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Art for the Ages

Finding a Balm for Premillennial Tension

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By S.L. Wisenberg

Great thing for the family to do together, culture the kids can enjoy, it's a parking meter holiday, there's no traffic, we can bring grandma, perfect.

You could almost hear the parents thinking as they and their children tumbled into the Chicago Theatre on New Year's Day. The kids were in fancy red velvet dresses, Pokemon T-shirts, rompers for the too-young-to-sit-through-a-movie set, shiny Minnie Mouse shoes. They were going to sit in the dark with their parents and guardians and be mesmerized by an ancient art with a few modern touches.

"There are hardly any other jugglers in the world who can do what he can do," a woman in the row behind us told the child next to her. Uh oh, I thought. It's already sounding force-fed. It's art that's Good for You. In front of us, taking up the whole row, was what appeared to be an extended family--grandmother, son, daughters and daughters-in-law, grandchildren. One of the adults was trying to convince a small boy that he should like red licorice or at least try it, the reason being that was what she had in hand. There was none of the preferred black licorice on sale out front.

Then it started. The juggler for the millennium, as he was billed in his punnily titled show, In Motion With Michael Moschen, appeared onstage. Soon he was manipulating glass balls. The balls looked like crystal Christmas tree ornaments and it seemed as if he couldn't drop them if he tried. They rolled around and under his arm and flew from one hand to the other--"It looks like he has six hands," I heard someone behind us say. Moschen was transfixed, looking so closely at what he was doing it was as if the movement of those balls was all that did or would ever matter, and we were transfixed too. We meaning two baby boomers without children. I couldn't speak for anyone else. After a while I felt the calm whoosh in my chest I get from art I really like--from Louis Sullivan buildings, certain early-20th-century vases, all kinds of shrines.

There were some less-than-sublime moments too. There were goofy ones, such as when Moschen got a volunteer from the audience to eat an apple while he juggled it, and some slow ones where the stage seemed just too dark, and the music too, and I surprised myself by feeling sleepy. The children in the audience had been generally quiet, and I suddenly thought, maybe they're all asleep!

At intermission the man in front of us was saying, "At $40 a seat, leaving shouldn't be an option." The boy behind us said, "That was the second most boring thing I've ever seen." The most boring had involved Philip Glass music and, I gathered, images projected on a screen. We went to the lobby and waited for coffee. A woman in line in front of us was asking a cluster of children, "Do you want to stay or go to the Rainforest Cafe?" Kids were running in circles in the lobby and when we got back to our seats, the extended family in front of us was much diminished. Apparently seven of them had exercised the option to leave.

It's too bad they cleared out because the second set was brighter and faster. Moschen twirled hoops so they looked like wings, and for the finale made circles of fire with lighted torches. Did you like the second half better? I asked the boy and girl behind me, and they answered yes and seemed to mean it. A woman with a very small boy said he'd really liked the show and she'd had to shush him so he wouldn't scream out "Triangle! Circle!"

This is the real thing, I wanted to say to all the kids who hadn't appreciated Moschen in motion. He's doing this by himself, without smoke or mirrors or digitalization. He could do more or less the same thing in your backyard or the supermarket parking lot or an empty field. I felt like a specter from the 20th century, advocating the old ways. Take away the lighting and some of the music and this could be 1,500 years ago. (When was glass first blown?) A man twirling torches--that could have been choreographed the day after Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. "I'm not ready for 2000," I'd said the night before, bothered afresh by the fact that it didn't matter whether I was ready or not.

I'm not ready for microchips and fiber optics though I use them every day. I much prefer the six-handed Michael Moschen.

On New Year's Eve we'd taken the old subway to Buckingham Fountain for the fireworks. We got there just after 11. I clanged a butter knife against a metal candleholder and my true love carried a metal rotary noisemaker. Inspired by the practice of drowning out the name of the villain Haman when the traditional story is told on the Jewish holiday Purim, we walked around the fountain naming scourges of the millennium as best we could. Hitler, we said, then made noise, metal on metal. Stalin. The Plague. We tried to remember exactly when Genghis Khan was alive and plundering.

Two nights later we had dinner with our friends Jack and Val. Jack, formerly of the Berkeley Free Speech movement, is credited in Bartlett's for the famous words about not trusting anybody over 30. He'll be 60 this spring. After dinner we played a game called Set, using a deck of cards with lozenge, diamond, and squiggly shapes on them. It was the kind of deck you could replicate in jail or in the Dark Ages or ancient Rome or anywhere there was paper and pigment or even leaves and a blade of some kind. Then we drove home into the future.

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