Monday, June 29, 2009

Lewis Forever

The most recent Performance Club outing was to see Lewis Forever at the New Museum. While I'm not sure it really went anywhere it was a fun show to attend. We got to color and put together our own stick puppets, drink, throw things . . . I do like it when performers bring that sense of play into their work. And the audience participation was nice, although somewhat undermined by the fact that our actions didn't really seem to have a reason behind them--or at least not a reason that became clear to me. The performance itself lacked cohesion. Some parts weren't terribly engrossing, perhaps because it seemed unclear how they fit into the whole, others were fun (a bit related to Back to the Future, for example), and even oddly lovely. On the balance though I had such a good time though and you really can't complain about that.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The NHL Draft

So here we are, on a Friday in late June, and I'll be watching the first round of the NHL draft tonight. And the thing about that is that the NHL draft makes for truly tedious television. Last year I paid a little bit of attention beforehand since I was going to be at the draft and all, but this year I haven't bothered. My draft prep has pretty much amounted to reading the Interchangeable Parts ladies' Not On the Road with IPB series. Still, there's a lot you can predict without knowing more than 10 names:
  • About 30 18-year-olds, all excited, most awkward will get up on stage and put on a sweater and a cap to pose for pictures.
  • Gary Bettman will be booed. Loudly.
  • Pierre Maguire will make people all over North America uncomfortable. And he will do so with enthusiasm.
  • When Darcy Regier gets on stage Sabres fans will be crossing their figures and toes, hoping that he drafts someone who could not be described as small, or short, or as another member of the fucking midget brigade.
  • I'll spend most of the show wondering what possessed me to spend my Friday night watching this crap.
This prediction gig is easy. You just have to set the bar low.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Woman in the Dunes

My office has summer Fridays, which means I get out at 1:00 every Friday between Memorial Day and Labor Day. And every Friday this year I've made plans about the things I'm going to do with my free time: I'm going to go see the High Line, I'm going to wash my windows, I'm going to find a father's day gift . . . but every Friday I've gone home and taken a long nap. This week I'm blaming The Woman in the Dunes for that. Seriously, even the cover makes me feel like sleeping.

The story here is that an amateur entomologist spends the day at a beach looking for some kind of beetle, only to have the residents of a nearby village entrap him in a pit. There he is to help a woman shovel away the ever-encroaching sand that threatens to destroy her home. He plots various ways to escape--sometimes rather hysterically--only to pass up an opportunity at the end of the book. This is no surprise to the reader, not only because he seems like a fairly incompetent person but also because we were told at the beginning of the book that he was declared dead after being missing for seven years.

For me, the book was mostly a reminder of just how much I dislike novels where symbolism and allegory take precedence over character (and how little I enjoy existentialism in novels). Here we are, the people in the sand pit, endlessly shoveling away a la Sisyphus. Oh, the meaningless of life. The way the daily grind wears down any desire we have for freedom or joy. Blah fucking blah.

I'm being dismissive though, of a novel that doesn't deserve such treatment. It's not a bad book, just not to my taste. Abe is an evocative and stylish writer and the plot is neatly constructed and spare. The sand, pervasive, unrelenting, corrosive, becomes a character. After his first night in the sand pit that is to be his home, our protagonist wakes coated by sand:
Quickly he jumped up. The sand that had accumulated on his face, head, and chest fell away with a rustling sound. Around his nose and lips sand was encrusted, hardened by perspiration. He scraped it off with the back of his hand and cautiously blinked his eyes. Tears welled up uncontrollably under his gritty, feverish eyelids. But the tears alone were not enough to wash away the sand that had become lodged in the moist corners of his eyes.
[. . .]
The whole surface of [the woman's] body was covered with a coat of fine sand, which hid the details and brought out the feminine lines; she seemed a statue gilded with sand. Suddenly a viscid saliva rose from under his tongue. But he could not possibly swallow it. Were he to swallow the sand that had lodged between his lips and teeth would spread through his mouth. He turned toward the earthen floor and spat. Yet no matter how much he ejected he could not get rid of the gritty taste. No matter how he emptied his mouth the sand was still there. More sand seemed to issue constantly from between his teeth.
The combination of the unpleasant nature of the sand and its inescapability is unpleasantly vivid. After all, most things become nearly unbearable when constantly present but anyone who has ever been to the beach knows how badly you want to wash the sand off after leaving. Reading the book I felt itchy and grit-covered myself. And any desire to go to the beach in the near future? Gone. (Convenient given the shit weather we've been having here in New York of late.) For me though, the quality of the writing wasn't enough to make up for the fact that I just didn't care about the characters or what happened to them.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Two Ballets

La Sylphide had been on my (unwritten, highly informal) list of ballets I most wanted to see for awhile now. Alexandra Tomalonis wrote about it extensively in her biography of Henning Kronstam and I've wanted to watch it ever since because I have a weakness for magical creatures and Scottish reels and all that sort of thing.

