Saying Goodbye, part two

Saying goodbye to London means saying goodbye to our favourite dance company, Tempered Body Dance Theatre. We were able to go to one last “Cha-Cha-Cha”, an evening of scratch performances by three companies, including Tempered Body, at Chisenhale Dance Studio. We got to see more of Tempered Body’s new piece “Stand-By”, an exploration of physical and emotional dependency.

Tempered Body Dance Theatre in rehearsal

“As active or non-active feminists of the 21st Century we are taught to be independent. Dependence on other people is accepted as weak and lacking courage. Same too with dependence on substances. Are we really saying these two categories of dependence are similarly devastating? When is independence destructive?” Maddy Wynne-Jones on “Stand-By”

The show premiers in June, after we’ve gone. It has been a privilege to watch these dancers at work, a thrill to watch Maddy creating this piece.

Saying goodbye to London means saying goodbye to the West End, so we decided to splurge on a couple of shows. Trying to decide which shows to go to has been hard. As Sondheim fanatics, Sweeney Todd with Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton was an obvious choice – I had seen the original production on Broadway and this was every bit as wonderful. Michael Ball was a sympathetic and socially conscious Sweeney. Imelda Staunton was funny, sexy and brilliant.

Globe to Globe, part of the Shakespeare World Festival, was also something we wanted to see. 40 plays from 40 countries. We could only see one – the Palestinian production of Richard 2. Funny, angry, provocative. We met up with fellow Ottawan Jessica Ruano after the show, stopping for a drink to talk about art, politics and how to produce theatre that matters. It was hard to walk away from the other 39 shows…

The musical hit of the West End is Matilda, winner of 7 Olivier Awards. It is riotously outrageous, with the wickedly funny Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull. I am in the business of working with children on stage, and I know what they are capable of. But I was floored by these young performers. A fabulous show, and an amazing adaptation of the book by Roald Dahl. Jaw dropping design. Rude, irreverent. What’s not to love about a show that has the biggest belch that ever existed?

We also went to listen to the brilliant playwright Michael Frayn who has two shows on in London: “Noises Off”, the toast of the town, which we saw (Celia Imrie as Dotty!) and could hardly breathe for laughing; and “Here”, which we didn’t get to see, much to our regret. He is also launching a new book, Skios, a blend of farce, satire and romance. Is there anyone who has such a variety of approaches in their work?

We made a dash out this week to see the amazing Bauhaus show at the Barbican. The Bauhaus school was a 14-year exploration of the arts that that changed the way we see things. When it was closed down by the Nazis, proponents of the movement fled to other countries and their design ideas spread throughout the world. I had been very affected by Bauhaus design and philosophy in my youth and it was incredibly inspiring to see the work assembled and thoughtfully chronicled.

Tim making notes at the Barbican

But the hardest thing right now is having to say good bye to family. It means tears and laughter, and last suppers. This week, Maddy made an amazing dinner for Peta, Bryan, Jo and Amanda. It was her “thank you” to them for putting us up (putting up with us). She created a meal of 4 courses, each dedicated to a country that we had stayed in for at least a week.

Starters (Spain) we had: Spanish Chorizo sausage sautéed with butter beans and shrimp on a bed of lettuce.

Mains (England): Individual Beef Wellingtons, garlic mash, roasted squash, green beans with almonds, mushrooms sauce and gravy sauce.

Dessert (France): Prune Clafoutis with custard.

Afters (Italy): Italian dessert wine (brought from our time in La Spezia) with cardamom biscotti.

It was an amazing feast, a fabulous and noisy night with family. It is impossible to think that we will be leaving, heartbreaking to try and say goodbye.

Maddy, Amanda, Jo, Bryan, Peta, Amanda & Tim at the farewell feast

Saying Goodbye, Part one

Right now, the harshest lesson for Tim and I to learn is that there is never enough time. There will always be more to discover. So much we haven’t seen. Around every corner, a new world waiting. Posters in the tube announcing new shows opening the day after we leave. Family events we’ll miss. We have to let it go. We have to learn how to say goodbye. Goodbye to London. Goodbye to family.

We are filling our last days in London with adventures and one of our most unique experiences was Tim’s raising of the Tower Bridge.

Tim was given one of the best gifts ever. He was given the opportunity to be the man behind the mechanism, the man to move 2,500 tons of steel to allow a boat to pass unimpeded down the Thames.

Tim looking at Tower Bridge

The Bridge, built in 1886, originally worked with a marvelous Victorian hydraulic system to lift the bascules (from the French word for “see-saw”, the moveable section of the bridge road) so that ships could pass through to the Port of London. Ships today still have a right of way along the river and, with 24 hours notice, the Bridge must be raised to allow passage through. On a rainy London morning in early May, Tim was the man who made that happen.

In the control centre for Tower Bridge

Tim met with the Chief Bridge Technician in the control tower of the Tower Bridge. The mechanization is electronic nowadays. But although the system has been modernized, the actual workings of the bridge remain the same. Huge amounts of steel are see-sawed up and down in a very short amount of time. A computer screen shows the inner workings. Buttons must be pushed in sequence. A level must be carefully pulled.

