Monday, August 27, 2007

Nureyev on PBS' Great Performances

This week, PBS stations will be showing a new documentary on legendary ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, including that elusive "never before seen footage." Be sure to check it out!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Morris' "Mozart Dances"

Mark Morris' recent dance to three of Mozart's works for piano can be seen on PBS in the Live from Lincoln Center program, starting tonight (check local listings by scrolling to the bottom).

From Joan Acocella's review in The New Yorker:

Why is he so popular? One reason, I think, is that he gives people the modern pleasure of seeing abstract work without leaving them scratching their heads over what it was about. Though he may not have a story on the surface, he always has one underneath, in the form of movement motifs. For every dance, he devises a certain number of key gestures, which he then weaves through the choreography. Some of these gestures are naturalistic. In “Mozart Dances,” for example, there is one that could be called the “danger” motif: the dancer suddenly turns and looks behind him, as if he had heard a strange sound, and then looks back at us as if to say, “Did you hear that?” But others of Morris’s motifs have no obvious meaning when he first shows them to us. Only in the course of the dance do they come to tell a story.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Brief Tharp Diversion

Following up on this post: when discussing Tharp’s work with A.V. and why I don’t regard her as highly as Paul Taylor or even Mark Morris, I realized that part of the problem for me is the lack of dance images in her work. She has a mastery of movement - an ability to break movement apart and put it back together so that simple steps are seen in new and clever ways – but lacks that gift for creating/assembling a movement or placing a configuration of bodies in a way, that, no matter how theatrically artificial, feels like something that happens in one’s own (interior) life, as critic Robert Garis liked to describe great dance images. It’s the difference between finding yourself participating in the dance with one’s own body (Tharp’s works do make you feel this), and feeling emotionally and spiritually involved in the work when the emotion isn’t adrenaline-evoked elation but communal experience. She lacks the intuition of an image-maker.

Tied to this is the lack of stillness in her work – not actual motionlessness, but the feeling of breathing, which is in itself real stillness (not-breathing is a void). Sometimes it seems that no matter the dance (and what steps the dancers are actually performing), everyone in a mature Tharp work is jitterbugging like mad in the California sixties - this is where the energy level of her dances often resides. And it’s for that reason that I suspect she is sometimes criticized as being too commercial: not because she does commercial ventures (almost every great choreographer has done “s/lighter” works to sell tickets), but because her works, while sometimes brilliant, are not transcendent. As a result, her ingenuity in movement comes across as a clever gag – slickness. And I can think of no other choreographer who would have written a book titled, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. The polar opposite of Balanchine’s “one can’t talk about such things.”

Now back to Balanchine, NYCB, and my favorite dancer, Suzanne Farrell…

NYCB Style - Part II: The Farrell Influence, by Croce

Suzanne Farrell in the sixties

“Balanchine's Girls: The Making of Style” April 1971, Croce.

[Farrell] was big and strong and handsome, but without much personal force. In her tiny leotard, she looked very like a big bee, but more like a woman-sized baby. With that almost perverse precocity that was then characteristic of the younger generation, she could do anything Balanchine asked of her, and do it on a grander scale, at greater speed, and with a silkier recovery and sense of control than anyone else. And then we began to see that Farrell had a line that was positively voluptuous. Farrell, her stage personality as yet undeveloped, moved at once into a lead position. Our style was thin no more.

In any decently written history of the NYCB, the years 1963-9 would consume several chapters. The Farrell Years saw the company remade in a new, younger, and more romantic image. For Farrell personally they began in glory and ended in confusion and estrangement. Because of her importance to Balanchine – she was probably the most important dancer who ever entered his life – her rise to prima status was spectacular and sudden, perhaps too sudden. When her break with Balanchine came in the middle of the 1969 season, her repertory totaled 32 roles. She was everywhere and nowhere. Her beauty fascinated more people than were repelled by her flamboyance. She transformed the company, freed Balanchine from the excessive braininess of “modernism” and departed, like Dulcinea, who in the ballet is apotheosized, the Queen of Heaven. Her place in the history of the company is sacrosanct.

Peter Martins and Farrell in Diamonds, photo by Paul Kolnik

“Farrell and Farrellism” February 1975, Croce.

It isn’t that Farrell is so terribly big; it’s that she dances big in relation to her base of support. The lightness of the instep, the speed of her dégagé are still thrilling. You’d think a dancer moving that fast couldn’t possibly consume so much space – that she’d have to be more squarely planted. Farrell defies the logic of mechanics, and in that defiance is the essence of the new heroism she brought to Balanchine’s stage a little over a decade ago.

Farrell and Balanchine 'shopping' for jewelry, mid-70s

“Free and More Than Equal”
February 1975, Croce.

Farrell’s independent drive no longer seems unacceptable burdensome to her, and her mastery implies no rebuke. And what mastery it is – of continual off-center balances maintained with light support or no support at all, of divergently shaped steps unthinkable combined in the same phrase, of invisible transitions between steps and delicate shifts of weight in poses that reveal new and sweet harmonies or proportion no matter how wide or subtle the contrast. Your eye gorges on her variety, your heart stops at the brink of very precipice. She, however, sails calmly out into space and returns as if the dancer did not exist. Farrell’s style in Diamonds (and the third act of Don Quixote) is based on risk; she is almost always off balance and always secure. Her confidence in moments of great risk gives her the leeway to suggest what no ballerina has suggested before her – that she can sustain herself, that she can go it alone. Farrell perfects the act of balance/imbalance as a constant feature of dancing. It is not equilibrium as stasis, it is equilibrium as continuity that she excels in. Although she can take a piqué arabesque and stand unaided, she’s capable of much more; her conquests are really up there where the richer hazards are. In the finale, her partner is only there to stop her. She slips like a fish through his hands. She doesn’t stop, doesn’t wait, doesn’t depend, and she can’t fall. She’s like someone who has learned to breathe thin air. Of course, the autonomy of the ballerina is an illusion, but Farrell’s is the extremest form of this illusion we have yet seen, and it makes Diamonds a riveting spectacle about the freest woman alive.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Jacob's Family History: The State Isaac is in

A prologue to the discussion of Jacob

Isaac is the patriarch principally remembered for being conned by family members, twice. First, by his father to his near sacrifice (he even carried the wood); second, by his wife and younger twin son for the only thing an old man has left to give: his blessing.

Compared to the chapters covering his father Abraham and his son Jacob, Isaac gets short shrift in the Bible. One rabbi wrote that his story is meant to indicate "continuity." Indeed, Isaac has a wife brought to him by his father's servant, he leaves for new land as his father did, he gets in a scuffle with a ruler for his wife, as his father did. He even re-digs his father's wells. His prayer comes in the afternoon (Genesis 24:64), neither the stand of his father at morning (Genesis 19:27) or the alertness of his son at night (Genesis 28:11). God gives him wealth and blessings, but his is a static personality in between that of two dynamos. What's up with Isaac?

We get a hint near the end of his life: his eyes are too dim to see (Genesis 27:1). According to Genesis Rabbah 65:6, "when Isaac was bound on the altar, and his father was about to slaughter him, the heavens opened, and the ministering angels saw and wept, and their tears fell upon Isaac’s eyes. As a result, his eyes became dim." In Jewish tradition, it is also significant that Isaac is the patriach who introduces suffering as a blessing of God (for Abraham, old age; for Jacob, sickness). Isaac's blindness is not just a physical malady, but a mental state. He has seen death at his father's hand, and death haunts him like a shadow the rest of his life. He has no vision of his own, for suffering and death cloud his eyes.

