Articulate

S5 E25 | FULL EPISODE

Wayfinders

Elizabeth Strout: Steady As She Goes-author Elizabeth Strout, spent decades finessing her own unique narratives, often using her own upbringing as a touchstone; Pamela Frank: Fit As A Fiddle-celebrated violinist Pamela Frank was at the height of her career when she suffered a life-altering injury; The Very Moving Rennie Harris-pioneer of hip-hop dance theater, but it took a while...

AIRED: March 27, 2020 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

(soft music)

- Welcome to "Articulate," the show that explores

the useful truths that art explains so well.

I'm Jim Cotter and on this episode, wayfinders.

Before she was a Pulitzer Prize winning author,

Elizabeth Strout spent decades

finessing her own unique narratives,

often using her own upbringing as a touchstone.

- My parents came from Puritan stock.

That's an entirely different culture.

Which of course I didn't know

because I was brought up in it.

They're not particularly demonstrative.

- [Jim] The celebrated violinist, Pamela Frank

was at the height of her career

when she suffered a life altering injury.

After nearly a decade, she's playing again

but now with new found purpose.

- I was in complete agony and I just thought,

you know, just help me.

You know, and I will do what anybody says now.

- [Jim] Rennie Harris and hip hop dance grew up together.

Today the choreographer is celebrated

for the unique way he's pushed the form forward.

- It's a difference than just making a salad or soup.

You know that that's a pepper

and what the pepper's gonna do.

You know what the tomato's gonna do.

With bodies, with spirits, you know,

you don't know what you're gonna get.

- [Jim] That's all coming up on "Articulate."

(orchestral music)

(contemplative music)

Today, Elizabeth Strout is a literary powerhouse.

(contemplative music)

The author of seven novels,

six of them bestsellers, she won the Pulitzer Prize

for fiction in 2009 for her bestselling collection

of linked short stories, "Olive Kitteridge."

in 2014, it was turned into

an Emmy Award winning HBO miniseries.

And in 2019, the book's hugely popular sequel,

"Olive, Again" reunited readers with beloved characters.

So it's a good thing that Strout didn't give up

when she failed to get published by age 30

or even 40.

Her debut novel, "Amy and Isabelle" came out in 1998

when she was 42.

Many were surprised by her success,

but not her daughter, Serena.

- She had grown up, you know,

eating her breakfast off the tops of manuscripts.

She just always believed I was a writer.

She'd come home from school when she was really little

and she'd say, "Did you get an agent yet, Mommy?"

And I'd say, "No," and she'd say, "Oh, you will."

and she just believed in me.

It was very interesting and so sweet.

- [Jim] Despite her relationship with her own daughter,

Strout's stories often revolve

around strained parent-child relationships.

Her characters face

and work through discord and estrangement.

They get knocked sideways by events that test

or reveal their love.

In 2016's "My Name Is Lucy Barton" for example,

filial ties bind but also cut.

- Or called to me,

and when I called them it was always hard.

I felt I heard in their voices anger,

a habitual resentment,

as though they were silently saying

you are not one of us.

As though I had betrayed them by leaving them.

I suppose I had.

- [Jim] Elizabeth Strout was raised in rural Maine

by parents she has described as skeptical of pleasure,

true to their Puritan roots.

But encouraged by her mother,

the young Strout filled notebooks

with sharp eyed observations about daily life

in small town New England.

She was interested not only in outward appearances,

but in the hidden, inner lives

of the people she encountered.

- It is just about one of my earliest memories

of just watching.

Just watching people.

We didn't have a television,

we lived in a very isolated areas,

both in New Hampshire and in Maine.

So my sense of observing people goes back so far.

And it's not just observing them,

it's like I will look at somebody and think,

oh what does it physically feel like

to be in that pair of jeans?

You know?

So I've done that for so many years

that it's what my imagination does.

- [Jim] But putting her imagination to work

for money seemed at first unimaginable.

