Twerpsichore

As Melvyn Bragg, or more accurately, his guests have relatively recently revealed, the exact number and nature of the muses varied over the course of the Classical era.  However, given any list of the occupants of Mount Helicon, it seems hard to argue with the thesis that I have been least touched by the influence of Terpsichore.  Then again, I have never shared any of my Love Poetry with you (or anyone else for that matter) – so I could always be lying.  I’ll leave that thought with you while I gently pluck at my cithara and await the arrival of Erato.

As has been noted in this very organ before, I am not a natural dancer.  My attempts at dance are about as unnatural, affected and artifical as could be imagined.  However, 2016 has seen me adding increasing volumes of dance into my cultural mix: though only as a voyeur (so far).  My younger self would be horrified as he found dance entirely without merit – well, except for the unintentional laughter it often brought him (and can still bring me).  Current me has, in many ways, reversed into his current interest in dance.  My gateway drug, as it were, has been circus: an art form which continues to obsess me.  This last week did see me first fully successful essay of the back level, suspended from gymnastic rings.  I will admit I can only hold it for a couple of seconds – I can’t actually breathe at the same time and holding the position does burn through the contents of my lungs at an alarming rate – but it was pretty good for an old codger.

Quite often the acrobatics in circus include elements of what I take to be contemporary dance. Both of the excellent shows by Barely Methodical TroupeBromance and Kin – have certainly included dance which clearly carries the narrative, even to a clod like me.  Emboldened by seeing dance and enjoying it, even if mostly in terms of the physical feats involved (and trying to work out if and when I might be able to replicate them), I have been branching out into more overtly dance-based events.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Salisbury International Arts Festival in the summer sunshine and all three events I attended contained dance.  Blocks was a circus/dance combination staged around a set of gigantic Jenga blocks and so was playing to my existing interests.  You and I Know, by Candoco Dance Company, I literally stumbled across by accident when seeking cake (I never found cake and am still struggling with the trauma: Salisbury was a major disappointment in this regard on a Sunday afternoon).  This was pure dance, though using two disabled performers – one in a wheelchair and the other with only 1.5 arms – and was incredible.  These appetizers were both free, but for my third encounter with dance I actually parted with real money – and moved indoors.  May Contain Food by Protein was dance-based but also involved operatic singing and a small amount of nourishment for the audience.  It was nominally set in a high-class restaurant with the audience as the diners and dancers and singers as the staff.  It was quite the strangest piece of culture I’ve ever seen, but very interesting and entertaining (and the food – eccentrically described and consumed – was appreciated).  It seemed to please both young and old in the audience, so some forms of weird could be the way to go when it comes to increasing cultural engagement.

As well as what we (OK, I) might call popular dance, I have also tried something a tad more classical.  Between Christmas and New Year, I accompanied my brother-in-law to provide  moral support for his first ever visit to the ballet.  This was to see Sleeping Beauty at Sadler’s Wells which I think was a fairly modern production: well, it invoved two conveyer belts and some puppetry and very little in the way of tutus.  I enjoyed it greatly and it was also a big hit with the accompanying ballet virgin: his fears proving groundless.  Inspired by this success, when I was in Cambridge recently I went to see Life by the BalletBoyz.  This was amazing, and at times very funny, and not a tutu in sight (just a lot of rabbits)  : though the Arts Theatre is a dreadful venue in which to watch dance as the sightlines are way too poor (something that has never been a problem with theatre which still works fine, but is almost fatal to dance).  If the circus won’t take me, I think maybe I’ll run away to join the ballet: it can’t all be cruel Russian matrons and bleeding feet (as the children’s TV of my youth suggested).  Realistically, this probably isn’t a great back-up plan for my retirement from the desk job: whilst the physical feats of ballet seem less extreme than at the circus, you do seem to be required to make them look entirely effortless and, worse for me, graceful.  The nearest I’ve come to grace in my life is thanking the Lord for the food I’m about to consume at a formal dinner, though I suspect a good word for the kitchen or waiting staff would probably have been more productive.

Still, I do fancy taking up some form of dance to take advantage of my improving flexibility.  Probably something not too dependent on rhythm or grace.  Do you think 50 is too late to take up break-dancing?

 

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Chulerías

Despite learning Spanish twice during my life – once at school and then again, a decade-and-a-half later, for work – and acquiring a reasonably varied vocabulary, I did not encounter the title until yesterday evening.  It does not appear in my dictionary, and so I have had to rely on the web’s favourite translation aid.  As a result, I fervently hope that it does mean “cool stuff” and not something obscene and/or offensive (I can’t really afford to upset some 400 million readers at this stage in my writing career).

