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GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS

The 1929 New York World’s Fair presented, for the first time, color photography, air conditioners, smell-o-vision and the Queens Botanical Garden. For its 75th birthday, the QBG presents Taste the World: Botanical Brew Fest, a libatious interpretation of the 1964 World’s Fair motto — “Man’s Achievements on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe.” The beer festival features craft selections from Lebanon, Thailand, Scotland, and other international as well as national breweries. What lacks in the international representation of beer is compensated by the cornucopia of ethnically diverse food available throughout the afternoon. Dual beer–tasting sessions are held throughout the afternoon. Festival highlights include live entertainment and tours of the garden, as well as the opportunity to explore historic Flushing Meadows Corona Park, under which two Westinghouse time capsules containing items such as a pack of Camel cigarettes, a Sears catalog and a note from Albert Einstein, and will reside there until the year 6939.

Sat., July 19, noon, 2014

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I’ll Follow You Down Focuses on the Ethics of Time Travel

I’ll Follow You Down distinguishes itself from other science-fiction films by focusing on the ethics of time travel. Instead of acting first and thinking as they go, characters take time to consider whether they should go back in time — which turns out to be a problem, since writer-director Richie Mehta’s characters aren’t especially thoughtful.

Like their creator, they make massive leaps in logic before they do anything. Professor Sal (Victor Garber) tells grandson Erol (Haley Joel Osment) that he and his family are living in a “negative space” alternate timeline created after Erol’s dad, Gabe (Rufus Sewell), traveled back to 1946 to talk to Albert Einstein.

It’s not really clear how Sal knows this beyond the fact that he’s a scientist and has pored over Gabe’s theoretical notes on time travel. Erol is understandably skeptical at first, but after two successive family crises, he starts jumping to conclusions, too, as when he tells Sal that he senses that their lives just “[feel] wrong.”

Erol’s especially moved by out-of-the-blue speculation from girlfriend Grace (Susanna Fournier). She makes Erol realize that his actions will have consequences when she baldly bleats, “Can you look me in the eye and tell me with absolute assurance that if you go through with this, we’d be able to re-create the soul of this baby?”

But while Fournier’s understated performance gives I’ll Follow You Down some emotional heft, Grace is an otherwise indistinct character, making her concerns seem immaterial.

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FAIR PLAY

Rarely do we come across an event with the tagged-on request to BYOT (bring your own telescope). All right, World Science Festival, you’ve got our attention. The seventh annual celebration of all things fun and deductive takes place at locations all over the city with panels, performances, movies, parties, and experiments galore. Tonight you can enjoy live music at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s urban stargazing party before browsing tomorrow’s Ultimate Science Street Fair in Washington Square Park. See Paul Rudd and Cynthia Nixon as Albert Einstein and his wife in a dramatic reading of Dear Albert at NYU’s Skirball Center, or snack on the science fair’s delicious science fare with chocolate making at Mast Brothers, beer brewing at the Wythe Hotel, and a demonstration of “pie-o-physics” at Momofuku Milk Bar. It’s just a hypothesis, but we suspect this will yield a positive reaction. Various times and locations.

Sat., May 31, noon, 2014

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Dislecksia: The Movie Elucidates a Disorder Through Thorough Research and Personal Experience

Dislecksia: The Movie is an exuberantly didactic documentary, and director Harvey Hubbell has done his homework. Dyslexia, in which someone of normal intelligence has great difficulty learning to read, is now understood to have a neurological basis. This brain-wiring, as Hubbell explains, may just come with cognitive advantages that could explain the success of the likes of Albert Einstein and Richard Branson, two notable dyslexics. But kids with dyslexia who, like Hubbell, were in school in the 1960s, weren’t likely to be diagnosed with much more than a bad attitude. Hubbell features his own journey from happy child to discouraged near-dropout, and laces his presentation of research and pedagogical experiments with celebrity interviews and moments of whimsy. While emphasizing the successes many people with dyslexia have made of themselves, he doesn’t ignore the fates of those who give up in school and in life. “In school, if you have trouble reading and get frustrated and act out, you go to the principal’s office,” Hubbell says. “When you get out of school, you go to jail. A lot of dyslexics end up in prison.” He presents compelling research that has resulted in exciting literacy innovations; some methods don’t just help kids with dyslexia but also work for kids with all types of brain wiring. Dislecksia: The Movie is worth the attention of anyone involved in teaching a struggling child the indispensable skill of reading.

