Sunday, December 02, 2012

Tales from New Haven

This week I am being hosted by my friend Giulia on Howe Street in New Haven. Howe st. is at the boundary of the Yale area. One street north-east of Howe, and it’s a different world. A world I rarely walk into, but we needed milk and other basic supplies, and Stop and Shop is only ten minutes away, so yesterday I decided to go. After all—-I thought—-it’s a major street, it’s lunch time, and my friend Giulia walks there all the time. (if people from New Haven think I’m excessively paranoid even by New Haven standards, there are a couple of extenuating circumstances that I won’t discuss here, but that made me feel unusually weak) As I walk there, I become aware of a presence behind me. After a little bit I can’t help but turn. It’s an African-American young man, with a hoodie. I turn back and check my pace. Did I inadvertently speed up? I ought not to speed up! But I shouldn’t slow down either, or he’ll think I want him to pass. I am a Horrible Person. Why did I turn? What will he think? I have been through this so many times since I started living in New Haven, and I hate it. I am a coward, I have always been. I am scared by physical violence. New Haven brings the worst out of me. All my implicit biases thrive happily when it comes to young Black men on the street. I hate that I stereotype, but I do it all the time, like most of us. Even worse, I am always painfully aware that I do it. And I am so ashamed by it. So I keep walking and checking my pace and feeling a Horrible Person. The guy in fact speeds up and passes me. I want to say “Did you do it to make me feel safe? If so, thanks!” and “Do you despise me now? Sorry!”. Obviously I don’t say anything. I hope to cross paths with him in the store, so I’ll have a chance to awkwardly smile at him. (I often do those things, which generally come out as utterly incomprehensible to the other party). But even though he turns into the parking lot, he doesn’t enter the store, maybe he works here, or maybe he is going somewhere else. So I do my grocery and forget about it. I’m walking back. An older African-American guy is walking in my direction. As a partial attempt at redemption, I make a point of looking in his direction. This thing of looking at people is a thing I do in general, and I think is a cultural difference. I suspect Italians look at each other a lot more than Americans do. I’m sure I sometimes come out as staring at people. When this happens with Yalies, they always think I know them and I am sort of greeting them, so they mutter a greeting while making the face of someone who is trying to remember who the hell I am. When it happens with non-Yale people, they generally say “how y’a doing” and move on. This is what happens this time, so I smile and say hi. Then after a few steps he calls me. I stop and think “Shit” and, as I think that, I feel myself falling in the same trap I thought I was so carefully avoiding. I’m stereotyping again! Before I can control my thoughts (and who can control their thoughts?), I am afraid this guy is going to ask for money (but he totally didn’t look like he needed money), or he is going to harass me (but he looks like a quite respectable gentleman), or that he is a crank (again, no evidence of this). I turn, and say “yes?” (because of course not in a million years, probably not even at night, I would now not turn and stop and be nice to a person that for all I know is a very respectable gentleman). And he goes: “I just wanted to tell you something. You look so strong, simple and beautiful. You are not made-up, you are simple, and yet so beautiful.” Awww. I blush a little, and not just for the compliment. I want to tell him that in fact I am very ugly, indeed a Horrible Person. That I didn’t put any make-up on only because I felt so tired and I was just going to the grocery store. That I don’t even have the guts to not wear make-up every day and like myself the way I am, not to mention the guts to walk to a grocery store in full daylight without being scared by my own shadow (oh and remind me to tell you about the time I WAS ACTUALLY SCARED BY MY OWN SHADOW). But I just say “thanks so much!” and smile, and I feel we both walk away feeling a little lighter. My White guilt is assuaged a little bit (because I can’t help but think that he liked that I looked at him, and that was his reward for me), and my womanly pride a little flattered. New Haven doesn’t always bring the worst out of me, after all.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

affinita' elettive nell'era di facebook

Su facebook si dice tutto e il contrario di tutto, come per tutte le cose importanti e non palesemente malvagie.
E magari si e' gia' detta pure questa, pero' ho voglia di dirla pure io, e non aggiorno il blog (specialmente in italiano) da troppo tempo. Dunque ecco.

