Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Nixon in China, or Opera is Grand

I remember my first opera at the Met. I went to see La Traviata with Editha Gruberova and she was terrible. She was also, according to Wikipedia, 42 and not the singer she had been when my parents had seen her over a decade earlier in Vienna. "Opera," said my mother, "can be better than this." And now it is.

The change in part came from a focus on singers--the new generation is superb and you rarely hear the wobbly vibratos and pitchy screeching of years past. The Met is now one of *the* places to see new, jaw-dropping, imaginative, and ambitious theater. Some of the re-stagings of classics, to my mind, are successful and others less so. All the same, I usually leave the Met feeling elevated because someone has tried to envision a grand world for me to enter.

I remember an interview with Bryan Singer, who wrote and directed the first two wonderful X-Men movies. To paraphrase, he said something like: the only way to translate the X-Men story to screen and to respect the fans, was to treat the material with sincerity. I think that's as true of a comic book hero as it is an opera. The Met respects its fans and treats its operas with sincerity. I love the results.

Much has been made of the fact that Nixon in China took 27 years to reach the Met. I was nervous about going last night--I always worry that "high art" of the modern variety is going to be above me. You can read the reviews in the press if you want the usual assessment of the music and the singing. But this afternoon, I'm still thinking about the second act, and what it means to the world of opera. In this portion of the opera, Pat and Dick are treated to a show staged by Madame Mao, which is actually a ballet choreographed by the witty Mark Morris. A young peasant girl is "whipped" on the stage. Pat is upset and goes to comfort the young girl. A young man forgets his gun (hello Chekhov) on stage, and Dick keeps trying to return the prop. From here, reality disintegrates and Pat and Dick get caught up in the action--the mass whippings, the thought control, the mind fuckery of the Cultural Revolution--and you in the audience lose track of what is real and what is not. Which, if you think about it, is probably the way that any kind of authoritarian mind control must feel. Are your emotions authentic? Are you allowed to have any? What constitutes reality when all activities are dictated to such a minute level?

It's an incredible feat of theater and art, this second act. I sat there feeling horrified and amused all at once; it's rare for a piece of art to reach and succeed for several emotions at the same time, but that's what great art can and should do. And I sat there thinking that in 1987, when Nixon in China was first produced, the creators must in some part have been thinking of trying to demonstrate what opera can be. There is so much ambition in this work. You can really feel how it paved the way for our concept of what opera is--both past and present.

There are other aspects of this production that I haven't about read anywhere--the subject of race, for example. Over the years, I've noticed less and less race based casting at the Met. The Don Carlo I saw this winter was Asian. Albrecht was black. Last night, there were "black Chinese workers" and "white Chinese workers." The audience does not seem to care--nor should it. The vision for opera now is so vast and so grand that race seems to matter less and less. The statement that the operas are all making now are not so much about Duke so and so in his 18th century palace, or a very 19th century courtesan, but about very richly imagined themes. Opera of course lends itself to "big feelings"--we use the word operatic for a reason. But it's almost as though by focusing on the emotions in opera--the love, betrayal, the lust, the greed--even more than the particulars, opera has managed to almost reinvent itself and transcend its aristocratic upbringing. How else does something like Nixon in China emerge?

Over at Tonya's blog, the discussion surrounding race in dance has been fascinating to read.

An anonymous poster wrote the following:

For dance to really move forward directors need to stop looking to “dance” as inspiration and start looking at the world around them for influences. Once that is done the whole race discussion would be obsolete because everyones differences will be embraced which ultimately will tie us all together (and box office sales).

Somewhere along the way, I feel like the Met and the opera world stopped looking myopically at opera for inspiration, and at the world instead. Though I have loved the Zeffirelli sets and the Otto Schenk production of the Ring Cycle, I'm impressed by the willingness of Peter Gelb to have a vaster vision than to try to stick his audience in 19th century Europe night after night. The essential integrity of opera has remained, but by opening up the scope, the operas have become more generous and more human. It troubles me that ballet doesn't seem to have gone through this same change yet.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Sara Mearns, Swan Queen

"So, you know how Sara Mearns is kind of wild on stage?"


"That's why they have to give her a dependable partner."

What does it mean to be wild on stage? There is a moment in the whimsical ballet Namouna, where Mearns does a series of jumps, while turning backward in the air, and landing against some men who must catch her. She can't see them. She has to trust that they are there and won't drop her. They don't know how hard she will jump. The whole thing is terrifying. Some dancers would hold back and play it safe, hitting the beat, or jumping high enough to look impressive, but not angling their bodies to ever be at any risk. Think of iceskaters at the Olympics, pausing before the big jump, then landing with a look of relief. Sara doesn't do this. She throws herself. She seems to enjoy it. You feel frightened for her and thrilled. You end up enjoying it too.

