foot in mouth: October 2008 Archives

American Ballet Theatre's stupendous spring season (for those who want to skip jail/winter and go straight to go)
October 30, 2008 6:26 PM | | Comments (0)
I know, we haven't even resigned ourselves to winter yet and I'm already drooling over ABT's spring season, but I just got the schedule, and I thought while you were in the ABT mood--they are currently dancing at City Center--I'd alert you to the glories ahead.

 First, a world premiere by new ABT recruit Alexei Ratmansky to Prokofiev, paired with Balanchine's early, Expressionist "Prodigal Son" (also to Prokofiev). Then, remember when I was begging for a return of Romantic ballets (click here and scroll down a bit)--to complement "Giselle"? Well, my wish came true! ABT is reviving Bournonville's mid-19th century "La Sylphide" after an eight-year hiatus, and they're reprising Ashton's gorgeous, funny take on an even earlier ballet, the Classical "Sylvia," featuring an obscure follower of the goddess Diana. That other goddess Diana, Ms. D. Vishneva, will dance the spunky heroine for the first time this summer. And Gillian Murphy, who has been glorious and funny in the part, will return.

For more salivating, there's a Tchaikovsky-Balanchine evening, with "Mozartiana," "Theme and Variations," and "Allegro Brilliante," and as for the war horses in regular rotation, they've got the best of the lot: "Giselle," "Swan Lake," and MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet." (I know this last is considered vulgar, but I love it: it sweeps you into its romance like a movie and holds you there for two hours. And for those who need new leads to entice them, there are many, including Murphy with David Hallberg.) The only ballet I'll sit out is the kitschy pirate number "Le Corsaire."

It will be very neat to watch the Romantic "La Sylphide" on the heels of the Romantic "Giselle," and the immersion in Prokofiev will be wonderful, too.

YAY for ABT, whose strong suit isn't always its programming.


October 30, 2008 5:35 PM | | Comments (0)
The scribbling class, the yawning ass: why critics should resist the B-word, unless they're willing to back it up
October 28, 2008 2:53 PM | | Comments (0)

It's always bothered me when critics call a work or performer "boring," but now Susan Sontag, in her 1965 essay "One Culture and the New Sensibility" (from Against Interpretation), helps put my finger on why:

The charge of boredom is hypocritical....Boredom is only another name for a certain species of frustration.

The moment a critic declares (through her nose) that she is bored, she's abdicated her responsibility: to illuminate causes, not just effects. "Boring" is like "wonderful" or "marvelous" or "splendid"--it says nothing except that you liked something or didn't, and that you are so self-evidently justified in your taste (because you are you, and you are marvelous) that you needn't bother to say more.
That's why teenagers, with their uncanny ability to make the most of adults' worst traits, love the b-word: they understand "boring" annuls all argument and holds the listener at bay.

For a critic, it's also stingy, backing away right when the writer needs to move in. It's arrogant, asserting, "I am so much better than this dance/this performer that I will not deign to explain."

Explanation is a humble thing--what subordinates do, never their bosses. "Boring," on the other hand, is the aristocrat of response: a seeming explanation that tells you nothing (why Sontag calls it hypocritical). By means of indolence, the critic asserts her dominion over the reader and the art. 

October 28, 2008 2:10 PM | | Comments (3)

See, this video can be custom made for every well-intentioned Obamaite you know who just might take too long a nap on Election Day. Watch it, edit it, and send it out. We might as well turn our election jitters into something useful (and funny).

(You ask, isn't this just a bit off topic, Apollinaire? I say, Only in the narrow view of things).

October 23, 2008 2:29 PM | | Comments (2)
October 19, 2008 10:41 PM | | Comments (0)

When my niece, Hannele, was an infant, she would light up whenever you turned on the light, staring at this facsimile of the sun with curiosity and awe. For her little brother, Pascal, music had the mind-altering effect. Light took my niece out of herself; music pulled my nephew into itself. He'd close his eyes and let his head fall back in a swoon.


