Friday, January 29, 2010

Lula Lounge Last Night - rinsethealgorithm & Tasa

Chemistry & Math 101 - rinsethealgorithm & Tasa
Lula Lounge January 28

If the musicians of one band stay to avidly listen to the next band's set, then you know that the bar will be set pretty high for the sound you can expect to come from on stage. Last night (January 28) at Toronto's Lula Lounge was just such an evening. The crowd was full of jazz lovers and those high standards weren't disappointed.

Formed by electric bassist extraordinaire Rich Brown, rinsethealgorithm turn out a fluid, very modern kind of sound, one with its roots in artists like Weather Report and Miles Davis. It took the jazz standard of verses, bridge, solos, and then again, with a take innovative enough to keep all of it fresh to the ears. It's another good sign when the band looks like they're having fun playing the music. It sounded loose, flowing, like it could turn in any direction at any given second, and the four of them would follow the thread seamlessly. Not surprisingly, their music is strongly rhythmic, with a great rapport between Brown and his drummer* a solid basis for the harmonic explorations of the tenor sax or keyboards. It was virtuoso playing that still took notice of its audience in a pretty tight set that left most, I think, wanting more.

*rich brown - bass, robi botos - piano & keys, luis deniz - sax, larnell lewis - drums

Next up was Tasa, the brainchild of Ravi Naimpally, an Indian born Canadian musician. With his roots in the music of North India, he put Tasa together to explore the cultural -and musical - depth and diversity that exists in Canada. The music is hypnotic, and came from an 8 piece band that included bass, guitar, drums, keys, and three wind players (tenor & soprano sax, trumpet). Ravi sits with his tablas to one side.

*Band members are listed as Alan Hetherington drums & percussion, Chris Gartner bass, John Gzowski guitars, dobro & oud, Ravi Naimpally tabla & percussion, Ernie Tollar sax & bansuri - three short!

Their sound is rhythmic, and while the Indian influence is immediately apparent, particularly in the melodies and harmonics, there's a strong element of modern jazz in it too. The music is infectious and polyrhythmic, multitonal and definitely danceable. Again, you felt the looseness and ease of musicians who knew each other well. There were rounds of solos that showcased the depth of talent there was on stage.

It was a different flavour of virtuoso than earlier in the evening, making it really the perfect double bill for a jazzy Thursday night out.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

An Interview with Jenny Young, in the cast of George F. Walker's And So It Goes

I recently caught up with Jenny Young, a busy actress between rehearsals for And So It Goes, the world premiere of multi-award winner George F. Walker’s first new play in about a decade – and this role comes hot on the heels of her turn in Factory Theatre’s December production of Michel Marc Bouchard’s The Madonna Painter, leading to some interesting comparisons of working on both projects.

“I would say the biggest different between the plays is the voice of the writer,” Young observes. “The Madonna Painter was poetic realism – and a translation from the French. The language wasn’t as immediately accessible. There were lots of discussions, lots of studying the text. (Walker’s) voice is a voice we’ve heard before, and a language we understand. He’s got a really good ear for that.”

In The Madonna Painter, a Quebec priest commissions an Italian painter to create a fresco dedicated to the Virgin Mary in an attempt to protect his parish from the ravages of the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918.

“In the Madonna Painter, my character was shunned by the rest of the villagers,” Young notes, “in this play, my role is also outside the norm. With George, strangely, it’s not really magic realism… but he reaches for the extreme edges of society.”

As she mentions, And So It Goes is gritty rather than poetic in its scope, dealing with Ned and Gwen, a middle class couple whose lives are sent spinning out of control by Ned’s downsizing and their daughter’s schizophrenia. Young plays the role of Karen, the daughter, against Martha Burns as Gwen and Peter Donaldson as Ned. In an unusual turn, the couple turn to the unorthodox therapy of literary legend Kurt Vonnegut (played by Jerry Franken) to help them out of their rut.

“To be in the same room with these people was a thrill,” she says of working with the other cast members. “For me, it was about the challenge of playing a bipolar schizophrenic crack addict, to live inside her without making her into a caricature. It’s a trap even an experienced actor can fall into. It’s really hard to wrap your brain around what she’s thinking – we tend to judge people like that. It was a challenge, but a good challenge.”

With all its quirks and Walker’s trademark black humour, it’s a story with universal themes. “It’s about two people struggling with the loss of their daughter – even though she’s still present.”

Walker is directing this Factory Theatre World Premiere. Previews start January 30, and I’ll be attending opening night on February 4 – review to follow.

Jenny Young Bio
Jenny is a graduate of Studio 58 in Vancouver and is the co-artistic director of tiny bird theatre with Claire Calnan.
Selected Theatre Credits:
A Moon For The Misbegotten, Ways of the Heart (Shaw Festival), Kindertransport (Toronto Jewish Theatre), Raising Luke, Inanna (tiny bird theatre), The Syringa Tree (Thousand Islands Playhouse, Western CanadaTheatre), The Penelopiad (National Arts Centre, Royal Shakespeare Co. UK), Eco Show (Necessary Angel), Having Hope at Home, Hockey Mom Hockey Dad, The Attic The Pearls & Three Fine Girls (Western Canada Theatre), Relatively Speaking (The Grand), The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine (Dora nomination - Theatre Columbus), Generations (Theatre Northwest), Unidentified Human Remains.(Crows Theatre) Unity 1918, Lt Nun (Theatre SKAM), The Shape of a Girl (Dora and Jessie nominations, Betty Mitchell Award - Tarragon, Greenthumb theatre), Mary's Wedding (National Arts Centre), The Wake (The Electric Co.); Selected Media Credits: Coach on Afghanada (CBC Radio 1), Flashpoint (CTV), Blue Murder (Global);
Upcoming: The Women, Age of Arousal (Shaw Festival).

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Interview with Hettie Vyrine Barnhill - Part of the Cast of Fela! on Broadway

Hettie Vyrine Barnhill ,one of the ensemble players in Fela! took time out from rehearsing both for the show and an upcoming appearance on the Jimmy Fallon Show Live (January 21,) to speak to me about this remarkable production.

