Among the things that many of us are missing the most during the Covid-19 crisis are art and travel. They might not be essential businesses, but they’re key parts of a full and rewarding life. Both serve as respites from the everyday; they entertain and educate us, offering escape from our daily toil. “How Can We Think of Art at a Time Like This?” is the titular question of Barbara Pollack and Anne Verhallen’s ongoing online exhibition, which features new and recent work from major living artists addressing the pandemic and politics. The answer, of course, is how can we not?
Xavier F. Salomon has found his own unique method of thinking about art in the time of coronavirus, adding related travel as well. Salomon, who was born in Rome to an English mother and a Danish father, was raised in Italy and England, and received his BA, MA, and PhD from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, is the Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator at the Frick Collection. Every Wednesday and Friday, he takes over the Frick’s YouTube channel with deep dives into art history. On Wednesday’s “Travels with a Curator,” Salomon, who previously worked at the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, and the Met here in New York — quite a resume for a man only just in his forties — gives an illustrated lecture about art and architecture in specific cities; so far he has guided us through Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome, and Ca’ d’Oro, Venice.
He is fast becoming an internet superstar for his Friday talks, “Cocktails with a Curator,” my preferred manner of ending the workweek. At 5:00, Salomon pairs a masterpiece from the Frick with a cocktail and spends between fifteen and twenty minutes discussing the Frick gem and the drink, placing them in context of the current pandemic. Seen in the lower-right-hand corner of the screen, the bald, bearded, handsome, and ever-charming Salomon has helped us look deeply into Rembrandt’s Polish Rider with a Szarlotka, Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert with a Manhattan, and Van Dyck’s Sir John Suckling with a Pink Gin. (On May 1, curator Aimee Ng explored Constable’s White Horse with a gin and Dubonnet.)
On May 8, Salomon will visit with Joseph Mallord William Turner’s Harbor of Dieppe: Changement de Domicile while enjoying a Widow’s Kiss. (The recipes, which include alcohol-free versions, are posted on the YouTube page in advance.) The Frick is my personal favorite museum, a place I go to often to see familiar works that both relax and energize me — including Harbor of Dieppe, which I’ve marveled at on many occasions — so I’m finding these talks, which are prerecorded but stream live (and can be also watched later), absolutely essential in every way. Salomon recently took a break from his art history forays to discuss art and travel in the age of coronavirus.
twi-ny: Last year, before the pandemic, you started examining specific works from current Frick special exhibitions in a Facebook series called “Live from the Frick!” How did that evolve into “Cocktails with a Curator”?
xavier f. salomon: The Frick Collection has had a long tradition of online offerings (exhibition virtual tours, online live streaming of scholarly lectures, and Facebook “Lives,” among many examples). As soon as the lockdown began, we started to think, as a team, as to what we could offer to as varied an audience as possible. The idea of weekly appointments – with “Cocktails” on Fridays and “Travels” on Wednesdays – is designed to take our minds away from our current problems and to “meet” virtually. The idea was to match art with something we may miss from our previous life: things such as going out with friends for a drink, or traveling.
twi-ny: Do you consider yourself a cocktail aficionado? Are you trying new drinks, or are you choosing some of your favorites?
xaf: I do like cocktails very much. I am starting with a number of favorites, but as the series will continue, I am definitely planning to explore new options.
twi-ny: As a Frick regular, I feel that many of the paintings and sculptures in the museum are like old friends and members of the family that I thought I knew so well. I’ve stared at “St. Francis in the Desert” dozens of times, but as I watched your description on “Cocktails,” I felt as if I’d never really seen it. Because you are presenting this with a slightly adjusted context, referencing the pandemic, do you find yourself learning surprising things about works that you thought you knew so well?
xaf: The Frick is a museum of masterpieces. And I always believed that great works of art, first of all, can improve our lives but can also mean a number of different things at different times. One of the most common questions I have been asked in the last few years is: “Are works of art by Old Masters relevant?” The answer is: “YES!!!” And I hope to demonstrate this with this series. One thing that this virus is making apparent to everyone is how fragile human beings are. Artworks are the best that human beings have produced in the last few thousand years, and they can help us understand why and how we live. People a thousand years ago, five hundred years ago, a hundred years ago, were dealing with life as we do, with love, with friendship, with knowledge, with financial issues . . . and with epidemics and death. So I have been working on matching works at the Frick with broad issues we are thinking about today. And – not surprisingly – it is actually quite easy. And I am enjoying thinking about our works in this way.
twi-ny: I’m also appreciative of how fresh your analysis is. In the most recent Frick Collection magazine, you wrote about van Dyck’s “Sir John Suckling,” but your “Cocktails” talk about it explored the painting differently. I gather you would agree that “perspective is everything”?
xaf: Yes, I fully agree. And that is the importance of great works of art. They can be understood in a number of ways and can touch different chords in us. The same work of art meant different things to me when I was a teenager, or ten years ago. . . . We change as we go through life, and a truly great masterpiece can be for us a travel companion or a great friend. We change and they alongside us.
twi-ny: The camerawork is extraordinary, taking us deep inside the paintings. Is that footage already available, or might someone be taking new shots inside the museum?
