Toronto will host the Royal Academy of Dance Canada’s special first gathering of dance entrepreneurs and teachers from around the world this weekend, starting tonight.
The En Avant Dance Teacher Conference will include an array of specialist guest speakers highlighting international insights on dance pedagogy, as well as guidance on running a successful dance business.
The much anticipated event occurs comes after the RAD warned of the global dangers of unqualified dance teachers, as RAD research showed that over half of us automatically assume teachers are qualified in their subject area.
As concerns have been raised in countries like Australia and the United Kingdom about the worldwide lack of legal requirement to be qualified to teach dance, this Canadian conference will unite leading dance educators in a forum designed to set professional standards in the world of dance.
In addition to leading industrial insights, the conference will feature luminaries of the dance world and VIPs. Special guest speakers will include Artistic Director of The National Ballet of Canada, Karen Kain; Emmy-Nominated, Canadian-born choreographer, Stacey Tookey; Artistic Director of the Royal Academy of Dance, Lynn Wallis OBE, and Toronto local, DJ Danny D. The conference will also feature a keynote address from Li Cunxin, RAD Vice-President and Artistic Director of Queensland Ballet, as well as author of the award-winning Mao’s Last Dancer. Toronto dance critic and Globe and Mail reporter Deirdre Kelly, author of Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, is a panelist at the Sunday morning session examining perfectionism in dance.
The four-day conference, at Toronto’s Sheraton Centre through Monday, will combine industry sessions such as movement workshops and business seminars with special events such as a cocktail reception, fashion show and gala dinner. Full details can be found here and on the RAD website.
The news has just broken in New York that the legendary street style photographer, Bill Cunningham, has died, following a stroke. He was 87. He had worked at the New York Times for the past 40 years, regularly contributing to his column, On The Street, in which he shared his observations of what he saw while riding around on one of his many bicycles, clicking away at life. The Times’s report of his passing, published on June 25, the day of his death, describes him “both as a dedicated chronicler of fashion and as an unlikely cultural anthropologist, one who used the changing dress habits of the people he photographed to chart the broader shift away from formality and toward something more diffuse and individualistic.” I can corroborate that.
Mr. Cunningham shot me once, in Paris, where I was covering the shows for my newspaper in Toronto. We didn’t speak, and yet we had a conversation. He may have already clicked before I noticed him, down on one knee, near the Trockedero. I knew who he was, of course I did!, and was quite startled and then flattered that he had wanted to photograph me. I looked into his camera. I smiled. He smiled. That was me saying thank-you, him saying you’re welcome. And then he was off. I don’t know if he ever published the image. But I remember the moment vividly, and know what I had that likely caught his eye– a zebra print purse. That must have been it.
Animal inspired prints were everywhere that season and he had caught me, slavishly following the trend. That was his special gift: pinpointing moments in the fashion parade and preserving them in both image and memory. How fortunate I am to have had such a rare individual cross my path. He made the ephemeral seem eternal. May his legacy be as lasting.
As the Globe and Mail’s fulltime dance critic, I witnessed first-hand the global phenomenon that was Riverdance. I also spent time in a Detroit-area hotel room (more on that later) with its original star, Michael Flately, a dancer with an ego as big as his Guiness World Record for more clicks per second than ever before achieved by a pair of jigging feet. After Riverdance the American hoofer went on to form Lord of the Dance, and, yes, lording it over legions who had overnight gone gaga for ethnic folk dance performed in sport stadiums. The memory lives on. A 20th anniversary Riverdance revival arrives in Toronto on May 17 for a limited run at Mirvish Theatre. In anticipation, we went back into the archives to revisit the fury that first made step dance sexy.
A bare-chested sex god with a penchant for tight pants, diamond earrings and cologne liberally applied, Michael Flatley is Lord of the Dance, the highest paid dancer in the world.
When the 38-year-old, Chicago-born star of the internationally acclaimed Irish dance show slinks onstage, wearing a headband and a bottle tan, the air-thumping crowd shrieks and throws roses.
“Do you want more?” he screams. He asks the question again and again until the deafening roar of more than 10,000 yeeeeahs finally satisfies.
With a sexy pout of the lips, Flatley peels off his sparkling matador jacket, emblazoned (in sequins) with the green, white and orange of the Irish flag, and dances a blazing riff across the floor.
The house rocks when two smoke bombs explode at the finale. This time the audience really goes berserk.
Glassy-eyed fans wearing long, hooded robes that make them look like Druids on drugs rush the stage and chant his name. Mi-chael. Mi-chael. Flatley flashes a charismatic smile. Knowing that people love him gives him the ultimate high.
“It’s energy,” he says, gasping for air backstage. “You’re out there pumping out that great energy, night after night after night. And the audience gives it all back. Do you know what that feeling is like? It’s bliss.”
Since its dazzling debut in Dublin last summer, Flatley’s unique brand of arena dance has consistently sold out stadiums normally reserved for sporting events and rock concerts. Featuring a stage design by Jonathan and Cheryl Park, the people who dressed up the Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge tour, and a throbbing lighting show by Patrick Woodroffe, the person who lights Elton John, Michael Jackson and Tina Turner, Lord of the Dance has grossed in excess of $28-million on its current 20-city North American tour and another $140-million on CD and video sales.
The Gael force blows into Montreal’s Molson Centre Theatre tomorrow and Saturday, and Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens on Sunday and Monday. It descends on Vancouver in June. The shows have long been sold out.
Indeed, in Toronto, Flatley’s rejigged jig sold 18,000 tickets in less than 48 hours. The box office opened on March 22, a full two days before the Lord himself flashed his act in front of an international audience of nearly a billion people at the Oscars.
Critics tend to loathe him. His show is usually panned by reviewers who object to his unbridled stage bravado. One British review was headlined The Ego Has Landed.
“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again,” Flatley says. “People mistake ego for self-confidence. I would say that you need to have an enormous amount of self-confidence to face 10,000 people on your own every night. That’s not an easy thing to do. And if you’re not confident at your job, you could never do that. You could just never do that. The more confidence you have, the more willing you are to walk on the edge and be out there in front of them.”
Though an innovator, Flatley was unceremoniously dropped from Riverdance — another touring Gaelic dance show that he helped create and once starred in — in 1995 when he had a very public falling-out with producer Moya Doherty over creative control. Flatley is now suing Riverdance for 2 per cent of the show’s profits (about $7-million). The matter has yet to go to trial. But Flatley is already airing his side of the story.
“They wanted 100-per-cent creative control over my work,” he says, his voice registering hurt. “You know, they wanted control and they weren’t even dancers. And considering I had brought over the dance style and taught it to the Irish people, I thought it was terribly unfair. I’m from America, and everything here is freedom of expression. But they tried to make me a caged animal and I couldn’t live with that.”
Despite Flatley’s critics, other dancers don’t begrudge him his success. “The only thing I can say about Michael Flatley is I think it’s wonderful if anyone can bring dance to the masses,” says National Ballet of Canada principal dancer Rex Harrington. “And he’s very smart because he’s making a lot of money doing it and I wish I had his pay cheque. I think it’s a good thing and I think that he’s obviously quite talented.”
Flatley’s Lord of the Dance is not just another in a series of Celtic revival shows spreading their lucky charm around the globe. By taking a centuries-old dance form and turning it into an international pop sensation, Flatley has created what some are calling the show of the decade.
Flately has what every performer wants — great word of mouth.