It's not often that a Broadway show gets national attention without the star power of a Hugh Jackman, let's say, or without a long run and a touring company or two. But Fela! - which tells the story of Fela Anikulapo- Kuti, a Nigerian singer/multi-instrumentalist/political revolutionary - is a unique show in so many ways, it's really no wonder it's been featured on national TV shows like the Colbert Report after getting rave reviews in the NY Times and other major media outlets, and garnering more than its share of buzz. A uniqueness in approach was apparent to Hettie from the moment she joined rehearsals back in June. (She's pictured to the right in the image above, with Lauren De Veux and Sarh Ngaujah as Fela.)

"The show was already structured," she says, "but flowing like water. It was a new process to everyone." Hettie describes a constantly changing, challenging environment. "I had to learn how to be flexible. I would learn all the material in the classroom, and then take it to rehearsal, and then maybe next week... it would change," she says. "It was changing right up to the previews. Working with Bill T. Jones, he wanted you to be ready to jump right in. He and the band always had a conversation going." She says that watching his mind work via the fluid development process was just one of the great rewards. "He was thinking as a dancer, as a choreographer, and as a director," she explains. "My favourite parts were his talks - seeing his genius." The unusual process also resulted in a strong dynamic. "This was a team effort," she says. "I feel part of a family."

It's a collaborative process that Jones has described in previous interviews, going back to the initial development of the concept itself as an off-Broadway show that ran to packed houses in late 2008. Jones worked with Aaron Johnson, leader of Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, longtime proponents of Fela's Afrobeat style, who knew the music inside out, and Maija Garcia, a movement artist and student of Yoruba culture. Antibalas is now the pit orchestra, and Garcia an integral member of the cast. They looked to bring Kuti's infectiously rhythmic music, Afrobeat - being his own blend of Nigerian highlife and West African jazz, later also influenced by American jazz - to 21st century audiences.

But the effect of the show is not only about bringing Fela's music, which was actually well known in Europe but marginalized in the North American pop music machine, to greater awareness. "It's an important story," Hettie says. "It's needed. We see all the negative things about Africa in the media - AIDS, warfare... There's also beautiful art, beautiful music. There are people from Texas, from the mid-West - where I'm from - who come to see the play, and they leave feeling like they've learned something too. It opens up your mind."

After settling back in Nigeria after travels abroad, Kuti, (whose adopted middle name Anikalupo means "he who carries death in his pouch",) opened up his own nightclub in Lagos, and began a life that has extreme outlines, from his marrying 27 women all at once, (many of them the dancers in his show,) to violent scrapes with authority, and starting his own political party. In 1977, he released an album called Zombie, the title song of which in particular is highly critical of the Nigerian military. In response, the army conducted a raid on his compound, nearly beating him to death, and throwing his mother - political firebrand and feminist revolutionary in her own right, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti - from a window. She died of complications from her injuries in the year that followed.

Jones' staging is set in the Lagos nightclub, Africa Shrine, and takes up Kuti's story around the time of that infamous incident, with Funmilayo (played by Lillias White,) appearing as a spirit. The show combines elements of theatre and live concert in a unique blend that has audience members clapping and dancing along. Shawn Jay-Z Carter and Will & Jada Pinkett Smith joined the production team just before official opening night in November, hopefully giving them the backing for a long run.

Fela's polygamist lifestyle is the easiest target for the judgement of North American audiences. Barnhill plays one of the wives, his Queens, as he called them, and though they have no lines, their roles are indvidual and researched, and far from the passive go-go dancer you might first imagine. "I play one of the original wives who left him and came back," she says. "There was a conscious decision to stay. When the soldiers came, the wives, they were treated horribly by the military. It wasn't easy to stay with Fela. But, they loved him and believed in what he was doing." Fela himself, although he's most often seen as an unrepentant sexist, would describe that mass marriage as an act of solidarity and support with the women who had suffered with him through the raid. "Myself, I don't know that's what I would do.." she laughs, referring to the polygamist lifestyle, "but they were sisters," she insists. "They kept the community going." She studied her character, Omarala, in pictures. "She was tall, strong - a warrior. I think of that when I'm dancing." (Kevin Mambo as Fela in the image above, with his Queens.)

The 1977 raid on his compound was not Fela Kuti's first or last brush with authorities - a reminder to North American audiences, perhaps, that while political activism can be something of a fashion statement here, in many places in the world, it's something you pay for with your life. In a real life coda to the story, Africa Shrine, run in recent years by Fela's eldest son Femi Kuti and other family members, was shut down by government authorities (also not for the first time) in June 2009, over what many assume to be Femi's own political activism. Plus ça change...

Just in time for the musical, Fela's catalogue has been re-released on CD. Check out the musical here, and check out the late great Fela himself here.

"It's been amazing," says Barnhill. "I feel very, very blessed to be a part of this."

Monday, January 25, 2010

Aldeburgh Connection's Schubertiad

Aldeburgh Connection
The Lady of the Lake, and other tales
Walter Hall, University of Toronto
January 24

The Schubertiad is a rather delightful and civilized way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and this past weekend I was treated to a superb performance of Schubert's Lady of the Lake and other miscelleneous Lieder and piano works by the Aldeburgh Connection.

The first half consisted of the Lady of the Lake, based on Sir Walter Scott's poem. Scott was hugely successful in Schubert's time, and many composers used his pieces as inspiration, in no small part to gain some access to the lucrative English music market. (Such is the level of knowledge I got from the copious programme notes - this is the University of Toronto after all!) The story is a convoluted one, concerning Scottish clan rivalries, a disguised King James V, and three men all after the hand of the lovely Ellen Douglas. It was the Romantic era, and love and justic prevailed, I'm glad to say.

The soloists were wonderful, including Anita Krause (mezzo), Christohper Enns (tenor), and James Levesque (baritone), displaying a really nice dramatic sense and range even while they sang simply standing beside the piano. The sense of drama was aided by narration from Raymond O'Neill, whose expressive reading of the text certainly added to the story and performance. Schubert's music is easy to love, and the songs included probably his most famous, Ave Maria, along with ensemble pieces sung by a student chorus. I almost prefer voices together to soloists, and the gorgeous harmonies were an aural illustration of why.

