John Rockwell: July 2009 Archives
The other night I was at the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg's production of "Life and Fate -- I'll post my roundup of the Lincoln Center Festival's Eastern European theater early next week, after I've seen Pushkin's "Boris Godunov" on Sunday -- and I found myself eagerly devouring the scene-by-scene plot synopsis in the program. It was useful, too, especially for those of us who had not read Vasily Grossman's sprawling historical novel. Multiple stories played on the same set, and I found it helpful to sort out the criss-crossing characters.
But afterwards I began to brood. A frequent, not to say harping, complaint of mine is about movie critics who give away away too many plot twists in their reviews. Why, wondered I, was I eager to know something in advance about "Life and Fate" and equally determined to enter a movie theater with my mind a blank slate?
Forget synopses or reviews for a minute: If either a film or a theater piece is based on a novel, reading the novel beforehand is itself problematic. You find out way more than you might want to know, and in any case a stage or screen piece is not prose. If you judge an adaptation negatively because it fails to replicate a novel, you're missing at least part of the point. The playwright or film auteur is making a different work of art that must make sense on its own terms.
In a movie, I want to be surprised by every narrative twist, not to speak of the hyper-personal, larger-than-life screen impact of the actors. With "Life and Fate," you had a Russian-language play boiled down from a long novel with a myriad characters, none familiar. To be fair, I did regret knowing a couple of plot twists from reading the summary -- the fact that Stalin called (we're in the early 1940's), savlaging the caeer of a Jewish physicist in his anti-Semitic institute and ant-Semitic country, and that at the end he betrays all his principles by signing a document meant for Western consumption attesting to a lack of political incarceration and torture in Russia.
But ultimately I stick with my guns, and with reading unfamiliar opera and ballet plot summaries, too. Films operate in a set of basically naturalistic conventions. Even when the plot is arcane and convoluted -- as in "Synedoche, New York," a movie I loved -- most films, especlally American films, even indie films, present the narrative weirdness in a naturalistic way, one that makes the plot more accessible. Strangenesss arising from normalcy is arguably more powerful, anyhow.
"Life and Fate" was performed in Russian with projected supertitles, by no means complete and partially obscured for some unhappy audience members on the far left. So are foreign films (or operas in foreign languages) less susceptible to my whining about premature plot revelation? Maybe, but most film subtitles do a good job, and again, even the more outre films usually present fantastical happenings arising from a naturalistic context.
For example, Almodovar's "Talk to Me," which I saw recently in the wake of Pina Bausch's death, with its fantasy of a miniature man crawling into his lover's vagina and thereby making her very happy. With more overtly avant-garde films, the issue recedes because the importance of a conventional narrative arc has receded. Moody atmospherics a la Antonioni are hardly undercut by knowing the plot, which could probably be summarized in a sentence or two.
With long foreign plays (or with Shakespeare, for that matter), or an unfamliar opera, or a long ballet from which most of the explanatory mime has been excised, knowing the plot provides a guideline for negotiating your way through the evening. In an opera or ballet, the rewards of the music or dance may be the main point, or better the blend of music/dance and drama that is hardly ruined by knowing the bare, textual plot in advance.
In both movies and films, I also like to know what I'm in for in terms of time. Most movies are around two hours, and you know roughly how long they will last by knowing the time separating screenings. With dance, opera and theater, I ask the ushers going in how long the show will be. That way I can orient myself temporally as the action, gripping or otherwise, unfolds.
In the end, though, I think my resistance to knowing movie plots speaks to the everyday nature of cinematic conventions. Movies are part of our lives in a way that older art forms are not. Most of us, given the choice, would resist knowing future details of our own lives, like the time and manner of our deaths. Movies are so close to us that the same rules apply. We want to let life and film come at us unannounced, thrilling and diasappointing us by surprise.
OK, here's part two of my recent dance roundup, devoted to dance that isn't ballet and as such is usually ignored or dismissed by ballet-oriented critics but is still dance, darn it! As the noted dance critic Stuart Smalley might say.
Jacob's Pillow in the Berkshires is a charming place to visit, with good programs, nice (funkily informal) theaters and grounds, loads of dance history, informative exhibitions and a lively summer school (and hence a mix of the characteristic Berkshires geratric demographic with younger folk). About my only caveat, if I think and think, is Ella Baff's stiff introductions before every curtain, concluding with a forced "Let's dance!". She does a fine job as director, which is what's important, but she lacks a relaxed presence.