Though Riverdance and Lord of the Dance are different — the firstis a folkloric dance variety show while the secondis a Viva Las Vegas-styleextravaganza in which dance serves to tell a tale of good and evil in mythic Ireland — each has contributed to a radical redefining of Irish dancing as a popular art.
(Riverdance, which jumpstarted Flatley’s mammoth popularity, comes to Toronto next month, with a week of performances at the Hummingbird Centre. It too is already sold out.)
Irish dancing is traditionally a poker-back affair, with the arms held stiffly at the sides and the gaze decidedly mournful, as if thought was perpetually cast on the misery of British rule. The footwork, however, has always been lightning fast and the jumps buoyant, as if the fairies themselves were dancing a reel.
Flatley has freed the arms in Irish dancing and added a dollop of flash to the overall performing style. He also accentuates rhythm in the footwork, using counterpoint to bring out different tones in the tap to complement the music. His dances looks like a marriage of flamenco and step dancing, part sex and part romance.
“The truth is, you can’t really define what we do,” he says with a touch of the brogue. “The best definition I’ve ever heard anyone use to describe it is pop dance.”
A concert-level flutist whose feet (insured by Lloyd’s of London for more than $70-million) can tap out 28 clicks a second, Flatley often describes himself in animal terms. “I was kind of like a wild horse,” he says, recalling his boyhood lessons in a Chicago-area Irish dance school. “I wanted to do kicks over my head and I wanted to do everything. But I didn’t want to wear a kilt. It’s not that I was being disrespectful. I just never understood that.”
Flatley’s first dancing teacher, Marge Dennehy, “knew from his first lesson that he was going to be great,” she says from her Oak Lawn, Ill., home. He was 11 when he started, she recalls. “He went from beginners to competition level almost overnight. He skipped all the categories, which is very unusual.”
Flatley went on to become the first American to win the All World Championships in Irish dancing. For a while he was the world’s only professional Irish dancer, touring occasionally with the Chieftains. But the number of gigs that call for a jig were few and far between. For many years, Flatley sustained himself by working on construction.
For a while he laboured under his father, who until recent triple-bypass surgery was a tradesman with his own business who taught his five children (Flatley has three sisters and a younger brother) the value of hard work.
Flatley’s meteoric rise has ushered many changes into his life. His 11-year marriage to Polish make-up artist named Beata Dziaba broke up last year as a result of a ruthless touring schedule. He no longer has a home — “I live in hotels,” he sighs — and his body hates him for it.
Before and after every show he gets a special rub-down (female hands only) to loosen any knots in his muscles. Every night he soaks his feet in ice to make sure he can walk the next day. He says he can lose eight to 10 pounds dancing each show. And at a lean 5’9″, weighing in at 147 pounds, Flately doesn’t have fat to spare. But the pain is worth it. Lord of the Dance has made him a very rich man. In conversation he admits to making a weekly salary that is in excess of $630,000. When he was with Riverdance he made $105,000 a week.
Flatley says he gets his confidence from self-help books. He says he doesn’t watch television, doesn’t listen to the radio and doesn’t read fiction. Everything for him is focus, focus, focus. “Those are things for passing time,” he says.
Next on his agenda is a movie. It will be a dance film, he says, with a love story. He will star (of course). Production will begin next March.
“I think it’s really important in life, whatever you do, to do it your own way,” says Flatley. “I can’t tell you how many times in the tough years I would try to get work as a dancer and everyone wanted me to dance like a tap dancer. But I persevered. I didn’t want to do it that way. I’m not a tap dancer. I’m a Celt. And I do it a different way.”
Celebrated urbanologist Jane Jacobs passed away 10 years ago in her adopted city of Toronto and to celebrate her. And keep her spirit alive, I spoke with people close to her to ask them about the places in the city she held dear to her heart:
When Ms. Jacobs and her family first moved to the city from New York in 1968, it was the market’s humming chaos — live chickens in cages, a multitude of languages, and thick knots of pedestrian traffic — that made for love at first sight. Before renting their first apartment on Spadina Road, the family looked for flats along Baldwin Street. When they began house hunting, they revisited the neighbourhood before settling into the Annex. “There was no question that it felt like home to us,” Jim Jacobs, her son, remembers of Kensington. “It was the variety, and all the things going on in the street and all the different people. It was the most intense mixture.”
69 Albany Ave.
A former rooming house renovated by her late architect husband, Bob Jacobs, Ms. Jacobs’s home of 37 years had a telephone booth preserved from the building’s previous incarnation, and, at least during the visit of one guest a decade ago, white plastic patio chairs in the living room. Conversations with guests would often be interrupted by phone calls. After closing the door for privacy, Toronto city councillor Nadine Nowlan remembers, “she would emerge declaring, ‘Oh that was so-and-so from New York, or that was so-and-so from Brazil.’ ” Once a year, Ms. Jacobs feted the past and present recipients of the Jane Jacobs Prize — founded in 1997 to honour citizens that have contributed to the city’s vitality — at a legendary potluck dinner in her home. Rollo Myers, who won the 2000 prize, says the get-togethers were gruelling. “There’d be a swarm of ideas, and you’d have to be on your toes and be prepared to defend your point of view. After the first one I was shell-shocked, and [her friend] Mary Rowe said, cheerfully, ‘You got off light.’ ”
The site of her first public Toronto victory — against the proposal to extend the Spadina Expressway (now Allen Road) through the centre of the city. The 1971 achievement was the cumulative effort of Annex residents, but Ms. Jacobs, a newcomer fresh from a neighbourhood urban-renewal fight in New York, inspired and galvanized the Stop Spadina Save Our City group. She never lost her distaste for expressways that divided a city. “She always hated the Gardiner,” recalls Councillor Nowlan, a group member. “She just hated elevated expressways. They were ugly, and they were a barrier to people enjoying the waterfront, and they funnel cars into the central part of the city and create bottlenecks. She never tired of complaining about them.”
In 2001, when her doctor prescribed regular walks for exercise, Ms. Jacobs began heading outside the city core for “discovery” strolls. Some of what she discovered — monolithic subdivisions with no pedestrian life — dismayed her. Elsewhere, such as in Brampton and Mississauga, she saw potential. But she never referred to them as the burbs, says journalist Sid Adilman, a long-time neighbour who accompanied her on her walks — “she always named them, because they weren’t faceless to her.” On one trip, she paid a visit to Mississauga’s town hall to pore over urban-development plans — amid the buzz of an excited planning-department staff. “I thought Mississauga was a hellhole,” says Mr. Adilman. “But she didn’t. She actually liked what she saw. She liked their plan to expand and improve the downtown core. She was more the optimist.”
401 Richmond St. W.
It’s no surprise that Ms. Jacobs enjoyed visiting the converted warehouse near the corner of Spadina. With its mix of tenants — galleries, studios, a café, a daycare — “it embodies all of her ideas about mixed uses and of people interacting with each other to be creative and innovative under one roof,” says former mayor John Sewell. Community-friendly property developer Margie Zeidler, who completed the building’s conversion in 1994, chalks up its inspiration, in part, to a chapter of Ms. Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “She wrote, ‘Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.’ When I read that, at age 18, it was such a flash. I thought, “Yes! Warehouses — they have a purpose.”
