Tag Archives: inspirations

Memories of Lenore

Lenore Lattimer as a young dancer

My favorite professor at Bard has died.  This post is pretty late; she died in September.  But I didn’t hear about it until today.  My friend Dages will be performing one of her dances at her memorial soon; I’ll update this when I know the date etc.

I am not the world’s greatest dancer.  I was a shy nerd as a kid, and, as my friend Tyler would marvel back when we were in elementary school, “John doesn’t like music!”  Not strictly true; I loved the oldies station my mom always listened to in the car, and my parents often played tapes at home, Bob Marley or Bow Wow Wow, or (most often) gamelan, some of which my father had recorded himself while on research trips to Bali.  My sister liked show tunes and a few cassettes of Belinda Carlisle and Tiffany, and I listened to that just like I read her Babysitters Club and Nancy Drew Files books.  But it’s true I wasn’t very well-versed in pop music until I was a teenager, when I caught up on the 80s through VH-1 and got into “alternative” radio while learning to drive.  It’s not like I was completely ignorant of it, but it felt somehow out of my league, like I wasn’t cool enough to even try to understand it all.  At some point when I was very young someone laughed at me for not realizing “Beat It” by Michael Jackson was not the same song as “Eat It” by Weird Al; the possibility of making a mistake like that, humiliating when you’re a little kid (if not always), made it a bit too fraught for a shy and very cautious kid like I was.  Certainly, by the time I got to enjoy school dances, I was way behind on learning how to dance.  My best tactic was to simply fake it through abandon and enthusiasm, which I could rarely muster up the courage for, unless my friend Tim was there to set the example.

Strangely, despite growing up in a theatrical house, I don’t remember any contact with Western art dance–ballet, modern dance, any kind of choreographed performance with an audience–until I got to college.  I’d seen Balinese and Javanese dance, but that was about it.  I went to my first Bard dance performance partly out of curiosity, partly because it was the thing to do, but I think mostly because my friend Evan was going.  I was thunderstruck.  The show was very crowded, very hot, and very long–over a dozen dances, I think, of all sorts of moods, styles, qualities.  Most were choreographed by students, some by professors.  I used to say to my dad, I wanted “theater without actors”, and here it was, and even better than I’d ever imagined.  I saw a lot of great dance at Bard, some showy and Broadway,  some spooky or disturbing, some gorgeous or sexy, some bizarre and avant-garde (one was in almost complete darkness, with no sound but that of the feet of the dancers sliding across the floor; in another, a dancer in a figure skating costume stood motionlessly balanced on one leg to the soundtrack of the recorded voice of a figure skating commentator.)

By this time I had already committed to a fine art major, and dance seemed, like music before it, somewhere out of my reach; but my friends encouraged me to take some dance classes.  There were many professors teaching intro classes.  “Who should I take?” I asked.  “Lenore,” everyone said.

Lenore turned out to be a cranky and commanding old lady, in her 60s when I met her, rain thin and as flexible as a rubber toy.  When she led the stretches at the beginning of the class it seemed impossible that she had any bones at all.  She taught a very flowy, swooping kind of dance–I’m afraid I don’t know anything about the terminology or the various schools to talk intelligently about this–but was strict and demanding.  She knew when you were struggling and when you were just not trying your best.  “John!” she would shout with her raspy voice.  “Get those arms up!”  It was impossible not to fall in love with her from the first class.

I was usually very grumpy about the studio art department, as disgruntled as some of my theater friends were with the theater department.  We would sometimes sit around daydreaming out loud about being dance majors, how if only we’d known then what we knew now, we would have done dance all the way.  I don’t know what they think about that now.  But I still think about it sometimes, and I still wish I had had any idea that I might want to try dance when I was a freshman picking classes for the first time.  I still dream of it, being a full-fledged member of the world of dance.  I still hope to be someday.  It’s too late to become a dancer, or probably even choreographer; but I still aspire to become Leon Bakst at least.  Soon, I hope, I’ll be living in Chicago; hopefully I’ll be able to meet dance people there.

