How to be a museum curator

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What you’ll need: an art history degree

Songlist: Can’t Touch This by MC Hammer, The Art Teacher by Rufus Wainwright

Further reading: The Night at the Museum by Milan Trenc, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (but don’t actually read this one)

Monet's waterlilies curve around the specially designed rooms of Musee L'Orangerie in Paris

Yesterday my boyfriend and I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for a family-friendly event called ¡España! I had been lured by the promise of flamenco guitar in the galleries. Since I was fairly sure I would know the guitarist(s)–the Twin Cities flamenco community is not all that big–I was more interested in the concept of looking at art with flamenco guitar as a backdrop than the music itself. After wandering around the galleries waiting to hear guitar strings vibrating in the vicinity, we finally just asked a docent where to find the guitarist. He pointed back the way we came: all the way to the end of the hall, take a left, and all the way to the end of that hall. We wound up in a bright white atrium–no art on the walls–facing an empty black chair with a microphone forlornly angled at the floor and a sign saying “Flamenco guitar: 12 pm-4pm.” I looked at my watch: 3:15 pm.

The day was not a total waste, though, because I always love wandering the Institute’s halls. We walked past old favorites–the easy to love Monet haystack and Van Gogh olive trees, the more violent Max Beckmann triptych that my mom and I discovered last April–and temporary galleries of photography and modern art.

It wasn’t always like this. When I was a kid and it was one of my parents’ birthdays or we had a visitor from out-of-town, we would invariably go to the MIA. I was not bored by the art at the time, but I always assumed beforehand that I would be; this assumption, voiced in protest to my parents, meant that I could not thereafter be seen enjoying myself at the art museum.

Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)

Perhaps it was when I visited London with my mom at the age of 14 that I suddenly realized how much I do enjoy being at art museums. We went to the National Gallery and I fell in love with two paintings there: Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm and The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche. Because they were the first paintings I truly loved, they are still the paintings I love best.

And while I haven’t fallen quite so hard for any other painting, I have been strongly affected many times since while touring art museums: at Madrid’s Reina Sofia I stood shocked at Picasso’s Guernica and felt intensely nostalgic in front Dali’s Muchacha de Espalda. I felt awed by the gigantic water lily paintings that wrap around two ovular galleries in the Musee L’Orangerie in Paris. And I was giddy with excitement seeing Van Gogh’s Starry Night in person at the MoMA.

The best experience I had, though, was a thirty-minute jaunt through the Louvre on a Friday evening with my friend Hilary. Admission was free for those under 26 on Friday evenings, and we’d meant to get there earlier but had dallied. This also happened to be a night where musicians were scattered around the vast palaces. Hilary and I raced past a jazz trio playing in front of an Egyptian pyramid, a violinist in the Great Hall, a brass quartet by the Venus de Milo. It was this beautiful phantasmagoria of color and sound made more exciting by the fact that we were actually, literally, running through the Louvre to take it all in.

What I can’t fathom is how incredible it would be to work in these buildings, to patrol the corridors where incredible art hangs, to have meetings down the hall from John Singer Sargent or El Greco or Caravaggio. Does a curator become complacent about the scenery? It seems doubtful. I imagine that being in that setting day after day would be like a perpetual dream…flamenco guitar or not.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

How to be a makeup artist

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What you’ll need: brushes, palette

Songlist: Lip Gloss by Lil’ Mama, Red Lipstick by Rihanna

Further reading: Making Faces by Kevyn Aucoin

Last night after my final performance of Zorro in the Land of Golden-Breasted Woodpecker, all the flamenco dancers and musicians went out to dinner, for which I kept my stage makeup on.

You see, I don’t normally do a lot of makeup. Usually a little blush and mascara. Maybe some lip gloss. Every once in a while, for a party or dinner, I might wear eye shadow as well (I know, getting crazy).

As a raven in the performance I had to go a little above and beyond my normal routines. I bought false eyelashes–a first for me–and blue and black sparkle eye liners. The six of us ravens lined our lips in black and filled them in with dark purple, and we lucked out that one of our fellow ravens is, in fact, a makeup artist. She created dramatic dark-blue swoops on our eyelids to mimic bird wings and made us dust our faces with plenty of sparkle powder. Though we joked that we looked more like drag queens than ravens, I think we were all excited by the dramatic transformation we all went through.

I’ve always wanted to be better at makeup. At slumber parties in elementary school, girlfriends and I would smear on the darkest blush we could find and bright red lipstick just to laugh at the effect. I still have the makeup kit for girls that my grandmother bought me when I was about 12 and, embarrassingly, I still use some of those items.

I kind of wish I had a makeup artist with me at all times, like last night’s Oscar winning team of Meryl Streep and J. Roy Helland who both mentioned their 37 years together. Failing that, though, I might just need to get better at it myself. Makeup is just too much fun not to play with.


A lamentation of swans

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Exactly one week from right now, I’ll be suited up as a raven for the world premiere of a flamenco performance, Zorro in the Land of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker. This show is a mix of Spanish flamenco music with Ojibwa lore, in which ravens represent  message-bearers and truth-tellers. Six of us women form the raven chorus, or, as we like to call ourselves, the murder.

Just as a group of ravens is known as a murder, so a group of swans can be called a lamentation. Poetic, no?

Birds are a natural creature to portray through dance because of their symbolic qualities as well as their movements. (Our raven dances feature large black shawls–common to flamenco and Ojibwa dance, while also being representative of wings–and some of our choreography is meant to mimic the swooping of the flock). So it’s no wonder that one of the most famous ballets of all time is Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, made possibly even more famous by last year’s Best Picture Oscar nominee Black Swan.

