January Letters: Dancing orphans…...

Readers respond about Rwanda's dancing orphans, Bob Levin's bar mitzvah, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Terry Gilliam's films, boxers and death, airport security, Liv Ullman's Streetcar, the Academy of Music's acoustics, conceptual art, Bruce Nauman's 'Notations,' China's threat, dual-career musicians, Moment of Psycho, Green Metropolis, Lynn Hoffman's poems, Mum Puppettheatre, Peggy Amsterdam, Patti Smith, aftermath of an accident, an agnostic's view of Jesus, small-cast plays and Jonathan Larson's Rent.

Dancing orphan: The follow-up

     My thanks to everyone who responded to my article, “Dancing for his life in Rwanda,” by supporting the young Rwandan, Christian Ntaganda. With our collective support, we have been able to register Christian to complete two semesters of school starting in February.
     This means so much that it is hard to find words to show our appreciation. Instead, here is part of the email I received from Kenneth, my on-the-ground contact, who collected the wire funds transfer and registered Christian:
     "[Christian] was visibly excited and did not hide it from me that he was now very optimistic that the future ahead of him was bright..... I just want to say thank you so much for the great work you are doing, and am only humbled to be part of this."
     Kenneth also sent the attached photo. Part of the money was used to buy Christian a mattress. Christian is in the blue shirt; Kenneth is in the grey shirt.
     I will continue to keep you updated about Christian's progress.
Rebecca Davis
Artistic director
Rebecca Davis Dance Company
South Philadelphia
January 24, 2010

Bar mitzvah boy

     Re “The reluctant bar mitzvah boy,” by Bob Levin—
     I've had a long-standing, happy argument with my friend Mayo Simon, a playwright in New York. Having been brought up by Jesuits and other philosophical ruminants, I tend to think that intention counts in the "goodness" or significance of an act. Mayo, having been brought up by rabbis, says, "Doing is what matters, no matter what you think about it."
     I belong to a shul that is Reconstructionist in name, though headed by a rabbi who got his smicha in Vilna before World War II, so you can imagine the flavor wafting through the modernity. Our friends are mostly Reform and Conservative. Two of our lawyers are Orthodox. Others practice purely cultural/ethical Judaism. They all agree that the only point is b'mitzvotav— you fulfilled a commandment. That ‘s what was required of you. Nothing else.
     You didn't like it? So, what else is new? Thanks for an absorbing and funny post.
Harrison Solow
Los Angeles, Calif.
January 25, 2010

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

     Re “Lady Macbeth escapes from the program notes,” by Tom Purdom (Jan. 20, 2007)—
     Excellent review, but the Shostakovich opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, is not based on "a classic," but upon a real
event that was reported in the journals.
Claudio Berrotaran
MorÓ³n (Buenos Aires), Argentina
January 23, 2010

     Editor's note: To read an earlier response, click here.

Avatar vs. The Imaginarium

     Re "Avatar vs. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," by Judy Weightman—
     It might also be pointed out that Terry Gilliam, director of The Imaginarium, is an artist with a consistent message behind his work.
     We've seen this clash of the real world and its values vs. the imagination before, in Gilliam’s films like Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Working again with his long-time collaborator, Charles McKeown, Gilliam's Dr. Parnassus is less a movie than a novel on film. And novelists are notorious for repeating themselves.
     Mention might also be made that Gilliam, artist that he is, survived the death of his star Heath Ledger and created a richer film (and possibly a richer story) by recruiting various notables to portray Ledger's character as he appears within the world of the imaginarium. This ability to improvise in the face of disaster and actually make lemonade out of lemons is not to be sneezed at.
Andrew Mangravite
Yeadon, Pa.
January 20, 2010

     Judy Weightman replies:
Alas, my original paragraph about Heath Ledger and the casting of Tony was cut in interests of space. I agree: the way Gilliam used the other three actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell) to show different facets of Tony's character was really interesting and very effective. When I went into the movie, I was unclear how that would work, but apparently the filming of the "real world" section had been completed at the time of Ledger's death, so all of the substitutions took place in the world of the imaginarium. (And I didn't get into the magnitude of the loss that Ledger's death is to the world of cinema— he was an amazing talent, and I was saddened anew when I saw this film.)

