Tag: women Page 2 of 3

Loss (& Magic)

Roughly an hour after my review of a new musical was posted came word that Chavela Vargas had passed. There was something eerie in the timing; my review had got me thinking more than ever about Astrid Kirchherr and women like her  – the strong, uncompromising female artists who refused to fit into tidy pre-determined roles around their femininity and whose art was never determined solely by their gender or the place that put that at in the world.

Vargas, the throaty Latin singer had long been a favorite of mine. The first time I saw her, in Frida, I was entranced. What a voice… what a soul… what a presence.

It feels as if this year has been a horrible one for losing strong female artists and presences. Zelda Kaplan, who passed in February, was another sparky figure I greatly admired; my clubbing days would’ve extended longer, I think, had I had gone with her. There was an Auntie Mame-esque joie de vivre about her. Alternately, Nora Ephron and Maeve Binchy felt like confidantes -the sort who’d be hilariously blunt with how ugly those jeans look on you, and why you (I) should stay from men who don’t do a lot of reading or like art galleries. Donna Summer was the woman who stopped everyone talking (and got them dancing); self-contained in her sensuousness, confident in her calm sexuality, she never had to try hard, she simply was. Real sex appeal, as I recently told a friend, can’t be faked. It only fools some of the people some of the time.

Donna Summer’s moans, simpers, sighs and statements were a declaration of her independence, alright -the exact same way Chavela Vargas’ anguished, fierce, defiant tones were. They still are, for me and female artists everywhere. Their tunes didn’t definer them as a woman; they defined them as fleshy, living human beings: let me be what I am, here and now.

There’s so much more I could say, should say, about these women, but it’s not the time or place, and I still haven’t finished meditating on their role in my life, or mourning their loss. Lou Reed’s 1992 album Magic And Loss captures much of this feeling, of losing personal friends who were also artistic heroes. Creative and personal so often bleeds over in life, and in art. That’s probably a good thing.

All I can say at this point is: Dear Ms. Kirchherr, please hang on. I haven’t met you yet, and I want to.

Art Meets Heart

I’m always surprised and delighted by the sheer number of fascinating, artsy events happening in Toronto at any given time. In addition to Art Battle, A Work Of Heart, which also features live painting, is coming up soon. A Work Of Heart is an initiative that brings together artists and philanthropy in a spirit of cooperation, self-determination, curiosity and sharing. To quote its current release, “artwork is donated by seven local artists… half of the proceeds will go towards building a boarding school in Kenya’s Mathare Slum.”

Owing to conversations with TMS Ruge and other experts in the field of aid and development, I’ve developed a kind of mental alarm system for anything resembling Western-style feel-good-isms toward African nations. Too often those efforts are exercises in narcissism and brand-building, offering simplistic answers and reflecting the organizers’ romanticized (/stereotypical /racist) image of Africa and its citizens moreso than actively acknowledging the messy, complicated, multi-layered world of development and well, humanity overall. It’s easy to reduce a nation -its citizens within it, its continent around it -to easy slogans and poetic images, ones colored by celebrity visits and ad campaigns and big-ass concerts.

Work Of Heart is less interested in big gestures than it is in committing to long-term good. It’s a small, grassroots organization working at the grassroots level, lead by people who’ve been there, done that, and (vitally) plan to, for a long, long time. They put their money, time, energy and resources where their mouths are, their paintbrushes where their heart is. They aren’t afraid to get dirty, and they aren’t afraid to commit to the long-haul.
Laura Armstrong is the founder of Work Of Heart; she has a degree in Film and English, and has travelled extensively, working with Canadian organization Global Youth Network. It was through her work with GYN that she travelled to Kenya to work with HIV positive women and children, and subsequently got in touch with UCRC (Ugunja Community Resource Centre), an NGO that, to quote its website, “acts as an umbrella organization for more than sixty local community groups including women, children, youth, farmers and people with disabilities.” Their motto is “Local Action Is Beautiful.” Casey Mundy, a Toronto-based publicist with a degree in Psychology, also worked with the Global Youth Network, where she worked in the Dominican Republic as well as Morocco.
There’s something inspiring about these two young Canadian women who, though completely aware of their position as privileged women living and working in the Western world, are moving past that definition and into that of a citizen of the world through their long-term commitments. They understand you can’t just build a school, pat yourself on the back, and walk away; in fact, they keep walking towards goals whose benefits are not immediate, but are profound, real, and offer long-term benefit to communities.
A Work Of Heart’s latest art event happens tomorrow night in Toronto. I recently exchanged ideas about the organization, and about the roads that intersect between art, aid, and advancement with Laura and Casey. Their answers make me want to continue following A Work Of Heart to see how their initiatives progress.
How did you become interested in aid and development issues?
Laura: During my undergrad at Wilfred Laurier University, I started to participate in volunteer trips abroad. I helped build a house in the Dominican Republic, volunteered in India with famine relief, Peru for Dangue fever prevention, and Kenya to work with women and children with HIV. Different cultures and world issues fascinate me. I want to continue working abroad and learn as much as possible.
Casey: I also became extremely interested in aid and development issues while a student at Wilfrid Laurier. I have spent time volunteering in Morocco and Dominican Republic. Working and living with the local people in another country is a very different experience than simply visiting that location and its renowned tourist destinations. You get to really know the place, the people, their way of life and their motivations when you immerse yourself in their lifestyle.