Even before encountering the title, my life yesterday had a somewhat Spanish flavour – despite no ham being involved.  The new day started with a new book, The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón which I am reading in English translation (Southampton library does not provide a long enough loan – even with maximum renewals – for me to tackle it in its original tongue).  At times, it does seem to be rather directed at me as a newly admitted writer and it is clear that Don Basilio would not approve of my style and its adjectival liberality.  At other times, its protagonist reminds me of my brother – but I am only up to page 70, so this may change.

Last night, I had my first full experience of live flamenco – at the Arthouse Cafe, as regular readers might have guessed.  I had seen a little flamenco-inflected guitar many years ago at the Meson Don Felipe in the Cut in London while I munched on tapas and consumed a glass or two of blude-red wine.  On that occasion, it was just a guitarist perched precariously above the doorway leading to the facilities.  Yesterday, Jero Férec and his Flamenco Group – fresh from Ronnie Scott’s – provided not just the guitarist but two singers and a dancer.  Yet another amazing guitarist – and even more depressingly youthful than those that had come before him – and another musical style for me to enjoy at the Arthouse.  The two singers were also extraordinary and I, at least, thought I caught more than a hint of the Umayyad caliphate in their slightly unearthly vocal performance – many years ago, I heard a small amount of a flamenco mass on CD, but it hadn’t prepared me for the reality.  As part of the evening, I also learned that any previously attempts at rhythmic clapping were mere child’s play compared to the rigours of the flamenco beat: performers’ hands must be red raw after a performance.

On any normal night, the guitar or singing would have been the highlight – but to my surprise that honour must go to the dancing.  Usually, dancing does very little for me – it usually seems at best pointless and often laughable.  Last night, no-one was laughing: we would have been too scared.  Despite being the very image of imperial Spanish hauteur, the dancer had a prosaically English name: Ollie Giffin.  His dancing was commanding and somehow very adult: tap which is perhaps a distant cousin appears rather infantile in comparison.  The dance is intensely physical and at time the rhythm seems impossibly fast for a tall man in relatively high-heeled wooden-soled shoes.  He did have very sturdy thews which may have helped but, on a sample of one, I can’t be sure whether this was critical to his mastery of the dance.  It is not just a physical experience for the dancer but also for the audience as the vibration is transmitted through both the room and your body.  I strongly suspect that flamenco is an art-form best experienced live – with something vital lost in its recording (while I believe gaming controllers can provide haptic feedback, I doubt this has yet been exploited in the context of dance music).  I feel rather privileged that I can experience some of the thrill of downtown Seville, just a brief stroll from my home.  You can catch a flavour of the experience from the Arthouse’s Facebook page or via the link supplied above.

Incredible though the dance was, I do worry about young Ollie’s feet.  The shoes looked less than comfortable and I fear that the combination of the violence of the dance and his sockless condition (his choice, I assume) would render his feet a mass of blisters, cuts and partially-healed scars.  He did, wisely I would imagine, restrict his dancing to brief, if very intense bursts.  Still, I have once again established my suitability, in all but the purely physical sense, for the role of somebody’s maiden aunt.

The title I came across when researching Jero after the concert.  When even younger than he is today – still just at school, even – he released an album and it provided the title for this post which truly covers “cool things”.

Anthemic

This afternoon, I went to see SUSO (the Southampton University Symphony Orchestra) – the Southampton equivalent of CUSO (who I will be seeing next weekend).  Southampton does have an equivalent of CUMS, called SUMS, but perhaps wisely this acronym has been nabbed by the Mathematics Society.  I presume no-one else in Cambridge wanted CUMS so the Music Society had free rein.

The orchestra provided a very full programme of music from the Americas – well, to be more accurate the US and Mexico, but “the Americas” sounds better than “NAFTA less Canada”.  Within this very enjoyable programme was Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez: described in the programme notes (which hopefully compensate in accuracy for what they lack in style) as having been embraced as the unofficial national anthem of Mexico.  I have no idea what the official national anthem of Mexico sounds like, and am far too lazy to resort to Google to find out, but I seriously doubt it could hold so much as a rushlight (let alone a candle) to Danzón No. 2.  Our own national anthem is positively dirge-like by comparison.

In contrast to the rather martial air lent by the march which forms the basis of so many national anthems, Danzón No. 2 takes its inspiration from dance (rather to my surprise as I was convinced that bailar was the Spanish verb “to dance” – but I guess Mexico is a long way from Castille).  I would agree that the piece lacks any stirring words (or indeed, any words whatsoever) to sing along with at times of great national passion, but I feel this may be no bad thing in these days of heightened nationalism.  Both Flanders and Swann and Mitch Benn (to my certain knowledge) have attempted new national anthems which disparage Johnny foreigner, but no-one has attempted a new anthem for the UK (or the mostly UK of England, Wales and Northern Ireland) based on indigenous dance.  Morris is always a possibility, but I wonder if it would lack the gravitas for the international stage.  Perhaps the Dashing White Sergeant (assuming we retain the Scots in the Union)?  Or if that seems too military, the Gay Gordons as a celebration of equality?  The UK has brought the world many a dance – some of which I was introduced to at primary school, anyone for the Circassian Circle? – and surely one of these could provide the basis for a new national anthem in the hands of a suitable young composer?  The right choice could leave our international “partners” literally reeling!

