Thursday, July 22, 2010


Musee d'Orsay at the De Young

I was thinking the other day that my Dad left me two castles. There is the one here, in the house where I am now, and if you have been here, then you probably know how I feel about this place. And then there is the other castle, the one that is made out of communing with great art, hearing live music, experiencing the magic of travel. I was thinking today that there are probably several reasons why I've been trying to absorb so much art, and hanging out with him in the other invisible castle is probably a big reason. Now that I am married, published and unpregnant, it's pretty obvious to me that he is not around and this, more than anything, has added to the general malaise I wrote about earlier.

So, today, we went up to the renovated De Young Museum (holy cow, when did that happen?) to see the first of the two traveling Musee d'Orsay exhibits. This first will end September 6th, and showcases pieces having to do with the birth of Impressionism; the later show which will last into January, features Van Gogh, Cezanne and later participants of the movement we call Impressionism.

There was a time in high school when, like all teenage girls, I felt very strongly about the Impressionists. I'm pretty sure those feelings lasted into college, and I had my Cezanne poster and Turner poster (I know he wasn't technically and Impressionist, but all the same) up on the wall of my dorm room till the corners gave out. Then somewhere along the way I noticed that Impressionism had to do with selling umbrellas and matching prints to paint jobs chosen by interior decorators and the house at Giverny and, well, I lost interest. Going to this exhibit today revived my interest.

I'd forgotten how badly these various painters--Manet, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissaro, etc--all wanted so badly to be part of the Salon.

I was fascinated by how Caillabotte could paint such an extraordinary piece, and still expect to be admitted! Like, no. They weren't going to let you in with that piece and, looking at it with history on my side, why on earth did you even want to be associated with all those lustless nude portraits of Greek goddesses anyway? Except, of course, artists want to be accepted. And then I got to the rooms where we learned all about how the artists hung out at Cafe Batignolle.

And how they worked together--there are two paintings of the same dead heron by different artists--and how they joked with each other--Bazille painting his friends but leaving himself out of the picture and then Manet putting in a portrait of Bazille and making Bazille taller than anyone else--and the entire show was suddenly humanized.

What's more, there were no paintings fit for tablecloths and umbrellas, though certainly you can buy such items at the end of the exhibit if you want to. Instead, we see pieces that did get accepted into the Salon, and we see how close but not quite close enough the Manets and Monets were. In other words, you can really see how at first, these artists don't seem to have come out of nowhere. They have the techniques down. It's just--they had these ideas. And their ideas led them into temptation and then, well, there's nothing so corrupting as an idea. (To be fair, the Salon paintings are very accomplished. It's just--nude pink saintly dead gods, yada yada yada. How many centuries of the same thing do we need? Wouldn't the truculent Greeks be pissed off by poor Jason and the Argonauts and that weird scarf tied around his penis?)

We see how the Spanish painterly style influenced Manet. We see how each artist--Pissaro, Sisley and all the rest--develop increasingly personal styles. That's a roller coaster for an artist--once you are on a personal path, there is no getting off. And yet still they hoped to belong and in the absence of being able to do so.

So instead of more chewy Renoir paintings and happy Monet flowers, you see a snowy landscape with a magpie. There's Whistler and his mother. And lots of Manet, which was helpful because I never quite had a fix on Manet before.

And then there are all the characters--Emile Zola shows up. It all made me wish for a pair of pants and a nice cafe. Because of course, these were all men. Where, I wonder, is that cafe now? Are there still artistic movements like this where people are trying to overthrow one establishment? Or is the establishment now a fluid thing and fragmented, as everyone keeps trying to tell us the entertainment world is. In hindsight, these artistic struggles look romantic, but of course they are not. They are quite existentially awful. It did so make me wish to be part of something, though.

At the same time, I left feeling incredibly enriched and happy. This, for me, is what happens when I spend a few hours in the invisible castle. I am thankful to all you smart curators out there in your dark suits and "air of knowing" that you always possess for putting together such an intelligent, multi-faceted and beautiful show.

