Rock 'n' Roll Theater: John Cameron Mitchell took listeners on a journey at Hill Auditorium

MUSIC REVIEW

John Cameron Mitchell The Origin of Love Nov 2 2019 by Doug Coombe

Photo by Doug Coombe

Saturday night’s Hill Auditorium performance by John Cameron Mitchell drew a crowd that likely skewed a bit younger and edgier than many University Musical Society audiences.

From where I sat, bold body art and piercings, asymmetrical haircuts, and statement eyeglasses abounded. And although about two decades have passed since Mitchell first created and performed in the groundbreaking show (and film) that would become his calling card, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, he not only rocked Hill Auditorium on his ongoing Origin of Love Tour but crowd-surfed, Superman-style, during an encore number.

But the two-hour concert kicked off with a direct reference from Hedwig, as powerhouse guest vocalist Amber Martin arrived first on stage and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not … John Cameron Mitchell!”

Be, Hear, Now: yMusic brought its contemporary classical and crossover collaborations to Rackham

MUSIC REVIEW INTERVIEW

yMusic by Graham Tolbert

Photo by Graham Tolbert.

If you aren’t paying attention at the beginning of Andrew Norman’s “Music in Circles” you might miss it. The first note is just so quiet, an almost imperceptible harmonic whispered high in the viola, the kind of airy, insubstantial noise you have to strain to hear.

But once you hear it you’re hooked.

That first lonely pitch is like a slow intake of breath, interrupted after a moment by a stuttering spiccato exhalation that foreshadows the energy that is to come. Slowly the viola is joined by other strings, and patiently the music unfolds and intensifies until, some two and a half minutes in the viola takes off with an up-tempo rhythmic pulse produced by bouncing the bow vertically off the strings, generating a sound that is a blend between being pitched and being a percussive noise.

From here the music grows in volume and intensity as the cello and trumpet play yearning arpeggiated lines, the bass clarinet pitches in with a fluttering falling figure, the violin scratches wildly and the flute shoots jets of air. It’s thrilling. And then it winds down again, just as patiently as the music of the opening developed.

Eventually, the piece closes out with soft, slowly moving echoes of the previous material, pared down until it’s only the viola, again, playing alone, with that same airy harmonic it began with.

“Music in Circles” has always been one of yMusic’s more popular pieces, at least on the classical music side of things, so it’s no wonder that the group chose to program it on last Friday’s performance at Rackham Auditorium.

Joseph Zettelmaier's "Dr. Seward’s Dracula" is a creepy, clever prequel to Bram Stokers' vampire legend

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Dr. Seward's Dracula

Allyson Miko as the Emily the ghost and Jeffrey Shawn Miller as the unstable Dr. Seward in The Penny Seats Theatre Company's production of Dr. Seward's Dracula.

Near the end of Joseph Zettelmaier’s play Dr. Seward’s Dracula -- now being staged by The Penny Seats Theatre Company, at Ann Arbor’s Stone Chalet Inn -- a character observes, “People need their monsters.”

So it seems. For it’s far more comforting and palatable to believe that humans like ourselves simply aren’t capable of committing the very worst acts of violence and depravity.

But we are, of course. And this unnerving truth is precisely what drives Zettelmaier’s unconventional take on the Dracula story.

Happy Sad: The Cactus Blossoms' shimmering folk-rock hit a harmonious sweet spot at The Ark

MUSIC REVIEW

Cactus Blossoms at The Ark

The Cactus Blossoms at The Ark. Photo by Amanda Szot.

Why is it that sad songs make us feel better? 

Esther Rose, opening act at Thursday night’s show headlined by The Cactus Blossoms at the Ark, asked that question partway through her set as she realized that all of her songs to that point had been a bit melancholy.

A Michigan native, but a New Orleans resident for the past decade, Rose sang songs of loves lost and found. Not just people, but places too -- from her family’s farm near Flint, Michigan, to the love of the Lower Ninth Ward in her adopted hometown. Her earnest songwriting and clear vocals were paired with sparse instrumentation. She was joined on stage by Jordan Hyde, who provided backup vocals and lead guitar. Her debut album, You Made It This Far, was released in 2019 on Father/Daughter records.
 
