Friday, November 28, 2008

"This Is Your Home; This Is Our Home" - Baz Luhrmann's "Australia"

In the Sonoran Desert of the Southwest United States and northern Mexico lives an agave called the Century Plant, which for years grows quietly without fuss or bother; then suddenly, shoots a massive flower on a huge stalk upwards towards the sky in an extraordinary, extravagant efflorescence.

Like the Century Plant, since "Moulin Rouge", Baz Luhrmann has been hoarding his energies for a massive, extravagant epic: "Australia", starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. And like the Century Plant's flower, this movie is a wonder to behold - an exclamation point in motion picture history. Like his celluloid predecessor, John Ford, who defined the essence of American character in dozens of westerns (making a star of John Wayne, among others), Luhrmann attempts to define the Australian national character: but in a single motion picture.

In many ways, "Australia" is the most ambitious single motion picture ever attempted. Luhrmann states what it is to be an Australian: what it means. No one has ever used a single motion picture for such a purpose! Most nations have relied on epic poetry to define who they were: The Iliad for the Greeks, the Aeneid for the Romans, La Chanson de Roland for the French, Niebelungelied for the Germans, Beowulf for the English.

The Americans have relied less on poetry than political invention - the Constitution and related documents. Nevertheless, American authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Australian authors like Banjo Patterson, have tried to fill the need for such national narratives using the materials at hand, such as they were.

Australian and American histories have several important parallels. Both Americans and Australians are English-speaking peoples who grew as British colonies, incorporated many immigrants, and subjugated native peoples. America has several national narratives from which to choose, however: the rebellious colonists, the log cabin frontier, the nation torn asunder by the Civil War, the energetic urbanizing people, and finally with the dime novel and the western, the great Cowboy epic popularized by people like Ford.

Under-populated Australia has been hampered in a similar project, however, partly because the original Botany Bay material seemed so hard to work with, but also because the great void at the center of the country seemed to defy definition. The deserts of the interior drove people apart rather than together. Someone like Baz Luhrmann was needed to render the inchoate material into a more solid story.

Luhrmann places his story at the beginning of World War II, a sobering moment in Australian history, when it became clear that the British Imperial Navy could not protect the country against Japanese expansion. Yet, "Australia" is not just a war story. Like Ford, Luhrmann incorporates the Great Cattle Drive into the story: this time the effort by a motley crew of cowhands to break the back of the malevolent Carney Cattle Empire and help supply the Allied armies at Darwin.

New found interest in the Stolen Generations is woven into the story too. The kids taken from Aboriginal parents out of a misguided colonial civilizing mission are represented by the child, Nullah. The same family disruption happened in the American West too, of course, but interestingly, John Ford and his colleagues never saw the motion picture potential there.

Luhrmann also has an ear, of course. Since Luhrmann also has a great interest in the musical as an art form, his film is far livelier than anything Ford attempted. Australia, the Land of Oz, also needs a theme song: the ineffable "Over The Rainbow" (1939's "The Wizard Of Oz" may well be the most-popular film ever Down Under). And like Dorothy says, "There's No Place Like Home!"

In short, this is one amazing movie. Academy Award material all the way! This is a massive, Century Plant kind of effort to reach film immortality; to outdo "Lawrence Of Arabia", or "Dr. Zhivago", or any film predecessor, and venture where no filmmaker has gone before.

Luhrmann succeeds!

Here is a portion of what Derrick Bang wrote for the Davis Enterprise. He certainly seemed to like it: the longest movie review I've ever seen in that newspaper, and five stars to boot!:
Blend the giddy, wonderfully inventive editing and swooping camera movements of 'Moulin Rouge' with the sort of old-style epic storytelling Hollywood hasn't made in decades, sprinkle with a precocious narrator and top with megastar wattage, and the result is guaranteed to be a great time at the movies.

Actually, the result is 'Australia.'

Director Baz Luhrmann, undoubtedly thirsting for some way to match the crowd-pleasing success of his 'Moulin Rouge,' returned to the land of his birth to delve into the WWII-era events that dragged Australia onto the world stage once and for all. Luhrmann doesn't work rapidly - indeed, this is only his fourth film, after 'Strictly Ballroom,' 'Romeo + Juliet' and 'Moulin Rouge' - but his visual creativity and storytelling talent grow with each new project.

We Americans still honor the bombing of Pearl Harbor each Dec. 7, an event that seared our national consciousness at a level that wouldn't be matched until the 2001 destruction of the Twin Towers. But in our characteristically myopic way, we have very little knowledge of what happened in Australia at that same time, back in 1941, when the same Japanese air forces also leveled the city of Darwin.