The Toronto Islands
Ms. Jacobs’s fondness for the islands was demonstrable: When the city proposed demolishing the houses on Ward’s and Algonquin islands to increase parkland — as it had done to Centre Island and Hanlan’s Point — Ms. Jacobs was invited to attend a Canada Day rally in support of the community. Writer and archivist Sally Gibson remembers Ms. Jacobs’s call-to-arms that day in 1980: “She said, ‘This community shouldn’t be destroyed, because it’s loveable. It’s unique. It’s a lovely thing. It’s wicked to destroy loveable, unique and lovely things. When people defend a place the way you islanders are defending this, that’s the greatest argument of all. It says it’s worth saving.’ ”
Dundas and Sherbourne
It’s a pivotal moment that many remember well: a morning in 1973, at a protest to preserve the neighbourhood at Dundas and Sherbourne — part of a planned razing of Sherbourne Street’s east side. As the bulldozers reared into action, Ms. Jacobs called on picketers to rip down the hoardings, without which, according to a city bylaw, the developers could not proceed. The tear-down was averted. The standoff led to high-density infill housing in the laneways behind the historic homes — downtown’s first non-profit housing project. “It was a brilliant example of her being active within the rest of the community, and of her ingenuity,” says Mr. Sewell, an alderman at the time. The partially demolished porch still stands at 241 Sherbourne.
The island airport
First, there was the Harbour City project, a plan to turn the site of the island airport into a 60,000-strong residential development. She was integral, architect Ed Zeidler remembers, to his vision of houses, retail, hotels, recreational spaces in a mostly car-free environment. She was particularly adamant that it be not just for the wealthy. The plan was scuttled in 1974, but her interest in the development of the island never abated. In opposing the expansion of the airport in 2003, she threw her support behind then-long-shot mayoral candidate David Miller. “Jane felt very passionately that to build a bridge and expand the airport was inimical to building a great neighbourhood,” says Mayor Miller. “She understood that there could be great neighbourhoods on the waterfront if only they weren’t under the flight path of a busy Toronto airport.”
Royal St. George’s College
Ms. Jacobs’s last battle was, fittingly, in her own backyard: the proposed three-storey addition to a boys’ private school less than a block from her house. “She didn’t want the expansion to stop — she wanted the school to move altogether,” says Lynn Spink of the Neighbours of St. Alban’s Park group that has spearheaded the fight. “And on that point she was a lot more radical than the other neighbours.” City council and community council voted to halt the expansion in November, but the school appealed the decision to the Ontario Municipal Board. On Wednesday, her son attended the hearing to speak on her behalf. “She wasn’t the retiring type,” Jim Jacobs says. “I think that it’s inevitable that she died fighting.”
It was a brilliant example of her being active within the rest of the community, and of her ingenuity.
Former mayor John Sewell, recalling how Jacobs’s quick thinking averted the demolition of the corner of Dundas and Sherbourne. A partially demolished porch at 241 Sherbourne still stands.
She wrote, ‘Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.’ When I read that, at age 18, it was such a flash. I thought, ‘Yes! Warehouses — they have a purpose.’
Community developer Margie Zeidler on Jacobs’s influence on 401 Richmond. Her favourite spot: the rooftop garden.
She always hated the Gardiner. She just hated elevated expressways. They were ugly, and they were a barrier to people enjoying the waterfront, and they funnel cars into the central part of the city and create bottlenecks. She never tired of complaining about them.
Stop Spadina Save Our City co-organizer Nadine Nowlan, on Jacobs’s continued distaste for expressways. The proposed Spadina Expressway extension would have run through the Annex neighbourhood they shared.
There’d be a swarm of ideas, and you’d have to be on your toes and be prepared to defend your point of view. After the first one I was shell-shocked, and [her friend] Mary Rowe said, cheerfully, ‘You got off light.’
Rollo Myers of Architectural Conservancy Ontario, on the get-togethers at Ms. Jacobs’s Albany Avenue home. Every year, she hosted past and present recipients of the Jane Jacobs Award for a potluck dinner.
In a lush part of Southern Ontario, Baptist churches grow as thick as corn stalks and Manasie Akpaliapik is far from his birth place at a hunting camp north of Baffin Island.
Yet the Inuit sculptor is reminded of his polar roots each time he takes a hammer and chisel to the huge chunk of whale bone that his hunter-father recently sent him.
He would like to have the sculpture ready for an exhibition of his work opening soon at the Indigena Gallery in Stratford, Ont. But the internationally acclaimed artist (he has work in the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia) is beginning to see the whale bone as the elusive Moby Dick.
“I have been having a hard time with this piece,” he says softly in slow, clipped English. “Maybe the size is scaring me. I don’t want to make a mistake.”
He puts the chisel down and picks up a pack of cigarettes. Small and muscular with high, flat cheekbones and hair as dark as a crow, Akpaliapik remains silent a long time as he contemplates the gnarled and porous hunk of skull before him.
“Sometimes you can look at a piece and it says nothing, and the next day suddenly it’s all there.”
Inspiration, he adds, swatting a mosquito, is being able to see something before it actually exists.
As it turns out, the whale bone will not be ready for the Stratford show. But Indigena Gallery owner Erla Arbuckle has about 20 other sculptures by Akpaliapik to showcase.
“I don’t want to call it a spirit show,” she says, “but I have looked for pieces that show transformation, and that bring elements of the spirit world in contrast with elements of the natural world.”
It’s something of a long story as to why an Inuit lives on an Indian reserve, but the short of it is that, because Akpaliapik’s wife is half Ojibwa and half Irish, he is permitted to set up house on land usually reserved for Six Nations people. Living there has convinced Akpaliapik that Inuit and Indians are similar:
“A lot of our beliefs and how we see nature and the land and the weather is pretty much the same.”
He looks forward to the Indigena exhibition because, in its own small way, it will show the two peoples as united.
Akpaliapik’s style, meanwhile, is not easy to define. He is interested in nature, but his work is never the naive realism of, say, airport Inuit art. Rather, his work bristles with ideas, most having to do with relationships between humans and nature, humans and the spiritual world.
Akpaliapik leaves the whale bone for a moment and walks across his back yard to a recently finished carving that sits on a cement brick in the full light of the afternoon sun.
Made out of antler, alabaster and animal bone, the three-dimensional sculpture shows from the front an Inuit face and from the back a full-bodied seal. Tenderly holding it in his hands, Akpaliapik, who was born in 1955, says his inspiration for this piece came from the seal hunters he knew in his youth.
“In my area, as I was growing up the main food source was the seal. We used it for rope, for clothing. For us it was a life source. And for me, if that seal were not there, that person would not be there.”
In addition to whale bone, Akpaliapik’s materials include caribou antler, narwhal tusk and polar bear bone.
Although he has often come into conflict with U.S. export restrictions governing whale bone and other ivories, Akpaliapik stresses that the natural materials he uses come from animals that died in the wild.
He also sculpts in limestone, alabaster and Italian marble. But he prefers animal materials because they have shapes that inspire ideas and because they strengthen ties linking his art to his roots. “It keeps me in touch with Mother Nature too,” he says.
Carving is part of his family background — his grandparents, Elisapee Kanangnaq and Peter Ahlooloo, are well-known carvers from Arctic Bay, and his great-aunt, Paniluk Qamanirq, is celebrated for her abstract sculpture.
But Akpaliapik, who lived a nomadic life before being forced to attend school at the age of 12 — “I moved three times a year according to the seasons” — did not start sculpting full-time until a tragedy forced his hand.
He was 24 and working, as many Inuit do, on an oil rig hundreds of kilometres away from his community. One night, while he was at work, his first wife, Noodloo, and their two small children, a boy and a girl, died in a house fire. “It just happened when they were sleeping,” he says, his head bent low over his carving.
