Circus in New York

In most places circus means one of two things; one involves elephants and clowns and the other is called Cirque du Soleil. In NYC the genre of performance we refer to as ‘circus’ has been expanding over the last decade and has now reached an amazing level of variety. On the one end are amateur recitals featuring regular folks like you and me and on the other are fully professional theater productions featuring some elements of circus. This exciting genre now includes all manner of aerial apparatus, fire performance and such esoteric skills as ‘trick jump roping’ and burlesque infused clowning around (or clowning infused burlesque). Last weekend I had the great pleasure of attending two shows- one on either end of the spectrum.

At Big Sky Works in Brooklyn the great Tanya Gagné trains the next generation of aerial performers and gives them the opportunity to try out their new moves in front of an audience during frequent variety shows. They also host more professional productions starring many great aerialists. This weekend I was able to see some excellent performers, some newer to the stage and some veterans. They soared through the air on ropes, silks, trapeze, lyre…

Aerialist on rope at Big Sky Works

Aerialist on rope at Big Sky Works

It was fun to see amateurs trying out new moves and gaining confidence as their routines continued. It was also wonderful to see seasoned performers playing around with the apparatus and truly exhibiting artistry. In this setting performers are able to experiment and craft an act of their own. Talking to one of the performers after the show I could tell that she was passionate about her art and loved sharing it with an audience. This version of circus is very inclusive; the audience feels connected to the performers emotionally (they also tend to be very very close). It is also inclusive in the sense that you know classes are available and that you too could become such a performer; the thrill of being 20 feet up dangling on a rope feels immediately attainable. I myself used to take silks classes at Skybox aka House of Yes when it existed out in Bushwick (they are supposedly opening a new space soon). It was wonderful being up high and learning to wrap the silks around myself for a drop. I gave it up because the cost became too high but I hope to find a way to take classes again soon.

The night after the show at Big Sky Works I went to St. Anne’s Warehouse for a much more professional, though not very traditional show. This was a KNEEHIGH production of Tristan & Yseult adapted and Directed by Emma Rice, written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy. The NYTimes reviewer wrote that

“This crossing of emotional boundaries, which sabotages our typical programmed responses as an audience, is the shaping force of “Tristan & Yseult.” And I can’t think of another company that achieves this dynamic as vividly and unexpectedly as Kneehigh does.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the story I would suggest reading the New York Times review in full; the reviewer was absolutely smitten with the production, as was I. This preview will give you a taste; sadly the run is finished but I’m sure the company will return with something just as delightful.

In this show circus accompanied more serious theater; you could say the drama was infused with circus. The lovers were lifted off the stage using harnesses; they capered and embraced above the ground delighting in the first overwhelming flush of infatuation. There was a great deal of clowning including balloons distributed to the audience and silly glasses. There were fight scenes choreographed like dances and a man playing a woman pretending to be a queen. I think it’s simply wonderful the way the circus arts have become part of the mainstream and I think that theater in New York is the better for this addition.

I am very much looking forward to seeing how circus continues to creep into serious theater and how amateur circus performances continue to draw more audience members into their community.

The Death of Klinghoffer- I saw and decided.

The Metropolitan Opera’s tag line for The Death of Klinghoffer is “See it. Then decide.” It is seldom that an opera provokes as much controversy as this one has over its brief lifetime. The opera had its New York premier at BAM in 1991, just a few years after the terrorist attack that it depicts. I am too young to have any memory of the hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, so my viewpoint is necessarily different from those opera goers a generation above me. When I read about the protests on opening night and the contrasting New York Times review, I determined that I simply had to see this for myself.

The opera is in English, which always throws me off a bit as I’m used to reading subtitles and hearing the music without being distracted by individual words within it. The music is very similar to the other piece by John Adams that I’ve seen- Nixon in China. It can be harsh but is not unpleasantly dissonant (unlike Hugo David Weisgall’s Esther, which is actually painful). This trailer will give you a good sense of it, although I think the music loses a lot by being recorded this way; in person it’s much more immediate.

