Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dissidence in Dance: Boris Eifman and Red Giselle

A scene from Eifman Ballet's Red Giselle. (Photo courtesy of Eifman Ballet)

The Red Giselle is a many-layered, historically-complex full-length work. Its choreographer, Boris Eifman, is no less complicated. He is the leader of the Eifman Ballet, the contemporary classical Russian ballet company from St. Petersburg currently on a 40th anniversary tour of North America. The company touched down in Toronto for three performances of Red Giselle at the Sony Centre, May 11-13. It next presents the work at New York City Center, June 2 through 11. But let's back up a minute. Contemporary. Classical. Russian. Ballet. These are words not usually found in the same sentence.

Russian ballet is a purist art form. Its origins can be found in the court of Catherine the Great in the 18th century, who brought sophistication to the Russian court by way of the French which she imported from Paris along with French ballet masters. Ballet in Russia has never been mere entertainment. It is a set of rules for idealized behaviour. Embodying that ideal is the ballerina, and in Russia the ballerina rules supreme. Russia is unique in that regard. No other nation reveres the ballerina as much. In Russia, she is both cultural icon and national symbol. A source of pride. Eifman knows the importance of the ballerina's iconography in Russia and pays homage to it in Red Giselle.

Monday, May 22, 2017

High Comedies: Six Degrees of Separation and Present Laughter

Allison Janney and Corey Hawkins in Six Degrees of Separation. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The current Broadway revival of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation begins badly and doesn’t find its feet until its leading lady, Allison Janney, does – about two-thirds of the way through, during her reading of the speech that gives the play its title. The play, a brilliant high comedy, is about the way a young hustler named Paul disrupts the lives of a number of people whose paths he crosses, most (but not quite all) of whom belong to the New York elite of the last decade of the twentieth century. Paul is an outsider in every conceivable way: he’s black (race in this play equates to class), gay and homeless. When a moneyed M.I.T. undergraduate named Trent Conway picks him up on the streets of Boston and takes him home, Paul makes a deal with him – sex in exchange for information about the prep-school classmates in Trent’s address book, now enrolled at various Ivy League colleges. (Trent is delighted to furnish details: not only does he consider he’s getting fair return for the favor, but his sexuality has always made him feel like an outsider too; he fantasizes that he can turn Paul into such an appealing faux aristocrat that when Trent shows up on his arm everyone will just have to accept them both.) Then Paul presents himself at the doors of their parents, bleeding from a self-inflicted stab wound he says he incurred during a mugging, claiming to know their children. He also professes to be the son of Sidney Poitier, and all of the aristocrats whose homes he’s entered on false pretenses are sufficiently impressed to take him in for the night. Paul is a scam artist and a narcissist; he’s also, it turns out, delusional. He starts to believe he really is Sidney Poitier’s son, and then he believes his other invention: that he’s the illegitimate son of Flan Kittredge, the art dealer who, along with his wife Ouisa, shows him the most kindness. Six Degrees of Separation is about connection and imagination as well as class (a theme of all high comedy). But it isn’t centrally about Paul. He’s the catalyst whose interactions with those he comes across – Trent and the aspiring, adventure-seeking young actor from Utah, Rick (Rick and his wife Elizabeth also take Paul in, when they find him sleeping in Central Park) and the Kittredges – act in various ways on their imaginations. The protagonist of the play is Ouisa, who undergoes the most profound change as a result of meeting him.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Post Mortems: Frequency, Making History, and Emerald City

Leighton Meester, Adam Pally, and Yassir Lester in Making History.

Perhaps the biggest event of the television season is the one that didn't happen earlier this month, after an 12th-hour deal between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the major networks and studios averted an imminent writers' strike. True, a WGA strike threatens every decade, but the memory of the 100-day strike of 2007-2008 still looms pretty large, and with television's continually evolving face, the content of these regular negotiations always offer the rawest insight in the state of the industry, as years-old collective agreements hit headlong with new norms:2007 revolved mainly around the surge of web-streaming, and the most recent almost-strike focused on the now-established shorter seasons of some of television's most prestigious shows. To add to the general anxiety, this year the talks also fell at roughly the same time that the networks were making their final decisions on which shows would be returning for another season and which would be axed. While some of my favourite shows (like ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which sat on the bubble for most of its impressive, often heart-breaking, 4th season) got last-minute pickups, there were a couple of painful casualties. Below are a few of my reflections on the 2016-2017 season that was, and won't be again.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Star Vehicle: NBC’s Great News

Briga Heelan and Andrea Martin in Great News

30 Rock is dead, long live 30 Rock. Tina Fey’s acclaimed comedy, based on her experiences as a writer on Saturday Night Live, was one of the funniest shows on television for much of its seven-season run. Long after its series finale, its influence remains evident in shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Fey’s recent Netflix collaboration with Robert Carlock, and in NBC’s new (and recently-renewed) sitcom Great News, which in many ways feels like the most obvious heir apparent to its predecessor. It was created by 30 Rock veteran Tracey Wigfield and features Fey and Carlock as executive producers, and the fact that it takes place in a New Jersey news studio makes it a workplace comedy that functions in much the same way that 30 Rock, with its eponymous setting, did.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Compulsive Spirits – Georgia O'Keeffe: A Retrospective

Red Rust Hills, 1930, by Georgia O'Keeffe.

