Review: You’ll Laugh, You’ll Cry, You’ll Learn Absolutely Nothing: Taylor Mac and His History of Popular Music
Taylor Mac is not a teacher. If you’re interested in learning history—take a class. Read a book. Get sucked deep into a Wikipedia black hole and hang out for a while.
On Saturday, February 6th, actor, performance artist, and drag queen, Taylor Mac gave a performance of his A 24-Decade History of Popular Music that made me laugh, made me cry, and made me extremely uncomfortable. The only thing it didn’t do was teach me any history. Which, considering just how much it attempted to do—and successfully managed—was not such a big surprise.
Hosted by the University Musical Society, the show was part stand-up routine, part concert, part drag-show, and part performance art. I have no words for this sort of performance amalgamation, and so I was perfectly willing to accept Taylor Mac’s own description of the event as a “radical fairy realness ritual.”
From the start, it was clear that the event would be unusual. Our host, Taylor Mac, came on stage in a hot pink skirt suit spray painted with an American flag on the back, a sash made of soup cans, and a jaunty little hat. Behind him on stage sat a band of seven musicians—a pianist, a bassist, a drummer, a guitarist, a guy who seemed to be playing a different instrument every time I looked at him (saxophone, trumpet, flute, possibly the flugelhorn), and finally, two exceptionally powerful back-up singers.
Mac began the show by explaining the bare bones of his musical project—each hour of the three-hour performance would be dedicated to a different ten-year period: 1956-1966, 1966-1976, and 1976-1986. Each decade came complete with its own costume, eight or nine songs from the time, and a central historic theme. This performance was just a fraction of a much larger endeavor Mac has planned for a later date, a 24-hour performance with an hour for every decade from America’s inception in 1776 all the way up to the glorious pop-fest that is the year 2016. Mac explained the idea that he would be on stage for a full 24 hours, singing and entertaining non-stop without food, bathroom, or sleep breaks, with the casual air of someone who is either very confident or incredibly irresponsible. Possibly both.
The first decade of our less-ambitious 3-hour show, ’56-’66, focused on aspects of the Civil Rights movement, or, as Mac puts it, “Songs Popular in the Bayard Rustin Planning Room.”
It kicked off with a slow and sultry rendition of Jay Hawkins’s “I Put A Spell On You.” By itself this would have been excellent entertainment—Mac’s stellar flair for theatrics is matched by his smooth, powerful voice. But just in case the audience had started to settle into the comfortable idea that they were at some tedious concert-meets-comedy-meets-drag-show, Mac introduced a new and terrifying element: audience participation.
After a very brief introduction of the racially tense atmosphere pervading the late ‘50s, Mac asked all of the straight, white people in the audience to stand up and slow-motion run to the sides of the room, simulating white flight.
“I understand that there won’t be a lot of room for you over there,” Mac said to the amazingly willing audience as they wiggled and stepped over each other to get to the sides of the room, “But I really want you to get the feel of the suburbs. I want you to be so close together that there’s a straight, white person on top of you even when you really don’t want a straight, white person on top of you.”
By the end of the song, I wasn’t sure if I was laughing, crying, or hyperventilating. If you’ve never seen a hundred people of all ages, including senior citizens, slow-motion run to the sides of a room and pack in like sardines, I highly recommend it.
With all of the elements fully introduced, the show really got under way. The ‘56-‘66 hour contained a bit of background on race issues and centered its attention on the March on Washington, though unfortunately most of the story that Mac told focused on the imagery of getting on a bus to go to the March. It involved an awful lot of audience playacting of getting to the bus/being on a bus/singing on a bus, without much actual information on the March itself.
Despite the fact that Mac didn’t tell much of a story, the music certainly did. The songs were well-chosen, a combination of Civil Rights anthems like The Staple Singers’ “Freedom Highway” and Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and chart-toppers like The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin' On” and Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” The songs that came with their own clear message, such as the impossible-to-misinterpret “Mississippi Goddam” were as powerful as you might expect. But even the popular hits, thrown in front of the backdrop of the 1950s and forced into context gave songs like Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” deeper meaning and even greater muscle.
I’ll admit it—the ‘56-‘66 decade was definitely my jam. But the following decades carried the same sort of structure and a lot of the same impressive weight.