This was the energy Mearns brought to Swan Lake last night at the New York City Ballet pretty much from the moment go. Her white swan, Odette, leapt onto the stage and immediately began to flutter with fear and exhaustion. Mearns did something I've never seen anyone do before--she radiated the panicked nervousness of a bird frantically trying to get out of a cage, with a sort of queenly, eon-long suffering beauty. Hers was a Run-Lola-Run-Jason-Bourne swan, running on adrenaline, but still hopeful that one day her predicament will end.

As a contrast, take a look at Uliana Lopatkina of the Kirov.

Here is a swan who looks like she's emerging from the water. She's had a nice bath and is stretching out her wings to dry. She is queenly and regal and turns away from the prince because, well, maybe he isn't good enough for her. She's silky, elegant, and gorgeous. She meets the prince and thinks: hmm. Maybe you can help me!

For contrast, here is another version, this time from the Paris Opera Ballet. You'll notice a difference--the leg extensions are not quite as high. For me, this interpretation, performed by Agnès Letestu, is high on actorly drama. Odette looks like a bird. She is in some ways a more physical creature than the swan above, all darting eyes and twitching head.

And here's one more, from a slightly different moment in the ballet. Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn are Siegfried the prince, and Odette the swan, respectively. Look how passionate and how in love the two seem. It is going to break your heart later when he (oops) chooses another woman over her.

I don't think any interpretation is the most correct (and if you want to see more, knock yourself out. Type in "Odette's entrance" and see what you get). The point is just that Sara's, to me, was completely unique. In she flew, an exhausted, gorgeous, swan queen who we all very much wished to help. She was riveting; her performance gripping. If I put on my thinking cap, I'd say that here is an example of a performer taking something that has been done hundreds of times, and finding a way to make it new. As a fan, I would just say I sat there transfixed, and thrilled, with my hand over my mouth.

Dancers usually say that it is the black swan who is more difficult to capture. If you have seen Black Swan, the movie, then you know all about the received opinion concerning this role. In a recent article in the New York Times, NYCB dancer Sterling Hyltin (whom I also love), said:

“By nature white swan is easier for me. I’m more petite. We’ve got some very tall women in our company who do ‘Swan Lake,’ and for me it’s intimidating to feel as womanly as they are in a role, but I have to realize I’m a woman just like them.”

The black swan is the sexy, show-stopping role. She is the one who does 32 fouettes (a kind of demanding turn--ballet fans often count to see if a ballerina does them well). For example, here is Gillian Murphy:

No wonder the prince forgets about the white swan, right? Initially, (as in, a few years ago), Mearns didn't even do the full fouette regimen, though she certainly did last night when I saw her. And while she was also not doing multiple turns, like Murphy did above, the effect was still thrilling. Her Odile was in command, sexy, not cruel, but certainly intent on overpowering the prince.

So, no wonder the prince chooses Odile by accident and breaks Odette's heart, right? Why would anyone choose the fluttering, silky, sad white swan over the sexy one? Except, the way that Mearns played the white swan, as I described above, anchored the character so fully as the most important part of the story, that you could only feel even more devastated by the prince's betrayal. On a story level, the fact that Mearns infused Odette with so much adrenaline driven energy--you feel her fear--means that the last act does not fall flat. You do not think: "Oh, here we are with that white swan again." It's a brilliant way to play the duality and one I've not seen before. It makes sure that you, the audience member, are completely invested in the heart of the story, and that you are not treated merely to an evening of acrobatics.

In the hallway, during intermission, I ran into a veteran dance critic who said to me, dreamily: "It used to be this way every night."

But a ballet shouldn't just be about its star. True, I paid for my ticket because of Mearns. But one hopes that the rest of the ballet will also be good. And there was some good dancing. Daniel Ulbricht seems made for the role of the jester. It's one of the jumping-man roles, which also calls for the ability to appear good natured and playful. Ulbricht is all of these things, and he was certainly airborne. Joaquin de Luz was even more extraordinary, with some of the most effortless double tours I've ever seen. I enjoyed the trio of Abi Stafford, Megan Fairchild and Tiler Peck--I love Peck in particular. Anna Sofia Scheller, whom I've not been nice to in the past, really impressed me last night, what with her strong, playful dancing. She is someone who just seems to radiate *health* and does well when her characters are healthy. This was the second time I watched Eria Pereira. The first was in Chaconne where I thought she must be a student, she looked so small and hesitant on stage. I'm confused as to how she managed to become a soloist, while someone with actual stage presence, like Lauren King, is back in the corps.

