Recently by Laura Bleiberg
It is monumental in size, yet minimalist in feel, situated at the northwest corner of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's 20-acre campus: a 340-ton, granite boulder poised (and bolted) to the walls of a 456-foot-long concrete walkway, centered in a field of decomposed granite. The visitor ramp/walkway descends to 15 feet below the rock, giving the viewer a rare underside perspective of the artwork. (Not that the bottom of a chunk of granite is so much different from the top or sides...)It's possible that the mass does seem to float as you walk towards it, but the conditions on opening day were not conducive for that effect, as is obvious from the picture below. (Photos by Mike Rogers) That's Heizer in the yellow polo shirt and park ranger-style hat, surrounded by photographers.
Once in a great while, the Los Angeles area plays host to a ballet world-premiere performance. Dance doesn't have the luxury of the out-of-town tryout, unlike musical theater. When a New York dance company ventures forth for a debut, it's marketed to ticket buyers as an exciting honor -- and it can be. But you have to understand that you're also being invited to serve as a guinea pig. Those first onstage performances can be rough. They allow the artistic director, choreographer and scenic designers a precious opportunity to sit out in the theater and evaluate how the fledgling production looks onstage. Then, they might tweak the ballet and take the (perhaps) improved version back to New York or elsewhere.
American Ballet Theatre was ensconced all last week at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts (in Orange County), unveiling a new production of "Firebird" (Thursday through Sunday) by company artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky. It was touted as a present for the center, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
It was a good weekend to be a test rodent.
Wim Wenders' feature documentary "Pina," about the life's work of the late Pina Bausch and the dancers who dedicated their own artistic lives to her vision, got an official Academy Award nomination this morning. I saw the film in 3D at the Hollywood Cinerama Dome a few weeks ago and was dumbfounded by what Wenders and the cinematographers have accomplished.
The mesmerizing performance of Bausch's controversial "Rite of Spring" (pictured above) was what got me. Wenders and Alain Derobe (a specialist in 3D technology who provided critical technical support) had managed the impossible. They had bridged the uncrossable divide separating cinema and live performance. The one will never be the other, of course. But at many points, this film feels like a live dance event. It's those emotional sensations, which watching live dance provokes, that regular cinema has heretofore never been able to duplicate.
"Pina" gives the viewer a wider depth of field. You can see the dancers up close, and yet still see the full stage. The physicality is palpable and thrilling to experience, just as it is. Pumping it up with nauseating quick editing cuts and jerky camera moves would be foolish and is unnecessary. A prickly, twitchy sense invades your own body as you watch, a natural reaction of associating with the kinetic action onstage. It is amazingly pure.
Of course, not every director is as sensitive and visually brilliant as Wenders. I cheer for "Pina," despite the movie's flaws. (Wenders' individual portraits of each dancer contribute less than watching the segments of Bausch's choreography.) But I am genuinely excited about the potential of 3D and dance. Here is a tool that can truly capture this elusive art form, making it available -- thrillingly so -- to a much wider audience.
The premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's two-act comic ballet, The Bright Stream, signaled that a new day had dawned for the Bolshoi Ballet and that Ratmansky was a major choreographer. That was 2003. By January 2004, Ratmansky was installed as Bolshoi artistic director. With five new and re-staged ballets during his tenure there, he delivered a shot of emergency adrenaline to the still-stodgy Moscow behemoth. This being the Bolshoi, however, a coterie of sullen dancers treated him and his new works as though they were foul-tasting medicine. Give us Spartacus, or give us death. Something like that.
Ratmansky's two-act Bright Stream is a reworked version of the "lost" 1935 original, which had choreography by Fyodor Lopukhov, a full-bodied score by Dmitri Shostakovich, and a story set on a idealized collective farm. Unfortunately for everyone involved in creating the original, Stalin deeply disapproved, and the ballet was banned. Shostakovich never wrote another ballet. Lopukhov was blacklisted for years, while poor librettist Adrian Piotrovsky was arrested and died in captivity.
Ratmansky kept the libretto and score, and simply (not so simple, really) added new steps. Southern Californians first saw it during the Bolshoi's 2005 U.S. tour. The Bright Stream was clever, funny, gentle and musically astute. It was contemporary, yet had a direct link with Russia's grand and complicated past.
