JOAN OF ARC: The Maid in New Orleans

The Translator’s View by Richard Balthazar

Statue of Joan of Arc in New Orleans

On the 100th anniversary of her canonization, St. Joan of Arc appeared in New Orleans in a miraculous vision to the fortunate multitudes in the 2,100-seat Mahalia Jackson Theater, and I was privileged to be among them. The New Orleans Opera Association’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “Joan of Arc” was presented there February 7 & 9, 2020 under the artistic direction and musical baton of Maestro Robert Lyall. For the unfortunate multitudes who couldn’t be there to experience Joan’s epiphany, I want tell you all about it.

As the translator of Tchaikovsky’s Russian libretto of “Joan of Arc” into English, I’m probably as close as anybody alive to this work. The first translation was done for performances by the Canadian Opera Company in 1978, and though I thoroughly revised it afterwards, Michigan Opera Theatre used the first version for their 1979 production in Detroit. For New Orleans Opera Association’s production in 2020, I substantially revised it yet again.

Having seen the two earlier productions, I feel eminently qualified to critique the New Orleans production. “Maid of Orleans,” or “Joan of Arc,” was the composer’s foray into the field of French Grand Opera, and in my humble opinion, its grandiosity is incomparable. Connoisseurs of the genre, please feel free to differ…

As a Russian scholar, I’ll just say that in my translation the music sounds like it was written for my straight-forward and poetic English words, rather than for Tchaikovsky’s convoluted, many-syllabled Russian syntax. But I also thank Maestro Lyall for his superb edits smoothing out rough edges and much improving the “sing-ability” of some phrases.

In the same vein, I applaud Lyall for masterfully abridging Tchaikovsky’s sprawling libretto (which if performed in its entirety, would run for well over four hours!), into two hours and forty minutes of magnificent music and inspired drama. I also applaud his clever use of supertitles during overtures and entr’actes with brief texts to set true historical contexts and to link the disparate scenes into a cohesive narrative and easily followed story.

This translator’s view will be largely that of a discerning audience member with a long life in theater and opera. Necessarily, I’ll have to leave detailed musical analysis to the musicologists, but I’ll strive for objectivity in my descriptions.

The Production

In the four acts of the opera, scenes were all framed simply but ornately as though they were paintings. (In his libretto, Tchaikovsky called the Scenes “Pictures.”) The sets in the Pictures were pleasantly simple and effective, abstract constructions of planks and platforms—call it “plank and platform style,” adaptable and easy to alternate and to execute rapid scene changes.

The backdrops were beautifully “painterly.” That in the first act was particularly so with a hazy landscape and only an outline of a small church that was very symbolic. In later pictures we saw an elegant stained-glass window and then a vast iconic painting of a woman’s face. I thought at first it was Joan, but considering the halo, it made more sense for it to be the Virgin Mary. Whichever, it was an appropriately religious symbol and I hope Scenic Designer Steven C. Kemp is justly proud of his success!

The noted Stage Director, Jose Maria Condemi, should also take pride in his smooth handling of the numerous large crowd scenes and of his sensitive direction of the characters’ movements and interactions within the Pictures. The tableaux, ranging from pastoral to ornate cathedral, were beautifully composed, and all very subtly yet dramatically lit by Lighting Designer Don Darnutzer. Maybe it won’t be a spoiler if I praise his fiery pyre in the opera’s finale.

Joan of Arc at the stake – Photo: Brittney Werner

Let me offer my sincere compliment for the fantastic musicians of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Maestro Lyall. They poured Tchaikovsky’s immortal music out over the audience in powerful and heart-wrenching waves. While not a qualified music critic, I can only observe that it sounded really great!

But I do have more than a few clues about some other things. In my past I did a bit of Russian vocal coaching for singers (and for the Paul Hill Chorale to sing Kabalevsky’s “Requiem”). An important component of “Joan of Arc” is that it’s an enormously “choral” opera. Those large crowds mentioned earlier belted out several numbers that rattled the rafters, laments, prayers, fight songs, triumphal marches… What really blew me away was the Hymn in Act One. Prepared by Chorus Master Carol Rausch, the opera chorus sang with remarkable clarity and precision, delicately modulated to balance with the soloists, yet with startling power.

Having been in my long ago past an extra in the ballet “Coppelia” (and a life-long avocational dancer), I’ll claim to know about dance. The obligatory ballet number in Act Two was truly what the King ordered, a jolly entertainment, and likely a lot jollier and sprightlier than it would have been at any French court six hundred years ago. Choreographer Gretchen Erickson melded three superb dancers into an exciting athletic, even gymnastic, frolic. Of the three ballet numbers Tchaikovsky wrote for the opera, Maestro Lyall definitely chose to include the jolliest.

