Monday, July 27, 2020

Never Have I Ever Saves the Summer of 2020

Lee Rodriguez, Maitreyi Ramakrishna, Ramona Young 
in Never Have I Ever

Young adult shows are mainstay guilty pleasures. Riverdale is a current leading entry, although it jumped the shark a few seasons ago—Archie runs a boxing gym, and Veronica a speakeasy and rum producing company, all while going to high school and solving crimes? Mmm, okay. And Riverdale is the hotseat of syndicated crime and/or mass murderers…? no prob. I miss coming-of-age shows including Gossip Girl and Jane the Virgin and the gold standard, Friday Night Lights. But the cursed summer of 2020 has borne new tv treasures which not only tell teen stories, but embrace a more inclusive narrative.

Foremost: Never Have I Ever (Netflix, 10 episodes), created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, which follows Devi, an American-Indian teen who has just recovered from psychosomatic trauma caused by the sudden death of her father. She’s trying to get back to a normal high schooler’s life, but as we all know, to begin with that’s an overload of emotional turmoil and social awkwardness, never mind a trauma. Maitreyi Ramakrishna plays Devi in her first acting role. Apparently Kaling did an open casting call, and somehow found someone who’s naturally comfortable onscreen and talks like I’d imagine a typical smart, sassy Sherman Oaks teen would. Devi has a crush on Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet), a multi-racial 29 year old in real life. Amazing story—Kaling didn’t know Barnet’s full heritage until she heard him speaking Japanese, and so “Yoshida” was added onto “Hall” for his name.

Two of the cast’s other three featured young classmates are non-white—Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and Eleanor (Ramona Young) are Devi’s closest pals, each grappling with her own big issue. Ben (Jaren Lewison)—rich and completely ignored by his self-absorbed parents—is Devi’s nemesis at the start of the series; they’ve been academic rivals since childhood, and through the series, their relationship takes twists and turns to take them to a new level. John McEnroe is the off-screen narrator (with one fantastic guest spin by Andy Samberg), which underscores the bottled up rage that simmers in Devi’s heart.

Devi also struggles with satisfying the fraying Indian traditions carried on begrudgingly by her dermatologist mom (the acerbic Poorna Jagannathan), and even more unwillingly by her hot cousin, Kamala (Richa Moorjani), who’s staying with Devi and her mom while finishing a doctorate, and being matched up with a potential suitor by her parents. (Meta note: Kamala becomes obsessed with Riverdale after Devi introduces her to it.) Devi is seeing a therapist (Niecy Nash), so in her hilariously frank sessions, we hear what’s really going through her head.

My favorite episode is five: “...started a nuclear war.” Ben leads a team going to a model UN, and Devi joins at the last minute. (They’re such well-matched rivals that they’d split up all potential extracurricular activities between them to avoid running up against each other. Devi broke their pact for the model UN in order to escape her being grounded.) Ben (repping the USA) runs afoul of Devi (Ecuatorial Guinea), who winds up making a deal with Russia, a social outcast, to borrow a nuclear bomb to attack the US in exchange for Devi’s “real” email address. The script is perfect and hilarious, and their exchange in the UN conference is an apt metaphor for all the complexities of their interpersonal angst. Ramakrishna’s timing and realistic cool-kid patois are remarkable, and she’s allowed to look like a regular teen, not overly made up or too glam to be believed. Best of all is the dialogue, worth rewatching the season to catch every brilliant bit of snark and wit. A second season has been slated. Hallelujah!

Wyatt Oleff & Sophia Lillis in I Am Not Okay With This

I Am Not Okay With This (Netflix) shares devices with Never. High schooler Sidney (Sophia Lillis) also lost her dad at a young age, and she’s also undergoing therapy sessions, which reveal some of her deepest thoughts. Her blue collar mom also struggles to relate to her and be there as much as she and her little brother need. Sidney also deals with intense rage and trauma, but hers manifests in telekinesis, rather than McEnroe. It’s violent, and at first uncontrollable. Stan (Wyatt Oleff) is her weird, endearing neighbor/classmate who becomes her friend and confidant, and develops a crush on her. Her usual BFF, Dina (Sofia Bryant) has been ditching Sid for a popular, cheating football-star boyfriend. I haven't finished the first season, but its brand of quirk and angst are addictive. 

I never read The Babysitter’s Club books, but the new series is endearing in a nostalgic way. The title is basically the plot frame; for some reason, the five core girls comprising the club have to gather in cool kid Claudia’s room and wait by a landline phone for jobs to come in (while they all have cell phones). Good reason to gather them in one place. There are the expected characters twists, moral-of-the-story plotlines, clueless parents, and intergroup dynamics. All the girls live in enviable huge houses in fictional Stoneybrook, Connecticut (by way of LA, it would seem), where it never seems to rain. But it’s visual comfort food.