Curtis Mayfield’s "Move On Up" transitioned us into the 1966-1976 decade, as Mac stripped down to a tiny yellow Speedo on stage, then disappeared behind the curtain and remerged in an outfit made up of so many different things that I honestly couldn’t tell if it was a dress, a jumpsuit, or if he’d tripped and fallen into a scrap box on his way back to center stage. The whole ensemble was tied together by a rainbow cape made of clear plastic tubes and a glittery silver headdress. This era had its eye trained on the beginnings of the gay liberation movement and the Stonewall riots of 1969. Songs included Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” Patti Smith's "Birdland," and The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter."
The 1976-1986 decade focused on the idea of the '70s and '80s club scene and their infamous "back rooms." This aspect of history seemed like an odd choice until I realized that these "back rooms " were a prevalent part of Mac's own experience as he came up in the club scene. Dressed in a bright silver jumpsuit with a ruffled purple shawl and a shiny purple mohawk, Mac told his most personal (and most graphic) stories during this era in between Laura Branigan's "Gloria," David Bowie's "Heroes," and Prince's "Purple Rain."
The gaps between each song were filled with comic stories, musings, and, of course, the obligatory ridiculous activities that come with performance art. During the 1956-1966 portion of the show, audience members were asked to dance, march, engage in some pretty exaggerated crying, and, finally, to email Rick Snyder.
Sometime around the 1970s, we were handed ping-pong balls to throw at Mac as he ran through the aisles in his rainbow-tube cape and yellow Speedo. As we moved into the late '70s part of the show, Mac pulled an older gentleman up on stage and sang him a love ballad, while the pianist groped the man’s leg.
In the '80s, he had an entire row of the upper balcony come downstairs, go behind the curtain onstage, and emerge in ridiculous wigs, boas, and glasses and dance through the aisles. Each activity was a bit more unbelievable than the last, finally culminating in a college-aged boy standing patiently still while Taylor Mac kissed him and rubbed glitter lipstick all over his face. Permission was not asked, just a perfunctory, “You’re over 18, right?”
It was wonderfully weird, and, while the entire thing carried the feel of a glittery game of Russian roulette as we waited to see who would be Mac’s next participation victim, it also succeeded in doing exactly what Mac had told us it would—creating a shared experience for the audience. The audience was incredibly good-natured, dancing when asked, moving when asked, and making sure to applaud loudly and sincerely for anyone who was a good enough sport to obey instructions like, “go stand on stage, but don’t smile and don’t dance” or “lay down on the floor and let these five strangers carry you out of the room.”
From all this highly entertaining madness, I only came away with one critique. As a person who would have loved all the elements of this show even if they were completely separate and not one giant, Katamari Damacy-style ball-of-everything, I was absolutely enchanted by this performance, so much so that I didn’t even resent Mac for keeping me up past my 8 pm bedtime. Give me comedy, music, or drag any time of day and I’m game. But I was also interested in the promise of some really good history-nerd satisfaction, and so I was a bit let down by the minimal emphasis on the actual history.
While Mac did occasionally address the lack of historical fact—“If you want to know more about the March [on Washington…Google it. What about this outfit says anything more than Wikipedia?”—I felt like it was such a shame to dismiss the history so casually because of how much it could have brought to the show. Even the barest skeleton of historical facts would have ramped up the storytelling element and could have made this fun and flighty show a little bit stronger and a lot more engrossing, particularly in the gaps between musical numbers.
But considering how much it did do right, I really can’t fault it for the one thing it didn’t completely ace. The show managed to be a masterful musical performance, an entertaining drag show, and a surprisingly fun communal audience experience, so really, who cares if he didn't include a history lesson? It was still a performance I’m not likely to forget. At least, not in this decade.
Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and, despite this positive experience, still thinks audience participation is the worst.
Preview: Clybourne Park, U-M Department of Theatre & Drama
We all have regrets in life. Roads not taken….opportunities missed.
One of my major theatrical regrets of the last decade is that, in February 2010, I had the opportunity to see a new Off-Broadway play that had just opened to outstanding reviews, but chose instead to see an alternate show. I cannot remember why I chose the play I attended, or even the title; however the one I passed up won the Tony Award for Best Play (when it transferred to a successful Broadway run), the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the Lawrence Olivier Award for Best New Play for its London production.
