La Prova Generale

So you drive to Siena, and head at a serious clip toward the main piazza, because as far as you know you have maybe a 3% chance of getting a ticket to their "dress rehearsal" for the most famous bareback horse race in the world. You don't really know what that means, but . . . hell: "When in Rome."

You're not in Rome, though. After much run-walking over cobblestones, you're here:
After a good pause for a refreshing beverage (which helps you recover from the embarrassment over having covert-sprinted amongst all the laid-back Italians) you set about trying to figure out how to get a ticket. Your friend, who speak much better Italian than you do, works it out. E la:

So, you've got good seats. The seating is right beside the course, which runs the entire circumference of the (very large) piazza, and has been covered with tightly packed earth specifically for the event. I mean to say: You are RIGHT THERE. It's hard to believe someone's actually going to bring a semi-wild animal that close to you on purpose. It's also difficult to believe that you needed to rush so, because the piazza still looks like this:

But, you know, you go with it because your friend speaks better Italian than you, and has been to this event before, and because just maybe this will be a memory of the sort that never goes anywhere it can't be remembered again. It's good you kept these things in mind, because within ten minutes, the piazza goes from looking like the above to this:

There is much accepted pomp and circumstance prior to the main event. The city, you see, is divided into various neighborhoods that are represented by animals. The tortoise, the porpoise, the little owl, etc. These contradi are the participants in the race, and whoever wins the real race (the next day) gets bragging privileges for the rest of the year. So groups gather, songs are sung, children are corraled into choral groups and everyone has a boisterously good time. It's hard to imagine it getting more intense for the real thing, but it surely must. Juxtoposed beside that sort of contemporary hootenanny is medieval ceremony, such as a procession of the city emblem:

The real deal. See those guys in the back? Plate mail and wicked pikes. Wicked pikes, man. Further traditions include really skilled flag-twirling/dancing and processions of drummers, etc. The last little pre-show bit is the procession of what I assume represent the city's cavalry. These fellows march in, their horses high-stepping beautifully, swords raised:

Then you know what they do, after completing a lap? They point their swords forward and haul ass for a lap! In formation! It's seriously amazing. If I saw these guys bearing down on me, forget it. Even if I had a cannon or two. I'm going home and watching it on the news. Good luck, everyone else. Of course, after that, some clean up is necessary.
Dudes with brooms. If that isn't old school, I just don't know what is. After all these things rad, they get set for the race itself, including the latest technology. Ropes, for example. Very large ropes.
Which are spring-loaded. You know, to contain the semi-wild horses and their death-hungry riders. It's like some terrible idea of a horse race dreamed up by a Dungeons & Dragons (TM) -obsessed fourteen-year-old...
Yes, I am that fourteen-year-old.

Anyway, the horses arrive one by one, bearing the crests of their particular contrado. We got to sit right in the section where the horses begin, between the two ropes. It is due to this buona fortuna that I present to you contrado Lupa:

Now the really, really good stuff starts. It takes forever for the horses to get in line. I thought this was simply because, well, they're semi-wild horses. Ah, no. It turns out that it has something to do with signals the riders are getting from the officials/palio-captains of their contrado. Those people are standing -- as they have done for hundreds of years -- on a double footbridge that spans an alley between two buildings of the piazza. They are signaling their rider to be slow, or agitate his horse, or freaking kick the guy beside him. It's like baseball, with all the hand signals. It's part of the game, but the part that goes largely unacknowledged. This is, in fact, a primary reason for having a rehearsal for the event! The tortoise is the last contrado to enter the corral, and he sits it out for a long time, his rider's face as placid as the Buddha's, while the other horses and their riders kick and shout and otherwise try to hold it together.

You'll have to forgive me, because it started even faster than I could have imagined, so I don't have the beginning. I also don't have the end, because as soon as it was over people started climbing off the stands behind me to congratulate the winner and see if the guy who fell off his horse had died. (He didn't.) But, well, the final event of the thing is, simply put, this:

Move Me

So begins that much-esteemed classic of hip-hop, the Beastie Boys' "Flute Loop," off of, of course, their momentous album

Ill Communication

. It's permanently lodged in my memory, as are many other things that happened to me between high school and college, simply by merit of having been introduced to me at such a sponge-like moment of my life. There's another spoken bit off that album that has rent control in my brain, which begins "...if I'd known it was going to be this kind of party...", but that one doesn't segue nicely into what I'm writing about today. (Lucky you.)

