Friday, 31 August 2012

RSC's African Caesar

Last week I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Julius Caesar. It's in London till the 15th September, then it goes on tour. It's a great production. See it if you possibly can.

The play works completely naturally in its modern African setting, which obviates the need for anything pretentious or complicated, or any of the usual silly and distracting things productions think they have to do to make Shakespeare's world recognisable to a modern audience. The play works directly - set in a foreign country, but a foreign country in our world, not really any more foreign than, simply, Rome - without any alteration for the distance of time, because everything that matters is exactly the same.

It's a complicated play, fast moving, with no real hero, full of complicated and totally real and individual characters, each of them with great lines that you knew, and didn't know you knew. I was fascinated by the different moral and political universe each several character lives in, and how they overlap with each other, but don't coincide.

Brutus, obsessed with his notions of nobility and aristocracy, his own birth-equality with Caesar, knows as a fact that the mob matters politically, but it never really crosses his mind that they might not agree with him about the collective-and-equal preeminence of a high-born class being self-evidently better than a  monarchy. What is convincing to him must be convincing to everyone else. Cassius, interestingly, only thinks that anything convincing to Brutus must be convincing to other Senators. He is more intelligent.

Mark Antony is of entirely different stuff. Politically, he at least realises that the mob has members, who are quite possibly better off with a king than a feudal aristocracy, or at least who may think so. For himself, he doesn't care; his manipulation of the mob is quite cynical; but he must avenge his friend. He believes, or at least appears to, that Brutus thought he was doing the right thing. He just doesn't consider that relevant to his duty of revenge. He believes no such thing about Cassius. Cassius, he says, was just jealous. But who has never heard that, from one friend rationalising another's behaviour, when they don't really care to know? It's no more convincing.

We don't know whether he's right. Cassius, apart from being much brighter than Brutus, and unashamed to lie, doesn't tell us. We don't really know why he thinks this is all so urgent. Maybe Antony is right, but jealousy seems far too simple for the complex character played. We really don't get to see inside Cassius' head.

We just get to see how crazy it is to assume that what is self-evident to us seems the same way to other people, or that we can see inside anybody's head. I don't think Shakespeare was making that point. I just think he knew it and took it as read, and it was part of what made him such a wonderful writer.

Caesar, we know, is a man of real virtues, certainly vain, certainly brave, certainly feeling Brutus' betrayal. He's a grand, overweening, self-dramatising, convincing centre, believably beloved.

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

I had quibbles about some of the diction, but in terms of character the whole thing is extremely well played. I really want to see the same Mark Antony and the same Octavian sail straight on down the Nile and do Antony and Cleopatra as a sequel. It'd be fab.

There's also quite a bit of dancing and live music from a specially-created on stage band. You can catch them at the bar after every show. And maybe this post is just an excuse to tell you that they're called The Vibes of March.

Friday, 24 August 2012

DJ Questionnaire - maintenant disponible en Francais

Ben, d' El Recodo Tango (Bordeaux, Web, Facebook), a traduisé en Francais mon article "Was that good? DJ Questionnaire". Il écrit:

Le ton léger et délicieusement sarcastique sert ici parfaitement le but qu'elle s'est fixée : générer une prise de conscience sur le boulot de DJ, et le rôle prédominant qu'à celui-ci sur l'ambiance d'une soirée.
Pour peu que vous soyez déjà allé danser dans une poignée de milongas, cet article vous parlera, j'en suis certain, et vous aidera à mettre des mots sur des situations que vous avez sans aucun doute déjà vécues.
Mots: maintenant disponible en Francais.

And for my Anglophone readers: Ben, of El Recodo Tango (in Bordeaux, Web, Facebook), has been kind enough to like my post "Was that good? DJ Questionnaire" so much that he had to make a French translation.

If you liked the post, and you'd like to make a translation into another language, I'll almost certainly be happy for you to do so, as long as it's of good quality and you tell me about it and make the source clear, as Ben did. You can look at what he's done for a good format. If it's a language I can't read well (or at all), I will want to find someone else to review it for me, if possible. Please email me at the usual address, top right.