The second half began a piano duet from accompanists Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata, the Overture in C "im italienischen Stile", D597. Apparently, Schubert wrote it, along with a second Italianate overture, on a bet over a glass of wine and a fit of pique after his friends and companions admired a piece by Rossini a little too enthusiastically. There followed a series of Lieder, the subjects including a tribute to a trout, a jealously murderous dwarf, and the Erlkonig, after a poem by Goethe, in which a young boy is stolen from his father despite his best efforts.

There was an intimate and informal tone to the proceedings, in keeping with Schubert's original intention. Pieces like the Erlkonig were written by him and first performed by Franz and his friends, just hanging out together. Ralls provided the gems and tidbits of information that filled out the gaps between the music for a very fitting tribute to perhaps the most affable of the great Romantic composers.

Portrait of Schubert by Wilhelm August Rieder, 1875.

Notes from Dance Ontario DanceWeekend

Notes from Dance Ontario DanceWeekend
January 22 - 24
Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre (Toronto)

I had another arts drenched weekend, much of it spent at the Fleck Dance Theatre taking in a smorgasbord of dance all weekend. I was able to take in a few hours at best a day, but a small bites menu of 20-25 minute sets meant I could still experience a wide range of styles and flavours even on budgeted time. It was great to see the place nearly at capacity, with just as many people coming in as leaving at any given moment, and a long line up to get in at the start of every day.

Please check out the invidual companies at the links - many of them have upcoming shows.

January 22

Opening night!

Ballet Creole white, floaty garments, rhythmic movements that follow the polyrhythms churned out by the 3 musicians at the back. The dancers were athletic and the effect becomes infectious, and impossible not to feel like moving along with it. Taken from a variety of African traditions, Dancing Spirits kept building to a high energy finish.

Thrill the World, participants from the On the Move Conference, including kids from Jade's Hip Hop Academy and Oakwood Collegiate - an energetic version of Michael Jackson's Thriller to the original choreographer by Michael Peters along with Jackson himself. Great costuming added to a fun piece.

Canadian Children's Dance Theatre - I'm not sure what I was expecting from this group, but I know I was left quite impressed with the talented young women (Victoria Scanlon, Midori Mukai, Francesca Chudnoff, Taryn Na, Kendra Epik and Ellis Martin-Wylie) and the contemporary dance I saw on stage. Arena, the first piece they showcased, was about the constant frictions, intersections and disconnections of modern life, and it was performed with a sense of conviction and grace. (Image below of unrelated ballet dancer by Frode Inge Helland.)

Later, they also performed Ancient Trinity along with high school students from the London (Ontario) area. The piece was inspired by the magnificent Newgrange passage tomb in Ireland, built 1000 years before the first pyramids and incredibly, in perfect alignment with the winter solstice sunrise. Every year at winter solstice people gather to witness the sun enter through the roof box and travel down the passage eventually illuminating the back of the tomb for a brief 17 minutes. They speculate that perhaps this sacred time was to allow their dead to pass from the earth to the other world. It's a nice story, and a really lovely and uplifting piece.

MOonhORsE Dance Theatre displays what founder Claudia Moore describes as body poetry with "mature" performers, and it's an apt metaphor for their performances of two short pieces. THe first was a pas de deux between an eager woman and reluctant man in ordinary street garb, full of moments of humour and expressive choreography. Moore herself then did a solo piece with a cellist playing the Bach Cello Suite #14, an excerpt from a work that was performed in the Music Garden last summer. Highly expressive work with a nicely nuanced dramatic sense.

Ballet Jorgen gave us classical ballet at its best, from the sumptuous costumes to the elegantly restrained athleticism of its dancers. They performed two scenes from an upcoming production of Cinderella with a wonderful sense of theatricality and drama about it along with fine dancing. Ballet Jorgen's mandate, if you're not aware, (which I wasn't) is to perform only original choreography.

Saturday, January 23

For me, this was contemporary dance day, with some really cool variations and flavours.

The Honeycats were a real crowd pleaser, an ensemble group that put on a high energy version of hip hop, modern jazz and stret jazz, gorgeous girls and guys who were athletic and dazzling. My favourite piece was to the music of Marilyn Manson's Beautiful People, where a clever use of black costuming and spot lighting created a rhythmic movement of faces, lower arms and lower legs.

Desiraeda Dance Theatre was a technically impressive group, performing 4 love themed excerpts to jazz music. It was athletic and quite dramatically expressive at the same time. Cutting edge contemporary jazz dance that's accessible and appealing.

Claude Watson/Earl Haig Dancers - the high schoolers in this group really blew me away, particulary in the second piece, choreographed by a grade 12 dance major (Lee Levine-Poch). The first piece was a rousing gospel to John the Revelator, another crowd favourite. If this is the future of dance in this area, we can expect great things to come!

Helix Dance was another group that dazzled with their athleticism and technique, this to a series of modern jazz & blues tunes. There were no weaker links at all in this troupe as far as I could see, and the pieces were quite interestingly choreographed by Linda Garneau, with dancers pairing and unpairing, entering and leaving the stage in an constant panoply of motion.

Sunday, January 24

A nicely mixed bag.

Ritmo Flamenco dazzled the crowd with a bevy of supremely elegant ladies who proved that a long slinky dress is just as sexy as the barely there costumes sported by many of the other dancers. Where ballet is all about elegant restraint, in flamenco that initial restraint builds to a passionate climax - all while never losing the upright, graceful posture of the dancers. The live guitarist (Roger Scannura) added a whole dimension of depth. Makes me wish I had time for lessons!!

Cadence Progressive Contemporary Ballet were young and athletic, and performed an innovative piece called Decorus Chaos - reflecting the "chance encounters that put us in contact with those that become the fabric of our soul". That's an apt description of the work, performed to the music of Vivaldi, with an ever evolving line up on stage of dancers pairing and unpairing, and patterns of movement picked up and dropped in an intriguing display.

Andre Nann Dreamwalker Dance presented 4 pas de deux performed to and inspired by the lyrics of the Tragically Hip's Gordon Downie, including Nann and Brendan Wyatt. The choreography was highly original and very expressive, including moments of both humour and pathos. A very talented lady and someone I'll definitely keep an eye on in the future. (Check the link for upcoming shows.)

