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Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead’s unrealized ballet


 
Though The Sea Lion, Ken Kesey’s tale based on the mythology of the Northwest Coast Indians, wound up as a children’s book, the author originally intended it to be a three-part rock ballet scored by the Grateful Dead. Kesey discussed his vision for the ballet with Old Dominion University’s student newspaper during a 1982 visit to Virginia:

He says he has just spent all of last year researching Northwest Indian myths. The author wants to write a ballet featuring the Indian legends, and have the music written and performed by rock group the Grateful Dead. “I want the Dead to write the music and score for an orchestra,’’ Kesey explains, “and put the Dead down in the orchestra pit where they belong! The Dead are the best!”

The Greatful Dead traveled with Kesey to the site of the Indian rituals, where they saw the rites performed by the Kwakutl, Tlingit, and Hiada Indian tribes. Kesey wants the Dead to do the ballet because “They won’t be remembered unless they do something permanent.”

Kesey says the performers are enthused about the project, and that Bill Graham, the rock promoter, is very interested in staging the production. Kesey doesn’t want the ballet to be just another rock performance, or rock “opera.” He wants it to be something special and lasting.

The ballet will be called ‘The Sea Lion,” and will concern a boy who finds a magic amulet of god. Later, the boy must contend with magical powers and the designs of necromancers.

Kesey believes the ballet would be a success, and would preserve the mythology of the Indians as well as returning the sense of story and art to people.

“I’d love to see Baryshnikov do it!” Kesey laughs.

Given the personalities involved and the size of the undertaking, it is perhaps not too surprising that this ambitious project was never realized—at least, not with the Dead’s participation. The Sea Lion wasn’t dramatized until 2002, the year after Kesey’s death, when a Chicago-area YMCA staged a production.

In the news clip below, the Dead get back on the bus with Kesey to learn about the folklore of the Northwest Coast Indians at the Lelooska Foundation in Ariel, Washington. It all starts to make a lot of sense as soon as you see the masks.
 

Posted by Oliver Hall | Discussion
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The Jim Morrison ballet: Love Me Tutu Times
02.16.2015
12:52 pm

Topics:
Dance
Music

Tags:
Jim Morrison
Leipzig Ballet


 
Last year Germany’s Leipzig Ballet performed Jim Morrison choreographed by Mario Schröder. Described as “a journey to find this man, wandering through his biography, his thoughtful poetry and his music,” the ballet does look like a trip of some kind, one that I’d like to see in full.
 

 
For the time being, one must settle for this short preview which looks like what might happen if you took Ken Russell, Hair, Chippendales and Bob Fosse, tossed them into a blender with a few peyote buttons, drank it, and then went swimming in the dancing fountains of the Bellagio Hotel.
 

Posted by Marc Campbell | Discussion
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Fred Astaire goes disco with his cover of Carly Simon’s ‘Attitude Dancing,’ 1975
02.13.2015
08:16 am

Topics:
Dance
Music

Tags:
Carly Simon
Fred Astaire


 
Fred Astaire may have been the most talented man ever to appear regularly on Hollywood screens. He was an extraordinary dancer and choreographer, certainly a decent enough comic actor, and (at least according to Mel Tormé, who knew a thing or two about singing) the greatest singer in the world as well. Part of what made Astaire such an effective singer is that his vocal instrument was not particularly good, so he had to compensate for that with technique and expression. The story has often been told of RKO’s early verdict on him (at the time he was doing very well on Broadway): “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.” Time would quickly prove that a preposterous judgment of Astaire’s skills.

None of that made it easier for Astaire to weather the 1970s, when he himself was in his seventies. He did, of course, appear in a palpable hit when he was one of the many luminaries to deal with a blazing skyscraper in 1974’s The Towering Inferno. The 1970s are littered with disco covers of seemingly everything, from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the Star Wars theme to Pink Floyd, the theme from M*A*S*H, and Ethel Merman. To his credit, Astaire was on that train early, recording the entirety of Attitude Dancing (the album) in the summer of 1975.
 

 
The original song, which appeared on Carly Simon’s Playing Possum and hit #21 on the Billboard charts, was released in April 1975, so Fred was seeking to cover a song that was brand-new. It may have still been on the charts when he cut the track.

