Review: Who is Anton Chekhov?

March 22,2010

Ok, in today’s age, an answer to the above question is just a click away. It is convenient but do we really grasp the information? Does the life of Chekhov unfold in front of your eyes?  And so the “Who is….” series from the UMS, was very informative and entertaining. And relevant. As it was looking at Chekhov’s life in order to understand more about “Uncle Vanya”.

“Who is Anton Chekhov” consisted of two parts- a presentation on Chekhov’s life by Professor Makin and a talk by Kate Mendeloff about the challenges in directing “Uncle Vanya”.  There was also a scene from “Uncle Vanya”, enacted by  Residential College students.

Professor Michael Makin, from the department of Slavic Studies, started this presentation on Chekhov, in his very charming accent. His delivery was quick and very erudite and it goes to show how well he knows the subject matter at hand. Anyway, so who was Anton Chekhov?

Unlike all the popular Russian writers who were counts or members of the Russian nobility, Anton Chekhov was born to a serf as the third of six  surviving children. He attended a gymnasium- comparable to our English grammar school. His father went bankrupt and fled to Moscow leaving his children and wife behind.   Anton joined medical school and also took over the responsibility for the whole family. To pay his tuition fess and to support his family, he wrote stories and sketches.

He became a physician and suffered from tuberculosis for a long time.  Chekhov didn’t take his writing seriously until Dmitry Grigorovich, one of the leading Russian writers of the time sent him a letter telling him about his immense talent. Chekhov’s artistic ambition bloomed and he soon won a Pushkin Prize for the short-story collection- “At Dusk”.  From being the son of an impoverished serf, he became a landowner when he bought the small estate of Melikhovo.

Ok, so how is this all relevant?

It is important for us to understand Chekhov as a person before we understand Chekhov as a playwright or writer- as most of who he was and what he valued can be reflected in his characters and work.  Well, Chekhov wrote what he saw and about a life that he was immersed in. His writings abound with references to the simple country life and the trials faced by a Russian in those days. It is also important to understand his background as to why he stands out from among the other Russian writers.

That said, Professor Makin told us that as a playwright, Chekhov was a flop initially. His plays “the Sea Gull” and “the wood demon” were fiascos when they were first staged. To some extent, they were way ahead of their times as they lacked the melodrama. They were waiting for the right people to act and direct it. Everytime, Chekhov failed as a playwright, he threatened never to return to it. But he always came back.

The innovative  Moscow Art Theatre found by Stanislavski for doing “naturalistic” theatre was what Chekhov needed. The production of “The Seagull” by Stanislavski was a huge success. Subsequently, Chekhov wrote his other plays for the Moscow Art Theatre  and “Uncle Vanya” is one of them.

“Uncle Vanya” is the story of Vanya (duh!), who is the uncle of Sonya (Actually it is a cleaned-upversion of “The wood demon”). He takes care of Sonya’s farm which was bequeathed to her by her now deceased mother. The two of them send the proceeds from the farm to Professor Serebryakov. The Professor marries a woman who is very young , Elena and sicne he can’t afford to live in the city anymore, he comes back to the country estate. This arrival causes such a ruckus in the lives of Vanya and Sonya.

So the plot is about Vanya feeling that he has totally wasted his life and what he does. Why Chekhov called it a comedy is unclear. Though it has a few laughs in it, I don’t think it is comedy.

Professor Kate Mendeloff  explained how Chekhov and his plays helped in actually laying out the foundation of the rules for all theatre and acting today.  The techniques and methods developed by Stanislavski are taught in every drama school today.

Residential college is putting up a production of “Uncle Vanya” which Mendeloff is directing. They enacted a scene from it. It was the opening act where the “long night” where the professor keeps everyone up by his constant griping is shown. It was interesting and cleverly done.

On the whole, it was a very interesting session. It made me wonder as to how how much of the writer was in the character they created and how much of it was what the writer wanted to be.

Review: Angika- Dancing body as art!

Angika, March 20, 2010

I managed to make it to this show and grab the last seat in the nick of time by doing a 2 min 34 second sprint from the C.C. Little Northwood bus stop to the Stern Auditorium of UMMA in 2.5 inch heels (as to why I had to sprint can be a  a story of its own by itself- but then, we are not interested and so….)

Just as I caught my breath and stopped the audible panting, the lights dimmed out on a full auditorium with many people standing at the back. There was a brief introduction of “Angika” (with all the funny anglicized pronunciations of the Sanskrit words). Here’s the gist.