After getting an English degree from Bates College

in Maine, Strout spent a few years bouncing around

from waitress jobs, to temp work.

She even played piano in a bar.

Then she decided she wanted to be a legal aide attorney.

But almost as soon as she tried it,

she learned that practicing law was not for her.

So she got married, had her daughter

and for the next 16 years juggled fiction and family life.

Teaching at a community college while continuing

to quietly but doggedly write her own stories.

Strout and her husband would eventually part,

but still she says their union fundamentally changed

her understanding of relationships.

- My parents came from Puritan stock.

That's an entirely different culture.

Which of course I didn't know

because I was brought up in it.

They're not particularly demonstrative,

there's not a lot of,

- Hugging and.

- Hugging or kissing or anything like that.

And then my first husband was Jewish.

And it was amazing.

It was like a whole barn door had fallen off

and I realized, wow!

You know there's this whole world out there.

Because they would talk about anything.

And they would hug and kiss and my father-in-law

would kiss my husband when he first saw him.

You know, it was just an entirely different culture

and it was so amazing to me.

And that's much more how my daughter has been raised.

- Was it frightening to you

or was it exciting to you, or both?

- Both.

At the beginning it was a little frightening.

Because I'd just never seen anything like it in my life.

And as time went on, I realized

this is a wonderful thing that's happened to me.

To be allowed to see this.

- Today, Elizabeth Strout lives with her husband,

James Tierney in New York City and in Maine.

The quiet seclusion of her home state

has always been her sanctuary.

She goes there to drop in on her old friends,

both real and imagined.

Because these characters feel so real to me,

- Yeah.

- I'm actually very interested in how real they feel to you.

- Oh they're so real to me.

- [Jim] Like relatives?

- Probably closer.

- [Jim] Really?

- Yeah.

- Wow.

So therefore, do you miss them when they're written?

- Yes.

- Do their stories go on after you've written them?

- Sometimes they do.

And sometimes they don't.

Sometimes they're gone.

- Is that just because they,

- Because I love them, I just,

(laughs)

- [Jim] Really you have to bring them.

- I'm like oh yeah, let's you know,

let's see what they're up to.

- And when they came out,

then they still had been sitting there.

- Yeah, waiting.

(laughing) - Right, right.

It's interesting.

- Yeah, it is.

It's very interesting.

But, you know, I don't know ahead of,

I mean, I don't know until I do it

that they're gonna show up again.

And then I realize, oh yeah.

Absolutely, let's go.

- [Jim] Olive Kitteridge for one, insisted on an encore.

Strout's seventh novel, "Olive, Again" received rave reviews

and spent weeks in the upper regions

of the bestseller charts.

Now 64, Elizabeth Strout is today still faithful

to her Puritan roots.

Keeping her head down while marching steadily on

into her next chapter.

(soft music)

("Bach Sonata for Violin in C minor")

At the turn of the last century,

Pamela Frank was one of the brightest stars

in the classical firmament.

Earning rave reviews performing

with the world's greatest orchestras

and amassing a legion of loyal fans.

At age 32 she became the recipient

of one of classical music's highest honors.

But then, in 2001, the music stopped.

After hurting her hand in a household accident,

a botched acupuncture treatment made things worse.

- And so, I basically looked like a stroke victim.

My ulnar nerve had been injured.

(laughs)

I couldn't use this side for six months.

I couldn't drive, I couldn't write,

I couldn't do it, let alone play the violin.

Forget it, I couldn't hold anything.

- [Jim] Sidelined from performing,

Frank discovered how she could still be a musician

without picking up an instrument.

This revelation changed both how she thought about

and taught music.

- The thing that I hope to help my students the most with

is how to practice less and better.

People spend five, six, eight, 10 hours a day

in a practice room learning notes

but they're not thinking.

I'm trying to get them to think and therefore

to practice what matters.

Which is what are they saying,

not how are they playing.

- [Jim] But Frank missed performing.

So much so that she'd often play through the pain.

Until, in 2012 she suffered another debilitating injury.

