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    From Lahore to Lincoln Center: Sachal Jazz Ensemble Performs With JLCO

    The first thing you see and hear in a YouTube clip of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” as recorded by the Sachal Jazz Ensemble in Lahore, Pakistan, is Ballu Khan breaking the song’s familiar five-beat meter into furiously quick subdivisions on tabla, the hand drums endemic to Hindustani classical music. Cut to Indrajit Roy-Chowdhury, seated cross-legged atop a small wooden table, stating and then elegantly bending the melody; next, bearded men, clad in spotless white kurtas, sitting straight-backed on chairs and playing violins and cellos.

    Musically, none of this should surprise us. The 5/4 rhythm of Brubeck’s 1959 classic, which no longer sounds radical to jazz fans, comes quite naturally to musicians trained in the classical traditions of Pakistan, as are the Sachal’s players. Odd numbered meters are favored in their music. The sitar’s fluid lines and bent tones, and the tabla’s nearly conversational rhythmic patterns, aren’t exotic to Western ears anymore; by now, they make sense in a jazz context.

    What’s remarkable about the clip is that it was made at all; yet more unexpected is where it’s led. When the Sachal Ensemble joins the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) at Manhattan’s Rose Theater on November 22 and 23, the concerts will deepen a recent collaboration and extend an unlikely journey. (To that point, they’ll be filmed by Oscar-winning Pakistani director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy for a closing scene in her documentary-in-progress on the Sachal group.)

    In 2011, that YouTube video went viral, attracting nearly a half-million hits. Soon after, the Sachal Ensemble’s “Take Five,” from its recording “Interpretations of Jazz Standards and Bossa Nova,” shot to the top of the iTunes chart in the U.S. and U.K. All of this took Izzat Majeed, who assembled the group, by surprise. The 62-year-old businessman, who was born in Lahore and now splits his time between there and London, has been on a mission. “I want to restore a sense of culture and the joy of music that I remember from my childhood,” he told me in a recent phone conversation, after a rehearsal with the Lincoln Center group. “We essentially lost it, due to the barbaric interpretation of religion and governance that started when a dictator [Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq] began to restrict the arts in the late ’70s. And we’ve had little enlightenment since.”

    Majeed wistfully recalled Pakistan’s “Lollywood” scene, which, much like India’s “Bollywood,” made films that were largely musicals. “The stories didn’t always make sense,” he said, “but the music was always good, and played by musicians with best training.” Lahore once churned out some 150 films a year, but now, Majeed said, it produces just 10. “Musicians lost their livelihood. Culture lost its patronage. Nobody will stop you from playing music, but nobody listens.”

    Almost 20 years ago, Majeed began tracking down musicians, often finding them in the humblest of circumstances: a cellist was running a roadside tea stall, a violinist was selling vegetables from his bicycle. “They were getting on in age, they’d stopped teaching their children how to play, and they were surviving however they could,” Majeed recalled. “They’d just given up, because they didn’t see any future in music.”

    In 2002 he began recording albums — 30 to date, of traditional music as well as jazz and other styles. In 2005, using his own funds and with technical assistance from London’s Abbey Road Studios, he built the state-of-the-art Sachal Studios in Lahore, named after the Sufi poet Sachal Sarmast.

    Turning to jazz was Majeed’s idea, and it came quite naturally. He recalled hearing Brubeck’s “Take Five” booming from kiosks and shops in Lahore when he was a boy. “It was a big hit in Lahore, too,” he said. He heard Brubeck play that song at the auditorium just down the street from his childhood home — where he also heard Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie— via “Jazz Ambassadors” tours sponsored by the United States Information Services. “I was mesmerized, hooked,” he said, “and later on, I realized that the structures of jazz and of our classical music are very much the same.” He felt that jazz would offer a good context for the kinds of embellishment and improvisation required for Pakistani music.

    But he didn’t expect jazz to provide a marketing strategy.

    Jason Olaine, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s director of programming and touring, saw the Sachal Ensemble’s “Take Five” clip in 2011. “I thought it would be cool to have them on our season,” he said, “but we had already closed the calendar for 2012.” The following spring, he got an email from Majeed expressing interest in collaborating with Wynton Marsalis, along the lines of the JLCO’s recent work with Ghanaian drummer Yacub Addy and Spanish guitarist Paco de Lucía. “I pitched it to Wynton,” Olaine said, “and he was into it.”

    The Sachal Jazz Ensemble first performed with a septet drawn from Marsalis’s orchestra in August at France’s Jazz in Marciac Festival. In a YouTube clip from that concert, during Duke Ellington’s “Limbo Jazz,” LCJO drummer Ali Jackson, on trap set, falls into lockstep on the gently swinging calypso rhythm with a percussion section of tabla, along with dholak and naal (both two-headed drums). Baqar Abbas, who plays bamboo flute, appears well equipped for the task of responding to the improvised calls of Marsalis’s trumpet.

    “In Marciac, we found out that these cats were the real deal,” LCJO bassist Carlos Henriquez wrote in an email. “After the first note played by Baqar on flute, we immediately knew that this combination would be special.”

    At the Rose Theater, the ante for the project will be upped by the presence of Marsalis’s full jazz orchestra. Henriquez, who is among those arranging the pieces, some of which are played in Pakistani idioms, was still working out the fine points on “Rhythmesque,” which was composed by the Sachal Ensemble’s conductor, Nijat Ali, in 11/8 time.

    In a brief clip available online to preview Chino’s forthcoming film, after one musician laments the plight of trained musicians in Pakistan, Nijat Ali says, “Without music, man would roam the world with a heart of stone.” Now he and his and bandmates are traveling the globe, playing at festivals and concert halls to heart-warming receptions.

    Nijat Ali, the conductor co-arranger of the Sachal Jazz Ensemble

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    Steve Coogan and Will Forte Wear Seriousness Well

    Steve Coogan and Will Forte are best known as comedy performers, but in “Philomena” and “Nebraska” respectively, they find themselves in the unusual position of playing straight men.

    Reluctantly at first, the men they play join the quests of stubborn oldsters whose quirks are the prime source of each drama’s quiet humor. How well do they cope with this? In an ego-less performance, Forte gives over completely. His underplaying not only benefits Bruce Dern’s more pronounced turn as his curmudgeonly father, but makes the regular, unfulfilled guy he plays memorable.  

