foot in mouth: September 2008 Archives

Lori Ortiz provokes more thoughts:

Hi Apollinaire,

I've been meaning to add to this thread about friends.

Deborah Jowitt, after receiving the 2007 Dance Critics Association award, said that she likes to think of everyone as a friend. I don't think I was the only one to exhale. It was memorable and refreshing.

The issue is not only how one can be fair, but how ideas--intellectual property, as it were--can be ethically shared. For example, critics often admit conversations with others in the audience who are not reviewing. It's part of the experience.

 Thanks for your lively blog,


Dear Lori,

Deborah Jowitt's friendly stance is very sweet--and is reflected in the gentle and evenhanded approach she has taken for forty years. It's not just a post-'60s thing, either: the late, great Edwin Denby, who wrote most prolifically in the '30s and '40s, would often sit in on rehearsals and give advice to choreographers (Paul Taylor, for example), though I'm not sure he did this while writing for the Herald Tribune, which might not have liked it. In a field as small as dance, it's inevitable there will be blurring of boundaries.

That said, when I'm watching work, I do not imagine the choreographers and the dancers as my friends--even in the putative sense I think Jowitt intended (though some of these artists probably really are her friends).

I am grateful for art and the people who make it. Art seems to me like love--causing you to feel urgent about qualities or experiences you didn't know you felt anything at all about. But if I posited the makers of what I was watching as friends, I think it would only domesticate the art. It's important to allow art as much danger and dislikability as it demands--and I'm not sure I'd want that from a friend.

Sometimes, of course, artists are friends--Paul, for example--but that's not because the work itself feels friendly; it generates all sorts of feelings.

I hope these distinctions make sense.

And I'm glad you find the blog lively and not just bloggy (and blahggy, as blogs are wont to be). Thank you.


September 27, 2008 10:44 PM | | Comments (0)
In response to my salivating over ABT's recent hire of Bolshoi director Alexei Ratmansky as its resident choreographer and my stupefied confusion over anyone not seconding that emotion (Swan Lake Samba Lady, aka Tonya Plank, and brilliant commenter and blogger Meg respond with a good deal less stupefaction and more penetration here) and my sheepish joy in broadcasting my friend Paul Lazar's brilliant turn in Mac Wellman's asteroid play, I received this wonderful comment from dance critic Lori Ortiz today. I thought it deserved a post of its own:

Dear Apollinaire,

I was curious what a devil's advocate would say about Ratmansky. I had to read Robert Johnson's Star-Ledger review and thought to argue, Well, why wouldn't a youngish choreographer like Ratmansky emulate Balanchine with his "DSCH"? (I'm among the majority who loved it.) I liked the way he updated Balanchine's "Ballet Imperial" with a post-modern, doubtful eye....I'm so looking forward to his new work with ABT and the upcoming City Ballet commission. Time will tell.

On the subject of friends, I had an enlightening conversation with Luca Veggetti about choreographers, Europe and America, while interviewing him for an article. But I was first besotted, and drawn to cover him, after seeing his "Silence/Text" at the Joyce a few years ago. How do we know the choreographer from the dance? It was tough to be fair when I later reviewed a show he was in. I learned my lesson. I distanced him and regretted that.  I'm a fan. Needless to say, critics learn from artists. I was impressed when Claudia La Rocco credited him for insights revealed to her on a topic she was writing about. [Ed. note: I couldn't find that article or post, but here is La Rocco's Sunday Times feature on the increasingly sought-after Veggetti. UPDATE: Lori wrote back and offered this Times article as well.] I'm glad to share my familiarity and partiality to his work.

With this in mind, I want to tell you about the opera
at the Miller Theater right now by Iannis Xenakis and choreographed by Veggetti. Veggetti's way with minimalist movement and decor was a great complement to "Oresteia." The smallish Miller stage looked grand, like the huge spectacles of the ancient Greeks.  He draws from Noh theater, as did Xenakis. Veggetti told me that as an Italian, he learned the classics in grade school. "It's right's our history." The onstage chorus of 36 appeared no obstacle for the dancers. Their movement was surprisingly (given Veggetti's typical, angular moves) curvilinear, contrasting the straight regiments that were singing in ancient Greek.  From memory! The simplified libretto was projected high above. The visuals told the story in explosive, warring, burning, high-key color abstractions projected on a large widescreen. Everyone, everything, shared the stage, recalling the first democracy, and some of the song and dance's sculptural figures, young and old, performed in the aisles and on raised platforms, in a hieratic fashion. The percussionist was truly a standout. The production-- altogether memorable and illuminating.

