foot in mouth: December 2008 Archives
I hope you are enjoying your holidays. I hope that if you went home, you came back before your family forgot they invited you; that if you stayed put for a "quiet" holiday, you didn't suddenly feel bereft; that if you spent the long weekend partying like it's 1999 (it's something else), the headaches you woke up to weren't too awful.
I won't have a whole lot for you in the next several weeks, but before the year is out I wanted to tell you about some treats--especially for those for whom money has become (or always was) a scant commodity, while art never was.
The first is the 1983 book "The Gift," subtitled "Imagination and the erotic life of property" or "How the creative spirit transforms the world" or "Creativity and the artist in the modern world," depending on your edition. (No, it is not a prequel to "The Secret.")
The task the author, Lewis Hyde, sets himself is to offer a model of exchange and circulation for things that aren't purchasable--even if you have to pay something for them--because they live beyond their own skin in the imaginations of the people who encounter them and whom they bind together. Hyde begins with folk tales and with artifacts of traditional societies with developed gift cultures, and moves on to scientists and artists in this epoch of "consumer triumphalism," as he perfectly puts it. The book really is a gift--careful, methodical, subtle: a salve for anyone who makes art or brings ideas into the world without being much remunerated.
About a year and a half ago, choreographer Clare Byrne wrote in to wonder about the relationship between money, art-making, and religious faith:
I have a beef with capitalism, believe it's aversely affecting art and me, but I'm trying to figure out why I feel this way.... Maybe it's the fixed value of money in the capitalist exchange that makes it feel so trapping, so immovable. Maybe if we had a barter system, the whole exchange would feel much more "flexible" -- more harmonious with my art-making and faith-making.
Hyde elaborates on her thoughts. (Enjoy, Clare!)
Speaking of circulation, immateriality, and low funds, I have just discovered an incredible service of the New York Public Library. I've always been elated by its enormous collection of books on CD--if the reader is good, there's nothing like listening to a story while doing humdrum chores. And now, I've discovered, there's a whole new stash of audiobooks, which you can check out without even leaving the house (as long as you have a New York public library card; perhaps other large library systems offer a similar service). It's the ENYPL collection. Just look up the book the regular way, then click on ENYPL Access (if this book has that feature), and voila. If no one has checked it out, you get listening privileges for three weeks. If someone has, you can go on the waiting list. Listen from computer or iPod.
I tend to listen to novels and plays I'm reluctant to read. I've often been left with mind awhir. Best example: Paul "Sideways" Giamatti reading Phillip K. Dick's dystopian "A Scanner Darkly."
The mere idea of fizzled, druggie '70s California makes me green, so why immerse myself in it, even with the great Dick leading the way? (I've earned my revulsion, haven't I, being from the place?) But with Giamatti narrating, "A Scanner Darkly" catches the vague, appealing innocence of people prone to drugs in a culture too loose to hoover up their wobble and doubt.
Dick lets us step in and out of the echo chamber of their minds--hilarious, then tragic. On the other hand, he nests the innocents in a conspiracy-theory plot. This might have made him seem as doomed as they--and us, as skeptical. But at least with Giamatti reading, Dick is nowhere in sight. The tale circles in on itself; the protagonist of "A Scanner Darkly" is both an agent of his own loss and operates in a society that wants him lost. You can't tell the difference between what our hero is doing to himself and what is being done to him. You become absorbed in the book the way this man of Giamatti's is absorbed in the world. The experience is devastating and deep.
Audiobooks are also great for novels you have loved yet haven't visited for so long, you are beginning to suspect they couldn't really be as great as you remember. "Sister Carrie," read by one C.M. Hebert, is a vindicating case in point, because it is as great.
"Dreiser's people," suggests New Yorker film critic David Denby in an excellent 2003 appreciation, aren't so far from Dick's:
Impelled by instinct and sustained by a tiny impulse of revolt, Dreiser's people seek just a little bit of freedom, just a small opening to pleasure, and fail even to attain that modest ambition.
