toni mcnaron's garden

Alvin Ailey Magic

I’ve been watching the amazing dancers who work with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company since their first time to perform in Minneapolis, decades ago when they toured cities in the US.  That night, I watched spell-bound as Judith Jamieson, a lead member of the corps, sashayed across our stage, left to right, jubilant and feisty under what has become a signature white parasol in one of the iconic moments in “Revelations.”  The company has become one of this country’s premier artistic organizations, showing any who see them that black lives not only matter but can offer us all beauty and energy and focused passion.  These days, I travel to Chicago every early March to see two nights of their offerings, a pilgrimage from which I have just returned.  I want to say something about what I saw this time.

First of all, the Chicago audience adores these dancers and is made up of about 70% black people and 30% white people.  This means the company (composed of young black women and men except for one Hispanic man, one Asian woman and two white men) gets great waves of appreciation and support from us in the seats, something that only fuels the hypnotic energy displayed on stage.  I saw two new works, two older pieces rethought by current choreographers, a solo number (“In/Side”) that was unbelievably difficult and perfectly executed by Solomon Dumas, a relatively new member of the company.  I saw a duo, danced with great verve and delight, to music provided by Ella Fitzgerald in one of her impeccable scat numbers in which she seems not to have bothered to breathe.  And, of course, I saw “Revelations,” that crucial early piece so important to Alvin himself and so poorly received initially by New York City critics because of their unexamined racial stereotypes about who could dance and to what they could do that.

What I want to speak to now are those two performances of the story of sin and redemption, set in a Gospel modality.  This is the fourth generation of dancers to render the scenes, so there is the chance of its having become a ritual without the original conviction felt by Jamieson and her fellow dancers.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  These young people are not just doing the “Ailey thing” to please the audience.  I felt and saw their total commitment to being the very best ensemble from the moment the curtain rises to show them compacted into a sentient whole as they speak about being ‘buked’ but not broken.  Though about twelve dancers thrust splayed fingers into the air or arch their individual arms to look like large birds intent upon flying away from danger, what I feel is a single organism, a community speaking and moving as one against injustice and sorrow.  These days, the audience breaks into applause as soon as we see them, offering some kind of second-hand support for the journey about to be presented.

As the segments unfold–the single male sinner who wants to be “ready to put on that long white robe” of forgiveness and redemption; the three men still racing with that special energy we aren’t quite ready to give up sinning; the marvelous group of church women with their tiny stools and large fans, who congregate to share gossip and witness to Jesus’ goodness; the group in white gossamer waving tall banners and great cloth strips that become the water through which the lead dancers must “wade” to cross over into paradise; and the final assembly who sing over and over “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” as they and we magically know that goodness really can exist, even when the odds seem to project otherwise.

And then they all stop moving and most of us, black and white together, stand and shout and understand something for a few moments.  Grateful, the dancers invite us to clap on the off-beat so they can keep going for a little longer.  And lots of us do just that, caught up in a magic moment outside of time and the 24-hour news cycles that fragment and dishearten us.  I keep expecting some of the audience to step out into the aisles and imitate the steps of our performers, or for some of them to leap down from the stage and move among us.  That doesn’t happen, but the possibility hangs in the air.   I only hope Alvin Ailey’s spirit somehow knows that this story in movement that he envisioned and formulated so long ago can still enliven both dancers and watchers, that those initial white critics were just plain wrong about who can dance and to what music.

Music for Two Queens

The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and Netflix are producing multi-season programs about two of England’s three queens–Victoria (PBS) and Elizabeth II (Netflix).  Perhaps an early clue to what each series is “about” comes in the titles:  the episodes about Victoria are called “Victoria,” while the 6-year commitment from Netflix is called “The Crown.”  One centers around a first name while the other focuses on the symbol of office.  As someone fascinated both by how women act when given major political power and by the history of the English monarchy, I am an avid watcher of both series.  The writing seems crisp and often moving while the productions themselves evidence careful research into the periods being filmed.