Of course I knew that the Musee d'Orsay was full of treasures--I spent a great deal of time there when I was a student. But the way in which this particular exhibit is presented--with the humanizing and the story and the characters and the art instruction and true art history and the reminders about the war--just floored me. I wish I could go back again. I am so glad that Paris of the West has had a chance to host this group of treasures. I'll be getting my ticket for the winter.

(As an aside--a little excitement. We had to evacuate the building. I am pleased to report that the emergency exits are functional, that traffic flow out of the building is speedy and that reentry was generally seamless.)

Friday, July 16, 2010


Tanabata Ewan

In case you are wondering why Ewan is posing in front of bamboo stalks with streamers, this is all in service of Tanabata, the star festival, the romantic summer holiday in Japan when two lovers are finally reunited by a bridge of magpies who help them cross the Milky Way. More photos, to help you with iconography.

Sunday, July 11, 2010



A number of years ago, when I had what I now recognize was some kind of nervous breakdown, I took the money that I had saved up and went off to visit friends and museums in Europe. At the time, it felt like a very privileged and spoiled thing to do. I remember my father saying to me that he thought it was wonderful that I was traveling. He said: "Obviously, you need to go to the museums and they are there for you and will be again." I thought that this was remarkably indulgent of him. I still felt guilty and spoiled, but I still wanted to go and I did.

It's been probably twelve years since all of that and I finally understand what he was talking about. I've been in a malaise for the past six months--hardly reading anything at all. But I find myself suddenly listening to symphonies, planning to go to the Philharmonic, visiting museums (easy to do with a baby) and going like a maniac to the ballet. And this I realize was what my father was talking about--those old great arts are always there for you when you need them.

I posted about my experiences at the ballet last year. I figured that this year, with a baby, I would hardly go, if at all and each time ABT called to encourage me to attend/subscribe, I explained that I would not be coming. Well, resistance is futile in these things. I caved and bought tickets to most of the matinees. And then I found out that one can really use babysitters, and off I went for more performances. Now the season is over and I'm feeling terribly morose, and trying to think how I can get down to the Kennedy Center to see Suzanne Farrell and the Kirov in February. But for now, some highlights:

When I read that the great Darci Kistler would be retiring, I bought a ticket immediately. I'm not really sure that I love the Peter Martins version of Swan Lake--the ending is sort of Giselle--like in that Odette bourres offstage, leaving Siegfried to contemplate his future without her. Under any other circumstances, I would find this choreography weird and anticlimactic. Except in this case, we had Darci Kistler leaving the stage and saying goodbye to all of us forever and imbuing her dancing with so much emotion--even if the technique was not all there--I was in tears.

I was also alone--as I was much of this season and looked around to see if anyone else was there feeling the same thing and there to pay tribute to the last of the Balanchine ballerinas and more to the point, the end of an era. And it made me think of all the great art that was on during the Balanchine heyday--and even before. It must be like that now in New York. It just takes a person who is not blase to find it.

I'm pretty sure that this was David Hallberg. And if it was, it made me happy that he'd go across the courtyard, to see the "other" ballet company and to bid farewell to Darci Kistler too. How could another dancer not be moved by her exit? As a writer, it's very hard to imagine saying goodbye so publicly. Like, I spent all this time loving this art form and working and perfecting and now . . . I'm too old?

Later that day, I was still feeling melancholy from the performance, so I walked uptown to my dance studio and ran into a friend with whom I take dance class--he is pretty much the person people turn to in the ballet world for Pilates and he was Darci's trainer, and so we spoke and sobbed together and that felt cathartic, and then I was ready to go home.

