Sunday, January 25, 2009

Four Voices @ NYCB

I had planned on going to the ballet Friday and just picking up a ticket when I got there. Then I was so enjoying the book I started on the subway ride to Lincoln Center that I almost turned around and went home so I could keep reading. (I bought the two John Williams books I didn't already own the other day--I figured if I'm googling interviews with him at 4 o'clock in the morning it's probably a sign I should read more of his books--and I just started Augustus.) Anyway, I did end up going because I very much wanted to see Concerto DSCH, but while sitting through the first couple ballets I seriously questioned that decision.

Well, I questioned that decision while not busy thinking about how my hands smelled like bleach and how sad it was to be thinking about that rather than enjoying what I'd paid to see (during Chiaroscuro) or how I really wished I hadn't worn stockings because my left foot was itchy and I couldn't itch it properly (during Papillons). I'm not, as a general rule, opposed to seeing things I dislike, but I found myself feeling a slight bit resentful when it came to these two. I mean it's one thing to see a new piece that isn't good. Or to see something that just isn't to your taste. Or even something that fails in an interesting way. But I'm just baffled as to why these first two ballets were revived: It's not that they're awful, it's just that they're bland and somewhat tedious. And since the audience didn't seem particularly full and the applause was tepid compared to what the other ballets received I can't imagine it was the huge audience demand either. Well, so it goes. I'm sure there are people who enjoyed it far more than I did.

I was glad then, that it was all uphill from there, and particularly that I liked Concerto DSCH as much as I did. I love that the dancers are shown as normal people, in a way; they're doing incredible things but they're not elevated. And while many people have already noted this, it's a treat to watch the community Ratmansky creates on stage. And the dancers look like they're having a great time. Who knows if that's actually the case--not I--but the impression makes it fun for me as a member of the audience. I also enjoyed the variation of tone over the course of the ballet. And getting to see Wendy Whelan who, solely by chance, I haven't seen that much of but always enjoy when I do see her perform. I feel a little Vienna-ed out between the Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet and Vienna Waltzes. The last movement with Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar was a blast. So the night at least ended on a high note. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Cherry Orchard

I think BAM's Bridge Project is an interesting one. Not so much because I care about the differing performing styles of British and American actors or anything like that--frankly I don't know enough about acting styles to know what difference it makes--but because it's an opportunity to see good (or in the case of some, like Simon Russell Beale, great) actors in new productions of classic plays. And hopefully some of those productions will be fantastic. 

The Cherry Orchard was more good than fantastic. The performances ranged from good to excellent, but the direction was heavy-handed at times, which really wasn't necessary. The play is from 1904. You don't really have to be particularly knowledgeable about history to realize that the changes that occur in the play are related to much bigger changes down the road. So the overdone foreshadowing seems entirely unnecessary. I also wasn't in love with the set, which didn't really provide a sense of place for the most part. It seemed like it could be anywhere. 

What you end up with is a nice looking production (the costumes, in particular, are gorgeous, although I'll cop to a general fondness for clothes from that era) that's well acted and funny where it's supposed to be funny and tragic in its characters inability to cope with the world as it is. All the boxes have been checked, I guess you could say. And yet in the end it doesn't become transcendent in the way that great theater can. 

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Shipment

This was one of the January shows for Claudia LaRocca's Performance Club. It was something I never would have wound up going to on my own. I would have (possibly) read the review in the times, thought oh, that sounds interesting, and then gone back to reorganizing my kitchen cabinets or whatever and never gotten around to actually getting a ticket. I have motivation issues. But knowing that I'll have the opportunity to talk about what I've just seen with other people is exciting and makes attending things so much more fun. 

Last month I was a bit nervous because so many of the people are involved with performance as as more than just a sometime audience member and so very much more knowledgeable than me. But everyone's been so nice and easy to talk with that it was soon clear my worries were misplaced. Instead, I feel like I'm expanding my performance-viewing horizons while learning from other people and having a really good time. So it's basically a win-win-win situation. And on top of that, I've genuinely enjoyed both things I've gone to so far, which certainly isn't necessary, but it a plus.