At Bard there were very rarely more than two other male students in a dance class.  My friend Caitlin told me that, before we met, she knew me as “the boy in dance class who’s really into it”, and as mortifying as I find that (for some reason), it’s true, I was really into it.  We would line up and do a series of steps across the room.  I was always first in line.  (This is not entirely due to my enthusiasm: I figured out that before you went out there, you were too busy trying to get the sequence straight in your head to watch the other dancers, so paradoxically, going first meant you were most invisible.)  I was ecstatic to be asked, by another of my professors, to perform in the dance she was choreographing.  But I was even more proud when Lenore told me she thought I was ready to try her intermediate dance class.  It was quite a jump up–I struggled very much in that class, basically always felt lost or inadequate to what I was being asked to do, and it was at some ungodly early hour of the morning, my final semester at Bard.  But I loved it.  And I loved Lenore.

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A Final Valentine: The Berenstain Bears’ Almanac

At some point in my life, I lost all connection to the seasons.  One memory stands out as an example: I think it was New Year’s Eve of 1996 or ’97, as a teen, I went to New York City with two friends to experience New Year’s there, and see the ball drop if we could.  It was extremely cold, with icy wind cutting through the skyscraper canyons, and everyone in the city was bundled up against the weather.  Everyone except me.  What did I wear?  I wore a rather thin coat, and underneath, a T-shirt and jeans.  No gloves.  No hat.  Just a coat and T-shirt.  I was miserable; every bit of wind sliced right through me, and my hands felt like they were going to break off and shatter on the ground.

Why had I worn such ridiculously inadequate clothes on such a cold night?  Because I had lost touch with the outdoors.  Whenever I went anywhere, I would simply run from my house to the car, from the car to the building, and never spent any time actually outdoors in the cold.  For this kind of life, all I needed was a thin coat, to keep me warm for the few seconds between climate-controlled interiors.

Life after high school has been a long process of getting reacquainted with the seasons.  College, and living in New York City (both pedestrian lifestyles) certainly helped.  At least I started dressing weather-appropriately.  But I think what changed my way of thinking was really living in Japan.  It’s a bit of a cliché, but nevertheless true, that Japan is a very season-conscious nation.  Everything has seasonal variations.  Restaurants, from the highest kaiseki ryori to McDonald’s, vary their menus by season.  (God I loved the autumn-only chestnut cream donuts at Mr. Donuts!)  Pretty much every advertisement will have some kind of seasonal reference, if only the appearance of cherry blossoms in spring and snow in the winter, red maple leaves in fall and fireworks in the summer.

For many people perhaps these commercial acknowledgments of season, more because they are expected than because of any feeling, are meaningless; but for me they made me think about and notice the changes as the year rolled on.  Mindfulness.  I don’t know if I would even have noticed the tsuyu or “rainy season”–not so much rainy as drizzly and humid–if people didn’t talk about it and the flowers that bloom then, but it became my favorite time in Tokyo and especially in Kamakura nearby.  In Japan I paid attention to the cicadas singing in the summer, the moon in autumn, all the conventional symbols, and it led me to notice more and more, to pay attention to the world and its changes.

When I got home and found this book, the Berenstain Bears’ Almanac, I realized that in some way I was just re-learning what I had always known as a kid.  This is a book about, as it says on the title page, “holidays, seasons, and weather.”  I’ve always loved it, especially the large illustrations with rhyming captions showing attributes of the seasons: “eggs hatching, bear scratching” in Spring, for example.  And every page brings me back to childhood, when I spent enormous amounts of time outside, unsupervised, running amok with my brothers and sister.  We knew nature intimately then, in our backyard and all the surrounding area where we would wander.  I knew what flowers bloomed when, and when the raspberries would come, and how long the shadows got at different times of the year.  I’m still working on re-learning all this.  But I think I’ll get there.

