For those of you familiar with my all-or-nothing work habits, the fortune I extracted from last night’s pre-ballet cookie will likely make you smile:
Don’t just work hard, work smart.
I’m trying! I’m trying!
For those of you familiar with my all-or-nothing work habits, the fortune I extracted from last night’s pre-ballet cookie will likely make you smile:
Don’t just work hard, work smart.
I’m trying! I’m trying!
Today’s Wall Street Journal drama column is a triple-header. First up, Jumpers, about which I had nothing but great things to say:
Most playwrights of ideas are content to play with the ideas of others. Tom Stoppard has his own, and in “Jumpers” he serves them up with plenty of hot pepper on the side. Imagine a Broadway show in which a beleaguered professor of moral philosophy agonizes over the existence of God. Then stir in a pin-striped totalitarian sharpie, a half-witted police inspector, a half-crazy musical-comedy star (that’s the professor’s wife), a mute secretary, a jazz trio, eight acrobats and–oh, yes–two murders. That’s “Jumpers,” the frightening farce currently being performed by the National Theatre of Great Britain at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in a revival directed with coruscating flair by David Leveaux….
Next is Raisin in the Sun, a generally outstanding revival that has, alas, a gaping hole smack dab in the middle:
Not to keep you in suspense, but Sean Combs, the Rapper Formerly Known as P. Diddy, can’t act, though he does what I suspect is his best in the revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” playing through July 11 at the Royale Theatre. Not only does he remember all his lines, but he even manages to insert a touch of emotion here and there. Alas, Mr. Combs hasn’t the foggiest idea of how a thirtysomething father from the Chicago ghetto circa 1950 might have looked and sounded. Instead, he portrays Walter Lee Younger as a proto-rapper–blustery, adolescent and phony to the core. That he should have the gall to make his Broadway debut alongside Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald suggests that his capacity for embarrassment is insufficiently developed….
Last and most definitely least, Bombay Dreams:
It won’t be enough if “Bombay Dreams” flops–I’d like to see it removed from the Broadway Theatre with bulldozers at high noon. Not since “Urban Cowboy” have I endured a show so irredeemably stupid as this backhanded “tribute” to the musicals churned out in boxcar lots by “Bollywood,” the Bombay-based Indian film industry. Their simple-minded scripts and drop-of-a-turban production numbers are said to be charming, but you couldn’t prove it by “Bombay Dreams,” a mishmash of tuneless tunes, vapid lyrics, dull choreography, and pointlessly expensive sets (including a sunken on-stage fountain) that put me in mind of an Elvis Presley movie with a billion-dollar budget….
No link. Go buy Friday’s Journal. (And yes, Aaron, it only costs a dollar, nyaah nyaah nyaah!)
“I move my head imperceptibly, because of his moustache which brushes against my nostrils with a scent of vanilla and honeyed tobacco. Oh!…suddenly my mouth, in spite of itself, lets itself be opened, opens of itself as irresistibly as a ripe plum splits in the sun. And once again there is born that exacting pain that spreads from my lips, all down my flanks as far as my knees, that swelling as of a wound that wants to open once more and overflow–the voluptuous pleasure that I had forgotten.”
Colette, La Vagabonde
• Thursday wasn’t nearly so busy as Wednesday: I wrote a speech in the morning, met Maud for lunch, then came back home and blogged a bit. (My scheduled nap slipped through the cracks.)
As for the evening, I just got back from seeing New York City Ballet dance
George Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer. It was the first time I’d seen NYCB since writing All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine, and the first time the company has danced Liebeslieder Walzer in several seasons. Here’s what I said about it in the book:
New York City Ballet toured the Soviet Union in 1962, the first time Balanchine had been there since his defection thirty-eight years before. “Welcome to Russia, home of the classical ballet,” a Soviet official told him as he stepped off the plane in Moscow. “Thank you,” he replied without missing a beat, “but America is now home of the classical ballet. Russia is home of the old romantic ballet.” But that didn’t mean he had turned his back on the romanticism of his youth. Liebeslieder Walzer (1960, music by Brahms) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1962, music by Mendelssohn), for example, were both profoundly romantic in every sense of the word–as well as formally innovative.