Edit: "Good quality" means that if you're not ready to make a very good attempt at translating my writing style, including all of the jokes, then you do not have my permission to make a translation. The style and quality of my writing is very important to me. You'd do better to take the basic idea and adapt it to your own audience, using your own style, and your own priorities.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Obituaries in the Telegraph

It was a great pleasure to be directed, yesterday, to this superb obituary in the Telegraph of Rear-Admiral Steve Ritchie, who died this May at the age of 97.

"While Ritchie was lying up by day in the undergrowth above the Bay of Bomba, some Italian troops took refuge from the sun in his bush without detecting him. ...

... he took Challenger on a circumnavigation of the world during which, using echo sounding, he measured the Challenger Deep, in the Pacific Ocean. Modern science has not been able to improve on Ritchie’s accuracy. ...
... 19th Hydrographer of the Navy ... The survey methods which Ritchie had used as a young man had barely changed in two centuries, but now he began the widespread introduction of computers and — despite opposition from “The Friends of the Fathom”, led by AP Herbert — the metrication of charts. ...
... Prince Rainier wrote on the back of a menu a new law giving Ritchie permission to wash his boules in any fountain of the principality. Ritchie later introduced boules to Scotland ...

... in 1971, shortly after his retirement from the Navy, Ritchie returned to the island [of Trinidad] to enjoy the carnival once more. He dressed up as an exotic butterfly and paraded through the streets of Port of Spain while waving a bottle of rum and accompanying calypso-champion Edmond Hart’s steel band. ...

... At his grandson’s wedding a year ago Ritchie was one of the most active dancers at the ceilidh, continuing even when many younger people had chosen to withdraw, exhausted. ..."

A newspaper obituary is like the Roman gravestones that say "Stop, Traveller! and listen to my story!". It should be entertaining, amusing, engaging, a proper memorial. It should send little arrows in different directions. Notice, for example, that Edmond Hart is named, and that (if you wish) you can verify that 'Butterflies and Moths' was indeed his Carnival theme in 1971. Also named is AP Herbert, an opponent worth mentioning. Those who don't know who he was, and are interested, can look him up and enjoy some choice quotations. The parts about Challenger and Naval Hydrography could be followed up for days.

And then there are the bush and the boules. And the editorial modesty that doesn't even say, as far as I can see, who wrote this.

I also suggest you read Piper Bill Millin - Piper of D-Day and Registered Mental Nurse.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Go Gladys!

This is Gladys Tejeda, who was born to a family of subsistence farmers, two and a half miles above sea level in the Andes of Peru. Today she completed the Olympic Marathon.

Gladys Tejeda with the Museum of London in the background

She finished in 43rd place, in a personal best time of 2:32:07, nine minutes behind the winner and totally unnoticed by the cameras. I was standing at 33.7km when I took this picture. I wanted to know what would happen to her when I saw her carrying the flag in the opening ceremony.

The crowd all around me cheered every single runner. If they couldn't pronounce her name and didn't know the name of her country, they just shouted "Go Oooonn!! Keep Goinnnng!". And quite a lot of them, including me, stayed to cheer on the runner in 107th and last place, making as much noise for her as we could. The men in the clear-up van applauded us right back.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Was that good? DJ questionnaire

DJing well is a tremendous amount of work. Owning a lot of music is not enough; it also requires knowledge, taste, and immensely time-consuming preparation. I'm not interested in doing it, because it's far too much work, and I'd rather be dancing. It's only done well by people who really like doing it for its own sake, and who really like doing the work that's required.

Uninformed dancers with no expectations create bad DJing and help it persist, and bad DJing limits the overall quality of dancing by making social dancing much more difficult than it needs to be.

I'd like DJs to be more appreciated. This checklist aims to help the dancer, especially the beginner, think about DJing. It assumes no more musical knowledge than the ability to tell the difference between tango, milonga, and vals, but it does partly rely on tango music making some sense to you and making you want to move. Some of it is very subjective, but some of it is not. Enjoy the usual bitchy bits.