This time to her neck.

- I was in complete agony

and I just thought, you know, just help me.

And I will do what anybody says now.

(mournful violin music)

- [Jim] It was then that she heard about Howard Nelson,

a physical therapist known for his pragmatic approach.

Helping patients change their pattern of movement

and posture to promote healthy, sustainable alignment.

- It was an empowering thought.

It was an empowering idea,

that you could actually influence

how your body works and feels.

And if you can harm yourself, you can also help yourself.

- [Jim] But at the time of their first appointment,

Frank was feeling anything but empowered.

Howard Nelson still remembers

the day they met eight years ago.

- She walks in the room

and she's got a cervical collar on

and she's cold and clammy.

And is very freaked out about doing anything

because the doctor had said

she probably would need surgical fusion of your neck.

- [Jim] But it never came to that.

Nelson put her firmly on the road to recovery

by altering the way she held her violin

and moved her body as she played.

It was a steep re-learning curve

but she says she was able and willing to climb it

because making music is all she's ever known.

It's in her DNA.

Her parents, Lilian Kallir and Claude Frank,

were both celebrated concert pianists.

- Oh, I think I was spoiled, genetically.

Nature and nurture, actually,

because they would always just be talking about

what the music means.

And it wasn't in any kind of academic, cerebral way.

It was just, they were always searching for more

and more content.

You know, when they would just talk about music

between themselves, and my father, of course,

he was so reverent of the composers.

He thought this was like God.

I know that he felt that he was the vehicle.

He was the middle man between the composer

and the listener.

And so he was totally selfless in that way.

And I think he accomplished that goal.

- [Jim] Throughout her early life,

Frank performed often with her dad,

and later they would record together.

When she got hurt, she found a silver lining

in the hiatus because it gave her more time

to spend with him and with her mother

in their final years.

But Frank too needed someone to lean on

and she soon came to rely on Howard Nelson.

Not only for physical therapy,

but more and more for friendship.

Nelson, who as a teenager

was a nationally ranked tennis player,

spent most of his life working with atheletes

and had no experience with classical musicians.

So Frank took him to concerts

where he could analyze performers' movements

and refine his approach to her treatment.

They'd debrief over dinners.

For five months it was all very business like

until it became something more.

("I'll Be Seeing You")

- He went to visit his mother in Florida

and he said something very uncharacteristic of him.

He said, "I think I'm gonna miss you."

And I thought about it for a second,

"Yeah, I think I'm gonna miss you too."

- [Jim] While he was in Florida,

serendipity brought Nelson's feelings to the fore.

- She texted me a picture of the moon

while I was looking at the moon

and we both realized that we were looking at the same thing

from New York and Florida.

And that was sort of a big moment of connection.

But when I got back to New York

I said let's meet for, let's go out to dinner.

And we went out to Pisticci in upper Manhattan

and we had some food or a drink

and I went over to the bench next to her

and I just said, "I love you,"

and I gave her a kiss at that moment

on the bench at this restaurant.

- The thing about Howard is that

it just seemed like he was in my life all along somehow

and it just took a long time to find him.

There was a rightness about him,

a familiarity about him almost immediately.

I mean it was just a different level

of comfort and trust that I had with him.

And I mean, of course I joke that, you know,

anybody that gets you back to playing you better marry

because that's the, you know.

But that ends up sounding like it's a gift to him.

You know, to marry him, it's not that.

I mean, he gave me my life back

and we happen to love each other.

- [Jim] Five years into their marriage,

Pam and Howard are now also partners in a venture

that helps others understand

how it's possible to make great music

without damaging the body.

- I think working together is exponentially fantastic

for me because when we look at a musician,

I mean yes, the analysis

is a big thing that we have in common.

But you see things in people that nobody does.

- How do you think you complement each other?

Conversely, what are the things you think

that she puts up with from you?

(laughs)

- I think we're perfect for each other

in the sense that I'm really fast about everything.

