which were not well-known. I learned a great deal from interacting with young, talented musicians. Basically I discovered that the secret of a good relationship with orchestras – the world-famous, the top five and even the second-tier orchestras – was a question of mutual respect.”

Maazel, also a violinist, went on: “I respect every musician in the orchestra. I myself also play an instrument.”

Maazel – remembered for his legendary memory for scores – spoke of his expectations: “A performance is not just about bringing out a series of notes in a competent fashion. It is about bringing out what lies behind the notes in the composer’s mind. It is the artist’s obligation to read the inner voice of the composer.”

The Taiwan concert program with Maazel that year included Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture “Romeo and Juliet” & Violin Concerto. Mussorgsky/Ravel’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” was likewise in the repertoire, which Maazel said he “put together to show the brilliance of the orchestra in a hall with wonderful acoustics.”

Inviting the world-famous Maazel to conduct the NSO as a high point of the Taipei orchestra’s 20th anniversary celebration that year had been the talk of the music circle for several months. Word had even gone around that such unprecedented collaboration with the orchestra entailed a fee of about NT$10 million (about US$330,000). Maazel conducted the NSO at two concerts and gave a master class earlier.

As for how he would actually proceed with the local orchestra, Maazel said: “First thing I will do is I will look. Then they will look. Bit by bit, as we speak the language of music, we will become musical friends to be able to come up with something meaningful to the orchestra and also to the audience.”

Of leading a superb orchestra like the New York Philharmonic, Maazel put it this way: “Giving and taking – that is the ideal way of making music.” He even remarked: “The New York Philharmonic will still be the New York Philharmonic – one of the finest orchestras – without me.”

Working with “the orchestra known for such awesome technicality and professionalism” had been “a high point of my life,” according to Maazel, the son of a musician. He was given the job of music director when he was already 70. He succeeded Kurt Masur, who was the first conductor to bring the New York Philharmonic to Taiwan.

Maazel, who first conducted the New York Philharmonic at the age of 11, described the orchestra as having “clear sound picture and great technique.” Maazel communicated with the musicians with minimal gesture. The orchestra reacted quickly to musical concepts, he added.

His relationship with the New York Philharmonic was one “in which we can make music happily.”

He similarly recalled: “From the first day, they realized that I had the greatest confidence in them. And they returned that to me.”

Maazel’s contract with the orchestra ended in 2010. Maazel remarked during his Taipei visit in 2006 that he had no intention of renewing it. The orchestra under him made big headlines when it toured Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2008. Maazel had other plans. In fact, he went on to launch his own music festival in his estate in Castleton, Virginia.

The Castleton Festival presented “Tribute Performance to the Late Maestro Maazel” last July 12, just a year after the passing of Maazel on July 13, 2014. The program included Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9” with “Ode to Joy” sung in celebration of Maazel’s very successful although sometimes controversial life.

The world premiere of Maazel’s half-finished composition was a program highlight to remind the public that Maazel was also a composer. He composed previously for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and for flutist James Galway. A fragment of his half-done piece, 16 pages he worked on before his death, had to be finished by American composer Wayne Oquin in time for Maazel’s first death anniversary concert. It was given the title “Echoes of a Solitary Voice.”

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Unforgettable "Dying Swan" interpreter bows out gracefully and into eternity

By Nancy T. Lu

Maya Plisetskaya, a legend in the world of ballet, is gone. But ballet fans and followers privileged to have watched her perform will keep a lingering vision of her lyrical beauty in interpreting Fokine’s “The Dying Swan.”. She first performed this in 1943, drawing raves.

The former prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet arrived in Taipei with the Ballet del Teatro Lirico Nacional of Spain back in 1989. She, then in her 60s, was under contract as the company’s artistic director for two years.

On this Taipei visit, she gifted her admiring public with such hauntingly beautiful and dramatic poetry written all over her physical being, notably her arms. The “Dying Swan” choreography did not require highly technical skill. But it still demanded a lot of the ballerina.

There was hardly any need for a stretch of the imagination to catch a glimpse of mortality expressed so dramatically on the stage of the National Theater in Taipei. Bathed in a pall of gloom, the celebrated dancer in white articulated with her every move and gesture the intense sadness and pain of the dying swan in the three-minute classic ballet piece.

Plisetskaya did it once, twice, thrice but differently each time. She harnessed her then 45 years of experience on the ballet stage to dazzle a public that was undeniably full of expectations.

Her stage presence was electrifying. The excited crowd filled the theater with thundering applause. Even after her third appearance, they still refused to let her go.

Only the day before, Plisetskaya with head held high amazed everyone at a press conference with her youthful aura and dazzling presence. Everyone noted  immediately her utterly slim silhouette. She spoke very little and only in Russian through an interpreter. Finally she walked away with an almost girlish gait despite her calendar age. 

The dancers in the Spanish dance company revealed that Plisetskaya, despite her fame and stature, treated everyone like her equal. Association with Plisetskaya, they said, also opened up the company’s opportunities to perform on the world stage.

Plisetskaya, one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century, died of a heart attack on May 2. She was 89.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Celebrated Mikhail Baryshnikov laments: There is so much art but so little good art

By Nancy T. Lu 
Expect no pyrotechnics, said Mikhail Baryshnikov of the White Oak Dance Project’s modern dance repertoire at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei. That was years ago - to be exact, in February 2001. Watch out more for the lyrical quality of the dance poetry as each beautiful piece unfolds on the stage. Fun, too, is in store, he promised.

This was a chance to see Baryshnikov, still in good shape, move with much younger dancers without giving away his age. He said during an interview in Hong Kong before his arrival in Taipei that he works seven hours a day without fail. He also puts in two more hours of rehearsal before a performance.
Baryshnikov follows no strict regimen to stay physically fit and in shape. The trim dancer flashed his disarming smile from time to time, revealing: “I eat everything I want. I drink in moderation. I smoke sometimes a good cigar.” He even claimed to weigh less in 2001 than he used to at age 18 simply because he burned up everything he ate.

