Archive for June, 2014

Essay: Toronto’s Prideful World View

June 30, 2014
Butterflies and confetti along the World Pride Toronto parade route, June, 2014.

Butterflies and confetti along the World Pride Toronto parade route, June, 2014.

By Robert Israel

There are many audible and visual memories I took away from attending World Pride Toronto 2014 this past week: rainbows festooned on every street corner; confetti falling like snow from windows along Yonge Street, a central artery; raucous revelers, some marching wearing nothing but their smiles and birthday suits; boisterous, discordant, thump-thump music blaring from massive speakers.

I left with a sunburnt celebratory glow, knowing I had attended a fabulous party.

Yet there is something more I experienced: a true feeling of pride from being in a nation that serves as a beacon of hope, diversity, and opportunity to all, regardless of race, color, sexual orientation, or creed.

I used to make this statement about my homeland, the United States. As a citizen of the States, I am free to admire and criticize my homeland, and at this moment in time I am deeply disappointed in my homeland. I do not feel that way about Canada. Canada is a nation that takes the mission of being a beacon of hope seriously, and, in Toronto, at least, it demonstrated this commitment during a hugely successful World Pride.

As a reporter and citizen living in the States, I have grown more than weary from witnessing and chronicling the efforts of those struggling for personal dignity in the majority of states that steadfastly refuse to legalize marriage equality. (The battle is far from over.) I’m outraged when it comes to issues regarding undocumented workers and their families and the political football that has ensued regarding immigration reform (which was rebuffed yet again last week by a fractious Congress, prompting President Obama to say he’s going to work on it “on his own.”) I’m exasperated by the way the economy teeters, and the toll it takes by imperiling the lives of millions unable to find work and thus unable to rise above the malaise.

Arriving in Toronto, then, even in the heat, standing amidst pungent, sweaty, body-painted celebrants, came as a breath of refreshment.

But most importantly, for me, it’s the close associations that last the longest, well after the parades end and the confetti is sucked up by marauding city-owned vacuum vehicles. Thanks to Torontonians, I am reminded that no struggle is ever resolved quickly, and that progress is often measured in small steps, not in leaps and bounds. The goals may seem elusive, the finish line beyond reach: all the more reason never to lose sight or give up hope, because, even when you finally attain what has always seemed unattainable, when you ultimately get there, they will require constant nurturance, constant vigilance.

Patience is necessary in all things, dear neighbor, my friends in Toronto tell me: it will all work out in the end.

A rather enlightened, upbeat viewpoint, don’t you think? Saying it aloud makes me wonder if I will be labeled a Pollyanna because I intone the Torontonian mantra. So, a legitimate question should be asked: Can this sunburnt glow be sustained?

I believe the euphoria is well-deserved. I believe it will be long lasting. Coming back from Toronto, I believe change is happening, change will happen, change will come.

World Pride is a perfect example. For those who don’t know about it, World Pride is the brand of InterPride, a non-profit organization that promotes global LGBT events.

(http://www.edgeboston.com/travel//reviews//148081/world_pride_looks_to_toronto_to_rebound_in_2014).

World Pride failed during previous attempts to hold rallies in London, Rome, and Jerusalem. So it turned to Toronto because, except for a couple instances of well-publicized acrimony — the wrongful termination and disparagement of Pride Toronto’s executive director Traci Sandilands, fiscal issues and accusations (unfounded) of malfeasance, and yearly snubs (and homophobic behavior) from soon-to-be former Mayor Rob Ford – Toronto delivers.

World Pride, it must be said, hitched its star onto Pride Toronto, not the other way around.

From now on, if they haven’t done so already, global cities will look to Toronto as the model for how to get Pride done right. Toronto has become the Gold Standard.

But let’s put accolades aside and return to the aforementioned Canada as the beacon of hope metaphor. One need only listen to the voices of the oppressed, published in the June issue of Toronto Life, as evidence that freedom has but a fragile footprint in many places on our planet.