The New Yorker called it “superb, elegantly written and hilarious. A master class in comic writing.” The New York Post raved that it was “Absolutely sensational! …Dazzlingly written.” The New York Daily News gave it “Four stars” calling it “A superb world premiere!”
The play was, of course, Clybourne Park, the masterful and insightful examination by Bruce Norris of racism in America set in the house soon to be inhabited by the Younger family (of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin In the Sun). With a plot spanning half a century (Act I is set in the 1950’s; Act II is 50 years later), the play brims with humor, insight, and pathos.
Local audiences can now experience this critically-acclaimed work, a classic in its own right. Award-winning Director John Neville-Andrews leads talented U-M students in a new Department of Theatre & Drama production of Clybourne Park that promises to be an outstanding night of theater.
Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.
Performances run from Thursday, February 18 to Sunday, February 21 at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N University Ave, Ann Arbor. Following the Friday performance there will be a post-performance discussion moderated by Neville-Andrews with members of the cast and artistic staff. For tickets, visit music.umich.edu or call the Michigan League at (734) 764-2538.
Review: Jive Colossus At The Club Above
Ann Arbor-based Jive Colossus, an eclectic ten piece jazz-funk ensemble, played at The Club Above on Saturday, February 6. Unable to cram themselves all onto the small stage, keyboardist Mike Ager was relegated to the floor nearby, but no one seemed to mind, least of all the enthused crowd.
The band members are known to pick up various instruments over the course of a performance, including triangle, tambourine and maracas, but, along with the keys, Jive Colossus mainly features its talents on two guitars (played by Rich Wright and Ed Green), a trumpet (Ross Huff), a baritone sax (David Swain), a trombone (Asim Khan), a bass (Tony Ketz), and two sets of drums, played by Jim Predhomme and Keith Poncher, as well vocalist Shelley Catalan. The band members range in age, and the genuine enjoyment they get out of hearing each other - and themselves - play makes them a very fun band to watch.
The crowd for JC was older, but the energy was high until closing time. The band played mostly original songs, but did a few covers, including a cover of “Ride or Die” by The Budos Band, which was met with enthusiasm. Like any good ensemble band, Jive Colossus gave their different sections time to shine, allowing the horns, drums, and keys to all solo at different points in the songs, which was great fun.
The music of Jive Colossus is, unsurprisingly, great for dancing. Fast-paced funk beats laced with a little bit of a Caribbean feel kept the dance floor hoppin’ all night at The Club Above, the recently remodeled second floor of Heidelberg.
The vibe inside The Club Above is a little trippy, with space scenes painted on the walls and flat screen TVs showing slowly moving swirls of color, but the dance floor is big, and there’s a good amount of seating, both at hightop tables and on couches and lounges. The venue is definitely worth checking out, especially if Jive Colossus happens to be on the stage.
Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Review: Direct from Sundance - The Lobster
Before a special, packed, “Direct from Sundance” screening of The Lobster got underway on Thursday, February 3, at the Michigan Theater, Executive Director/CEO Russ Collins appeared on stage with Sundance Film Festival programmer Hussain Currimbhoy.
By way of introducing The Lobster, which won the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Currimbhoy said, “This one has a certain sense of humor and sense of irony, and it addresses structures that control us and stop us from being ourselves. … (The film’s) absurd, but we figured this was the town that brought us Madonna and Iggy Pop, so you can handle absurd, right?”
Filmed in Ireland, and directed by Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster tells the story of a newly dumped husband (Colin Farrell, sporting glasses, a moustache, and extra weight) who must now go to a hotel to try and find another partner. He has 45 days to do so, or he will be turned into an animal of his choosing. (His brother, now a dog, accompanies him.) At this hotel, masturbation is forbidden; hotel staffers, as part of their duties, bring guests to arousal without orgasm; and potential partners must share a trait. Consequently, one widower hotel guest with a limp (Ben Whishaw) regularly bangs his face against things to make his nose bleed, in order to match with a nosebleed-prone woman; and Farrell’s character pretends to be callous to match with the hotel’s longest-surviving guest, who has earned her extended stay by successfully shooting down the escaped, off-the-grid “Loners” that live as a tribe in the wilderness.