Fast thinking, fast speaking, fast acting,

I wanna get things done as quickly as possible

and not necessarily to the best that they can be

but just things need to be done.

But I think fast and speak fast

and expect speed from everybody.

And you are incredibly methodical

and you take your time and you think things through.

You don't do anything irrationally.

And you always say speed kills.

- That's a great answer, because,

no because I need to speed up.

- No you don't.

- I think I do.

- He's just asking for compliments.

- And you need to slow down.

- Yes and that is true.

- Not big problems then?

- No, not big problems.

Are they?

- No, no.

♪ I find you in the morning sun ♪

♪ And when the night is new

♪ I'll be looking at the moon

♪ But I'll be seeing you

(soft music)

♪ Life is an eternal line

♪ It's what I want

♪ It's what I want, it's what I want, it's what I want ♪

- [Jim] Some people learn to dance.

Others, like Rennie Harris, pioneer of hip hop dance,

are born to it.

♪ It's what I want, it's what I want, it's what I want ♪

♪ Yeah

♪ God

♪ Do do do do, do do do do

♪ You are the strong and you are mighty ♪

- [Jim] Harris grew up in north Philadelphia

in the 1970s.

And from the very beginning he was constantly in motion.

- My mom would used to say, "Turn off that radio!"

It'd be like 6:30 in the morning,

I'd turn on the radio, start dancing,

dance into the bathroom, come back, you know.

Or I'm at the table, I'm dancing.

My mom would like, smack me

'cause I'm trying to animate what water

with a glass of water without trying to spill it.

You know, trying to.

And so, like, it's really a part of your day to day,

like, for those who are are like, who love,

who are just like (sighs)

for some reason we just have to move.

- You are a dancer, you don't just dance.

- Right, exactly.

- [Jim] Harris, the oldest of seven,

was raised in a Catholic home

and studied briefly for the priesthood.

But ultimately, religion didn't call to him

as powerfully as movement.

For him, dance binds body and spirit.

It has a unique power to heal.

At age 12, Harris formed his first dance group

with his brother and a friend

to compete in a church talent show.

By age 15, he had founded The Step Masters

and a popping crew called The Scatter Boys

who would go on to perform with the who's-who

of 1980s hip hop acts.

Including Salt 'N Pepa, Run-D.M.C.,

and Grandmaster Flash.

When he was passed over for the movie "Krush Groove,"

the last in a string of popular films

about street dancing, a discouraged Harris

headed back home.

In 1991, after a year of scraping by,

a Philadelphia based dance company

offered him $1500 to create a work

that would premier the following year.

He still remembers getting that call

from Michael Pedretti from Movement Theater International.

- It was the first time someone offered me

money ahead of time, a year before the gig.

And I told him, I said, "Hey man,

"I might not be here."

I said, you know.

He said, "What do you mean?"

I said, "Well, they just had a shoot out

"right out side of my room at my house.

"I could be not here."

I said, "Well, I'll take your money

"and I don't know if I'll show up

"but if I show up, we'll do it."

And so he gave me half the money,

and I was like, I showed up

and the company was born from that moment.

- [Jim] Today, Harris's touring company,

Pure Movement and his youth spinoff Rhaw,

short for Rennie Harris's Awe-inspiring Works

have been thriving for more than 25 years,

performing across the world,

in Europe, Asia, Africa, and beyond.

Major dance companies around the US

have also commissioned work from him.

Harris develops each piece on site,

based on the town at hand.

But since so much comes together organically

in rehearsals, it's often impossible for him

to make, let alone communicate the master plan.

- Almost every project that I've done,

whether with my company or another company,

I've always heard whispers of,

"I don't think he knows what he's doing."

And, you know, it used to hurt my feelings

but then I kinda got over it

because yeah, that's the part that you're expecting me

to create expression via a formula.

I don't approach it that way.

It's a difference than just, you know,

making a salad or soup.

You know that that's a pepper

and what the pepper's gonna do.

You know what the tomato's gonna do.

