Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Few Dubious Moments: The Paul Taylor Dance Company Opens at NY City Center


By Mary Sheeran
 
            Paul Taylor’s Esplanade is a delightful, exuberant work set to music by Johann Sebastian Bach. At Tuesday’s gala opening of the Paul Taylor Company’s season at City Center, dancers ran, skipped, jumped, and slid as if engaging in summer games. In the midst of these joys, some depth would emerge – a touch on a shoulder, the grasping of a stomach, even crawling on the floor in a way that reminded me of the sad dinosaurs in Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”. A tender section begins and ends with men carrying women in their arms, one strong and very happy dancer (Michelle Fleet) flies over bodies in a breathtaking game of leapfrog, and a dancer slides vigorously into a backbend. And then at the end, the marvelous Fleet stayed behind on stage to give a bit of a bow before undoubtedly going back to play. We were enchanted.
 
            And perhaps a little more dubious about the night’s premiere, Dubious Memories. Central to this piece is some sort of violent love triangle with a Man in Green, a Man in Blue, and a Woman in Red (of course), with some (and this gives it too much importance) Rashomon-type memories surrounding an event that made me wince a few times: once for the somewhat trite two-dimensional story and once for an apparent rape followed by one more wince as the same couple returned to the stage as a loving pair.
 
            What WAS of interest was James Samson’s choir master, who begins the piece with a series of impressive lunges, as if pointing the way, and then, joined by his chorus, reacts and comments to the action with quirky moves and formations, making something interesting for the commonplace electronic score that accompanied them.
 
            Because the dancers in the story wore bright colors and the chorus was garbed in gray, the ending with the colorful dancers entering the choir could have been interesting (up to now, they had moved in separate circles) and I was thinking that they would become part of the choir (angels from heaven?—somewhat borne out by the mystical music and lighting when the choir was on stage by themselves) or that they were still oblivious to it. This final section was titled, Threnody, as in mournful wailing for the dead; could the choir have comprised all possibilities of these memories? As you can see, the piece was both intriguing and banal, which was distressing. I almost wished that the cell phone belonging to the woman in front of me would go off as it had during Esplanade, just to provide some discernible distraction (it went “Boing! Boing!”)
 
            The other wince came as my friend Amy turned to me during the next work, Oh, You Kid! and asked, “Is that supposed to be the Ku Klux Klan?” She wasn’t kidding. Dancers were wearing white hoods that were unmistakably pointing to the Klan, and I had no clue. Oh, You Kid! is set to the ragtime period and takes place at a seaside. Dancers wear the contemporary bathing costumes  for a typical afternoon at a ragtime seascape and generally doing high spirited stuff. Why the KKK pranced in there, I couldn’t fathom. All I could think of was the 1915 film, “Birth of a Nation” because another piece seemed like something out of a Harold Lloyd film. The dancing was enjoyable in this slight piece, especially that of Parisa Khobdeh. The music, live for Tuesday only, was energetically performed by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, directed by Rick Benjamin.
 
Esplanade. Music by Johann Sebastian Bach (Violin Concerto in E Major and Double Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor – Largo and Allegro), Costumes by John Rawlings, Lighting by Jennifer Tipton, first performed in 1975. Three Dubious Memories. Music by Peter Elyakim Taussig (Five Enigmas, movements 1, 3, 4, 5), Costumes by Santo Loquasto, Lighting by Jennifer Tipton, Premiere: Feb. 22, 2011. Oh, You Kid!, Costumes by Santo Loquasto, Lighting by Jennifer Tipton, first performed in 1999.
 
Paul Taylor Dance Company. Artistic Director: Paul Taylor.  The company is performing at New York City Center through March 6. For information, visit www.ptdc.org.
 
Mary Sheeran is the author of Quest of the Sleeping Princess, a novel set during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet (www.questofthesleepingprincess.com) and Who Have the Power, a historical novel set during the Comstock Lode era about a pianist discovering that her mother was a healing woman of the Washo tribe (www.whohavethepower.com).

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Listen to the Music: Wheeldon’s After the Rain at New York City Ballet and an Evening With New York Theatre Ballet


By Mary Sheeran
 
            My music professor, James McCray (now Professor of Music at Colorado State University) defined music as a collaboration of sounds and silences. “The silences are as important as the sounds,” he would say, and as a singer I learned how true that was in controlling the dynamic of the silence.

            I hadn’t thought of that definition in a spiritual sense, though; that is, in life, first you go make sounds and then you are silent, and then from your silence, you learn to make different sounds. To pattern life in this way is to make your own music of life.

            I thought of this when I spent a day at the ballet, taking in both the New York City Ballet and the New York Theatre Ballet.  To be specific, it was the second ballet of the day that stopped me.

