Saturday, October 18, 2008

Yoga Shalom

Combining the ancient spiritual practices of yoga with the Jewish morning service that celebrates the Sabbath may seem a bissle unconventional but, in fact, a "yoga shalom" service I participated in this morning provided an ideal immersion into prayer, music, meditation and movement. The Hebrew word shalom means peace - a perfect focus for attuning mind and body, to take a rest from the normal rush and preoccupation that fills our daily lives that too often keeps us from indulging in the day of rest that the Sabbath is designed to afford us.

Cantor Lisa Levine, who led the service, has modified the Shabbat morning service to couple the elements of traditional communal prayer and yoga practice with a very personalized spiritual experience. The congregants from Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Md., participating in the service this morning, who traditionally come to services wearing kippahs and talit (yarmulkas and prayershawls) prepared for traditional worship instead donned sweats and workout clothes crowding into a candlelit classroom to the mellow tones of Hebrew prayers on a specially prepared CD, laying down yoga mats, warming up and stretching while preparing to celebrate the Sabbath in this unique way.

The mindset for prayer in Hebrew is called kavanah, meaning "intent". In traditional mediatative practice, kavanah would be the idea of being "in the moment". As a welcome into the service, Cantor Lisa invited us to determine for ourselves what our kavanah would be for this moment, this particular morning of prayer, this day of rest, then led us through a flow of yoga poses to the calming melodies of the Sabbath. It was a wonderful way to pray and a welcome spiritual immersion into Shabbat peace, Shabbat holiness, Shabbat neshama.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

And All That Jazz...

First, true confessions: last time I took dance class was during the Carter administration.

But I was very young then. Now, not so much, but interested in seeing what it feels like to move this middle-aged body as a dancer.

So I signed up for a class at Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in Takoma Park, Md. Yesterday was the first class. And while moving my body vigorously in rhythmic sequence over and over to music felt familiar, the body itself didn't look too familiar. And it didn't respond to my brain's commands to turn out, to lift, to kick and lunge to the insistent hip-hop beat in quite the ways I'd expected.

But here's what I can say in my body's defense: while it couldn't quite reach its former agility in limber kicks, gravity defying leaps, and perfect turnout, it could still deliver in style.

Today, I'm just sore. But the best part of the exercise -- not just lamenting the loss of my youth -- was how much fun it is to d-a-n-c-e, and all that jazz. Photo credit: Liz Lerman Dance Exchange

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Soul of the Refrigerator

So, when my artist-friend Rosana told me she was redesigning refrigerators to enter into an art exhibit, my first question was, "What the heck for?" Then, she told me this was to be an entry in a "recycled" art exhibition, and I thought, why not.

Her latest creation, entitled Hearts and Minds and done in collaboration with the teaching staff of Creative Adventures, the non-profit arts education program in elementary schools that my friend created, is the proof of the pudding. Hearts and Minds inspired students at Creative Adventures' summer camp to "tread lightly on the earth" and reclaim natural beauty out of manufactured stuff. This refrigerator door was rescued from the snack bar of a suburban swimming pool and was transformed using brown paper packing from a mail-order delivery, bottle caps, telephone wire and cast-off materials from several junk drawers.

To see details on the coming exhibition on recycled refrigerators and energy savings as an art form at Washington, D.C.'s, National Building Museum in the dog days of August and early September, visit this cool spot for a breath of fresh air.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What Price Art?

Not Van Gogh's Sunflowers
Don't quit the day job. For artists of every hue, this has become conventional wisdom. After all, Van Gogh died destitute in 1890, yet just under 100 years later, in 1987, Japanese insurance magnate Yasuo Goto paid $39,921,750 for Van Gogh's "Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers" at auction at Christie's London, at the time, a record setting price for one of the now venerated artist's work.

What of talented artists who today labor under guise of anonymity, or try mightily for recognition in a marketplace where "what is art" is defined as subjective and "what is popular" might be a better guide to how collectors and amateurs alike purchase paintings, sculpture, multimedia and other pieces?

Or what of this: the award-winning painter and sculptor Dorothy Silverstein Stevens who has her first one-woman show at age 85 to great acclaim but no public notice; whose work is admired but undervalued; who sells work to admiring friends but really deserves to be in public collections?

Now 90, with a life of art behind her, she paints out of passion and inspires awe among admirers. Price is not the object, yet the artist and her art deserve to be appreciated. For what is art if no one sees it? Dorothy Silverstein Stevens creates just such inspirational artistry. I post one of her paintings here: you be the judge.