Death and the boxer

     Re “Why boxers risk death,” by Bob Ingram (August 2009)—
Kid Paret and Emile Griffith were not fighting for Griffith's title. Paret was the champion, and thus his death is the only occasion I know in modern boxing history of a champion dying of fight injuries.
     This was their third title fight, Griffith winning the first fight and
taking the championship, losing the second fight and the championship, and winning the third fight and the championship.
Myron Finsterling
Mt. Pleasant, S.C.
January 22, 2010

     Bob Ingram replies:
I stand corrected.

     Editor's note: To read an earlier response, click here. To read a follow-up to this letter, click here.

Airport security nightmare

     Re “Fear of flying (or landing),” by Reed Stevens—
     What this experience proves is that the American government thinks that by inconveniencing the American people it will show that the government is really is fighting terrorism and protecting the American people.
     The last time I flew— which will be the last time I fly— when I objected to being searched a third time, I was told, "If you don't like it, don't fly."
     I thanked the idiot politely for his sound advice.
Andrew Kevorkian
West Philadelphia
January 13, 2010

     Forget about living in a free country, or what's left of it, when you enter an airport. The price of air (and much of rail and bus) travel these days is the surrender not only of personal liberty but dignity as well. Air travel is the worst, of course.
     The last time I passed through airport security, I was pulled out of line— randomly— for a hand swab. No one told me this; I was just singled out and told to "wait." Finally, someone motioned me toward a new machine. I held my hands out as instructed. Then I was swabbed a second time. Only then did I venture a question about the procedure.
     "You tested positive the first time for explosive residue," I was told. I thought that was odd, since I hadn't written anything for Broad Street Review in a week.
     I passed the second test, so I got off the Transportation Security Administration's Monopoly board that says “GO TO GUANTANAMO” at the end.
     I thought at first that the security regime installed after 9/11 was a hysterical overreaction. Then, as I watched the TSA morph into a monster bureaucracy, I thought it was just a glandular excess of the federal government. Now, it appears to be the trial run for a full-bore police state.
     The war on terror is the war on us. I don't assign Orwell to my students anymore. I just tell them to travel.
Robert Zaller
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
January 13, 2010

     Editor’s comment: Enough with your subtle nuances. Do you like the TSA or don’t you?

     I heard a post-Christmas-bomber discussion of "how we could do things better." One suggestion was "smart inspectors" at the airports, the way Israel handles pre-flight security.
     They have well-trained people who ask many questions to every single passenger, looking for possible hints. For example: How come you're flying across the ocean without luggage?
     These pre-flight examinations take far longer than the take-off-your-shoes and empty-your-pockets routine at our airports. In fact, the Israelis tell people to arrive four hours before flight time. But people feel safe, and the track record is good.
     I'd prefer to spend more time answering intelligent questions beforehand than be manhandled for no obvious reason (and no explanation, either) post-flight.
Bob Rottenberg
Brattleboro, Vt.
January 13, 2010

     What really bothered me is the fact that Reed Stevens automatically described her husband, then added: "He doesn't look Islamic."
     With that statement, you deserved to be searched, because you are stereotyping what a terrorist should and should not look like.
     Give out that energy and vibe and you will receive it back!
King J. Britt
January 13, 2010

     Reed Stevens replies: Picky, picky. The writer doesn't care that I described Jim as "white." Let's hear from some extra- sensitive non-whites! What if I'd said Jim has "two legs"? I suppose everyone with a peg leg would be all over me.

Tinkering with Tennessee

     Re Carol Rocamora’s review of Liv Ullmann’s Streetcar Named Desire—
While everything Dr. Rocamora wrote in her review is true— Blanchett's performance is stunning— she leaves out the fact that Ullmann changed Williams's ending of the play: His last words come from the card players in Stanley and Stella's apartment: "The game is seven-card stud."
     This underscores a different message to the play: that, arguably, the delicate nature of art itself is crushed and ravaged by the brutal and crude forces that rule our world, the dank philistines who gamble away our very essence and all that is pure in the world.
     Why did Ullmann choose to take away Tennessee's final prescient words for a spotlight on Blanchett?
     I would hope you could begin a discussion to answer this question, among others raised by this production.
Dr. Robin Beth Levenson
New York
January 18, 2010