But about The Shipment. I've been trying to think about what exactly I have to say about it. Or rather, how I can organize my thoughts about it well enough to write about it in a cohesive, worthwhile way. As much as I enjoyed it, I'm still turning it over in my head (a good thing, no?). The cast was wonderful and the show itself definitely made me think about my own preconceived notions of race but also about my own discomfort with talking about race in anything other than a politically correct way. I didn't think everything worked equally well, and I'm not sure how to interpret some things, but other things really intrigued me, particularly in the way Lee raised questions about how our expectations and preconceptions influence media representations of African Americans and vice versa?

The Performance Club post for discussion of The Shipment is here..

Sunday, January 18, 2009

John Williams

For whatever reason I woke up at 3:30 this morning and haven't been able to get back to sleep. Before I gave up on falling asleep again. I started thinking about John Williams. No idea why. I mean, I loved Stoner and I've thought of it frequently since reading it, but nothing about my day brought it particularly to mind. So I turned on the computer and started googling, because I needed something to do with myself and didn't have the energy for either of the books I'm in the middle of. And I found this interview from the early 80s, in which Williams says:
"I write for the reader, more than I write for myself. The reader who puts down ten or twelve bucks for a book—really much more than that now—deserves some respect and consideration. We're arrogant about this, and people are more intelligent than we think they are. The so-called `common reader' is sometimes an 'un-common reader' and can click in and understand and like things more than most of us think they can."
I love that (and several of the other views Williams expresses in the interview). 

I also dug up The New Yorker's 1965 review. It was a very positive review of the book but kind of a terrible piece of literary criticism even making allowances for "Briefly Noted" form. Funny that.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

All Balanchine + Coppelia

Getting myself to the ballet on Saturday was a bit of a comedy of errors. I was planning to head out early so I could buy a ticket and then head over to Barnes & Noble for a bit (I have a gift certificate). Thanks to that plan, while I didn't make it to the bookstore, I did manage to get to Lincoln Center on time.

The problems started when I decided that I wanted to bring Nancy Goldner's Balanchine Variations with me so I could re-read her essay on The Four Temperaments during the subway ride. (As a sidenote, if the world were a perfect place someone would offer Goldner an exorbitant sum of money to write about many more Balanchine ballets, because her book is wonderful but I wish it were three times the length.) Unfortunately, during the bedbug invasion I became thoroughly paranoid about my books getting infested--it does happen!--so I heat treated all of them and put them in ziploc bags. But they don't all fit on my bookshelf to begin with and the bags are slippery so I can't stack them on top of the shelf like I used to. Thus there are piles of books all over the apartment. Unsurprisingly, it took a while to find Goldner's book--behind the kitchen table, shoved up next to the shelf the plants live on. It was in a ziploc with a biography of Henning Kronstam, so I was clearly employing some kind of logic in my bug-addled state.

Anyway, then I went to get on the subway and the F & V weren't running in either direction due to a "police action." So I had to walk a ways to get the D in the--admittedly minimal--snow and while wearing not terribly practical shoes. I eventually got there and got my ticket with just enough time to look over the program before the start so it was all fine.

I'm not sure how I feel about Chaconne. I enjoyed Maria Kowroski--she's such a beautiful dancer--but didn't particularly like Marcovici as her partner. I wanted him to be smoother and more expansive so he would be a better match for her. For the most part though, the ballet just seemed perfectly lovely but no more and no less than that.