Proverbial defiance

Or at least ignoring the advice implicit in Proverbs 26:11 and man’s best friend returning to the scene of an earlier gastric infelicity.

Over this past long weekend, I have been in Edinburgh to attend a wedding (not my own I should stress, before any of you let your well-funded imaginations to run away with you).  I did have a small role as one of the team of best men – mostly as the “responsible adult” with special responsibility for keeping the groom out of a Turkish greasy spoon on the morning before the ceremony.

I have not been to a huge number of weddings in my life (I will leave readers to theorise as to why) but the ones I have attended have been especially good – and this one was no exception.  The service was lovely, and I even enjoyed the religious component despite my continuing faith shortage.  The service and wedding breakfast (but timed as a late lunch) were held at Prestonfield House which is a beautiful venue (it would be my top choice, were I to marry in Edinburgh) with seriously good food and drink (the shots of strawberry juice, champagne and pink peppercorns were to die for, and possible, of).  It also provides (noisy) peacocks to chase which kept the younger visitors entertained during the photographs – I must admit I seemed to be in rather more of the photographs than I had expected or would consider entirely wise.

I couldn’t concentrate 100% on the breakfast as one of my duties as 20% of a best man was to give a speech about the groom.  Whilst I speak in public quite frequently, this is normally work-related and includes the psychological prop of a Powerpoint presentation – and so I did find this unexpectedly daunting.  Of the 52 attendees, I only knew 8 at the start of the weekend and only 12 by the time of my speech – so it was tricky deciding on how to pitch my talk.  It is also worth mentioning that I had consumed significantly more alcohol prior to my speechifying than would normally be the case when I am working for “the man”.

It is now time to release the unbearable tension I have built up and let you know that the speech was very well received.  Embarrassingly well received, in fact – I think that the alcohol consumed by the audience ay well have helped.  People laughed at the jokes (though Charles II remained stony-faced throughout), even the statistics one, and I have never had so many questions about Group Theory or what it means for a group to be Abelian.  So, if any readers of GofaDM are looking for an after-dinner speaker, with a penchant for maths-based quipery, I am available for hire (and will work for cake and dessert wine).

However, all of this persiflage is mere scene-setting to the important meat of this post.  My fellow members of the best man team were students in their late teens or early twenties.  I had met all of then before, but in some cases this was more than a decade ago and they had definitely grown (more significantly in some cases than others) and the beard was certainly new (I would definitely have remembered a bearded 9 year old).  Despite the age difference (I was old enough to be their father – in fact, quite possibly I was older than their actual fathers) we hit it off rather well.  We met up for a couple of meals the day before the wedding, and there is no better bonding experiences than being silly about hot towels and discussing the correct probability distribution to use to analyse neutron detection over beer and a curry.  I also established that innuendo and the double-entendre can cross the age gap very successfully.

The best men had breakfast together before the wedding in s suitably low-odour venue, looking not unlike a low budget remake of Reservoir Dogs (don’t worry, no ears were harming in the making of this post).  We hung-out somewhat at the wedding itself and a whole lot more at the reception.  Some of my fellow best men were tempted onto the dance floor – I myself was later forced to show people a few of my “moves” – indulging in a dance-off which is probably the funniest thing I have ever seen.  Sadly, I struggle to work the photographic capabilities of my iPhone in good light and while sober, so I have sadly failed to capture this even for posterity (I shall have to re-double my efforts to crack the secrets of temporal mechanics in order to have a second crack at it).  At the reception, we also indulged in some (perhaps) ill-advised experiments with alcohol (a scientific paper will be submitted to Nature in due course) but which might one day change the whole face of drinking (I can’t say more at this stage for reasons of commercial confidentiality).

After the reception we went on a brief pub crawl around Edinburgh – brief not for reasons of health or good sense, but because all the pubs seemed to close surprisingly early.  I had expected more of Scotland – I think all this talk we hear of early death, alcoholism and deep-fried everything may owe more to a well-tuned PR machine than to reality.  Still, perhaps it was for the best – as I was able to deliver the full complement of young people (or perhaps they were able to deliver me) back to our digs without major injuries.  I still didn’t make it to my bed until nearly 4am, but when I awoke later that day I was entirely free of hangover – though somewhat tired through lack of sleep and with a sore throat from too much talking (so nothing new there!).

