May 28, 2015

A Matter of Place: Dancing Through Chinatown's Changes

Usually, when people attend a concert, the symphony, a ballet or a play, where the show is happening had some influence on their decision to go. People are just as drawn to the Greek Theatre or the Hollywood Bowl or Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as they are to whatever is happening on the stage. Seeing a movie at the Chinese or the Egyptian is an event.

But that film or performance would be more or less the same, regardless of where it took place. The play's the thing, after all.

But there are a growing number of opportunities to see all different types of spaces be transformed into a stage, inspiring the music or choreography that takes place in, on, and around them. These immersive performances might take you into a church, a former bank, a mansion, an abandoned hospital before it becomes senior housing, or – in the case of Chinatown Blues – in an old retail building that's being renovated while rehearsals are happening, even minutes before the show's opening night on Friday, May 29.

On Spring Street, down the block from LA's Chinatown Gold Line Metro station...

...there's a building covered in scaffolding and tarps, which mask fragile windows and historic brickwork.

Built in 1912 as a warehouse, this is the former Chinatown Phước Lộc Thọ Center shopping center / swap meet, where choreographer Heidi Duckler has brought her dance troupe for their next performance.

The audience will enter from North New High Street, at the rear of the former Vietnamese-style bazaar, whose bustling businesses once included a karaoke studio, music/video store, gift shop, locksmith, and Diva Girl, a clothing store – all run by ethnic Chinese immigrants from Vietnam.

While it's currently being renovated into a mixed use retail and creative office space, Portuguese street artist Vhils (née Alexandre Farto) is creating one of two Chinatown building murals here.

Renovation was supposed to be completed in November 2014, but it is very much an active construction site as we speak.

That means that even the dancers don't know what the final space will be like on opening night – whether boards will be removed, windows will be opened, or walls will be built.

And there's a lot of debris to choreograph around.

But part of the point of this performance is how the dancers are able to process the transition of this space from its former lives into its future one, interacting with it during an indistinct intermediary stage of redevelopment.

They will be accompanied by Claire Gignac et compagnie from Montreal, their jazz performance of "The Beggar's Opera" filling the cavernous space regardless of where they end up setting up or how they, too, move through the space.

Of course, they are all rehearsing, so it won't be exactly an improvisational performance. But as they bridge the gap between the space's past and present identities, the performance must evolve as the building evolves, making a performance like this excitingly dangerous. It also makes it short-lived: Chinatown Blues only performs this Friday and Saturday.

View property details and historic photos here and here.

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May 27, 2015

Photo Essay: Adding My Own Splash of Color

I remember when New York City taxicabs started showing up with these flower child designs on their hoods in 2007. I wasn't much interested in public art at the time, and I had no idea that it was part of a whole program called "Garden in Transit – NYC in Full Bloom" by the non-profit Portraits of Hope. At eye level, it looked ugly to me. It was different, and I didn't like it. I can imagine the aerial view being spectacular, but when do you ever get an aerial view in NYC?

Time passed, and less than four years later, I moved from NYC to LA and kind of forgot all about it until I read that MacArthur Park's lake would be filled with brightly colored painted beach balls this summer. I loved the look of the renderings: a splash of color in the middle of a pretty bleak area with a history of crime and no natural gardens. But they also looked somehow familiar, tapping into some dark part of my psyche where memories get expunged.

Of course, although Portraits of Hope has done lots of projects in NYC, including some after I left, they're bicoastal and also have flowered the oil derrick tower in Beverly Hills and lifeguard towers in the South Bay, both pre-dating my arrival here.

Back in New York, I didn't know about the project until I saw the final results, but this time I heard about it early enough to get involved. I wanted to paint one of the 7000 spheres floating in the lake at MacArthur Park. I wanted to be a part of something. I wanted my artistic DNA to contribute something positive to the LA experience, something that might bring Angelenos some joy.

Fortunately, it's a community project, and although much of the focus has been on bringing in school children to do the painting, weekend open sessions welcome anyone. After all, there's a lot of painting to do.