Start at 0. Add or deduct points as shown to compare DJs. You might choose more than one answer for some of the questions. If you wanted to customise it to your priorities, obviously you could change the scores. I tend to penalise bad performance on the more mechanical, measurable things, because there's no good reason for getting that stuff wrong.

Musical Basics

Was any of the music unsuitable for dancing tango socially? For example:

  • It asks you to stand still and pose, like a pillock, rather than dance
  • It is impossible to keep exactly with it unless you know the particular recording by heart
  • It strongly suggests big, fast dramatic movements and sudden changes of speed that are rude and impractical for social dancing in the space available
  • It is great dance music, but brings out the worst in the dancers who are actually there.

If in doubt, look at the room as a whole: giveaways are that the line of dance stops flowing and collapses into chaos, there are lots of crashes, and most of the actually-good dancers sit down, hide, or go for a smoke unless somebody grabs them. If that's what your place is normally like, adjust your judgement accordingly. [Edit: What you are looking for is whether the DJ, or an individual tanda, makes a difference].

  1. None of those problems happened (+10)
  2. One or two dodgy moments (-5)
  3. Several dodgy sections (-7)
  4. Tanda after tanda, I was bored, bruised or both (-10)

Were you ever caught out by a piece that did not fit in that tanda and caused difficulty, embarrassment or disappointment to you or your partner? For example:
  • A jarring change of mood or style mid-tanda, so that you felt you had to unscrew your head and screw it back on again
  • A misleading opener that meant you missed out on a tanda you would otherwise have liked
  • A weak or disappointing piece in the middle, or to finish
  • Excessively jarring changes of speed
  • A mixed-up tanda of music you would have preferred to dance with two different people - or some of it not at all.
  1. None of those problems happened (+10)
  2. Once or twice, maybe a matter of opinion (-3)
  3. More, maybe a matter of opinion (-5)
  4. Once or twice, definitely! (-7)
  5. More than that (-10)
  6. All the flipping time! (-15)
As a whole, not worrying about specific tracks, how was the sound quality?
  1. Good - I could feel the music and really get into it (+7)
  2. OK - I could hear it everywhere (+5)
  3. Poor - I couldn't hear it clearly enough to get into it properly - muffled / no detail / no depth / too quiet / loud-but-muddy / distorted / too loud because DJ is deaf (-5)
  4. Not applicable, the equipment at this venue is poor so I can't tell (0)
Were there any poor choices of specific tracks, like something much too fast, much too slow, or with unacceptable sound quality?
  1. No (+5)
  2. One or two, not sure (0)
  3. More than that (-5)
 Did the cortinas make you happy?
  1. Yes (+5)
  2. They made people happy, just not specifically me (+3)
  3. No, they were generally annoying (-3)
  4. They didn't do the job, I couldn't always tell what was a cortina or they didn't play any (-5)
  5. Not applicable - this milonga has a no-cortinas policy (0)
Basic Basics

Were there enough vals (V) and milonga (M) tandas in proportion to the tango (T), and were they played in a regular pattern so you knew where you were?
  1. About right - somewhere in the range TTVTTM or TTTTVTTTTM, whatever made sense given the length of this milonga (+5)
  2. Not enough - TTTTTTTTTTM or something (-5)
  3. Too much - TVTMTVTMTVTM DJ WTF? (-7)
  4. So chaotic that I couldn't tell - TT VV TTTTVTTTTTMTMV, or something. (-10)
  5. "Tanda" isn't the right word. (-15).
Were the cortinas long enough for you to clear the floor and find your next partner without obstructing anyone else's view, given the size of the room, and supposing there was somewhere to sit down?
  1. Yes (+3)
  2. No (-3)
Did the DJ sign off gracefully at the end with some non-tango music for people to calm down and clear up to, assuming that was possible?
  1. Yes (+4)
  2. No, they used all the time available and just stopped there (0)