Academy’s acoustics

     Re “The Academy’s acoustics: A forgotten treasure”—
     Steve Cohen, you are so right. I grew up in Philadelphia— the children's concerts, the Friday afternoon concerts with my mother— always packed, always a memorable event. Now, the hard cold facts of the Kimmel and Verizon Hall are the hard cold facts of the current state of the Fabulous Philadelphians: without a sound and without a music director, and— insult to injury— the big fund-raiser for the Academy of Music has to advertise available tickets to hear washed-up rock stars play in white tie.
     I think the same gang that orchestrated the current music fiasco is gearing up to wreck the Barnes Foundation. But that’s another topic.
Liddy Lindsay
West Philadelphia
January 14, 2010

     Editor's note: To read earlier responses, click here.

‘Death’ of conceptual art

     Re “The ‘death’ of conceptual art”—
     Thank you, Victoria Skelly, for so eloquently noting that, when it comes to conceptual art, more times than not the emperor is indeed not wearing any clothes.
     I have been a visual artist for 25 years, and I was the owner and curator of Eklektikos Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. for 11 years. I have seen my share of conceptual art from over the years and I find your observation keen, timely, and astute. Well done!
Michael Sprouse
Rehoboth Beach, Del.
January 13, 2010

Bruce Nauman’s ‘Notations’

     Re Anne R. Fabbri’s review of Bruce Nauman’s “Notations” at the Art Museum—
     Her line about hardship pay for the guards was actually a huge concern of mine. I'm grateful somebody brought it up.
     I visited the exhibit on January 5 and felt terrible for the guards. My choice to experience the din lasted maybe five minutes. I couldn't imagine what they had to endure on long shifts. In fact, I spoke to one guard about it sounding like she was stuck working at 30th Street Station at rush hour... endlessly.
     I lasted about two minutes with the Nauman videos and felt that I "got it" and nothing more would be revealed by watching until the loop started over. There were glorious Brancusis to visit, right around the corner and I hadn't seen them in years.
Liz Matt
Cinnaminson, N.J.
January 6, 2010

     I have not seen the Nauman exhibition as of yet, but I agree with Anne Fabbri about hoping this will soon be the end of bland conceptual art. It doesn't seem like the Nauman exhibit is much to look at. But perhaps that is his point.
     I thank Anne Fabbri for her honest perspective on the exhibition. I only wish that more art critics (not many left in Philly) would take a stand for quality art and be courageous enough to call for a return to values in creative expression.
David Foss
Queen Village/ Philadelphia
January 7, 2010

     Editor’s note: The writer is an artist and director of the DaVinci Art Center.

     Much can be said about process, but have we come to a point where we should question our obsession with it or at least try to find relevancy?
Tu Huynh
Center City/ Philadelphia
January 6, 2010

     Reading Dan Coren's defense of Bruce Nauman's Days/Giorni at the Art Museum, I felt that our knowledgeable music critic had wandered off path into unknown territories. Does he realize what a little shop of horrors the body of Nauman's work really is?
     The Art Museum makes much of Nauman's stated connection of Days/Giorni to the musician John Cage's work, but I find this relationship specious.
     If you look at Nauman's oeuvre over the past generation, there is this recurring theme of mind-numbing repetitions, inconsistencies, oppression, claustrophobia, and more. The audio component is designed to reach beyond the room of exhibition and rattle the museumgoer (and the guards). This is Nauman’s signature style.
     For a sampling of his video work, check out Clown Torture, in which a man in a clown costume keeps saying, "No!"; or Shit in Your Hat— Head on a Chair, in which a voice-over directs a mime through a series of difficult repetitious movements; or One Hundred Live and Die, a wall of neon lettering with "PISS AND DIE, PISS AND LIVE" flashing on and off.
     I see a pattern here, and the message has nothing to do with music, tonal or atonal!
     My July review of Days/Giorni obviously wasn’t a traditional review, but rather a parody of one. I wanted to see if a critic could get away with a low-content "review" (I didn't even go to Venice), with shoddy craftsmanship (incorrect and inconsistent spelling) that was repetitious and in the end, blandly boring.
     No one responded to the review, because perhaps it was just too puzzling, and maybe not worth trying to comprehend... like much of Nauman's work.
Victoria C. Skelly
Wayne, Pa.
January 11, 2010

     Dan Coren replies: Victoria Skelly is quite right in surmising that I encountered Giorni in a state of blissful ignorance of Nauman's work. By the time I visited Days, I had caught on to the fact that he has historically been a provocateur and, for many, a quite unpleasant one. But Nauman's reputation and intentions are not relevant to my musical response to the installations, any more than Richard Wagner's were in the 1960s, when I was completely enthralled by his music despite the fact that he was a monstrous anti-Semite.