So much do I admire the acting in both cases, that I’ve watched the first two seasons of “The Crown” twice and have taped each episode of the two seasons of  “Victoria” so that I have been able to re-view them.  Anyone who is watching knows that “The Crown” stresses how Elizabeth chose to deny or contort some of her own personal feelings because, as the queen, she had to behave in accordance with custom and Parliamentary law.  Contrarily, “Victoria” is showing us Victoria’s refusal to deny her humanity as wife and mother even as she moves more deeply into her position as monarch.  One example in each case will illustrate this powerful difference in emphasis.  The night before a very young Elizabeth is to be anointed as Queen, her husband whom she clearly loves passionately asks her not to ask him to kneel during the coronation.  He says he will willingly speak obedience to her as his sovereign but that, as her husband, he recoils at kneeling.  The actor playing Elizabeth shows us through facial language just how much she wants to make the exception and just how clearly she realizes what it may mean to their intimacy if she refuses.  But she finally tells a pained Phillip that he must kneel.  In contrast, when Albert speaks to an equally very young Victoria about feeling useless, she figures out how to change that by asking him to sit beside her at her writing desk and handle many of the documents facing her that have to do with subjects about which Albert knows more than she.

Because the plot lines are so familiar to me, I have grown sharply aware of how each director is using the theme music to reinforce this central distinction in the stories of these two long-reigning women.  The signature music is arresting at the beginning of each episode.  For “The Crown,” we watch mesmerized as the sound begins almost inaudibly while shimmering metal shapes move slowly but inexorably to form the crown spelled out on the screen.  The volume increases as the shape emerges and what has begun as declarative major chords subtly changes to a minor key that sounds a loneliness painful to listen to.  As each episode of “Victoria” is introduced, the “Coronation Alleluia” also begins very quietly as we see a late teen-aged girl whom we take to be the future queen.  Her image changes until her hair has been trained into place and a small tiara rests on her head.  This visual alternation takes place as the voices declaring the alleluias rise to musical heights that give me aesthetic goose bumps.

What’s happening as the episodes continue is this:  Periodically Elizabeth II “hears” her theme music as she faces difficult decisions such as whether to let her much-loved sister Margaret marry the love of her life–something forbidden by stale English custom that forbids royalty to marry divorcees.  What I notice as I witness these overlays of the theme music action in is that being reminded of her “place” as queen causes Elizabeth to turn away from her own values and feelings, thus ceding to the crown that hovers over the entire production.   Watching Victoria in similar moments reveals quite a different relationship between monarch and music.  On several occasions Victoria is shown alone as she ponders what to do about a given political matter, e.g., learning of the potato famine in Ireland or watching a little African girl experience homesickness amid the kindness extended to her by the white English lady.  As we hear the theme music surrounding her in her quandary, it surely is not accidental that Victoria’s connecting to her “place” as queen prompts her to act directly and powerfully to defy customary laws, expectations and behaviors.  For her the crown carries with it an obligation to a common good rather than a duty to continue along a time-honored but time-worn tradition that hurts both the queen and those around her.

So, as I wait impatiently for season three of these ambitious and moving programs, I think about the subtle role the theme music has played and, I trust, will continue to play as these two remarkable women mature as human beings and rulers.

Bde Maka Ska

When I moved to Minneapolis in 1964, I was encouraged to ride around and see all the lakes located right in the city.  For the past four decades, I’ve been privileged to live just a couple of blocks from one of the largest of these wonderful  places.  When I first saw the name, however, I was surprised and, frankly, dismayed that “northerners” had chosen to call anything after John C. Calhoun.  He was one of the most out-spoken and mean-spirited Southern voices justifying and praising the institution of slavery.  When I asked people who had lived here much longer than I about this seeming anomaly, they usually admitted that they knew nothing about Calhoun–they just enjoyed the lake.

Over the years since 1964, I’ve found out that “my” lake was once important to native Lakota/Dakota tribes who gathered on its shore and on the cliff near by for yearly ceremonies.  What came to be located on the adjoining cliffs is a large cemetery.  My present home is half a block from this cemetery so I’ve walked it, biked it, taken picnic lunches to enjoy on the shores of a tiny lake in its center from which it takes its name–Lakewood.  When I die, my ashes will be placed in a tiny box right beside that peaceful body of water.  The cemetery is full of huge and impressive monuments to the families that built Minneapolis.  Of course, there are lots of regular people buried there, but the founding fathers are located atop the land rise so their spirits look down on the same shore line once revered by Native Americans.

