Art beat: The Hokey Pokey is NOT what it's all about

Mike Dunham

One of the pleasures of the morning commute is the sign on Sixth Avenue, where the folks at Brown's Electric put up quirky quotes, sayings, affirmations and aphorisms. This past week it read: "What if the Hokey Pokey IS what it's all about?"

(I've capitalized the "is" on purpose; the reader board didn't include that detail.)

The sentence piqued my interest. I found variations all over the Internet, the earliest of which was attributed to a 2000 pamphlet by one Patt Schwab.

"The Hokey Pokey is a great metaphor for focusing on the goals that matter," wrote Schwab, a motivational speaker from Seattle. "Not the stress and structure goals of youth, but the self delighting goals that come when the hard stuff is done and a new world stretches before you."

Is that true? I wondered. Is self delight the purpose of life? Or is the hard stuff inseparable from goals that matter? Or, to extend the question to focus of this column: What is the line between idle amusement and art?

Some might say the size of a crowd attracted to any given event is inversely proportional to the consequentiality of the event. Throngs attend (or, rather, participate, a potentially important distinction) in group excitements that, when over, leave nothing more than perhaps evaporating memories and litter. Once you're done doing the Hokey Pokey, nothing has really changed.

What then of art? The most difficult to fathom paintings, assemblages, performance art or what have you often -- and understandably -- seem of interest only to a handful, just as only a few eagles soar at the highest altitudes above the myriad flocks satisfied with the ground and treetops. (Actually, various migratory species vie for the title of highest-flyers, but eagles are the approved metaphor.)

Those who find "Swan Lake" more rewarding than the Hokey Pokey say that at a good performance of the former they hold their breath, lose contact with their bodies, are stimulated to ecstasy and perhaps weep. The rush is not easy to put into words, which may be why so few people write well about art and those who do typically concentrate on technical aspects, things that can be measured, rather than some emotional acceleration that defies easy description in the medium of words.

But after the ballerina takes her final bow, has anything changed? Or is "Swan Lake" just the Hokey Pokey in tights?

Today I argue no. I've had to do the Hokey Pokey a time or two and find it notably lacking in elevating qualities. If that's what it's all about, then the world is indeed a mindless existential void.

"Swan Lake" may send us splashing into a black pool of thwarted love, misunderstood intentions, trickery, the horror of being unable to communicate in a desperate situation, death, oblivion and the unsolvable mystery of whether anything we believe is true. But those things are all real; we deal with them in one form or another every day. Because of that, they all matter mightily to every person who is alert to his or her individuality, as opposed to their communal identity.

If high art has a purpose, it is to lead us to mindfulness, to exercise part of our cerebellum that would otherwise resemble that of a lizard.

But in addition to and probably more important than the cognition involved in untangling a narrative, great art somehow unifies the person -- the audience -- with the subject. No matter how expansive the manifestation of art, its power lies in how it concentrates experience. The first trembling minor chord in Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" score sums up, in the matter of a second, all that will transpire for the next two hours. In that one chord we may already find ourselves holding our breath and weeping.

Another example can be seen on the big screen later this week when the Metropolitan Opera replays a performance of Verdi's "Il Trovatore."

"Trovatore" is full-whoop melodrama, the bete noire of intellectuals who know they like it but worry that it's sorta low-brow. The production is first rate, as most of these Met HD broadcasts have been, with Sondra Radvanovsky as an effective damsel-in-perpetual-distress, dashing Marcelo Alvarez as her heroic boyfriend and Dmitri Hvorostovky as a the maliciously macho villain.

But it is Dolora Zajick as the old gypsy, Azucena, who steals the show.

Azucena is one of life's invisible losers: addled, unhappy, dependent, ignored, terrified by authority (with good reason) and stuck with a son who won't listen to her. But in her first scene the scattershot soap opera scenario suddenly coalesces into a laser and everything that preceded and will follow it, the whole chain of stupid, selfish miscalculations, makes sense.

In Zajick's case that clarification came through before she sang a note, thanks to acting of the kind that I think cannot be taught. I caught the original broadcast at Regal on April 30, 2011 and her first appearance on camera is still the galvanizing moment glued in memory.

What happened next was remarkable. This was a live performance. Alvarez and Hvorostovky -- each of whom might well have presumed that he would be the star of this production -- realized that their best material had to follow and that Zajick had pushed the bar out of reach. Both strove furiously, perhaps too furiously, to reclaim the top spot in the viewers' hearts. They never had a chance, but it made for a heck of a show.

One never leaves "Trovatore" feeling much love for Azucena, or any other character. Yet you can't help but empathize with her here -- a human pushed too far, dismissed by society, haunted, hunted, like all of us. Though she has no control over anything, she is the one driving everything else. In Zajick's hands the woman, and the opera, confront us with something genuinely profound. Profound and perhaps inexpressible in written language.

And that's what it's all about.

The "Trovatore" broadcast will be shown again at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday at both Century and Tikahtnu theaters.


'Raven' fling for Galena at Tap Root

Author Don Rearden will sign copies of the new edition of his book, "The Raven's Gift," a post-apocalyptic fable set in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, at 6 p.m. Thursday at Tap Root Public House, 3300 Spenard Road.

A portion of the money raised by sales of the book at this event will go to the American Red Cross to help with disaster relief for Galena and other villages that took the brunt of recent flooding caused by ice jams during breakup.

Joining Rearden will be musicians Pamyua, Kevin Morgan of Bethel and the Burnt Down House bluegrass trio from Homer. Eskimo Bob will serve as the M.C.

On the subject of those floods, someone was wondering why the military didn't just bomb the ice jams before they caused so much trouble, "like they do in Russia." I was reminded that at the time of statehood, the U.S. military did just that in Alaska, as reported in the newspapers at the time. A few spare bombs used for target practice near the confluence of the Yukon and Porcupine rivers and -- voila! -- no flooding.


O.A.R. coming to Moose's Tooth

The headline band has been announced for the annual Moose's Tooth pizza anniversary party. It will be O.A.R. (for "Of A Revolution"), described as a jam band along the lines of David Matthews.

The band's 2011 album "King" peaked at No. 2 in the U.S. rock charts.

Tickets, $40, will go on sale Tuesday for the outdoor concert, which will take place Aug. 17. Details are at Bear Tooth Theatre ticketing or by calling 258-2537 or 276-4200.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

Anchorage Daily News