Ratmansky left the Bolshoi for American Ballet Theatre in January 2009, but it didn't add Bright Stream to its repertory until earlier this year. The company opened at the LA Music Center last night (Thursday) and is performing it through Sunday, during the dreaded "carmageddon" weekend. More on that later.
We've said goodbye -- too soon -- to the Royal Danish Ballet, which visited Orange County, Calif., last week on the first stop of a U.S. tour. They brought two nights of Nordic mixed-repertory and four performances of the latest upgrade to August Bournonville's 1842 masterpiece, "Napoli."
The Danes could never overstay their welcome.
The new "Napoli," staged in 2009 by artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe and ballet master Sorella Englund (once a treasured ballerina and still an extraordinary character dancer), was danced with exquisite clarity, unmatched footwork and that celebrated Danish generosity of spirit. But it wasn't all gushingly great. This new "Napoli" has been teleported to the 1950s, with new mime characters, and a redone act two, which has a specially commissioned score. It had a severe case of multiple personality disorder -- a different one for each act. Finnish choreographer Jorma Uotinen's "Earth" (2005) was a kinetically unimaginative caveman tribute. And that led me to this question: Where were the women? Give me your ballerinas. Yes, the Royal Danish Ballet is renowned for its superlative male dancers, personified by Erik Bruhn and Hübbe, to name just two. But if, as Hubbe's program letter stated, this U.S. tour was about demonstrating "the company's strong contemporary artistic profile," then there was no reason for pandering. Strong female dancers have a place in contemporary ballet, one would hope.
And yet, I feel mostly effusive. This company gives you dancing, at a time when Western classical ballet is often percussive gymnastics. When you see the real thing, it literally catches your breath. With an impressive opera house operation of school, company, production facilities, and -- very important -- unbroken lineage from one generation to the next all working together, certain artistic traditions live on -- musicality, precision, the artists' palpable joy in being onstage. Even choreographic tinkering can't spoil that. The Danes remain committed to the myriad rhythmic and spatial possibilities of the body, from the grandest steps to the most detailed. If you go, pay close attention, just in case you're not accustomed to the subtleties of motion and accent at which these dancers excel. But that's not a warning, just a tip. It's only a pleasure to watch them.
After leaving the Segerstrom Center for the Arts (recently renamed because having the name "Segerstrom" on two of the four public performance spaces wasn't enough....guess that's for another blog post), the company moved on to Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall through June 4; then it's off to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., June 7-12; and finally New York's Lincoln Center from June 14-19. The programs vary and include other Bournonville delights, "La Sylphide" and "A Folk Tale."
I want to return ever-so-briefly to some old news: "Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark," and the reviews that precipitated the ousting of director Julie Taymor and her creative team.
I know it happened a month ago. But I think it's worth bringing up again to underline the timing of Taymor's dismissal and the role of the professional critics. I see it as a significiant moment.
Critics everywhere, one assumes, were in a quandry about the appropriate course to take with this show, and what precedents it might set: To review or not to review? Do we break the unwritten rules between writer and subject, which, in this case, was the anticipated but long-delayed opening of a $65 million Broadway musical? Audiences members were opining online, and yet the professional could not, should not. And the official opening date kept getting postponed. Preview performances began November 28.
Among professional reviewers, Newsday's Linda Winer and Bloomberg's Jeremy Gerard were the first to see and write about the show, publishing their appraisals in late December. The show was then scheduled to open February 7, but when that got pushed back, too, 11 critics decided to plunge ahead and publish their views. Their articles were posted online February 7, and they included influential news sources such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.
It was then -- and only then -- that the show's producers faced up to the fact that they would have to replace Taymor if they were ever to get substantive changes to "Spider-Man." A new creative team was brought in, including director Philip William McKinley and writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. The critics' words had moved the mountain.
Some in the news business would have you measure an arts critic's worth by the number of online hits she gets. An art critic's true contributions, to the arts, to our culture and to history, have been minimized because we live in a time where empty numbers have become the gauge of significance. It's a messed up way to determine quality, and certainly the "value" of arts criticism isn't so easily quantified; indeed, why does value even have to be proved?