Dancetheatre Daivd Earle presented Serious Games (parts I & II), a piece originally commissioned by the Children's Dance Theatre. Six female dancers in the same dress, slightly different colours - movements as abstract as the avant garde music (by Erkki-Sven Tuur). It had a mesmerizing effect and was a great close off to a fantastic weekend.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Classical Music Picks on Youtube - An Addition

Another great classical link I forgot to add to my earlier list of ultimate favourites:

Weber's Invitation to the Dance, Maestro Edvard Tchivzhel conducting the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in 2003.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Listening to the World at Lula Lounge (Toronto)

Playing soon at Lula Lounge:
Jaffa Road - Jan 27
Alchemy and Algorithm - Chemistry & Math 101 with
Tasa & Rinsethealgorithm- Jan 28

"My music is inspired by some travels to the Middle East, particularly Israel and Egypt," says Aaron Lightstone of Jaffa Road. "When I was there, I was very struck by the work of musicians in terms of mixing cultures - in pop music, as well as classical." It's a concept people who listen to live music in Toronto will be very familiar with, that mixing of cultures, although there is one significant difference between the musical climate here and in Israel. "In Israel, you'll hear ethnic instruments in mainstream pop music," he says. In North America, what we lump into the term "world music" is largely ghettoized.

Drawn to the mix of traditions he found all over the region and drawing on his own roots, Jaffa Road's music includes lyrics in Hebrew and Jewish themes. For Aaron, it's the music that's paramount. "It's fairly clear, in the way that we fuse music together, that it's about acceptance of diversity." There's a fusing of traditional forms into new expression, including elements of classical Arabic and Indian music, and modern jazz and pop. It fuses acoustic and electronic, secular and sacred themes.

With the concert on January 27, Lightstone's intention is to take another step and fuse his band with 2 members of Eccodek, (Andrew MacPherson and Deliveryboy,) adding an electronic, dubby vibe to the Middle Eastern flavoured music and. "To change things up," Lightstone says, "I'm quite excited about the results. This will be more of a dance party." (photos courtesy the band.)

While I can't make it to Jaffa Road on the 27th, the very next evening, I'll be checking out Alchemy and Algorithm - Chemistry & Math 101 with Tasa (right) & Rinsethealgorithm, (below) two bands I've been meaning to check out for some time. When it comes to mixing or fusing traditions, I'm not sure there's many left unexplored in the music of these two bands.

Tasa, created by tabla player & composer Ravi Naimpally, has always been a vehicle for exploring the cultural hodgepodge that is Canada - including Western jazz - in terms of instrumentation as well as musical traditions, while influenced by his studies of the music of North India. Their style is varied, kinetic, and as much a showcase for talented musicianship as for any cultural expression.
Rinsethealgorithm was formed by Toronto based electric bassist Rich Brown "with the purpose of taking a modern approach to the idea that Jazz was the original dance music" as he says on his website. The music takes elements of jazz rock and funk from the 1970's to 1990's and mixes them with modern dance music for modern audiences. You get the relentless groove of today's sounds with the more complex musical ideas of jazz. I think Brown's own advice (again from the website) is probably the best: "don't ask, listen".

I guess I will.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Schubert, Sir Walter Scott & the Aldeburgh Connection

The Aldeburgh Connection
The Lady of the Lake, and other tales
Walter Hall, Sunday, January 24, 2:30pm

Featuring: Anita Krause, mezzo; Christopher Enns, tenor; James Levesque, baritone; Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata, piano; Raymond O'Neill, narrator

The "Schubertiad" was a delightful tradition begun by none other than Schubert himself, who was fond of playing for his friends, who would sing or play along with Franz at the piano. Those evenings of song, chamber music and solo piano works evolved into the type of concert we now know of by this name.

The Romantic is a likable era in general, and Schubert has always been a favourite composer of mine, so I'm looking forward to this Sunday's continuation of the Aldeburgh Connection's annual Schubertiad tradition. They'll be performing Schubert's adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's The Lady of the Lake, published in 1810. Schubert began to compose seven settings from Scott's poem in 1825, and they were first performed by singer Michael Vogl, (in both male and female parts), touring with Schubert himself later that year. (Sir Walter Scott's portrait by Henry Raeburn, below.)

The story concerns James Fitz-James, a knight who arrives unexpectedly at the home of a highland chief. The knight falls in love with the daughter of an outlaw, who has other suitors. It gets very complicated, lots of clan politics, but in the end, Fitz-James ends up mortally wounding the highland chief in a fight. The daughter of the outlaw appears with a signet ring, asking for a pardon for her father from the king... who ends up to be Fitz-James himself - King James V. Her father is pardoned, the bad guy dies, and she is able to marry her love (who isn't the king). Something with a happy ending, finally!

Based at the University of Toronto, Aldeburgh Connection is named after Aldeburgh, a small town on the east coast of England where Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Eric Crozier founded the Festival of Music which flourishes to this day. Artistic Directors Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata have visited and worked there for many summers, as have many of the singers who appear with the Aldeburgh Connection.

The Schubertiads are performed in honour of Greta Kraus, a former friend and mentor of the group. Kraus was a renowned harpsichordist and pianist in her own right, as well as playing accompaniment to many fine singers of her time. She was an Honorary Patron of the Aldeburgh Connection - and Schubert was her favourite composer.

The programme includes other Schubert Lieder, with tea and cookies at intermission. See you on Sunday!

(Drawing of Schubert at about 16 thought to be by Franz Schober.)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Classical Music Concerts in NYC - If I Had My Way..

NYC Classical Music Picks

Due to that awful thing known as "work committments" (which should be outlawed, if I had my way - we need to get a petition going,) it looks like I won't make it back to New York City for another month at least. But, if I had unlimited money, unlimited time, and a place just waiting for me in Manhattan whenever I felt like jetting over, I've looked through at least part of the treasure trove of what's on offer in the next little while, and this is what I'd take in:

The Big Shows:

Daniel Baremboim (piano), Pierre Boulez (conducting) & the Vienna Philharmonic playing Schoenberg, Webern and Mahler (as they should!) at Carnegie Hall - January 16 (image of Daniel Barenboim, above, by Fernando Delgado Bépar, 2005)

The Zukerman ChamberPlayers with Angela Cheng at the piano, playing Brahms & Kodaly at Kaufman Concert Hall - January 24

Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax playing Schuman and Chopin at Carnegie Hall - January 29 (image of Yo-Yo Ma courtesy of the World Economic Forum, taken 2008)

