Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Please Pass the Fruit

The women of Helios Dance Theater in a scene from The Lotus Eaters. Photo by Melissa Painter.

By Victoria Looseleaf

When I travel to dance and music festivals around the world (Holland, Cuba, France, Italy, Argentina and Abu Dhabi, to name a few), I beseech the artistic directors to look to Southern California for choreographic and performing talent. In effect, I consider myself an arts activist and de facto ambassador for dance. Case in point: Helios Dance Theater, under the artistic directorship of Laura Gorenstein Miller.

Victoria Looseleaf and singer-songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips at the afterparty for The Lotus Eaters. Photo by Josie Walsh.

Gorenstein Miller, who recently came out of a self-imposed hiatus (she took time to help raise her two sons), triumphed with her full-length opus, The Lotus Eaters, in an evening at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. The engagement was to be a two-night run, but the Broad’s a.d., Dale Franzen, got cold feet and cancelled one of the concerts. A pity, as Helios’ newest work is a beautiful amalgam of choreography, performance, costumes (Project Runway finalist, Rami Kashou), set design and music. Indeed, one of the composers was named a 90’s Rolling Stone singer-songwriter of the year, Grant Lee-Phillips, whose music absolutely seduced and whom your faithful scribe met after the performance (in spite of her then-ailing ears). This work needs to be seen, but barring that, please check out my Dance Magazine review of the company.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

On Queers, Harps, and Hanging On

Dances with Harps, featuring Ellen Barnaby (background), Johnni Durango, and composer/harpist Zeena Parkins (in profile). Photo by Frank Mullaney.

By Victoria Looseleaf

For those of you following me on Facebook and Twitter, you know that I’ve had blood clots in my left ear since flying to Florida with a cold using those ghastly things called “Ear Planes.” (And to think it was my fault for screwing them in too tightly–there should be a damn warning, really.) I’ve been to two otolaryngologists, was grounded in Florida for an extra week and my hearing has been akin to Beethoven’s as he was writing his 9th Symphony (not only was he going totally deaf, but he was having to deal with constant hissing sounds in his ear). Hooray for steroids (and anti-b’s), as I can now see the light at the end of the ear canal.

Too bad, though, that while I was away, my editor was laid off from the Los Angeles Times (what’s left of it), leaving my continuing presence at the paper (this is my 14th year), in question. Happily, I’m hanging on by my erstwhile harp fingernails (we can’t have nails, actually, except for the pinkies), so it was only fitting then, that I, the go-to gal for all things harp–and dance–cover Dance by Neil Greenberg. Please check out my review in the Los Angeles Times, which went in the paper nearly verbatim (there was some discourse over the use of the words “politically correct,” which were dropped, but I’m cool with that). And so, I understand, was Mr. Greenberg: REDCAT sold out!

Thursday, April 2, 2009


Sugar (Algenis Perez Soto) and his Dominican teammates at a baseball academy in San Pedro de Macorís.

Written and Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Starring Algenis Perez Soto, Ann Whitney, Richard Bull, Ellary Porterfield, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, and Jose Luis Romero
114 Minutes

By Robert Rosen

Sugar is more than a poignant, compelling film with an appealing cast of virtual unknowns and an interesting soundtrack featuring Chilean singer Gepe’s very cool Spanish version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Arguably, it’s also an important movie—about language, the immigrant experience, and baseball.

But I’ll leave that argument to other, more knowledgeable writers, like my TLR colleague J.C. Malone, who was born in San Pedro de Macorís, in the Dominican Republic, and has written, in both English and Spanish, a biography of that modest-size city’s best-known native son, Sammy Sosa.

For those who don’t follow the game, it should be said that San Pedro is to baseball what Liverpool once was to rock ’n’ roll: a breeding ground and launching pad for raw talent. At least 30 big-league ballplayers were born there. And they all got their start in one of San Pedro’s baseball academies, where coaches and scouts molded them into potential professionals, creating for these local athletes an opportunity to be plucked from poverty and obscurity, deposited in a major-league spring-training camp, and given the chance to conquer America.

But as every aspiring professional ballplayer knows, the odds of making it to the big leagues are slim, because pure athletic ability is only one factor in a wide array of physical, social, emotional, and intellectual skills that an athlete must master if he’s to have a real shot at success.

Sugar makes this clear in the opening scene, which takes place in an academy classroom, where a group of Dominican ballplayers are learning to speak baseball English—“pop fly … ground ball … home run.” Later, in the locker room, they practice their English singing “Take Me out to the Ball Game.” Though they know almost all the words, they don’t seem to understand what a lot of them mean, and it’s touching to watch them struggle through the most difficult phrases, singing the song with feeling, as if it were a hymn.