Dance often moves in fruitful counterpoint to music, with the one illuminating not so much the other as a third thing--the piece. But sometimes a choreographer fuses the two and you fall into a trance. You know the dance is working, but you are too far in to know how.


I didn't like Christopher Wheeldon's "Fools' Paradise" at its New York City Center premiere last year, when his pick-up company, Morphoses, debuted. The ensemble work to Joby Talbot's eerie neo-Romantic foreboding of violins came at the end of an evening with so much Wheeldon, you got tired of him and began confusing means with ends--wishing the choreography weren't so sculptural and static, hoping for an occasional rush of movement where everyone stood on their own two feet.


This year, Wheeldon curated Morphoses' pair of programs more carefully. Duets no longer dominated and the Frederick Ashton trio "Monotones II" seemed like a perfect companion to Wheeldon in its sweetness and the equanimity between dancers. "Fools' Paradise" now suited its name. It was the paradise of those who inject the dread of the inevitable fall into the idyll before, so the bad part doesn't seem so bad. It was a dance for those who have counted melancholy a joy. With the dancers in fleshtones and bathed in a waning glow under a light rain of glitter, "Fools' Paradise" perfectly complemented the Indian summer outside--with its steady warmth shadowed by the presentiment of winter chill.


Thumbnail image for jr_fools_company_finale_500_105.jpg

"Fool's Paradise." Last year, static; this year as warm and ephemeral as an Indian summer

Normally I'd offer you an emblematic moment to illustrate the delicious and fragile atmosphere the dance enveloped us in, but I'd left my reviewer's mind behind, because after last year's experience I wasn't expecting much. I'd settled for the default setting when nothing much is being asked of me and I'm just happy to sit in the dark and take in a show. My attention became recessive and my gaze panoramic. I was more wordless (unlike many--better--writers, I don't feel in words, I only think in them) and receptive.


The result was a keen sense of the ballet but few details to hang it on--and a hunch that my accidental approach was just right for Wheeldon. After testing this hypothesis on a second viewing of his "Commedia" (for Morphoses) and the New York premiere of "Within the Golden Hour" for the San Francisco Ballet's 75th anniversary celebration at City Center, I was convinced.  


Trained on Balanchine, most New York ballet critics absorb meaning and sense syntactically, because with Balanchine it's the action between the notes--the syncopated rhythms--that shape the steps and their portent. With Wheeldon, the ballet's color and emotion may be rooted in the score, but the organizing principle is visual. In his "Commedia," for example, he transfers the sharp angles of the jester's iconic shrug to legs, hips, and the surface insouciance of secretly tender pas de deux. But if you scrutinize any one of these gestures, it's like standing with your nose pressed against an Impressionist painting. The dots will make you dizzy--and you'll lose the picture. Better to back up and let the motifs gradually seep in like a rising tide seeps in to sand. 


In his six years as New York City Ballet's resident choreographer, Wheeldon set himself all sorts of genre challenges. He tried his hand at the family-friendly ballet ("Carnival of the Animals"); the movie-musical ballet ( "An American in Paris"); the tutu ballet ("Evenfall"); the modernist ballet ("Polyphonia" and "Morphoses"). But whatever the genre, he eventually gravitated to the same rich emotional terrain: the sadness of being too happy in one's happiness, where even requited feelings are in excess of their object. The emotions Wheeldon favors aren't operatic but subtly ambivalent, which is part of why he feels contemporary and people have faith that he can carry ballet into the future.

Still, melancholy saturated in contentment is not an easy mood to sustain--for us, anyway. While it was always a thrill to see Wheeldon beside Balanchine and Robbins on a City Ballet program, presented in close succession on a single night his ballets tend to cancel one another out. When motifs repeat--the glorious circle patterns, the women skimming across the stage on point, the men manipulating their partner's planklike legs around a planklike torso, like a ballerina on a spit--the ballet you just finished watching sticks to the moves and reduces them to gimmicks.