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Angela Hewitt and Christopher Taylor at Carnegie Hall - February 6

Off the Beaten Path:

Chamber Music at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Yefim Bronfman and members of the NY Phil playing Mozart, Ravel & Brahms - January 17 (image of Yefim Bronfman, bottom, taken at the Tanglewood Festival, July 3, 2009)

The Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players with Adam Neiman (piano) & Xiao-Dong Wang (violin) play French composers - Poulenc, Gaubert, Ravel, Delibes, Dubois at the Good Shepherd Church - January 18

Northern Lights music from the far north at Scandinavia House - January 21

Mozart, Khachaturian, Bruch & Brahms on the Barge - January 29

The Fauré Quartet makes their NYC debut in a Sunday Morning Coffee Concert at the Lincoln Center - January 31

Cool Stuff:

Open End contemporary music specialists play Atar Arad, Gyorgy Ligeti, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Steven Stucky, Andrew Waggoner, and Anna Weesner plus four free improvisations in a FREE concert at Our Saviour's Atonement Lutheran Church - January 17

The Dodd String Quartet plays Mozart, St-Georges and Juan Crisostomo de Arriaga on period instruments at Merkin Concert Hall - January 19 (2pm matinee)

Con Vivo New Jersey - The Strangetet + String Music for a New World at the Stone NYC, with the Music of Mexico, Lior Novak, Simon Fink and Ben Greenstein - January 22

The Bronx Art Ensemble plays Mozart, Beethoven, with Stewart Goodyear at the piano for the World Premiere of Dogged by Hellhounds - January 24

The Houston Symphony plays Stravinsky, Dutilleux, and Holst's The Planets with a spanking new HD film to add to the experience, Carnegie Hall - January 28

I'd be tired but very happy - and I didn't even include opera!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Full Bloom - Male Dance Show at the Young Centre

Full Bloom
Choreographed by Luches Huddleston Jr., Kevin O'Day, Robert Glumbek
Performed by Luches Huddleston Jr., Kevin O'Day & Roberto Campanella
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Steve Reich, Otis Redding, Henryk Gorecki, Max Richter, Blue Swede, Bucovina Club/Edwin Starr, Frederic Chopin, Neil Young & Jordi Savall.

Young Centre, Toronto - Continues to January 16
Show runs 70 minutes, no intermission

Full Bloom isn't just an all male dance piece about the male experience. In the ultimate tribute to the three talented performers who took the stage, I actually forgot that the show was about men over forty until Huddleston Jr.'s spoken word bit about halfway through. Up to that point, I was simply bemused and entertained by the clever and expressive choreography, the notion of dealing with maleness via dance.

It's not that the show has a narrative thread exactly, but those themes are never far from mind, from the opening bit portraying that universal passage of (Western) malehood - the tying of the necktie - even to the specific dance moves. There are pas de deux with moves that alternate between half-competitive jostling and the intertwining, the intimate lifts and turns we've come to expect from the male/female version. In the latter, the female role is the epitome of grace; when the distaff side of it is left out, the result is less refined, more athletic, more hard angles and fewer curves. When the three dance together to the same moves, they're slightly different, each bringing a little something extra to it, a little competitive, a little visual one upmanship.

Each performer had a solo in the spotlight, and if the years have taken away any of their juice, that fact wasn't in evidence. O'Day and Campanella have backgrounds in ballet, Huddleston Jr. in modern dance, but the their various styles blended and bounced off each other nicely, seamlessly. The nearly sold out house for opening night was on its feet for a well deserved and extended standing ovation, one that eventually included Glumbek too, who was in the audience.

The dance goes from tension to exhaustion to competition; they're agonizing over the mystery of childbirth and the pains of aging, half fighting one minute and supporting each other the next. It's funny and touching, and just like, you know, a bunch of guys - that's how men are.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

My Next Stage Theatre Festival Blitz

My Next Stage Theatre Festival Blitz
Factory Theatre, Toronto
continues to January 17

I tried to cram in as much of Next Stage as I could this weekend, ending up seeing 4 of the Festival's 8 offerings. I want to emphasize my choices were based on my own time constraints, and not meant to diss the other 4. From what I could see, the overall quality is pretty even and the bar set pretty high for some cool viewing at affordable prices - with packages starting at a mere $48 for 4 plays.

Just East of Broadway
Starring Sean Beak, Lana Crillo, Ma-Ann Dionisio, Darrell Allen Gamotin, Stephen Lilly, Cory O'Brien

Written by Nicholas Hune-Brown and Ben King, who brought us The Lord of the Rings: The Musical: The Musical! a hit a 2007's Fringe Fest with its tale of Toronto mayor David Miller fighting off evil developers, this musical tackles the tale of Rex Maverick (O'Brien,) a Hollywood has-been trying to resurrect his career in the People's Republic of China, of all places, (but the idea was based on an article about the burgeoning musical theatre scene in that Asian tiger, no word of a lie!) It's an absurdist comedy with lots of twists to the story - a treacherous wife, a murder plot, the "good" girl who dislikes him at first, (and we all know where that road leads!) - throw in the production that will save the town, and is on the brink of closing, and it has familiar outlines. You won't find Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in this one, but you will find the bodyguard/assassin who finds a talent for dance, and the mid-level Communist Party official who wants to sing..

The absurdity's in perfect pitch, and the play cleverly written to allow for both high notes of theatre and comedy in the same moment - like Stephen Lilly's fab dance sequence - or the heartfelt love ballad sung by Sui Fung (Lana Carillo) to her boyfriend .. as he staggers around poisoned by mistake. The actors play it just right, straight and sincere in the face of the insanity, and there are plenty of laughs.

Written by Tessa King
Directed by Andrew Lamb
Starring Christine Brubaker, Ian D. Clark, Rosemary Dunsmore & Fiona Highet

This play is billed as a black comedy, but drama would do just as well. It's a nicely nuanced story about what happens when your mother - someone integral to the structure of your backstory - dies, and your comfortable fictions about family mythology begin to fall apart. Brubaker plays Anne McBride, single working woman and the family "fixer", looking after her ailing mother and increasingly distant Alzheimer's stricken father with a kind of joyless practicality. Highet is the younger sister who escaped to Australia and a family of her own. When Jean, the matriarch, (Dunsmore) dies, they come back together and predictable tensions ensue, (predictable, that is, if you've got any siblings).