Modern classical music is not for everyone, and purely as a piece of music I don’t know that I would recommend this particular piece. The choral numbers are very powerful but do not move the plot forward and start to feel tiresome as the opera drags into its third hour. The strongest moments in the opera are two of the arias, one in which Klinghoffer confronts the terrorists, and the final aria sung by his wife after she learns of his death. These two characters are, in my opinion, the only really three dimensional characters in the piece. They feel like complete human beings and the audience cannot help but empathize with them. It was astonishing to me that people felt the opera was anti-semitic, when really the only characters who resonate are these two victims. The final aria focuses not on Klinghoffer’s death as a political event, but rather on the loss of a husband, partner and lifelong companion. It is rare that loss at the end of a lifetime together is acknowledged in art. We hear a great deal about the loss of young love, but an older character singing about loss at the end of their life is less common. I felt that this piece was so powerful it could stand entirely on its own.

I had an unusual opportunity a few weeks after seeing the opera to talk about the controversy with none other than one of Klinghoffer’s daughters.  Lisa and her sister have been vocal opponents of the opera since its original production at BAM. Lisa happened to be at a social function I was attending and when I mentioned I had seen the opera she told me about her experience with the BAM production. Apparently there was a scene, which has since been removed, portraying a Jewish family as bourgeois and only interested in their own comfort. This scene really skewed the opera’s message in favor of the Palestinian cause and led to Lisa’s feeling that it was anti-semitic and offensive. I told her about my experience with the Met production and she was very touched to hear that the characters of her parents came through so strongly. It was clear that the production she saw had been deeply upsetting for her and for her family. She told me she wished that she could attend the Met production but just felt too scarred by the experience. The idea of her mother’s aria standing alone as a stunning love song was very emotional for Lisa. At the end of the evening she gave me a big hug and told me she was so happy I had enjoyed the opera and that she’d loved hearing about it from my perspective.

It was wonderful to be able to talk to Lisa in person because so much of the dialogue about this opera has been vitriolic. So much of public debate is based on mistrust of the other side and I wish that this opera had been used as more of a conversation starter, and less of a way of dividing groups. Art should provoke conversation and argument. Art should have a message but I don’t believe it should be one of hate, and I don’t think that that is the case with The Death of Klinghoffer. The opera’s run at the Met is finished now but I hope that the next time something controversial comes to the stage the debate will be between two sides that are more respectful of each other’s opinions and more open to having their opinion changed.

Hosting in NYC


Of all of my friends I think I am the most enthusiastic about visitors; this is probably because of my vast enthusiasm for New York. It is tremendously exciting to show newcomers all the things I love in NYC and to find things that they will love as well. Having visitors gives me an excuse to see places I have not been to recently and motivates me to discover new restaurants and entertainments. At the same time moving around and interacting with the city is fundamentally harder with non-New Yorkers, especially if they hail from any part of the U.S. other than San Francisco (the only other city with decent Public Transit). Visitors have many challenges in New York, from food issues to noise levels, fear of the subway, fear of unknown food, and most of all the amount of walking. We walk a lot here. Most New Yorkers are likely to walk at least two miles a day, not to mention all the stairs we climb in and out of the subway. Even the most fit visitors are likely to find this challenging, and the less fit visitors may find it next to impossible. I recently hosted my father and his wife for a weekend. This is an account of the highs and lows of their visit.

Day 1

They slept in after arriving late the night before and we made breakfast in my apartment. It was wet but not actively raining. We took the subway from my apartment in Brooklyn up to the Museum of the City of New York. I actually hadn’t been there before and I was very impressed. They currently have an exhibit of photographs by Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao that are really stunning (it’s just opened; you should definitely go!). He uses a process that combines many photographs digitally to create one final image. This video shows his process:

The photographs on display are all of NYC and it was fun to point out places I had been and give further information about different places in the city.

We also looked at the ‘Activist New York’ exhibit, which is very text heavy. This was a bit challenging for my visitors because they found the amount of information hard to take in and they soon tired of reading large blocks of text standing up. I thought some of the information was interesting, and in some cases new to me, but it was hard to retain much. My favorite new factoid is that one of the largest suffragette rallies took place in Union Square. I actually lived right on Union Square in an NYU dorm for two years and it was odd to think that I was living in such an important historical space without being aware of its history.

