Saturday, November 12, 2011

Love Lies Bleeding: A Pop Ballet That Really Pops

The artists of Alberta Ballet rock out to "Benny and the Jets" in Love Lies Bleeding

Jean Grand-Maître took the stage at Toronto’s Sony Centre on Tuesday night, just moments before Alberta Ballet would perform the area premiere of his full-length Love Lies Bleeding, set to and directly inspired by the music of Elton John. Microphone in hand, Grand-Maître genially asked the capacity crowd how many had come to the ballet for the first time. A roar rippled through the auditorium and the Canadian choreographer smiled. It was a sign that his mandate of creating pop ballets for the Calgary-based company since becoming director in 2002 was indeed working: bums in seats, but more importantly, bums attached to people who might not otherwise be caught dead watching men in jock straps pointing their toes in an undulating sea of ballerinas. But as if wanting to quell any lingering reservations, Grand-Maître told the audience not to worry: “This is not really a ballet,” he continued. “It’s more like a rock concert. So sit back, relax and unleash your inner pop star.”

"Rocket Man": Yukichi Hattori, Company Artists
For the next two hours that is pretty much what happened. The crowd screamed, it sang, it clapped along; some in the house could be seen even dancing in their seats. At the end, it rose en masse to give the ballet an instantaneous standing ovation on top of prolonged applause. To ballet purists it was a somewhat different story. The choreography is more borrowed than original: Bob Fosse meets the cross-dressing Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, meaning lots of crotch thrusts and drag queens galore. Such details have entertainment value, but don’t necessarily advance the art form. Still, there was plenty to like, even admire. It is one of the few ballets to foreground men in ballet as opposed to women and for that is to be applauded as something rare indeed. It also has at its centre an aerial number, choreographed by Adrian Young, which literally sets the dancers flying, a wonder to behold. But the ballet scales heights in other ways: Love Lies Bleeding is the Alberta Ballet’s Tommy, a reference to the ballet inspired by The Who’s rock-opera of the same name created for Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in 1970 by resident choreographer by Fernand Nault, a work that first put Canadian ballet on the international map. So while not a new invention, Love Lies Bleeding is ballet for the masses whose popularity may bode well for the future of the art itself, enticing even more bums down the line to wiggle in their seats.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Excess, Baseball and the Irish: The Rum Diary, Moneyball and The Guard

The late French filmmaker Francois Truffaut once said that you could tell if a film is shit within the first five minutes. I wouldn’t go that far, but with most movies, you can pretty much sense when a film is working or not. The bigger question is why do certain films, with decent ideas and talented stars, fail while other more modest efforts succeed? Two recent American failures demonstrate the former while a certain Irish comedy sails up the middle and blows the two more expensive efforts out of the water.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Hell On Wheels: AMC’s New Western Falls Flat

Anson Mount stars in AMC's Hell On Wheels

As I watched the first episode of Hell On Wheels this past Sunday night, I slowly began to realize that I was feeling something I had never before felt while watching the premiere of an AMC original dramatic series: I was bored. Reviewing a show based only on its first episode is a risky business, though I do generally feel less guilty about it when it comes to cable shows, with their relatively short seasons and high production values. (The first episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead – which premiered almost exactly a year ago – told me everything I needed to know about the show and gave me every reason to keep watching.) And, much to the misfortune of AMC’s new series, I fear the first episode of Hell On Wheels is equally representative of the series as a whole.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I don’t think they were unrealistic. AMC had given us a string of ambitious, structurally and morally complex, shows over the past few years (Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead), and I suppose I’ve gotten spoiled. Add to that that Hell On Wheels is the first major Western to appear on television since Deadwood went off the air in 2006, and you’ve got a recipe for disappointment. Perhaps the inevitable comparisons with Deadwood are unfair – after all Deadwood is as much a Western as The Wire is a police procedural, and there are few shows in the entire history of television that would survive the comparison. But Hell On Wheels, to its own detriment, invites the comparison: with a hero who can barely contain his seething anger, a recently widowed city woman, its lawless, frontier community setting, and its monologuing Machiavellian villain. And speaking for this one viewer, it was difficult to keep memories of Deadwood from rearing up.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Re-Imagined Monk: Eric Reed Trio's The Dancing Monk

With so many different ways of finding the idiosyncrasies in the music of Thelonious Monk, the default position for most jazz musicians is to take the so-called bent notes and bend them further. For pianist Eric Reed, it's a decidedly different approach that smooths out the rough edges of Monk's music by bringing to it more relaxed, less up-tempo arrangements. The Dancing Monk (Savant, 2011) is Reed's recent release of nine tunes from the Monk songbook. Reed wrote the title track.

