(Dimiter Kenarov’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 7/23; Photo: During the coronavirus pandemic, Ivo Dimchev embarked on a series of small-scale shows in private homes. Photographs by Mihaela Aroyo for The New Yorker.)

The queer performance artist has improbably become one of Bulgaria’s most famous singer-songwriters.

In April, 2020, about a month into Bulgaria’s first full coronavirus lockdown, when all restaurants and theatres and music venues were shut, the performance artist and musician Ivo Dimchev posted a message on his Facebook profile announcing that he would perform private shows upon request at apartments and houses around Sofia and beyond. “I don’t want to sing online,” he wrote. “I want to sing in people’s homes . . . I mean in their living rooms . . . They sit on their sofas . . . I sit in a chair three meters away with my MIDI keyboard upon my knees. Of course, we’re all wearing masks. I arrive, I don’t touch anything, I sit down, I sing for 30-40 minutes, and I leave.” The price of a home concert was buying an Ivo Dimchev T-shirt.

In the past few years, Dimchev, an openly queer artist in a relatively conservative and patriarchal country, has improbably become one of Bulgaria’s most famous singer-songwriters. As a performer, he slides effortlessly between masculine and feminine modes; his vocal range is equally protean, moving from a low baritone to a soprano embellished with theremin-like vibratos. His fans compare him to Freddie Mercury, Kate Bush, and Annie Lennox, but his closest parallel may be the English-born singer Anohni, formerly of the band Antony and the Johnsons.

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The words and wisdom of Constantin Stanislavski:

The auditorium was filled by a crowd of simple workingmen and peasants. They listened to what was going on on the stage in the deepest of silences. The serious thoughtful mood . . . prevented them from staging an ordinary theatrical ovation. After the end of the performance the spectators sat for a long time without any movement and departed without any noise, as if they were leaving a temple of worship after prayer. (MLIA)


(Anna Galayda’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 7/7; Photo: Olga Kereluk.)


Young dancers from other countries frequently come to study at Russia’s prestigious ballet schools, but some stay afterwards and have gone on to become lead performers at Russian theater companies—and what’s more, not just in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
1. May Nagahisa, Japan 

May Nagahisa was recently promoted to first soloist at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. In the ballet hierarchy, this is just one step from the very top—the title of a principal. For a dancer at one of the world’s leading theaters, this is a meteoric rise. Nagahisa made her debut at the Mariinsky at the age of 15, which is extremely rare and essentially unprecedented for a foreigner. At the time, May was a student at the famous Princess Grace Academy in Monaco, having won a spot there thanks to the Youth America Grand Prix competition. It was almost as if fate itself was leading her to Jean-Christophe Maillot’s famous Monte Carlo Ballet, but Maillot recognized that Nagahisa’s potential in classical ballet was much greater and broader than what was required for his productions and released her into the big world.

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(Sally Weale’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/20; Photo: The education secretary, Gavin Williamson. Arts groups have warned cuts would affect the viability of some courses at universities, leading to possible closures. Photograph: Tayfun Salcı/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock.)

Education secretary Gavin Williamson says money will be put towards Stem and medicine courses

Ministers have been accused of “one of the biggest attacks on arts and entertainment in English universities in living memory” after proposals to cut funding for arts and creative subjects in higher education were confirmed by the universities regulator.

When the planned cuts emerged earlier this year, artists and musicians launched a campaign to fight the proposals, accusing the government of neglecting the country’s “cultural national health” by pursuing what they described as “catastrophic” funding cuts to arts subjects at universities.

The controversial reforms affect a specific funding stream which is directed at high-cost subjects in higher education and will result in money being taken away from creative arts subjects, while more is invested in other high-cost subjects, including science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem), medicine and healthcare, in line the government’s priorities.

The Public Campaign for the Arts warned the cuts would threaten the viability of arts courses in universities, leading to possible closures, which would in turn damage the pipeline of talent leading from higher education into the creative industries, which are worth £111bn a year to the UK economy. Courses affected include music, dance, performing arts, art and design and media studies.

The cuts will halve the high-cost funding subsidy for creative and arts subjects from the start of the next academic year. The universities regulator for England, the Office for Students (OfS) insisted the reduction was only equivalent to about 1% of the combined course fee and OfS funding, but campaigners said together with other cuts the impact would be devastating.

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(Alex Ross’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 7/19; illustration: The opera’s atmosphere is at once sensual and unsettled—dread in vivid colors. Illustration by Jun Cen.)

The new opera, which anchored the Aix-en-Provence Festival, is a monumental cry against gun violence.

Kaija Saariaho’s opera “Innocence,” which had its première at the Aix-en-Provence Festival on July 3rd, contains one of the most unnerving scenes I’ve witnessed at a theatre. About forty minutes into the piece, in a scene marked “IT,” the chorus chants the phrase “When it happened” in staggered rhythm, with low piano and double-basses punching up each syllable. A frame drum raps out sixteenth notes in rapid-fire bursts, and two trumpets let loose a series of “rips”—quick, shrieking upward glissandos. Then the orchestral mayhem cuts off abruptly; sopranos oscillate queasily between the notes A-flat and G; and the brutal rhythm resumes in the percussion. The terror is made explicit onstage, as a high-school student stumbles through a door, his arms covered in blood. A shooter, a fellow-student, is laying siege to a Finnish international school. Opera, which has been making art from death for more than four centuries, is recording a new kind of horror.