Then there was Jared Angle, as Siegfried the prince. Angle is a solid partner, but his acting and emotion lack variety and depth. Look, for example, at this clip from the Royal Ballet. It's from the end of Swan Lake, when Siegfried realizes what a mess he has made of things, and so dashes frantically around the lake looking for the swan/woman he has betrayed. Watch for the urgency of his movements. (This is Nureyev, we are talking about).

(Musically, by the way, this sounds like just the kind of thing John Williams would have listened to and used for some of his movie music. Listen again).

This kind of passion was missing from Angle. And this makes me wonder what Mearns would be capable of were she to dance with an even better partner. I am thinking, for example of how much passion the often reserved David Hallberg (whom I adore) gave his Romeo when he danced with Osipova in Romeo and Juliet last spring. Even Gia Kourlas wrote:

As young ballet stars they show a longing to push past the point of comfort in their roles, especially those as fraught with history and emotion as Romeo and Juliet. You can sense their impatience, their devotion and, finally, their desire not to settle for a performance on the surface.

This is not to say that David Hallberg isn't amazing at everything he does. It's just that partnered with Osipova, he seemed to push himself even more. And looking at Mearns, who is clearly an artist of immense talent, intuition and depth, I couldn't help but want even more for her than she already has. What magic, for example, might we see if she danced with Marcelo Gomes? The set around them would melt.

Of course, if the set in question is one designed by Per Kirkeby, that would not be such a bad thing. I have been googling trying to find pictures of the sets and costumes to show you, but none seem to exist. There is probably a reason for this. They are horrendous. I have an open mind when it comes to modern productions--I loved the much booed Tosca at the Met, for example. But what on earth possessed anyone to think that a high octane splattered primary color based set that looked like Jackson Pollock on acid would be in any way shape or form, good? The mottled courtiers who opened act two looked like marbled fudge chess pieces from a discarded production of Alice in Wonderland. The jester, as someone said to me, looked like a gnome in neon fatigues. At some point, this kind of color scheme starts to look willfully in bad taste. It's not funny. It's cynical.

My friend Allison put it best when she said: "Tim Gunn would never let them get away with this!"

Or, as another friend, who is not a regular ballet goer said to me: "This is distracting." Well, yes. It was also distracting when the orchestra decided to race through the first act, as though on speed. Why so afraid of something classic? If there is a heart to a story, it will show. Why not embrace that?

The ending of City Ballet's production has also been considered "controversial." Last year, after attending Darci Kistler's farewell performance, I wrote that it was "strange." Looking at it again, though, I've decided it is wonderful. In most versions, Odette and Siegfried either jump off a cliff and die (ABT), or vanquish the evil von Rothbart and live (Bolshoi). Here's the incomparable Plisetkaya, alive at the end of act 4, and protecting all the little swans who have clustered around her.

City Ballet does something different. The tormented, desperate Odette manages to vanquish von Rothbart, but still she is engulfed by the sisterhood of black *and* white swans, only to disappear out of sight. It's a feminist ending to a ballet that otherwise relies heavily on the power of a prince for salvation. At the end, Mearns, as the swan, is presumably healed from the affliction of the aviary curse. But, regretfully, she must retreat to now recover, one assumes, from her century long ordeal and perhaps even a broken heart.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


NYCB in Rehearsal: Prodigal Son and After the Rain

(Various photos are not Sara Mearns or Sean Suozzi, but cobbled together to give you a sense of the ballet)

I wonder if there is a more violent role for a man in ballet than the Prodigal Son. At one point, our Prodigal Son, now very far from home, sits on the floor and bends his head. The unrelenting Siren stands on his shins and he holds her in place, then slowly lowers his leg. It's one of the many unconventional lifts and moves that Balanchine employed the convey the complete dominance the Siren has over the Prodigal Son and the debauchery of her world.

I've seen the ballet before--most recently with Angel Corella and Kristi Boone--but was really pleased to be invited to watch Sara Mearns and Sean Suozzi in rehearsal. I'm like a broken record now with my Sara Mearns love, but what a treat it was to see this lush, commanding dancer take on the role of the Siren. How easily she sliced through those turns in arabesque seconde (that was very mean, George Balanchine). And how easy she made it all look--the cape, the parallel bourrees, the lifts.