I have

a few workshops

coming up teaching commedia dell'arte to movement students. Not dancers (thank goodness) but actors and other generally untrained movers. It's an interesting opportunity, both for the ways in which I'll need to adapt curriculum to suit it, and in the ways that the dynamic will be different when I'm teaching solo. I haven't done this in awhile. My usual teaching partner, Friend Heather, is tied up in performing

Brilliant Traces

in Scranton, and frankly I didn't feel a need to call on anyone else to fill the gap, like Friends




. I'm excited for the opportunity to teach by myself, and by what I'll learn from it. Fortunately for me, I'll be teaching college-level students, so they should be relatively attentive. More energy will go into the teaching than the wrangling.

I really resented my movement classes in college. They were mandatory and, in spite of my agreement with the idea that actors need formal movement training, I mentally fought this (I was way too obedient then to actually do anything about it). Part of what made them so infuriating was that they were taught solely by dance instructors. I would take advantage of that now, but at the time it seemed negligent of the skills we truly needed. Out of about four, I only remember one teacher who seemed to actually understand what might be useful to the young actor. When I occasionally reunite with my fellow performance majors, we still make inside jokes about carving our way through an enormous, imaginary watermelon. Watch out for the seeds!

What's suddenly quite strange for me to consider is just how pivotal (har har) movement became in my work, and how significant a factor it is in my work history. I mean, highly physical theatre is what I do. It's like my calling card. Strange then that I began with such a resistance to the work. Perhaps it was the teachers, or just my obstinate teenage mentality, but it all started to turn for me toward the end of my sophomore year at


. That was when I was reaching the end of my mandatory movement classes, my emotions reminiscent then of reaching the end of mandatory Phys. Ed. in high school. It was also when I was trying to figure out just why theatre was important to me, and when I auditioned for my school's production of

The Three Musketeers

. In that audition they tested our ability to learn fencing and used various scenes from the play to evaluate players for the callbacks. In one such scene, I played d'Artagnon stepping up to his first challenge of a duel by immediately tripping and pratfalling directly onto his face. It was a move I wouldn't even contemplate now, but old hat at the time, hearkening back to my elementary-school antics, and I'm fairly sure it's what got me the part.

Three Musketeers

had a lot of influence over my self-perception in that it got me a lot more comfortable with the idea of myself as a mover, and since then, well -- it's all been downhill pratfalls. I made broad physical characteristics for differentiating a couple of summerstock characters, latched onto the Suzuki training at my next summer gig, got involved with the circus crowd in New York and finally became a founding member of a contemporary commedia dell'arte troupe. Now there's no question in my mind either about my ability to use physical choices to fill out a character, nor about the importance of that work to theatre. Theatre is the only place where an actor has that much influence and exposure to use his or her entire person to tell a story. It's exciting, really. Movement is ever-changing ideas made concrete, tangible and visceral. What's not to love?

Now that I'm the one teaching various ways of using one's body to perform, I just hope to bring that sense of permission and ability to any student with whom I cross paths. For years and years in my youth I loved slapstick and admired action movies, but assumed that because I wasn't good in P.E. that such enthusiasms were at best fantasy, at worst envy. Now I know that everyone has a physical performer in them. It's as natural as being alive, and as emotionally affecting as any word or song. Move me!

A Couple of Things

[BEWARE: The moment this entry enters the TMI range for you, quit. It is carefully structured to start soft. You have been warned.]


Wait, wait! Don't go! We need to talk. Right now.

I've been putting this off for a while now, because I knew it was going to be a difficult discussion, but we can't go on like this. Something's got to change, and I'm just trying to make that happen, okay? I'm not trying to start a fight here, so don't jump all over me when I start being real. Okay? Try not to. Okay, My Balls?

Look, My Balls: I don't know where to begin. I think you know I love you. I try to show you that in little ways every day. Maybe some days I do better than others, but in general I think you'd have to agree that I'm neither abusing you, nor taking you for granted in any way. I . . . what? No, they're not. No, My Balls, it's called pants that fit! That's all!

This is exactly what I didn't want to have happen here. Can we take a moment? Just calm down? I'm not sure we're going to get much of anywhere unless we can talk about this like well-rounded adults. I'm not accusing you, no. No, you're pefectly round! If you take everything as an attack, then I can't say anything!

