Monday, November 16, 2015

Yemayá's Belly at Teatro Paraguas Lifts All Boats

Review by Frances Madeson; All images courtesy of the production
Every night you go to sleep, you lay down on your family's ashes. When you breathe it's your wife. When you walk you can feel her under your feet. When you breathe you don't know what's a burned blanket and what's your wife's skin. You can't tell if the ashes are from a book or your wife's hair.  –Scene 8, Yemayá's Belly

For New Yorkers alive during the events of September 11, 2001, this was the truly terrible thing unsaid as we went through our routines in the aftermath. How could we know, how could we tell, whose lifeless remains were mixed into the very particulate matter that one had no choice but to inhale? This was its own kind of horror, that in this very real and material sense there was no separation between those to whom 9/11 happened in the worst possible way, and the rest of us.

When only-child 11-year-old Jesus, the protagonist of Yemayá's Belly by Quiara Alegría Hudes, loses both his mami and his papi in a terrible and sudden inferno in Magdalena, his personal twin towers fall all the way down. Orphaned and destitute, he flees to the nearest city where he's temporarily sheltered by a compassionate shopkeeper before embarking on an ill-conceived voyage to an illusory America. It's hard not to read the play, which won the 2003 Clauder Prize, as a fledgling but undeveloped post-9/11allegory. But unfortunately even these undertows rippling toward issues of the utmost gravitas do not buoy our interest in this precious, sometimes preposterous, debut play, whose creator would go on to win a Pulitzer for later work.

And yet, consistently interesting things have been happening at Teatro Paraguas all summer and fall, and the October 2015 production of Yemayá's Belly was no exception. Those who were deterred by the savage reviews that past productions  have received“gut-souring” “hackneyed” “not all that magical”missed the chance to see a skilled local company grappling with a seriously flawed text, at times navigating toward some moments of extraordinary fullness and freshness and then at others, frankly, listing astern rather than forward.

Kana Gaines and Sabrina Garcia
Perhaps the greatest joy of  the production was witnessing Kana Gaines immerse herself in the pants role, the 28-year-old actress dissolving into the boy on the verge of a premature sink-or-swim pubescence. She played this child propelled by external circumstances to a nascent manhood with an almost uncanny naturalness and fluidity. Her performance was reminiscent of some of Anna Deveare Smith's portrayals of young male characters in Fires in the Mirror or Twilight, characterizations that Smith shaped by dramatically altering her physicality—personality and psychology grounded in the finely articulated body language.  

In Gaines' case she played Jesus as an agile if gangly-limbed Dennis the Menace whose mental alertness and mischief-making were inextricably bound up with his dexterity and nimbleness. And as delightful as it was to watch the rambunctious boy gamboling across the spare stage to ascend a coconut tree, some of Gaines' most sublime moments were grounded in a concentrated quietude, moments when we got to watch Jesus at rest, sometimes at the feet of the adults, listening and actively thinking. Thoughts registering in tiny movements in the facial musculature or brightness in the whites of the eyes as he reckoned at first how best to win at dominoes, and later how to transcend catastrophic loss. 

Argos MacCallum, Jonathan Harrell and Ms.Gaines
Alix Hudson, a fine bi-lingual actress, passionate poet and produced playwright in her own right, directed the play and designed its set and audio effects. It is one of this production's great strengths that she slowed time down enough to let us watch thoughts bubble up and take hold of Jesus and propel his surprising decisions about when to lie, when to pretend, what's worth stealing, which risks one might chance taking. It's so rare to be allowed to watch someone very much in need of a wisdom that might guide a necessary cunning obtain it by connecting the dots right before our eyes. 

It's perhaps counter-intuitive that an unevenly written script would benefit from more onstage time; a more clever director might have found ways to move the action briskly along in the hopes the lapses in quality might go unnoticed in the hurry to the curtain call. But Hudson's not merely clever; she's better than that. She saw possibilities in the material that others have not, and had a certain kind of faith in her actors' abilities to fascinate just by being themselves. In the main, she was not wrong.

But the odd directorial flub also became evident in the fullness of the breath. What's a flub in my lexicon? It's a missed opportunity to communicate something vital. In Scene 6, Jesus is tending Mami as she lays wrecked and not long for this world, rubbing ointments on her soon-to-be fatal burns. Hudes has written a fantasy moment in which mother and son share a lullaby and a dance before Mami glides off to the afterworld:
I'm going to the sea/To meet my secret love/If she remembers me/The sun/The sun/The sun/I'll sing her all my songs/And as her songs are sung/I'll dance within her waves/The sun/The sun/The sun/The sun lives at the edge of the sea/The sun says she will wait there for me/The sun/I'm going to the sea/To argue with the rain/And when the clouds are gone/The sun/The sun/The sun
Hudes doesn't provide music for the prosaic lyrics, but she does provide clues contextualizing this lullaby. Jesus says to Mami: “You should eat,” He tries feeding her but there's no response. “I'll sing you a song. How about the one we used to sing on the farm and try to bother papi while he worked. When he was grumpy.”

One can imagine all kinds of cadences and tunes for this sunny ditty they used to sing to cheer up papi, and that Jesus now wishes to reprise to revitalize his mami. The least likely perhaps being the one chosena melody of melancholia, which under the circumstances pushed the encounter towards bathos, reinforced by the equally bathetic dance, a perfunctory waltz. By contrast, that moment begged for a more Caribbean-inflected tune and a confident Latin dance. It struck me as both a temperamental and esthetic misread to depart from this family's own cultural milieu for an alien solace. As a result the scene, like Mami herself, was more or less dead on arrival.   