    Playing a real man who has tasted public success, Coogan can’t entirely relinquish the distancing irony that defines his comic persona, but nonetheless pulls off the serious moments in a story founded on tragedy. His performance begs the question: when is he going to opt for full-on gravitas?

    In “What Maisie Knew,” Coogan plays an art-dealer dad whose absences have negative consequences for his little girl, but the actor still got to joke a lot in character. His London softcore porn magnate Paul Raymond, in the fact-based “The Look of Love,” passes on his sybaritic lifestyle to the daughter he dotes on and spoils, but Coogan’s studied bluffness — which can deprive his characters of naturalism — undercuts Raymond’s tragic trajectory.

    Unquestionably, Coogan is subtler in “Philomena” (which he co-wrote), as the British journalist, author, and former civil servant Martin Sixsmith. At the start of Stephen Frears’s film, Sixsmith is a disillusioned figure, burned by his involvement in a Labour government scandal that he had tried to prevent.

    Though he would rather write a book about Russian history, his field of expertise, he grudgingly agrees to help an Irish-Catholic woman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who has been searching for her son for 50 years. Lee, who is now 80, was an unmarried teenager when she was forced into a Tipperary convent in 1952 for conceiving a child; in 1955, the nuns there sold the 3-year-old to an American couple. 

    The search for the son pairs the little old lady, humble and forgiving, with the cynical, worldly journalist. They travel to the convent together and eventually to America. Oxford and Harvard haven’t prepared Sixsmith for dealing with a retired nurse whose taste in literature is sentimental romance fiction.

    When Philomena describes in detail to him the plot of the novel she is reading as they ride to an airport departure lounge, he feigns interest while inwardly screaming for her monologue to cease. Coogan modifies Sixsmith’s aloofness with politeness, but, of course, the actor-writer is still having a Cooganesque joke at the expense of women who are enthralled by bad novelettes.

    As the story proceeds, though, Sixsmith’s cynicism is tempered by Lee’s resilience and integrity (Tom Cruise’s character was similarly humanized by Dustin Hoffman's in “Rain Man”), though not to the extent that he can forgive one of the nuns who condemned Philomena to life-long anguish. Philomena in turn acquires a little of Sixsmith’s professional grit.

    Coogan and Dench make a highly watchable odd couple, and it’s noticeable that by the end the movie’s satirical edge has dulled, to its benefit. Playing a man who learns to care about caring makes Coogan more than merely entertaining — Frears must take some of the credit for that.

    Although Forte never established a fixed comic identity on “Saturday Night Live,” he was reliably funny as the stupid blond sportscaster, Gilly’s admonishing teacher, MacGruber and so on. In Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” he wipes away any preconceptions with his flawless portrayal of a slightly depressed guy who recovers a long-buried sense of mischief on a road trip from Montana to Nebraska with his delusional dad.

    Though scarcely a sadsack, Forte’s David Grant has a listless walk and a downward curving mouth, the results, perhaps, of growing up the weakest member of a dysfunctional family that bequeathed him no attitude, ambition, or decisiveness. His older brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), moved away from Billings years ago, married, had kids, and has just had a career breakthrough as a substitute news anchor. Recently dumped by his girlfriend, who moved out because he failed to propose, David works without vigor in an electronics store. He lives near his folks, Woody (Dern), an alcoholic Korean War vet on the cusp of senility, and Kate (June Squibb), a still hardy scold.

    David is empathetic, however, as Woody, though traumatized into taciturnity as a young man, was generous, always ready with a helping hand. Consequently, when Woody won’t be dissuaded from traveling to Lincoln to collect $1 million in prize money that can’t possibly exist, David agrees to drive him there. It’s a fool’s errand with a crucial purpose: to spend time with the old coot before he dies.

    The array of old timers they meet en route spill revelations that enable David to see Woody (and Kate, too) in several new lights. Woody is the film’s endless enigma, but David is its protagonist, whose reaction to an old bully (Stacy Keach) who sneers at his father tests his manhood once and for all. It’s an unexpected gift that warrants the giving of a gift in return. Forte’s sensitive presence and ability to show the glimmerings of a spark of rejuvenation suggest David may gradually shake off his humdrum ways, if not become a world-beater.

    (l-r) Will Forte in "Nebraska" and Steve Coogan in "Philomena."

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    Performing Arts Week in Review: JFK Legends, "Everyday," and More

    — Craig Hubert writes about the latest scandal to hit the Bolshoi Ballet.

    — Graham Fuller discusses the Susan Boyle biopic, ponders the strange sequel to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and reviewsMichael Winterbottom’s “Everyday.”

    — Patrick Pacheco examines the Kennedy legend and “Camelot,” and asks the question: Is “Spider Man” the biggest financial flop in Broadway history?

    — Jordan Riefe talks to director Hirokazu Kore-eda about his new film, “Like Father, Like Son.”

    — Larry Blumenfeld writes about Pakistan’s Sachal Jazz Ensemble and its collaboration with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.  

    — We picked our favorite music, film, and theater releases of the week.

    — On the blog, we write about M.I.A.’s appearance on the “Colbert Report,” Outkast reuniting, HBO’s upcoming adaptation of “The Last Tycoon,” and Kanye West’s bizarre new video for “Bound 2.”

    A still from Michael Winterbottom's "Everyday."

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    The Art of Jewelry: Sentimental Favorites from the Victorian Era

    Pushing through the well-heeled crowds pouring into the recent LAPADA art and antique show in London, the thickest knots of visitors were clustered around the booths showing antique and period jewelry. The buyers were peering into the vitrines, leaning, pointing, or trying on; this was serious business.

    Though the show was organized by the Association of Art and Antique Dealers (formerly the London and Provincial Antique Dealers Association), these were not the kind of “glass case” collectors — academic, esoteric, living in the past — but rather au courant women of style and substance.