I was fascinated to also watch the ballet in rehearsal. There's the prop--the gate/table/boat/crucifix. There are the subtle moments where the ballet master reminded the group of goons to stay upstage so the Siren was always in the foreground. There were the numerous challenging jumps that Suozzi had to master. I had an even greater appreciation for the level of detail that the rehearsal master was trying to draw out, and for the effort on the part of the dancers.

Watching these young people work so hard, I only wanted them to succeed. Watching a rehearsal like this is informative on so many levels--you see what makes the dancers human, you see the seams of a piece and how certain moments require extra concentration, and you see the effort that goes into bringing a piece to life. There was the conductor, mastering the tempos while conducting a piano. There was the pianist, who was expected to know what "Go back to Prod stomps" meant. There was the demand of superb timing--Prod is edited carefully so there are no spare moments, despite the scene changes. There can be no error.

And yet in all of this, you could really see the seeds of greatness, in the dancers themselves and in the work. I did not get to see the live performance--Suozzi and Mearns were debuting (I was at the Joyce), though a text from Tonya confirms that the evening was a success. I look forward to her more thoughtful review.

As for the ballet itself--for me it is without question a masterpiece. You can check out this video for clips to get a sense. I know I have a sense to complain about Balanchine's ballets feeling dated--absolutely nothing is dated about Prodigal Son. From the story, to the unusual and constantly inventive moves, you are aware that you are seeing a singular work. There are moments--when the goons move their hands like a centipede, or when the Son returns home on his knees--that are not ballet per se. They are movement. But they are intelligent movement used in such an effective way. Then there are the complex and distorted positions of the Siren and Son--how else can you better convey the sickness of their relationship than when she literally dominates him by wrapping her body around his legs and slowly, expertly lowering herself down. The Son stands no chance against the Siren (especially when she is Sara Mearns).

(Video clip of After the Rain, not Whelan and Hall)

I was also really, really fortunate enough to see Wheeldon's "After the Rain" in rehearsal. This is a classic piece, much discussed and recently the subject of a full article in Dance Magazine, who interviewed various principal dancers to take on the role. Wendy Whelan, of course, originated the part and so it was particularly moving to watch her perform it, and to see her gently provide advice to her young partner, Craig Hall. I will cry when Wendy retires (plus, everyone always tells me that she is absolutely the nicest person, and I like it when nice people are also successful people).

I don't know what After the Rain is meant to reference. But for me, the intense emotion and intimate choreography (and the pointe shoe less dancer), made me think of a couple, coming together after some kind of storm, and focusing on the important work ahead of them--of coming together, or being kind and forgiving, and thankful. I found it a profoundly moving piece. There is a moment in the DanceMagazine article, for example where Whelan spoke of blessing the "four corners." I noticed that moment in the piece, and the genuine deference and elegance with which she committed to the gestures. For me, then, this is a rich piece, filled with honest and earnest emotion that is never cloying, but feels sincere and complex in the best sense.

I hope to see it in performance some day.


Ronald K Brown, Evidence, Individuality


I think we probably shouldn't use the term "classical music" any more. Sure, there are some things that are "classical," but when we say "classical," we really mean "performed by an orchestra of some sort in a concert hall." Philip Glass, John Adams and Thomas Adès aren't classical--Adès, after all is still alive. But I was at the New York Philharmonic when I heard Adès, so I get why the term "classical" is fixed to him, even if it's wrong.

I was listening (and weeping) this evening to Brad Meldhau's stunning new album, a great deal of which is composed and I was thinking: what makes something jazz and what makes it classical? My friend Jeffrey reminded me over the weekend that the dividing line is supposed to be improvisation. If a player gets the freedom to just make something up during performance, then he's a jazz musician. This doesn't take into account the codas or violin solos that are inserted into violin concertos (weren't those things made up too?) But I get the point. We have this vague idea that if we go to a concert hall, the music is written down and performed as it is written down. At a jazz gig, you are going to get something different every night. In my twenties, my friend Ned used to tell me that he hated labels for musicians period. He wanted the integrity and compositional sophistication of the classical world and the freedom of improvisation from the jazz world. He called himself a "modern" musician.

But I was thinking about this all over again on Tuesday when I went to see Ronald K. Brown and Evidence at the Joyce. My dance teacher--a jazz dance teacher--had always encouraged me to go. So I did.

