Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Around The South Bank Summer 2012

Back in the grey concrete wasteland that was my youth in the 19.. never-you-minds, the South Bank centre was a grey concrete wasteland. The Festival Hall had one tired attempt at a cafe in the basement, and they gave up on that. No matter what the weather was elsewhere, on the South Bank it was always wind-swept and with puddles. Then something happened and it got re-developed in the late 1990's. It looks like this now. The only thing that hasn't changed is the bit where it has puddles.

I know you take this for granted. You aren't old enough to remember when the place was a wasteland and people sincerely wished for it to be demolished and re-built. The Good Old Days are now. But then, they always were.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Pina Bausch at Sadlers Wells - Summer 2012

I saw Palermo, Palermo and Como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si at Sadlers Wells in the early summer, two of the Ten Cities ballets Pina Bausch devised towards the end of her career. I've seen the Wim Wenders movie Pina, and the documentary Dancing Dreams, about a group of teenager rehearsing Kontakthof in the Tantztheatre Wuppertal company. That's the really interesting one.

The Wenders movie doesn't get the experience of watching a Bausch piece live. For one thing, they are long, usually between two and three hours, and sustained, meaning that while there are scenes and dancers come and go, the action doesn't stop, there are no acts - though there is an interval. Then there's the whole presence thiang. Even the scenery has it - critics can't mention her Rite of Spring without mentioning the peat moss, and the breeze block wall that crashes to the stage at the start of Palermo Palermo actually creates the set the dancers have to work with. When the company assembles en masse across the stage, it's a dramatic moment in itself: they are thirty of the most individual dancers anywhere, and I don't know how the women in the audience feel about the male dancers, but I know what I feel about the women: simply ten of the most physically-present and desirable women I've ever seen. With other companies, you're watching a performance, with the Basuch troupe, you're watching an event.

I'm still not quite sure what I saw at Sadlers Wells. I have a feeling that I won't look at classical and contemporary dance again in the same way: it's all going to look a little... uncommitted? stylised? generic? emotionally light-weight? None of those are adjectives you could use to describe flamenco either, but flamenco didn't affect the way I saw other genres. I guess I had a space on the shelves already marked "passionate virtuoso Spanish gypsy dancing" - I just didn't know how good the best are. There's no ready-made space for Pina Bausch's work, so it upsets all the other books on the shelf.

According to the interviews with her dancers, Ms Bausch didn't say a lot, but when she did, it was cryptic and inspiring. Lutz Forster describes how just before the performance after an awful rehearsal, he and Bausch had their ritual exchange, and then she said "Don't forget, you have to scare me." Anna Wehsarg says: "New in the company, I didn't yet grasp how Pina worked. And she didn't explain it. I was lost. Until I realised I had to pull myself up by my own hair." Yet Ms Bausch hired her, and did so because she saw a dancer who had something unique to bring as a performer, and was prepared to give her the time to work out what she needed to do. 

The only other person I can think of who hired performers for what they could bring, and then let them get on with it at their pace, was, of course, Miles Davis. Who also said very little by way of advice, and much of that cryptic. It works if you can spot talent, are prepared to adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of the people you hire, and hire people whose technique fits what you need. It doesn't work if you need three new Swans for the corps de ballet or a couple of second violins to saw away at the pops. It works, in other words, if you are an idiosyncratic artist of some considerable creative ability, unique vision and don't need to control every last detail.

The dancing in Bausch's work is there to convey emotion and story. Swan Lake could as well be staged with technically-competent fourteen year-olds as the Swans, and it probably has. There would be no difference to the impact of the piece. A Bausch piece needs to be done by grown-ups who can bring the emotional weight and presence it needs. This becomes very clear watching the teenagers in Dancing Dreams, when you can see how much of an effort it is for them, not to make the moves, but to create the presence the moves need. Take the time to watch this interview with one of the company's repetiteurs.