There’s something comforting as well as awesome about the seasons.  They are irrefutable evidence of enormous forces entirely beyond our control working on us; but they have worked the same way on all the people of the past.  To look at the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the prints of Hiroshige, or even at Stonehenge, is to see how universal their influence is.  Think of it as Persephone underground, or the Earth spinning tilted around the sun; either way the world around us changes into unrecognizability, and then it comes back again.

It’s New Year’s Eve!

A whole year ends.

Tomorrow we’ll start

A NEW YEAR, friends.

So, now, we can all turn back,

to the beginning of our Almanac.

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Kurt’s Sweater, Blake’s Sweater

Kurt in his iconic sweater

This year being Nirvana Nostalgia Season, I’ve been thinking about one of the most iconic pieces of clothing of my youth: Kurt Cobain’s enormous, red-and-black Fred Krueger-style striped sweater, as pictured above.  Greasy blonde hair and this sweater say “Kurt” as much as a moptop and a collarless jacket say “Beatle”.  As a nerdy, fashion-fearing teen in the grunge 90s this sweater was everything I wished my clothes could be, a perfect example of Kurt’s effortless cool.  I was way too self-conscious and shy to actually emulate him (plus, like a dope, I took to heart that 90s alterna-bullshit about not being a poseur), but I studied pictures of Kurt, how he dressed, wondering how I could recreate that alchemy in myself.  I thought about this sweater.  It was one of those “aspirational pieces”, as I think they’re called in Vogue, which I thought about every time I went shopping.

So when I saw Gus Van Sant’s Last Days I was, despite myself, a bit disappointed.  Don’t get me wrong: I think Last Days is a really beautiful, amazing film, and to me one of the great costume movies.  Michelle Matland and her team did an amazing job recreating iconic Cobain looks for Michael Pitt in the character of Blake, a sort of poetic alternate-dimension version of Kurt.  Here’s Blake in his version of the Freddy Krueger sweater:

The version of the sweater in Last Days

The difference, and to me it’s a huge difference, is that Blake’s sweater is entirely intact.  Kurt’s, on the other hand, is absolutely disintegrating.  Unforunately I haven’t been able to find many good pictures of the sweater online, but rest assured, I spent enough time looking at it, thinking about it, to know.  Enormous holes had opened up at the elbows and the left shoulder; the end of the left sleeve was in unravelled tatters.  These were like heiroglyphics to me, each bit of damage recording some event–a dive into the drums, a trip through the mosh pit, drunken high jinks of one kind or another.  The damage was why I could never have Kurt’s sweater: even if I found the very same sweater, from the very same company, the very same assembly line, it wouldn’t have all this fascinating history encoded in it.  That sweater was unique, haute couture; the couturier was Kurt’s wild rock-and-roll life.

I’m in the position in life where I’m both obliged and able to usually repair my clothes if they get damaged.  But I always think long and hard before I do it.  How does this hole look?  Does it make this sweater more interesting?  Do I want to forget that this happened because someone grabbed me during my friend Danny’s concert and threw me into a puddle of beer?  I think the value of clothes does not necessarily decrease with cosmetic damage, the way it does with a car.  Sentimental value is, after all, true value.  Pants that wear out at the knees, or get stretched out by your belly, or get spattered with paint, what are they doing but becoming more yours?  Each imperfection is like an in-joke, ratifying the relationship between you and your clothes.  I think it’s beautiful.

Sci-fi fans love to tout the smoothness with which masters of the genre incorporate exposition into their plots.  What could be more subtle than these little signs of life as it was lived before the story begins?  The costumers of Last Days certainly knew the implicit-exposition value of such distressed clothes–I really love the fact that those plastic shades he’s wearing up there have been broken and taped back together–but for whatever reason, they decided to leave the sweater unscathed.  Maybe it just goes to show the irreproducible nature of such a specific, well-beloved piece of clothing.

The broken and repaired plastic sunglasses clearly visible in the poster.