As cringeworthy disco covers by oldsters go, this one isn’t too bad. As soon as Fred’s vocals enter the track, one experiences that unmistakable sinking feeling of knowing that this is all wrong, but he does a pretty creditable job with the chorus, which helps salvage things. (His mastery of vocal technique came in handy but the basic inexpressiveness of his voice in his mid-seventies is insurmountable.) It’s unclear whether he was transfixed by the word dancing, but it probably wasn’t the best material to be undertaking—even the original is just “eh.”  Oh yeah: here’s the original:
 

Posted by Martin Schneider | Discussion
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‘Music is the Weapon’: The must-see Fela Kuti documentary from 1982
02.02.2015
06:42 am

Topics:
Dance
Music
Politics

Tags:
Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti Art
 
Musical visionary, street preacher, incendiary political activist, and Afro-beat progenitor, Fela Anikulapo Kuti is chronicled in Fela Kuti – Music is the Weapon, a compelling 1982 documentary directed by Stéphane Tchal-Gadjieff and Jean Jacques Flori. The film documents all-night politically charged performances at Fela’s Shrine nightclub, intimate takes from inside his Kalakuta Republic compound, and scenes of street culture in Lagos, Nigeria. It’s not a complete picture by any means, but it’s a singular and important historical record capturing Kuti in stage and home milieus that were vital to his life and work. If you had any doubt that Fela Kuti was anything short of an otherworldly human being, this film and these performances will dispel that belief quickly. As he did often in his music, Fela speaks out repeatedly against the Nigerian government throughout the film while discussing his political and musical ambitions.

Kuti’s attitude is defiant from the get-go. He takes command in the very first on-screen moment, saying “When you are the king of African music, you are the king. ‘Cause music is the king of all professions.”
 
Fela Kuti Sax
 
Almost immediately it becomes apparent upon watching the film that life can be unforgiving in the place where Fela and crew choose to make their home base. Lagos, Nigeria is depicted as being the most dangerous and violent city in the country and, by extension, the world. Street scenes portraying the chaos, desperation and the day-to-day existence of citizens in and around the former Nigerian capital are beautifully shot. Scenes of poverty, humor and violence along with shipwrecks and scrapyards of decaying cars and motorcycles are interspersed with vibrant local markets. One chilling scene shows the body of a man washed up on a popular beach, a regular occurrence according to the film’s narrator.

In these surroundings Fela Kuti arrives nightly around midnight to his famous Shrine to unleash a combination of music, spiritual ritual, and personal political testimony. The performances captured in Music is the Weapon are magical things, encompassing dance, classic Afrobeat call-and-response and charismatic displays from Kuti himself who plays baritone sax and keys and often performs in nothing but his briefs. The vibrancy of Kuti’s work is obvious through his myriad recordings but it’s even more potent when you can see it radiating from what was ground zero for Kuti’s entire transcendent enterprise.
 
Inside the shrine
Inside The Shrine
 
Some of the most illuminating scenes take place off the stage. One notable sequence begins early in the morning, when “day breaks and the music stops,” and Fela and crew leave in a beat-up van and a rickety VW Beetle and The Shrine is left empty for the day. The band, looking like they could play for a few more hours if they felt so inclined, return to a ramshackle Kalakuta Republic compound where Fela lived with his controversial bevvy of “queens” and fellow musicians. At the time of the filming, Fela had been there for several years despite repeated attempts by the Nigerian government to intimidate him with shows of force, one of which tragically led to the death of his mother years earlier. One such incident actually takes place in 1981during the filming of Music is the Weapon and is documented with still photographs taken by the camera crew who didn’t have time to set up their movie cameras. Nigerian soldiers surround the compound, fire tear gas and brutally beat the occupants.  Kuti finds himself in prison on trumped up charges but is soon released and is right back at it on stage within days at The Shrine, despite the fact that it was supposedly closed by Nigerian officials. 
 
Kuti Car
A car fit for a king.
 
Despite repeated jail sentences and years of beatings, persecution and all nature of mistreatments leveled upon him, Fela comes across again and again in Music is the Weapon as a not-from-this-world, heavy, unstoppable force attempting to live a life of pure principle where politics, spirituality, music and activism are indivisible. 

Ultimately, Fela Kuti’s legacy is far larger than what could be captured in a short film, but this is an informative introduction to the Pan-African pioneer’s life and work. 

Says the anti-colonialist visionary at one point in the film:

Music is a spiritual thing. You don’t play with music. If you play with music you will die young. See because when the higher forces give you the gift of music, musicianship, it must be well used for the good of humanity. If you use it for your own self by deceiving people… you will die young, you see. And I’ve told people this many times. So, I’m gonna prove them all wrong and prove myself right.  Because now I’m 44, I’m getting younger. Because I’m doing it right. I can play music for ten hours and never tire. I’m getting younger because the spiritual life of music that I’ve led, RIGHTLY, is helping me now.

