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Thoth Dances Into the Vortex

Movies* Cinemax will feature the story of the violinist who stole the show on Oscar night.

August 19, 2002|NANCY A. RUHLING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The violinist in the shiny gold loincloth and glittering chest chains burst onto the red carpet at this year's Oscar ceremony like a whirling dervish, startling the stars with his solo serenades.

Nicole Kidman stopped in her tracks, transfixed, as he sang to her and spun around her. A speechless Sandra Bullock couldn't take her eyes off him.

Russell Crowe shook his hand and congratulated him on a job well done. A host of other celebrities, Uma Thurman, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Jada Pinkett Smith among them, were mesmerized by his music.

Finally, Jodie Foster turned to Ethan Hawke and asked, "Who is that guy who is stealing the show?"

For the easy answer, they--and the millions who had tuned in--had to wait until the awards ceremony, when the violinist named Thoth twirled up to the stage with filmmaker Sarah Kernochan as she accepted her Oscar for "Thoth," her short documentary about his extraordinary life.

"Nobody knew my name until then," he says, bubbling with joy after the Oscars. "But afterward everyone came up to me to congratulate me. I was the first African American to get an award that night, which turned out to be a historic one for African Americans [Denzel Washington and Halle Berry made Oscar history by winning best actor and best actress honors], I was the only being on stage that nobody had ever seen before, and I did things on stage that nobody there had ever seen before."

Now, wherever he goes, people stop him in the streets, where he has been performing for nearly a quarter century, and ask him to play.

The world now knows his name and of his Oscar fame but few know the story of how this classically trained musician went from being homeless to playing at the Academy Awards. That will change today, when "Thoth" makes its debut at 7 p.m. on HBO's Cinemax.

"The film 'Thoth' is the intro to my message," he says. "It's really Thoth 101. I hope that after viewing the film, people will understand that I'm a serious musician who does serious work."

The serious work he speaks of is his solo opera, which will be self-released on CD starting today. Inspired by Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen," Thoth's "The Herma: The Life and Land of Nular-in" focuses on a mythological land called Festad, where people of all races live in harmony.

"The Herma is the first original opera in all regards in this millennium, and it is the first solo opera, and in terms of accomplishment, I revel in it."

How Thoth, a.k.a. the 48-year-old Stephen Kaufman of Queens, N.Y., came into being reads like the plot of a Hollywood movie. Of mixed racial ancestry--his mother's family was from Barbados; his father's relatives were Russian Jews--Kaufman grew up in a world that hurled hatred at him.

"There were several mixed couples in my parents' social set--my father was a physician and my mother was a classical musician--but when we left that world, people yelled obscenities. Even my father's family disowned us," he says. "I didn't know who I was. I wasn't black. I wasn't white. I wasn't accepted by either world or any world."

The young Stephen found solace in his music, composing a mythological world, the Festad, where everyone lived peacefully. His parents divorced when he was a teenager, and he embarked on a journey of self-discovery that culminated in his transformation into Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom and communication.

Thoth, who dresses like a cross between an ancient gladiator and an Indian medicine man, turns his entire body into a musical instrument as he performs what he calls "soloperas," or solo operas.

As his otherworldly voice and the voice of the violin waft through the air, his sandal-clad feet become drums, pounding the rhythms that are the heartbeats of his performance pieces, accenting the rich sounds of the bells and shells that are tied to his ankles.

"I call my works 'pray-formances,' " he says. "In my soloperas, I'm the composer, the orchestra, the characters and the dancers. My work is part vocalization, parable, aerobics, monologue, alchemy, theater, puzzle, language deconstruction, healing ritual and sacred dance, and it draws upon my studies of religion, philosophy, mythology and botany."

It is also riveting: Kernochan, a successful screenwriter whose only other documentary, 1972's "Marjoe," won an Oscar for best feature documentary, was one of those who couldn't stop listening when she discovered him in New York City's Central Park.

"I knew immediately that I wanted to make a film about him," she says. "I wanted to create a portrait of this artist, I wanted to capture on film his performance so the rest of the world could experience the same joy that I felt."

The hoopla hasn't changed Thoth: Although he won't perform in Central Park today when Cinemax airs the film--it's his regular day off--he will be there the rest of the week. "Everything I do is an expression of my being, my emotions," he says. "In showing my emotions, I'm showing who I am."

And who is that?

"Myself," he replies emphatically. "Thoth."

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