The underwritten role of Mami (only eight lines before she's killed off in the big fire) was played by Roxanne Tapia, who is arguably one of Santa Fe's most acutely sensitive and expressive actresses. But in some sense her hands were tied because of the dirgelike melody and nonrhythmic dance, and she was almost forced to radiate or exude a kind of vague maternal caring in the very moment when her character could have been actively expressing a complex and nuanced non-verbal goodbye. Or rather, adios. Adios to her body, adios to her only son, adios to her own abruptly snuffed-out life.

Roxanne Tapia and Kana Gaines
In her second role as Lila, the caring but practical shopkeeper who shelters Jesus in the city after the fire, Tapia communicated the contradictory impulses at play—dearly wanting to help an unprotected child, but not really in a position to take on this grave responsibility—in a single gesture. An embrace that simultaneously offered a moment of comfort to a new orphan, while holding him just slightly at a distance.

Sabrina Garcia, recently returned to Santa Fe after an eight-year stint in Manhattan, played the dual roles of Yemayá, the Santaria mother of the oceans, and Maya, the slightly more experienced girl with whom Jesus sets off to sea. We're lucky to have her back in New Mexico. The Yemayá speech is perhaps some of the least enjoyable and most oppressively bland writing in the play:

Remember me like you remember your ancestors
memory more vast than your human years
Search back to the treasures in your birth
and find me there...

and so on. But bless her heart, somehow she delivered the lines without rolling her eyes, and she looked very beautiful in her ocean mama costume replete with seashell headband.    

Gaines and Garcia
In her hands Maya was played with a delicacy just under the surface of the bossy take-charge teenager. Delicacy enacted in the way she ate the Spam (which was redolent in the small theater) just touching her finger to the “meat.” Delicacy too in her approach to the kiss between Jesus and Maya, which could have been embarrassingly smarmy, but thankfully was not. Quite the opposite, there was a touch of sweetness. It evoked other theatrical teenage kisses: not so much the passion of Eros between Romeo and Juliet, but the ardor for life of Anne Frank and Peter Van Daan.  

Argos MacCallum mesmerized us as Tico, described in the cast list by Hudes simply as “a man who hacks open coconuts.” Hude has written Tico an almost impossibly obtuse soliloquy absurdly delivered to a coconut shell filled with rice (at least Hamlet got to talk to a skull), which despite his empty belly he has not cooked and eaten:
This rice is my wife's ashes. I'll remember her voice that way. Her cooking. Her beautiful skin. Her dark skin. Her mulata hair in braids. She is not ashes. She is rice. I'll speak to her through the rice. Here's her heart. She can be so soft and so hard. Here's her body, and she doesn't have to be buried. I can carry her by my side.
Hudes writes what she calls a “ritual” for Tico, in which he pours the rice over his head, and collapses to the floor:
He kneels to the ground and touches the rice around him. He lies on the ground, on top of the rice. He spots one grain of rice, puts it in his mouth and swallows it whole.

What can I say about this moment? To his great credit, MacCallum somehow disconnected from the demand that these words be infused with meaning (something to do with his wife's faith, she was a holy roller) and went for broke allowing grief to electrify and contort his body so bizarrely but with such total commitment that one just chalked these arbitrary words up to a seizure of madness in which Tico doesn't quite know what he's saying. And it doesn't matter, because what's been communicated surpasses the gibberish.

In a (coco) nutshell, MacCallum slayed it.  

Jonathan Harrell, who played Jesus' uncle Jelin, also dug deep to overcome the trite expository passage written for his character as he and Jesus prepare Mami's grave.
When my mother died, your father and I dug the grave. Our father, your grandfather, he tried to help but he was crying the whole time. He dug with his back to us so we couldn't see. We could tell. His eyes were red and puffy. When he died your father and me dug the grave. Just the two of us. We didn't march through town. We didn't have money to pay the priest. But after the fire, I buried your father alone. But I thought you should be here for your mother. She would like that. Sometimes you have to be like my father was. You want to cry but you turn your back and hide it. You don't let the world see.

He soon punctuates this heavy-handed and lachrymose life lesson with a slap to Jesus (written in by Hudes). A lesser actor might've thrown up his hands in despair, but Harrell tapped into some inner source of outrage and found a way to justify hurting a child in the midst of burying his own mother. Harrell recently played Happy in Ironweed Productions presentation of Death of A Salesman at Santa Fe Playhouse, and it is one of my biggest regrets of this theater season that I missed his performance in that classic. I look forward with great eagerness to his next star turn.

Garcia and Gaines
So much about the direction of the play, particularly the vivid and full-bodied actorial choices that Hudson helped her actors to discover and fulfill, was exciting, especially in those moments when they transcended the obvious limitations of the text. The humble setsome few risers, some sand, a few crates and stools, arranged against a watery blue backdrop were adequate to suggest the various settings as they changed from exterior to interior, rural to urban, land to sea. The propsa coffee cup, feather, a box of well-used dominoes, an aged barrel full of rice, a worn machete–all looked as if they were plucked from the farmhouses of an authentic agrarian village. One cannot help but think what good use this company could make of more substantial  resources to adorn the heart of what makes Teatro Paraguas so enlivening as they fulfill their mission of bringing the works of Hispanic, Latino and New Mexican literary artists to the stageits extraordinary talent pool.

