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Arts Ecology

Autumn is the time for endless conflicts over what to do and see. San Francisco is overrun with great shows and performances. I was blessed this past weekend with free tix to a couple of stellar shows, first Cirque de Soleil’s latest show, Kooza., and then last night at the SF Jazz Festival we caught a fantastic set by Brazil’s Caetano Veloso.

I’m actually not as wild about Cirque de Soleil as some folks are, but there’s no question that they’re a major step up from other circuses. I think it’s mainly attributable to the fact that they have so much money, relative to other performance groups. If you ever wanted to peer into the methodology of today’s “Arts Success,” Cirque de Soleil must be the best place to look. There are corporate sponsors names on every exit of their fancy hi-tech tent/stage. There is an incredible mini-mall of merchandise, from show-related schwag to well-designed, comfortable good looking clothing. There are music CDs, video DVDs, masks, puppets, bags, coffee mugs, kitchen goods, you name it. You can’t approach the actual tent for the performance without passing through the merch tent first.


The costumes and staging of the show are truly impressive. The circus performances are sometimes mind-boggling, other times just kind of so-so. Early on I was dismayed at what I experienced as hokey when the big pageantry opening was underway. But I got over it as the show’s real talent began showing up; the first half’s highlight was the three Mystic Pixies, contortionists who apparently hail from our local School of Circus Arts. Fantastic costumes and gumby-like flexibility! The second half of the show had a number of jugglers and acrobats, but the highlight was two guys running on a huge device that has two stationery circular rat cages held together by an elaborate structure of cross beams. They manipulate the whole thing into spinning around like a ferris wheel on speed, while they jump in and out and around the whole apparatus. It’s breathtaking and zany and great!…

Caetano Veloso was awesome. The acoustics at the Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium are superior and his “Band of Sin” was a tight three-piece rock band, clearly fantastic musicians (and very young, apparently friends of his son’s) and capable of almost anything. Caetano’s charisma and stage presence were completely charming, his voice just a treat, and the 100-minute+ set was full of old and new tunes. Enough Brasileiros were there to give him a good chorus when he wanted sing-alongs, and he was kind enough to speak in English (quite well) from the stage to help everyone understand the music better. And to tell some of his stories, at least obliquely, about his political life in Brazil… it was one of those moments when you realize this guy is in his 60s and won’t be touring forever. So we caught him while still very much at his peak of creative beauty, lucky us!

It’s interesting to go to these shows where the individual tickets are well in excess of $50 each, and then compare the experience to the shows that are local, much less expensive, but if not just as good in their own ways, maybe even better. Case in point: We saw the Living Word Project’s Scourge before it closed on November 15 (it was already being resuscitated by ODC here in the Mission before getting mothballed after a year-long tour). Marc Bamuthi Joseph is the creative director of the Living Word Project and he is just an astonishing talent. Scourge is about Haiti, about being Haitian in the U.S., about race and class, about blackness, whiteness, and so much more. And it’s done with dance, music, stunning oratory, bring real history to life in many dimensions at once. I’m sorry this show isn’t running indefinitely somewhere so I could send everyone to see it. I haven’t enjoyed a show more than Scourge in as long as I can remember.

Then, moving down to the smallest niche in the ecology of the arts scene we find the show I saw in Brooklyn at 123 Tompkins, a show of spoken word, rap, and good ol’ poetry. These niches survive because art must be made, not necessarily because it gets paid. The exuberance and passion I saw at 123 Tompkins was not less than I saw at the Living Word show, and might even be more than I saw in the Cirque de Soleil show (though it’s hard to compare, to be honest, and maybe pointless to try). The real difference between these different ecological niches in the arts world, beyond the obvious economic ones, are that the progression upwards tends to be based on experience and greater professional polish… but then Scourge was really as crisp and professional as anything I’ve ever seen…

On a similar scale last night at CounterPULSE there was a release party for the new issue of Other Magazine. There was a whole line-up of singers and poets and speakers but I’m afraid I missed it all, buried in the back office printing out a draft of my almost finished book. But I did get a copy of the new issue on “Dead Magazines” where I actually helped answer a questionnaire about local San Francisco magazines that have gone belly-up in the past decade or so (I was answering on behalf of Processed World, of course). It made me very glad that Other decided to pay attention to some of the publications that preceded them, since from an ecological and creative point of view, our small publishing efforts always depend on the folks who set the stage for us, who came before and blazed the trails, or fell into the pitfalls to save us from the same problem(s)… hopefully! So I wish Other a long and glorious life. They already have an impressive body of work and it just keeps getting better. I’m glad someone is carrying the torch for small, indy, radical, edgy magazines around here….

I want to plug, while I’m doing this survey of recent cultural consumption, the amazing movie “Terror’s Advocate” about the French (half Algerian, half Reunion Islander) attorney Jacques Vergès. He’s a fascinating and rather creepy character, who first gains fame defending Algerian freedom-fighters (and marrying one of the most famous female bombers), then eventually “disappearing” for 8 years, and then reappearing to carry on his lawyering on behalf of Palestinians, African dictators, and all sorts of unusual and mostly shady characters. You can’t help but revisit a great deal of recent history while watching this film and really confronting a lot of your own assumptions and expectations…

I don’t have any hard and fast conclusions to draw from this. Just to note that great art is happening in many places all the time, mostly unpaid and unrecognized. But then some of the big-name, big-money stuff is really pretty fantastic too, and you can see how someone like Caetano Veloso is a beloved national treasure in Brazil, and pretty widely revered here and internationally… It’s a great pleasure to live in a city that holds so much talent, and is visited regularly by the world’s top performers (and interesting movies galore!).

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