    There laid glamorous spreads of Victorian jewelry, from the reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901, which produced a bounty of charming, whimsical pieces that connoisseurs clamor for today. The burnished-gold fringed collars; cuffs and bangles; drop earrings with their amphora shapes, virtuoso granulation, and wirework borrowed from antiquity; naturalistic diamond spray brooches; great garnet carbuncles; Renaissance-inspired brooches and pendants, elaborately chased and sculpted; voluptuous golden lockets, bows, and butterflies; bunches of lustrous seed-pearl grapes. Everywhere that marvelous mash-up of cultural and historical themes that is so uniquely Victorian. The true appeal of Victorian jewelry, of course, lies in the depth and breadth of its expression, its sentiment and symbolism. The telling of beliefs, allegiances, flirtation, romance, celebration or mourning, science and discovery. These were jewels oozing confidence and curiosity, prosperity and pride.

    It was this richness that lured Lorenz Bäumer, artistic director for fine jewelry at Louis Vuitton, when he dreamed up Voyage dans le Temps, one of the recurring themes in his haute joaillerie collections for the brand. In the eclecticism
of 19th-century jewelry, he saw the Victorians’ new awareness of a wondrous world that was fast expanding with the growing appetite and possibilities for travel.

    As with his first collection, L’Ame duVoyage, he continued to tap into Louis Vuitton’s association with travel; Voyage dans le Temps, however, is a trip through time, to the company’s beginnings in the mid 1800s. Bäumer decided the journey should be taken by the instantly recognizable Louis Vuitton logo, the monogram flower that has been a constant in his designs for the house. He sent the little flower hurtling back through history to the age of Victoria, where it picked up the flavors and sensations of the era, which it brought back to the present, trans- forming tradition into sharp, chic modernity, glossing it with space-age materials and cutting-edge techno- logical wizardry.

    A highlight of the 2012 Voyage dans le Temps collection was the Dentelle
de Monogram necklace, a classic Peter Pan collar of intricate diamond lace, to be worn against the skin or over clothes with all the coy charm of a Victorian lady, her secrets carefully hidden. The collection’s Galaxie Monogram neck- lace referenced Belle Epoque chokers, while its Fleurs d’Eternité designs proffered incarnations of the love knot, one of the most enduring and emotive Victorian motifs, signifying the indis- soluble bonds of love. Representing the 19th century’s exploration of the natural world, the collection’s Monogram Infini pieces translated the Fibonacci sequence—the mathematical code behind the sacred geometry of curving leaves and shells—into spinning spirals of diamond light.

    The newest evolution of Voyage dans le Temps, released in July, comes alive with colored gems (perhaps evoking the mineralogical discoveries of the 19th century and the growth of colonialism)—ravishing spinels
in shades of pulsating red, lavender pink, and silky blue grey; heavenly blue Ceylon sapphires; electric Paraíba tourmalines; stately Imperial topaz in tones of warm bronze or dusky pink; and Australian black opals, a night
sky shot through with flashes of red and green. Bäumer says that he continues to be enamored with Victorian jewelry, especially its ingenuity and craftsmanship. “The closures, the clasps, the way in which a piece of jewelry can be transformed and worn in multiple ways, is very inspiring to me.” For this collection, he has created a long sautoir set with two black opals that can be transformed into a shorter necklace and two bracelets by means of invisible clasps.

    In this, as in every aspect of the collection, Baumer considers not only the past but the woman of today: how she thinks and dresses, her lifestyle, her moods. “In the 19th century, women wore jewelry as if it were armour, from the tiara to the huge corsage ornament; in Voyage dans le Temps, each of these elements is given a new interpretation for the woman of our times,” he explains. “Everything starts with the woman.”

    A bracelet by Louis Vuitton, pearl and dia bow earrings by Sandra Cronan,

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    Photo Credit: 
    Michael Buckner/Getty Images para Van Cleef & Arpels
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    Réplica da tiara de Farah Palahvi (última imperatriz do Irã), 1967


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    VIDEO: Red Carpet Styles at American Music Awards; Gaga, Swift and Perry

    Music's brightest stars packed the red carpet for the 41st anniversary of the American Music Awards Sunday at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles.

    Highlights from the best dressed artists were Lady Gaga in a lavendar Versace gown and flowing blonde locks on top of a fake white horse. While Katy Perry wore a black and white polka dot and floral Oscar de la Renta dress and Taylor Swift in a short, metallic Julien MacDonald dress.

    The American Music Award nominees and winners are voted online by fans, and the awards are handed out during a live three-hour broadcast featuring performances by artists.

    American Music Awards, Lady Gaga, Versace, Katy Perry,

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    One word: Peekaboo.

    At the American Music Awards (AMAs) held November 24 at the Nokia Theater in L.A., stars played with fabrics and illusions, showing off hints of flesh with sheer fabric, cut-outs, down-to-there necklines, or up-to-here hemlines, in looks that ranged from “tantalizing tease” to “too much information.”

    Taylor Swift, who won Artist of the Year, showed off seriously toned gams in a body-sculpting mirrored mini by Julien Macdonald, with a mesh underlay muting the overt sexiness of the deep-V neckline.

    “Glee” actress Naya Rivera stunned in a black Michael Kors number with a dramatic train — and an even more dramatic keyhole front that framed her ample cleavage.

    Singer Ciara turned up in a sheer black J. Mendel frock that, despite its graphic paneling and exquisite fit, left very little to the imagination. Following her lead was Heidi Klum, who proved that even a supermodel can’t make lace and fringe a winning combination.

    Also in black was Icon Award winner Rihanna, who paired a beaded black bra top with a sheer mermaid skirt by Jean Paul Gaultier— although what set the Twittersphere aflutter was her “doobie wrap” hairstyle, or fuss-free updo typically worn at night to keep relaxed hair neat while sleeping.

    The night’s best looks, however, were simply white-hot. Nicole Richie was sleek and elegant in an ivory Emilio Pucci number — despite the exaggerated cut-outs accentuating her hip bones.

    Christina Aguilera, her “bare-all” days seemingly behind, channeled 1930s Hollywood in a white satin gown with diamond-shaped holes on the sides.

    Miley Cyrus stood out — for once, in a good way — in a white pantsuit by Versus Versace accented by gold safety pins , looking — dare we say it? — better than Elizabeth Hurley did in the look’s original incarnation in 1994.

    Lady Gaga (whom Versaceconfirmed this morning is the new face of its Spring 2014 campaign) rode in on a “horse”, in a lilac confection with sheer chiffon straps crisscrossing the bodice.

