foot in mouth: March 2008 Archives
There are dances I can't even fathom disliking. But I can understand not liking Israeli choreographer Emanuel Gat's thoroughly down to earth approach to Mozart's Requiem, the composer's final appeal to God and death. The disconnect between music and steps--pedestrian gestures repeated like musical motifs and Janet Jackson steps so tight they're rubbing against each other the way a cat rubs against the furniture or your leg--might seem like sheer impudence. But I think Gat had something serious (and respectful) in mind.
He was too musical to offend me. Hypermusical. He hears like Balanchine, except more emphatically, more obsessively. He hears almost the way some autistics see. His sensitivity didn't just show up in the steps' rhythms--the heavy downbeats, for example, in Mozart's long, fearsome arcs to Heaven--but in how many dancers clustered together, or how they peeled off from the group, or how quietly or loudly they rolled their shoulders or their hips. It was like watching someone pick up what looks like a rock and crumble it so you see it's earth. Every time he'd crumble the rock of Mozart's Requiem, my heart would break open with joy.
I didn't think it was perfect: If the choreography were writing, you'd be wondering if it were using direct or indirect address. But the diction was consistent, and it was pleasing the way particular steps would return.
I imagined him setting up an experiment for himself: If I abstract the story from this music, if I translate it into purely visual and kinetic terms, what will be left of that story, its terror and awe? Will it seep in anyway? Will I even be able to keep it out?
I think that's a brave and interesting experiment. But if the answers had been "no"--no, there is no relation between this huge music and our unassuming patterns down below--it wouldn't have been worth putting on stage. Gat lucked out.
Gat's "K626" is at the Joyce through Sunday.
UPDATE: I found this lovely review on the invaluable ballet.co.uk site. (It compiles all sorts of English-language reviews in all sorts of dance genres. A wonderful resource.) It's two days since I wrote the post above, and the dance is sticking: images (for example, the moment pictured above, when certain dancers slipped inside the cracks between other dancers, like when you're in a packed crowd and trying to glimpse the famous speaker or when you're waiting at the end of time) keep reappearing to me.
Here's my Newsday preview:
"It's amazing that people relate to a bunch of wood and cloth," marvels puppeteer extraordinaire Basil Twist. "I think as we become more computerized, we appreciate that puppetry is real--something coming to life in front of you." This week brings two not-to-be-missed specimens of that primitive magic.
Returning to Lincoln Center after seven years, Twist's award-winning "Petrushka" retains Stravinsky's shimmery, foreboding score from the legendary Ballets Russes production, as well as the ballet's lethal love triangle. But now puppets, not dancers, play the part of the puppets: the abject Petrushka, the coquettish ballerina and the muscle-bound Moor. The story's pathos lies in Petrushka discovering not his human soul but his puppet soul. "It's a very old idea," Twist explains, "that every rock, every tree, has a spirit."
Identical twins (really!) sit behind two grand pianos below a small gilt-framed stage while the 4-foot-high puppets move against a velvety blackness in corridors of light. The coy ballerina sails over her suitors' heads in split leaps, the Moor woos her with an athlete's blunt ease, and hapless Petrushka tumbles through tantrums of impotent rage as weightlessly as a spaceman on the moon.
Twist has been careful to cast the show's nine puppeteers to type so their hands work each puppet's several parts harmoniously and invisibly. But hands do emerge from the darkness--a whole disembodied and ominous chorus of them, in fact. Onion domes and a band of Russian instruments minus the musicians also rise out of the void.
"Puppetry is a very primal thing," explains Twist. "It's about what's alive and what's not, and what it means for something to have a soul, consciousness, feelings. It sort of gets dismissed as a children's art form, and maybe children are more alive to it, but it is heavy."
The Hudson Vagabond Puppets' Beatrix Potter ballets at Tilles Center on Sunday aren't, though. And children as young as 3 are likely to respond to them. The performers are ensconced in carved foam head-and-body casts painted in Potter's signature watercolor style. Poking out of the casts, their legs dance jigs and tangos to William Walton's bright, clear tunes.
With a narrator on tape reciting Potter's witty, wise words, the simple tales translate beautifully into movement. In one story, the endearingly foolish Jemima Puddle-Duck enlists "a gentleman with black prick ears" and a long bushy tail to help her find a bed in which to hatch her eggs. The sly fellow settles her in his shed full of feathers.
In another tiny morality tale, a "fierce bad Rabbit" snatches "a nice gentle Rabbit's" carrot-- and is punished for it. A triumph for nice gentle rabbits everywhere!
WHEN&WHERE "Petrushka" appears at the Clark Studio, 165 W. 65th St., Lincoln Center, Wednesday through April 13. Tickets $40. Call 212-721-6500 or visit lincolncenter.org. The Beatrix Potter puppet ballets run Sunday at 11 a.m. and 1p.m. at Tilles Center on the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, Route 25A, Brookville. Tickets $20. Call 516-299-3100 or visit tillescenter.org.
Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.