When Farrell’s ruse is revealed, he flees and joins the Loners, who allow masturbation but forbid romantic coupling of any kind, punishable by mutilation. Yet it’s in this setting, of course, that Farrell finds love with another short-sighted person, played by Rachel Weisz. The two develop a secret language of gestures, but when the loners’ sadistic leader (played by Lea Seydoux) figures out what’s happening, she metes out a cruel bit of justice, leaving Farrell with an excruciatingly painful choice.
In addition to Farrell and Weisz, John C. Reilly plays a hotel guest who’s struggling mightily with the system’s strictures; but he, like everyone else in this black comedy, is stoic above all else, moving grimly, with resignation, through each day. Plus, as Currimbhoy noted after the film, Lanthimos was drawn to shoot the film in Ireland not only because of the country’s aggressive film incentives, but also because of the natural landscape’s “gray light” quality, which gives the exterior shots in The Lobster a washed-out look.
“He needed a certain kind of setting or atmosphere that only Ireland has,” said Currimbhoy.
The film’s first half, set at the hotel, achieves fresh, affecting balance between horror and humor – to name one example, after couples form, if they fight often, they’re assigned a child to parent (which I found hysterical) – and makes you question the deep-seated, constant social pressures upon us to pair off, as well as the myriad ways society tends to condescend to those who live outside that model.
And while Farrell’s character’s defection to the Loners provides a kind of satisfying symmetry – the opposite model has significant flaws, too, and of course he finds love not in the place that’s rigidly designed for it, but in the space where it’s forbidden – the latter part of the film drags and lacks the weird spark present in the hotel scenes. The ambiguous final scene, though, is likely to spur heated discussions, as well as some frustrated anger.
The Lobster was part of the Sundance Film Festival’s Spotlight Series, which consists of “films from other festivals that the programmers love,” said Currimbhoy. “Movies that won’t get picked up for distribution, probably, but that have a certain quality, something fresh.”
Some of the biggest news coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, of course, involved the controversial drama, Birth of a Nation, which focuses on African American preacher Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion aimed at freeing slaves in Virginia, and the violent retaliation by whites that followed.
During The Lobster’s post-screening discussion, Collins confirmed that Cinetopia – the annual international southeast Michigan film festival that was born at the Michigan Theater – was in talks to bring Birth of a Nation to the Mitten State (hopefully) when the festival happens June 3-12, 2016.
The Michigan Theater’s relationship with Sundance began in 2010, when Sundance rolled out a program wherein 8 films that had just had their world premieres at Sundance in Park City, Utah, were shipped out to a handful of art house theaters across the country for a one-night screening, and one or two people involved with the film – a director, a star, a producer – would be on-hand to answer questions. (The first Sundance movie shown at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater through this program was the comedy Cyrus, and one of the stars, Jonah Hill, plus filmmaker brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, appeared.)
More recently, Sundance’s close ties to the Michigan Theater (and Collins, who helms the annual, Sundance-affiliated Art House Convergence conference in Park City) have resulted in Ann Arbor becoming the sole site for this kind of special screening.
And Currimbhoy’s inaugural visit seems only to have cemented the good relations between Ann Arbor and Park City.
“I am loving this place, by the way,” Currimbhoy said. “It has really surprised me. … You are lucky to live in a place with a theater like this.”
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, but also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
Review: Sondheim on Sondheim Soars at Encore
Imagine you've been invited to a sophisticated party at the Manhattan apartment of the dean of American musical theater, Stephen Sondheim. In the course of the evening, guests will perform from Sondheim's rich vault of musical theater pieces that brought a new irony, maturity and depth to Broadway. And Sondheim, himself, will explain his craft, his artistic growth and his sometimes troubled life.
And it's all happening magically on Broad Street in Dexter at The Encore Theatre.
This is the set-up for Sondheim on Sondheim, a musical revue conceived by Sondheim's frequent collaborator James Lapine. A wide-range of beautiful music from the Sondheim catalog is presented by live performers while on a large screen videos show Sondheim in interviews and documentaries covering his career from his early success as a lyricist for Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne through his career as the most successful Broadway composer of recent history. Sondheim is an engaging, witty and insightful host, willing to share the "secrets" of his trade, learned at an early age from another master, Oscar Hammerstein II. He is also quietly reflective about a lingering sadness in his life.
Four men and three women arrive on stage dressed for a cocktail party. A man sits at a grand piano going through the finger movements of a piano lesson and we're off for an evening of laughs, tears and much in between, because this is a cast that understands Sondheim.
