Saturday, March 24, 2007

Midnight in an oasis of modernism

[These notes come relatively unfiltered/unedited because I've been preoccupied with (a) editorial (print-hardcopy) deadlines; (b) automobile insurance, repair, rentals, etc. matters -- very important things in "High-Impact" L.A. -- which have utterly exhausted me. Please accept my apologies. I promise to return in slightly more manicured form after I have these issues under control.]

22 March 2007

Arts coverage in the Times leads this morning with stories by Carol Vogel on David Rockefeller’s decision to send a beloved Rothko masterpiece, “White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)” to Sotheby’s (with a reported $46 million guarantee), as opposed to where, once upon a time, he would have been predisposed to send it – MOMA [Rockefeller apparently did consult with them before he did – noblesse oblige – but Elderfield gave his blessing and off it went to Toby Meyer’s eager embrace.]; and Ourussoff’s review of Frank Gehry’s pleated luminaria for Barry Diller’s Chelsea headquarters. Smith makes a modest proposal of her review of Noah Sheldon’s “Pink and Tan” installation at D’Amelio Terras that the Met might seriously consider – which reminds me that people who make this world – or any arena of sensory bombardment within an already fraught, frenetic planet – their main stomping ground, need places to decompress. The Rockefeller/Rothko/Sotheby’s item is of interest – as a kind of lagging indicator of current market conditions – where the market is exerting its influence even on semi-lockstep philanthropic decision-making, where the market is intruding upon or even preempting philanthropic decisions-making. But later for that.

The item that really grabs my attention (I’m not alone apparently) is the House & Home feature on a year-long experiment in “No Impact” living – on lower Fifth Avenue (yeah – right) – the crackpot idea of writer Colin Beavan. He sounds like a brilliant guy – he has a Ph.D. in applied physics – so there’s really no excuse for this harebrained scheme. (No impact?? – he has a blog he expects to be read and he’s writing a book about this. What? You expect people to buy your book; but god forbid if they use toilet paper?). He calls himself a megalomaniac which is either over- or under-stating it. What he actually is is a sado-masochistic fuck. Note to Michelle (the wife): I can refer you to a good divorce lawyer. Only problem is he’s already setting you up for low support payments. But enough for now. The high point of the day (into night) is the Joffrey Ballet – which promises an oasis of modernism (Massine, early Balanchine and Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table – which I’ve never seen – are on the bill) and more or less delivers.

I need some kind of oasis in more ways than one (after an automobile accident just the other day, I’m more of a wreck than my car). I have to wonder as I drive over to opera buddy’s place in the rental car whether all I’m really after is a reason to hope. Obviously what I’m thinking about here (with respect to modernism) is a moment before the disillusionment sets in – or maybe after the disillusionment: what does the period after the first world war express other than a massive, annihilating disillusionment with culture and civilization itself? – a moment after the cultural vivisection when the organism of culture, freshly revived and rehabilitated, takes its first survey of civilization’s scarred (but non-malignant) landscape; when the process of reexamining, revising, restoring or renovating the fundamental intellectual, aesthetic, ethical principles can begin afresh. You have to wonder if modernism – that is, in its early, pristine, proto-classical incarnation – represented a ‘last, best hope’ of western civilization. I’m more depressive than doomsayer; but two world wars and looming global eco-catastrophe don’t seem to have had much impact on the thinking of the governing classes so . . . .

That kind of tug of war between post-war optimism and pessimism appears to be the backdrop for the first ballet – Les Présages by Leonid Massine. The scenery and costumes are by André Masson and, especially in the first sections or movements of the ballet (actually the corps de ballet is characterized in the program as “Movement”), there is a sense of contending forces, competing impulses played out in crossing movements of arabesques and jêtés cross-hatching behind the hieratic, ritualized aspect of some of the soloists (characterized as “Action” and “Temptation”), which was evocative of Hellenistic or Mycaean dance or gesture. The classicism of temple dance and geometric cross-movement is more than a little offset by the music – from Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The Funeral March that opened the ballet is both an evocation of romanticism’s legacy and its own overwhelming présage of dark events to come. The adagio pas de deux contends with a mercurial Fate (spiritedly danced by John Gluckman – by far my favorite of the soloists in this ballet) as well as a corps of “Destinies” who seem to alternately signal caution, or point forward, disengaged, to a future already seeming past. In the last section, all the soloists are in ‘play’ – “Passion,” “Frivolity” (beautifully danced by Allison Walsh), “Action” (Valerie Robin), the aforementioned Fate and (alarmingly), The Hero (Thomas Nicholas). The ballet, according to the program notes, is ostensibly an allegory of ‘man’s triumph over fate.’ So why was I consistently engaged by Fate’s and Frivolity’s intercessions into the proceedings, and put off by The ‘Hero’s’ proto-fascist posturing. As the other soloists and corps circled around him, his arm and palm raised in what looked like a fascist salute, the Hero seemed less like the triumphant common man or the eye of Fate’s hurricane than the traditional (quasi-fascist?) leader of his swirling (and lost?) individual destinies. Optimism or pessimism? – you had to wonder.

