Archive for the ‘Art and Artists’ Category

Cultural Event

I’m sure you are all familiar with college theater, which can be surprisingly good–and of course, surprisingly horrid–but which is always available, and very grateful to the wallet. I just attended such a show–of the surprisingly good variety–and during the perhaps a TEENSY BIT long fund-raising spiel that preceded the show, the worthy dean mentioned that tickets for the show cost less than parking at the Kennedy Center. Well of course, MOST things cost less than parking at the K Center, but still, I see his point.

The show was at the Hartke Theater, of Catholic University, where my parents used to take us back in the stone age–they were ever on the lookout for thrifty ways of introducing their children to culture. For more expensive shows, they chose one amongst us on a rotating basis. (I will never forget that black day when the grim chore of child sacrifice to culture fell on me and I experienced Handel’s Messiah for the first time. A quick perusal of the text had fostered the comforting illusion of brevity—HA! A vile trick! I was outraged to discover that having once sung whatever it was–they went and SANG IT OVER AND OVER AND OVER. Hours and hours passed by. The infant Hope fumed.)

So now, some 60 years later, my kindly nephew and his family invited me to see the Hartke Theater’s boffo version of Kiss Me Kate, that grand show. I had seen it at the Shakespeare Theater a couple years ago, and this show was actually more fun, if of course less professional. Fine singing, good sets, and if some of the costumes were heinous, I have seen worse. (Though perhaps not MUCH worse than the fairly ghastly attempt at a cod-piece which possibly was meant to be humorous but which covered the groin like a frontal diaper. Spare my blushes, Catholic University!) However, nothing could be more garish than the costumes of the original production.

One of the songs has aged badly, alas, and is something of a trial for modern audiences-gamely performed by the charming young singers, but they must have had inward misgivings:

I’m a maid who would marry
And will take double-quick
Any Tom, Dick or Harry,
Any Tom, Harry or Dick.
Dick, dick, dick,
A dicka dick,
Dick, dick, dick,
A dicka dick,
Dick, dick, dick,
A dicka dick,
Dick, dick, dick,
A dicka dick!

Which brought to mind a VERY NAUGHTY SONG by Frank Zappa which I will not sully these pages by quoting but will just add a teensy link. I always liked Frank Zappa–what might he have accomplished if he hadn’t died so young!


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The first dance performance of the season–for which I virtuously purchased season tickets, thus demonstrating my support for the arts–was a dazzling performance of The Red Shoes, a full length show based on the old movie. The Washington Post reviewer was disappointed to find it not quite up to the movie—never having seen the movie, I allowed myself to be enchanted.

The show was created and choreographed by that naughty wunderkind, Sir Matthew Bourne–famous for his gay version of Swan Lake. Which, I will own, I did not entirely love. But then neither do I entirely love the traditional version. Quite the reverse, in fact–deadly old chestnut which you would have to pay me to watch. But the Bourne version is not winning my vote either…

However, The Red Shoes is another thing altogether, charming and witty. The music is a mélange of music by Bernard Hermann, who composed scores for films: Citizen Kane, Fahrenheit 451, and many others. You’ll be thinking, whoa, what a dog’s breakfast, but in fact it works very well. The show was absolutely stunning, with gorgeous dance, astonishing sets, deliriously silly and wonderful costumes. Bourne’s dancers are very athletic, and the women are much more, how to put it, voluptuous, than traditional ballet dancers. The dancer playing Victoria Page (= ensorcelled by the red shoes) actually had breasts—unheard of for most ballerinas. Possibly Bourne allows his dancers to eat the occasional cupcake, something which traditional ballerinas can only dream of.

Flamboyant scenes, one after another—dancers rehearsing, cigarettes hanging from those beautiful mouths—dancers partying at the beach, wearing the most amazingly garish swim suits while bouncing matching beach balls–

—and, oh my, the brilliant ballet-within-the-ballet, which at one point became nothing but elegant black silhouettes against a white backdrop. This was a SHOW, comrades. I came out of the theater still smiling.