Jean's ghost or apparition serves as the niggling memory, a concrete symbol of Anne's growing realization of just how far apart her glowing eulogy of the quintessential loving wife and mother, bringing joy to all around her, was to the reality of her parents' rather empty marriage. The piece is well written, taking what seems like very familiar outlines and laying out clues to the mystery, the great secret that shattered the heart of the family and left it a mostly empty shell that floated on for decades. Bill, the father, adds to the effect, slipping in and out of time in his dementia. Family memories have to be taken as a collective; when you add up all the pieces, that's how the truth is found.

What's particularly strong is the acting all around, from Brubaker's woman on the edge to Clark's addled Dad, without a false note between them. It's directed by Andrew Lamb, who's also directing My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding for Mirvish.

Quite Frankly
Written by Justin Sage-Passant
Directed by Jonno Katz
Starring Justin Sage-Passant

This engrossing one man play takes us inside the claustrophobic world of a man and his mother, a story shot through with black humour and squirmy eww moments (the narrator looks after his invalid mother's caregiver role, including her daily hygiene -nuff said!) It's a quirky story that rambles on from the opening admission of a life changing incident in grade school when he lost control over certain bodily functions (another squirmy moment) and ran home with dirty pants to the ridicule of the other kids.. and his mother too. It's a story that gets inside the head of that school weirdo and his life of misadventures; the repressed anger, the social awkwardness, the sad human being who's somehow never able to connect with the world.

But most of that darkness is hinted at, implied rather than spelled out in a series of anecdotes that had the audience laughing both at his plight and clear sighted observations. Sage-Passant was impeccable in the role, completely embodying the narrator, with his stooped posture. He steps out of that character occasionally to depict the mother and a couple of odd characters that cross their paths on the way, but the piece's strength is certainly in his character. You won't be sure of what's coming in the end; you'll have your suspicions, and probably, like me, be proven wrong.

Icarus Redux
Written & directed by Sean O'Neill
Starring Jonathan Whittaker & Sean O'Neill

Sean O'Neill's retake of the Greek myth of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun on wings created by his father Deadalus, and thus died, eschews conventional story for a more abstract meditation on parental ties, and parental grief at the loss of a child. As O'Neill says in the play's notes, "The play began as a flash in my mind of Daedalus, the Ancient Greeks' archetypal artist-creator.. He was alone, in the dark, crying for his lost son, reeling with the knowledge that his creation led to his son's destruction, trying in desperation to conjure the boy back into the world of the living."

As such, we follow the jittery imagination of Daedalus (Whittaker,) someone who's loosened his grip on the concrete world, creating a marionette, then the vision of the Boy himself (O'Neill). The outlines of "what happened" are sketchy, and only hinted at - the flight, the fall, the death. What's compelling about the play is the interaction between the father and son, conveying the sense of parental responsibility, the patience, the occasional moments when the mask slips (and surely it's only coincidence that this is the second play I saw to include a parent mentioning the cleaning of shit from their progeny's pants??) and the overwhelming grief that keeps him in the world of his imagination, the world where the Boy didn't die.

Also recommended (the ones I didn't see):
  • Red Queen Effect - a send up of the corporate world where you have to run faster just to stay in the same place, starring a slew of well known comedians and actors, including Aurora Browne (Second City, Comedy Inc.) and one of my favourite actors anywhere, Nicholas Campbell (Da Vinci's Inquest, and about a thousand other things!)
  • Gas - a snapshot of five soldiers stations in Iraq whose mission revolves around gasoline - supplying it, selling it and protecting it. The timely story of war premiered in Montreal and also opens in Tokyo in May.
  • The Making of St. Jerome - inspired by the fatal shooting of a Filipino-Canadian teenager by police in 2004, this drama looks at guilt, grief and brotherly love against the backdrop of the Coroner's inquest into the shooting.
  • Like Father, Like Son? Sorry - veteran one man show creator Chris Gibbs comedic take on fatherhood was a big hit at its premier, getting rave reviews from all the biggies.

Koki Tanaka - Random Hours, YYZ Gallery Toronto

Koki Tanaka
Random Hours at YYZ Gallery
Artist talk January 9 - show continues to February 20, 2010

An artist's talk is a chance to get to know a show, or even a body of work, from the inside out, and despite apologizing for any language gaps in his first ever talk in English, Japanese multimedia artist Koki Tanaka managed to get across his artistic approach with a wry, almost self deprecating humour ("I can't create anything.. so I arrange things") that was representative of the mood of his work in general.

He began by mentioning that, as a young man returning home for family visits, he'd be constantly annoyed by his parents' lazy practice of simply starting up a new bar of soap in the bathroom when the old one was not quite done. It resulted in a pile of nearly used up bars of soap beside the sink that he'd get rid of each time he came - until one day it struck him: his parents were creating sculpture, albeit unwittingly. It gave him the notion of looking at ordinary objects in new ways, which sounds simple enough, but has led to some very interesting explorations on his part.

In essence, his work begins by simply looking at ordinary objects as if they'd never been seen before. What is this? What can I do with it? And what would happen if..? His work takes the form of installations, photographs and video, (although he hesitates to call himself a video artist for fear of being hemmed in by the label). One of the videos, Everything is Everything, shows a series of short clips of "things being done to objects", for lack of a better description, like a rubber boot folding and dropping off a railing, or a mattress falling down stairs, or someone kicking a ladder. Alone, they don't sound like much, but together they become an interesting and often amusing parade of snippets that make you look at the objects differently yourself.

It's a point of view that's at once childlike, naive, and very deliberate - even if they're created in a state of unconscious intent, as Tanaka describes it. In an installation at La Chaine BankART Studio NYK, Yokohama, he took trash left by previous shows and put it together as a raft, which he floated in the bay (see image above). He confesses a fascination with rolls of toilet paper - used in the video "Fly me to the moon" (image). In a video called "How to draw a line on the road", (2007) for example, he lines up a series of quart milk cartons and drives over them with the tire of his car. In another, he feeds caviar to pigeons, and while the majority ignored it, one intrepid bird became what is surely the first ever pigeon to eat caviar, captured on video. It's often happenstance that dictates the nature of the work, as in the raft installation, or in a piece inspired by a New York City residency and a lack of funding. He takes a room full of empty display cases and shelves and so on, and creates a multi level installation that is indeed reminiscent of the Manhattan skyline.

