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One of my art professors had a spiel about how to push a work to its farthest edge by reminding us that a great work of art almost doesn’t work—but it does. It was his way of getting his students to take risks, to push out beyond what feels safe. There’s really no other way to know just how long that plank extends over the cliff edge until you walk it, blindfolded, and fall off. And then you do that again. Many, many times.

I’ve come up against that edge several times lately, leaving me to ask why something that shouldn’t work, does. Here’s my list. Maybe you have a few of your own.

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Styrofoam cup ceiling and mylar “lumps”

Tara Donovan, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
Donovan has transformed my ongoing relationship with scotch tape, Styrofoam cups, paper plates, mylar sheets and plastic buttons. Simple materials in the hands of someone who clearly can stay focused on the tedious tasks of creating the extraordinary out of the ordinary.

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Aurélia Thierrée threading her way across the stage; music making with alarm clocks

Aurelia’s Overture, American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge
Charlie Chaplin’s gift at the beguiling art form of silent performance seems to have been passed down, first to his daughter Victoria Thierrée Chaplin who wrote this piece and second, to his granddaughter Aurélia Thierrée who performs it. Small in scale and seductively intimate, this performance takes life and the theatrical experience and stands everything on its head. The stage curtains dance erotically with each other, and later in the show we meet their small curtain “child”; flowers are placed in vases upside down; empty coats behave as if they are wrapped around a body; a concerto is performed using the various sounds of alarm clocks. So simple, with no plot and almost no words, it is part circus, Grand Guignol, pantomime, minimalist theatre, Dadaist contrarian, Arte Povera, modern dance, improvisational. And yet these 75 minutes are a jewel box of the captivating and the whimsical. Only the hardest of hearts would not be softened and seduced by this.

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Director Danny Boyle on the set for the final scene

Slumdog Millionaire
A fairytale about modern India—Mumbai to be exact—told with gritty realism, this is a movie that shouldn’t work but does. While the cast doesn’t periodically break into the dance and song we have come to expect from most Indian films (that is until the last scene, while the credits are rolling), the energy and pace is as explosive as any of those high action Bollywood extravaganzas. And because I am a newly minted and highly zealous Indianophile who fell head over heels for sprawling, massive Mumbai, I was riveted from start to finish.

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Bonnie Horne overseeing the plethora of pizza making ingredients

Holiday Cuisine Highs
There were some stellar high points this year: The tempura-fried fresh oysters with tangerine sauce at our Christmas Day feast, Bryce’s clam chowder, Clate’s mushroom, potato and cheese medley, Barrie’s espresso chocolate flourless cake, Bonnie’s baklava, Tony Maws’ (of Craigie on Main) Macomber turnip soup, and the Barlow/Wilcox/Horne “make your own” pizza extravaganza which featured over 40 different ingredients. All these culinary exploits could have overshot that teetery edge and crashed over the cliff. But they didn’t.

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Thinking about the transformation of the Lower East Side (see the posting below from November 17) has put me in a neighborhood state of mind…Boston/Cambridge, my home for over 20 years, made for entertaining reading in Ethan Gilsdorf’s recent piece about Boston for the New York Times‘ “American Journeys” series. Focusing on the Main Street neighborhood in Cambridge near MIT, he titled his article, “A Science Lover’s Kind of Town,” featuring the ice cream shop that my children have loved all their lives—Toscanini’s:

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When you run an ice cream parlor down the street from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, you expect your customers to chat about stem cell research or trade theories about neutrinos between licks of burnt caramel. But Gus Rancatore, whose Toscanini’s shop in Cambridge, Mass., is renowned as much for its deep-thinking clientele as for its sundaes, discovered long ago that catering to the technology-minded crowd could have unforeseen advantages.

One day, two M.I.T. students who were “working in superconductors,” Mr. Rancatore said, took a good look at his ice cream machine, visible through his shop window, and were “distressed by the poor engineering.” So they took it back to their lab and transformed its inefficient gear-drive mechanism into a lean, mean, belt-driven machine. That was 23 years ago. “We still use the machine,” Mr. Rancatore said. “Another generation of M.I.T. engineers just tuned it up this summer.”

In metropolitan Boston, including Cambridge, home of Harvard and M.I.T., and the technology corridor out on Route 128, the story is amusing, but not particularly surprising. At least since the early 1700s, when its cutting-edge physicians first offered smallpox inoculations, Boston has been a leader in sciences both theoretical and applied. Today, it’s still a town for science lovers, and the mood can be either serious or playful. If you’re the kind of person whose idea of fun is probing the structure of DNA or designing a faster toy bobsled, Boston is an inspiring place to spend a few days.

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What Gilsdorf couldn’t fit into his science theme but is big news from just a few doors down on Main Street is the long-awaited opening of Craigie on Main. This restaurant is both new and old—a revamped and relocated version of the famed Craigie Street Bistro formerly of Harvard Square.

For me and many of my foodie friends, the Craigie Street Bistro has been a site for devotional dining (because there is, after all, a palatable solemnity and religious ecstasy associated with this activity when done right.) This slightly out of the way, slightly cramped, basement bistro served up some of the best meals we’ve ever had.

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Award winning chef Tony Maws is a gifted culinarist and food visionary, and he brings a religious fanaticism to his commitment to only use biodynamically raised foods, in their season, raised locally. Night after night Maws adjusts his menu based on the availability of the best ingredients. Whether it is the to die for trois foie pate, eggs on cocotte, octopus a la poelle or his sweetened grits dessert (sounds a bit off kilter but you can’t believe how delicious it is), this is food like no where else. And you have to love a chef who has his wife AND his mother on the staff.

The time eventually came for the Craigie Streeters to leave the too tiny kitchen and subterranean dining space for a space that can give the cooking and the eating the room they both deserve. It’s a scary and fragile thing, moving an operation both up and out—to street level and into a much larger space. But perfectionism has its rewards. We had our first meal at the new Craigie on Main last week and it was fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. Built around a large, open kitchen, the new restaurant feels scaled to spend the entire night amid the warmth, the bustle and the smells. The staff is, as they have always been, cheerful and welcoming. They even remembered that our family prefers olive oil with our bread. Wow.

While the food is THE thing, there is more to creating dining magic than just a feast of exquisite tastes. When Ruth Reichl was the New York Times food critic, she dressed up as several different characters so she would not be recognized at the restaurants she was reviewing. She has written about how her experience of the meal was colored significantly by how she was treated by the wait staff. When she showed up as the flirtatious blond bombshell, complete with big wig and fake fingernails, her dining experience was significantly better than when she was the mousy, middle-aged Midwesterner.

Mastery of food and context, now that’s something special. And my guess is that at Craigie on Main, you’ll be treated swell no matter who you come as—blond bombshell, mousy matron or MIT superconductor engineer. It’s that kind of a place.

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