And that's only a single chapter of the ambitious saga concocted here by Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood and Australian novelist Richard Flanagan. The story begins in 1939, with a slightly whimsical tone that misleads us into expecting the sort of hearty Outback adventure depicted in (for example) 'The Man from Snowy River.'

...Up to this point, Luhrmann's tone has been light, and his film has the rugged but playful atmosphere of, say, Howard Hawks' 'Hatari,' with Jackman standing in for John Wayne, and Kidman the obligatory 'useless woman' destined to smarten up and toughen up. Brown and Wenham make great villains: the former the backroom schemer, the latter the lackey willing to get his hands dirty.

Even now, though, this deceptively superficial 'Western' has undercurrents of genuine tension, starting with the vulnerable Nullah's very presence; we've also already seen that Luhrmann isn't afraid to pull his punches, and tragedy enters these proceedings pretty quickly.

Then things really roar into full throttle, and the ride never lets up for the duration of the film's nearly three-hour running time. The stakes get higher, the tension waxes, wanes and waxes again, and you'll be at the edge of your seat, heart in mouth, for pretty much the entire final hour.

...Cinematographer Mandy Walker shoots these proceedings to emphasize the Northern Territory's lush expanse, and the film stock has the rich color and razor-sharp resolution of classic John Ford Westerns. Production designer G. Mac Brown has his hands full, whether going for tired and baked, as the dilapidated Faraway Downs is introduced, or establishing the harbor at Darwin, warships at the ready, but waiting like sitting ducks for what is to come.

Composer David Hirschfelder's dramatic score is appropriately sweeping and orchestral, while music supervisor Anton Monsted makes canny use of source songs, none better employed than Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg's 'Over the Rainbow.'

I can't remember the last time I had so many emotions tweaked during a film, while also having this much fun. Oh, wait, yes I can: It was during 'Moulin Rouge.'
Sarah Palin Turkey-Gate Top 10 Excuses - Letterman - 11-24-2008

Guinda Thanksgiving

Accompanied Sally to the Adams' residence in Guinda, in the Capay Valley just a few tantalizing miles away from Cache Creek Casino.

Nice warm day, playing with the pug dogs, and eating turkey.
Karaoke Wednesday

Since Callison's seemed to be inactive this day before Thanksgiving, we ended up at the Clarion.

Who knew that two separate parties (myself, and the adjacent table), would, out of thousands of pop songs, independently judge that this instant demanded Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back"? It's been five years since I sang it in karaoke, and I bumbled it bad, but the ladies at the adjacent table were much more practiced and did an excellent job.

Jetta embraced "White Rabbit" and Larry (aka Keifer) embraced "Aqualung". I embraced Britney Spear's "Piece Of Me" but me singing 'American Dream since the age of 17' somehow lacked conviction.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Trouble At The Family Lodge Moose

As a C/W groupie, E.'s eyes have been opened to the drama involved in making music:
E.: MMMAAAAARRRCCCC! There was trouble last night! A. was telling T. "Stop! You played that phrase just right last weekend and now you are doing it all wrong! Do it again!" And T. said "That's it! I'm outta here! I'm not going put up with this anymore!"

M.: That's what happens all the time with the musical theater people. They call it 'artistic differences'.

E: MMMAAAAAAAARRRCCCC! It does nothing but cause trouble!
Catherine Fitts on Coast to Coast AM Oct 6, 2008 1/12

I've been wondering where the Republican Party goes now, since its leadership is basically discredited and the new leadership that is evident (e.g., Sarah Palin) seems ill-prepared to lead. New, responsible leadership has to come forward, but who, and from where?

Listening to George Noory last night, I got a revelation that people like the woman on this Oct. 6th interview (part 1 of 12 parts posted here), Catherine Austin Fitts, are likely to provide a portion of the answer. The interview last night isn't on YouTube yet, but don't worry, her star is on the rise, and we'll hear more from her soon.
Answers To Science Questions

This list has been passed around the Internet longer than Britney Spears, but it doesn't mean it isn't just as funny as on the first day it appeared:
A teacher forwarded this list of comments from test papers, essays, etc.,submitted to science and health teachers by elementary, junior high, high school, and college students. As she noted, "It is truly astonishing what weird science our young scholars can create under the pressures of time and grades."

"The body consists of three parts - the branium, the borax, and the abominable cavity. The branium contains the brain, the borax contains the heart and lungs and the abominable cavity contains the bowels, of which there are five - a, e, i, o, and u."

"Nitrogen is not found in Ireland because it is not found in a free state."

"H2O is hot water, and CO2 is cold water."

"To collect fumes of sulphur, hold a deacon over a flame in a test tube."

"When you smell an oderless gas, it is probably carbon monoxide."

"Water is composed of two gins, Oxygin & Hydrogin. Oxygin is pure gin. Hydrogin is gin & water."