40,000 people cross Tower Bridge every day. This means that the first thing that must happen, when raising the bridge, is to stop the traffic. A push of a button, a communication with the outside patrol, and cars, pedestrians and cyclists came to a halt. Needless to say, this gave Tim an incredible sense of power.

The barriers in place, the traffic stopped, Tim pulls the lever to raise the bascules to 40°.

Tim pulls the lever

It is as though the city holds its breath. The bridge rises and the computer screen shows Tim the changing angle of the bascules. 40° achieved, the awaiting boat glides through.

The bridge raised

When the boat clears the bridge the bascules are lowered, everything is locked back in place and the cyclists race to get back on the road before the barriers are removed. Tim’s moment of glory is over, but he is presented with a certificate to mark the occasion and we are taken on a tour of the mechanisms far below the surface of the water. A secret world.

Tim gets his certificate of Bridge Raising

“The Thames is liquid history”, said John Burns in 1929. A few days later, we decided to go out and explore more of the history of the Thames and took a commuter boat down the river to Greenwich, another on our list of World Heritage Sites.

Greenwich is renowned for its maritime history. The newly restored Cutty Sark has just been “launched” in the dry dock beside the main pier. Built in 1869, the ship was one of the last tea clippers built and one of the fastest ships of her time.

The Cutty Sark, resting on its glass house. A picture not just for a blended Scotch.

It now sits atop a glass museum, held suspended so that you can walk beneath it. On a grey day, the ship seems full of the history of the sea.

The Maritime Museum is also in Greenwich, as is the oldest Royal Park in London. Greenwich Park was created in 1433 and is home to the Royal Observatory, which is where Greenwich Mean Time is centered.

The Royal Observatory

John Flamsteed was the first Royal Astronomer, by decree of King Charles 2, and his rooms and observation room are still in tact. The Octagon Room, where the regularity of the Earth’s rotation was tested, was designed by Inigo Jones.

The Octagon Room

The hill that the Observatory sits on affords a spectacular view of London, the O2 arena, and the new the Olympic Equestrian Events arena.

The view from Observatory Hill

The dark skies cleared (a bit — it has been the coldest and darkest May here since 1698!), as we ruminated on the foundation of time in place. By measuring longitude, we measure the earth’s rotation and use this to fix our concept of time. I stood on the meridian line, one foot officially in the west, one foot officially in the east. But our sense of time is elastic. Ten months ago, the time of our journey seemed endless. Now all we can say is, where has the time gone?

One foot in the west, one foot in the east

Feasting on the arts in London

It was a bit of a jolt to come back into the press of people in London after our calm days in Devon. But we had several major events to look forward to, and we dove in, hearts first.

David Hockney has taken London by storm, and tickets for the show at the Royal Academy were being scalped at outrageous prices. Thankfully, we had booked our tickets before we left for Devon, and it was one of the first places that we headed when we got back.

Winter Timber. The painting takes up a whole wall of the gallery.

A Bigger Picture is one of the most vibrant shows I have ever seen. Hockney attacks landscapes. He spends years working on the same view at different seasons, different weathers. His colours are like no one else’s. When this show opened in February, Londoners flocked to it as to a vacation in the sun. You are viserally hit with almost impossible colour juxtapositions. And these pictures are huge. Really, really huge. He does full wall landscapes using grid sections, so that he can paint each section almost life size.

In one room, he displays a series of 51 framed prints of work that he did on an iPad. I hadn’t expected to like these, but I found them totally compelling. The way he uses the iPad is revolutionary. It is a medium that allows him to “work rapidly with a stylus to capture the changing light and conditions of a scene. The effect is significantly different to that achieved with a brush in other mediums.”

Hockney iPad art.

The 51 iPad prints record the transition from winter through to late spring on one small road. The work culminates in “The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011”, a 32 canvas painting that takes over a huge wall of the gallery. “The deliberate sense of theatricality in this gallery reflects Hockney’s many decades of experience designing sets for the opera: the view is placed centre-stage with the drama of the approaching spring played out on all sides.” (copy from the program) I guess it is no wonder that I loved it.

From landscapes we went to portraits. The Lucien Freud show at the National Portrait Gallery changed our focus from the changing colours of landscape to the changing minutiae of skin tone — small brush manipulations that reflect a complex life. “I’ve always wanted to create drama in my pictures, which is why I paint people. It’s people who have brought drama to pictures from the beginning. The simplest human gestures tell stories.” Lucien Freud.

Freud self portrait 1985

These are stories that you dig deeply into. Like our layers of skin, and the layering of our experiences, the paintings pull your eyes through layers of paint to reveal the soul within. These are raw portraits, reminding me of how little we really know of people, of how hard it is to go beneath the layers.

From visuals to sound. I was desperate for complex sounds to wash through me. I wanted to hear music that was as full of contrasting colours as the Hockney show, as personal as the Lucien Freud. It didn’t take long to find a perfect concert. Chick Corea and Gary Burton on their “Hot House” tour. Two brilliant, percussive artists who have been playing together for over 40 years. They come together almost as one. Chick Corea on piano and Gary Burton on vibes, they played a range that included original pieces, Miles, Dizzy, Monk, Mozart, Bartok, Antonio Carlos Joabim and Lennon & McCartney. These are musicians at the top of their game, playing, having fun and sharing that fun with an audience. And because it was so percussive, the sound came into my body just as the light vibrations from the Hockney paintings had.