After a couple of hours in the museum my father requested that we see a movie for our next activity, since this would involve lots of sitting. They wanted to see something that they wouldn’t be able to see in their hometown so I looked at the listings for the various artsy theaters. I generally look up the Landmark Sunshine, the Anjelika and the IFC. Finding something they will like but will also qualify as something they can only see in NYC is not easy. My father tends towards action films and his wife is more interested in romance. In the end I decided to hope something dark and funny would be unusual enough to be enjoyable and we saw My Old Lady (I really love Maggie Smith). They were both a bit neutral on this but at least they weren’t adamantly dissatisfied. With other guests I often try to get tickets to a dance performance or a concert but these are not art forms that particularly interest this pair. If they were more willing to experiment with questionable theater I would have taken them to this crazy Shakespeare thing at BAM that I was actually very sorry to miss. The New Wave Festival at BAM is always full of totally ridiculous gems like that. Ah well. Visitors often require somewhat more normal entertainment.

I finished up Day 1 with dinner at Katz’s Delicatessen. I figured this was a real New York experience worth having- a mountain of deli meat and a plate of sour pickles. Now if your visitors have dietary restrictions, and this pair does have some, this experience might not be the best. My visitors did fairly well, surviving the ordering experience and managing to eat their enormous sandwiches, but they complained about the noise and ended up with half sour pickles. The cost was also a bit upsetting. Everything costs more in New York and the sticker shock can be very difficult for visitors. Best to warn them in advance I think. The subway ride back was long and they both fell asleep on the D as we crossed over the Manhattan Bridge; it was pretty cute.

Day 2

We ate breakfast at home again (I was missing the bloody mary brunch experience but since they don’t drink breakfast at home seemed just as well) and then went into the city to the start of the High Line. I was very excited to show them the length of the park and the new section that I had not yet visited. It was crowded, which made them nervous and uncomfortable. My stepmother had no concept of how to get out of the way while taking pictures and I often felt like I was herding sheep. We scored one of the lounge chairs and they were able to rest for awhile in the sunshine. I think this was probably their favorite part of the whole day. Pressing northward again through the crowds they were tired and had trouble appreciating the interesting landscaping details and artwork. When you don’t live in a big city, surrounded most of the time by steel and concrete, you are less likely to be impressed by a handful of reeds and wildflowers. Something to remember when bringing visitors around- you and your visitors may find different things novel. However we all agreed that the final section, which has been left very wild, was beautiful in its openness and connection with the past.

Final section of the High Line.

Final section of the High Line.

By the time we completed our walk (the High Line is about one and a half miles in total) my visitors were completely exhausted. The High Line ends far on the west side, nowhere near public transit. The final trek eastward felt like a forced march. It was almost impossible for me to move slowly enough for them. New Yorkers walk fast and tend to move in competition with other pedestrians so that if you’re walking slower you feel like you’re losing. Keeping at a pace they could handle was super aggravating. Playing tour guide requires patience. We finally reached the train and once again they fell asleep on the trip home. This time I left them to finish the trip without me while I bought groceries for us to cook together. They were very nervous about this and I had to give them directions several times although we had already done this together. Anyone who does not take public transit on a daily basis is likely to find it confusing and at times unnerving. I frequently give directions to strangers in subway stations who appear lost or helpless. The service changes on the weekends always seem a bit sadistic towards tourists; if New Yorkers can’t figure them out how do you expect Midwesterners to manage?

I am lucky enough to have an honest to goodness kitchen in my New York apartment. It doesn’t have a dishwasher of course but the stove is full sized and there’s plenty of counter space and even room for a table. This means I can actually make lasagna with my father without us stepping on each other. For those of you who are not so lucky I recommend introducing your houseguests to the joys of Seamless Web (as per the ubiquitous subway advertisements).

Day 3

On their final day my stepmother requested that we revisit “that restaurant you took us to once with your boyfriend at the time that was very good.” Hmm. Luckily I have introduced them to only three boyfriends so this was not too hard to figure out. In the future I may make a note to either document restaurants with pictures or keep some sort of list. If you’re likely to have repeat visitors it may be useful to keep notes on what they liked and didn’t like to avoid similar errors in the future. The restaurant in question, Miriam’s, is a lovely Israeli place in Park Slope. My father poked at the labneh cheese suspiciously and they both complained about the inattentive waitress, but on the whole it was a successful restaurant experience (very rare for this pair in NYC).

