Tag: terrorism

Finding Grace

Dancer Piotr Stanczk in The Winter’s Tale. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

The recent opening of The Winter’s Tale at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto was preceded by an announcement that the performance would be dedicated to the victims of the Paris attacks, which had occurred just one night before. The National Ballet of Canada’s winter season was off to a sombre start, though the beauty of the Christopher Wheeldon-choreographed piece shone through mightily.

Adapted from Shakespeare’s 1611 play The Winter’s Tale (on now through November 22nd) focuses on Leontes (Piotr Stanczyk), King of Sicilia, who accuses his pregnant wife, Hermione (Hannah Fischer) of being unfaithful with his friend Polixenes (Harrison James), King of Bohemia. Hermione gives birth to a girl, but she faints at the shock of seeing her son, Mamilius, fall dead at her trial. Despite the pleas of Hermione’s friend Paulina (Xiao Nan Yu), Leontes orders the baby girl to be abandoned in a remote place; the child is found by a shepherd and his son, and is raised in Bohemia, where, sixteen years later, unaware of her parentage, Perdita (Jillian Vanstone) becomes engaged to Prince Florizel (Naoya Ebe), the son of Polixenes. The King violently objects to the union, thinking Perdita a mere shepherdess, and the pair flee, with Polixenes in hot pursuit. The couple wind up in Sicilia, where they are sheltered by Leontes, who only learns of Perdita’s identity through an emerald necklace he’d once given Hermione, one his daughter now wears as a gift from her fiance. The two Kings are reunited, and the pair are married. As festivities die down, Paulina leads Leontes to a statue of Hermione, one that proves to be considerably warmer than mere stone.

The work, while categorized as a comedy, is, like many Shakespearean comedies, less of a laugh-out-loud experience and more of a thought-provoking dramatic meditation. The adaptation beautifully, imaginatively captures the heaving emotions that run throughout the original, whether expressed in grand design (Bob Crowley’s sail work, together with the silk effects design work of Basil Twist is especially inventive) or intimate lighting (by Natasha Katz). Wheeldon’s choreography pulls no punches when it comes to portraying Leontes’ rage and suspicion; the King’s wild imaginings are presented in a way that clearly, forcefully implies an unhinged fear sitting at the heart of his character, one that is ultimately very destructive in both the real and spiritual senses. I thought about this rage expressed through movement, as Stanczyk stalked around the stage, expertly tossing Fischer this way and that in a perfectly executed pairing that brilliantly married skill and emotion. He, and his fine colleagues, are just as much actors as they are dancers. This makes the piece as much of a theatrical event as a dance one, as many of the best ballet works often are. In this instance, the seamless marriage of the two is poetic and deeply moving.

What’s more, for all its fantastical elements and outlandish The Winter’s Tale has real-world corollaries. Who among us hasn’t felt distrustful? Or suspicious? Who hasn’t done or done things they later deeply regret? The piece asks us to consider these questions, as we observe the expression of so many deeply recognizable emotions manifest entirely through that frail, entirely vulnerable vehicle, the human body. The choreography presents a clear narrative and even clearer emotional weight, allowing the movement to accentuate the inherent tragedy of the piece, and heightening the emotional gravity of its conclusion.

Dancers Hannah Fischer and Piotr Stanczyk. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

The Winter’s Tale left me with many questions, particularly in light of the previous evening’s horror, one that wasn’t, I suspect, very far from the thoughts of cast, crew, and audience members as well. Witnessing the rage of Leontes, and then Polixenes, the unfounded fears of each, the anger so horribly manifest, was enough to give one pause. Where does it comes from, this rage? Why does it stay? How does it grow? What ways does it manifest and then fester through the ages? These questions haunted me as I sat at the Four Seasons Centre, a mere twenty-four hours after the horror of the bombings, as losses were still being counted and fingers of accusation were being pointed. How do we find grace at such moments? The ballet’s closing scenes, of Leontes realizing Hermione has been alive this whole time, and her actually forgiving him his rage, inspired breath-holding, tear-welling, and finally, a long, deep sigh. Joby Talbot’s jagged, propulsive, Glass-inspired score gave way to Bernstein-inflected romanticism and Debussy-esque impressionism, and Wheeldon’s keen footwork, together with the clever staging of Jacquelin Barrett and Anna Délicia Trévien, made this intimate, holy moment between Leontes and his wife a moment to cherish, both within the piece itself and outside, to carry around like Perdita’s emerald necklace. I want to live in the state of grace Leontes has so clearly found in that moment.

