Archive for the ‘Art and Artists’ Category

Strength and Joy

There was a beautiful young man in ballet class this morning. He did all the exercises without a flaw, but he shone like a star in the last part of the class, the grand allegro–this is where a dancer’s strength is on display. The young man held his head high, his neck long and graceful–and he leaped so high, and turned so nimbly, smiling with the joy of the dance. No one could watch without smiling also–a happy way to start the weekend!

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Back in my youth, I listened to operas, over and over, Puccini, Verdi, Britten. I LOVED them, magnificent works of art. The ones I favored, they are now etched in my brain.
These days, I mostly listen to music that is pleasant and that keeps the dark away. But every once in a while, I listen to those wonderful demanding masterpieces that I used to keep by me.
And today, I listened to Billy Budd, such a completely brilliant piece of music. Britten wrote the opera to the story by Melville, a short shipboard plot with no women and a terrible inevitable path ending in death. But how powerful the melody and singing that takes us there!
There was an excellent movie of the story, with Peter Ustinov as Captain Vere, and Terence Stamp as a fabulously lovely Billy.

The story is not simple, and the anguish of the good man who must condemn Billy to death is splendidly conveyed in both film and opera– though I can’t help but find it more moving in the opera. Captain Vere, Billy, John Claggart are men thrust together in terrible times, the 1790’s war between the British and the French.
“Don’t like the French,” sings the British sailing master, “don’t like their Frenchified ways.” “Their notions don’t suit us, nor their ideas–Don’t like their hoppity-skippety ways,” agrees the First Lieutenant– “Those damned mounseers!” A simply charming interchange.
E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier wrote the libretto, and it is masterly.
I listen to these beautiful voices, these deeply moving harmonies–and I forgive the world its stupidity, its violence, its terrible tragedies.

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Wednesday is my Day of Challenge, when I plod home from work–and then rush back out to go to ballet class. HOW much easier to stay home, pour a glass of wine, and watch some dopey Netflix soapster!

But VIRTUE prevails, and off I go.
Yesterday I entered the classroom to find an alien teacher had invaded our turf–the usual lady out junketing I suppose–and here was this brash young man in her place. The initial impression was not good, he talked too fast and grinned too frantically, but I know that we are a threatening bunch–a few dour oldsters like me and then the shining stars who could do triple pirouettes by elementary school–so we did what he said and gradually came to an understanding.

The piano player was not the brilliant Armenian who usually plays–a sweet and smiling youth whose music lifts the heart, and brings us through the most complicated exercises with his sensitive understanding of timing and melody. But the lady who took his place at the piano did very well, a fine player, if perhaps not the one to bring joyful tears to your eyes.
So, not a bad class, at that.
I chatted with a friend in the dressing room after class, who told me that our substitute had been something of a horror when he first started, but was more modest and amiable now. And she told me about a grad student in her lab, who had been insufferable, arrogant and quick to argue–a jerk, in fact. He knew about some processes that she and her colleagues didn’t, so they were somewhat at a loss. And then another scientist joined the lab, a dazzling star in those processes, who was, moreover, a very pleasant and modest man. And the young jerk learned to shut up and behave.
Perhaps the young man who taught us had a similar humbling experience, she said.

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Today I attended the last show on my subscribed series, and you know what, my heart is not breaking at the prospect. Perhaps I shall NOT SUBSCRIBE to the ballet next season. All very nice of course, but the excitement begins to abate somewhat.
Though this show was excellent-the Miami ballet doing a couple of fine dances, and the audience loved them, clapping and calling out their names.
Which is always heart warming.
Up to a point.
The first ballet was Balanchine’s Walpurgisnacht Ballet, which is not, as you might think, a saucy concoction of witches and demons but a decorous and very lovely ballet he made for Gounod’s Faust in 1975. A swarm of dancers in knee length pink tutus leaping about, with a swain or two to lift them about. Very nice, but not exactly the witch’s sabbath one had expected.