The problem is not unique to Wheeldon--NYCB's all-Robbins programs this spring suffered the same fate--and he minimized it this time by using his own works as program bookends, as far apart as possible. But the promise of his company depends on him finding other exciting choreographers with whom to share the stage. He had better luck last year, with Michael Clarke, Liv Lorent, and William Forsythe. This time, except for Ashton, he was the only one up to his level.


A bigger problem for Morphoses is the collapse of the economy. Even in the best of times, a fledgling ballet troupe is an exorbitant and risky venture: Balanchine emigrated to America on the expectation that he'd have his own company soon; he waited 15 years. Of course, he did show up in the depths of the Depression.... Hmmmmm...this is all beginning to sound very familiar.


There would be no shame in Wheeldon returning to the NYCB fold until our economic troubles blew over (in--what?-- 2018?). And perhaps now that City Ballet has lost the Bolshoi director and choreographer Alexei Ratmansky to ABT, who found no objection to the busy schedule that made City Ballet balk, they will be extra generous with Wheeldon, letting him choreograph whatever he wants, with first dibs on dancers, longer rehearsal periods, access to the set and costume designers of his choice (his choices so far have been wonderful), catered lunches!


New York City Ballet would be lucky to have him, and so would we.


Here's  a two-minute clip of "Fools' Paradise."


Next ballet stop: American Ballet Theatre, at City Center for two weeks beginning this week. Their focus: Antony Tudor. Have you noticed how much more dance programming City Center has offered this year? Besides the usual Fall for Dance, ABT, and Alvin Ailey, there has been San Francisco Ballet and will be Lar Lubovitch next month. And that's just the Fall. Yay for City Center executive director (and former Joffrey dancer) Arlene Shuler!

October 19, 2008 5:20 PM | | Comments (0)
October 15, 2008 1:13 PM | | Comments (0)

To celebrate the release of the DVD "Together"--a compendium of scenes from ballets that the American Ballet Theatre ballerina shared with principal dancer Fernando Bujones--Cynthia Gregory is sitting down with my esteemed colleague Joel Lobenthal, of the extinguished Sun, at the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble, 7:30 pm this Friday, October 17.

GO! I know from firsthand experience that Joel is an excellent interviewer--he was the moderator of a Dance Critics Association panel this summer that included Laura Jacobs and me, and he asked really engaging questions. He knows ballet history inside, outside, and upside down, and has followed glorious Gregory's career from the start.

In case you have yet to succumb to middle age, Cynthia Gregory was a big deal in the '70s. Because the New York City Ballet didn't tour the States, for those of us in the provinces--the SF Bay Area, say--Gregory in the classical roles of ABT was one of a handful of dancers that meant ballet to us. As a teenager, I saw her with Bujones more than any other ballerina. And while Makarova could feel too Russian (i.e., slow) and Gelsey Kirkland freakily effete, Gregory was large and strong, dancing with a forthright clarity that never compromised her grace.

And Bujones, her regular partner, was heaven--gentle and long-limbed and as soft in landing as a cat. Sort of like Marcelo Gomes.

Anyway, the conversation should be interesting.

As for live ballet, don't forget that the San Francisco Ballet is at City Center through Sunday. They've brought a couple of Balanchine masterworks, as well as Morris and Wheeldon New York premieres.

Speaking of Wheeldon, I have just posted on the second annual outing of his company, Morphoses: so much better than the first. In fact, so good in parts that it was like being carried along by the tide. (The paradox of experience: when you're really one with it, you're not in much of a position to accurately record it.)

October 15, 2008 12:22 PM | | Comments (4)

Recently at Slate, it flashed on writer Meghan O'Rourke what "dark literary doppelganger" Sarah Palin--"with her bright smile, her folksy-corporate style, and her Silly Puttied authenticity, which mirrors back at the viewer whatever talking point she's just absorbed"--reminded her of:  

a character in a George Saunders story... trapped in the American DreamTM. [Saunders'] workers at theme parks or Hooters-style restaurants, mummified in corporate-sponsored "flair," speak in her same style of substanceless perk--the language of cute-can-do-ism that's exploited by companies to lull workers into taking pleasure in how much of their time is given over to the business of being an employee.

