Author Archives: Lou Fancher

On downtown Berkeley street, the poetry is underfoot

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On a downtown Berkeley city block, poetry is a constant companion.

Stretched along both sides of Addison Street between Milvia Street and Shattuck Avenue, cast-iron “stepping stone” plaques engraved with fired, glass porcelain enamel lettering speak the language of poets from Ohlone Indians to contemporary wordsmiths.

Known as the “Berkeley Poetry Walk” and anthologized in The Addison Street Anthology,  published by Berkeley-based Heyday Books, the public-art project was a massive undertaking completed in 2003 by a team of pivotal volunteers, private donors, the City of Berkeley, City staff and the Civic Arts Commission. … Continue reading »

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Bay Nature: Restitches our connection to natural world

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No matter how grand the “internet of things” becomes, all the digital wizardry in the world will never rival the unsurpassable majesty of nature.

Applied to the Bay Area, this global truth spears the soul four times a year as it arrives in the unassuming vehicle of the quarterly magazine Bay Nature.

Marking the 15th anniversary of a publication dedicated to the natural world of the San Francisco Bay Area, the magazine, whose offices are in Berkeley, has flowered into 53 consecutive editions, an informational website, “Bay Nature on the Air” videos, and free naturalist-led hikes.

At the helm of the independent nonprofit organization, Bay Nature Institute, sits publisher and editor David Loeb. Or rather, Loeb hikes, animal-watches, kayaks, cycles and otherwise explores water, land and sea while searching for the next story, the next gorgeous photograph. … Continue reading »

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Interview: Jonathan Spector on his Aurora winning play

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Ask playwrights about their interest in theater and you will likely travel back in time to a childhood — if not further back to ancestral DNA — leading them to fall in love with words.

Such is the case with Jonathan Spector, who attended four different elementary schools in a family of fluid movers as they followed his professor father’s career from Washington, D.C. to Alabama and beyond. Entering each blacktop playground scene as the new kid, Spector analyzed relationships, learned the “language” of novel circumstances, developed an eye for the social color of various classrooms and communities. In non-theater words, he learned to get along.

So it comes as no surprise that FTW, a new play selected by Aurora Theatre Company for the 10th annual Global Age Project (GAP), is all about relationships and characters playing out large, social concerns against a backdrop ripped right out of everyday life.

“I wrote this very quickly; it’s very local West Oakland,” Spector says in an interview. “It’s three women who went to college together and how the shared experience falsely flattened out differences between them. They launch themselves into the world thinking they are the same and find out that is not the case.” … Continue reading »

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Chiura Obata: A story of resilience, a passion for Yosemite

A026066_DeathsGrave – Chiura Obata (1885–1975), Death's Grave Pass and Tenaya Peak, High Sierra, USA, 1930, Color woodcut, Private collection.
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When Kimi Hill was in her teens, just turning the corner on self-absorption and curious about her family’s history, her aging grandfather, artist/educator Chiura Obata, resorted to communicating exclusively in his native Japanese, a language she didn’t speak.

Cut off from Chiura Obata, the then 20-year-old Berkeley resident had little idea of the important role he played in art history, and particularly in the history of Japanese Americans in the Bay Area. Fortunately, Hill became the primary caretaker of her grandmother, Haruko Obata, for the nine years after Obata died in 1975.

Gradually, Hill got to know her grandfather through her grandmother’s stories and through his paintings, drawings, photographs, letters and documents. Seeking ever more intimate insights, she visited abstract connections: the memories of people who were strangers to her but had known her grandfather; reference materials in libraries and archives relating to his years as a respected, influential professor of art at UC Berkeley. She found the most profound answers and clues to her grandfather’s legacy in the beauty of natural settings Obata had cherished, like Yosemite National Park.

An exhibit, Yosemite: A Storied Landscape, running now through Jan. 25, 2015, at the California Historical Society in San Francisco, offers Bay Area residents the same opportunity. … Continue reading »

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A ‘Swan Lake’ inspired by an English Royal love triangle

Joined by Berkeley Symphony and conductor Nicolette Fraillon, The Australian Ballet makes its Bay Area premiere at Cal Performances with Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake (choreography: Graeme Murphy), Thursday–Sunday, October 16–19, 2014 in Zellerbach Hall. 