The binding of Isaac, the Akedah, then takes on new meaning: Isaac is not only physically bound onto the altar to be a sacrifice, but is henceforth psychologically bound. His vision, while still under formation, becomes trapped. He serves the Lord without rebellion and is successful, but he has no creative spirit to drive him into the spiritual territory of Abraham or Jacob. In some ways, he is a dead man walking. God even accounts for him as dead while he is still alive. When Rebekah meets him, she covers her head with a veil. While this is the tradition of marriage and modesty, it can also be read as covering one's self with a death shroud. The Hebrew word used -"she covered herself" - also means "she was buried." She dies to herself to live with a dying man.

In childhood, I had a book about female women of the Bible. In these girl-friendly tales, the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah is seen as a "happy" marriage, free of the conflict and turmoil that occurred in the households of Abraham and Jacob, who both took other wives/concubines. But a woman who dupes her blind husband in as elaborate a plot as Rebekah sets up and then stands watch to make sure Jacob receives the blessing isn't the happiest and most devoted of wives. Indeed, Rebekah cries, "Why am I here?"
It's into this strange environment that Esau and Jacob are born. Why does Isaac favor Esau? Esau is a hunter, he wanders the field - those who wander cannot stand firmly on the ground. To wander is a curse from God (see Cain), yet Esau chooses to do so. Esau takes an unbeliever as a wife. Is Isaac's love for Esau a manifestation of his own rebellion against God?
Rather, Esau is Isaac's physical state. In his mind, Isaac must wander, haunted, lacking a vision for his life. Even Esau's statements to Jacob, "I am faint...I am dying," are the words of his father on Mount Moriah and throughout his life. Isaac and Esau are both trapped: one by events under divine decree, the other by choice. Isaac sympathizes with Esau, and favors him, as he also favors Esau's displays of virility, without seeing their superficiality.

P.S. An important point here: the God of the Old Testament, of Judaism, is not an arbitrary God. When St. Paul writes that God 'hated' Esau, one has to look at what Esau has done in his life. He takes an unbeliever as his wife; he "cares little for his birthright/ he despised his birthright." Esau chooses to be a hunter, forever wandering. Esau has earned God's disregard.
In addition to Genesis Rabbah and Rashi's commentary, see also Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg's The Beginning of Desire

Life moves fast....

First, I apologize for the long delay in blogging. Almost every day in June, I thought to myself, “Today I will have a chance to finish up such-and-such post for my blog,” but it never happened.

Second, it is not fun to travel I-80 across the country. There are a few crude jokes to be made about a ubiquitous Iowa gas station chain, the Minute-Men of Lexington, Nebraska, and a fine-dining establishment in Wyoming that served ‘Es Cargo’ (and it had an herb aftertaste). But it is close to Lake Tahoe (my recommendation: travel the Nevada side even though they charge you to park). It is less fun to do this trek when you have a cat in the backseat who believes in waiting ‘til everyone is in the car and the car is cruising at 80 mph on the interstate before takin’ care of business.

Third, I will hopefully post more regularly once I have a daily schedule worked out, and will resume the series of posts I promised way back when.

Fourth, God bless you all and thank you for your patience.

Thursday, May 31, 2007


If anyone says "I am God," apart from the One, he should
set up a world equal to this and say, "This is mine."
He should not only set it up and call it "mine," but also should himself dwell
in that which he has made. For it has been made by this one.

Credited to Pythagoras by Pseudo-Justin, De Monarchia 2 (3rd century A.D.)

Behold, the Lord is our mirror.
Open your eyes and see them in Him.

And learn the manner of your face,
then announce praises to His Spirit.

And wipe the paint from your face,
and love His holiness and put it on.

Then you will be unblemished at all times with Him.


Ode 13 of the Odes of Solomon (early 2nd century, A.D.)

Christ Speaks

I took courage and became strong and captured the world,
and it became mine for the glory of the Most High, and of God my Father.

And the gentiles who have been scattered were gathered together,
but I was not defiled by my love for them,
because they had praised me in high places.

And the traces of light were set upon their hearts,
and they walked according to my life and were saved,
and they became my people for ever and ever.


Part of Ode 10 from the Odes of Solomon

I extended my hands
and hallowed my Lord;

For the expansion of my hands
is his sign.

And my extension
is the upright cross.


Ode 27 of the Odes of Solomon

Works from The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume 2, edited by JH Charlesworth (1985). Thanks Fr. Greg!


The soul and body of a human being are united in the following manner: After a man and woman have made love and the woman has conceived, the Angel of the Night, Lilah, carries the sperm before God. God then decides what shall be the distinguishing characteristics of that child – whether the child shall be male or female, strong or weak, rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, long or short, fat or thin. Piety and wickedness, however, are left to the determination of the individual.

Then God signals the angel who has been given the charge to watch over that particular soul. God says, “Bring Me the soul of this child whose form is hidden in Paradise.” The angel brings the designated soul. At that moment, God issues the command for the soul to enter the sperm. Yet the soul pleads, “Ribbono shel Olam. I am well pleased with this world, the world in which I have been living since You have called me forth into being. Why do You suddenly want me to enter into this sperm, I who am pure and filled with divine glory?” God consoles her by saying, “The World I shall cause you to enter is better than the world in which you have been living. When I created you, it was only for this purpose.” The soul is then forced to enter the sperm and the angel carries her back to the womb of her mother. Two angels are dispatched to watch over the soul so that she will not leave it or drop out of it. A light is set above her so that the soul can see from one end of the world to the other.

In the morning, the angel carries the soul to Paradise and shows her the righteous who sit in glory with crowns upon their heads. The angel then says to the soul, “Do you know where you are? These whom you behold here were formed, like you, in the womb of their mother. When they came into this world, they observed God’s Torah and followed God’s mitzvot. They were good, decent people. As partners with their Creator, following their body’s death, they now enjoy this Paradise. Know also that you will one day depart this world. If you only observe God’s Toray you too will eventually sit with them. If not, you will be doomed to sit in the other place.”

In the evening, the angel takes the soul to hell and there points out the sinners whom the Angel of Destruction is taunting with fire. During the visit, the soul hears the sinners crying out in the black night, “Woe! Woe!” But no mercy is shown to them. The Angel then asks the same question that was asked before: “Do you know who these people are? They are now consumed with fire but there were created just like you. When they were sent out into the world, they forgot their origins they did not observe God’s Torah and mitzvot. Therefore they have to come to the disgrace they now suffer. Know that your destiny is also to depart from this world. Be just, therefore, and not wicked, so that you may gain entrance to a future world.”

Between morning and evening the angel carries the soul around and shows her where she will lie and where she will die, and the place that she will be buried. The angel takes her on a tour of the entire world. In the evening, the angel places the soul in the womb of the mother, and there she remains for nine months. During this time, the angel assigned to the soul teaches Torah to the babe. When the time arrives for her to emerge from the womb into the world, the soul is reluctant to leave. She has enjoyed the warmth of the womb and the light of Torah. So the angel touches the babe above the lip and sends it forth in to the world. Immediately the child forgets all it had seen and comes into the world crying, yearning for the Torah it now does not realize it has lost.

Based on Tanchuma, Pekudei from Sacred Moments: Tales from the Jewish Life Cycle selected and edited by Isaacs and Olitzky (1995).

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Tharp's "The Catherine Wheel," the Pineapple as Metaphor

Kansas City Ballet dancers in The Golden Section, photo by Steve Wilson

Review of filmed performance of Twyla Tharp's The Catherine Wheel (1981), set to music by David Byrne.