"Three kinds of blood vessels are arteries, vanes and caterpillars."

"Blood flows down one leg and up the other."

"Respiration is composed of two acts, first inspiration and then expectoration."

"The moon is a planet just like the earth, only it is even deader."

"Artifical insemination is when the farmer does it to the cow instead of the bull."

"Dew is formed on leaves when the sun shines down on them and makes them perspire."

"A super saturated solution is one that holds more than it can hold."

"Mushrooms always grow in damp places and so they look like umbrellas."

"The pistol of a flower is its only protections against insects."

"The skeleton is what is left after the insides have been taken out and the outsides have been taken off. The purpose of the skeleton is something to hitch meat to. "

"A permanent set of teeth consists of eight canines, eight cuspids, two molars and eight cuspidors."

"The tides are a fight between the Earth and moon. All wat er tends towards the moon, because there is no water in the moon and nature abhors a vacuum. I forget where the sun joins in this fight."

"A fossil is an extinct animal. The older it is, the more extinct it is."

"Equator: A managerie lion running around the Earth through Africa."

"Germinate: To become a naturalized German."

"Liter: A nest of young puppies."

"Magnet: Something you find crawling all over a dead cat."

"Momentum: What you give a person when they are going away."

"Planet: A body of Earth surrounded by sky."

"Rhubarb: A kind of celery gone bloodshot."

"Vacuum: A large, empty space where the pope lives."

"Before giving a blood transfusion, find out if the blood is negative or affirmative."

"To remove dust from the eye, pull the eye down over the nose."

"For a nosebleed: Put the nose much lower than the body until the heart stops."

"For dog bite: put the dog away for several days. If he has not recovered, then kill it."

"For head cold: use an agonizer to spray the nose untill it drops in your throat."

"To keep milk from turning sour: Keep it in the cow."
Improv Class

Last night I attended a long-running pick-up Improv Class, run by Mike Rowe, who teaches in Davis.

Interestingly, two different Improv classes are listed on as being at the Geery Theatre (22nd & L Streets, Sacramento) at the same time, Mondays at 7 p.m. This class is at Tuesday at 7 p.m., however, so I don't know how it falls in the grand scheme of things.

Nice 40-seat, or so, house!

A new frontier in theater for me!

The musical theater experience certainly helps here, of course, but I don't expect any agents to call just yet!
The Fires, And A Brush With Fame

Great article:
I'm afraid of fire. Not in the Frankenstein monster sense - I don't growl and toss furniture if someone lights a cigar near me or if a dwarf prods me with a torch. (Hmmm. Well, maybe I'd toss the dwarf.) But, if I see flames more than five feet high that are not attached to a fireplace or a drunkard's barbecue, then my ponytail assumes Afro position.

I live in Santa Barbara, California.

Last week, it caught fire.

I was afraid.

...I went back into my office and started working. About 5:45, a hammer of wind smashed into the backyard with enough force to slam all the house screen inserts shut. We get Sundowner winds here, sort of like Santa Ana's on crack. They come out of the desert, hit the mountains like a tsunami and howl through the valleys - banshees heading for the ocean, raising temperatures ten or twenty degrees after sunset in a matter of minutes.

...The live footage of the fire was not encouraging. The thing was traveling like a freight train. One of the reporters announced that there was a spot fire, caused by drifting embers, two blocks away from our house. I got my wife and dogs out of there, said I'd finish packing and meet them in the next town in the parking lot of a Vons' supermarket. I managed to drag a metal dog crate into the stuffed wagon, which now looked like it was ready for Ellie Mae and Granny Clampett to climb onboard, and locked up the house.

It was a strange feeling. Inside, was every book I had ever purchased since the age of 11 (a "Twilight Zone" paperback) as well as every album, CD and 45 rpm I ever listened to. A lifetime of stuff, spanning three states and a dozen domiciles, just sat there waiting to take a hit. The house itself was the first and only one my wife and I owned together. The site of seventeen of our twenty years as a dynamic duo was now in harm's way.

I took one look behind me.

A massive mushroom cloud of smoke arose, blotting out the moon, a crimson fist of flame blazing within it. Growing up in an oil refinery town, I knew that something had just gone up Big Time.

...So, we slept in the wagon. Or tried to. I wound up sitting in the front seat, watching the fire miles away. All night. I have the spine of a painful Slinky so I couldn't sit too long. I began wandering around the parking lot. I got stopped by a guard who wondered what an aging hippie, cigarette in hand, was doing prowling around evacuee's cars. We wound up having a nice chat. I couldn't sleep. I was trying to calculate where our house was in the flames below.