I must also commend the Fight Director Mike Yahn for the various sword fights and attendant mayhem. Avoiding flashy displays, he kept the violence to a realistic and convincing minimum, the way people actually try to stab each other with swords. And I’ll wind up my remarks on the physical production by praising the beautifully detailed period costumes for the peasants, nobles, and military, created by the talented Costumer Julie Winn. Joan’s armor alone was a marvelously medieval piece of work!

The Performances

As the heavenly-inspired peasant girl Joan of Arc, Hilary Ginther completely commanded the stage from the moment of her angelic inspiration through the triumphs, soul-wrenching romance, crushing tragedy and divine enlightenment to her ultimate immolation. This tiny but mighty mezzo Maid filled Mahalia’s huge house with the glory of her prophecies, prayers, spiritual anguish, religious fervor, heroic valor, tender love, and ultimate martyrdom. It is difficult to describe the glorious musicality of Ginther’s performance, but it was a tour de force, a true epiphany. I hope Joan of Arc can become this incredible artist’s signature role, and other opera companies should sign Hilary for many more productions of this masterpiece.

Blessing Joan to lead the troops – Photo: Brittney Werner

In commenting on tenor Casey Candebat’s performance as the Dauphin (King Charles VII), it’s hard not to resort to even more superlatives. In a word, he WAS superlative. With touching humanity, Casey’s rich, clear voice carried all the majesty, romance, and elements of Charles’ personal struggle between cowardice and bravery that Tchaikovsky had written into this role. His coronation address to Joan was a marvel of reverent adoration. Then, convinced by a few presumably divine claps of thunder, he, too, was swept up in the chorus’ orgy of fear and superstition. Abandoning Joan, he rushed off with his newly-won crown, ending the King’s role in her dramatic story that had been wonderfully sung.

Coronation of Charles VII – Photo: Brittney Werner

There are lots of other characters in this opera, and the performances of each and every one were outstanding.

The pivotal role of Thibaut, Joan’s father, was sung by bass Kevin Thompson who, as noted by others, has “a mountain of a voice.” That voice perfectly embodied the element of superstition on which the opera turns. Kevin’s remarkable bass voice, aided by those aforementioned divine thunderclaps, created a true avalanche of fear, hatred, and stupidity that swept Joan from her exalted heights into a pit of despair and exile—the ultimate parental guilt trip. No wonder that during the bows Kevin earned the audience’s heartfelt boos!

Soprano Elana Gleason, playing Agnès Sorel, the King’s affectionate mistress, expertly delivered her extremely difficult love arietta with the King—with its very high notes!—with great delicacy and tenderness. We should all have such generous mistresses!

The role of Dunois, duc d’Orléans, was impressively fulfilled by dramatic baritone Michael Chioldi, who served as the conscience and inspiration for the King. In all of his scenes, Michael’s resonant voice drove the action, his nobility instilling courage and resolve. It is a complicated role with its aspects of conflicting loyalty and heroic determination.

The role of the romantic male lead, the Burgundian knight Lionel, was performed by baritone Joshua Jeremiah. Lionel is a pivotal role, a man who turns from French traitor into passionate lover, who first abuses Joan as a demon and then becomes her protector. In the final love duet, Joshua’s heroic voice blended perfectly with Joan’s mezzo in praise of God’s heavenly gift of love. (Unfortunately, he had to die—but did so grandly.)

I was thrilled by bass Raymond Aceto’s Archbishop who narrated to the court with ecclesiastical majesty Joan’s first appearance with the French troops, her leading them into battle, and their victory over the English. Raymond’s every word was crystal clear and weighty with the miracle of it all. He brought the same musical authority to all his other scenes, whether urging the people to believe or interrogating Joan’s virtue, or even when proving to be just as stupidly superstitious as everybody else.

In Act One, Kameron Lopreore movingly played Raymond, a village suitor whom Joan rejected; his tenor solo line in the Hymn was sung with plaintive force. Bertrand, a peasant refugee, was sung with immense pathos by baritone Ken Weber, and his solo line in the Hymn was a profound lament. The unnamed Warrior played by baritone David Murray dramatically narrated his narrow escape from the battle of Orleans and confirmed Joan’s first prophecy. In Act Two a dying soldier named Loree was sung by Frank Convit. His lines urging the King to join the fray and his final words “I’ve done my duty now…” were sung with all the poignant power of a seasoned soloist. All four of these roles were expertly delivered.

Concluding Remarks

You’re probably wondering if the preceding descriptions can be called objective, but I assure you they were—I could find nothing even vaguely negative to say! But, though I’d love to say that the New Orleans production of “Joan of Arc” was flawless, I admit there was one challenging detail.

Three times Joan hears the heavenly voices, and the angelic messages are crucial to the very structure of the opera. First, they send her forth on her mission, and second, they proclaim her mission accomplished and call her to come to glory (where a virgin martyr’s crown awaits, as well as rapture in God’s divine embrace). Then, third, they welcome Joan into heaven.