Palin speak, like the settings it's lifted from, is pure loop-the-loop insularity, without origin or aim. Which means, paradoxically, that it's always throwing us into a state of déjà vu, not quite bringing to mind where we've seen this proud hoosier knownothingness before, or the backbiting bitchery (was it only "Melrose Place"?), or the singsong cadences ("Romper Room"?). When commentators get bent out of shape over the governor's unreliable syntax, I think they're also picking up on the general drift of her--that she's a senseless homogenization of a motley of attitudes that put a premium on authenticity while being entirely manufactured (and for precise political purposes).


Palin's aura of ersatz is part of her sexiness--and if you don't believe she's got allure, you should have seen the men's dials at CNN during the V.P. debate every time the camera zoomed in on her. Her words are to her mind like big breasts are to a small body: they don't seem to entirely belong to it.


That's also the voodoo magic that Ann Liv Young channels in "The Bagwell in Me," in which the love triangle usually associated with Thomas Jefferson is now superglued to our first president, George Washington.

At The Kitchen last week, Young played George as well as his wife, Martha; Isabel Lewis, in brownface, did honors as Oney, their slave; and Michael Guerrero, real-life fiancé to Young, served as all-purpose handyman (shades of "The Blue Angel").


The corporate spirit of Palin's winkiness doesn't preside over "Bagwell": the props and costumes are plasticky in a lumpen, not an institutional, way, and the patchwork of borrowings is aboveboard. The script, read from papers sticky with fluids regularly spilled over the stage, is resolutely amateurish, slip-slopping from one style to another. The set is grotty. Most of the tunes to which Young and Lewis bump and grind are borrowed from top-ten radio (when there was top-ten radio). The sex scenes involve common porno stunts.


Where Young's Teflon slipperiness arises from is the story itself, which is also where the surprise is: you realize you know this story--even in the ridiculous form she's given it. You can't say how you know it, and she never tells you, probably because she doesn't know, either. It's just in the air, like the flu.

But then, improbably, she drives this heavy cloud of racist-sexist fantasies to an absurd and logical end. She leaves nothing to the imagination. She obliterates the imagination--and sanctimony with it.


For example, the way Martha punishes Oney for having an affair--and baby--with George is to suck her twat while Oney, in skimpy thong, stands and delivers a rap tune. Martha sings the chorus between gulps.

In case we were wondering if Young really is working down there, Guerrero trains a minuscule camera between Lewis's legs, so the scene is presented front as well as back and underneath--in the flesh as well as on live video. No more wondering.


Young never steps out of her dumb, beautiful, bossy, and utterly unself-conscious stage persona, and I think that's part of why she infuriates as many people as she excites. People want a sign that she knows how annoyingly amateurish she is, how much her tap dancing sucks, how her singing is only accidentally good and if she didn't look so innocently pretty--which is an accident, too--none of this would work. Most of all, they want to be reassured that she's not stumbling through a minefield of history without at least recognizing that it's a minefield. She offers no such reassurance.


She does the show as if a skinflint impresario had recruited her that afternoon and said, "Okay, babe, this is what you got to do: Go out there and sing along to the song. Swing your tits around, and do the splits, and wiggle your ass in a few middle-aged men's faces. Then read this script. When it says, MARTHA, put on the Marge Simpson wig. When you get to GEORGE, switch to the Bozo the Clown wig."

Her big, luscious, slovenly body sighs as she switches from wig to wig, or changes costume, or tromps up the aisle to sink sweatily toward some mortified man's lap.