Friday, July 18, 2008

D.C. on the Fringe

Speaking of off-beat, Washington's 2008 Fringe Festival is currently in full swing. According to its organizers, the Capital Fringe is about "unjuried, risk taking, independent performing arts." The city provides a cornucopia of performances - more than 600 individual performances involving over 200 companies in 30 venues, located all around the District. A moveable feast.

The festival inspires artists and arts organizations to venture into uncharted territory. So it was fitting that a Theatre Lab production called Parade would also push the edge of entertainment. A critical hit on Broadway during its brief run in 1999, the musical was conceived and directed by Hal Prince. It is not a musical in the traditional sense of the American musical, but a serious look at a little examined time in American history: the trial and lynching of Leo Frank in the Atlanta of the 1910's - a place still unashamedly racist and anti-Semitic. The crime Frank was accused of, murdering a 14-year old factory worker in his pencil factory, and the subsequent trial where witnesses were coached to testify against this Jewish man from Brooklyn who was and would always be a stranger in white Southern society, is portrayed affectingly by Buzz Mauro.

Musical it is, though a tragedy at that. According to the program notes, the musical score is one of the toughest in all of musical theatre. Atonal, with complex harmonies, an experience professional company would still have difficulty telling this long, complicated story through music and dialog. Performing in the auditorium of a church near the National Museum of American Art and the Verizon Center, this cast - a mix of amateurs, professionals and newcomers, teens and adults - brought the story to life with uneven finesse but great passion.

And the story of Parade, difficult though it may be, is worth hearing. Fitting within the context of the Capitol Fringe Festival, this was "unjuried, risk taking" performance artistry. A moveable feast, Washington's cup overfloweth. I urge natives and visitors alike: partake.

Monday, June 23, 2008

There's No Business Like Community Theatre

The costumes, the scenery, the makeup, the props,
The audience that lifts you when you're down

The costumes, the scenery, the makeup, the props
The audience that
lifts you when you're down

By now, the quality and strength of Washington’s theatre scene is undisputed. From Arena to Woolly Mammoth, the live stage is thriving in Washington.

What is less recognized but equally phenomenal, is that Washington hosts a remarkable number of community theatre groups, mounting upwards of 150 shows a year, from musical comedy to Shakespeare, from Tennessee Williams dramas to original one-acts.

The public spotlight does not shine brightly on community stages here in the Greater Washington area, but somehow, audiences, players and stagehands have come together in large numbers to create a highly experienced cadre of journeymen artists and artisans at many stages around the region to round out the arts scene.

“I could go to two shows every week of the year and still not see every show,” notes Jane Squier Bruns, artistic director of Montgomery Playhouse and actor.

Indeed, on one weekend in the fall, theatre lovers could choose from a preview performance of “Dracula, the Musical?” at Montgomery Playhouse, “Agnes of God” at Silver Spring Stage, and “Mr. Pim Passes By,” at Cedar Lane Stage. That same weekend, attending the Opening Night cast party for “Dracula,” the talk was on who-was-performing-what-where, coming auditions, and whether certain performances and productions were WATCH-worthy.

WATCH is the acronym standing for Washington Area Theater Community Honors, and it is literally the Tony Award for Washington’s community theaters. The awards are awarded in grand style at the Birchmere in Alexandria each March to celebrate the achievements of theater groups, performers, directors and technical designers.

The roster of WATCH members continues to grow, and today is comprised of 29 companies from Annapolis to Warrenton. Because they are locally based, the companies often take their cues for production choices based on what the audience has come to expect. Montgomery Playhouse, for example, takes a traditional approach, while Kensington Arts Theatre concentrates on musicals. Cedar Lane Stage has built a reputation for “classics of dramatic literature, rarely performed works by well-known writers,” and overlooked “gems.” The St. Mark’s Players on Capitol Hill initially performed only Gilbert and Sullivan, but have expanded their repertory.

As its name implies, community theatre is all about players and producers with a passion for performance -- not for the paycheck but the payoff of bringing well-produced, high quality plays to a wide and diverse audience. Because each performance is locally mounted by an all-volunteer cast and crew, most productions are affordable and accessible in a way a night at the Kennedy Center might not be. If the theatre also draws in new audiences to live theatre, so much the better.

Payment is not the mark of quality, as the many volunteers involved in the activity might attest -- the sheer joy of putting on something provocative, comic, classic, or tragic before an audience is its own reward.

