[Sidebar] The Worcester Phoenix
April 25 - May 2, 2001

[Tales From Tritown]

Ya Think Ya So Smaht?

The results of our Yankee Quiz, plus local choreographer Rebecca Rice

by Sally Cragin Warner

Illustration by Lennie Peterson

Not surprisingly, the winning entries to "Ya Think Ya So Smaht, The Great and Trivial Yankee Blowhard Quiz" emanated from New England. Geez, aren't there any expats wandering around Llubjlana or Vanatu haunted by visions of Mathers? Perhaps musing on Mr. Nabokov's lepidopteral sojourns away from the Lolitaland of Wellesley College? If so, their colorful stamps failed to arrive at the Tritown PO Box. No matter, we have a winnah. In fact, two: Lela Male of Leominster and Eleanor S. Boursy of Lunenburg have triumphed in Yankee lore (in a dignified, knowledgeable kinda way). Each will receive a gift certificate and a lifetime subscription to Button, New England's tiniest magazine of poetry, fiction and gracious living. And now, the answers:

Part one: match the personality to the activity. (We probably should have included poet Wallace Stevens' career as an insurance underwriter, but figured that would be too much of a gimme.) Believe it or not, Ho Chi Minh once bussed tables at the Parker House, which is less out of character than Jack Kerouac's turn as a star running back for Lowell High School. Sylvia Plath was indeed a student at BU (with George Starbuck and Anne Sexton in Robert Lowell's notorious poetry workshop). Somehow Henry Wadsworth Longfellow found time between syncopated stanzas to teach Modern Languages at Harvard, just steps from his house. Robert Frost, that independent cuss, was briefly a President of New England Poetry Society (so were Amy Lowell, Conrad Aiken, and, currently, Diana Der Hovanessian). Sigmund Freud received an honorary degree from Clark, after psychoanalyzing Worcester (whoops, just kidding). And, in later life, Louisa May Alcott registered women to vote in Concord, where suffrage came early. How surprising is that? Probably no less than the fact that rigid church father Cotton Mather supported inoculation against small pox (yes, it goes back that far). Finally, the great novelist Vladimir Nabokov volunteered at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, filling trays with his beloved Blues.

Part two: match the institution of higher learning with its (at least) initial religious affiliation. Harvard Divinity School (Unitarian); Boston University School of Theology (Methodist); Trinity College (Episcopalian); Brandeis (Jewish); Holy Cross University (Greek Orthodox); Boston College (Roman Catholic); Yale (Congregational). Yes, we realize these are all Western-based spiritual doctrines, and sure, we could have included the Kripala Institute, but we didn't. So sue us, okay?

Part three: match the town to the product. Waltham, where assembly methods of production debuted in the New World, is of course Watch City, while Gardner is Chair City (there's a big chair in the center of town, in case you forgot). Fitchburg made paper, while Leominster made combs, and later plastic. Braintree was famous for fans. The kind you wave, not the chronically disappointed partisans of our various sporting teams.

Part four: seven of our US presidents have been born in New England. What states of our six have not yet birthed a president? A surprising 50 percent: Rhode Island, Connecticut and Maine. Well, so what, Hawaii and Alaska have yet to produce a president as well. Then again, those first three have been around a lo-o-ot longer...

Part five: what is it? If you live in New England, this kind of lore sticks like burrs on a wool sock. "Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn," isn't a gingham-flavored television serial, it's the classic New England domicile. The big and little house is where you live and sleep, the back house is the outhouse, and the barn is where you work. Lord knows what clever mnemonic will accompany the modern McMansions lumbering skyward this century. Big Garage, Bigger House, Biggest TV, perhaps. The "Parson's Nose" is the hindermost part of a turkey. Tough and inedible, it's also called the "pope's nose," depending on your religious preferences. "Poor Man's Fertilizer" is snow that comes late in the spring, adding nitrogen to the soil. You'd use a "warming pan" to heat your bed. This is a ventilated metal box with a long handle you fill with fireplace coals and then swish over the mattress. You employ a warming pan so you don't have to turn up the heat in the bedroom - that is, if you've got heat in the bedroom. I'm old enough to remember some tough little old ladies who used one (Myrtle Huntley of Fitchburg had a relatively modern innovation, a flannel-wrapped brick).