At its heart it's the story of a man who falls in love with a being that is not quite of this world, and of the tragedy that ensues when he follows her instead of staying home where he belongs. In fairy tales--and La Sylphide, which comes complete with a witch stirring a cauldron and mimed triumphal laughter, feels more like a fairy tale than most such ballets--it's never a good idea to go chasing supernatural beings into the forest.

Herman Cornejo is a dancer I've often felt like I admire more than enjoy. It's utterly unfair of me, but I often find myself distracted from just how good he is by just how small he is.  In this case I wasn't bothered by that, and his dancing was fantastic--as it always is, as far as I can tell--but I didn't believe the character. In her book, Tomalonis quote Kronstam talking about the role of James:
James can be a man who is so infatuated with the Sylph that he abandons everything to follow her. Or he can be a Romantic soul who is looking for the beauty of life and he sees that more in the Sylphide than in a household. Or he can be very impulsive [. . .] James has his doubts, and he has his fears of what he is going to do, but he cannot help himself. Or, if you do it differently, its that he wants to get away. It's not that he is unhappy; it's because he wants to get out. 
What's clear is that there's any number of variations when it comes to the characterization of James. But in all those variations his character is such that the events of the ballet become inevitable. This is who he is and so this is how it ends. The problem is, in Cornejo's interpretation the character of James isn't fully embodied; he's merely a sketch and you never quite know who he is. And that lack of clarity undermines the story as a whole.

Natalia Osipova was more convincing as the sylph. She's a less complex character--a creature really.  And because she's a magical being associated with weightlessness and flight, Osipova's particular talents serve her well. She jumps so high: One second she's on the ground and the next second there she is, hanging in the air, without having seemed to put any effort into getting there. And then she comes down quietly and feather light. It's as though being in the air is the easiest, most natural thing in the world for her. 

So there's a lot to enjoy. In the end though, for all the wonderful dancing--there were also lovely performances from Gemma Bond as James's fiancee, jilted at the altar, and Jared Matthews as Gurn, who loves her (and seems rather more deserving of her love than James--the ballet didn't entirely hold together as theater on Wednesday night. 

The evening had opened with Paul Taylor's Airs which I enjoyed in the sort of abstracted way that I've enjoyed the few other Taylor dances I've seen. His dances have such a sense of fun and play, which I love because being able to depict such things without seeming saccharine is a particular strength of dance as an art form. It also seemed to be a good pairing with La Sylphide in terms of tone. I do prefer the weightier quality his own dancers give his choreography though.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Weird Bugs

I went backpacking in New York and Connecticut last week with my sister, who is currently hiking the Appalachian Trail. I'll write more about it later, but in the meantime, here's a video of some weird bugs (which google tells me are wood wasps). Now if only my point and shoot camera took better videos while zoomed in I'm sure the Discovery Channel would be calling any day now. After all we clearly have the gravitas and calm typical of nature documentarians.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Things That Make a Girl Peevish...

My apartment building has been having water problems pretty much all year and I can deal with that. I can even deal with the brown water and sediment spitting out of the pipes. I felt a little like the Laura Ingalls Wilder of the East Village last weekend when my water was out all day and I was heating water in the kettle in order to bathe and I wasn't totally aggravated although I wouldn't say I was thrilled. But when I got home from vacation today to find my toilet not working, I was not at all happy. I just spent time backpacking, people . . . all I want this afternoon is a toilet that actually flushes without my dumping 5 gallons of water into the tank. 

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

On the Dnieper, etc.

I was at BEA Saturday and am very grateful that my job doesn't actually require me to spend time there, because I find it pretty overwhelming. Also, someone tried to hard-sell me these weird insoles for my shoes. What's with that? Are people at BEA really all about the gel-filled insoles? Somehow I doubt it. Then on Sunday I got all hardcore with my backpacking training and walked about 8 miles. Shock of shocks, I gave myself blisters. So by the time I found myself at the Metropolitan Opera house on Monday night I was very ready to spend an evening off my feet in a darkened theater.

