Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Tango Lesson

I still remember my first tango lesson. I felt timid at first about being so physically close to someone I barely knew, waiting for his leads and knowing I mustn’t even move without first feeling a nudge, or a turn, or an invitation from him. I waited on the tips of my toes, unsure of myself and what I was supposed to do, but excited by the newness of it all, like an eager pup sniffing out a strange new land. Even during that first lesson, I quickly became enveloped in the elegance, restraint, and subtleties of this beautiful dance, and my love was immediate. Since that first lesson over five years ago, I’ve danced tango all around the world and learned many things from my evolution in the dance. What I love about tango is its subtlety – in the arms of my partner, in the spaces between the dancers on the dance floor, in the silence between two notes in a song – those little spaces are where tango truly breathes and pulses with life. It isn’t through watching the showy performances of the maestros that one learns to dance tango; it’s in the little, intimate moments when you’re dancing with your partner, creating your own movements and improvisations, filling those spaces with yourself and not caring about who’s watching or what they might be thinking of you.

Tango is the poetry of the dance world, and like poetry, it is something that tends to come and go in my life by spells – sometimes I become utterly absorbed in it for months, and other times it won’t ignite the slightest interest in me for a while. For the last several months, I’ve been in the latter category, without any inclination to do any tango dancing at all. Then last week the thought of dancing tango suddenly sprouted in my mind and took root, and I decided that it’s time for me to explore Seattle tango. A tango dance, called a milonga, is like a daybreak – it’s either happy-full and hopeful, or pierced with doubt and needles of anxiety; it can go either way, depending on how you look at it. This past weekend, when I went to Red Tango milonga, it was a bit of both. I arrived feeling unsure of myself, thinking it’s been so long since I’ve danced tango, and I don’t know anyone here, and what if I make a mistake, and so on. I felt unanchored and nervous, flung out of my comfort zone. However, almost immediately the familiar sights and sounds of my favorite dance wrapped a comforting arm around my waist and reassured me that I can do this, reminding me that this is an art form I love. Feeling that old excitement again restored my confidence and helped me forget all about my worries. The DJ played various styles of electronic music, and I took my turns with several dancers, becoming part of the circle of bodies cutting slow trails around the dance floor. I felt lighter and more confident when I walked home after the milonga ended, like I had accomplished something real by pushing past my fear to the open expanse on the other side.

Now that I’ve danced again, I feel like I’ve been released of a continent. Like my very first tango lesson showed me, tango is my dance that has a way of transforming me after just one evening. Lesson learned: always keep dancing.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Thanksgiving Memory

Last Thanksgiving I was in Rome, gorging on pasta and gelato, receiving a “ciao bella” every time I turned around, and exploring cathedrals and museums to my heart’s content. One particularly striking memory from that trip comes back to me: I finished my tour of the sun-drenched Coliseum, waved at a gladiator, and made my way down the brick street to a plaza in front of an art museum. It was just about sunset in late November, and even Rome gets a little chilly in winter evenings, so I hugged my jacket closer to me and watched the medley of tourists and locals strike poses and snap photos. Idly looking around, I spied a somewhat hidden stairway leading up a hill behind the museum, and I took it upon myself to discover where it went. Leaving behind the bleating libertines, I ascended the staircase, stepped onto the patio…...and felt my equilibrium nearly vanish as Rome, breathing the brilliant streams of the setting sun into her ancient lungs, stunned my vision. She was on fire – buildings’ old skins shimmered with the long-lost glow of youth; rivers of color flowed into the skyline, the earth, the people walking down on the street, caressing them with color like a dancer flinging multi-hued saris onto her spectators; the orange sun was huge in the palette of the sky, and it seemed so close and welcoming that I wanted to embrace it, or have it embrace me. But what really brought me to the brink was the flock of birds making their primordial patterns across the sky, their small black forms cutting sharp fractals against the saturated wash. They swooped and rippled and turned all as one, and I couldn’t take my eyes off their completely synchronized dance. I must have sat there over an hour, feeling the chill of the evening creep its way into my skin, listening to the faraway voices of the people below me. Finally, long after the birds settled into their nests for the night, I slowly made my way through the narrow streets of Rome back to my hotel, feeling transformed, yet not knowing in what way.