The racial diversity on-screen has been a welcome change in this summer of #BLM. Not so much I Am Not Okay, which has one non-white lead, but the leads are definitely off-beat. Many of the characters are basically outcasts, or struggle with relationships. Spoiler alert! At the end of season one of Never, Devi has two boys pursuing her romantically, even after conflicts with both. And in Never and Babysitter’s Club, the kids deemed “coolest” are actually Asian, or part Asian. In Never, inter-Asian racism jokes pop up, to hilarious effect. Eleanor’s mom, who’s supposed to be leading a production of Thoroughly Modern Millie on a cruise liner, turns up waiting tables in a local Mexican joint. When Paxton tells Eleanor he saw her mom there, Eleanor, not able to process the idea, accuses Paxton of thinking all Asians look alike. He tells her he’s part Asian, which shocks his doofus buddy. “That’s what the Yoshida part is, dude! Japanese!,” barks Paxton. Eleanor goes to the restaurant to see if it really might be her mom, and grabs another Asian waitress from behind. It’s not her mom, and she says, “that was really racist of me.”

And Claudia, in Babysitter’s Club, is played by Momona Tamada, of Japanese descent. Not only does her fantastic room, complete with candy hidden in the armchair, serve as HQ, Claudia is an artist, and dresses like a brazen bohemian. Without question, she’s the coolest kid around. (Tamada played the young Lara Jean in the To All the Boys' second film.) Another of the girls, Maryann, is half Black, half white. Her mom is dead (what’s with all these prematurely dying parents?), leaving her in her very white dad’s care. Maryann has worn her long hair in two braids her entire life. Turns out it’s the only hairstyle her dad knew how to do. So she changes up her hair, as well as the overalls she’s always worn, and eschews the wheelie backpack that she’s always used, which was supposed to be orthopedically beneficial. 


Minju Kim design

Next in Fashion (Netflix) is another show that centered Asians, both in the ranks of competing fashion designers, and in the hosting/judging spots. It’s co-hosted by a couple of cool cats—the fabulous Tan France of Queer Eye, and Alexa Chung, who is part Chinese. While season one took awhile to pique my interest—the designers begin by working in pairs, which in standards like Project Runway, usually spells forced discord—it wound up so much better than its nearest chronological competitor, Making the Cut (on Amazon, hosted by old PR hands Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn).

Spoiler alert! Several Asians wound up in the final group (by then working solo), and the winner—Minju, from Korea—was one of the least likely from the outset, at least going by traditional indicators of emotional makeup and a cool aesthetic. But her designs had straddled tradition and futurism the whole season, ultimately winding up on the latter end. Her voluminous designs were feminine, but not in the typically western way of snug fitting, comfort second, and high heels. Minju’s aesthetic really does feel like a way forward in fashion without ceding innovation to male perceptions of how women should look. Her palette sang, too, plus her self-effacing nature—which admittedly could grate—became genuinely moving in her humble acceptance notes.

So in this summer of covid and #BLM, I sought some refuge in mainly light entertainment, but which packed a personal wallop by moving Asians toward the focus. It’s not only their significant presence, but that they speak with no accents and are simply integrated into larger social groups. The just-ended series Fresh Off the Boat had its moments, but the forced (and ever shifting) imitation Chinese-English accents of Louis and Jessica were never highlights. Glad to see tv evolving and embracing non-white leads who are just American kids.

ps - apologies for the terrible layout; Blogger has a new version, and I have not mastered it!

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The sad side of Symphony in C

New York City Ballet performing Symphony in C in 1973

How sad is it that composer Georges Bizet never witnessed his Symphony in C being performed? He wrote it in 1855 in about a month when he was 17 as a student exercise while studying under Charles Gounod at the Paris Conservatoire. It was shelved, and would ultimately be unearthed by Bizet’s biographer and given its first performance in 1935 in Switzerland. (Sections of it would survive in other works.)

And in 1947 at Paris Opera Ballet, George Balanchine choreographed the pseudonymous ballet to it, and New York City Ballet performed it the next year at City Center. The dance would become one of his hallmarks of classical ballet, and remains a standard in large ballet company repertory, noted for its vivacity, dynamic shifts, dancey musicality, devilish technique, and as a show of a large company’s depth. When ABT performed it at City Center a few years back, the stage was so full in the finale, with 50 some odd dancers, that it seemed some might fall into the orchestra pit.