When is a pineapple just a pineapple? Not when Twyla Tharp is using it in a psychodrama about the disintegration of the nuclear family, the shallowness of modern (post-modern) life, and the exploitation of nuclear power. The pineapple - yellow on the inside like the sun (get it, energy!), shaped like a grenade (get it, destruction!), and a traditional gift to a family in a new home (get it, energy and destruction in the home!!!). If you think these metaphors are silly, the large narrative section of The Catherine Wheel is not for you.

For myself, there are all sorts of fruit that carry semi-relevant connotations - one has to be careful with watermelons for instance (racist), apples (the fruit of temptation, unless you are down with the quince argument), pomegranates (Persephone AND the Church), even strawberries (if you are a child of the 80s, you know that there was nothing quite as delectable as the smell of Strawberry Shortcake dolls). And vegetables are just rife with alternate meanings. But pineapples? Only meaningful if you are Carmen Miranda, and it seems, Twyla Tharp. (I really think Gilbert and Sullivan found "Pineapple Poll" to be a funny alliteration and nothing more.)

Twyla Tharp received training in a wide range of dance styles including ballet, jazz, flamenco, and modern. A 1964 graduate of Barnard College, she danced briefly with Paul Taylor's company before starting to choreograph her own dances, breaking down dance to the steps that she felt were most important and experimenting with those moves and sound in constructing her idea of performance. This experimental phase ended fairly early for her, and by the mid-70s she was comfortably working in her own style that combined jazz, ballet, modern, and that special ingredient most associated with her: the use of everyday gestures, like idiomatic expressions, in "high culture" contexts. She has a gift for capturing what's relevant at a cultural time point and using it as an inside joke in her works. She has used street graffitti, break-dancing, Jane Fonda aerobics, surfer style, and numerous other pop culture creations, often straightforwardly so that some of her works appear as time capsules of American pop culture.

However, that does not diminish Tharp's clear gifts as a choreographer. She knows style and the language of movement, and her own style, featuring jerky stops and starts, flattened torsos with arms akimbo while legs do highly sophisticated kicks and toe taps, is quite recognizable if one has seen a previous work of hers. Tharp will use ballet's version of the golden mean, an attitude (knee at 90 degree angle, thigh and calf at right angles with the leg at a perfect right angle from the body), as a casual gesture, drawing attention to its power but using it alongside an absurdity (arms casually held at the side or waving in the air). She doesn't make fun of the ballet position; she is completely serious about it and therein lies her wit as a dancemaker (the charm is in the everyday gestures and cultural references).

The Catherine Wheel is a bit different in Tharp's oeuvre in that it has a straightforward narrative. It is inspired by St. Catherine of Alexandria's quest for spiritual perfection through physical discipline (and if you have read Tharp's 1993 autobiography, Push Comes to Shove, you can see that she is a consummate perfectionist, as is indicated by this quote: "I had to become the greatest choreographer of my time. That was my mission, and that's what I set out to do"). Tharp's understanding of St. Catherine's vision sounds fairly gnostic ('leaving aside the body to gain greater knowledge'), but this is Tharp's vision of perfection, and St. Catherine just happens to be a means to an end. It also gives her a chance to pontificate about pineapples.

Triangles, perfection, Pineapples, and grenades

Like the first Catherine Wheel exploded, injuring the pagans and sparing the life of St. Catherine, so too can the pineapple (a nickname for a grenade, but grenade comes from the word pomegranate...oh nevermind) explode, causing destruction. And the spiky leaves on a pineapple - don't they resemble the pointed spikes on a Catherine Wheel? Throw in some stuff about connection to energy and the atomic bomb, and graphics morphing a Catherine Wheel into a pineapple, and then into a bomb, and there you have it. As in almost all things, Tharp is completely serious about the implications of the pineapple. I was prepared to treat the pineapple as an absurdist symbol, a theatrical device, but Tharp thoroughly warned me of its hidden meanings - pineapple portents - so that I had to know that fruit is sometimes more than meets the eye.

And so it begins - a golden glowing pineapple handed down from on high to dancers backlit from behind a scrim. "Take a look, these people are savages!" sings/talks David Byrne on the recorded soundtrack. They clearly cannot handle the pineapple. And so we have a mock family, Mother and Father in a state of modern couple's anxiety but dancing a rather sweet adagio until the pineapplecomes along and knocks Father on the back of the head. Father goes off to rape the family dog; Mother does a tap-dance routine complete with the begging for money bit that will be situationally reprised when she pimps out Daughter to a suitor, and then seduces the suitor herself. The maid looks on in horror. Members of the family try to dance together, but the most success they can ever have is 2 out of 3 dancing the same steps to the same rhythm. The pineapple grows bigger and bigger in each scene (is it being fed by the increased disorder of the family?). A preacher lectures us from the soundtrack. A chorus backlit from behind the scrim provides "commentary." The family engages in WWF-style wrestling from behind the scrim, the pineapple gets hauled here and there, and St. Catherine, played by Sara Rudner, looks in horror at the devices of her torture as she tries to reach a state of perfection (this is an amazing performance from Rudner). Finally, release. The suitor tears apart the now huge pineapple in the presence of Mother, bathing himself in styrofoam chunks (mmm, pineapple juice is yummy; I really want some pineapple-orange juice.) Now the maid, as the societal conscience in the bourgeoisie household, screams and stutters in horror, making an array of disgusted faces. The violated dog kills Father, someone else (Daughter and the suitor?) kills Mother, and torn up plastic wastebaskets in red, green, and yellow colors start to fly on the stage (so does an aluminum pie tin). We live in a plastic, meaningless world, full of waste? Thank goodness St. Catherine can come along to hold all the remnants of wastebaskets and pineapple in her arms, and transform them into a high energy, gold-strewn dance. (More on the Golden Section in a moment.)

Does this sound absurd? Well, it is. There is no drama here; we aren't even treated to (spared by) an inside joke or two. Even the well-used theatrical conceits (a woman tap-dancing across a stage for money; people dressed up in layers and layers of clothing as if they are out-of-work performers on the vaudevillian circuit) are so straightforward they have no meaning other than what Tharp seems to want to indicate as an amorphous emptiness. And plasticky-ness. And then there's that stupid pineapple. It's not often that one watches dance and feels one's self getting dumber.

The welcome respite, over an hour into this mess, is the Golden Section. (The Golden Section has become its own, well, section, and is still performed separate from the other parts of The Catherine Wheel, especially by ballet companies wanting some Tharpian action.)

(Alvin Ailey dancers in The Golden Section, photo by Paul Kolnik)

Freed from the constraints of the life of the pineapple (and with Tharp free from having to move the narrative anywhere), the dancers, now dressed in gold, enter into a dance of incredible energy, as if they were particles on the surface of the sun. Whereas there was disorder in the movements of the family in the previous sections, now the dancers can move in syncopation, 1, 2, 3. Some literally become Catherine Wheels, rolling across the stage, their legs and arms the spokes as the curved body of another is the wheel. But mostly they jump, crackle with energy, and jog when they aren't taking flight or catapulting someone else into the air. "This is perfection," Tharp seems to be saying: unleashed energy fed through the movements of dancers into coherency and meaning. "This is the first day; this is the second day," Byrne intones. For the first time, Tharp effectively utilizes the rhythms that Byrne has created (previously, she just followed the disconnects and words), and unlike many dances, where rhythm means in and out, like breathing, she uses it to keep a steady, amped-up flow. Dance like this is no longer organic - it is superhuman, and it is that state beyond human experience that Tharp seems to be invoking in this final part. It has little to do with St. Catherine of Alexandria (supernatural is different from superhuman, and participation in the energies of God is not what Tharp has in mind) or with pineapples (even though they are golden and can be cut up into sections). It's rather the call for mindlessness so that the body can participate in E = mc2. The dance is mass-energy transfer; we all become similar in the heat of nuclear fusion. The science of creation leads to the science of destruction, and Tharp only makes sense of it at the end.