Most of the time, the audience is the judge of the performer. If the punters don't laugh, the comic ain't funny. There are a handful of non-mainstream creators who are the measure of an audience: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Eva Yerbabuena, John Cage... to name but a few. Watching Bausch's work made me feel the same way: I had to measure up, to learn how to respond. If you ever get the chance to see a performance by the company, see it. You might not make sense of it immediately, but you will know you've seen something no-one else is even close to attempting and which will change the way you look at ballet.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Under The Arches - South Bank Street Art

The other week I went to see the Jazz Dance performance at the Peacock Theatre. After the first couple of numbers, I was forced to think about the whole idea of saying bad things about stuff that other people like that you don't. Do you make nasty remarks about the audience ("Peacock Theatre audiences arrive at Holborn on westbound trains, or through Charing Cross", or "If the audience at Sadlers Wells is urbane and older, the audience at the Peacock is urban and younger")? Do you say that the dancers lacked grace and ability, and that the choreography was crude? Because my "graceless and stylised" is someone else's "fierce and powerful". So I left at the interval.

This meant I had some time to pass before my train, so I dropped off onto the South Bank, where I haven't been for a while, and saw this lot.

Quite made my evening. I have no idea why these guys do it, and interviews in magazines like VNA just take the activity for granted, but I'm damn glad they do.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The "True Self" as Denial

Ever heard or read psychologists babbling on about your true or inner self? That their patients are ignoring, betraying, denying or suppressing by conforming to sick social norms or denying the traumas of their past? Ever wondered what the therapists were talking about? Especially since they never really describe it, but throw it out as a phrase, which they hope their readers will interpret in a some useful way?

Here's what it meant. Psychoanalysis started out amongst the rich middle-classes of Europe and the USA. Often but not always Jewish upper-middle classes. It was essential for the patient to believe that the analyst "got" them and their background, that they knew what it was like to have grown up and live in a Jewish family. Later on, that would extend to being gay or lesbian. An analyst couldn't just say "Mrs Cabot, you're another one of those Upper West Side closet lesbians, aren't you?". No. He would have to signal that he "got it" without actually naming it. "It's very difficult when you have to hide your real self from everyone, isn't it Mrs Cabot? You can feel safe here, and maybe gradually your real self can express itself." Or something along those lines. 

They wrote books and papers about it and used the phrase, knowing that the others who knew would get the reference and it wouldn't matter about the practitioners who didn't get it, because they were probably dealing with goyishe straights who didn't have anything to hide or an exotic family background and so didn't have real selves. The phrase was code for "I get you and your circumstances, I get what you're afraid to say and why, and I'm not going to judge".

I've heard people from highly specific backgrounds say what a relief it was when they finally met someone who "knew who they were" - that is, who understood in practical and cultural terms what it is to be e.g the Western educated son of a tribal chief in Malawi. A European can't know what it is to be a middle-class, graduate of (say) engineering and an Arab male in Saudi Arabia - from what I've read about that artificial situation, you would have to be one too. But if you're from a mainstream background, there isn't anything special anyone needs to know about you.

The world changes and language changes with it. The Upper West Side Lesbians are Out and Proud, and while being Jewish is just as problematical as it always was, therapists can advertise as specialising in Jewish clients. There's no need to allude to anything any more. Often when a therapist uses the phrase to talk about patients who won't "let anyone near their true selves", it means "I know Daddy diddled her, Mommy ignored him/her or he/she wouldn't be here, but will they freaking admit it?" It means they aren't co-operating with the therapist. If a girl says she doesn't know who her boyfriend is, it means he's not showing her what she wants, and she has to hustle off to find the husband / long term partner. 

And in the snake-oil world of self-help literature "real you" means some "better you" hiding from the cruel outside world behind a mask of fake manners and adaptive but crass behaviour. The better person you could be: someone someone nice, smiley, sharey, funny, carey and smart. A responsible therapist would not use this idea. Therapy is about insight, and there's no guarantee that the client will like what they learn. Once the insight has been gained, it's up to the client to do what they want. Freud's remark that the purpose of therapy is to replace neurotic misery with ordinary unhappiness is still true. A few month's talking is never going to undo a lifetime of bad learning.