The off-stage voices of the angels, necessarily somewhat muted and baffled by curtains, largely got drowned out, sometimes by the enthusiastic orchestration and at other times by competing vocal lines. Fortunately, the words appeared on the supertitle screen—albeit quite briefly—allowing audience members to some degree to follow what they were supposed to be hearing sung and to sort it out from the other competing vocal lines.

What I could hear of Julia Tuneberg’s lovely soprano was ethereal, but her single voice was mostly lost in the melee.  If that was anyone’s fault, it was the composer’s.  Julia’s vocal lines being absolutely the most important element of the sequences, and given the traditional limitations and challenges of writing for off-stage voices, Tchaikovsky’s rich orchestration and vocal writing probably should have taken that more into consideration.

A modern solution for future productions, (of which I hope there will be many—my English translation gratis), would be to forget the back-stage and off-stage voice placement and send their sound through speakers from the ceiling of the house, even sending the separate vocal lines down from either side, antiphonally if you will. The audience should ideally hear surreal voices coming from heaven—and understand the words.

On that note, let me strongly advocate for performing operas in translation. Operatic puritans’ desire to preserve the musical sound of a composer’s work is admirable, but by opposing performances in translation, they often discount the verbal sound and deny “foreign” audiences a full appreciation of the drama in a work, especially so in this one. As a Russian scholar, I observe that with its intensely poetic language (i.e., twisted word order and obscure, stylized vocabulary—not to mention some wild musical calisthenics on important words), Tchaikovsky’s Russian libretto for “Joan of Arc” verges on the unintelligible even for native speakers of that language. In some respects, the composer seems to have chosen to rely on the visual scenes (Pictures) to suggest most of the theater in his work and considered the verbal fine points of the drama as more or less negligible.

Yet, Joan’s drama is the truly grand part of this grand opera. Like the angel voices, audiences deserve to comprehend fully her inspiration, heroism, moral anguish, triumph, and apotheosis. Her story is of vast import even for today: a woman of incredible strength and determination who literally saved her country, a powerful spirit who transcended medieval superstition and ignorance to achieve Sainthood—her true moral victory. All the more astounding for happening six centuries ago, Joan’s victory needs not be reduced to mere musical fireworks and orchestral magnificence. To convey all the grandeur, her glorious words should be readily comprehensible.

That’s why I’ve devoted creative energy to this amazing work for more than forty years. And that’s why I now urge opera companies in English-speaking countries everywhere to produce it—now readily available in translation—and to thrill us with the brilliance of Joan’s glory, as so beautifully done by the New Orleans Opera Association.

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Richard Balthazar is a former Russian scholar, arts administrator, and vendor of used plants, now happily retired as a writer and artist. He can be reached at rbalthazar@msn.com.                

 

Still Dancing

 

Aztec God of Dance – The Old Coyote

When I started this multi-faceted blog back in early 2014, I wrote the first couple posts about my life-long OCD (obsessive-compulsive dancing). First was the one explaining my personal motto: There’s dance in the old dame yet. The second was about nightlife and my history of dancing in dives and jive-joints.  Then I got distracted by subjects in history, politics, and art.  Now it’s high time to catch up on public dancing in Santa Fe (NM—not CA, FL, TX, or elsewhere).

I last wrote on the subject four years ago when we actually had two dance clubs in town: the gay bar Blue Rooster (successor to the Rouge Cat) and a new straight nightclub called the Skylight.  To my dismay, within a few months the Blue Rooster closed down (cold-cocked?), and I had no choice but to dance among the straight young things at the Skylight to considerably less danceable music.  Any port in a storm.

Happily, the SCOTUS decision legalizing gay marriage soon caused a sea-change in social attitudes about gays, and we became much more accepted in straight venues like the Skylight. It wasn’t uncommon to see guys and gals dancing with each other, respectively—or even sharing PDAs (public displays of affection).  In this newly comfortable environment, I’d go out to dance almost weekly (whenever the old man has the energy) for many wonderful carouses.

The only fly in the ointment at the Skylight was the music. In my adolescence I’d been an avid American Bandstand rock’n’roll-er and then switched to Latin wildness for a few years in college.  Only much later, I got hooked on disco, and that was my main style for some decades.  However, disco music at the Skylight was only painfully occasional.

The more frequent music there was hip-hop, rap, and metal, which didn’t particularly ring my bell. Fortunately, at times they played Latin (called Hispanic here), which took me back to my debauched youth in frenetic cumbias and exuberant merengues.  And with an effort of sheer will, I tried to get into the new EDM (electronic dance music), which only sometimes was danceable.  Like the little girl with the curl, when it was good, it was excellent, but when it was bad, it was perfectly horrid—and way too loud.