I'm sorry. I won't shout. I know. I was loud. I'll stop.


Okay. I acknowledge that some of this is my fault, and I am truly sorry for any harm I may have caused you. I'm inclined to believe that the problem lies in our communication. You were communicating in what you thought was a very clear manner--and I'm sure it was, I just need to listen better--that you were unhappy with something I was doing. Or, had done. Now, it's not really fair, My Balls, to only tell me hours or days after the fact that you disagree with something I'm doing. I'M NOT BLAMING YOU. I'm not. I'm just . . . offering some constructive criticism. I will try to listen better, and all. Please try to address your concerns to me in a timely manner. Thank you.

Now, as to where we stand now. No, now, listen: Everything is not fine. Well, I'm glad to hear you aren't having any particular problems, but you might consider the idea that my problems are in fact your problems. Hm? I mean, without me, you're just you. I mean, you'll have each other, but then what? You dig? Okay. So. Now. I'd like to be able to sit with you for a while.

No, not like this. I mean: yes, "like this," but for longer, and while I'm doing other things besides giving you my undivided attention. I like attention too, but you can't have it all the time. No, you can't. Ow! That isn't helping things, My Balls! Grow up! That's better. Ow! Knock it off! My job is at a desk, and there's nothing I can do about all the sitting! Oh, don't you eye-ball My Posture. How are you doing that, anyway? Never mind. My Posture and I are working on things, and he is doing much, much better lately! I wish I could say the same for some!

What's that? Ug. My Balls, I have to work out. I have to. It's part of my career, my health and just my general mood. I am trying very hard not to repeat the ugly incident we had, what, a year-and-a-half ago now? You have to help me out, guy(s). You have to hold the fort, as it were, a little better. I can accept that I used to do crunches too fast, and I'm being all Pilates-like now, so there you go. Now, let's just try to hold it together when I do things like pull-ups and push-ups, okay? I know these engage My Abdominal Wall, but come on. We all have to work together here. And before you say anything about it, yes, I'm having separate conversations with My Quads and My Gluteal Muscles. Don't try to divert the subject.

Oh. Yes, well . . .. My Pelvic Floor? You're right. Yes, you're right. I haven't had that talk yet. I mean to, I just haven't . . .. Listen, I didn't even know I had a "pelvic floor" most of my life. I'm a little shy about approaching it. Well, it's intimidating. I mean, it's the center of everything. Everything. My Gravity, My Musculature, the base of My Spine . . . My Pelvic Floor is really important, and I get really . . . tense . . . when dealing with it. Which doesn't help.

And so, yes, you've made your point. It is my fault. No, I'm not just saying it to placate you. It is hard for me to accept, but all of this started with my own sort of approaches to my physicality, and overcoming adversity. Hey: I'm trying to tell you something earnest here -- there is no call for the "Dr. Phil" insinuations. Apology accepted. Now as I was saying, it's precisely because I attack my challenges that I've gotten hurt. Attacking may be well and good and all as a youthful approach to challenges, be they career-oriented or physically-oriented, but as I grow older it would serve me well to work on approaching challenges from a more intelligent, constructive and controlled perspective. A high energy that's also calm and centered is called for. Thank you, My Balls. You've really helped me see things in a different way.

Hm? Oh all right. Yes. You can have a kilt. But I'm only wearing it on the weekends.

A Kung Fu Follow-Up

Hey there. I can't get it out of my head. My last entry sang the praises of kung fu movies, and since then I've been trying to figure out for myself my personal top five list of the flicks. I am by no means an expert--most of my kung fu knowledge lies in the mainstream of the kung fu river. Probably the most off-beat thing I ever rented was

The Crippled Masters

, which is about as exploitative as it sounds (but those guys can kick A.). Also, for reference, by my definition a "kung fu movie" is any film that incorporates technique-heavy hand-to-hand combat as a central plot element. Here we go, from last to first . . .