In Angika, the dance performed is the over 2000-year old Odissi, from East India. This dance, known for its square stance  and fast feet and leg movements along with its stunning grace and sensuality was a dance that was mainly used as a means of expressing devotion. It was a means to advance in spirituality and so the themes and songs that you come across in this dance are also of this kind- devotional prayers or songs expressing love for the Divine. Sreyashi Dey, Artistic Director of Srishti Dances of India, was performing this lovely ancient dance with her students.

As the kids in the audience fretted a bit, complaining about the darkness,  a  clear resounding voice beckoned us,  “Welcome to the temple of dance.” The voice belonged to Martin Walsh, whom I last saw as a ‘Galileo’ in the Residential College’s production of Brecht’s “Life of Galileo” in March 2009 (Mr.Walsh was brilliant as Galileo!) . Martin Walsh is head of the Drama Concentration at the Residential College and he has a perfect voice for narrating.

The words belonged to poet Zilka Joseph and she took us to a temple where we were to hear the stories of dancers as they prepared for prayer. We could smell the incense and the fragrant fresh flower garlands that they had lovingly woven. While we waited thus, the magic began.

The sound of   strong tapping of  feet with jingling of the bells on their anklets came first. It was followed by the dancers, looking resplendent  in colorful elaborately designed Odissi costumes. In an invocation to the divine, the dancers seeked the blessings so gracefully with slow movements and a lot of poses. The effect was bewitching.

In most Indian traditional dances, the program always begins with an invocation. It could be to to Mother Earth ( it’s almost like asking her permission to dance as we do stamp the feet on ‘her’ when we dance ). Many dances also include  a note of thanks to the  Guru (the teacher) and the Divine.

The second dance, called the “Konark Kanti” was about the Temple of the Sun in Konark, Orissa.

Konark Sun Temple
Konark Sun Temple

In Joseph’s Poetry, she imagines that the moonlight touches the figurines on the Temple of Konark and brings them to life (like our “Night at the Museum”). These dancers start dancing and the musicians bring out their instruments and even the stars get dizzy looking at this impromptu performance. The raga (melodic mode) to which this song was set was a very pleasant one.

Figurines form the Konark Temple
Figurines form the Konark Temple

This dance was a wonderful one- so many moods shown clearly in expressions as well as clever variations in the choreography, as if the dancers wanted to show all the weapons in their arsenal.

The third dance, called “Manini”, the most expressive and I am sure, the most difficult one to comprehend, especially  for a Western audience, was a solo by Shreyashi Dey. This song is about Lord Krishna’s beloved, Radha. She is waiting for her Lord and so she decorates herself as well as the gazebo and waits for the Lord. She is clearly happy anticipating his arrival. But as the time wears out (she in fact falls into sleep for a bit), her joy turns into despair and then anger and she flings all her jewelry and tears down  the decorations. In the end, she is so dejected. you could say, “So it’s the case of a girl who has been stood up by her lover!”. You may be correct but here, “Radha” is the seeker who is searching for “the Ultimate Truth”, her lover and the story of Radha and her love are symbolic metaphors.  Anyway, this piece requires perfect portrayal of the emotions that Radha goes through.

Sreyashi Dey
Sreyashi Dey

Odissi, is a dance that not only demands strength in movement, but it also requires the dancers to have good acting skills , as facial expressions are a very important part of this dance. Sreyashi Dey was absolutely brilliant in this song. The way she portrayed disappointment with trembling fingers, a heaving chest and eyes heavy with fatigue caused by unbearable sadness was brilliant. She ran through the gamut of emotions that Radha feels and at the end, when she lay on the floor in a bundle, totally dejected, you couldn’t help but reach out for her. This was a great piece.

The other two pieces were really fast  and full of quick movements of both hands and feet. They demanded so much from the dancers (Kritika Rajan, Ishika Rajan and Debnita Talapatra were the other dancers from Shrishti Dances of India- they were very graceful and co-ordinated) and the stamina of these dancers as they moved through really tough pieces was something amazing. The choreography required co-ordination and you could find all the “yoga” postures from advanced yoga classes too.

Kritika Rajan, Ishika Rajan and Debnita Talapatra
Ishika Rajan, Kritika Rajan, and Debnita Talapatra

The final Pallavi was really intense as the tempo was so fast-paced and the use of space in this piece was very nicely done. The dancers were very cohesive and the symmetry of their movements was so beautiful.

So there was the really beautiful dance. There was some wonderful poetry that set the stage for these dances.  Where were the sculptures? Though we saw some brilliant postures as part of the dance, somehow the message of the  connection of the dance form as an inspiration to sculpture  or vice versa didn’t get conveyed.  Maybe this aspect could be elaborated in the next performances (which would be great!).