PHOTOS: Jeff Busby
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If ballet is a matrix, Swan Lake is the matriarch of all matrixes.

Structured to follow rules of expression, manipulated according to form and line, the classic equation of good-versus-evil equals tragic ecstasy premiered as a four act ballet in 1877. Since then, choreographers have torqued the score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and the ballet’s synopsis in countless ways, although classical ballet audiences are generally most familiar with an 1895 version staged for the Imperial Russian Ballet by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.

Twenty-first century film buffs may have migrated to 2010’s Black Swan, a movie starring Natalie Portman. Regardless of the medium, Swan Lake is largely a physical battle involving honor, love, betrayal and mortality.

Enter choreographer Graeme Murphy and the Australian Ballet, making their first Bay Area appearance since 1971 with five performances of Swan Lake at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Hall on Oct. 16-19. Murphy’s rendition, created for the Australian Ballet’s 40th anniversary in 2002, will feature the Berkeley Symphony with guest conductor Nicolette Fraillon, Music Director & Chief Conductor of The Australian Ballet. … Continue reading »

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Looking intently: The James Cahill legacy at BAM/PFA

Man and Servant Beneath Trees by Shen Shichong
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The dualities of life and art are never more apparent than they are in “Looking Intently: The James Cahill Legacy,” an intimate exhibit with boundless implications running now through December 21 at Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive.

Even the exhibit itself is binary: the Chinese, Ming and Qing period paintings organized by Julia M. White, senior curator for Asian art and currently on display, will be “refreshed” in mid-October. It’s a bonanza, a two-for-one, as an entirely new set of mostly 15th to 16th century works from the late Professor Emeritus James Cahill’s “Ching Yuan Chai” collection is presented in the museum’s upper gallery for the exhibit’s “second rotation.” The unusual maneuver is both good for visitors—they get to see more of the exquisite collection—and for the paintings. By limiting the over-400-year-old paintings’ prolonged exposure to light and curtailing gravity’s pull while they hang; their delicacy and endurance are respected.

Cahill, born in Fort Bragg and a Berkeley High school graduate, went on to become a Fulbright Scholar, an award-winning author, a sought-after curator and guest lecturer, an acclaimed art history educator at UC Berkeley, and a widely-respected collector of East Asian art. … Continue reading »

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Ambitious Ojai North Music Festival returns to Berkeley

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Storm large and Storm Large: the words serve double duty at this week’s Cal Performances Ojai North Music Festival, running June 19-21 on the Berkeley campus.

“Storm large” could be considered emblematic of the fearlessly ambitious annual contemporary music festival that drew the storied tradition of experimentation begun in Southern California in 1947 to Berkeley in 2011.

This year’s festival is curated and directed by pianist, writer, and 2013 MacArthur Fellow, Jeremy Denk, who promises “screwing with the canon” and related barrier-crashing, ear-burning musical endeavors.

Notably, the mighty laboratory of modern-day composers and artists gets its most-local kick from the remarkable growl-to-purr, rage-to-ravishingly melodic vocalist, Storm Large. The Oregon-based actor/singer lived and performed in the Bay Area during the 1990s, before relocating to Portland. … Continue reading »

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‘Acis and Galatea’ promises to be a grand, sensory delight

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Musical morsels become masterpieces in the hands of composers like George Frideric Handel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Spring forward 200-plus-odd years and find dance and design have their modern day monument builders as well.

When choreographer Mark Morris and designers Isaac Mizrahi (costumes) Adrianne Lobel (sets) and Michael Chybowski (lighting) unleash their collective talents in a Cal Performances presentation and world premiere of Handel’s Acis and Galatea, arranged by Mozart, you might think there’s no cause for frosting on the proverbial cake.

But buttercream aside, there’s more: the Mark Morris Dance Group will be joined by the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale and guest soloists Sherezade Panthaki (soprano), Thomas Cooley (tenor), Zach Finkelstein (tenor), and Douglas Williams (bass-baritone). Conductor Nicholas McGegan will lead the musicians, rounding out the star-studded team. And that’s not even mentioning Morris’ uniquely and collectively talented dancers.

