Artist Date 116: Brundibar

Brundibar_button

I am surprised by my tears.

I don’t know why. As my ex-boyfriend D once noted with great endearment, “You cry about everything.” But today they surprise me.

Perhaps because it is not quite noon (not that tears are a great respecter of clocks) and it seems early in the day to have such an outpouring of emotion. Or perhaps it is because I have spent the entirety of this Artist Date (number 116) mired in irritation.

I am at Madrid’s Teatro Real for a performance of Brundibar, Hans Krasa’s children’s opera, re-written from memory and performed 55 times at Theresienstadt – the ghetto and concentration camp located about an hour from Prague.

I feel awkward walking to the opera – just a few blocks from my house. It is a children’s performance and I am attending sans child. My discomfort is heightened as I show the usher my ticket.

“You know this is just one ticket? One seat,” she inquires.

Yes, I am aware.

And I am once again reminded of the Spaniards distaste for aloneness. I didn’t buy into this when it was first pointed out to me by a long-time expat during my first days in Madrid. Over the past nine months I’ve become increasingly more aware that at best, Spaniards do not value time spent alone, and at worst, pity it. My Spanish students and friends confirm this.

The child next to me is sniffling and blowing his nose. I privately regard him with disdain as a human petri dish and hope not to catch whatever has taken root in his small body. The pain in my leg and hip that has followed me from California to Chicago to Seattle to Madrid announces itself. A bodyworker by trade, I roll the skin of my thigh between my fingers – burning, painful – hoping to encourage its release. I am, in a word, distracted.

The opera is performed in Spanish – which I don’t expect, even though I know there will be no subtitles. For some reason I expect it to be performed in Czech, and that none of us will know the exact words being sung. Ridiculous.

But as it is in Spanish, I feel obligated to try to understand it. If it were any other language, I wouldn’t even try. Instead I would let the words wash over me, charmed by their different sounds and tickled if by chance I know any of them.

But this is not the case. And now, my Sunday morning Artist Date feels like a work. Like a Spanish lesson.

The performance lasts about 45 minutes. The music and costumes are fanciful and the children’s voices, high and sweet. I know its story because I read up on it last night.

It is a simple tale of fatherless children who need milk for their sick mother, but have no money to purchase it. They decide to sing in the marketplace to earn money but are chased away by the evil organ grinder, Brundibar (who represents Hitler). With the help of a bird, a cat, a dog and other children, they chase away Brundibar and are able to sing in the square.

But it is only as the performers take their bows that I connect to the performance and the story. Only now that the details I learned while reading in bed push up and out of me.

That among the 55 performances of the opera at Theresienstadt was one for the Red Cross, who had come to investigate conditions in the “ghetto,” and one for the Nazi propaganda film Der Fuher schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Führer Gives the Jews a City). That many of the Jews living in Theresiendstadt were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz prior to the Red Cross visit to make the ghetto appear less crowded and more comfortable. And that all who participated in the film were sent to Auschwitz upon its completion, and most of them gassed upon arrival.

That, according to Ela Weissberger, a survivor who played the role of the cat at Theresienstadt, the only time the children could remove their identifying yellow Star of David was during performances.

But it is what I have read on radio.cz that has moved me from irritation to tears.

“It is chilling to think that the cast had to be renewed constantly as a growing number of the children were transported to Auschwitz.”

It is this thought that runs through my head as the children take their bows, ironically on the second day of Passover – the celebration of the Jews liberation from slavery. That this cast will be renewed based upon age, not death. And I am no longer surprised by my tears.

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Artist Date 103: Oh The Places You’ll Go

Backstage at the Museum of Contemporary Art
Backstage at the Museum of Contemporary Art

I don’t want to go.  I never want to go.

Artist Date “Dirty Little Secret” — I almost never want to go.  The same way I never want to get on a plane to somewhere I’ve never been before.

I do when I book the flight or when I make the reservation for a performance or workshop.  But when the actual time comes, I feel anxious and sick inside.

Like the first time I went to Europe.  The German Consulate in San Francisco sent me.  Lufthansa Business Class.  Four and five-star hotels in Bonn, Berlin and Dresden.  (Or as luxury as was available in Dresden in 1995.)  Access to end of World War II commemoration events where I spied Helmut Kohl, Al Gore and Francois Mitterand.

But I am at the airport in San Francisco, talking with my friend Peg from a payphone — in tears.

Ten years later I am on my way to France, by myself.  This time it is my husband and a cell phone.

And to Italy this past fall.  From Chicago O’Hare.  I call my girlfriends in quick succession.  Ann, Julie, Lynn, Chase.  No tears this time.  Just an overwhelming sense of dread.

Each time, I am anxious with uncertainty.  Anxious, that I don’t speak the language — German, French, Italian — that I won’t understand.  That I will feel foolish.  That I will fail.

My fears are not baseless.  Each time I depart the plane, I don’t speak the language — not fluently.  Just a little French.  A little Italian, leaning heavily on my high-school Spanish.  And German, none at all.

I often don’t understand.  And I sometimes feel foolish.  But I never fail.  Mostly because it is impossible to fail at traveling.  Unless one fails to get on the plane.

It is the same walking into the Museum of Contemporary Art for a flamenco workshop — Artist Date 103.

I am anxious as I don’t know the genre.  I do not know what to shoes to wear (if any), what clothing.  Afraid that I will feel foolish.  That I will fail.

I think back to the master class I joined with a principal dancer from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.  The workshop was described as intermediate.  I had been dancing for six years — once a week at the Old Town School of Music.  But the others had been dancing all of their lives.  It was my Flashdance moment — sans rolling on desks in front of an admissions board — I was out of my league.

I did feel foolish.  At best, I got one-third of it.  But I didn’t fail…because I got on the plane, as it were.

And I lived a fantasy I never imagined I really would or could — to dance with Alvin Ailey company members.

I remember this and call the MCA to inquire about attire.  I do not receive a phone call back.  I pack a pair of hard shoes with wooden heels, a sports bra, yoga pants and too-big jeans and go.

When I arrive the program manager takes me into the theater, through the side doors and into Dressing Room B.  “You can change in here,” she says.

I ask her what she thinks would be best — yoga pants or jeans.  Either will work, she replies.

It doesn’t matter.  I don’t care anymore.

I could leave now and be “good.”

I am in the dressing room at the MCA.  The same dressing room Mikhail Baryshnikov *might* have used when he performed here last year.  (There *is* a Dressing Room A.  And there may be more — C, D.)

I am giddy.

I feel like an imposter.  I take a photograph of myself, change into my yoga pants and go out to the stage.  (The same stage where Baryshnikov performed.  The same stage where Sonia Sanchez will perform tonight.)

I can't believe where I'm at...
I can’t believe where I’m at…

I could have worn jeans as it is not a workout, per se.

We do unwinding exercises and learn the foot pattern that matches the Flamenco rhythm.  (One. Two. Three-two, three, four.  Four-two, three, four.  Five.)  We create improvisational pieces with partners that we perform.

Some of the women have been dancing flamenco for years.  They wear Gypsy-style skirts and black, heeled dance shoes.  Others have never danced a day in their lives.  They are dressed for a winter’s day in Chicago.

And Sonia, she doesn’t speak English so much.  And I really don’t speak Spanish.  But I understand… enough.

Enough to be reminded that I really can’t fail if I show up.  And that when I do, I get access to places I could never go on my own — into dressing rooms, onto stages, into my fear.