There’s a theory that Bizet didn’t perform Symphony in C as it shares some traits with his teacher Charles Gounod’s Symphony in D (also from 1855). Indeed, there are similarities, in fact some direct references, but Gounod’s is more atmospheric, pensive, and far less rhythmic and jaunty. Perhaps it is a reflex reaction developed by watching the ballet so many times, but I can’t help bounce along with Bizet’s irresistible melodies. And, written at 17!

It’s also a testament to the power of dance to underscore and delineate the music’s essence. Each of the four ballet movements is distinctive, offering each of its four lead couples an occasion to show off their finest characteristics, from allegro to andante. Is there a more heartrending passage than the end of the adagio section when the man lowers the woman through a spiral to rest on his knee? Even in a time-marking vamp in the allegro section, Balanchine enlivens it by having the dancers bounce between small pliés and relevés. The men pay homage to Balanchine's idea of "woman as ballet" by brushing the backs of their hands along the womens’ tutus. And the full-cast finale never fails to impress, a gigantic swiss timepiece clicking and whirring, each dancer/jewel in their place. The corps is just as important as the featured pairs. It’s also one ballet that both ABT and NYCB have both performed, with ABT’s feeling somehow more authentic.

Bizet may have borrowed enough melodic notions from his teacher to prevent a performance of it in his lifetime. But he might be pleased to learn that his composition has become ensconced in 21st century culture, and that even Gounod, if a little envious, might have been proud of its success.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Oh, hi

Paul Taylor Dance Company in 22 Rooms
Hello again, it's been awhile!

You can probably guess what I've been doing... same as you, most likely, holing up except for a daily walk, eating, and watching tv and videos, while trying to stay alive. So far, so good.

Of course I miss live performances, but the dance world is resilient and inventive, and has begun migrating online to YouTube and Zoom. Of particular note are works created online, rather than prerecorded videos of actual theater performances. 

Paul Taylor Dance Company has an accruing suite of short dances called 22 Rooms. They're choreographed by Larry Keigwin, who distinguishes himself in whatever he does, and works well with the confines of isolating and iPhones. He somehow manages to create intimacy and community even as the screen is chopped into cubes.
Jamar Roberts in Cooped

Mark Morris Dance Group livestreamed Dance On!, an evening of chat and short Zoom pieces that felt more performance/visual art based than dancey. Morris' choreography is so space-eating, with emotions usually expressed with the full body, but close-ups of faces imparted more mime and acting. Another treat shared by MMDG is a slate of online classes to stream, some featuring choreography by Morris for works such as L'Allegro and Pepperland.

Guggenheim's Works & Process has labeled its online collection as WPA, meaning Works & Process Artists, while evoking the spirit rousing federal project of the 20th century. The pieces are short, digestible and wide-ranging. Jamar Roberts' Cooped is as much artwork as dance, and captures not only the feeling of being trapped, but of being a top dancer in prime condition, unable to fully share his skill and passion.

No doubt there are many more online commissions, but I've also been relishing New York City Ballet's "digital spring season," smartly planned to mirror what would've been their six-week Koch Theater run. Their current post is a highlight reel of recent 21st-century works, completely worth watching to catch you up on the company's buzz-worthy recent seasons, with unmissable clips of Taylor Stanley in Kyle Abraham's The Runaway, and Robbie Fairchild and Justin Peck in the latter's The Times Are Racing. It's only up through June 1 (I think), so watch soon!

And despite feeling distanced from all these amazing dancers, the use of Zoom gives us close-up glimpses of their faces as well as their abodes. In a sense, we get to know them better. Plus, so many cats! 

Friday, April 10, 2020

Bits of Silver Lining

New supervisor, Frankie
Hope all are staying safe and sane. I realize it's been awhile since I've posted; my brain has felt like mush since Covid began. I’m trying to see the silver lining amid the outbreak, so here goes!

I’m finally getting enough sleep.

I can slow down my reading pace since the library is shut, thus my hold queue is also frozen.

I don’t have to endure subway rides, whether relatively short to work, or longer to/from the upper west side to see shows.

Every time I leave the apartment, I feel a sense of daring and adventure, even if not always in a good way. Going to the grocery store makes me feel like an anarchist; my homemade mask abets that feeling.

I can’t complain about having to go see a long ballet show after I’ve worked a full day, even if this is obviously not a real problem.

Every slight cough from a dry throat makes me think deeply about more serious implications, and appreciative when it turns out to be nothing, as it has.


Thanks to a gourmet food supplier, have discovered nduja—spreadable, spicy salami—and that apparently it will make every dish better. 
Scrambled eggs with nduja

The apartment is cleaner than it’s ever been.

I don’t have to strain my brain setting up my calendar and future appointments.

I don’t have to worry about whether I’ll have my own lane at the swimming pool, or if I’ll get a crappy locker location or a good one.