Musicians with two careers

     Re “A musician’s case for dual careers,” by Maria T. Corley—
     While I haven't had the opportunity (or the option) to make music my only career, I personally feel getting yourself too vested in only one thing could hurt your psyche more than help. Having something else to fill your time can open up different creative ideas, let you relax from constant practice and hopefully relieve music-related stress.
Matt Blank
Lancaster, Pa.
January 13, 2010

     Editor's note: To read earlier responses to Maria Corley's article, click here.

China: Threatening, or threatened?

     Re “Perpetually threatened China,” by Dan Rottenberg (Editor’s Notebook)—
     No Sinoexpert I, having spent six weeks (1982-3) studying Mandarin at the Shanghai Foreign Language Institute (when not snooping about). "Wo pu dong" (I not understand) is the extent of my Mandarin 30 years later.
     But I think the West faces two fatal threats: Muslim Europe and Wall Street fantasies. The latter we could change, were our politicos not so beholden to Wall Street tactical money.
     Muslim jihad is another matter. I don't see viable ways of defeating them.
Patrick D. Hazard
Weimar, Germany
January 12, 2010

     Editor’s comment:
How about hitting them where they’re weakest: asking them to describe their vision of the society they hope to build?

Moment of Psycho

     Re Andrew Mangravite’s review of David Thomson’s Moment of Psycho—
     It certainly sounds like a flawed book, but at base I'd say that Thomson is right. The first part of Psycho is more interesting from a psychological standpoint, which is a factor that makes the sudden subtraction of Leigh all that more jolting.
     The difference between an Alfred Hitchcock film that's stronger in the first half than in the second, however, and a book about a film by Hitchcock that suffers the same "problem," is that the second half of the film was also made by Hitchcock and has its own effective jolts, whereas Thomson's book concludes with apparent filler.
Rick Soisson
East Falls/Philadelphia
January 5, 2010

     Andrew Mangravite replies: Which, at the risk of sounding completely heretical, argues that Dario Argento might have been a stronger director— or at least a more uninhibited one— because after his "hero" disposes of the mad killer halfway through Tenebre, the film continues like a house on fire, right up until the final, fatal twist.

Green Metropolis

     Re Tom Purdom’s review of David Owen’s Green Metropolis—
     Good job, Tom Purdom. I enjoyed this— short and sweet and surprising,
Lesley Valdes
South Philadelphia
January 6, 2010

     Tom Purdom replies: Lesley’s response reminds me that I meant to post an appreciative comment about her review of the George Crumb birthday concert in October. I had already written an advance piece on that event, so I didn't feel I could review it, too. I was pleased to see that Lesley shared my views. And BSR readers got the added benefit of her knowledge of vocal music.

Lynn Hoffman’s poems

     Re Lynn Hoffman’s “Three light poems for a new decade”—
This morning by my computer I sit,
enjoying your clever wit.
Thomas A. Baker
Baltimore, Md.
January 4, 2010

     Re “The truth about love,” by Lynn Hoffman—
     I agree... it is here to stay!
When someone is confused, disconnected and separate,
Love comes along like "crazy glue"
and sticks everything together.
What is the form, no one knows or recognizes.
As every second passes, so does Love.
Dolly Schulman
Wayne, Pa.
January 15, 2010

R.I.P., Mum Puppettheatre

     Re “R.I.P., Mum Puppettheatre,” by Bob Cronin (Oct. 12, 2008)—
     I am sad to hear of the closing of the Mum. My grandchildren loved the productions there. It was a very cozy theater.
     I hope someone fills this void. The mum was fun, and I am sad that my younger grands won’t get to enjoy the stories.
     It's a sad state of affairs for children’s theater in Philly; and living in Chester, we feel the lack of cultured entertainment for our kids.
Bob Butler
Chester, Pa.
January 12, 2010