xaf: The Frick has always had an in-house photographer, and our works have been very well photographed over the years by very talented people. All of the photographs of our works are from our archives. No new photography has been commissioned for these online programs. And many of the photos of locations I have taken myself over the years on my travels.
twi-ny: For the third “Cocktails” presentation, you cleverly changed where you were sitting when giving the talks. What part of the city are you sequestered in, and are you sheltering in place with any humans or animals?
xaf: I have been playing with different corners of my apartment to find an ideal location for the filming. It is a first for me, to film myself in my own apartment. I live in Washington Heights, in Manhattan, an area I like very much. I am, unfortunately, sheltering in place alone, as my partner (in the same situation) is across the Atlantic, in Europe. I would love to have a pet, especially during these times. But I cannot complain, because in my “hermitage” at least I have books.
twi-ny: Most curators exist in the background; the public might read essays by them in catalogs and wall text, or maybe see them if they go to an illustrated lecture at a museum. But you’re becoming a virtual sensation, with fans tuning in not just to hear about a masterpiece but to specifically see you and have a drink together. How does that feel?
xaf: I am not sure I would describe myself as a “virtual sensation.” But I also don’t believe that curators or art historians should live in the “background.” Art is for everyone, and if people want to know more about museums or works of art, curators need to be accessible. It is not about spending our lives in ivory towers and being buried in our libraries or our museums. As much as many of us (myself included) don’t necessarily dislike that idea, there is the fundamental fact that we need to put our knowledge and studies somewhere out there and have it available for the general public. I am not looking for fans, but I have to confess that it feels very rewarding to know that, with a very small contribution, I have somewhat enhanced people’s lives at a particularly difficult time.
twi-ny: You appear to love what you do, and you can be very funny, but on camera you never break character as a serious art historian. What does it take to make you burst out laughing?
xaf: I love, adore, what I do. I live for it. I could not imagine doing anything else with my life. I don’t know why, but I always feel awkward when laughing in public. But many things make me laugh out loud, and, it is usually female comedians. Women have such a wonderful sense of humor! But, maybe, you are right, I should be less serious on my online programs. . . .
twi-ny: What artworks might be coming up, or would you prefer to keep them a secret until closer to showtime? If you take requests, I have a few.
xaf: The answer is that I know a few works (Turner, Velázquez, Holbein, Bronzino) and places (the Monastery of the Temptation in Jericho, Santa Maria delle Carceri in Prato, the towns of Osuna in Spain and Valenciennes in France) that will come up, but I am still not sure about the exact timing and I do not have a full list. I keep thinking and choosing as I go along. And, yes, suggestions are well received!!! I was surprised to see that people have written to me with suggestions for specific cocktails (and I apologize for all those people who really expected me to offer a Bellini with a Bellini painting — come on, guys!!! — I need to be a bit more original than that . . .), but no one so far has suggested a work of art or a place. Please send me your ideas! [ed. note: How about Goya’s The Forge, Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl, El Greco’s Purification of the Temple, or Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds?]
Ellen Stewart Theatre, La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club
66 East Fourth St.
February 29 - March 8, $35
“This story is very connected with the world at the moment,” Hideki Noda says in a promotional video for his wild and wacky farce, One Green Bottle, making its US premiere February 29 to March 8 at La MaMa. A presentation of Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre and Noda・Map, the show takes place over one crazy night during which a dysfunctional family faces massive strangeness as writer-director Noda tackles our selfie society, egotistical instincts, and rampant, potentially apocalyptic consumerism. Noda plays Bo, the father, with Lilo Baur (The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, The Street of Crocodiles) as Boo, the boy-band-loving mother, and Noda regular Glyn Pritchard (The Twits, The Dark Philosophers) as Pickle, the young daughter; the chaotic set is by Yukio Horio, with lighting by Christoph Wagner, zany costumes by Kodue Hibino, music by Denzaemon Tanaka XIII performed by Genichiro Tanaka, video by Shutaro Oku, and hysterical hair and makeup by Eri Akamatsu.
Noda incorporates noh and kabuki into this tale that also features a pregnant dog, a deranged Mickey Mouse, and other unpredictable elements. The title comes from the repetitive children’s song “Ten Green Bottles,” which goes in part, “Ten green bottles hanging on the wall / Ten green bottles hanging on the wall / And if one green bottle should accidentally fall / There’ll be nine green bottles hanging on the wall.” Noda, who has also staged such shows as Pandora’s Bell, Red Demon, and The Diver, discussed his work in this succinct interview, which has been edited for clarity.
twi-ny: One Green Bottle was initially written for Japanese audiences in 2010, then adapted by Will Sharpe into English for British crowds in 2018. What kinds of changes, if any, have been made for the US premiere?
hideki noda: We perform according to the London version’s script. However, the direction will be more slapstick than the performances in London.
twi-ny: You don’t always appear in your plays. What made you want to be in this one, and continue in it through the iterations?
hn: An actor on the stage can see what a director in the director’s seat can’t see. Of course, and vice versa.
twi-ny: Selfie culture is a key theme in One Green Bottle. What is your relationship with selfies?
hn: I suppose that selfie culture will make the world self-destructive.
twi-ny: If someone wants to take a selfie with you, are you game?
hn: After the performance, if anybody asks me to take one with me, of course I am willing to.