All my life dancing has been a philosophical thing (I dance, therefore I am!)  Or maybe better, a spiritual practice (To dance is to live!).  Spiritually speaking, I’m a dervish.  As I’ve explained in my second memoir (in process), “…unlike ball-room and folk dancing, both Apollonian in their structure, synchronization, and impeccability of movement, my dance is free-form and unrestrained, responding on a visceral level to rhythms and melodies and surrendering to the divine frenzy of Dionysius.”  Call me a maenad!

Then came that Saturday night in early December last when I ambled down Don Gaspar happily anticipating another divine frenzy. Only to find the Skylight’s big iron gates closed up with a huge chain and padlock!  Stunned, I staggered up San Francisco Street to the Plaza (with its outrageous holiday lights), and ran into Brandi, Santa Fe’s prima donna drag celebrity, who confirmed that our nightclub was indeed closed down totally.  Nowhere to go but home, bereft.

After a few weeks of complaining to all and sundry about the loss of the Skylight and dancing at home in solitary splendor to reggae and Salsa Sabrosa (on KUNM), a dear friend mentioned a group called Embody Dance that meets weekly on Thursdays at the Railyard Performance Space. Their website sounded very like a group I’d visited back last spring for a splendid ecstatic experience.  Though I’d put myself on their mailing list, I never heard from them again.

The last Thursday of 2017 I showed up for a session of Embody Dance and was thrilled to find the perfect venue for my OCD: shoeless, unspeaking, and idiosyncratically undisciplined, with adventurous and dance-inspiring music.  In the delightfully diverse company of some sixty folks, for two non-stop hours I surrendered to the divine frenzy and left feeling perfectly fulfilled.

The next Thursday, the first in 2018, I went back to Embody Dance and jubilated again with an even larger crowd, some of whom were maybe even as old as I! After sixty years of dancing, I finally feel like I’ve come home.  Tonight I’ll be doing the mad maenad thing again.

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Aztec Icon #6 – HUEHUECOYOTL, The Old Coyote

I guess it’s time to post the next Aztec icon in my coloring book called YE GODS!  THE AZTEC ICONS.  Looking almost Egyptian with the animal head, this one emphasizes dancing, music, and sex, which is a combination close to my heart. I must admit to identifying closely with this deity while drawing him. It’s full of the music of Aztec instruments and singing, all shown in graphic symbols. Details are based on various codices, but mostly Codex Borbonicus.

Don’t worry, you can still see or download the previous five icons by clicking on them in the list on the page for the coloring book.

ICON #6: HUEHUECOYOTL

(The Old Coyote)

To download this icon as a pdf file with a page of caption and model images from the Aztec Codices, right click here and select “Save Target (or Link) As.”  You can also download it in freely sizable vector drawings from the coloring book page.

huehuecoyotl icon

HUEHUECOYOTL (Old Coyote) {hwe-hwe-koy-otł} is the trickster god of mischief and pranks and can lead one into trouble. (His tricks on other gods often backfired.) Patron of the day Lizard, along with Macuil Cuetzpallin (Five Lizard), he’s a deity of sexual indulgence, and with XOCHIPILLI and Macuil Xochitl (Five Flower), he’s also a deity of music, dance, storytelling, and choral singing. Personifying astuteness, pragmatism, worldly wisdom, male beauty, sexuality, and youth, he’s a balance of old and new, worldly and spiritual, male and female, and youth and old age. He is a shape-shifter, turning into animals or humans with sexual partners female or male of any species. Among his male lovers were XOCHIPILLI and Opochtli, god of hunting. He brings unexpected pleasure, sorrow, and strange happenings, and people appealed to him to mitigate or reverse their fates.

The Gin Mill, a Greek Sailor Bar

Once an elegy gets going, it’s not easy to shut off.  I can’t help but reminisce about another sailor bat in New Orleans.  I danced for years in the early 60’s in the Gin Mill, a supremely dissolute Greek sailor bar on the second block of Decatur across from the monumental Customs house.  For a change of tone, we carousers would stagger nightly up the street from La Casa de los Marinos to this Dionysian temple of dance.  The ancient place won’t be found anymore, even on the Internet.  If you remember, upstairs was the Acropolis Restaurant.  Maybe that’s still there.

You entered the Gin Mill between a long bar and a row of booths, past a bellowing juke box, and then came to the larger room with more booths and tables around the dance floor.  Only ghostly traces of a former grid of tiles remained on the worn concrete floor.  The place was generally overflowing—if a ship was in port, and there usually was one—with swarthy sailors, friendly ladies of the night, and at least one equally friendly faerie.  Yours truly.

The landmark of the Gin Mill was its barmaid (and bouncer), Jackie, who weighed in at well over 300 pounds and had a lover on every Greek ship.  (Greek sailors loved fat women—and skinny boys.)  Jackie kept a motherly eye out for the safety of my skinny Tulane student body, but I still managed to put it in many delicious positions of jeopardy.