    But a real standout for the evening was Jennifer Hudson in bright orange-and-pink Dior, with a cutaway hem on one leg showing off some toned pins.

    To see these red carpet looks and more, click on the slideshow.

    To watch video of the red carpet, click HERE. 

    Stars Play Peekaboo at the AMAs
    (l-r) Nicole Richie, Miley Cyrus, and Christina Aguilera at the 2013 AMA's.

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    Katy Perry's Tone Deaf American Music Awards Performance

    Last night, Katy Perry opened the American Music Awards with a performance of her new song, “Unconditionally.” The lights dimmed and two women could be seen sitting on the edge of the darkened stage, one plucking a traditional melody on what appeared to be a shamisen. Above them, three large shōji walls enlarged the silhouettes of three women. As the bass kicked in, one of the walls slid away to reveal Perry, dressed in a kimono.

    By using Japanese culture as a fashion accessory and a stage prop, Perry reduced an entire group of people to objects of consumption. What’s unfortunate is that this isn’t shocking. It’s practically the standard within pop music at the moment. Look at Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards, or Lily Allen’s recent music video, which acts as satire but gets twisted in the process. Gwen Stafani has trafficked in this cultural tourism for years, with her Native American headdresses and Harajuku Girls.

    Last night’s minstrel show continued in similar fashion. Perry and her backup dancers were choreographed to mimic traditional Japanese dance, complete with large fans. There was no deep engagement, or respect, for the images she was peddling. They were used entirely to sell a product. Perry and her creative team might have had ideas, as Wall Street Journal’s Jeff Yang pointed out, about linking the song’s message of unconditional love to the “tired orientalist imagery” of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” but the performance last night completely stripped that imagery of its context. What Perry’s performance signified instead is pop music’s power relationship with the rest of the world, or, as Tamara Winfrey Harrishas written, “a majority culture co-opting an element of a group it has historically oppressed, misunderstood, and/or disdained, while simultaneously reinforcing stereotypes.”

    For Perry and her team, the images used were meant to leave an impression on the viewing public. Unfortunately for her, they carry the weight of history, which will never disappear. The tone-deaf performance will be judged, mocked, and criticized. But Perry will be shielded from all this. Her career will not falter, and she will not be held accountable. That’s the way power works.

    Katy Perry performs "Unconditionally" at the 41st American Music Awards

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    Around 20,000 handmade Chanel camellias bloom yearly in the ateliers
 of Maison Lemarié in myriad materials, each crafted from a minimum of sixteen petals cut and curled on white-hot curling irons before being whisked off to the Chanel couture and accessories workshops to garnish Karl’s creations.

    Founded in 1880 by Palmyre Coyette, Maison Lemarié started out as a luxury feather supplier, furnishing the millinery industry with precious plumes from birds of paradise, peacocks, swans, ostriches, rheas, cockerels, and vultures that were meticulously cleaned, tinted, and trimmed before being applied to fabrics.

    It was Coyette’s grandson André Lemarié who extended the business to flowers when he joined the firm in 1946, growing a gardenful of varieties requested by the house’s increasing coterie of fashion clients—including Dior, Balenciaga, Nina Ricci, Yves Saint Laurent, and Alexander McQueen — not to mention the blossoms required for the six yearly collections of Chanel, which acquired Maison Lemarié in 1996.

    Few know that Lemarié also has
 an atelier specializing in decorative couture adornments from romantic flounces and cascade pleats to rich ruffles and smocking. Chanel’s couture and Métiers d’Art collections serve
as playgrounds for the atelier’s talents; among the recent examples of their handiwork are the delicate silk origami squares in Chanel’s fall 2013 couture collection.

    Click on the slideshow to see close-up of the artesans'  works.

    In the Atelier of Maison Lemarié
    Chanel looks made by Lemarié.

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    VIDEO: A Vivid Message of Peace from Yayoi Kusama

    Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama contemplates life and death in her sprawling debut exhibition at David Zwirnerin New York. The 84-year-old artist has stated that death is merely around the corner. The epic exhibition spans the gallery’s three consecutive locations on West 19th Street. Vivid in color, it features twenty-seven new, large-scale paintings, alongside a poetic video installation and two mirrored infinity rooms, one of which was specially made for the Zwirner show. Blouin ARTINFO spent some time with Kusama when she visited last month for the opening, on leave from the Japanese psychiatric hospital where she spends her days.

    Yayoi Kusama’s “I Who Have Arrived in Heaven” is on view at David Zwirner’s 19th Street gallery until December 21. 

    Yayoi Kusama

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    In 1947, a 21-year-old Ruth Asawa spent a summer in the rural Mexican town of Toluca, where she saw looped wire baskets for sale in a local market. Fascinated by their form, she learned how to make the baskets and, over time, appropriated the technique to create a body of hanging sculptural works that are as much about negative space as about physical objects.

    “All my wire sculptures come from the same loop,” Asawa once said. “And there’s only one way to do it. The idea is to do it simply, and you end up with a shape.” She often described her modernist wire works, with their emphasis on line, light, and shade, as “drawings in space.” Light penetrating their chain mail–like surface casts intricate shadows on surrounding walls like ghostly doubles of the works themselves.

    Asawa’s passing in August at age 87 came on the heels of an explosive upswing in the market for her unique and long-undervalued works, especially the multilobed sculptures, examples of which sold for $374,500 and $278,500 at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, respectively, in 2012. Then, at Sotheby’s contemporary art day sale on May 15 of this year, Asawa’s Untitled S.566 (Hanging Five-lobed Continuous Form with Spheres Inside Each Lobe, Four of the Inside Lobes Contain Spheres Within Them), from 1954, sold for $1,025,000, more than tripling its $300,000 low estimate. That evening at the postwar and contemporary sale at Christie’s New York, her Untitled (S.108, Hanging, Six-lobed, Multilayered Continuous Form Within a Form), from the late 1960s, soared well past its estimate of $250,000 to $350,000 to realize $1,443,750— the current record for the artist. To complement its May sale, Christie’s presented “Ruth Asawa: Objects & Apparitions,” a month-long exhibition and private offering of 48 sculptures and works on paper, her first New York solo show in 50 years.