twi-ny: Glyn Pritchard is reprising his role from the London version, but Lilo Baur is replacing the great Kathryn Hunter, who has been in several of your works, including The Bee. What kind of different dynamic does Lilo give the show?
hn: Kathryn has been working with Peter Brook at the moment. Although Kathryn is a great performer, Lilo is also an especially physically talented actress.
twi-ny: You’ve mentioned that La MaMa is important to you specifically. Why is that?
hn: Shūji Terayama, a Japanese legendary director who I respect, used to work at La MaMa. [Ed. note: The late Terayama brought several of his avant-garde pieces to La MaMa, and a memorial for him was held there in 1983 after his death at the age of forty-seven.]
twi-ny: A pregnant dog figures prominently in the show. Are you more of a dog or a cat person?
hn: I’ve been asked the same question, whether I’m a dog or a cat person, since I was a junior high school student. I have been bored with answering; I am a dog person.
twi-ny: Which of your works would you like to bring to New York next?
hn: I would like to bring a big production, such as Q: A Night at the Kabuki, which I just finished last December, to New York next.
twi-ny: While in New York, will you get a chance to see any theater? If so, what is on your radar?
hn: I have just one day off. Please recommend me any physical theater in New York besides musicals and ballet.
THE WOOSTER GROUP: A PINK CHAIR (IN PLACE OF A FAKE ANTIQUE)
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 La Guardia Pl.
January 23 - February 2, $35-$50
There are certain actors who just pull you in instantly; from the moment you first see them onstage, you’re hooked. For many, it might be Al Pacino or Nathan Lane, Audra MacDonald or Mary Louise Parker. Jim Fletcher is like that for a lot of intrepid, adventurous theatergoers. Tall, balding, and ruggedly handsome, the Ann Arbor native didn’t start acting until he was thirty-five, in 1998; previously he had been a teacher, a caseworker, a dogwalker, an art handler, and a pedicab driver, among other day jobs. For the past two decades he has performed extensively with some of the premier experimental theater groups in the city, most prominently Richard Maxwell’s NYC Players and Elizabeth LeCompte’s Wooster Group, in addition to collaborating with the art collective Bernadette Corporation. Among the shows Fletcher has appeared in are Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, Maxwell’s Isolde, and Compagnie l’heliotrope’s Pollock.
A poet as well, he’s also ridiculously busy; in the past few weeks, as we conducted this interview over email, he and Sean Lewis reprised Bro-Tox at La MaMa, he stopped by the Kitchen to check out Maxwell’s latest play, Queens Row, and he’s heavy into rehearsals for the Wooster Group’s A Pink Chair (In Place of a Fake Antique), which runs at the NYU Skirball Center January 23 through February 2. The production, which was previously seen at the company’s much smaller home, the Performing Garage in SoHo, is a tribute to Polish avant-garde theater director and artist Tadeusz Kantor, with Kantor’s daughter, Dorota Krakowska, serving as dramaturg. Fletcher plays a priest; there are some funny behind-the-scenes videos on the Wooster Group’s website in which he makes a cross and plays silly word games with the cast and crew. (The cast also features Zbigniew Bzymek, Enver Chakartash, Ari Fliakos, Gareth Hobbs, Andrew Maillet, Erin Mullin, Suzzy Roche, Danusia Trevino, and Kate Valk; to find out more about the Wooster Group, the Carriage Trade Gallery on Grand St. is hosting a multimedia retrospective of the company through January 26.) Below, Fletcher discusses, in his inimitable poetic style, his dream role, working with some of the most original creators in theater, and his carpentry skills.
twi-ny: I was at a lunch party a few months ago and got into a conversation with a woman about experimental theater. She burst out about how much she loves an actor named Jim Fletcher, and we proceeded to rave about various shows we’ve seen you in. It seems you have a cult fan club out there. How does that feel?
jim fletcher: It feels great. Please elaborate! Mind you, I’m going by what you’re saying. It sounds like there’s energy bouncing around. I love that. More. Surplus. Slurplus. You know, house rules. . . . There’s energy out there in the room, I love it too, I’m devoted too. Devotion is juicy.
twi-ny: Devotion is indeed juicy. You are part of several experimental collectives that have devoted fan bases of their own, primarily the New York City Players, the Wooster Group, and Bernadette Corporation. How did you get connected with them?
jf: I’m working with people I love. It seems I never asked myself what kind of work I wanted to do, and also never the follow-up question, who best to do it with. In that sense I’m not a productive person. I think when you get close to people, you spontaneously start working in some way . . . out of sheer energy or whatever it is. Surplus.
twi-ny: What are the main differences between working with Richard Maxwell and with Elizabeth LeCompte?
jf: It’s easier for me to say what they have in common. In both cases it’s deep water, bright, alive. Like swimming in the ocean. Limitless, often extremely simple. Always big. And buoyant. Potentially dangerous because there’s power and a lot of desire. I’ve been lucky to work with them both. Ever-fresh. Always something other than what I would have imagined.
With Rich, among so many other things (ongoing), I learned the practice of active listening in the room, with your body and with your subtle body for that matter . . . whatever body you can muster. Listening to time, listening to others, to minds, listening to story and to space, without withdrawing your energy or agency, your own reasons — what can that yield, where will it go? Honestly that’s something you can pursue for as many years and hours as you have available, with audience.
