Sunday, March 30, 2014

Dante's "Inferno" -- the ballet, composed and produced by Glenna Burmer,

Dante Aligheri's Divine Comedy, and especially The Inferno, has been known since its publication in Italy in about 1317 for beauty and intense humanity. In February 2014, Glenna Burmer's music, evocative of the strength and imagination in The Inferno was brought to life by Ballet Bellevue (Bellevue, Washington) with the choreography of Ronn Tice and Jennifer Porter. This is an account of the ballet, in rehearsal and in production, with the permission of Dr. Burmer.

Satan, in rehearsal. [TW Carns photo.]


Dr. Glenna Burmer graduated from University of Washington Medical School in 1981 and started a biotech company in Seattle in the 1990s. She turned to composing music in the mid-2000s, and has produced several concerts in Seattle. Dante's Inferno is her first ballet. Jim Carns and Glenna were lab partners in medical school, and he worked with Glenna in her biotech company for several years as a pathologist. Anthea Carns worked with Glenna as the webmaster, production assistant, and finally assistant stage manager for The Inferno. Jim had the opportunity to be a (non-dancing) demon in the production, and thus we had the great good fortune to be part of this production.

Three dances

Glenna staged Dante's Inferno as one of three pieces, each representing an aspect of the themes of the Underworld and the other worlds, and the sacred and the profane. Demeter and Persephone with music by Tim Huling and choreography by Ronn Tice explored the Greek myth of the origins of the seasons. When Hades, lord of the Underworld, kidnaps Demeter (goddess of the harvest)'s daughter Persephone from a spring time meadow, Demeter mourns and the earth grows cold and barren until the gods cooperate to return Persephone to the earth. Although Persephone must return to Hades for a few months each year (winter), when she is on earth with Demeter, everything flourishes. 

Photo: Persephone (Megan Horton) and friend (Maya Huling) greet Demeter (Alyssa Gold). Photo by Fred Burmer.
Flower girl (Maya Huling), Persephone (Megan Horton), and Demeter (Alyssa Gold). [Fred Burmer photo]

Sacred and Profane, with music by both Glenna and Tim, and choreography by Jennifer Porter, explored the dual aspects of a dancer's being, showing them distrusting each other, but in the end, joining in harmony.

Photo: Mireya Mascarello and Alisha Cushing. Photo by Fred Burmer.
Sacred (in white, Mireya Mascarello) and Profane (Alisha Cushing, in red). [Fred Burmer photo]


Anthea Carns, Gordon Compton (stage manager), Glenna Burmer (composer, producer for Dante's Inferno, Jim Carns (in his demon blacks) on February 17, at Ballet Bellevue rehearsal space. On the table in the bottom left corner are some of the masks; the orange and yellow fabrics to the upper right are the skirts for the Fire Dancers.
 [TWCarns photo]

Glenna began writing music in the mid-2000's (, and most recently composed the music for the Dante's Inferno ballet. The production was a benefit for Ballet Bellevue (, which provided many of the dancers, as well as the rehearsal space, and some of the administrative assistance. Ron
 Tice ( and Jennifer Porter ( were choreographers, and Fred Burmer (Glenna's dad, a professional photographer, did most of the show photography. There will be a video, available on the website. 

All of the production photos are from the website and FaceBook pages, and are (except as noted) by Fred Burmer. All of the rehearsal shots are by Teri White Carns, with permission of Glenna.


A dancer's foot at rest [TWCarns photo].

Ballet (from Italian, ballare, to dance)  --  The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre website puts its origins in the 1600s in the French royal courts []. The classical ballet style used in Dante's Inferno by the choreographers relies on a "vocabulary" of movements that was developed in the 1800s. Anyone who took ballet classes knows of the five positions for the feet, and five for the arms. There are bends, jumps, spins, and rising to the ball of the foot or the toes. From these positions and a few more, all of the classical ballet stories are constructed. In the French courts in the 1600s and early 1700s, ballet was combined with opera, but since then ballet dancers are silent. The dance movements and the music convey the narrative.

