CityArts July 26th 2012
The July 26th edition of CityArts
In Retro Step Paris Ballet’s bourrées By Joel Lobenthal T Edited by Armond White New York’s Review of Culture • CityArtsNYC.com Up with Tutus Ballet music—one man’s evolution By Jay Nordlinger T he older I get, the smarter, wiser and more talented Verdi becomes. Funny how it works that way. When I was about 15, Verdi was basically a purveyor of corny tunes accompanied by oompah-pah. How had he managed to compose that masterly requiem, amid those silly operas? These days, I stand in awe at almost the least of those operas. It is similar with the ballet. From a musical point of view, ballet was the bottom of the barrel, as far as I was concerned. Ballet music was the equivalent of tutus: frilly, insubstantial, kind of ridiculous. Romeo and Juliet was a masterpiece, no doubt—but I thought of that as an orchestral work, rather than something to be danced to. Giselle, in particular, I considered a joke. Its composer, Adolphe Adam, scored a hit with “O Holy Night,” but the ballet was something else: a perfumed sleeping pill. Only later did I realize the joke was on me. Giselle, which has lived since 1841, may live to 2141 and beyond, and rightly so. These thoughts and memories are occasioned by a visit of the Paris Opera Ballet to the Lincoln Center Festival. Attending Giselle, I appreciated the score anew. It is a piece of “program music,” in a way, helping to tell a story. It has coyness, intimacy, anxiety, pomp, gaiety, pathos and, of course, ethereality. It also has longueurs and mediocrity, to be sure—but the gold compensates for the dross. The next day, the Parisians performed, among other ballets, a work called Suite en Blanc, whose music is taken from Lalo— Edouard Lalo, whom we know almost exclusively for his violin-and-orchestra piece Symphonie espagnole (and also, maybe, for Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle at Lincoln Center. the overture to his opera Le roi d’Ys). I was glad to get to know this music—new to my repertoire. One reason for my prejudice against ballet music was that I so often heard it performed badly. Who among us hasn’t snickered at ballet orchestras? They are often the Appalachian League of the orchestral world, the bottom rung. Onstage, you will have surefooted dancers, and, in the pit, you will have clumsy instrumentalists. Years ago, I asked Valery Gergiev, the conductor, “Why do people make fun of Puccini, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff?” He said, among other things, “You can perform anything in an insipid way. Even Mozart. But then the fault is yours, not the composer’s.” Exactly so. Giselle will be hopelessly la-di-da, if you play it that way. Doing the honors for the Paris Opera Ballet was the New York City Opera Orchestra, a group that has not had much work lately, given the fortunes and misfortunes of City Opera. At worst, the orchestra played respectably, and, at best, impressively. Boléro’s rhythm was imprecise, which was a shame, because the piece is so dependent on rhythm. But not much harm was done. Some ballet music, I still contend, is beyond hope. During its recent season here, the American Ballet Theatre put on Le Corsaire, whose score is cobbled together from five composers (including Adam). Act I is like a parody of ballet music, invented by ballet haters. But Swan Lake? Honestly, I could see and hear it once a week. Probably twice. he Paris Opera Ballet, France’s national ballet company, had both a rocky and triumphant opening night last week. It was a momentous occasion: their first New York visit since 1996, their final U.S. appearance under the direction of outgoing chief Brigitte Lefèvre. The company arrived after stops in Chicago and Washington, D.C., and its accumulated mileage seemed to have caught up with it during the first ballet, Serge Lifar’s 1943 Suite en Blanc (Ex-Diaghilev star Lifar directed the Paris company for decades.) It was the most classically exposed and taxing thing on the program, and as the performance began, there were enough bobbles to go around both male and female ensemble. The men, however, seemed particularly off. The female soloists and corps eventually rallied; indeed, they carried the performance, although the men, too, improved as the ballet progressed. But the real point was, this is a company with so strong a profile and foundation that you could easily see through its transient condition to its illustrious potential and possibilities. And forget about Gallic condescension: New York may have lost some of its luster as a capital of international ballet in recent years, but the dancers were trying with all their might to perform with dazzle and integrity. POB style in Lifar’s day was flouncier and jabbier than it became after Rudolf Nureyev’s tenure as artistic director in the 1980s. It was interesting to see the dancers negotiate Lifar’s slouch-hipped poses, his little pitty-pat bourrées. Cleaner and more economical as their current style may