Liebeslieder Walzer is set not in a sky-blue void but a candle-lit ballroom where four aristocratic-looking young couples in evening dress spend an hour waltzing together, accompanied by the four singers and two pianists with whom they share the stage. The couples are entangled in subtly differing ways (one of the women, for example, appears to be older than her partner-lover), though there is no plot or Tudor-style “acting” to give away their intimate secrets. Romantic ends are achieved by modern means: all you see are the setting and the steps, with everything else left to the imagination. The dancers drift outdoors into a moonlit garden and the curtain falls for a breathless moment. When it rises again, the ballroom itself is flooded with moonlight, the women are wearing tutus and toe shoes, and the decorous ballroom dancing of the first act is replaced by the heightened gestures of ballet. At the end, the women reappear in their party gowns, and the couples listen in stillness to the last waltz, whose words, sung in German, are by Goethe:
Now, Muses, enough!
You strive in vain to show
How joy and sorrow alternate in loving hearts.
You cannot heal the wounds inflicted by love;
But assuagement comes from you alone.
“The words ought to be listened to in silence,” Balanchine wrote, surely thinking of the joys and sorrows of his own complicated life.
The costume change midway through Liebeslieder Walzer is a stroke of fantasy as stunning in its quieter way as the climactic flying lifts of The Four Temperaments. Balanchine revealed its meaning to Bernard Taper: “In the first act, it’s the real people that are dancing. In the second act, it’s their souls.” But more than a few members of the ballet’s earliest audiences, bored by its unending succession of “love-song waltzes,” would slip out of the theater during the pause between acts. In an oft-told anecdote that may or may not be true, Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein were watching a performance together. “Look how many people are leaving, George,” Kirstein moaned, to which Balanchine replied, “Ah, but look how many are staying!” Today, though New York City Ballet now performs Liebeslieder Walzer only infrequently, it is loved by connoisseurs for what Arlene Croce has called its “persistent note of melancholy and tragic remorse,” and there are those, myself included, who regard it as their favorite Balanchine ballet of all.
That isn’t a bad description of Liebeslieder Walzer, but reading it immediately after having seen the ballet is somewhat disheartening. To capture the smallest part of its mystery and complexity would have taken me at least a chapter, which I didn’t have to spare. In any case, few things are more futile than trying to describe a Balanchine ballet in words, least of all this profound meditation on romantic love. All I really hoped to do was make the reader want to go see it, which you can do on Saturday and next Tuesday at the New York State Theater. (Go here for details.)
The program also included Symphony in C, about which I last had occasion to write in a piece about a performance by American Ballet Theatre that I saw only a few short weeks after 9/11:
Then, too, there was George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which received its long-overdue ABT debut. Few other modern artists working in any medium have had Balanchine’s uncanny ability to transport the attentive viewer into a better-ordered universe of romance and grace–and humor. So it was with Symphony in C. As the curtain rose for the ten thousandth time on that familiar stageful of women in white tutus poised before a blue backdrop, one felt the world snap back to normal again–just what all the pundits had been assuring us would never happen. It put me in mind of a poem by Edwin Muir, “Reading in Wartime,” that makes the case for sonnets about skylarks: “Boswell’s turbulent friend/And his deafening verbal strife,/Ivan Ilyich’s death/Tell me more about life,/The meaning and the end/Of our familiar breath,/Both being personal,/Than all the carnage can,/Retrieve the shape of man,/Lost and anonymous.”
I guess that isn’t dance criticism, but I like it anyway, if only because it brings to mind an evening that meant a great deal to me at the time.
• Now playing on iTunes: Ernie Wilkins’ “The Jazz Connoisseur,” recorded in 1961 by Harry James and most recently available as part of Jazz Masters: Harry James, a Verve anthology of James’ MGM recordings. I was introduced to this up-tempo swinger by a musician friend who several years ago underwent a life-threatening operation that left him partly paralyzed. He later told me that listening to “The Jazz Connoisseur” as he lay in his hospital bed helped give him the courage to carry on. I can’t claim to know exactly what he meant–I’ve never been that sick–but I do know a wonderful big-band performance when I hear one, and this definitely fills the bill.
It’s been a while since I mentioned that “About Last Night” is made possible by our host, artsjournal.com, the award-winning daily digest of arts journalism here and abroad.
Each day, artsjournal.com posts links to and abstracts of important English-language news stories and commentaries about all the arts, gleaned from magazines and newspapers throughout the world. And in addition to “About Last Night,” artsjournal.com also hosts other 24/7 blogs whose authors cover specific art forms: dance, architecture, music, the visual arts, and more.
Long before Doug McLennan, the founder and mastermind of artsjournal.com, invited me to launch “About Last Night,” I’d become a daily visitor to his site. It’s indispensable reading for anyone who wants to keep up with the arts in America and elsewhere. Doug doesn’t stick to the obvious sources (although he has those covered, too). In addition, he posts a dazzlingly eclectic mix of other links, not a few of them from publications you’ve probably never heard of, or at the very least see only sporadically.