From sound to words and thought. Lucy Prebble is a young and successful British playwright. She wrote, amongst other things, Enron, about the financial scandal of 2001. “It’s always useful to remember that free market economics – capitalism if you prefer – brought us the slave trade, the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression, as well as more recent events such as the near meltdown of the entire global financial system.” (from the London Theatre review of Enron.) Enron was a big hit on the West End and a magnificent failure on Broadway. “I think Americans don’t like ambiguity,” said Lucy. She gave an entertaining and engaging talk at the Haymarket Theatre as a part of their Masterclass Series. She prefaced the talk by saying that anything that she said about her past was, like all memory, a “retrospective rationalization”. In other words, we all make up our lives as we chose to tell them. Her talk was personal, honest and revealing, much like the Freud portraits. It is good to know that all artists are just working from one project to the next, trying to grow, to find ways of challenging themselves, and sometimes just trying to survive.

From words to movement. One of the most exciting young London dance artists is Maddy Wynne-Jones. While I might have a personal bias, I have to say that it has been a huge thrill to watch Maddy’s work evolve, even in the short time we’ve been here. We went to a scratch performance (a work-in-progress performance that encourages dialogue and discussion) of the new Tempered Body Dance Theatre piece under development. “Stand-By” is a piece about dependency. On people, on substances. It asks the questions, “Are we really saying these two categories of dependence are similarly devastating? When is independence destructive?” The scratch performance featured about 15 minutes of the piece, and we were moved to tears by the work. Big gulping, shaking sobs. But also smiles of self-knowledge.

Tempered Body Dance Theatre in rehearsal

I went to the studio this week to watch further rehearsals and was deeply impressed by the cohesiveness of the company, and by their open and generous exploration of these questions. They are dancers with amazing skill and integrity. Maddy’s choreography and direction guides them to movements that are honest and resonant. We’ll see another scratch performance next month. It is a privilege to watch this work in development.

Tempered Body Dance Theatre in rehearsal for Stand-By.

It is a constant river of inspiration here. Sometimes we need to stand outside, on the banks to catch our breath. But knowing that our time in London is limited, we are diving in as often as we can.

Happy Birthday Mr. Dickens

Last week was the bicentenary of Charles Dickens birth. A big thing around these parts. There have been masses of tributes pouring in from all over the world. There was a birthday party of sorts at Westminster Abbey. Prince Charles laid a wreathe, Ralph Fiennes read from Bleak House, and the largest ever gathering of the Dickens family were in attendance.

I wasn’t invited, but I wanted to pay my respects so I went to the Abbey on my own, on a bleak morning that seemed very much out of a Dickens novel. Big Ben was chiming twelve, and a cold mist had settled on the stones.

Westminster Abbey on a cold day in February

Being in Westminster Abbey is like being in the Who’s Who of English history. Everyone who is anyone is there. My first mission was to go to Poet’s Corner. This part of the abbey is dedicated to remembering important British writers and other artists. Some are buried in the Abbey and some are elsewhere, but remembered here with memorial stones.

Poets’ Corner began with the interment of Geoffrey Chaucer in 1400. Since then, hundreds of worthy British artists have been buried or remembered in the South Transept.

It is here that Dickens is buried, although he wanted to be buried in his home town of Rochester. When he died there was a huge public demand for him to be in London, and so he was buried in Westminster against his wishes. The price of fame.

Dickens has a prominent, but simple stone on the floor. I had arrived two days after his birthday, and the wreathes from the celebration were still there. Just close to Dickens is Handel, his carved figure clutching a piece of music, music that had its premiere performance in Westminster Abbey. Across from Handel is a statue of Shakespeare. Shakespeare is buried in Stratford-upon-Avon, and although there was talk of moving him to Westminster, he seems well settled in his home town. His memorial in Westminster is suitably impressive, however, and he holds a carved manuscript page from “The Tempest”:

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1

Shakespeare’s marble eyes gaze down to the floor to look upon a stone for Lawrence Olivier, whose ashes are buried beneath. The beauty of this moved me to tears.

Beside Shakespeare there is a huge tomb for Oliver Goldsmith, out of proportion for our day and age, but suitable for his worth in the 16th century. Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll), Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes, William Blake, Jane Austen – they are all here. There is a beautiful new carving for the founders of the Royal Ballet, Fredrick Ashton, Margo Fonteyne, Constant Lamburt and Ninette de Valois. In keeping with their profession, the letters are swooped and graceful, full of movement.

As a calligrapher and letter carver, I was thrilled to see some of these newer carvings. You can’t take photos in the Abbey, but I was able to take a few out in the Cloisters. I particularly liked one in slate dedicated to Edmond Halley, of the comet fame, with gorgeous gold leaf trails. A bit blurry, unfortunately. It was very cold in the Cloisters.