            The second ballet at NYCB was Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain (2005), set to music by Arvo Pärt, whose career comprises periods of contemplative silences that changed and enriched his work, even transformed it. Born in Estonia on Sept. 11, 1935, Pärt’s earlier compositions were influenced by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Bartok, and then by serialism after Schoenberg. His work at this time came up against Soviet censors, and he consequently entered a contemplative period, studying early choral masses of European polyphony. His biographer, Paul Hillier, wrote, “He had reached a position of complete despair in which the composition of music appeared to be the most futile of gestures, and he lacked the musical faith and will power to write even a single note.”

            Then, in 1971, after Pärt completed his Third Symphony, he entered yet another contemplative period, where he studied plainsong, Gregorian chant, and Renaissance polyphony. He developed a style he calls tintinnabulation, that is, little bells. The technique is inspired by chant and uses two voices, the tintinnabuli, or bell voice, which plays separate notes in a chord (ie, arpeggios) against a second voice, which moves up or down in a scale. He employs slow tempi that can be called meditative.

            “Tintinnabulation,” he noted, “is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises – and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this…The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.” (arvopart.org).

Two resulting works are Tabula Rasa and Spiegel Im Spiegel, from the late 1970s. Wheeldon used the first movement of Tabula Rasa and all of Spiegel Im Spiegel for After the Rain

This ballet opens with three couples lined up on one side, the women’s legs pointing straight up, the men lying on the floor. We in the audience are simply stopped in time, moving into the music, watching the three couples, as they turn, as the men lift the women, reaching within the gentle music of a sweet high violin.  The invention and the music, together are riveting, and we gasp when in one lift in midair, a woman is somehow running backwards. But all of this is merely prelude to the pas de deux between Whelan and Craig. At first, they gently rock as the violin sings beneath them. In what seems like a dance of great sweet sadness, they are always touching in some way, even when they are apart, feeling their way through some movement. Then there are gentle lifts as if trying again after a fall. On the floor, Craig holds her, she bends back, then suddenly, she is standing on his thigh and reaching out. It is yearning after the storm, with tender caring for each other, and in the end, he is sleeping beneath her, as if she were the cool, protective earth. This is a lament with hope, beautifully done, and with almost painfully beautiful music.

It is music you must hear, and Wheeldon’s dance opens the curtain to it. In an interview, discussing his “philosophy,” Part said, “If anyone wishes to understand me, they must listen to my music. If anybody wishes to know my ‘philosophy,’ they can read the Church Fathers.” But here. If you want to understand, listen for the silence and let it dance in your heart. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QtFPdBUl7XQ
 
The distillation of feeling to art is also Mozart’s gift, and NYCB eloquently sings through the delightful Mozart Divertimento No. 15, which Balanchine called one of the finest divertimenti ever written, so of course he set it to dance (he actually did it twice). What we see are five ballerinas shimmering against the blue, and the beginning of almost delicious courtly clarity. Even though there are five women, there are three men, so that even though everything is symmetrical and balanced, it is actually a little off. You’d never notice it, given the elegance and sprightliness of the dancers, but as Balanchine showed us in Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, there is always something simmering under cool classicism. The finale of this one, seeming so sweet and youthful, is set to an old folk song, "The Farmer’s Wife Has Lost Her Cat." Mozart made the song laugh in silver. Balanchine made it quicksilver. Here, why not listen to this one, too? (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOsIoRndPBA&feature=related). (This is the final, sixth movement. Balanchine cut the andante for violin and added a new cadenza, but you’ll hear what Mozart did to the wife and her cat. Or rather, for her.)

The last NYCB entry was Jerome Robbins’ Four Seasons, which is a little dusty but not the least bit rusty. Its formula, set to Verdi’s ballet music for the opera I Vespri Siciliani (with additions from the ballet music for I Lombardi and Il Trovatore). The formula for The Four Seasons is perhaps hackneyed, but it is always entertaining.  Winter is greeted with the requisite shivering, followed by jaunty Springtime and sultry summer. Fall stood out in this performance, thanks to the exciting dancing of Daniel Ulbricht, Joaquin de Luz, and Tiler Peck.

Then I was off to New York Theatre Ballet. What intrigued me there was how meaning could be distilled through the movement but still convey depths of emotion. John Butler’s Othello is certainly a good example of that. It’s startling at how well Shakespeare translates into an art form that doesn’t use language!  (I always enjoyed how Balanchine would say he used the Russian translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to set his version.) In this Othello, how much more we were given of Othello’s love for Desdemona, through a tender and wistful dance with the excellent Steven Melendez and Rie Ogura. Their subsequent, violent dance became all the more terrifying after Iago (Joshua Andino-Nieto) convinces Othello  that Desdemona had betrayed Othello. We all knew the story, but we were caught up in it again, watching love turn into hate in but a few moments.

