Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Experiencing Modern Art

September 7th, 2010 · 1 Comment

As most of the group made their plans to attend Notting Hill Carnival, I was feeling a little tired of crowds. I like cities, but in moderation, and after about a week in London I did not feel up to spending an afternoon shoulder to shoulder with complete strangers. So I decided to go over to the Tate Modern, which I had been curious about since our arrival.

The Tate was a mixed experience. I enjoy certain modern art, but usually only when it portrays something relatively concrete, and when I can still see the artist’s method.  I love looking at post-impressionist art from the beginning of the twentieth century, but I feel less inspired when it comes to newer “modern” art. So I had trouble connecting with the majority of what the Tate had on display, which fell into a more abstract category.  Still, the museum managed to hold my attention throughout, partially, I think, because of the layout: I never knew what I would find in the next room.

When I was nearly ready to leave the museum, I walked out into the hallway between the exhibits, in which big glass windows overlook a central lobby area.  Visitors were gathered around the windows, looking down at something.  I found an opening between the masses of onlookers, and down through the window myself.  I saw that the floor of an enormous space in the lobby that had been empty earlier in the afternoon was now covered in black and white shapes, arranged like an abstract painting.

I went downstairs and made my way through the crowd to get a better view.  I discovered that the installation was actually an enormous stage for a modern dance performance, and I was lucky enough to find a seat near the perimeter.   Upwards of fifty dancers moved across the stage dressed in black and white, to expertly blended electronic and rock music.  I noticed however that while the dancers who were featured were clearly professionally trained, and mesmerizing to watch (one stood on her head with only one hand on a ballet barre for support while moving her feet through the air perfectly in time to the music), others who moved in large groups performed only simple dance steps.

I later looked up the performance on the Tate Modern’s website to learn more.  I found out that Michael Clark, the choreographer included seventy-five non-dancers in the performance (while also including his dance company- responsible for the acrobatics).  This explained the disparity in skill level within the performance, but I still marvel at how small an impression that disparity made on me at the time.  The parts of the dance that included the non-dancers were beautiful because of the sheer number of individuals moving in unison, so I was able to gloss over (I guess as Clark intended) any roughness in the individual dancers’ movement.

I still question however, why Clark would make the effort to train non-dancers, when more dancers (who I assume he could find) could have performed the same piece with greater grace and fewer rehearsals.  I guess the aims of modern art and explains how the dance performance fits with the Tate Modern’s collection.  Modern art consistently challenges whatever conventions come before.  When we look at works of art in the Tate Modern, we ask ourselves (among other questions like, what’s a black square on a canvas doing in a museum?)  whether the ideas behind them are original.  So following a long tradition of ‘challenging,’ Clark challenged the convention that only highly trained dancers should perform in a large scale, professional level performance.  There’s nothing more modern than that.

Dance Performance (personal photo)

Tags: 2010 Emily · Uncategorized

The Theatrical Experience

September 7th, 2010 · 1 Comment

… So far.

During the two weeks in London, I have so far had the opportunity to see a variety of shows, which have offered different perspectives of theatre culture in England.

First, there was The Merry Wives of Windsor at The Globe. As a groundling after a long day exploring the city, my feet were exhausted by my excitement levels were through the sky (well, higher than usual, as they tend to be at somewhat extreme heights in general). Seeing Shakespeare performed at The Globe was an incredible experience for many reasons. Not only was the performance one of the best live productions that I have seen, the theatre’s atmosphere was almost indescribable. It was almost if everyone had traveled to the turn of the 17th century. Usually, everyone is quiet during the performance and politely respectful of the performers. While this was the case, the audience seemed more willing to shout, cheer, and laugh uncontrollably at the events on stage. Being so close to the stage, the magic of the actors radiated from the stage and created an atmosphere unmatched by any performance thus far. The added music also added to the atmosphere- an Early Modern theatrical experience would have had the pre-show performers and would have been completely different from what we are used to. The performance was as close to replicating that experience as possible in our modern world. Afterwards, we were able to thank some of the actors and they seemed sincerely grateful that we said something- an idea that would be challenged later.

The Globe

Next came the Proms at Royal Albert Hall. While The Globe was magical, Proms was one of the most equalizing of the performances because of how accessible they were. In the States, every classical concert I have been to has been a stuffy affair. There, the celebration of the music was open and everyone seemed to be unified in their desire for good music (which the audience should not have been disappointed with). The biggest issue I had with the Proms was the incessant coughing. Usually people try to hold their coughs, but when one or two people cough at during movements, it doesn’t provide an excuse for everyone to cough uncontrollably to prove they can and that they are not going to do disrespect the musicians by coughing during the performance. I would like to go back to Proms to see if it is a bizarre tradition or if that night was a fluke.

