Friday, February 12, 2016

Oscillating Wildly

You know how you go away for a few days and then you come back and it feels like life is hurtling at you in repayment?

Yea, so that.

At Swift Creek Mill Theatre yesterday waiting to see "The Little Lion," a woman behind me asks her companion, "Shall I wake you when it's over?" The man gets indignant, replying, "I don't go to sleep until it starts!"

I think he was kidding because I never heard any obvious snoring and besides, how do you fall asleep when a revving motorbike is part of the 22-person cast? Or for that matter, when a tragic story of Lithuanian Jews being beaten, killed and herded into ghettos is unfolding in front of you?

Arriving a few minutes late for the latest Public Arts meeting, I found a seat at a table where I recognized two of the people - an architect and a dancer - and promptly introduced myself to the other two. One, like me, had already attended one of these meetings.

Five minutes into the presentation, we both realized that it was exactly the same as last time. Leaning in to whisper, I asked if we should leave and got a big smile and a nod, so we quietly exited while the rest of the room stayed.

What do you do with a stranger but go have a drink and talk for a couple of hours? Turns out we'd both assumed that tonight's event was going to be the next stage of public input, not a repeat. We consoled ourselves with our shared misconceptions.

How dumb could we be if we both thought the same thing? How unexpectedly enjoyable to spend time getting to know someone new when we thought we'd be diligently working toward the greater good?

Today was all about catching up on deadlines and setting up interviews for upcoming stories. Midway through the day, I got a non-work-related lunch invitation for next week and immediately sent off my enthusiastic acceptance.

My day was made with the response. "I'm not going to insult you by asking if you need a parking pass." Thank you for that.

I managed a 5 1/2 mile walk before returning to the grindstone and hurriedly showering and primping to go out. Despite temperatures of 28 that feel like 20, I rebelled against the past few days of sensible legwear and opted for magenta lace tights, well aware of what excellent conversation-starters they are.

First up was the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design's soiree, an introductory event for their new director Craig Reynolds, who also delivered a lecture on his pet subject, "Setting the Presidential Model: Thomas Jefferson and Architecture and Design."

Besides the fact that he couldn't have even been alive when the Smiths formed, his was a compelling talk about how important it was to TJ to establish an American artistic model for successive generations to follow.

In other words, don't leave it to the rabble to figure that out, leave them a blueprint.

A golden opportunity presented itself when West Point commissioned painter Thomas Sully (who greatly admired TJ's state capital design, but then who didn't?) to do a portrait of the 78-year old to hang with one of George Washington in their esteemed halls.

I was interested to hear that TJ had his own portrait collection, including the faces of Lafayette, Sir Isaac Newton, John Locke, Cortez, Columbus, Magellan, Ben Franklin and, natch, George. The Americans, he dubbed "worthies" and, yep, he included a portrait of himself.

He was a proponent of what he called "natural aristocracy," based on virtue and talent as opposed to traditional aristocracy based on wealth and birth. That's our boy, so American.

Ditto his choice of ensemble for the portrait, which involved a fur-lined coat (American rustic) over a three-piece black suit (I'm a simple man) and - this was key to TJ - shoes that laced not buckled. Buckles are unnecessary and showy, kind of like the English, whose architecture he deemed "the most wretched style I ever saw."

The colonial capital Williamsburg he called "tasteless and barbarous" and William and Mary's campus was no more than "rude and misshapen piles." Is it any wonder we love this man?

All in all, the young Dr. Reynolds' lecture was stellar, full of fascinating quotes and nerdy art history factoids that I hadn't heard before. He'll do just fine as director even if "This Charming Man" means nothing to him.

I call that an auspicious start to my evening.

At Ghostprint Gallery, I found a crowded room and widespread appreciation of my distinctive tights. One guy liked them so much he pulled over three friends, one by one, to admire them. I broke it to them gently that they were likely just leg men so their attention was about more than what was covering them.

I should know better than to open that kind of door, except that it resulted in a delightful exchange with a guy about having an EKG with a hairy chest and the problems inherent in that. Have first or get a faulty reading?

How better to learn such things than straight from the horse's mouth?

A flicking of the lights signaled the main event, "Totems," a live music and dance collaboration inspired by the colorful costumes created by artist Carol Meese, whose abstract paintings of the Outer Banks adorn the gallery's walls.

But for tonight, it was these incredible costumes and headdresses she'd created that were the focus. With original music by Regan Nunnally Sprenkle and a chorus of seven plus a drummer, we witnessed eight dancers choreographed by Isabel Layton come out individually and perform in the center of the room.

Carol had explained that the colorful, multi-textural outfits ("totems," as gallerist Gerladine Duskin had dubbed them) had been inspired partly by artifacts she'd seen in the VMFA's African collection and partly during a trip to Morocco.

That alone was compelling enough, but a closer look revealed many details exhibiting nods to American consumerism.

Silverware, kitchen utensils and even red and yellow plastic ketchup and mustard bottles hung from one dancer's hips. Anther's headdress tinkled with the sound of dozens of bottle caps jangling against each other. Shells, coins, animal figures and all kinds of other objects adorned the multi-layered costumes.

The dancing had a similar multi-culturalism, combining elements of African, Native American and Middle Eastern movement by the women, all veiled to hide their faces and with black gloves over their hands.

Despite the roomful of spectators, the performance unfolded organically with people on three sides of it, quiet and agog at the beauty of the trifecta of clothing, music and dance. As a friend put it, "I felt like I was in New York again!"

I recognized faces throughout the room as the kind of people who attend a lot of the more unusual goings-on in Richmond, but all of them agreed afterwards that this was an extraordinary marriage of performance and visual arts. Part of TJ's American artistic legacy, I'm thinking.

With apologies to Morrissey, heaven knows I'm happy to be back in the thick of things now.

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