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Vs. indulges in a virtual game of ‘tag’

Mabou Mines presents 

written by
Carl Hancock Rux
directed by
Mallory Catlett

Online premiere July 30 – August 8

Fridays and Saturdays at 7pm
Sundays at 2pm
Becca Blackwell, David Thomson, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp,
and Perry Yung 
Video design by
Onome Ekeh 
Digital Streaming design by
Eamonn Farrell
Vs. can be considered part tribunal of evidence — guided and constrained by the statutory powers of the “Interrogator” — and part psychodynamic investigation of a sovereign polity, a collective of accused citizenry. Vs. creates a philosophical tribunal to acquit or prosecute crimes against humanity. As writer Carl Hancock Rux and team work within the new parameters that “zoom performance” affords, Vs. indulges in a virtual game of ‘tag’ in which members of the audience find themselves complicit when randomly selected as “The Interrogator” — an identity hack that speaks a new digital patois.

Support for Vs. was provided by Venturous Theater Fund, a fund of Tides Foundation.

VTF supports ambitious new work for the stage and the artists who create it. We seek to fund ambitious and challenging work by creating room for experimentation and risk in new play production. Our goal is to help writers achieve the freedom to write the plays they fear would otherwise go unproduced; and to enable producing organizations to say “yes” instead of “no” to worthy but challenging author-driven projects. We are particularly interested in seeding new play productions that involve controversial subject matter, large casts, or other perceived obstacles.

SUPPORT FOR MABOU MINES is provided by  the National Endowment for the Arts, The New York State Council on the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in Partnership with the City Council and Materials for the Arts, The NYC Women’s Fund by the City of New York Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment/The New York Foundation for the Arts, Axe-Houghton Foundation, The Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, Howard Gilman Foundation, The Jerome Foundation, David and Leni Moore Family Foundation, New Music USA, The NYC COVID-19 Response and Impact Fund in The New York Community Trust, Shubert Foundation, the W Trust and Emma A. Shaefer Charitable Trust.

Visit Mabou Mines

Photo of Carl Hancock Rux: Carl Hancock Rux


(Jessa Crispin’s article appeared in the Spectator, 7/15; photo:  Wallace Shawn in 2004—Getty.)

Films, plays and novels can lurk, waiting for the right cultural context to resonate in a whole new way

Pity the aesthete, the flâneur and the opera-goer. Those who find the contents of their own heads so dull and mundane they must fill them instead with the fantastical inventions of our most extravagant lunatics. They have been locked out of the theaters and cinemas and public spaces that make them feel at their most alive and abandoned to the content programming of Netflix and whatever Tenet was supposed to be. They’ve been deprived, sheltered, cut off from the only thing that gives their lives meaning.

I’m describing me. I’m asking you to feel sorry for me. If I don’t, at least twice a week, have a reason to wear a ridiculous gown and watch people leaping about on a stage set to a glass-shattering score, I feel only half alive, and I have been languishing under lockdown.

There has been some experimentation with bringing the art world into everybody’s living room, but a poorly filmed opera, with the cameras right up close where we can see the pancake make-up and thick eyeliner on the tenors, watched on the same couch I slouch on to watch the Copa America matches, doesn’t really recreate the transcendent experience of the theater.

So I was a little trepidatious about how this adaptation of Wallace Shawn’s hit play The Designated Mourner into a podcast was going to work. But it works extremely well, and it is a joy to listen to. Well, ‘joy’ is overdoing it, as its story of ongoing political collapse and the rise of an oligarchic class is maybe just a smidge too much like watching the news these days, but it does take what can be the most powerful elements of a stage production and find a way to reproduce them in a more intimate setting.

The 1996 work is transformed into something halfway between a radio play and podcast, light on the Foley artist side of things, putting an emphasis on the intense monologues that feel akin to the usual bro-y discussions you get in most podcasts these days, where digressions and anecdotes litter the more serious conversations about whether or not we are living through the apocalypse. Shawn revives his role as Jack, the professor who is obsessed with his grief and disappointment as society falls apart around him.

It’s a work that has survived through many different forms and adaptations, finding new life in multiple stagings, film and now a podcast. It retains its aggressive and confrontational power, and it’s easy to forget you are listening to a work of fiction. Which probably doesn’t say great things about our political reality, but that’s fine.

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(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/14; Photo: The tones converge … South Pacific, with choreography by Ann Yee. Photograph: Johan Persson.)

Old shows often pass nervously through today’s ideological mettle-detectors, especially when depicting racial and international relations. But Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, a 1949 musical about American military and French economic exploitation of paradise islands, sets off impressively few alarms.