The Four Temperaments though, I loved. And to go back to the Goldner book, reading such a clear-eyed exploration of the work is something that's so helpful to a person like me who has very little technical knowledge because it gives me things to look for and focus on. So much writing about ballet is flowery and metaphor-filled and I get that, because dance is hard to describe in writing (I certainly can't do it well), but it doesn't help me much. Goldner's descriptions are so concrete that it's easy for me to know what she's talking about. Here, for example, she writes about the three initial duets:
Whereas the drama in the last four parts resides in its play on emotive qualities, the first part is most dramatic for its play with the academy. The knee, for example, is all but invisible in textbook ballet. It is prominent in The Four Ts from the start, when both of the dancers in the first duet move with one knee on the ground. It's just one step they take, but its slight awkwardness brings what could be a transitional move into high relief. Placing a woman on pointe with a bent knee is even more unorthodox, since the very point of dancing on pointe is to create a streamlined image. Balanchine develops the bent-knee motif as the three duets progress, starting with big ronds de jambe, moving to pirouettes, and finally to pirouettes in which the woman plunks her foot on top of her supporting bent knee.
Well I can understand and appreciate that. It gave me something to look for, and think about, while watching. Later, she writes about the roles of the temperaments themselves. Here too, she's clear without being either fussy or authoritarian. Of Melancholic, she writes:
His main problem is that he can't get anywhere, can't get out of his own body. And when he's not thwarting himself, the ensemble of six women does the job for him.
I like that idea. I liked watching the Melancholic variation and considering the ways in which he is stuck, and incapable of forward progress. It's not that I particularly want someone to tell me what to think about particular ballets. I don't, because that would be boring. But I do like to be given things to think about. That provides me with an entry point of sorts into these non-narrative ballets.

Vienna Waltzes I liked, but I think it would be possible for me to like it more. I thought I would after the first section with Sara Mearns, who is one of my favorite New York City Ballet dancers among those I've seen and seemed perfect for the role. And I enjoyed the second waltz and the polka as well. But the Merry Widow section didn't particularly work for me. And then came the last section, which was thrilling once the ensemble was dancing--although I think the mirrors probably create a more dramatic effect for those below the fourth ring--but not so much before that. The solo sections with Darci Kistler didn't seem fully realized. So there was kind of a dip there for me.

All in all though, it was one of those days when I left the theater happy to have been there and seen the show, which is always a good feeling to have.

I also went to Coppelia (on Tuesday) and it was cute enough--Megan Fairchild makes a perfect little pretend-doll; the peasants are, as is usually the case in ballet, very happy--but I had a headache by the third act and was mostly just ready to go home. (This week has been a long one for me because I've been feeling generally not good.) Teresa Reichlen was beautiful as Dawn. And, in a somewhat related plus, it meant I missed watching the Sabres lose to the Red Wings. That was definitely a good thing.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Pyramus' Latest Obsession

Awhile back, Pyramus decided he no longer liked drinking from his nice, clean water bowl. Instead, what he truly, desperately wanted to do, was drink from the toilet. At first Wendy and I were moderately OK with this, being the sort of people who clean the toilet bowl regularly. But then we decided that the plumbing in our building is not particularly sanitary and cut him off. He hasn't taken kindly to this, and comes running whenever he hears me in the bathroom, in the hopes that he can get himself some toilet water. Failing that though, he has decided that anything must be preferable to the water in his bowl, even warm bath water. 

After nearly taking a swim shortly after this picture was taken, he embarked upon a period of experimentation, eventually deciding that he was more stable if he adopted a wide stance and kept one or both front paws on the ledge of the tub. 
Nevertheless, he had some pretty wet paws by the time he was satisfied.

August: Osage County

Damn what a long and overstuffed play. And you know, I get that functional families are, generically speaking, less interesting than dysfunctional ones. Still, it seems a bit much. Watching the play is kind of like being bludgeoned while someone stands around telling you jokes. It seems appropriate that there t-shirts on sale in the lobby with lines from the play like, "You have to be smart to be complicated." After all, it's the quips that count in this one. 

And hey, if you go to the Web site you can totally play a find-Mom's-pills game!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

44 Places to Go

BuffaloPundit points out that Buffalo made the New York Times list of places to go in 2009. Naturally I went to see what they had to say. In part:
With the exception of senatorial hopefuls, many New Yorkers write off the rest of the Empire State as a cultural hinterland. But the chilly rustbelt city of Buffalo now has something to thrill cultural junkies other than its scattered specimens of pioneering early 20th-century architecture: the Burchfield Penney Art Center.
It then goes on to talk about the Burchfield Penney's Buffalo-centric collection. It's great to see the museum get the attention, but it's also a funny write-up.