For our last activity I took them to MOMA to see the Matisse Cut-Outs. If you frequently have visitors in NYC it is well worthwhile to be a member of MOMA. You can get in free and you can bring your guests in for only $5/each. MOMA is such a standard part of the NYC tour that anyone who has guests a few times a year will make the $80 individual membership more than worthwhile. I was not expecting to be a big fan of the Matisse but I was pleasantly surprised. It is a riot of color with many pieces full of shapes reminiscent of sea creatures. It’s fun and bright and a pleasure to walk through.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs. Tate Modern. April 7 - September 17, 2014. Installation view at Tate Modern. Tate Photography. With Composition (The Velvets) 1947, The Propeller 1945, White Alga on Orange and Red Background 1947, Composition with Red Cross 1947, The Eskimo 1947, Amphitrite 1947 and a selection of other works. Photo from the MOMA website.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs. Tate Modern. April 7 – September 17, 2014. Installation view at Tate Modern. Tate Photography. With Composition (The Velvets) 1947, The Propeller 1945, White Alga on Orange and Red Background 1947, Composition with Red Cross 1947, The Eskimo 1947, Amphitrite 1947 and a selection of other works. Photo from the MOMA website.

After many art exhibits that seem draining or require a great deal of careful examination, this one felt very accessible and positive. I left feeling full of energy and enthusiasm. After feeling quite exhausted by playing tour guide it was refreshing. The best experiences with visitors are always those that both you and they really enjoy; I was glad that this visit ended with such an experience. The Matisse exhibit has only just opened so you should certainly make time to check it out (with or without visitors).

I am on the whole looking forward to my next visitors but I am also looking forward to attending events I love without feeling the need to care for someone else. Independent exploration can also be rewarding.

From the mouths of babes…

I normally use this blog (when I have the time to use it at all) to pour out my love for NYC in the form of recommendations, musings and advice. Today I am writing a post outside of that genre in the hopes that someone may be able to assist me in my work as a trainer of young New Yorkers.


In my day to day life as a nanny I am subjected to a barrage of criticism and thoughtlessly cruel remarks from the children I care for. Often these are in the form of questions that I feel obligated to answer to give them a better understanding of the peculiarities of our physical selves. In most cases I think they truly mean no harm and in others I assume they’re teasing me to indicate that we have a close relationship. In each instance I struggle with how to respond. I want to help them become empathetic, not to mention polite. I’m sure every parent and caregiver deals with similar moments. In the spirit of solidarity and in the hope of hearing other methods of handling such comments, here are some of mine. These are just related to my body; the commentary on my character and interests would go on far too long.

5yo “Your thighs are so pouffy. You have a lot of fat in them. If we didn’t have food anymore it would take you longer to die.

5yo pointing at calluses on my feet, “Why are your feet like that? Is something wrong with them?

9yo “Your legs feel scratchy. Why do you have hairs there? It’s gross.”

11yo “Your hair looks too shiny. Is it greasy? Maybe you should wash it more.

9yo “Why is your toe curved like that? What’s wrong with it? Is it deformed?

11yo “You shouldn’t wear tank tops; it’s gross.

11yo “Do you know your nail polish is chipped?

5yo looking at the freckles on my arms, “Do you have spots because you’re sick?

5yo noticing veins in my hands, “I thought only men had veins like that.”

9yo “Your nose is really big.”

11yo “You shouldn’t wear shorts because your thighs are big.”

11yo “Why don’t you wear makeup? It would make you look better.

9yo “Your feet are really big.

I consider myself to be beautiful and a fair number of people have told me they feel the same way but some of these comments do get under my skin. Do I need to shave my legs right before work so they won’t be scratchy? Maybe I should have them waxed? Should I stop wearing shorts? I have long powerful shapely legs and yet I find myself worrying if they’re fat. How do I get through to these children that words can be hurtful without making it impossible for them to ask questions? I don’t want to teach them that grown ups are so fragile they can’t handle a few critical remarks. I want them to have more confidence than I do, not less. When working with children every statement, every reaction, feels loaded. How do you handle these moments?