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More Than Honey is a Delightful Journey into the Shrinking World of Bees

Let’s forget, for a moment, that Albert Einstein said that if bees were to disappear from the Earth, humankind would follow four years later. It’s bad enough seeing, as we do in Markus Imhoof’s marvelous bee-centric documentary More Than Honey, a forlorn beekeeper scraping lifeless furry bodies from the surface of a honeycomb—they drop to the ground like little raisins. Bees, either flying in swarms or flitting about solo, reassure us that everything is going apace. Even their buzzing is the sound of life. A dead bee, so small in size yet so large in nature’s grand scheme, is an ominous thing.

Luckily, More Than Honey isn’t just 91 minutes of dead bees. Who could bear that? Instead, it’s a delightful, informative, and suitably contemplative study of the bee world and the bee-population crisis, though in the end it does offer enough dewdrops of hope to fill up a bluebell or two.

Imhoof frames More Than Honey with portraits of two very different beekeepers. Fred Jaggi raises bees in Switzerland much as his father and grandfather did before him, tending his hives with a balance of matter-of-factness and sensitivity to his charges’ character quirks. His love is the tough kind, though: A queen who has mated with an invader from a neighbor’s colony is summarily beheaded on-camera—Jaggi will not allow strumpets in his midst. John Miller, a Florida-based mega-beekeeper, has less time to address the wanton ways of his lady bees: He’s too busy crisscrossing the country by truck, transporting his colonies to orchards and fields where they’re needed for pollination duty. Miller’s thriving business fills a crucial need, since farmers can no longer rely on random bees to show up and do the work they were made to do.

Miller and Jaggi’s beekeeping styles differ drastically, but the worldwide bee crisis has made the profession equally stressful for both. Imhoof makes the case that the decline in bee populations isn’t such a great mystery—a number of easily definable factors, including overuse of pesticides, are colluding to kill bees off. But as More Than Honey suggests, there are plenty of people who care enough about these creatures to try to ward off the disaster Einstein has warned us about. Imhoof visits breeders who tinker with DNA to create the perfect queen. There may also be some hope in the form of the much-maligned killer, or African, bee, much hardier than its European counterpart. And, amazingly, scientists are finding new ways to study bee behavior via brain scans.

What exactly goes on in the tiny mind of a bee? You’ll have to see More Than Honey to find out. But this is no dull data dump. Imhoof prefers to present information visually, zooming in close to show us bees at work and at rest. With their fuzzy, patent-leather-striped torsos and dainty but mighty cellophane wings, these guys are something to behold, and Imhoof does them justice. They work hard for the honey; it’s about time we treated them right.

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Molly’s Theory of Relativity: More Confounding than Cosmic

Best known as a 40-year veteran of the indie distribution scene, Jeff Lipsky has latterly carved out a sideline as one of New York’s most idiosyncratic indie filmmakers—a purveyor of confessional, sexually frank relationship dramas clearly indebted to his acknowledged masters: Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes. The best of the bunch remains 2006’s Flannel Pajamas, based on the breakup of his own marriage. As for Lipsky’s fifth and latest feature, it’s an unclassifiable head-scratcher—a magical-realist mélange of ideas about the state of the economy, the state of the American family, and the state of the universe. The title character is a newly unemployed astrophysicist (Sophia Takal) on the eve of a life-changing move from New York to Norway, boxing up her cramped apartment while her husband (Lawrence Michael Levine) unleashes years of pent-up invective against his no-account father (Reed Birney), and a steady stream of Halloween dinner guests arrive at the door. They include a 9-year-old in an Albert Einstein costume, a possibly imaginary neighbor boy, and the ghosts of various dead relatives. Bon appetit! Lipsky is clearly reaching for something grand and cosmic here, but the results are mostly just confounding.

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E.T. PHONE HOME

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the release of our favorite alien movie, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and fittingly, Drew Barrymore recently tied the knot, so it’s like everything is coming full circle. Tonight’s screening of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi classic will undoubtedly warm your heart just as it did decades ago, but this time with, perhaps, a new grown-up appreciation. For example, did you know that Spielberg modeled E.T.’s look after poet Carl Sandburg and Albert Einstein? Or that he shot most of the film from the eye-level of a child to further connect with Elliott and E.T.? Bring tissue and Reese’s Pieces.

Thu., July 5, 8 p.m., 2012

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Keeping Up With the Einsteins

Like most other young children, Marla Olmstead likes to paint with her fingers, making swirling messy designs.