            Antony Tudor’s Judgment of Paris, also at NYTB, was another story that we all know from mythology, but Tudor moved the setting to a French café where the choice is not exactly among three goddesses but rather three aging “ladies of pleasure.” It’s all kind of jokey, somewhat reminiscent of “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” from Gypsy.  Tudor’s contrasting Soiree Musicale enjoyed a sweet and engaging performance; it features different “character” dances, the canzonetta, tirolese, bolero, and tarantella, with music by Rossini arranged by Benjamin Britton.  It’s always a pleasure to watch this company’s soft fluidity in ballets of this sort, and yet there’s a sense of fun behind all the grace.

The company made a big deal of explaining the importance of Merce Cunningham’s Septet, but by the time they performed it, I felt too many words had filled the air and blotted out the dance. Otherwise, this was a charming evening, enhanced by the musical interludes provided by Mariko Miyazaki and Michael Scales on the piano.
 
New York City Ballet. Divertimento No. 15, Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Choreography by George Balanchine, Costumes by Karinska, Lighting by Mark Stanley, Premiere: May 31, 1956, American Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, CT. After the Rain, Music by Arvo Pärt, Choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, Costumes by Holly Hynes, Lighting by Mark Stanley, Premiere: Jan. 22, 2005, New York State Theater. The Four Seasons, Music by Giuseppi Verdi, choreography by Jerome Robbins, Scenery and Costumes by Santo Loquasto, Lighting by Jennifer Tipton, Premiere: Jan. 18, 1979, New York State Theater.
 
New York Theatre Ballet. Soiree Musicale, Choreography by Antony Tudor, Music by Giochino Rossini, Arranged by Benjamin Britten, Staging by Oona Haaranen and Ray Cook, Costumes by Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan, based on the original production by Hugh Stevenson, Lighting Design by Ted Sullivan, Pianist: Mariko Miyazaki. First performed in 1938 at London’s Palladium Theatre. Judgment of Paris, Choreography by Antony Tudor, Music by Kurt Weill, Staging by Sallie Wilson, Book and Costume Design by Hugh Laing, Costume Adaptation by Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan, Lighting Design by Ted Sullivan, Musicians: Mariko Miyazaki and Michael Scales, Premiere: Westminster Theatre, London, June 15, 1938. Othello, Conceived and Choreographed by John Butler, Music by Antonín Dvo?ák, Staging by Donald Williams, Costume Design by Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan, Lighting Design by Ted Sullivan. Permiere: Dec. 15, 1976, at La Scala Opera Ballet in Milan, Italy. Septet, Choreography by Merce Cunningham, Music by Erik Satie, Staging by Carol Teitelbaum, Coaching by Carolyn Brown, Costume Reconstruction by Carmina de Dios after designs by Remy Charlip, Lighting Design by Ted Sullivan, Pianists: Mariko Miyazaki and Michael Scales, Premiere: Black Mountain College, North Carolina, Aug. 22, 1953.
 
New York City Ballet continues its Winter season through Feb. 27. For more information, go to www.nycb.org. New York Theatre Ballet will continue presentations of its Signatures 11 program April 8, 9, and May 13 and 14 at 7 p.m. at the Florence Gould Hall in New York City.  For more information, visit nytb.org.
 
Mary Sheeran is the author of Quest of the Sleeping Princess, a novel set during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet (www.questofthesleepingprincess.com) and Who Have the Power, a historical novel set during the Comstock Lode era about a pianist discovering that her mother was a healing woman of the Washo tribe (www.whohavethepower.com).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Stepping Out with Ben Vereen


I’ve always loved Ben Vereen’s smile. It’s big and wide and seems more genuine than most in show business. It gives him the aura of being a happy man, which is just what he appeared to be Friday night for his “Stepping Out” show performed with spirit and humor before a sold-old crowd at Town Hall.

With song, dance and story, Vereen kept the audience cheering and applauding throughout the two-hour concert. In the past couple of years I’ve seen magnificent shows by two other musical legends, Tommy Tune and Liza Minnelli (who was in the audience Friday, as was Chita Rivera), and loved every minute. But Vereen’s evening was different. Like Tune and Minnelli he’s an energetic and giving performer, but he has a warmth that goes beyond just loving the material and being onstage. He creates the intimacy of a gathering of friends. The joy of the connection between performer and audience was palpable.

The evening began with a montage of film clips of past performances and then the man himself danced onstage to sing “With a Song in My Heart.” Addressing the audience, as he was to do throughout the show, he expressed how thrilled he was to be back home in New York. He’s been living in Los Angeles where “the most exciting thing to do is get in my car and drive to the grocery store -- and that’s across the street.”