Kuti was the subject of a Toni Award winning Broadway production called Fela! from 2008 and of a recent 2014 documentary called Finding Fela

You can watch all of Fela Kuti – Music is the Weapon below. It’s also streaming on Hulu Plus.
 

Posted by Jason Schafer | Discussion
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‘Suicide Is Painless’ (AKA the theme from ‘M*A*S*H’)—the disco version


 
Not much to say about this one. If you’ve ever wanted a reason to picture Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III doing the Hustle, here’s your chance.

In Tom Moulton’s “Disco Mix” column in Billboard of March 5, 1977, he wrote, “The strongest [of three recent singles from FARR Records] is ‘Song From M*A*S*H’ by the New Marketts. Here is a beautiful and well-orchestrated melody featuring guitar and synthesizer playing the melody line and pleasing synthesizer solo in the vamp. The record was produced by Joe Saraceno.”

It’s well known bit of movie-making lore that the lyrics of the song were written by Mike Altman, the son of Robert Altman, director of the original movie. Appearing on Carson in the 1980s, Altman stated that his son had earned more than a million dollars for his part in writing the song, while Altman himself made just $70,000 for directing the movie.
 

 

 
via Ken Levine’s blog

Posted by Martin Schneider | Discussion
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‘Ubu Sings Ubu’: Pere Ubu meets Alfred Jarry in absurdist pataphysical mash-up


 
More than a century after it premiered, the play Ubu Roi by French playwright Alfred Jarry remains one of the most singularly brilliant accomplishments in the history of drama, a dizzyingly absurdist mashup of Macbeth and Hamlet and King Lear. Its influence in drama is too massive to be detailed here, but more interesting is its impact on rock music. Not only did David Thomas and company decide to name their new Cleveland band after the protagonist of Ubu Roi—that’s a gimme. But much more to the point, rock heroes as diverse as the Fall’s Mark E. Smith and Coil and Henry Cow have drawn inspiration from the manic adventures of the King of Poland-assassinating revolutionary.
 

 
Finally, a veteran of the NYC stage, Tony Torn, had the brilliant idea of staging a production of Ubu Roi that incorporates the songs of Pere Ubu. The project is called Ubu Sings Ubu. Why did it take more than 30 years for someone to do this?? Not surprisingly, the unsettling genius of David Thomas and that of Alfred Jarry fit together like a fish and a trampoline, to employ a suitably Dada-esque trope.

Today is Saturday, January 10, and if you are in the New York area, you can see Ubu Sings Ubu tomorrow and Monday (January 11 and 12) at the Slipper Room at 167 Orchard Street with the appropriately eerie start time of 11 pm. Tickets cost $22 at the door but you can pre-order tix for a cool eighteen smackers.
 

 
The cast includes Julie Atlas Muz, called “the quintessence of fabulousness” by the Gay City News, and the choreography is by Dan Safer, who also co-directed. Ubu Sings Ubu was, hilariously, adapted from a version of the original French text of Jarry’s Ubu Roi that was then zapped into Google Translate.

We discussed the production of Ubu Sings Ubu with its co-director and star, Tony Torn:

Dangerous Minds: Has Ubu Sings Ubu been performed before?

Tony Torn: Ubu Sings Ubu premiered at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side in Manhattan in April 2014.

I live in Cleveland, and Pere Ubu swings a pretty big dick around here. Have you ever been to Cleveland?

Yes, my good friend the poet and artist Julie Patton lives there! Cleveland rocks.

Aside from the name, what is the connection between Ubu Roi and Pere Ubu, to you?

I was an obsessive fan of Pere Ubu’s music in high school! I wore out my LP of The Modern Dance. I later discovered Alfred Jarry’s proto-surrealist masterpiece Ubu Roi by looking into the band’s influences. The idea to mash them up came 30 years ago, and it finally happened last year. The concept is … the songs of the band, Pere Ubu, done by the character, Pere Ubu. It’s a silly joke, but it’s proved to be very deep in its own way.

Obviously Pere Ubu took their name from Jarry. Is there any thematic content in the songs that relates to Ubu Roi?

It’s more a sharing of sensibilities than any explicit correlation, at least in the genius of David Thomas’ songwriting. Although it’s true that the hook in the song “The Modern Dance” is “Merdre, Merdre.” This of course is the famous first line of Jarry’s Ubu Roi, where the character of Pere Ubu says the french word for “shit” with an extra syllable added…. this caused riots when the play premiered in Paris in 1896! Young William Butler Yeats was in the audience, and famously wrote, “After us, the savage god.”

How hard was it to match up Pere Ubu’s song titles to the plot of Ubu Roi?