One can’t but help think of the gracefulness of swans when watching the long limbs of Gillian Murphy as Odette, the white swan:

The pas de quatre is similarly avian:

Natalie Portman gives her all as the black swan:

And then there’s this Chinese version of Swan Lake, which is just ridiculous. In all the best ways.

How to be a ballerina

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What you’ll need: pointe shoes, long legs

Songlist: Swan Lake, Nutcracker Suite

Further reading: Dancer by Colum McCann

Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev

The other night my boyfriend and I were making dinner with Beethoven and Schubert playing in the background. Between chopping onions and putting the bread in the oven, I pirouetted around on stockinged feet and pretended to go on pointe. I ruefully commented to my boyfriend that I wished I’d stuck with ballet–it so beautifully expresses what I hear in classical music.

Like many young girls, I had dreams of becoming a ballerina. My mom took me to beginning ballet classes when I was four, but after a few months I complained that preschool tired me out too much, and I didn’t have the energy to dance. (I wonder what “dancing” consisted of at that stage–practicing feet and arm positions?)

My favorite movie in high school, Center Stage, convinced me that I’d made the right decision to quit ballet before I even really got going. Ballet itself is beautiful, but it’s incredibly difficult on the body and the movie highlights the intense competition that American dancers face to get to the top. I never would have made it–my legs aren’t long enough. Also, a professional ballet dancer is like any professional athlete, who, after submitting his or her body to the grueling workouts necessary to become the best of the best, only really has a few good years before the body gives out.

It wasn’t until after college that I tried dance classes again–flamenco, this time. Unlike ballerinas, flamenco dancers are thought to only become better with age, as the range of life’s experiences allow a dancer to fully express deep emotion via movement. I’m thankful that at 25 I’m still considered a spring chicken–I’m the youngest in our dance company–and I can imagine dancing flamenco for decades to come.

Still, sometimes I look at those dancers in my flamenco company who have a solid ballet background and admire their grace, the way the hold themselves at all times. You can tell when someone is or has been a ballet dancer–they sit differently, they walk differently. Ballet leaves its mark on muscles and bones. An art form that molds the performer to the dance: it’s a thought both terrifying and beautiful.


Degas's ballerinas

How to be a hero


What you’ll need: courage and a cape, preferably

Songlist: Hero by Enrique Iglesias, How to Save a Life by The Fray

Further reading: Zorro by Isabel Allende, The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

Did I ever want to be a hero? Well yeah, of course. What kid doesn’t? Childhood is a powerless state; therefore, when we’re young, we imagine ourselves having superhuman strength and courage. No wonder Harry Potter was such a phenomenon–he’s just an ordinary boy until one day he finds out he’s remarkably special.

I got to thinking about heroes this past week when I began rehearsals for a flamenco dance performance that my teacher, Susana, is choreographing. The story is interesting, and one based on Susana’s own family history. Her great-grandmother, a member of the Ojibwa tribe, had her daughters taken from her and placed in a Catholic boarding school, where they were baptized and proselytized. In Susana’s retelling, the folk-hero Zorro comes to rescue the girls and deliver them back to their mother.

Every story needs a good hero–literally. My current how-to-write-a-novel book (I have many) gives a description as to why we’re drawn to heroes:

What draws you to people in real life? Most people leave you indifferent, I’ll bet. Does the sight of your fellow grocery shoppers cause your heart to swell with love and ache for the fragile beauty of our shared human experience? Yeah, not so much.

Now think about the people whom you deeply admire, who stir in you awe, respect, humility, and high esteem. Are these regular people, no different than anyone else? They may be everyday folks like friends or family, true enough, but you see in them what is exceptional, strong, beautiful, and brave. Heroes are people whose actions inspire us.”

In fact, the desire for heroism is not limited to childhood; I think we hope to be heroic all our lives, in whatever small or large way we can. Villains, both historical and literary, are just heroes with misplaced ideals.

So, how to be a hero? It’s not so difficult, really. Be kind. Take care of others. Look for those who need help the most, and find a way to provide assistance. Also, if need be, overthrow oppressive governments, end war forever, or rescue a kitty from a tree. And, just for good measure, slash Z’s everywhere you go.

El Amor Brujo

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Written by Manuel de Falla, the ballet El Amor Brujo (Love, the Witch) depicts an Andalusian gypsy girl, Candela, who is haunted by the ghost of her dead husband, Carmelo. At one point her band of gypsies perform a ritual fire dance to rid themselves of the ghost. The following is a flamenco version of the fire dance, a dance form particularly well-suited to displays of witchcraft. The incredible Cristina Hoyos dances as Candela:

The flamenco trend

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A friend of my parents whom I met recently asked if interest in flamenco was on the rise in the United States. I said I wasn’t sure–enrollment seems fairly steady at my flamenco school (some people have been dancing at this studio for decades and there is no overwhelming influx of new dancers)–but that I wouldn’t be surprised if certain events had increased its prominence around the world, such as Franco’s death in 1975 (he was a staunch opponent to Spain’s unique cultures) and the opening ceremonies for Barcelona’s 1992 Olympics in which famed dancer Cristina Hoyos performed:

This past summer while taking flamenco lessons at Carmen de las Cuevas in Granada, I was astonished by the range of countries represented at the school. The group of people I spent the most time with were from Germany, France, Holland, Finland, Iceland, and Spain, but I also met people from Russia, the Czech Republic, Japan, Australia, Mexico, South Africa, Norway, and on and on. I was the only American. For an art form that is so closely tied to one very specific region of the world, it was strange to realize how far its influence has spread. So perhaps my parents’ friend was right to believe that flamenco is far more popular now than ever before. It does show up in unexpected places, like in the following music video by Iron and Wine. I never would have joined Iron and Wine’s folksy music with flamenco, but it fits beautifully:

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