I arrived a little early on Sunday, and they put me immediately to work, flattening out the completed balls from the day before and stacking them to the side, so that the new balls – blank except for the black outlines of the flowers – could be inflated and set up for a whole new crew of painters.

I felt like I was reliving some part of someone else's childhood. I was never really allowed to get messy when I was a kid. There were no clothes that were OK to paint in. My mother would've covered me in plastic if she could've gotten away with it.

I took off my shoes and walked barefoot across the paint-speckled floor...

...threw on a big purple t-shirt to use as a smock...

...and started selecting my paint colors.

Of the already completed balls, there was a certain consistency in color palette: mostly an eco-realistic combination of yellow, green, and red.

I decided to go full-out girlie, fulfilling some fantasy of hybridizing my own species of flower to my own exact specifications...

...with a lilac background, pink petals, and a red center.

The volunteers kept telling us to keep the paint layers thin – mostly because they need them to dry quickly, and they just don't have time to apply a second coat.

Besides, the colors would look pretty solid from far away.

"Its better to go over the black line," we were told, "than to leave some white space."

As one of the few adults there who wasn't a parent, I felt very low pressure to paint perfectly, so I let myself just paint, without much attention to quality. As I progressed, though, I became more focused, and gave myself the time to apply a second coat. I didn't want it to be just fine; I wanted to do it right.

I thought I wouldn't have much competition from the kids that were also painting, but actually their balls turned out great – and somehow way more precise than mine.

My favorite one was the messiest of them all, but there was a certain artistic genius to it. I'd heard the boys painting it complain, "We have failed. We are terrible," so I went to check it out. I loved it. I'd rather see the work of a heavy hand than a light touch.

I found the whole process extremely therapeutic. I always loved painting, and even graced the front page of the Life section of the Syracuse Sunday newspaper on Mother's Day 1979, sporting a painters' smock and wielding a paintbrush.

I'm pretty sure I painted some part of my parents' house growing up – I have vague memories of the basement walls and the kitchen woodwork and the front porch – but I probably haven't really painted anything since 8th grade. I gave up fine art in high school, even though I had so much potential.

But when the program director walked by to inspect my work and look for white spaces, he said, "You're a painter," and I said, proudly, "Yes I am."

Unfortunately my health is so bad right now that I could only make it through one side of a sphere, but I'd like to go back and paint again. I'm already envisioning my next botanical creation.

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May 26, 2015

Life Through the Windshield

I can't believe it had been nearly two years since I last visited the Automobile Driving Museum for Ridealong Sunday. I mean, it's one of my favorite things to do in LA.

I guess that just shows what a funk I've been in, depriving myself of things that bring me joy. Or being unable to find joy in the things I once loved.

But, as I left the Automobile Driving Museum today with a huge smile, I told the woman at the front desk, "This place makes me so happy."

It had been so long since my last visit, the docents didn't recognize me. But that's OK, I know the drill.

For a pay-what-you-can donation (suggested at $10), you get museum admission and the chance to ride along your choice of three classic cars that have been brought out for the day.

Every Sunday, the museum selects three different cars from week to week. You can ride in as few or as many as you like. But I don't know why anyone wouldn't ride in all three.

Like a scene out of Sunset Boulevard, I started by channeling the ghost of Gloria Swanson in the backseat of a 1936 Lincoln Town Car, outfitted with foot rests, window shades, cigarette lighter and ashtray, and various secret compartments – plus lots of leg room.

The front seat is reserved exclusively for the chauffeur, who sits behind the wheel in the open air, exposed to the elements, so everyone can see how fancy you are. Even though it's a powerful machine with 12 cylinders, you'd never drive this car yourself: this car is meant for its passengers.

Next up was the 1952 Kaiser Manhattan, a sweet ride with a V-6 engine...

...a leather-covered dashboard...

...and a radio that seems to foreshadow the advent of rock and roll, though it predated Elvis' breakout by three years.

"This car must be fun to drive," I said as we tooled around in a 1928 Buick, but my docent said it was actually kind of a chore.

Since the gears of the unsynchronized manual transmission function independently from one another (allowing only first, second, and third gear moving forward)... have to double clutch, and the gears audibly grind. But that seems fun to me.