Royal Albert Hall

My following experience was Billy Elliot, which I have already blogged about, so I’ll try not to be redundant here. Other than being my first big West End experience, it was also important because it showed a lot of the themes of our course in a new light. Instead of applying the themes to the immigrant communities, it showed the themes in terms of a distinctively native English story. Furthermore, it also highlighted two differences between English and American theatre in particular. Firstly, we aren’t used to paying for our programs in the States. As an avid theatre goer, I’m used to being handed a Playbill (or regional equivalent) and continuing into the theatre. I don’t have to wonder who the cute guy playing a certain character is or why so and so looks so familiar. I don’t mind paying an extra three quid when I’m paying half of what I’m used to paying, but it definitely caught me off guard. Secondly, the tradition of stage door here is (as far as I’ve gathered) practically non-existent. In NYC, it is fairly common to wait after the show at the stage door to thank the actors for their performance, get an autograph, and if you are lucky, a photograph. (Yes, this can be a weird experience, but it can also be a great one.) When we went after Billy, it was completely different. While there were people there, the actors went by ignoring everyone. After Holly mentioned it, I realized that this was indeed a representation of the English concern for privacy and social dis-ease. On stage, the actors are free from interacting with the strangers feet away from them. At the door, they are in a different type of spotlight. Yet, the boundaries between personal and private life would not intersect. They are still technically at work. The guys from The Globe seemed to enjoy that we acknowledged them. I can’t wait to try another stage door experience to see the difference. (I planned to try again after Les Mis, but it was raining…)

The Victoria Palace, Home of Billy Elliot

Next came Bedlam, back at The Globe. For the first play by a woman performed there, the show was interesting. I’d like to say it succeeded it my expectations (which weren’t that high), but it didn’t. It did meet them, but something about the show was lacking the magic of the first show we saw there. At the end of the first act, I wasn’t at all satisfied, but by the end of the second, it had redeemed itself. I’d like to blame this all on not being a groundling and therefore surrounded by the audience members and the actors. I did enjoy it but it was not my favorite by any stretch.

The Globe, A View From Above

Lastly (thus far) is Les Miserables. One of my favorite musicals, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Despite the fact Marius has a slight bald patch, the actors were outstanding. (Even Norm Lewis, who I have seen in another musical and was THOROUGHLY disappointed in then, was outstanding. His awkward- but commanding- stage presence was perfect for Javert.) A truly equalizing musical, I was not surprised to see people in blue jeans and others in formal dresses. The difference is interesting when considered in the context of the musical and its equalizing themes. Theatre in London is truly for everyone- no matter one’s status. Seeing the opposites in dress at this show hit me as strangely appropriate. (I don’t want to elaborate knowing that some of you guys have yet to see it. So, I’ll just leave it at that.)

So far, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my experiences at the theatre and can’t wait for more. I’m hoping to see Wicked (my favorite, in case you have missed that slight detail) and Blood Brothers at the very least. While technically not theatrical, I also expect my experiences at the various football matches I’m planning on going to to be worthy of a theatre stage!

Tags: 2010 Stephenie · Theatre

The Least Religious Church on Earth

September 7th, 2010 · 7 Comments

Kate Fox told us that “the Church of England is the least religious church on earth” (354). I didn’t really understand how any organized church could fail to be religious until our visit to Westminster Abbey.

I mean, it’s incredible that most important aspects of English history and culture have fit into one beautiful building, dead bodies and all, from martyrs to scientists to poets to monarchs to the Unknown Warrior (which, just to say it, is the most beautiful monument I’ve ever seen). I’m impressed by Westminster Abbey. But I’ve never felt God more minimized. Other than a bland and generic “prayer” every once in a while, and the odd miniature stone saint or cross, the focus of Westminster Abbey is much more King and Country than God. I always thought Church of England was another way of saying Church in England; nope, this Church really is all about worshipping itself. Westminster Abbey is ground hallowed by history and culture, art and architecture, not by faith. I see why England wants to share this heritage with the world, but make no mistake about it – their concern is preservation of culture, not preservation of faith.