“Homosexuality has been legal in Nepal since 2007, but gay couples still don’t have equality under law,” said Belu Gurung, a 34-year old cook now living in Toronto who is applying for Canadian citizenship. “Gay marriage isn’t recognized, and, culturally, it’s difficult to be a lesbian.”

“In Iran, homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment, beatings and sometimes death,” said Arsham Parsi, a 33-year old administrator, who fled his homeland, has now become a Canadian citizen, and reaches out to help other immigrants.

Or, this voice, belonging to Rodney de Roche,26, a student from Trinidad, who fled his homeland after neighborhood gangs demanded money from him as payoff for not getting beat up. “When I told them I was broke,” he said, “they threatened to kill me, so I decided to flee.” He is awaiting a decision on his Canadian citizenship application.

Pride Toronto is many things to a very many people. It is a party with noise, confetti, costumes and more. It is an opportunity to be outrageous, outspoken, Out. I grew up in an era of repression, fear, anxiety, when anything you thought, felt or acted upon that was different from the “norm” was suspect, when shame was an emotion you felt keenly and were powerless not to feel it. Those days are not gone forever. Yes, the tenor of our times is more open. But the voices of the oppressed seeking asylum in Toronto proves that in many places in our world, openness does not apply to all.

By joining forces this year with World Pride, Toronto Pride became more global, more persuasive, a bully pulpit with clout that will be felt around the globe. The urgency to renew our efforts — with vigor — to ensure all men and women achieve the same level of freedom as their neighbors everywhere is the message that needs to be repeated, over and over again, to spur action, until we reach our goal.

The message printed on the banners in Toronto read: “Rise Up.”

Two words: two very profound words.

**
Robert Israel can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com

New Website Promotes LGBT Family Travel

June 19, 2014
Steve Brister and his family on vacation.

Steve Brister and his family on vacation.

By Robert Israel

Steve Brister, an affable Austin, Texas-based marketing executive, found that the life he shares with his partner Carmine changed dramatically after they adopted their two sons. There were the anticipated challenges – shopping, meals, laundry and school — and there were unexpected challenges, too, especially when it came time to plan family vacations. The couple’s early forays into exploring vacation options proved frustrating due to a dearth of adequate resources in the LGBT community to aid them in their searches.

Brister looked everywhere for “guide posts,” as he puts it, to help him and Carmine find recommended gay family-friendly destinations. He stumbled on a website, based in England; upon closer scrutiny, the listings were outdated. Eventually, that site ceased operation altogether.

“Carmine and I are both in our 50s, and we had grown used to adult-themed gay destinations, places where no kids were allowed,” Brister said. “So we always headed to popular gay resorts like Palm Springs, Calif., or to Key West, Fla., locales that featured beaches and the ’guest house’ experience. But when you have kids you look to destinations where your kids can be surrounded by other kids their age with tons of activities to keep them active and happy.”

So Brister took the risk to establish his own website that would include the very options lacking elsewhere. Last month, while attending the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association’s convention in Spain, he unveiled that website devoted solely to furnishing LGBT families with the very linkages to information he and Carmine spent frustrated hours searching for during their previous forays into family vacation planning.

The site is called GayFamilyTrips.com. It brings together travel information, advice and ideas for gay families written by gay family travelers themselves. The site is lively and colorful, includes a calendar section devoted to upcoming trips, lists of family travel opportunities, and a travel directory with directories of hotel recommendations and tour operators.

His gamble has paid off. Soon after launching the site, Brister found he had tapped into a market that is clamoring for the information he posts.

“While the site was still in development,” he says, “we had over 1,200 visitors.” That number is steadily increasing as Brister, who is the only full-time employee of the company, and his part-time associates scurry about collecting information in an effort to update the site with content that ranges from popular vacation spots like San Francisco and Disney World, to other, lesser known locales.