Dear Lori,

Thank you so much for your report on Veggetti's opera--it sounds fantastic. The only other review I've found, by Times music critic Allan Kozinn, was irksome in that it mentioned how prominent the dancing was while saying only this about it:
"Luca Veggetti, who directed and choreographed the production, found a fine, expressive balance between fluidity and jaggedness, modern sensibility and imagined antiquity." So I'm thankful for the picture. I love the connection you make between all the people onstage and the founding of democracy: Neat. And I too was besotted, or at least highly intrigued, by Veggetti's "Silence/Text," from a few years ago.

People, you only have Wednesday (9/17) to catch this massive project--if you're so lucky.  According to the Miller Theatre website, the show is sold out, but the Theatre isn't so small that there won't be a few no-shows. It's just a matter of going early and getting on the list. Hurry, hurry!

About friends who make art we then write about, I know I simplified things in my lead-in to "1965UU."  There is so much to say. To begin, it's up for debate how "objective"--as I put it--a person's take on art could or should be. After all, it's the critic that conjures (for her readers, at least) the object under critique and it's her particular experience that serves as the conduit for that creation. So what's objective got to do with it?

Second, one tends to become friends with artists whose values--aesthetic and otherwise--one shares, and often one becomes friends precisely because of that affinity: it's not an aftereffect. While I might not enjoy the company of every artist I admire, I'm pretty sure that if I didn't like a person's work--if I thought it was empty or false--I wouldn't like the person much, either.

Finally, there are a million distances and proximities we contend with every day that we encounter art--whether it's coming to the theater tired or sad, or watching with a friend one feels responsible for, or watching alone, or watching while the child
somehow seated next to you (because the parent knew better) chomps her way through a bag of chocolate-covered almonds, so that you spend the ballet deaf to the music and thinking not about dance but about parenting (Has it come to this?) and chocolate-covered nuts (I want some).

In the scheme of things, friendship may be the least distraction. But I think readers want to know one's connections, because otherwise they begin to suspect that you have a whole set of hidden agendas, which runs counter to the point of criticism: not to air your biases or even your beliefs, but to work out an understanding of the art form via your individual experience. There's a paradox at the heart of criticism, that from the subjective and piecemeal a theory about art, or this art form, or this moment in this artform, will arise
that will be valid for more than just you. I have no trouble proceeding analytically from inside to out with friends' work, as with anyone else's, but I'm not sure I'd want them to know it--to be reminded how ruthless an inquiring mind can be.

Thanks so much for writing, Lori. You've given me much food for thought.


September 16, 2008 5:11 PM | | Comments (1)
A critic can't be objective about her friends' work, and she shouldn't try: it's wrenching--and dangerous to friendship.

Still, I feel safe in saying that my friend Paul Lazar is FANTASTIC--so charming and ridiculous, and inadvertently wise--in his starring role as the center of the whirring asteroid
that is "1965UU," a one-act play about language and its human predicaments--about love and inertia--by inveterate "scribbler" (as he puts it) Mac Wellman. "1965UU" plays the Chocolate Factory, by the East River in Queens, just through October 4. So run! 

The only way a shadow happens on this unabatably bright
planet is by a thickening of light. And that's how sense and story work here too--leaping so high into the comical, weightless absurd that they become their opposite. Imagine Beckett by way of Monty Python, or the Little Prince, but after he grew up and no one thought he was so cute anymore though he still had an arresting angle on things. While it's probably especially pleasing to people who love the stickiness and slipperiness of words, "1965UU" never has the curdled cleverness you get when language isn't hoping to snag fact and romance from the world.

think its success is largely due to Paul, whom you may know for his performances with the Wooster Group or the stupendous Big Dance Theater, which he directs with his wife, Annie-B Parson. As a wise fool whose name may or may not mean "radish," Paul galvanizes the rest of the asteroid population (and an excellent small cast). Also spot-on: the direction, with perfectly placed special effects, by Stephen Mellor.

"1965UU" plays two more weekends only!!! Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm one stop east of Grand Central Station. (Take the 7 from Manhattan or, if you dare, the good old reliable G from Brooklyn. If you live in Queens and can bring a bill to prove it, the show is FREE on Thursdays.)

For details, here's the Chocolate Factory website.

And I just discovered Foot contributor Eva Yaa Asantewaa's delicious review on her website, Infinite Body.