Next week: La Bayadère. Sigh.

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Listlessly trolling through the tedious Netflix offerings–LORD, how it reminds me of those ancient days of fruitlessly scanning the shelves at video stores, finally stomping out empty handed, in a frenzy of sulky despair–I came across that old chestnut, Blazing Saddles. Which I have always eschewed as VULGAR and not befitting a lady’s attention. MEL BROOKS! Les bras m’en tombent. But, the mood was on me, and I bid Netflix show me the peccant morsel.


It certainly is vulgar, though of course outstripped completely by more recent productions. It is also completely OUTRAGEOUS.

I cannot deny that I was entertained. Partly by the total outrageousness.

Lordie, lordie, how those delicate young students of today with their triggers and safe spaces would HOWL–could this movie be made today? Surely not. And everyone connected with this Indecent Immoral and Completely Unacceptable Movie of Godlessness condemned to be cast into the Outer Darkness! AND have their internet connection wrest from them! AND forced to undergo Sensitivity Training for a thousand years!

There are many quotes from this movie, which is still adored by a vast company of fans online. For example. The one that made me squawk with mirth was the moment when Gene Wilder beckons to the two Ku Klux Klanners (all decked out in sheets, with ‘Have a Nice Day’ inscribed on their backs) saying “Hey BOYS–look what I got hyeah”–and up pops handsome Cleavon Little: “Hey, where the white women at?” Made me chortle, I admit.

Yesterday I was walking in Silver Spring and it was early evening, and there was a singer down in the park, singing Nightshift. A song about loved people gone, lost to death. I was thinking about Blazing Saddles, as it happened, and Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little came to mind. Both on the night shift now.

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“Far out in the wide sea, where the water is blue as the loveliest corn-flower, and clear as the purest crystal, where it is so deep that very, very many church towers must be heaped one upon another in order to reach from the lowest depths to the surface above, dwell the Mer-people. “

I have just returned from watching the Hamburg Ballet’s luminous and beautiful Little Mermaid, directed and choreographed by John Neumeier to music by Lera Auerbach. This is Hans Christian Anderson’s story, which, unlike the Disney version, is dark and sad and ends in death.
You’re probably saying, thanks but dark and sad is not a big draw for me–certainly my usual POV.
However, this ballet is so very beautiful–such astonishingly liquid movement in the water scenes, and such raucous, joyous dancing from the people on land and on ship. The ship which we see first as the Poet (Hans Anderson, or some aspect of him) stands at the rail gazing out to sea–and then, magically from underneath the sea: a tiny perfect ocean liner passing far overhead, windows all lit up, smoke billowing from the smokestacks–charming, completely charming! Under the sea, there are wavery lines of light that rise and fall—perhaps pipes on wires, I thought–very effective, very evocative. The light is shimmering blue and green, and the mermaids are not on wires, but are sinuously floated and whirled by other dancers who are all in black, like puppeteers. The delightful concept of the costume designer was to give the mermaids very long silken pants that wave and flutter like tails–an elegant and spare effect, far from the vulgar amusement park scaly tails that usually blight this story.


The little mermaid saves the Handsome Prince from drowning, and falls in love with him–and sacrifices everything to trade her tail and her happy life under the sea to be with him. The dreadful Sea Witch who enables this is danced by a spectacularly acrobatic man, in startling face paint, in a glittering long skirt. VERY effective.
With every step she takes on her new feet, it is as if she is walking on knives (an image which has OFTEN come to mind on those occasions when I foolishly thought I could spend the evening in my new too-tight 5 inch heels). The dancer makes her anguish very clear–it is painful to watch her, her lithe grace gone, she is awkward and stilted in her movements now. And of course the Handsome Prince–and my oh my, the young man who danced this part was a veritable Apollo–treats her as an adorable child and goes off and marries somebody else. The wedding party had some simply WONDERFUL dancing–the grand thing about modern ballet is that the men are not just lifting the women about and then doing their 5-minute look-at-me-jumping-around-the-stage. The men and the women are equally part of the dance, and…they are fabulous. Peerless athletes who are also stunning, moving dancers.