“What I’m discovering through this site is that there is a passionate audience for LGBT family travel,” Brister says. “Key themes that have come up in our articles so far include the need to prepare our kids for handling awkward questions and situations. As LGBT parents, we may be looked upon as ’immoral’ in some countries we might visit, and recommendations for how to deal with this, or when we find ourselves off the well-worn paths of tourism and are looked at differently. Consistently, the importance of sharing our family stories leads to connecting with others about what we have in common with them, rather than what’s different.”

In addition to planning sections devoted to resort destinations, trip types (such as gay family gatherings, educational destinations, and major cities), Brister is developing a family adventure section. That idea grew out of his family’s desire to book a trip with their sons, one of whom has been diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder.

“Many families want to find adventure activities like snowshoeing, canoeing, hiking and other activities that a kid like my son, who needs to get out and run around, can do safely with others,” Brister says.

Brister’s staff produces fresh content for the site each week. He has formed business partnerships with tour operators. Missing from the site, at this juncture, are suggestions for gay families looking for international destinations. Brister asserts that this, too, is in the works.

“We’re working on an editorial calendar,” Brister says, “and we intend to post recommendations for family travel in foreign countries in the near future.”

Meanwhile, GayFamilyTrips.com is fast becoming a go-to source for gay families everywhere looking to book their next family getaway.

**
Robert Israel can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. A previous version of this piece appeared in Edge Media Network (New York).

Profile: The Many Lives of Lexi Stolz

June 11, 2014
Lexi Stolz is a wedding planner, caterer, and event planner in NYC and the Hamptons.

Lexi Stolz is a wedding planner, caterer, and event planner in NYC and the Hamptons.

By Robert Israel

Lexi Stolz knows how to throw a party. The wedding planner and designer has also embarked on a new career adventure as the founder of South Fork and Spoon, a Hamptons weekend and food concierge service.

She begins her day bright and early, shopping for fresh picked produce and all the accoutrements that go into preparing home-cooked meals for her clients from the markets and farm stands clustered around Bridgehampton, New York. During the course of her day, you may also find her dashing into a store to choose fabric swatches or photographing floral displays to send to her clients as she consults with them about their upcoming nuptials.

“I devote Mondays exclusively to my wedding planning,” Lexi says, “and that leaves the other days to work on my catering business, South Fork and Spoon. I launched it this year [after] spending many years driving back and forth between the Hamptons and the Upper East Side of New York City, arriving at the Bridgehampton house with no food or wine available and a late reservation at a local restaurant, thinking all along that there had to be a better solution to this kind, unsatisfying hectic lifestyle,” she says.

Getting Hitched – Stolz Style

Stolz has embraced the catering business with the same enthusiasm and attention to design she applies to wedding planning. The correlation, she says, is that both businesses are centered in the Hamptons and both are geared toward satisfying the individual tastes of her clients. She is also a newlywed and applied both these skills during the planning for her own marriage ceremony when she tied the knot last June with Kim Stolz, a former MTV VJ who now works in the financial sector in New York.

“The trend these days among my wedding clients is that they are departing from the traditional, and leaning more toward creating a memorable wedding experience for themselves and their guests,” says Stolz.

“And people want to party. Planning weddings is less about wheeling in the cake for a cake cutting ceremony or the other traditional rituals, and more about celebrating one another and their individual spirits. Dining after the ceremony is increasingly more family-style, which creates a more intimate experience. And weddings are more playful these days. I work with couples so that their wedding accentuates unique aspects of their personalities.”

“With today’s prices, weddings can be expensive, so couples want to keep an eye on costs, too. Increasingly, these couples choose to have longer cocktail hours. It’s less about offering guests a chicken or fish option on the menu. It’s more about the couple choosing their favorite foods that they want served in a way that they are most comfortable with. If they want to serve Italian food and it’s August, they will go with that rather than choosing a traditional food option.”