Facebook mi fatto "riconnettere" con molta gente, come promesso. Di alcuna avrei fatto a meno, ma sono troppo codarda per dire no. Nulla di tragico, basta usare l'opzione che ti permette di non vedere i loro vari status omofobici, o razzisti, o pieni di errori grammaticali e refusi che mi fanno digrignare i denti, o semplicemente vacui.
Poi c'e' la categoria dei vecchi amici che comunque non sento mai, ma almeno ho un vago senso di quello che succede nelle loro vite. Un barlume di luce su quello che hanno fatto il giorno o mese prima, una foto a caso che mi ricorda il passato, che mi aggiorna, seppure superficialmente, sul presente, e che magari mi rassicura che il loro futuro non sara' completamente disconnesso dal mio.
Poi ovviamente ci sono gli amici veri, quelli che sento ogni tanto davvero, che vedo quando torno in Italia. Ahime', questa categoria rischia di confondersi con la precedente ogni giorno di piu'. Ma non dispero, e mi illudo che facebook rallenti questo processo evitabile.
Poi c'e' la mamma che fa categoria a se', e che se non la nomino si offende! Ma se non ci fosse Facebook voglio pensare che avremmo molti altri modi per sentirci (ma aiuta, aiuta).
Ma la categoria che mi interessa di piu', e per la quale sono veramente grata al network sociale, e' quella delle affinita' elettive inaspettate. Quella dei conoscenti con cui ti accorgi di avere in comune piu' di un parente condiviso, piu' della frequentazione della stessa scuola anni fa, piu' di un amico comune a cui nessuno dei due, in ogni caso, parla piu'. Sono quelle persone a cui piacciono gli stessi, non necessariamente popolarissimi, autori che ho appena scoperto; che hanno compiuto percorsi professionali e di vita simili ai miei; che hanno amici in paesi altrettanto o ancora piu' esotici di quelli da cui vengono i miei; che commentano sugli stessi fatti, con simile modalita' emotiva, su cui commento io. Le loro storie somigliano alle mie, anche se anni o decenni fa, quando vivevamo nella stessa citta' o facevamo parte della stessa famiglia allargata, o praticavamo la stessa arte nella stessa scuola, ci conoscevamo appena, magari perche' si separavano un sufficiente numero di anni da rendere le piccole differenze significative. O magari erano differenze piu' grandi, ma col tempo i nostri percorsi si sono assimilati. Quando si parla di affinita' elettive ci si immagina anime gemelle che sono destinate ad incontrarsi, possibilmente in modo romantico, fin dalla nascita. Ma la verita' e' che tanto fanno le nostre esperienze di vita, e che ci si puo' avvicinare molto anche partendo da lontano.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bossa Nova

The only disappointment of Bossa Nova, the latest play at the Yale Repertory Theater, is that you don't hear much of this musical genre.
But it's probably aesthetically better that way, since it makes the play even less foreseeable than it already is.

Bossa Nova is not about an original topic. It's actually about a topic that is always at risk of delivering trite plots and cliches: being accepted for who we want to be, and finding ways of figuring out who we want to be. But it analyzes and expresses it in a multilayered way that shows why it's indeed complicated.

It tells the story of a young African American girl who comes from a well-off bourgeois family, in which "new money" is despised (even though her mother comes from a humble background, and this is a crucial factor in the play) , and in which women have to learn to find their "use". We never see Dee's father, but only her mother and what appears to be her sister. Other characters are Dee's boarding school roommate, her history teacher and the teacher's wife, all Caucasian. Nobody, but (maybe) the teacher's wife, sees her for who she is striving to be.
They all distort her personality, or her attempt at building one, by projecting onto her their infatuation or their will or both. They all present interesting and multifaceted characters, even the more marginal one of the teacher's wife, who actually unexpectedly turns out to be the most pitiful and sympathetic of them.