The Cactus Blossoms are brothers Page Burkum and Jack Torrey on main vocals and guitar, now joined eldest brother Tyler Burkum on guitar, cousin Phillip Hicks on bass, and Jeremy Hanson on drums. Formed in Minneapolis, The Cactus Blossoms have a sound influenced by classic country, folk-inspired storytelling, and the harmonies of famous sibling duos, with some good old-fashioned rock and roll reverb from the ‘60s. The band members started exploring this style of music around 2006 while investigating their local library’s music collection and through a friend whose collection of obscure folk music and “high lonesome” sounds was particularly intriguing.
 

The atmospheric dance troupe Sankai Juku transfixed the Power Center with haunting movement

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Sankai Juku performing Meguri

There’s an image I’ve been having a hard time getting out of my head ever since the performance of Sankai Juku’s Meguri: Teeming Sea, Tranquil Land at the Power Center last weekend:

Four dancers in an eerie semi-darkness -- bald, torsos nude, bodies covered in white dust -- stand together in a circle. They stay fixed to the floor, seemingly rooted to the spot, as their bodies turn around in a unified, slow-motion gesture. Their feet rotate in place as their limbs twist together, until legs spiral around one another and the spine and neck swivel to bring the ghostly visages directly before the audience. On the faces, there is an open-mouthed image of silent, inexpressible anguish, a sort of inaudible scream whose riveting force stops your breath. For a moment, before the contorted and gnarled bodies reverse direction and rotate back, you have unshakable certainty that this is the face of a body in pain.

It’s haunting.

Then the moment passes and the spell dissipates.

There’s no pain here, not really, just illusion and mastery.

This kind of arresting image isn’t uncommon for Sankai Juku, a Paris-based troupe that practices a Japanese dance form known as butoh, an avant-garde genre that arose in the 1960s and is recognizable by its characteristic use of white body powder and shaved heads.

The U-M Digital Music Ensemble's "Pond Music for Airports" encountered unexpected turbulence

MUSIC REVIEW

Pond Music for Airports

All photos by Christopher Porter.

I went to the pond not to fish, not to swim, but to listen to experimental music.

And all I heard was silence.

It's not because the University of Michigan's Digital Music Ensemble (DME) was performing John Cage's 4'33"The group, under the guidance of Professor Stephen Rush, had worked up a piece inspired by Brian Eno's Music for Airports, the landmark 1978 ambient record that was built by having pre-recorded tape loops of varying lengths go in and out of phase with each another.

The DME's Pond Music XVII: Brian Eno’s Music for Airports -- or more colloquially on the promo posters, Pond Music for Airports -- was created by students who wrote and performed the short music segments that were then committed to tape. The DME artists then spliced the tapes and loaded them onto old reel-to-reel machines, which were set up in front of the retention pond behind the Earl V. Moore Building, which is the home of the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, located on North Campus.

Last Dance: The Bang! Must Die! is one last boogie down production for this long-running party at The Blind Pig

PULP LIFE PREVIEW REVIEW

The Bang! poster collage

It's the last dance -- last dance for love.

Yes, it's the last chance for romance Saturday night.

After 18 years, The Bang! dance party needs you to hold and scold -- and get so, so bad -- at The Blind Pig as it waves goodbye with one final blowout: The Bang! Must Die!

Founded by artists Jeremy Wheeler and Jason Gibner, the first Bang! party was held in 2001 at the now-shuttered Half-Ass Inn (Halfway Inn) in U-M's East Quad. The following year it moved to The Blind Pig -- with occasional visits to Ypsilanti and elsewhere -- and it eventually became a monthly event for a long while, getting more and more elaborate over the years as The Bang! crew went wild building elaborate props that supported the dances' playful themes.

Filtered through Wheeler's distinctive, retro-cool aesthetic -- which you can see in the posters above -- The Bang! encouraged people to dress up in outrageous clothes, shake off their everyday grime, and get dirty on the dancefloor. Perusing a photo archive on Flickr from older Bang! throwdowns, you can all but smell the PBR pouring out of the pores of the revelers. As the sweaty, open-mouthed ravers cut through the humid club air, The Bling Pig took on the look of a thrift shop on acid, where all the VCR tapes and '80s aerobic leotards suddenly rediscovered their worth on Earth.