The dance program he brought to Taipei was very Baryshnikov in the sense hat everything he stood for found expression in the selection of almost all commissioned dance choreographies. His romantic and playful personality came through. There were nonetheless suggestions of the classical dance he used to do.

The legendary dancer and former artistic director of the American Ballet Theater, already the leader of a mixed group of seven performers, was convinced that fireworks in technique should be left to talents in rhythmic gymnastics and ice skating.

It is wrong for pyrotechnics to have taken over dance in the last 20 years,’ he remarked then. “When I was dancing classical ballet roles, pyrotechnics never emerged my priority. I wanted to show the dance and not the pyrotechnics.”

Baryshnikov explained further: “Modern dance is almost street movement. This is more contemporary folk movement. It looks simple. People in the audience may even say, ‘Hey, I can also do that.’” Okay, try it with us.”

He, who actually danced in four of the five works in the Taipei program, went on: “That’s what I like about modern dance. People can relate to the movement. They recognize it. At the same time the dance is something new to them.”

The White Oak Dance Project’s program in Taipei included John Jasperse’s “See Through Knot,” Mark Morris’ “Pecadillos,” David Gordon’s “For the Love of the Rehearsal,” Mark Morris’ “The Arrangement,” and Lucinda Childs’ “The Concerto.”

Baryshnikov even got to wear a Marcel Marceau kind of costume when he executed the dance narrative created on his body by Mark Morris during a three-week period in New York.

In his mind, the biggest challenge in having a group like White Oak is to find good choreographers, spotting the unknown ones especially in the beginning of their careers, so as to commission new works. Many well-known choreographers are very willing to work with the White Oak group but Baryshnikov is more after discovering fresh and upcoming talents.

Baryshnikov is proud of his dancers. They are like his closely-knit family. He knows each one of them very well. When he was with the ABT, he didn’t have to know everyone in the huge company.

He – Misha to those with whom he works – described his two Filipino dancers – Michael Lomeka, who grew up in Guam, and Keith Sabado, who was born in Seattle – as “extraordinary modern dancers.” Emmanuele Phuon is a French Cambodian while Rosalynde LeBlanc is an Afro American boran in Baltimore, Baryland. Raquel Aedo, whom Baryshnikov found at the Merce Cunningham School, is of Cuban descent. Emily Coates, formerly of the New York City Ballet, is one of only two dancers in the group with classical dance training.

Baryshnikov with his Kirov Ballet days behind him said at the time of the interview that he had been studying modern dance much longer than ballet. His classic dance training took nine years but that on modern dance went on for more than 20 years.

Fame and success – the kind experienced by Baryshnikov in the world of dance – make people wonder: What has been his greatest satisfaction as a dancer?

To make my own mistake and not having to blame anybody for it,” came the reply during the encounter in Hong Kong.

Would he, if given the chance, live his life exactly as he has done all over again?

Well, except for some mistakes, I would,” he said, while chuckling over his own human frailties. He admitted to having done some “stupid things.” But he has learned from experience.

Did he at any point consider giving up dance completely.?

After I left the American Ballet Theater,” he said, “I wanted to take a break. So I went to Europe. For five or six months, I did nothing. I just took classes. I did not have any plan. For one year, I would say, I did not dance.”

He continued: “I could have danced with any company and could have traveled without any problem. But I wanted to start something meaningful. I realized I wanted to do something new all the time.

For me, the greatest satisfaction is to work on the creation of a dance whatever it becomes – a failure or a success. To work with the choreographer in the studio is the biggest and most interesting time. Performing – this is already business.”

Has he ever considered turning choreographer?

I never thought of choreographing myself,” he responded. “I don’t have the talent for it. Sure, I could come up with a piece. But when you have the luxury to work with the best choreographers, why should you add your mediocre work?”

He went on: “Believe me, I see a lot of work. Ninety percent is terrible. Only one out of ten choreographers is a good choreographer. That is true everywhere – and not just in dance but also in movie, theater and so forth.”

Baryshnikov turned around to sum: “There is so much art but so little good art."


Friday, February 13, 2015

Chinese New Year prints at Bahay Tsinoy highlight auspicious symbols

Twelve outstanding Taiwanese artists draw inspiration from the traditional Chinese culture of words and symbols in a collection of colorful Chinese New Year prints that go on view at the “Auspicious Art” exhibit at the Bahay Tsinoy in Intramuros from February 15 to March 8.

Once more, it is time to celebrate the joy of the Lunar New Year. The 12 Chinese zodiac animals - the Rat, the Ox, the Tiger, the Rabbit, the Dragon, the Snake, the Horse, the Goat, the Monkey, the Rooster, the Dog and the Pig - are central to the stories told by the different prints on view.

Chinese New Year prints called “nian hua” are traditionally displayed in homes and at workplaces to invite very positive forces and to sweep away all suggestions of negative elements. The works of art on exhibit all play up wishes entertained by people from all walks of life at the start of another 12 months.

Fish for abundance, peach for longevity, peonies for success, and a vase for peace and harmony are some of the meaningful images introduced in the traditional pictorial art to usher in a happy Lunar New Year.

Family values like togetherness and protectiveness are in focus, too, in some of the pictures in the collection.

Some of the artists incorporate Chinese calligraphy and even Chinese papercut in their creative art. Printmaking techniques include silkscreen, woodcut, linocut, mixed media and digital art method.

Bahay Tsinoy is located on the corner of Anda Street and Cabildo Street in Intramuros. For more information, call tel. (02)526-6796.