I'm an alcoholic: the real me is a klutz and a self-absorbed jerk. I've learned how to behave like a decent person, and it's kind of refreshing but it's freaking exhausting. At work I try to come across as an absent-minded old git - which takes very little effort as it's close to the truth. I can do decent behaviour for about thirty minutes tops, after which my patience runs out and I get bored. When I was younger I had the energy (fuelled by 100-octane leaded Neurosis) to keep up the pretence for days at a time, but not now. You would vastly prefer the fake me.

I don't believe that everyone is a beautiful soul underneath the damage of bad parenting, lousy schools and bullying employers. That's like saying that there's a Ferrari underneath every old banger on the road. There isn't. We get made by parents, teachers and peers and we make ourselves by how we react to how we get made. When the result is something we can't work with and hampers us in making proper progress through life, it's tempting to believe that we could do better if we were different - the "real me" that wouldn't be such a klutz all the time. What we mean is that we would live a better life if we were a different person, and that may be true, but that different person is no more true or false than the one we are now. 

In fact, the idea that we're not really the klutz we are, but really a wonderful person, may just be yet another form of denial, or at best a trick to persuade therapeutic clients to admit the truth about their Actual Klutz so they can begin to change their behaviour. There is no "true self", but there can be a "better you".

Friday, 13 July 2012

Maiwenn's Polisse

I finally caught up with this film at the Renoir one Sunday morning. That evening I read the reviews and wondered if I had seen the same film as the reviewers - even as Roger Ebert. Man did the reviewers not like it, and the more American they were, the less they liked it. At first I though that this was due to reasons like: 1) Maiwenn uses one name, 2) she's very, very attractive, 3) she's married to Luc Besson, 4) she's French and 1-4 taken together mean she's just so much cooler than the reviewers they don't like it. 

After a while I decided it was something else. Polisse is about the work of a Child Protection Unit in Belleville, a working-class but not unduly rough area of Paris. So you know what that means, right? Creepy fathers doing things with five year-olds, live-in boyfriends abusing the ten-year-old daughter, under-age teenagers being exploited by "boyfriends" and creepy drug dealers, and of course, and endless stream of female victims. Men Bad, Women Victims, Cops Restrained but Caring and Tearful just once. Nothing else is allowed.

Certainly not a bunch of cops bursting into laughter when a teenage girl explains how she was prepared to give out blow-jobs to get her smartphone back. The critics didn't like that one, and you could feel Ebert squirming. Call me crass, but I got why the cops were laughing, though you would need to see the staggering performance of the actress playing a teenage girl who had no idea at all that it was wrong to give blow jobs because she had been conned out of her phone and was looking at you with a "what's the issue" face. Faced with that you could only cry, tear your hair out or laugh. The cops, sensibly, choose to laugh. The actress was portraying a girl who simply did not understand that she was supposed to attack the person who stole her phone, scratch her eyes out and kick her teeth in. She didn't even see herself as a victim. I know, you're having a hard time getting your head round this one.

Maiwenn broke just about every PC rule in the book on this one. Girls as perpetrators of abuse on each other? Check. Disrespecting traditional Islamic values? Check. Mothers giving their very young boy-children hand-jobs to get them to sleep? Check. Mothers kidnapping their children? Check. Male perpetrators not coming across as violent creeps? Check. Portraying Romanies as anything other than victims of prejudice, let alone as actual gangsters? Check. Suggesting that street beggars are a part of gangs and not the victims of an uncaring social system? Check. No absent fathers not paying child support? Check. Policemen and women being abrupt with the victims as much as the perpetrators? Check. The Police believing a father's denial of abuse against the allegations of the mother when they're in a custody fight? Check. 

Maiwenn, Maiwenn, don't you know you can't mess with the conventions like this? This movie is seriously French: no PC evasion, no fake tolerance and no denial. No wonder the Anglos got all fidgety about it.