His current show at YYZ is the result of a 4 week residency, and includes a video of Tanaka getting a haircut by three different stylists, and my favourite, a kind of playroom where you go up and down ramps and around walls set with videos that show mechanical and/or repetitive actions. Having just come from Los Angeles, he says much of his inspiration comes from a reaction to Toronto's mid-winter cold spell - something he says will also be informing future work. It's an interesting show and a neat point of view - all of it originally inspired by a pile of soap.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Thundering Roar - Mi Young Kim Korean Dance Company

The Thundering Roar
Mi Young Dance Company
Tonight (January 9) - Toronto Centre for the Arts, 7:30pm

In the programme for Thundering Roar, Mi Young Kim says her intent is "to show my audience the great range of style and dynamics in Korean dance", and I think the show lives up to that principle. From the slower, more contemplative mood of the opening half to a rousing, colourful finish, I left feeling I'd been shown just that.

Korean dance is often about storytelling, and the first half of the show tended to stay in that mode. The dancers were largely in white - flowing white robes, white caps, with an occasional bright red sash, or black sleeves. Only the hands, and dramatic outlines of the faces are visible. The robes themselves become part of their deliberate movements, either singly or in groups. Heung Sup So took the male role in Mong Yeong (A Love in Dream), a narrative piece. In Crossing, Kim teams up with Sashar Zarif, a proponent of Azerbaijani dance. It's a work that examines the affinities between Korean Buddhist dance, and the shamanic rituals of Korean and Iranian traditions. Zarif, by the way, has a remarkable history, having immigrated to Canada in 1988 from Turkey as a stateless refugee of the UN. Having lived in India, Azerbaijan and Iran, among others, he blends those traditions into a style he calls his own. The stylistic similarities between the swirling movements - including robes - and use of percussion and dance together made for a thought provoking piece.

The second half was more colourful, both in costumes and intent, including drum dances both solo and in company with the Jianggo, an hourglass shaped drum, (in the images, Kim performs a solo changgochum at SooRyu 2007). A highlight was five of the ladies doing a drum dance in synch - you can check out a clip of the company doing a similar dance here at SooRyu 2006, Kim's annual Korean dance event.

The most modern of traditions was featured in the form of B-boys from the Hip Hop Symphony, a quartet of young men who know how to put on an energetic performance. In the end, the elegant ladies and street dancing boys get together for Soo Ryu Drum Dance in a finale that ends on a real high note.

Kim notes that many of the pieces are yet works in progress, but they're polished enough for an enjoyable start to your Saturday night if you're so inclined.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Beating Seasonal Affective Disorder with Performing Arts

Performing Arts to Beat S.A.D.

Here in the colder climes, I can think of no better way to stave off seasonal affective disorder than by experiencing performing arts. I find them inspiring, and on stage, January is anything but blah in Toronto this year. So here's a bit of a mash up of some of the interesting shows coming up in the very near future. I intend on checking out as many as I can, (weather permitting, and so on,) so reviews may and should trickle in later.

Next Stage Theatre Festival
January 6 - 17 at the Factory Theatre

I'm somewhat remiss in my timing, in that the Next Stage Theatre Festival, is opening as we speak here on January 6. Next Stage is billed as Toronto's "fastest rising industry showcase". Produced by the Toronto Fringe Festival people, showcases productions that have premiered at Canadian Association of Fringe Fesitivals' member Festivals (did you catch that?). Executive Director Gideon Arthurs explains, "We launched Next Stage in response to a pressing need in our community: emerging artists aren't being given the opportunity to take their work beyond the summer festival circuit, despite being critically or commercially successful." The cause is worthy, and so are the offerings, including:
  • Icarus Redux - a modern explosion of the classical myth in an Axis Mundi (formerly Open Season Theatre) production that garnered high praise at this year's Toronto Fringe (image is of the Fall of Icarus by Peter Paul Rubens)
  • Just East of Broadway - by Nicholas Hune-Brown and Ben King, the people who brought you LOTR: The Musical, a silly, funny musical that takes place in the People's Republic of China
  • Buried - by Tessa King, directed here as it was at its first reading at Tarragon Theatre by Andrew Lamb, who's also directing My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, which just had a run with Mirvish in November and will be back due to popular demand in February.
+ 5 more - check the website for complete details!

The Thundering Roar
Mi Young Kim Dance Company
January 8 & 9 - Toronto Centre for the Arts

This is the second in a two part series the Mi Young Kim Dance Company began with a performance in November focused on traditional dances. This time around, the show is dedicated to experimental work. Mi Young Kim will perform Monk's Dance, a piece she developed after more than a year of research on Korean Buddhist dance and rituals, and in other pieces, she teams up with dancer/choreographer Sashir Zarif in a collaborative work based on the shamanistic cultures of Korea and Iran - there'll be cymbals and drums, B-boys from the Hip Hop Symphony and more. Sounds unique!

Full Bloom
The Young Centre, Distillery District
January 12 - 17

Full Bloom is an all male dance review that - not surprisingly - looks at the male experience, from fatherhood to aging to the male role in dance itself. The show is choreographed by Robert Glumbek, Kevin O'Day and Luches Huddleston Jr., and got its world premiere at Ballet Mannheim (Germany) in October, where O'Day is Artistic Director. Huddleston is an an alumni of Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, among many others, and Glumbek has choreographed for the Finnish National Theatre and Pro Arte Danza in another CV that's too long to list here. All in their 40's, they're joined on stage by Roberto Campanella, a fixture on Toronto's dance scene and choreographer/Artistic Director of ProArteDanza. It's being billed as a "personal and intimate journey", and these guys have definitely got all the right stuff - it got impressive reviews in Germany and I'm expecting big things here too.

January 22 - 24 at the Harbourfront Centre

You can cram in a veritable cornocupeia of dance all in one weekend, all at Harbourfront when the area's finest companies put it on for the people. What I really like about the idea is that you get a wide variety of styles - as their promo tells us "from contemporary, b-boying and ballet, to bellydance, Bharatanatyam, jazz, flamenco and African.". The shows run in 20-25 minute sets, and include well known companies like Ballet Creole and Ballet Jorgen, along with lesser known names. Time to gorge on dance!