Skip Rapoport designed the show's lighting with artistry. It was a pleasure to let one's eye wander around Jesus' world and occasionally settle on the sparkly flashes of mica in the sand. Beautiful to land upon these starry reminders of our origins. Beauty perhaps not adequately transfixing to keep Jesus rooted to Magdalena, but by all means sufficient to keep theater audiences wholeheartedly rooting for Teatro Paraguas.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Coming In From the Cold

It's going down to 45 degrees tonight in Santa Fe, 44 tomorrow, and by mid-week, 40. Brrr, and brrr again.

Most of us will pull a loved one closer for body warmth, snuggle under an electric blanket or throw another log in the kiva. But for the unhoused in Santa Fe, Saturday night, thankfully, is their last night of roughing it outside in the chill of the high desert night. On Sunday October 18th, the Interfaith Community Shelter will open its doors at 6pm (though guests line up beforehand) and commence its shelter season at the former Pete's Pets on 2801 Cerrillos Road.

Santa Fe has a shockingly high number of unhoused people for a small city (population under 70,000), around 1500 on any given night according to Joe Berenis, Executive Director of the shelter. “In 2014 we served 250 discrete women, many of them between the ages of 45 and 65, many with mental health issues. When the shelter season ends our guests are dispersed to the many informal encampments all around the city and in the arroyos. The women have one of two choices—go it alone, which is scary, or end up under the 'protection' of one of the guys, which can be an iffy proposition. How he will treat her will depend on how drunk or sober or drugged or not he is at any given time.”

To be clear: during the season there is no length of stay limitation, but Pete's Place is not a year-round shelter; it's open October to May to prevent death from hypothermia (tragically, there were dozens of instances in the years prior to the shelter's opening in 2008). “One of our guests, a 65-year-old extremely smart woman was all anxiety about having to leave the shelter last spring,” Berenis remembered. “She was rattled, understandably, at the thought of being out there on her own. Before she left she offered this insight: 'The most powerless men in America are homeless men, and the only people they have power over are homeless women.'”

Rather than enter into these precarious partnerships, or risk the hazards of living in forests and open desert spaces, Berenis explained that many of the women defy the Santa Fe law which prohibits camping within the city limits, and pitch their tents not far from Cerrillos Road where they can get help if they need it. I asked Captain Marvin Paulk, Operational Commander of the Patrol Division of the Santa Fe Police Department how that is handled. The answer seemed to be, delicately.

My officers are compassionate,” said Captain Paulk. “If there is no immediate threat to the public safety or to the safety of the women camping, we're not out there looking for defenseless homeless women to roust from their tents. Our department is 18 officers short at present, and believe me, we're busy answering service calls. Of course if there are children involved, then we take control right away. We call the Children Youth and Families Department and they find the children a safe shelter. It may take some time and the kids are often here with us for a while in the offices while those calls are being placed, but I've never seen CYFD not come through for the kids.”

The women's dorm (partial view taken a few weeks ago)
Captain Paulk estimates that around 75% of the unhoused people making their way in Santa Fe are from around the immediate area—Santa Fe itself, Pecos, Espanola—and his sense is many remain without homes for a very long time.

Last year at Pete's Place during the seven months the shelter was open 1,097 people were served for a total of 17,570 bed nights. 39,000 articles of clothing were distributed. Year round 54,000 hot meals were served, sometimes 2, 3 or 4 helpings per meal. “Homeless people often come very hungry and one serving isn't enough; at Pete's Place they can fill their bellies,” Berenis explained.

This is all accomplished by three full-time staff, and a small army of 2,400 volunteers drawn from 40 faith and community groups. The volunteer teams register the guests, photograph them as they come in, cook the hot meals in the commercial kitchen, serve them in the dining hall, and bed folks down. “We also employ our guests,” Joe explained. “We feel if we're going to ask other organizations and businesses to employ our people, then we need to hire them too. Several of our current employees in the kitchen and maintenance were former guests.”

The facility is housed in a city-owned building, so there's no proselytizing allowed in accordance with the principle of separation of church and state. 20% of the budget is provided by the city and the remainder is raised from individual donations, community groups and grants. Pete's boasts 4 showers which is one more than the Vatican dedicates to homeless Romans, Joe informed me. 135 of last year's guests were veterans of the U.S. Military, 25% were women. Guests are able to bring their pets who are housed in insulated outdoor kennels, and a warming center with heat lamps is being constructed so those waiting to come into the shelter before it opens aren't frozen in the process.

The kennel is the yellow shed; warming center under construction
As we toured the facility Joe opened a door to one room that's being fixed up as a “family suite.” “That's so if a mother comes in with her three kids they can be sheltered together apart from the women's dorm,” he explained. The room was freshly painted white and was spotlessly clean. There are storage lockers, as well as a laundromat facility where the blankets and sleeping bags are frequently laundered.

A panoply of services is available daily—housing, employment, addiction, legal—and now dental services are offered on site every Wednesday from 9am to 4pm. St. Elizabeth's is there on Fridays to help guests apply for state id's, the Food Depot comes monthly on the first Wednesday to enroll guests in SNAP (food stamps), haircuts are available every other Tuesday, and so on.

