PREVIEW: The How and the Why

Theatre Nova’s latest show, The How and the Why, is another play with its roots in science. I’ve seen two similar ones over the last year, and I’ve been favorably impressed by both. One of those, incidentally, was the last show of Theatre Nova’s I saw, Constellations, which was beautifully done and makes me incredibly excited to see another of their shows. The How and the Why is about evolutionary biology – my favorite scientific subject to read and learn about – and has as its main characters a mother and daughter who are both renowned evolutionary biologists. Add to this the fact that the daughter proposes a new theory of female sexuality, and this play might just be everything I’m looking for in a literary work.

The How and the Why runs through February 24. Tickets are $22 each (or if you have a financial limitation, pay-what-you-need tickets are available at the door). More information about Theatre Nova and the play can be found here.

REVIEW: Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

It’s been some time since I last attended a Western classical music concert. I was excited to see the programme, which included a Concertino for Strings, Schubert’s Symphony No. 3, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony 6, Pathetique. The Concertino I thought was a pleasing piece but lacked a storyline to give the music direction. I wasn’t too familiar with Schubert beforehand, so I enjoyed hearing his 3rd symphony, finding it more elegant and a little less thunderous than Beethoven. Being a fan of Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, however, I was most excited to hear Pathetique for the first time. I am not a particularly emotional or vividly imaginative thinker, so I was surprised to find myself with incredibly clear mental images for each movement of the symphony. The first movement, for example, evoked the feeling of someone in such deep despair that they were almost angry, and even I found it incredibly moving.

I knew the Israel Philharmonic would be good, but I was completely unprepared for how good. Even their tuning sounded like music. I loved watching the musicians move; in the first piece particularly, the orchestra was so in tune with each other that their instruments and bodies moved not just at the same times but at the same angles. While this is something that does occur in other professional orchestras I’ve seen perform, the synchrony was especially marked here. And, of course, they were perfectly aurally synchronized as well. I’ve been told before that when instruments are perfectly in tune with each other, you can hear the note vibrating in your ear. That comment referred to instruments playing the same note. The Israel Philharmonic, meanwhile, at one point played a set of different notes that were so perfectly dissonant it caused my ear to thrum in an oddly comforting way. I was floored. The musicians created a more nuanced interpretation of the music than I’ve ever heard. For example, Pathetique began with the double basses fading in, and ended with the double basses fading out. Normally, it’s easy to tell when instruments stop and start, since it’s almost impossible to go from the absence of sound to sound without that transition being obvious, but the Israel Philharmonic managed this almost-impossible feat with deceptive ease.

And then came the encores. I was almost disappointed when Yoel Levi, the conductor, stepped back onto his podium, because how could anything be adequate to follow Tchaikovsky? And then they began to play a piece I didn’t recognize (I later learned it was Elgar’s Nimrod), and I immediately realized they’d found something that was not only adequate but perfect to follow Tchaikovsky. I look forward to listening to Nimrod again soon, but I’m afraid a recording of the piece will not do it the justice that the Israel Philharmonic did. And then Levi came out for a second encore, and I was again disappointed, but once again, that disappointment dissipated into a sort of melting sensation as they began to play the waltz from Swan Lake. Gazing at Hill Auditorium’s intricate ceiling as one of my favorite pieces of music washed through me, I wondered why I had bothered to wear makeup that night, as this music was bringing all my usually-docile emotions and stirring them up, leaving me feeling exposed in a way no makeup could adequately cover.

REVIEW: Swaranjali

This year, Swaranjali was a little more limited in scope than it has been in the past – I believe there were fewer performances than I’ve seen in previous years. However, the performances were, as always, of excellent caliber. Every time I attend a Sahana concert, I find something different to consider as I watch the performance. This time, there were two things that struck me.

First, one of the performances was a Kathak piece, Kathak being one of India’s classical dances. About 15 years ago, I used to take lessons in Bharatanatyam, another Indian classical dance. I’ve seen multiple performances of both styles of dance and others before, yet it was only last night that I consciously registered that there is a difference in the way Bharatanatyam and Kathak dancers hold their hands. The way you hold yourself – what I know from partner dancing as ‘frame’ – is incredibly telling about the feel of a dance. I’m amazed it took me this long to see the distinction, but after having realized this, it was interesting to think that to experienced performers, the difference, of course, must be a night-and-day contrast.  And yet Sahana often does performances that blend different styles of music and/or dance, and the way they navigate that blend has never been jarring. I think their performances are stronger for it, and in fact, that was the theme of another dance piece at Swaranjali. This one was first danced in Bharatanatyam, then in Odissi (a third classical dance), and then in a combination of the two. It was incredibly intriguing to see two dancers, each experienced in one style, try the other’s style and manage to put their own spin on it. The performance worked very well, showing that interdisciplinary work often produces the most innovative results.