The great attraction of the Gin Mill, besides the seafood offerings, was the fact that Greek sailors would dance alone—or with each other.  Even before the incredible “Zorba the Greek”  hit the big screen, I was doing those fantastic Greek dances  and feeling like a gay Melina Mercouri , but I’d do it on Sunday too.

The song I found most poignant for some reason was “Thessaloniki mou, but just those first evocative notes of Mikis Theodorakis’ Zorba suite can bring me to tears.  (I’d give a link to it, but the computer god won’t let me.)

I learned so long ago in the Gin Mill to cut that rope and soar free.  In La Casa I was initiated into the ecstasy of dance, but it was in the Gin Mill that I learned its philosophy and experienced its liberation.

This seems to have turned into an elegy for the fantastic New Orleans that once was, that bawdy old river port with its international culture of sailor dives along waterfront Decatur.  In my own time, the river still ran right behind the levee at the front of Jackson Square, and there were wharves along behind the French Market.  The beautiful Jax Brewery was in full, fragrant brew right across from my beloved La Casa de los Marinos.  The Gin Mill just up the street…

How terrifically blessed I was to carouse then in those legendary dives, how privileged to know the joy of pristine debauchery worthy of a novel by Jean Genet Back then I felt just like Our Lady of the Flowers.  But that wild world has been swept off away down the eternal river.  Sigh.  During the 70’s the glorious old city finally got transmogrified by twentieth century commerce, and the historic waterfront became one huge shopping mall.

A few years ago, for old times’ sake, I escaped from the cold New Mexico winter and spent a few warm months in a slave quarter apartment in the Vieux Carré.  It was just up St. Peter Street from what used to be Dixie’s Bar of Music, a legendary gay bar where I’d met a number of paramours (now a deafening karaoke palace).  Only later did I learn that while I was there, Miss Dixie herself passed on at 101.  [link]  The sentimental sojourn proved very graphically and painfully that the past only exists in my mind, and it’s uniquely my own.  That’s what makes it so precious.

La Casa de los Marinos

Friday night I went out to what was billed as PACHANGA, an evening of Latin dance at the Blue Rooster .  It promised me pachanga, cumbia, merengue y más, la música de mi juventud.  And it delivered magnificently—to a room of young folks who knew what they were doing.

It was almost overwhelming to watch them dancing with expressions of glee, passion, and beauty, and to relive the rapture of those rhythms of so long ago.  Fifty years…  My eyes flooded with the body memory of all those wild dances with my beautiful Jane.

Though only couples were dancing, just as I’d do back then, I started dancing by myself to a splendid cumbia, and soon some other exuberant guys joined me.  I wanted to shout out my joy.  There followed some heart-rending merengues and a boisterous pachanga that almost did me in.

Once, the DJ called out something about la casa de música, and for a blessed moment I was back in La Casa de los Marinos   I was again a demented dervish in the House of the Sailors in that ruinous building at Toulouse and Decatur, a waterfront dive aka La MarinaVamos a La Casa!

La Casa de los Marinos - New Orleans

La Casa de los Marinos – New Orleans

Sorry, but I feel an elegy coming on.  For the legendary La Marina was swept away by the relentless tides of years.  Many others besides me must still remember the glory of that dark and disreputable Latin sailor bar, that temple of dance lost forever.

I don’t know when the bar first opened, but my blessed time to carouse in its three mystical rooms was the early 60’s.  By the later 60’s I heard it had been written up in some big magazine as the chic lowlife place to go, and very soon thereafter La Marina ceased to be.

Those three rooms were steeped in darkness and wrapped in music, tremendously loud Latin music, and the roar of voices and laughter.  High above the crush of carousers and dancers, in deep shadows by the ceilings, blades of fans slowly swam around like circling sharks.

The three rooms were each special shrines.  In the first more or less civilized one, you’d socialize with drinks and shouted talk.  The second room was the place for group celebrations, being less crowded than the third and better for a formal dance like the pasa doble or the leaping pachanga.

The third room had its own even more powerful juke box and a hallucinatory mural on the walls over the crowd.  Around the room in a dreamlike swirl ran a dark flood of writhing nudes, racing motorcycle, matador with sword, and charging bull.  As above, so below.

It was here in the dense throngs of the third room that the ecstasy happened, the Dionysian transports of merengues and cumbias.  The clock was forever stopped at ten of three, though that was usually an early hour in an evening’s revelry.  We’d dance till dawn, even after.

A few years ago when I visited New Orleans again, I lunched in the stylish Café Maspero  that used to be La Casa and sat in what once was the be back corner of the second room.  I told the waitress about its history, and she remarked that they had thought it had been a pirate joint before.  In a way it was.

More Auld Friends

Arriving in Seattle in the middle 60’s, I found no lasting friends, but my family, about whom I’ll write something soon, found me.  For the rest of that decade, besides my academic career, they were the focus of my life.  I do regret not having even one close friend from those years, just the family.  At least frequent letters to and from Lee in New Orleans were an emotional connection to the world outside the ever-growing family.