I wandered around the outside of the gym. A fellow asked if he could talk to me. I thought he was from the Red Cross. It was 3 AM. It turned out he was from the Associated Press. Now, it's hard for me to become emotional without clinging to humor. I told him I didn't think we'd have a house left, describing the scene and adding, "I was waiting for Dante and Virgil to show up."

...After a few hours at the computer, while waiting for a 4 PM news conference, I opened my e-mail. There were a lot of messages from friends. One said: "Google: ed naha dante virgil." I did. There were 11,000 hits. My A.P. quote found its way to news sites from here to Hong Kong (I'm not kidding.). There was some dark humor to that. As an aging writer, I always try to get my name out there for prospective employers. I never thought being scared shitless would be a big publicity move.

That evening, the fire seemed to be holding in place. The winds had died down and hadn't picked up as forecast. I hadn't had any real sleep in thirty-six hours. I was still wired. My wife came into the office and said "Fox News is on the phone." I thought she was kidding.

A producer for "Fox AM" had seen my quote and wanted to know if they could do a phone interview "live" the next morning. Most people don't react like that in calamities, he said. Wotta funny quote! I thought long and hard about the offer. Fox? Me? My mind went into overdrive. This could be a whole new career! I could be the Dennis Miller of disasters! The pain pundit! The calamity commentator! I asked what time the interview would be. "8:15 AM, East Coast time," he said. That would be 5:15 AM my time. "That's not an interview," I said. "That's an exorcism." He loved that quote, too.

...The cause of the fire would be discovered. Ten college students built a bonfire for an all-night party at the ruins of a 1920s private garden, "The Tea Garden," and didn't quite put it out. They built a bonfire in Red Flag fire alert weather, with high winds forecasted and nearly no humidity. Their names have not been released. Nobody is sure if they'll be charged with anything more than a misdemeanor.

I personally would like to review their SAT scores.

The homes that went up were big and small. Homes that have seen generations come and go, some built by the families themselves, were reported as being "estates" and "mansions." The Montecito angle was played up because of celebrity residents like Oprah and Rob Lowe. By the end of the fire, the national news had somehow come to the conclusion that it affected only the rich and the famous. Christopher Lloyd lost his house. So did over 200 of his fans. For every Rob Lowe, there are a hundred John and Jane Does living in our hills and valleys.

...Whenever there's a major fire in California, there arises from the hinterlands a smug "that's what you get for living there" reaction which I've never fully understood. Yes, California is the brunt of many a joke because of its lifestyles, movie stars and whackjobs. I've been out here 25 years and I still make fun of some of our more bizarre occurrences. But snickering when a person loses everything?

I actually heard one guy say: "Well, people should know better than to live in the hills or the valleys." Dude, there's nothing out here BUT hills and valleys. And deserts. In fact, it's a geographical condition found with alarming frequency in this country. Collectively, it's known as the Southwest.

...To all those who, for some reason, seek to editorialize straight news events and disasters, here's something to chew on. The East Coast gets hit by hurricanes and blizzards. New Orleans is built below sea level. Several states sit in what's known as "Tornado Alley." San Francisco is perched on a fault line. Las Vegas is in the middle of a desert.

Rivers flood. Forests burn. Winds howl. The earth shakes. Mountains crumble. The sky punishes. Zip codes don't enter into the picture.

We're all guests on this planet, pundits. It's a gift. It's a responsibility. It's our mother. It's our child. It's not affiliated with any ideology or political belief system.
Why Won't The Polar Bears Mate?

A misunderstanding:
Tsuyoshi, a four-year-old ''male'' polar bear, and his 11-year-old female partner, Kurumi, have been living together since June at the Kushiro Municipal Zoo in Hokkaido, northern Japan.

But much to the frustration and puzzlement of zookeepers, the bear couple, on a breeding mission, showed no signs of chemistry, and Tsuyoshi has never gone into rut even during ''his'' mating period.

''Observing his behaviors, we got suspicious as to whether Tsuyoshi was really a male,'' the zoo said in a statement.

The zoo put Tsuyoshi under an anesthetic earlier in the month for a gender checkup, and learned he was a she.

''I have mixed feelings,'' Yoshio Yamaguchi, head of the zoo.
Obama Will Address Economic Woes Today, Pres. Bush To Pardon Turkey

"Circus" Video Teaser

The big Britney wave gathers!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Yesterday's Aerobics Class

You want me to do what, and how fast?

Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow! Grapevine steps are the hardest!

Whew! Hand me those ibuprofen skittles! Let's do it again!
The Looters Begin To Scuttle Away

Bob Herbert:
In a radio address on Saturday, Mr. Obama described his plan as follows:

“It will be a two-year, nationwide effort to jump-start job creation in America and lay the foundation for a strong and growing economy.