I'm going to assume that, given how much profile this film had in France, the Child Protection Unit Maiwenn spent a year with was prepared to accept her portrayal of them. There's no publicity about the Parisian police saying that the film did not represent the work or attitude of the Unit. Perhaps they liked it because she had them saying what they wished they could say, perhaps they thought it made them look better. If there had been an official distancing, the nay-sayers would have been all over it. (In some cases, absence of evidence is evidence of absence.)  

The scene where the African mother hands her son over because she's sleeping on the street and can't get both of them into a hostel, which the Unit can't either when they try, was heartbreaking, and the little boy's shouts and screams absolutely wrenching. The scene where the rape victim giving birth to a dead baby was a mixture of bureaucratic pathos and real emotion. The actress' performance was so good it felt like a documentary - all the bit-part players gave performances that good.

And that's what I was thinking as I left the cinema. How the hell did that little slip of a girl get all those performances out of everyone? The main cast was a big-time crew and were clearly improvising brilliantly at times, but those bit-players! Wow. After years of watching this stuff, I've come to the conclusion that it's the bit-parts that make or break a drama.

As for the ending. The All-Men-Are-Bastards Iris throws herself out of a window. A lot of people thought this was silly, presumably because they didn't understand why. I was surprised, but frankly, the actress sells it. Iris is bulemic, sour, has a lousy marriage, has alienated her police partner to the point where they are going to be split up. She works a gym-teacher-and-young-boy case where the boy and teacher actually clearly care about each other, even though they know the relationship is wrong. This shakes her faith in what she's doing. In the closing scene she gets a promotion to another unit and everyone applauds politely, but as if she's not there - which she isn't since she's left - and at that point her world empties out completely. But her jump isn't about her, it's about the people who have just abandoned her, to get back at them.

Polisse is right up there with Goodbye First Love as one of the best films of 2012 as far as I'm concerned. Sure the latter is an elegant homage to all things Rohmer, and the former is a slightly out of control helter-skleter ride, but then the best moments in life often are. 

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Around Shoreditch and Spitalfields

These are the gates on the Commercial Road to Petticoat Lane Market. It's supposed to be famous, and one of these posts I'll put some pictures in so you can see how tatty it really is. Those buildings in the background are the City - the Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe) and the Heron Tower. I used to think the contrast could not be greater, but now I wonder...

Although this is the tatty sight to the left of the gates, and the photograph doesn't do the grime justice, at least the people who live here, maybe some stall holders,  have places of their own, whereas many of the people who work in those fancy offices are sharing flats and houses at exorbitant rents in what sound like fancier addresses but aren't. 
This is the Crisis head office on Commercial Road, just along from that tower block. It has a cafe, which is not full of homeless people at all, but Shoreditchians - late twenty/early thirties boys and girls who would be as cool as they think they are if they worked in Soho.

Otherwise, the rest are local sights: fancy gates on Wentworth Street, painting an advert for the Horse and Groom, Curtain Road; street art on Commercial Road; the exterior and interior of The Diner, Curtain Road.

This is where I take a stroll if I take a stroll lunchtime. Not a decent bookshop in the area. Not a cinema, the nearest being believe it or not, in Islington (!) - the Rio and Hackney Picturehouse being even further away than the Everyman and Vue, Islington.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Lunch Glorious Lunch - Shoreditch

I may have remarked that the office I work in is a depressing tip. I'm not sure if I've made that clear, but it's not the place I want to eat lunch in. Whereas in Heaven-By-Soho I was quite happy to pop out to Yoshino for sushi or Stockpot for a takeaway salad and eat in the office, I really don't want to eat in the squalor that is our Bishopsgate office. So I've been going out at lunchtime when I can. It's not cheap, but I don't seem to want to spend money going on vacations this year, so, here are some of the lunches available up the road from my office in Shoreditch.