A Stone for Edmund Halley

But these monuments and memorials are all recent history for the Abbey. Westminster Abbey was begun in the 11th century by Edward the Confessor. The first coronation was held there in 1066 for William the Conqueror. All coronations of English kings have taken place there ever since. Coronations, and of course, subsequent burials. There are tombs for various Edwards, Richards and Henrys. Elizabeth 1 is there, her half-sister Mary Tudor buried beneath her. I have just been reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and getting a glimpse into the terrible relationship between these two daughters of Henry VIII. In life, they could not have been more divided. In death they are buried one on top of the other, with the inscription: “Partners in throne and grave, here we sleep, Elizabeth and Mary, sisters, in hope of the Resurrection”. The other Mary, Mary Queen of Scots is just across the hall.

It seems as though the whole history of Great Britain is contained here. And I realized that up until that moment, all of these Royal figures had been a fiction in my mind. I knew that they existed from reading about them. But, to quote Lewis Carroll, “They may write such things in a book“. Seeing their tombs, their likenesses carved from their death masks, gave them substance and a reality they hadn’t had for me before. Walking amongst these tombs gave life to history.

As I started to leave the Abbey, past the commemorative, side by side sculptures of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, I came upon a small door covered in locks and chains. This is an Amnesty memorial remembering jailed dissidents the world over. This week we were urged to remember Liu Xiaobo, Chinese writer and human rights activist jailed in 2009 as a political prisoner.

Tellingly, across from the Amnesty memorial is the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”, a simple black marble slab, marked with a border of poppies. An unidentified soldier who died in France in the First World War, “For God, for King and Country, For loved ones home and empire, For the sacred cause of justice and freedom of the world. They buried him here among the Kings because he had done good toward God and his house”.

I left the Abbey feeling very alive and thankful. I may not have gotten a loot bag at the birthday party, but I was leaving with riches galore. Happy Birthday Mr. Dickens.

“Dickens’s humanity and compassion made an extraordinary impact on Victorian England through his writings …This bicentenary should help renew our commitment to improving the lot of the disadvantaged of our own day.” Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr. John Hall

Glamourous Limping with family and friends in London

Although we were sorry to bid goodbye to our Spanish adventure, it was wonderful to get back to London. No sooner had we gotten off the plane than we whisked off to a large Lunberg family outing to see Tosca at the English National Opera. It was great to be back with our noisy and passionate family, wildly gesticulating and explosively laughing through our pre-opera pizzas. We hadn’t seen Tosca before, and it was a fabulous production, with bold, dramatic lighting designs that emphasized the violent emotions of the story. And when Tosca fell backwards off the set to her death, there was an audible gasp in the audience.

The next day, with barely a moment to unpack, I went to the Haymarket theatre to see a really interesting play called the Two Worlds of Charlie F. The production was an outreach project that the Haymarket did in collaboration with the British Legion. Soldiers from the Bravo 22 Company who were wounded in Afghanistan worked with a director, writer and professional actors to create an incredibly moving piece of theatre. They brought their stories to life with shocking honesty. They showed me the effects of war and created images I will never forget. They performed with humour, integrity and insight.

However, I could only stay for the first half of the show. My foot, which had been sore for a number of days, began to swell up and soon I was in tremendous pain. Nothing close to the pain I was seeing on stage, but nevertheless, I had to leave. I hobbled home to Surbiton and headed to the emergency department of the Kingston hospital. The NHS (National Health Service) was terrific and diagnosed it as cellulitis, an infection brought on by my excessive walking in Barcelona. I was proscribing an aggressive round of antibiotics. It was going to be a while before I could put on any shoes.

Even though I was taking it a bit easy, nothing was going to stop us from having a great Robbie Burns party later that week. Bryan and Robbie Burns share the same birthday, so it is a tradition here in Surbiton to have a big party to celebrate. Because my birthday was in the same week, we got to share in the festive dinner, which included a huge roast beef, various root vegetables (parsnips, turnips, swedes, carrots, potatoes) and vast amounts of haggis (vegetarian and non). A fabulous meal, and about as far from our Spanish diet of shellfish and squid that you could get!

A birthday party for Bryan, Amanda and Robbie Burns

The next night, I was able to hobble out so that we could go for a farewell evening with David and Hinda. We went to the new movie of Coriolanus (incredible—one of the best adaptations of Shakespeare I have ever seen. See it in the theatre if you can, because the sound track is amazing.), followed by dinner at Pollen Street Social, offering “de-formalized fine dining”. I was still wearing my hiking boots because of my foot, which felt very embarrassing in such a posh environment. Definitely “de-formalized”. But the meal soon made me forget everything else. Starters of Cornish crab vinaigrette with Nashi pear and light cured Sheltland Salmon with avocado; mains of roasted sea bass with truffle sauce and halibut bourguignon; finishing with a cheese plate of 10 different cheeses from throughout the UK and Europe. Each dish was a unique sensation, with incredible attention to detail.

Suddenly it was after midnight. We bid a fond farewell to David and Hinda and hurried to catch the last train to Surbiton, racing to Waterloo in a cab, since the Tube was already closed. It was the first time I had realized that the Tube closes so early. Seems crazy!

I was still in my unlovely but functional hiking boots a few days later when we went to the opening of the “Works on Paper Art Fair”, an art exhibit and sale. There were 54 different booths from art dealers all across the country. It was like a scene from a movie with dealers, aficionados, speculators and investors walking around with bottles of champagne and talking about the first Hockney/Renoir/Matisse that they bought. I decided to pretend that I was so fabulously rich that I didn’t have to care how I looked, and within minutes was having a long conversation about some exquisite (and expensive) Samuel Palmer lithographs. I took the dealer’s card as regally as I could, and promised to visit the gallery when I was next in Herefordshire.