With Liz I saw the whole situation get put into motion. You get a little as if your feet are off the ground. Could go in any direction at any time. Dreaming of flight. Something’s gained in translation. Movement. And she employs very complex orchestration — of lighting, sound, voice. Language. Set design. Onstage behavior. Machinery. And yes, video. All indisputably unified by the principle of a single viewpoint, that of a person watching — specifically, of her watching. It’s quite thrilling. You know sometimes as a performer in these great stage architectures of hers I simply don’t get it until I see the videotape of us trying to do it. There’s no way to really perceive it or even imagine it from onstage.
twi-ny: For a nonproductive person, you seem to work nonstop in a wide variety of genres. Among the characters you’ve portrayed over the last few years are Jackson Pollock, Jay Gatsby, and Lemmy Caution. Do you have a dream character you’d love to play?
jf: When I was first getting to know the artist Tony Oursler, he asked me that same question over coffee, “What’s your dream role?” I said “Frankenstein,” meaning, of course, Frankenstein’s monster. Seems like a year later as I was going into his studio for a few hours’ work, his assistant Jack [Colton] said to me, “I think we’ll get you into the Frankenstein makeup first.” Total surprise. Zero preparation. No time to think about it. It was so much like a dream. And my text was a song that Tony had dreamed that night, “Spark of Life.” He’d woken up and recorded it as it had come to him and I listened to it several times while Enver Chakartash and Naomi Raddatz did a genius monster makeover on me, which took all of a half hour. Frankenstein the created being. I sang it into Tony’s camera and it was strange. When I finished he pulled his face from behind the monitor; there was a tear rolling down his cheek. The tear of Frankenstein.
twi-ny: Ah, that was Imponderable, which was the centerpiece of his big MoMA show. I saw him and Constance DeJong bring back Relatives at the Kitchen two years ago. You’ve been in numerous productions at the Kitchen, as well as La MaMa, Abrons Arts Center, and the Performing Garage. For the next two weekends, you’ll be at the Skirball Center with A Pink Chair, which was previously staged at La MaMa and REDCAT in LA. Skirball is doing amazing things under Jay Wegman. What has the process been like bringing A Pink Chair there?
jf: [Skirball director] Jay Wegman makes things flow. He makes a deal spontaneously, no head-scratching, and sticks to it. Sometimes you have to sort of check yourself and say, yes, he’s really doing this. You can feel the Wegman effect when you’re working inside the institution — it was like that at Abrons too when he was there. A lot of heart. A lotta lot. He doesn’t flinch. And he seems radically relaxed somehow.
Once I was meeting with him in his office at Abrons and I casually admired this or that thing on his wall or on the desk, to which he repeatedly replied, “Do you want it?” It was very disarming and somehow a challenge. A kind of destabilizing personal bounty. I think he was serious. That’s the wild effect he has. . . . He leaves you pondering that to yourself: “I think he was serious? . . .”
twi-ny: Have there been any major adjustments to A Pink Chair given the larger stage and much bigger house?
jf: The show is feeling great in Skirball. It was conceived on a large scale, so it looks at home here. Skirball is a great space. The crowds here somehow have a kind of living room feeling . . . rather than some kind of modeled civic space. It’s a civic space that’s not trying too hard to look like one. It just is one. Very comfortable. Not obsessed with being the last word in design.
But so many of the shows I’ve seen here look great! I have noticed as an audience member here that I feel I’m able to be in contact with people sitting all the way across the room from me. Not every theater has that. Is it the curved rows? The warm array of nipple-shaped glass lamps as ceiling lighting?
As far as adjustments, we are spending a lot of time getting the sound right. That’s a major adjustment for any new venue we go to. Liz plays the room like a hi-fi set.
twi-ny: Speaking of being in the audience, when I am not in the audience watching you onstage, I often see you in the audience of other shows. What do you like to do on those rare occasions when you’re not in a theater?
jf: Burpees. Other stuff too. 🙂 Let’s spend some time together.
twi-ny: We’ll do so at Skirball, so getting back to A Pink Chair, can you talk a little about your character, the priest?
jf: About my character, I want to say up top, again: costumes by Enver Chakartash, in collaboration with Liz. When you swirl, it twirls. I have enough sense to know when a costume is doing the work for me, so I stay out of its way and let it do it.
The set is kind of like a territory, with different zones and thresholds, and a void, and a highly populated sector. In the most basic way I’d say A Pink Chair is a visit to the Underworld. A daughter (true story) engages a theater company (us) to help her go there to try to make contact with her father who was the great theater artist Tadeusz Kantor. How did we think to look there for him? That’s where he seemed to be headed in the final play he actually saw through to production, I Shall Never Return. The performers in A Pink Chair sometimes feel like pieces, subject to the zone they are in, and able to move in ways specific to each person. Mind you these are not explicit rules . . . it’s just how it has developed. Like laws of nature. What you’re seeing is a history of intelligent development . . . aimed at you, me, the unknown soldier, coming to see the show. My character the priest is one of those that is able to cross the void, for instance.
twi-ny: According to a behind-the-scenes video, it looks like you had a bit of a problem nailing your own cross; what are your carpentry skills like?
jf: I guess a crucifix is probably about the simplest thing you can make from wood. The rugged cross: Nail one piece of wood to another bisecting the smaller one, but not the larger one, at right angles. They say Christ was a carpenter. . . .