But what separates her from other kids (as well as from many struggling adult artists) is that by the age of four she was selling her paintings for $15,000 apiece. Her abstract art has been touted by experts and compared with Jackson Pollock’s work. In the media she’s been called a prodigy. If Marla were old enough to realize what a sensation she is, it would seem like a dream come true for the girl, whose favorite parts of gallery openings are the cookies and other children, according to her website. But when it was discovered via 60 Minutes II last year that her father coached her, Marla suddenly seemed a little less like a prodigy and more like a product of savvy parents carried away by America’s current obsession with producing super-gifted children.

Marla is a prime example of the present trend of cultivating and even creating gifted children from an early age that author Alissa Quart explores in her provocative Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child. A part of the problem Quart found is that while some hothouse children can go on to have successful adulthoods, many develop long-term self-esteem misery because they can never live up to their parents’ expectations. From Quart’s visits with families who either have gifted children or fervently hope to manufacture some, she found that no adults in those families were satisfied with the average childhood anymore. Playing make-believe in the backyard or hopscotch at recess was viewed as unproductive by those parents who want to see tangible results of their child’s progress. Developmental milestones have to be met on time or ahead of schedule before—the fear is—”windows of development” shut for good.

On her visit to the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia, which offers enrichment classes for babies and toddlers, Quart met a woman who said, upon arrival at the school when her son was only a year old, that “her husband cried because he felt they had ‘wasted a year of our baby’s life.’ ” The couple immediately enrolled the infant in as many classes as possible to make up for lost time, because they believed their son’s ability to soak up information like a sponge would stop at the age of six.

Quart found little research to prove that helping babies reach milestones early creates adult geniuses. In fact, “smart” baby formulas, daily sessions of Baby Einstein videos, Baby Sign Language, or the prenatal BabyPlus Womb Songs (a speaker unit women can strap to their bellies to supposedly enhance the not-yet-born child’s learning process) may be a waste of money. Quart calls this the “Baby Genius Edutainment Complex,” the American faith that if a child is exposed to “enough media, typically in tandem with equally stirring classes, bright children can be invented.” Despite an American Academy of Pediatrics report discouraging screen time for babies under two, developmental videos and DVDs brought in $100 million in 2004.

Lured in by potent marketing strategies and influenced by what other parents are doing, today’s parents pop in the Baby Einstein video simply out of fear that their children won’t be able to compete in the world without it. A keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality drives parents to pack their child’s schedule with music lessons, soccer practice, French tutorials, and other “enrichment” classes. According to a study of three- to 12-year-olds titled “Changes in American Children’s Time, 1981–1997” by Sandra L. Hofferth and John F. Sandberg of the University of Michigan, children’s participation in passive leisure declined 24 percent, from 66 to 50 percent, between 1981 and 1997, while participation in sports and art activities increased.

But aren’t sports and art activities more fun and productive than lounging around on a Sunday afternoon? Quart found the answer from various psychologists and experts to be a resounding no. Overbooking children can actually hinder their chances to freely explore their own passions. While a child may have a high IQ, if she is not motivated to, say, learn the piano or do ballet, her misery at being forced to perform may turn into resentment later in life.

Quart identifies and sympathizes with the children in her book because she was a hothouse child too. She describes her father as an “overbearing puppet master” who quizzed her on topics from modernist art to revolutionary political movements and controlled whom she could be friends with (no losers allowed). She skipped a grade, wrote a novel at the age of seven, and was told by an author that she would be the “next great American poet.” While it’s certain she’s no slouch, not living up to her father’s impossibly high expectations left her feeling like a failure.

This feeling, which often lasts a lifetime, she calls the Icarus Effect, and it’s one of her strongest arguments against the creation of gifted children. Through numerous interviews with adults who were described as gifted or extremely gifted as children, she found many were “ultimately disappointed in adulthood and resentful of their early training.” And once a child is associated with a specific talent, such as Marla and her finger painting, it’s difficult to break free and feel successful at something new. Will Marla’s parents allow her to quit their lucrative business if she suddenly finds a passion for something less glamorous, like saving the whales? Or will she spend the rest of her life struggling to maintain her status as a “gifted” painter?