The main thing I hear and read is that Western-style gestures don’t help in implementing long-term change – that it’s feel-good-ism for the privileged. How much of this initiative is about the long-term?

Laura: We work with an organization called Living Positive Kenya (LPK) which is located in the Mathare Slum, the second largest slum in Aftrica. This NGO is a support group for women and children living with HIV. Mary Wanderi, who founded this NGO (and is currently Director of Living Positive Ngong), is a pervious social worker who had the heart-breaking job of going into the homes of women who have died and retrieving their children. After dealing with an overwhelming amount of HIV related deaths she decided she had to take action. She then created LPK.

Women can come to LPK to receive support and job training. These women are taught how to live positively while HIV positive. When implementing a development project abroad you need to involve the community as much as possible and think in advance about potential problems and not assume what they would be. Observation and long term planning is key in making a sustainable project. We agree that education is the most vital way to change the future of the LPK children and will give their mothers time to work while their children attend school. That is why this boarding school project is where we are investing our attention and resources.

Why did you create A Work Of Heart?

Laura: I want to be there for the long haul. I am not looking for the the international ‘feel-good-ism’ experience and to simply walk away. These women aren’t just a group we support- they are our friends. We work together to figure out what the deeper problems are in the slum and try to find solutions that work for them and their community. After my first trip to Kenya, I felt that the amount of money needed to upgrade the LPK daycare was something I could easily fundraise. Selling my art seemed like the best bet to raise that money in my spare time. I paint as a hobby so it was nice to have a reason to do it more often.

What role do you see for art in helping to create social change?

Laura: Artists in general have a lot of passion and are always looking for ways to push boundaries with their talent. A Work of Heart allows them to push a new boundary because their art can now physically change a life for the better. Art is impossible to define but can be best described as something that makes us feel less alone. We want to take this concept and broaden it beyond the painting. Through the selling of our art we can connect to people across the world who are in grave need. It’s not just about painting a great picture; it’s about ‘painting a better world.’

Casey: Art is a positive practice that crosses language barriers and can be experienced globally. Art is exciting because it can mean something different to different people and create an emotional response. There is no right or wrong way to paint or be involved with art. I think that this project exemplifies how one person really can make a difference and that visual art, along with all types of art, like music, dance, can have a global reach and connect the world.

How do you find artists?

Laura: Networking. I have friends who paint who know other artists. It has slowly been growing over the past year. People I have never met want to donate pieces to me because they love the concept. It’s a great feeling to see how other artists connect to it so quickly and so passionately.

How do you hope to expand Work Of Heart and its reach?

Laura: We have decided to push our goals and limits further each year. Last year we aimed to raise $1,000.00 and this year we want to raise $10,000.00. This is our first art show. We hope to have larger ones down the road and have more artists from the GTA involved. We have a deep connection to the women and children we work with in Kenya and want to help them build a sustainable community for their children and themselves.

Casey: I hope to continue to raise positive awareness for A Work of Heart through the media and help to build a solid base of supporters. I am passionate about this project and happy to pitch something I truly believe in.

A Work Of Heart Facebook page is here.

The Power And The Glitter

There’s something deeply moving about seeing Gustav Klimt’s work in-person.