Early this Pillow season came the formal U. S. debut of Lafa and Artists from Taiwan, and the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet of New York in the world premiere of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's "Orbo Novo." (Don't worry, those of you compulsive about categories; "ballet" here does not mean that this is a company devoted to classical ballet, or even to European-style "contemporary ballet"; it seems to be pretty clearly a modern-dance group, for all the undoubted ballet training of its dancers.)
Lafa was formed by and for Fang-Yi Sheu, known for her work with Taiwan's Cloud Gate Dance Theatre and the Martha Graham Dance Company. Lafa has been kicking around New York for a couple of years, in residence at Mikhail Bayrshnikov's Arts Center and appearing in City Center's Fall for Dance. Formed in 2007 by Sheu and her partner, the Thai-born former Cloud Gate dancer Bulareyuang Pagarlava, it consists, reverse-harem-style, of Sheu and seven or eight men (I don't have the program handy).
Sheu is a fabulous dancer, fabulous to look at with a wonderfully flexible body and a commanding stage presence. My problem at the Pillow was that the best piece on the program, excerpts from "Single Room," was worrisomely the earliest, from 2002, and overfamiliar, having been seen at the Baryshknikov Center and at Fall for Dance. This time it had spiffier decor and lighting, and the always sensual, ingenious slitherings of Sheu on and around and under a long table placed front and center are still fun to see.
Otherwise, though, Pagarlava seems to have a serious case of the cutes. "37 Arts," named for Baryshnikov's space and previously seen there, is full of clowning, and the clumsily entitled "Summer Fantasia Part I -- Summer at Jacob's Pillow" is a bland pastoral with much flirtatious mugging imposed on Sheu. The men are terrific, especially the awesomely controlled gymnast and dancer Ming-Cheng Huang. But Pagarlava needs to broaden and deepen his range.
The Belgian Cherkaoui (he's of half Moroccan descent) is one of the hippest choreographers in Europe, based at Alain Platel's Ballets C. de la B.(Contemporains de la Belgique) in Ghent. "Orbo Novo" was an event, given his current reclam, but it seemed inconclusive. It started out with a danced and spoken summary of Jill Bolte Taylor's memoir "My Stroke of Insight," in which she chronicled her own stroke with personal insight and medical expertise. But the remaining, wordless bulk of the dance didn't overtly correlate to the outset; it looked generic.
At least it served as a fine showcase for the superb Cedar Lake dancers. This is a company built on the fortune of the daughter of Sam Walton of Wal-Mart. It started without much aesthetic direction but seems now, under the leadership of Benoit-Swan Pouffer, to have found itself as a conduit for some of the most notable (non-ballet) choreographers of our time, most of them sadly underrepresented here.
Back in New York State, Bard College's increasingly ambitious SummerScape festival (still awkwardly conjoined with the separately named Bard Music Festival) got under way at the campus's Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center with a revival of most of Lucinda Childs's "Dance." (Both "Dance" and "Orbo Nova" will be on view in the fall at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan.)
"Dance" was first done in 1979 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of Harvey Lichtenstein's efforts to foster collaborations among notable artists. "Dance" was an offshoot of "Einstein on the Beach" of 1976, without Robert Wilson but with Phililp Glass and Lucinda Childs, who played a crucial role as one of the two stylized actor/dancers in the so-called "knee plays," or entr'actes (though her choreography for the two extended dance scenes didn't appear until the first revival in 1984).
The third collaborator was the artist Sol LeWitt. He contributed films for three of the five parts of "Dance," the other two having been left unfilmed, I was told by the lighting designer Beverly Emmons at Bard, for financial reasons. The revival consists of the three scenes that were filmed, the black-and-white footage rendered newly crisp and vivid, with a new group of dancers performing live behind the film projected on a scrim. The combination of the varied ways in which the film images are seen on the scrim, and the varied proportions between filmed and live images, plus the steadily more colorful lighting of the live dancers, is terrifically effective.
Given the sometimes compelling but sometimes didactic Childs choreography, it may well be an improvement to have a "Dance" that lasts only one hour. The three remaining parts are nicely contrasted, a solo separating the busier group pieces. Those are full of precise patterns and constant spinning, skipping movement reflecting the burbling Glass score (this came towards the end of his music for his own ensemble; the opera "Satyagraha" followed in 1980). But it's the solo that is most striking. The huge closeups of Childs's impassive face and body from 30 years ago -- Vogue magazine blown up to filmscreen grandeur -- juxtaposed with Caitlin Scranton's honorable emulation of her live looked like a temple priestess before a godlike icon.