Photo by Steve Sherman of the Ballerina and Petrushka from Basil Twist's "Petrushka"
Macaulay has settled down, dug in and begun shedding his mannerisms (the self-celebration as moony, sensitive poet, for example, and the sarcasm). He can describe what he's seeing and why it matters in ways that are illuminating to dance fans and casual arts readers alike. He's writing out to us. I actively look forward to his reviews now.
There are still a few problems: a reflexive tendency to find falsity in women (I never saw the mugging and grimacing he faulted the Paul Taylor women for, and I also had seats in the orchestra) and an inability to lay off their perceived physical deficiencies (ballerina Nina Ananiashivili's flabby arms, for example: I was in the orchestra for that show too and can't imagine how you could even spot such a thing. Was he looking through spy glasses?). He reminds me of certain mothers toward their daughters--quick to find fault because overidentified. I think he should accept that he has no sense when it comes to the ladies--and leave off the petty criticisms.
Also he's not very good at shifting lenses. For example, he wants the Russian ballet dancers to look as "spontaneous" as the Americans rather than accepting that they have a different approach. It's possible for something to be different, not better or worse.
Which is another way of saying that his range is still narrow for the chief dance critic of a major paper. He mainly focuses on the great living choreographers--of which there are four, he recently informed us.
On the other hand, when you have as large a department as the Times does, a legitimate way to organize the assignments is to give everyone areas with which they have particular sympathies. That seems to be the way they're working over there right now. In which case, the Times dance desk had better give Jennifer Dunning and the freelancers as much room to set the context as they give the chief if readers aren't going to assume that what Macaulay covers matters more than what's going on downtown and everywhere that the four great choreographers are not.
Each part of dance is almost its own world--really has its own project. What's going on downtown tends to have as much to do with art history as dance history, for example. You can complain about that--you know, in a long philosophical essay--but for the purposes of reviews, you mainly need to understand it. Insofar as Macaulay doesn't understand it--or at least doesn't write about what he understands--it becomes invisible or diminished. The future of the art form--or at least one vital branch of it--depends on the experimentalists being brought forward and their experiments being haggled over.
Which brings me back to the freelancers I got in so much trouble over last year.
Anyway, at least Macaulay's growing more sensitive to what he's seeing. Thank you, Alastair. Now he just has to get the rest of his flock in order--and give them some roaming room in print so the "paper of record" can be a little bit more of one for dance, in all its contradictory range. (Plus, he should rally for a rate hike for the freelancers. The last I checked--a few years ago--the rate at the Times was $150 a review. Shameful.)
Lately, though, I think the Times should be doing a better job all around. With its overall rollout of dance writing that ranges from lethargic to vitriolic, does anyone really think the Times is giving the dance capital of America the coverage it needs and deserves?
Apollinaire responds: Thank you, Eva, for your two cents. Yeah, not sure what's going on there. I guess I'm most struck by how many fewer reviews there are by the freelancers--and on modern dance shows. Sometimes what happens with freelance writers is that if they don't get a critical mass of work at one place, they end up having to go elsewhere or rearrange their schedule and do other work for awhile. That happens to me cyclically.
The preview below involved one of those maddening situations where no video of the ballet existed--and I'd never seen the company. I read everything I could find on the troupe (on Nexis, for example, and the ballet boards)--but there wasn't a single review, even, of this particular ballet, which could either be marvelous or a bust. I hate being reduced to a reporter--just reporting what the director says and not being able to offer an independent eye. It even makes the questions you ask less precise. But it can't always be helped. They were coming to Long Island, so Newsday could use a preview.
What I could gather about the company was that sometimes the young dancers (median age of the principals: about 24) give in to sloppiness (probably from exhaustion, given their grueling touring schedule) and yet they have reserves of technique and feeling to call upon whenever humanly possible.
The company's claim to fame for ME, anyway, is that Leonid Jacobson once ran it--it was originally named after his specialty, "choreographic miniatures." (Its official Russian name now is the St. Petersburg State Academic Ballet Theatre--shortened for American tours.) Jacobson's work is rarely seen here, though you might know him from the ballet "Vestris," which made Baryshnikov famous and vice versa. There are also great clips on Youtube of other of his short-story ballets.
Anyway, the company has the rights to all Jacobson's works--and yet they haven't made an evening of them here! I can understand it might be hard to sell the rest of the country on the ballets--people want their long ballets--but in New York, at least, we would feel honored. The Baryshnikov Arts Center could join forces with the Joyce and sponsor a week of Jacobson--I think SF Ballet has one ballet and perhaps other U.S. and European companies do, plus this company. The Russians are very proud of this man, I keep finding out whenever I talk to artistic directors of these touring companies.
I really enjoyed talking to the current director (through a translator),Yuri Petukhov. He was modest and smart--not only knew his ballet's history, but had thought about what one thing and another meant. A real pleasure.
I would be very interested to hear from anyone who gets to see this "Carmen." I am going to try to make it, but my schedule may not allow it.
Here's that short Newsday preview:
Yuri Petukhov, artistic director of Russia's St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre, is not the first choreographer to recognize "Carmen's" potential for dance. Like many a great ballet, the popular 19th century opera sets at its heart a lowly woman who ignites lawless passion in an upstanding man. Spanish, Swedish, French and Cuban dancemakers have all made exciting use of it.