Professional bull rider Daylon Swearingen may be only twenty, but he’s already amassed an impressive resume. The 2019 PBR Canada champ, ranked #13 in the world last season, was raised in a rodeo family and has been taking home major trophies since he was sixteen. His parents, Sam and Carrie, run the Rawhide Rodeo Company; Sam was a bareback rider, while Carrie was a barrel racer and trick rider. Daylon’s younger brother, Colton, is a champion steer wrestler and calf roper competing for the Southeastern Oklahoma State University Savage Storm, and their uncles Mike Swearingen and Ken Phillips are rodeo vets as well.
The 5'6", 150-pound Daylon, who goes by the nickname Day, will be in New York City January 3–5 for the annual Monster Energy Buck Off at the Garden, where PBR will Unleash the Beast to a rabid fan base here in the Big Apple. Daylon, who lives in Piffard, New York, spends his busy time shuttling between PBR and college tournaments; he is studying for an associate’s degree in land and ranch management at Panola College in Texas, where he met his girlfriend, fellow rodeo teammate McKynzie Bush, a barrel racer and breakaway roper. Twi-ny continues its tradition of profiling PBR participants — past years have featured interviews with Sean Willingham, Flint Rasmussen, Tanner and Jesse Byrne, and Cooper Davis — with an inside look at Day, who talks about family, studying, setting high goals, and domestic violence awareness; as young children, he and Colton witnessed terrible violence before his mother left their birth father and married Sam Swearingen, who brought the boys up.
twi-ny: You come from a rodeo family. Growing up, was there ever anything else you wanted to do?
daylon swearingen: Not really. I just wanted to ride bulls and be around rodeo, produce rodeos and stuff like that. I think it was just we always had chaps on and had a belt buckle and cowboy boots. I remember always being around it.
twi-ny: You’ve been winning competitions since you were sixteen. When did you realize that you were good enough to make a career out of it?
ds: Probably when I was sixteen and I started entering the bull riding at the rodeos. Just going to my dad’s rodeos I made a pretty good amount of money, and that made me believe I could make a living doing it.
twi-ny: You’re currently ranked #2 in the world and recently won the PBR Canadian Championship and the National Collegiate Rodeo Association Bull Riding Championship. Is it scary having so much success so quickly?
ds: I wouldn’t say it’s scary. I set my standards high, and if you have high goals you should be able to achieve high goals.
twi-ny: You’re only twenty years old, but you’ve already ridden more than two hundred bulls and just this summer logged thirty thousand miles going back and forth between college rodeo and professional tournaments. How’s your body holding up?
ds: My body is holding up good. I took some time after the NFR [National Finals Rodeo, which concluded December 14] just to feel good.
twi-ny: Do you have a different mind-set whether you’re competing in college rodeo or PBR, facing some of your heroes?
ds: I just have to ride the bull for eight seconds. It doesn’t matter the caliber, you just have to make the eight seconds. You have to ride like you want to be where you want to get to. My mind-set is the same every time I get on a bull.
twi-ny: Your girlfriend, McKynzie Bush, is also on the Panola College team. Since you’re on the road so much, how difficult is it to maintain the relationship?
ds: It’s a little difficult, especially over the summer. I went to see her, and she came to see me. I don’t like long-distance relationships, but we made it work.
twi-ny: You’re on course for graduating next May with an associate degree in land and ranch management. When do you find the time to study?
ds: I can study when I am sitting in the car, not doing a whole bunch, sometimes in hotel rooms, when I get real bored and have that idle time and should be doing something.
twi-ny: What are your ultimate plans with the degree?
ds: Just to have it in case something happens, I can fall back on that associate’s degree and what I have learned both in school and out.
Jeff Collins – my coach at school who is the 2000 World Champion bareback rider – has helped me out a lot. Going to school gave me the opportunity to live in Texas a little bit. I enjoy Texas, and also the stuff I have learned about electricity, hydraulics, all these systems, grazing cattle, and all of that. I have seen it on the ranch side, but I have never seen it as someone who studies it and gets all the facts behind everything.
twi-ny: You have said that Cochise is the fiercest bull you’ve ridden, yet you’ve had your best score on him, a 92 in Tulsa in August. What’s the secret to lasting eight seconds on this particular beast?
ds: I just kept moving, get around there. I was just riding loose. I didn’t think about it a whole bunch, and it just kind of happened.
twi-ny: Do you have any other favorite bulls?
ds: I have tons of favorite bulls. I breed some cows myself at home in New York. I have Bruiser calves, a couple Pearl Harbor calves. [Ed Note: Bruiser is a three-time PBR World Champion bull, while the late Pearl Harbor was a beloved world champion contender.] I enjoy a lot of bulls.
twi-ny: On your vest, you wear a symbol that supports domestic violence awareness, inspired by a terrible family situation. What do you think is most misunderstood about domestic violence in America?
ds: I think it is overlooked as a problem because so many people have a family together, or they are in a comfort zone and feel like they can’t get out. With the family part, so many people don’t want their kids growing up without a dad, so they give second and third chances. But in reality it affects those kids. They don’t think the kids see, but the kids see way more than they let on. Just getting out and not feeling stuck, kids can change if they want to. You can’t change another person, but you can change what you’re doing and your actions.
twi-ny: You’ve lived in North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Piffard, New York. Next week, you’ll be competing at Madison Square Garden. Does that hold any special meaning for you since you’re now a New Yorker, or is it just another bull riding event?
ds: I feel like it is kind of special. Madison Square Garden is the first place we took bucking bulls to – this major event. It is kind of cool PBR’s season starts in New York, and it’s definitely one I have always wanted to get on tour by. So now that I am there, it is very exciting.
twi-ny: When you’re in New York City, what else do you plan on doing?
ds: Try not to get hit by a taxi.