Well, the Little Mermaid dies of grief, and she and the Poet leave the earth and mount to the stars–a fine ending, very moving, the stage alive with sparkling stars as they perform their sad formal arm movements, one after the other.
In the book, she becomes one of the Daughters of the Air, who acquire human souls after 300 years of doing good deeds, so the ballet mermaid seems to have come out the winner, actually.
Here is a clip.

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Last night I aimlessly trundled about Netflix and Amazon, looking for something to watch–just half an hour’s worth needed to bridge the gap between cleaning the cat boxes and cleaning my teeth (and initiating shut down procedures). Well, nothing drew me; the various shows plodding along their predictable tracks: the Queen valiantly making do, Louis the 14th nation building, even the comely Saxon youth and the wild Vikings had lost their fine first brilliant rapture.

So, in a moment of devil-may-care fecklessness, I chose to watch La Bayadère, as produced by the Bolshoi ballet in the 1980’s.

Now, this is EXACTLY the kind of ballet I loathe the most, replete with antique mime and stultifying tradition. Plus, the costumes…well.

However, there would be, I knew, some excellent dancing, and it would do for a brief calming pre-bed interlude.

So, the curtain goes up in the magnificent Bolshoi Theater in Moscow!

We are in the courtyard of a—well, let us call it an Oriental Temple–HUGE JUNGLE trees loom overhead. The Sacred Fire (a sheet of orange plastic within a modest brick enclosure) provides a pleasant orange glow. But what the—?–a HORDE of wild men (well, 10 of them) writhe and twist about in frantic primitive motions! They all have ragged black hair and ragged brown loincloths (worn however over decorous gray underpants): they are Fakirs!

OOh! SO Oriental! TRES exotique!

The High Brahmin comes out of the temple, followed by priests and other temple officials, all wearing colorful priestly garments accessorized with tall cylindrical hats. The more humble priests wear short puffy cylinder hats (unfortunately reminiscent of marshmallows). The Temple Dancers (NB: bayadère means temple dancer) follow, all wearing harem pants and spangled bra tops.

Comes then the Fire Ceremony!

It turns out that the High Brahmin—despite his Vows of Chastity– is in love with Nikiya, the HEAD temple dancer. She spurns his advances, because she is in love with the mighty warrior Solor! She will be meeting him after the Fire Celebration.

Solor’s retinue prance in, with dainty weapons held high—they have been hunting! For kittens and butterflies, to judge by their gear.

A moment of silence–then, the STAR appears!

Sensation! Applause!

Solor is a very handsome young man wearing white pants, a headband with a feather in it, hair in some kind of French twist at his neck. There is a breathless pause (=NOW I will DANCE for you, my humble worshipers) and then he performs his famous and fabulous dance.

And actually—it is really, really fabulous. Astonishing to watch.

I found a clip of the young Baryshnikov doing Solor’s dance—such joy, such strength–the technique, the astonishing leaps—it simply brings tears to my eyes.

This Solor may not be Baryshnikov, but is none the less spectacular.

Well, there it is. Fabulous dancing, but embarrassingly kitchy production—including, you will be grieved to hear, a troupe of young dancers IN BLACKFACE. Doing ghastly pickaninny routines—too too shaming. Really, I couldn’t watch.

And then there is the iconic scene, the one that everybody remembers from this show, the Kingdom of the Shades. Nikiya has been poisoned by a snake that was hidden in a basket of flowers given to her by the Sultan’s daughter, who is also in love with Solor but who—oh, never mind. Nikiya’s DEAD, see, and Solor is devastated. So, he has a vision of the ghostly spirits of the temple dancers: they appear one by one on the dark stage, progressing down an inclined ramp, each posing in arabesque, then bending back with arms held high, then gliding forward to repeat—a long line of pale dancers in mysterious blue light, in an elegant criss-crossing path.

Oh, just watch it! (feel free to stop once they’re all off the ramp). It is truly lovely.