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Felicity Somerset, to our group.

"Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done and where I have been that should be of interest” – Georgia O'Keeffe
I have long been an admirer of the art of Georgia O'Keeffe so I was delighted to have the opportunity to see Georgia O'Keeffe: A Retrospective at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) that opened to the public on Saturday, April 22, 2017. The exhibition was curated and mounted by London's Tate Modern, with tour partners Bank Austria Kunstforum and the Art Gallery of Ontario. It is completing its tour here in Toronto and will be at the AGO until July 30..

As its title suggests, this exhibition is a retrospective of O'Keeffe’s six decades of work. It takes a chronological approach and begins with some early charcoal abstracts from 1917, and includes watercolour paintings and pastels as well as one sculpture. Most of the images are painted in oils. The exhibition ends with some of her late abstracts from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Her place in art history marks her as a leader in American modernist and abstract work and these themes are fully explored in the exhibition.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Broken Dreams: Rewatching The West Wing in the Age of Trump

Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet on The West Wing.

When it premiered in 1999, The West Wing was a Platonic ideal, an optimistic, aspirational dream about what American politics could someday be. I recently indulged a craving to rewatch it (which, in hindsight, can only be categorized as the screech of my drowning mind grasping for purchase on saner shores), and I was shocked to discover that now, in 2017, it's not just aspirational – it's pure fantasy. The West Wing isn’t terribly realistic, but I never thought I'd see it as downright escapist. I used to think House of Cards was like The West Wing's evil twin, showing us the dark flip side of political motivations and maneuvering – but we live in a world where the Netflix drama's cautionary storytelling has been rendered irrelevant by the much worse reality we've been forced to accept. The political America that The West Wing depicts, a place of competence, hard work, cooperation, and hope, seems as fantastical and far away to my modern eyes as the forest moon of Endor. Maybe that’s why my brain reached out towards it. I just needed to escape, if only for an hour at a time, into a world where things made sense.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Above a Whisper: Diana Krall’s Turn Up The Quiet

Diana Krall with producer Tommy LiPuma in 2001. (Photo: Bruce Gilbert)

In 1997, jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall released an album of standards called Love Scenes on the prestigious label known as Impulse! Records. It was a game-changer for the young musician, eager to showcase her great band featuring Russell Malone, guitar, and Christian McBride, bass. The setting was simple, no strings or elaborate orchestral accompaniment. It was a record that captured the band at its peak, à la Nat King Cole back in the forties. Cole’s intimate singing created a kind of chamber jazz that was easy to listen to and could swing like crazy. For Krall, who toured festivals around the world with her own trio, it was a turning point in her career. She was on a major label and fully supported by producer Tommy LiPuma who encouraged Krall to feel every lyric and experiment with different tempos on a wide-ranging selection of songs about love. The 13 tracks on Love Scenes are deeply felt by Krall because each work is treated with respect and arranged to suit her singing style at the time. Krall perfectly blended the edginess of Carmen McRae with the sexiness of Julie London. It was the album that put Krall on the international jazz map but typecast her as a chanteuse rather than as a talented jazz artist willing to experiment.

On May 5 this year, twenty years after the release of Love Scenes, Diana Krall released her new album, with the cute title Turn Up The Quiet on the equally prestigious Verve label, distributed by Universal. Tommy LiPuma who sadly, died March 17, 2017 at the age of 80, produced the album. It was his last gig as a producer. (Krall speaks highly of her late producer and mentor in the June 2017 issue of Downbeat Magazine) LiPuma’s award-winning career in music was never in doubt. He helped an all-star roster of great singers reach wider recognition with varying degrees of financial and artistic success. Among his most famous prodigies were George Benson, Dave Mason, Barbra Streisand and Natalie Cole, whose album Unforgettable went 7-times platinum in the United States. When he met Diana Krall – a native of Nanaimo, British Columbia – the two began a long, artistic collaboration that resulted in 12 albums, millions in sales and worldwide acclaim. Their first record released in 1995, was Only Trust Your Heart (GRP) when Krall was 30 years old. It peaked at number 8 on the Billboard Jazz Album chart.