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BY SCOTT STIFFLER | STRIKE! Burrowing down to the core of boxing and chamber music’s insular, highly disciplined worlds — then extracting their most dynamic elements — The International Street Cannibals (ISC) are on a focused mission to disrupt convention, challenge assumptions and spark conversation about the rituals that unite performer and audience.
Since 2005, the maverick collective of well-traveled composers and instrumentalists have merged their new and classical repertoire with the work of athletes, singers, dancers and videographers — for performances at St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery, the HOWL! Festival, (Le) Poisson Rouge and the Brooklyn anchor location of Gleason’s Gym.
There, on March 16, ISC will return to present “Strike!” — a sprawling hybrid of music, dance and sport that takes its audience among the sweet science mecca’s three boxing rings, weight equipment, treadmills and a central forest of well-worn heavy bags that regularly inspire even the most seemingly disinterested to curl their passive digits into a fist and make contact.
Short 10 to 12-minute sets of three-minute chamber music works will alternate with nine-minute boxing matches of three rounds each. Thematic interludes that involve music and movement will serve as transitions during the 60 seconds of down time between rounds.
Boxing is hardly unfamiliar narrative terrain (“Golden Boy” just had a well-received Broadway revival). But ISC founder Dan Barrett sees in Gleason’s an opportunity to strip away the layers that separate artist, athlete and audience — by taking classical music down from its distant proscenium stage and transferring the human drama of boxing from a theater back to its roots.
“We love those concert halls that appeal to us in a certain aesthetic way,” says Barrett of the typical chamber music venue. “But often, the aesthetics work in opposition to the acoustics. In the gym — which is a conservatory of this craft — everything, from the lockers to the rules for trainers to the boxing office to the arrangement of the rings, is predicated on the task at hand. It has a lean, exquisite functionality.”
So Barrett stages “Strike!” as an upright, moveable event rather than a static one — which makes for a very different experience than sitting in the nosebleed section of a sports arena or left of center in a theater. Mere feet away from the action, you’ll hear the punches landing and the strings being plucked. You’ll see them sweat.
“[Bertolt] Brecht had said at one point that the audience is to know this is work, not art,” says Barrett. “Art can have quotes around it, and can be an enameling of the truth. The idea of performers being elevated on a stage while the audience sits around them strikes me as a territorial, disempowering approach. It was very revealing that at the first few ‘Strikes,’ our belly dancer went around with Middle Eastern food. There’s no ritual without some sense of coming together. Brecht had argued for this. He wanted the audience to come to the theater with the critical faculty with which they come to a soccer game. Many of our countrymen, who we denigrate for having short attention spans, are capable of the most nuanced and sophisticated analysis of a sporting event as they observe it. Their enjoyment is commensurate with their appreciation and knowledge of its history, its technical grammar and various attendant details.”
No insider knowledge of the often impenetrable worlds of classical music or pugilism are necessary to enjoy “Strike!,” Barrett assures — but he does hope that by merging these two seemingly distant forms of expression, the uninitiated will come to appreciate how each offers its own virtuosic displays of physical dexterity, alongside the capacity to express a highly individualized style while adhering to strict rules mastered after years of sober dedication to the craft.
“Having some background in boxing,” says the man who in a younger incarnation trained for a year with a man who spent time working with legendary trainer Freddie Brown, “I was moved by the idea that one is held rigorously responsible for one’s technical grammar — and if that fails, the results can be rather…severe. Boxing teaches us something about art, which seems to have lost a lot of the technical guidelines that define it.”
Asked what performing artists can learn from an athlete’s ability to connect with a crowd, Barrett goes directly to “The Greatest” — Muhammad Ali, who for decades has ranked among the world’s most universally recognized faces (as much for his verbal sparring as his string of victories). “Ali,” argues Barrett, “captures the popular mind because he is lyrical. But we forget that Ali’s greatest strength was his understanding of the necessary use of position, space, angles, application of combination punches…his entire arsenal of offense and defense — and that includes the famous footwork, such as the Ali Shuffle. We see that as adornment, but it was a functional weapon.”