The real draw of the evening was the premier of Alexei Ratmansky's first ballet for ABT, On the Dnieper, which was also the last ballet. I so enjoyed this ballet and, while it wasn't perfect, thought it was very good. The plot is neither awful nor inspiring: A soldier (Marcelo Gomes) returns home from World War I and finds that he no longer loves his fiancee (Veronika Part), but instead wants another girl (Paloma Herrera) who is herself engaged to someone else (David Hallberg). Tragic and not terribly subtle, it's exactly the sort of material from which you expect ballets to be made. But what Ratmansky does with it is often fantastic.

Apollinaire Scherr has a review up on her blog, and I basically agree with her criticisms--the score was too short for the female characters and situations to be fully developed. At times the plot itself seems to rush forward, which goes hand with the previous. "Wait," I wanted to say, "how can they be in love already? They should fall in love longer. This tension should build more." 

But the score is what it is, and the work has so much to recommend it that I can easily overlook those flaws. Both major male characters are fully developed and both have wonderful solos. Alice Munro writes short stories in which she creates an entire world and characters that feel so real you think they must exist, just as they are in the story, somewhere in the world, in just a few pages. They're small miracles of writing; it seems like it should be impossible to get things so exactly right, and yet there the story is in front of you. The solo for Gomes that opens the ballet, and the solo for Hallberg in the second part of the ballet are like that. These characters are real individuals and watching them dance you feel that you understand them; you know who they are. And the community of which they are a part feels genuine in the same way. Ratmansky's characters don't exist in a void: they're interconnected parts of a community.

The great gift of the ballet though is the fact that unlike so many things that ABT dances, particularly the new ballets that are made for them, in On the Dnieper Ratmansky gives the dancers choreography that genuinely utilizes their prodigious abilities. Gomes and Hallberg, who are so frequently fantastic, were as wonderful in this as I've ever seen them (Gomes throughout, Hallberg in that great solo). Ratmansky told Robert Hilferty of Bloomberg that Gomes was, "very inspiring," and it's not hard to understand why. And although their characters were less clearly sketched Herrera was lovely and Part does despair as beautifully as anyone. 

I also thought that, though the lighting could stand to be brighter, the sets were beautiful. I like the cherry trees and loved the fences that were moved around to redefine the space. 

In addition to Apollinaire Scherr's review, Alastair Macaulay reviewed it for the New York Times, Tonya Plank has a post up, and Robert Johnson reviewed it for the Newark Star-Ledger (and hated it to a degree I find utterly baffling, but he also thinks that Ratmansky isn't a "genuine choreographic talent" so we're clearly on very different wavelengths).

And one more note before I move on: I don't know who writes the synopses for ABT's program, but "the villagers enjoy lively dancing and boisterous cheer"? Really? I have every confidence that it's possible to do better.

The evening had started with Balanchine's Prodigal Son, which I was excited to see but found that I didn't love. In retrospect it's not so surprising. When it comes to art movements, I've really never liked Primitivism and I can't say Constructivism drives me wild either and there's an abundance of both in the ballet. And then there was the fact that I forgot my opera glasses and we were sitting so far away (Family Circle). Being closer and able to see more detail would surely have helped, particularly for a ballet like this. 

Michelle Wiles--who I really wish I enjoyed more than I do--just didn't work for me in this role. She's certainly commanding. Particularly so when towering over Herman Cornejo (the size difference there is something else). But I felt like she should also seem alluring and predatory and that really didn't come across. The connection between Wiles and Cornejo seemed awkward but I imagine that will get better in subsequent performances. Cornejo was dancing in place of an injured Ethan Stiefel, and I expect that he and Wiles will polish their performance as the week goes on.

One thing that did help me to appreciate the ballet more than I otherwise would have, was Nancy Goldner's essay on Prodigal in her Balanchine Variations. She writes:
The desire to bring industry and art, the functional and the decorative, under one tent extended to making an amalgam of beautiful and ugly movement, and high and low art--that is, dance and circus.
Thinking about the pas de deux between the Siren and the Son as a circus-like performance, and the drinking companions as grotesques helps me to understand this decidedly unclassical ballet.

About the second ballet of the evening I really have very little to say. Desir was one of those ballets where you can see why it was made but it's awfully hard to figure out why it's being revived or picked up by other companies than the one it was made for. The costumes are pretty, the music is pretty, a good bit of the dancing is pretty (and also pretty repetitive). And that's just about all there is to it. It's theoretically about relationships and desire, but it doesn't feel particularly human or individual. Ultimately it was kind of inoffensively boring. 

The photo for On the Dnieper was stolen from this Wall Street Journal article and the the photo from Prodigal Son from the New York Times review.