Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Today’s writing lesson: Virginia Woolf

From The Common Reader.

"there is a formal elevated dullness which is part of the incantation of poetry."


"From most poets quotation is easy and obvious; some metaphor suddenly flowers; some passage breaks off from the rest…Chaucer is very equal, very even paced, very unmetaphorical…Chaucer it seems has some art by which the most ordinary words and the simplest feelings when laid side by side make each other shine; when separated, lose their luster."

There's literary peril, however, in the ordinary and simple. Virginia Woolf writes of Jane Austen: "She, too, in her modest everyday prose, chose the dangerous art where one slip means death."

Modest everyday prose. Laid side by side. Puts me in mind of the ordinary words and simple feelings of the Pat Nixon aria ("this is prophetic") in Nixon in China.

But there's more about Jane Austen from Virginia Woolf: "She stimulates us to supply what is not there. What she offers is, apparently, a trifle, yet is composed of something that expands in the reader's mind and endows with the most enduring form of life scenes which are outwardly trivial."

That's today's writing lesson.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday night, Chinatown

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, April 10, 2011

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles

All choreography by Alvin Ailey

The world of Ailey's choreography is a joyful thing of thrill and purity of wonder. I was mightily surprised by how pretty it was (having seen more than a little tuff dance and heard a surfeit of harsh music) costumes and lighting in colors kind of like out of Jacob Lawrence, but I'm only 50 years behind the times, and one performance does not a sweeping declaration validate, yet I understand a little better why the company prospers. Circles of light on the floor or the backdrop, They bring you inside, magic like forts made of blankets and sheets, yet with a very seriousness of purpose; they invite you in for a reason, you roll with them. For the same reason money supports ballet in New York and Chicago and Seattle and San Francisco and Boston, it costs, it's addicting, inside the wave, inside the magic lantern show. I thought PNB's ballerinas had the longest arms, but from where I sat the women at Ailey had long, expressive arms, but then I've only got one eye that works right now, so don't hold me to it. They got us in and out including two intermissions that went by like that in a little over two hours, and we left happy, everything was perfect. Los Angeles' audience reaction was wild, not like some of the people who went harrumphing out of Ades yesterday.

Concluding Aspects

Los Angeles Philharmonic, April 9, 2011

Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

Music: Thomas Ades, Polaris

Olivier Messiaen, Eclairs sur l'au-dela (Illuminations of the Beyond)

Conductor: Thomas Ades

What is Ades doing? World premieres, and sound effects, and video---concerto, opera, plus things called studies, paraphrases. He likes fun, funny stuff. In addition to the usual instruments (though often in unusual numbers) he also wrote for or conducted scores that contained the following: wind machine, lion's roar, white dinner plates, telephone, stiletto boots, mezzo sopranos and percussion quartets, whistles and ocarinas, glockenspiel, hand bells, gongs, wood chimes, shell chimes, wood blocks, triangles, reco-reco (?), whip.

Friday night I watched the Ades piece from the Disney Hall cafeteria. I knew the Messiaen piece was going to take work and I hadn't had enough wine, so rather than pound the wine as had happened recently to our Seattle correspondent, I drank merrily and watched the proceedings on t.v. It seemed splendid, as has almost every performance this week.

The workers cleaning the dining area in preparation for the intermission crowd paid no attention to the music or the activity on the screen, the beautiful play of trumpet and piano. They knew they didn't have much time because they'd been told it was a short first act. Trash bags rolled out, trays gathered, tables reorganized, tops wiped, chairs replaced.

When I entered the hall just as the intermission was expiring, I was taken aback by the deployment of musicians---there were 130, I was told; seeing them gathered made me think that a lunch wagon would be driving onstage at some point.

I don't understand Messiaen and don't pretend to. Probably more live performances would help; Ades and the orchestra seemed to be grooving. It is spiritual music, and not without its astonishments. The ethereal to close out what opened with the competitive piano concerto. There have been rites and rituals, and everything of a piece all week.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Lanford Wilson

Center Theater Group, April 9, 2011

Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles

Burn This by Lanford Wilson

Got me thinking there was another death in the arts the week Elizabeth Taylor died: Lanford Wilson. I've seen productions of several of his plays over the years: The Rimers of Eldritch, The Hot l Baltimore, The Mound Builders, Redwood Forest, and Talley and Sons. He wrote a lot of them, he was a workhorse, a craftsman and there was no clowning around about the work, not that there wasn't ribald humor but also a seriousness of tragic purpose, like out of the Tennessee Williams school of tragic purpose.