Let's go on with the show!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Fair Trade: Jewelry with Heart

A group of Washington women visited the mystical Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, several years ago and had the great good fortune to meet Lily Jacobs, a British ex-pat, who lives with her Guatemalan husband in a unique and colorful compound - pastels and lush tropical greenery set against mountain terrain on the mysterious lake that can only be described as Eden-like.

Lily, an artist, had noticed the fine handwork that went into the creation of the native dress of Guatemalan women - whose Mayan heritage is preserved in the vivid colors and detailed handweaving of native design - including the resplendent native bird, the quetzal - into blouses called huipils in colors native to specific regions of the country. But the time involved in weaving made it unprofitable to the women weavers to outfit more than their community.

Lily, seeing their artistry, was determined to help build an industry that reflected the talent and aesthetics of the local peoples, while building a business to profit the families - mostly poor and undereducated - by creating art that could be exported for profit.

Hence, Lilybeads was born. Lily designs new patterns regularly in her studio, then trains local women to create bracelets, earrings and necklaces using native patterns and colors. Lilybeads incorporates Fair Trade practices to marketing the finished product and returning profits to the community so local families can build a sustaining industry based on native traditions and available to the world.

In her own words, "Lilybead comes from my own deep creative drive and from my desire to help the young women of Guatemala improve their lives now and in the future. Together we make the perfect product—Jewelry with Heart."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"Three Months" Morphs to Take "The Blue Line"

After playing a benefit for LiveStrong in Howard Co., the band formerly known as "Three Months to Live" has beat the odds for survival into its fourth month. Hence, same band, new name: The Blue Line.

The Blue Line is showing strong signs of life as headliners at The Red and The Black, Thursday, May 28. The club, a cozy tavern and live music venue is located in the H Street Atlas shopping district of Northeast, Washington, DC. Check them out - doors open at 8:30 p.m. with a modest cover. Then kick back and listen to the "Line's" originals, including "Lately," "A Poem for I Don't Know Who," and "My Enemy."

Come early and bring your friends to support the band and check out this emerging arts district - as the Off-Beat Blogger will be doing that evening. When you hit the doors, tell 'em you're there to hear Ben and the guys, in The Blue Line.

Friday, April 25, 2008

In Five Words: Submit Your Favorite Washington Places

A friend told me about a new trend for anyone with a story to tell. Reviewers have dubbed it a new art form: American Haiku. It's the Six-Word Memoir and there's a book to that effect, Not Quite What I Was Planning, by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser, containing many more than six words, available at Amazon.

So, why not create a local literary contest with a hometown theme? Better yet, if we can mix and mingle words to compose lyrics to an original musical composition, we gain an Ode to Washington. This launches our new Five Word Challenge: "Favorite Spot in Washington Area"

Only rule: Tell it in five words. You can submit as often as you like and the winners will go on to either celebrity or anonymity. My contribution? Northwest Branch reflects autumn's palette.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The AWWK Aria

Last night at the Kennedy Center for the Washington National Opera's Rigoletto (oh, I did say this would not be about mainstream arts, didn't I? Well, read on...), I noticed that people do not dress for opera anymore. And when I say "do not dress," I mean, anything goes. Sneakers and skirts -- yes, this is the Washington woman's work uniform -- jeans and tees. Not that I lament the "good old days" where Dior and dinner jackets were de rigueur, but it is nice to see afficionados make an effort.

It reminded me of my first exposure to opera as a kid growing up in Cincinnati. Women strutting in long gowns and peacocks spreading their splendid green and purple tails. Awwk! yes, peacocks! The Cincinnati Zoo Opera was absolutely a one-of-its-kind phenomenon, where the likes of Beverly Sills's coloratura soprano could be punctuated by the unscripted contrapuntal basso profundo trumpeting from The Elephant House. The Zoo's Pavilion fronted the aptly titled (and accurately labeled) Swan Lake. I vaguely recall long giraffe necks peering over at the singers to see what all the squawking was about. The stars of the Met absolutely clamored to play the house for the primates on Monkey Island!

Anyway, it occurred to me, watching Rigoletto, that this was exactly the kind of production that would be punched up by some monkey business. The supernumeraries in the crowd scenes actually seemed herded here and there. While Rigoletto sang his impassioned Act 2 aria about the townspeople abducting his beloved, innocent daughter, the sumptuously clad extras were clumped stage right, staring offstage. We the audience, in our sweats and hoodies, were not impressed.