The trio features Ben Wolfe on bass and (someone new to my ears) McClenty Hunter on drums. It's a solid rhythm section backing the pianist and sounding well-schooled on the music while attuning themselves to the uniqueness of Monk's rhythmic patterns. To the purists, this record may offend those who probably think this band has watered down the great composer's work. But that would be a superficial response because, upon deeper inspection, Reed and the trio have successfully freed up the music and turned it into an inspired experience. All the musical Monkisms are heard, but they are improvised with Reed's distinctive voicings which are closely supported by the rhythm section.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #25: Neil Bissoondath (1988)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton of CJRT-FM's On the Arts
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

In 1984, Paul Mazursky made Moscow on the Hudson, a poignant comedy about exile and homesickness, which starred Robin Williams as a Russian musician touring with the Moscow circus who spontaneously defects in New York City. The movie ostensibly deals with the complex set of emotions set loose when he finds his freedom. His actions trigger a mixture of homesickness, sadness, and the longings for a sense of place that come when (for political and ethical reasons) you are forced to leave home. With those themes in mind, I devised a chapter called Exiles and Existence where a number of artists (including Jerzy Kosinski and Josef Škvorecký) examined what it means to find yourself in a new land while looking back at the home you abandoned.

Neil Bissoondath
Author Neil Bissoondath, the nephew of authors V.S. Naipaul and Shiva Naipaul, is from Arima, Trinidad and Tobago. Although he came from a Hindu tradition, he was schooled in a Catholic high school. During the seventies, political upheaval brought him to Canada where he initially settled in Ontario and studied at York University achieving a Bachelor of Arts in French in 1977. But Bissoondath went on to teach English and soon became an award-winning author. When I spoke to him in 1988, his first book of short stories, Digging Up the Mountains, was just being published. In the book, he examines (as Mazursky did in Moscow on the Hudson) the pain endured when people are uprooted from their homeland.

Curiously, in 1994, he would stir up a significant amount of controversy with his book, Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada, which called into question the validity of Canada's 1971 Multiculturalism Act. There are noticeable hints leading to his views towards defining ethnicity in our opening remarks. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Musical Noir: City of Angels

Burke Moses (center) stars in "City of Angels" at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam

City of Angels is one of the smartest and most literate of modern musicals, though on Broadway in 1990 the production values upstaged Larry Gelbart’s book and the Cy Coleman-David Zippel songs. The show, which Michael Blakemore directed, was such an expensive-looking commodity that it came across as smug, a kind of exclusive club for well-heeled Westchester and Long Island theatergoers. I admired the performances, especially of the two leading men, Gregg Edelman and James Naughton, but it wasn’t until I saw it in a physically pared-down community-theatre edition a few years later that the virtues of the play and the score shone through. At the intimate Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, where it’s currently being mounted with the loving care typical of this venue, you can revel in those virtues.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Bill Bourne, Michael Jerome Browne, Michael Wrycraft: Blues, Music, Art

The blues in Canada has always taken a particularly northern approach. Maybe it’s because our fingertips and toes have all turned blue at one time or another. Maybe it’s the Canadian way of adapting something specifically based in someone else’s culture and turning it around to suit our own needs. Think about all the great Canadian bluesmen (and women), King Biscuit Boy, Whiskey Howl, Rita Chiarelli, Carlos del Junco, Paul Reddick, Downchild, Dutch Mason, Sue Foley … the list goes on and on. And the fine northern blues tradition continues with two more recent releases.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to see Bill Bourne and his Free Radio Band play live at The Pearl Company in Hamilton. (If you ever get the chance, The Pearl Company is a remarkable venue for music.) Bill came out, in front of a small but dedicated crowd, carrying a beat-up old Gibson acoustic. He played an old blues. His long hair swayed, he rocked back and forth, and sang those blues like he owned them. Then, when he brought out the band, he carried on with a generous helping of all sorts of music including echoes of Cajun, African, and flamenco. The new CD, Bluesland, gives you a sample of the breadth of Bill’s music.