Now, dance is full of these labels too. If you ever want a demonstration in physical humor, go watch a jazz class just as it is taking over a studio where a ballet class has ended. There are the ballet students, earnestly trying tombe pas de bouree glissade jete one last time. A jazz dancer will invariably follow, looking like a member of the Trocks, whether he is or not. Eventually someone will crank the music to drive out the ballet students and a few jazz dancers will work on some communal thing involving lots of isolations--things that annoy ballet dancers--to try to take over the space.

But the point is this: jazz dancers like to think that they are individuals. They like to think that their art form discriminates far less against body type. You hear words like "fierce" and "attitude" all the time in a jazz studio and woe betide the dancer (ahem) who comes across as too cerebral and not fierce enough. They don't like the idea of a corps de ballet, in which women maintain the same lines and work to match each other angle for angle.

The first thing I thought when I saw Ronald K Brown's dancers was that they were indeed incredibly unique. Some are tall, some are small, and some are not small at all. But they all have a jazz/Afro/Cuban vocabulary that requires intimate understanding of isolations, of arms and hips and a general looseness. What you get when you watch these dancers perform is a sense of dialogue between their individual natures. There is someone for everyone to watch. There is no "one star" whom you must watch with your binoculars, though I confess to really enjoying the men and Lilli Anne Tai in particular. There is no one "right way" to do the moves, though the choreography is in place. As a result, you, in the audience, feel a tremendous sense of freedom. And then there is the music, which ranges from Stevie Wonder to Nikki Giovanni and which feels overwhelmingly uplifting and spiritual--of the easy variety.

Brown's choreography is full of earthy moves--touching the earth, turning up the solar plexis to the sky. He is acknowledging the African diaspora in ways that are moving and that invite the audience to share in the joy of the dancers. For the most part, the groupings are just that--groupings--with the occasional coupling. This is a troupe that works together, and that is not in opposition with itself.

At times, though, as I can in a jazz gig, I missed a feeling of tightness. Sometimes in a jazz gig, I get annoyed with the solos which seem to drift, and wish for the clarity of composition. I would like to be delivered a well thought out thought. And this happened when I watched Evidence, though I know that the majority of the moves are in fact choreographed. The end of the world premiere piece, On Earth Together, involved a solo performed by Brown. For me, it left the piece hanging--I wanted a greater sense of closure. Since I don't know Brown, and had never seen him dance before (he looked great, but I suspect his talents weren't what they once were), it wasn't moving enough for me that *he* was dancing. I was reminded of going to see Mark Morris a few years ago. Morris danced a solo--he was somewhat portly--but he made the whole thing so funny, that even a novice like me could appreciate what he had to offer at that stage in his life and career. Unlike that evening, I felt disappointed when Brown closed out his own show, as though the pieces in the end were too similar in their use of dance vocabulary, and as though they kept making the same joyous and worshipful point over and over.

All the same, what remains for me, is the vision of eight dancers, all incredibly unique, giving shape and breath to joyous music. Just as the best jazz gigs are the most freeing and ecstatic musical experiences I know--unlocked as they are in the moment--so too does the most heightened moment of Evidence absolutely release something inside you that you did not even know needed to get out. It's the unexpected--the unwrittendown--that provides this kind of release. And it happens because of the individuality of the dancers is celebrated, and because the same kinds of physical demands that are placed on, say, the corps of ABT, do not exist in the jazz world.

Monday, February 07, 2011


Discovering Balanchine, the Disbanding of Merce Cunningham, Books are Permanent Art

This weekend I was in Washington DC for the annual AWP writers conference. I was shy about going, yet ended up having a wonderful time seeing so many friends. There is also something very affirming about being with people who love to write and love books and share your struggles.

But the book--the end product of our toil--doesn't really care all that much about conferences. As an art form, it has not depended on congregating. And while an "informed reader" of, say, Shakespeare, might get a lot more out of his plays than someone who has misses every other reference (like me), there is probably still something in his work that is going to register, even on paper. I, as a reader in the middle of nowhere, can still feel comforted by my favorite novels. A book is not dependent on context.

I was thinking about this whole idea--how books can exist as art forms in isolation--and how this stands in strong contrast to the world of dance. George Balanchine is widely acknowledged as one of the genuises of the 20th century, though some critics lament that his gift is not as broadly noticed as, say, Stravinsky or even Norman Mailer. Why? Because dance is a collaborative art form and relies always on the interpreter. And unlike music, which has the CD, the MP3 and the vinyl record before that to capture some shadow of past greatness, dance is best experienced live. A DVD is essentially flat. And unlike drama, which can exist in book form, dance cannot be "read."