I missed that opportunity in Vienna years ago, but, thanks to the Neue Galerie here in New York, I got it lastnight. Shown as part of their current exhibition Vienna 1900: Style and Identity, the work, tastefully incorporating design, art, and various writings, is on view at the museum through June 27th.
After checking bags and jacket, I walked up the narrow, winding staircase (reminding me so much of the narrow passageway I climbed in Vienna, to see one of the flats Beethoven lived in) and, on the second floor, caught the unmistakable sight of Klimt’s signature golden swirls. I entered one gallery and immediately had to check myself. The portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (I) stood before me in all its glinting, glistening glory. I almost cried.
Klimt is, for me, one of those painters with such a singular vision and style, any amount of copying or imitation just comes off as hokey and dumb. The closest I ever saw was the costuming for Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Oscar-winner Eiko Ishioka really captured the rich, feminine, sumptuous beauty of Klimt while keeping an eye on his penchant for strong contrasts and soft shapes against strong ones. There’s a nod to outfits in the exhibit too, with dresses shown beside or near paintings -a nice nod to the role of fashion in culture. I was especially thrilled by the billowing white dress with cascading layers and complex, thick-thick textures; it reminded me so much of Ishioka’s design for Lucy’s wedding gown/shroud, that I half-expected Sadie Frost to come creeping around a corner of the wood-and-dark-rugged Galerie.
Seeing his work up-close and in-person for the first time, after having loved it for over 20 years, was a much more emotional experience than I anticipated -and the work itself flew off the canvas (or sheet) with a kind of casual ease I wasn’t expecting. Outside of a few early works that are featured, it all looks…like bleeding, breathing, blinking. Each work, whether painted in rich oil colors or drawn with pencil, looks like a vein that’s been opened. Something divine -and very powerful -pours out on those surfaces. And more often than not, it sees like it was women who inspires the most rolling, flowing, richly memorable moments.
Women play such a central role in Klimt’s work; powerful, beautiful, potent, and occasionally terrifying, they are, for me, the sun around which Klimt’s artistic output revolved. This sense of female power -and of the power of their sexuality, and his worship of the two combined -was intoxicating to behold. I was especially pleased to see a selection of his erotic drawings on display. As people shuffled by awkwardly, I stopped, and gazed. Klimt was capturing women in their most intimate moments, but there was nothing dirty or lascivious in his depiction. The mix of private and personal -and performance – is intoxicating. Hand-wringing about the line between high art and porn aside, it isn’t the guy drawing who has the power here -it’s the women with the sighing smiles. Patricia Boccadoro, writing at Culture Kiosk, correctly notes that
when one stands in front of these frankly very erotic drawings of young girls carried away by their own desire, eyes closed, lying on their backs with their legs wide apart and masturbating, they seem natural and are not at all embarrassing. …They are beautiful in their abandon, lascivious, but fragile and vulnerable, and one senses that the artist was touched by what he saw. There is nothing perverse or humiliating…
He was touched, but I sense, also turned on. And maybe, as The Economist wisely observed, that once Klimt was “(s)tripped of his wet palette and gold, it is the artist who appears naked in the images, offering a startling insight into (his) own private world.” The raw, honest vulnerability of eroticism has a power all its own, one we’ve yet to fully embrace more than a century later.
I thought about Klimt, and art, and powerful women a lot lastnight, as I walked by dozens of posters advertising Lady Gaga’s show on HBO and hundreds of push-up-bra’d-and-super-high-heeled young women, as I carefully weighed fattening dinner options and went out in a low-cut, slinky black dress, and as I pulled a sweater on and put on my flat shoes before getting on the subway. What constitutes female power? Is it bling? Boobs? Boys? On a larger level, is it okay to be perceived as purely a sexual being? Where’s the person beneath the parts? Does anyone care? Also, I keep wondering about the role of trust between an artist and muse -or, for that matter, being a man and woman. I’m not sure I’d ever be comfortable with any artist sketching me in so vulnerable a state but… that’s the power of these drawings: they betray an extraordinary level of trust that translates into a new, empowering form of male/female relating.
Seeing Klimt’s work up close gave me a whole new awareness of not only the shifting ground of artistry and the beauty of orchestrating its creation, but of the power I, as a woman, hold, and how easily, quickly, and thoughtlessly I give it away in little tidy parcels every day. I aspire to be Adele. I aspire to be as free as the women in those drawings. I want to vanish into Klimt’s beautiful, glittering world. Alas, I’m stuck with a sweater over a dress, navigating a maze of colorless subways in dirty, crazy, loud New York. At least the Neue is close by.

Dear Katherine

Two things struck me looking through The Tattoo Chronicles, by famed tattoo artist Kat Von D (with Sandra Bark): first, this girl can draw, and second, she’s so much a twenty-something woman of the 21st century.

The first observation might seem a bit idiotic at the outset; after all, Kat rose to fame based on the wildly popular television series LA Ink, chronicling her life in the City of Angels, inking up the not-so-rich and infamous. But she’s also a genuinely good artist in her own right.

I’ve been returning to drawing in a big way the last little while, and while it’s rewarding, it’s also incredibly hard, time-consuming, and frustrating. Kat has an incredible faculty to be able to draw both what’s in front of her as well as from her considerable imagination. She shares drawings, stories, and photographs in this gorgeous red hardcover book; its pages are designed like a scrapbook, with snatches of tattoo sketches (and the finished work), highly stylized photographs, letters, and doodles. It’s a fascinating chronicle of memories and experiences, and adheres closely to Kat’s high-wire act of balancing relenteless self-promotion with genuine twin passions for art and human connection.

The front cover, with Kat hugging a diary to her chest, sleeve-tattooed arms enfolded around her tiny frame, angular face, black hair, leather pants and super-high red sparkly shoes tells you that while she isn’t exactly the girl next door, she’s not the trampy, vampy hellraiser she might like to make her out as, either. This bears out within the pages of The Tattoo Chronicles (Harper Collins), particularly the more personal bits detailing Kat’s up-and-down roller coaster of a relationship with rock and roll bad boy, former Motley Crue bassist Nicki Sixx. The age difference between she and her paramour -Sixx’s 50th birthday party is chronicled, along with Kat’s 27th (with much frustration she tosses off a “so-the-hell-what?” at the age discrepancy at one point, the flippancy of the statement belying its worried underpinnings) -as well as the close relationship she shares with many women, including her sister Karoline, and Johnette Napolitano, who wrote the book’s compelling foreword.

The Concrete Blonde singer’s line that “I just do what I do and happen to be a woman” struck me, because so many of the artists I admire carry the exact same credo, and it’s one, I think, that applies equally to Kat, who has blazed a trail for women who tattoo, who love it, or are fascinated by its culture.

But that accomplishment doesn’t erase vulnerability or, indeed, humanity. For all her fetching style and tough-lady attitude, Kat very much comes off as an insecure, anxiety-prone twenty-something in the throes of forming identities amidst a barrage of external forces -ones that might a bit distant for some of us (TV shows, books, a Sephora make-up line) but nonetheless fascinating, and even familiar. Who can’t relate to the stress of being far away from a loved one? fights? a breakup? panic over losing your sense of self that makes you you? Her Alpine-esque ups and downs with Sixx are shared with searing honesty. In one entry, dated July 7th, 2008, 4:42am, she writes:

There’s no ignoring the physical distance between Nikki and I today -and it’s
only been a day -God, I miss him -can’t sleep. How am I gonna get through the
next two months? More importantly, how the hell did I become “that” girl? I feel
so damn clingy -needy almost … UGH. We start filming in the morning.