With bodies or spirits, you know,

you don't know what you're gonna get.

All right guys, we're back.

- So when it comes to like,

a normal recipe for what a choreographer

would normally do, their normal process,

Rennie just takes that recipe

and he just rips it all up

and scatter it all around.

And say okay, let me see what I can get outta this.

He trusts the dancers, and we trust him.

- Rennie allows for people to be themselves.

To be the individual.

So for me, I'm a breaker, I'm a complete b-boy.

I know how to different styles,

but he allows me to be me and shine as me

throughout his work.

- You gotta be willing to take it somewhere.

And he trusts that you can do it.

It's just that you also have to believe in him

and believe in his vision

and believe in yourself at the same time.

- [Jim] In the past few years, Rennie Harris

has had to learn to trust his dancers more than ever.

Now in his mid 50s, the choreographer

has had both his hips replaced.

He just can't move the way he used to.

- I can't really actually demonstrate the movement.

I have to, like convey the movement

to the dancer and like,

slowly process them through this movement.

So in that way, I don't know if the body

was sort of betraying me,

but sorta going through a transition to say okay,

I need to slow you down

and let's see what you, you know.

Let's hone the practice, let's hone what it is

that you're doing in a whole other way.

I feel like I have a completely different insight now.

- [Jim] And for many of his dancers,

Harris's work hits close to home.

His dances delve into the social,

the political, the personal.

Everything he brings to the stage an honest representation

of his own experiences and observations.

And this authenticity is what makes his dancers,

including eight year company veteran, Phil Cuttino Jr.

trust Harris's vision.

In 2019's "A Day In The Life," Cuttino closes the show

in a duet about two brothers

who, while hanging out in their own neighborhood,

become involved in a violent altercation

with the police.

It ends when a cop shoots Cotino's character dead.

(wailing music)

- The reason why that piece is so important to me

is because I got shot before, like.

It wasn't by a cop, but it was like,

through crazy street violence and all that type stuff.

So, it was just crazy to really see

all of these different dynamics

and ways of, he's being my real reality.

And to have to die on stage in front of like,

hundreds and hundreds of people sometimes,

that stuff is crazy.

To really like, live that moment,

and really like, tell that story

and help people understand.

(mournful music)

- [Jim] Harris has always been driven

by a desire to help people understand

both themselves and others.

To find catharsis

by pouring his deepest emotions into dance.

- Work is actually a relief

to get the thought out, process,

and then to watch it morph in the body to say,

you know, there's still breath in what you're saying.

I put this pain in this body

but that pain is not really radiating the pain

I'm really feeling, but it also there's a pain

and I begin to see the beauty in that pain,

the humanity in the pain

that I'm putting into the body, right?

And so then that effects me in a whole other way.

Like, it's almost, it kind of releases me

from that thing.

- [Jim] Present at its birth,

Rennie Harris continues to create dance

that reflects his life, the communities that shaped him

and the evolution of hip hop

from the street into an international cultural phenomenon.

(percussive music)

(cheering)

(soft music)

For more "Articulate" find us on social media

or at our website, articulateshow.org.

On the next "Articulate," the award winning author

Maaza Mengiste writes of an Ethiopian home

she left behind, dismounting preconceptions

and bringing to light some of that country's rich past.

- Fiction tells a truth that history cannot.

And I grabbed on to that.

And I had that on a sticky note

on my computer for those moments when I wavered.

- [Jim] Once a wanderer pursuing creative endeavors,

Dick Boak followed his instincts

and created a role for himself in the evolution

of the Martin guitar company.

All the while

becoming an ever more skillful artisan himself.

The internationally renowned Scottish violinist,

Nicola Benedetti was cast into the spotlight

at a very young age

and struggled growing up in the public eye.

Now in her 30s, she reflects on those years

as necessary growing pains.

I'm Jim Cotter.

Join us for the next "Articulate."

(upbeat orchestral music)

- [Announcer] "Articulate" with Jim Cotter

is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(exciting music)

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