During my childhood, I viewed life primarily through the television screen, and occasionally my bedroom or kitchen window. While I lived in New York City and London, I spent a lot of time underground, popping up at various locations, not really understanding where they were in relation to each other, or what there was to see in between. I often opted for the bus, so at least I could see where I was going.

Now that I've been in California for four years, I'm enjoying viewing life through the lens of the windshield, its greenish blue tint giving everything a cool, relaxed hue. It is the widescreen frame of my life on the road, now that I finally get to drive – or at least ride in the front seat, after so many years relegated to the back of my father's Dodge Omni or an unclean, poorly navigated taxicab. Even while getting into the chauffeur-driven Lincoln Town Car, I tried to sit in the front, but they insisted I take my position in the back, where Queen Elizabeth would sit.

But I would not make a very good Queen, and I am not a very good passenger. I want to take the wheel. I want to see where we're going, not just wake up when we get there.

And I don't like relying on somebody else to deliver me. I'll drive myself, thankyouverymuch.

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May 24, 2015

Photo Essay: Fox Theatre Fullerton, 90 Years Old and Starting Over

Last night, the Fox Theatre in Fullerton unveiled its newly-restored and lit rooftop sign, which stood dark on its scaffolding for the last several decades.

Photo by Sean Scanlon / Redink Photography via Fox Theatre Fullerton

May 23, 2015

Photo Essay: A Landmark Clubhouse for Southern California Motorists

In my explorations of West Adams, I would always drive past a building whose signs indicate it is an American Automobile Association office, but this is unlike any AAA office storefront I'd ever seen.

Photo: Los Angeles Public Library

Sure, it isn't as palatial as the St. Vincent de Paul church across the street...

...but this Spanish Revival on the corner of South Figueroa Street and West Adams Boulevard is definitely a landmark. I decided to scout it out.

It was built in 1921, decades before "car culture" really took over California in the mid-20th century.

The Auto Club of Southern California was actually founded twenty years before that with only ten members...

...and started posting directional signs on highways, publishing maps, and even helping recover stolen vehicles.

By 1923, this location opened as the Automobile Club headquarters...

...and ten years later, expanded with two rear wings that created a closed courtyard in the back.

Now that courtyard acts as a kind of museum for AAA artifacts, like the directional signs erected along the National Old Trails Road (Old Sante Fe Trail)...

...and the Lincoln Highway between Omaha and Salt Lake City.

There's even a cross-section of a gigantic Sequoia tree that fell in Sequoia National Park in 1933 at the ripe old age of 1450 years.

A ring count estimates that this particular tree was born in 483 A.D...

...surviving a forest fire in 1813 that left a burn scar, which would have eventually healed and grown over, if the tree had continued to live.

As gorgeous and historic as the building's exterior is, I was excited to go inside...

...and see the tiled fountain...

...under the dazzling rotunda (which no photographs do justice).

Unfortunately, the rest of the ground floor does look like any other AAA office, with dropped ceilings and modern cubicles and plaster walls. It was such a shame to see, I refused to photograph it, not wanting documentation of the very utilitarian interior of a club which is no longer very exclusive, as motorists are no longer an elite class. It's a club anyone can join, and a headquarters anyone can visit.

I should be thankful for that. And even though anyone who can pay the membership dues can join, I'm proud to be a member of that club, which has rescued me from a dead battery in Compton, a couple of flat tires, a lost car key, and being stuck in a rut in Big Bear.

I'm proud to be a motorist. I love driving. I'm so grateful for the freedom and access to new places it's given me. Growing up, I spent too long homebound, begging friends for rides, taking the bus or walking for miles. For years, I just wanted to be able to drive myself somewhere. And although I got my license when I was 17 years old, it took me nearly 20 years to actually get a car of my own.

And now I can't imagine not driving, at least some of the time. I am all for equal opportunity, and embrace all modes: I walk, I bike, I hike, I swim, and I paddle. I scamper and scurry, and I zip as often as possible. But when all else fails, when I have nowhere to be and nothing to do, when life weighs down on me too much, I can always come up with an excuse to just shut everything out and drive.

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