Finding that grace isn’t easy, however. Amidst horror, we can’t simply grab a handful of goo labelled “grace” sitting in a tin on a dusty shelf, stuff it in our pockets, walk out the door, and think that by the stains on our trousers and the trail we leave behind we’re doing any good; that isn’t how grace works. Likewise forgiveness, grace’s nearest sibling: it takes a big heart to admit wrongs done against us, acknowledge them, and move past our pain. One may not fully accept the atrocity committed against them, their friends, their city, their country — indeed, one may never accept, much less understand — and in no way does forgiving mean forgetting; rather, it is a tacit agreement to absolve hurt, freeze it cold, break its giant, Kraken-like body apart into a thousand pieces, and finally brush it away like so much unwanted dust. That hurt, while palpable and needy in its infancy, eventually grows into an unwieldy monster that serves no purpose and prevents forward momentum. Only forgiveness unties its chain, turns it to stone, and breaks it apart; grace is what happens when you can look at your dust-covered hands and smile.

Dancers Piotr Stanczyk and Hannah Fischer. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

The Winter’s Tale feels like the perfect piece for our times; wordless but saying so much, fragile but with so much anger, forceful and delicate at once, it is proof positive that culture is one of the things that makes sense amidst an age bereft of logic. There is no rationale for horror, but there is always a place for beauty. These sharp things we feel and experience as humans — rage, hurt, confusion, fear, remorse — are things culture captures and expresses and explores so well. We would do well to heed the idea that art has the capacity to heal, now more than ever.

Pondering Pakistan

For a long time now I’ve wanted to write about my interview with Duane Baughman and Mark Siegel. The two men were in Toronto this time last year for the screening of their film, Bhutto, at the annual Hot Docs Film Festival, following their world premiere months earlier at the Sundance Film Festival. The Toronto screening came and went, life moved on, and I never seemed to properly make time to sit down and write – until now.

I visited Ground Zero last week, less than 12 hours after President Obama’s historic announcement about Osama bin Laden’s death. With news reports filled with pertinent details and reports that paint a damning portrait of Pakistan and its possible role in harboring terrorists (or not), the screening of Bhutto tonight feels like a slow, patient untying of a complex Gordian knot. That’s not to say the movie is slow -it isn’t – but it is layered, the way any documentary worth its salt should be.
I discussed this in my chat with Duane and Mark last year on the radio:

Independent Lens is broadcasting the timely documentary tonight on local PBS stations (check yours here). Baughman, its Director, and Siegel, Co-Producer, present a complex, if deeply vital portrait of both a woman and a country that we, here in the West, have a lot of preconceptions around -especially since the news of Osama bin Laden being killed May 1st.
With numerous interviews (including fascinating input from The New York Times’ John Burns and vitriolic assertions from Fatima Bhutto, Benazir’s niece), fly-on-the-wall footage, and a thorough, if compelling history lesson (not to mention a pulsating soundtrack by The Police’s Stewart Copeland), Bhutto is a riveting look at a country that’s been painted in far too broad strokes by a Western media eager for villains. Truth be told, there are no clear villains in Bhutto, but (hint hint) General Pervez Musharraf doesn’t come off very well; he visibly squirms, as the camera casually lingers on him, providing glib answers and a ton of silence. The effect is awkward, as it’s meant to be, though his inclusion in the documentary might seem questionable. In fact, when Siegel was on The Daily Show just months after Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West came out (a book he co-authored with Benazhir Bhutto), he took host Jon Stewart to task for having the former Pakistani leader as a featured guest. Siegel had just finished working with long-time friend Bhutto on Reconciliation when she was assassinated. “She prayed for the best and planned for the worst”…
Even if you still have questions around Benazir Bhutto and her approach to Islam, her handling of government policy, and those troubling corruption charges, you will most certainly come away with a more thorough, nuanced undertanding of the machinations of politics and terrorism, and the place where the two meet, in one tragic explosive moment. Watch it. You’ll be glad you did.

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