Lexi and Kim’s wedding last June took place in Kim’s parents’ Bridgehampton backyard and was featured in Us Magazine. Both brides wore stunning white gowns as they walked arm-in-arm down a grassy path festooned with flowers and rose petals.

A Taste for Life

“Food has always been a big part of my life,” Lexi says, explaining that she grew up with a single mom who, she says, “could have very easily ordered a pizza for dinner but instead insisted that we cook together and prepare healthful meals.” She also worked alongside Kim at The Dalloway, a popular restaurant, which was sold in October. “Preparing food and sitting down to a good meal should be an important part of our lives,” she adds. “It’s a time when you put your cell phones away and actually communicate with one another.”

With just enough clients to make the work rewarding without having to hire additional staff, Stolz actually begins her shopping at 11 p.m. at the King Kullen supermarket in Bridgehampton. “They close at midnight, so I get there when the fresh food is just being stocked on their shelves,” she notes.

There are a few hours of rest before she rises at dawn the next day, continues her shopping from the area’s farm stands and specialty shops, and then heads back home to begin cooking. The Hamptons are known for farms, vineyards and an abundant aquaculture. She views the region as a culinary ecosystem, carefully selecting from what is seasonably available so she can offer clients the best from local food purveyors.

“There is always a learning curve whenever you start a new venture,” she says in response to a question about the downside of her new business. “It’s the sorting out of everything, making sure the clients are clear about what they want, knowing what’s in season and where to get it.”

She’s a self-proclaimed “Google docs junky,” because “it is a computer tool that exists in the cloud, and my clients and I can fine tune what they are ordering, so we can get it right together.” She has an order form that she’s also learned to fine tune. “It was unwieldy at first, but it is now much more manageable,” she says.

Her clients entrust her with the keys to their homes in the Hamptons. Armed with the freshly prepared foods, she readies their homes in advance of their arrival from the city.

“I call it farm to fridge,” she chuckles. “All my clients do is walk in, fire up the grill, or turn on the stove, and in short order they have a home-cooked meal.” She prepares bouquets of flowers to greet them, knowing only too well how stressful that long ride from the city can be to get to their Hampton’s homes for the weekend. She also advises her clients on where to find the best locally produced food and wine. She mentions Wolsser Vineyard and Round Swamp Farm as two favorite places she frequents. She also prepares lunches for clients to take to the beach and says she has become quite adept at fixing up tasty lobster rolls.

Stolz is still living two lives — a wedding planner and a caterer — but you could say she’s living three lives, because beyond planning weddings and meals, she is also creating events. Before our conversation finishes, she mentions she is helping her wife, who is also an author, plan an upcoming book signing event in New York City.

“I may spend long hours in the car running to and fro,” Stolz says with an audible giggle, “but I find it all very rewarding.”

**
Robert Israel can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. This piece appeared in Edge Media Network (New York).

Review: “Amaluna,” Cirque du Soleil’s homage to women

June 2, 2014
Miranda (Iuliia Mykhailova), the daughter of Prospera, does acrobatics around a huge water bowl. Photo: Courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

Miranda (Iuliia Mykhailova), the daughter of Prospera, does acrobatics around a huge water bowl. Photo: Courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

By Robert Israel

In her program note for this Cirque du Soleil extravaganza, director Diane Paulus (who is also the head of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge) writes that: “There were two things I knew when I was asked to direct for Cirque du Soleil—that the show would be in the big top, and that it should be an homage to women….It also meant creating a story that features women characters, and here I turned to sources of inspiration from Greek mythology to Shakespeare.” Amaluna – which translates “mother moon” – achieves the first of these ambitions. Women are the dominant force here. They command the evening’s whirligig of a stage as aerialists, clowns, musicians, dancers, and contortionists, with a few male equivalents popping up from time to time. The females are statuesque, muscular, demure, radiant, mirthful, diaphanous, and beguiling. And while the men get a chance to shine, the spotlight lingers longer on the women, accentuating their collective prowess, their impressive and frequently breathtaking talents.