I went to the new Burchfield Penney when I was in Buffalo for the holidays. I say "new" because the museum has in fact existed--first as the Charles Burchfield Center, then as the Burchfield Art Center, and finally as the Burchfield Penney Art Center--since the 60s. It's the building which is new, not the Center, although you wouldn't get that impression from the Times mention. Still, it's very nice and by all accounts a huge improvement. And don't get me wrong, I think the new Burchfield Penney is a lovely addition for Buffalo and totally worth seeing.
But it doesn't suddenly turn Buffalo into destination travel. And, while the New York Times makes it sound like it's such a great thing that Buffalo can now include, when they couldn't previously, a nice art museum in it's collection of tourist-worthy sites, that makes for strange reading, because it's not even the best art museum in the city. That would be the art museum, oh I don't know, right across the street. Also not a new museum. (Although it could use some new building space as well).

That's not to take away from the Burchfield Penney or their pretty (on the inside) new building. I'm just saying that Buffalo wasn't any more or less a cultural hinterland before it was built than it is now. Still, it's nice for the city to be on a places-to-go list with the likes of Vienna and the Red Sea, I'm sure. If nothing else, it's a much cheaper trip.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Let the Right One In

This movie wasn't really what I expected. I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it wasn't what I got. I guess I didn't think it was going to be quite as slow as it was. That's not a complaint though.

I loved the quiet tension and the way the frozen, wintery landscape framed the story. Not only because it's a refreshing change from the overheated, Gothic-lite Louisiana setting that I associate with modern vampire stories--so was Twilight, although it was less effective--but because that hushed, snow-coated world seems much more frightening to me.

I was skeptical of the reviews claiming the movie was both scary and touching, but I did find that I agreed. Although not, to my relief, all that scary. Or gory. I don't do particularly well with scary movies. I was also relieved that it was so good, as I'd gotten friends to come with me and I'm always worried that people won't enjoy things I ask them to go to with me. Fortunately they liked it as much as I did.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

I can't stop watching this . . .

What the heck was that? Alexander Semin . . . the source of so much amusement. 

(Video of this is all over the hockey blogosphere today, of course, but I stole the link from Alix)

Saturday, January 03, 2009

People of the Book

I really wanted to read March, which I saw in my parents' bathroom when I was home, but my mother, frustratingly, was in the middle of it, so I took Geraldine Brooks's most recent novel, People of the Book, instead. My mother loved it; I thought it was a page-turner but I'm not sure I even liked it. (That's one gorgeous cover though. All that gold seems perfect for a book that centers on an illuminated medieval book.)

It's one of those books that has a split narrative: One is the primary, contemporary story of a woman charged with conserving an old, illuminated Haggadah; the others tell us about key episodes in the book's past. The problem I always have with that sort of book is that I'm much more interested in one section than the others. This time around I was much more invested in reading about the contemporary woman than the people from the past--there was really not that much suspense there since we know the book survives and Brooks doesn't really do much to make the episodes in the past absorbing, unfortunately. 

If the main story was brilliant I think that would be OK, but that's not the case. Instead, it all leads up to a plot twist that's too convenient by half, with a hard to credit, deus ex machina ending. I stayed up late reading only to find myself annoyed enough by the ending that it ruined the book for me. It's like Brooks thought there needed to be more plot excitement in there and shoehorned it in even though it didn't belong. Frustrating. She should have just trusted her subject to be interesting without suddenly trying to turn it into some kind of international thriller at the end. 