Different ways of looking at the problem of identity are effortlessly woven together: Dee struggles as the token black student whose only friend is Catholic, poor, and desperately in love with her; racial stereotypes makes her the sexual prey of the aspiring Jazz musician who has found a job as a teacher only thanks to his rich wife's father. This pathetic faux-Bohemian figure lures Dee away from her roommate's courtship and succeeds in shaping Dee's sexual identity toward his way at the most tragic cost. On the other hand, it is also quite unclear to what degree Dee is actually intrigued with the, incongruously feminist and unconsciously lesbian, idyllic picture that Grace depicts (which consists in living in the Village and defying stereotypes by "drinking strawberry wine and not using deodorant"!)

Both relationships smother Dee's aspiration to be a successful bright student, who learns to get As in order to avoid being humiliated by racist teachers. She ends up faking to go to the library (where, according to Grace, a short-sighted being who experiences the world through smell and tries to paint the world in grey--the union of black and white!- "the air is crappy"), in order to go satisfy the sexual wants of a teacher who aims to draw "primal" energies from her.

But Dee's search for the appropriate familial role is the one that is most painfully exposed throughout the play. The mother and daughter relationships present in the play cannot be understood until the end, and I will not completely spoil that...
The search for her mother's approval is brilliantly embodied by the way the scene is set: Dee's mother faces an imaginary mirror between her and the audience, which functions as the means of reflection of her face while she makes it up. (Daughters are never as pretty as their mothers, we are told, and women need to be pretty, to care about their appearance, to be of any "use".) She never looks at Dee directly, and only at the end of the play we understand why. Dee's mother hardships have made her heartless to a degree that we can fully grasp only when the secret that is hinted at throughout the story is revealed.

At the end, Dee realizes that she is the only one who can value every inch of herself for what it is, and the only one who can break the chain of bitter mother-daughter relationship.
The big tree, the symbol of life to which only the youngest and most innocent can get close, is still hidden by the glass window, but we can hope it's not too late for Dee to resurrect.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

in the waiting room

I am waiting at the Health Center Pharmacy for my drugs. I have been here for twenty minutes now, and someone has been lying on the floor all this time, crying out of pain. I, and several other people, asked if she was ok and if she needed help. She said she was fine, waiting for her ride, but she could not sit anymore, since her back was hurting too much. But only a couple of elderly people, both having a hard time walking (one helping herself with a cane, the other on a wheeling chair) stopped and began to chat with her, to ease her pain and maybe theirs. The gentleman on the wheelchair is still there, chatting amiably. She is laughing now.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

nice to meet you

Small talk is an American art. Or at least it's a practice widely spread and crucial to survival in the American academic environment (and I suspect in any other professional context).
Not that Italians don't do any small talk. We chit-chat a lot, about the weather, your work and similar amenities. But it seems to me that is is not as formalized and full of reciprocal make-believe. When I talk to my peers in Italy, I actually have the illusion that we are genuinely communicating, that we are interested in each other, or else we do not talk at all. We do not need to pretend. We do not look for polite questions. When we talk, if we like each other, we do not feel the need to stop talking after the supposedly decent amount of time has passed. Sometimes you talk to perfect strangers all night, and not always with a secondary purpose in mind. It may even happen to become friends, just like that. In the US that would be unthinkable. Even if you meet someone you like, you talk ten minutes, and then you depart. I guess it's a way of not being invasive. On the other end of the spectrum, even if you really find someone obnoxious you still talk to them a few minutes. It's impossible for me to tell whether people actually enjoyed talking to me or they were looking forward to being on the other side of the room. In both cases they will assure me that they loved talking to me.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

