Wednesday, January 30, 2013

NYCB—Balanchine + Tchaikovsky FTW

Sara Mearns in Swan Lake. Photo: Paul Kolnik
New York City Ballet's Tchaikovsky festival has been a crash refresher on Balanchine's choreography to the composer's music, and their interconnectedness. Seven works over two recent programs show Balanchine's varied approaches. One dance in itself—Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3—includes excellent and mediocre Balanchine, a sort of Frankenstein of a ballet that pushes together 1970s sections (marked by a distracting scrim, bare feet, long hair, and longer skirts) with Themes and Variations, a hallmark of Mr. B's classic period from 1947. When the scrim is removed for the finale, it's like a veil is snatched from our eyes, eliciting the desired effect of clarity.

Mearns with Ask La Cour in Diamonds. Photo: Paul Kolnik
The house is always more electric whenever Sara Mearns takes the stage, and in these two programs she led the casts of Swan Lake (1951) and Diamonds (1967). Both of these roles are big enough for Mearns, who faces the odd problem of having too much magnetism for some ensemble works. But as the sole white swan in Balanchine's strange one-acter, she is pretty much the sole focus, alongside her swain in the form of Jared Angle. This version excerpts selections, a "best hits" medley of the full ballet, except that it excludes the black swan variations. Without the Odette/Odile duality, the full drama can only be hinted at. It does display Mearns' pliant back attitude, which slashes high at an angle, rather than creating the 90º geometrical structure that usually gives this position an aura of reliable rationality, rather than danger. It's a small example of why Mearns is so riveting—always choosing the dramatic over the safe.

Diamonds offers fewer moments for big drama, with its staid pace and conservative vocabulary. When paired with Emeralds and Rubies, it is the boring section of repose and dignity. Mearns was partnered by Ask la Cour, who framed her capably and never quite drew attention to himself, as is his wont. She plunged into arabesques and tossed her gaze high into the rafters when given the chance, rising to glitter like the pseudonymous gem.

Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck in Divertimento. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild performed Divertimento from "Le Baiser de la Fée." Peck comes closest to the perfect combination of precision and artistry in the current company's women, and she has an omnipresent natural radiance and sheer joyousness. In previous years it could have been mistaken for youth, but as she matures this sense of pleasure is expanding. Fairchild dances with a fetching, jazzy musicality; he's a dashing cavalier, but his line is less than exemplary. Still, he is fun to watch.

Speaking of exemplary line, Chase Finlay, rocketing through major roles, debuted in the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux with Ashley Bouder. A daring bit of casting by Mr. Martins, for sure, as Finlay has proved himself in roles with less traditional partnering required. But other than some jitters and a few small bobbles, he fared well. Granted, Bouder could literally partner herself, one of several NYCB women of great independent strength. I hope she relaxes a bit more and plays with the extra time she creates by being on top of steps, ahead of time, rather than freezing in poses on relévé. Or watch Tiler Peck a little more closely as she, equally facile with her steps, elongates or expands on the lushness within ballet's shapes.

Ashley Bouder and Chase Finlay in Tchai Pas. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Martin's Bal du Couture was the sole contribution by the choreographer, a gala confection created to acknowledge fashion designer Valentino and showcase his costume designs. Studded with 20 principals and soloists, it is less about the dance and a lot about style and runway attitude. Most of the women wear leg-hiding, calf-length black and white gowns with a frisson of red tulle underskirting flashing now and then, and pink or red toe shoes. The  three "sprites" (Bouder, Megan Fairchild, and Peck, in the sole red costume) wear bagel-shaped tutus. All are strangely unflattering. However, the men, in fitted tuxedos with tapered legs, look dashing. Even among these beautiful people, Finlay stood out with his Abercrombie appeal, elegant line, and pristine posture in the ballroom waltz as he swirled with Peck.