  • The Transporter
  • Okay, yes, I know: I'm already in trouble with a lot of people. Jason Statham is not a martial artist and, frankly, he's a bit of a toolbox . . . especially in this film, for which he seems to have WAY over-compensated for his receding hairline in the ol' weight room. Just let me speak my peace, and we'll move on. Corey Yuen choreographed the fights in this film, and he's someone we haven't seen a lot of in the west. He's brilliant, and at the top of his form here. Anyone remember what it was like to decide to watch Die Hard for the first time, thinking, "Oh well, I know it'll be real dumb, but I've me time to kill," only to find yourself blown away, literally and figuratively, by the movie? This is what happened to me with Transporter, only in a geeking-out-over-kung-fu way. I expected dumb action with lots of orange fire balls; I got elaborate, creative fight choregraphy patterned after a particular actor's strengths. La la la, bad-ass driver, la la la, lots of guns, la la la, OH MY GOD HE JUST KICKED A GUY IN THE HEAD BACKWARDS!
  • Ong Bak
  • Oh my God in heaven. If you are a fan of unbelievable, real physical feats, this is a flick for you. If you dig authenticity in your martial arts, and learning about new ones, this is a flick for you. If you get squeamish over the sound effect of bones breaking, don't . . . uh . . . don't rent this movie. Seriously. You'll yuke. But it rules. Tony Jaa stars in this movie, which principally involves Muay Thai traditional kickboxing (very different from aerobic kickboxing). It also has the best foot-chase sequence I have ever seen.
  • Legend of Drunken Master 2 (US title)
  • This would be one of those highly mainstream kung fu movies I was talking about. It's remarkable because it's an incredibly pure martial arts movie from the latter part of Jackie Chan's career (wherein most of his movies are sort of adventure comedies). Jackie actually fired the director for his predilection for wire work, so there are only two or three moments of wire-suspended antics, and those for exaggerating responses to kicks. The movie is perfect for Chan. It centers around Chinese Drunken Boxing, which is a very eccentric style perfectly suited to his creative choreography and incredibly acrobatic movement. Part of what's cool is that the final fight is between Chan and his real-life bodyguard. (Also cool because it points up a weakness of drunken styles [that they generally don't include powerful kicks] by way of Chan's bodyguard being a fierce foot boxer [found paper bag, breathing into it...geeking out...subsiding...].)
  • The Chinese Connection (US title)
  • There's so much to say about this movie, it's difficult to know where to begin. It doesn't translate to our times so well, but most of Lee's movies come across as pretty dated these days. Three words should sell it: Nunchaku-Katana fight. It is definitely his most hard-core martial arts flick, and it has a downer ending. Lee was trying to expand his range as an actor (or at least his cast-ability), and he made a movie that was an almost overt expression of his disgust over the racial discrimination he experienced trying to work in America. Now the style is pretty tough to pin down. Lee sort of patented his martial-arts philosophy under the name Jeet Kun Do around 1965, under which philosophy he spurned adherence to traditional forms as limiting to a fighter. He was trained from youth in Wing Chun, however, and The Chinese Connection (Fist of Fury in China) concerns a character who returns to avenge the death of his kung fu teacher, who was presumably a traditional practitioner. Someone who knows more about gung fu needs to throw me a freaking bone here.
  • Fist of Legend
  • Now, some will call a foul on me right here, right now.Fist of Legend, you see, is a remake of Fist of Fury. Jet Li stars, Yuen Wo Ping (the first Matrix) choreographs. Un. Be. Lievable. There's plenty of wire work in this one, but it's beautifully incorporated into actual climactic moments in a fight (I know: what a concept [okay, there is one embarrassing "one-arm pull-ups" bit]). The glory of this film is just how coordinated the direction, choreography and Li's movement are. Li was the youth wu-shu champion in China for, like, sixty-two years in a row, or something like that. And wu shu is pretty, if nothing else. They ditch the downer ending, as you might expect, but they have a fight between blind-folded fighters. Literally, blind fighting.

Before everyone starts freaking out and commenting (though I suspect this may end up another comment-less entry) on my lack of Shaw brothers, or my adherence to big-budget glam in this list, kindly note: These are my top five. They don't have to be yours. If you think that's lame, I have but one response.

. . . Boot to the head . . .

Legit Circus, Kicking A.

One doesn't hear that phrase all-too often, even when one is (at least marginally) in the circus-performing world. You hear it about theatre, I think, because everyone and their cousin has committed an act he or she would categorize as "theatre" in the course of his or her life, and those of us who have committed just a bit more time and energy to theatre want to make a distinction between our showcase of "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown" and the local community theatre's recent staging of "The Cherry Orchard." Circus, on the other hand, is not necessarily a common community (redundant by root?) activity, and even those of us who have taken some workshops and used the skills in performance are a little loathe to claim the status of "circus performer."