A final note: the recording I viewed is widely available from Kultur, and fairly bad - dancers are cut off at the waist, the camera focuses on only one area of the stage while things are going on all over the stage, and so forth. One wishes Tharp, as director, could have loosened her grip and let her stage production play out on screen.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Ruckert & Mahler's Kindertotenlieder

Songs on the Death of Children (1901-1905)
Based on poems by Friedrich Ruckert written in 1833-4,
when two of his children died within 16 days of each other.
He wrote 425 poems in this period, Mahler chose five.
The poems that comprise songs two and five of Mahler's cycle,
chosen by me not for their poetry but for the sentiment:

Nun seh' ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen
Ihr sprühtet mir in manchem Augenblicke.
O Augen!
Gleichsam, um voll in einem Blicke
Zu drängen eure ganze Macht zusammen.
Doch ahnt' ich nicht, weil Nebel mich umschwammen,
Gewoben vom verblendenden Geschicke,
Daß sich der Strahl bereits zur Heimkehr schicke,
Dorthin, von wannen alle Strahlen stammen.
Ihr wolltet mir mit eurem Leuchten sagen:
Wir möchten nah dir bleiben gerne!
Doch ist uns das vom Schicksal abgeschlagen.
Sieh' uns nur an, denn bald sind wir dir ferne!
Was dir nur Augen sind in diesen Tagen:
In künft'gen Nächten sind es dir nur Sterne.

(English translation by Emily Ezust)
Now I see well why with such dark flames
your eyes sparkled so often.
O eyes!
It was as if in one full glance
you could concentrate your entire power.
Yet I did not realize - because mists floated about me,
woven by blinding fate -
that this beam of light was ready to be sent home
to that place whence all beams come.
You would have told me with your brilliance:
we would gladly have stayed near you!
But it is refused by Fate.
Just look at us, for soon we will be far!
What to you are only eyes in these days -
in future nights shall be stars to us.

In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus,
Nie hätt' ich gesendet die Kinder hinaus;
Man hat sie getragen hinaus,
Ich durfte nichts dazu sagen!

In diesem Wetter, in diesem Saus,
Nie hätt' ich gelassen die Kinder hinaus,
Ich fürchtete sie erkranken;
Das sind nun eitle Gedanken.

In diesem Wetter, in diesem Graus,
Nie hätt' ich gelassen die Kinder hinaus;
Ich sorgte, sie stürben morgen,
Das ist nun nicht zu besorgen.

In diesem Wetter, in diesem Graus!
Nie hätt' ich gesendet die Kinder hinaus!
Man hat sie hinaus getragen,
ich durfte nichts dazu sagen!

In diesem Wetter, in diesem Saus, in diesem Braus,
Sie ruh'n als wie in der Mutter Haus,
Von keinem Sturm erschrecket,
Von Gottes Hand bedecket.

In this weather, in this windy storm,
I would never have sent the children out;
They were carried outside -
I could say nothing about it!

In this weather, in this roaring storm,
I would never have let the children out.
I was afraid they had fallen ill,
but these thoughts are now idle.

In this weather, in this cruel storm,
I would never have let the children out;
I was worried they would die the next day -
but this is now no concern.

In this weather, in this cruel storm,
I would never have sent the children out;
They were carried outside -
I could say nothing about it!

In this weather, in this roaring, cruel storm,
they rest as they did in their mother's house:
they are frightened by no storm,
and are covered by the hand of God.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Origin of "Open to me the gates of repentance?"

The Rabbis emphasized that God is desirous of our repentance and inclined to forgive. In the midrash on Shir Ha Shirim (the Song of Songs) they wrote:

"Open to Me [Song of Songs 5:2]". Make for Me an opening (of repentance), an opening as narrow as the point of a needle, and I will make the opening so wide (for pardon) that camps full of soldiers and siege engines could enter it.

Similarly, they taught that while the gates to prayer (that is, God's willingness to hear prayer) are sometimes open and sometimes closed, the gates of repentance are always open:

R. Helbo asked R. Samuel bar Nahman: since I have heard of you as a master of Aggadah, tell me what is meant by the verse Thou has covered thyself with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through [Lamentations 3:44]? R. Samuel answered: Prayer is likened to an immersion pool, but repentance is likened to the sea. Just as an immersion pool is at times open and at other times locked, so the gates of prayer are at times open and at other times locked. But the sea is always open, even as the gates of repentance are always open. [Lamentations Rabbah 3:43, section 9].

From this site. "Gates of repentance" also occurs in Psalms Rabbah, Pesikta Rabbati, possibly midrash on Jonah.

The north portal of the Golden Gate (the east gate of the city wall in Jerusalem) is also called the Gate of Repentance.

Rabbeinu Yonah wrote The Gates of Repentance (Sha'arei Tshuvah) in the 13th century, and the lines from the midrash quoted above are often found in Jewish writings on repentance. There is also imagery from the three High Holy Days: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, that the gates of repentance are open for these three days, and become locked. Yom Kippur closes with the Neilah service, meaning "locked," of the gates of heaven and book of judgment.

So unless the Orthodox hymn precedes the 5th century AD (following scholarship that suggests Lamentations Rabbah was written over the same period as Genesis Rabbah and the latter is dated to the mid-5th century at the latest), it is likely taken from rabbinic sources, although Lamentations Rabbah also includes a number of Greek words.

Anyone else have any ideas?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

NYCB Style - Part I

The New York City Ballet formally came into existence in 1948. Founded by Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, other choreographers were initially invited to participate (including Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, and Jerome Robbins), but it soon became dominated by the works and aesthetic vision of Balanchine. As Croce wrote in the early 70s (paraphrased), no other artistic institution was as singularly the creative vision of one person (Balanchine) the way New York City Ballet was. The first generation of ballerinas in the company included Maria Tallchief, Tanaquil LeClercq, Diana Adams, and Melissa Hayden. To this line-up, Allegra Kent, Jillana, and Violette Verdy were added in the 50s. Among the men, Jacques d'Amboise, Edward Villella, and partner extraordinaire Conrad Ludlow joined Francisco Moncion and Nicholas Magallanes. Balanchine's building of the repertory, a combination of more classical fare (Firebird, The Nutcracker, segments from Swan Lake) and highly innovative works to new music by Stravinsky, serialist compositions of Webern, and the works of other 20th century composers, would also shape the style of the company, right up to the time - 1963 - (as Garis wrote) that Suzanne Farrell arrived on the scene.

Tanaquil LeClercq as Dewdrop in The Nutcracker (1952)

Edwin Denby, “A letter on New York City’s Ballet”, August 1952
The NYC style is the most particularized and the clearest defined of all the American ones; the most Puritan in its uprightness. For me an immediate attraction of the NYC’s style is the handsomeness of the dancing, and another is the absence of glamour, of glamourization. To have left glamour out is only a negative virtue, but there is a freshness in it to start with.

