Saturday, April 8, 2017

Dance Evolution: The National Ballet of Canada's Mixed Program

Evan McKie and Tanya Howard in Wayne McGregor's Genus. (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

Science and art perform an intriguing pas de deux in the work of Wayne McGregor, the British-born choreographer for whom dance provides a malleable framework for ongoing investigations into the mind-body relationship. Known for his angular and precisely articulated movement vocabulary, the 47-year-old trailblazer, who early on trained in modern dance in New York, has collaborated with cognitive scientists, cardiologists, polar explorers and robotics specialists to create visually exhilarating work.

His principal laboratory is his London-based Company Wayne McGregor (formerly Random Dance), which travels the world, disseminating McGregor's inquisitive and experimental approach to ballet and making him one of the world's most in-demand choreographers. His kinetic intelligence has brought him recognition from top academic institutions, including Cambridge, which in 2004 gave him a year-long residency as a research fellow in the Department of Experimental Psychology, and Plymouth University, which in 2013 bestowed upon him an Honorary Doctorate of Science degree. Appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2011, McGregor is also something of a hero among dancers.

News that he would be returning this season to the National Ballet of Canada to stage Genus, his 2007 meditation on the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, had company members sharing their unadulterated glee through Facebook and Instagram during the rehearsal period earlier this winter. Dancers love McGregor because he offers them a brave new world of physical expression, combining extreme athleticism with lyricism, drama and emotional vulnerability. Weaned on 19th-century depictions of grace and elegance, they devour his dangerously off-kilter pieces whole.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Neglected Gem #100: Tequila Sunrise (1988)

Kurt Russell and Michelle Pfeiffer in Tequila Sunrise (1988).

Tequila Sunrise is a riff on the themes of friendship and betrayal put together by the legendary screenwriter Robert Towne (Shampoo, Chinatown, The Last Detail). Towne had directed only one previous picture, Personal Best – the most sensuous and perhaps the best movie ever made about athletic competition (the main characters are a pair of female pentathletes training for the 1980 Olympics who are also lovers) – in 1982. Tequila Sunrise is plotted with remarkable density and elegant fluidity, the film moves so fast, especially for the first three-quarters, that it makes your head spin. You come out feeling exhilarated and giggling with delight at the sun-soaked SoCal ambiance and the sexy, slightly absurd intensity of the romantic triangle at the movie’s center. It features juicy, glamorous star performances from Mel Gibson as Dale “Mac” McKussic, a dope dealer trying to go straight; Kurt Russell as Nick Frescia, his boyhood pal, now a narc; and Michelle Pfeiffer as Jo Ann Vallinari, the beautiful restaurateur they both fall for. All of this might not be much more than a first-class romantic melodrama from the forties would have offered – but it’s more than enough. In pure entertainment terms, the picture’s a knockout.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Femina Ex Machina: Ghost in the Shell (1995) vs Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Scarlett Johansson from Ghost in the Shell (2017) and her anime counterpart from Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Note: This review contains spoilers for both versions of Ghost in the Shell
Before The Matrix, there was Ghost in the Shell (1995), the Japanese anime film based on the 1989 manga of the same name. The title refers directly to the major themes of the story, which depicts a cyberpunk future in which the line between human and machine is growing ever more blurred as cybernetic enhancements become commonplace. Major Motoko Kusanagi is the avatar of this evolution; her body is entirely synthetic except for her human brain, cradled in a metal casing that allows her to plug directly into the internet. Her soul – her personality, thoughts, feelings, and sense of identity – is the “ghost” that hides in the manufactured shell that is her body.

You can see where the Wachowskis got their inspiration for the story of Neo: the cyberpunk setting, the idea of “jacking in” to a network via a needle-like plug to the brainstem, the blending of analog and digital technologies that lead naturally to philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness and identity. There’s been a heartwarming cross-pollination of media influences between Japan and the U.S. since before the 1960s, when Kurosawa and Leone were cribbing one another’s work, and that tradition hasn’t changed. With Ghost in the Shell, whose own influences extend from Arthur Koestler to René Descartes – and its 2017 remake, which we’ll get to – it’s clear that there really aren’t any new ideas under the sun. All that matters in this arena are the clarity, power, and poetry with which these old ideas are expressed.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Un-American: The Ed Palermo Big Band