The second thing that struck me as a result of Swaranjali was the very different air around performances of classical music. In India, classical music seems to flow much more freely between improvisational and structured music. It also seems to have a much more collaborative air (although, not having attended very many jazz concerts, I can’t make an authoritative comparison to jazz). When listening to Indian classical music it always seems like a team effort even if there’s only one person playing at the moment – I think it might come from a general sense on my end that the musicians are all very attuned to each other, and that the music they’re improvising is still stylistically cohesive with the piece they’re playing, both of which I find don’t always happen in other improvisations.

And, of course, there’s a certain joie de vivre about an Indian performance that I’ve never experienced elsewhere. Sahana’s performances always evoke for me that sense of tight-knit belonging, humor, and pride that I feel when I am surrounded by my cultural heritage.

REVIEW: Yule Ball

I attended the Michigan Quidditch Team’s Yule Ball with the idea of evaluating how well it brought the magic of Hogwarts into a Muggle college world. As a result, this post is not about the success of the ball as a social event and fun excuse for dressing up; it is about the success of the ball as an artistic interpretation and translation of Hogwarts.

As I understand it, the purpose of the Hogwarts Yule Ball was to provide a formal setting for the students to enjoy themselves and interact with other students. I think the UM Yule Ball could have done better on all three fronts – my overall comment is that it was a little disjointed. For one, instead of producing a Yule Ball experience, they attempted to provide a more generic Hogwarts one. Their decorations included a chess set with knee-high pieces, a Sorting Hat photo booth, and two sets of Quidditch hoops festooned with string lights. While successfully evocative of Hogwarts, these pieces didn’t do much to convey the sense of elegance I would have expected of a Yule Ball. Naturally, the Michigan Quidditch Team doesn’t have the same budget Hogwarts presumably has, or the ability to create decorations out of nothing. However, having planned similar events myself, I do believe it would absolutely have been possible to come up with an equally photograph-worthy set of elegant decorations that didn’t exhaust the budget, especially since this is something the Quidditch team holds every year and therefore the purchases they make could be seen as long-term investments.

In accordance with that, I think it was unclear exactly how formal the ball was intended to be: while most people did dress formally, there were others wearing casual clothes and even within the formal clothes there was a wide range of formality. I rather imagine Professor McGonagall would not have approved.

It was interesting to note, however, that teenagers have not changed much. I was reminded of Harry and Ron sitting on the side refusing to dance with their dates, partially courtesy of the number of phones that were being looked at while their owners slouched at the periphery of the League Ballroom, completely disengaged from the rest of the happenings. So as a venue for “fraternizing,” as Ron put it, there was very little of that happening either. Even in Hogwarts people were more willing to ask other people to dance (recall both Parvati and Padma Patil being asked to dance by boys from Beauxbatons), whereas here there wasn’t even that much dancing. The only real enthusiasm came with the select few songs people obsess over (like “Africa”). A major contributing factor to this was probably the fact that the playlist appeared to have been crowdsourced, so nobody had curated a list of dancing-appropriate songs in an order that made sense. This added to the overall disjointed nature of the event – at the Hogwarts Yule Ball, the Weird Sisters performed for the entire duration of the ball.

For a more faithful interpretation of the Hogwarts Yule Ball, the UM Yule Ball could have done with a little more vision. A cohesive conception of how they wanted the ball to go, and some added structure in how they set about achieving that conception, would have improved the experience of the Yule Ball considerably.

REVIEW: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

I attended the Saturday show (they performed two different programs). I haven’t gone to contemporary dance performances before, so this was a new experience. This one was environmentally themed, centered on things that are debilitating: plastics, overdependence on electronic devices, and habitat degradation. They performed two dances, punctuated by an instrumental piece performed by Third Coast Percussion, who also provided live accompaniment for the dances.