It was surprisingly easy! They don’t relate directly on a lyrical level, but emotionally and dramatically they work like gangbusters. Take the two songs we turned into duets between Pere and Mere Ubu. “Non-Alignment Pact” and “Heart Of Darkness” become incredibly powerful when they are performed as playing out a relationship. And “Final Solution” is a super heavy thing to sing as Ubu goes to war against the Russian king. It all seems to fit super well.

If you could add one song by someone other than Pere Ubu, what would that song be?

Nothing but Pere Ubu! I tried to add Minutemen songs in an early concept but it was all wrong. D. Boon’s songwriting is too intellectual for Ubu!

Here’s a music video of the Ubu Sings Ubu Band’s rendition of Pere Ubu’s “Life Stinks”:
 

 
More absurdity after the jump…

Posted by Martin Schneider | Discussion
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A Menorah bong because why not?
12.22.2014
09:29 am

Topics:
Amusing
Dance

Tags:
bong menorah


 
Austin-based Grav Labs—known for the design and manufacture of high quality “scientific” glassware—created this intricate bong Menorah to make your Hanukkah experience a little, er… more festive this year? It’s a thing of beauty, no?

I noticed that no one did a weed advent calendar this year. You know, a different bud for each day counting down to Christmas. Perhaps next year, amirite?

 
Via Das Kraftfuttermischwerk

Posted by Tara McGinley | Discussion
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NYC subway dancers are so beautiful & hypnotic, I forget my fear of being kicked in the head
11.03.2014
02:03 pm

Topics:
Dance
Sex

Tags:
dance
NYC
subway performers
subway dancers


 
I have an uneasy solidarity with the New York City subway dancers. On the one hand, I appreciate most forms of public entertainment, including (but not exclusive to) mariachi bands, accordionists, cellos, operatic sopranos, those Chinese violin thingies and the rare special occasion when some one drags a whole damn marimba down the subway stairs. On the other hand, the Z train goes approximately 4,000 mph, and the presence of a flailing body on a crowded, high-speed car puts me in an anxious frenzy. On the other hand, proto-fascist “broken windows” policing techniques have facilitated a major crackdown on these (mostly black teen male) performers. On the other hand... limbs flying near my skull.

To really enjoy the charisma and artistry of subway dancers, I have to watch something like this little film for boutique clothing line Fair Ends, featuring the moves of three amazing subway dancers in hypnotic slo-mo. Here there is no danger of traumatic brain injury, and I don’t have to experience the vicarious anxiety of some one perpetually bracing themselves to witness a farcically unjust arrest. 
 

 
Via ANIMAL

Posted by Amber Frost | Discussion
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Appreciating the peculiar Euro-disco genius of Boney M.
10.24.2014
01:17 pm

Topics:
Dance
Music

Tags:
Boney M.


 
In addition to being a hell of a lot of fun, the 1970s Euro-disco sensations known as Boney M. are an academic paper on gender and ethnicity in popular music—or three—waiting to happen. Boney M.‘s best years were from 1974 to the early 1980s, a pretty healthy run for a genre that often favored one-hit wonders.

Operating out of Germany, Boney M. were an outfit consisting of one man and three women, all four of whom were from the Caribbean and read as “exotic” in the lily-white Vaterland. (Liz Mitchell and Marcia Barrett were from Jamaica; Maizie Williams was from Montserrat; and Bobby Farrell was from Aruba.) As their producer, Frank Farian, later attested, Farrell made almost no vocal contributions to the group’s studio output, while Farian himself performed the male parts for the recordings. Farrell’s primary functions were to look awesome and (just as with the three women) to dance his ass off, often in that synchronized Spinners sort of way. The vocal hooks were often quite infectious, and the busy beat gave people something to dance to. When Boney M. were good, they were very, very good.
 

 
They never did much damage in the U.S., but Boney M. were a force in Europe. Farian had a sense for how to get the most out of “unlikely” combinations of talents. His most notorious act (by far) was Milli Vanilli, who if you notice, followed a very similar template to Boney M., attractive black people pretending to sing vocal tracks they had not sung in the studio (to be fair, Boney M. generally did sing their own vocals in live settings). We encountered Farian a few months ago when we wrote about “Wow,” the Milli Vanilli opera. As Wikipedia blandly says of Farian, “His tendency to create bands with a visual image distinct from the recorded musical performances led to controversy in the case of Milli Vanilli.”
 
 
In any case, 1975 wasn’t 1990, so the media police were quite willing to let Boney M. persevere with their quasi-lip-synched presentation—of course, Boney M. never won any Grammys. Their first hit, “Baby Do You Wanna Bump?” was inventive disco to be sure (ripping off the horn riff from Prince Buster’s 1964 ska hit “Al Capone”—a song also “homaged” in The Specials’ “Gangsters”) but generic in terms of subject matter. With “Ma Baker” and “Rasputin,” Boney M. cashed in on the exoticism implied in their group’s concept.
 