There are many wonderful events in NYC in the summer. There are outdoor film screenings, concerts, parades… People watching is everyone’s favorite pastime and every park becomes a stage. Of all the events in the city though, there is only one that truly feels like a figment of Salvador Dalí’s imagination, and that is the FIGMENT Arts Festival on Governors Island. This marvelous event brings all sorts of whimsical creations to an island that still feels as though it exists outside of time.

Wandering around Governors Island, past the houses in Nolan Park and Colonel’s Row, there is a sense of being in a sleepy forgotten town. When you round a corner and suddenly see Lower Manhattan rising above you it can be almost shocking. Visiting the island at any time during the summer is worthwhile; it is a fabulous place for a picnic or a little sunbathing in the new ‘Hammock Grove.’ Children can run free without fear of vehicles, although they should watch out for all the Schwinn bicycles. The ferry is now $2 roundtrip (up from the previous $0) and for the first time is running seven days a week. While I have mixed feelings about the hills currently being constructed, I absolutely love the respite from the noise and smell of summertime in NYC. It’s also my favorite view of Manhattan; the one viewpoint from which it truly looks like an island.

The Island of Manhattan as seen from Governors Island

The Island of Manhattan as seen from Governors Island 2008

Governors Island has its own magic but FIGMENT transforms the island into something truly surreal. The artists who create installations for the festival work in many media but the guiding spirit is that the art be participatory. This is not art behind glass, it is art made to be touched, played with, climbed on, drawn on, destroyed and rebuilt. The island becomes an art museum that a child would imagine. Last year a cloud-like dome made of recycled water bottles rose against the backdrop of the city.

Figment 2013

Figment 2013, Studio Klimoski Chang Architects’ Head in the Clouds

Inside the dome a DJ played music and people of all ages and in quite a strange assortment of clothing danced and jumped and spun until the grass was all turned to muck. The space was lit strangely through the bottles and it had such a feeling of unreality that it was astonishing to emerge into the sunshine again.

Inside  Studio Klimoski Chang Architects’ Head in the Clouds

Inside Studio Klimoski Chang Architects’ Head in the Clouds

Children are usually first drawn to the elaborate mini golf course, each hole of which is designed by a different artist. As someone who is not particularly skilled at golf, I am more likely to make a beeline for the treehouse, although it can get too crowded at times. The real fun is the wandering; there are so many small interesting pieces to discover. Just as important are the many performances taking place. There are concerts and dance performances at all times. Last year I followed the sound of drums to find an all-female marching band on the waterfront.

Perhaps my best FIGMENT was the year that I volunteered as an assistant priestess for the Encouraging Priestess. The Encouraging Priestess marries people to themselves. I helped participants write their vows to themselves and find appropriate costume pieces from our supply for the ceremony. Watching people, some with great seriousness and others with great levity, engage in this ceremony, was magical in a wholly different way. At the heart of FIGMENT is a need to engage, to provoke, to truly touch each person who visits the island. That summer I felt that I was really part of the festival. It was only the porch of one of the lovely yellow Nolan houses, but for that weekend it was a magical temple of self-affirmation and glittery ceremony.

Marry Yourself, Encouraging Priestess

Marry Yourself, Encouraging Priestess

This summer CDR Studio’s Governor’s Cup will add a heavy dash of the surreal to the island. It is described on the FIGMENT website:

Inspired by tape-lace crochet, used plastic cups, saved from discard from throughout the city, are bound by zip-ties into a densely-knit serpentine structure. Undulating between the tree branches, the canopy is suspended by strapping and turn-buckled cabling. The trees are unscathed. A lacy infill of cups between the tape structure and branches create an airborne topography and shadow play. The configuration forms an outdoor room, shimmering in the sun and echoing with breeze-driven sound.

The treehouse, with its slightly terrifying slide, will be returning for the summer of 2014. This video (showing some very happy frolicking) gives me quite enough incentive to go out to the island all on its own. I am excited to see what other structures will be part of the sculpture garden. Until it’s all there under the sun (or sometimes in the rain), the art exists mainly in the artist’s imagination; once it’s there it becomes part of our collective imaginings. This is a festival that aims to connect, not merely to entertain. Go forth and be part of the fun!