In Milwaukee in the summer of 1970 when my wife and I split up, I rather quickly I found gay friends.  Make that lovers, who became lasting friends.  They’re gone now, Ken and Kenny, my simultaneous loves.  Ken and I were close through many decades, particularly the 70’s in DC, until he passed away around 2010.  My dancing boy Kenny only survived until around 1994.  The plague, of course.  Both will be in a future memoire about my Hippie Poet persona.

As far as the 70’s in DC went, Lee/Chas and Ken, from New Orleans and Milwaukee respectively, were my old comrades.  As was Charles from Tulane, my platonic partner in the house and myriad interests.  I had some very special lovers then, but either the affairs or they themselves ended far too soon.  I hope someday that all these lost friends can live again in a memoire about my Courtesan persona.

After a brief sojourn in New York, I arrived in Santa Fe in 1981 as a mature gay gentleman and ran smack dab into my lover/partner of the next 11 years.  That’s also a tale that must await a memoire—if I live long enough and the creek don’t rise.

As you may notice, my two high school friends, Cookie and Dennis, and two “lady friends,” Jane and Frances, all mentioned in the previous post, are my only surviving auld friends. However, you couldn’t really call them close after so long and across all the distance.

Besides my family, here in Santa Fe I now have newer close friends.  Don, now 83, may qualify as auld, or at least old.  He and I met at a gay dinner group years ago and started our own dining tradition most Monday evenings.  We share many opinions, concerns, perspectives, previously married backgrounds, and a healthy appreciation of nubile youths.  Don is amused that I go out dancing and imagines that some night some guy is going to snap me up.  I don’t.

There is one other amigo here in New Mexico you might call auld, or at least viejo, though he’s a bit younger than I.  Douglas and I met back in 1981 when he was the roommate of that partner mentioned above, and our friendly association drifted lackadaisically along through the 80’s.

After I got single again in the 90’s, we forged a real, warm friendship, sharing events, trips, and outings all over the place.  Witness the silly fact that I call him by affectionate nicknames.  He calls himself Doogie, but I’ve gone through Doogaloo and Dugalug to Great Doogly-Moogly (per The Simpsons).  All along I’d considered the Dugless One an appealing and interesting Santa Fe new-age type, not too whacked out, and charmingly peace-love and nature connected.  Doogie’s spiritual enterprise has long been running a program of intercultural outings called Earthwalks, and he’s focusing on it again in his retirement.

Well, I guess that’s it for any auld friends.  Thank goodness I haven’t lost them all yet.  Those lost ones are always with me, be they long-time or only temporary human connections.  Often when this old dame goes out, like I will tonight to Molly’s Kitchen, they’ll come and ride with me in this old but still kicking body, living again in our dance.

 HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Auld Lang Friends

Like always, as I wind down this Old Year, I’m mindful of all the wonderful friends and lovers in my life.  Of course, many of them have gone to their rewards, but they still live on in me.  Fortunately, some from my past still live on in fact.

Just the other day I phoned Cookie, a high school neighbor friend in Arkansas, and we happily reported that we’re both still kicking, though as she said, not very high.  She married my best friend in junior high, who deceased several years ago.  My best friend in high school was Dennis, and we’ve been in loose touch again since our 50th Reunion back in 2010.  After the Navy, he married and, like Cookie, made a full life in those woods I left behind in 1960.  I visited them a year or so ago and hope to do so again this spring coming.

Lasting friends from New Orleans were fewer than one might think, given my social history there.  Those still kicking are actually women friends.  I’ve never “dated” a girl—just “went out” with them.  Gorgeous blonde Jane and I spent most nights in La Casa de los Marinos dancing mad merengues—or resting in the Gin Mill a few blocks away, and saw countless dazed dawns over Decatur Street.  She now lives in San Miguel de Allende and visited with me in Santa Fe some years ago.  We email periodically.

Another from that period is Frances, now living in Seattle.  She was an Art History grad whom my beloved Indian Desai and I met one night in Cosimo’s, a jazz place on Burgundy, and took to the Gin Mill to see the lowlife.  They got together, and I got alone.  Frances and I have kept in touch through the other chapters in our lives with visits, cards, and emails.  Desai went back to India where he married, and we lost touch in the 70’s.  I sure hope he’s still kicking.

I also “went out” to La Casa de los Marinos with another woman, Martha, a student from Southeastern in Hammond with wild blonde hair and arresting blue eyes.  She and I created a leaping dance we called “The President Kennedy.”  Martha lives (I hope) in Arcata CA, a militant vegan lesbian grandmother known locally as Granny Green Genes.  We haven’t been in touch for a few years, but at this late date, I’m afraid to check on her.