I had a worryingly large amount of fun on this somewhat alcohol-infused night out, I seem capable of slipping back into the student life with very little trouble: though I should point out that my own student life was almost entirely teetotal (one small glass of sherry on my first day and one small glass of champagne on the last – I blame the parents, and more specifically mine).  My youthful partners-in-crime also claimed to have had a good time – despite being handicapped by having to drag around a man both well-stricken in years and possessed of a very dodgy sense of humour.  The media often rails against young people portraying them as some sort of feral underclass; my own (admittedly limited) experience suggests I’ll feel much more comfortable when they are in charge of our destiny than the current incumbents (largely selected from my own generation).  They seem so much more together than I did at their age (or indeed am now!).

At some point during the night of (always polite) debauchery, I took an action to organise a dessert wine weekend in York.  The only thing the wedding lacked was enough dessert wine – but that is true of so much of life – and I had fallen in among fellow connoisseurs.  This is a action I plan to take quite seriously – I have already started researching the options on this train as I head south   They do say that you should never go back (and, in particular, attempts to re-capture one’s lost youth are contraindicated), but in some ways it would be a return to someone else’s student days – so perhaps it will be OK.

Watch this space…

Mr Brown goes into town

Well, OK, I’m not Mr Brown and I caught the 7:55 rather than the 8:21 – but my trip to London yesterday was the best chance I have to pay tribute to the late David Croft (let’s face it, I am unlikely to start work in a department store, holiday camp, or French café during the second world war in the near future).  And, when I return each evening I am ready, if not with my gun then oft-times with a pun!

Sometimes, I do not have to work at juxtaposition – my life just delivers curious combinations of experience to me.  As mentioned above, I did have to go into London for work yesterday and my inbound journey was somewhat delayed.  This was not, as you might have anticipated, due to loss of catenary cables near Sawbridgeworth (apparently, the felonious travel there expressly to steal live 25kV cables from above a passing express.  I know metal prices are high – but I think there is still plenty to half-inch that is not carrying high voltage above fast-moving and slow-braking rolling stock.  But, what do I know?) but due to loose cattle on the line.  More cynical readers may think this was just an invented excuse – on a par with “the dog ate my homework” or “the cheque is in the post” – but I can assure you it was not, the wrong type of livestock were real.  When we finally arrived at the problem location, the cows were still loose: standing just to the side to the track staring at the train is it inched past.  In the Wild West, trains are fitted with cow-catchers to deal with exactly this sort of problem (well, they are in the Westerns – though, if pushed, I’d have to admit that these are not generally marketed as documentaries and are set somewhat in the past) but the Class 379 Electrostar unit in which I was travelling, whilst fast and comfortable (and a huge improvement on the Class 317/1 that one sometimes has to endure), was not so equipped.  I presume that National Express East Anglia felt that paying the extra for a cow-catcher made little economic sense in the Tame East.  Hindsight is a marvellous thing!

After a busy day of meetings, I raced back home prior to cycling into Cambridge to see some comedy in the evening.  Luckily, Frisky and Mannish (for it was they who were purveying the comedy) provide a high-energy (and volume) performance, as by this time I was already somewhat tired and a more low-key performer may have seen me doze off.  The show was jolly good, though I fear my knowledge of music from the charts was too poor to fully appreciate some of the material (to be honest, in my world, charts either require graph paper or relate to naval navigation) – but I suppose that’s what you get from only listening to BBC Radios 2, 3, 4, 6Music and 4Extra (née 7).

The show did require audience participation – and despite sitting in the back row, I was required to participate rather more fully in the show than anticipated (then again, I had anticipated none).  The premise was to form a 5-piece boy-band from members of the audience after the style of Take That: from the days when they were a boy-band, rather than the reformed middle-aged bloke-band of today.  This beggars belief, but I was chosen to form part of this soi-disant boy-band (the other four could certainly have passed for boys, even in quite good light, but I thought my days of passing for a boy lay in the distant past) on the basis of my dance skills (I was the Jason Orange figure, I believe).  For the avoidance of doubt, I should make clear that I have no dance skills whatsoever – and even the basic hand movements for the Macarena proved totally beyond me (perhaps I should have been spending less of my available mental capacity trying to translate the Portuguese words to the song at the same time) – so I can only assume that my dancing was chosen ironically.  My age, apparently, wasn’t – so I do wonder if I should send Mannish details of my optician.  As a result of my selection, I spent some 10 minutes on the stage (and not the first one out of town, to return briefly to the Wild West) and did gain rather a taste for it, despite the lack of a singing (or speaking) part or (indeed) a fee.

So, perhaps rather than the movie or book of this blog, I should look to present GofaDM on the stage.  At least that way the posts will (mostly, though I’m no respecter of the fourth wall – or estate) be safely confined behind a Proscenium Arch.  Perhaps, also if it were staged then in the distant future academics will argue as to whether I really wrote this blog or it was someone else entirely.