(Note: this picture is the least naughty I could find–which is to say, they are wearing clothes.)

The second piece was Carousel Pas de Deux which I cannot help but love, Richard Roger’s music, from that splendid show–it’s the girl seduced by the rough Carousel barker, playing out her mother’s story, as her heart broken father watches. Though he was missing in this version which just featured the duet, Kenneth Macmillan’s beautiful choreography. Here is a version of it.

Next we had Heatscape, a number choreographed by Justin Peck, whose work I have seen before. Some very charming group effects, the dancers filled with astonishing vigor and life force. Rhythmic and syncopated moves, one man seeking one woman in a group that fell away before him in pleasing patterns. And some truly astonishing lifts! Really, these dancers are so strong, so beautiful!

Lastly, a piece called Brahms/Handel –a playful collaboration of Jerome Robbins and Twyla Tharp, with 2 teams of dancers, one set dressed in blue (Robbins) and the other in green (Tharp), who first dance separately but then figure out how to meld their styles and have a fine old dance party. Fun was had.

And then we all went home.

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While drearily flicking through Amazon’s entertainment offerings I came across a modern performance of Carousel, that antique but beloved clunker. What ho! A show at the Lincoln center, with the beauteous Kelli O’Hara as Julie Jordan and barihunk Nathan Gunn as her abusive spouse, Billie Bigelow! Both are very easy on the eyes, and both have lovely voices.

As this was a concert version, the orchestra sat solidly on the stage, and the cast darted through and around them to act and sing. And because of the nimble camera which also darts around and through, the action is gripping.
Though perhaps one could have done without some of that determined rollicking.
The story is based on a Hungarian play called Liliom, by Ferenc Molnár. Puccini wanted to base an opera on it, but Molnár turned him down–as he also turned down Kurt Weil, George Gershwin, and Richard Strauss. But he was so charmed by that wonderful show Oklahoma that he gave way, and agreed to let Rodgers and Hammerstein adapt his play. And they made a grand musical of it, as filled with wonderful songs as an egg of meat. Songs which we all know, You’ll Never Walk Alone, What’s the use of Wond’rin’ –and of course, the Carousel Waltz . YouTube has them all and all the other ones too. I gritted my teeth a trifle though that energetically enthusiastic Clambake song, and was not completely carried away by the June Busting Out All Over business–HEAVENS, such panting lewdness: “All the rams that chase the ewe sheep are determined there’ll be new sheep; And the ewe sheep aren’t even keeping score!”
But Nathan sang that fine father-to-be song like a hero, and Kelli did the same for the Wond’rin‘ song . Lovely stuff.
The charming bit with the kindly old man on the ladder who is hanging up stars led to a rather nice dance sequence–Billy fondly watching his now almost grown up daughter twirling about, and so to the end.

Then Billy trudges off to hell or heaven, we don’t know which, after a reprise of You’ll Never Walk Alone.
YAY! Applause!

PS The old man with the stars routine suddenly reminded me of Gielgud doing his Supreme Being gig in Time Bandits: “I AM the Supreme Being. I’m not entirely dim.”

But he is much sterner than the Starkeeper.

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Pirates and Happy Dust

Well, dear friends–this has been a week of cultural experience! I am now recovering from overstimulation with a healing Dark and Stormy.

1) I have just returned from YET ANOTHER FINE BALLET SHOW, Le Corsaire –and I’m sure you’re biting your nails with anxiety to hear all about it! I must admit that during the frantic applause and loud cheering that ended the show I found myself thinking NEVER AGAIN. The stupid is very strong in this one, and so much of that cursed miming– I had to stop myself from groaning.
But this was the Mariinsky Ballet, and oh my, the dancing is really really fine. One ballet blogger explained the show’s enduring popularity by the fact that “the whole ballet is just a 2 1/2 hour-long choreographed dance-off.” Truly, the astonishing leaps and turns, not to mention the gorgeous acrobatic flexibility and strength of those beautiful dancers made me gasp.