I love that Dreiser is objective without being distant. He captures the idiom of his characters' thoughts--crowded with the current fashions of wanting and getting.
Late this week: End of year round-up of best--or at least longest--Foot posts. (Everyone else is making lists, so why not ME?)
But first, Benjamin Millepied.
The increasingly sought-after choreographer (and City Ballet principal) can make inventively odd dances, often when he's working in a minimalist mode. His 2005 quartet for men, "Circular Motion," at Fall for Dance, and his "Double Aria," at the 2005 New York City Ballet fall gala, transferred the workmanly, incremental procedures of Steve Reich or early Trisha Brown -- and the fascination they slowly build--to ballet steps. But Millepied can also recycle tired sentiments, as he did in "Closer," the duet he created for Gillian Murphy and Ethan Stiefel in the last Joyce outing, in 2006, for Danses Concertantes, his young pick-up company. And his sequences of steps can be awkward to no purpose.
This year's show features a bit of all these things--the inventive, the staid, and the awkward. There's also romance and an almost comical, thoroughly delightful, downward-driving pluck that takes over whenever the Brahms or Chopin piano pieces, played live and magnificently by Natasha Paremski and Pedja Muzijevic, get brash. (Monsieur Millepied, use more music like that.)
Earlier this year at the Paris Opera, Millepied debuted "Triad" as part of an homage to Jerome Robbins; the two works tonight were further homage--specifically to the late choreographer's romantic and communal ballets, such as his portrait of three couples, "In the Night," or his ballet of friendships and love affairs formed in the moment, "Dances at a Gathering."
Millepied's dances don't illuminate the electricity between people the way Robbins can, and though they create bursts of mood, they don't sustain the mood, probably because the choreographer isn't thinking in sufficiently theatrical terms, as Robbins did. But there are some really nice moments and great qualities, mainly in the world premiere, "Without," to the Chopin preludes, etudes, and a nocturne. Here, in brief (because I have about 10 minutes for this), are some reasons to get to the Joyce this week:
u The virile leaping about and slashing of legs--and arcing, sudden arabesques--of the men when the piano moved into the lower register and got bombastic.
u The places the couples touched each other: a woman's hands embracing a man's bowed head, like a blessing in the form of ear muffs, causing the man to rise to his feet; a man's hand slid between the thighs of a woman laid out in his arms like a plank; a woman's head nuzzling a man's chest like she were trying to nest herself there; etc. These dancers aren't often in leading roles, so they don't entirely know how to free their faces from a mask of neutrality. But if they could, the pas de deux might be really sexy and touching.
u The configurations between the group and soloist or couple late in "Without," with the group as witness or amplification of the singular main event, as in a concerto.
u The musicality: Millepied listens, and reflects the changes in mood and dynamic in the dance. The relation is so just that I didn't often hear the music separate from the dancing. They are a whole--maybe even too one, if that's possible.
u The American Ballet Theatre corps members and soloists taking center stage. ABT has contributed 11 of the 12 cast members. Alexandre "Squeaky Slippers" Hammoudi, Sarah Lane, Luis Ribagorda, and Melissa Thomas were particularly excellent.
From left: Luis Ribagorda, Thomas Forster, Blaine Hoven, Eric Tamm, and Cory Stearns in rehearsal. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
u Thomas Forster. How could I have missed him? While I'm familiar with the other ABT dancers, I have no memory of this corps member, and he's been in the company for a whole year!
What I noticed first were his arms: relaxed and stretched, with the motion coming freely from the shoulder (imagine Michelangelo's Adam dancing), as it often does with people who use their arms feelingly.
Forster makes good use of momentum and gravity, which gives his movement a bounding, spontaneous quality. And he associates movement with feeling, so whatever he does conveys drama even when it's something simple like running across the stage. The other dancers look like they were told to run; he moves like there's an emergency.
When he partners the lovely Melissa Thomas in a romantic duet (they're a good match), he holds her as if he's holding himself back: so sexy.