In wonderful storytelling fashion, he shared anecdotes of his journey to showbiz fame, starting with how his talent was recognized when he was 9 and starring in his Brooklyn elementary school’s production of The King and I. The principal told him he should apply to the High School for the Performing Arts in Manhattan. Thrilled, he ran to a phone booth to call his mother.

“Remember phone booths,” he asked the audience, most of whom were old enough and laughed at that and other “remembers?” he threw out -- actually dialing a phone? albums? tapes? -- creating as sense of fun and inclusiveness.

The principal was right in his assessment and Vereen did indeed go to the Performing Arts high school in that magical world of the theatre district with Broadway -- and his future -- right down the street. And he gifted us with songs from that land, from Pippin (for which he won a Tony Award) Jesus Christ Superstar (Tony nomination), Hair and Wicked.

Soon after graduation he auditioned for Bob Fosse who was casting Sweet Charity for a run in Las Vegas. Since he hadn’t prepared a song, he had to rely on the one made available for such emergencies, “Blue Skies,” the words of which were printed on signs on the stage floor. He gave a hilarious version of that experience, singing the song in swing time, glancing down all the while for the next words, trying to keep up.

Once again his talent shown through and Fosse was impressed enough to take him on, so Vereen, the little kid from Brooklyn, was headed for the lights of Vegas in 1967. He rewarded us with a couple of verses of “If They Could See Me Now.”

It was in that world of casinos and nightclub acts that Vereen met a singer who impressed him with the support he gave to African-American performers, which caused him to laugh before finishing his story. “African-American,” he asked. “I’ve lived long enough to have been colored.”

After colored he was Negro and then black. “Now I’m African-American,” he said with pretend wonder. “People, I’m from Brooklyn.”

After revealing the helper of the colored/Negro/black/African-American performers, Frank Sinatra, he sang several of the songs he made famous, the standout of which was a powerfully moving “My Way” that had far more emotional impact than any version ever sung by Old Blue Eyes.

The second act provided a chance to honor another performer he met in Las Vegas, Sammy Davis Jr. The segment began with Davis and Vereen singing together “This is the Life” from Golden Boy in a clip (from around 1968) from “The Mike Douglas Show.” (This could have called for another “Remember?” I remember “The Mike Douglas Show.”) It was touching to see the two of them together, with Vereen looking so young and enthusiastic. (Actually Vereen still looks enthusiastic and, despite his 65 years, youthful.)

He spoke of how impressed he was by Davis’s graciousness toward his musicians, and then followed in his example, allowing each of his a long solo before joining them in song. Drummer Marc Dicciani charmed us with “Misty,” bassist Tom Kennedy “My Funny Valentine,” percussionist Aaron Vereen (his son) performed a novel “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and conductor and pianist Nelson Kole “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” Glorious, each.

He closed with a heartfelt thanks to all of us, his fans, who have been there for him throughout his career. He alluded in passing to his 1992 car accident after which he suffered a stroke and was hit by a second car (all in the same night), acknowledging in the audience the doctor who helped him to speak again and Minnelli and Rivera (who also had recovered from a car accident and to whom he turned for support during his healing process). (Incidentally, Chita and Liza were seated on opposite sides of the theatre. Coincidence or bad blood, I wondered later?)

Voicing his appreciation with a most appropriate song, he ended with “For Good” from Wicked. “I’ve heard it said/ that people comes into our lives for a reason/bringing something we must learn/ and we are led/ to those who help us most to grow/ if we let them/ and we help them in return./ Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true/ but I know I’m who I am today/ because I knew you.”

I think everyone in the audience felt the same way that night.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Visualize Change


The essay by Edward Grinnan appeared in Guideposts magazine.


One of the most quoted of the many quotable things Albert Einstein said was: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” The second, less frequently cited part of the statement is actually my favorite: “For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.”

Imagination isn’t just the province of artists and great minds. Every one of us is blessed with this amazing capacity, this gift of the mind. Through the power of our imaginations we can change our thoughts—and, as the philosopher and psychologist William James said, by changing our thinking we change our lives.

We use our imaginations constantly. Every time we think about something that hasn’t happened yet, we’re using our imaginations. In the morning, when we survey the prospects of our day, our minds roaming through our to-do lists, we’re performing an imaginative, creative act. We’re seeing ourselves as actors in the future through the medium of our imaginations. Thanks to imagination, we don’t have to be who we were or do exactly what we did yesterday. We can change ourselves, and thus the future. So I’m with Einstein on this one. Imagination trumps knowledge.

Dr. Norman Vincent Peale called this process imaging, subtitling his book of that name, The Powerful Way to Change Your Life. To quote, “The concept of imaging is a mental activity that consists of picturing vividly in your conscious mind a desired goal or objective and holding that image until it sinks into your unconscious mind, where it releases great untapped energies. It works best when combined with the seemingly illogical technique of giving thanks for benefits before they are received. It solves problems, strengthens personalities, improves health and greatly enhances the chances for success in any kind of endeavor.”