A skilled reporter, Quart (author of Blended: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers) travels the country to meet with music prodigies, math and science whiz kids, teenaged evangelical preachers, and young Scrabble champs, among others, to uncover the pressures they face. While she often comes down hard on affluent parents who spend money on fancy gizmos and private lessons, she finds, in a small Midwestern city, the real need for gifted programs in public schools for children of low-income families who often can’t find enrichment at home. She criticizes the No Child Left Behind Act for gutting many of these programs and emphasizing rote learning to improve scores on standardized tests.

The darkest tale in the book to demonstrate the pressures faced by a child labeled as “profoundly gifted” describes Brandenn Bremmer, a homeschooled boy who entered college at age 10 and killed himself four years later. Quart met with him and his mother the year before his death. When she asked Brandenn what he thought about being seen as gifted, he replied, “America is a society that demands perfection.” His use of the word perfection in a discussion about giftedness disturbed her. Quart is reluctant to guess what caused Brandenn to take his life, but evidence in her book suggests that singling out a child as being highly intelligent often has negative effects. A study of the effects of adults’ messages to children about their performance found that children praised for their intelligence were “less persistent in their tasks and less joyful” and performed at a lower level than the group of children who had been praised for effort alone.

Fascinating to read, Hothouse Kids is wholly convincing that overscheduled children are not better off than those who are given time for free play and relaxation. As Quart smartly points out, being a later bloomer may be a good thing: Albert Einstein didn’t speak until he was three years old and he did just fine.

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Heaps and Consequences

Near the bottom of page 42 of a small Jasper Johns sketchbook from 1963–1964, between two similarly dense observations about art, is a kind of Albert Einstein axiom of aesthetics. Johns, then 33, almost a decade away from creating his art-history-altering American flag and at an apex of thinking about art at the time, penned a post-Duchampian E = Mc2 theorem that delineated an artistic universe and that could also could fit on the front of a T-shirt:

Take an object.

Do something to it.

Do something else to it.

Much contemporary art fails because it never goes beyond Johns’s second sentence. Too many artists take an object and merely do something to it. They manipulate a text, photograph, or whatever else and put it on a wall, in a box, or on the floor, and that’s it. They fail to see that the first two operations have created a new thing in itself, something that takes on its own autonomous structure. No further transformation takes place, thought stays outside form, satisfaction stands in for metamorphosis, one-liners flourish.

Johns’s three-step rubric has been reduced to a two-step formula in many ways. On the sculptural side of the tracks there’s what could be called “Installationism.” The twist here is that the artist takes an object and does the same thing to it over and over again. A room might be filled with 155 or 155,000 bottles, bombs, buckets, broomsticks, toothpicks, or whatever. When not scattered willy-nilly in the clusterfuck aesthetic common of late, these objects are often deployed in an orderly geometric configuration. The results are almost always the same: A pleasingly photogenic, essentially empty arrangement.

Occasionally however, accumulation and multiplication—both of which may be hard-wired into us—overcome convention and carry you away. Multiplication connects us to infinity which connects us to our desire for it; repetition is reassuring, terrifying, and mysterious all at once—it is a field of dreams and a comfortable prison, part of the cosmic continuum, something that’s been there since the beginning. Repetition is difference repeated within such narrow strictures that it opens new possibilities. At its best repetition conjures what Baudelaire called the “sacred machinery.” That’s why sometimes when rooms are filled with arrangements of objects, when configurations are fashioned from hundreds, thousands, or even millions of similar things, repetition turns metaphysical, obsession and process become transcendental, and magic happens.

In 2003 Tara Donovan conjured just such a magical moment. At the time she was 33 and three years removed from a so-so appearance in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, in which she created Ripple, a generic-looking square of what looked like 155,000 snippets of electrical wire. Her 2003 breakout was a solo debut at the gigantic-to-the-point-of-scary Ace Gallery. Especially stunning was Haze, a 42-foot-long wall of over two million clear plastic drinking straws stacked like wood nearly to the ceiling. It was a vertical earth work, a numinous portal to another dimension, matter made vapor, and vice versa. To approach it was to be enveloped in a sort of chemical snare, to experience one’s cognitive functions slipping in and out of phase. It was hard to know if this wall was solid, liquid, layered, or fog. Retinas warped, spines tingled, and a career was born.