Director Daniel Cooney was a little nervous on Feb. 5 because a cast member was unable to perform, so he was a singer short. Not to worry, with the help of a few index cards, the cast members rose to the occasion and filled in the gaps. Talk about troupers!
Cast members Peter Crist, Leah Fox, Daniel A. Helmer, Kelsey Pohl, Thalia V. Schramm, Jim Walke and Adam Woolsey make a fine ensemble around music director Tyler Driskill's skilled piano accompaniment. But they also shine on their special moments, the kind of theatrical moments that are almost exclusive to Sondheim's repertoire.
Kelsey Pohl brings sass and brass to "Now You Know" and sexual energy to "Ah, But Underneath." She has a commanding voice and energy.
Jim Walke is a big guy who gets to handle the more dangerous songs. As the mad baker from Sweeney Todd, he roars through "Epiphany" and as a potential killer from Assassins he ruminates sadly and madly on the power of a gun in "The Gun Song."
Daniel A. Helmer gets the spotlight as a feuding songwriter on "Franklin Shepard, Inc." and is fierce and funny, as he is in several ensemble pieces. He takes a quieter turn on Sondheim's best reflection on art itself in "Finishing the Hat."
Adam Woolsey offers a slow, quiet reading of Sondheim's concluding statement in Company, "Being Alive." Woolsey's version is powerfully sad with just a hint of positive self discovery. Peter Crist gets the spotlight on "Is This What You Call Love," which he sings with the right note of wounded confusion.
Thalia V. Schramm and Leah Fox perform a counter rendering of sad love-maybe songs "Losing My Mind" and "Not a Day Goes By" with all the wistful weight intended.
Schramm is also excellent on two of Sondheim's most complicated songs. On "In Buddy's Eyes," her near tears performance underlines softly the song's bitter regrets. And on Sondheim's most famous song "Send in the Clowns," Schramm delivers all the poignancy of love lost that has made the song so beloved.
Cooney's staging and Driskill's musical direction make the complex blending of video and live performance flow effortlessly. The ensemble pieces are crisp and natural. The solos are well defined. And all of it keys nicely off the Sondheim videos, which are a series of revelations.
Set designer Sarah Tanner has created an eye-popping rendering on a Manhattan apartment, meticulously decorated with show biz photos, old posters and playbills, a display of game boards and bric-a-brac. The room is appropriately furnished and looks out on a city skyline. Andy Galicki handles the complex lighting design and the precise video presentation.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
Sondheim on Sondheim continues Thursdays through Sundays through Feb. 21 at the Encore Theatre in Dexter. For tickets, call the Encore Theatre box office at (734)268-6200 or visit the website at www.theencoretheatre.org/tickets/
Review: Momentum - Great Modern Dance with all the Weirdness You Might Expect
The University of Michigan Department of Dance trains young people to be excellent modern dancers and then frequently asks them to perform bafflingly academic pieces. Their most recent performance, Momentum, running at the Power Center from now until February 7th, showcased this duality. The first three pieces were all choreographed by Department of Dance faculty, and the finale by guest choreographer Camille A. Brown.
Momentum opened with a piece by local dance legend Peter Sparling. I generally like Sparling’s work, but recently he has become enamored of video projections which tend to overwhelm his choreography. His work for Momentum, “Big Weather,” featured not one but two video screens between which the dancers moved. The videos contained a strange mix of images, including stars, corpses, sandbags, and at one point, a stuffed elephant falling slowly from a table. The dancers wore heavy rubber boots that they took off and on throughout the piece, which was set to pounding and not particularly rhythmic percussion music. If I’m not describing much of the dancing, it’s because I was too distracted by the trappings of the piece to focus on the actual movement. At his best, Sparling, a former principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, can choreograph wonderfully thoughtful modern dance pieces. However, “Big Weather” seemed more the work of an artist who has been insulated within academia for a little too long.
I was worried about the issues that would plague the second piece, “Cheating, Lying, Stealing,” choreographed by Bill DeYoung, because the program notes described it as about “the relentless dog-eat-dog momentum of office dynamics.” But after a strange start featuring a fake tennis match (which I quickly forgot), “Cheating, Lying, Stealing” became a fun and fast piece that worked beautifully with the music choice. The lead dancer, dressed in silver lamé, danced with such a stunning and precise ferocity that I could easily understand why all of the others dancers were following her lead by the end.