Finally, my only dance event at the Lincoln Center Festival, in the new Alice Tully Hall (I missed the other, Emanuel Gat, whom I had much enjoyed three years ago). Shen Wei's rapid rise to international prominence has incurred the envy of some, who find him unfairly favored by a few well-placed producers (like Nigel Redden, my successor at Lincoln Center). His new offering consisted of three parts, somewhat pretentiously entitled "Re- (I, II, III)" but presented out of order, the parts created and performed separately over the last two years.
The trilogy was greeted grumpily in some quarters. Me, I found it by far the best work of his that I have seen. The three parts, devoted to Tibet, then the Silk Road and modern-day New York and Beijing, and finally Angkor Wat, contrasted nicely; the music was evocative; and the look of the evening -- Shen Wei is as devoted to the visual as to the terpsichoric, another source of annoyance for some -- was striking despite a silly costume here and there. The final part, with nearly nude dancers, some posed like marble statues on the floor, was particularly impressive. It wasn't ballet, but it was dance, or dance-art, and first-rate on its own, perfectly valid terms.
Late spring and early summer are considered by some to be the high point of the New York dance season, and the reason is simple: New York City Ballet is having its spring season at the New York State Theater and American Ballet Theatre is dancing across the plaza at the Metropolitan Opera House. It's heaven for balletomanes (despite all their complaints about particular dances and dancers), though not necessarily so celestially epiphanic for lovers of other kinds of dance. Balletomanes have no such problem, because they define dance as baller, and only tolerate modern dance to the extent that it's balletic.
So when I titled this entry "one kind of dance," I meant ballet. My next dance posting will be about some events of a different dance order, at Jacob's Puillow, Bard College and the Lincoln Center Festival. Not ballet, maybe not all heavenly, but definitely all dance. By my definition.
I didn't go to much City Ballet this season. Only the gala, which offered both of the season's choreographic premieres on one program. So I can't report on the rises and falls (figuratively, not just literally) of City Ballet's fine dancers, their fidelity and infidelity to Balanchine, their revelations of Peter Martins's good judgment (rarely credited) and lapses (amply detailed). And since I've already written about the two premieres, it's on to American Ballet Theatre.
I wound up going to six programs, chosen to suit my enthusiasms and agendas. So again, I can't comparatively rate the different dancers who undertook Giselle or Odette/Odile. For that you need a) a lot of time devoted solely and obsessively to ballet, b) an accommodating press department, and/or c) the ability to worm your way in through other, more devious or amusing means. So I missed the opening gala (which included a solo piece d'occasion by Alexei Ratmansky for Nina Ananiashvili) and the two first week-long bills, devoted to "Balanchine/Tchaikovsky" and "Le Corsaire." I even had to miss Ananiashvili's company farewell, in "Swan Lake," which I much regret. It is very hard to be a balletomane when you have a life.
So what DID I see, you might ask? Well, first there was the all-Prokofiev bill, highlighted by Ratmansky's first ballet for the company as its new artists in residence (stolen out from under Martins's nose, since Ratmansky had been a frequent guest choreographer at City Ballet and almost wound up in residence there). Ratmansky seems fascinated by reviving and rechoreogaphing lost Soviet "classics," like his charming "Bright Stream." "On the Dnieper" proved a kind of bodice-ripping melodrama, full (too full, for its length) of plot and incident. That said, Ratmansky has a gift, better seen in his ballets for City Ballet, and "On the Dnieper," on the night I saw it, was sumptuously danced by Jose Manuel Carreno, Diana Vishneva and, on a slightly more prosaic but still appealing level, Hee Seo. Also on the Prokofiev bill were James Kuldelka's "Desir," which was generic and slight, and Balanchine's "Prodigal Son," of interest for an honorable impersonation of the title character by Daniil Simkin, ABT's latest young Soviet leaper, and Irina Dvorovenko, who's good at being a vamp.
"Giselle," the next week, and "La Sylphide," the week after, served to showcase another Soviet import (and presumably one who will graduate from guest to principal), Natalia Osipova. When she was here with the Bolshoi three years ago, she charmed as a soubrette. This season she took on two similar Romantic roles, long white tulle and deathly ethereality with pining male mortals obbligato. She was better as Giselle, with a truly remarkable ability to propel herself upwards and float without apparent effort. To my taste she lacked soul, of the Carla Fracci variety. But her partner, David Hallberg, is soulful to the max, in the Erik Bruhn manner, with loads of technique, too. Osipova was less convincing as Bournonville's (and Bruhn's, since his staging was used) sylph, again for her failure to tug at the heart while dazzling the eye with her jumps. She's short, which may rob her of some willowy grace but which makes her a match for Herman Cornejo. Cornejo's character-dancer compactness did not translate well as James, and he made a most unconvincing Scotttish nobleman. Mikhail Baryshnikov could make you forget his small size; Cornejo, for all his dazzling gifts, cannot. (For the record, "La Sylphide" was preceded by a pleasantly anodyne performance of Paul Taylor's "Airs.")