For years I have read passing references to the diminished greatness of New York City Ballet. My good friend, a culture maven if ever there was one, will simply not go. I meet a great many New Yorkers of a certain generation who are like this. Over the past few weeks, I have been digging through reviews of City Ballet to find a similar attitude reflected in the writing. Here, for example, is the curmudgeonly Robert Gottlieb whom, I have been assured, is actually very lovely in person.

To today's City Ballet dancers, "'Balanchine' is this step-driven, one-dimensional form. Occasionally, a dancer struggles to find more, as if she knows something is missing. But she ends up contriving emotion with breathy flourishes and fake ornamentation. The dances, like the dancers, look pretty enough; but we no longer know what they are about." Ms. Homans can hardly be accused of old-fogey nostalgia-she's relatively young-nor can she be accused of being part of an anti-Martins cabal: None of the New York critics seems to know her.

In a more recent review of the company, he writes:

The eight girls in Concerto Barocco, cast from strength, were accurate and pleasing, but they don't seem to know what the ballet is. There's no sense of its greatness, its significance. Corps girls used to be thrilled to be in Barocco—it was an honor. Today, it's just another assignment; the exaltation is gone. But then who is there to inspire them?

I was at that performance of Concerto Barocco. I had high hopes for it--I knew it was considered one of Balanchine's masterpieces. But I was deflated by the end. I couldn't see anything that was at all great. It felt . . . weak and empty. I found the classicism forced and untethered. I thought: "If only there were a story to rescue all this movement. Then, perhaps, the dancers would know why they were even up there at all." I've seen laser shows set to music that were more exciting than Concerto Barocco. And then, because I can be insecure and hard on myself, I decided that I just didn't get it. The problem must be me.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, then you know that I have also seen other Balanchine pieces which were a revelation--but they depended on the casting. The steps in the choreography, I've decided, aren't enough to elevate a piece to greatness. In some instances--the 4Ts comes to mind--I can really see why something is interesting and unusual and even daring. But often, the Balanchine stuff falls flat. Why?

I've been digging around and learned some interesting things--much of which will sound like gossip. The aforementioned Robert Gottlieb, he of the Balanchine biography, was once on City Ballet's board. But he left at one point when confronted by Peter Martins. At that time, Gottlieb was the editor in chief at the New Yorker, and Arlene Croce, the legendary dance critic, was lobbying arrow after cannonball at Peter Martins. Eventually, Martins cornered Gottlieb and said something along the lines of: "You not only publish her, you agree with her."

The negativity is not hard to find. Before her tome, Apollo's Angels was published, Jennifer Homans wrote this clarion call.

Now the unthinkable has happened: at the City Ballet, Balanchine ballets have become boring, pompous and passé. Since Balanchine's death, what was once so vital has become dull and ''established: a lifeless orthodoxy reigns.

What happened? Balanchine's ballets are not in trouble just because Balanchine died. They are in trouble because an era has ended.

Maybe it's because I'm from northern California, or maybe it's because I married a stoic Scot, but I don't like doom and gloom scenarios. They annoy me. But how to find out the truth for myself? It's not like I can go back in time and see City Ballet and compare those past performances with the present. There are, however, some reviews and the more I googled and researched, the more I kept coming up with these names: Arlene Croce and Edwin Denby. Fortunately for us, their work still exists. Two weeks ago in San Francisco, I came across a collection of Denby's essays while perusing the lovely bookstore Browser Books in Pacific Heights (I was waiting to go eat at SPQR). The shopkeeper was a culture hound and we had a wonderful, dizzying talk about the opera, symphony and dance. I also left with a copy of essays by someone named Nancy Goldner.

And then today--a review of Goldner's essays by Gottlieb. One of the essays focuses on Concerto Barocco, that boring ballet that so let me down last fall. Of Goldner's essay, Gottlieb writes:

Or consider this throwaway remark about what to many people is Balanchine’s signature work, Concerto Barocco : “Typically, dancers, like regular people, make contact with their arms. In Concerto Barocco they say hello to each other with their legs.” Again, the writing is homey, but the thinking isn’t.

And this, then, made me want very much to see Concerto Barocco again. Could I perhaps pick out these visual cues, in spite of subpar dancing? Balanchine said that one can't capture dance through words. As a writer, I disagree-a writer *ought* to be able to capture anything. Reading Goldner's essay makes me want to see Concerto Barocco again, to look for the energy and the imagery that is described therein.