The intangible element of stage presence, says Barrett, is what makes the great ones great — but charisma matters very little if you can’t deliver the goods. You’ve gotta have skills before you can shuffle — and the earlier that foundation is built, the better. “Like the boxer who starts at six or seven,” argues Barrett, “the young violinist starts from an early age, establishing the fundamentals of his craft within which will grow his capacity for enlarging that very technique and, as a consequence, the attendant capacities for expression.”
A late-blooming cellist who began his studies at the age of 10 ½, Barrett recalls being “raised within the ferment of the protest folk music and early rock era. This fertilized a love of lyricism, and troubadour sensitivity to an internal storyline. I was trained by my elder brothers, with whom I played bass guitar, on a nightly basis, from ages 9 ½ through 14. So my basis in creating improvisatory music while adhering to a style were understood at a young age.” Assistant Director Chala Yancy (who plays viola in “Strike!”) brings her own form of cross-discipline to the project, having fought in the Golden Gloves, played with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and taught classical music.
In collaboration with choreographed works by Megan Sipe and non-staged matches from boxers who range in age from 11 to 17, the ensemble of “Strike!” musicians will perform what Barrett describes as “rich and thematically charged transitions” and stand-alone sets — many of which feature world premiere pieces meant to compliment, contrast, praise and rib the in-ring drama.
Of the French horn solo “Full Count,” Barrett says, “I asked John Clark, a 10-time Down Beat winner and a longtime professor at SUNY Purchase, to create an off-kilter, cubist version of Wagner’s “Siegfried (Act 2).” The horn call is characterized by wild leaps…something of great machismo. I wanted to satire these old conventions and notions of masculinity. I sent to Megan, the old video of ‘Woolly Bully,’ by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, in which these women are standing around as half statues, half adornment. So in this piece, John will be flanked by a number of women who start to pose in statuesque fashion.”
Other compositions include Dan Cooper’s “Soca” (a flute, French horn, bass trombone, violin, cello and double bass homage to Caribbean Soca music), Paul Hindemith’s “Musikstück” (from a song cycle about an imaginary and metaphoric city built and ruled by children) and Barrett’s own “Technical Knock Out.”
Every element of the performance, says Barrett, is a variation on the theme of “independence of thought in the face of adversity and opposition,” with many of works dissecting “the primal indignation of boxers who’ve had a tough life. There is something in personal rage that recognizes the sanctity of the soul and defies violation.”
BUFFALO GIRLS Whether you’re duking it out ring or just watching, the fight game is a gambler’s dream. “Someone will lose, someone will win,” says a promoter. “People are interested in that,” he asserts…probably for the same reason this plump, seen-in-all maker of matches and shaper of destinies has such a tense, troubled glint in his eye. In the ring, cash is king — and who’s not interested in the drama of a clear-cut decision that ends with money in your pocket or a head full of regret?
Profit and pride, in that order, drive rural Thailand’s underground child boxing economy — a desperate method of breadwinning put under the microscope by Todd Kellstein, in his sharply observed, bittersweet documentary.
“Buffalo Girls” follows eight-year-old Pet and Stam through the rigors of training, in anticipation of winning their country’s national Muay Thai championship. Along with local village bragging rights, the victor walks away with a cash prize — one that both Pet and Stam’s families have already earmarked for life-changing purposes. No trips to Disney here, folks. These alternately outgoing and shy, deeply spiritual young girls lift weights, do hundreds of sit-ups and run on dirt roads through the serenely beautiful Thai countryside while carrying the burden of a somber focus. Thanks in large part to the film’s moody pace and contemplative bouts of silence, determined looks and childish giggles alike convey a knowing sense that everything is riding on that big win.
It’s no wonder. The director tells us, on the film’s website, “Child boxers in Thailand [30,000 of them under the age of 15] sometimes take home more than what a farmer or factory worker earns in a month. Fighting without headgear, there is certainly a physical toll on the children. But in a country where the per capita income is less than 10 percent of that of the United States, there are other harsh realities to consider. The impoverished farming communities of rural Thailand offer few opportunities for people to better their lives, and boxing is one of the few alternatives to the country’s commercial sex trade as a means of escaping the extreme poverty.”