The art room
Pete's is a “come as you are” shelter. Inebriated guests are admitted later, between 9 to midnight. They're given a hot meal and a space to sleep on cushioned mats on the floor, “so they cannot injure themselves falling out of bunk beds,” Berenis explained. “We rely on the Santa Fe Police Department, and we especially prize our relationship with Marvin Paulk, who is fabulous.” Paulk explained that he intervenes if there's a felon, or a child molester, or someone known for causing trouble, on, or hanging around, the premises.

I'll check out the situation first,” Paulk told me, “and send officers quickly if need be. I also participate in their orientations for new employees and volunteers, explaining law enforcement's role in what is really a societal issue. But society keeps shrugging its shoulders at these problems...we can't arrest our way out of them. Nor can we give up. We use our critical thinking, and we relate to people as individuals with compassion and understanding.”

Law enforcement services can entail taking people to the sobering center, or the hospital, or Pete's Place, or if they're frequent violators, jail. “We don't have a single solution, this is a very sensitive matter,” Paulk explained. “People have rights, they have civil liberties, we have to adhere to the U.S. Constitution, to the New Mexico Constitution. We do what we can to assist people who have been failed by the system. Sometimes we provide food, I've seen officers pay out of pocket.” So has Joe Berenis. “One officer brings doughnuts when he comes by, or burritos. It's terrific.”

Captain Paulk tries to make it over to Pete's about once a month. Berenis said that when Paulk comes in the guests invariably will line up to interact with him. “Yes,” Paulk admitted, “we talk, there's a caring aspect to this. If I see they have injuries I inquire about them, but 99% of them won't tell me how they got hurt. They're in fear to file a report; they may have issues themselves, warrants against them. On the street among homeless people there's a caveman mentality—whoever's bigger, stronger, wins out; many of them are dealing with powerful habits. Part of what I'm doing there is looking out for the department's image, making sure there's no excessive use of force by any of our officers. Because if there is we take it very seriously.”

I asked Paulk if he thought the James Boyd scenario might have gone down differently in Santa Fe. He looked pained at the question. “Can't say, that would be Monday night quarterbacking. But the bottom line is if you master Time, you master all. If you can wait someone out, wait him out. That would be the preferred method.”

Albuquerque Police Department has paid out a $5,000,000 settlement to homeless “illegal” camper James Boyd's family in a wrongful death action, and two if its officers—retired Detective Keith Sandy and now-fired Officer Dominique Perez (both have been booked but are not being held)have been charged with murder in the second degree, which carries a recommended sentence of 15 years. They shot Boyd in the back just 15 minutes after arriving on the scene.

In the end we're public servants,” Captain Paulk said. “We want people to be safe, not to be victimized; we want to see them get the services that will help them get through the day, through the night, and hopefully off the street.”

To celebrate Opening Night at Pete's Place guests will be given a pair of new warm socks. I plan to stop by and see if I can learn if the 65-year-old woman who left so fearfully last May has made it through the five-month shelterless season, intact. I'll report back when I know.


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Road Tripping With Denise McCluggage, 1927-2015: The "She Broke Even" Tour

 Story by Frances Madeson

Change is the only constant, Hanging on the only sin.--Denise McCluggage

I am drawn to sport because I like to experience those clear neon-lined moments of being truly tuned in. And I like to watch the concentration of energy in anything done purely...Beauty is a tremor of the spine.--DM

On the racetrack I feel like a monk on a secluded cliff. The race is like being on a balcony in NYC, it's chess at a hundred miles an hour, chaos becomes peaceful in the race car. There's no pollution of outside life, you're absolutely in the moment. Not everybody gets it, but Denise did
.--Eben Cahan, Amigo Tires and Auto

Racing is something I did, not what I was....Writing  is an excuse to sample anything.--DM
A Soul's Reverie

A wonderfully wise and witty writer named Denise McCluggage passed away at age 88 in Santa Fe this past May and, oh yes I almost forgot, she was also a pioneering race car driver and breaker of any number of gender barriers in athletics and sports journalism. In a more just world she'd be as well known, widely celebrated and filthy rich as that other New Mexican feminist icon--Georgia O'Keeffe. Denise also filled her canvas in a beautiful way, but her canvas was her life, lived artfully, intentionally and fruitfully. She leaves behind a breathtaking record of accomplishment and a fellowship of some of the nicest sweetest smartest most bereft mourners in the Land of Enchantment--the members of Car Table.

Denise and cool car broker Fred Vang formed Car Table in 2002, and it's still as lively and happening as ever. But it might never have gotten off the ground if Fred had not been as persistent as he was about making contact. "I'm reading one of her articles and it says she's 'perched at 7,000 feet in Santa Fe.' I looked in the phone book, found her number and called her. I left a message, sent a fax, called her editor. Nothing, no response. One day I'm driving along St. Michael's and I see a souped-up AMG Mercedes, E Class. Its wheels were black, its exhaust was cranking, it had been driven hard. I thought what's this car doing in Santa Fe? On the steps of the bank I see Denise and can't help myself and say, 'You never answered my letter!' To which she says, throwing her hands in the air like a criminal, 'Oh my God, who have I offended now?' We sat in the car and talked for an hour. I invited her over for breakfast and Martha made popovers."