I was lucky enough to also read early on that Alina Cojocaru would be coming over from the Royal Ballet to dance as Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. Well, I've seen Sleeping Beauty before, but not like this. In fact, the strongest memory I have of any performance involved someone--trying to remember who--at the Kirov dancing the Lilac Fairy. I don't even remember Aurora. But Cojocaru absolutely captivated me, filling her character with girlish wonder and then surprised pain and then finally, deep love. Her extensions are incredible--yes. But she made them seem so naturally a part of the character, so her technique never overrode the role. I think it'll be a while before anyone erases that performance from my memory. And then there was her prince, Jose Carreno who, the balletomane next to me kept repeating, is 42. I guess if I were 42 I would not want everyone to know and to needlessly repeat it. And perhaps Carreno is slowing down a bit. But I loved him--strong and manly and romantic and all that. I came home and listened to the music repeatedly.

The photo above is of Gelsey Kirkland who was at the same performance. Like little girls everywhere, there was a time when I worshiped Kirkland, then was very upset on her behalf when I read her memoir. These days I understand she's concerned with the quality of narrative in dance, and that she feels that abstraction has come to an end. This is an interesting concept across the board for the arts and it's made me think how such an idea applies to something like the novel.

Take, for instance, the MOMA which is so full of abstract art. Does it strike you as dated? Is it indicative of a time? Do we need more narrative and less mannered suggestion? I remember clearly the first time I even understood what abstraction was--and this so betrays my not-from-NYC-roots. I was watching the movie "The Turning Point" as a child, which I did not understand at all (because I was, like, 5), but I remember the moment when Leslie Browne is told that she is not a character, but an idea. An abstraction. I thought: if I can understand that, I can understand grown ups. I wonder: are we past abstraction?

Anyway, I read somewhere that Kirkland had helped to coach other young performers in the role of Aurora. I doubt she coached Cojocaru. But I think she did work with some of the other Auroras. And this brings me to another thought--I read somewhere else of all the past principals who were hired this year to help the young principals work on developing their roles. I thought the extra work showed. And I loved the idea of past generations aiding each other in artistic expression. Much has been made, for example, of the unique way that Suzanne Farrell is able to pass on the Balanchine legacy. I rarely see Balanchine that I like. I think it must be who is doing the dancing that is affecting me.

And then, finally, the ballet I saw last night. David Hallberg partnered Natalia Osipova in her debut as Juliet. Osipova has been the toast of the town this year and I was lucky enough to plan early enough to get a ticket to see her. My god what a transcendent performance this was. I remember seeing Bocca and Ferri back in the very early 90s . . . last night's performance felt as special. I will be one of those annoying elderly women years from now, saying to some young person in standing room, "I was there when Hallberg first danced Romeo with Osipova . . ." I mean, it was that incredible. I felt privileged. That whole bit I wrote earlier about wanting to find great artistic moments in NYC? Well, I found one.

Romeo has never been a role I really cared about before (well, okay, I did like Bocca. Still). For me the ballet and the play have always been about Juliet and about Mercutio, with Romeo there for Juliet to play against. In the ballet, he does a lot of very heavy lifting, for example, and you need him for the lifts in order to show off how beautiful Juliet is. But it's Mercutio who gets to be witty and provide commentary and quick-changes of temperament. But Hallberg made the role really matter--he found the character in the music, the choreography and, I'm guessing, the text. He also found the character in the world of the stage--interacting with everyone as Romeo would. As it should be. Again. Hallberg is so pretty and he obviously has a brain. Yay!

Romeo, after all, partly gets Juliet's attention in the ballet because of his dancing. Most of the Romeos I've seen just get through the steps and then poison themselves at the end and that's it. But there was something in the way that Hallberg played the character from the start to suggest that here was a young man in search of his one true love--which he finds. So much intelligence, and so much ability and so much talent. The dancer can make all the difference. I've enjoyed Hallberg's dancing for a while, but partnered with Osipova, something new was unleashed--like he found levels of emotion that he felt he could convey and which were authentic. And because I suspect anything he does comes from an authentic and very real place, well, we the audience felt even more moved by whatever he was creating onstage. It was incredible. (I'm still upset that Tybalt killed Mercutio. Like, wtf?)