Peggy Amsterdam’s halo effect

     Re “Peggy Amsterdam: A ’60s woman,” by Dan Rottenberg (Editor’s Notebook)—
     Our civilization is seriously threatened by the corrupting influence of celebrity "culture." That is why the inspiring leadership of Peggy Amsterdam has been so crucial to our future. Less blather about, say, Tiger Woods's sad failings and more attention to the likes of her inspiring leadership.
Patrick D. Hazard
Weimar, Germany
January 2, 2010

     Oh Dan, what a beautiful way to set Peggy into her context. I wish I had had the guts to blaze a trail like hers.
     Your essay was both evocative and spare. Our ’60s generation never gets enough credit. Thank you!
Reed Stevens
Campbell, Calif.
January 4, 2010

     â€œPeggy Amsterdam’s halo effect,” by SaraKay Smullens, was a beautiful homage to a wonderful woman.
Deborah Block
Theatre Exile
Center City/Philadelphia
December 30, 2009

Patti Smith’s purity

     Re “Patti Smith’s punk purity,” by Bob Ingram, was a real nice piece. I’m sorry I missed the TV show. (Luckily we've got about six PBS stations on cable, so I should be able to catch it -- with an extra hour of bonus feature pledge breaks thrown in-- soon.)
     I will never forget the first time I saw Smith at a small club in San Francisco. My God, I thought, they're letting the psychotics on stage now. Shattering!
Bob Levin
Berkeley, Calif.
January 4, 2010

Aftermath of an accident

     Re “Aftermath of an accident,” by Amy Small-McKinney—
     What a powerful story! Beautifully written, the poetry all earned and the emotion all justified.
     The end hit me hard, about "starting again," where the tale leaped beyond the literal into the landscape of imagination and
personal connection: Suddenly the question of starting again took on meanings way beyond a car accident. Great work.
Martin Golan
Montclair, New Jersey
January 3, 2010

     Editor's note: To read earlier responses to this article, click here.

Agnostic’s Jesus

     Re “An agnostic reconsiders Jesus,” by Patrick D. Hazard—
     As a professor of art history, with a specialization in Christian iconography and iconology (and the product of an agnostic/Protestant background), I couldn't agree more with Umberto Eco: A recognition of Christian subject matter is indeed essential to understanding the wealth of art produced by the Old Masters of Western Europe and Colonial America, and to appreciating the art and its historical context beyond a mere aesthetic enjoyment of the artist's style.
     I always remind my students (who often begin my courses by telling me they're not very religious): You don't have to be Christian to study Christian art, any more than you have to be pagan to study Greco-Roman mythology. Not only is the Bible an important part of history and literature, it's also among the most important sources of subject matter and symbolism in Western art, especially pre-18th-Century Enlightenment.
     In fact, many of the greatest scholars of Christian iconography were Jews (e.g., Erwin Panofsky, Meyer Shapiro, Lotte Brand Philip)-- perhaps because they could maintain a scholarly objectivity about the subject.
     I also teach courses in non-Western art, and I consistently find less resistance on the part of my students (and, in at least one case, a department chairman) to studying the beliefs and symbolism of the Maya, Inca and Aztecs to those of historic Christians. It leaves me wondering about the unscholarly thought process behind this perceived bias.
Dr. Debra Miller
December 30, 2009

Small-cast plays

     Re “A plague of small-cast plays,” by Jim Rutter (June 23, 2007)—
     Even though this article was posted in 2007, I am thankful for the chance to read it. I tend to write plays with larger casts, and was told as an undergraduate that I could only hope to be produced at a university. I've never even been to Philadelphia, but this trend— or problem, for someone like me— is everywhere. It's at least refreshing, if not entirely encouraging to read that someone out there wants to see theatre explore relationships beyond one-on-one drama.
Esme LeJeune
Houston, Tex.
January 4, 2010

     Editor's note: To read earlier responses to Jim Rutter's essay, click here.

Jonathan Larson and Rent

     Re "Jonathan Larson and Rent,” by Steve Cohen—
     I think this article truly captures the understandings of what the show meant, and also as to which why Jonathan, in my opinion, was the best Broadway musical composer/creator there ever was. Even though I didn't get to meet him, it is an honor to speak his name.
Unique Latavia Wilson
Tampa, Fla.
December 30, 2009