Retreating from that rarified atmosphere, we headed to the Phoenix Artist’s Club to see “La Chunga”, a play by Peruvian-Spanish writer Mario Vargas Llosa. A friend from Ottawa, Jessica Ruano, was the assistant director on the production, and it was great to see her, and her work. The play is a really compelling exploration of machismo culture and sexual politics, stylish and honest in its approach. It was performed in a tiny space at the back of the pub, downstairs from the Phoenix Theatre. A great venue and perfect for the play, which takes place in a bar. We loved it.

Sometimes, it drives me crazy to be here with so much going on all of the time. The possibilities are infinite. There is a new adventure around every corner. It is great to be back in London.

Occupy LSX

I decided I needed to take a trip to visit the Occupy London Stock Exchange (LSX) site at St. Paul’s Cathedral. For those who don’t know, this London Occupy site has been the focus of an important discussion about the role of the church in people’s lives. Three high-ranking church officials resigned over the mismanagement of the protest movement on their doorstep, and for weeks a debate has raged over the position of the church in defending the needs of the poor.

As I write this, an eviction notice has been served, and a legal case is proceeding, but for the moment the Occupy site remains. It continues to be a peaceful, and respectful protest. From what I can tell, the media has gone from being cautiously supportive, to openly negative and nasty, and currently to blithely ignoring the continuation of the Occupation. Next week however, on November 30th, a country-wide general strike is called for. I suspect we will be drowning in a sea of contradictory media reports and opninons.

On the day I went to St. Paul’s, the fall wind had picked up. It was sunny, but sudden gusts picked tents off of the ground, fluttering them 5 feet in the air before dropping them down again on the cobblestones.

Looking from the steps of St. Paul's to the Tent City University

A well-organized information tent was connected to “Tent City University”, a tent space dedicated to encouraging research, thought and intelligent discussion. “Needs” boards were posted (First Aid supplies, kitchen supplies) as were volunteer opportunities. I had heard that a newspaper had been produced a few days earlier and asked if I could see a copy.  It is an impressively produced, well-written journal. This is a very organized movement, and their dedication to education and discussion is paramount.

There are speakers and events every day at LSX. On the day I was there, Manuel Castels was speaking. Castels is a sociologist and an expert in the field of information technology and society. His “Information Age Trilogy” is one of the most frequently quoted sources for understanding contemporary communication. He was visiting the site en route between Barcelona and Los Angeles and he spoke about strengthening the connection between the urban space and cyberspace. The Occupy presence will create change through the lateral thinking possible in cyberspace. But it is still essential to initiate the dialogue in the urban environment. He stressed the need to avoid violence at all costs, suggesting that if the movement was evicted from St. Paul’s “there are lots of other churches in London”. Smaller groups could occupy more locations, and remain connected through the internet. This would not dilute the movement. It will only grow in strength. He spoke about the need to stay connected, “our imagination and our courage should do the rest”.

The lunchtime crowds listening to Manuel Castels

Following Castels was the daily meeting of the General Assembly. I must admit that I haven’t been following the political structure of the Occupy movement closely. While I have been reading the media, I haven’t been following the actual source. Writing this blog is a way of beginning to put things into a perspective for myself. Those of you reading the blog in other countries will have heard other stories, and may have other responses to the movement. But I am impressed by the intelligence and innovation of Occupy London, and by their honest desire to work from a consensus basis.

Having had my own experiences trying to operate an organization through consensus, I know how very difficult it is to get anything done in this way. So I was really encouraged to hear that there are daily facilitation training sessions to help people to learn how to keep the “flow of information and the flow of action though the consensus process”. They recognize that the Occupy movement represents all segments of society and therefore there will be many different perspectives and beliefs. But as one speaker from the General Assembly said: “Deep political disagreements shouldn’t prevent us working together”.

It is, as a journalist recently remarked, a very young movement, one that is still finding its feet. Yet it is already a complex societal structure, with a plethora of different working groups (ranging in topics from finance to health to media). Looking at the calendar of events for next week, I can see a full schedule of presentations and open discussions on such topics as “social dreaming”, “overcoming negativity” and “the misery of job insecurity – a catalyst for social change?”.

Perhaps most surprisingly, and most excitingly, every effort is being made to remain inclusive. There were recent media statements about “undesirables” at the camp site. An offensive article in the London Evening Standard with the headline: “Needle bins at St Paul’s camp to beat junkie health hazard“ prompted a statement from the camp: We have never sought to hide the fact that some of the more vulnerable members of our society have sought solace at our camps, not so much for the food and shelter we provide as for the sense of community we have established in contrast to their experience in wider society.”

What I saw at LSX was noble, and fascinating. It seems clear to me that we are witnessing the birth of a new form of political expression that will use the internet to reach its ultimate manifestation, whatever that may be. Hopefully it will be a peaceful revolution.