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30 Days: Day 13

Well, a couple days ago I was in the worst mood, and very down on the whole 30 Days thing; it seemed like I was getting nothing out of it except embarassing myself on the Internet with a bunch of bad pictures.  But then I went fabric shopping, and started reading William Gibson‘s latest novel, and the two things combined to pour some enthusiasm back into me.  Five minutes in any fabric shop (even Joann’s, where natural fibers are apparently forbidden) gives me five thousand ideas of things to make.

Gibson’s always had a very interesting eye for clothes, but in his latest, non-science-fiction books, he’s really been focussing on them more, which I’m loving.  When I’m reading him I find myself lurking on superfuture‘s message boards, contemplating the mysterious differences in how details work in mens and womenswear, wishing I had a lot of money to spend and mysterious underground semi-black-market boutiques to spend it in.  I think my own detail-eye is more a womenswear eye, but that makes it all the more fascinating to hear how these dudes’ minds work.  I remember when I first stumbled on superfuture (I think I was looking for the address of Nowhere, before my first trip to Tokyo) and discovered the world of denim nerds and their selvedge jeans.  Fascinating.  And all this kind of thing, which is not quite fashion, but certainly not dressmaking either, helps to open my mind a little, I think, and get out of the ruts of thinking which I am very prone to.  (It also makes me miss Japan very much!)

What I worked on this weekend is not finished, and I’m not ready to talk about yet.  So here’s Monday’s creative work, another costume design for Persians.  This one, I like.  I’ll never quite get reconciled to the fact that (for me at least) design tends to come all at once, a complete piece, and out of nowhere, or else never really comes at all.  If I struggle along at it, garbage like that Atossa design comes out.  But with this one it all came, the colors and the shapes and everything, and all I really had to do consciously was fill in the little details.

The messenger, bearing very very bad news, in The Persians by Aeschylus.

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Getting ready, getting inspired

Tomorrow begins the 30 Days of Creativity!  I’m pretty psyched.  In fact, I really have to keep my ambitions in check, because I find myself assuming I’m going to do every project that has ever occurred to me, no matter how big.  Which is great, but I don’t want to get demoralized by overly high expectations.

I do really want to make a hat for myself, and maybe some pants; to sew a few things I meant to have done by Christmas; to draw some costume designs for a play I like, just as portfolio pieces; to make a birthday present for my sister-in-law; and to do a watercolor or two outside en plein air.  I think these, and other little projects in-between, will be plenty.  But the temptation remains.  I just took out a book called The Modernist Textile by Virginia Gardner Troy, which is full of amazing stuff and very inspiring: I want to learn to weave, get better at embroidery, and so on.  I’m sort of tempted to learn how to spin fiber into yarn, even.  There’s something very satisfying when you go deeper into the roots of an art form.  At least once in my life, I’d really like to spin the yarn and weave the cloth that I then cut and sew into something.

Circumstances have come up to make things a bit inconvenient for starting tomorrow, but that’s probably actually good.  I personally find that the busier I am, the more I can manage to take on.  When nothing is going on at all is when it’s hardest to start doing anything.  But throw a bunch of obstacles in the way, and it becomes just one more thing to add to the pile.  Busy-ness + deadline = John gets things done.

Tomorrow, then!  Let’s get started!

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Homage to Isabella Blow

Isabella Blow in a Philip Treacy hat

Last entry, I talked about the “be true to yourself and you’ll be fabulous” rhetoric of fashion, and how I believed it.  If I believed it for much longer than I should have, the reason is probably Isabella Blow.  I’m not privy to any of the shifts in business and politics within the fashion world, and I can’t say necessarily that anything has changed.  But it certainly feels like it has, since the days when she was walking through that world, so beautiful and strange.  Looking at photos of parties, or the front row of runway shows, no matter how bland everyone else looked, there would be a towering hat somewhere, reminding you that there was life and weirdness in the world.