After the accident, Akpaliapik moved to Montreal where he lived with a group of sculptors. That’s when he transformed himself into an artist. “It was a way of healing myself.”
He lived in Montreal for five years, then moved to Toronto with his second wife, Geralyn Wraith, a makeup artist. They bought a house in the east end and had a son, now eight years old, named Kiviuq. Their house at Six Nations is used mainly by Akpaliapik as a studio retreat.
Akpaliapik named his son after an Odysseus-like figure in Inuit folklore who travels the universe on a series of life-affirming journeys.
His story, says Akpaliapik, “gives up a different window on different situations and different problems. A lot of people, when you get stuck in life, think of this legend to get some ideas as to how to get free. Also, I’m so far down here and I guess I just felt that it was an appropriate name for my son because it tells him who he is and where he comes from.”
He has carved the Kiviuq figure in the past and says he has often looked to the legend to help him in his own times of trouble.
“All these years I have been struggling with alcoholism, like a lot of my people have been. When you go through drastic changes you kind of turn to alcohol or something else to get away from reality,” he says.
One of his pieces in the National Gallery is a sculpted portrait of a man gripping his head, eyes rolled back in their sockets, the mouth an open grimace of pain. Out of the top of the head rises a meticulously carved wine bottle. Akpaliapik says it’s a self-portrait: “And maybe I was hoping that if it comes out in the art it will make people realize that it [alcoholism] is their problem too.
“A lot of time my art helps me cope with things,” Akpaliapik says. “Sometimes there are things that I can’t talk about, but it will come out in my art.”
(Originally published in The Globe and Mail on July 13, 1996)
Miranda Richardson is having a bad day. Her big round baby-blues are red and scratchy, her fine strawberry blond hair is ruffled, and her pink eye shadow looks as if it were smeared on in a hurry. Whatever could be the matter? We are thinking of how to politely inquire when Richardson, a Camels Light in pale thin hand, gives us a basilisk stare.
Oh, god. We are the matter.
It is well known that Richardson hates us, the press that is. Even though she (apparently) has come willingly to Toronto to promote Swann,she has so far cancelled every scheduled interview but five.
She answers questions with terse one-word answers that begin and end with very long pauses.
She lights another cigarette and curls cat-like into an arm chair. Wearing slightly flared black pants, a fuzzy tangerine sweater and a pale-green ring, she wiggles the toes on her bare feet with the absent-minded look of a school girl.
Her delicate doll-like features belie a woman with a certain edge.
You don’t just have to meet her in the flesh to figure it out. Check out the wide range of projects in her film career: big budget (Steven Speilberg’s Empire of the Sun), low budget (Stephen Poliakoff’s Century)and just about everything in between (Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game and Brian Gilbert’s Tom & Viv).
Nothing she has done has been predictable. Nothing easy or pat. And don’t think her penchant for off-beat films and quirky roles hasn’t been deliberate.
In Swann,a film in which she flattens her British accent in order to play a Yank (as she has before, in Robert Altman’s Kansas City, and will do in The Apostle,a film that started shooting in Louisiana this month), Richardson plays an uptight academic-careerist who is struggling to complete a book on a Canadian poet.
She says she chose to do the film because: (a) “I know David Young [Swann’sscreenwriter, a Canadian based in Toronto] and like him very much and like his work”; and (b) “I liked the journey of this character, this character who is coming to terms with where her life is, where her career is, what she thinks she needs and what she really does need to feel whole.”
Richardson made her film debut with Mike Newell’s Dance with a Stranger (1985). Cast as Ruth Ellis, the bottle-blond murderess who was the last woman to be hanged in Britain, Richardson, who was 27 at the time, caused such a stir that writers in the English-speaking world fell over each other to see who could out-superlative whom.
Born in Lancashire, England, on March 3, 1958, Richardson was trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. She still does theatre in between film projects and refers to the stage as a clean drink of water. This past summer at the Edinburgh Arts Festival she performed a one-woman play based on the Virginia Wolfe novel, Orlando.
Right to the end of this interview, Richardson is elusive, refusing to talk about her personal life (“that’s why they call it personal”), except to say she is not married and several times has been unlucky in love. Which is why she prefers the company of cats with whom she lives in her flat in London.
When a photographer asks to take her picture she shows her claws. She doesn’t want to be clicked while talking.
“I don’t want to be munched up like that,” she declares. “I don’t want to be set up for the end of anyone’s suppositions or frustrated ambitions or whatever. That just doesn’t sit well with me.”
I grew up watching The Patty Duke Show, about Patty and Cathy, identical cousins who were “matching book ends, different in every way,” as the catchy theme song described them. One like the Ballets Russes and the other rock and roll. It was hard to know which one to like better because at heart they were really the same person– both played by Patty Duke using split screen technology. A study of duality, the sitcom first aired in 1963, and represented teen America before The Beatles and other imported influences shook things up. It represented nostalgia and the new wave all at once. Ironically, Patty Duke was herself two people. Her real name is Anna but when she became a child star at age eight she took the name Patty. She really did feel like two people inside the same body and later in life would suffer from identity issues. She suffered from a bipolar disorder and yet she managed to achieve greatness in her life. She played the blind mute Helen Keller in Broadway’s The Miracle Worker and reprised the role for the film version released in 1962. She won the Academy Award as the best supporting actress when she was 16, the then youngest recipient of an Oscar. But she wanted just to be herself and later in life she renounced Patty and became Anna again, a transformation she wrote about in her 1987 autobiography, Call Me Anna. I met the actress at this time, and wrote a profile of her for my newspaper, The Globe and Mail, which was based on our close encounter. I reproduce that conversation here in tribute to a woman who found a way to be whole again.
WHEN PATTY Duke was 23 she received a bouquet of green flowers from her boy friend Desi Arnaz Jr. and a note that called her his “special little Irish leprechaun.” Now Patty Duke is 40 and married to her fourth husband, former drill sergeant Michael Pearce. She’s no longer the manic-depressive starlet of Valley of the Dolls. She’s given up pills, controls her alcohol instake and no longer feels suicidal. She’s seen too much to be anyone’s leprechaun, but she’s ready now to weave her own mature magic.
Duke is currently riding a high wave. She just finished writing (with the help of GQ film critic Kenneth Turan) Call Me Anna, her shockingly personal and unsparing autobiography, which Bantam Books will publish in hardcover on Aug. 20. (Excerpts from the book were recently printed in People magazine.) She has just landed a new half-hour sitcom series called Karen’s Song which premiered last Saturday evening on the fledgling Fox network. And though busy, she is continuing her role as president of her industry’s largest trade union, the Screen Actors Guild, at a critical time in its history.
But as in the past, audiences are more interested in Patty Duke the Hollywood personality than Patty Duke the union leader/political activist/author. Duke, who was in Toronto yesterday to promote her book, realizes that to most people she is first a name and a personality. She’s not bothered by that. In fact, with Call Me Anna she has used her public persona as a vehicle to get across an important message.
“I’m someone people feel they know,” she said, curled up on a chair in her hotel room. Although her fans may not recognize the one-time wildspirit, from her newly coiffed coppery hair and long, shapely nails, there’s a new glamor to Patty Duke.
“I’m approachable,” she continues. “Perfect strangers feel comfortable enough to walk up to me in the street and talk. Sometimes someone like me can make an impression on people. So I feel a responsibility to these people, to let them know that the light everyone always told you exists at the end of the tunnel is true. It’s there. It exists.”