September 14, 2008 11:59 AM | | Comments (1)
...a different house than anticipated this winter, when the Bolshoi director-choreographer seemed poised to take over Christopher Wheeldon's position as resident choreographer at the New York City Ballet, but who cares? As The New York Times reported yesterday, Alexei Ratmansky is going to become a resident choreographer, but of NYCB's rival across the plaza, American Ballet Theatre. The future of ballet has migrated a few feet northwest, which means we on this side of the Atlantic will get to see regular work by the man who wowed us with "Bright Stream," "Middle Duet," "Russian Seasons" and "Concerto DSCH"! 

Ratmansky: perfect mix of conservative and hip (note tiny gold hoop in left ear)

What to make of City Ballet's reason
for not granting Ratmansky the position back in February--that he had too many other commitments?

The Times, at least, makes nothing of it. Whether the subject is the arts or, say, the election campaigns, the paper of record rarely presses for answers. [UPDATE Saturday: here they do, in an excellent front page investigative report on the mafioso activities of Sarah Palin, mayor and governor.] It's a newspaper with little instinct for the news--in this case, for the key to the sort of institutional practices that would cause City Ballet to make such a blunder. For an excellent take on the folly of the Times, here's its very own Paul Krugman (I give them credit for him, at least):

Why do the McCain people think they can get away with this stuff [i.e., lies]? Well, they're probably counting on the common practice in the news media of being "balanced" at all costs. You know how it goes: If a politician says that black is white, the news report doesn't say that he's wrong, it reports that "some Democrats say" that he's wrong. Or a grotesque lie from one side is paired with a trivial misstatement from the other, conveying the impression that both sides are equally dirty.

Today's example: the Times headline on Sarah Palin's long-awaited (and  -deferred) interview with a member of the press, ABC's Charlie Gibson: "Palin says 'I'm ready.' " Yeah, but is she? Last night, Gibson appeared stern but still managed to ask her almost nothing that would distinguish her from the other candidates, for either Prez or VP.  Did she think she was experienced? he asks. What is she going to say, "Not really"? We want to hear experience demonstrated or debunked--and a good interviewer would know how to do that. Asking what she would do with Georgia, when no American politician would say, "Let Russia grind them into the dust," doesn't cut it. Her point that the U.S. should do what it can to protect itself from "imminent" attacks (this in response to the one question that could possibly expose her, when Gibson asked whether she agreed with the Bush Doctrine and it was clear she didn't know what that was) isn't any different from what Obama would say. But if Gibson had pressed her on "imminent"--Was an Iraq attack "imminent" when Bush II invaded? Are we in "imminent" danger from Iran?--he might have brought her politics, if not her ignorance, front and center. Ugh.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, the world stage of... ballet: Presumably Ratmansky has just as many commitments now as he did when NYCB thought he had too many. Perhaps ABT, which has offered him a five-year contract and the position of artistic associate (sort of mini artistic director), was simply quicker to realize what a boon he would be. 

And, oh, would he. Ratmansky's last New York premiere, "Concerto DSCH" for the New York City Ballet this June, won almost universal raves. Here's my short take on the ballet and also on his underappreciated "Bizet Variations" for the Georgia State Ballet (yeah, that Georgia) at BAM this past winter.

American Ballet Theatre certainly needs him more than NYCB does, with its store of Balanchine wonders, and the fit might actually be better. (Why didn't any of us think of this before? Maybe because it's been a long time since ABT has had choreographer associates, as they did with Twyla Tharp, Kenneth MacMillan, and Antony Tudor up to the Baryshnikov era.) Ratmansky is adept at dance poetry--where there's an occassion and a mood, and the dancers have a backstory that's felt without being fully fleshed out--as well as the short and long story ballets on which ABT has made (and foundered) its reputation. At the Bolshoi these last few years, he's remade hilarious Soviet-ballet spoofs, based on lost originals from the '30s, and reworked several classics. While he's worked wonderfully with City Ballet dancers, ABT's emphasis on dance theater might allow him greater breadth than New York City Ballet would have.

His first piece for ABT will premiere this spring at the Met. As long as World War III hasn't begun, I can hardly wait.

UPDATE: On further investigation, it turns out some people, even some friends!, think Ratmansky is a hack. Even when I squint, I can't see it. I love the way he puts together steps--the dancing, the musicality--and, more important, I love his emotional depth, which is to say, his wisdom. The man is more consistently wise than any other contemporary balletmaker, including the admirable Christopher Wheeldon.
September 12, 2008 12:32 PM | | Comments (1)

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