 
The story of “Ma Baker” is likely the most interesting in Boney M.‘s catalog. The birth name of Ma Barker (not “Baker”) was Arizona Donnie Clark, and in the early 20th century her four sons committed enough violent crimes to be called “the Barker gang”—Ma Barker traveled with them as they terrorized the midwest. She was killed in a shootout with the FBI in 1935, and of all possible people J. Edgar Hoover called her “the most vicious, dangerous, and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade.” Now that’s a resume! For whatever reason Farian felt that “Baker” sounded better than “Barker” (not that it matters, but I think he was wrong about this). So this track about a legendary American female crime lord was recorded by four black people from the Caribbean and overseen by a German—calling the music ethnologists, there are monographs to be written here…. (Probably worth pointing out right here that the b-side was a discofied take on the Yardbirds’ “Still I’m Sad” which was practically a Gregorian chant in the gloomy original!)
 

 
The exotic concept continued with “Rasputin,” which likely has the most hilarious lyrics in the Boney M. catalog—for instance, get this: “Rasputin! Lover of the Russian queen, there was a cat that really was gone. Rasputin! Russia’s greatest love machine, it was a shame how he carried on!” Alas, the Soviet Union banned the song, which probably didn’t bother Boney M. too much.
 
“Rasputin”

 
More delirious Boney M. videos after the jump….

Posted by Martin Schneider | Discussion
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Mourka the dancing cat, pre-Internet trailblazer for today’s ‘cheezburger cats’
10.03.2014
08:36 am

Topics:
Animals
Books
Dance

Tags:
cats
George Balanchine
Mourka


 
As the 1964 book Mourka: Autobiography of a Cat amply demonstrates, cats did not need the Internet to become nationwide sensations; they have been, er, catnip to content providers for decades.
 

 
Mourka was an “alley cat” who belonged to the legendary choreographer George Balanchine. A picture of Balanchine “training” Mourka appeared in LIFE magazine, and the picture proved so popular that a book deal was quickly inked. The author, Tanaquil Le Clerq, was Balanchine’s wife, and the photographer was Martha Swope. This text is from the dust cover of the book:
 

Mourka, an extraordinary alley cat is one of famed choreographer George Balanchine’s prize pupils. He has learned to do entre-chats, pas de chats, and even a grand jeté. When photographer Martha Swope caught Mourka doing one of his spectacular leaps, Life printed the memorable photo and Mourka’s reputation was made instantly for millions of Americans. Here, Miss Swope’s pictures and Miss Le Clerq’s text convey his many exploits and suggest that Mourka may well be the most accomplished feline in the world. [This, of course, was written decades before the advent of Maru.]

Mourka, a native New Yorker, shares a large apartment on the upper West Side with Mr. and Mrs. Balanchine. He spends his summers in Weston, Connecticut, where he indulges in his favorite hobby, bug-watching, and such favorite foods as asparagus, potatoes, peas, and sour cream.

Ballerina Tanaquil Le Clerq, the wife of George Balanchine, was born in Paris and brought to this country at an early age. She won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet at the age of eleven and later danced many leading roles with the New York City Ballet. In 1956, while on a dance tour of Europe, she was stricken with polio which halted her dancing career. Now that Mourka is published, she is at work on her next book, a gourmet cook book to be published by Stein and Day in 1965.

 

Balanchine training Mourka
 
Balanchine put in considerable time “training” Mourka, and on the occasion when Mourka was obliged to present a command performance for the composer Igor Stravinsky, it was the only time that a ballet performance ever gave Balanchine butterflies. According to Balanchine: A Biography by Bernard Taper:
 

While [Balanchine] was away, a friend or Tanaquil’s mother stayed with her, or she often chose to remain alone in the apartment, kept company by Mourka, their white-and-ginger-colored cat, a pampered and much admired creature. Balanchine had trained this cat to perform brilliant jetés and tours en l’air; he used to say that at last he had a body worth choreographing for. He talked of presenting Mourka publicly, in a program titled—in parody of the revolutionary program he had presented as a youth in Russia—“The Evolution of Ballet: From Petipa to Petipaw.” Once, at a party at his apartment during the Christmas season, Stravinsky asked to see Mourka perform. Guests present later said that was the only time they had ever seen Balanchine nervous before a performance.

 

 

 

 

 
via Awful Library Books
 

Posted by Martin Schneider | Discussion
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