I liked the first one best. A poem narrated the evolution of the universe, from elements to the creation of the earth, the evolution of humans, and finally the disconnect between humans and nature. The dancer portraying the Earth was beautiful: she exuded strength and grace. What I loved about this piece was the interplay between dancers. Movements that would have been chaotic on their own made sense when they danced as one, and they were so attuned to each other here it was an extraordinary sight to watch. At one point the dancers recreated the classic human-evolving-upright-stature diagram, so subtly it took me a moment to register it. They also took time to dance in pairs. There is something breathtaking about the intimacy created by two people dancing together, sharing their bodies and space to create something  greater.

The instrumental piece was pretty, but I had a hard time staying engaged. There were so many things happening in the music at once that it was impossible to focus on all of them.

However, I liked their performance, and I was happy to find that in the third piece they were integrated into the beginning, moving around the main part of the stage and interacting with the dancers. Musical accompaniment can make or break a performance, and so it was good to see this relationship acknowledged here. The dance I found somewhat incomprehensible and disjoint. The dancers were attached to each other in ribbons for reasons I couldn’t perceive, the choreography had a strange juxtaposition of angry, almost feral movements, and languid ones, and there was a plastic bag that kept appearing, adding arbitrarily crinkling noises into a performance that was otherwise so controlled. Confused and slightly concerned (the dancers kept putting it over their heads), I only found out its significance because I stayed for the Q&A (it was one of the items that debilitate us). The one thing I did love here was that the dancers seemed almost to be experimenting with each other’s bodies, making the dance seem exploratory and almost childlike instead of the highly choreographed sequence it was.

My thoughts on the choreography aside, the dancers were incredibly talented. Unsurprising, I know, but I was still astounded at their ability to move what seemed like every bone of their bodies separately from the others. As a dancer of Brazilian Zouk, I am more adept at such isolations than most, yet this level of control is one I could only dream of achieving. So if I have a chance to see another performance of theirs, I definitely will be taking it.

REVIEW: That Brown Show

I was immensely pleased to find that when I walked into the theater, they were playing Tamil music. And not just any Tamil music, Tamil music from two 90s movies, probably on an album I’ve loved for years. Such a serendipitous alignment with my music taste is extremely rare.

I thought a lot about how connected the Indian community is to its home country. It was more visible to me than usual, perhaps because I haven’t been back there for four years and a visit is long overdue. As usual, there was much more enthusiastic singing for the Indian national anthem than the American one. Sahana Music, the first group to perform, then chose to give a rendition of “Vande Mataram”, which is India’s national song, stoking the sense of community in the room. Similarly, other performances also presented themes of unity and friendship.

I was on the main floor this time, which afforded me less of a view of the geometry of the choreography than I get from the balcony. Because of this, I think I missed out on part of the bhangra team’s usual visual spectacle, unfortunately. They do an amazing job usually and the performance didn’t come off as well when the choreography was obscured. Sahana Dance presented three different types of Indian classical dance. Choreographing all three to work in harmony is a feat, but they did it. I was confused and then very pleasantly intrigued by the fact that they didn’t dance to traditional Indian music. Instead, it was fusion music, and I loved it. I do wish it had been softer, though, because hearing the footwork in Indian classical dance is essential. (On that note, they could use some work on their sound mixing, as well as their video editing, which I realize is not the emphasis of the performance but would like to mention anyway). I was especially impressed by Izzat’s performance. Normally, the all-male Indian fusion dance team performs with a very angular movement style, but this performance showcased a versatility I didn’t know they had. They danced to multiple genres of music, from hip-hop to Bollywood to “Bare Necessities” (their performance was themed on The Jungle Book). Of all their dances I’ve seen, this was in my opinion the best one. And incidentally, their performance gave the story a peaceful ending too.

Every performance was vibrant, both in color and in character, as it should be because that’s what India is too. I always leave such shows longing for India’s exuberance; it is unashamedly itself, and ready to declare its presence to the world. Note for example the difference in audience. In most Western performances I attend, the audience murmurs quietly until the lights dim, and remains silent from then on. Not so here: the audience has no problem calling out people’s names and cheering them on. Two of the performances used strobe lights; you couldn’t fall asleep to the music if you tried; and all had bright costumes, no pastels in sight. And everyone was just having so much fun.

One last note: There was also a small art exhibition in the hallway, showcasing work by Indian artists. I really liked looking at the work: the thought process is so evident and meticulous, and stylistically the pieces were all beautifully executed.