It’s this struggle to communicate in a foreign language that provides the film with some of its most entertaining moments. Most of them come courtesy of Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a determined and intelligent, though immature, 19-year-old pitcher whose family is depending on his rubber arm and explosive curveball to lift them out of the slums of San Pedro—depicted here with unsentimental realism—with a big-league contract.

When Sugar—so called because he likes desserts and has a “sweet” pitching motion—finds himself playing for the Swing, a class-A team in the Iowa hinterlands, he quickly learns enough English to order three different kinds of eggs for breakfast and to call an opposing player a “cocksucker,” a term he picks up from Brad (Andre Holland), a Berkeley-educated African-American shortstop with laid-back California charm, a firm grip on reality, and enough Spanish to exchange pleasantries with Sugar, calling him his hermano.

Brad’s rudimentary Spanish is far more advanced than that of the Higginses, a family of devout Christian baseball fans who provide Sugar with room and board while he’s in Iowa. The mother, Helen (Ann Whitney), befuddles Sugar when she points to her washing machine and says, “You put the sopa in here.” She thinks she’s saying soap, though she’s actually saying soup. And her teenage daughter, Anne (Ellary Porterfield), confuses Sugar even more, taking him to a Christian youth meeting and later flirting with him, allowing him one innocent kiss, and then running away.

Yet it’s the contrast between Brad and Sugar that brings into focus the dilemma at the heart of this film: What do you do if you don’t beat the overwhelming odds and make it to the big leagues? Brad plans to teach history. But Sugar, like the other Dominican players, has no real fallback plan and no education—he doesn’t even know who Roberto Clemente is. If he doesn’t make it to the big leagues, his choices are limited. He can either return to his disappointed family and the poverty of the D.R. or go to the Bronx and live in one of the largest Dominican communities in America, working at a survival job in the taunting shadow of Yankee Stadium.

Communicating a visceral sense of what it’s like when your future dangles on the most delicate thread, the filmmakers do an excellent job of showing how Sugar and his Dominican teammates walk, with no net underneath, a physical and psychological tightrope between the D.R. and the American Dream. They show how easy it is to lose your stuff and let momentary failure shatter your confidence; how difficult it is to break out of a slump; and how painful it is when your life and your family’s well-being hinge on a dream that can vanish in the time it takes to drive a hanging curve over the left-field wall.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Good Things in a Gigantic Package

New lovers Brian Weathersby (Paul Dano) and Harriet Lolly (Zooey Deschanel) enjoy a little lab refreshment.

Directed by Matt Aselton
Screenplay by Adam Nagata and Matt Aselton
Starring Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel, Ed Asner, Jane Alexander, and John Goodman
98 minutes

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

There is a big mystery at the heart of Gigantic. (A smaller mystery is what the title means.) I’m going to skirt around it because to truly get into it would be quite the spoiler. (I still haven’t totally forgiven my husband for inadvertently giving away the secret of The Crying Game minutes before it started.) Suffice it to say that this facet of the film, which involves a homicidal homeless man, throws one’s perceptions into tumult: Specifically, is Brian Weathersby (Paul Dano), the young protagonist, really the calm, centered eye in the storm of surrounding über-eccentrics—mainly his research-scientist friend, who swills vodka from beakers; his family, including Ed Asner as his ebullient, mushroom-ingesting dad; and his new girlfriend’s family, including John Goodman as her overbearing, tumor-expelling dad?

Not to mention the new girlfriend herself, Harriet Lolly, who appears in Brian’s Brooklyn mattress salesroom in the beguiling form of Zooey Deschanel, who, with her big—or should I say gigantic?—blue eyes, comic timing, and heartstring-tugging abilities, is our new Goldie Hawn (sorry, Kate). Despite Harriet’s sometimes hurtful flakiness, we cannot resist her and neither can Brian. When she falls asleep on a $14,000 Swedish mattress soon after they meet, he not only doesn’t wake her but gently places a blanket over her. Harriet, we soon discover, could use this kind of care, giving the lie to her nickname of “Happy.” Indeed, Brian is so nurturing that he is in the process of adopting a baby from China. Which will place two abandoned females—in Harriet’s case, by her mother—in good hands. (Won’t it?)

To my mind, first-time feature filmmaker Matt Aselton leaves too much unexplained—and lets the hilarious Goodman leave the movie a bit too soon—but this is still a delicate, intelligent, funny romance, and when you really think about it, like a single 20-something New York guy who wants above all to adopt a baby, there aren’t too many of those around.