Handsome the NYC way of dancing certainly is. Limpid, easy, large, open, bounding; calm in temper and steady in pulse; virtuoso in precision, in stamina, in rapidity. So honest, so fresh and modest the company looks in action. The company’s stance, the bearing of the dancer’s whole body in action is the most straightforward, the clearest I ever saw; it is the company’s physical approach to the grand style – not to the noble carriage but to the grand one. Simple and clear the look of shoulder and hip, the head, the elbow, and the instep; unnervous the bodies deploy in the step, hold its shape in the air, return to balance with no strain, and redeploy without effort. Never was there so little mannerism in a company, or extravagance. As clear as the shape of the step in the NYC style is its timing, its synchronization to the score at the start, at any powerful thrust it has, at its close. So the dancers dance unhurried, assured, and ample. They achieve a continuity of line and a steadiness of impetus that is unique, and can brilliantly increase the power of it and the exhilarating speed to the point where it glitters like cut glass. The rhythmic power of the company is its real style, and its novelty of fashion. Some people complain that such dancing is mechanical. It seems quite the opposite to me, like a voluntary, a purely human attentiveness.

It is an attention turned outside rather than inside. It is turned not to sentiment and charm, but to perspicuity and action. It suggests a reality that is not personal, that outlives the dancer and the public, like a kind of faith. The company is not trying for an emotional suggestion; it seems to be trying for that much harder thing, a simple statement.

Allegra Kent and Edward Villella in Bugaku (1963), photo by Bert Stern

Stravinsky's comments on
Movements (1963)
Those extraordinary bee-like girls (big thighs, nipped-in waists, pinheads) who seem to be bred according to Balanchine’s specifications.

Six members of the original cast of Agon (1957)

Arlene Croce, "Balanchine's Girls: The Making of Style," April 1971

[Following Agon] These girls didn’t seem to think; they acted. They didn’t walk; they swam and hovered in balances and dove with a perilous insistence; or they moved one muscle and froze the time they moved it in, as if time, by catching up, might force it to move by itself. Balanchine’s choreography in this style, after Agon (1957) and up through Movements (1963), was increasingly microscopic, cellular: tight phrases exploding like crystals in a confined space…The new ballets to the new music seemed to seize on qualities of architectural scale and anatomical development that made sense to New Yorkers. And they made sense in an era of affluence. These were richly concentrated, high-protein ballets, with more “grip” per measure than anything that had been seen up to that time.

For some people, the idea that poetry can pour from the bodies of hardworking American girls…is hard to believe, and occasionally, as we watch one of these girls moving with brilliant clarity, the thought “She doesn’t know what she’s doing” occurs to us. If she did, though, would she do it better? The question has never been answered. It isn’t mindlessness but the state beyond mind that moves us in perfect dancing. It’s what moves the dancer, too.

Monday, May 21, 2007

"Let him kiss me with the kisses from his mouth!"

Song of Songs 1:2

todo se transfigura y es sagrado,
es el centro del mundo cada cuarto,
es la primera noche, el primer día,
el mundo nace cuando dos se besan,

all is transformed, all is sacred,
every room is the center of the world,

it's still the first night, and the first day,

the world is born when two people kiss,

(Octavio Paz)
Song of Songs (Shir ha-Shirim) Rabbah II:ii.1
A. Another interpretation of the verse, "O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!"
B. Said Rabbi Yohanan, "An angel would carry forth the Word from before the Holy One, blessed be He, word by word, going about to every Israelite and saying to him, 'Do you accept upon yourself the authority of this Word? There are so and so many rules that pertain to it, so and so many penalties that pertain to it, so and so many decrees that pertain to it, and so are the religious duties, the lenient aspects, the stringent aspects, that apply to it. There also is a reward that accruse in connection with it.'"
C. "And the Israelite would say, 'Yes.'"
D. "And the other would go and say to him again, 'Do you accept the divinity of the Holy One, blessed be He.'"
E. "And the Israelite would say, 'Yes, yes.'"
F. "Then he would kiss him on his mouth."
G. "That is in line with this verse: 'To you it has been shown, that you might know' (Deut. 4:25) - that is, by an angel."
H. Rabbis say, "It was the Word itself that made the rounds of the Israelites one by one, saying to each one, 'Do you accept me upon yourself? There are so and so many rules that pertain to it, so and so many penalties that pertain to it, so and so many decrees that pertain to it, and so are the religious duties, the lenient aspects, the stringent aspects, that apply to it. There also is a reward that accruse in connection with it.'"
I. "And the Israelite would say, 'Yes.'"
J. "So he taught him the Torah."
K. "That is in line with this verse: 'Lest you forget the things your eyes saw (Deut. 4:9)' - how the Word spoke with you."

An affirmation, "Yes, yes," and the Word of God kisses the Israelite on the mouth.
B. "In the entire Torah there are six hundred thirteen commandments. The numerical value of the letters in the word 'Torah' is only six hundred eleven. These are the ones that Moses spoke to us."
C. "But 'I [am the Lord your God]' and 'You will not have [other gods besides Me]' (Exodus 20:1-2) we have heard not from the mouth of Moses but from the Mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He."
D. "That is in line with this verse: 'O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!'"
The two commandments of God, spoken from the mouth of God Himself, like kisses from His lips. It recalls this moment (Deut 4:10-12):
Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when He said to me, "Assemble the people before Me to hear My Words so that they may learn to revere Me as long as they live in the land and may teach Them to their children." You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness. Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice.
And these verses (Proverbs 2:6; Proverbs 24:26):
For the Lord gives wisdom,
and from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.
He kisses the lips [and wins the hearts of men] who give a right answer.
But what does it mean to be kissed by the Word of God? What does it mean to be kissed? In Genesis 29, according to the rabbis, through the Spirit Jacob sees all of Israel: its history as a people, its Temple practices, its life in the synagogue (the field, the the well, the three flocks of sheep, the rock: all have symbolic meanings.) When he sees Rachel, his great strength moves the rock and he kisses her (Genesis 29:11):
Then Jacob kissed Rachel and began to weep aloud.
Rashi wrote that he wept because he saw that Rachel would not be buried with him (Genesis 48:7). But Jacob's weeping should also be read as the weeping for his people, the nation that he has foreseen that will arise out of his love for her. In a way, his own tears will be transferred to her, as she will weep for children (Genesis 30:1) and from her burial place will weep for the descendants of her husband and remind God of his promises to her husband, as Rashi writes [commentary on Genesis 48:7]:
and I buried her there And I did not take her even to Bethlehem to bring her into the Land (i.e., into the inhabited region of the Holy Land- [Sifthei Chachamim]), and I know that you hold it against me; but you should know that I buried her there by divine command, so that she would be of assistance to her children. When Nebuzaradan exiles them (the Israelites), and they pass by there, Rachel will emerge from her grave and weep and beg mercy for them, as it is said: “A voice is heard on high, [lamentation, bitter weeping, Rachel is weeping for her children]” (Jeremiah 31:14). And the Holy One, blessed be He, answers her, “‘There is reward for your work,’ says the Lord,… ‘and the children shall return to their own border.’”
When two people kiss, mouth to mouth, as Rambam wrote, they become one flesh. "No true companionship is possible unless a man dies to himself" (Oesterreicher, The Israel of God). As Adam fell into a deep sleep, a sleep like death, and then celebrated Eve as his flesh, so to does the kiss between Jacob and Rachel bind their flesh, at the pivotal turning point of salvation history - out of Jacob's love for Rachel will arise the people Israel - and they mourn the future struggles of their children. The world is re-born with Jacob's kiss, and is re-born again in the kisses of the Word of God on the mouths of the people Israel at Sinai.

The Incarnate God, the Word Made Flesh, kisses us at baptism, where we first hear the commandments of God; in the Eucharist, when we share in the flesh of God. Through kisses, we become one flesh with Him. We say Yes, die to ourselves, and He kisses us with the kisses from His Mouth, joining our flesh to His. And so the saints swoon at these moments.

