Thursday, December 1, 2022

Give And Take: The National Ballet of Canada’s Mixed Program

Svetlana Lunkina, Peng-Fei Jiang and Artists of the Ballet in Concerto. (Photo:Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

A mixed program is usually a study in contrasts with something new, something old and something breezily entertaining often sharing the same bill. The diversity of styles, frequently representing disparate ballet eras, creates its own sense of drama, making it a winning formula for companies wanting an alternative to the full-length classics that more draw in audiences. Take that variety away and a mixed program can fall flat, despite all good intentions. That’s the conclusion drawn from the National Ballet of Canada’s recent presentation of three works at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre, representing Hope Muir’s first curated program since becoming artistic director a year ago, while Karen Kain was still in charge. Comprising two contemporary ballet premieres and a modernist revival, the program unveiled on November 9 felt disconcertingly monotonous as a season opener. Thematically as well as stylistically, the ballets were more similar than they were different, particularly the contemporary pieces, whose shared fondness for over-busy choreography made them seem like two sides of the same ballet coin. The exception was the still centre of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto, a dazzler of abstract academic dance whose vivacious opening and closing sections bookended a pas de deux so serene it was blissful.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Long Distance Operator: The Visionary Writing of Stanislaw Lem

Stanisław Lem, Kraków, 1971. (Photo: Jakub Grelowsk)

As for me, I am busy pointing my telescope through the bloody mist at a mirage of the nineteenth century, which I am trying to reproduce based on the characteristics that it will manifest in a future state of the world, liberated from magic. Of course, I first have to build myself this telescope. — Walter Benjamin, letter to Werner Kraft, October 1935.

As for Lem, from about 1956, when many of his most visionary stories and novels began to flow freely from his pen, although not always yet translated from his native Polish tongue into our anxious English, up to 2006, when he shuffled off his mortal coil, he navigated a truly vertiginous course through multiple literary genres at a prodigious rate. The least accurate way to describe him is the one he is best known for, being a science fiction author, while the most accurate characterization, for me at any rate, is as a purveyor of unclassifiable speculative fiction. The only author whom he really can be compared with is Aldous Huxley, creator of the harrowing dystopian opus Brave New World in 1931. Thirty years after Huxley, with the release of the brilliant work for which Lem is best known, Solaris, I believe he entered that pantheon of great forecasters and futurologists who warned us where we were all going by pointing out, poetic telescope in hand, that we were already there.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

An African Rite of Spring

Photo: Maarten Vanden Abeele

Within seconds, Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring has you by the throat, not letting go for close to 40 minutes of breathtaking dance. First created in 1975 and having since become one of the late German choreographer’s most celebrated works, it eviscerates themes of gender dynamics and social control with a blunt force that makes it hard to resist, or ever forget, once you’ve experienced it in the flesh. The pounding rhythms heard in Stravinsky’s 1913 score drive the choreography relentlessly forward, into a potently imagined ritual of human sacrifice as an act of creative renewal.

That sense of continuity is heightened with the work’s resurrection by Senegal’s remarkable École des Sables, among the first ensembles permitted to perform one of Bausch’s richly poetic dance dramas outside the Tanztheatre Wuppertal Pina Bausch. Co-artistic director Josephine Ann Endicott is an Australian-born former Pina Bausch dancer who performed in the original cast. Together with the school’s founder Germaine Acogny — known as the mother of contemporary African dance — Endicott has assisted in a restaging of Rite of Spring that doesn’t just reassert the visceral power of the original. It takes it to a new level.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Portrait of the Artist, Part I: The Fabelmans

Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryan and Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans.