The story of Dante's Inferno

 Northwest Sinfonia | Dante's Inferno-the Ballet
The cover for the CD [from

Here is the web site's account of the history of the Inferno []: "The ballet Dante’s Inferno is based on the first part of Dante Alighieri’s magnificent poem, the Divine Comedy, which chronicles Dante’s journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Paradise (Paradiso). Dante was born in Florence, Italy, in 1265, during the early Renaissance period of two warring political factions, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, who were loyal to either the Pope or the Holy Roman Emperor. Dante was passionate about politics, and also about Beatrice, the first love of his life, who played an important role in his poetry. Although Beatrice married another man and died when Dante was 25, for the poet, she was the idealized representation of all of the heavenly virtues, and his guardian angel. 

Dante’s Inferno is an allegorical morality tale. Dante began writing the poem in middle-age, after he had witnessed years of the brutality of war, politics, and painful exile from his beloved city of Florence. The poem graphically depicts his view of sin and divine punishment, as well as his strong religious belief in the power of salvation. Although Dante’s views of the levels of Hell, as described in the Divine Comedy, largely reflect those that were held by the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope during the 13th century, the poem is also highly personal, and Dante includes the names of many famous and powerful Italian contemporaries as well as his enemies among the sinners that are given horrifying and specific punishments. Although contemporary views of sin and evil do not completely overlap with the views of the 13th century, Dante’s passionate and fundamental cry for human salvation and justice, written in beautiful prose, is a compelling message that transcends time and culture." [Anthea Carns]

Here's a link to the website, where you can buy the music, and learn more:
. And here's a link to a review of the performances:

Dante (Shane Tice) and Virgil (Philip Laue), in rehearsal. [TWCarns photo]

The story opens with Dante waking in a forest. The Roman poet Virgil comes to guide him through the Inferno, which he must traverse before he can go through Purgatory into Paradise. Hell, for Dante, was divided into nine circles, with the first being the least evil -- lusts and carnal passions. Lower down are greed, jealousy, fraud, despair, and violence. In the Ninth Circle where Satan resides are the traitors. In the poem and the ballet, Dante traverses all of them, fending off temptations along the way and eventually climbing on Satan's back to get out of hell and back to the verge of Purgatory where he dances with the three Graces (the counterpoint to the earlier dances with the Furies). From there, Virgil will guide him part of the way to Paradise.

Masks and creatures, costumes and props

Glenna conceived of masked dancers for most of the characters in The Inferno, and made 
of the masks herself. She also commissioned creation of several non-human inhabitants of The Inferno, including 

  • Cerberus (the three-headed dog who guards the gates of Hades; in Dante, he sits in the Third Circle and punishes those whose main sin was gluttony);
  • the Minotaur (in Dante, the bull-headed man is at the gate of the Seventh Circle, punishing those whose sins were violent);
  • giant bat wings rising from the orchestra pit, representing one aspect of Satan at the entrance to the Ninth circle of the Inferno; and
  • A three-headed figure in Limbo, before the actual Inferno, representing three of the great Pagan philosophers who were virtuous but not allowed to enter Paradise because they were not Christian or in the Old Testament.

My favorite mask, the green Medusa head.
 [Photo, TWCarns]

Inferno masks, juxtaposed with flowers for the companion ballet, Demeter and Persephone, and someone's glasses (part of a modern-day means of seeing the world differently). [TWCarns photo]

A mug in the office area with an appropriate slogan for The Inferno. [TWCarns photo.]

Cerberus in the making (February 16). Shoresh Araundi, the creator of Cerberus, built a structure from foam, tubing, black plastic, and other materials. The brown "fur" is wool, felted over the framework and stitched to give depth and character. [TW Carns photo.]

Two of the three virtuous philosophers in Limbo with whom Dante talks, waiting for their cue to enter. [TW Carns photo.]