Never for a moment does Kat lose sight of the ultimate prize: further fame and notoriety. Her single-minded approach can be cloying at times, but it also gives way to some truly moving passages. Kat’s write-up about Glory Mkini, who comes to her for a tattoo that both pays homage to her home (Mkini is Tanzanian) and covers up a scar, is deeply moving. The personalities that dominate the book (along with their accompanying photographs) provide a fascinating hodge podge of humanity in all its confusing, contradictory, inked-up glory. And it’s in these passages, in Kat’s detailing her exchanges with these people and their journeys, that The Tattoo Chronicles really shines.

As to her own personal bits, Kat wallows the way any lovelorn, self-obsessed twenty-something might. It’s annoying at times, but it’s also related to an overall me-me-me-broadcast that defines so much Western cultural exchange within a young-celebrity context in the 21st century. Kat’s entries occasionally read like Facebook status updates -not a bad thing, but hardly introspective. We don’t get a true sense of why a veteran like Johnette Napolitano is her friend, and we get naive howlers like her relating her own relatively-short period of sobriety with Nikki’s decades-long process. They aren’t the same, Kat. They really, really aren’t. Stop comparing. Stop always bringing *you* in.

But that sense of ballsy narcissism, of take-on-the-world-ness, of shrieking arrogance-meets-naivete, is really the charm of it. Just when you think you could never have anything in common with someone like Kat Von D… the “someone like” part vanishes, and, past the shoes, the makeup, the spiffy clothing, the perfect lighting, the plastic surgery, and oodles of rock and roll/celeb connections, there’s this… lonely, wildly insecure, overwhelmed, for-all-her-success-hugely-naive, messed-up person… who happens to be hugely talented (and, um, rich), very curious about people, and unafraid to speak her mind. There’s something heartening about seeing someone so completely, unapologetically like the rest of us non-gothy-glam schlubs… make it, while bleeding all over everyone and not trying to be cutesy about it, but hauling out the mops and shouting for a TV camera. Kat feels so appropriate for here and now, and her latest book is proof of that.

The Tattoo Chronicles is a book that inspires curiosity, thought, and guffaws for sure -but within it is the unquenchable instinct to connect, cherish and accept everyone within this crazy little globe, no matter how mnch -or little -they may have lived, or how much they have to show for it, physically and otherwise. Everyone has a story. It’s nice to see them so creatively chronicled.

What She Wore

Clothing is a personal thing for many women. That material intimacy is something the Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron understand very well.

The award-winning duo, who’ve penned some of my favorite movies (including Nora’s “When Harry Met Sally“), have brought their award-winning play Love, Loss, And What I Wore to Toronto. It runs at the cozy Panasonic Theatre through the end of the summer. A portion of ticket sales will, appropriately, benefit Dress For Success, a fantastic charity that provides professional services (including attire) to disadvantaged women. What a perfect fit.

The Ephrons’ monologue-style play features a collection of stories that connect certain outfits with special, significant life moments. There’s the story of wedding dresses, sexy boots, and the joys (or not) of purses, the challenges of mothers, the pangs of body types, and the perfection that is “BLLAAACK!”. It’s all melded together with happy/sad/bittersweet/funny flavours. Performers Andrea Martin, Mary Walsh, Louise Pitre, Sharron Matthews and Paula Brancati do a truly fantastic job of combining the happy and the sad with equal dollops of grace, charm, wit, and sensitivity.

I asked the Toronto-based actor and performer Sharron Matthews about her thoughts around clothing, creativity, and cabaret recently. She has a long history of performance, with everything from Les Miserables to Mean Girls on her resume, and is a positively radiant stage presence. Her responses are very enlightening and refreshingly honest. Enjoy.

Which aspects of Love, Loss, And What I Wore do you most relate to?

That is a hard question. Not because I don’t feel like I relate, but because the things that I seem to relate to are a bit challenging for me to acknowledge. My first monologue is about a child losing a parent and when the material assignments were sent out I was hoping and dreading that I might get this piece. I lost my dad when I was very young and it had a huge impact on my family. I also talk a lot about my weight, now it fluctuates and how hard being a big girl can be. I was a bit nervous about doing these pieces as well but the more I read them the more I thought, “Well, these are truthful and this a group of women that needs to be represented in fabulousness as well as in hardship.”

Why do you think so many women associate clothing with other things? Do you think women are more prone to association (& connection) than men?

I think that women are more ‘collectors’ then men are: (of) shoes, jackets, purses. Men don’t have as many accessories as we do, as a rule. Some of us have closets that are like art galleries… I know I do… featuring shoe boxes with pictures of the shoes on them. And yes, I do think we are more prone to association and connection. We are also, for the most part, more sentimental. We see “a shirt that a wore on my first job interview, the day I was hired to begin my career”…and men see a shirt. I think that it can be a sensual thing, the feel of a fabric or the smell but is also a sense-memory thing… we feel something and we sometimes be in that place again… recalling our emotions.

How much has your other work, specifically in TV and film, has been useful in doing the Ephrons’ work?

Though I have worked in TV and film -of course not as much as Paula, Mary and Andrea -I think that my work in cabaret, as a storyteller has been my greatest asset with the stories in Love, Loss And What I Wore. I feel right at home in this piece. The audience is present and a part of the piece and the stories are brief… like a song.