A platonic friend from back then was Lee (later Chas).  Faithful correspondents through the rest of the 60’s, we hung out together when I moved back to New Orleans in ’71.  In ’72 we moved to Washington DC together and were close neighbors throughout that decade.  But when I moved off to New York, we lost contact for some fifteen years.  In the late 90’s he got back in contact, and we resumed our old closeness.  For several years he came out to Santa Fe in the summers for the Santa Fe Opera  season and would stay the weeks with me.  He died in 2003.

Not quite so lengthy was my platonic friendship with Charles, a faerie sister from Tulane.  We weren’t all that close in New Orleans but accidentally re-connected in an elevator in a Chicago hotel some years later.  When I went back to Ann Arbor in ’72 for dissertation work, I moved in with him and his lover for a couple months.  Then Charles moved to Washington DC right after Chas and I did, and we wound up buying a Victorian house together at Logan Circle.

1320 Rhode Island Avenue NW--The Four Belles

1320 Rhode Island Avenue NW–The Four Belles

Charles is a special story unto himself, a tragic drama lasting till he passed on in 1992.  On that sad note, I’m getting all choked up, so let me save other memorials for another time.  Sniffle.

 

 

The Single Senior

Okay, now I’ll tell you about another of my intimate eccentricities:  I live alone, as a singleton so to speak.  (We are apparently an increasing minority in this otherwise coupled society.)  My solitary lifestyle started more than 20 years ago, and I was more than happy to take charge of my own happiness.  Also it was an enormous relief no longer being responsible for that of anyone else.  Maybe my comfort in bachelorhood comes out of my boyhood solitude in the woods.

I took charge quite seriously, pursuing my happiness through dancing, writing, art, and plants.  Ever since my childhood I’ve been a plant person.  It almost got out of hand in my plant-freak phase in DC, but I controlled it in my plant-collector  phase.

Plant Freak

Plant Freak

Then, in my third career I literally blossomed for 15 years as the Iris Man of Santa Fe.  My DC fantasy of having a plant store came true.  And just like the kid who’d happily peddled peaches beside the Arkansas highway, I totally loved selling Used Plants in my booth at the Santa Fe Farmers Market.

Babylon Gardens - Used Plants

Babylon Gardens – Used Plants

I’ve already written about my happy bachelor dancing in these single years.  And writing and art have produced happy results that I feel quite good about.  Actually, when you don’t seek your happiness in sex, it doesn’t seem all that hard to catch, and I continue snatching it up with writing memoires and drawing Aztec stuff.  What’s more there are new opportunities for ecstatic dance at the Blue Rooster, and I just heard about a New Year’s Eve party happening at Molly’s Kitchen.  Single life is good.

With one notable exception 17 years ago, living alone has meant sleeping alone, and that too has been fine.  It’s as though my earlier years of love affairs and relationships simply were enough.  But don’t get me wrong—I’m no St. Augustine, all holy and repenting the wildness of my lascivious youth.  I still appreciate an eyeful of visual vitamins in the locker room, and a sloe-eyed youth can still tickle my fancy.  They’re like icing on my cake.

In these single years, I’ve also enjoyed meeting some angelic beings who show me that perfect beauty exists, archangels who prove the existence of the divine.  The Archangel Joel with curly blond hair, a renaissance seraph, worked in a bakery and had a delicious little mole on his throat.  The Archangel Eric, heroically built and bright-eyed, tended bar and even acted like he liked me.  And the Archangel Luke, who gave me blinding visions of naked glory at the Spa, ruled my fantasies for two years.  I’ve forgotten the others’ names.

Some might say celibacy is just another word for lack of opportunity.  I’d most likely have a pretty hard time turning down an attractive offer of nookie, but apart from the notable exception alluded to above, that hasn’t happened as of yet.  Nor do I expect it to.  My elderly mantra has long been “No Expectations.”  I’m not sure I’d even want such an offer.  No matter how you come by it, nookie complicates life, and in these ultra-mature years I’m craving simplicity.

A couple times my grandson Jammes has asked me if I ever get lonely living alone, and I say no.  I really don’t.  There’s always something to occupy my mind—even if it’s a nap.  And the stuff I do is hard to do with someone else.  I love human contact otherwise, like with chums at the Spa and my few friends and family, but I’ve got to have my solitude.

In a big stretch for this recluse, Jammes sometimes stays over with me on Friday nights.  I put other interests aside, and we play games, read, or watch videos.  I camp out on the sofa and let him sleep late in my bed, which 12 year-old boys are good at.  Like his grandfather, Jammes likes to read comics over his breakfast.

The Motto

Welcome, readers, to the inaugural issue of my blog.  First, I must deliver a

MESSAGE FROM ALPHA CENTAURI

I want to have come unto your world
Like a comet, or better,
A wandering sun,
Spark of invisible systems,
Flashing a solar radiance
On the night sides of your eyes.
I want to burst through your bonds
Like a bullet, or rather,
A vagrant ion,
Quark of divisible atoms,
Leading fission’s chain dance
Out the rare earths of your arms.