Amy Chavasse’s piece “Goodbye to Wayward Flesh” showcased some of the younger and less experienced dancers and brought a great sense of play to Momentum. I had a hard time focusing on the beginning because I was preoccupied by a dummy that was covered in duct tape and tied up to a movable piece of shattered plexiglass at the back of the stage. I half-expected the dummy to turn out to be a real dancer who might pop out at any moment, so I braced myself for the surprise. I did not have this same fear with the life-size stuffed alpaca watching static on TV in the front of the stage, although I found it equally confusing. “Goodbye to Wayward Flesh” featured some nice partnering and the dancers, dressed as what I can only describe as futuristic merpeople, seemed to be truly enjoying themselves.
The last piece of the night was choreographed by Camille A. Brown, who will be bringing her new work Black Girl–Linguistic Play to the Power Center on February 13th. Brown’s piece, “City of Rain,” was far and away the best of the night. It would be worth going to see Momentum for this work alone, which allowed the Department of Dance to show off their most amazing dancers. Of particular note is Beynji Marsh, a junior from Chicago who could easily be mistaken for a professional dancer. Marsh’s precise control over his body is matched by the emotion and nuance he brought to the choreography. He is a true and notable talent and I look forward to seeing his dance career flourish. All of the dancers in “City of Rain” were excellent, and it was a moving and lovely end to the evening.
Stuffed alpacas and rubber boots aside, Momentum is worth your time. The dancers are talented, though their abilities were sometimes lost amid the choices of some of the more academic choreographers. Notably missing from Momentum was a piece from faculty member Robin Wilson, who is one of the most accessible and excellent choreographers in the Department of Dance. Wilson acted as Rehearsal Director for “City of Rain,” but it would have been great to have gotten an original work from her as well. I could have done with fewer video screens and unused but overbearing set pieces. My date for the evening, my father, suggested that the faculty be required to choreograph to only Katy Perry music for a year, just for the challenge. Although I’m more of a Taylor Swift fan myself, I can’t help but agree with the sentiment. In the meantime, get a ticket to Momentum and enjoy it for–and despite–all its weirdness.
Evelyn Hollenshead is a Youth Librarian at AADL and former dancer.
Momentum continues its run at the Power Center through this weekend, with performances Friday and Saturday, February 5 and 6 at 8 pm, and Sunday, February 7 at 2 pm. Tickets range from $22-$28, and students with ID can attend for $12.
Review: New Technologies and Victorian Society
It perhaps isn’t too ironic that Charles Dickens’ opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities can also serve as a vivid motif for the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s New Technologies and Victorian Society: Early British Photographs from the UMMA Collection.
As Dickens writes in his 1859 novel contrasting two opposed worldviews of late 18th century Industrial-era European culture: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."
As he himself notes, Dickens might as well have been writing of his own time. And as illustrated in UMMA Curator Emerita Carole McNamara’s selection of some of this museum’s most significant photographic holdings, mid-19th century England would have indeed been among the best and worst of times. As the exhibit shows us by example (and McNamara’s choices are certainly peerless), England was undergoing rapid transitions in both technology and society that would affect and influence the world.
The Victorian era—measured by the 63 year reign of Queen Victoria of the House of Hanover; dated 1837 (on her assumption of the British throne) to precisely the turn of the 20th century—was a paradoxical period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities, and highly moralistic national self-confidence often described as Pax Britannica because of the progressive rise of British prosperity fostered by the nation’s worldwide empire.
But it was also a time of sometimes brutal industrial consolidation coupled with an unprecedented population growth as millions of British subjects continued their equally unprecedented migration around the country as well as around the world—and particularly from the British countryside to the country’s urban centers. London especially swelled from one and a half million inhabitants at the beginning of the Victorian era to more than triple that number by the end of the century.
There to capture this extraordinary social, political, economic, and cultural transition was a technological marvel that would reshape the history of art as well as how we see the world. For, prior to the innovation of the photographic camera in the early decades of the 19th century, draughtsmanship and painting had always vacillated between impulses of realism and fancy. And although various forms of pre-camera photographic equipment go as far back as ancient China and ancient Greece, the notion of photography as a practical technology was spurred in the early-19th century through the development of chemical photographic processes.