Beef and Stilton salad at The Book Club; burger and cheese at The Diner, Curtain Road; Chorizo and potato breakfast at the Bishopsgate Kitchen, Brushfield Street; Eggs and fries at the Bishopsgate Kitchen; five choices lunch at Sahara, Great Eastern Street; Frittata, Ham and Eggs, Lamb Burger, all at The Book Club, Leonard Street.

Most of these are around the £8 mark, which keeps a lot (nay, all) of the City office workers out, as "City salaries" are not what you think these days. The standard is consistent, good and the food is tasty. That's a duck egg with the chorizo breakfast. The keyboard that keeps appearing belongs to my trusty Asus netbook.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Revised 2012 Resolutions

Are you having the 2012 I am? I know at least one person who has moved to an exotic island in the Mediterranean, and quite a few who have changed jobs, which I guess count as Life Events, but my life and that of many others around me has been one Grand Nul so far. I spent the first two months of the year in the grip of some debilitating something that not only removed my will to live but also meant I had to grasp handrails to get upstairs. Seriously, it was that bad.

So let's review those resolutions...

1.  Spitalfields isn't Soho - get over it and set off for the Central Line prompt at 17:00. I'm doing well on this one, especially after changing my morning routine by getting up an hour earlier (!). And with the recent warmer, if not more pleasant weather, I've been going into Shoreditch for my lunches, and I'm starting to feel some minimum connection with the area, especially since finding somewhere unutterably cool but not busy to write at lunchtimes.

2.  Go to the gym at least three days a week. Not only that, but I changed my routine shortly after feeling that what I was doing wasn't working. I put myself in the hands of Renata the Ju-Jitsu champion, and those routines are working. It's making a difference, but it's hard work.

3.  Not eat chocolate late in the evening and avoid excess carbs at lunchtime. Okay. You understood this one was aspirational. Right?

4.1 Take two week-long holidays abroad and a couple of short breaks in the UK. Nah. Not been in the mood. Crap weather. Pass.

4.2 One weekend, take the sleeper to and from Penzance. Still a possibility.

5. Spend more time researching stuff that's useful to my various projects. I'm doing this, but exactly how useful it's going to be, I don't know.

6  Do my "36 Views of St Mary Axe" photography project. I still have time for this. I can't take photographs in cold weather, so I'd better strike soon.

7  Read "Finding Time Again" so I've "read Proust". Result! See this post.

8. Make Saturday Special - details to follow. Still haven't sorted this one out.

9. Make the best of the seven-week Olympic period. So close, so close.

10. errr... that's it. 

So here are some changes.

2. Go to the gym every night after work - even if it's just for a quick swim. Only reason why I can skip is an 18:00 movie. Or not being in London. Or off sick. 

3. No more office cakes. Do bedtime prep after 21:30, because a lot of my compulsive chocolate-eating happens after 21:00. If I know I'm not trying to stay awake until 23:00, I may cut that back. More fruit salads - with single cream for the mouth feel and satisfaction - and more vegetable stews. Stop buying bars of chocolate and packets of biscuits, even if it is from Garcia in Notting Hill. There's more to say about this, but not now.

5. Commit to the analyst blog. Or stop thinking writing stuff for it. I'll discuss this later.

7. Finish with the freaking Riemann-Roch theorem already!

8. If the weather is remotely acceptable, head out of the house early to have breakfast somewhere. N'importe ou, just anywhere. 

10. Go to a weekday AA Meeting every fortnight - every week would remind me of why I get fed up with them. Maybe even tour round some of the ones I used to do in my early days.

I've felt flat for much of the year so far. A lack of movies I want to watch is one factor, the grim weather is another, and the Met Office tells us that the air quality and pollen this year is the worst it's been for a very long time. You're not affected by that nonsense, I know, but I'm a delicate plant and I am. Nothing quite satisfies me: not food, not music, not books, not the gym, certainly not work, heck, even chocolate doesn't do it for me. The closest I've been all year was walking back from Holborn to Waterloo at half-past eight on the first warm evening of the year after seeing Goodbye First Love at the Renoir. How much simpler does a pleasure get? Or maybe, because it's so rare, it's not simple at all.