Duke has been struggling toward her own light for some time. Call Me Anna is a sad and complex tale of one woman’s quest for self-discovery and self-control. Fundamentally it’s a story of survival and in that way Duke accomplishes her aim – to impart a universal message, one that says even when you hit bottom (and Duke has hit bottom several times, hard) you can always pull yourself up.
Philosophy aside, Call Me Anna is a very personal story. It begins as a story of Anna Marie, the little girl born in 1947 to lower middle class Manhattan parents, who was to become the child star known as Patty Duke. Her mother needed money to support her family in the absence of her alcoholic husband and so sent her 7-year-old daughter to meet her actor brother’s managers, John and Ethel Ross. Writes Duke, “I imagine what they saw was intelligence, a bright shiny little kid who would understand the score and who could be easily controlled.”
Duke became the Rosses’ protege. They manipulated her and molded her; they wanted her to be the next Grace Kelly, a ragamuffin who would make riches and, it was hoped, would marry royalty and become immortal as a star. Duke paints their control of her as tyrannical. They picked her apart, tore her down and then decided her name wasn’t “perky” enough for the business. One day Ethel Ross announced, “Okay, we’ve finally decided, we’re gonna change your name. Anna Marie is dead. You’re Patty now.” Duke was devastated. “Little did they know that over 20 years would be spent on a psychiatrist’s coach because of that phrase alone,” she now writes.
The Rosses effectively tore Duke away from her mother and turned her into a Broadway star. They were fine trainers and with their backing Duke, at 13, landed the role of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. She became an overnight success, but this served to intensify her managers’ hold over her life. They now monitored every word she spoke in public and prevented her from making friends her own age. They introduced her to drugs and alcohol. During filming of The Miracle Worker, for which she later won an Oscar as best supporting actress, she says John Ross even tried to have sex with her.
Duke broke from the Rosses while doing The Patty Duke Show (which they never allowed her to watch on television for fear it might “turn (her) head”). She rebelled by marrying Peter Falk, a man 14 years her senior, and later by taking up cigarets, alcohol and prescription drugs. She became self-destructive and manic and several times was institutionalized in mental hospitals. She divorced, married a man she didn’t know, divorced again, had affairs with Frank Sinatra (she had already dated his son and Desi Arnaz Jr.). She got pregnant by John Astin, then a married man with three children, and led the world to believe the child was Desi’s. She eventually married Astin, had another child by him, adopted his three sons, went on the road as a touring actress, and after years of turmoil, was finally diagnosed as a manic-depressive.
“From that moment on,” she writes, “I wasn’t frightened at all. It was such a relief, almost like a miracle, really, for someone to give what I’d gone through a name and a treatment.”
Duke says it took “alot of bravery and bravado” to write about her life, but is relieved she did it. One reason she wrote the book was a promise to her mother to set the record straight. The other was more personal. “I always get self-conscious when I answer this question; it sounds so self-serving and noble. The truth is I feel better.” The book was a purging. “It was a cathartic experience.”
Duke believes she’s learned a lesson from writing the book, but says she can’t quite figure out what it is. Except this. “This honesty stuff really is the right policy for me. There’s an enormous relief in coming out of the closet, no matter what it is.”
Perhaps the most unexpected discovery for Duke is that the key to her future lies in her past. She says when she’s on a set today and is having difficulty finding the right feeling or meaning for her character, she goes back to the days of The Miracle Worker and uses “the melancholy, the ache, the longing” to what she feels is a better, even higher, purpose. She also calls on her experiences of The Patty Duke Show. In the last few years she says she has made a more concentrated effort to absorb Cathy, one of the identical twins she played on the show, into her life. “I can be the fun-loving, easygoing Patty type, but I also can be conscientious and decisive. Even today as I was combing my hair, I looked in the mirror and said to myself, “Gee, you look like Cathy today.”
This undated photo provided by the Stratford Festival of Canada shows Brian Bedford as King Lear in the 2007 festival’s production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”
I had just finished wading through the outpouring of grief on Twitter this morning for the passing of the great Brish actor, Alan Rickman, when I learned, with a shock, of the death of yet another English-born thespian, Brian Bedford, a veteran of Canada’s Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ont. My morning has indeed become mourning. RADA-trained, Brian Bedford, who died Jan. 13, age 80, in Stratford, Ont., was a brilliant comedic actor and tragedian. I saw him perform many times in recent years, often in stellar productions of Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde which he directed himself.
Mr. Bedford was a consummate professional and a real dear who invited me to his home in Stratford, regaling me with tales about the British theatre scene in the 1960s when he was classmates with Albert Finney and, for a brief while, Brian Epstein of The Beatles fame. I am a due-hard Beatles fan and so relished him telling me about Epstein’s gambling debts and backstage maneuvers before finding his calling as the Fabs’ manager. I also shared with Mr. Bedford a deep love and admiration for Oscar Wilde and sat in rapt attention in his living room as he to,d me about his own connection to the legendary Irish wit. He had, when we met in the summer of 2009, just directed himself in a one-man tribute to Oscar. What a privilege it was to hear him talk about it, in the flesh as it were, his fave bursting with love, pride and enthusiasm. I shall miss him on the stage. I reprint my conversation with him in tribute.
For Brian Bedford the stage is his home, where he has spent the better part of his life performing as a classically trained actor.
But enter his sun-dappled residence in Stratford, Ont., located on a tree-lined street within walking distance to the theatre where he currently stars in his own directed version of The Importance of Being Earnest, and the feeling is that the reverse is also true: The home is his stage.
The 1880s, pale brick Ontario cottage where he has lived since 1985, sharing it with fellow Stratford Shakespeare Festival actor Tim MacDonald, is filled with artifacts reflecting more than 50 years honing a career devoted to live performance. From the framed series of 17th century theatre designs given him by his old friend Peter Glenville, director of the 1964 historic film, Becket, to the piles of books by and about Oscar Wilde, the Irish wit whom Mr. Bedford just finished playing tribute to in his one-man play, Ever Yours, Oscar, his immaculately kept one-storey is a thespian’s showcase.
Every object in it tells a story – mainly the actor’s own.
“It certainly isn’t interior design,” says Mr. Bedford, fastidiously dressed in shirt and tie even on a Saturday morning.
His voice is soft and accented with the plummy cadences of his native England, patrician-sounding, despite the actor’s working-class origins as the son of a West Yorkshire soldier.
He continues, resting his slim frame against an upholstered chair in his archetypically English living room, describing how he came to buy the house that he loved at first sight because it was old but original – “built for those far more higher level members of the railway” that toward the end of the 1800s was one of Stratford’s main industries.
The house came with a cherry orchard – “a thing of great beauty,” as Mr. Bedford describes it – as well as a back garden planted with Japanese maples, wisteria and a weeping willow.
Two years ago, and following an earlier renovation that saw the addition of a new wing to accommodate a large bedroom with a mirrored ensuite for Mr. MacDonald, Mr. Bedford added a pergola over a back deck, accessible through two large French doors.
“I love this garden,” he says. “It’s very natural, and I suppose compared to what was – a mud field that looked straight out of Vietnam – it has become a lovely space, and very tranquil, thanks in large part to my gardener, David Scott.”
The yard’s unfettered beauty stands in contrast to the house’s interior that has been thoroughly overhauled and re-crafted – much like one of his meticulously researched plays.
There, artifice rules in the form of polished surfaces like honed marble, cut glass and gleaming antique wood furniture, some of it locally sourced from Johnny’s Antiques, located just outside the Stratford town limits.
Framed oil portraits of English gentlemen and fishing scenes inspired by his native Yorkshire line the walls, while copies of Trollope fill the pine bookcases.