“We’ll put people back to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children and building wind farms and solar panels, fuel-efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil and keep our economy competitive in the years ahead.”

The message is many years overdue. The hope is that it hasn’t come too late.

The idea that the nation had all but stopped investing in its infrastructure, and that officials in Washington have ignored the crucial role of job creation as the cornerstone of a thriving economy is beyond mind-boggling. It’s impossible to understand.

Impossible, that is, until you realize that bandits don’t waste time repairing a building that they’re looting.
Brisbane Will Get A Shot At The Record!

Big storm rolling in on Saturday! Brisbane already has 284 mm of rain for the month. 130 mm of extra rain is required for a new November rainfall record of 414 mm. That's a lot of rain, but it's doable for the semitropic climate. Will it rain quite enough to bust the November record?

In any event, the dams are certainly being helped by all this rain! SEQWater is at 45.5%, the greatest level for the Brisbane metropolitan reservoirs in three years, and the levels continue to rise!
Jet Pack Crossing Over The Royal Gorge

Monday, November 24, 2008

Looking For Meaning On A Stroll On J Street

First, there was the man walking down the sidewalk, who hesitated, then with a look of disgust, threw away what appeared to be a bandage, or a diaper, on the sidewalk. What was that all about? I can understand throwing such a thing away, but then that begs the question of what he was doing with it in the first place.

Then, there was the Menace of the Meandering Blonde. She approached down the sidewalk and she had a big purse, and she was digging something out from the bottom of it, and she was digging something out from the bottom of it, and she was meandering, because one can't simultaneously dig something out from the bottom of a purse, and walk straight. I veered to the right, she veered to her left, and I began to panic, because no matter what I did to avoid her, she anticipated my maneuvers. Collision was narrowly avoided only because she actually found what she was looking for!

Then another woman, burdened with shopping bags, ran across the street and twisted her ankle. She hurried past, clucking at how she had narrowly avoided becoming roadkill.

Then there was the Man At The Corner. He appeared to be a foreigner, perhaps an Ethiopian, and he seemed lost, repeatedly voicing "TERA. T.E.R.A. T-E-R-A. Tera." What does that mean? To me, TERA means Terminal Effects Research and Analysis group, in Socorro, NM, but it didn't look like he was looking for new explosive concepts in land mines.

What did all this mean? I was beginning to tear my hair, out looking for a deeper meaning in what appeared to be a random universe.

Then, I saw a woman carefully taking close-up digital photos of a rose. Now, THAT I understand! She didn't try to touch or smell the rose at all (no one actually smells roses anymore - that's so old-fashioned!) but we all need photos of roses for our blogs!
Someone Soon Will Call Bernanke's Bluff

Left: Who is that masked man?

Setting lots of bad precedents these days!:
The U.S. government is prepared to provide more than $7.76 trillion on behalf of American taxpayers after guaranteeing $306 billion of Citigroup Inc. debt yesterday. The pledges, amounting to half the value of everything produced in the nation last year, are intended to rescue the financial system after the credit markets seized up 15 months ago.

This may be the path to a government default, and the closest thing the financial world has ever seen to the Apocalypse! Time to rein in the Fed:
“Whether it’s lending or spending, it’s tax dollars that are going out the window and we end up holding collateral we don’t know anything about,” said Congressman Scott Garrett, a New Jersey Republican who serves on the House Financial Services Committee. “The time has come that we consider what sort of limitations we should be placing on the Fed so that authority returns to elected officials as opposed to appointed ones.”
Invite The Celebrities, Then Treat Them Poorly

Celebrity-types are likely to be so traumatized that they will be quite reluctant to return. These folks follow money, and there is certainly money in Dubai, but this is a bad way to do business.

Who knows, maybe Kylie got the treatment too? Make her think twice about returning!
Some of Britain’s best-known stars – including singer Lily Allen and supermodel Agyness Deyn – were subjected to intimate strip-searches on their way to the lavish launch of the world’s most expensive resort in Dubai.

Actor Rhys Ifans and Ms Deyn’s rock-star boyfriend Albert Hammond Jnr were also among more than 100 guests examined by Dubai Customs officials to ensure they were not smuggling drugs into the country.

Ms Allen said she was left ‘terrified’ by her ordeal, while Ms Deyn said she found her treatment ‘traumatic’.

The United Arab Emirates has a strict anti-drugs policy. Earlier this year British tourist Keith Brown was jailed for four years after a microscopic speck of cannabis was found on the sole of his shoe.

Officials targeted guests heading to the £20million four-day bash at the Atlantis resort last week, including many who have reputations for heavy partying.