"Wigs on the Green" is a public skirmish, and dates back to the 18th century, when gentle men and other guys wore periwigs, which obviously made them irritable enough to fight pretty frequently. The "Atlantis of Massachusetts" is, of course, the subaquatic dreamland of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott, towns in the western part of the state that were obliterated earlier in the century for the massive Quabbin Reservoir. Can you imagine pulling off an engineering project like that today? (Then again, the Big Dig is doing its best to annoy and confound, isn't it...) Finally, we got some amusing answers to "what didn't the Pilgrims have during that first Thanksgiving." Yes, they had turkey, and cranberries, and squash. No, they didn't have football, homecoming parades, weird dirigibles of pop culture icons, or wee candles shaped like turkeys and pilgrims. What they also didn't have were breadstuffs, having consumed all the flour.

In the extra credit department, both Robert Frost and Julia Child, those icons of New England culture, were born and bred in California. Mrs. Boursy adds that both studied in Europe and are "closely associated with Pioneer Valley -- Frost taught at Amherst College and Child graduated from Smith." In the extra-extra credit department, we seem to have lots of towns named after governors - they include: Carver, Bradford, Winthrop, Shirley, Hancock, Adams, and North Adams. One jokester insisted Marblehead and Athol were both named after Ed King, but we have no comment to that. Congratulations to our winners, and thanks to Pete Greelish and Brian Gosling for technical assistance.

Once upon a time, all businesses were family businesses. Farms and orchards still pretty much run that way, but what about occupations that require individual skill and expression, like the arts? Here in New England, if you think of dance and north Worcester county, the name Marion Rice still lives, though the great Denishawn disciple and instructor passed on five years ago. She was the mother of acclaimed dancer Carolyn Rice Brown, and grandmother of choreographer Rebecca Rice. This youngest terpsichorean Rice recently presented a splendid evening of dance pieces at the Boston Ballet complex, performed by a dozen remarkably skilled students. Rice also teaches choreography to the BB students, instructs at Dana Hall and MIT and knows that conversation about her family is inevitable. She explains, "I don't think about carrying a torch. I rebelled at 14, and did horseback riding instead." (Her mother's side of the family also has plenty of dancers.) Only at the University of Utah, did she return to tradition and studied modern dance. "I had to keep moving, but I decided I would choreograph, rather than focus on being a dancer. Focus on art, rather than making myself art," she says.

The Boston Ballet students were lithe and expressive, ideal vessels for Rice's Denishawn-inflected style which featured elongated leg and lower back movements, paired with insouciant upper-body work. Faces peeped through raised arms, and shoulders shimmied. But legs were locked in traditional positions and feet were firmly planted. "Students are incredibly professional at the ballet," says Rice, "in terms of how quickly they think and pick up movement, and how quickly they're expected to pick up movement, so what I've been able to do is go in and create on the spot and that's an incredible luxury."

Rice's work, which included solos and ensemble pieces showed cohesion and reverence for classical forms (even the costumes trended toward diaphanous Greek tunics in pastels), and half were accompanied by baroque music. The combination of modern movement with the severely disciplined cadences of Bach and Handel ensured that the dancers had clean stops and starts, with plenty of flow between big gestures. "I've been working hard to create pretty sophisticated works, and I've been working a lot with classical music. As a modern choreographer, I've been trained to stay away from that, to experiment with new music, so I've gotten back to the classical music I'd done with Denishawn with my grandmother."

Rice will be presenting another collection of dance in early June in Norwell, and this summer will collaborate with her sister Robin, who's also a dance educator. See what I mean about dance and Rices? Write rebeccarice@springmail.com for more information and a schedule.

Unlike Emma Goldman, Sally
Cragin Warner doesn't need a revolution to dance.

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