There was another incident of serendipity in San Francisco. While at my beloved Amoeba Records, I came across old recordings of Balanchine's work--for DVD, but with original casting. I sat down and read Goldner's essay and Edwin Denby's essay on the Four Temperaments. Then I watched the video. What a revelation. The steps, as performed by these dancers, were full of vitality, nuance and relevance. It is as they say--the dancers do inform the art. If only I could watch all of Balanchine's work this way--with the aid of good and loving critics and performances of the past. The present might feel a little bit different. But this is perhaps an extreme length to go, to try to understand something. Then again, I'm a writer.

There are critics who see a silver lining. Balanchine no longer resides only at New York City Ballet. Even the doom and gloomers acknowledge that fine productions are put on by the Royal Ballet or by Miami. Others are sympathetic to Peter Martins' plight; Martins, after all, never claimed to be Balanchine and took on a nearly impossible task of filling the master's dance shoes. As someone new to the City Ballet watching scene, I like and respect that he tries to keep the repertory fresh and new. How else can a young dancer be excited?

A few years ago, I did start to hear some chatter that City Ballet was looking better, even to the grouchs. Here, for example, is an article by Gottlieb in which he singles out some of the young, new performers. Alastair MaCauley has singled out Sara Mearns as the great American ballerina of our generation. Something good is happening. And still, it is said, the company isn't what it once was. One can still walk out of Concerto Barocco disappointed.

Perhaps aware of all of this kind of drama, the Merce Cunningham company announced that it would disband at the end of 2011, after a farewell tour. Cunningham himself died in 2009 (I saw him alive at 90, at BAM-thank God). This seems like an extreme measure. On the other hand, it is one way to avoid the fate of being called "lifeless." In an article today in the Times, MaCaulay posited that perhaps Cunningham's work would not be seen again, though some efforts are underway to save the choreography. We have Giselle and that damned Swan Lake. Why can't we also keep Biped? I am a sentimentalist. But I also know that dance, like jazz improvisation, is a living art.

Respect all living things, says the Buddha. Life is an illusion. I still hope the novel is permanent. I still believe in permanence. If it weren't for writing things down, for example, Mahler would be a footnote in history as a good conductor. Thank God someone revived his symphonies. One hopes the same for Balanchine and Cunningham.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011


Thought Bubbles

Friends know of my love for video games--though I hardly have time to play these days. My favorites, though, are still those put out by Bioware and which are known in the trade as RPGs (role playing games). A hallmark of the Bioware RPG is that the protagonist--this means *you*--lands in a world or planet and wanders around listening to conversations. Often the conversation appears as text in a screen below so you can read at the same time. Sometimes you can converse with a character. And sometimes you can't. But the chatter always tells you something about the world you are visiting--the politics, the mystery you need to uncover, the mood.

In recent years, as I go from city to city--and especially as I repeat cities--I am a little bit humbled by the fact that the people at Bioware sort of got it right. I am just back from Mac World and--inveterate eavesdropper that I am--the conversations one hears in SF, even if not at Mac World, are most emphatically *not* what one hears in NYC. Samples:

"Me and my friend, we're working on this ap . . . " (this by the way I would hear repeatedly)

"And then I realized one day that it was up to me to really project a sense of purposefulness . . ." (these moments of self-actualization are common, particularly at brunch on a weekend).

"No. Dude, no. It's 60 40. Not 80 20. Apple is *never* 80 20." (I have no idea what they were talking about. But they looked like programmers. I realize it is wrong, wrong, wrong to socially profile people, but they looked like programmers. We don't have many programmers in New York, unless they were hired to fix financial software, in which case the programmers tend to look irritated that they have to look after bankers who make money but are clueless. In California, there is a sort of freed elitism about programmers--like, they are *finally* where they should be, and can wear something other than black.)

Then, I got to New York and heard:

"But it can't be art if it doesn't have an intellectual component."

"Let me put it this way. If they offer 5 million, there is no deal." (Smarmy, he was).

And I was like: Dude! Stop it! Stop being some Bioware character! You don't have to signal to me that I have flown on my airplane, and landed in this other place where people are not building aps or arguing esoteric percentages. I get it. I'm in New York. But it did make me wonder--what do I say randomly? Does it pinpoint me to one place? It's a fun game. Try it some time. Fly some place and write down little dialogue gems and then compare to what you hear at home. It's even more fun if you do this overseas, which of course I do in Japan or in the UK.