In sum, the originally tiny work, written in chamber form in 1718, is likely to be a grand, sensory explosion of sight, sound and movement, during three performances at Zellerbach Hall, April 25-27. … Continue reading »

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Bay Area Dance Week: A smorgasbord of offerings for all

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From shoulders shimmying at Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center on San Pablo to couples tautly tangoing at Caffe Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue — Bay Area Dance Week (April 25-May 4) is an opportunity to get moving.

With over 600 classes, demonstrations, open rehearsals and performances throughout the greater Bay Area, events in Berkeley offer a small United Nations of dance experiences.

The ten-day festival is an invitation to drop the body barrier and banish the protest: “I’m not a dancer!”

Offering judgement- and entry fee-free exploration, everyday folks can test their affinity for traditional forms, like classical Indian, ballet, modern, jazz, hip hop and tap — or brave the lesser-known waters of belly, aerial, fire, improvisation and other dance genres. … Continue reading »

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Michael Ray Wisely: Grand dramas on everyday stages

Michael Ray Wisely. Photo: courtesy Alter Theater
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Known in local theater circles as a deep-thinking actor’s actor—and by fans of the DIY Network as host of the ever-practical Home Transformations—Michael Ray Wisely has built himself a DIY career.

Wisely is inaugurating the Aurora Theatre Company’s new second stage performance space, Harry’s UpStage, as the predatory “Director” in a fully staged production of John W. Lowell’s The Letters, which opened on April 17 and runs through June 1.

The 51-year-old veteran of stage, film and television has always gravitated to grand dramas on everyday life stages.

Wisely’s first theatrical platform was the town he grew up in: Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, a deep South tobacco and bible-belt town of barely 4,000 people. His hometown’s fancy French name labeled a rural location named after a white man who co-opted native American Indian land and bewitchingly adopted a local woman’s nickname to complete the hyphenated moniker. “We weren’t very poor, but we were close,” Wisely said in an interview. … Continue reading »

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Alvin Ailey’s genre-stretching adventure back in Berkeley

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Is the juice worth the squeeze?

It’s the unexpected question Robert Battle, now in his third year as Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, asks himself every day. The “squeeze” is the hard work of running a dance company and the dollars an audience spends to attend a performance. The “juice” is the legacy-upholding, future-building, legendary output of the company’s indelible dancers and choreographers.

Inheriting the heavy mantle of a dance company founded in 1958 by choreographer and activist Alvin Ailey, Battle succeeded former Ailey dancer Judith Jamison’s 1980 to 2011 term of leadership. As the troupe’s third artistic director, Battle says that during the first season, audiences showed up to see a spectacular season already fine-tuned by Jamison, a signature Ailey dancer. The second year, they were simply curious about the new leader’s imprint. In 2014, record numbers during the company’s New York City performances in December, have given him courage. … Continue reading »

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Magical, misfit marriage of Ira Glass and dance

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Dance is primarily show, don’t tell. Radio is tell, can’t show. Put them together, you get the magical, misfit marriage that is “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host,” coming to Zellerbach Hall on Saturday, Mar. 29, presented by Cal Performances.

Mysteriously blending the talky talent of Ira Glass, host and creator of the public radio program This American Life, with the devastatingly beautiful, humanistic choreography of Monica Bill Barnes and her longtime collaborator, dancer Anna Bass, a miracle arises. Both genres get a leg-up: elevating the no-talk, all-talk mediums to something one might find in a dream. A sort of surreal landscape where anecdotes are inscribed with arabesques and the moral of each story is mired in marvelous muscularity. Imagine a dichotomous duet as sweet as the chocolate-peanut butter pairing of a Reese’s, but better for your health.  … Continue reading »

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Trey McIntyre Project: Farewell tour comes to Berkeley

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Sometimes, “goodbye” is also “hello.”

Billed by Cal Performances as “The Farewell Tour of the Trey McIntyre Project,” the contemporary dance company’s Berkeley performances on March 21-22 at Zellerbach Hall are as much about starting anew as they are about ending.

From the beginning of its now-ten-year history, founder and artistic director Trey McIntyre had every intention of not grasping perpetuity — an arts organization model he calls “false” and capable of “squashing” a company. Instead, TMP was designed very much like its creator: fluid, rebellious, ambitious enough to tower or topple, and simultaneously ephemeral and mercurial. n 2014, the company announced it would enter a new phase; largely dissolving the current structure and allowing McIntyre (and a small handful of his dancers) the freedom to pursue future passions. … Continue reading »

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