“I cannot question the morality of the situation after learning how different the way of life is in Thailand,” says four-time New York Golden Gloves champion and two-time amateur World Champion Keisher McLeod-Wells (now a professional boxer coming off a February 21 win). Keisher, along with her twin sister (filmmaker/actress Teisher McLeod), attended “Buffalo Girls” when it screened as part of November 2012’s Shadowbox Film Festival.
Equally conflicted, Teisher says that although it was “disturbing to watch eight-year-old girls fighting to make money for their families, I appreciated the cinematography. It showed how poor Thailand is but, at the same time, was able to capture the beauty that the country offers.”
Director Kellstein, who seems locked in his own struggle between neutral observer and social crusader, certainly knows how to work the film’s glaring inconsistencies for maximum effect — eliciting outrage and empathy from the contrast between work and play, extreme poverty and rural beauty and, looming over it all, the rewards of victory vs. the consequences of defeat.
While watching the film, Keisher recalls, “I was able to witness the moments of pleasure these families are able to have in a world that is intensely incomparable to the one I know. To see how the audience and family members treated these two girls like true warriors despite their gender was refreshing — but I’m grateful that I, unlike the girls in the film, don’t have to box to support a family. I’m lucky that I get to enjoy the sport for what it has to offer, which can be confidence, strength and discipline — all external things. I got to compete in the amateurs and travel around to different states and countries with a team of girls without those kinds of worries. That’s why I feel so grateful for my choice to box competitively.”
But even though “Buffalo Girls” effectively documents a variety of elements peripheral to the all-important final bout (family history, spirituality), it suffers — if only slightly — from the winner-takes-all narrative so common to tales set in the world of sport. “The director did a great job capturing the competitive moments in the fighting scenes,” says Teisher, who nonetheless adds, “There were moments when I felt the coverage of the competition was a bit one-sided. I would have liked to have seen more corner coverage of the coaching between the losing girl and her trainer. Instead, the film seemed to concentrate more on the winner’s coaching from her trainer between rounds.”
A more nuanced approach would have made for a stronger dramatic arc, to be sure — but Kellstein still manages to send audiences out of the theater with a profound appreciation of why these girls fight, along with lingering concern as to what sort of life awaits both winner and loser. “It is difficult to understand the economic circumstances that lead to child boxing,” concludes the filmmaker. “But what now angers me is economic inequalities in the world. These circumstances exist and we should think of ways to make it better for everyone. Not just in Thailand, but everywhere.”
THE 2013 NY DAILY NEWS
GOLDEN GLOVES Having begun on January 30, the field of nearly 600 applicants to the 86th Annual New York Daily News Golden Gloves is well into the process of being whittled down. Far from the prestigious finals at Barclays Center (April 18/19), elimination bouts are currently taking place in athletic clubs, high schools and gyms throughout the metropolitan area. That’s where the real action is, though, and it’s worth negotiation some unfamiliar subway stops and neighborhoods (when you see an ambulance parked near a building that looks large enough to host a sporting event, you’re almost there).
No way to tell, of course, if any of the fighters will match or surpass the achievements of past Gloves contestants such as Emile Griffith, Mark Breland, Jose Torres, Floyd Patterson, Howard Davis, Riddick Bowe or three-time world women’s lightweight champ Alicia Ashley. One thing is certain, though: Plenty of young men and women will make their debut or improve upon impressive amateur records — and there’s a good chance some of the names you’ve never heard of today will be the Olympic athletes and professional fighters of tomorrow.
INTERNATIONAL STREET CANNIBALS PRESENT: STRIKE!
Sat., March 16, 8pm
At Gleason’s Gym
77 Front St. in Dumbo, Brooklyn
Tickets: $20, $15 for students
Proceeds benefit the Gleason’s “Give a Kid a Dream” program
For info, call 718-797-2872
Also visit gleasonsgym.net
Directed by Todd Kellstein
66 minutes (Not Rated)
Available on DVD, Netflix, Hulu & iTunes
Also visit firetheboxingdiva.com
Finals: Thurs., April 18 / Fri., April 19
At Barclays Center (620 Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn)
For tickets and info, visit nydailynews.com/goldengloves