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California Literary Review

Laurie Anderson Surveys the Wreckage

LAURIE ANDERSON in her Studio in New York, USA.


Laurie Anderson Surveys the Wreckage

LAURIE ANDERSON in her Studio in New York, USA.

Laurie Anderson in her Studio in New York.
Her performance of DIRTDAY! was presented by Cal Performances.

Photo: Lucie Jansch

Laurie Anderson, now 63 years old, brought her violin, allied musical accoutrements and minimalist set pieces to Berkeley’s Zellerbach Auditorium on September 18, where out of the contradictions manifest in scientific investigation, Tibetan cult mysteries, and lessons she has learned from a dog’s life, she spun a web of comedic intrigue.

Appearing in a loose-fitting white shirt and tie, black slacks and white shoes, and sporting a scruffy do that was its own hybrid—punk plus low maintenance—she, herself, especially when she tucks her violin into the crook of her neck as if it were her heart—evokes something sculptural and pleasantly exotic. She is Electronica Untamed and also Electronica Informed—by a classical education in music, philosophy and science.

The porridge-like sounds that result from the mix of her violin and the Tide music program she supplements it with, eventually refine themselves into a clean and nearly virtuosic blend. Scattered around her are cupcake-sized floor lights. They soften the space and distract the eye from the tech clutter Anderson manipulates to bring her show to its climax.

A quote from Darwin is her opening gambit: “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!” Twisting Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory, she says that maybe he really meant survival of the strongest, flirting with a trope of Social Darwinism that the evolutionary theorist did not intend as the takeaway from his arduous research. But according to Anderson, there was the peacock, and even if the peacock wasn’t the fittest, he was indeed the finest, and so became the man of the evolutionary hour, thumbing his tail at all that Darwin stood for. She moves from this apostasy to muse about other narcissistic outcroppings staring up at us from the underside of the Universe. Here’s one: What if Earth is not the only planet possessing a population and culture? And why do we insist on calling it Earth, anyway, when it is mostly dirt? Why not Planet Dirt? The way Anderson sees it, it has become more of a battleground than a playground—why not call it by the lowly name it has earned? And on it goes, examining the Talmudic-like loopholes that have Israelis raising pigs on wooden platforms because it is not kosher to raise them on Israeli soil.

She returns to the USA and its recent passage of the U.S. Defense Authorization Act, which allows for indefinite detention of U.S. citizens deemed terrorists or terrorist threats by the government or military. She cites Paul Revere and his cry, “The British are coming!” Didn’t mostly everyone responding to the cry view themselves as British to begin with? So who exactly was it that was coming? She sidesteps the class implications of the first American Revolution. It was the British monarchy coming in the form of its proxy mercenaries to beat back the bourgeois revolution of now-American colonialists. That’s who it was! Instead of making clear the relationship of forces at work, she quips, “Ever since then, ‘we’ have been waiting for an enemy to show up, and if none did, it seems that ‘we’ are predisposed to manufacture one. Maybe the enemy is ourselves.” she proposes, luxuriating in the homo-seditionist overtones of her observation, but again confabulating those who rule with those who are ruled, a common confusion, not to mention one of many annoying obstacles to the advancement of class consciousness.

Anderson’s discourse turns to memories, dreams and their “tangled interpretations.” This fantastic voyage leads to Wall Street and its commoditization of everything, even things that don’t exist. “They buy and sell futures,” she says incredulously, “things they predict will some day come about but don’t exist now.” The capitalists’ dreams are so outsized that she is put in mind of SIDS [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome], where one theory says that babies dream of their past life in the womb where they didn’t breathe, and in some uber-Stanislovsky commitment to realism, simply stop breathing and die. The idea that we are asleep half of our lives and that she has therefore been asleep for 21 years, terrifies her. Continuing in the vein of tangled interpretations, Anderson says of the elections, “The best story gets our vote, whether it is true or not. We are going to go for the biggest, bushiest and most colorful tale.”

That the earth’s centrifugal force doesn’t send us flying off of it fascinates Anderson. “It spins around in space as if it’s trying to get rid of us. The good news,” she says, as if she is sharing an epiphany, “is that we have so many regrets that we have [plenty of material for] country music.” According to Anderson, everyone ends up with the wrong person, and that is what makes the juke box spin.”

LAURIE ANDERSON in her Studio in New York, USA

Photo: Lucie Jansch

There is a sequence about her now-deceased dog Lula Belle that is unabashedly calculated to snag those who participate in the high profile Cult of the Dog that we see practiced widely in the San Francisco Bay Area, side by side with those who embrace the homilies of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Her dog took piano lessons, and she screens video of Lula Belle’s interpretations. She lampoons some of the Tibetan beliefs, at the same time seeming to endorse them in spite of her earlier salute to science. She clearly relishes feasting at the banquet of her own contradictions, and thereby distancing any audience member who is so presumptuous as to claim her for his or her camp.

Her finale has us, on the one hand, viewing New York from above, as a world of “glass and light.” On the other hand, she relates the story of her visit to a tent city in the woods of Lakewood, New Jersey. It is a Junkman’s Obbligato of the real state of the union, not to mention the real estate of the union, a place where The Now is also the future, tendered by homeless women who make little birdhouse tent city souvenirs out of scraps of wood to sell to women from neighboring towns who live in actual homes.

The full-house audience at Zellerbach roars its approval, and she honors them with a haunting violin solo that (almost) rights the Planet Dirt back on its axis as we exit.

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Toba Singer, author of "First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists" (Praeger 2007), was Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library and its dance selector until her retirement in 2010. Raised in The Bronx, she graduated from New York City's School of Performing Arts with a major in Drama, the University of Massachusetts with a BA in History; and the University of Maryland with an MLS. Since high school, Singer has been actively engaged in a broad range of pro-labor, social, and political campaigns. She has lived, worked, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, The Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., working in steel mills, chemical refineries, garment shops and as an airlines worker; also editing, teaching and as an office worker. Singer has contributed articles to the "Charleston Gazette," "San Francisco Chronicle," "Dance Magazine," "Dance Europe," "City Paper," "Provincetown Advocate," "Voice of Dance,", "InDance," and "Dance Source Houston." Singer returned to the studio to study ballet after a 25-year absence, and in 2001, was invited to become a founding member of the board of Robert Moses' KIN dance company. Singer studied ballet with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson, Zory Karah, Celine Keller, Charles McGraw, Francoise Martinet, Augusta Moore, E. Virginia Williams, and Kahz Zmuda; and Modern Dance with Cora Cahan, Jane Dudley, Nancy Lang, Donald McKayle, Gertrude Shurr, and Zenaide Trigg. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. Singer lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Jim Gotesky.

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