Another highlight of "Giselle" was Veronika Part's imperious Myrta, and a couple of weeks later, newly promoted this season to principal, she did Odette/Odile in "Swan Lake." Part can seem stolid, but she has a grandeur about her, and she's a noble beauty. Her "Swan Lake" was pretty terrific, with the two halves of the character even more sharply contrasted than usual: Odette (perhaps excessively) pained and suffering, Odile all vamping flash a la Dvorovenko. (Part also took on Lady Capulet in "Romeo and Juliet," that role in Kenneth MacMillan's version with the overwrought, Italianate lamentation over the corpse of her son; she was certainly overwrought, but not entirely convincing as such.). I had not seen Roberto Bolle before, and he was good, though he's handsome enough that he could dispense with the silly grin he affected throughout Act I. ABT still has a lot of wonderful male dancers, but Bolle fits in well enough.
My final two ABT outings were "Sylvia" and "Romeo and Juliet," both with Vishneva. She doesn't overwhelm everyone, but she does overwhelm most of us, though neither of this season's performances of the classics effaced her Giselle three years ago. "Sylvia" may be a slight ballet, dramaturgically, but it has a great score and some great moments, like Sylvia's hunting-horn entrance, as Alastair Macaulay nicely described. Vishneva seemed to be having fun, though she lacked the Amazonian, slinky-siren appeal of Michele Wiles, whom I unfortunately missed this season. Ethan Stiefel made a properly wan Aminta and Jared Matthews, who's good at heavies (cf. his Hilarion in "Giselle," although there Abrecht is hardly a shining hero, either, at least in the first act), was a nicely gruff, grumpy Orion.
What makes Vishneva special is her ability to combine a controlled, malleable body and superior, expressive technique with dramatic skills. I found her Juliet a little too stagily girlish at first, and hectic in the love scenes, though maybe MacMillan's choreography and Marcelo Gomes's stalwart but unpoetic partnering had something to do with that. But in the last act, in the crypt, she really came into her own, with all that grand, Soviet-style imploring to the heavens serving MacMillan and Prokofiev well.
A word about Frederic Franklin, recently turned 95 and still a most convincing master of mime. He was Prince Siegfried's tutor in "Swan Lake" and Friar Lawrence in "Romeo," and he was spry and sprightly and acute as both. ABT nicely honored him at a subsequent "Swan Lake." He's a living bit of ballet history, moving even to a mere ballet lover (as opposed to balletomane). Can't wait for the celebrations five years from now.
Next posting: On to other kinds of dance....
I hesitated to write about Pina Bausch immediately after her death. First, I had long had reservations about her work, though mine were a little different from those of some others. Then second, I decided I should watch Pedro Almodovar's "Talk to Her," which I had never seen and which frames the plot with footage of Bausch's "Cafe Mueller" (in which she appears) and "Masurca Fogo." Thought it might cast some new light on her than my own recollections and previously voiced opinions.
A wonderful if weird movie, but it didn't reshape my feelings about Bausch. My complaints over the years, like those of others, had to do with the episodic quality of her dances, a growing sense that if you had seen a few of them, you had "gotten" her sensibility, and didn't need to sit through any/many more. This grumpiness was partly alleviated by "Bamboo Blues," which came to BAM last year and provided a refreshing, moving, sexy look at human nature, as if Bausch had been enlivened by the exoticism of India, both traditional India and Bollywood India.
What was wonderful about Bausch was the vividness of her company and hence "cast" members, combiined with some lush and amusingly bizarre settings and a kind of mordant quirkiness in her view of the human comedy.
What separated me from other doubters was the rage she seemed to unleash in what rmight be called the (aesthetically, sometimes politically) neo-con cadre of dance critics, starting with their den mother, Arlene Croce. Croce simply despised Bausch (and that of too many other "post-modern": choregraphers). She and her followers did so for some or the same reasons that underlay my own reservations, but their main objection seemed to be that she wasn't really making dance, and when she did do dance, it was choreographically trivial.
The issue beneath this difference has to do with what we think dance (or the arts in general) actually is/are. In classical music, a common attack against any innovator (Wagner, Ives, Cage) has been that what they were doing "wasn't music." That meant that it wasn't like the music the critics liked. The newcomers often practiced a different technique or approach to what had become a codified (ossified) notion of dance, the pedants vs. the rule-breakers.
