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I finished reading Michele Wucker’s The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on Dangers We Ignore a few weeks ago. I had intended to write about the book, yet, like many people, I was left speechless by recent world events, including the breaking off of yet another huge chunk of Antarctica.

To most of us, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was—and continues to be—an increasingly horrific Black Swan, a highly improbable event with devastating impacts. Yet, to some foreign policy experts, it began as a Gray Rhino. William Burns, current director of the CIA, was US Ambassador to Russia in the 1990s. He wrote memos then advising against the expansion of NATO eastward because it was being perceived as a threat to Russian security. Other experts point to an overly mild response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. No one, however, predicted the senseless destruction and barbaric atrocities that have occurred.

What has happened at Chernobyl is also tragic. Young Russians who had not heard of the 1986 nuclear disaster there were ordered to enter contaminated areas without wearing any protective gear. Then, some of them were ordered to dig trenches in an area called the red forest that is so contaminated that even workers with protective gear are forbidden to enter it. Some soldiers have died from exposure to the radioactive dust. Others are severely ill with radiation sickness and may not recover. Ominously, the threat of a nuclear accident–or warfare–continues to lurk in the background.

What has all of the above to do with art, with dance, you may ask. Sadly, yet presciently, I spoke about nuclear weapons and the climate crisis in my solo, Last Gasp! (2018-19). As these existential threats are currently even more dire, I will reprise a relevant excerpt from Last Gasp! at the Lower East Side Festival of the Arts at Theater for the New City over Memorial Day Weekend.

A recent newspaper article mentioned Gray Rhinos in the same sentence as Black Swans. Curious, I searched online and learned that “A gray rhino is a highly probable event with a great deal of impact which is dismissed or over-looked, perhaps because we’re not taking it seriously enough. The term was coined by The Gray Rhino author Michele Wucker to mean a danger which is obvious, visible, and charging straight at you,” unlike black swan events (see previous posts) which are highly improbable.

While I cannot think of any dance works about the rhinoceros, Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros (1959) immediately came to mind as well as the congruence of its anti-totalitarian allegory with my thoughts about referencing a piece that I choreographed several years ago–which used text from Wilhelm Reich’s book The Mass Psychology of Fascism–in a new work. As of this writing, however, it is not clear to me yet whether January 6, 2021, for instance, was a Black Swan or a Gray Rhino, let alone what November 8, 2022 and its aftermath will be—or precisely how they might relate to my new work.

To be continued: I look forward to reading Wucker’s book and posting further about gray rhinos.

I have learned that the black swan has been an inspiring image for numerous composers and musicians for well over a century before the publication of Taleb’s book (see my previous blog post) and became a provocative one after it. Below I briefly share just a few highlights of my research.

Swan Lake: It turns out that the original libretto for Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake contained neither Rothbart nor a black swan, but rather a jealous step–mother (instead of Rothbart) and Odile as a human enchantress who, in the earliest productions, wore a rainbow–colored gown! Then later, when the story was somewhat altered for a new production, Odile became a black swan.

Black Swan Records was formed in 1921, the first record label owned and run by African–Americans. It was named for Elizabeth Greenfield, a famous 19th–century African–American opera star who was called The Black Swan. Born into slavery, she was freed as a child and later trained as a singer. When she gave concerts in the United States, her promoters insisted that she perform for white–only audiences. On her own initiative, she gave benefit concerts for African–American organizations and audiences.

Black Swan: Pop and Punk: Taleb’s book, or at least its title, led to bands, albums and songs taking its name and creating varying interpretations of its meaning. The K–pop group BTS released a song and video; their “Black Swan” was about “what if they lost their passion for making music.” Adele also has a song titled Black Swan. There were a number of rock bands, too. Most notable among them was the punk super-group Black Swan’s album Shake the World with vocalist Robin McAuley.

As mentioned in my previous post, although native to Australia, black swans were not “discovered” by Europeans until the 1600s, yet Nassim Nicholas Taleb takes his title from the Latin poet Juvenal who refers to “a bird as rare as a black swan.” Published in 2007, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable ruffled the feathers of proponents of economic and investing orthodoxies. Today, after the economic collapse of 2008, the presidential election of 2016, Covid–19, and the insurrection on January 6, 2021, we can barely keep up with one highly improbable event and its impacts rapidly following another.

The second edition of The Black Swan was published in 2010. In the new section “Robustness and Fragility,” Taleb recommends an investment strategy, for people who have money to invest, that allocates most of their money to “safe” Treasury bills and just a small percentage to very high-risk ventures in the event that if one of the latter succeeds, the returns will be prodigious (i.e., a very positive Black Swan). As anyone who has followed the game of chicken that was played out with regard to raising the debt ceiling earlier this fall may have noted, even the alleged safety of Treasury bills has been called into question, with another deadline for raising the debt ceiling looming on December 3rd.

Black swans are native to Australia, “discovered” by European explorers in the late 1600s. Large birds with a wing span of five to six feet, the feathers on the underside of their wings are white and seen when the birds take flight. Nomadic rather than migratory, black swans are monogamous and males attend to the eggs and the feeding of the cygnets. Occasionally there are extra–pair matings; about 25% of the pairs are homosexual, most often with two males luring a female to lay eggs and then chasing her away.

Black-Swan-family

Next month I will discuss Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. In December, I will post about music as it relates to black swans. Researching, I found several rock bands named Black Swan. Plus, there was a performance art group in San Francisco in the 1980s also called Black Swan. And then there is a section of the ballet Swan Lake known for its black swan variation.

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On September 5th a black swan appeared in Tiananmen Square, much to the consternation of Chinese officials concerned that it would be perceived as a bad omen—or might actually be a bad omen. Interestingly, black swans were first seen in Australia hundreds of years ago, and about two weeks after the black swan appeared in Tiananmen Square, Australia announced an agreement with the U.S. for submarines to patrol the South China Sea. And Xi Jiping had been warning about a possibly imminent black swan event.

Reading further I learned that Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable in 2007 in which he called something totally unpredictable that has major, wide-spread impact a black swan event. I am curious to read the book, including the new chapter in the second edition titled “On Robustness and Fragility.”

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Of course, in classical ballet there are other association with swans from “The Dying Swan” to “Swan Lake.” I actually used excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s music for the last section of a piece I created decades ago: Archaeopteryx: About Birds, Dinosaurs, Mortality and Marriage.

Somehow the combination of all of the above is leading me to brainstorm new ideas for a project I began incubating before the pandemic. I will keep you posted on developments.


Bottom photos by Johan Elbers of Laura Shapiro in Archaeopteryx: About Birds, Dinosaurs, Mortality and Marriage: (L) section 2, (C and R) section 4