It was a relief to step into the sunlit domain of the Balanchine/Stravinsky Apollo, which I’ve seen in a New York City Ballet production some years ago. Apollo is an allegory of the birth of a god and awakening of his sleeping muses. The program note indicated the deletion of a prologue – but it actually seems to have been folded into the rest of the program. The Mount Olympus ‘birth’ prelude or prologue unfolds on a mounted platform (Wolfgang Laib’s staircases and ziggurats – see my 2006 SITE Santa Fe coverage – would have worked well here) as Leto (Britta Lazenga) stuggles to give birth to Apollo – one of the sexiest things I’ve ever seen. Apollo (Calvin Kitten) is presented as a gauze-swaddled cocoon – which is then unwrapped as his awakening begins. With a long key-like lute or viol, Apollo then draws out his muses, offering them the symbols of their arts – the scroll to Calliope (beautifully danced by Maia Wilkins – a lunar presence to Apollo’s sun), a mask to Polyhymnia (Julianne Kepley) and lyre to Terpsichore (Emily Patterson). The dances of mutual fascination and seduction begin, culminating with a pas de trois among Apollo, Polyhymnia and Terpsichore. Terpsichore is (inevitably) the favored muse here – but, as they ascend to the Olympian platform, we are aware that there is no inessential dream element here.

The Green Table is a more literal piece of dance theatre – not surprising as it takes its inspiration directly from a dance re-played for us year after year in galleries, conference and ballrooms and banqueting halls of staggering magnificence: the dance of diplomacy – which, also with clockwork predictability, alternately pulls back from or slides forward into the march of war. If it were being choreographed today, I suppose there would have to be some element that pastiched television executives and their news actors – but Jooss’ ballet leaves the media out of it. The ballet begins with a brilliant pantomime of a dozen “men in black”– all masked – “negotiating” over that universal green baize table – which, somewhat raked and foreshortened here, anticipates the coffins soon to be filled with young men. Death – conceived here as a kind of heroic “New Centurion” in the classical mold – reigns (and brilliantly – by Fabrice Calmels) over the ensuing scenes – over the ignorant recruited ranks, their imploring wives, sorrowing mothers, helpless vicitims – interspersed by the machinations of my favorite dancer, John Gluckman (and character?), as the “Profiteer.” The ballet closed over the same green table – this time with the diplomat-dancers unmasked. As we walk back to the car, opera buddy asks me if I was aware that Henry Kissinger had once again stuck his own fright-mask out into the Bush administration policy fray. Indeed I was but, given all that has transpired over the last four years, neither surprised that an experienced war criminal should be consulted, nor especially concerned, given the administration’s overall about-face on Nixon-Kissinger style realpolitik over its disastrous course. So the dance goes on. As far as this dance went – overall, the Joffrey gave a great performance.

Trying to put the horrifying mask of Henry K-- out of our minds, we drive back to opera buddy’s studio where she shows me some new paintings she’s working on. I’m immediately struck by some new abstracted landscapes she’s done – craggy lines of ridges and canyons she says are inspired by a famous Californian engraver and graphic artist who she notes will not be found in the LACMA “Modern West” show of western landscape painting. I immediately see the inspiration in a woodcut she shows me (the artist’s name suddenly escapes me). As we walk her fabulous dog, T— around the block under a heavy crescent moon, it occurs to me that opera buddy has a few tricks up her sleeve to spare – which may yield something magical in weeks to come -- an exciting moment of anticipation. A great evening is its own oasis.

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