be, they nevertheless brought out all the charm and oddity of these quirks. Suite en Blanc is an exhibition piece that is something of a tribute to the Opera’s history. A trio of apparent sylphs wander in and out among the tutu-clad classicists: a reminder that the Opera was fulcrum of the romantic movement that brought us the sylphs. Indeed, later in the week, POB would be presenting Giselle, one of the greatest and most enduring of romantic ballets, which was given its world premiere by the Opera in 1841. This week, the POB is concluding its season with Pina Bausch’s Orpheus and Eurydice, in which Gluck’s opera will be sung as well as played. POB director Brigitte Lefèvre graduated from the company’s excellent school but pursued a career in modern dance before returning to the Paris arts establishment. She has aggressively interjected contemporary choreography in the POB repertory. Given the company’s stellar classical technique and style, a beacon amid the international decline in ballet standards, Lefèvre’s contemporary protectionism can seem excessive. But really, in terms of casting and repertory, she seems to have done everything right on this tour. Read more by Joel Lobenthal at Lobenthal. galleries CITYARTS Free Lunch—In Theory NYPL brings back a moveable feast By Caroline Birenbaum I t’s always fun to see how the palatial Gottesman Exhibition Hall at the New York Public Library is transformed by the nature of the material on view. This summer it has become a vast food hall, where the social history of the lunch hour is presented, using the resources of the library’s holdings, urban artifacts and cleverly incorporated bits of multimedia to document this quintessentially modern New York custom. In theory, you needn’t rush to visit, since the show will be up until mid-February. On the other hand, why deny yourself this wonderful free lunch, especially if you want to take advantage of the many accompanying programs. Judging from the visitors when I was there, this exhibit appeals to everyone, from native New Yorkers to tourists, toddlers to centenarians. The show is organized around four themes: “quick-lunch,” lunch at home, charitable lunch (school lunch programs) and the power lunches of the elite, both men and women. It includes sections on “iconic” foods, such as oysters—notably those purveyed in Thomas Downing’s famed 19thcentury oyster cellars—pretzels, pizza, pastrami, deli, Chinese takeout, sushi, Jamaican beef patties and the venerable hot dog. Don’t miss the video interview with Ed Beller, a fabricator of restaurant equipment, who serendipitously created the first stainless-steel cookers for hot dog carts. The centerpiece of the exhibit, in terms of inventiveness, nostalgia, and interactivity, is a recreation of an automat, with elegant Art Deco signage, compartment doors you can raise (though no food awaits within), a gorgeous coffee spigot you can handle (alas, that wonderful chicory-coffee aroma is not included) and behind-the-scenes views of the equipment and company customer service manuals. Clips of movie scenes set in automats play on a screen in this section, and recipe cards for four Horn & Hardart favorites (pumpkin pie, baked beans) are available as souvenirs. Another tactile display is a section of a soda fountain. It was a thrill to press the dispensers, even if thick chocolate syrup didn’t pour out. The Automat vintage photo in Lunch Hour NYC at New York Public Library. The show concludes with a delightful projection of photos of people eating lunch around New York today and an invitation to participate in the Library’s collaborative menu transcription project, which will result in the ability to digitally search the immense menu collection on a dish-by-dish basis. Can’t wait for a quick lunch? There are two ’wichcraft cafés in the library; restaurants and kiosks in Bryant Park behind the library; and a food truck located on Bryant Park Plaza, 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, weekdays through Labor Day from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Lunch Hour NYC Through Feb. 17, 2013. New York Public Library Stephen A. Schwartzman Building, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, www.nypl. org. Join the menu transcription project: firstname.lastname@example.org. INTERVIEW CITYARTS Park Life Jonathan Kuhn on keeping art alive By Elena Oumano T he day after the Twin Towers fell, Jonathan Kuhn and his two young sons headed for the woodland solace of Central Park’s North End Ravine, where a lone man was catching crayfish in the stream. Nearly 12 years later, the director of arts & antiquities for NYC’s Parks Department walks several times a day past a 1937 Carl Van Vechten photograph of two boys climbing boulders in that same secluded setting, one of many evocative New York parks images from 1890-1940 in the Parkcentric show currently lining the third-floor walls of the Arsenal Gallery at the department’s headquarters on East 64th Street. When he’s not