From this auspicious beginning, Car Table was later born. In essence it's a cohort of car enthusiasts who meet for lunch every Tuesday at noon at the Santa Fe Bar and Grill and discuss all things automotive. At my first visit Rubin Manzanares said, "I was born craving cars, ever since I could walk. My uncle had a tractor, when I was four or five I began noticing cars. I finally got my first one—an El Camino with the muffler cut off, sparks flying...Freedom!" Like Fred Vang many of its members knew of Denise decades before they actually got to meet her at Car Table. Bob Morgart, originally from Pennsylvania, remembers watching her race as boy. "I was a kid. I would see her race in Limerock, Cumberland, Marlboro, Watkins Glen. My uncle and I would go. I think she was driving a 550 Porsche Spider and my uncle said, 'That's Denise McCluggage, the greatest woman driver in the world!'

"My first meaningful discussion with Denise," Bob explained, "was at the mailboxes at our townhouse community in 1991, maybe 92. I was driving a 90 Q45 Infiniti, and she asked me if I'd driven the new Cherokee Jeep. When I realized I was talking to the Denise McCluggage, I began to recite all of her accomplishments but she stopped me. 'Don't!' she cried. 'I didn't set out to blaze a trail for anyone. I just did what I wanted to do and I wasn't going to let a man stop me.' But a man did stop her from the best ride of her life. She was set to drive a Ferrari at Le Mans, and the French officials refused to allow it. She got kicked off the team for being a woman, and Bob Grossman got the ride instead. Later Grossman tried to apologize to her, but she wouldn't let him. 'It wasn't your fault,' she told him. And she meant it.

"Denise was either the judge or an honored guest at many of the major racetracks," Bob continued. "She was a longtime judge at the Concours d'Elegance at Pebble Beach, twenty-plus years, I'd say.. She could get the president of any car company on the phone at any hour and sometimes would pick up the phone and call Stuttgart, to Dieter Zetsche, the CEO of Mercedes, just to talk to him about cars. Mercedes Benz established a scholarship in automotive journalism at the University of Kansas in her name.

"She was on the road traveling at least half the year. She'd be invited to road rallies all over the world, from Europe to China. Australia to Cuba in the time of Batista, to South America. She tested cars.She drove roads on ice above the Arctic Circle. Every car company invited her to drive their cars. I'm not sure how many cars she ever paid for personally. The old MG and maybe the last one."

Beyond the Black and White
When the great designers and drivers in the racing community learned that Denise had died—men like Peter Brock, the designer of the Cobra Daytona; Dan Gurney, Bob Bondurant, Stirling Moss—they broke down in tears. "I never thought she'd die" was the common reply..

"We thought she'd go on forever," Bob said, "she was so young at heart. But kidney cancer took her, though she told no one, or very few. It's why she had so many parties at the end, she wanted to see everybody." Denise had confided in Dennis and Beverly Little with whom she'd worked on the Santa Fe Concorso since its inception. Everyone says the Littles were very good to Denise, adding many comforts and care to her final days. Jean Jennings, who served as emcee at the Memorial Tribute, had visited Denise just a few days before she died. People from around America came to Santa Fe for the tribute on Saturday: Luigi Chinetti, Jr., Claiborne Booker, and three generations of her family.

Jim Coffman came to his first Car Table in October 2011. He had “met” Denise reading her work in Autoweek and before that Competition Press as a youngster. “I'd subscribed from the late 60's. When I realized she was living in Santa Fe I emailed her and said, I would love to meet you. She said sure, so my wife and I met her at the Pink Adobe for tea. She regaled us with stories for almost two hours. She was a national treasure, always had a twinkle in her eye. She knew Miles Davis, she helped him with his first Ferarris. It's hard to walk in here and see that she's not there." 

Eben Cahan, proprietor of Amigo Tire and Auto, teared up as we spoke of Denise. Besides his sons, Eben's passion in life is race car driving and Denise McCluggage is a personal hero. He met her at an art opening in a gallery on Canyon Road about ten years ago, sat next to her at Car Table's celebration of her 88th birthday, and was one of the guys who arranged to put new tires on her car as a birthday present.

"My first conversation with Denise was about driving. She likened a car to a board with four water balloons under each of its corners. When you accelerate, the weight of the board squishes the balloons, the balloons being the tires. I sought Denise out because of her racing experiences. If I had one wish in life it would be to download her experiences from her brain to mine—the smells, the sounds, all of it. To become a better racer, to better control the race car. Denise would say, 'Don't break the balloons.' I was envious in a good way, in awe. There are a handful of women in the world doing what she did. And she was beating boys, she was genuinely fast. That is a skill that cannot be taught, it's a God-given talent.

"The beautiful thing about racing is that it's totally honest. The stopwatch never lies, either you're fast or you're not. Denise was.She was also humble. She didn't like to talk too much about her accomplishments, it never went to her head. The most important thing about Denise was that she was genuinely happy. You'd catch a little of that when you hung out with her. You always felt better afterward.”

"Without Denise, I wouldn't know any of these guys..." is a common refrain among Car Table members. "We were always in her light."

To a man, they love Denise McCluggage. Love her! I'd bet my next Ferrari there's not a man in Car Table, straight or gay, who hasn't fantasized pillow-talking with some version of Denise: She was a gamine young woman, sophisticated in middle-age, and a cherubic elder. At last Saturday's memorial tribute thirty-something J.P. Gonzales said from the podium: "Denise was my 86-year-old girlfriend, my 87-year-old-girlfriend, my 88-year-old girlfriend..." Another man on the packed patio at Santa Fe Bar and Grill called out: "I dated her before you did, J.P.!" Everyone laughed, but as Fred Vang said when he took his turn at the mic: "This is fun, but also very, very hard."