Define ‘cabaret’ as it is, now. What does it mean to you? What do you think it means to audiences of the 21st century?

I went online to look for some definitions of cabaret. They are all very dry and general: “a form of entertainment featuring comedy, song, dance, and theatre, distinguished mainly by the performance venue.” I recently did a cabaret that was a part of the Young Centre’s Saturday Night Cabaret Series and (their) description is one of my favourites: ”Cabaret is a combination of intimacy, personality, and social contact.”

So my definition of cabaret is a evening of musical storytelling including themes that are universal and accessible, but challenging at the same time. I love cabaret. It is the way I best feel (able to) express myself and really explore my creativity and my artistic voice.

I also think that cabaret can be performed “intimately” in a huge theatre. (It) is an art form that is not fully recognized in Canada.

To some, the word ‘cabaret’ conjures up images of singers belting out “My Way” in gold lame outfits . I am slowly trying to change that perception. I believe that cabaret is a journey, not the picture I just described. It is a form of storytelling to me. A way of breaking down the fourth wall an reaching out to people.

Stage or screen -what’s your favorite?

Having done screen work, I have a huge respect for people who work in film and TV day in and day out. Film acting is a true skill and the people who do it well are artists as well as technicians. I enjoy the spontaneity that is the stage. It is so live in front of an audience and you can never be totally sure what is going to happen. I like to feel an immediate response to what I do… it fuels me to move forwards. I love the stage.

Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Tiptoe Through The West Side

Joyful, quiet, exuberant, contemplative.

Who knew ballet could be so many things at once?

The National Ballet of Canada‘s summer mixed program, playing as part of this year’s Luminato Festival in Toronto, is a heady mix of contradictions. The first third, “Pur ti Miro”, features the music of Beethoven and Monteverdi; the choreography in the piece, by hot dance figure Jorma Elo, is regal and joyous. The second piece, “Opus 19/The Dreamer” features the choreography of Jerome Robbins and the music of Sergei Prokofiev. The last third is “West Side Story Suite”, based on the legendary musical by Leonard Bernstein, features Robbins’ choreography once more, along with colourful, lively dancing, snaps, and vocals.


With short sections, hummable music, and gorgeous visuals, the mixed program has a little something for everyone. It was with great delight that I noted the incredible number of enthralled children in attendance at Sunday’s matinee performance, as well as numerous twenty-something hipsters. Kids get the liberating quality of dance that is, for the most part, sadly lost in adulthood. It was fascinating to observe their reactions to the music and the moves, and to observe their deep, immediate connection with the dancers.

I was equally struck by the various emotional chords that were hit within the show: funny, sad, whimsical, sad, sassy, melancholy, meditative… innumerable shades of the human experience were expressed with a turn, a hand, an arm wave, and even vocally. It’s become something of a recent phenomenon to have dancers vocalize during a performance; as with Wen Wei Wang’s Cock-Pit (presented in Toronto earlier this year), vocals are a pure enhancement of the inherent drama and silent magic of movement. We take talking -and moving -so much for granted, but to have both, within a kind of vacuum, be used for sheer expression, feels like a revolution. I could only help but wonder what Nureyev would think.

Still within the revolutionary vein, I was bowled over by seeing choreography to one of the most famous pieces of music in the classical canon. I grew up hearing Beethoven’s sole violin concerto in a concert hall; it felt new, strange, and surreal to see dancers leaping around to the concerto’s exuberant third movement. It was interesting to note how the program itself was structured as a kind of journey from traditional to pseudo-modern too; moving from the old-school world of Beethoven and Monteverdi, onto Prokofiev, and Bernstein, was like a nod to a variety of dance styles and expressions.

While I enjoyed the meditative nature of “Opus 19/The Dreamer” (the silent drama between Patrick Lavoie and Sonia Rodriguez was scintillating) and adored the vintage-thug moves and hip-swinging snaps of “West Side Story Suite”, it was “Pur Ti Miro” (roughly translated as “I simply aim for you“) that affected me most deeply. Call it sentiment, call it old-fashioned, but there was something in that old-meets-new ethos in that piece (a world premiere, no less) that felt completely provocative and, weirdly, new. Its juxtaposition with the more modern Robbins works felt like just the kind of balanced contradiction that shapes a festival like Luminato, and, I suspect, will come to define, in many ways, ballet of the twenty-first century.

Top photo: Jenna Savella with Sonia Rodriguez and Elena Lobsanova in Pur ti Miro.
Middle photo: Artists of the Ballet in West Side Story Suite.
Bottom photo: Sonia Rodriguez and Patrick Lavoie in Pur ti Miro.

All photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.

L’Chaim

Films for the 18th annual Toronto Jewish Film Festival were announced today -and what a great selection of choices! Funny, sad, historic, romantic, enraging, inspiring -the festival really runs the gamut of human experience, all while keeping intact its sense of exploration and openness. Running April 17th to 25th, the fest will be showcasing 93 films from 18 different countries; seven of the films are making their North American premieres.