As McNamara says in her introduction to New Technologies of this era:
“The first half-century of British photography charts the journey of a new medium with distinct expressive and artistic potentials. Although photography served as an aid to science and exploration, it captured aspects of British society in ways that are poetic and artistic. Early photographers exploited existing pictorial conventions and their subject matter is often derived from painting traditions—portraits of family members and friends, still-lifes of household objects, and landscapes.”
In short, spreading quickly around the world, mid-19th century photography emancipated art from its dependence on subjective creativity by giving photographers the ability to capture images drawn directly from life. And these pioneers were quick to explore the new technology with increasing alacrity.
Some of the earliest images on display—three 1844 salted paper prints from calotype negatives: “Part of Queen’s College, Oxford”, “Loch Katrine” (from the “Sun Pictures of Scotland”), and “Bust of Patroclus” (plate five from “The Pencil of Nature”)—reflect the range of British photography at this seminal period as crafted in what can only be described as an inspired creativity by William Henry Fox Talbot.
Fox, one of England’s foremost photographic technologists of the time, invented a photographic procedure through his silver salt and nitrate process that made it possible to produce as many positive prints as anyone would wish of any image. And Fox’s forays into what is now called contact printing fostered the development of landscape photography and artful photojournalism with a zestful fidelity that’s still breathtaking today.
Among the socially-oriented documentary works on display are David Octavious Hill’s circa 1840s carbon print “St. Andrews, Baiting the Lines” drawn from his “A Series of Calotype Views of St. Andrews” and John Thomson’s equally penetrating 1876-77 Woodbury type “The Crawlers” drawn from his “Street Life in London” series; both works where the emphasis is to give viewers a sense of what life would have been like for the 19th century British working class.
This is surely among the worst of times as the photographs clearly show us a society caught on the moorings of seriously pressed workers (in Hill’s photo) and a thoroughly economically depressed mother with child on her lap (in Thomson’s photo) even as the country was itself among the more enlightened polities in the world at that time.
Likewise, as we see in New Technologies, portraiture would be slow, but steady in evolving. Largely because of the length of time necessary to develop negative plates through bulky equipment, the posture of early portraiture sitters is far more formal than what we’re used to seeing. As such, John Adamson and Robert Adamson’s circa 1841 salted paper print from calotype negative “Sir David Brewster (1781-1868)” is a decidedly straight-forward no nonsense visage.
Yet even as a palpable steely discomfort renders Brewster’s portrait rather starched, this famed Scottish scientist, mathematician, and editor of the influential 18-volume Edinburgh Encyclopedia (as well, coincidently, inventor of the first three-dimensional lenticular stereoscope camera) poses patiently for the brother Adamsons. Focusing on the seated Brewster’s white hair as well as left-hand crossed on his waist; “Sir David Brewster (1781-1868)” crafts a decorous ceremonial portraiture that’s common to this day.
Technology itself is best represented by Scotsman James Stewart’s 1878 albumen print, “No. 247.” This seemingly simple profile of a steam locomotive is actually handsomely pregnant in both its photographic and technical articulation. Certainly one of the most important inventions prior to the Victorian era, and also a technology that was relentlessly worked upon through this period, the external combustion engine was of as much fascination to the Victorians as rockets still are to us in our time.
Stewart’s composition is flawless. The steam locomotive is depicted squarely in the center of the photograph with remarkable attention paid to its sleek design. A concise masterwork, Stewart pays attention to the locomotive from its striking forward smoke box to its perched cab with the photo being crafted sufficiently to scale as to accent its curvilinear brake shoes in contrast to its horizontal air brake pump. “No. 247” is a fastidious rendering of this marvel of 19th century machinery.
But perhaps the most stunning composition in New Technologies is Julia Margret Cameron’s circa 1865 “The Kiss of Peace” albumen print. Cameron, a deeply religious woman who only began photography at middle age, most often photographed her family. Yet in this inspired composition of friend and domestic depicting the Christian tradition of “the kiss of peace” practiced as a gesture of friendly acceptance, Cameron’s “The Kiss of Peace” is also a keenly observed proto-feminist mediation on the status of women in Victorian society.