Seriously, ride some bulls.
Docks Oyster Bar & Seafood Grill
633 Third Ave. at Fortieth St.
Saturday, November 23, $65-$125, 12:00 - 3:00
“Before the twentieth century, when people thought of New York, they thought of oysters,” award-winning author Mark Kurlansky writes in the preface to his 2006 book The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. “This is what New York was to the world — a great oceangoing port where people ate succulent local oysters from their harbor. . . . Oysters were true New Yorkers.” So what is Docks Oyster Bar & Seafood Grill, a Murray Hill institution for four decades, doing hosting an All-Canadian Oyster Festival?
For more than fifteen years, Docks has been home to a fall and spring oyster festival, but last November, for the first time, it featured Canadian oysters exclusively, eighteen different varieties, in addition to holding a hotly contested shucking competition (with a $1,000 cash prize). The Canadian fest, which will also serve chowders and shrimp and includes live music by People vs. Larsen, returns November 23, with master Montreal-based oyster-shucking champion Daniel Notkin as MC and celebrity shucking judges Julie Qiu, oyster sommelier and founder of In a Half Shell, and chef Andrew Gruel, founder of Slapfish restaurants. Below is an edited, combined transcript of separate interviews I conducted with Notkin, Qiu, and Gruel as well as Docks executive chef Freda Sugarman and one of the event’s chief organizers, Emmy winner Michael-Ann Rowe, the Fishionista behind such shows as Off the Beaten Palate and Put Your Best Fish Forward.
twi-ny: When did you shuck your first oyster?
julie qiu: January 13, 2010 — my birthday, by chef Lawrence Edelman! I blogged about it before In a Half Shell existed. 😀
andrew gruel: Seventeen years old, working at Cook’s Lobster House on the lobster docks in Bailey’s Island, Maine. I shucked oysters and cherry stones all summer, suffering shellfish infection one after another from stabbing myself so many times.
twi-ny: What is the key to shucking an oyster?
ag: Don’t use muscle, take your time, breathe.
jq: It’s easy to learn, difficult to master. The key to shucking a good oyster is to use as little force as possible and to leave as little of a trace of blade as possible.
dn: We all shuck a bit differently depending on the area of North America and around the world. There are lots of ways to get into an oyster, but the key to opening an oyster is to get into that shell so that you’re not breaking it or causing it to crumble, separate that adductor muscle from the top of the shell, and that same adductor from the bottom and leave nothing behind. The oyster should be presented and opened as if it didn’t even know we were there — just like it was four seconds earlier locked in that shell.
twi-ny: What is the Shuckinhell list?
jq: Shuckinhell is a special category (and Instagram handle . . . not me) dedicated to the worst of the worst shucks that are paraded around as “good oysters.”
twi-ny: What’s the most common problem nonprofessionals have?
dn: There are a few! Getting into the hinge or into the shell I think is the hardest part. It can be very slight or very “tight” depending where you enter: If you go in through the “lip” (the slight opening where the top and bottom shells meet around the oyster) and that’s very tight, that can be tough. If you go in through the hinge (at the back where the shells are connected), that can be very small or very tight . . . and not having the right knife or one that’s too dull — that leads to a lot of problems and danger.
twi-ny: What is the greatest misconception New Yorkers have about oysters?
dn: Well, I actually think New Yorkers are doing great! New York was founded on oysters, and the resurgence and interest that New York and many cities have shown gives great joy and hope to all of us who care about ocean health and the preservation of our environment. Our good friends at the Billion Oyster Project in New York are just doing phenomenal work on educating young people about marine life and are making great strides with their efforts to repopulate the harbor and making it livable again for all species. No small task!
I think moreover that there’s just so much for them to learn about oysters that is fascinating. We addressed a lot of them in our documentary, Shuckers (that we hope to bring out on a platform soon), but they’re just amazing: Each single oyster filters fifty gallons of water a day (1M oysters = 50M gallons filtered!); that they don’t filter garbage or waste but rather algae and phytoplankton, which cloud up the waterways and if allowed to overpopulate cause red tide and death to all species; that they live in estuaries where the rivers meet the sea for just that reason; that they’re 650 million years old; that they’re one of the healthiest things you can eat on the planet; and that the more you eat them (these days) the more you’re saving the world!
Oysters used to be mostly wild but now they’re all farmed but have to be grown in natural waterways, so the more you eat oysters, the more money goes back to the farmers, the more we filter the water and replace the oysters that were once there, the more they have a greater appreciation and presence, and a greater voice to improve our oceans and water systems.