Imaging as Dr. Norman Vincent Peale conceived it is not simply a mental snapshot or visualized wish list. It is a systematic reimagining of that aspect of ourselves that we want to change. When combined with faith and prayer, he believed it was one of the greatest powers human beings possessed to affect our future happiness.

Try this: At the beginning of any change effort, large or small, develop a change vision statement. Commit to your effort by stating explicitly
- what it is you want to change;
- why you want to change it;
- how you will be different;
- how you will feel different; and
- who will be positively affected by this change, in addition to yourself.

Then call on your imagination to fully envision how that change occurs in you. See the tangible, physical results, but also envision a change in the underlying dynamic. For example, I imagine, with great delight, my desk no longer littered with half-masticated pens, and I also see myself handling stress and frustration in a more healthy fashion, like chewing a stick of cinnamon gum or maybe just taking a deep breath. Be sure to imagine not just the change itself, but also how achieving that change will make you feel. Ultimately change is about feelings, not behavior.

At the time, Dr. Peale’s concept of imaging was unique, even somewhat controversial. Today we see people using it all the time. A friend of mine was recently treated for cancer. Her oncologist urged her to continually visualize the cancer cells in her body being eliminated by the treatments. That’s imaging.

The most powerful secret to Dr. Peale’s imaging is what he himself admits is paradoxical: giving thanks for blessings not yet received. It is more than faith that is being expressed in such an unusual way. Gratitude in advance of success is the ultimate form of living confidently. Try it. You will be amazed by the sense of hope and optimism it engenders. Any change is a journey, with all the unexpectedness and uncertainty that goes with it. We can’t always see the end of the path, or even the way to find it. That’s when we must trust our imaginations more than ever—even more than our knowledge—to guide us, to illuminate the yet-to-be-seen.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Black Swan: A Tribute Concert


By Mary Sheeran

 The African American participation in classical music has been prodigious, even before Lincoln and the Civil War. Here is one story.
 
She was born a slave in 1809 (or 1817 or 1819, sources differ) in Natchez, Mississippi and took the name of her owner, a Quaker, who freed her when taking her north to Philadelphia. Taking the name of her mistress, the former slave taught herself piano, guitar, harp, and singing. Possessed of an incredible and powerful 27-note-range, she was unable to take singing lessons herself, but she eavesdropped others’ lessons. That was how Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield became the first African-American singer to gain recognition in both the United States and Europe, and she was celebrated while slavery was still widespread in the United States. Touring, in fact, was a danger, as she could have been captured as a runaway slave in some states.           
 
            After her mistress died, Greenfield began singing at private parties and small public concerts, gaining fame (and the title, “the Black Swan”) for her astounding repertory and “her remarkably sweet tones and wide vocal compass,” according to contemporary James Trotter. Four thousand people came to her New York debut at Metropolitan Hall on March 31, 1853. They were all white; the people of her own race could not be “accommodated.” Greenfield apologized to who had been denied the chance to hear her and subsequently gave a concert they could attend to benefit the Home of Aged Colored Persons and the Colored Orphan Asylum.
 
            On May 10, 1854, she gave a command performance for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace, while enjoying the patronage of Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Back in the United States, she opened a music studio in Philadelphia and created and directed an opera troupe in the 1860s. She passed away on March 31, 1876, her obituary published in The New York Times.
 
            Last Sunday, I found myself quite moved by a tribute program to Greenfield at Saint Bartholomew’s Church, in their chapel. To emphasize her abilities, material Greenfield sang (works by Handel, Bellini, Donizetti, and the popular Sir Henry Bishop), a soprano and a tenor performed Greenfield’s repertory! The operatic selections were from the bel canto genre, popular at Greenfield’s time, and also incredibly demanding, with difficult runs and sky high notes requiring expertise at approach and placement, concentration, and agility.
 
            Heather Hill lit through “O luce di quest anima” (Donizetti, Linda di Chamounix) with cool intelligence that turned hot with Bellini’s meltingly beautiful “Ah, non credea” and its brilliant followup, “Ah, non giunge” from Bellini’s La Sonnambula.
 
            Tenor Joshua Stewart sang “Si, ritrovarla io giuro,” from Rossini’s La Cenerentola and the beautiful “Una furtive lagrima” from L’Elisir d’amore by Donizetti with ringing head tones and a relaxed demeanor. Both singers sang gorgeous arrangements of arias from Handel’s Messiah.
 