    Until recently, however, the San Francisco–based sculptor was not widely known beyond the West Coast, and her works commanded relatively little: $1,000 or so for pieces sold during the 1950s and ’60s, up to $100,000 for the largest works sold at the turn of the millennium. A breakthrough moment for Asawa’s commercial market came in 2006, when Daniell Cornell curated a retrospective of her work at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. “Ruth was ahead of her time in understanding how sculptures could function to define and interpret space,” he says. “This aspect of her work anticipates much of the installation work that has come to dominate contemporary art. Although a survey was long overdue, it was timely.”

    Born in 1926 to Japanese immigrant parents, Asawa grew up on a vegetable farm in Norwalk, California, with six siblings. Shortly after Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, her family was sent to an internment camp on the grounds of the Santa Anita Race Track. There they lived for six months in converted horse stables along with several artists. Asawa would later recount that this was where her art education began. She later completed three years at the Milwaukee State Teachers College but was not able to undertake the required student-teaching year because schools in Wisconsin would not hire a Japanese instructor. This rejection prompted Asawa to enroll at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the summer of 1946. At that time, the faculty of the pioneering and experimental liberal arts school included Josef Albers, Buckminster Fuller, and Jacob Lawrence; Willem de Kooning was a visiting artist, and Robert Rauschenberg was a classmate. It was also there that Asawa met her husband and lifelong companion, architect Albert Lanier.

    By the late 1940s, Asawa had joined the San Francisco Women Artists group at the urging of friend Imogen Cunningham to “raise the level of women artists,” as Asawa would later recall in Daniel Belasco’s 2007 book Between the Waves: Feminist Positions in American Art, 1949–62. While she was certainly conscious of gender inequality in the art world, she never specifically attributed feminist intentions to her craft.

    In 1954 Asawa had her first New York solo show at the Peridot Gallery, the same space that had given Louise Bourgeois her first solo sculpture show in 1949. This was followed by two more solos at Peridot, inclusion in the Whitney Museum’s annual survey of new art in 1955 (now the biennial), and an invitation to participate in the 1955 São Paulo Art Biennial. Despite these early successes, many critics were quick to characterize Asawa’s output as “women’s work” or “craft.”

    “Asawa’s work was viewed as a variant of weaving or basket-making for a very long time,” says Todd Levin, director of the Levin Art Group and a member of the Association of Professional Art Advisors. “An artist such as Rosemarie Trockel now uses those techniques to great advantage and effect. But in Asawa’s time, the art world had just come through de Kooning and Pollock in the 1940s, and these were the gigantic personalities that drove the hypermasculine discourse of the 1950s.”

    In 1968 Asawa began to focus more on civic engagement than her own practice, joining the San Francisco Arts Commission, where she campaigned for arts education reform. She also cofounded the Alvarado Arts Workshop, an education program that brought professional artists and performers into 50 San Francisco schools. “She found the time and energy required to keep up a gallery reputation to be a distraction from her love of art and her efforts to expand the role of the arts in creating a progressive, inclusive society,” explains Cornell, now deputy director for art and senior curator at the Palm Springs Art Museum. “Gradually her works fell out of favor and were stigmatized by the categories of design, craft, and community-based projects.”

    While Asawa enjoyed respect in the museum world, particularly on the West Coast, and had a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1973, she eventually abandoned commercial gallery shows in favor of making public sculptures. “Selling was not a focus of Asawa’s from the mid ’60s through the ’90s,” says Jonathan Laib, a senior specialist in postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s, who curated the selling exhibition, noting that she did continue to make wire sculptures, including a single-lobed work around 1990 that looks like those from the 1950s.

    Prior to Asawa’s 2006 retrospective at the de Young, it was still possible to find and purchase a major hanging work from a private collection for $50,000 to $100,000. After 2006, however, prices rose as auction houses began to reconsider the categorization of Asawa’s work. “We took Ruth out of the context of design and placed her in the context of the fine arts alongside other postwar masters, and doing this on an international platform helped to change her market overnight,” says Laib. The first big jump in price came in 2010. A 1952 work, Untitled (Continuous Form Within a Form) went for $98,500 at a June sale at Wright in Chicago; four months later, Untitled (Hanging Six-lobed, Multilayered Continuous Form Within a Form), from 1965–69, tripled its $180,000 high estimate to achieve $578,500 at Christie’s. “That came a little bit out of nowhere,” says Miety Heiden, senior vice president and head of contemporary private sales at Sotheby’s. “You don’t see her work that often at all at auction.”

    Today, “there is a huge demand for Asawa and a scarcity of available work,” says Laib. “Anyone interested in Josef Albers and Black Mountain College has to have one; anyone looking to expand a collection past the predictability of today’s blue-chip artists has to have one.” The multilobed hanging works, particularly those done between 1955 and 1969, are very rare and the most sought after. Single- lobed works can be found for $70,000 to $250,000. The highest price for a smaller work was achieved at Christie’s during its postwar and contemporary morning sale on May 16, when Untitled (S.082, Hanging Single Sphere, Five-Layer Continuous Form Within a Form) from the early 1960s sold for $255,750, more than triple its $80,000 high estimate.

    The popularity of Asawa’s signature looped wire sculptures has also brought attention to the tied-wire sculptures she began making in the early 1960s. These spindly tree branch–like pieces, which now start at $250,000, were going for as little as $18,750 in 2011. “There is a gap in pricing between the tied-wire and the looped-wire works,” acknowledges Laib, but he predicts that gap will close in the coming years.

    So far, Asawa’s drawings, prints, and bronze sculptures have yet to achieve the lofty prices of the wire works. Prints from her 1965 residency at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop have sold for $3,500 to $3,800, while her drawings, which exhibit an early interest in the organic shapes found in her sculptures, have brought $3,000 to $6,000 at auction. Peter Loughrey, director of modern and contemporary art at Los Angeles Modern Auctions, has identified her lesser-known bronze sculptures from the 1970s as a good investment, saying, “there are some cast bronze pieces that are way undervalued.”