Billy Bishop Goes to War
Soulpepper Theatre - Young Centre
Previews from January 22, opening night January 26 - February 27

It first opened in 1978 in Vancouver and it's toured the world since then, but Billy Bishop still packs 'em in with a story about war that transcends time. This version features the venerable (and delightful) Eric Peterson as Bishop (along with King George V and 16 other characters,) and John Gray as the Narrator and Pianist. Directed by Ted Dykstra, this production got rave reviews last time it played in town.

About the photos: "two dancers" by Barry Goyette, December 29, 2007 & Ballet Dancer by Stano Novak, 2006.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Jeon Soo-il's With a Girl of Black Soil (2007)

With a Girl of Black Soil (2007)
Geomen tangyi sonyeo oi

Produced by Jo In-Suk for Dong Nyuk Film
Written & Directed by Jeon Soo-il
Starring Yoo Yeon-mi, Park Hyun-woo and Jo Yong-jin
Director of Photography Kim Sung-Tai
89 minutes, 2007

Like the title of acclaimed director Jeon Soo-il's family drama, much of the subtitling in this Korean indie film is not-quite-English. It gives the dialogue an off centre quality to the point, at times, that you're not entirely sure of what's being said.

But you won't be watching this film for the dialogue. It tells the story of 9 year old Choi Young-Lim (Yoo Yeon-mi), who lives with her father Hye-Gon (Jo Yung-Jun) and mentally-handicapped brother Tong-Gu (Park Hyun-Woo) in a bleak mining town in the mountains of Kangwon province. Hye-Gon works in the mine until black lung disease ends his career. An attempt at a business goes nowhere, he's got the one ailment they won't pay compensation for, the company owned house they live in is scheduled for demolition.. and he gradually spirals downwards into alcoholic despair, leaving Choi the only one left to deal with their stark realities. As such, the story has familiar outlines, and - to get back to my point - the dialogue and progression of the plot are curiously bloodless for such emotional territory. There's a fight scene that's too obviously faked, with little sense of action or drama, typical of an overall tone that seems somewhat emotionally removed.

Where the film does excel is in its visual storytelling. The industrial landscape, in all its manmade ugliness, is brought artfully to life by DOP Kim Sung-Tai as a sterile environment, devoid of beauty and grace; not malevolent, but indifferent to its human inhabitants, dwarfing them with its utilitarian, industrial aesthetic. They live in a makeshift town of thrown together wooden buildings. Nothing looks clean, new, or really warm in the wintry landscape. In the opening, we follow Hye-Gon down into the mine and feel their dank and sunless confines, the blank faced, back bending labour of the miners. A shot of Choi, her small, mouth pursed anxiously as we see her father behind her, in a room just behind a paper screened door, lying drunk and passed out, says much more than all of the dialogue put together.

If it lacks a certain dramatic tension, the actors do bring an effective sense of the poignancy of their situation. Hye-Gon's face wears its sense of despair, and sweet faced Yoo Yeon-mi is a wonderful child actress, conveying her tightly held sense of responsibility in her posture and a small frown, in the depths of her big eyes. She's a worthy addition to the cinema's lexicon of hard living children. In the end, Choi sets out to fix the family's problems herself with a 9 year old's logic. It's visually involving and evocatively told, if emotionally somewhat disconnected.

You can check it out online here.

With a Girl of Black Soil won prizes at Venice, Deauville, Barcelona, Marrakech and Las Palmas, and was shown at Toronto's Royal Cinema as part of a continent-wide Jeon Soo-il retrospective put on by Montreal's Ciné-Asie, a traveling retrospective that continues to Vancouver: January 7 – 11, Los Angeles: January 15 – 24, Ottawa: January 23 & 30, Washington D.C.: April 11 & 18, and New York: April 22 – 25. Check the website for times & locations.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Thinking about Kafka on New Year's Day

It's New Year's Day and for some reason my thoughts turn to Kafka. You'd think Sartre or Camus instead, right? all existentialist about the new decade and so on, but no, it's Kafka's books that are staring at me from my bookcase.

I read The Trial while I was still in university some three decades or so ago, and no book since has stayed with me to the same degree. Over the years since, I've read many interpretations of the work, and most interpretations and discussions dwell on asking “who is punishing him for what?” The big question for most people, (and university lecturers, apparently,) is what is he on trial for? - as if that were somehow a key to understanding the book.

I think they miss the point. I think I have an insight they don't. He had to pay the bills like anyone else, and though he hated it, he worked in insurance for some years. He understood very well the way human suffering (at one point, he assessed personal injury claims) is dealt with by reducing it to statistics and procedures.

I've worked in insurance myself. I've also had monumental battles with hospital administrations, worker's comp, and the family court system, and what he's captured perfectly is the experience of being the fly trapped in the machinations of bureaucracy, the icy heart of which allows each of the many cogs in its wheels to believe themselves not responsible, the way everyone only does their tiny bit, the next step in the procedure, then passes the file along to someone else, so there is never anyone who actually knows what it going on, no one is ever actually responsible for knowing or keeping track of the whole situation, the way it reaches a point where it truly doesn't matter anymore what the trial was about or where it started, it's only about getting through this next procedure, this next filing, this next day. That's what he's talking about, I'm sure of it. Bureaucracy as the ultimate evil.

I've only read Kafka in German and French, as it happens, (books bought during my uni days,) and while the French is rather interesting, I think the German, which was Kafka's language, with its very concrete nature, is intrinsically suited to the depiction of that icy heart of bureaucracy. In our modern era, we now believe that Kafka suffered from social anxiety and clinical depression - is that how he was able to see all of this so clearly? I read a review of a biography of Byron recently, where the thought was posited that, in this day and age, he would have simply been pharmaceutically treated for his obvious sexual addiction - and perhaps silenced, because isn't that where his greatest work came from? Are we muzzling a generation of great artists and thinkers with Effexor and Paxil? I think we might. I teach creative writing courses, and I will often tell my students, we do this because we can't afford therapy...

In very fitting coda to this whole piece, the Onion's Business Week report named Prague's Franz Kafka Airport as the most alienating in the world - I get all my news from the Onion!