But it all made me wonder--how do we as writers explain to readers that they are now in a new place? I don't think we offer up little snippets of conversation like this. I think in general, our first response is to try to describe things. So, randomly, I have stacked some books and pulled some scene-setting, opening quotes.

"People think blood red, but blood don't got no colour. Not when blood wash the floor she lying on as she scream for that son of a bitch to come, the lone baby of 1785. Not when the baby wash in crimson and squealing like it just depart heaven to come to hell, another place of red." (Got that? Is that vivid? Some sounds, but no pithy dialogue).

"In our little fishing village of Yoroido, I lived in what I called a "tipsy house." It stood near a cliff where the wind off the ocean was always blowing. As a child it seemed to me as if the ocean had caught a terrible cold, because it was always wheezing and there would be spells when it let out a huge sneeze--which is to say there was a burst of wind . . . " (you get the point).

(That's northern California, by the way. Not Japan).

"Six months before Polly Cain drowned in the canal, my sister, Nona, ran off and married a cowboy. My father said there was a time when he would have been able to stop her, and I wasn't sure if he mean ta time in our lives when she would have listened to him, or a time in history when the Desert Valley Sheriff's Posse would have been allowed to chase after her with torches and drag her back to our house by her yellow hair." (You know where you are, you know the voice is funny but biting, and you know that something has happened before anyone has spoken).

"I've hurt things, the boys showed me this. Pulling legs off spiders and such. Kevin Ryder next door and his friends, they let me come into their fort. But that was years ago, I was a child, it didn't matter if I was a boy or a girl. It would be against the law to go into their fort now I suppose. The law of my mother." (Scary! Why do we writers like scary? I don't think we *like* scary. It's more that scary is interesting).

"It was just the two of us, my mother and me, after my father left. He said I should count the new baby he had with his new wife, Marjorie, as part of my family too, plus Richard, Marjorie's son, who was six months younger than me though he was good at all the sports I messed up in." (Relationships. A situation. A voice).

Anyway, this all goes to show me, at least, how like life a book is not and how closely its reality is authored by the, er, author. And, how tightly and clearly you had better imagine that world, beyond tidbits of conversation, but for how it feels, for how it sounds, for what it makes you *feel*, more than what it sounds like. How different is that from our encounter of a place, when we set out in reality (or virtual reality). But it's also a lesson as to why you cannot necessarily know how your novel will start--you can only know after the world is fully realized. And that only happens when you are done. Tricky business.


My MacWorld Moment: The Sara Mearns Swan Lake Ticket Pounce

We had promised each other that the minute New York City Ballet posted the cast listing for Swan Lake, one of us would pounce on tickets for any production involving Sara Mearns. But with the popularity of Black Swan (and no, Portman won't be dancing, though some have called to ask about her dance dates--guys, it's a *movie*), most shows were sold out. So it was that we waited, fingers crossed.

Last Friday I was at Mac World, waiting for my husband's presentation to begin, and trying to distract my garrulous one year old with a bottle of milk ("You must wean!" said the doctor. And I really will. Just not while traveling). First came the text on my iPhone: Tonya had received a press release and sent it to me. I needed to check my email, she said. So I did. One handed.

And there it was: an extra performance of Swan Lake. Still with one hand--and the presentation beginning behind me--I tried to log into the City Ballet site via iPhone to see which tickets I could find. The site hadn't been updated yet--the press release hadn't gone out to everyone--and February 11th still looked like a mixed program with nary a swan in site. But the press release was specific about the date and the fact that Sara Means would be the swan.

The City Ballet site was impossible to navigate on the iPhone, so I switched to the iPad. I got 3 tickets, and then the countdown began. In bright red lettering, the clock ticked backward--I had exactly 15 minutes to complete my purchase. First, I had to log in.

Log in? I had no idea what my password might be. I didn't want to switch over to my email and leave the internet page in case I got stuck trying to get the password--with the clock ticking down, I knew I could at least stall for more time if things went wrong with my email, but didn't want to switch screens. So I called up my email on my iPhone, retrieved the password and entered the information.

The clock continued to tick, but at *every single page* I was informed that the site was stalling due to unusually high activity. Well, duh. Wasn't every balletomane doing exactly what I was at the moment? I hit refresh repeatedly and somehow the tickets were mine. The presentation unfolded smoothly. The baby was quiet. I was grateful for the iPad and the iPhone and informed my team of our successful purchase and impending date with dance greatness.

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