Silly sexual japes abounded at The Bang! and the photo gallery is rich with crotch shots. One hirsute gentleman even figured out how to don a thong at most every Bang!, no matter the theme. 

We rooted through thousands of pics and chose some of our favorites, which you can see below, along with a short documentary on The Bang! and some other video footage. But first, read these two oral histories of The Bang! -- then wish it well in the afterlife by donning a crazy costume and dancing your face off on October 26:

➥ "The Bang! Must Die: the History of the Sweatiest Dance Party in Town" [Damn Arbor, October 22, 2019]
➥ "After 18 years of dance-party madness, here's why The Bang! must die" [Concentrate, October 16, 2019]

Locked-Up With Laughter: A2 Civic Theatre’s "My Three Angels" is a sharp family comedy

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

My Three Angels

L-R: Dillon Roseen, Theo Polley, Jim Sullivan, and Ellen Finch in Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's My Three Angels. Photo by Lisa Gavan | Gavan Photo.

When Barbara Mackey King proposed directing My Three Angels for this season at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, she had two goals in mind. One was for actors and the other for audiences.

“I was in another play at Civic Theatre and everyone was talking about how there weren’t a lot of great plays for older actors,” she said. “I thought I can help with that and I remembered My Three Angels, which has some very fine parts for older, experienced actors.”

She was also looking for a play that would appeal to a diverse audience.

“I chose this play because it’s what I would call a good family comedy,” she said. “By that I mean not Leave It to Beaver or something like that, not for tiny kids. But something that the whole family can enjoy. It’s not too salacious or suggestive or anything like that. It’s something you can bring older kids to.”

She said that’s important for the future of live theater.

A Place to Resist Apathy: “Whose Streets? Our Streets! New York City 1980-2000” at Lane Hall Gallery

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Sylvia Plachy, Graffiti Under the Williamsburg Bridge, black and white photograph]

Sylvia Plachy, Graffiti Under the Williamsburg Bridge, black and white photograph.

Big town civil disobedience meets big-time photojournalism in Whose Streets? Our Streets! New York City 1980-2000 at the University of Michigan Women’s Studies Lane Hall Gallery.

The exhibit features 40 artworks by renowned national and international photographers Nina Berman, Donna Binder, Donna Decesare, Ricky Flores, Frank Fournier, Lori Grinker, Meg Handler, Lisa Kahane, Gabe Kircheimer, Carolina Kroon, Meryl Levin, TL Litt, Dona Ann McAdams, Thomas McGovern, Thomas Muscionico, Brian Palmer, Clayton Patterson, Sandra-Lee Phipps, Sylvia Plachy, Alon Reininger, Richard Renaldi, Joseph Rodriguez, Linda Rosier, Q. Sakamaki, Catherine Smith, and Les Stone.

Lending a timely coherence to this sprawling history are curators Tamar W. Carroll of the Department of History at the Rochester Institute of Technology; Meg Handler, photographer and former photo editor of The Village Voice; Michael Kamber, New York Times photographer, adjunct faculty of the Columbia Journalism School and founder of the Bronx Documentary Center; and Joshua P. Meltzer, assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

As the Women’s Studies exhibit gallery statement tells us, “New York’s streets were turbulent and often violent in the 1980s and 1990s, as residents responded to social changes in their city as well as national and international developments. These photographs highlight both the key roles of activists and journalists in enacting democratic social changes, and invite viewers to reflect on how theses social issues, as well as social movements and the practice of journalism, have evolved in recent decades.”

U-M’s take on Gilbert and Sullivan’s "The Pirates of Penzance" zips along in swashbuckling style

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

U-M's Pirates of Penzance

It is the very model of a modern musical comedy.

The University of Michigan Department of Music’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ever-popular The Pirates of Penzance moves along faster than the celebrated major-general’s patter song. The tiny Lydia Mendelssohn stage is alive with color, movement, and music.

Director Vincent J. Cardinal has chosen the 1980 Joseph Papp New York version of Penzance with more swashbuckling, dancing and some reinterpretation of Sullivan’s music. That production starred Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, and Rex Smith. U-M’s production is filled to overflowing with musical theater stars of the future.