The empty authority of her act distinguishes her from an earlier generation of performance artists--specifically, Karen Finley, whom critics have invoked to argue that Young is nothing new. (If you want a comparison, I think the gross-out visual artist Paul McCarthy is more apt. He also trains his eye on Americans' peculiarly erotic response to the ersatz and banal: how we make things fake and boring so we can feel safe getting off on them.) As I understand it, and I haven't seen a whole lot of her (no pun intended), Finley's claim to transgressive fame was for going where no one dared go before. (First woman to stick a yam up her ass!) Young is transgressive for being relentlessly derivative.


And that's where the pathos creeps in. My metabolism slowed--my heart sunk--about 40 minutes into what amounted to a nearly two hour show when Young put a sheet over Lewis's head and noosed it tight with a rope. I thought, Oh, god, are we really going to wade through the whole preprogrammed charade of horrors?


Yes, we are. The dark slave choked, the dark slave getting her revenge, the cunt-sucking, the fucking via dildo--with breaks for slave and mistress to belt out karaoke tunes (while tap-dancing and wielding rusty saws). 


"The Bagwell in Me" says, "You know the drill"--then takes us through it, bit by bloody bit. At first, the show's audacity makes it hard not to laugh. But after a while, the uncanny accuracy of its seemingly slipshod aim--its hallucinogenic reproduction of every shade of bumbling bigotry--begins to hurt.

"It made me really sad," my friend Clare said afterward, staring over my head at the wall.


Yeah, that the record has been broken this long and we're still playing it. We'd like to turn it off, but we can't remember how to get off the couch.

October 8, 2008 6:36 PM | | Comments (4)

I don't have a whole lot to say about Christian Rizzo, though I would like to, because his solo outing last weekend at CPR (Center for Performance Research) was part of the French Institute Alliance Francaise's enterprising new festival Crossing the Line, which we are lucky to have.

The French festival is a mini-version of the short-lived European Dream Festival, which for one month two years ago spread out over 22 venues and encompassed all of the arts in their most cutting edge aspects. No less than the European Union--plus a bevy of European embassies--sponsored the Dream, and even so, it only lasted a season; now in its second year, Crossing the Line has Goldman Sachs, among other monstrous imploding corporate entities, as its sponsor, so we'll see how long it lasts.

For the Dream extravaganza, we were treated to our second look at Boris Charmatz, a brilliant young French choreographer. For Crossing the Line, it's Rizzo, whom I hadn't heard of until I heard that it was about time we New Yorkers got to see him.


According to Movement Research Journal,

There are many who have wondered what has taken New York so long. After NYC has seen Jerome Bel, Xavier Le Roy, Alain Buffard, Boris Charmatz seems an obvious omission not to have had one of the important members of this French generation of dancemakers--a huge influence on international dance in the mid-'90s.


Wow: huge influence, important, French.

In Time Out, dance editor and writer Gia Kourlas less histrionically seconds the emotion (and offers Rizzo's own words on what he thinks he's doing).

So maybe he seemed old hat (and not a very interesting hat, at that) by the time he arrived Stateside because New York dancemakers who take part in the experimental circuit that runs from Berlin to--where? Utrecht?-- had already absorbed him.

The 40-minute solo at CPR takes its name from the dancer for whom Rizzo made it, the statuesque I-Fang Lin, a Taiwanese émigré of France. With the floor stripped to its cement base, the white walls bare, and a set consisting of movable equipment--mic stand, speakers, troughs of fluorescent lights laid out like footlights, a suitcase on rollers--the stage gave off a sanitized warehouse air. The performance was likewise spare.



 A different set than at CPR, but you get the idea

Lin faced away from us at oblique angles and spoke huskily into a mic in Mandarin. She dipped into low, wide pliés while settling her arms and mouth into an Expressionist mold. She lay on the cement, limbs carefully arrayed. She changed her clothes--to begin, an '80s navy pantsuit (remember those power blazers women would wear straight over their bras? Like that), accessorized with Allen Ginsburg intellectuo glasses a la 1959 and espresso heels; to end, an elegant beach dress with matching visor.

