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August 20, 2007

TT: Enough said

I am, as those who know me are well aware, something of a child at heart. Not surprisingly, then, it pleased me no end when I took my seat in the first ring of Lincoln Center's New York State Theater last Thursday night and saw that I was surrounded by TV cameras. To be sure, none of them was pointed at me--they were there to telecast Mark Morris' Mozart Dances on PBS' Live From Lincoln Center--but even so, I got a huge kick out of the fact that they were an arm's length from my aisle seat.

"My sister in St. Louis is watching tonight," my companion for the evening whispered as the lights went down. I liked that, too, just as I liked knowing that some of you would be seeing what I was seeing at the very moment I saw it. I recently blogged about what it feels like to listen to a live album at whose creation you were present. Being in the audience for a live telecast is even more exciting, in part because of the strong sense of community that such an experience creates.

Experiences like these are growing rarer. As I wrote in A Terry Teachout Reader:

The rise of digital information technology, with its unique capacity for niche marketing, has replaced such demographically broad-based instruments of middlebrow self-education as The Ed Sullivan Show with a new regime of seemingly infinite cultural choice. Instead of three TV networks, we have a hundred channels, each "narrowcasting" to a separate sliver of the viewing public, just as today's corporations market new products not to the American people as a whole but to carefully balanced combinations of "lifestyle clusters" whose members are known to prefer gourmet coffee to Coca-Cola, or BMWs to Dodge pickups.

In many ways this new regime is a good thing, even a blessing, but it also takes away the feeling of shared experience that I felt when I watched TV as a boy, knowing that most of the people I knew--as well as millions of people I didn't know--were watching the same shows at the same time. The movie My Favorite Year, whose climactic scene is a portrayal of a live broadcast of a fictional Fifties TV program not unlike Your Show of Shows, conveys something of that feeling, as does the surviving kinescope of the original 1953 telecast of Marty that I saw earlier this year. That's what I felt last Thursday, and I loved it.

As for Mozart Dances, I could go on and on about its myriad beauties...but I prefer not to. Mind you, I have no doubt that it is a masterpiece, just as I was sure that Morris' V was a masterpiece when I saw it for the first time in 2001, and if you pressed me I could easily come up with a lengthy and persuasive explanation of why this should be so. It is, after all, my job to explain the ineffable, though plotless dances are peculiarly resistant to such explanations. ("We dare to go into the world where there are no names for anything," George Balanchine once remarked to Jerome Robbins.) On the other hand, I wasn't on the job last Thursday: I was there to enjoy myself, and I didn't take any notes. Instead I let Mozart Dances happen to me, and when it was over I felt as though I'd come back home from a trip to Eden.

One thing I will say is that this was one of the few times in my life that I've been fortunate enough to see a great dance accompanied by world-class musicians. It's no secret (save to certain tin-eared dance critics) that the New York City Ballet pit orchestra is usually pretty awful, but the unhappy fact is that the vast majority of dance performances in America are accompanied either by second-rate players or by taped music, which is even worse. On Thursday night, by contrast, we got to hear Emanuel Ax, Yoko Nozaki, Louis Langrée, and the Mostly Mozart orchestra perform two Mozart piano concertos (K. 413 and 595) and the Two-Piano Sonata. At intermission I ran into Patrick J. Smith, who knows more about opera than anybody, and the first words out of his mouth were, "Finally--finally--the music is as good as the dancing!" And so it was.

Just before the curtain went up, Mark Morris slipped into the aisle seat across from me, which added an extra frisson to the proceedings. I know Mark a bit--we spent a couple of hours talking over The Letter back in January--and I've liked him ever since our first meeting, when he naughtily introduced me to the members of his company as "M'sieur Tee-Shew." He is, among other things, funny and frank to a degree that can sometimes be unnerving but is more often exhilarating, and I've never spoken to him without going away happy. Yet there is always a moment when it suddenly hits me that I'm talking to the choreographer of L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, which has a way of putting a damper on the conversation.

I've known four people in my lifetime--maybe five--whom I believe to be creative geniuses, and Mark is one of them. To be in the company of such birds of paradise is inevitably to be reminded of your own limitations. They are not as other men. So I didn't say much to him at intermission: I simply said hello and told him I thought Mozart Dances was wonderful, and left it at that. As Ludwig Wittgenstein put it, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

Posted August 20, 2007 12:00 AM

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