Coincidentally the Taper was reprising a Wilson play it world premiered (there's that phrase again) 25 years ago, Burn This. A four-character play—with one a great role created—the foul-mouthed brother of the dancer whose accidental death has brought the four characters together. But 25 years has not enhanced the play, in fact except for the tour de force role of the foul-mouthed brother, there's not much here, the characters are struggling to make sense of things that in 25 years the rest of us have moved on from.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Outpost Chinatown 3

Los Angeles Philharmonic, April 8, 2011
Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles
Music: The Importance of Being Ernest, an opera by Gerald Barry
Conducted by Thomas Ades

Another world premiere. I don't understand Ernest, I've tried, but I don't get it. The plot defeats me every time. The opera didn't clear anything up, but the music was witty with lots of sound effects---that's becoming a noteiceable "aspect"---and a winning cast of singers. It was an interesting score, and Ades gave it it's due. He's generous with other composers. A pleasant, if innocuous evening; saw several young couples, clearly on exploratory dates, sweet and winsome, that doesn't change no matter how brutal it gets on the news.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Outpost Chinatown 2

Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, April 5, 2011

Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

Music: Ades, Ligeti, Nancarrow, Coll

Conductor: Thomas Ades

Still wearing the neo-classical cape, Ades came out and for about fifteen minutes ripped on solo piano, a "concert paraphrase" of his own opera Powder Her Face. Then the fun piece, the appetizer, Ligeti's vignettes, sure did like the soprano who clearly enjoyed the sound effects, the whistles and zingers and chimes and rude noises (boing yoing yoing). Great fun. Then a pause as stagehands again rearranged the stage and it is piano duets again (pianos have rolled in and out, chairs have been brought onstage and taken off, so have music stands, music, instruments, big and small, harps and fifes.), Ades and one followed by Ades and the other, playing one of Ligeti's influences and obviously Ades', Conlon Nancarrow. I've been familiar with his work because it is interesting work and because much of it was composed by punching holes in the scrolls used in player pianos. (I don't feel too badly using power point all of a sudden.)

Intermission rolled around, and then final portion of the concert consisted of two pieces, one by ades and one by a student of ades now a composer in his own right. Unlike the lover of rich orchestrations I mentioned elsewhere, this was bare bones music, pared of the blubber and flubber of melody, no adornment and yet played with a seriousness that cannot be dismissed. Like giving us clues to the birth of music. Bold conducting move for a single note. A sweep, a leap on the toes, to three violins or a punch to a harp. And with all the percussion on stage if there was a latin beat I didn't hear it, even though the non-Ades was Spanish. But Ades, I don't know---literary comparisons that spring to mind (boing yoing yoing) are Dylan Thomas or joe orton. His work is rooted in the human situation, however abstract it then gets. He's kind of a self-impresario, his work and the work that influenced him, his work is not oppressive, but he keeps things very formal for such a seemingly young person.

But I have to talk about the videos and the projections. As mentioned in an earlier post, the images while not nullifying, sure are obtrusive. And now let me be more emphatic: not only does the video need to be value added to the music, the projection equipment has to be better than a 1990's non profit board room set up. Is not the name Disney affixed to this hall? The visual part of these must be at least as good as an audience would expect to see, not what the hall is throwing up (literally) as projection. Disney---spend a couple of dollars. Jesus.

Outpost: Chinatown

Los Angeles Philharmonic, April 3, 2011

Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

Music: Stravinsky—Concerto for Two Solo Pianos

Stravinsky---Les Noces

Ades---In Seven Days

Conductor: Thomas Ades

Stravinsky's concerto was played by Katia Labeque and Marielle Labeque (sisters). The one dressed in red leapt off the bench several times to attack the keyboard, the one dressed in black was stoic, they both turned pages thoughtfully. What was Ades' thinking this would do for his weeklong event? The ferocity from the simplicity? The beauty and tenderness in and around the ferocity? Two:confrontation:challenge:contest.