            I had to remind myself that I was not just attending a lovely Sunday afternoon concert, but that another singer – one singer – had performed these selections, someone who had not been so rigorously trained as Hill or Stewart, someone who had had to struggle for her training and for the mere right to sing, someone who was gibed by critics justifying their racism by attacking her appearance and calling her technique “rough.” And as I listened to the concert, I felt both a sadness that Greenfield was not there to enjoy the tributes, and the talents and training given those who followed her, and then I felt a growing sense of her presence among us.
 
            One additional delight for me was that the concert was structured like a nineteenth century recital, which rarely just did one thing. Lisa Despigno played a portion of a Mozart flute concerto with pianist Jonathan Kelly (I wish I knew which concerto). A typical program would also have included the pianist performing variations of opera themes or popular songs. Kelly composed his own variations on "Yankee Doodle Dandy" in historically accurate style. And, as there might well have been, a speaker provided some narration, in this case, marvelously done by Dwight Owsley, who provided historical commentary in between musical selections. The concert also closed typically. Hill sang "The Last Rose of Summer," a contemporary hit and paired with "Despigno" for Bishop’s "Lo, Hear the Gentle Lark." As it would have in the 1800s, the concert closed with Bishop’s "Home, Sweet Home" (words by John Howard Payne).
 
            This extraordinary  concert was the work of Opera Exposures (operaExposures.org), headed by Edna Greenwich, and the audience was not only appreciative but moved.
           
During the program, something Owsley said made me sit up straight and almost raise my hand wildly. He mentioned that after Greenfield returned from Europe, that she toured with one of her pupils, another African-American singer Thomas Bowers.
 
            Because of my novel, Who Have the Power, which in part parodies the old TV western "Bonanza," I’m pretty solid on the first five seasons of that show! Season Five, the highest rated season of that show by the way, had an episode called Enter Thomas Bowers, Bowers being an African-American opera singer. So someone must have heard of him, but I haven’t been able to find any mention of Bowers on a quick Web search except for that "Bonanza" episode. (He is not mentioned in any of the major histories of the time, although I remember reading news accounts in the San Francisco Chronicle of the 1860s of a “Negress” opera singer named Eliza. I don’t know if the reference was to Greenfield.)
 
In this 1964 episode, Bowers, beautifully played by William Marshall, is returning from a successful European tour and, once hitting Virginia City, is accused of being a runaway slave. The episode is a bit over the top with lectures on the Dred Scott decision from Adam, and Bowers is put in jail by Sheriff Coffee to protect him from a lynching. The episode even comes with a lunch counter, never before or again seen on "Bonanza," where Bowers is refused service and Hoss comes to his rescue. The Cartwrights were on Bowers’ side, of course, but there is this alarming exchange that startled me when I first heard it as a child. You can hear it for yourself on Youtube. Ben suggests that they could prove Bowers was not the runaway slave, “Just hear him sing!” Sheriff Coffee wonders what that will prove since all “those people” can sing. Ben agrees with him, and Bowers goes off to jail.  Even as a kid I was banging my head against the wall and incredulous; once free and happy and lectured to by Hoss about tolerance for the ignorant, Bowers sings a Mozart aria in German and everybody’s won over.
 
            How did they know about Bowers? Someone must have. And if they did know, why hadn’t they known about Greenfield, too? Or did "Bonanza" delete her as it had routinely deleted women from the story of the West?
 
In my book, which focuses on the Native American experience, history that hasn’t been told is uncovered gradually, revealed in the air, like the (once) signals of television and felt by more sensitive women. Our stories really are in bits and pieces, scattered about. It takes a long time, but we eventually do come home to ourselves, but it means work.  Fear and prejudice dog us throughout history, and none of us is really safe from feeling that fear. We are blessed by those who take the time, talent, and treasure to steer us toward the true.
 
"The Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield Story." Presented by Great Music at St. Bartholomew’s Church in cooperation with Opera Exposures (OperaExposures.org). For more information about Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, see contemporary writing of her in the Frederik Douglass Paper at http://negroartist.com/writings/Elizabeth%20Taylor%20Greenfield.htm, and an account of her Buffalo concerts at http://chnm.gmu.edu/lostmuseum/lm/196/.
           
Writer/singer Mary Sheeran’s new novel is Quest of the Sleeping Princess (www.questofthesleepingprincess.com), which unfolds during a gala performance of the New York City Ballet, She has also sung through several operas, cabarets, and song recitals in New York, including several performances of Songs From the Balanchine Repertory, which led to this book.  Her first novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006 (www.whohavethepower.com).

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

SWAN LAKE AT NEW YORK CITY BALLET


By Mary Sheeran

            My first glimpse this past Friday of Sara Mearns as Odette in Peter Martins’ Swan Lake at New York City Ballet took my breath away, for with her nonexisteant spine and lyricism that took to the air, she conveyed both dignity and suffering. This Odette is no victim, although she has been victimized, for while her body has been trapped into a swan’s form for most of the day by the evil sorcerer Von Rotbart, her heart is still open.