Last year I had the opportunity of interviewing the festival’s leaders, including Executive Director Helen Zukerman, who explained to me that the point of the festival isn’t to engage in political debates but to facilitate dialogue and understanding, all while celebrating the past, present, and future of Jewish culture. A big part of that culture is comic -as in funny, sure (works of the Marx Brothers were featured in years past) -but also in an artistic, literal sense. People of the Comic Book: The Creators Of Superheroes, Graphic Novels & Toons is a series running as part of TJFF that explores the connection between the best-known superheroes (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man), and their Jewish creators. Animators, authors, and filmmakers will be attending to mark the occasion, among them writer Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), and award-winning graphic novelist Ben Katchor. The series will also include a film about animation legend Al Hirschfeld, a screening of Ron Mann‘s Comic Book Confidential, as well as a midnight screening of Ralph Bakshi‘s hilariously ribald Fritz The Cat.

Within the Festival programming, there’s also (much to my delight) a nice focus on the experiences of Jewish women. Among the huge number of selections is Ahead Of Time, the story of the truly incredible Ruth Gruber, a photographer, journalist, foreign correspondent and humanitarian. After World War Two, Gruber campaigned to allow Holocaust refugees from Europe into the United States; she also covered the Nuremberg trials, which are covered extensively in another work at the festival, Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today (details below) Gruber was witness to the Exodus 1947 ship enter Haifa Harbour following its being attacked by by the Royal Navy. She subsequently flew to Cyprus to meet and interview the refugees, and later, was the only journalist allowed by the British to accompany the refugees on their tragic return trip to Germany. Gruber was honoured in 2008 by the National Coalition Against Censorship. And that’s just part of her life.

Ahead Of Time is paired with The Irene Hilda Story (L’Histoire D’Irene), detailing the history of Irene Hilda herself, a cabaret singer who was forced to flee Paris. Still in the music vein is The Jazz Baroness, which traces the relationship between Pannonica (“Nica”) Rothschild and jazz legend Thelonius Monk. Rothschild left her wealthy background, her husband, even her children, to follow the married Monk and his magical sound. Even when her family cut her off financially, she still helped out her jazz musician friends as best she could, giving them what money she had for rent, food, and instruments. Monk took her deep into the bebop world of the day -so deep in fact, that she was exposed to the ugly, unpoetic side of the scene; like a sad badge of cred, Charlie Parker wound up dying in Nica’s suite at the Stanhope Hotel. The film, made by Rothschild’s great-niece, includes readings of the Baroness’ letters (by Helen Mirren) as well as music Monk wrote specifically for Rothschild. Dreamy.

Returning to the hard edges of history, however, and that dreaminess is soon vanished. Berlin ’36 portrays the Nazis’ recruitment of Gretel Bergmann, a world-class Jewish high jumper. The Nazis were so stunned by her mastery, and so worried about that mastery discrediting their racial theories, they took a rather drastic step to ensure her failure at the Olympics: they hired a man in drag to take her place. Berlin ’36 is complemented by What If? The Helene Mayer Story, which tells the story of fencer Helene Mayer who won a gold medal for Germany in 1928. She moved to the U.S. in the 1930s after being kicked out of her German fencing club for being half-Jewish. Her return to Germany however, after IOC pressure on the country, may have helped to whitewash Nazi racial policies internationally.

Those policies are explored in detail with Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today. Completed in 1948, the film was widely shown in Germany in ’48-49, though its release in the U.S. was withheld, in part because of the graphic, upsetting nature of its content. Original footage was painstakingly restored by filmmakers Sandra Schulberg and Josh Waletzky. The film documents how Allied prosecution teams built their case against Nazi War criminals; courtroom sequences are edited together with the Nazis’ own documents and films, one of which depicts the concentration camps that so shocked the military tribunal. Even nearly 70 years later, those images are still totally gut-wrenching and horrific. I want to see Nuremberg but I’m not sure I’ll be able to.

Then again, those symbols of hate aren’t so far from current reality. Hearing about the awful racial slurs that were hurled today at black politicians today in the United States over recent health care reforms, I can’t help but feel that a film like Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today is, in fact, just that. It’s more relevant and timely than ever; hatred still exists, however gussied-up and hidden (or not) it might be. All it takes is a mob fueled by ignorance and fear to spread hatred like a cancer through society. Showing Nuremberg: Its Lesson For Today is a vital reminder for us -all of us –that hatred is never a wide road leading to greener pastures, but rather, a cracked narrow path of stones leading to a crushing dead end. The Toronto Jewish Film Festival remains as relevant, fresh, and important as ever.

For full information on the Festival, including schedule and ticketing, go to www.tjff.com.

Sex On A Plate

Jennifer Iannolo really loves food.

The Culinary Media Network‘s co-founder isn’t just a lady who enjoys a good glass of wine and a steak; she’s also an informed, thoughtful food activist who clearly sees the cultural relationships that exist between food and life, or more specifically, food and sex. The New York-based Iannolo, an author, broadcaster, consultant and fiercely ambitious entrepreneur, is about to launch Sex On A Plate, an event that will leave attendees drooling in body and soul. What began as a simple observation on food turned into a bigger passion that many relate to. I mean really, food? sex? What’s not to like?

More than just a suggestive moniker, Iannolo connects various sensual experiences -sights, sounds, smells, touches, textures, tastes -with wider ideas around what good food is, and how its preparation, sharing, and enjoyment is a powerful agent for change, both inside and out.