pranzo di ferragosto

More often than not, more is less. This is beautifully shown in a small Italian movie, “Pranzo di Ferragosto”, that I just saw at the Italian Film Festival organized by the Italian Department at Yale.
It's a very good example of Italian comedy, and I will say nothing about that, since so many cinema historians and critics talk about it more competently than I could do.
What I really enjoyed was the film's humility. It's a short, poignant, disquieting divertissement on aging. Four old ladies are taken care of by the sixty-something son of one of them, in the wonderful, deserted, drowned-in-sunlight scenario that the center of Rome transforms into in the middle of August. Many movies have been shot in it, though, and so the part that is more visually original is the contrast between the lighted outside and the adumbrate interiors of the old genteel house of Gianni and his mother. The glorious past of the family is a realistic conceit: I myself have seen similar old apartments, hosting the same old, bejeweled, well-spoken ladies, babysat by their not-so-young unmarried devoted children.
It's a virtue of the movie that it does not attempt to analyze the mother-son relationship, but is content with showing it. A less intelligent director and writer would have put much more emphasis on this already too explored topic. Nor there is too much emphasis on the topic of abandonment of elderly people at Ferragosto, which is what every Italian news talk about every August. It is a squalid phenomenon, but not much more can be said or investigated. Italy and so many other countries face more and more the problems connected with an aging population, and too many middle-aged children do not want to, or are unable to, take care of their old parents as most of them deserve.
But the topic of the movie is not just aging itself, the immense sadness that is consequent to solitude and coming to terms with one's imminent death, or the involution that renders elderly people like children, making them needy, demanding, whimsical, silly, and naive. There's that too, and very well illustrated. From the very first scene, the old ladies behave mostly like little girls. But this too is a triviality that we see (and say) over and over. “Getting old is a bit like becoming children again”. If that were the main message of the movie, it would be disappointing. The geniality of this small comedy is to juxtapose that message with its opposite, in itself as banal: the elderly are not children, bur rather old adults. Unless they are demented, they are autonomous human beings, who have lived and experienced longer than the majority of those around them. As the genius “reading the hand” scenes suggests, where one of the guests reads the hand to all her friends, they have lived long lives and yet they are sufficiently human to desire and hope for more. They resort to being like children because that's the only way they can get some attention, but they would prefer to keep having an adult life. They want to chat with their children as if they were equal to them; they have the right to go out, smoke, drink, and be flirtatious; they can wear make-up and nice clothing, dance and watch tv until late at night if they want to. They have money, sometimes still more than their children. And that, sadly, seems the only thing that can protect their autonomy.
It is thanks to the perfect balance between these two trivialities that the film becomes original. But it is also brave, for a few reasons. First of all, it shows aging people. All the people in the movie except for the fisherman (whose pronunciation of Italian sounds slavic like that of the never -seen but often-mentioned Romanian care-takers) are over 50. Not many films portrays older people, and almost none portrays just them. And yet they are so many more than the youngsters that crowd our cinemas, both on and off the screen. Cinema is often thought of as something for young viewers and young actors. Showing old people is therefore audacious, almost revolutionary.
But showing them as old is even more brave. All indoor scenes are shot from a close distance. This technique on the one hand aims to make the viewer claustrophobic and empathize with Gianni, stuck in the small house with no way out. But on the other hand it makes us almost painfully aware of what old age looks like. The audience was squeamish and almost disgusted when the camera shoots a close-up of the oldest lady who is putting bright make-up on her spotted and wrinkled skin. I found it the saddest, but also most sincere reaction of the audience, and more meaningful than all of the laughter. Orange lipstick on the lips of a lady close to ninety makes us think of decomposition, not beauty. The other ladies are less old and one is definitely what is generally called “a beautiful old lady”, but once they get older, they will get more and more similar to each other, in the same way that children look alike when they are born. Another moment triggering disgust was when Gianni's mother is shot in silhouette, and small drops of saliva come out of her mouth as she speaks, tiny hairs on her face contrasting against the light. She is speaking French, and she is being as sophisticated as she always been, except that now she has fake teeth. Here again we feel squeamish, and ashamed of it, and forced to confront something we generally do not have to think of, when we go see a comedy: that even the most beautiful and young ones are made of flesh and bones, and will die, and will not necessarily look pretty while they do.
But it is also possible to look pretty, in fact. This is a comedy, after all, and the old ladies show us how that beyond physical decay the spirit and the mind can stay alive and well until the very last moment. Gianni's mother is the oldest, but also the most lively of them, and they all end up controlling their fate, while provoking our amusement. The final credits scene is in this respect the most unequivocally funny.
This is a small, good comedy. As all good comedies, you come out the theater with a smile that fades away as you go home.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