In the adjoining study, in addition to a David Hockney painting given him for his birthday by the painter himself, is a Constable-esque wall mural of what appears to be the English countryside. Mr. Bedford commissioned it from local artist Mark Fletcher, a resident of nearby St. Mary’s.
The overall feeling is of an English drawing room in Covent Garden, gilt pineapples and bone china and all.
“It’s all radically changed from what it was originally, when I first saw it and fell in love with it,” Mr. Bedford says, in describing the renovation he initiated three years ago.
The house had previously belonged to Polly Bohdanetsky, a Stratford costume designer, and it was composed on the main floor of three small rooms that Mr. Bedford found dim and confining.
He tore down interior walls to open the house up and make it more light-filled, refitting it with new high windows and wide plank pine flooring. he also completely eliminated a second floor, replacing it with a soaring 12-foot ceiling that makes the house seem elegantly spacious, despite having only about 1,200 square feet of living space.
Says Mr. Bedford, “I wanted a place where I could have my own lamps, and stuff.”
Mr. Bedford attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and had as classmates Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole esteemed English actors who were part of the modernizing movement that transformed British theatre in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He remembers especially his friendship with the late actor Alan Bates.
“He was my great friend,” says Mr. Bedford, relishing the memory. “And I miss him terribly. It was thanks to Alan that I was cast in The Young and the Beautiful [Mr. Bedford’s London debut]. Peter Brook, [the innovative British stage and film director], saw The Young and the Beautiful and asked me to be in [Arthur Miller’s] A View From the Bridge, and that took me to Stratford-upon-Avon where Sir John Gielgud was Prospero in The Tempest and I was Ariel, at the age of 21.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Mr. Gielgud ended up playing real-life mentor to Mr. Bedford, and today a large framed picture of his likeness hangs inside his home’s foyer, immediately grabbing the attention of anyone entering through Mr. Bedford’s green frame front door.
This pictorial tribute is in acknowledgment of Mr. Gielgud being responsible for first bringing Mr. Bedford to North America after having cast him in his 1959 production of Peter Shaffer’s Five Finger Exercise.
The play toured several major cities in the U.S., eventually leading to Mr. Bedford coming to Stratford where, after 27 seasons, he remains one of the leading lights of the town’s annual theatre festival.
The actors’ friendship was such that upon his death, Mr. Gielgud bequeathed Mr. Bedford several of his own prized possessions, among them two hand-drawn costume sketches, dated 1949, and signed by the costume designer.
Detailing armour and weaponry for characters in Much Ado About Nothing, the Shakespeare play in which Mr. Gielgud had performed, they now take pride of place inside Mr. Bedford’s English-inspired living room, sharing space with an extensive collection of painted Staffordshire porcelain and hand-knotted carpets imported from Morocco, where Mr. Bedford also has had homes, often using them to memorize the lines he eventually performs in Stratford:
“I’ve done an awful lot of preparing for parts in Morocco and a couple of years ago, in a tiny village right in the souk overlooking that gardens, I was learning King Lear and shouting, Howl! Howl! The poor people. They had no idea of the things I do, and I could just imagine them, calling me the mad Englishman. Which I might be, exactly.”
David Bowie. Just his name conjures so much — music, movement make-up and more, all wrapped up in memories. As an aesthete-in-training who lived in Toronto in the 1970s, his songs about wayward identities with fabulous closets were like doors that led me into a world where being different was not just okay, it was the only true route to self-expression. Living your life like a work of art. I slept with his albums under my pillow, absorbing his rebel, rebel spirit as if by osmosis. I felt a sort of kinship with him. David Bowie, with his peacock feathers and mane of hair dyed orangutan orange, was my spirit animal. I was sure it was me he was singing about in “Life on Mars.” Truly, it was uncanny how accurately he narrated the sad chapters of my existence, as I saw it anyway, at that time:
It’s a god-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling “No”
And her daddy has told her to go
But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks
through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
That strong sense of connection made David Bowie not exactly my idol, but more my confidante if not alter ego. I would be weepy at times listening to him sing to me (of course as a tortured 14 year old that is how I imagined it). But, and blame it on the raging hormones, I could just as easily be energized by his rocking beat.. I made up dance routines to “Suffragette City,” which I performed with my best friend and fellow Bowie conspirator Susan Willemsen, at parties held in other people’s parents’ basements.
The chorus, ‘Wham! Bam! Thank-you m’am,’ had us going down first on one knee, then the other before standing and kicking before turning quickly to face each other at either ends of the room. The point was not to engage with others in our midst. It was to mark ourselves as different from the ho-hum crowd, and precisely because we had David Bowie in our camp.
David Bowie was a beacon of individualism in a beige world. He was what helped me survive the stifling boredom of growing up in staid, artless, conformist Toronto, a city I vowed to leave one day but then never did. Bowie and his tribe of glam rock troubadors made bright my existence when it felt most drab and stultifying. Bowie especially focused my attention on the power of artistic expression to forge an identity that would be its own sense of comfort.
As a young adult, I got my job at Canada’s national newspaper, writing on dance and also for a few years the music that had once sustained me. As part of my job, I had two close encounters with David Bowie. The first was a Toronto press conference (at which Bowie’s old school friend and co-musician, Peter Frampton, was also present) and the second an interview conducted as part of a feature I wrote on Bowie and dance during a break in the 1987 Glass Spider tour.
As luck would have it (or had it all been pre-conditioned from listening and watching him all those years before?) David Bowie shared my love of dance. In the 1980s, he forged a decade-long professional relationship with Montreal choreographer Edouard Lock and Lock’s star dancer, Louise Lecavalier. She danced with Bowie in the 1990 Sound +Vision your and also appeared in the video for “Fame.” I was one of the first to report on their collaboration for The Globe and Mail. I also reviewed the concert tour in which Levacalier performed with the band before millions of screaming fans. Just months ago I asked Louise what that was like and she described it as a “big kick” that gave her “wings on stage.” She also called Bowie one of the sexiest dancers alive.
For this who might not be aware, David Bowie had trained in dance early in his career. His mentor was the great Lindsay Kemp whose flamboyantly theatrical style also influenced Toronto choreographer Robert Desroisiers. The Thin White Duke danced in his own shows and videos. He sought out dancers as partners, both on and off stage. Dance and dancers always held a strong connection for him. It wasn’t a passing fad. Even in the video for his song, “Lazarus,” released just days before his death, Bowie can be seen reverting to the pantomime taught him by Kemp. He also dances, abstractly, before a closet into which he ultimately hides his skeleton.
His first real love was the classically trained dancer Hermione Dennis (later Farthingale) whom he met in 1968 on the set of the British film, The Pistol Shot. They danced a minuet together as part of a group of dancers led by Kemp.
Soon after they became a couple, living together in London, they formed a group, Feathers, which was to set in motion Bowie’s discovery and signing by Mercury Records. Hermione, who later danced with the Welsh Opera Ballet and in such British films as Ken Russell’s The Boyfriend, eventually left David Bowie for another dancer in 1970, leaving him heart-broken. He tried to woo her back through messages in songs like the obviously titled, “Letter to Hermione,” among others. The beautiful dancer is the real girl with the mousy hair alluded to in “Life on Mars.” But she would not return to him. In interviews, Bowie said he was “devastated” by the breakup and the loss of Herminone led him to embark on his “Space Oddity” persona and subsequent otherworldly artistic voyage.