I think the only misconception is for those who choose not to eat oysters because they’re concerned about harming animals (i.e., vegans). Oysters have no central nervous system, no motility, no cognition, and likely the same bioreactionary traits we are now finding in lettuce and all plants and trees and all aspects of nature. All told, if you eat lettuce, you can feel okay, and even better eating an oyster.
twi-ny: Do New Yorkers really get into watching the competition, or are they too busy eating and drinking?
dn: Boy, can they get into it! When you get really good shuckers, it’s a great show. And you don’t have to sacrifice eating and drinking. Each round lasts about a minute and a half, so grab a drink, grab a lobster roll and a plate of oysters, and watch the show!
twi-ny: Why the switch to Canadian oysters from local fare?
freda sugarman: We felt that it was super important to showcase areas in Canada that produce incredible shellfish. I enjoy having a close connection with the farmers and love seeing their passion for their product.
twi-ny: What are some of the primary differences between Canadian oysters and oysters from, for example, the East Coast, the West Coast, and Japan?
jq: Wow, that’s a big question. Primary difference: Species. Environment. Growing methodologies. But that’s generally the differences between all oysters. Canadian oysters take a bit longer to mature than other oysters grown around the world. For that reason, some of them are petite in nature but have very complex and layered flavors.
twi-ny: What’s so special about Canadian oysters?
dn: Well! First off, all oysters are special. To say one was more special than the other would be like choosing a favorite child — ideally not possible. But what distinguishes our maritime Canadian oysters is their perseverance in the face of long winters and harsh conditions. That means each of these beautiful oysters in the small but perfect size of ~2.5-3" is that they take three to five years to get to that point. Which means they’ve weathered a number of storms, and the best and most hearty survive.
Compare this to a New England oyster, which takes one to one and a half years to grow to 2.5/3", and a Gulf oyster, which takes one year to grow to four inches. Well . . . these little guys put in the work. You get a beautifully clean taste and fresh, crisp character — cold butter and the fresh, clean salt of remaining ocean water with hints of a rich vegetal stock indicative of the algae they ingest. Beautiful oysters all.
twi-ny: What are your personal favorite oysters?
jq: I’m an equal opportunity international oyster lover. Can we make this question about favorite Canadian oysters? If that’s the case, I’m a fan of Village Bays from New Brunswick, Kusshi from Deep Bay, BC, and Raspberry Points from PEI.
ag: I will happily indulge in every type of Canadian oyster.
twi-ny: Freda, you prepare oysters several ways at Docks. How do you prefer to eat them?
fs: A simple touch of lemon.
twi-ny: And to drink?
fs: Everything goes well with tequila!
twi-ny: Michael-Ann, you’ve traveled all around North and South America writing about food. Where have you had the best oysters?
michael-ann rowe: Atlantic Canada. Seriously. Second to that is the US: Wellfleet (East Coast), and a surprise in Alabama were Murder Point Oysters.
twi-ny: You were born in Canada and live both there and in New York. Are there differences in how New Yorkers and Canadians eat oysters?
m-ar: Not really. They either douse them with a blast of pickled horseradish or eat them the right way. . . .
twi-ny: Which would be?
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 La Guardia Pl.
October 11-12, $35-$45, 7:30
“I like to move people. That’s my job, to move people. I’m not an entertainer; I’m an engager,” performance artist extraordinaire John Kelly told me in a phone interview earlier this week as he was hunkered down, preparing his latest show, Underneath the Skin, for its world premiere October 11-12 at NYU’s Skirball Center. For four decades, Kelly has been creating shows in which he takes on the persona of other artists, including Egon Schiele in Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, Caravaggio in The Escape Artist, Joni Mitchell in Paved Paradise, and Antonin Artaud in Life of Cruelty. In the multimedia Underneath the Skin, Kelly, who is also a visual artist, filmmaker, dancer-choreographer, vocalist, songwriter, and author, explores the life and career of poet, professor, tattoo artist, novelist, diarist, and “sexual renegade” Samuel Steward. The Ohio-born Steward, who died in Berkeley in 1993 at the age of eighty-four, left behind a highly influential legacy despite constant systemic roadblocks because of his sexuality.
“Misfortune to a degree followed him, but maybe misfortune followed every gay man in those days,” said Kelly, who did extensive research for the show, which he wrote, directed, choreographed, produced, scored, designed the set and costumes for, and did the video editing. The piece, which is completely constructed of Steward’s words, also features Chris Harder, Alvaro Gonzalez, and Hucklefaery (ne’ Ken Mechler). “Every hour at this point is crucial,” Kelly noted, but he was still very generous with his time as we spoke about Steward, the AIDS epidemic, cultural amnesia, recalibration, and autobiography. Kelly will also be appearing at the Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky on November 26 in a cabaret concert of original music as well as songs by Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Charles Aznavour, Danny Elfman, and others.
twi-ny: Since the mid-1980s, you’ve been taking on the persona of other artists. What initially attracted you to do these kinds of character studies? As a child, were you doing impersonations, or were you drawn to artists?
John Kelly: I grew up assuming I’d be a visual artist. I could draw — I got that gift from my father. But then I switched to dance and ballet training, and modern when I was about seventeen. I came upon Schiele in art school and he became one of my early inspirations. So my performance work about him was a way of merging my dance background with my visual art practice, literally to embody an artist onstage, to see what that would look like.