Jim in his demon mask (chosen in part because it was the only one that would fit over his glasses). [TW Carns photo.]

Jim's partner in the Inferno was 5-year-old Maya Huling, daughter of Tim Huling, the composer for Demeter and Persephone, one of the companion ballets. I never managed to get a picture of Maya in her Inferno costume and mask, so she is shown her
 with Persephone waiting to rehearse that dance. [TWCarns photo]

Maya and Persephone (Megan Horton) in performance [Photo, Fred Burmer]


February 15, Ballet Bellevue rehearsal space, the tech line up. The rehearsal floor is open and free of clutter, but the sidelines were packed with people with computers (e.g., Anthea, to the right in the mid-distance), creatures under construction, and an organized tangle of cords and gear.
 [TWCarns photo]

More tech -- the sound and light engineers.
 [TWCarns photo]

Whole lot of waiting going on during rehearsals. The younger dancers did homework.
 [TWCarns photo]

Temporarily at rest, but feet still gracefully placed.
 [TWCarns photo]

Shoresh Araundi works on Cerberus (he is attaching felt, for the fur, to the understructure) while dancers wait for their cues.
 [TWCarns photo]

 Tice (main choreographer for Inferno, on stage to the left), leads warmups in the theater  while Gordon looks on. (February 20)
 [TWCarns photo]

The transformation, from rehearsal to stage

One of the things that struck me most about the experience was the transformation that the dancers and the story underwent between the rehearsal hall and the stage. The dancers were beautiful, in motion or at rest, in the rehearsal hall. On stage, with the
 music, the
 costumes, the lights and sets, they 
gained a dimension of magic

The Furies in the rehearsal hall; Shane Tice (Dante) at the back of the room.
 [TWCarns photo]

The Furies onstage, barring Dante's entrance to the Inferno.
 [Fred Burmer photo]

Dante (
 in rehearsal.
 [TWCarns photo]

1097990_287662074691806_450648250_n.jpg (960×736)
Dante (Shane Tice) lifting Cleopatra (Megan Horton), in the first circle of Hell, the carnal sins.
 [Fred Burmer photo]

Fire dancers in rehearsal.
 [TWCarns photo]

Fire dancers in production
 [Fred Burmer

The shows


Opening night, February 21, Green Room. Mark Burmer, Glenna's son, Glenna, and Anthea work on masks that will be sold to benefit Ballet Bellevue.
 [TWCarns photo]

Masks for sale to benefit Ballet Bellevue
The leather masks, some of which were for sale here, were
 mask-makers across the country, including River Gypsy Arts, Merimask, Misfit Leather, MaskEra, Morgan, Kmickel, Mr.Hydes Leather,
quirrel Creek Creations, Oddfae, and Vincent Cantillon.
 [TWCarns photo]

Pre-matinee warm-up in the company of Satan
 (created by Timothy Stephens)
 , February 22.
 [TWCarns photo]

Kyra Stewart, (in red, center front) celebrated her birthday at the Saturday evening show, bringing a dozen or so friends, and outfitting them with masks 
(by the Tacoma artist Morgan) from her company "
A Masquerade
 costume and mask store in Bellevue). 
 [TWCarns photo]

        Scenes from the show

The Three Furies
 [Fred Burmer

 (masks created by Glenna Burmer)
 [Andrew Ness

The Fire Dance
 [Fred Burmer

[Fred Burmer

Satan in the Ninth Circle
 [Fred Burmer

Dante (Shane Tice) returns from the Inferno to earth on the dawn of Easter Sunday, dances with the three Graces (Ashley Zimmerman, Megan Horton, Alyssa Gold).
 [Fred Burmer photo]


Glenna is writing the music for the other two parts of Dante's Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. She hopes to t
 the trilogy to Italy in the future. In the meantime, she's also working on music for a performance to be put on in conjunction with the UW Astrobiology department, on a series of commissioned short symphonic pieces based on paintings, and more. You can keep track of her on her website,

Anthea is focusing on writing [her blog is at] and driving the foodtruck, 314pie [].