...Ms Deyn, 25, said: ‘Both Albert and I were strip-searched. It was really traumatic. It wasn’t the best experience in the world but it is their culture and you just have to respect it.’ Mr Ifans, who once said he lived ‘Don Juan moments of sex, drugs and drink for maybe months, seasons, years even’ did not wish to speak about his experience.

But one of his travel companions said: ‘Rhys quivered to jelly as soon as the officers approached him. He was beside himself with worry. They made him strip bare and poked him about with plastic gloves.

‘He had to hold his private parts out of the way while an officer did a thorough inspection. After nearly two hours of being interrogated and molested he was told to put his clothes back on and go on his way.

‘He was very scared and at one point was close to tears as he honestly thought he was going to be banged up. It’s really put the wind up him. It will be the only thing he will remember about the trip – he tells everyone he comes into contact with.

...Other guests at the four-day extravaganza to open the £1billion resort included Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood, film stars Wesley Snipes and Lindsay Lohan, and singers Kylie Minogue and Shirley Bassey.

...‘They got celebrities for the publicity, and in return the stars were promised they would be treated like royalty. Many of them feel very shaken and violated by the strip searches. It’s ruined their trip.’
The Wuss Walks

I wonder why?:
Alan Colmes, the longtime liberal half of the Fox News Channel prime time program, will leave the show at the end of the year, the network announced Monday.
Well, like commenter Othar Hugh Manati says:
I hope they replace Colmes with someone who will be a bit less deferential to the bloviating Hannity. A dead jellyfish would probably suffice.
Tucson Regional Ballet's "A Southwest Nutcracker"

Left: Timothy J. Reckart hugs his daughter, Lizzie, 11, between rehearsal scenes. Reckart has been a volunteer in the party scene of the ballet since the show's inception. Over the last 14 years, he has seen all three of his daughters move through Tucson Regional Ballet's ranks. (James Gregg / Arizona Daily Star)

This article strikes me right in the heart!

I was a student at Linda Walker's ballet school from 1985 through 1988, during the years of growth and transition, when Tucson Community Ballet moved out of its storefront on Speedway and into its current location on N. Wilmot.

Now, many happy years later, Linda Walker's Tucson Regional Ballet is a far larger operation, and the "Southwest Nutcracker" is an amazing testament to Linda's choreographic, teaching, and managerial skills.

A thousand bouquets to Linda and her fellow dancers!:

The scene is chaotic on a Saturday afternoon at Linda Walker's Academy of Ballet on the Northeast Side. At least it is to those unfamiliar with Tucson Regional Ballet's weekend rehearsals for its annual production of "A Southwest Nutcracker."

In one room, swarms of young girls in multicolored leotards — half pretending to be coyotes, the other half Fort Lowell cavalry soldiers — are battling in a carefully choreographed scene while 30 more dancers watch from the sidelines.

Two rooms down, 10 adult volunteers, including professors, a therapist, a lawyer and a physician, are soon hashing out the "Nutcracker's" opening party scene, trying their best to mimic what a soiree thrown by a well-to-do Tucson family in the 1880s might look like.

Walker, dressed head-to-toe in royal blue, calls out directions to her performers from a chair in the volunteer room as Tchaikovsky's classic "Nutcracker" score blares through speakers connected to an aging silver stereo system.

"It all comes together in the end," Walker explained. "We know exactly how this thing is done. It is a big puzzle right now, but all the pieces will fit."

Walker is an old pro when it comes to "A Southwest Nutcracker," a Tucson take on the classic fairy-tale ballet, as are many of the 150 cast, crew and volunteers.

Next weekend's performances will mark the adaptation's 15th anniversary.
Over the years, "A Southwest Nutcracker" has become just as much of a tradition for the people involved with it as it has for the fans who come and watch. From the dancers, to the costume makers, to the choreographers, everyone comes away with something special, and everyone has put their best foot forward to get the production where it is today.

The vision

Walker's road to "A Southwest Nutcracker" has been a slow-going series of baby steps.

Having served as a student at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York and with the San Francisco Ballet, Walker moved to Tucson from California in the mid-1970s. By 1981, she had her own school up and running in a one-room storefront on the East Side.

Walker opened the school to teach her own daughter how to dance. "I wasn't particularly pleased with the teaching quality that was being offered in Tucson back then," she said. But it wasn't long before students began pouring in.

By 1983, Walker, with help from key community members, had created a separate nonprofit performance group, the Tucson Regional Ballet, or Tucson Community Ballet as it was then known.

Both the school and the company continued to grow over the next decade until Walker, who had already moved her school into a 5,000-square-foot facility on North Wilmot Road, decided that it was time for her company to take on the "The Nutcracker."

