I occasionally find in my blogmailbox a teasing note from a reader who feels the need to point out that this blog is supposed to be about the arts in New York City. And so it was, three months ago, and so it usually is today, but in my own mind I now render the subtitle of “About Last Night” as follows: “Terry Teachout in New York City on the arts (with additional dialogue by Our Girl in Chicago).” It’s true that New York is the arts capital of America, and maybe even the whole world, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t important and interesting things constantly happening all over the place. Sometimes I note these IAITs from afar, and sometimes I get on a plane (shudder) and go see for myself. Earlier this month, for instance, I paid visits to Raleigh, N.C., and St. Louis, Mo., about which I’ve been meaning to tell you, so now I will.
As regular readers know, I take a serious interest in the activities of Carolina Ballet, America’s youngest ballet company, and since it won’t come to me, I go to it. On my last visit (which took place, you may recall, mere hours after the Great Hard-Drive Crash of 2003), I saw two different programs of new and recent ballets. Robert Weiss, the artistic director, did himself proud with a pair of dances accompanied by string quartet. The first, Grosse Fuge, seemed on paper like a terrible mistake, or at least a high-risk proposition. Why would anybody in his right mind dare to make a dance accompanied by Beethoven’s knottiest, most rebarbative string quartet, 16 minutes of ultra-fraught counterpoint? Well, Weiss did, and it’s something to see.
Though he’s a disciple of George Balanchine, Weiss rarely makes plotless pure-dance ballets in the manner of the master, and when he does, they tend to have a poetic overlay or subtext. Grosse Fuge, for instance, interweaves two corps of dancers, one dressed in white and the other in black, making simultaneous reference to the Black Swan/White Swan dichotomy of Swan Lake and to the famous M.C. Escher drawing in which a flock of birds seems to change color in mid-flight. The result is a complex, richly watchable ballet (I’ve seen it three times) that has the same kind of emotional resonance as Balanchine’s Serenade, another nominally “plotless” ballet which is actually full of mysterious events and encounters.
On the same bill was Des Images, choreographed by Weiss to the Ravel String Quartet (which is, by the way, an absolutely perfect piece of music–I can’t imagine why it hasn’t been previously used by a major choreographer). Here, the poetic content is explicit: Des Images is a ballet about the making of a ballet, with costumes and lighting by Jeff A.R. Jones and Ross Kolman inspired by the dance-themed paintings and pastels of Edgar Degas. If any of this sounds obvious to you, rest assured that the results are completely involving, a Robbins-like theatrical concept realized in Balanchine-like movement to wholly personal effect. No set, but the hot, high-keyed colors of Kolman’s lighting plunge you into the world of late Degas so effectively that you don’t feel the absence of a backdrop.
As for Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s Lost and Found, I wrote about it in the Journal two weeks ago in connection with the 9/11 plays currently afflicting New York theatergoers. If you didn’t see that piece, here’s what I said:
I flew down to North Carolina in between “Omnium Gatherum” and “Recent Tragic Events,” where I saw Carolina Ballet dance the premiere of Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s “Lost and Found,” a remarkably poetic dance about–you guessed it–9/11. Ms. Taylor-Corbett has taken some of the postures and gestures of grief she saw in New York City two years ago and woven them into an abstract ballet (set to Schumann’s “Symphonic Etudes”) that scrupulously shuns melodrama and portentousness and is all the more poignant for it. I mention “Lost and Found” because it reminded me of a remark made by the great dance critic Edwin Denby: “Ballet is the one form of theater where nobody speaks a foolish word all evening–nobody on the stage at least. That’s why it becomes so popular in any civilized country during a war.” Need I say more?
Here in New York, we occasionally use the word “provincial” to describe artistic events taking place in medium-sized cities–sometimes invidiously, sometimes not. I suppose you could call Raleigh a “provincial” city, but there was nothing even remotely provincial about these new dances, or about Carolina Ballet. The only problem is that you have to go to Raleigh to see the company (which I don’t consider a problem–I like Raleigh–but it does entail my getting on a plane). In a better-regulated universe, Carolina Ballet would dance for a week each season in New York and Washington, and the critics in those benighted cities would say, Gee, look what we’ve been missing! All I can say is, I’m glad I’m not missing it.
Time’s up, so I’ll write about the St. Louis Art Museum’s “German Art Now” exhibit tomorrow, or maybe the next day. Still, you get the idea, right? New York’s just fine, I wouldn’t live anywhere else, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on anything worth having. Remember that the next time you wish you lived here.