Jim is back in Anchorage contemplating his next adventure, which is unlikely to involve ballet. Demons are a different question.

Scene VI: Visions of Beatrice

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Garlic Bread

Baugettes, Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, Anchorage. [TWCarns Photo]

Streamlined torpedo.

Exterior, a hard brittle crust,

but it’s a sham.

At your core,

you are soft and yielding.

Indulgent tang

of garlic minced in butter.

My lips are slick

with guilty pleasure.

Did your ancestors

come through Ellis Island?

Did they lose

the French surname Pain,

to help you fit in

with this hodgepodge

of western food?

I see your great grandfather

strapped to the back of a bicycle

being pedaled up

the steep cobbled streets

of Montmartre.

Did he spend time

in a sidewalk café,

a third at the table

with Hemingway and Joyce

sharing a bottle of Bordeaux?

Would he look

on his Americanized descendant

with the disdain

of a Parisian waiter?

Paul Winkel
Anchorage, March 29, 2014

Paris Photography  3
Streets of MontMarte in Paris,, picture.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Sicilian artichoke and tuna stew

4345844745_3ea0b5be52.jpg (400×400)
Artichokes, Santa Cruz News.

After Pablo Neruda

        Find a tuna among the market vegetables, a solitary man of war. Pair it with artichokes, their sides burnished as grenades. Take them in your market basket, home to the deep soup pot. I am envisioning a Sicilian fish stew, one where you start by sauteeing the small diced onion and smashed cloves of garlic (two, maybe, or three) in olive oil that smells of the dusty October hillsides where it was harvested. After the onion and garlic have scented the kitchen, stir in the baby artichokes, two dozen or so cut into quarters, and stir them sizzling but not burning for a good five minutes. Then it will be time to splash in half a dozen crushed tomatoes, red with the blood of the New World from which they came, along with the chopped green celery stalk and its leaves, and the bright bitter parsley -- enough to bring summer into this autumn dish.

        You will stir this with salt and pepper ("to taste,"as all of the good books say), half a glass of white wine, a cup of stock (fish or vegetable) and simmer for half an hour, while you turn back to the noble tuna, the missile that has become a missive, a letter from Pablo Neruda to your kitchen. Now you must bravely cut the tuna into one-inch pieces, of a size to cook quickly and tenderly, each piece a word, and together a pound of the red muscles that propelled the tuna through the deeps. When the artichokes have let down their guard and are al dente, slip the tuna chunks into the pot, and quickly toast some slices of ciabbata that have been brushed with more of the olive oil from the harvest. They will be done at the same time, the tuna and the toasted bread, and you may ladle the stew over the slice of bread in the bottom of each bowl. Some would fling more parsley atop the stew, or a lemon aioli, or some other garnish. You must be the judge. Take the bowls outside, sit with them under the fig tree in the evening, and drink a wine from the slopes of Mt. Aetna with your meal.

Artichoke, tuna --
Neruda immortalized
you. I make a stew.

Northern blue-fin tuna.

Pablo Neruda, Ode to a Large Tuna in a Market; Ode to the Artichoke

The history of grasses -- a timeline

Snow's melting in Berrien County, Michigan, showing the winter wheat greening up, March 22, 2014 [Photo, Micki Glueckert]

The dates given in this timeline are the best approximations available at the time of publication (March 25, 2014).