The Ed Palermo Big Band, with Ed Palermo (centre). (Photo: Chris Dukker)

Over the last 25 years or so, pop songs have entered the jazz world with abundance as a younger generation of musicians seeks out new music to arrange and perform. Though the so-called American Songbook, featuring standards that have stood the proverbial test of time, is still played with gusto at the educational level, the age of the music has shifted from the thirties and forties to the eighties and nineties. While original compositions abound for the current generation of arrangers, the challenges of rethinking a standard like Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” don’t necessarily have the appeal of, say, those of rethinking “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” by Tears For Fears. Generally speaking pop songs offer a creative chance for a new arrangement or a way of pushing the music beyond the three chords of the original. One of the best at stretching the limits of pop is Ed Palermo. His current release on Cuneiform Records, called The Great Un-American Songbook, Volume 1 & 2, is an ambitious 2-CD set of 21 pop songs arranged for his big band. The musical results are lively, passionate and just outside enough to engage the most experienced listener.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Critic's Notes & Frames Vol. XXII

If there was one songwriter in rock 'n roll who had an endless gift for memorable (and enjoyable) anthems it was Chuck Berry, who died recently in his home at the age of 90. Whether it was his pledge of allegiance in "Rock and Roll Music," his testament to roots in "Back in the U.S.A.," or the happily defiant "Roll Over Beethoven," Berry was the supreme storyteller, rock's Johnny Appleseed, a smooth talker and a smooth walker. Born in St. Louis, Berry drew his musical influences from a variety of genres. The swagger of "You Can't Catch Me" is unthinkable without Louis Jordan. The bravado of "Little Queenie" would have been right at home in the tough urban blues of Muddy Waters. "Brown Eyed Handsome Man" might have been a country music dream imagined by Bob Willis and the Playboys. His lesser-known "Havana Moon" has the swooning balladry of Nat King Cole (and it inspired Richard Berry's "Louie Louie").

Monday, April 3, 2017

The New Yorkers: Prohibition Musical

Scarlett Strallen and the cast of Cole Porter's The New Yorkers. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Halfway through the first act of The New Yorkers, the Cole Porter musical Encores! unearthed at City Center two weekends ago, the French jazz singer Cyrille Aimée saunters onstage to perform “Love for Sale,” the lament of a Manhattan streetwalker and certainly the most frequently covered song in the score. (It was Porter’s own favorite among all his songs, though the frankness of the lyric kept it off the radio for years.) Aimée’s style is an odd mix of early Billie Holiday and Astrid Gilberto, her phrasing is quirky – partly because of her semi-submerged accent – and she manages to be both worldly and woeful and innocent and newly minted at the same time. She’s the damnedest singer, and when she raises one hand and starts to trace her trills in the air like Ronee Blakley performing “Dues” in Robert Altman’s Nashville, the audience seems to be in thrall to her. I sure was. She stops the show, though her character is virtually unwritten. (She’s identified in the playbill merely as “A Lady of the Evening.”) She returns in act two for a reprise of “Let’s Fly Away,” but that’s it.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A German Family that Refused to Conform: Joachim Fest’s Not I

The Fest family: (from left, back row) Winfried, Hannif, Wolfgang, and Joachim and (front row) Elisabeth, Christa, and Johannes.

“One sometimes had to keep one’s head down, but try to not look shorter as a result!”
“They [Germans] have lost their passion for introspection and discovered their taste for the primitive.”
Johannes Fest, father of Joachim Fest, from Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood
Throughout his professional career, first as a radio journalist and later as an historian and as a biographer of Hitler and Albert Speer, Joachim Fest was haunted by the question: How did Germany, a country almost obsessed with culture, descend into Nazi barbarity? In his final and most personal work before his death in 2006, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood (Other Press, 2014), Fest explores the reverse question: How was it possible that his family maintained its moral bearings and did not succumb to the mass hysteria engulfing the country? The answer starts with his uncompromising father, who is, at least in the first half of the book, the central figure of this remarkable memoir that tracks the author’s life into young adulthood. Fest, the son, takes the title of his book from his devout Catholic, proudly Prussian, father, whose inspiration is derived from St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Even if all others do, not I.” The author pays tribute to his father (and mother) by serving up a memorable tale of courage and stoic endurance of “the revolting Nazi period” reminding us that simple human decency is possible even during an oppressive tyranny.