Donovan, whose work harks back to process-oriented post-minimalists like Sol Le Witt and Agnes Martin and light-and-space phenomenologists like Robert Irwin and James Turrell, has said, “I make a rule and then the rule is repeated.” This credo is taken to insane lengths in her current one-work PaceWildenstein debut. Untitled (Plastic Cups) is a 50-by-60-foot arrangement of over 3 million seven-ounce plastic drinking cups in regular rows of different heights. The overall piece resembles an undulating otherworldly river valley, an ethereal cloudscape, a pixilated city, a celestial honeycomb, or an iridescent ice field.

Although Untitled is not out of this world like Haze, it is serene and majestic. There are ravishing moments where the effect turns tantalizing, but alas the cups remain cups; the overall shape never synchs up with any “sacred machinery”; you never really leave the room or go into the piece. It’s more of an ahhhh than a wow, a sigh not a spark. This may be due to Untitled following the contours of the gallery so exactly and seemingly without question.

Untitled finds Donovan poised between Ripple and Haze, between her weaker Andy Goldsworthy/Bill Viola tendency to make elegant, heartfelt, but nevertheless decorative installations, and her considerable ability to blow you away. (Another artist who makes giant floor pieces involving one material is Jim Lambie, whose tape floors laid out in geometric configurations aren’t as majestic as Donovan’s but are more physically involving and palpable.) Untitled doesn’t signify a downturn in Donovan’s oeuvre. It simply reinforces how hard it is to build something in public without having tinkered and experimented at full scale endlessly in private first. Regardless, even in midstep Donovan is formidable.


jsaltz@villagevoice.com

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Dancing: A Love Story

There are three questions people constantly ask working dance writers: Seen anything good lately? What’s the difference between ballet and modern? Can you recommend a good general history of dance?

Sometimes I can respond to the first question. The second one is easy. And the third, at last, has an answer at hand: a huge new book coming this fall from Yale. No Fixed Points takes its title from Albert Einstein and, in its trove of new and recycled information and sophisticated analysis, brings together generations of thinking and commentary by critics, historians, artists, and impresarios. Decades in the making, it’s the work of two scholars who have both performed: Nancy Reynolds danced for George Balanchine, wrote Repertory in Review about the first 40 years of the New York City Ballet, and is now director of research for the Balanchine Foundation. Her co-author, Malcolm McCormick, danced, designed, and taught at UCLA and elsewhere.

Like any vital art form, dance reflects the period and place of its making, and No Fixed Points lays in the political and economic circumstances, the wars and depressions and diplomatic intrigue, that shaped, fed, and sometimes starved dance in the last century. With subtle sarcasm and humor, the authors position the art form’s each development in its zeitgeist, in Europe, America, and Japan. They recount the many amazingly good calls Diaghilev made in his relatively short career as an impresario, which did nothing less than change the course of ballet history. They reiterate Martha Graham’s remark that “the function of dance was communication—that it must speak to the mind and emotions and body of the spectator in terms transcending words.” Following 15 fat chapters tracing the evolution of ballet and contemporary styles are two that succinctly summarize dance in musical theater and in the movies, taking us up to Billy Elliott in 2000.

Anyone contemplating entering the dance field—and certainly those already working in it—would do well to take a couple of weeks’ wallow in this blockbuster, and then assess whether they have anything new to contribute. The authors do not shy away from crises in the ballet field. “The vacuum in creativity at the century’s end may have helped give rise to a welcome emphasis on preservation as compensation for the relative lack of truly revolutionary new work,” they note.

You could go out and get 30 dance books and absorb much of the same information you’ll find here, or you could work your way through this volume—never tedious, always enlightening, and with a bracing focus on the lives and loves of the story’s many protagonists—and then go and read more about the artists and forms that particularly pique your interest. If you choose the second path, don’t skip the hundred pages of notes; they are, as is often the case with books on vast and fascinating subjects, stuffed with detail, anecdote, and suggestions for further reading. Rare is the volume that’s both essential reference and page-turner; No Fixed Points is one.


Nina Fonaroff died last month in London, at the age of 89; her training and experience spanned almost the entire period and scope of No Fixed Points. A native New Yorker, she studied with Fokine, absorbed the style of Isadora Duncan, and first encountered Martha Graham and Louis Horst at the Cornish School in Seattle.

After a rich career dancing in the Graham company and choreographing for her own troupe, she offered lucid, intelligent ballet classes for modern dancers in Manhattan (I was, very briefly, her student, and owe to her sage counsel my decision to concentrate on writing). Later she taught choreography at the London School of Contemporary Dance from 1972 until 1990. At her death she was writing a book about choreography; here’s hoping it sees print.