One hundred million years ago -- Grasses appear 

Oat grass, Locust Lane, Michigan. [Photo, TWCarns]

     Grasses evolved relatively late among the land plants, near the end of the Mesozoic period. Dinosaurs ate them, as shown in 2005 when scientists found silica from grass leaves in fossilized dinosaur dung. They spread everywhere, adapting to a wide range of conditions because they had:
  • Bits of silica in their leaves, to make it harder for animals to eat them. That didn't prevent numerous animals from evolving ways to consume them anyway -- extra stomachs (ruminants like cows, zebras, elephants and deer), big teeth and extra digestive spaces (like horses), and jaws and mandibles (insects). 
  • Growth from the ground up, rather than from the top of the plant, which allowed them to survive fires, droughts, winds, and other harsh conditions.
  • Two types of photosynthesis, allowing them to grow in a wide range of climates. Some grasses have C-3 photosynthesis, adapted for tropical climates; the C-4 path of photosynthesis developed more recently and enabled grasses to colonize colder and drier climates, including Antarctica.
  • The ability to propagate both by runners,(above and below ground) and with seeds.
  • Wind-carried pollen, so that the grasses didn't have to rely on insects for fertilization.
     The climate cooperated as well. No-one knows for sure why the dinosaurs went extinct about 65,000,000 years ago, but cooling climates and ice ages after that often favored mammals and grasses. Herds of ruminants and the animals who ate them for dinner covered much of Africa, the Americas, and Asia.

Deer eating grass in Tacoma, Washington, February, 2014. [Photo, TWCarns]

Six million years ago -- human ancestors appear 

     Fast forward through many millions of years to the grasslands of Africa where the earliest signs of humans appeared. 

 Savanna, Samburu National Reserve, Kenya.  Credit: Thure Cerling, University of Utah.

      Humans developed their cultures and civilizations in close relationship to grasses. Whether they were feeding themselves or their domesticated animals, or subsisting on wild animals that foraged on grasslands, much of the human diet came -- and still comes -- from grass. One human ancestor, Ardipithecus, from 4.3 million years ago was eating grass; its members lived in woodlands near the savanna. Other evidence from about 3.5 million years ago suggests that grass was a main component of the hominids (pre-humans) diet, distinguishing them from their primate ancestors who subsisted mainly on fruits, leaves, and insects or small animals.

File:Ardipithecus ramidus.jpg
An artist's image of Ardipithecus. 

3.4 million to two million years ago -- evidence of hominids using stone tools, and eating grasses

      About 2.6 million years ago, humans were making stone tools, in the Kenyan grasslands, and elsewhere, while continuing to eat grasses. At the same time, the climate was shifting from more tropical in most places to drier, cooler, and more variable, well-suited to grasses, as shown by a variety of scientific data, from undersea sediments to fossilized vegetation.

Tools from the Stone Age. [Photo, Wikipedia]

      There's plenty of evidence that humans were eating meat at the same time as the grasses and other foods, but data suggest that human kidneys and livers are limited in in their ability to process proteins. Too much meat is toxic, and half or more of human calories must come from fats and carbohydrates such as grains. Wheat is the focus of this blog; others have done great justice to the rest of the omnivores' diets.

1.9 million years ago -- hominids begin to cook?

[Photo, TWCarns]

     When did people begin to cook grains, whether by roasting them, boiling them, or in some other fashion? The evidence is so murky that it's probably better to be cautious rather than to say that anyone knows with certainty. One study looked at the size of hominid molars from about 2,000,000 years ago, and suggested that they were much smaller than those of related primates because hominids needed to spend much less time and energy chewing food -- only possible if they were cooking it.

40,000 to 23,000 years ago -- people begin to grind up grains

bilancino grinding tools_wide-8f335c65606968d602b5e2ec5d546a973c021abd-s6-c30.jpg (948×532)
  Paleolithic grinding stone (Italy, 30,000 years ago). [Photo, NPR]

   Tools for grinding grains appear well before humans domesticated the grasses with agriculture. Excavations have found stones that were used to grind tubers and grains in Italy, Russia, and elsewhere. A flat stone found in Israel in 1989 had been used to pulverize barley, and possibly wheat. The earliest evidence of wheat ancestors, such as wild einkorn and emmer, dates from about this time as well.