This would not have happened at the Zoo Opera. As Time Magazine noted in a 1942 review: " Occasionally a lion roared; silver-haired Tenor Giovanni Martinelli roared louder.... Cincinnati's Zoo offers the only summer season of first-rate opera in the U.S. As first presented 20 years ago, scraps of opera vied with an ice show, merry-go-round, two dance floors. Gradually full-length opera muscled in. The inevitable deficits were met by the inevitable angels, Mrs. Charles Phelps Taft, wife of the half brother of William Howard Taft, and Mrs. Mary Emery, whose father-in-law made one of Cincinnati's first big real-estate fortunes. In 1934 the musicians themselves took over."

Of course, the beauty of the Zoo Op was its completely democratic appeal. Still, back in the day, even plumbers and gardeners dressed in dark suits replete with white hankies. If the likes of a former first family, the Tafts, could pull on girdles and stockings to dress in regal finery during Cincy's sweltering summers to mix with Metropolitan Opera stars and the King of the Jungle, shouldn't Washington's A-list, attending no less a landmark than the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, step out of their day-to-day skins as combatant elephants and donkeys? C'mon, D.C. -- show off your peacock walk. AWWK!

Monday, March 31, 2008

Transform Yourself

Wise Eastern gurus have known for years what science is just recently catching onto: the practice of yoga offers multiple health benefits. Now, scientists are proving it. No less an august scientific institution than the National Institutes of Health is offering a glimpse of yoga's power to heal as scientists and practitioners gather on the campus of the National Institutes of Health for NIH Yoga Week, May 19-23 at various NIH venues. The week's events are open to the public, featuring classes, workshops, exhibits and demonstrations suitable for everyone: longstanding practitioners of the art of yoga, wannabe desk yogis, and the just-plain curious who may want to learn more about emerging health benefits. Experts will address topics ranging from research showing benefits in cancer treatment to practices geared towards managing stress and easing lower back pain. Yoga classes will be held both outside (weather permitting) and indoors to encourage as participation by as many people as possible.

Check out a full listing for events on their splash page.


"Name that Band"

No one was "Leavin' on a Jet Plane," on the last Friday in March, as five rockin' folkies who make neuroscientific discoveries by day at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and make music every chance they get marked their live cafe debut at Caribou Coffee. The live concert featured the smooth vocal stylings of Jennifer Elcano, her husband Tomm on bass, NIDA's Joe Frascella and Curtis Balmer, with special guest vocalist Dorie Hightower. Original compositions played by the group have a fresh coffee house flavor that could usher in a neo-indie-folk rock revival.

Every month is a new gig, with new musicians and new material. So check out the talent on Friday nights (fourth of each month) and celebrate. It's the weekend!

: Caribou Coffee off Norbeck Road in Rockville in the Rock Creek Village Center

: "Sex [deleted]..." and other area musicians

Sponsored by
: Caribou Coffee and The Songwriters Association of Washington

Monday, March 17, 2008

DC Dreamin'

For those who have never participated in a "Dream Circle," I highly recommend the experience. To share images and symbols conjured in the oneiric state with a group of friends can offer unexpected insights into the way your friends' waking minds work -- never mind the Freudian.

Eight of us gathered at a friend's home recently to examine our dreams in this way. Our host shared a dream she had recorded recently where a pale green python (a global post-modern harbinger of spring, perhaps?) was in her house and encircling her dog, although she didn't feel the dog was threatened. The moment of decision in the dream was whether she or her husband, who had charged downstairs carrying a sword, should kill the python before it harmed their family pet. What was going on here?

A fellow dreamer immediately jumped in with her own interpretation -- this dream was clearly about Hillary Clinton and our conflicts about choosing a candidate in the coming election, she said. Immediately, others in our circle nodded their heads. Yes! More than one person recounted then that they had dreamt about Barack Obama, as had colleagues and acquaintances with whom they had discussed sleep or lack thereof since the primary season ramped up.

Wow, I would have thought the dream was about snake charmers, or something. Oh, but wait...

Ambivalence over this long presidential primary courtship has apparently crept into the collective subconscious and crawled into bed with us at night.

Hmm...I wonder what Freud might have to say about this.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Check Out College Park's Hottest New Rockers

Three Months to Live is the latest rock band to emerge from the University of Maryland, and their music is killer hot. Guitarist Ben Payes has penned the music and lyrics, and the performances by all five musicians, including Mike LaBattaglia on lead vocals, Ross Jacobson, lead guitar, Nick Scialli on bass, and Kenny Leftin on drums, show promise.

With these original compositions, the band is negotiating with clubs for performance dates this spring.

Tune in to this blog periodically for news about upcoming gigs and check out the band's MySpace page.