She was lovers with a veritable parade of hotties: Hollywood actor Steve McQueen, jazz sax player Allen Eager, racers Caroll Shelby and Briggs "Swift" Cunningham, and...ahem...more. Lots, lots more. She told some of the Car Table guys, “I may not have been made for marriage, but I sure had a lot of fun with some really great men.” Bob Morgart places her in the free-thinking company of personages like Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Celeste Claflin. "Denise was a rule-breaker, always. A true original."

From her Short Cuts interview with Bill Sharfman published in Automobile Magazine, circa 1996:
I drove for Briggs, he'd give you a car, it was a totally amateur thing, he never paid his guys, but it was more fun. Now these guys make millions, you have to bring sponsors with you. I had CITGO as a sponsor, to promote a book I wrote called "Are You a Woman Driver?" which was a pump giveaway -- you got that instead of steak knives. It sold for a buck in bookstores, you could get a book for a dollar then. I was always scrambling, I'd like to have on my tombstone, "She broke even."
Many would likely argue that those three little words, though perhaps telling about her equanimity in temperament, sense of fair play and steady upbeat personality, are an insufficient summation of her extraordinary life. But it's a moot point: there's no tombstone. Instead, her family, in Santa Fe last week for the various tributes, along with her auto-reviewing co-blogger, J.P. Gonzales, scattered Denise's ashes roadside at an undisclosed location somewhere in the New Mexican countryside. J.P. explained why. "As you drive those lonely roads, she's with you."

Further proofs of the value of her company on those lonely roads follow.

Why not Earl?

From her earliest days as a Topeka Kansas schoolgirl Denise had the gift of radical inclusiveness. The story goes that it had come time to elect a new class president in high school, and while discussing potential candidates Denise asked a simple and life-changing question: Why not Earl?

Why not Earl? Because Earl was Black, ergo in most minds ipso facto out of the running. But back in 1940's Kansas Denise had a social imagination, and exercised it enough to ask that one vital question of her peers. Why not Earl?

On the strength of Denise's nomination, Earl was elected class president. If she has greatness, and many believe that she does, the seeds of it are in that story.

My favorite piece in her collection of automotive journalism, By Brooks Too Broad for Leaping (Fulcorte Press, Santa Fe, 1994), is titled "Me, Mama, Mini and Moscow." In a breezy offhand style she writes about her trip to the Soviet Union in 1964--"an early touch of glasnost." Yummy alliteration aside, "Me, Mama, Mini and Moscow" concerns risk-taking on behalf of freedom of expression and personal liberty. And not just for oneself.
I carried in the Mini an assortment of records and a unique little player no larger than a book.Open it up and then close it--clam-like--around a record. Voilà! Music.
Mom and I returned to the Mini, parked in Red Square, after lunch one day to find we were being awaited. A young man tapped the car window pointing excitedly at the records. So I hauled them out, set the little player on the Mini's roof and Voilà! Music.
Maybe not as sure fire as a small plane to gather a crowd in Red Square, but it would suffice. A soldier and his girl started doing the Twist, radical enough for Moscow in that age. Others joined them. (Was I introducing randomness?) Then Mother whispered at me: "You're going to get us arrested!"
And that could happen. Now I was being offered illegal old rubles, icons, family treasures in trade for the records. "Milesdavis!" "Milesdavis!" One guy was beside himself over 'Round Midnight. I guess the Voice of America was reaching its target.
I had heard of tourists arrested for illegally trading money, for selling blue jeans. Like that. But could officials fault a visitor for presenting friends with a gift? I certainly hoped not. And I dealt out my Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis and Ray Charles records to a grateful few in the shadow of Lenin's tomb. And mounted my Mini with my mother. And moseyed on.
Part of what Denise would do in New Mexico is “establish new routes” for the car rallies, meaning she'd go riding in the countryside at speeds not really contemplated by the Department of Transportation with their restriction to two-digit speed limits. There was a Viper event and Bob Lutz, the General Motors Exec in charge of the Dodge Viper was in town from Michigan. Together they opened up a new race route through Cuba, New Mexico, and back over to Jemez Springs. She was in one red Viper and Lutz was in another identical car. When the law caught up with them, she pulled her car out of view and hid behind a restaurant. Lutz, who hadn't been the offending driver got pulled over and ticketed. She could hear him saying to the police, “There were two and I'm the other one.” To her later, he accused, “You set me up! You set me up!” But she just laughed, and said, “You've done it to yourself.”

Future of the Absent Present Far Past

Great thanks to photographer Robert Esposito for illustrating our imaginary road trip with Denise so splendidly, so sublimely. These and more photos are available for purchase on his website  Please read his bio and artist's statement there. (I'm pretty sure he may have a really cool Mustang that might be available for purchase, as well.)

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Dancing Earth's Desert Journey to Planet IndigenUs 4 International Arts Festival

Story by Frances Madeson. All images by Kerri Cottle Photography taken at Dancing Earth's open rehearsal of Re-Generation on July 28, 2015 at the Railyard Performance Center in Santa Fe, NM
Rulan Tangen, Dancing Earth Director, dancing the role of the Ancient Seed Carrier
Corn, beans, squash, water...