    “When we first started exhibiting Ruth’s work, the most appreciative were the connoisseurs of this time period—largely dealers from New York who were aware and interested,” says Rena Bransten, whose San Francisco gallery is currently working with a yet-to-be-named institution on a West Coast touring show of Asawa’s lesser-known drawings. “Several key institutions that passed the work up in 2005 are [now] actively looking. In the eight years we have represented the work, the value has increased at least tenfold.”

    This rediscovery of Asawa’s oeuvre, which comes in the wake of the reappraisal of other postwar design-art hybrids like Bertoia and Noguchi, will likely do much to secure the late artist’s place among the important figures of the American avant-garde. At press time, however, it was unclear how many of her works have yet to enter the market. Bransten held the last show of pieces still owned by Asawa in 2009, after which the ailing artist gave her remaining works—thought to include quite a few large hanging wire pieces— to her five children. Although Bransten had been Asawa’s primary dealer for a decade, the children have maintained a close relationship with Laib, who has sold works privately for the family in the past. “I think the family is just waiting,” Bransten says. “This last auction result of $1.4 million was enough to make them examine what they want to do and how they want to proceed. I wouldn’t think a lot was going to be released at this time.” 

    This article was published in the October 2013 issue of Art+Auction. 

    To see images, click on the slideshow.

    ARTIST DOSSIER: Ruth Asawa's Late, Meteoric Rise From Obscurity
    Ruth Asawa

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    Suffused with light and reminiscent of a Venetian courtyard, the glass-domed atrium of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Robert Lehman wing makes an ideal entrance to “Venetian Glass by Carlo Scarpa: The Venini Company, 1932–1947,” on view through March 5, 2014. The space’s mix of historical and contemporary motifs — soaring concrete pillars, a bubbling Renaissance-era Italian fountain — echoes the visually dazzling work of the Venice-born designer and architect, who negotiated between the traditional and the avant-garde, the ancient and the modern, to thrilling effect.

    This is the first American retrospective of Scarpa’s 15-year tenure as creative director of the Venini Glassworks on the Venetian island of Murano, before he became famous as the architect of projects like the now-landmarked 1958 renovation of the Olivetti showroom off St. Mark’s Square and the  20-year renovation of the Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona. Adapted from a 2012 exhibition at the Stanze del Vietro gallery in Venice curated by Marino Barovier, it features more than 300 pieces of decorative and utilitarian glassware that Scarpa designed, chronicling his experimentation with materials and color and his development and reinterpretation of various glassblowing techniques.

    Venetian glass first gained renown in the 13th century, but Scarpa modernized the craft, adapting or introducing 27 glassblowing techniques and giving rise to a widespread popularity that continues to this day.  

    The exhibition begins in 1932, with a series of jade green vases produced through the a bollicine, or bubbles, process. The name refers to tiny, visually pleasing air bubbles trapped inside glass during blowing. Though his predecessor at Venini developed the technique, Scarpa used a bollicine to explore new vessel forms. A small vase dating to 1933, inspired by the round silhouettes of ancient Greek amphorae, features triangular side grips instead of the usual round handles; the handles’ rigid right angles protrude in contrast to the object’s round base. The measured geometry of the vase, set off by a multitude of minute, varied air bubbles trapped inside the glass, is rife with tension between organic and man-made form. The vessel seems ready to explode.

    A large vase with cover from a few years later, 1938, features uneven surface corrosion that approximates the appearance of human skin. Produced through the corroso technique by the exposure of glass to various acids, the relief decorations that dot the clear glass look like swollen welts on diseased flesh. Light flecks of gold applied to the vase’s translucent glass give an unexpected luster to the curving reliefs, producing an uncanny, almost disturbing shine.

    Among the last of Scarpa’s technical innovations at Venini, the a pennelate technique, treats clear glass like a stretched artist’s canvas, resulting in ribbon-like decorations that appear to be brush strokes. For a 1947 bottle with round stopper, Scarpa covered clear glass with pink and amethyst lines; the application of each line by hand created painterly flourishes that wind upward around the vessel. Produced shortly before he left Venini to devote himself to architecture, the a pennelate objects show Scarpa once again animating the material, developing ways to give it lively, dynamic forms and finishes that remain among the most sought-after qualities of Murano glass today.

    Elegant display cases by the architect Annabelle Selldorf use frosted glass top panels to diffuselight shining over the objects within, and also nod to Scarpa’s own exhibition design. Like the display cubes he perched on single, slender wooden legs for the 1957 expansion of the Canova Museum in Possagno, Italy, many of Selldorf’s rectangular vitrines are outlined by wood strips and raised on thin wooden legs.

    The Met’s iteration of “Venetian Glass by Carlo Scarpa,” is no wholesale reproduction of the original Italian show; mining the encyclopedic museum’s permanent collection, curators Sheena Wagstaff and Nate Cullinen display some of Scarpa’s designs alongside the types of historical glass that inspired them. Artifacts of Roman cast glass from the late first century and 19th-century exemples of its rediscovery introduce the section on murine romane, a technique Scarpa pioneered between 1936 and 1940 in which clear glass rods with colorful cores were cut into slices, the slices were melted together, and the resulting vessels were shaped with glassmaker’s tools.

    The human hand, though visible in all the work on view, was not actually Scarpa’s. He spent hours in the Venini factory with the company’s expert glassmakers, observing and directing their craft but never partaking in it. But Scarpa’s exposure to artisanal work during his years at the Murano glass kilns deeply influenced his later architectural practice, as evident in his lasting dedication to craftsmanship and history, regardless of scale. The attention to detail, deeply personal understanding of Venetian culture, and innovative use of materials that would characterize so much of his architecture first found inspiration, and took physical form, in his experiments in the Venini workshop.