Westminster Abbey. Beautiful? Yes. Reverent? No. (personal photo)

You might respond to this criticism by saying that without opening the Abbey as a tourist attraction, we’d be denying visitors an important experience in English culture. You might also say that if the Abbey wasn’t so accessible to tourists, it would be difficult to raise the funds to keep it open and maintained at all (this may apply less to Westminster and more to other churches and cathedrals around England – Bath Abbey, for example, or Southwark Cathedral, which are less centrally located and famous).

Bath Abbey (personal photo)

I understand those points, but I have to wonder if, in this case, the chicken or the egg came first. Would parishoners be more prone to attend church as serious worshippers if the site wasn’t so wholly reduced to a tourist attraction or a history museum? I’m not an anthropologist or a religion major, but I don’t see how people can be expected to take their faith seriously if the church to which they belong doesn’t even take it seriously. Religion is part of culture, but to believers it’s much, much more than culture alone. To a believer, faith in God is literally a matter of life and death (and afterlife) in ways that food, clothing, music, and other aspects of culture can never be. The Church of England doesn’t seem to make any demands on visitors to its hallowed places – Bath and Westminster Abbeys spring to mind. (Any demands, that is, except incessant reminders that donations would be welcome.)

I’d like to contrast the Christian cathedrals we’ve seen so far with our visit to the Hindu temple today. This temple welcomes interfaith visitors, but only on its own terms, with the understanding that preservation of the Hindu faith and reverence for God are a prerequisite. The result was a moving religious ceremony to which I think we were all attentive, and a deeply reverent tribute to the Hindu faith, culture and history in the exhibition hall. I think if the temple let tourists wander in and out freely, messing with their audio guides, joking around, texting, taking pictures of the ceremony, what have you, the Hindu temple would be reduced to a cultural tourist attraction to check off a list rather than a spiritual experience. Also significantly, tourists like ourselves would feel like outsiders peeking in on someone else’s faith. Today, I felt like I was actively participating in a faith community. I felt like an insider rather than a voyeur. I think preserving this sense of reverence works out for the best for both visitors and believers, and I’d like to see more of it from the Church of England.

Tags: 2010 MaryKate · Churches and Cathedrals

London’s Imperialist Museums

September 7th, 2010 · 4 Comments

While visiting the museums of London over the last two weeks, I’ve noticed that several of them seem to have only been opened for the purpose of showing off how powerful the British Empire was at its height.  This is especially pronounced at the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.  While I’m normally not much of a fan of imperialism, or any act of a bigger country dominating a little country, both of these museums have made me start to appreciate British Imperialism much more.

Let’s start with the British Museum.  The British Museum may be seen by outsiders as a huge building filled with artifacts that the British stole from all the places they conquered.  This isn’t completely true… Some of the pieces were stolen from countries that were never part of the Empire.  In fact, there have been high-profile claims on British Museum artifacts from countries on four of the seven continents.  The most notable claims are on the Rosetta Stone (which is their coolest artifact, in my opinion) and the Elgin Marbles, which are parts of the Athenian Parthenon.  Luckily for London tourists, in 1963, Parliament passed the British Museum Act of 1963, which prevents any object from leaving the museum’s collection once it has entered it.  This allows the British Museum to continue to be a concentration point for really cool artifacts, like original Roman letters, the Rosetta Stone, and parts of many ancient structures.  On the flip side, I understand why countries would want their artifacts back.  It’s their history, and it makes sense that they want it back.  However, from my point of view as a visitor to London, I’d much rather walk 2 minutes from the Arran House to see the Rosetta Stone than have to fly the whole way to Egypt.

From what I’ve seen of it, The Victoria and Albert Museum isn’t quite so overwhelmingly imperialistic, though that might be because I wasn’t able to visit the international sections of it (yet).  From what I have seen, a lot of the materials was donated or otherwise given to the museum, as opposed to the British Museum’s acquisition by domination feel.  All the same, the V&A made me feel like it was trying to show me how awesome England was in its heyday, and was probably first started to glorify the power of the Empire. Now, it serves as the world’s largest decorative arts and design museum, covering varieties of art like glass, ceramics, metalwork, stained glass, theatre and performance, along with sections on Victorian English home furnishings and more “traditional” pieces like paintings and sculpture from ancient through modern times.  Even now, it is a very daunting place (I only got lost two or three times), but at the same time, it is a very fun place.  Where else in the world can you see an Apple computer and a 1980’s Save the Miners mug on display in the same museum as priceless jewelry from centuries ago and costumes from the musical version of The Lion King?

Tags: 2010 MatthewM · Museums