What I love so much about this fierce, fabulous foodie is that she can so clearly understand, appreciate, and promote the sensual aspects of good food and its enjoyment, along with its connection to wider culture and women’s body images. Sex, like fat, is mainly in the brain, and it’s only through the senses that we come to truly embrace ourselves and our relationship with food with unbridled joy. Iannolo chanels that joy, and serves it up -luscious, succulent, sexy.

Where did the idea for “sex on a plate” come from?

I’ve been fortunate to spend much of my career working with the culinary greats, including chefs like Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Guy Savoy and Eric Ripert. The more time I spent observing them, getting past the “who” to find the “what,” the more I began to see that a sensual quality permeated their food. Each of them had his own unique philosophy, but the root of it was far deeper than merely feeding people -it was about making love to their senses. When eating their dishes, I began to have those food moments that would take me to another place, with nuances of flavor and texture I didn’t realize were possible.

After experiencing food in that way, I wondered where to go from there. What do you do with yourself after Alain Ducasse has prepared a special meal for you at the chef’s table? Rather than head in the hopeless direction of the food snob, I decided to go back to the roots — to the ingredients themselves: the perfect fig, the ultimate tomato. It became a quest for my senses.

As I was mulling over such things (in early 2004), I took a recreational cooking class to determine whether I wanted to cook, write or both. We were making roasted strawberries with zabaglione one night, and as I watched the custard being poured over the strawberries, I was somewhat overcome by the sight, and blurted out: “That, right there, is sex on a plate.” It set the tone for my manifesto On Food And Sensuality several weeks later, and the rest has unfolded from there.

How do you think the ideas behind Sex on a Plate fits with the foodie scene, especially online?

I’m still finding that out. I’ve got an amazing team of people working with me to plan Sex on a Plate as a series of events around the country, and we are deep in planning for Napa at the moment. There are about seven cities that have approached us to do the event, so we will take it where the food lovers will welcome it. We had planned a launch here in NYC for Valentine’s Day, but there was so much else competing for dollars and attention on that day, we decided it was best to postpone that for a quieter time, if there is such a thing in NYC.

Online, the concept seems to swing a number of ways (pardon the pun). It straddles a number of topics (I’m killing myself here), from sex to sensual indulgence to food. It started one day when I threw a #sexonaplate hash tag in a Twitter update, and it’s become a fun meme, with people posting Twitpics of fabulous desserts, perfect grilled cheese sandwiches, or whatever it is that turns their senses on. It’s one of the things I love about the idea: each of us experiences “sex on a plate” differently, so I get a kick out of seeing what it means to people.

In terms of blogging, I’ve started doing guests posts and content sharing with a couple of sex blogs, and have really ramped up my discussions on sensuality on my own blog as it relates to everything we eat, and the way in which we approach food. I love that people are engaging and talking about this, because I find that food lovers really get it, and those just discovering food want to. This makes my soul happy.

For the events themselves, how will you go about planning the menus?

This is where the events get most interesting, because in each city, I’m leaving that piece up to the chefs. I want to know what excites their senses, and I’m challenging them to wow us with those dishes and flavor combinations they might not get to put on the regular menu. They tend to get excited like kids at Christmas when I say that.

Who are the events for?

The events are for anyone who wants to have an indulgent, sensual food experience. I mean that not in the sense of overly heavy foods, but a food experience that focuses on how each taste indulges the senses through flavor, color, texture and smell. Even touch.

More importantly, I’ve decided that in each city where we do an event, a portion of the proceeds will go to the local food bank. It seems fair to balance the scales that while we’re indulging ourselves on the finest of food, that people struggling for basic survival are also taken care of. This makes my soul even happier.

How much of a subtext is there of women accepting our bodies? This feels like a theme in your “food philosophy”-ism.

Can I get a “Hell, yes?” The first line of my manifesto, On Food And Sensuality, is from Federico Fellini: “Never trust a woman who doesn’t like to eat. She’s probably lousy in bed.” Sensual appreciation extends to everything, from head to toe, inside and out, from farm to plate.

I do believe we should take good care of ourselves, and eat foods that are good for us; but in my mind, this means less about broccoli vs chocolate than it does chemicals vs no chemicals. We need to eat a little bit of everything to be satisfied as humans — we were built with the capability to enjoy pleasure, so why on earth should we deny ourselves? And I’m sorry to break it to the ladies, but Fellini’s right. I’m carrying a little extra padding, and I have yet to experience that as a hindrance for either attraction or action.

The wonderful thing about human beings is that they self-select. Be who you are, and those who like you will find you, whether it’s for friendship or romance. If you have a big butt, the men who like that will find you. Trust me. And this delights me on all fronts, because I don’t want to dine with men or women who live on lettuce and tofu. No fun.

What’s the ultimate “sex on a plate” dish for you?

Macaroni and cheese made with fusilli, mascarpone cheese, duck confit, foie gras mousse and truffle shavings. Oh my, yes.

All photography by Kelly Cline, except for head shot of Jennifer Iannolo, by Renata DeAngelis.

Sexy Queen

The Valentine’s Day sillies are upon us once more. As a singleton who’s never really experienced the “romantic” connotations of the Hallmark Holiday, I take the whole thing in stride and tend to draw associations instead with the sticky-sweet days of childhood. Heart-shaped cookies and finger-staining candies, along with cut-outs and tacky cards -that’s Valentine’s Day to me.