From the dyad to a wedding feast. Lively music and tender, Unusual stage set-up: four grand pianos in front of the orchestra of other struck instruments, unusually large number of singers on stage, 7 men and 7 women singing in Russian, subtext almost out of Chagall, whimsy and pathos, the very public happinesses and the secret sadnesses at the rite, as at all rites, but of life full. Music was colorful, the pianos and cymbals and triangles and tambourines et al.

Took an intermission and sat back for the main event: this is about creation, about rites and celebrations and 7 days is that. Ostensibly a concerto, and a good one, but with visuals which I don't have an opinion about one way or the other except to say that lighting the orchestra had more impact than the screen projections. Ades likes prettiness, he orchestrates old school---Ravel plus Bruckner, neo classical---but he isn't.

I'll need to hear all of this again. Order through Amazon.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

From our Pacific Rim correspondent

Pacific Northwest Ballet, March 24, 25, 27

McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington

Choreographers: Mark Morris, Marco Goecke, Paul Gibson, Alexei Ratmanksy

Music: Lou Harrison, Camille Saint-Saens, Frederic Chopin, John Cage, Gyorgi Ligeti, Bela Bartok, Alberto Ginastera, Dmitri Shostakovich

Strong dance presence on the west coast: San Francisco Ballet, the robust calendar of touring legends at Segerstrom in Costa Mesa and the Music Center in Los Angeles plus the streams of companies moving stage to stage at universities and colleges, and, under consideration here, the other "institution" besides San Francisco, PNB with its red labyrinth of venue, sparkly red curtain, red upholstered seating in a hall all decked out in red appointments, plus their own orchestra, a young audience, and they like to whoop and holler---you won't hear bravo but you will hear woo-woo-woo. Virtuosity receives instant approval.

Many years ago a New Yorker writer favorably profiled PNB. In discussing the influence of Balanchine on the company (its directors at that time had both danced for Balanchine at NYCB) the writer mentioned that Balanchine favored a particular type of ballerina: blonde, thin, and built for speed, and that in New York he had had to cultivate the breed, whereas in the Pacific Northwest "apparently they grow wild."

The current artistic director also danced under Balanchine but he has jazzed things up. I saw "Dances at a Gathering" at PNB a few years ago and my outlook on ballet changed overnight. And they did it again for me this time. The company seems young, they might not be any younger than any other company but they seem to be. Their artistic director is building something exciting in the Puget Sound.

PNB offered four dances. I was fortunate enough to indulge my favorite approach: one performance seen from the highest balcony, one performance from three rows from the stage, one performance somewhat further back on the main floor.

No video here, but I marveled how the lighting and backdrops were used to compress and expand and emphasize certain emotions. Very simple technique and applied noticeably but not obtrusively.

They opened with a Mark Morris piece and I don't know what was better, the dance or the opportunity to hear Lou Harrison music (Asian-influenced, Pacific Rim ting-ting music, I call it) performed live. Morris is a cunning choreographer, I enjoy his work a lot.

The second piece was a world premiere, commissioned by PNB: Place A Chill. Based on the story of a famous cellist who had to quit performing as she began to lose muscle control. It took that mechanical dancing mentioned previously into another dance-o-sphere, so that what is at the end of the arm is not a hand and fingers but a butterfly, and every dancer (ten of them in the piece) had two butterflies fluttering around their heads and upper bodies, representing the loss of muscle control yet as a dance incredibly, unbelieveably controlled. At first the spazz movements and the fluttering looked grotesque, I almost turned away, and then it became astonishing just from a technique perspective, and then it turned pretty. The music it was danced to add to the engagement: Saint-Saens cello concerto, and a piece, apparently, associated with the famous cellist. There was some unnecessary and bogus stagecraft toward the end, but the dance overall was awakening.