And of course, there was Natalia Osipova, who was so lithe and captivating and beautiful. Together, they were magical. The photo above (I think) is of Joy Womack, about whom the Times wrote recently--she's a young American studying at the Bolshoi and she lists Osipova as her inspiration. Again, it made me feel happy to see others there to support their chosen art--loving it and feeling inspired by it.

I raved last year about the lovely dancer Hee Seo who was finally promoted to soloist. I tried to limit how much of her dancing I saw this year--it's too easy to just watch your favorites over and over again, and I wanted to try to see other people too. But I loved her again as Gamzatti and in Thais, which I went to see last minute on a Tuesday. So much is being made about the fact that she's the first Korean soloist with ABT. This seems so unimportant, as she's just a tremendous dancer and has a wonderful feel for music and for choreography and for filling movement. Much is being made of her partner Cory Stearns and I still don't feel like I've really seen him at his best. My guess is that what he does in rehearsal still isn't completely coming through in performance. Plus, he was saddled with an awful lot of last minute subbing, what with so many men getting injured this season, and was most likely overwhelmed. But I digress.

I want to say that I still love Seo as Juliet. She, too, gave a carefully shaped performance and there were choices she made which--as my friend Tonya says, were different, but just as true and just as valid. My heart generally can't take two Romeo and Juliets in a row--and certainly not when the performance is as powerful as the one Hallberg and Osipova delivered. But I would be tempted to go to both next year, should the occasion arise.

A few other notes--I wish we had better Mercutios. Can't we have Daniil Simkin? He's so witty and smart and I know he'd do the character full justice in all its complexity. Why must the season be so short? Could we please have a full length Manon? I love MacMillan and Vishneva absolutely blew me away. The mixed programs don't seem to fill seats, but I love them. I loved seeing different smaller pieces and being exposed to more dancers--and more choreography. I hope that this continues.

Finally, I read somewhere that a great ballerina--when she's an artist--is able to create a universe of her own and then place herself in the center of that universe. I've been thinking about this for a while now. It seems to me that the best artists do in fact have powerful imaginations that are able to cast such profound illusions that you believe in the world and the web they have woven. Ballet is moving because it is fleeting. You won't get to be there with me to say goodbye to Kistler, or gasp over Cojocaru, or cry over Hallberg and Osipova. Those moments are gone. The paintings I saw at the MOMA are still there. The novels that I love are still on the shelf. The British Museum still stands. How brave, then, are the dancers who will spin a world for you, just for an evening and make you feel that just for a moment, people-the incredibly flawed human race-is indeed capable of grace and beauty and the sublime. Right now, to me anyway, it seems like the greatest leap of faith.

(A final note on going to the ballet alone. I was so moved by Osipova, I tried to talk to the person sitting next to me about it. And she said: "Oh that girl. She's the one who got mugged. Wonder how long she'll be heah." And then I remembered why I'd rather go alone to something than to go with the wrong people.)

(Okay, one more note. Tonya reviews the performance and, like me, complains that we ought to have Simkin as Mercutio next year. Please. Johan Renvall always brought the house down with his rendition. It ought to be a showstopper, not a "Oh, look, dear, he jumped a lot and now he looks tired" kind of role).

(My third postscript. I've been thinking that I didn't write enough about Osipova above. And this morning I was remembering how last year people struggled to write about her. All agreed they had seen something extraordinary, but no one could pinpoint what it was. I remember this from Tonya's blog and from the Times. Having now seen her dance, I understand what it is that people were struggling with. I've never seen anyone move quite like she does. That she is an excellent dancer is not in question--yes she's musical and a tremendous actress and gorgeous. But what she brings to the stage is just so much more than that. It's some kind of ecstatic experience. Even though I'm a writer, I love when words fail me. That's when you know you have seen something new and unique. I can't wait to see Osipova again).

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