As for Paulus’ second ambition, tying this exquisite feminine talent to some sort of feminist inspiration, well, that’s where she misses the mark considerably.

The reason the show does not work thematically is that Cirque du Soleil is, by its self-proclaimed raison d’etre, in a class by itself, a sort of uber-theater with the accent on the visual. It may have had humble origins as an itinerant group of ragtag thespians and circus performers playing to crowds in downtown Montreal, but during its 30 year history the company has grown to become a well-oiled, highly profitable commercial enterprise, with concurrent productions now appearing throughout the States and Canada (more on this in a moment). As Robert Lepage, the brilliant Canadian director who served as the creative force behind the previous Cirque show, Ka, put it, the productions of this Quebec-based company produce “hyper-theatre, not unlike opera. Everything is larger than life: gestures, distance to be covered and the strength this all takes, not to mention the volume needed to express anything vocally…. For the artists—actors or otherwise—this requires being able to surpass oneself and a far more wide-ranging awareness.”

Paulus, who has previously demonstrated her abilities to whip up commercial theater (with a strong accent on circus/New Vaudeville) by originating shows at the Loeb theatre in Cambridge and then achieving success with them on Broadway, has never tackled something as large and free-wheeling as Cirque du Soleil. She misses the mark under the Big Top because of the sheer size and challenge of the enterprise. The tender story of a woman transitioning from a girl to a woman, which I take to be her central theme, is lost in the epic space. Actresses moving through subtle emotional transitions, from innocence to experience, are pitted against a variety of scene-stealing creatures: peacock goddesses, a moon goddess, Amazons, and a male pet named Cali (half-human, half-lizard), and many others. The notion of a young woman’s rite of passage is dwarfed by the demand for pumped-up spectacle and physical pizazz.

The elemental problem is that audiences that come to Cirque du Soleil expect to be wowed by “hyper-theater.” The noise level is utterly deafening: musicians rock-out with electric guitars, percussions, a saxophone, voice, an electrified violoncello, a throbbing bass. The lighting is mesmerizing, timed to highlight the feats of the players and (perhaps) to hypnotize viewers. Le Grand Chapiteaux is not so much a stage as it is a launching pad for aerialists who deftly defy gravity by leaping, somersaulting, and bounding into the air above our heads. It is a place where a larger-than-life water bowl is rolled out, center stage, so that Iuliia Mykhailova, a gifted contortionist/dancer/acrobat can swim and then emerge, dripping wet, to perform feats upside down, using only the strength of her arms. And throughout all of the highly-controlled, eye-popping mayhem, we’re supposed to follow Paulus’ feminist/mythic theme through its many incarnations?

Cirque du Soleil’s business model shapes its creative product: consider this bit of analysis about the troupe’s tremendous success in an article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review a few years ago: “Its value innovated by shifting the buyer group from children (end-users of the traditional circus) to adults (purchasers of the traditional circus), drawing upon the distinctive strengths of other alternative industries, such as the theatre, Broadway shows and the opera, to offer a totally new set of utilities to more mature and higher spending customers.” You could argue that Cirque du Soleil’s approach has become a model for (too) much stage work today — the theatrical imagination is contorted to fit demographic/business strategies.

Cirque du Soleil may be a victim of its own unbridled success, expanding too fast. Concurrently, the franchise has a production that just premiered in Montreal and is slated to travel to Toronto in August. It has another show at Disney World in Florida. And it is running a boffo third production, celebrating the life and music of Michael Jackson, in Las Vegas. The show in Boston is underwhelming. It has its moments of razzle-dazzle. But the story – the dramatic vehicle that supposedly ties all of Amaluna together — ends up on the dark side of the moon.

**
Robert Israel can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. A previous version of this review appeared in The Arts Fuse (Boston).