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After work on Wednesday, I met a friend at Friendship Heights and after a modest repast, we joined fellow opera fans to watch the Met’s fabulous staging of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette on the Big Screen—this delightful innovation that allows one to see grand opera for a FRACTION of the cost and NONE of the bother that is an unfortunate aspect of attending live performances.

Roméo was played by Vittorio Grigolo—a very pretty fellow indeed, with a voice as sweet as honey. Though the costumes tended towards 18th century gowns and powdered wigs, he and his fellow Montagues were outfitted in bad boy leather coats, ruffled shirts and high boots. Mercutio kept his ruffled shirt opened down to his navel, revealing not only his manly chest but several chains with glittering crucifixes. Yes, a strutting bunch of quarrelsome hooligans–but devout hooligans.

Beauteous Diana Damrau was Juliette—and though she is in her mid-40’s, she almost made me believe in her youthful innocence. Until, that is, she came out in the most dreadful nightie—WHAT were they thinking of, to put her in this ghastly Frederick’s of Hollywood number? WITHOUT a bra underneath? Which would have been fine for an actual teenager, but not for the more traditionally built soprano. Juliette HAS to wear a nightie of course—TRADITION!–but there are ways of managing the busty substance so as to dispel any droopage, if I may use a technical costumer’s term. However, she sang like an angel, and the duets were so lovely, so beautiful.

Gounod tidied up the plot a bit, so that the lovers can sing some beautiful arias in the tomb before dying. See, in this version, Roméo bursts into the tomb where Juliette lies under the gauzy white sheet (she is still wearing that horrid nightie, unfortunately), pulls a bottle of poison out of his coat pocket (just the sort of thing a young gallant carries about, I guess) and swallows the contents. THEN Juliette awakens. Horror! Dismay! He explains, they sing rapturously and then Juliette plunges a knife (that happens to be nearby) into her STOMACH. Yuck. However, no blood mars her white nightie, they sing more soaring harmonies, and then collapse.



In the play–but not the opera–there is an epilogue showing the grief and repentance of the warring families, with the Prince having the final words:

For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

PS This has been Shakespeare month for me! I have been reading 2 fine books based on Shakespeare plots, and dipping into the plays as I read. Book reviews here.

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The Kennedy Center is a graceless rectangular building squatting on the Potomac, isolated on its plaza by a labyrinth of encircling highways. I am so old that I remember its construction, back in 1971–how it rose from the swamp, unlovely, a blight on the river–and once open, LORD, how I scoffed at those red velvet curtains, patterned with that ghastly repeating buttocks design–and that horrid bust of John Kennedy, seemingly made of gilded bubblegum.

But strangely enough, as the years passed and I enjoyed one wonderful show after another at the place, what had seemed so ludicrously ungainly acquired the patina of—well, what can I call it but love. It has given me so much joy over the years, and now when I look at the Kennedy Center, instead of seeing a garish mishmash of tasteless wealth, I see a place filled with happy memories and joyous creation.
Yesterday I once again entered those high doors, and walked down the tall windowed hall fronting the Potomac–saved from acres of hideous red velvet curtains by Jackie Kennedy, who refused to allow the designers to cover those gorgeous views–and saw Christopher Wheeldon’s brilliant new imagining of Cinderella, danced by the San Francisco ballet to Prokofiev’s music. What a show! Completely delightful–filled with astonishing invention, gorgeous colors and charming silliness. The show got grand reviews here, if not in New York, where the high doyennes of ballet fretted about the choreography and how it wasn’t quite the thing. Let me assure you, it totally WAS the thing. And everyone, no matter who, was blown away by the fabulous scene where the dancers create the coach to take Cinderella to the ball–glowing wheels spinning in their hands, horse masks on their heads, and Cinderella held above them in the glowing light, her billowing cape forming a canopy around her as the enchanted carriage gallops right towards us! Magical, just magical–truly, it brought tears to my eyes.

I was entranced from beginning to end. Bravo! Thank you, Kennedy Center!

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