From the very beginning, Walker wanted her "Nutcracker" to have Tucson ties.
"I had seen a video of a 'Nutcracker' that Rudolf Nureyev had choreographed that was set in Paris instead of Germany," Walker said. "All the names were French. They had costumes and characters to portray the French lifestyle. I asked my co-director how she would feel about setting our 'Nutcracker' in Tucson. She was cautious but was willing to give it a shot."

The company began buying fabric from local vendors and piecing costumes together from repertory works performed in years prior. All new choreography was created, as were Southwestern equivalents of traditional 'Nutcracker' characters.

The main character, a young German girl named Clara, became Maria. The dancing sugarplum fairy was now a prickly pear. Mischievous mice turned into coyotes, and snowflakes still appeared, but in Tucson Regional's rendition, they were falling at the top of Mount Lemmon.

People loved it. The production's first shows at the Leo Rich Theatre sold at 80 percent capacity when it debuted in 1994, and the fan base has continued to grow. Sets and backdrops have been built up. Costumes have been improved upon. In 2004, the company moved from the intimate Leo Rich to the much larger Tucson Music Hall, and the production now receives live musical accompaniment from members of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.

Today, "A Southwest Nutcracker" has a budget of $135,000, paid for through grants, ticket sales and private donors.

Progress has been steady, but Walker says the hundreds of young girls who have participated over the years, including those who have stuck with the company, are what matter.

"Seeing these children that I have had in my company for 13 years walk through my door as young women makes my life happy and gives it quality," Walker said. "I am so blessed to have all of this."
Excuse Me, It's An Honor To Teach Aerobics!

Military boneheads:
BANGKOK - A MAVERICK Thai general who has threatened to bomb anti-government protesters and drop snakes on them from helicopters has been reassigned as an aerobics teacher, the Bangkok Post said on Friday.

Major-general Khattiya Sawasdipol, a Rambo-esque anti-communist fighter more commonly known as Seh Daeng, reacted with disappointment to his new role as a military instructor promoting public fitness at marketplaces.

'It is ridiculous to send me, a warrior, to dance at markets,' he said, before launching an attack on his boss, army chief Anupong Paochinda.

'The army chief wants me to be a presenter leading aerobics dancers. I have prepared one dance. It's called the 'throwing-a-hand-grenade' dance', he said.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Margaret Cho's Mormon Ditty

Signs At The Gay Rights Rally

You don't find better signs than at a Gay Rights Rally!

Nevertheless, these signs still don't quite match my fantasy of "The Best Sign - Ever!".

Gabe once saw a man lean out of a second-floor window at an anti-abortion march and rally in San Francisco and proclaim:
"Read the Constitution! (pause) Separation of Church and State! (pause) Get Your God Out Of My Body!"
This last statement is hilarious. As the self-aware and thus embarrassed man retreated behind the window, the folks below on the street laughed at the amusing corporeal estrangement.

I propose the "The Best Sign - Ever!" should be:
"Get Your God Out Of My Body!"
T-Shirts and signs at Saturday's gay rights rally also expressed a scathing skepticism towards organized religion. One T-Shirt stated "Religion Starts Where Reason Ends". Another T-Shirt proclaimed "Married: October 22, 2008. Screwed: November 4, 2008"

Left: Marriage apparently doesn't always mean spell-check.

Here are a couple of slightly off-message signs....
Gay Rights Rally at The State Capitol

Left: The initial goal was for a turnout of 10,000. The numbers were a bit less - I guessed about 4,000. I'm surprised at the Sacramento Bee's estimate: between 1,500 and 1,800, which seems low to me.

As I drove past the demonstration on L Street shortly before the 2 p.m. start time, I casually listened to a woman's amplified voice egg on the crowd:
Call: What do we want?
Response: (no identifiable response)
Call: When do we want it?
Response: (no identifiable response)
I didn't even have to look at the crowd to gauge that it wouldn't reach the target size of 10,000. Perhaps the number of recent Prop. 8 demonstrations are wearing down the protestors' will to protest. Nevermind: it was bound to be an interesting event, nonetheless.

I parked some distance away from the West Steps of the State Capitol and limped on in (my recent groin injury slowing me down). The crowd was as colorful as could be imagined: gay crowds are the best! Several men in white-face drag were particularly interesting-looking.

The woman organizer once again egged on the audience:
Call: What do we want?
Response: wa-wa-wa-wa
Call: When do we want it?
Response: Now!
What did they say?:
Call: What do we want?
Response: wa-wa-wa-wa
Call: When do we want it?
Response: Now!
This was exasperating. I couldn't quite make out that four-syllable word, even though I was now right in the middle of the crowd. Did everyone here work as a teacher at Charlie Brown's elementary school?

Finally, I stared at a woman's mouth as she formed the syllables:
Call: What do we want?
Response: Equality!
Call: When do we want it?
Response: Now!
Equality! That's a terrible word to place in a slogan! Slogans should be simple, vibrant words no more than three syllables long. But why am I the critic? This is serious business!