    Carlo Scarpa's Reinvention of Venetian Glass at the Met
    Rigati e tessuti glass vases and bowl ca. 1938–1940

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    Frida Blockbuster Full of Fakes, Vezolli's PS1 Show Scrapped, and More

    Show of 123 Kahlo Fakes Kicks Up Controversy: All 123 paintings in a new traveling show of Frida Kahlo’s work are fakes painted by four anonymous Chinese artists. "The Complete Frida Kahlo: Her Paintings, Her Life, Her Story," currently on view in San Diego, is the project of Dr. Mariella Remund and her partner Hans-Jürgen Gehrke, who obtained rights to reproduce the paintings from the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museums Trust. "We could have retired in the south of France with a villa and two Ferraris, but we decided we would rather do this," Remund said. [KPBS]

    Vezzoli’s PS1 Show Cancelled: Franceso Vezzoli’s planned exhibition at MoMA PS1, in which he planned to reconstruct an Italian church brick-by-brick inside the museum, has been cancelled due to export problems in Italy. Vezzoli may face a fine or even fours years of jail time for attempting to export items of artistic value without permission. "Part of curating is to come up with new ideas — and I started this morning," said MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach. [NYT]

    Gurlitt's Toulouse-Lautrec Trove Uploaded: German authorities have released information about 39 drawings and prints by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec that were among the 1,406 artworks seized from the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt— photos of 34 of them have also been released. This brings the total number of works from the cache unveiled to 118; German authorities announced last week plans to post information regarding 590 of the seized artworks online. [AFP]

    – Optimal Age for Artists Found: Dutch economist P.H. Franses claims he has determined when artists hit the peak of their career. Examining data of 221 famous 19th and 20th century painters, he compared their total life spans with the year they created their most lucrative artwork. The resulting average suggests artists are most successful, at least by this market-determined measure, when they are “at the 0.618 fraction of their lives” — 41.92 years old — having lived just under 62% of their lives. [Pacific Standard]

    Pompidou Collection Expands, Travels: Barbara Duthuit, the widow of Henri Matisse's grandson Claude Matisse, has donated two works by the beloved modernist — the 1910 painting "Fillette au Chat Noir (Marguerite)" and the 1948 gouache cutout "La Jérusalem Céleste" — to the Centre Pompidou. Meanwhile some 20 works from the Pompidou's collection — including a Picasso, a Calder, an Yves Klein, and more — recently went on view in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where they are serving as an appetizer for the forthcoming King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture. [TAN, Le Figaro]

    Permit-less Performa Piece Stays Put: The giant outdoor sculpture "Queen Mother of Reality," which Pawel Althamer created as part of his Performa 13 commission and installed in Williamsburg's East River State Park, was ordered removed by the state for not having the correct authorization on Thursday, but on Monday the resilient artwork had not budged. [DNAinfo]

    – A man fell over the fourth floor railing to his death at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian on Saturday. [USA Today]

    – Oklahoma-based billionaire Lynn Schusterman has donated 119 objects of Judaica to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. [The Boston Globe]

    Eli Klein, "Gallery Girls" villain and dealer specializing in Chinese contemporary art, is moving his gallery from Soho to Chelsea. [Artdaily]

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    Carlo Scarpa's Reinvention of Venetian Glass at the Met

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    Otto Dix’s Granddaughter Not Impressed With Germany’s Restitution Record

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    Check our blog IN THE AIR for breaking news throughout the day.

    Frida Kahlo

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    Wordplay: The Ironic Gestures of Christopher Wool

    A few weeks ago, at the base of Frank Lloyd Wright’s majestic rotunda, Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong introduced the museum’s Christopher Wool retrospective to the press by proclaiming the painter “one of the last non-ironic artists.” Armstrong sketched Wool’s arc from self-doubt to triumph in a broad-strokes narrative that followed the painter through various phases: coy appropriation, a kind of edgy language poetry, gestural abstraction, and, finally, heroic monochromes. It’s a compelling story, but the “non-ironic” reading is deeply flawed. For how can one describe an artist who came of age in New York in the heyday of punk, who made a lifelong project of cannibalizing gestural and expressive motifs from art history, whose text-only stencil paintings rendered everyday language both heartbreaking and devastatingly funny, and who seems to have arrived at a terminus of creating fields of grey, as anything but ironic? 

    The show itself doesn’t suffer because of this misunderstanding, but Armstrong’s remark is worth thinking about because of the limiting way it frames Wool’s career and his approach to painting. Raised in Chicago, Wool moved to New York in 1973 and immediately embarked on a course consistent with the trajectory—if not exactly the style—of his postconceptual and appropriationist peers. His early works reconfigured painting as labor, as he imperfectly rolled decorative stencils of vines and flowers onto steel plates. The late ’80s and ’90s saw him making all-text paintings using templates of the kind used for street signs. His breakthrough came in a 1987 drawing of a quote from Martin Scorcese’s Apocalypse Now: “Sell the house, sell the car, sell the kids.” For fans of Wool’s text pieces, like me, this retrospective proves immensely satisfying. Dozens of such works are brought together here, from Trouble, 1992—depicting the four consonants in the title stacked in two rows—to the Untitled (Black Book Drawings) of 1989, a series of 22 paintings of one-word insults leveled at artists—like “terrorist,” “hypocrite,” “assassin,” and “celebrity”—all fractured into three equal lines. Wool’s muscular use of language retains a gritty sensibility throughout.

    By the mid-’90s, Wool began to pillage flower motifs and the gesture, specifically the inkblot-like smudge and the doodle, for his rabid recycling. With restive energy, he began incorporating old and new technologies in the creation of his works—silkscreening, for example, and digital image manipulation—strategies that helped elevate him to the status of both critical darling and market superstar. His example has also spawned a new generation of ironic, commercially successful painters subjecting expression to scrutiny, copying and pasting—former studio assistant Josh Smith among them.

    The retrospective’s careful chronological presentation offers moments of revelatory connection. And there are unexpected works, too, like Wool’s collaboration with Robert Gober, a melancholy photo from 1988 of a dress sewn by the latter, printed with a pattern by the former, hanging from a tree. (The rest of Wool’s black-and-white photographs, of grungy sites in New York and European cities, unfortunately don’t hold up as well.)

    If the exhibition has any flaws, they lie in the default genius treatment that emphasizes Wool’s facture and innovation and give short shrift to history and context. Such omissions risk reducing postmodernism like Wool’s to a series of mannerist moves, and further marginalize other artists who work outside familiar boundaries. The final irony is that the aesthetic leveling that artists like Wool have worked so hard to achieve ends up yielding a new benchmark style, and reinforcing traditional categories and methods of working.  

