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Flash Review 2, 1-2: "A Mammal's Notebook"
The Eric Satie Cabaret, with Puppets

By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2002 Tom Patrick

NEW YORK -- Ah, Satie! Most musical authorities agree: Erik Satie was unappreciated in his lifetime, but with time's passing his music endures, no matter what was thought of him when he strolled the streets of Montmartre, humming a slow waltz he would bestow on a chanteuse at the cabaret Chat Noir. While Satie was chronically misunderstood -- and like anyone in the arts this criticism could provide grist for the mill and therefore might seem a mixed blessing for him -- there he is popping up in our music appreciation classes, film soundtracks, and concert halls a century later.

Great Small Works, which presented "A Mammal's Notebook: The Eric Satie Cabaret" at La MaMa over the holidays, deserves my kudos for enlarging my musical education a bit and doing it so painlessly, with such great aplomb.

What, it may be asked, am I doing as a dance person (dare I say, 'Insider'?) covering this evening? Well, I'm not a choreography critic specifically, nor just an evaluator of the career dancer. Great Small Works uses puppetry of several sorts, as well as live people and some inventive stage technology, in conjunction [this time] with the prodigious talents of keyboardist Margaret Leng Tan to give a multi-faceted glimpse of the oft-neglected composer Erik Satie. Look, the man even changed his 'Eric' to 'Erik,' a tip to me that life-as-it-was-served-to-him was not in his view quite accurate or adequate. Toward these misunderstood in their time -- witness Vincent Van Gogh -- I do have a particular curiosity and admiration.

Through their use of vignette personae (John Cage, Professor Skulsky and 'The Critic Willy,') ingenious recreations of cabaret excerpts using a versatile cast as singers and dancers, and a fluent arsenal of puppetry surrogates, GSW gives tribute to Satie in a wry manner of which even he would approve. His life plays out before us: the doubts of his teachers, his making art within 'conventional' idioms like the music-hall or cabaret settings (hey, remember how Martha Graham got her first gigs? Burlesque and the popular follies-like venues of the day, I believe?) and his fruitful exodus from Paris to the Arcueil suburbs where Satie wrote as 'the only composer with eyes.' Satie's forays into the mysticism of Rosacrucian rites and his collaboration with Dadaist artists of the day such as Duchamp, Man Ray, Picasso and Cocteau are covered in turn, and are accompanied by the impassioned playing of Ms. Leng Tan and by some mesmerizing puppetry by the Company. His role as a vanguard and servant to his art reminds me in some respects of Dmitri Shostakovitch: enmeshed in the world as it existed at the time, but unwilling or unable to simply 'color within the lines.' Though this run has ended (on December 30,) I urge you to seek out or watch out for any other offerings by this fine company, Great Small Works. Its work on Satie has piqued my interest higher still (I will be working on the Satie/Cocteau collaboration "Parade" this Spring with the Met Opera Ballet -- no plug intended there) as its multifaceted approach is a fine one. Erik Satie came alive for me through their conduit, and the thanks here are multiplied: everybody wins with vision like this, and with the interest in sharing the out-of-synch genius of Erik Satie in "The Mammal's Notebook" We can only look forward to the next object of GSW's attentions....

 

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