As I returned home last night from seeing (and hearing) the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Bad Plus give the premiere of Violet Cavern, Morris’ new dance, at the BAM Opera House, I thought–not for the first time–that I really couldn’t live anywhere but New York. Fortunately, I know better, and sometimes I don’t even need to be reminded.
When I first got the idea for “About Last Night” some four or five years ago, I had a rather different venture in mind than the one you see before you now. I was rooting around for foundation support with which to launch an arts blog in collaboration with an existing print-media magazine, a venture to which I proposed to devote roughly a third of my time (and for which I would have been paid accordingly). It would have started out as a solo effort, but the original plan was for “About Last Night” to gradually take on other writers, developing over time into a full-fledged Web-based magazine on the arts in America. Accordingly, part of the money I sought was earmarked for a travel budget that would have made it possible for me to report on performances in cities other than New York.
A funny thing happened on the way to this pipe dream–several funny things, in fact. The one I least expected was that blogging would evolve in a completely different direction, in the process supplanting the conventional magazine model with which so many people who were then getting interested in the Web were then obsessed. For better and worse, individual blogs appear to be the way of the near future, though I also suspect that Web-based “newspapers” will soon start to become major media players. Still, I think the idea of a travel budget made and continues to make sense, not least because serious arts coverage in traditional media outlets is fast drying up. Time was when the weekly newsmagazines used to send their staff critics (and yes, they had staff critics) to performances all over the country. I got in on the tail end of that corporate largesse during my brief tenure as the classical music and dance critic of Time, but even then it was painfully obvious that truly national arts coverage was in the process of withering away, at Time and elsewhere.
This is bad news precisely because New York City and the arts are not consubstantial. It’s true that many of the good things that happen in the provinces–and I don’t use that term pejoratively–eventually make their way to Manhattan and its environs. But there are plenty of exceptions, enough that it would be perfectly possible for me to get out of town fifty-two weeks a year and see something fine each week.
The good news is that I do manage to get out of town with some regularity, frequently to Washington, D.C., and occasionally to other places as well. Earlier this year, for instance, I went to Washington specifically to see the Phillips Collection‘s Milton Avery retrospective, an important show that never left home. The Phillips was the first museum to acquire Avery’s paintings, and by the time of Duncan Phillips’ death it owned a dozen-odd oils and works on paper, to my knowledge the largest single cache of Averys in any museum in the world. It showed them all in “Discovering Milton Avery,” together with works owned by the violinist Louis Kaufman, the very first person ever to buy an Avery painting, plus a sprinkling of pieces from other institutions. “Discovering Milton Avery” didn’t quite add up to a full-scale blockbuster retrospective, but in a way it was even better–more concentrated and personal–and speaking as the happy owner of an Avery drypoint, I can assure you that I found it as exciting as any museum show I’ve seen in ages.
Not long before my visit to the Phillips, I contrived to fly down to Raleigh, N.C., again for a specific purpose: I wanted to watch Carolina Ballet dance Robert Weiss’s staged version of Handel’s Messiah, a ballet about which I’d been hearing good things for the past couple of years but had never previously been able to see. I departed for Raleigh two days after turning in the manuscript of my George Balanchine biography–a nice coincidence, since Weiss danced for Balanchine at New York City Ballet–and even though I was desperately busy, I was able to stay in town long enough to see two complete performances of Messiah in a single day. I’m glad I did. I’ve been writing enthusiastically about Weiss’ dances ever since he founded Carolina Ballet in 1997, but I think it’s possible that his Messiah is the best thing he’s done to date, which is saying something. It’s a masterly fusion of storytelling and abstraction (the first part is set in a London cathedral, while the last section is a plotless “white ballet”