Vegetable Pie

A couple months ago when I was up in Ithaca visiting we pulled a recipe for a vegetable pie out of one of my sister's Moosewood cookbooks and adapted it rather loosely. Mainly because the cookbook recipe calls for a cup of mushrooms (which I hate), half a cup of peas (which I like fresh but not cooked and certainly not in pies), half a cup of corn (which I like on the cob but not in things and not when it's not fresh), two cups of cheddar cheese (which my sister isn't wild about), and spices we didn't have. Also, because we couldn't be bothered to deal with a regular pie crust for the bottom and then a crumb crust for the top, so we just made regular (yet wheaty!) crusts for both bottom and top. This time around I adapted it a touch more and the end result was wholesome and delicious. And I love cooking pies because they're so simple and forgiving, so I'm glad that I like this one.

The crust is really a pretty standard pie crust but half whole wheat:
  • 1-1/2 cups white flour
  • 1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 6 tbsp ice water (or a bit more since it's got whole wheat flour in it)
The filling probably really works with any vegetables you like, which I figure makes it the perfect recipe for picky vegetable eaters or for getting rid of whatever is in your fridge. This is what I did:
  • 1 large (yellow) onion, chopped
  • 3 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 potato, diced
  • 1 yam or sweet potato, diced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1/2 cup asparagus, chopped (I might do a full cup next time--I love asparagus)
  • 1/2 tsp paprika (the original recipe called for sweet Hungarian paprika which I don't have)
  • 1/2 tsp dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp dried marjoram
  • salt and pepper to taste
You just saute the onions until soft then throw in the carrots, potatoes, paprika basil, and marjoram and cook for 10 minutes. Then you add the bell pepper and asparagus, salt and pepper, cover it and cook for 5-10 minutes until the carrots get tender.

I'd never made a roux before but that's simple too. 
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp white flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 tsp mustard (the original recipe called for dijon but I just had honey mustard so I used that and it didn't taste gross or anything)
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
You melt the butter, add the flour, and stir constantly for 3-5 minutes. Then whisk in the milk, mustard, and nutmeg, and stir over low heat until it's hot and lightly thickened. Remove from heat and whisk in cheese. Kind of a pain but I suppose you'd have a dry pie otherwise. 

You just dump it all together then and cook it at 375 degrees for 40 minutes. My kind of cooking. 

Friday, January 02, 2009

How I Spent My Day . . .

Scraping peeling--and cracked but not yet peeling--paint off the fucking bathroom ceiling. Wendy and I thought, it can't be as bad as last time, the bathroom hadn't been repainted in AGES last time we did it, a mere 2-1/2 years ago. We'll totally be able to do everything today. Well, let's just say that Wendy and I do not have fabulous powers of prognostication. Those pictures are from about 12:30, an hour into the progress. We finished scraping after 5. We got the plastering done as well, but I still need to sand down the plaster, prime, and paint tomorrow.

Since it's probably hard to tell from these shitty cell phone pictures, the tiles on the wall are yellow, the tiles on the floor are grey as are the tub, sink, and toilet. For that reason we'd initially painted the walls and ceiling to match the lighter grey floor tiles. This time around we're going for a shade of green called "palm breeze" (which I do not think is a very appealing name). 

The White Tiger

The Booker, not at all unlike the Pulitzer for fiction, more often than not goes to perfectly enjoyable, not terribly earth-shattering books that are reviewed as if they're set to blow you away. I'm not saying their bad books. In fact I've loved some of them and liked others. Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, of which The Ghost Road won the Booker, stands out in my mind as particularly marvelous. But as often as not they leave me thinking, was this really the best book eligible? really? 

Anyway, The White Tiger: It was a fast read--I finished it pretty quickly just reading it on the short subway ride to and from work--and enjoyable enough. But it felt a bit thin. Yes there's a compelling narrative voice and a not great, but interesting enough plot. And it is an aspect of Indian life that's not generally written about. But none of those things make it a great novel. And I'm a little baffled by all the praise for it. The quotes were fantastic. (And yes, reviews can be manipulated to an extent, but pulling quotes for books is something I do regularly and I'm pretty confident that you don't get quotes that good without some fabulous reviews. I wish.) So I expected--or at least hoped--that I would think the book was better than fine, but not so much. Oh well.