If you read “About Last Night,” you’ll want to make artsjournal.com a regular part of your daily Web troll. To go there, click on the artsjournal.com logo in the upper left-hand corner of this page. To visit artsjournal.com’s other blogs, scroll down to the “Other AJ Blogs” module in the right-hand column (it’s just below our blogroll, “Sites to See”) and click on whatever catches your eye. You’ll be glad you did.
Here malice, rapine, accident conspire,
And now a rabble rages, now a fire;
Their ambush here relentless ruffians lay,
And here the fell attorney prowls for prey;
Here falling houses thunder on your head,
And here a female atheist talks you dead.
Samuel Johnson, “London”
From God of the Machine:
As of this moment, God of the Machine is being read in twenty-five time zones. Hello Madagascar! (In what Guinness has certified as a new world record, it is being misunderstood in twenty-four of them.) We celebrated our 1,500,000th unique visitor and 10,000,000th page view, and that’s just this afternoon. (How do I know this? I counted, every one of them.) I’d love to write more, but my wine column’s due for The Spectator, Car and Driver is simply insisting that I take this damn Lamborghini out for a test drive, my agent needs to discuss the movie rights to my New York Review of Books piece on Proust’s influence on Balanchine, I’m already running late for my date with Uma Thurman, and Gisele Bundchen’s holding on the other line. Gisele so hates to be kept waiting.
V. funny. In fact, that’s the best “About Last Night” parody I’ve seen since Mr. TMFTML gave us the blunt end of the stick last September. Alas, Uma hasn’t called back yet, but Maud awaits. See you by the swimming pool….
UPDATE: A reader writes: “Please remind God of the Machine not to forget the bespeckled bare-breasted groupies in cheerleader skirts camped outside on your block reading Samuel Johnson, just waiting for a glimpse of you taking out the garbage every morning.”
That’ll be the day.
First of all, it’s nice to have Our Girl back!
Secondly, the spam count in the “About Last Night” mailbox is octupling, so let me remind you:
(1) I never open e-mail with a blank subject header.
(2) If I’m chewing through a lot of spam, I don’t always open e-mail whose subject headers are so oblique or obscure as to make no obvious sense to me.
Help me out here–be clear.
Finally, don’t be surprised if I fail to post anything tomorrow beyond an almanac entry and my regular Friday Wall Street Journal theater teaser. I’m feeling signs of incipient burnout, compounded by acute schedule overload. (The speech got written, though.)
Whenever. And thanks for stopping by. See you soon.
Apropos of God of the Machine’s wicked parody of one of my more breathless contributions to “About Last Night” (scroll down), is there anything more frustrating than ransacking your failing memory for the source of a half-recalled quote? That’s what I’ve been doing ever since I got back from lunch with Supermaud (who says hi). At last, the coin dropped, and I went to my shelf of art books, took down N. John Hall’s Max Beerbohm Caricatures, turned to page 15, and hit the jackpot:
As Edmund Gosse told a fellow writer whom Max had just caricatured: “I feel it my duty to tell you that something has happened to you that sooner or later happens to us almost all. Max has got you. We don’t like it and you won’t like it, but you must pretend you do. You can console yourself at any rate with the thought that it will give uncommon pleasure to your friends.”
What threw me off the track was that I wrongly remembered this letter as having been sent by Gosse to Henry James apropos of “The Mote in the Middle Distance,” the James parody in Beerbohm’s A Christmas Garland (“It was with the sense of a, for him, very memorable something that he peered now into the immediate future, and tried, not without compunction, to take that period up where he had, prospectively, left it”), which also contains eerily exact parodies of G.K. Chesterton, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells. I chased that hare in vain for a good ten minutes, though I did find this highly relevant footnote in Simon Nowell-Smith’s The Legend of the Master: Henry James as Others Saw Him:
Gosse told Siegfried Sassoon that James had roamed round the room discussing, “with extraordinary vivacity and appreciation, not only the superlative intelligence of the book as a whole but ‘The Mote in the Middle Distance’ itself, which he had read in a self-scrutinizing bewilderment of wonder and admiration.”
As you may have gathered, I love parody and caricature, and it’s one of my medium-sized regrets that I have no gift for either (though I can do adequate impersonations of a few of my friends). Alas, I find it impossible to get inside another person’s prose style. I once tried to write a parody of a Jeeves novel in the style of Bright Lights, Big City. That was actually a pretty good idea, conceptually speaking, but I stalled out halfway through the fourth sentence, so it went unwritten, and the only thing I can remember about it now is that the very first word was, of course, “you.”