Dance is its own language of movement, rhythm, gesture, breath. But in Re-Generation, Dancing Earth's newest eco-cultural work in progress, these few words are spoken aloud in the native languages of the four dancers who are co-creating it: Rulan Tangen, company director, her former student Anne Pesata, break dancer Shane Montoya, and teacher and choreographer Trey Pickett. In every utterance these fundamental wordscorn, beans, squash, waterare given new life, extending the idea of regeneration to the Native languages themselves.

They're dancing for their lives,” is how Tangen expresses it. “These dancers are visionaries. Cultural ambassadors. They're showing humility and gratitude in the dance and also in the making of the dance, car-pooling to get to rehearsals, sharing food; they're giving so much to be here.” The message to the viewers in Canada, where 60 per cent of croplands and 80 per cent of rangelands are in dry-land areas, is urgent and cautionary: “If you don't live in gratitude and in balance, your own land could soon become desert too.”

The only dance company from the United States to be invited to this year's Planet IndigenUs, New Mexico's premiere indigenous contemporary dance ensemble Dancing Earth will be among 300 participants in the 10-day multi-disciplinary arts festival. Other dance artists include the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Penny Couchie, Sarain Carson-Fox and Santee Smith of Canada, Frances Rings from Australia, and Bulareyaung Pagarlava from Taiwan.  

It is not unusual for Tangen, who had a professional dance career in New York City and Canada, touring to Norway and Paris and dancing for HRH Prince Charles, to receive such prestigious invitations. Accepting them is another matter. “We have so many invitations – we could go around the world – to the dusty corners and to the spotlit centers. But we have been challenged to get financial support to subsidize these prestigious invitations. I hear tales of other countries who support their dance artists—with studios, multi-year rehearsal periods, governmental travel funds for festival invitationsthose are amazing and lavish resources, comparatively.”

By contrast, Dancing Earth often rehearses outside. “We're not
portraying a struggle, we're in it,” Tangen said, explaining the day-to-day material realities of keeping the troupe viable. Her own personal teaching pay is largely dedicated to Dancing Earth's budget. Without a trace of self-pity but perhaps a little perplexity at society's priorities she admitted: “It's hard rolling on cactus. Dancing in snow. We are the underground and the underdogs. Our few props are baskets, sticks and rocks gathered from nature. Our costumes (designed by Cheryl Odom and Connie Windwalker) are made from recycled fabrics. We've rehearsed this piece less than five days, the dancers contributing their hours away from work and family. We have pared back to essentials. In the end all the dancers really have is their intention and each other.” 
Shane Montoya (center), of Dine/Hispanic heritage - wonderful break dancer and dance teacher in NM
Their intention is to represent the stories of the people of Abaachi, Dine, Tewa, and relocated Tsalagi, Papanga, Kainai, Metis, and many others who have contributed to the bowl of lived cultural knowledge in this inter-tribal collaboration. Dancing Earth has spent the last three to four years in cultural development. Guided by Native elders they're invited to create dances around a theme. In the past these have centered around stories of environmental degradation, especially of water sources. “We're deeply storied," says Rulan, "we're embedded in our communities and we have pledged to our people that we will tell the important stories of right now. We will survive climate change. We've been beaten down by fracking, but we offer the vision of hope, renewal, healthy bodies, empowered women. We are the ones who have chosen the desert, to live a life of gratitude, of vision, of patience, prayer and perseverance. We are desert people with desert knowledge. We carry it all on our backs.
Anne Pesata bearing the weight

We do not show the sacred dances," Rulan assured, "but in various permutations we are remaking undeniable Native dances that are sourced from ancient yet relevant philosophies that we revitalize through embodiment as contemporary artists. PowWow dancing contains some of the most vital contemporary forms you will ever see, also based in long held traditions. So much dance training offers a limited vision of beauty. But a dance can be made more beautiful not despite but because the dancers are bigger. In some traditional dances the women dancers wrap their legs to make them thicker, to make them appear more like tree trunks.

In response to these very different and powerful worldviews, I created the company I wanted to be in. I couldn't find 'it' in the urban landscape. We practice Land Dance techniques, Bio-mimicry, the land and botanical growth patterns inform our movements and rhythms; we experience a heightened awareness of energies.”

Re-Generation opens with the original ancestor character, danced by Rulan, open-mouthed, her head and face sheathed behind a diaphanous veil. “I am still discovering what this costume symbol is
a cocoon, the layered skins of seed that become successively more transparent...,” Rulan confessed. “I know a call through a veil was a motif I wanted. How much life force do our ancestors have to deploy to be heard?” The ancient seed carrier crosses the desert. She moves slowly depicting the ancients' sense of time—observation, calmness, breath. When she walks backwards she passes the younger being (danced by Anne), passing along her knowledge. “The younger girl doesn't see me, but feels me holding space at her back. She's running as you would to the ocean, knees high. She places the seed rocks on the ground making a deliberate pattern, a marking for the next generation. She becomes the ground, creating the soil; she makes vine-like movements. She is resilience, falls, gets up. She makes foraging movements. A Native chef and forager had taught us these purposeful gestures, to collect mushrooms, singing as she harvests them.”

Anne is joined by the men, Shane and Trey, carrying sticks and staffs. They hunt as she forages conveying important history. “Before Indigenous farming practices, essentially what is now known as permaculture, we were foragers and hunters,” Rulan explained. “We lived a 'leave no trace' way of life. We lived life in a state of heightened awareness, and also in the security that anywhere you landed you could feed yourself. But we had to become planters in response to Colonization.”