"It's impossible to take your eyes off him," exclaimed my friend Amanda, a regular ballet-goer. You know when you see a movie star on stage, and you realize it's not just the screen making him larger than life, he really is? Forster was like that.
And he's a thoroughly contemporary creature: his looseness, his ease, his lack of ballet affectation, or even nobleness. He's perfectly suited to Millepied's work.
He'd also be great in (I'll start with dances in the ABT rep) anything by Tharp (which I see he's already been cast in, though I missed it) or Ratmansky; Agnes de Mille's "Rodeo"; Paul Taylor's "Airs"; and Balanchine's "Apollo" and "La Somnambula."
I'd also love to see him in things ABT doesn't do: Robbins' "Dances at a Gathering," "In the Night," and "A Suite of Dances"; Balanchine's "Divertimento from 'Baiser de la Fee'"; Wheeldon (who should borrow him for the next Morphoses season); and someday MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet." Forster already is a Romeo.
I once had dinner with a cinematographer.
"There's a song about you!" I exclaimed. "It goes, I AM a cin-e-muuh-TAW-grapher...."
The cinematographer smiled: "Isn't it the only song about us?"
Yeah, probably. Which is one reason it works so well as prologue to Faye Driscoll's "837 Venice Blvd," the dance-drama that played at Here Arts Center in the South Village for ten days earlier this month, though it should have been for ten weeks.
Like the dance, the Will Oldham song jumbles the strict specificities of a child's world--the one job you imagine for yourself (cinematographer), because the word has six syllables and they go together well; the one address you've memorized (837 Venice Blvd), because it's home and you want a name for that place--with the mammoth emotional terrain it takes adulthood to contract into a line. "I walked away from New York City," sings the cinematographer in a wobbly voice. But by the next verse, he's an adult: "And I walked away from everything that's good." The absoluteness of feeling may belong to childhood, but the generalization "everything that's good" is grownup (just in time for the good to be gone.)
Driscoll--age 33, recently included in Dance Magazine's annual "25 to Watch" issue--captures the threshold between the first line of the song and the second. The three magnetic characters in "837 Venice Blvd" are playing dress-up with self-image and testing the rules of the game. One day they may forget there was a game; only the rules will remain. "837 Venice Blvd" offers a reprieve from that day and a confrontation with it.
As addendum to "I am a Cinematographer," Celia (Celia Rowlson-Hall) chants, "I'm waiting to grow up. I'm waiting to be young," in that special drone of children singing a private epic to themselves. Celia has just strung together, like mismatched beads, many scary adventures, including that "the Russians put a nuclear bomb in [my family's] TV and blew us into a thousand parts. I had to go to the doctor and get a thousand stitches. Over my heart." She concludes, "I'm waiting for you to show. I'm waiting for the show." And then the show--far enough away to prompt laughter and close enough to hit hard--begins.
It's the kind that Celia would have concocted with her family when "the Santa Ana winds blew through Topanga Canyon and we were a we. Weeeee!" Now that they're torn asunder, the overriding theme will be "how exhausting it is to have to keep being somebody all the time" (that's from the program notes). And how exhilarating. The dancers burst through the red velveteen curtain dividing HERE's black box front to back and introduce themselves again and again.
First to emerge is Michael (Michael Helland), with glittery headband, extra-short running shorts, and false eyelashes he loves so much, he wants you to love them, too--so he glances sidelong like Betty Boop as often as possible. Scuttling behind him to guarantee that he become a cartoon is his puppetmeister and ventriloquist, Nikki (Nikki Zalcita). At one point she thrusts a fist between his legs. It begins to writhe--and squawk "I'm hungry!" What does the lubricious snake hunger for? What else?--a peanut butter and jam sandwich.
When it's his turn, Michael hoists Nikki up by her own petard, showing off her kung fu legs as she dangles in the air; he tries to twirl her tatas (they pertly resist); and he has her do the gangsta-girl squat 'n' talk.