This was definitely a great show and the next time you get a chance to watch Odissi, please grab it.

Krithika, for [art]seen

PREVIEW: Jedi Mind Tricks

Who loves hip hop?  I want to say everyone but if you are part of this group, I definitely suggest you catch the hip hop trio of Jedi Mind Tricks at the Blind Pig tonight.  Even if you don’t like hip hop, it’s still an experience and with a name like that how can you say no? Check it out yo.

Jedi Mind Tricks
Jedi Mind Tricks (Stoupe, Vinnie Paz, Jus Allah)

Jedi Mind Tricks was formed in 1997 by high school friends, Vinnie Paz, DJ Stroupe, and Jus Allah with the release of their first L.P. The Psycho-Social, Chemical, Biological & Electro-Magnetic Manipulation of Human Consciousness.  Sounds like a lengthy psychology thesis but “The Psycho-Social” remains JMT’s most groundbreaking and influential release.   With many albums and collaborations after that, Jedi Mind Tricks continually redefine hip hop with their “lyrical purity.”  Their newest release presents Army of the Pharaohs a supergroup of the most talented underground east coast hip hop artists.

Jedi Mind Tricks will be at the Blind Pig tonight.  Show starts at 9:30 and tickets will be on sale at the door. Michigan native One Be Lo will be opening up so make sure not to miss out.



Review: My Story? …

First of all I just want to say wow… just wow. This production was so well put together and performed. It was incredible. Incredibly incredible. For those who don’t know what the “What’s Your Story?” event was, it is an innovative play, new this year, created from the stories of students around campus. Anonymous stories were requested and received and then retold through the talent of actors from our campus. It contained a spectrum of different stories, from ridiculous exploding thermoses anecdotes to dramatic coming out and soul searching tales. The show was deeply emotional, yet still provided us with the comedy that makes our weekends so great.

The Pendleton Room in the Union was a terrible choice for venue. It was way too small for the huge crowd gathered to attend. Many of us were left standing around the edges listening intently to each portrayal, the standing of which is really just a reflection of how big the event was. No matter, it was worth standing, and definitely worth the small $5/person donation requested. All proceeds went to a good cause to help high-schoolers in Ann Arbor: The Neutral Zone, which is a place that teenagers can go to hang out and to receive guidance.

There were so many good stories and amazing actors to relive them. The setting is a street in Ann Arbor where a table is set up with a woman collecting stories in anonymous journals. Actors approached the table and delivered their reflections to the audience. One girl read us a letter written for her ex-boyfriend. She explained what he had done to her and how he had so easily forgotten her once she went to school. It was such a great performance, the actress actually cried as she poured her heart out on stage.

Another one of my favorites was one about a girl that had a secret. She never told anyone, but she had spent four months in a psychiatric hospital for an eating disorder. No matter how close her friends were, she couldn’t bring herself to tell them, so she wrote it in this journal. And of course there was a great coming out story from the flamboyant and energetic guy. He told us all about how his Jewish parents accepted it so easily and tried to help him find boyfriends and about how the CAPS program at the University helped him through his own problems with his sexuality. His story was funny and emotional as it needed to be.

“What’s Your Story?” reminded me of Yoni Ki Baat’s show, except that it was about different issues. Both are poetic masterpieces, but in this case I think that the actors in WTS were closer to the pieces they were performing. Where I had seen disconnects in YKB’s show, I saw none in “What’s Your Story?” The actors all seemed more genuine and realistic with their stories.

I really hope that this show comes back next year. I think it would be an awesome production to take part in, whether sending in a story of my own or acting in. Leaving the Union (and heading to support friends at Dance Marathon) I started to think of my own story and its many values. That is what I think this show was trying to leave us with. And I am so glad that arts@Michigan was able to help put this on. Just another reason I should thank my fabulous employers!

As Always,
This is Danny Fob: Artist and Art Reviewer

Review: ChristianTetzlaff and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra

San Francisco Symphony- March 19,2010

They say each symphony orchestra is different than the other in many many ways. Until now, I was really into learning the basics that this concept escaped me. But when I saw the San Francisco Symphony in action, I finally got what they meant. The difference was not only in the arrangements, the music they chose but also in the way they performed as one. They were a more contained unit.