            This I received from Mearns in but a moment, and that signaled to us in the audience that we were about to witness an extraordinary performance, one thought through with intelligence and then beautifully executed. We were to be privileged to share not only great dance but great feeling and great love for what is a great art in a great ballet. I prefer my special effects to be of human accomplishment, and for those of that persuasion, this was a performance to evoke tears of joy.

            That may sound like an awful lot to expect after a moment, but we were not disappointed.

            When Odette meets Prince Siegfried (Jared Angle), their dance together is tender, with both being mindful of the other, even between the lines so to speak. Odette’s swoons are as sigh inducing as those in George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, one of the great romantic roles of the repertory. Mearns has learned her lessons from Balanchine’s distillations. She has the theatrical gifts for a rich portrayal along with to-die-for phrasing to dance this most challenging role in the romantic ballet repertory. Her heart is open to this sweet prince. She is not conniving for her freedom, she is responding to her heart, which, despite her situation, remains courageously open.

            Mearns’ Odile, on the other hand, does not swoon unless she wills it, and her spine is strong and unyielding. Mearns’ dancing here was precise and cool, like an above it all coloratura. Even her footwork, always precise, seemed to change shape with the different characters. Odile is experienced in her allure, and she’s doing Von Rotbart’s bidding – what their relationship is, who knows? (It does not look like father/daughter here.) At some point, Odile gives Prince Siegfried one look that made me wonder if his sweetness had won her over, but Von Rotbart is in control here.    
       
Once back in the forest (there seems to be no lake in this production, at least not visible from the left orchestra), Mearns is the betrayed Odette, despairing and still longing. When Siegfried arrives to beg forgiveness, Mearns at first flees him, and to watch her quick and frightened movements is to be reminded of a bird trying to get away from the human who tries to catch her. But her open heart wins out, and she forgives him. When they irrevocably lose each other because of his terrible error, and she remains a swan, we are moved because this ending (which many carp about), seems real and right, even if terrible. The spell remains even with Von Rotbart’s death, for the Prince’s pledges still hold meaning, despite his mistake being made in all innocence.

            In all of this, Sara Mearns is superlative.

            And the others are not far behind in a production highlighting a large cast that includes very young students from the School of American Ballet (sometimes cloyingly irritating in their ubiquity).

            Jared Angle’s prince is both lyrical and sweet. There’s very little bravura attitude here. As he dances with Odile (“No! Stop! You fool! Can’t you tell that’s not her?” – I genuinely cared what happened to him), I couldn’t help but think this was the Siren and the Prodigal Son again, for except for that brief hesitating look (did I really see that?), he was a goner.

            Daniel Ulbricht had all the male bravura in his role as Jester. I don’t remember this role being all that important; this guy seemed to be running the kingdom. I thought his costume ugly (I thought most of Act I looked pretty horrible), but perhaps the Jester’s ubiquitousness (along with some – you’ve got to be kidding – little jesters) is there to provide relief from all the Danish melancholy on the set, and also – I thought this later – as both a way to emphasize the prince’s youth, sweetness, and innocence and to balance off Von Rotbart, played with Dick Cheney-like dignity by the marvelous Albert Evans. Most of the Rotbarts I’ve seen have looked silly to me, even the one in Balanchine’s one-act version – all that arm waving. Evans seemed more believable, not because of his dashing cape with bright orange lining (yes, there was a lot of orange on stage), which he swooshed around to great effect, but because of his very dignified manner, like a prince or a king; he sat with the Queen comfortably enough. Even so, his character was a puzzle. Why does he seem to lure the prince to the swan princesses in the first act – what’s the point of luring Siegfried and then tricking him with Odile? Well,this is Swan Lake, not Double Indemnity and maybe it’s something that doesn’t need to be spelled out but can remain a mystery. Or maybe I’m being nice.

            Others in the large cast are quite good. Anthony Huxley replaced Sean Suozzi as Benno, the prince’s friend. At first, he seemed a little nervous, and I could almost hear him counting. Then he smiled, and he danced sweetly with smooth phrasing.

            I haven’t seen Swan Lake in a while, and my memory has the Act II divertissements (the traditional national character dances) leading up to the entrance of Odile and Von Rotbart, but that’s not what happened here. Those two enter early, Von Rotbart makes himself at home, and Odile and Siegfried go off stage.  That seemed strange.

            Anyway. Martins added a pas de quatre to the Act II divertissements, or the traditional national character dances (Quick: What’s a Neopolitan?). I haven’t the faintest idea what this foursome was doing in the hall, with lovely but anachronistic costumes, but this dance showed Martins at his strength of “interesting combinations of steps”  - his misinterpretation of Balanchine’s ironic definition of choreography—and also showcased the dancers. It was like a little set piece, all to itself, with a little wry humor and a bravura “finale” all nicely rendered by Megan Fairchild, Tiler Peck, Abi Stafford, and Joaquin de Luz. The three plus one combination assured a quote from Apollo, and by George, there was one.