Megan Fairchild and Amar Ramasar danced Allegro Brillante (1956). I haven't seen Ramasar featured prominently as a partner (he replaced Andrew Veyette), and while, in my mind, he is less a technician than a memorable dramatic presence, they were surprisingly well matched. Fairchild is another woman who's strong on her own, and not strictly reliant on her partner. She fits comfortably into Balanchine's repertory, giving reliably textbook performances that have yet to ignite great passion. Next up: Justin Peck's second major commission.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Books: Gone Girl

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn has been on lots of 2012 best of lists, and I finally got to it. It's about a woman, Amy, who disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary, and the time leading up to and after that event. Chapters alternate in the voices of Amy and her husband Nick (both writers struggling with careers in magazine publishing) and their shifting self-perception, thought processes, and shocking actions. 

It casts a domestic veil on the depths of depravity of which humans are capable; it also sheds light on the light and dark complexities of love. The dual points of view keep it lively, as do Flynn's characters, whose sinister potential is a bottomless abyss.

Apparently a movie adaptation is in the works, with Reese Witherspoon producing and presumably starring, but its conversion to the screen will lack much of the essential bizarre thought process of the protagonists. Their self-delusion is part of the book's fascination, demanding the reader to reconcile internal and external perceptions. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Ballet fanatics and fans

If the horrific acid attack on Bolshoi artistic director Sergei Filin was linked to artistic decisions, it shows how deeply passions run in Moscow when it comes to ballet. In New York, such fanaticism is incomprehensible (and this one of the few upshots of a basic lack of support for dance in the US) but then such an act of terrorism anywhere in one of the most refined arts is also beyond understanding. Fanatics are merely fans here. But with each season, it is easy to see how fans become attached to certain dancers as they blossom in front of our eyes, encouraged by our applause and shouts of support. You feel a part of their artistic development and creation. With the exception of a few veterans, the current young crop of principals suddenly seem like the grown-ups, after years of being the kids. It's also the emergence of new dancers in the spotlight that skews the curve even younger.

Sara Mearns in Serenade. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Ballet fans settled back into the rhythms of a new season at New York City Ballet this week; subscribers greeted one another like classmates after a summer break. Seat locations seemed to be as habitual as returning to last year's homeroom. Course work this season places an emphasis on Balanchine's repertory to Tchaikovsky, a promisingly hearty subject for the heart of winter. Serenade, both a cornerstone of the company's rep and one of the easiest going down, also returned Sara Mearns to the stage after an injury. Her larger-than-life presence is always somewhat jarring and part of her appeal, but in this role debut, she seemed tamed, less reckless, more reliant upon her solid partner Jared Angle emotionally instead of simply physically. In the later section after she let down her hair and lay alone, beached, it was apparent how cleverly Balanchine inserted simmering psychological undercurrents borrowed from Greek myth. 

Ashley Bouder is as different from Mearns as could be. I can't fault her attack, speed, and precision, but she rushes her phrasing, negating any inherent musicality, and lets pride and satisfaction creep distractingly onto her face. It has more the effect of a gymnast completing her routine. Adrian Danchig-Waring is one of the dancers establishing himself in the repertory, and with each season relaxes more into his ample physical gifts and sense of refinement. In contrast with Bouder, he could let some feelings register on his face, which tends toward the stoic.

Ideally matched: Sterling Hyltin and Chase Finlay in Mozartiana. Photo: Paul Kolnik

In Mozartiana, Sterling Hyltin and Chase Finlay made an ideal pair, proportion and style wise. Hyltin is one of the principals who, while still young, has become a firmament in the company, dancing larger than ever while losing none of her delicacy. Finlay emerged with a splash a few seasons ago, landing Apollo and other prime roles, and setting himself up for disappointment. Yet he has kept up with expectations, expanding his technique and partnering, while needing to work on his stamina. He has found an excellent match in Hyltin, whose independent strength is a gift for her partner as he finds his full power.

Anthony Huxley in Mozartiana. Photo: Paul Kolnik

The evening's big revelation, if no surprise, was the young soloist Anthony Huxley performing the gigue. Huxley is a small man with great talents; as with his peers of the same type, it's a matter of finding the right roles. This prominent isolated solo showed off his skill with detail, his refinement, his witty musicality. The dance of cameo-sized moments and miniature tableaux with students perfectly displayed his assets.