The program started with a piece called “Post-scriptum” by contemporary composer Kissine. No offense, but I didn’t like it. It had this dreading , urgent tone that was disturbing and annoying-a smorgasbord of notes (often jarring and out of place)- no rest for the musician, no rest for the listener. There was definitely an innovative use of the sounds of the entire orchestra. But the piece was abstract and felt purposeless, always aiming towards the dramatic, as if pandering to today’s love for things “abstract”. My frustration sprang from the fact that I couldn’t connect with it at all. There were “bravos” when the piece ended, to my surprise.

Intrigued by this, during the intermission, when I asked a couple of people if they liked it, one (an older person) said that it was uncomfortable and screechy) and the other (younger one)  said that she had liked it for the novelty in the tempo and musical arrangement.  So I guess there was a divided house, based on my pathetic sample size. <Shrug>.

But then the second piece, a definitely classic composition by Tchaikovsky, “Violin Concerto in D Major”  just gave me my ticket’s worth . Listening to the violin solo  felt like stepping out onto the fresh, dew-kissed grass while the smell of the earth lingers in the air after the first rain of spring. Christian Tetzlaff has  perfect technique and when he plays the high notes, especially in the recurrent melody in this piece, you can’t help but bow to his bow.

The brilliant Christian Tetzlaff
The brilliant Christian Tetzlaff. Master of the bow!

This piece touched so many moods but there was no despair of non-comprehension at the end, like the first one. The compelling beauty of the violin was hard to resist. Mr. Tetzlaff  totally owned the piece.

Ravel’s piece was interesting but didn’t leave me that impressed as his other works before. The Liszt work of “lament and triumph” was intriguing and sad. In this piece, I thought that the use of the trumpets and horns as ‘highlighters” in order to emphasize a musical sequence of importance was neat. It started off  on a gloomy note but grew on me.

Michael Tilson Thomas
Michael Tilson Thomas

Mr.Thomas breezed through these tough compositions and everything was executed so well. I think that kind of clockwork precision comes only with amazing natural talent as well as years of practice and hardwork. Overall, it was a great show.

That night, the triangle was used maybe seven times at the max. On my way back, I was wondering what the musician who played the triangle must feel. Maybe  it is pure discipline. Maybe it is the fact that they know that they are contributing, even though it is a small role. ” They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Krithika, for [art]seen

Review: Ring of Steel For Real

Exciting! That is the one word that can be used to embody this event. So many magnificent swordfights and weapon expertise all in one morning really made the day start better than a cup of coffee does. They had the showcase at the Student Theater Arts Complex (which is down by Chrysler Arena connected to some kind of “plant operations” building). I had never heard of it before today, but I realized that it so far away because it needs a lot of room for all of the mats, props, scaffolds, and other theater equipment that this organization owns.

This open house was an interesting experience. While we waited for the show to begin, some of the other club members showed us the slew of weapons on display and described where they came from, what they were for, and told us the history behind them. It was very educational and we learned a lot about medieval weapons and their evolution through time.

The host of the show and leader of the group, the Maestro, began by telling us a brief history of “The Ring of Steel.” Apparently they have performed in venues from student productions to movies like “Hook” with Robin Williams and Disney’s “Three Musketeers.” Some of their favorite events are smaller, like a wedding in which they abducted the bride and than the “bridesmaids” rescued her back. So funny!

When the production began, it was exhilarating! So much fast movement and all of the clashes of sword collisions really got our hearts beating. The performers all had such aggression and concentration on what they were doing. And the passion…just beautiful. The actors were able to put stories into their scenes, from Shakespearean lines to funny babysitting battles. And they even used some parts from “Princess Bide” to liven up the show. It was great, especially since that is one of the best movies of all time (disclaimer: my opinions, no matter how correct, are not endorsed and do not reflect any specific opinions of art[seen] or the University of Michigan. They are mine and they are not considered theirs through affiliation).

We saw many different types of weaponry, including rapier, rapier and dagger, rapier and buckler, two-handed broadsword, staff, and the leather whip. There are 16 different classes of weapons that one can be trained in, and this group can train in most of the classes and also teach many of the stunts done in movies. The whip master was amazing! He had great stage presence, entertainment value, and comedy. He used plenty of targets, from flowers thrown from his own hand to a hat on his head, to show off his skill. We learned from him that the whip is the first human invention to break the sound barrier. The “crack” of the whip is actually a sonic boom! I thought that this was a really cool little trivia fact.

David Melcher-Whip Master
David Melcher-Whip Master

This group practices multiple times a week to build up an endurance. In movies they don’t show you how tired one gets after a few minutes of swordplay. But these actors were keeping it up and doing so beautifully. They are doing another show in May, so feel encouraged to look them up and go see their show!

As Always,
This is Danny Fob: Artist and Art Reviewer.