I suppose the closest thing to "legit circus" in the broad American vernacular would be something like

Cirque du Soleil

, which I (thanks to an extremely thoughtful pre-Christmas Christmas gift from Sister Virginia) saw live for the very first time last night. It was their production


, ongoing on the WaMu stage at Madison Square Garden. The show itself was rather geared toward children, with plenty of spectacular acts and production values, but also the through-line of a boy just wanting to see it snow, and puppet dogs with their own song. "We know these dogs, we know these dogs..." The lyrics left me wondering if the beautiful vocals of previous Soleil shows aren't simply elongated French words like, "I did my laundry, now buy me some baguette..." By the way, CdS now owes

Slava's Snowshow

royalties, big time. The level of surprise in the audience when paper "snowflakes" blew out of the vents all over us was perhaps a comment on just how far twenty street-blocks may seem to the typical tourist.

Sorry if I just ruined the ending for you.

And I digress like a nor'easter. Here's what I love about circus (as in, the following -- I'm afraid I can't make it twenty-five words or less [which should come as no surprise to anyone who's been reading this 'blog {hi mom!}]). It is live surreality. Consider that a moment. There's not much of that in the world, in the true sense (of my fictional word). "Surreal" things happen to us, like running into a long-lost friend at the DMV, or finding a hundred dollar bill in a laundromat, but generally speaking and notable exceptions aside no one we know turns into a monkey and starts hopping around in a trashcan. Further, circus creates a sense of disbelief, threat and relief all at once, and it actually happens. Right there, right then. Further still, circus is brilliantly human; admirably physical and, when its good, artistically inspired. Feeling awe about a fellow human being is an incomparable experience.

Here's what I don't like about circus: I'm not better at it and people don't make enough of the kind that tells a story.

Look: We love this stuff. We love watching other humans achieve amazing things, particularly physical feats, and especially when we can appreciate it in the context of a story. If you accept that we love this, why then, oh why, would you settle for a movie that is largely computer-generated cartoons? Or a play in which the actors never use their bodies in their acting?

My frustration comes of personal feelings, I confess. I haven't had a convenient or easy outlet for my circus tendencies for some time, and there's always so much more to worry over, but it's about time I got on that. There's just too little of it in the world. I've found two film genres that fulfill the need vicariously, somewhat. The first is the classic Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd flicks. Perhaps they were working from necessity. The beginnings of film in America was a little like the beginning of the Internet. Anyone who could afford to and was interested had a clear playing field, and these guys (not so much Lloyd; he was second generation) played it hard. Chaplin had a hard-knock life from poverty, Keaton from vaudeville. Lloyd didn't lack for toughness, though, either. He got half of his right hand blown off in a photo shoot, and still made movies. That one you always see where he's

hanging off a clock arm

? All with just nine fingers and one thumb. So those guys, they were circus performers, plain and simple.

The other, dear Reader, is kung fu movies. Yes. Kung fu movies.

Kung fu movies have a bad rep. True, in recent years folks like Jackie Chan and Ang Lee have made the genre more palatable to the common tongue (interesting image), but it's difficult to get away from the fact that kung fu movies are usually made with a budget of about $10 and are located in the most abundance in the same stores in which one finds films like

Saving Ryan's Privates

. Add to that the minor detail of the scripts for almost all "action" films seeming to have been written by a heroin-addicted five-year-old, and kung fu hardly has a fighting chance to stand as anything legitimate. And I'll admit it: Most kung fu movies, in terms of story, dialogue, and in many cases production values, demonstrate the worst of what film making has to offer as a medium of artistic expression. Hell, now-a-days you can't even trust the kung fu. Wires can be digitally removed (or not, in

some exceptional cases

) and skinny ladies are

magically endowed

with the mass index of the same amount of lead. (To be fair, it appears Kerri Hoskins did indeed work out for the role. Look at those nautilus machines...


Well, oscillate mildly, at any rate.)

Ah, but when you get a to watch a real martial


at work? That's thrilling. That's inspiring. There are so many daily reminders about of the limitations of our existence, physical, mental, even spiritual. It really is a special thing to be able to demonstrate--just for an instant, in some cases--

just how wrong all our "nos" and assumptions can be