But there are other kisses, most notably the kiss at the moment of death:
Song of Songs Rabbah II.ii.20

E. Rabbis say, "The souls of these are going to be taken with a kiss."
21 A. Said Rabbi Azariah, "We find that the soul of Aaron was taken away only with a kiss: 'And Aaron the priest went up to Mount Hor at the mouth of the Lord and died there' " (Numbers 33:38).
B. "How do we know the same in the case of the soul of Moses? 'So Moses the servant of the Lord died there ... according to the mouth of the Lord'" (Deut. 34:5).
C. "How do we know the same in the case of the soul of Miriam? 'And Miriam died there' (Numbers 30:1). And just as 'there' in the former passages means, 'by the mouth of the Lord,' so here too the fact is the same."
D. "But it would have been inappropriate to say it explicity."
E. "How do we know the same in the case of the soul of all the righteous? 'O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!' "
F. "[The sense is,] 'If you have occupied yourself with teachings of the Torah, so that your lips are well-armed with them, then, at the end, everyone will kiss you on your mouth.'"
And we also pray to St. Joseph that the Lord will kiss us as we draw our dying breath, that we will be enveloped in His Body at that moment.

In future posts, I will write about Jacob, the most dynamic person in the Old Testament. Jacob gives up his identity and his name, joins his flesh to Rachel's, struggles with God and still stands, and opens up a future where the Lord can kiss His people and lift and unite His creation back to Himself.

amar es combatir, si dos se besan
el mundo cambia, encarnan los deseos,
el pensamiento encarna, brotan alas
en las espaldas del esclavo, el mundo
es real y tangible, el vino es vino,
el pan vuelve a saber, el agua es agua,
amar es combatir, es abrir puertas,
dejar de ser fantasma con un número
a perpetua cadena condenado
por un amo sin rostro;
el mundo cambia
si dos se miran y se reconocen,
amar es desnudarse do los nombres...

to love is to battle, if two kiss
the world changes, desires take flesh,

thoughts take flesh, wings sprout

on the backs of the slave, the world is real

and tangible, wine is wine, bread

regains its savor, water is water,

to love is to battle, to open doors,

to cease to be a ghost with a number

forever in chains, forever condemned

by a faceless master;

the world changes

if two look at each other and see,

to love is to undress our names...

Octavio Paz, Piedra de Sol (Sunstone), 1957. Translated by Eliot Weinberger.

Translations of Song of Songs Rabbah by Jacob Neusner.

Definitions and Terminology

I started reading Jewish commentaries on the Old Testament about 12 years ago and have read them off and on since then. Since I will be writing about them frequently in the coming posts, here are some words, definitions, and people to whom I may refer.

Avot: "Fathers," often used for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Also used for a tractate completed by 200 A.D. of the oral Torah, and for commentaries on that tractate.

Midrash, plural Midrashim: "investigation," refers to 1) the activity of exegesis of the Scriptures, 2) the interpretations that result from that exegesis, 3) the written documents that are a collection of those interpretations.

Mishnah: code of Jewish law, derived from the Pentateuch and passed down by oral tradition. The most famous version of the encoding of the oral Torah was completed around 200 A.D. by Patriarch Judah in Palestine, but there are other versions, notably Mishnah Torah, a commentary on the Mishnah written by Rambam/Maimonides.

Mitzvah, plural Mitzvot: commandment, commandments of the Law. There are 613 mitzvot recorded in Deuteronomy.

Rabbah, Midrash Rabbah: midrash texts on the five books of the Pentateuch and Ruth, Esther, Lamentations, Eccelesiastes, and Song of Songs. Compiled and collected from about the 4th century A.D. through the 9th.

Rambam: initials of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204, Spain, Morocco, Egypt), aka Maimonides, philosopher and commentator.

Ramban: initials of Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman (1194-1270, Spain), commentator.

Rashi: initials of Rabbi Shelomo Yitzhaki (1040-1105, France), the foremost medieval commentator on the Torah.

Talmud: code of Jewish law, philosophy, and ethics, collected between 200 and 500 A.D. in both Palestine and Babylon.

Tanakh: the Scriptures, comprising the Pentateuch (aka Torah), Prophets, and Writings.

Tanhuma: midrash written as homilies on the Pentateuch.

Torah: "instruction," the Law, the Word of God, also used to designate the Pentateuch. The oral Torah, as written down in the Mishnah, informs the written Torah, as contained in the Pentateuch. Both were handed down by God to Moses at Sinai, and the written Torah must be read in light of the oral Torah. The Torah existed "In the Beginning."
Genesis Rabbah I.i.2

A. In the beginning God created (Genesis 1:1) [As to the verse, Then I was beside Him like a little child, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world, and delighting in the sons of men] (Proverbs 8:30-31).
B. The word [for child also may be read to] mean "workman."
C. [In the cited verse] the Torah speaks, "I was the work-plan of the Holy One, blessed be He."
D. In the accepted practice of the world, when a mortal king builds a palace, he does not build it out of his own head, but he follows a work-plan.
E. And [the one who supplies] the work-plan does not build out of his own head, but he has designs and diagrams, so as to know how to situate the rooms and the doorways.
F. Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, consulted the Torah when He created the world.
G. So the Torah stated, By means of "the beginning" [that is to say, the Torah] did God create (Genesis 1:1).
H. For the word the beginning refers only to the Torah, as Scripture says, The Lord made me as the beginning of his way (Proverbs 8:22).
Proverbs 8 is speaking of Holy Wisdom, known as Hagia Sophia to Christians, whose person is the Incarnate Word. Read John 1:1-18 in light of the above. For myself, this is an example of the illumination that can be found when reading rabbinical commentaries on the Old Testament.

Warning: I am not a Jewish scholar, nor have I read enough works to think that I have an intuitive grasp on Jewish interpretation. I do, however, often find it insightful, while trying to play close attention to not distort the words of the rabbis to something unfaithful to the text, as I extend the writings to Christianity (in other words, I try to avoid proof-texting, and will read an entire rabbah, its sources, and other commentaries such as Rashi's, before developing my thoughts on a particular part). I will mostly be using Jacob Neusner's translations of Hebrew and Aramaic texts, while largely ignoring his controversial interpretations.

Please feel free to correct me, disagree, or provide additional texts in the comments.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Homeless, Dispelling the Myths

I attended Psychiatry Grand Rounds a few weeks ago for a talk by Dr. Carole North, a psychiatrist who is probably most famous as an epidemiologist. She has done several studies looking at the homeless population.
I won't go through every aspect of her talk, but will provide a few fun facts here:

Substance abuse accounts for most of the mental illness in the homeless population. It is also hypothesized that increased rates, since 1980, of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia may be related to the effects of continued use of crack cocaine.

The rate of non-substance abuse mental illness in the homeless population is not nearly as high ("50% of the homeless are schizophrenics!") as is commonly thought. The rate of schizophrenia is around 6% - schizophrenia affects around 1% of the general population. In 1990 in St. Louis, depression was highest, but even this was related to what Dr. North termed 'misery' - higher in men, and most likely associated with having to be out in the elements on days of harsh weather.

African-American men who are homeless are more likely to be younger, have jobs, and still make less income than Caucasian men who are homeless.

Women are most likely (around 20%) to be homeless because of family conflicts.