Petukhov has admired these productions: Carlos Saura's stark 1983 flamenco film; Mats Ek's buoyantly eccentric 1992 modern dance ("He can think in movement," Petukhov says); Roland Petit's erotically charged 1949 ballet; and Alberto Alonso's 1967 Expressionist distillation. Still, he felt there was room for another - one that combined the most distinctive aspects of his predecessors' styles, yet approached the characters from a new angle. Thus, the "Carmen" charging into Staller Center at Stony Brook Sunday night.
"Women usually head a ballet, but in my version Don José tells the story," Petukhov explains via a translator while on the road between Burlington, N.C., and Charlottesville, Va. Like many post-Soviet troupes, the company depends on foreign tours to stay afloat. This year they're visiting 112 U.S. cities over the course of four months.
Carmen announces at the start, "If you don't love me, I will love you, and if I love you, you'd better watch out!" She sticks to her word straight to the bitter end. Don José, on the other hand, is conflicted -- a modern hero: "José is a loyal soldier, but he deserts. He murders for Carmen, then regrets it," explains Petukhov. "He loves her, but also [his betrothed] Micaela. One is his passion, the other his soul. I felt I could draw different colors from José."
As for the dancing, Petukhov has used the defiant, earthy stance and sinuous arms of flamenco, the reach and collapse of the torso in modern dance and the incisive legs of ballet. The women's specially designed footwear reflects this hybrid, with the pointe shoe's boxy toe affixed to a low-heeled character shoe.
When Petukhov wants to emphasize Carmen's seductive powers, the ballerina digs those heels into the ground. When her expansive passion needs underlining, she rises onto her pointes. "The pointe shoe was introduced in the Romantic era so the ballerina could ascend to the gods," he explains.
Russia lacks a modern dance tradition. In line with the nation's rich ballet history, experimentation is less about throwing out the old than adding in the new. So, those bred on the iconoclasm of American modern dance might find this "Carmen" derivative, while those expecting traditional ballet might find it "unacceptable at first," warns Petukhov.
"But it is better to see than to think about," he says. "And it will grow on you."
WHEN&WHERE St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre appears in Yuri Petukhov's "Carmen" Sunday at 7 p.m. at Staller Center, Stony Brook University. Tickets $42. Call 631-632-2787 or visit stallercenter.com.
Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.
Morris has made some of my favorite works. But this is not one of them. Here's my review from Newsday:
Henry Purcell's 1691 "King Arthur" wasn't ever an opera, exactly. Proud of their theater tradition and suspicious of this Italian business of singing your way through a story, the 17th century English preferred the semi-opera, a play in "blank verse, adorn'd with scenes, machines, songs and dances," as "King Arthur's" author, John Dryden, put it.
The renowned choreographer Mark Morris accentuates this clunky construct even while jettisoning the spoken text: that is, two of the original four hours, along with the plot. "Rhymed couplets get kind of Dr. Seuss after a while," he said at the Guggenheim Museum's Works & Process show on Monday. Yes, they do. But he has simply substituted one sort of tiresome jangle for another.
With the help of fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi's ostentatiously makeshift costumes and Adrianne Lobel's elaborately low-tech set, Morris has framed the song-and-dance numbers with the postmodern conceit that we're watching a rough take of the show.
"King Arthur" begins with a half-dozen performers stepping through a free-standing door to settle in a semicircle of folding chairs before a ghost light. Soon a dancer doubling as a stagehand whisks the light away. Self-consciously fussy on the way to being low-key, the production severs the thematic threads in Purcell's gorgeous and various score that might have woven the night together.
Granted, the topics of the songs to which Morris is responding are all over the map - invoking everything from the British wool trade to the Saxon fighting spirit to seizing the randy moment. Purcell roams too, from an arty version of a drinking song to a sweet, sensual ode to England, "the fairest isle."
The score isn't just a survey of styles and moods, however. The composer transforms Dryden's paean to British commerce and lust - "pleasure mix'd with profit" - into a tender and complex portrait of that ephemeral threshold between desire and love.
With Baroque specialist Jane Glover conducting, you can hear this moment in the deep rush of the choir and the muted plaintiveness that is Purcell's most delicious emotional key. But you can't see it.
Morris meticulously keys his dancers' gestures to the libretto. When in the famous "Frost" scene, Cupid (the luxuriantly voiced Mhairi Lawson) sings, "In spite of the weather, I've brought you together," the 16 dancers hug themselves at weather and their partners at together, a visual equivalent of the humpty-dumpty end rhymes Morris disdains. In fact, the choreographer excels at movement rhyme throughout: A fist raised to the mouth, then two fists in boxer position signal the Saxons "quaffing the juice that makes the Britons bold." But these nifty correspondences only end up feeling like distractions from a larger harmony that's never achieved.
KING ARTHUR. Score by Henry Purcell. Directed and choreographed by Mark Morris. Performed by the New York City Opera with the Mark Morris Dance Group. Through next Saturday at the State Theater, Lincoln Center. Tickets $16-$130. Call 212- 721-6500 or visit nycopera .com. Seen Wednesday.
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