Their mutual manglings are hilarious--like a child mauling her baby-doll's face, wringing its limbs, and squeezing all the stuffing from its body, all while cooing like her mother--but their aim is true.
Nikki, for example, is tough. Hunkered down in a wide squat a few feet from the front row, she discovers the glories of her pelvis. She gyrates with such singlemindedness that Michael and Celia, who've been running and leaping and grabbing at each other in the background, wander over to stare. After a few minutes, Michael warns, "That's weird, Nikki."
"837 Venice Boulevard" proceeds like child's play, with one thing disintegrating into another. Nikki's forays into Pelvis Power slide into an extended anime adventure in which she performs villain and heroine alike, thrusting herself through with her sword. Meanwhile, Michael and Celia disappear. Once Nikki's fantasia comes to a ferocious end, she exits via the heavy black curtain that marks the wings, and there they are, behind the curtain, in a secret bedroom. (Kudos to Sara Walsh for the ingenious set.)
No one ever exits 837 Venice Blvd. They just wake up from a self-engrossing dream to open a door--or a curtain, as it happens--on a kitchen, or living room, and people we weren't expecting. (How could we be surprised when the inhabitants amount to three?)
About half way into the 80-minute show, just as we're getting the hang of its digressive nature, the three don identical satiny capes and charge right at us. We straighten up: This is it! The Show. A dance number, with jazzy steps and unison, like on "So You Think You Can Dance."
But as usual when marshaled exuberance replaces distended, distractible whimsy, someone gets plowed under. Celia takes the routine as far as it goes, as far as she knows; Michael and Nikki keep going. Celia yells, "Wait! Wait!," then realizes, "You practiced without me. You made stuff up behind my back." They're pretending not to hear her. They're dancing and grinning. "Stop. Stop. STOP. STOPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPPP." She unleashes a single, endless, throat-destroying scream.
We've all done this--hurled our heart into our mouths to shout "Stop," and the magic didn't happen. Wanted something so simple and so entirely that it seemed impossible we wouldn't get it. And then didn't. It can make a person inconsolable for years--and ashamed, because the feeling comes direct from babydom. Perhaps that's why it's so hard to get over: it's pure.
The audience grows hushed while Celia channels the worst of adults--their special brand of tyranny, bigotry, hypocrisy. She strips Michael and Nikki of their "cape privileges"; trumpets her own virtue ("All I've ever wanted was to love you"); tells Michael to just try to make it with a woman (she dares him), and announces to Nikki that her calves are too thick for the fuck-me boots she covets and her family is disgusting, squatting buglike when they eat, and so is her craterous face.
They watch, still and stupefied, like she were a rabid dog: you don't need to know dog language to know the creature is mad. When the diatribe is over, they smooth her sweaty hair with her defeated hands and carry her through a winding solo of grief and aspiration.
To keep being somebody, you're always giving someone up. "837 Venice Boulevard" doesn't just depict that wrenching routine, it performs it. Driscoll understands that at the heart of live theater are emotional distances (perspective, we might call it if this were a painting). She beams a light on theatrical self-fashioning, and lets you feel the scraps of being fluttering in the dark.
In the shadows of the dance that Celia, Michael, and Nikki create between themselves is the haunted, shivery dance they do with us.
Here's the wonderful review, by my esteemed colleague Roslyn Sulcas at the Times, that prompted me to see "837 Venice Boulevard."
From Youtube, here's a two-minute interview with director-choreographer Faye Driscoll, interspersed with a few snatches of the dance (with the sound off).
If you live in the New York area, are intrigued by dance theater, and are even just a little curious about its history, don't miss the José Limon company's powerful staging of Anna Sokolow's 1955 masterpiece "Rooms." I saw it last night and can vouch for the excellence of the dancers' interpretation. The dance brought to mind early Godard and Allen Ginsberg's "Howl": it opens the Age of Anxiety right up to us. "Rooms" will be performed on Program A of the Limon troupe's Joyce season this week: Thursday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.
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