Tuesday, October 13, 2009

On the Nobel Prize for Literature

I can't say that I'm ever particularly excited to find out who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It just doesn't generally seem like an effective way to discover new authors whose work I'll actually enjoy. There's a nice essay on Literary Kicks though about the predictable dismay--in the English speaking world, that is--that has greeted Herta Müller's win. Dedi Felman writes:
The problem many non-specialists (and here I count a large swath of publishers, press, booksellers, lovers of literature and non-Germanists etc) have with Herta Müller isn’t that she isn’t known. It’s that, at least until they’ve all had a chance to read her and perhaps discover differently, she’s not better loved. She’s critically acclaimed in Germany, but she’s not a bestseller. She’s topical, but it’s unclear whether her writing is all that accessible.
I think it's a good point that gets lost in all the vaguely (or not so vaguely) nationalistic, decidedly provincial hoopla surrounding the award.

Also I totally agree re: the delightfulness of Wislawa Szymborska. Her Nonrequired Reading is just about the most perfect subway commute reading I can imagine. You know, in case anyone was looking for a recommendation.

Monday, October 12, 2009

American Ballet Theatre at Avery Fisher

I found the choice of Avery Fisher Hall as a performance space frustrating. The cheapest unobstructed seats were $40 and while normally I'd just suck it up and deal with the obstructed seats I couldn't do that this time around because I was bringing my elderly grandmother. So that was a blow to the budget. While none of the Lincoln Center buildings I've been in are particularly beautiful, Avery Fisher, with its odd glass enclosure around the auditorium and its mustard-colored seats, is particularly unappelaing. Also, I had an allergy attack while there so that was nice. Still, the hall wasn't entirely without its advantages as we could see well from our seats at the back of the third tier and it was fun to see the dancers warming up during each intermission. Whether they enjoy having an audience for that I don't know—I imagine they're entirely indifferent—but it was an interesting peek behind the scenes for us.

Ratmansky, more than any other choreographer whose work I'm familiar with, is one whose new work I'm always excited to see. Even when he fails ("Pierrot Lunaire," which I found miserable) or gives us a flawed work ("On the Dnieper" which I adore despite its flaws) there's a sense that he's at least trying to do something interesting within the context of the ballet tradition. His dancers seem to relate to one another as people first and dancers second. He puts characters on the stage and then has them interact with one another in ways that seem quite natural. In doing this he clearly gives genuine consideration to who his dancers are and where their strengths and weaknesses lie. They're neither interchangeable nor faceless and so it's easy to care about the people in a Ratmansky ballet. But in presenting these characters he doesn't neglect the need for interesting, varied movement and into his streams of steps he inserts small, happy surprises and motifs to which you're delighted to return. There's a balance to his successful choreography that makes it comfortable to watch without being easy.

"Seven Sonatas" is probably the least ambitious of the Ratmansky ballets that I've seen. He's certainly not reinventing the wheel here. And yet its beautifully crafted. Could it have been a tad shorter--say "Six Sonatas"? I think so. But that could very well be my own personal lack of patience. Although reminiscent of Robbins ballets like the larger "Dances at a Gathering," I think “Seven Sonatas” lacks the (occasionally bitter)sweetness and nostalgia that give that ballet its power. Rather, this ballet feels like it takes place very much in the present with three distinct couples living out their own personal dramas. And yet, because no one exists in isolation in a Ratmansky ballet, these pairs occasionally overlap in the Venn diagrams of community life. Herman Cornejo and Sarah Lane were the flirty fun couple (of course, they're short and in ballet that means they're the fun ones), while Stella Abrera and Gennadi Saveliev seemed weighted down by some undefined sorrow. David Hallberg, meanwhile, was often left searching for an elusive Julie Kent. But over the course of the ballet all three couple step outside themselves to interact as a community. It's an entire small world on stage and you feel richer for having experienced it.

Coming after "Seven Sonatas" Aszure Barton's "One of Three" felt impoverished both in feeling and in movement. It seemed like she didn't quite know what to do with her talented dancers. Why bother using Gillian Murphy if all you're going to have her do is look lovely in a long white dress and lift her leg in the air? Why did all the men seem so interchangeable? Surely it wasn't just the suits. I feel like it's not fair to say only that something isn't interesting, because that's a conversation killer. If you're simply bored by something then what more is there to discuss?But the truth is, I just wasn't interested in this ballet.

The most ambitious ballet of the evening—which followed Clark Tippet's enjoyable, but in my opinion too long, “Some Assembly Required”--was Millipied's “Everything Doesn't Happen at Once.” Although I didn't love it, I also didn't think it was as much of a mess as many of the critics did. Certainly it was the crowd pleaser of the evening and that's not inherently a bad thing. It sent the audience out happy while at least attempting to do something of artistic value and that in itself seems like a plus for an art form that struggles to find an audience and often resorts to impressive levels of tackiness in its attempts to draw people into the theater.

My grandmother and I speculated that maybe the view of this ballet was actually better—clearer, less confused--from our seats than it was from those closer and lower seats that the critics occupy. We thought that from lower down the stage might seem muddled and confused to a greater extent than it did from the third tier. (If this wasn't the case, please don't disillusion me, I'm enjoying that fantasy that I had particularly desirable seats for a change.)

To my untutored eye the ballet had three major problems. The first is that the space was just a bit too small. I don't think that it needs a large stage, but it needs a stage that's a touch larger. The second is that the transitions from section to section seem somewhat slapdash. And the third (which I actually think is the root of the second) is that the central duet is just not strong. All that seems to matter here is the mechanics of the dancing. Marcelo Gomes is a delightfully charismatic dancer with a strong stage presence and yet the only thing the audience gets to see is what he's physically capable of doing. Which is impressive, but he brings so much more to the table. I'm less familiar with Isabella Boylston but she seems like a lovely dancer. Surely she too is capable of projecting more personality if only she's given the material to work with. These problems undermine any coherence and leave the viewer with a ballet that has a lot of excitement but lacks clarity.

That's a shame, because I actually thought there was a lot to enjoy here. Of all the choreographers, Millipied seems to have thought most about how he could use the unusual dance space in an interesting way. I liked that he used white flooring to lend a degree of definition to the performance space and I also liked that he allowed the borders of that space to remain permeable. The regimented way in which he mobilized groups of dancers was intriguing and I loved the way he employed applause-machine Daniil Simkin to add and element of chaos and bringing light to what was otherwise a dark piece.

I thought you could feel Millipied working through problems throughout the ballet. I just wish it were a work in progress as opposed to a finished ballet because I think that what it needs is not a trip to the scrap heap but a little editing and rethinking. Unfortunately, I'm not under the impression that ballet choreographers have much opportunity to revise their work. It's a shame because I think that what we saw should be, "Everything Doesn't Happen at Once: First Draft," and I'd be eager to see the second version.