“Occupy London is a place where everyone is valued for what they contribute to our society and everyone is encouraged to participate in that society to the best of their ability. We are very clear about the standards we expect but we are, above all, inclusive. That is something to be proud of.”

http://occupyLSX.org/

A Sublime Day in London

The Leonardo Da Vinci show at the National Gallery, “Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan”, is billed as “the most complete display of Leonard’s surviving paintings ever held” and has been the talk of the town since it opened. Advance tickets were sold out immediately, but the Gallery reserved 500 tickets per day, released on the day. The box office opens at 10:00 a.m and you are advised that you’ll spend about an hour and a half in line.

Tim got to the Gallery at 8:00 a.m. and there was already a good line up. He was told that he would get numbers 84 & 85, so he settled into coffee and chat with others in the queue, shivering in the November wind.

By the time that I arrived at 9:30, with more coffee, there were over 400 people in line.

The line up at 8:00. It goes way back under the archway

There was a vendor selling coffee and breakfasts, gallery staff giving everyone regular up-dates, and reading material about the show was provided to help us while away the time. The English really do know about queuing and there was an atmosphere of camaraderie and friendship.

We got in to see the show at 11:00. Inside, it was easy to feel claustrophobic. You could really only see the pieces by staying in the flow of the line up, moving slowly along the walls. I allowed myself to go into a calm state, reading the information, spending as much time as I needed with each drawing and painting, the crowd sometimes moving past me like a river gently bumping past a stone.

The show was a revelation. “The Lady with the Ermine” is hailed as the “second-most famous woman in Leonardo’s life”. It’s an astonishing painting of Cecilia Gallerani, 16-year old mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Da Vinci’s patron. In the painting, she is gazing off to the side, an ermine in her arms. It’s a provocative and mysterious portrait. She and the ermine (the symbol of purity) are said to be looking at Ludovico off stage, the light in the painting emanating from him. It is the first time that the painting has been exhibited in Britain and she is definitely the star of the show.

My favourite piece is “The Burlignton House Cartoon”, an unfinished drawing of the Virgin Mary, sitting on her mother’s lap (St. Anne) with the infant Jesus and St. John the Baptist beside them. There was a beautiful sketch of the same scene as well. The great maternal love in the pictures makes me weep. He catches a beautiful, human, relationship between Mary and her baby that is timeless.

There was a fabulous display of his sketches for the saints in The Last Supper. Da Vinci stressed the importance of gesture to show character: “A good painter is to paint two main things, namely, man and the working of man’s mind. The first is easy, the second is difficult, for it is to be represented through the gestures and movements of the limbs”.

A quote from his notebook reads like a playwright, taking notes. You get a vision of Milan, 1493, as Leonardo was contemplating gesture and groups of people: “One who was drinking and has left the glass in its place and turned his head towards the speaker. Another, twisting the fingers of his hands together, turns with stern brow to his companion. Another with his hands spread open shows the palms, and shrugs his shoulders up to his ears, making a mouth of astonishment. Another speaks into his neighbour’s ear and he, as he listens to him, turns towards him to lend an ear, while he holds a knife in one hand, and the other the loaf half cut through by the knife. Another who has turned, holding a knife in his hand, with his hand a glass onto the table.”

We left the Gallery feeling very full.

Having feasted our eyes, we decided to go to St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields for an evening concert as part of the “Just This Day” project. “Just This Day” is dedicated to promoting “Stillness” and in particular, “Silence in Schools”  Apparently, recent studies show the benefits of “strong silence”, a deliberate and focussed stillness, to include higher exam results, increase in self-esteem and a decrease in negative behaviour.

St. Martin’s is in the heart of busy London, yet is known as an oasis of calm. The church was hosting  “Just This Day” — a day of silence and discussion of stillness. But we knew none of this at the time. We just arrived. As the concert began, we were requested to sit, and feel the stillness. Why is it that stillness feels so much more profound when it is enjoyed together with several hundred other people?

Outside St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, after the concert

We were treated to an evening of music by Arvo Pärt sung by the “Choral Scholars of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields” and played by the Ceruti Quartet. There was early Renaissance music sung by Dame Emma Kirkby and played on the lute by Jakob Lindberg, and a piece by contemporary composer David Stoll, “The Practice of Mediation”. It was all sublime. Music of the spheres. Spiritually uplifting.

We walked back to Waterloo station over the Millenium Bridge, the lights of the southbank reflecting in the water, happy and still in the middle of the city.View of the Southbank from the Bridge

CONNECTIONS: A day discovering exciting new plays for youth

After our travels in Cornwall and Devon, we’ve enjoyed coming back to London. Amongst other things, I’ve been making some connections with people who are working in the field of theatre for youth.

Since 1995, The National Theatre has been commissioning plays for youth age 13 – 19. Over the last 16 years, they have collected a canon of plays by professional writers that provide young people from diverse backgrounds with meaningful ways to explore theatre and their world. At The Ottawa School of Speech & Drama, I have produced 5 of these plays with Canadian teens and I wanted to see how the plays are used with British youth.

“Connections” is the annual theatre festival in which U.K. schools and theatre groups present premiere productions of the new plays. As part of the process, directors attend a weekend workshop to meet with the playwrights and facilitating directors. I was thrilled to be invited to attend the 2012 Connections Directors Workshop as an international delegate.