    Installation view

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    VIDEO: 9th Vienna Art Week Shoots a Mozartkugel at City’s Stuffy Image

    Vienna Art Week’s ninth edition wrapped up on Sunday. An initiative of the Dorotheum auction house and Art Cluster Vienna (whose managing partner and president, respectively, Martin Böhm speaks in the video above), 2013 marked the annual festival’s biggest edition to date with nearly 200 events organized by around 70 partners around the city welcoming 35,000 guests from Vienna itself and internationally.

    In comparison to Berlin’s art week — an event that Vienna artistic director Robert Punkenhofer is quick to point out took its inspiration from its Austrian forefather — Vienna’s effort plays a slightly longer game. While the city certainly has a bustling art scene, spanning the spectrum from studios to galleries to museums, its highbrow, at times even stuffy or aristocratic image remains an impediment to achieving a marketable, “cool” status in an era where Brooklyn is the hallmark for culturally engaged urbanites from Paris to Perth.

    Where the Berlin event hedges on the self-congratulatory — you don’t see New York or London ginning up an art week — Vienna’s shovels a path forward, subtly making headway for the city’s art sector. The theory seems to be that even if each curator only finds one artist from the 100 they visit on the trip or one institution they’d be interested in working with, and by doing so broadens the city’s artistic clout beyond its singular ties to the 60’s Vienna Actionism and its unshakable ties to music of the Classical period, Vienna Art Week would be a success. Likewise, when looking inward, they seek to widen their own residents’ and artistic actors’ perspectival radius beyond its bounds, both in hops of creating a future for the city not quite so tied up with its past. 

    Vienna Art Week

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    "Much Ado About Nothing" at the Public Theater

    After touring prisons, rehab centers, and other non-traditional spaces where people don’t usually get to see Shakespeare, the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit returns to the stage with a production of the Bard’s crowd-pleasing comedy “Much Ado About Nothing,” which runs through December 15. Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, the knotty tale involves two couples — Beatrice and Benedick, Hero and Claudio — one tricked into being together, the other fooled into being apart. ARTINFO spoke separately with Michael Braun and Samantha Soule, who play Benedick and Beatrice, the heart of the play, about their attraction to these characters, working with the Mobile Unit, and why audiences continuously return to “Much Ado.”

    As actors, what draws you to the characters of Benedick and Beatrice?

    Samantha: I think what draws me to her is that she’s a real balance of joy and smarts. She’s unique in that whatever she’s been through she’s turning it upside down, she’s someone who’s incredibly good at taking difficulty, or pain, or whatever may have happened in her life, and not dwelling on it. She finds joy in even the mundane of interactions. She kind of reminds me of one of those kids who is an only child, you know? She has no parents herself; she’s a ward of an uncle, she’s a solo entity. She self entertains and each conversation is a puzzle of wit for her, like one of those kids who really used to play by themselves [laughs].

    Michael: Benedick is one of the most fun parts I’ve ever played. I read Harold Bloom’s article on the play a couple days ago, and he describes Beatrice and Benedick as nihilists, which sounds very dramatic and extreme. But he has an interesting point. They kind of don’t believe in the rules everyone else believes in — and what a fun place to be.  

    Can you talk a little about your experience with the Mobile Shakespeare Unit so far?

    Samantha: I have reticence about ever going back to normal theater [laughs].

    Michael: The program is linked to what Joe Papp was doing when he founded the Public Theater, which is loading people into a truck and bringing Shakespeare out of the city. The first two years of the mobile unit they did really heavy material, part of the reason they went with a comedy to bring to prisons and homeless shelters and everything. But as the tour approached, I have to say, I was like: “We’re bringing ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ to prisons?” We’re going to get eaten alive [laughs].

    Samantha:  I think there’s something really wonderful that can happen when you break the conventions. When you turn that on its end, you can sort of go back to what it was in the beginning: story and humanity. It was unbelievable to me just how hungry and vibrant and interactive and present these audiences were. They are not people who bought a ticket. We have shown up in their house. We could have been met with real resistance, and they were some of the best audiences playing Shakespeare that I’ve ever had.

    “Much Ado,” like everything Shakespeare has written, has such a deep history. These roles have been played by so many actors over the years. Are you thinking about this history, trying to capture an essence of all these different performers, or are you trying to distance yourself?

    Michael: That’s a good question. It is tricky. The interesting thing about Benedick is that I get the sense that he’s a very well known character, but then you start to think about it. He doesn’t have a “to be or not to be” moment that people can recite. There’s something liberating about that. People know that they love the guy. They’re not mouthing the words along with you, which is quite comforting as an actor [laughs].

    Samantha: Honestly, the other times I’ve played Shakespeare heroines in a traditional production that has been more present in my mind. In this, I don’t know. The very nature of what it was we were doing removed that from me. It got moved to a back burner, then up on the shelf. I sort of forgot around the way. I didn’t watch the Joss Whedon film because I knew I was going to be doing this. Sometimes, when you can hear another actor speaking it, it distances you from your own instincts. I love the Emma Thompson-Kenneth Branagh film, so I did have to work a little bit to not mimic Emma Thompson.

    Michael: It’s something you come up against a lot in Shakespeare. The big challenge is to dig in and find your own personal connection to the character, which is different than Joss Whedon’s or Kenneth Branagh’s or any number of recent versions of the play.

    Why do you think people come back to “Much Ado?”

    Samantha: It’s funny to think about it because I actually gravitate toward the tragedies [laughs]. I love them. Give me “Lear” any day.

    Michael: There are general themes that speak to everyone in this play. You sort of lose track of it as an educated theatergoer. It is about love, it is about trust, it is about being betrayed by someone, people turning out not to be who you thought they were. These are clearly issues that we can all relate to, and in particular some of our underserved communities, can relate to on a very deep level.

    Samantha: It’s been interesting spending time with “Much Ado,” and I think what seems to be present every time we perform this is: He sets you up on the heels of a war. Some of the very first lines of the play are, “How many gentlemen have you lost in this action?” You’re stepping off the gangplank having survived something bad. There is something universal for all of us in those moments of hiatus after tragedy, or after difficulty, or strain, where just for a moment you want to revel in the fact that we made it, we’re all here, how lucky are we. Let’s focus on something lighter, something more joyful, something more life affirming.

    Kerry Warren, A.Z. Kelsey, Marc Damon Johnson and Michael Braun

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