During the remaining few days I had in Rome I returned to that spot at around the same time every evening, but I never had the mesmerizing experience that I did upon discovering it for the first time. The colors weren’t as brilliant, or the birds weren’t dancing, so it wasn’t the same. That one evening was truly a unique memory to cherish. A memory to be thankful for. What memories are you thankful for?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Eating at Serious Pie is a Classy Adventure

Serious Pie is not your typical pizza joint. When I entered its cozy ambiance after getting pummeled by yesterday’s deranged windstorm, I felt like Frodo returning to his hobbit-home after saving Middle Earth and enduring all sorts of cruel trials instigated by Peter Jackson. Fire crackled, soft lights glowed, earthy smells tempted, and gentle music flowed. I was ready to forget all about that evil windstorm and poor Frodo getting bundled up in narcotic she-spider saliva.

At my communal table, where I sat beside a married couple visiting from Anchorage, I enjoyed a light, tasty feast. First I had the Tuscan kale with pine nuts and parmesan – with a surprise burst of citrus to boot! – while listening to my tablemates regale me with stories of man-eating polar bears and -100° temps. Middle Earth indeed; just venture to Alaska! For my happy hour mini-pie I chose the delicata squash, roasted garlic, and gorgonzola lucifero pizza simply because I had to try “Lucifer’s gorgonzola”. Oh man, that crust was crisp, that squash was creamy, and that cheese added just the right tang. A far cry from the greasy vittles of Pizza Hut. Other creative options you can explore to satisfy your upscale pizza cravings include Yukon potato and rosemary, chanterelle mushrooms and truffle cheese, and pumpkin, pork belly, and pistachio. I will never be able to tolerate Elven bread again after these sumptuous morsels.

That was all good, but the dessert truly ruled: olive oil cake topped with spiced apples and soft whip, surrounded by jewels of bright red cranberries. It was the perfect windy autumn day desert. The cake was moist, and the cranberries were tart explosives ricocheting around in my mouth. My palette was so enraptured, I was seriously tempted to publicly lick my plate. Instead, I said goodbye (good riddance?) to my tablemates and received the odd – and slightly offensive – recommendation that I apply for a job at BP. Since the guy worked for an oil company in Alaska, I didn’t tell him what I really thought of that little piece of advice, but between us, I’d rather face the Eye of Sauron.

And one pizza joint to rule them all!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Vampire Milongas and Silent Readings

The first time I entered Salon Canning in Buenos Aires, I experienced the uncanny sensation of feeling like I had been instantly transported to an elitist vampire milonga (a tango dance) in the early twentieth-century, where coven members gathered to lure unsuspecting tourists into a den of chilling fantasy. Turning and staring as one unit when any homo sapiens entered the club, they danced with such eerie, preternatural grace it was almost unsettling to watch. Violins and bandoneons screeched stale music over hushed voices, sliding shoes, and sharp taps of stilettos. The mood was haughty, the air thick, and I just wanted to run the other direction – a legitimate self-preservation response to entering a vampire lair.

At Sorrento Hotel’s Silent Reading Night, I experienced a similar sensation of being transported – only this time I teleported to an elegant Old World gathering where society’s most distinguished elite convened to pore over Tennyson or Wordsworth. Well-tempered Baroque music glided through the fire-lit room, easing all manner of stress built up during the hectic day, as the pretty serving-girl brought tea, or scotch for the stronger palettes. A genteel affair reeking with haughtiness. What would happen, I wondered, if I set my cup down too loudly, or started vigorously chewing gum, or sounded a barbaric yawp? I was half-tempted to do it, just to see their reactions!

Like I felt in that pompous milonga in Buenos Aires, it was all a bit too sterile, too staged and elitist for me to really feel comfortable. I’m with Walt Whitman, who said, “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable”. Give me the salty throng of La Viruta (another milonga); give me entranced spectators waving their bodies as musicians let their souls bodysurf over upstretched arms; give me the epic roar of live electronic musicians summoning absolute wizardry before my eyes. Those are the experiences I truly love.