12,000 to 10,000 years ago -- the beginnings of agriculture

Northwest Ohio wheat field, June 30, 2013. [Photo, Betsy Slotnick]

     Finally, we get to agriculture when people began to deliberately plant crops -- mostly grains -- and cultivate the ground. Notice that by the time agriculture begins, people had been eating grains for most of the multi-million-year history of hominds; they had been cooking grains for perhaps two million years; and they had been grinding grains into pastes (and probably cooking the pastes) for tens of thousands of years.

    Most of the existing evidence for the earliest farms is from archaeological sites in the Middle East. Agriculture would assure a reliable source of grains and legumes for proteins to supplement meat. People had been eating wild wheats, and they were among the earliest plants to be cultivated.

 A fox and other carvings on stones at Gobekli Tepe. [Photo, Smithsonian]

    One of the most interesting possibilities for the origins of agriculture comes from a site in southeast Turkey, Gobekli Tepe, where excavation began in earnest in 1994. Stones, some that are sixteen feet tall and quarried with flint tools from about 11,000 years ago suggest a temple or burial site. Many have sophisticated carvings of everything from lions to snakes, vultures to spiders. Twenty miles away, a village site contains the earliest evidence of domesticated wheat, from 10,500 years ago. Within a few hundred years after that, signs of domesticated sheep, cattle, and pigs appeared in the area. Klaus Schmidt, the archaeologist who began excavating Gobekli Tepe suggests that the need to care for the large numbers of hunter-gatherers while they were building the monuments led to villages and thence to agriculture, rather than (as has often been thought) agricultural settlements leading to formal religions.

10,000 years ago to the present: Mesopotamia to Monsanto

Left to right, einkorn, emmer, spelt, and kamut -- all ancient varieties of wheat. [Photo, Purdue University.]

     Wheat has changed so drastically that none of the wheat strains most commonly cultivated in the 20th and 21st centuries would have been found in Mesopotamia, at Gobekli  Tepe and elsewhere.  What's more, the wheat grown in the past fifty years, since the "Green Revolution" differs greatly from the wheat that farmers grew before the 1950s. Some of the most important changes during the past ten millenia include:
  • Thousands of years ago, farmers selected the strains of wheat that held onto their grains (had a rachis, or stem for the grains, that did not shatter when the grains were ripe) -- so that the seeds stayed on the stalks until they could be harvested rather than scattering to the winds.
  • Farmers also selected wheats that did not have tight hulls, because these were easier to thresh.
  • Over the centuries, farmers have grown wheats with differing levels of gluten, in part because those with higher gluten contents do better in northern climates and those with lower gluten do better in warmer areas. The foods of the regions with low-gluten wheat are different, as a result, from those in the high-gluten regions. [Current concerns about the pros and cons of gluten are discussed here.]
  • Dr. Borlaug, in the Green Revolution during the 1950s, won a Nobel Peace Prize for hybridizing wheat that was much shorter, so that the stalks didn't topple under their own weight before harvest, or get blown down in summer storms. He also developed wheat that was far more productive, although it did require substantially more nitrogen-rich fertilizer.
Wheat displayed at Alaska State Fair, 2013. [Photo, TWCarns]

  • Monsanto, characterized as the world's largest seed company, said in January 2014 that although no genetically modified wheat is grown anywhere in the world today,  it was coming closer to marketing one. The company halted field testing in 2004 because of resistance from potential foreign purchasers and others. Plants from genetically modified seeds would resist destruction by glyphosphate, sold by Monsanto as Round-up. The weed-killer is already widely used on Monsanto's patented GM corn, soy and other crops. One source suggests that consumers are less concerned about using the herbicide on those crops because they are more widely used as animal feed or biofuels than as food for people, like wheat.
       Wheat's future, despite many concerns about celiac disease, gluten sensitivities, and its healthfulness, seems assured after so many years of serving as one of the most important foods in many parts of the world. The great majority of people are not sensitive to gluten, and wheat provides substantial percentages of the protein, carbohydrates, and nutrients needed daily. 

Loaf of bread, Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, Anchorage, 2013. [Photo, TWCarns]