Yes, arts critics - especially arts critics - speak truth to power, too, and so it's worth highlighting that every time it happens. We've all touched a raw nerve with our writing. In the middle of an otherwised civilized lunch with the president of the board of directors of a major performing arts venue, I was threatened with a punch in the face. We're not here to please anyone. And, for that matter, we're not here to make anyone's job easier, artist or producer. The readers deserve the truth, yet sometimes it feels like only a handful of them are even paying attention. Still, it is the critics who have expertise, training, curiosity and diligence who make a lasting impact, who aren't afraid to point out what's beautiful and what's ugly in this world.
So I was cheered to see change effected in New York City, even if the story itself is not a particularly happy one. And it made me feel like a goofy Sally Field: "You need us, you really need us."
"Debbie Allen's Hot Chocolate Nutcracker" premiered over the weekend at UCLA's Royce Hall. Some details are evident from the title, such as...
A) Debbie Allen: film and television actor ("Fame"), director, writer, choreographer, wife of a retired NBA All Star. Owner of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Culver City. In addition to having great theatrical chops as a director of children's theatre, she has clout and good connections. This production featured Raven Symone ("That's So Raven"), Jaleel White ("Family Matters"), and composer Arturo Sandoval, among other big-name talent.
B) "Nutcracker" can be magic at the box office.
C) The three presentations were sold out. Duh.
But is it truly "Nutcracker" if it doesn't have Peter Tchaikovsky's score? Still, a "Nutcracker," but a cousin, I would say. But truth be told, the various composers whom Allen tapped for the patchwork musical numbers -- Sandoval, James Ingram, Chau-Giang Thi Nguyen, Mariah Carey, Shiamak Davar and Thump -- did not do as well by her, as Tchaikovsky did by choreographer Lev Ivanov back in 1892.
I was in the cast of "The Nutcracker" for many years before I actually sat in a theatre and watched this holiday classic (or chestnut, depending on your point of view). It never occurred to me to question the passed-down, century-old portrayals of bobble-headed Chinese, gauzily shrouded Arabs, and leaping, twirling Russians, all of whom populate the ballet's second act in the Land of the Sweets. Until, that is, I went to Denmark in 1992. It was there, at the Royal Danish Ballet's Bournonville Festival, that I ran headlong into "Far From Denmark," one of the dozen or so remaining 19th-century ballets from Danish master August Bournonville. It was a scene with black-faced, flat-footed South American "natives" in nappy wigs that stopped me cold. I finally understood how "The Nutcracker" -- an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann's children's fantasy "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" -- could offend.
Yet, we don't generally throw a work out the canon because, by definition, it has enduring value that transcends the particular period in which it was created. We adapt it. We make it palatable.
Even before she took her first misstep, it was a given that Sarah Palin's daughter Bristol, the latest misfit on reality TV's insanely popular "Dancing with the Stars," would be a finalist.
Even before we knew if she was any good -- and the judges' consensus is, she isn't -- it was clear Bristol would send the ratings through the roof, and that the show's producers and ABC network officials would want her around until the very end.
And of course, that is what's happened. More than 20 million viewers have been watching this season, number 11, up 3.3 million viewers from the year before, according to the Los Angeles Times.
But when Bristol beat the sophisticated and elegant Brandy on this week's show to make it to the final round, people were surprised anyway. And mad. Really mad. (Eliminations are made through a "secret" formula that combines the judges' scores with viewer voting.) It was even reported that a fellow in Wisconsin blasted his television with a shotgun in response. (Extenuating circumstances: His wife told the Wisconsin Journal her husband has bipolar disorder.) NPR's Robert Siegel invited ballroom dance's Pierre Dulaine onto "All Things Considered" for his reaction to this stunning development and to offer advice to Bristol on how to improve. Ugh.
"Somebody who describes an accident to an eyewitness."
-- Music critic Martin Bernheimer. Pianist and conductor Leon Fleisher quoted Bernheimer at a lecture-demonstration Fleisher gave this week in Irvine, CA.