There are ten new plays for 2012 Connections and over 100 directors were attending the workshops. Because I was not focusing on any one play in particular, I got to observe a variety of different writers at work with facilitating directors, all exploring different tasks and approaches to the texts. It was a fabulous day for me. I love creative process.

I arrived at the National Theatre Studio near Waterloo station, but wasn’t really sure where to go. I felt a bit at a loss until I met Edward Bromberg from Riksteatern, the national theatre in Sweden (http://www.riksteatern.se/). Edward was also attending as an international delegate, and he took me under his wing.

We started with “Journey to X”, by Nancy Harris: “A tale about friendship, a journey and the risks that teenagers take when plunged into an adult world.”* The facilitating director Charlotte Gwinner led the group in a discussion of the themes of the play, examining the world and rhythms of the play, while the playwright was able to answer essential questions and open up the dramaturgical process.

From “Journey to X” we went to “Socialism is Great”, by Anders Lustgarten: “The propaganda of the East meets the propaganda of the West in Anders Lustgarten’s play about love, work and power.”* The facilitating director in this workshop, Angus Jackson, worked with the whole group to examine blocking choices and the underlying motivation of the characters, asking the writer for clarification as they went along.

During the lunch break, I met up with my UK contact from the National, Anthony Bank, who was the facilitating director for “Prince of Denmark”,by Michael Lesslie”: “Set a decade before the action of Shakespeare’s play, Michael Lesslie’s imagined prequel follows the teenage Hamlet, Ophelia and Laertes as they rage against the roles handed down by their parents.”* Their morning had been spent in a voice workshop, exploring the use of iambic pentameter. After lunch, fight director Alison De Burgh led us through a basic sword-fighting workshop, always mindful of safety and methods suitable for young people.

Sword Fighting workshop, with Alison De Burgh

In “Generation Next”, by Meera Syal”: “two young British Punjabis are about to get married. Three times. Through three different generations. Exploring notions of identity and culture with a comic eye, Meera Syal addresses a shrinking world and our growing desire to move towards something or somewhere we think is better.”* A play very specifically for a cast of Asian actors, Meera Syal was there with facilitating director Iqbal Khan working with only one director and his cast of young actors. They discussed personal cultural biographies as they developed an understanding of the historical context of the play.

My last stop of the day was “Alice by Heart”, by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik: “How do we leave childhood behind? How do we close the book? A fresh new rock-musical take on Alice in Wonderland, from the creators of Spring Awakening”.* Writer Steven Sater (yes, he wrote Spring Awakening, one of my favourite musicals) and musical director David Shrubsole had obviously spent a busy day guiding, teaching and answering questions.

National Youth Musical Theatre Students, workshopping "Alice by Heart"

The room was filled with directors and about 12 actors from the National Youth Musical Theatre program. It was the end of the day and the facilitating director Timothy Sheader was focusing on transitions and design. Steven Sater answered questions about the writer’s process using a pre-existing text (“Alice in Wonderland”) as a springboard for an exploration of underlying themes.

By the end of the day, I had seen bits and pieces of 5 of the 10 new plays. I had met with teachers and directors who were passionately excited about producing these new works with their students, and who clearly relished the opportunity to ask questions of the writers and facilitating directors. It was a rare opportunity.

As the workshops ended, Edward invited me to go with Maria Lewenhaupt, his producer from Sweden, as well as delegates from theatres in Norway and Denmark, to see “Shalom Baby” a new drama-comedy at the Theatre Royal Stratford. A wonderfully layered piece, it is a play where the same characters are explored in 1930s Germany and in contemporary Brooklyn. American rap poems were juxtaposed with poignant forbidden love in Germany. It’s a moving and accessible exploration of xenophobia and contemporary blocks to happiness.

It was a long day, a great day. A day of more questions than answers. Just what I needed to kick start new thoughts.

*NB: all quotes from the National Theatre web site: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/65630/connections-plays-2012/plays-2012.html

The Sound of Movement

Summer came to London last week. Tim left for Boston, to receive the Boston Globe Horn Book Award for his book “Blink and Caution”. I was in a mood to enjoy the rare hot English sunshine, so I packed a small picnic lunch and set out for Kingston-Upon-Thames.

The Bridge into Kingston-Upon-Thames

Kingston is about a 10-minute bus ride from Surbiton. It is a lovely market town and was, in the 9th and 10th centuries, the place where Kings were crowned. At least 7 different Saxon Kings were crowned there. Hence the name King’s Town.

In the centre of town there is a thriving market, with stalls selling fruit and vegetables, as well as a very good butcher, fish monger, cheese seller, a stall of olives and hot fresh pretzels. Last week Tim and I came to the market late in the day, when the sellers are practically giving things away, and we got the ingredients for a fabulous Roasted Sweet Potato and Fig Salad. I’ve included the recipe, because it was really unusual and very delicious. Back in Canada, figs are usually too expensive to consider for something like this, but we got 5 for £1 at the market.

The Market, ready for Xmas

On Friday the market was in chaos because there was a film shoot going on for a Christmas commercial. In the blazing summer sun the square was filled with film extras in winter hats and Christmas decorations.