But, that said, GOOD LORD, this show is about girls being sold as slaves, rescued by Brave Corsairs (=pirates), captured again, and then rescued again. LOTS of scenes with those lascivious Turks drooling over the ladies, who obligingly do their charming dances to show how sad they are about being slaves. Including one number where they do a fetching number while BOUND TOGETHER WITH HEAVY ROPES. Oh those KRAZY Russians! The guys wear costumes of an effeminacy that makes the eyes to open wide. These are brave men.
The story is (loosely) based on the poem by Byron.
I think from now on my tickets will be for ballets choreographed in this century.

2) On Thursday I saw a more modest production, a partially staged version of Porgy and Bess–the stage was filled with the orchestra, and the singers acted in front of them with a very few props. I LOVE this show, every song is beautiful. a masterpiece of melody. The show was at the Strathmore, a beautiful concert hall with brilliant acoustics. The singers were unnecessarily miked, and they were dumpy and their costumes were drab–but I have loved this show all my life, and it brought tears to my eyes. The story is grim and it does not end happy, but the music is filled with joy and no one can hear it without rapture. At least, I can’t! And did you know that Gershwin’s will stated that the opera could not be staged except with an all-black cast? Gershwin, our American genius, felled by cancer when he was only 39.
The audience at this show was all ancient, the halt and the lame–I have never seen so many canes and walkers. Perhaps because it was a Thursday night? Perhaps because the parking is free at the Strathmore? I hope it’s not because younger people don’t love Gershwin.
Here is a link to a La Scala production clip; some of these singers were singing at the Strathmore on Thursday.
But just find a recording and listen to it–you will love it, I promise.

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The tender spring and suddenly blooming trees electrified the city–everyone rushed out to see and be seen. And so the traffic was astonishingly vile, and I was almost late for the show at the Kennedy Center. But not!
This was the New York City Ballet, gamely slogging on despite ghastly scandal and lawsuits–a story of truly vile behavior that really, I don’t want to hear any more about. Depressing, deeply distasteful. The worst offenders were fired, though had they been politicians instead of dancers the punishments would surely have been more severe.

Peter Martins was beautiful as a god when he was a young dancer. But he was not a good man.
In ANY case, the company was in town, and I went to see them. They did a collection of dances, and displayed a pleasing athletic grace, and some stunning lifts and leaps.

1. Easy, set to Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, by Leonard Bernstein
This is a Sneaker Ballet, the lads and lasses in soft shoes and bright pink/yellow/blue outfits. Fun, rather!

2. In The Night, set to various beloved Chopin preludes
The traditional ballet, 3 couples, 3 lovely duets, and I will admit that I dozed a teensy bit in the first couple’s dance, resumed sentience in the 2nd, and was completely exhilarated by the 3rd–OH MY! Such excitement, such swirling skirts, such thrilling lifts! The lady wore a black skirt with red petticoats underneath, and when her partner swept her into the air there was such a heady billow of tulle!

3. The Runaway, set to music by Nico Muhley, Kanye West, Jay-Z, and James Blake
Well, well, rather loud, but not disagreeable. These are world class dancers, and they can do all the moves. But the costumes were NOT becoming. The inspiration was sort of Black and White Japanese Anime, and some were quite witty. But–BLOOMERS! ON THE MEN! With large black NECK FRILLS! These are the fittest, most comely men in the world–but even they looked silly in these dreadful outfits.

4. Something to Dance About, set to various Broadway musical tunes
This gave us the Jerome Robbins dance routines we know and love, with a lady singing the songs on the stage, while the dancers whirled and twined around her. An homage to the the man, with everyone on stage venerating his image at the finale.

But you know what–he is worthy of such praise.

The traffic on the drive home continued horrid. But such a lovely day, it didn’t bother me.

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