The branches are placed upright between the rocks Anne has left on the ground. The ancestors are building on each other's foundations. The ancient ancestor drags a magnificent royal blue train behind her, upon which is piled a heap of trash. There are gestures of openness, endless giving. She is collecting the trash on the water, pulling their pain, all that society has done to beat them down. In response, the three young dancers join together foot to foot, climbing on each other, sharing burdens, offering gifts. Their step and stair formation is found on their peoples' beadworks, pottery, rugs, and is often symbolic of mountain slopes, clouds, direction and change. “The ancestors," Rulan explains, "are also the mountains and clouds, conjuring water through the people's collective intention.”

The dancers spread, shake, whip and ultimately gather under an olive green covering made from recycled parachute material, and their movements are meant to de-emphasize the distinction between humans and plants. They extend themselves to all four cardinal directions, reaching and writhing, filling the space with a vision of the vast and fertile earth. A diadem of sunflowers sits atop Rulan's head. As the other dancers' torsos poke through the fabric, they seem themselves to be sprouting.
 In the final scene the music (designed and played by DJ Kino Benally, and incorporating work by musician Ehren Natay and the recorded voices of many community members) picks up in tempo. The seeds turn toward the northeast. The music is urban Indigenous—house, cumbia. “They are also ours,” explained Rulan, “the rhythms and people; mixed-blood, urban, vital pulse.” In the final image the dancers appear to be plants reaching to the sky. The lights will go out, but the music will continue, as will the Native peoples.

“Survivance” is an amalgam of survival and resilience, a
ccording to Rulan, and it's a vital state. "Our people have experienced massacres and genocide. We deal with tragedy by working with healers. We help each other move through the suffering place. We use innate, instinctive touch, we hold talking circles, we're always feeding each other in community. There is a vital role for arts in movement building. Instead of focusing on the oppressor the focus is on creativity, imagination. We spend time envisioning transformation. A place where we're strong, as comfortable on our hands as on our feet, supported, uplifted, respected and acclaimed.”
Trey Pickett (center) of Tsalagi/African American heritage - multifaceted dancer, teacher and choreographer
 It should be said that Dancing Earth's dance-creation process is deliberately exploring concepts
of De-Colonization. “Our dances are created from an exchange of stories. We inhabit the stories, animate each other's stories. Our process is participatory and we honor the Indigenous modes. This is counter to some of the more hierarchical processes I experienced as a young dancer,
which taught a dancer the beautiful selflessness of becoming an instrument to another’s vision. In some ways it's much harder to create a cohesive collage or mosaic. Nothing is superimposed, there's no demand that a pointed foot be pointed merely for a preconceived notion of what a line should look like. A foot might be pointed if it were supposed to represent a leaf in a specific instance, but not overall. I teach in a state of inquiry, it's how we resist the oppression layered onto us."

n the first rehearsal I attended, much of the time was dedicated to practicing the movements with the enormous parachute covering while counting out 12 beats, getting the count right, getting in sync with each other in a rare instance of unison in a work that seeks a more organic expression of group dynamics. “We perform variations on unison,” Rulan prompted, "like wind on the grasses we saw outside earlier.” Her suggestions to the dancers accented the sensuousness of their creation: "You're peeling away a corn husk...emphasize the smoothness and silkiness...the texture is so interesting...use the flat palm instead of grabbing the material...give a breath as a sound cue."

Afterward Rulan asked the dancers, who were all holding hands in a circle for the debrief, “How do you feel?” “Sweaty!” was the answer, and everyone laughed. The sweetness of laughter had infused the creative problem-solving throughout the rehearsal; mutual respect was palpable even if someone was late by a beat, or early. “If I'm late,” Rulan advised, “go on with each other! I'll catch up to you.” Whatever the opposite of diva is, that is Rulan's directorial style and rehearsal demeanor.

After all the exacting practice Rulan gave the dancers the recognition that was their due. Smiling, she told them she could feel the energy from emanating along their spines up through the back of their heads. She told them they were all bringing it on an equal level, that she was stunned and thrilled, and that this rehearsal was the strongest yet. “There's been a change,” she said. “You've come such a long way, especially in making tangible your relationships with each other.” Later, she said to me, “The Seed is the lens of ecology, our dance is a functional ritual of reciprocity. We hope our company's own arc will be that of the seed—first small, then multiplied, then abundantly more." Beautiful words as prelude for a generous thought: "I would like to be able to pay the dancers a fair living wage, so they can do this full time.
Anne Pesata, of Jicarilla First Nation has a degree in Environmental Studies and works for her tribe as a community health representative

Dancing Earth's festival performance will be held on Thursday, August 6th from 7:30-8:30 pm, at the renowned McMichaels Art Gallery. In the company's Canadian debut they'll be creating a site-immersive ritual on a spiral mound. They plan to do a tobacco blessing as both a smudging and a swirling dance of smoke. They'll explore the space in movement, and then make a progression together to the gallery where they will dance Re-Generation. But first there will be a cultural welcoming by First Nations guest artists, Jerry Longboat and Christine Friday, of Mohawk and Anishinabe heritage, respectively, both longtime dance colleagues of Rulan's, along with Shelley Charlesa respected Anishinabe elder, who will serve as land stewards. Rulan, Anne, Shane and Trey will ask permission of the land stewards to present their dance.

When Rulan invoked this traditional but neglected practice in some territories, tears came to the eyes of one Lakota woman who said through her gentle weeping: “It has been so long since this was remembered, we thought it had been forgotten.”