Isabella Blow and Alexander McQueen

It’s my birthday today; I remember when she died, a week or two before my birthday in 2007.  I felt, with no justification, like I’d lost a distant but dear relative–an aunt or older cousin who I only saw once a decade or so, but who would tell wonderful stories, give me the perfect advice, and tell me to stop acting like an idiot and get to work already.  That’s the kind of message I found in her outfits, her hats, her position as fashion’s oddball-empoverished-aristocrat-in-chief.  (I love the story of how she bought Alexander McQueen’s entire St. Martin’s degree collection for £5000, but she didn’t actually have £5000 to throw around, so she had to pay him £100 a week for 50 weeks.  I always tell my clients that they can pay me in whatever installments they have to, inspired by this tale.)

Isabella Blow and Philip Treacy

Like so many people I love and admire, she suffered from depression; and she died from drinking weed killer, after several previous attempts.  I hope she’s happier now, and I hope there will always be people out there like her, keeping life strange and lovely.

Isabella and Detmar Blow at their wedding

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Influences: 1930s Movie Musicals

What Busby Berkeley did best

It’s probably clear by now that I have a big fondness for the pre-World War II Modern period. From the most austere avant-garde in painting to the most lurid of radio serials, something was in the air then that speaks to me. And if there’s one area where I think the pre-war efforts were clearly better than the post-, it’s in film. The 1930s are unquestionably my favorite time for movies–a sort of decade mirabilis. You can keep your Citizen Kane, and give me City Lights, King Kong, The Thin Man, The Public Enemy, Grand Hotel, Duck Soup, It Happened One Night, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Stagecoach, and all the great musicals, from 42nd Street to The Wizard of Oz.

Fred and Ginger in Swing Time

The movie musical of the 30s had two great masters: Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley.  Both put dance at the center of things.  The plots are uncomplicated.  The singing is rarely especially good.  Good acting is the exception rather than the rule.  Outside the dance sequences, the direction is fairly unexciting.  Astaire/Rogers movies like Top Hat are basically so-so romantic comedies, full of cheesy jokes and mugging for the camera, which are periodically transfigured, like the Virgin in a Renaissance painting, into an exquisite vision of heaven.  Busby Berkeley movies like Footlight Parade, on the other hand, are unsentimental yarns of the seedy but glamorous backstage world of the theater, which end in monolithic, jaw-dropping art deco extravaganzas.

Warner Baxter as the desperate, monomaniacal director in 42nd Street--the best straight acting in any of these movies, in my opinion.

Astaire’s movies, all soundstage nightclubs, tuxedoes, unconvincing European settings, essentially distracted from the Depression.  Berkeley’s astonishing trio from 1933–42nd Street, Golddiggers of ’33, and Footlight Parade–on the other hand confronted it directly.  It’s really kind of amazing.  Of all depictions of showbiz I’ve ever seen, I think they’re my favorite–they’re the only ones that really make it look like work.  Sure, there’s those fairytale moments where Ruby Keeler takes off her glasses and gets cast as the lead, etc., but there’s also the grueling auditions in 42nd Street, the performers locked into the theater until they get the routines right in Footlight Parade, the three out-of-work chorus girls stealing milk and dodging the landlady in Golddiggers of ’33.  Considering the unabashedly left-wing politics of these movies–there’s an unbelievable moment in Footlight Parade when the dancers in formation create the face of FDR–I think part of the point was to show that performers were Labor too.

Disney's "Flowers and Trees"

What will last about all these movies is the dancing.  I don’t know if I’m romanticizing the time, but it seems like dance was in the air then, a part of life, more than it was after the war.  As one of my favorite articles ever points out, from the earliest days, Disney cartoons were saturated with dance–in the early days, even the flowers, trees, and the sun in the sky would be boppin’ back and forth as the scene opened.  Whether the virtuosity of Fred Astaire tap-dancing or a hundred dancing girls making simple turns in a spiral pattern, dance was made to be filmed.  Patterns and lines.  Music and motion.

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