Left: Dykes on Bikes.

Left: John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, gay marriage pioneers.
Left: California State Senate President pro Tempore, Darrell Steinberg.
Left: Dennis Mangers, and husband.
Left: Comedienne Margaret Cho sang an amusing ditty concerning Proposition Eight, and the Mormon Church.
Left: Selena Luna, from "The Cho Show".
Left: Attorney Gloria Allred.

Leaving the demonstration, and heading back to the car, I struck up a conversation with a woman originally from New York named Jetta who wanted to join the demonstration, but like me, had been fretting about parking her car in a zone likely to attract the attention of the parking ticket people. It turned out she does Improv theatre and karaoke, and she invited me to some of their doings at the Geery Theater - an invitation I'm likely to honor. There are lots of little places in Sacramento theater!
Agony Downstage, Center!

DMTC's "Man Of La Mancha" was going well on Friday night, despite the fact that it was the Second Friday show.

Typically the Second Friday show is the weakest of a 12-show community-theatre run. Actors get complacent, having done the show the previous weekend, yet also having just spent the last few days off, and thus they are no longer quite as alert to danger as they need to be. There were a few problems keeping up with the music Friday night, but basically everything was going well for the cast.

Then, everything fell apart!

The Muleteers were just swinging into the Rape of Aldonza scene, following Lauren Miller's line, "Turn over, you poxy goat!" Brennan Ballard rolled her, Lauren screamed, got up and ran into Giorgio Selvaggio's arms, then back into mine. Then Lauren fell, downstage center, as choreographed. The Muleteers gathered to paw her. I knelt down to paw her as well, stepping smartly forward with my left leg, and bending down.

Just then, a thermonuclear explosion of pain tore from my groin! A vivid grinding sound that reminded me of chicken bones ripping apart at a feast came deep from within my own body!

The logical thing to do was to fall onto the stage into a fetal ball and scream like a little girl, but the timing couldn't possibly have been worse. The action onstage was heating up, not cooling down! There was no place to hide! Friends like John Ewing, Keith Hartmann, and Herb Schultz were sitting in the front row scarcely fifteen feet away. Whatever I felt, however I felt, I had to soldier on, and mask the pain!

What happened? For a few seconds, as I chortled at Aldonza's plight with my diabolical Muleteer laugh, I tried to diagnose myself. I thought maybe I had just suffered a hernia. I had never suffered a hernia before, so I didn't know what it was supposed to feel like, but it would explain why the pain came from the groin. Then I remembered an injury that seems to bedevil athletes, in particular: the dread groin pull. This must be what I just suffered!

But why a groin pull? I'm not sure about that, but I was probably not as warm as I should have been. I did a few plies to warm up the legs prior to the scene, but those focus on leg muscles, not hip joint flexure. I guess I stepped too far forward, too fast, for the muscles and ligaments to keep up. There's always a first time for everything, including injuries!

And so, for the remainder of Act II, I suffered. And I suffered! Adrenalin was my only helpmate. I had to run around in pain, at one point kneeling down to place Lauren over my shoulder and carry her across the stage - almost beyond my strength under the circumstances. As an Inquisition guard, I also had to descend the steps of the grand staircase without bursting into tears, and help carry the struggling Muleteer, Matt from Fairfield, back up the steps. I had to do all kinds of things that depend on a smoothly-functioning groin. Who knew the groin was so important to health and happiness?

Pain made me inattentive as well. Late in the show, I set up Don Quixote's stretcher, propping it up against a bench, downstage center. Metal loops on the stretcher's arms keep the stretcher from skidding off the bench and flat onto the stage. Friday night, I failed to notice the loops weren't properly braced against the bench until it was too late, and so I spent the scene in helpless heart-stopping worry that everything would instantaneously fall apart and Don Quixote would skid unceremoniously horizontal onstage (fate was kinder there, and nothing happened).

After having chewed through ibuprofen like candy, sleep last night was difficult. Lying down is difficult, especially on the right side, and I accidentally rolled into that position in bed. It was half an hour of agony figuring out how to roll onto my left side.

Tonight, Saturday night, we were all a little apprehensive about whether I could gimp through the vigorous show, but it basically seemed to go OK. The hardest thing to remember was to always step forward on the right, not the left, if I was going to kneel, and also to remember never to fall onto the stage on my right side. Carrying Lauren over my shoulder was hard, but doable. Running around stage was like "ow, ow, ow, ow, ow!" with every step, but I got through it.

Now, tomorrow afternoon is the Sunday show! Here we go again!

Be kind to your groin! It is your friend, and you will miss it if it malfunctions!