joy, once again

I have been dancing for many years. I guess I should be proud, not ashamed, to say how many. So here it is: for 24 years.
I began dancing at 8. My mom claims that I bugged her for a long time, asking her to bring me to dance school. I actually don't remember that, nor I did the first time she recollected this, long ago. I do remember my first time in a studio. In a green, kind of ugly sweat suit, shoe-less. The teacher told me to imitate what another child was doing. I think she was doing tendus. It was a test, to see if they could put me in the “first grade”, "primo corso". I skipped all the propedeutics, all the “rhythm and play” phase, I was too old for that. So they put me in the first grade, in February, catching up with the others. Already quiet myopic, without wearing glasses I struggled to understand what was going out. The teacher asked me to “turn” my leg, and I turned... in. What did I know?!
I have a lot of memories about struggling, those first years. Catching up in an increasingly obfuscated world (I began to wear glasses in the dance class a couple of years later, when I realized I just couldn't do without). And yet, I must have liked it, since I kept going. Year after year, I went to class three times per week, enduring the endless, repetitive exercises, getting excited for performances. A glorious moment, my “quinto corso” performance, in which I got to do a cool pirouette step, and in which I felt I finally found my voice, and the ability to smile! Less artistically relevant, the year before I had my first performance without brakes and... with contact lenses! No more guessing who was where on stage: I could see them!
The best memory of all, of those years in my ballet school “Kiki Urbani”, is undoubtedly that of my graduation. Dancing Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, act IV, was challenging and fun. I cried the last night of the show, and I cried longer the days afterward, when I realized I was officially a graduate. Great final grade, lots of claps, but I was out, no more dancing for me! End of life!
Of course, I was so wrong. I never stopped dancing since then, or at least for no longer than a few months. I kept performing, wherever and whenever I could. I found new teachers, new dance mates, new friends, new techniques to get excited, and worried!, about.
I discovered Cunningham, and how my arms were not at all making spontaneous, natural shapes. I realized how tense I was, unable to keep a simple yoga pose without the desire to scream. But I improved, I found out how to breathe and relax and contract. And, partially as a consequence, my ballet technique improved as well.
And then, Yale. Being in A Different Drum has made me so unexpectedly happy. When I was in college, I used to think that every September was harder than the previous one. Getting back in the studio, in the light, musky atmosphere of Rome's warm afternoons, holding the barre and thinking: “boy, I'm getting old”. But at Yale, even though I am much older, and the weather—oh the weather's so much worse!—at Yale it's somehow easier, thanks to the enthusiasm and good spirits of everyone around me. And I got this chance of choreographing for the first time in my life. But to this chapter, another post will be dedicated...
This one is about the joy of dancing. A joy that I was losing the last times I performed in Italy, stressed out by external things that should have not mattered. Preoccupied by aging, getting a real job, finding my own path.
And now I found it. I found my professional path, and at the same time, I found a new chance for dancing joyfully and fully.

Tonight (or should I say last night, given that it's well past midnight) I danced as I rarely danced. I didn't judge myself. I stepped on stage proudly and excitedly, and after that I jumped and flew on it, and I turned, and looked for the sky and the stars. I was surrounded by people who are literally half my age and I didn't mind. We were dancing together and I was not worrying. I was enjoying being there, dancing on a live orchestra's music. Mozart. Divertimento K. 136. I was a wave, a bird, a cloud. I felt again what I felt when I was Aurora, bowing at the end of my variation. I danced with my heart and smiled with my eyes, as Miss Caroline asked me to do.

I will not forget. I will dance again like this, in two weeks, for A Different Drum Spring show. It's going to be awesome, and I will be “in the moment”. I promise.