There’s a tremendous pressure on female singletons, particularly in North America, where V-Day is taken quite seriously. (That, incidentally, is culturally interesting; I don’t recall the same kind of pressure when I lived in Dublin and London, but then, back then I romanticized everything, turning every day into a kind of maudlin V-Day fest, complete with sappy poetry, long dresses, and plenty of chest-heaving for so-close-so-far Byronic, tortured-artist-lovers. Oh, youth…) Year-round Valentine pressure is everywhere in popular culture: witness the phenomenons of Bridget Jones, Sex And the City, and any number of treacly pop hits.

Lastnight’s episode of 30 Rock featured a defensive Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) trying to find someone to give her a ride post an impending dental surgery. The snag? The surgery fell on Valentine’s Day. In the great tradition of ladies who doth protest too much, the indefatigable Liz huffed and puffed about in hilarious, if equally sad, fashion, loudly proclaiming her independence. Only later, deep in the throes of whirling post-surgery hallucinations, did she acknowledge that she wanted to be loved. It got me thinking: do women need Valentine’s Day to assert their desire for love and acceptance? Following that, do men need the pressure of what V-Day represents to show these things? It all feels deeply unfair -and stupid.

The Toronto-based Erotic Arts and Crafts Fair blends like childlike whimsy with a decidedly adult ethos. As its name implies, the fair is a celebration of sex, but not in that tawdry, vulgar way as paraded around so many so-called “professional” conferences. The fair, on since 2007 and founded by members of the excellent Come As You Are, is Canada’s only craft fair dedicated to romantic, sexual, and erotic expression, and features a variety of crafts -not just rude knitwear and dildos (though they’re presented too, if you’re interested). Books, buttons, jewellery, corsets, slippers and one cleverly-named change-purse feature as well.

Along with being a fun way of celebrating sexuality, the fair also serves as a great way of connecting people -including many single women, who come in nervous and sometimes shy, and leave, laughing. There’s no pressure for coupledom, and the whimsical, fun feel of the fair imbues a kind of fun, carnival-esque atmosphere. Also, the event nicely builds community through the sharing of artistic ability, something vitally important in the Queen Street West area (which is rapidly becoming a bourgeois hipster haven, eeek). If you’re in the neighbourhood tomorrow (February 13th), pop in the Gladstone Hotel anytime between 12 and 8pm. Single or coupled, I guarantee you’ll walk out with a smile.

Hurts, Wrinkles, Desire (aka Life)

This afternoon I had the pleasure of hearing the dulcet tones of Shelagh Rogers float across my office. Shelagh was the host of a program on CBC Radio (since canceled) called Sounds Like Canada, but has since gone on to host a weekly literary program, The Next Chapter. Today’s show had a distinct theme: bleak endings and new beginnings, particularly related to matters of the heart. With the yearly Valentine’s Day assault kicking into high gear, it seemed a particularly timely topic, with a refreshingly bittersweet twist.

One of Shelagh’s guests was Mary-Jo Eustace, the spurned ex-wife of actor Dean McDermott, who infamously left her for Tori Spelling and went on to do reality television. She has a new book about her experience called Divorce Sucks and has been featured in Hello! Canada as well as Good Morning America, Dr Phil, Joy Behar, Access Hollywood, Extra, Inside Edition, Bonnie Hunt, People Magazine and US Weekly. I interviewed Mary-Jo Eustace myself around this time last year. She was co-hosting a cooking show with Canadian food personality Ken Kostick called He Said, She Said. Along with yummy, easy-to-prep recipes, the show featured witty, sometimes salty exchanges of the two acid-tongued hosts. I was eager to meet them and learn more about their chemistry and how they come up with their food ideas.

I was not interested in the tawdry details of her break-up. I’d been warned by the publicist not to broach the topic of Mary-Jo’s personal life, I didn’t, in truth, have any interest in wading into those waters; they were, to me, too deep, too painful, and frankly, none of my business. And, being a foodie, I was more interested in her relationship to food and her viewers. She was polite and classy in answering my questions but I sensed a wary kind of judgment as well, manifest in a few brief barbs related to what she perceived to be my youth.

Regardless of this, I sensed a real sadness about her, and I left the interview feeling her anger was really a ruse covering a deeper wound. I also sensed an intense worry over her age and its relationship to her potential desirability as a woman. Looking at my own wrinkles and bumps lately, I sense that anxiety too. Media outlets can push the “elegance” of all the Meryl Streeps and Helen Mirrens they like -the fact remains that they’re not known as smoking hot babes. If you’re over 30, how do you compete with the like of Elisha, Jessica, Megan, et al? The truth is: you don’t. Self-acceptance is a long road, and it’s certainly made harder with an unquestioned man-boy culture that deems female aging to be equated with worthlessness -or worse, sexual repellance.

Where did this come from? I saw photos of Madonna in W Magazine recently, and I was utterly inspired. She may have had work done, but who cares? She looks glammy, vampy, campy, unapologetic, and utterly present. “Would it sound better if I was a man?” she whispers knowingly in her song, “Human Nature“. I have to wonder if the same spirit applies to women who age loudly, unapologetically, with sexual aplomb, blazing confidence, searing intelligence, and scalding wit, wearing heartbreak, healing, and a hard-won wisdom loudly and proudly. I can only hope that, like Mary-Jo, Madge, and yes, Nigella, I can embody a few of these qualities. Me, go gently into that good night? I don’t think so. But I wouldn’t mind being called a smoking hot babe one more time.

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