The fallback of filmmakers who dramatize some version of their coming-of-age stories is to sentimentalize them. What goes wrong with Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, which he co-authored with his favorite writing partner, Tony Kushner, is more complicated. The story Spielberg wants to tell is a saga. It focuses on the breakdown of the family of his alter ego, Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), when his brilliant engineer father Bert (Paul Dano) relocates them from Phoenix to northern California to take a better job offer and his marriage to Mitzi (Michelle Williams) disintegrates. It also includes Sammy’s encounter with anti-Semitic jocks at his new high school. The movie goes on for two and a half hours, far longer than a movie of this kind warrants, and it feels more attenuated as it unspools. I don’t think that anyone but Spielberg could get away with this kind of self-indulgence: a growing-up story and family drama that’s also a grandiose Hollywood period piece.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Dylan in Winter, Part I: The Philosophy of Modern Song

Bob Dylan performing in stage in Los Angeles in 2012. (Photo: Chris Pizzello)


Each of the 66 chapters in Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song (Simon & Schuster; 339 pp.) is devoted to a single musical composition, and almost all are split into two parts—a second-person monologue, which reviewers are calling a “riff,” inspired by the song; and a slightly more sober and pedantic critical-historical essay. The playlist (obscure Fifties rock, some R&B and soul, a lot of country, some European imports, pages from the Great American Songbook) is various and appears whimsical. Many songs seem selected as the excuse for some tangent—on money, drugs, women, crime, divorce, our treatment of the elderly—that Dylan has been wanting to deliver. Everyone knows his head is stuffed with songs, and these only scratch the surface of the surface. On a different day he’d surely list other songs, launch other tangents.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Political Theatre for Pre-Programmed Audiences: Parade and Straight Line Crazy

Micaela Diamond and Ben Platt in Parade at New York City Center. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The 1998 musical Parade, written by Alfred Uhry (book) and Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics), dramatizes the notorious case of Leo Frank, who was framed for the 1913 rape and murder of Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old who worked in the factory he superintended in Marietta, Georgia. Frank was a Brooklyn Jew who went South to marry and manage his father-in-law’s business. His trial, manipulated by anti-Semitic forces, ended in a guilty verdict and a death sentence that was commuted to life in prison by the governor, John Slaton, in view of evidence that the prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey, had coaxed witnesses to lie on the stand. But Frank didn’t live to see that new evidence generate a new trial – he was lynched in 1915. Historical scholarship points to Jim Conley, a Black janitor in the factory who provided the most damning testimony against Frank, as the likely killer.  The Frank case had the ironic double effect of reanimating the KKK in Georgia and giving birth to the Anti-Defamation League. (And Dorsey followed Slaton straight into the Governor’s mansion.)

Monday, November 7, 2022

Music Men: Almost Famous and The Music Man

 Casey Likes and Solea Pfeiffer in Almost Famous. (Photo: Neal Preston)

Affable and well-acted and entertaining as it is, I’ve always thought that Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, from 2000, was something of a crock. Crowe’s first career was as a rock journalist; at fifteen he got to travel with The Allman Brothers. So the picture, about a San Diego teenager named William Miller whose writing impresses Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres sufficiently to persuade Fong-Torres to let him go on the road with a band called Stillwater and write a profile on them, is autobiographical. And it must be the most romanticized coming-of-age memoir any writer has ever shaped. Crowe’s baby-faced protagonist (appealingly played by Patrick Fugit) never really falls from innocence. William’s possessive mother – his only surviving parent – drops her son off at the stadium for the Stillwater show she cries after him, “Don’t take drugs!,” and she repeats her warning when she takes him to the tour bus and in every one of her hysterical phone calls. It’s a culture joke: she’s meant to represent every parent in 1973 who ever feared losing her child to the rock ‘n’ roll vampires. But William takes her seriously. He travels all over the country with Stillwater, hangs out with them between shows and with the ebullient groupies known as the BandAids, and he never even smokes a joint. Crowe seems to be looking at his own adolescence through a haze. William eventually loses his virginity, but it doesn’t seem to alter him in any way. He counsels both his hero, the band’s guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), and the leader of the BandAids, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), Russell’s girlfriend on the road and the object of William’s first serious crush, liberating her and making him into a better human being. And in the end the kid’s story gets on the cover of Rolling Stone. William is a juvenile version of the knight whose purity of heart is rewarded at last.