For the past few years, there has been a movement to change the name back to its original Lakota name of Bde Maka Ska.  Though opposed by some individuals and groups, this idea has struck most people as the right thing to do as we try to make albeit feeble reparations for what white people stole from Native Americans as we moved them off their lands and denied them the right to celebrate their spiritual rituals.  I have signed petitions and written checks to help move this project along.  A little over a year ago, the park board took down all the signs that said “Lake Calhoun” and installed new ones with “Lake Calhoun” at the top and Bde Maka Ska just below it.  Some of us learned how to pronounce the new name and began using it in everyday conversation.  Some of us became increasingly irritated by this change, often arguing that it was hollow since it did nothing to help living Native Americans in Minneapolis.  I Googled the new name and learned how to pronounce it from two Lakota grandmothers teaching their little grandchildren how to say the name of “our lake.”

Last Saturday, February 10th, I walked that lake with a good friend.  The two-level signs were in place.  Yesterday, Wednesday, February 14th, I was driving home along the lake shore when my heart leapt up (like Wordsworth’s did so long ago:  “My heart leaps up when I behold/A rainbow in the sky.”)  New signage had been installed sometime in those four days.  The new signs just say “Bde Maka Ska.”  I burst into tears and wondered it my elation in some small way mirrored how Southern black people say they feel if their community votes to take down the Confederate flag from the public square.  I felt lighter and less oppressed by what my invading tribe had done to older indigenous tribe over a century ago.  And it doesn’t matter to me if this decision doesn’t feed or clothe or hire any living Native Americans in my city.  That is a separate and demanding set of actions that must be accomplished. 

But a rose is not always a rose, Gertrude notwithstanding, and sometimes a lot is “in a name,” Juliet notwithstanding.  I am proud of my park board and legislators for recognizing the empathetic importance of calling people, places, and things by the name preferred by those most intimately involved.

Super Bowl LII

Truth in advertising:  I do not watch football, collegiate or professional.  One reason is that I seldom can tell where the little ball is or why lots of large men are falling all over each other.  For years, I’ve secretly suspected that the game was made up as a way for men to hug and come into intimate physical contact without any fear of being called “sissies” or “fairies.”  So when my home town of Minneapolis was chosen as host for this year’s big event, I was singularly uninterested.  As the date approached, I heard on local news channels about all sorts of closings of roads down town.  I also was outraged when the city ruled that no one could ride the mass transit trains the weekend of the game unless they had a ticket.  Then I was informed that some 2,200 private airplanes were arriving and had to be parked somewhere while their affluent owners watched the two teams vie for the trophy. 

I kept not caring who won until a couple of days before the game, I heard Tom Brady, the quarterback for the Patriots, say about playing in the Super Bowl, something like “It’s just a game, like the others.”  Surely that is not true for the men who are willing to risk brain injury to get to the Super Bowl nor for the millions of people who are fixated either on the actual playing of the game or the mania that can surround the event.  The more I reflected about his comment, the clearer I became that it was an expression of entitlement–it was as if he believes his team “deserves” to win before anyone has thrown the pigskin or run the field to an end zone.  And watching the expressions on the Patriot’s head coach’s face just made me want to cringe for the players who were in the line of his angry reactions to the slightest misstep on their parts.  So I began to say maybe I would like the Eagles to win.

Though I didn’t watch much of the play, I did keep switching to it when my PBS program ended or a rerun on ion television went to an ad.  So I knew the Eagles were playing strong football.  Once we were near the end, when my skipping to the game showed me that the Patriots had managed to squeeze ahead, I decided to watch, lending my albeit tangential support to the men from Philadelphia who clearly wanted to win and did NOT see it as an entitlement they held by virtue of the name of their team.  The whole thing began to mirror all the other arenas currently in which one faction of the population sees itself as possessing some kind of supremacy over the rest of us, by virtue of arbitrary factors over which no one has much control.  Then Mr. Nick Foles did it!  He led his team to a stunning victory and I felt good.

Today, Tuesday, all the private planes have flown back to where they came from, the management of the facility has reported several stolen seats pried loose by fan-atics, and the structures on our downtown mall are being disassembled.  I also heard Torrey Smith, one of the Eagles’ players, say on CNN why he and several of his colleagues will not be going to the White House at the president’s invitation.  His reasoning is basic and powerful:  he doesn’t think the man occupying that building is a “good man,” as was Mr. Obama, in his opinion.  So there’s yet another reason for me to like the large men in dark green uniforms emblazoned with a striking profile of my country’s emblematic bird.


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