I don’t have to watch the Mets endure some random, heart-breaking injury or loss or bone-headed trade.

I can watch The Great British Baking Show without guilt.

My cat is getting a lot more attention from me, and vice versa.

What's on your list?

Monday, March 2, 2020

New York Notebook—February 2020

Rotunda. Photo: Erin Baiano
Prior to the performance including Rotunda, Justin Peck’s latest dance for New York City Ballet, Peck appeared in front of the curtain to introduce the “art series” evening which also included Jerome Robbins' In G Major and Chris Wheeldon's DGV. In casual clothes, Peck could’ve (and may have) just hopped off his skateboard on his way to the park. His relaxed demeanor extended to his colloquialisms; he repeated “you guys” numerous times, referring to us in the audience—us guys. This feeling of community, which is tangible in his choreography, perhaps emanates from the company as a tribe, now led by recent company members Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan.

Foremost, Peck’s dances are sociable gatherings, occasions to play or compete—or both. They also demonstrate that his first language is ballet, and dancers are his words, to be pliantly and fluently put to use. His movement can translate “you guys” into expressive phrases that capture that amiability and freshness. As we’ve learned with each new dance he creates, there are several subgenres to his oeuvre, and Rotunda falls within the core bunch of plotless, pointe shoe ballets with a relaxed, warm feeling. The fact that it followed  Robbins’ In G Major underscored the connection between the two choreographers.

Peck’s dances continue to offer up gifts to the dancers. Rotunda gives the unassuming principal Gonzalo Garcia one of his finest, most expansive roles yet. At the piece’s start, he lies onstage alone, to be joined by 11 others wearing Bartelme/Jung’s appealing, variegated tights and tops. The group draws into a cluster, then cleaves into two rings—one led by Garcia, the other by Sara Mearns—which intersect like Venn diagrams, orbiting across the stage, and pulling toward the downstage corners as the groups collectively tendu their feet. Mearns walks as if she’s on the street, sunken into her hips, feet turned out ballerina-walk style, shoulders rolled forward slightly. Her partner in an extended duet, Gilbert Bolden III, is a larger than average, striking dramatic presence, a counterpoint to Mearns' bold demeanor.

It’s not easy to continue to innovate while continuing to create using the well-established ballet vocabulary, but small tweaks dot Peck’s largely effortless syntax: a woman’s slightly bent knee in a split lift, a man doing a split penché arabesque (showing valuable new soloist Jovani Furlan’s flexibility), quick direction shifts following deep pliés. Garcia has a riveting solo in which he repeats inside attitude triple pirouettes and flitting petit allegro variations with ease, showing us the quiet strengths which have been lurking inside of him all along.

Mercy. Photo: Julieta Cervantes
Ronald K. Brown’s Evidence: A Dance Company performed a new work alongside some old favorites at the Joyce. Grace, now 20 years old and commissioned by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, remains one of his finest and most consistently thrilling works. It’s one of the rare dances performed intermittently in New York by Ailey and its choreographer’s native company, giving us a chance to see it in a larger house by a shinier cast (Ailey), and closer up by a group more attuned to the nuances and rhythms of Brown’s lexicon. (Also, for the first time among many that I’ve seen it, the men did not dance shirtless in a section late in the dance, which can often elicit hoots from the audience.) There are fewer—no?—works of dance that evoke more joy than Grace, plain and simple.

The evening led off with High Life, a suite that evolves from traditional song and garb to modern, including the infectious beats of the title genre. The New York premiere of Mercy featured elegant fabric “columns” (Tsubasa Kamei) and somewhat bulky costumes by Omotayo Wunmi Olaiya (who designed all costumes for the program). To mood-shifting music by Meshell Ndegeocello, and led by the dynamic Annique Roberts wearing a dramatic mesh headpiece, the dancers ebbed and flowed across the stage, punching, slashing, spinning, their skirt and tunic panels flying. As a company, Evidence looks strong and  confident, with a luminous relative newcomer in Joyce Edwards—statuesque, silky, quick, and completely magnetic. Hard to believe this still fresh-feeling troupe celebrates 35 years of existence.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Shanghai Ballet's Swan Lake

Shanghai Ballet in Swan Lake. Photo: North America Photography Association
Let’s get one thing out of the way: the Shanghai Ballet’s Swan Lake did not include the swans in the formation of a heart (at least through the curtain call), as their marketing images showed. It did, however, have many, many formations made by up to 48 swans massing on the Koch Theater stage. Mostly grids of incredible precision and symmetry, with subtle arm movements like rippling water, paired with subtle head angles, but also wheels, wedges, and lines, to mesmerizing effect.