This is hardly to say that innovation is by definition good and hence objections to even failed innovation are baseless. But a conviction that the critic knows for sure what music or dance (or art or theater or film or...) are can blinker a sensibility to the new. A critic is not a Moses-like law-giver. The truer purpose of criticism is to reflect what the artists are doing, to perceive it more sharply and clearly than others do. Not necessarily to rubberstamp the artists or to champion them, but to enter into a public dialogue with them.
In Bausch's case, she was a pioneer of Tanztheater, or dance theater, meaning the re-introduction (after the stripped down modernist abstraction of Balanchine, Cunningham et al.) of overt theaterical elements into the body-movement experience. She was not, in my opinion as well as that of the more conservative critics, a paritcularly interesting deviser of bodily movement -- i.e., of choreography in the strict sense. Her dancing didn't always require elaborate physical training, though a lot of if was harder than it might have looked. But the seeming casualness of the movement posed a seemingly insurmountable problem for her hostile critics right away.
For me, since I am perfectly willing, even eager, to accept "natural movement" and "physical theater" as worthy of sympathetic consideration by a "dance" critic, the problem with Bausch was the intermittently compelling, intermittently boring, revue-like nature of her pieces. In other words, she didn't always make the best "dance theater," even if you had fully accepted the balance of dance and theater in her work. Still, at her best she could be funny and moving and deeply emotional. As Pedro Almodovar clearly believes with all his heart.
The choice of Mahler's Eighth Symphony for Lorin Maazel's farewell concerts as music director of the New York Philharmonic no doubt satisfied someone's sense of symbolism. The Eighth completed Maazel's tenure-long Mahler symphony survey. It's very big, and hence seems to suit a Special Occasion. It was composed about 100 years ago, while Mahler himself was music director of the NYP (actually, of the New York Symphony, which didn't merge with the Philharmonic until 1928). It's very big. Or did I say that already?
Maazel's seven-year Philharmonic tenure (actually, he has conducted the orchestra, mostly off until he become music director, then on, for 70+ years, counting from his debut in 1939 at the age of 9 and continuing on to future guest engagements) was controversial, but not in the sense that some critics loved him and others loathed him. The orchestra seemed to love him, or at least to enjoy playing for him, and they sounded great. Subscribers seemed more or less content, to judge from ticket sales. But critics mostly disdained him, and there was no buzz, no excitement.
Which is a bad old Philharmonic tradition, dating at least as far back as Virgil Thomson in 1940, one year after Maazel's debut, when he (Thomson, that is) complained about the orchestra playing no real part in New York's cultural life, or words to that effect. To be fair, there certainly was buzz under Bernstein and Boulez. Whether there will be under Alan Gilbert remains to be seen, but that's getting ahead of ourselves.)
The basic critical take on Maazel was that he was a fabulous technician (the orchestra never sounded better), an unimaginative programmer, a sometimes mannered and, in the end, uninteresting interpeter. For me, at his best, which was usually in the music of Richard Strauss, he was very convincing, and he was certainly smart, sometimes imperiously so. But otherwise, I didn't deviate too far from the critical consensus.
Mahler's Eighth is big but, usually, empty. Decades back that was how a lot of people felt about all his music, but for me, the Eighth is the emptiest of the bunch, and some of the others are pretty full, meaning that they're wonderful. Bernstein used to whip up considerable excitement at the end of the "Veni, creator spiritus" first part of the Eighth. But there's a lot of racket and the second-part setting of the end of Goethe's "Faust" is rather too Germanic even for me, the Germanophile.
Maazel's performance (the first of four, proclaimed Lorin Maazel Day by Mayor Bloomberg, who neither showed up to do the proclaiming nor sent an official representative), was curiously uninvolving for a supposedly touching farewell. Maazel conducted away, the orchestra played well, and the music unfolded with a steady clarity and sense of proportion, especially in the quieter bits. But it wasn't overwhelming, like Lenny could be. It would fabulous some day to hear this Symphony of a Thousand with a thousand performers: ah, were I still at the Lincoln Center Festival, with ludicrous amounts of money to burn!
Furthermore, though the best conductors (and technically, Maazel is right up there) can get an orchestra to sound terrific in Avery Fisher Hall, it remains acoustically bass shy, and the electronic organ is most definitely bass shy. That meant the thing sounded shallow, bereft of floor-shaking gravitas. Which Mahler needs and Maazel lacks.
A Germanophilic footnote: The supertitles and program text translated Goethe's concluding "Das Ewig-Weibliche/zieht uns hinan" as "The eternal feminine/leads us upwards." Makes sense, in that Faust is ascending to heaven and all. But -- I don't have a German dictionary handy -- doesn't hinan mean onwards, not upwards? Which does rather change the meaning.. .