The river, however, was not disturbed. There are walks all along the Thames, and they were filled with mothers with children, students, business people, retirees – everyone out enjoying the day, many clearly playing hooky. I went along to Canbury Gardens and sat on a bench under the dappled shade of a tree to eat my lunch, read my book and just generally watch the world go by.

Looking across the Thames

A few lazy canoes, kayaks and rowboats. A canal boat. A small motor boat. A tourist boat. Everything and everybody was moving slowly, gracefully. The swans glided by, occasionally rousing themselves to fly 50 yards up stream in the hopes of better eating. When swans fly they only barely rise out of the surface of the water, and they paddle their feet on the surface as though they are trying to get some traction from the water.

Swans flying along the river

Their feet make a great thwacking sound and, along the loud thumping of their wings, it is surprising how the sound of the movement of these ridiculously gorgeous birds is so noisy.

After my visit to Kingston I went into London to see the final performance of “Body of Work”, in which the sound of movement also plays a part.

Maddy in the tech rehearsal with the lighting designer

“Body of Work” explores body issues and body politics. It is a 60-minute piece with five dancers of very different body types. They work together and separately to question how we relate to our bodies. The music ranges from a kind of African drum base to synthetic scratching, but  one of the most striking sections uses the song “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”. A dancer breaks off to dance a fearful and passionate response to the song. The other four dancers each take a corner of the stage and begin to draw on themselves with lipstick. You realize that the drawings are marks for a plastic surgeon – a circle and an X on the thigh; a nip and tuck of the stomach. The question in the song becomes: “Do I have to change myself for you to still love me, tomorrow?”

Will You Still Love Me, Tomorrow?

In another section, the dancers draw “seams” along their legs and suddenly are on catwalks, striking the numb poses of fashion models. They break off, bind themselves in plaster gauze on sections of their body, and thrust themselves back to the catwalk. There are images of pre-natal life, of self-loathing, of longing and desire.

Sometimes the dancers appear as 5 individuals. Sometimes they seem to be different facets of one person, fighting to come to resolution. By the end of the piece the floor is littered in discarded clothes, bandages, water and mess, but the dancers are in smooth calm white dresses that resonate classicism. They move as a supportive and aware group. There is no sound but their breathing.

Tate à Tate

Last Wednesday, we decided to have a Tate à Tate – an exploration of the Tate Britain in the morning and the Tate Modern in the afternoon. The Tate Britain was listing a show on “The Romantics”, which ended up as mostly a show on Turner. It was wonderful to see so many Turners, and to see the evolution of his style, but it was a bit disappointing not to see some of the others of the period. After a little pub lunch down the road we decided to go back to the gallery in hunt of Pre-Raphaelites. We were rewarded with a few of our most favourite pieces (some with a definite flair for the “Elegant Gothic Lolita” — see Camden Town!) – Millais’ Mariana and his Ophelia, Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott, Brune-Jones’ The Golden Stairs (looking for all the world like the angels out for a union break), and the magnificent Singer Sargent portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, which is enormous and vigourous. It is larger than life and full of passion, as she was.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

After we had feasted on those paintings, we hopped onto a river ferry to take us to the Tate Modern. The Tate runs a ferry between the two galleries and it really is the most wonderful way to journey down the river, past the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, the Globe. The city was built on the Thames, and being on the river connects you to centuries of commerce and trade.

Tim on the Thames with the Houses of Parliament

When Tim & I go to galleries, we split up and agree to meet later. We both have different things we are interested in, and this way we have things to share when we meet up  — “Did you see the … ?!” is usually how it starts.

“Did you see the Sunflower Seeds?” said Tim. “Did you see the Staircase?” I countered.

“Sunflower Seeds” by Al Weiwei is a huge pile of what seem to be millions of sunflower seeds on the floor of the gallery. However, each seed is hand-made of porcelain, combining the idea of mass production (so deeply associated with China) and individual craftsmanship. Sunflower seeds are a common snack in China, but carry associations with the Cultural Revolution, when propaganda posters depicted Chairman Mao as the sun and the masses of people as sunflowers turning towards him. Weiwei also remembers sharing sunflower seeds as a gesture of compassion in a time of extreme poverty. “Your own acts and behaviour tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be” Ai Weiwei

“Staircase – III”, by Do Ho Suh, is a polyester and wire installation that takes over a whole room. A perfectly made fabric staircase hangs in the centre of the room, complete with balustrade, electrical sockets and light fixtures. It hangs from a transparent fabric “floor” above, through which the balustrade can be seen. The staircase hovers tantalizingly above your head, opening out to a door in the middle of the air.

Staircase III by Do Ho Suh

Great discoveries.

We left as the gallery closed at 6:00. It was a lovely afternoon and we walked from the Southbank to Trafalgar Square, heading to the Crypt at St. Martin’s in the Fields. The Crypt has a cafeteria-style restaurant, with good wine, delicious tapas, a great vegetarian mushroom ragout, and Jazz every Wednesday night. This really is an 18th century crypt – the floor is made of gravestones and the beautiful brick arches make for fabulous acoustics for the band. Shanti Paul Jayasinha is a mellow trumpeter, playing original music in an Afro-Cuban and Brazilian style,

and his band suited this intimate venue perfectly. It was one of those nights when I could hear all of the layers in the music. Simple, clean and elegant. A perfect ending to a day of visual feasting.