His next lover, and eventual wife, met him at the time of the breakup. Angela Barnett was not a dancer but a savvy and quite brilliant marketer who knew how to sell her future husband to the masses. Together, they had a son, Zowie Bowie, now a filmmaker who goes by the name of Duncan Jones. But the marriage didn’t last. They divorced in 1980 when Bowie’s unquenchable hunger for drugs and ambi-sexual extra marital affairs grew too much for his wife to handle, or so she says. He once said living with her was hell. Duncan has not spoken to his mother in years.
In his 40s, Bowie became romantically linked with another dancer. I interviewed her in Toronto. Melissa Hurley was then one of several dancers performing in the 1987 Glass Spider tour. She was more than 20 years his junior at the time and frequently photographed with Bowie until his marriage to the Somali-born supermodel, Iman, in 1992.
I spoke with Melissa perched on a lounge chair next to the Four Seasons’ pool. David Bowie had let me know in advance that he would sit the interview out. In a Fax (this was before email), he said he wanted to watch over the discussion from a distance and not be directly involved. He said that he wanted his dancers to get the lion’s share of attention. He would remain in the shadows.
Even absent he was very present, as I imagine he will continue to be despite having passed on. Some of that ineluctable presence is captured below, in just two of several article I write on Bowie, and which I reprint here in tribute to an artist who meant so much to many — myself included.
Bowie’s new image takes to ‘the streets’
18 March 1987
ON THE EVE of the world-wide release of his newest single, David Bowie surprised a media audience at Toronto’s Diamond Club yesterday afternoon by performing two songs from his forthcoming album, Never Let Me Down. The 40-year-old rock star also held an informal press conference and announced plans for a world tour that will kick off in Rotterdam in May and travel across Canada this summer.
Sporting a black leather jacket, studded jeans, open shirt and shiny gold crucifix at the neck, Bowie looked like the traditional, urbanized rock and roller – a grittier image than the aristocratic persona he presented on his Serious Moonlight Tour in 1983.
The new look apparently is in keeping with the tone and subject matter of his latest album, which Bowie said “deals with the streets . . . and attitudes about an uncaring society.”
After performing his new single, Day In, Day Out (released today) – and before performing his second song, 87 and Cry (also from the new album) – Bowie opened the floor to questions. He introduced his five-piece touring band, which includes bassist Carmine Rojas, long-time collaborator Carlos Alomar and English guitar hero Peter Frampton, then pulled up a stool and relaxed.
Laughing and affable, Bowie signed autographs as he fielded queries from the assembled TV, radio and print journalists. He promised this year’s tour will be “very theatrical,” in contrast to his relatively minimalist 1983 tour. For the first time since his Diamond Dogs tour in 1974, Bowie will use a choreographer, Toni Basil. He said the tour will include “sets, costumes, make-up and . . .” (as a humorous postscript, pointing to his teeth) “floss.”
Bowie said the music on the new album, which was produced in Switzerland and will be released on April 20, was influenced by the production work he did on Iggy Pop’s latest record, Blah, Blah, Blah. Bowie decided to imitate the stripped-down rock and roll sound, composing all the songs ahead of time “instead of my usual method of writing in the studio. It’s a high-energy LP with 11 tracks, all written by me, except for one Iggy Pop song. Other people cover Chuck Berry and The Stones. I cover Iggy Pop.”
Bowie added that the style of the new album was also inspired by some of his biggest musical influences – Little Richard, Smokey Robinson, Bob Dylan and Prince.
While Bowie evaded questions about why he chose Toronto for his press conference (“I had the day off . . .”), he was more candid about enquiries about movies (“David Lynch is my favorite director”), music (favorite current groups are Screaming Blue Messiahs and The The), a proposed movie with Mick Jagger (“It’s in the air”) and the first video for the new album, directed by Absolute Beginners’ director Julian Temple.
“It’s a street video, about the homeless situation in Los Angeles. We hired a lot of homeless people from the streets, some of whom had formed themselves as a theatre group. It’s quite strong as far as video goes. I don’t usually do performance videos. I try to use video in certain ways . . . to make fundamental social and artistic statements.”
Bowie’s new band had a rollicking sound that is more guitar-oriented than anything Bowie has done since the early seventies. The presence of Peter Frampton emphasized Bowie’s return to the brighter, street-oriented sound of the early seventies.
Bowie and Frampton were schoolmates in London (Frampton’s father, Opie Frampton, was Bowie’s art teacher) and are long-time friends, though this is the first time they have worked together professionally. Frampton was on tour in Toronto as the opening act for Stevie Nix last year when Bowie telephoned him.
“David called me and asked me if I’d play on the album,” said Frampton, “and I was thrilled about it. Then when were working on the album, he asked me to go on the road.” Bowie said he feels no sense of competition with his 1983 tour, which set audience records in Edmonton and Vancouver.
“I never feel a sense of competition with myself. I finish a tour, and then I say, ‘Why on earth do I do this?’ A year later I say ‘That was sort of fun, wasn’t it?’ Then after another year, I think about it a little more. The next year I’m busy writing songs for the next album and getting ready to go out again.”
Dancing for Bowie tour demands versatility, stamina
29 August 1987
YOU DON’T have to be a fan of David Bowie to dance to his music. Melissa Hurley , 21, and Skeeter Rabbit , 26, are two Los Angeles-based hoofers who found their way into Bowie’s cabaret-styled Glass Spider tour almost by accident.
Hurley, whose mother was a ballerina, is a classically-trained dancer from Burlington, Vt. Her black curls and cherubic face were featured on the hit television series, Fame, for the three years prior to the show’s recent demise.
Until the Glass Spider tour, the only concert she’d ever been to was one by Air Supply. She hardly knew who David Bowie was. “It probably has a lot to do with my age and my dance training. You can be pretty sheltered, you know.”
Hurley’s agent told her about the auditions for the Bowie tour. There had already been a cattle-call in New York for about 250 dancers. Bowie, and his choreographer Toni Basil, saw no one they liked. In Los Angeles, where another 250 auditioned, they came up empty handed again.
Hurley, who was auditioning for another show that day, had left her photograph and resume with Basil who then showed it to Bowie. Basil called her. She didn’t care if Hurley had another show to do, they wanted her to audition. She did a gruelling seven-hour haul that required her to dance in evening gowns a la Pina Bausch, bump and grind her way through selected choreography by Montreal’s Edouard Lock, perform the solo from the nineteenth-century “killer” ballet Raymonda, and do a series of movements based on improvisation.
“The day was long and tedious,” said Hurley. Her performance was recorded on video. Bowie saw it and liked her style. She was then offered a nine-month contract. Hurley decided to forego the other job and go with the tour. She never met Bowie until the show went into rehearsal.
Rabbit’s strapping athletic frame makes him an easy contender for his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys. Born in Texas, Davis grew up in Los Angeles where he was a street-gang leader as a boy. Unlike Hurley, Rabbit has next to no formal training. By his own admission, he’s got plenty of personality and charisma. That, more than the ability to gyrate hips on command, is what landed him a position with the tour.
Rabbit, a part-time model and actor, had just come back from a modelling assignment in Japan when Basil phoned him with a proposition. She said she had someone she wanted him to meet. Only when they were in the lobby of Bowie’s hotel did Rabbit learn who he was going to meet.
“I was shocked. I had danced to his music when he switched to more of a black, funk sound, like with Golden Years, Fame, Young Americans – stuff like that,” he drawled. “I talked to him that day for about 45 minutes. He asked me to show him what I could do. He said he wasn’t interested in last year’s style. He wanted something totally new, something of the future, a new direction. I danced; he liked it.”