Teresa Reichlen and Tyler "The Perfect" Angle in Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 featured Teresa Reichlen and Tyler Angle, who, with his consummate partnering skills, has rapidly graduated to dancing with the largest and boldest of the women. It's not just his supporting skills, it's that he doesn't sublimate his own poetic presence while managing to frame his partner, in part with his absolutely pitch-perfect, innate épaulement. It has taken me awhile to appreciate Reichlen's cool confidence and sly reserve, but here I am. She heightens pretty much everything she's in. Ana Sophia Scheller was the other featured dancer; her confidence and brio always draw the eye but I have yet to fully comprehend why she earned the rank of principal. This music is challenging and oftentimes not dancy at all, but it's one of many challenges that Balanchine faced, met, and left for us to savor. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

For all eternity, or at least until the bolt cutters come

In the last couple of years, a trend has picked up steam: clipping padlocks to the Brooklyn Bridge. Usually the locks are inscribed by Sharpie, or even engraved, with couples' names, like the old heart-carved-in-a-tree. They've been accumulating so quickly that people have taken to locking locks to locks. Then every once in awhile, the maintenance guys come along with giant bolt cutters and get rid of them. So much for 4ever.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Mickalene Thomas—Origin of the Universe

Sleep Deux Femmes Noires
How do you even begin to look at the work of Mickalene Thomas, on view in a show titled Origin of the Universe, at Brooklyn Museum through January 20th? (I also caught a show of hers at Lehman Maupin, now closed.)

There are many layers to her paintings. Here's how my mind processes them.

1. Sparkles! She uses rhinestones and cut glass beading lavishly, lending kitsch to the kitsch in addition to the eye-catching, shiny embellishments.

2. Strong women of African heritage. She frequently depicts her mother, in addition to a regular rotation of models. They strike often confrontational poses, gazing straight ahead, or sometimes lying in tortured, arranged poses, porn-style, or like odalisques (and therein questioning the difference) which leads to...

3. Modern masters' influences. Manet, Monet, Matisse, Cezanne, Bearden. Thomas recently had a residency in Giverny, France. She quotes compositions and genres by these artists, such as....

4. Landscapes or interiors. They're not literal, but you get a sense of a Matisse interior, or Monet's highly artificial natural world.

5. Color and pattern. Part of the kitsch equation. Upholstery, wall treatments, carpeting, furniture, are all covered with an unimaginable mix of bright colors and geometric or animal print patterning.

6. Interior design. Thomas refereneces a decorating guide from the 1970s, in all its wood panelled, avocado-hued glory. Another layer in the kitsch millefeuille. There is also a neat series of interiors showing her handstitched, crazy-quilt upholstery, outfitted with cultural ephemera to further embroider Thomas' 'scapes.

7. Abstract composition. So you have patterned and colored "tiles" broken apart like ice on a pond, only the surrounding water is bright orange. Shards of imagery, shards of pattern or color, all floating and cohering or battling visually, bound together by rhinestone lines.

8. Texture. Thomas collages matte imagery with glossy painted shapes, sometimes crumpling the finish to give a plasticity to an object. If everything in one composition were black, it would still be a fascinating picture.

9. Presentation. She rounds the corners of her pieces, which more evoke the width and density of big, cheap doors than stretched canvases. Sometimes she places them on easel-like structures, giving them a friendly, salon feel. She places photos of her models behind a stack of angled gold frames, which could be read as societal context or stereotyping.

Thomas created a mural for Barclays Center and recently had dual shows at Lehman Maupin Gallery's two New York spaces. And though her work may have great commercial potential, it is strongly rooted in the history of art.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Books—Louise Erdrich, The Round House

Louise Erdrich is easy to take for granted: she's pigeonholed as the author who writes fiction about contemporary Native Americans, with the privilege of regular pieces in The New Yorker. But The Round House shows why she's nominated for awards and is perpetually on "best of" lists (mine included). 

The protagonist in her new novel is the 13-year-old Joe whose life, while very different than, say, a New Yorker's, has a similar banal rhythm, even if it involves finding "grandfathers" (ideal stones) for a sweat lodge or overhearing an elder spin spooky tales in his sleep. The exotic in time becomes familiar, perhaps analogous to being a Native, and an outsider, in the US. 