The photograph’s mood is reminiscent of the distinctive British Pre-Raphaelite art that had a uniquely influential popularity only shortly before the advent of photography. As such, the models’ wind-blown hair, simple cloth drape, and their languid diagonal gaze mirror an inward melancholy that in turn suggests that period’s conception of the supposed innocence of femininity—but Cameron clearly knows better. As knowingly heartfelt as it is aesthetically accomplished, her “Kiss of Peace”—certainly one of the most famed photographs of the 19th century—is a profound mediation on the paradoxical symbolic and heightened dramatic sensibility of the Victorian era.
John Carlos Cantú has written extensively on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.
University of Michigan Museum of Art: “New Technologies and Victorian Society: Early British Photographs from the UMMA Collection” will run through May 8, 2016. The UMMA is located at 525 S. State Street. The Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 11 am–5 pm; and Sunday 12–5 pm. For information, call 734-764-0395.
Preview: Guys and Dolls, Huron High School
This weekend Huron High School's Huron Players present the musical Guys and Dolls, with direction by Jeffrey Stringer and music direction by Dr. Richard Ingram.
Guys and Dolls was adapted from two short stories by author and journalist Damon Runyon, whose colorful lifestyle beyond the pen as a chain-smoking gambler with a 40-cup-a-day coffee habit and close friends with gangsters, hustlers, and chorus girls shaped the endearing “Runyonesque” lowlifes that populate his tales with their distinctive gangster slang.
With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, Guys and Dolls follows small-time gamblers Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit as they wager with Lady Luck on the streets and back alleys of New York City. A big hit when it opened on Broadway in November 1950, the musical went on to win a Tony Award, inspire a 1955 film adaptation, and has seen several successful revivals over the decades.
"More I Cannot Wish You" but you’ll double your odds of catching more Guys and Dolls on the Power Center stage in April when the University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre & Dance takes a chance on the show.
Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Guys and Dolls runs Friday, February 5 - Sunday, February 7. Tickets: $15 for Adults and $10 for Students/Seniors/Staff. For more information and tickets, visit: the Huron Players website.
Preview: The Bard at the Michigan Theater
Starting tonight, Monday, February 1, the Michigan Theater presents a film series dedicated to the work of William Shakespeare. The Bard will celebrate Shakespeare’s works through a range of film adaptations of his plays. Alongside the more traditional performances interpreted by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, you’ll find remixes of Shakespeare’s works that cross the barriers of culture and time, such as West Side Story.
The lineup of films selected for The Bard reveals the flexibility of Shakespeare’s writing, and celebrates the universal themes explored through his timeless plays. If you’re new to Shakespeare, a lifelong fan, or if you haven’t thought about him since high school, any one of these films would be an excellent way to experience classic Shakespearean storytelling.
Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at AADL.
Most of the films will be screened on Monday nights at 7 pm, with the exception of Romeo + Juliet which will be showing on Saturday, February 13th. Take a look at the Michigan Theater's website for the full series schedule.
Preview: Chesapeake, Theatre Nova
A highlight of last year’s theater season was Theatre Nova’s critically lauded production of the Off Broadway smash comedy Buyer and Cellar, featuring a delightful Wilde-award nominated performance by Sebastian Gerstner. Local audiences will be excited to hear that Gerstner and the Buyer and Cellar creative team return to the Yellow Barn to kick off the 2016 season with a production of Lee Blessing’s political comedy Chesapeake.
Directed by Daniel C. Walker, this Michigan premiere showcases Sebastian Gerstner’s comedic skills in another hilarious one man show, this time as a performance artist so outraged by a conservative Republican senator and his anti-arts campaign that the he plots to kidnap the senator’s beloved Labrador Retriever. The caper does not unfold as planned, however, to amusingly disastrous results.
The play is inspired by a true event: the 1989 challenge by Jesse Helms over First Amendments rights and the National Endowment for the Arts. The play premiered in New York in 1999 and has since been performed throughout the U.S. The Chicago Sun-Times highly recommended Chesapeake, calling the play “hilarious, provocative, and blisteringly smart,” while the Baltimore Sun praised it as an “enriching play that entertains audiences and…redefines what a complete theater experience can become.”
Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.
Performances of Chesapeake begin Friday, February 5, and will run throughout the month, with performances on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm. For information, visit www.theatrenova.org or call 734-635-8450. All Theatre Nova shows are pay-what-you can, with a suggested donation of $20. Theatre Nova is located at The Yellow Barn, 416 W. Huron in Ann Arbor.