Bowie wanted to see Rabbit on video and Rabbit, knowing he wanted the job, threw in some rap with his street dance moves. “I think David was more impressed with my character. I gave myself an advantage by letting my natural character come out – the ham, the show-off.”
Hurley and Rabbit, together with three other L.A. dancers – Constance Marie, Viktor Manoel and Spazz Attack – are contracted to do the tour for nine months. They are each paid a weekly salary of approximently $2000 U.S. plus a a daily spending allowance.
The tour, in Montreal tomorrow night, will wend its way back through the United States in the beginning of September with an added engagement at Madison Sqare Gardens Sept. 1 and 2. The tour ends Sept. 19 in Tampa, Fla. It’s exhausting work. The dancers perform an average of three two-hour shows a week. But Hurley and Rabbit say they are used to it. “Only when you crawl into bed at night do you remember you’re tired,” said Rabbit.
The Glass Spider tour is a 350-ton production that brings a fresh twist to the traditional rock music venue. Bowie conceived the idea for the tour about a year ago. He wanted something challenging, said his touring assistant Sara Gabrels. He was looking to create something more along the lines of a rock/theatre piece, she added.
The show, an extension of Bowie’s long association with the theatre (he is a disciple of dance and mime artist Lindsay Kemp, also the former teacher of Toronto’s Robert Desrosiers), could be on Broadway.
Stylized choreography walks hand-in-hand with dramatic vocalization, improvisation, elaborate sets, colorful props and vivid, theatrical lighting. The entire spectacle is captured on screen by five video cameras that shoot the performers throughout the show.
Film clips appear sporadically on a back screen. Images of bombs, protest marches, ailing politicians and police states underscore the show’s message of global disintegration. “It’s purposeful in its fragmentation,” explained Gabrels. “David crafted it after German theatre of the late twenties and early thirties. Its style is meant to reflect the way the world is – you always get things in fragments.”
The choreography in Glass Spider is disjointed. Rabbit and Hurley, after some discussion, finally agree the show is about 70 per cent choreography, 30 per cent improvisation. Only a few numbers are fully choreographed – Fashion, Scary Monsters and Aliens.
Rabbit said Basil created the choreography out of the personalities of the dancers involved. Each plays a character on stage; Hurley’s is known as True Love, Rabbit’s as The Hero. Basil designed who should do what to what song. “But what we are on stage,” said Rabbit, “is what we’re like off-stage. They (Basil and Bowie) just took it to an extreme.”
Rabbit and Hurley don’t think their roles are crucial to the show’s meaning, “As far as the dance is concerned, it’s just dance where all forms of movement are applicable and where all kinds of dancers can relate to each other and interconnect,” said Rabbit. Still, their words suggest that behind it all is a mesage of universality.
“David loves the avant-garde. He has always been ahead of the game, always before his time,” said Hurley, who, since landing the job, has bought every Bowie record she could lay her hands on and become a big fan.
“He’s international and intricate,” added Rabbit. “He goes into people’s garages and finds talent everywhere. We were chosen, not because we are the greatest dancers in the world, though I hate to admit it, but because there was something he saw hidden in us, an innate quality that needed to be personified.” Rabbit takes a deep breath, lowers his eyes and blushes. “I’ve never idolized anyone before, but he’s so broad – he finds something in everything and gives it life.”
I miss the days when, as a reporter, I did my stories working alongside a photographer. We would travel to assignments, together, chewing the fat along the way in a Globe car, and commiserating with each other about the job. We’d each stake the subject in our own way when we got there, giving each other the room respect and space to get our own bits done. A few times I acted as the bait, luring a subject out his front door while the photographer hid inside the car parked across the street, camera aimed at the guy’s head. I’d know to stand aside while asking my questions before having the door shut in my face, to allow my partner to get his shots. Yes, those were the good old days. Now, the expectation is that I report from my desk, using the phone or email, and ask for handouts, or still images, to publish with the story. It’s just not the same. There’s no bite to it anymore. No live action. And so I find myself nostalgic for the time I went with photographer Tibor Kolley, one of my newspaper’s greats, to interview Camille Paglia. The location was the old Four Seasons Hotel on Avenue Road in Toronto and the date was November, 1994. I was there to help her promote her new book, Vamps and Tramps, and Tibor was there to take her portrait. This wasn’t to be one of those bushwhack jobs. It was to be tasteful. Except the feminists turned it all upside down she. She launched an unprovoked attack on Tibor, nearly tearing his face off. It was quite the scene and it made for quite the story, as you can read below:
She came, she bellowed, she almost conquered the patience of a veteran newspaper photographer assigned to shoot her for The Globe.
She is Camille Paglia, pistol-packing feminist, humanist, academic and author, who was in Toronto last week as part of a promotional tour for her new book, a collection of essays called Vamps and Tramps.
I was assigned to interview her, which was lucky for me because I admire her work. My colleague, Tibor Kolley, was assigned to shoot her, which was unlucky for him because in his 23 years on the job he had never met such a battle axe.
With me she was chatty, ebullient, charismatic. With him she was abrasive, aggressive, rude.
As a 47-year-old lesbian, she has a history of liking girls. Yet in her bestselling books she voices support for men, to the chagrin of New Age feminists who claim that men are the enemy.
Did she like me because of my sex? Distrust him because of his?
His mistake, if we need call it that, was twofold: he asked her if he could shoot her in her hotel room (a professional request she misread as something akin to a proposition for sex), and, eventually finding a neutral place in which to work, he aimed to shoot her from the ground up.
“What are you doing? Hey, I said what are you doing down there? Get up. Get up this instant. I don’t let anyone shoot me from that angle. No way. I once got burned that way. Time Magazine. They shot me from that angle and I looked terrible. I showed it to my friend Lauren Hutton, you know, the Vogue model, and she said, ‘Camille, never have your picture taken from that angle again] Not ever!’ And you see on the cover of my new book I am being shot straight on, by Lauren’s friend, now my friend, Luca Babini, and I’m wearing my military-issue jacket and my Emma Peel pose. Hey! Are you listening to me? I said no way are you taking my picture from that angle! I’m now in a position to take control of how I’m photographed, and that’s what I’m doing. Taking control!”
Tibor is on his knees, sweating under the lights he has painstakingly assembled for the shoot. Ms. Paglia, hot on her rant, keeps firing demands at him.
I can see Tibor is distressed. But trouper that he is, he tries to make the commandant happy. He stands up, runs a quick hand across his forehead, and then aims the camera at chest level. He’s about to take the first shot when Ms. Paglia explodes again.
“Hey! I’m not kidding! If you don’t do what I say, I’m walking. See. I’m walking already.”
And she is.
“You asked me not to shoot you from below and I’m not,” Tibor says.
“Ooooh, but you are! Get the camera up! Up, I say!”
The camera is a Hasselblad, with a viewfinder that the photographer has to look through from above.
“I have to aim the camera at chest level to get your head in. Do you want to check for yourself?”
Temporarily subdued, Ms. Paglia grimaces for the picture. But not before admonishing Tibor to make it snappy.
“You have four seconds.”
He aims, he shoots, and with only two seconds remaining he scores: a shot of the warrior queen pointing maniacally at her watch, indicating that the session is over after only six frames are exposed.
She then extends a warm hand to me.
“Isn’t it just chaos?” she says with a smile.
I nod like an idiot. Tibor curses.
She bounds down the stairs, a diva in charge of her own image.