And she moved the props around.

A lot.

She unplugged the lights to plug them in somewhere else, placed the speakers just so, then just so again. The performance began with a good five minutes of such fussing, which recurred during what a less sophisticated artist might call transitional moments.

Which may have been the point--Rizzo leveling the distinction between the show and the interstitial operations that usually count as the not-show. Rizzo driving the fourth wall to the wall.

A lot of choreographers (Jonah Bokaer, Luciana Achugar, Beth Gill) have had dancers double as stagehands, turning the schlepping of equipment into part of the dance. It works when the aim isn't simply to demonstrate how clever you are. ("Look, Ma, the de-suspension of disbelief!") When Achugar whacked down the fourth wall in her Bessie award-winning "Exhausting Love" (2006), the effect was to illuminate the rituals of boredom by which we live. (Check out "Exhausting Love's" sequel, at Dance Theater Workshop in a couple of weeks.) But Rizzo's "I-Fang Lin" never leaves the building.

True, fiddling with equipment does really happen. When I'm copyediting, for example, I'm constantly adjusting the height of my chair. But the difference between me with my wretched chair and "I-Fang Lin" is the difference between me and, say, the guy doing the floor design at Banana Republic. He's got something very definite in mind, and he's going to achieve it; my chair will always be too high or too low, because I shouldn't be sitting in it, doing this work.

I ended up wishing Lin would just pile the extension cords and the speakers and the fluorescent tubing and the suitcase and the changes of clothes in a heap and get on with it, whatever it might turn out to be.



Crossing the Line closes tonight with a double dance concert of Rachid Ouramdane and Pascal Rambert at PS 122 in the East Village. Here are my thoughts on Ouramdane's piece (scroll down a bit) at DTW this past spring.

Not to mire you in too many choices, but tonight's also the last night to catch Ann Liv Young's "The Bagwell in Me" at The Kitchen, in Chelsea. I'll write more about it later, but this karaoke theater piece is moment-defining, with its careless, easy transgressions of things one feels weird about being easily transgressed. Young deploys a brilliant strategy for getting us around and over the blasé state of mind that an overtitillated culture offers as the only exit. And with a persona that's dumb, beautiful, bossy, and utterly lacking in self-consciousness, she's the perfect performer to be doing her theater. Here's Gia Kourlas's Times profile, from last Sunday.

UPDATE: Here's Claudia La Rocco's review (it seems she didn't like it!), and here's counter critic (who didn't like it, either!) and here's Andy Horwitz of blowing it and every bit of pretentious anti-dance dance he's ever seen to bits. (Go, Andy!--though I will say, it's not fair to judge the work by what the artist says about it, or what she says about herself, or about her peers--and certainly not by what is reported that she said. Young's remark to Kourlas that she "hates" what others make may have been one of those comically self-dramatizing overstatements --like the poet Marianne Moore saying, "I dislike poetry too," or me saying to some modern-dance detractor, "Yeah, I hate modern dance, too." Who knows. But Kourlas does have a habit of using a choreographer's words to advance her own critical agenda. We all do it to some extent, but hopefully not to the detriment of the artist herself.)

In any case, I'll really have to make a case for Young now! I should say that I haven't liked everything she's done--in fact, the first piece I saw I loathed so much, I booed. But this time around, I thought she had something important going on--and it isn't Karen Finley redux. It's Karen Finley for this precise flame-out moment.

More later. (And here it is). 

Photo by Christian Rizzo, borrowed from Time Out New York.

October 4, 2008 4:50 PM | | Comments (3)

Topics on Tap

Apollinaire, Thursday, October 30: American Ballet Theatre's stupendous spring season (for those who want to skip jail/winter and go straight to go)
Apollinaire, Tuesday Oct. 28 The scribbling class, the yawning ass: why critics should resist the B-word, unless they're willing to back it up
That '70s ballerina:  Cynthia Gregory in conversation


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