The third piece, Piano Dance, was what might be expected from the title, happy and dancey, four couples dancing to various piano pieces by the wacky unsweetened composers like Cage and Bartok and Ligeti. The stage was filled with alabaster limbs in costumes of pure red. And Balanchine was there to the max

The final dance, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, is what impressed me the most. Performed to a concerto by Shostakovich, 19 dancers in joyous goofing on stage parings and assemblies, like a day at the beach in a Mack Sennett movie, clever and imaginative stage pictures at all times, stage orchestration if you will, like the circle of activities and one guy just jumping up and down. Dancers exiting in slow motion while dancers enter at warp speed and jete, dancers flirting and running and (my favorite) occasionally leaping or tearing across the stage just for the pure joy of it!. This piece premiered in New York a couple of years ago and I guess tore it up critics wise. I'd be seeking that one out to see again.

During the Sunday matinee my date and I were pounding wine at the intermission on the patio---it was a glorious day, the sun was shining in between rain episodes and the performance had sparkled and we knew the best was yet to come, but because we were given erroneous information by the server we thought we had plenty of time only to have to sneak back in an sit in . (I've done worse, I've missed a whole second act of a play because Susan Walsh and I took a long walk at intermission.) We took the first empty seats in the first row at the extreme right of the stage. Missed a sixth of stage left, but saw the wings on stage right and the dancers as they prep and make their entrances. Even that "mistake" ended up in our favor. It's all good.

Our man in LA

Nederlands Dans Theater I, March 23, 2011

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles

Choreographers: Crystal Pite, Lightfoot/Leon

Music (recorded): Owen Belton, Philip Glass

It's all good. They upgrade me to the 10th floor at the hotel in Little Tokyo. My view is the roof and parking lot of a Buddhist Temple. And Nederlands Dans Theater being in town on tour saves me a trip to Nederlands to see them dans, and I would have: they are notorious.

Entering the ballet world is like clearing airport security. Once I'm in their system, I'm in---free to go as I please within the confines of their high flying world, they will take responsibility for me, I'm in their care, their hands and arms, their legs. When it comes time to fly, they'll even pre-board those who need a little extra time. I like being in their bloodstream. With service to incredible.

The Nederlands LA program consisted of two dans, both incidentally capturing the zeitgeist of the city: one piece was set with a motif of the silent movie era, and the other was danced against a cloudy, stormy ominous background.

A storm cell had moved over the sit and then just stood and rotated like a pepper grinder, flooding streets at rush hour, snarling traffic like Elizabeth Taylor's hair in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and she had died earlier in the day.

Coincidentally, the first dance was set against a backdrop of storm clouds. There are 24 dancers dressed in business suits. For some reason people in business suits dancing on stage is always a crowd-pleaser. for some reason. Before the curtain rose there was a puppet placed in front, it was of a male dressed in a western business style suit, jokey like the African carvings that caricatured anthropologists and explorers. Turns out to be a bunraku puppet, manipulated via sticks, and there was much use of them in the piece. They were like a cross between human and space alien. At one point a dancer is turned into one of the puppets through a very clever bit of staging where a scrum of dancers has linked arms so that they resemble the sticks that are manipulating the human puppet that is in front of them. It was clever and the point got made early: stages of life, identities, etc, etc.

The jerky dancing, like a Leger painting gone haywire, all that upper body patterning and posturing, the anger and sexual confrontation, seemed to be the coin of the realm in much contemporary choreography. Here there was even less uplift than usual, and the only part that showed fluidity was where dancers march like sleepwalkers in an old school cartoon who are ascending a staircase of steel girders at a high rise construction site, or, for a more contemporary simile, like the video game Mario; otherwise, it was definitely of the earth, earthy.

The second piece had a three-part backdrop with a black and white movie projection of a sea shore and a jetty. Like the first piece had western business suits going for it as an attention grabber, this piece had Philip Glass music going for it. It's hard to go wrong with Glass music for dancing, is what I'm thinking. Like it's tough to go wrong with Tchaikovsky.

Three people in silhouette are standing at the entrance to the jetty. Two of the people then walk toward the audience---they are on stage, while the third, in the movie, walks out toward the sea. Well the two on stage start dancing and then other dancers come out and this one's a lot dancier, there's lifting and partnering---again rough-edged de riguer---but different things get projected on the screen and the dancer's relationship to those things is nice. Things rise up from the pit. There was such imagination going on the tingle started along the spine. However, soon the tingle stopped but the piece kept going, and ended with an iris out that encompassed the projection and the dancers.

I'm sure everything here has clips on you tube.