Saturday, December 12, 2015

More Fair Than She: National Ballet of Canada’s Romeo and Juliet

Chelsy Meiss, first soloist for the National Ballet of Canada. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

Last Saturday, Chelsy Meiss did the remarkable.

Dancing the lead role of Juliet in choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s 2011 reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s star-cross’d lovers, the National Ballet of Canada soloist imparted that elusive thing that only rarely occurs in the theatre – a tingling sensation at the back of the neck.

It’s pretty much an invisible phenomenon. But the pleasurable shiver experienced as a result of a particularly vivid performance is a true occurrence. While not entirely proven by science, Autonomous Sensory Meridien Response, or ASMR, is backed by anecdotal evidence. When a buzz along the spine is prompted by art it generally signals that a feeling of euphoria has overwhelmed the spectator, resulting in a temporary state of awe. Except with Meiss that feeling tended to last the full three hours she was on the stage.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Neglected Gem #85: Just Before Dawn (1981)

Gregg Henry and Deborah Benson in Just Before Dawn (1981).

It’s difficult to pinpoint one thing above others that makes Just Before Dawn – a low-budget 1981 thriller about a group of campers stalked and terrorized in the Oregon mountains – uniquely memorable. It might be the unrelenting sense of height and verticality in its location setting; or its command of paradoxical tones, where stillness throbs and violence is static; or the unfailing intelligence of its artistic choices, from camerawork to acting to soundtrack. It might even be the fact that its first victim is probably the only character in movie history named Vachel – as in Vachel Lindsay, once-famed chanting poet and author of The Art of the Moving Picture (1915), the first book of film aesthetics published in America.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Dystopian Playground: Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last

Author Margaret Atwood. (Photo credit: IBL/REX Shutterstock)

Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, opens with spouses Stan and Charmaine living in squalor in their car following an economic collapse in the not-so-distant future. Charmaine waits tables for tips while Stan ruminates on his state of unemployment. He used to work in robotics, she used to work in a nursing home, and they used to be happy before things went horribly awry. Longing still for the illusory (North) American dream (let’s remember Atwood is Canadian), Stan and Charmaine are all too pleased to hear about the “Positron Project,” a utopian scheme where civilians spend one month living in Leave It To Beaver-style domestic bliss and the next in a neighbouring prison, alternating every 30 days for the rest of their lives. The twin cities of Positron and Consilience seem to be the answer to Stan and Charmaine’s prayers but anyone who’s ever read an Atwood novel will recognize from the get go that some things really are too good to be true.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Podcast: Interview with Judith Fitzgerald (1985)

Poet Judith Fitzgerald (1952-2015) passed away on November 25.
From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) 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. It was during that time that I first met and spoke with Canadian poet Judith Fitzgerald, who died last month at the age of 63.

Judith Fitzgerald did more than write verse. She was also a journalist and critic, as well as an editor and avid baseball fan. At the time I first met her in 1985 when her poetry collection, Given Names, was published, she was already a potent media critic in the Globe and Mail who had strong views on politics. When the Canadian Free Trade debate was raging, for instance, she took me to Massey Hall to attend a protest concert against the deal and I still recall her enraged voice cutting and echoing through the din of the performances from the stage.

She was dynamic, funny, razor sharp and a real beauty with a sweetness for life that was never cloying. We would talk together many times during the Eighties. But I thought I'd include our first conversation as a tribute today because besides tracing her sensibility as a writer, you can also hear the kindred spiritedness of a friendship beginning to bloom.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with
Judith Fitzgerald as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1985.

Tom Fulton was the host and producer of On the Arts for CJRT-FM in Toronto for 23 years, beginning in 1975.
Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Blunting the Snark: The Wiz Live!

Shanice Williams (left) and Elijah Kelley in NBC's The Wiz Live! (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

Over the last few years, the response to NBC’s live broadcasts of crowd-pleasing musicals has reminded the network’s executives of the power of snark in our culture. The concept, which began with 2013’s The Sound of Music Live!, is certainly one that theatre fans like me welcome: the network has, for three years running, staged productions for the holiday season, and the first one proved to be a monster hit in terms of ratings. Given the time of year when these specials air, they’re also smart in terms of how producers Craig Zedan and Neil Meron are attempting to recapture nostalgia for the TV specials of the 1950s, which featured stars like Mary Martin in shows like Peter Pan. Having a captive audience for a live event has become crucial in a time of declining ratings and delayed viewing, so even though many viewers tuned in to laugh at as much as enjoy The Sound of Music Live!, it still proved a savvy business decision for the network.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Alban Berg's Lulu and Modernism

Johan Reuter (as Dr. Schön) and Marlis Petersen (as Lulu) in Alban Berg's Lulu. (Photo: Ken Howard)

Alban Berg wrote his opera Lulu in the late twenties and early thirties, though because he died (in 1935) before he could complete the orchestrations for the third act, only acts one and two were included at its premiere in 1937, in Zurich. Of course it couldn’t have opened in Berg’s native Vienna, because of the Nazi ban on “decadent” art: Berg, a student of Schönberg (already a black mark against him since Schönberg was Jewish), adapted the scandalous fin-de-siècle Frank Wedekind plays, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, that Pabst had made into his landmark Expressionist silent Pandora’s Box in 1929. And because Berg’s widow blocked all efforts to finish his work, it wasn’t performed in its entirety until after her death, in 1979, when the Paris Opera mounted a celebrated production by Patrice Chéreau with Pierre Boulez conducting and the great Teresa Stratas in the title role. I was lucky enough to see a tape of it and it wasn’t like anything I’d ever encountered: the twelve-tone scale added a jagged, unstable quality to music that still somehow carried the whiff of nineteenth-century Viennese elegance. I hadn’t seen another Lulu until, last week, I caught the new production by the South African artist and director William Kentridge in the Met Live in HD series. Since three and a half decades have intervened, I couldn’t possibly trust my memory of Stratas and Chéreau’s staging well enough to compare the two versions, but I found both utterly thrilling.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Marvel's Jessica Jones: AKA Saviour Complex

Krysten Ritters stars in Marvel's Jessica Jones, current streaming on Netflix.

Welcome back to Hell's Kitchen. Our last glimpse into this especially dark corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was several months ago when Netflix launched Daredevil, the first of five projected Marvel television series. At the time, Daredevil was the most adult chapter of the narrative juggernaut that Marvel has been unfolding since the 2008 release of Iron Man. Daredevil told a surprisingly gritty and human story, a weighty and morally ambiguous entry that left behind the big screen world of alien invasions, laser-wielding raccoons, killer robots, and colourful, bantering superheroes. With the recent release of Jessica Jones, Netflix and Marvel return us to the grimy streets of New York City's Hell's Kitchen, but where Daredevil ends, Jessica Jones only begins – and the result is the darkest and most compelling story that Marvel has yet told.