I do, however, also enjoy the occasional vampire milonga or silent reading night – after all, there are worse ways to spend an evening.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Ryuichi Sakamoto: An Evening With A Master

Never have the orbits of classical music and electropop collided so elegantly as in the brain of Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose passions spill from his soul onto the keys of his electric Disklavier Yamaha (electric to enable him to play duets with himself on his compositions for two pianos). As a member of Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sakamoto was a pioneer of the electronic music movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but his enormous talent stretched far beyond those early synthpop days. A modern-day Renaissance Man, Sakamoto’s artistic styles range from the Kraftwerkian electronica of Yellow Magic Orchestra, to Debussy-inspired solo piano pieces, to massive orchestral works, to hauntingly beautiful soundtracks (including Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence; Little Buddha; and Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor).

In Sakamoto’s oeuvre there is something for everyone’s taste, but his solo piano pieces are the most deeply moving works of his canon. With the calm assurance of a Jedi Master, silver-haired Sakamoto conveys his depth and skill by utilizing simplicity, rather than complications. Instead of twisting melodies into over-wrought contortions, he leaves them whole, pure, largely unadorned, so that their beauty slowly expands in the soul and sprouts indelible roots. He understands that electrifying a listener’s spirit can be done delicately, exquisitely, and slowly. Listen to “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” and “Bibo No Aozora”; let them gently swirl down your basilar membranes to enthrall your essence with lush sound and emotion.

Sakamoto is also an environmental activist: he founded more-trees.org, and is currently pioneering “green tours” which offset massive carbon emissions by planting trees. His most current album, Out Of Noise, combines sounds of the natural world with startlingly new ways of coaxing sound from a piano. For example, the first piece of the concert I saw started with chirping crickets and gurgling water, over which Sakamoto layered the gently cacophonic reverberations he produced by strumming and plucking the piano strings themselves (instead of hitting the keys). With the lid completely off the piano, at first it seemed naked, with Sakamoto transgressing its private quarters like a boozy courtier lifting a woman’s petticoats. However, the reverence Sakamoto showed toward the bare strings turned the act into something much more intimate and moving – a humble encounter, rather than a violation. In this way, Sakamoto demonstrated humans’ varying relationship to nature, showing that it can be healing and gracious instead of careless.

Sakamoto has collaborated with Fennesz (listen to “Haru”) and Alva Noto (“Berlin” made me finally understand Debussy’s quote, “Music is the space between the notes”), among many others. Listen to his music and know that you’re being transported more deeply into your soul by the able hands of a true master.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Escalator Fest, Part 2

The second night of Escalator Fest started off with Climax Golden Twins. They absolutely lived up to their name, providing the apex of the night right at the very beginning. CGT is two guys – one older gent playing electric guitar, a bearded dude on drums – and they give the impression that they’re just two buddies who love to jam together once in a while in a totally improvisational format. Watching them build off one another and follow each other’s leads was like witnessing the most sublime, heavy storm pulsing in the distance, growing progressively thicker and closer until you get swept up in it, so enthralled you barely realize you’re levitating.

Both guys were maestros of their respective instruments. The guitarist played with his mouth, turned the guitar around and played it backwards; the drummer waved his arms around, stood up and clutched cymbals. Thrilling to watch, transporting to hear. It was as if they’ve been to heaven and hell and now they’re back on earth, hungering to tell us all about it.

Now here’s a letdown for you – they don’t have their own music up on their website. However, you should check it out anyway for the “Victrola Favorites Listening Parlor”, which has a collection of old-timey, rare recordings. Listen to “I Wish I Was A Single Girl Again”.

The rest of the evening just couldn’t compare to the spectacle of CGT, and in fact, I felt bad for the bands that had to follow. I’ll try to find some of CGT’s music for you guys to absorb – although, judging from comments on my last post, some of my readers may not share my musical tastes. That’s okay, I’m just trying to introduce you all to some new music and expand your aural horizons. I'm glad you all aren't shy in saying what you really think!