Of those who are substance abusers, most use cocaine (including crack), and they typically do not use money from government assistance or income from jobs to buy drugs. No, by a large percentage, they use the money they get from panhandling, and in some cases make up a disproportionate number of panhandlers. So know that when you give money to panhandlers, there's a good chance it will be used to buy drugs. As Dr. North stated at the end of her talk, she gives money to shelters and other services for the homeless, but not to panhandlers.

Only two people, out of nearly 900 in one of her studies, said that they chose to be homeless.

What is Biomedical Engineering?

Hmm, that has always been a tough question to answer because the field is so broad. Briefly, I'd describe it as the application of principles from mathematics and physics to physiology. Or it's taking concepts from mechanical and electrical engineering and applying it to the human body. I decided to major in biomedical engineering at a time when I wanted to go to medical school to be a psychiatrist, after realizing, the intellectual snob that I am, that pre-med and biochem and all those typical biological science majors were 'too easy.' I also subsequently decided that med school was too easy (and having taken med school courses, really, the classes are easy), so here I am.

During my time at Texas A&M (1997-2001), students in biomedical engineering had to take three courses in calculus and one in differential equations, two courses in physics, at least two electrical engineering courses, at least two mechanical engineering courses, and two courses in physiology designed for biomedical engineers, all before being admitted to "upper classes" (one also needed to have at least a 3.3 GPA) and taking the BMEN courses for our major.

To divide biomedical engineering into three headings: 1) modeling; 2) artificial devices; 3) signal processing/equipment, that were covered in various courses in my last two years as an undergrad. (Texas A&M's College of Engineering is very peculiar in that any engineering degree would take someone 5 years to complete if they never exceeded the 18 hour per semester limit - I got around this through alot of AP credits when entering and summer school, but it is quite odd to have one's scheduling book advise 21 hours of engineering classes per semester for one's final four semesters - one would have no time to do ANYTHING but homework.)

1) Modeling.

a. Blood flow in the body is pulsatile non-Newtonian flow, and blood can have variable viscosity. The blood vessels in your body experience time-dependent forces, including shear stress. Indeed, growth factors in the epithelial cells of your blood vessels are only released when the shear stress from the movement of blood through the vessel is applied, and when the stress is outside normal limits is when all sorts of nasty things begin to happen to your blood vessels (there is also shear rate, separate from shear stress, and the relation between the two depends on the viscosity, which itself is largely dependent on the clotting factor fibrinogen). Abnormalities in blood vessels (such as from artherosclerosis) then form secondary flow streamlines in the vessels, and biomedical engineers who work on these issues would calculate the patterns, forces, axial velocities, and shears and strains that exist. The results are applicable to creating artificial tissue that could duplicate the functions of blood vessels, but it's also just a good ol' extension of the idea that math is the language that underlies the universe.

b. Clearly enough, your nervous system is a huge electrical circuit. So are parts of your muscles, and even transfer in your kidneys can be modeled as en electrical circuit.

c. Fluid transfer in your body, it is assumed, operates the same way as fluid transfer in any other system. One can model the body and different systems as a number of different compartments that interact according to the permabilities/diffusive properties of each membrane. Your lungs work this way, your lymph system works this way, oxygen moving from the hemoglobin of your red blood cells to another cell operates this way.

For example, a wonderful derivation (I'm not going to type out the equation):
We ignore the particulate nature of blood as well as the mass transfer resistance of the red blood cell. The blood is assumed to be in plug flow with an average velocity represented by V. Also note that the hemoglobin is carried along by the red blood cell at the average blood velocity (V). R HBO represents the volumetric production rate of oxygenated hemoglobin. After dividing by 2πr∆r∆z, and taking the limit as ∆z→0, we obtain the following differential equation that describes the mass balance for ozygenated hemoglobin within the blood flowing through the capillary....(From Fournier's Basic Transport Phenomena in Biomedical Engineering)
I only included it because I once had to spend an entire semester doing such derivations, and it was alot of fun. Math is great! Even reading that book again made my heart flutter. If the above paragraph does not do the same for you, biomedical engineering and engineering in general are probably not for you.

2) Artificial devices. Tied to modeling, it does no good to build a prosthetic leg if one doesn't know the forces, stresses, and strains that the device may experience. After modeling the act of walking, in terms of forces, angles, rates, etc., one can design a device that can perform the task of walking, but at the same time does not alter the forces experienced by the other bones in the body. Those forces are important for proper bone growth, and using too strong of a material for a prosthetic weight-bearing device, or using a material that vibrates could affect the other bones of your body. We encounter similar problems with building artificial hearts and lungs: constructing these organs on nothing but mechanical engineering principles can be done easily enough, but one must also consider the particular additional features of these organs that contribute to proper function in the body.

Several of the students in the department had internships at NASA. Of course, it is of great interest to NASA to know the conditions under which the human body functions here on earth (specifically, with gravity), to devise ways to monitor the health of astronauts and counteract the effects of weightlessness, including perhaps devising special exercise equipment.

3) And finally, designing all that fancy equipment one sees in a hospital is now primarily the job of biomedical engineers - EEG and ECG recorders, heart rate monitors, ventilators, etc. A lot of signal processing is going on in those machines, and I hope to never again have to do Fourier and Laplace transforms by hand (that was a wicked professor). My design project for the second semester of my senior year was to write a program that would allow someone to input a night of EEG recordings, and could output the time spent in each stage of sleep with each major wave event noted. Such is the work of biomedical engineers who act as the interface between the performance of the body and processing that performance into language that can be understood by clinicians.

So that is the 'brief' introduction to biomedical engineering that I will provide here. It was a very fun major that incorporated lots of soldering in an advanced clinical engineering class, the shop class I never took (in constructing a plastic injection molding machine that could make skin buttons for insulin injection ports), and learning FDA device regulations. But mostly, it was doing lots and lots of math that I love, and applying it to the human body. Fluid dynamics, pressure, strain, YEAH! So don't consider it unless you enjoy calculus (triple integral-type calculus) and differential equations, and prefacing every solution with a list of assumptions, as all good engineers do.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Botticelli and the Virgin

Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro Filipepi) died on 17 May 1510. Most people are quite familiar with his non-religious (pagan!!!) works, so here are a few photos of his religious works, centering on the Madonna - it is May, after all. Above is the Madonna of the Magnificat (1480-3) tempera on panel.

The Annunication (c 1481), fresco

The Annunciation (c. 1485) , tempera and gold on panel

The Cestello Annunciation (c 1490), tempera on panel

The Annunciation
(c 1500), tempera on panel

Detail of the Christ Child in Madonna of the Pomegranate (1487),
tempera on panel

Update and Coming Attractions

After having to expend all my mental energy in another direction recently, I needed a brief break. Hopefully, I will now post a bit more regularly.

Coming up (NOT in this order):
Two science posts tomorrow: on biomedical engineering and epidemiology in the homeless population;
A review of Vincent Prince and The Pit in the Pendulum;
Quotes from Song of Songs Rabbah with additional commentary from me;
Arranged marriages and Bollywood movies;
Several reviews of the New York City Ballet, from performances here in Chicago back in October;
A review of Tharp's The Catherine Wheel
Three posts on Jacob/Israel: 1) his deception and stealing of the birthright; 2) the meaning of Jacob's ladder re. salvation history, with some quantum mechanics and string theory thrown in; 3) what his night of wrestling means especially regarding the future standing at Sinai;
Lincoln Kirstein's recovery of The Adoration of the Lamb;
A review of Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke;
and anything else that amuses me.

I also promised to write several posts on art and art criticism, but that will most likely have to wait until after I move at the beginning of summer. If anyone has ideas for science posts, specifically neuroscience or addiction questions, please let me know. Now have a good day!