Did the music have the DJ's full attention?
  1. Yes, all or almost all the time (+5)
  2. Yes, as much as necessary in the situation (+3)
  3. Less than that (-3)
  4. No, they went out for a smoke and the music stopped (-10)
  5. No, they put on a playlist/CD and buggered off (-20)
If there were any problems with the equipment, did the DJ deal with them calmly and competently?
  1. Yes, outstanding - e.g. drove home and got some better kit, found another computer (+7)
  2. Met expectations - worked around it, fixed it (+5)
  3. Drama! But dealt with it (+3)
  4. No (-5)
  5. Not applicable (0)
Did the DJ have any difficulty operating the sound equipment?
  1. No (+2)
  2. There was one cock-up (-2)
  3. There were some problems, understandable in the circumstances (0)
  4. The DJ was clearly unprepared (-7)
Did the DJ seem at any time to forget what s/he was there for? Did they, for example, follow a twenty-minute performance, in a three-hour milonga, with a five-minute jive track for just one single couple to dance to in an unofficial bonus performance, while everyone else waited around like lemons, as though for the photographs at a flipping wedding, and in the awkward position of having to pretend that they weren't at all annoyed and didn't have anything better to do than watch this vanity?
  1. No (0)
  2. Yes (-5)
  3. Yes, and that couple included him/her self or his/her spouse/partner and/or at least one of the couple who had just been performing (-10)
  4. Yes, but, I was ok with it under the circumstances (0)
If there was an interlude of country dancing, like chacharera, or some other dance like jive or salsa, was it considerately timed, not too long, and enjoyable by a reasonable number of the people who were there?
  1. Yes, it was fun, I enjoyed it / I didn't mind watching (0)
  2. No, it was a tedious mess, nobody could dance to it, or it took up the last hour before the last train! (-5)
  3. It was annoying but it was required by the guest teachers or the venue (0)
Harder Questions

Was the music:
  1. Pretentiously salted with the undanceable, the obscure or the inappropriate (-10)
  2. Thoughtlessly arranged over time, with good things spoiled by being too close together (-5)
  3. Ok, but one-paced, too much of one kind of thing (+5)
  4. Good, but with a strong DJ style that just isn't my taste (+10)
  5. Appropriately varied, with a good mixture between rhythmic and lyrical and dramatic, given the situation (+15)
  6. Brilliantly mixed, with every tanda feeling like a perfect change after the one before (+20)
How did you feel about the 'energy' in the room?
  1. Confused and chaotic. (-7)
  2. Low. I couldn't get started, or my favourite partners couldn't. (-5)
  3. A bit flat, I liked the music but somehow didn't really feel like getting going (-2)
  4. Good, it was going consistently well (+5)
  5. Beautiful, it really came together with varied good feelings (+10)
  6. Fantastic, I had a great night, everyone was buzzing, everything flowed and I was also really happy when I was sitting down (+15)
Pick three very good social dancers who were there, preferably single ones. How much did they seem to be dancing?
  1. Not at all, maybe one or two tandas with the right person (-5)
  2. A bit, same as usual really (0)
  3. More than usual (+5)
  4. All the time, and taking more risks than usual with partner choice (+10)
Subjectively, what did you think? No scores here - compare with what you got above.
  1. It was genius / it was a revelation to me / it transformed the place or situation for the better.
  2. It was very good. I was very happy with it.
  3. It was good but had some flaws, or it was well-done but not my thing.
  4. It was good and consistent, I could trust it, but maybe it wasn't inspiring.
  5. It was generally innocuous and didn't cause me any serious problems.
  6. Not good - it was weak or annoyed me a few times.
  7. It was poor. I couldn't trust it. If something good came up, I had to grab someone.
  8. It was bad - I, or my desired partners, just didn't want to dance. No point in staying.
I'd draw the "ask them back" line between 4 and 5.

[Edit 24-08-2012: Cet article maintenant disponible en Francais. Merci, Ben de El Recodo Tango.]