Tag Archives: nostalgia

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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More Grunge Blogging: My Favorite Drummer of the 90s

Patty Schemel of Hole, #2 pencil on paper, c.1995

This is a picture I drew in probably 1995, when I was 16, of my #1 musician-crush at the time: Patty Schemel, the drummer from Hole.  Classic high-schooler art, in that unmistakeable high-school-art style: slightly disproportionate but gently shaded #2 pencil drawing after a photo of a celebrity in a magazine; invested with deep, fierce teenage love.  It’s from a sketchbook which is full of various doodles, some weirdly-proportioned sketches from life (why did I always draw legs so short?), cartoons and comics, and occasional other drawings from photographs; but this is the one which I seem to have taken the most time over.

I saw her, as I recall, focussed on briefly in footage from a Hole live show, and though it was a brief glimpse, there was just something about the way she moved, playing those drums.  It may seem like a pretty random celebrity crush to have, even for a kid, but she was badass and beautiful behind the kit and adorable in photos and interviews.  (I never understood why it was Melissa Auf Der Maur that everybody I knew, boy or girl, had the hots for; she seemed kind of boring to me. )  I would strain my eyes peering at MTV, waiting for the half-seconds she would appear in Hole videos; I clipped out every picture of the band with her in them and put them on my wall; I used the fledgling Internet to download every interview and picture of her I could find, back when jpegs would download in stages, slowly resolving from big ugly blocks into a washed-out, still-pixelly picture over the course of five minutes. I was totally smitten, with this faraway obscurely famous lesbian who was 12 years older than me.

Now she’s got a movie coming out, about her life in Hole and doing drugs and fucking up and getting back on her feet, I guess, and having just watched the clips on YouTube, I can say I am still totally smitten by this faraway obscurely famous lesbian who is 12 years older than me.  Maybe thanks to those anti-commercial alterna-punk years, I always feel kind of weird about promoting products by people I don’t know, but fuck it, it’s my blog and I love Patty Schemel and I can’t wait to see her movie and you should go see it too.

pretty much the only solo photoshoot she was ever in

Funnily enough, my #1 musician-crush of nowadays is Pikacyu, from the sadly ended Afrirampo.  Drummers, man!

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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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Filed under Inspirations, Manifestoes, Thoughts on clothes

Life in the cheap seats

I appreciated this article about the view from the cheap seats at various ballet theaters in NYC.  I’ve never actually been to a huge ballet like that, but any dance I get to see, I try to sit as far up as possible.  Generally speaking, I like to sit up close for movies and way back for live theater, but it’s hard to convince people to sit with me.  But at dances, as this article says, there is a contingent who likes to be able to see the whole space.  That’s certainly the most important thing, but for me there’s also the fact that I like to see the audience.

To me it’s part of the show.  Not just at the theater, but at concerts, at sporting events, at political rallies, whatever.  I like watching crowds, and you get a much better sense of the crowd if you’re in the back, with all of them between you and the stage.  And I like theaters, the actual buildings.  I grew up running around the bleachers and balconies, and whenever I see the light rigging, or the curtain ropes, it gives me a strange sense of home.  If I’m in the back, I don’t need to crane my neck and distract my neighbors; it only takes a glance around during the performance to give me that sentimental comfort.

The view is also great from backstage, or up in the lights, but as just an audience member, it’s the cheap seats for me.

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