This incapacity is all the more vexing because I believe parody to be one of the most powerful and illuminating forms of criticism. Some of Kenneth Tynan’s most brilliant drama reviews were parodies, including his double-edged skewering of William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, which he rewrote in the style of Our Town:
Well, folks, reckon that’s about it. End of another day in the city of Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Nothin’ much happened. Couple of people got raped, couple more got their teeth kicked in, but way up there those faraway old stars are still doing their old cosmic criss-cross, and there ain’t a thing we can do about it. It’s pretty quiet now. Folk hereabouts get to bed early, those that can still walk….
I wouldn’t kill to be able to do that, but I might be willing to maim.
Wednesday was a very, very long day. I wouldn’t have skipped a moment of it, not for anything in the world.
– I woke up at five-thirty to find my as-yet-unwritten Wall Street Journal review of Jumpers, A Raisin in the Sun, and Bombay Dreams rattling around in my head. It seemed pointless to try and go back to sleep, so I climbed down from the loft, booted up my iBook, and started writing. The piece was slow going–Jumpers isn’t easy to sum up in four paragraphs, which was all I could spare–but I finally got it written.
– Midway through the first draft, I took a break and picked up my copy of Fairfield Porter’s Broadway from my framer. It turned out that the upper right edge of the print had been slightly damaged in transit, which saddened me. But once I carted it home and hung it over the mantelpiece, I found that the flaw didn’t bother me all that much, especially since the frame is so handsome–the photo the dealer sent didn’t do it justice. Every time I walk into the living room, it’s as if I see A Terry Teachout Reader writ large on the wall. I wonder how long it’ll take before the association fades and I start to see Broadway solely as a work of art in its own right rather than a beautiful symbol of the pride I feel in my new book. Maybe never–and that’ll be all right, too. In any case, I’m hopelessly in love with the latest addition to the Teachout Museum. For the moment, my other prints have receded into the background, and I now find myself staring at Broadway for minutes at a time, drinking it in.
– With Broadway safely hung, I sent off my Journal review, read and corrected the proofs of my Commentary essay, and checked in with the editor of my Washington Post column, which runs in Sunday’s paper. (He had a few last-minute suggestions, all of which I gladly took.) Then I ran downstairs, hailed a cab, and hurtled across Central Park to watch Maria Schneider
and Bob Brookmeyer
rehearse tonight’s concert at the Kaye Playhouse (go here for details). I can’t be there–Thursday is the only night I can see New York City Ballet dance George Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer
this season, and it could easily be several years before they do it again–so I talked my way into the sound check instead. I’d never before had the privilege of watching Brookmeyer rehearse his music with a big band, and it was fascinating to watch him put Schneider’s players through their paces on Celebration, the four-movement suite they’ll be performing tonight.
– Back home again to return phone calls, check my accumulated e-mail, and read another half-chapter of W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson. (Incidentally, Erin O’Connor linked to what I wrote yesterday about the experience of revisiting one of my favorite biographies. Take a look–I like what she had to say.)
– Dinner with an out-of-town friend, then down to the Village Vanguard to hear Jim Hall‘s eleven o’clock set. Hall is my favorite living jazz musician, and I’ve never heard him play guitar other than wonderfully well, but this performance was memorable even by his own rarefied standards. Maybe it was because he’ll be recording live on Friday and Saturday, or because Lewis Nash, the drummer, was in awesome form–I would have sworn he was channeling Shelly Manne. Whatever the reason, I’ve never heard Hall, Nash, or Scott Colley play better. “That’s exactly how I’d want to play all those instruments, if I could play any of them,” a singer friend told me afterward. What she said.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the set was that nobody played above a mezzo-forte all evening long. Even under the best of circumstances, the Vanguard can be an exasperatingly noisy place, but I didn’t hear a single stray peep out of the enthralled crowd. It was a night of whispered confidences and sweet surprises. I’m going back on Saturday, and I’ll be taking Sarah, who’s in town for the week. She’s in for a treat–to put it mildly.
Now that I’m home at last, I’m starting to feel the cumulative effects of the long day. I wish I could sleep in, but I have to haul myself out of bed in the morning and finish writing a speech before I head downtown to lunch with Supermaud. I suppose this whole week has been too much of a great many good things–but is that really possible? I’m not so sure.
I can’t remember the last time it occurred to me to quote William Saroyan (he isn’t exactly a favorite of mine), but a half-remembered line of his popped into my mind as I climbed the stairs of the Vanguard an hour or so ago: “In the time of your life, live–so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.” And that’s what I did on Wednesday: I lived.
UPDATE: This inverted axiom just occurred to me: The unlived life is not worth examining.