Oscar Hammerstein was an anti-racism writer and campaigner as early as 1927’s Show Boat, and South Pacific expands the agenda. Nurse Nellie Forbush’s rejection of Parisian émigré Emile de Becque – who has earlier stimulated her to sing “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy!” – when she discovers the widower has mixed-race children seems contemptible now, but was also condemned in the show 72 years ago.

A Rodgers and Hammerstein song, You’ll Never Walk Alone (from Carousel), is already a football anthem, and South Pacific’s You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught, arguing that racism is not innate but incubated within societies and families, might, after recent events, usefully be played on a loop outside Wembley Stadium, 10 Downing Street and the Home Office.

Hammerstein mentored Stephen Sondheim, and the pupil’s Pacific Overtures (1976) nods, in title and critique of colonialism, to the earlier work. That through-line feels emphasised in this South Pacific by director Daniel Evans, musical director Cat Beveridge and choreographer Ann Yee.

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Mollie Murk and Tony Reimonenq III play soldiers in Henry V. | Photo by Jon Cherry

(Marty Rosen’s article appeared in Leo Weekly, 7/14.)

In 1398, King Richard II of England did something that astonished the cutthroat, blood-soaked world of medieval England: he stopped two noblemen from killing one another.

The incident is recounted in great detail in Raphael Holinshed’s “Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland” and in another chronicle by Edward Hall — and should you ever find yourself wishing desperately for another season of “Game of Thrones,” just download Holinshed from Project Gutenberg — you’ll soon wonder how anyone at all survived the Middle Ages.

These chronicles, published in the 1500s, had an enormous influence on the course of English culture and history. They became source material for a slew of Shakespeare’s plays (not only the histories, but “Macbeth “and “King Lear”), as well as a number of his contemporaries.  

What happened in 1398 is that two noblemen, Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke, came to Richard’s court and accused one another of treason. Richard tried to talk them down, but failed: They threw their gages (armored gloves) upon the ground and in the custom of the day the challenged one another to trial by combat as part of a code of honor.

According to both chronicles, the day of their battle was a grand affair, with some 10,000 knights on hand to keep the peace in case a fight broke out between the men’s factions.

But, at the last possible minute, Richard halted the affair and sentenced both men to exile. This moment leads inexorably to Richard being deposed and Bolingbroke eventually becoming King Henry IV.

For hundreds of years, trial by combat was a fixture of European law, and though King Richard II had the power to stop the duel, his doing so must have felt as disruptive as, say, a U.S. President deciding to suspend the Supreme Court.

It was such a fraught moment that 200 years later, in 1595, Shakespeare used the incident to kick of his play “Richard II” and the epic four play cycle that contemporary critics call The Henriad: “Richard II,” “Henry IV” (parts 1 and 2), and “Henry V.”  

These four plays cover a quarter century that ushers in a new world order. By the end of “Henry V,” the romanticized old world order — represented in “Richard II” by John of Gaunt, who famously laments Richard’s degradation of his beloved “sceptered isle” — has given way to a world where “honor” can first be mocked by the smart, cynical Falstaff — and then comically satirized as Shakespeare depicts people in the scruffy lower classes start to mimic the language and behavior of the gentry.

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(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/13; Photograph: Marilyn Kingwill.)

Starring in a Zoom production of the play Masks and Faces tested my acting skills – not to mention my singing

About six weeks ago a small bombshell landed in my inbox. Headed “A Job Offer”, it was an email from Neil McPherson, director of the Finborough theatre in London, asking if I would like to play the role of a theatre critic in a Zoom recording of a Victorian play, Masks and Faces, by Tom Taylor and Charles Reade. I hesitated for a while (don’t real actors need the work?) but eventually accepted, deciding it would be cowardly to chicken out. And I’m glad I did as the experience was an eye-opener.

One good reason for saying yes was the play itself: a hidden gem that I had seen at the Finborough in 2004. The play, which was first performed in 1852, is a paean to Peg Woffington, the Dublin-born actor who conquered the London stage in the 18th century. During the action we see her returning an infatuated admirer to his rustic wife and rescuing an impoverished dramatist from penury. But there is much wit in this Woffington: when the dramatist claims that his wife laughs at nothing, Peg replies: “Try her with one of your tragedies.” The play also contains an intriguing debate about illusion and reality with Peg concluding: “We oft confound the actor with the part” – as true now as when the play was written?

But what on earth could I bring to the role? For a start, there are two critics in the play – the waspish Mr Snarl and the oily Mr Soaper – and it was left to me and my colleague Fiona Mountford to decide who was to play which. Fiona generously ceded to me the role of Mr Snarl, who bitches about the players with whom he hobnobs and who is given to loftily sententious remarks about art. As a critic, I may be prone to the latter, but I hope not the former. Early in our two-day rehearsal period, I said to our director, Matthew Iliffe, that I was going to model my performance on that of George Sanders as Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. I don’t come within spitting distance of Sanders’s supercilious arrogance but that, at least, was my inspiration.

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