His mother undergoes a traumatic event that he seeks to avenge. It's not just the suspenseful outcome that hooks you, but the casual conversations between friends and family,  the hilarious observations of character. For Joe, the son of a judge and studying catechism with a bodybuilding priest, moral questions become murkier rather than more clear.

Here, a passage where his father cooks dinner:

My father divided the pie into three equal pieces and laid a slab of Blue Bunny vanilla on top of each piece. I got to finish my mother's. She started teasing my father about the stew.
   Exactly how old were those turnips?
   Older than Joe.
   And where did you get that onion?
   That's my little secret.
   And the meat, roadkill?
   Oh god, no. It died in the backyard.

So simple and clean, yet so profound and free of sickly sentiment that can bog down such topics. She treats serious and light subject matter alike with a masterful touch, and discards quotation marks to streamline things further. These small innovations compounded with each page and left me in awe, sad that it was finished.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A Fête to Remember

Chateau de Goult. Ancient and modern.
Mark Bittman and Sam Sifton recently spent 8 or so pages in The New York Times Magazine on cooking a meal for 15 friends on one day, from shopping to clean up. 

Well biiiiiig deal.

Two summers ago, one of my childhood pals, whom I'll call S., threw a once-in-a-lifetime birthday celebration. She had scouted locations in the south of France, deciding on the quirky, charming Château de Goult, in Provence east of Avignon, the core of which is an 11th-century chateau. It was recently refurbished with ultra modern bathroom fixtures, and some rooms have been added here and there over the centuries, plus a short lap pool and a big sun deck adjacent to the ancient watchtower. It accommodated about 30 of us, and 10 more stayed in a nearby hotel, making 40 total.

The rosé with a custom label by S's aunt. 
My husband, A., is an excellent cook, and had been pegged by S. two years prior to be one of the main chefs for the week in France for at least a couple meals; she'd planned to recruit other friends to cook as well. A. had just cooked a dinner for another friend's wedding reception of about 30 guests, and is no stranger to elaborate meals for up to a dozen. Still, not much prepares one for cooking for 40 people in one day, three times in one week, in a—literally—foreign kitchen. 

The first step is the shopping, which in a network of small towns, can be catch as catch can. After arriving on a Saturday (the turnaround day for rentals), we set out on Sunday after a leisurely breakfast, around 11am, to the local supermarket. It was jam-packed with everyone else trying to shop for the weekend. We discovered the store closed at noon on Sundays, which was why the checkout lines reached halfway back into the store's aisles. We could hardly negotiate the cart for all the crowds. The closest I'd seen to this was the Atlantic Mall Pathmark in Brooklyn, which I'm convinced is the retail manifestation of purgatory. 

So A. hurried to the meat section to see what could be the centerpiece of dinner, and joyfully discovered four leg of lamb roasts which he would garnish with garlic and branches of rosemary plucked from local bushes. The produce section yielded celeriac, which he made into a remoulade. S.'s older son would turn eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, and squash into ratatouille in the second kitchen in the guest wing. And I, being the Starch Queen at home, would make vats of couscous. S. had a small team making plum tarts. The menu, in French:
  • Celeri Remoulade
  • Gigot
  • Ratatouille
  • Couscous
  • Tarte aux Reines-claudes

Things went fairly smoothly. There was much running back and forth between the kitchens in search of particular pans or utensils. One of the hardest tasks was actually serving, and then clearing, dishes for 40 people at once. The kids were recruited for waitstaff duty, and others did dish duty. 

S. is a true artist, a retired ballerina who now has a jewelry designing business. Her taste is elegant and impeccable. Her eye for detail is combined with a tireless work ethic and faith in others to be likewise inspired. So she took it upon herself to seat dinner, for 40, in five different locations for the six nights. Simple, eh?

Dinner 1: a Pangea of tables. 
The first night's meal was in a huge dining hall. Several tables were pushed together, like Pangea before it broke into separate continents. Many speeches were made, and the first dozens of bottles of rosé drunk that had been specially labeled by a local vintner with artwork by S.'s aunt, an artist. Amazingly, our concern was not whether there'd be enough wine, but whether we could drink it fast enough.