1969

#

So, hello.  Next, you should know that the motto in the banner above is my new one for this eighth incarnation.  For years I’d affectionately applied it to my mother, who square-danced vigorously into her nineties, and when she passed away recently, I had to accept that I’m now the old dame.

This motto was inspired by a small book by Don Marquis called “Archy and Mehitabel” (1927), the title characters respectively a free-verse poet reborn as a cockroach and an alley cat who is Cleopatra reincarnated.  It’s adapted from a line in “mehitabel sings a song.” (Archy can’t type caps or punctuation.)

I first started dancing as a teen to the rock and roll of the mid-fifties, a rabid fan of American Bandstand with all the groovy moves.  In my early sixties debauch in Latin and Greek bars, I danced mystical rituals in Dionysian ecstasy, proclaiming:  TO DANCE IS TO REJOICE.

In young adulthood, comic-strip beagle Snoopy gave me a new motto: TO DANCE IS TO LIVE, which served well through the seventies.  In my mature partnered years in Santa Fe, dancing was rare since nightlife wasn’t part of domestic routines.  Once again a free (old) agent, in the early nineties I started dancing disco with the philosophical motto:  I DANCE, THEREFORE I AM.

Now it’s:  THERE’S DANCE IN THE OLD DAME YET!

For some years I’ve been going to the Rouge Cat and hoping my favorite DJ Oona’s “spinning.”  For many years she did Trash Disco on Wednesday nights in various clubs, and I merrily did my thing wherever she reigned.  Now she only does Saturdays and plays the good trashy stuff early on, switching at prime time to the contemporary style of music.  (It sounds like a pile-driver on speed.  Small wonder the young folks can’t seem to find a rhythm to dance to.)

Consequently, I sometimes resort to dancing to CDs at home in the hall, but I miss the synergy of the dance floor (and the volume).  Curiously, there are some great dance rhythms in classical music, but a Beethoven symphony is exhausting for an old dame.

HIGHLIGHTS IN MY DANCING HISTORY

In high school in Arkansas, I appeared on the local television station’s teen hop.  Somebody took several of us, including my sister Judy, to Texarkana to KCMC-TV.  I was thrilled to dance in front of TV cameras just like the kids on Bandstand but didn’t feel any different for being televised.  I now find a smug comfort thinking that those images of me rock and rolling are still radiating out through the universe, by now maybe approaching Alpha Centauri.

You wouldn’t think that in three years of almost nightly debauched dancing in New Orleans, I’d be able to pick out a highlight.  But I can—it shines in my memory like a baroque altarpiece.  Must have been Mardi Gras of 1962 when I went as a Cossack (actually the Russian poet Sergey Yesenin, husband of Isadora Duncan).  At the end of the Third Room of La Casa de los Marinos, I danced transcendent cumbias and merengues on top of the roaring rainbow Wurlitzer with a beautiful Mexican boy in full mariachi finery—against a wall of swirling, dreamlike murals.  Maybe I glorify it a bit, but that night was a joy one doesn’t experience twice.

After some years of marital immobility, in 1969 I suddenly found myself briefly alone and on the town in Washington DC.  In a basement gay bar called Lou’s Hideaway right on Pennsylvania Avenue, next-door neighbors with the new FBI building and the National Archives, I danced with an exquisite Latino boy called Bolo to “The Age of Aquarius” and forgot all about being a married man.  Again an unrepeatable joy.  Let the sun shine in!

About a quarter-century later, after sublimating my dance first in running and then in working out at the gym, I met some young guys who took me on a trip to Key West.  We went to a big gay bar—not the Monster, but which one I can’t recall—and I had an epiphany.  To my utter amazement I found it now completely comme il faut to dance all by oneself.  That night I danced up a seriously memorable storm of jubilation, and I’ve ridden its winds ever since.

Another night like no other was in 1997 after my younger daughter Aimée’s wedding when the party moved to the Drama Club on Guadalupe Street, then the hot gay spot in town, and made a splash in our gowns and tuxedos.  The father of the bride danced solo on one stand, his nephew up on another with a drag queen named Gina, and his mother up on the stage with an older lesbian lady, while bride and groom and other family members kept lower profiles on the floor.  Too bad no one took pictures!

Just one more.  It was early on in this new millennium when the Paramount was still open, (its site now obliterated by the Santa Fe County Courthouse).  For maybe six years it was the most fabulous dance bar with incredible Trash Disco on Wednesdays and wild weekends.  Once I found myself more or less dancing with an attractive blond guy who never even looked at me, but his moves were finely in tune with mine, an exquisite communication.  After a while I looked at him more closely, appreciatively, and recognized Leonardo DiCaprio—who danced away into the crowd without look or word.  Silly as it sounds, I felt blessed.