in his office there, Kuhn is touring all five boroughs and their parks on his bike, expanding and refining a mental map that details not only every hill and dale but also all of the permanent monuments and transient artworks that have graced our public outdoor “galleries,” including relevant dates, names and back stories. With only private initiative funding to work with, he oversees seven to eight Arsenal exhibitions per year, will arrange for at least 29 temporary artworks matched to just the right parks this summer alone, keeps tabs on over 1000 permanent monuments and liaises with other museums, art and education institutions and community groups on new projects. You may not know his name, but a healthy share of whatever al fresco beauty this city can claim is due to Kuhn and his small staff’s dedicated efforts. About “one in six” artist proposals find fruition, he estimates, in addition to works created by cooperative Parks programs, including “Leap,” in which middle school students are mentored by artists like Chuck Close to create socially relevant art on cafeteria tables, and “Model to Monument,” works created by Arts Students League students mentored by sculptor Greg Wyatt. “We try to find proposals that integrate with sites, are thoughtful, add to the discussion, won’t fall apart—but beyond that, it’s a chance to give opportunity to many dif- Jonathan Kuhn. ferent creative visions,” Kuhn explains. “We had a project last summer with the Guggenheim Museum and BMW, their sponsor, called The Lab, a temporary pavilion traveling between New York, Berlin and Mumbai that’s had long-term benefits. “The theme was comfort in urban life, with discussions, events and programming relating to that for 12 weeks,” he says. “We found a narrow, vacant lot owned by the Parks Department for 70 years [that was] connected to Houston Street between First and Second avenues. It was fenced off, ratinfested and rubble-strewn. They rebuilt the park and retained Tokyo’s Atelier Bow Wow architecture firm to create a lightweight carbon building. Five thousand people passed through The Lab last summer, and then we turned it over to a local community group who programs it as First Street Green.” The positive impact of public art on local communities and an overarching mission to ensure nature and art bring meaning and joy to our lives clearly drive Kuhn’s passion. “We come at this from that perspective that art is on a continuum, so the connections over time between the Egyptian Obelisk in Central Park and the Columbus Monument built in the 1890s is representative of civilization at a given moment,” he says. “And contemporary art talks about the issues, concerns and visual content of interest to today’s public and artist communities. They’re not unrelated. I’m interested in those kinds of connections as well as those across geography, culture, class and time.” Go to www.nycgovparks.org/art-and-antiquities to learn about current, past and future permanent and temporary artworks and for information on submitting proposals and making donations. CITYARTS games Is There a Future for Gaming? Our man in cyberspace tours E3 By Steve Haske E very June, industry types and journalists converge in Los Angeles for the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the big annual conference where console makers and developers have historically announced new hardware, innovations for current platforms and surprise tentpole titles. It comes at a price. Loud and neonsoaked, E3 is a garish playground of overhype, testosterone and hyper-sexualized imagery that parades gaming’s basest associations around in full display. And now it doesn’t even feel there are any surprises. This year I was struck by how underwhelmed nearly everything I saw left me, including titles I was especially interested in. Big publishers so often borrow and steal design elements from each other—shoot- ers and action games especially—that at a glance, many feel indistinguishable. Realism has been a recent problem. The Tomb Raider reboot, for example, reinvents globetrotting adventurer Lara Croft through an origin story that allegedly breaks her down in a forced survival scenario; She suffers a bear trap injury in the demo, but we never see her so much as limp. In Hitman Absolution I watched unfeeling killer and master of disguise Agent 47 murdering a small town’s police force wearing a borrowed uniform without being recognized. Disguise may be a Hitman cornerstone, but don’t emphasize realism if you’re not all in. I could go on. Medal of Honor now looks exactly like Call of Duty, whose Michael Bay-ish presence remains a bafflingly universal influence. Even a fascinatingly highconcept game like Watch Dogs, whose premise involves controlling information through the interconnectivity of modern technology, reduces its action to abilities Hitman Absolution. chosen from a skill wheel. There were really interesting games hiding on the show floor—The Unfinished Swan makes you figure out the spatial