P.S. The lines under "About Me" are from Professor Longhair's Big Chief, and if you've ever been to New Orleans during Mardi Gras season, you've heard it. Or watch some crazy N'Awlins folks here. And Professor Longhair playing Tipitina. 'Fess' also wrote the theme song Mardi Gras in New Orleans. "I'm going to New Orleans, I want to see the Mardi Gras...when I get to New Orleans, I wanna see the Zulu King."

Friday, May 11, 2007


The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity. The words of human love have been used by the saints to describe their vision of God, and so, I suppose, we might use the terms of prayer, meditation, contemplation to explain the intensity of the love we feel for a woman. We too surrender memory, intellect, intelligence and we too experience the deprivation, the noche oscura, and sometimes as a reward a kind of peace.

The End of the Affair (1951) by Graham Greene

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Suzanne Farrell and Tzigane

Suzanne Farrell left the New York City Ballet in 1969, and joined the Ballet of the Twentieth Century, Maurice Bejart's company based in Brussels. There can be no denying that her absence was mourned, not alone by Balanchine but by her partners, colleagues, and public. It is unprofitable to speculate whether such a departure should be interpreted as courage, treason, or a refusal to submit any longer to conditions that seemed at the moment confining, as well as a desire to explore alternatives in new capacities and possibilities. Such separation is sometimes necessary...Farrell returned in the winter [Winter 1975] before the Ravel Festival to dance with an extraordinary freshness and greatly increased technical brilliance. The years spent with Bejart, a talent and energy far more loose or instinctive than Balanchine's seemed not only to have heightened her physical proficiency, which had always been large, but to have increased her emotional projection, which had heretofore seemed smoldering.

The first new work Balanchine composed for her was Ravel's Tzigane. Essentially a "gypsy number," it commenced with a five-minute solo of surpassing physical demands and emotional intensity. The music is not exactly a Hungarian cousin to the composer's Bolero, but its nightclub overtones cannot be ignored...This music gave Balanchine, with his every-ready tact, the opportunity to invent a star turn for Farrell. It framed her extremeties of abrupt angularity and off-centered plastic posturing in all their fiery contrast to her natural "classic" grace and ease, her steely fragility and chill authority. In a perverse pattern of steps, Balanchine turned the familiar hungarisch idiom of opera-house Lisztian divertissements inside out. Its positioning was so odd, the sequences in their reversal so unexpected, that what might have been rejected as parody was transformed into assertive rehabilitation. Farrell did not impersonate a "gypsy;" her body played with theatricalized elements of wildness, caprice, longing, and arrant independence which could be read as intensely secret and personal. Was part of this an echo of her own wandering, of the fact she had at last returned to her tribe's encapment, while proclaiming her own increased identity and independence?

In any event, Farrell's reappearance marked a rise in the company's spirits, another chapter of growth...There is no doubt that a powerful personage throws off an aura, sometimes of positive, less often of negative, energy. Farrell's peculiar qualities, the impression these have made in a variety of ballets, have contributed something unique to our repertory. Like other powerful artists she invests her own mystery, an enclosed alchemy of power, vulnerability, the control and conscious manipulation of tension. When she dances it is not only a body in motion but an apparatus analyzed and directed by operating intelligence. It is as if some sort of radium slumbers but is always present and ready in her corporal central; when ignited, it glows to white heat. It enables her to transcend occasions, patterns, appearances. It commands recognition but is not always easy to read. Balanchine has been able to provide a habitation in which this core is fired, or can activate itself.

Thirty Years: Lincoln Kirstein's the New York City Ballet (1978)

In the early days of my career, I was always this virginal girl in white. I liked that, but the tom-boy in me always wanted to be a little contrary. I used to wish that I could play the black swan instead of the white swan, or the evil girl instead of the good girl. So when I came back to the company, this was the first thing Mr. Balanchine did for me. I was curious to know how he would see me. Tzigane means "gypsy", it's Hungarian.

I thought he'd give me something very technical, but the first thing he had me do is sort of mosey on stage in this sort of indifferent quality. I thought this was very strange. "I'm not sure if I want to look like this. What are people going to think? They expect me to dance." And then I said, "No, he's always presented you very well, and you believe in him. Let's try something that hasn't been done before." So we started working on this ballet.

It was a lot of fun to be a gypsy. By then Mr. Balanchine and I had become comfortable with each other, and frequently he would say, "Oh, you know what I want. You fill in." That was very nice of him, but also a big responsibility. Because it had to look like what he might do, be in the same flavor, and the same character as what he might do, and wonderful that he trusted me enough to say, "Oh, Suzie, you do it." It was quite thrilling, and gave me a lot of freedom in a world that has a lot of discipline. At one part in the choreography, he said, "Oh just stand here and do something, and then start turning."

As the ballet starts out, I'm dancing to a solo violin. There is not even a conductor. I don't even see the violinist. He's down in the pit, and there is just a single spotlight on my face. The rest of the stage is dark, so it is very lonely. In fact, it is probably the loneliest I've ever been. Even lonelier than walking down the streets of New York by yourself. To be in front of people, you have to look interesting, have to go from one side of the stage to the other, portray something, but you don't even have the sound of an orchestra to fill the void. Just this one lonely violin and myself. I start to dance. And it stays this way for about five minutes. It was a long solo.

Suzanne Farrell Interview, 1990, Academy of Achievement

I learned a lot from being with Béjart, and George saw that. After all, George taught me the thrill of acquiring information and seeing how that could work in dance forms. To not have learned anything, to have wasted that time, would have been ungrateful, un-Balanchinian and dishonest of me. And if I had learned nothing with Béjart, George and I could never have been able to go on to what we did. He would have been so far ahead of me, I never would have caught up.

When Mr. B started working on a ballet for me, there would be no one in the room except Gordon Boelzner at the piano, George and myself. He would show me a little something and I would try to imitate or shape or decode what he indicated—he would always indicate, not command, and I would try. Choreography is not born as choreography; it grows out of a suggestion or movement indication and then it gets shaped into choreography. Rarely would he say, "That's not what I wanted." He would put the ball in my court and allow me to run with it, but he trusted me and didn't say, "That's not how I would have run with it, if I were you." Sometimes he would have a mistake become part of the choreography. Not that every mistake that happens can be put to music and become beautiful, but he made us see life differently.

Someone once remarked, "Oh, you're a dancer, you're up onstage, you don't like to face reality," and that hit such a nerve because I feel that life is more real onstage. I mourn artifice. I have this little theory that the arts were invented because life didn't measure up to what it was supposed to be. If life were wonderful, we would all dance, we would all sing, we would all be poets, we would all paint. As it is, the arts are the hospitals for our souls, so they need to be of the best integrity. I have a theory that George devoted himself to ballet because it served as his visa out of Russia during those horrific times. Ballet gave him his existence and his salvation outside Russia and nurtured his genius, and that's why he never got bored and why he became so prolific. You can't be flippant about genius. The mind sets you on a path to be the best. You must work at making your life work for you; you are responsible to posterity.

Good theater should always send people away feeling changed.

I'm not obsessed with ballet; I'm passionate about ballet. Some people don't want to have passion because it's too revealing, or they feel that if they're passionate about something or someone, they've lost control, or it will control them. I think passion is such a wonderful word, and such a wonderful feeling. To feel so alive! When they say that George was obsessed with me, it has such a negative connotation. But was he obsessed or passionate? I believe if he had been truly obsessed, the ballets we did would have been different—they would have been darker.

Suzanne Farrell, interview with Emily Fragos, Bomb Magazine