The thing about the niche in my career focusing on the character of artists — my work has been fifty-fifty autobiographical or semiautobiographical or metaphorical, and then fifty percent focusing on actual characters from history, whether it was a real person or a mythological character like Orpheus. And I guess the reason with that is that when I do the autobiographical or metaphorical or semiautobiographical works, there’s an urgency in me that is wanting to get out. And then when I focus on an existing character, there’s something in their life story and work that speaks to me, and I’m able to embody them to some degree and also satisfy my need to express certain parts of myself and what I’m going through at any given moment.
twi-ny: When you were doing the autobiographical Time No Line, did you learn anything about yourself that you hadn’t realized before?
jk: I’ve been keeping journals since 1977, and I started scanning them because I wanted to get another copy, with an eye to an eventual memoir. But one of the things that fueled Time No Line was that I’m a survivor of my generation. My generation was pretty much wiped out by the AIDS epidemic, and I’m watching a couple of things: I’m watching the absence of my tribe in the world and the absence of those voices and the absence of our intergenerational dialogue between my generation and younger generations, and also I’m seeing my generation’s history being written by younger people who weren’t there and who probably had no way of really getting it.
I imagine they’re highly educated and well-intended — I just hope they get it right because they’re accessing the dead heroes, like David Wojnarowicz and Marsha P. Johnson; they’re not accessing the live heroes or the last survivors necessarily. With the world the way it is right now, there is a focus on activism in the kind of street sense of activism, but I embody a different kind of activism. I decided my place was on the stage, not on the streets, and that said, I made many pieces directly or tangentially about the AIDS epidemic and issues of survival and grief and all that.
It’s exacerbated by digital technology, it’s exacerbated by short attention spans, it’s exacerbated by a culture of narcissism and entitlement. Half the youth generally doesn’t really care to look back; they just assume that the ground they are standing on is solid and has always been there.
twi-ny: And they can like something on Facebook or post an article and then they’re done.
jk: Exactly. So it’s an uphill battle, and I do what I can to connect the dots. . . . But the upside of technology is that you can be on a platform like Facebook and connect and have dialogue and be reminded that our lives are still valid.
twi-ny: That leads us right into Underneath the Skin, about Samuel Steward, who, like you, was a diarist. What inspired you to take on his persona?
jk: I had read Justin Springs’s book [Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade] about four years ago and I really loved it. Then Jay Wegman, who runs Skirball, said, “I want to commission you to make a piece about him,” and I was like, “Whoa. Hey, let me think about this.” So then I went to Steward’s actual writings and drawings and the rest, and I avoided Springs’s amazing take on Steward because I had to formulate my own relationship to this man and his work. And also to witness it in context; probably the most profound aspect of his whole thing is that he prevailed and he took enormous chances at a time when literally if you went to a gay bar, you couldn’t even face the person next to you; you had to face front, and there were police outside waiting to arrest you if you didn’t have payola. And if you were arrested, your name and address were put in the newspaper. Those were the decades in which he was functioning and flourishing, albeit behind closed doors.
twi-ny: A lot of people still don’t know about the cops waiting to arrest gay people, in bars right around where Skirball is now.
jk: Exactly. That’s cultural amnesia; it’s a sad history to be reminded of.
twi-ny: What do you think Steward would have thought about what’s going on today?
jk: From his vantage point between 1950 and 1984, he was already speaking to younger audiences and saying you have no idea what it was like. So to imagine him now, and maybe if he had survived the AIDS epidemic — he died December 31, 1993, at the height of the epidemic — I imagine he’d by joyful in the advancements that have occurred.
twi-ny: Do you think he would have taken quickly to the internet, which could have provided a forum for his different kind of works?
jk: The thing is, he wanted to write authentically and he couldn’t. I mean, he did, but he eventually maybe wrote most authentically when he wrote as Phil Andros for his erotic literature. I don’t call it pornography; I call it erotic literature because it’s beautifully written.
He wrote a novel, Angels on the Bough, in 1936, and he got fired from a teaching job for it because he had a positive presentation of a prostitute. He couldn’t be out. I think he might have a low tolerance for the minutiae of policing ourselves and the immediate vilification of any wavering from abject correctness, even with people who are coming from two generations earlier. He might have a hard time navigating that, or maybe he would endorse it. There’s no way of knowing. He was a smart man.
twi-ny: I don’t know if you’ve seen Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special, but he does a bit about the LGBTQ community and how it overpolices itself, and some people find it very funny and others think it’s highly offensive.
jk: Basically, the whole planet is recalibrating; the whole culture is recalibrating. And we’re in the process of recalibrating what really wants to happen and what does not want to happen anymore. And it’s a learning curve. . . . Especially on the internet, where there’s maybe no real consequence attached to a response, which could have a ripple effect and have enormous consequences.
twi-ny: Do you see anybody today continuing his legacy?
jk: When I think of Samuel Steward, I think of a gentle soul who had to put a hardened shell around himself because he wasn’t able to — he lived life freely, but he couldn’t live his life completely freely. . . . His greatest contribution was that he kept all this stuff, and it comes down to us, and that the ephemera and the archives are what speak to a life pretty fully lived in a time when it was illegal to do any number of the things that he did.