structure of entirely white environments by splattering them with black paint; Papo & Yo is a storybook allegory about the game designer’s relationship with his alcoholic father. Most showgoers probably haven’t heard of either. What’s really frustrating about E3 is that it only highlights typical action bravado. Some of these games will still be greater, or at least more interesting, than their demos suggest. EA’s horror game Dead Space 3 focused on less-scary co-op instead of showing off how its PTSD-stricken protagonist talks to his fractured psyche in single-player; Far Cry 3 was a purported orgy of fetishized violence, leaving its sharp-sounding meta commentary on shooter design elsewhere. Still, I’m sick of it. The industry is slowly growing up. Can’t E3? Gaming writer Steve Haske reports from the Northwest. film CITYARTS Bat Guano Economics Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ markets mediocrity By Armond White A better movie than The Dark Knight Rises would invite discussion of its content, but interpretation (“What’s that?” say Avengers fans) isn’t even required of this third entry in Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise. A film of empty spectacle, its actual content (formulaic violence, humorless dialogue, unvarying solemnity) runs second to the blatant process of supplying a presold audience with brand-name characters and predictable action. Why bother detailing the film’s routine story when Nolan can’t get beneath its surface? Demoralized Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) loses his fortune and retraces his previous torturous superhero training to protect Gotham City from another cast of overly familiar nemeses—sneak thief Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), homicidal freak Bane (Tom Hardy) and an unlikely foe thrown in at the last half-hour. The Dark Knight Rises only offers an economics lesson in how an entire culture gets indoctrinated into buying repackaged characters, set pieces and hackneyed style, not a great modern myth. Instead, all of the action-movie reflexes learned from James Bond films (the opening airplane stunt), Indiana Jones flicks (battles against worldhistorical evil) and comic book movies (innumerable copycat origin tales) seem for naught. Consumer amnesia rises. When Batman was just a comic book figure, it appealed to youth and embodied an innocent sense of justice and necessary heroism. Then the graphic novel version, Frank Miller’s 1986 The Dark Knight Returns, converted the fable into the casual cynicism that Nolan treats in his now over-scaled sophomoric manner. “I’m necessary evil,” Bane hisses during one of his rampages, appealing to jaded youth and tilting Nolan’s interest away from storytelling and toward trite, cynical mood. Even I mistook the franchise’s previous mass killings and implacably malevolent adversaries for significant (sickening) ugliness because they resonated 9/11 anxiety. But as The Dark Knight Rises plods toward the three-hour point and Nolan drops in newsy gibes, it becomes obvious that his political evocations mean nothing. There hasn’t been a trilogy this shapeless and unresonant since The Lord of the Rings, partly to ensure another Nolan sequel (Dark Robin Lays an Egg?). The 9/11 shockwaves of Nolan’s terroristbomb-laden Gotham City include an explosive football stadium extravaganza no deeper than a coming-attractions trailer and offhand Bane and Batman in Dark Knight Rises. references to Occupy amazement, just Nolan’s usual dull relentlessWall Street in Catwoman’s felonious rage ness. His montage of betrayals, revolts, anagainst the upper class. But none of these nihilations—plus sentimental flashbacks—is opportunistic gimmicks (whether a lawnot accomplished fun like Brad Bird and Tom and-order subplot or underclass rioting) Cruise’s kinetic cartoon Mission: Impossible— relate to any character’s dramatized feelings. Ghost Protocol but, simply, a mess. Bale’s bummed-out crusader lacks conUnlike the Joker’s maniacal outrages, The vincing moral resilience (see his reluctant Dark Knight Rises is just dull, obvious calcuhero in Zhang Yimou’s stirring The Flowers of lation. Nolan’s cynicism is symbolized by a War instead). Hathaway’s one-note femme mushroom cloud climax that wastes one of fatale never develops like Michelle Pfeiffer’s the most profound specters of the modern post-feminist hellcat in Batman Returns. imagination. In pop terms, Nolan hasn’t got Tom Hardy’s Bane, a Hannibal Lecter/Darth the wit to “nuke the fridge” (Spielberg’s rich, Vader composite, remains muffled; his moti- still misunderstood anthropological jest). vations masked like his face. But in commercial terms, the way Nolan This pseudo-apocalyptic marathon never turns comic book frivolity into hipster nihilpays off for consumers. The last half-hour is a ism drops a bomb on our cultural economy. series of rushed fight and chase scenes, none interconnected and all executed without Follow Armond White on Twitter @3xchair.