            It was nice to see Ask La Cour; he and Rachel Rutherford acquitted themselves well in the Hungarian Dance as did Janie Taylor and Sébastien Marcovici in the rather strangely costumed Russian dance. The four cygnets looked pained.

            I didn’t think I’d like this production; Martins’ Sleeping Beauty appalled me, and I deliberately stayed away for years. It opened as I expected, dark, dark, dark. The opening scrim was of a tangled wood more suited to Hansel and Gretel’s journey, there was no lake that I could see, but there was a large dark shape hovering over us all. The program’s Swan Lake essay referred to the tangled brambles that ended in clawlike shapes as “pain that drips like nerve endings,” which sounded more like Black Swan to me than Swan Lake (gentle reader, they are not the same thing). The set of Act I looked awful – some strange, lurid swatches of orange and just plain yucky color swirling around that just looked cheap. The costumes looked cheap, too, in lurid colors that alarmingly clashed with everything. I couldn’t figure that act out at all. I didn’t know where they were (weren’t they supposed to be outdoors?). The program said that the design referred to the turbulent emotions of the characters, but the first half (Martins divides the production into two acts) is way less emotionally turbulent than the second here, unless he means the Jester’s costume, which made me emotionally turbulent. The first part of this production seems to wander around, and a more focused décor could help, maybe.

            So when I say I liked this Swan Lake, I really mean that I liked the performances (not to mention the music), which tore that silly scenery away. Martins moves things swiftly, and to my mind, in the second part, it worked. I could feel the audience, somewhat tentative in the first act, lean forward in the second, including the young lady next to me who had muttered to her father at intermission, “It’s not like in the movie.” I even began to appreciate the lakeless forest, its tangle emphasizing the tangle of motivations. The dark foreboding seemed to lift and, as Odette forgave the prince for his unintended betrayal, more light appeared in that forest.

            Martins’ ending is neither Romeo and Juliet tragedy nor happy ending. Von Rotbart is destroyed, but the spell continues because of the prince’s blunder. In the program’s essay, Martins indicated that he meant that the prince had given his pledge to two women, and the lesson was he had to make a choice, that we all have to make a choice. This baffles me. The prince did make a choice, Odette, but he was tricked (you can argue that he was stupid, but his intentions were good throughout). What felt authentic about the ending was that it was a more thoughtful and mature idea: love with an open heart, despite dark powers about us, will in the end succeed – even if it’s not a totally happy ending, good comes from it. This is still a triumph of love and forgiveness even if romance cannot continue. I felt this was a realistic, if still sad, conclusion and an ending for grownups who live in a tangled world where no choice seems clear – keep your heart open to love and forgiveness, and evil will eventually be conquered, even though we may not get what we want in our lives. Keeping your hearts open, even if it seems that all fails, is a courageous and good choice.

            I’m not sure if Martins had any idea about that moral; it may have simply been the superb performance by Mearns that gave me those iinsights. And I’m not entirely sure if this production isn’t a cut and paste job by Martins without any understanding of the mythologic, balletic, or musical material. That, too, is sad, but on Friday, it didn’t matter. Unlike Von Rotbart, Martins was rescued by Odette, Odile, Siegfried, and oh, yes, by Tschaikovsky.

Swan Lake. Music by Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky; Choreogoraphy by Peter Martins after Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, and George Balanchine; Scenery and Costumes by Per Kirkeby; Costumes based on original designs by Per Kirkeby and Kirsten Lund Nielsen; Costumes realized by Barbara Matera; Lighting by Mark Stanley; premiere Oct. 27, 1996, The Royal Theater, Copenhagen, Denmark. New York City Ballet Premiere: April 29, 1999, New York State Theater.

New York City Ballet’s Winter season continues through Feb. 27. For information and tickets, go to www.nycballet.com.

 
 Mary Sheeran is the author of Quest of the Sleeping Princess, a novel set during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet (www.questofthesleepingprincess.com) and Who Have the Power, a historical novel set during the Comstock Lode era about a pianist discovering that her mother was a healing woman of the Washo tribe (www.whohavethepower.com).

Friday, February 11, 2011

Swinging the Jinx Away at the New York City Ballet


By Mary Sheeran
 
I’m always struck by modern dance’s claim that it is so much freer than the restrictive vocabulary of ballet! I thought that comparative canard had been laid to rest, but I do still bump into it, usually in dancers’ biographies as to why they chose one form over another. Somehow, no one seems to single out “tap” or “ballroom dancing” as a choice. It’s either modern or ballet, even though those universes have been overlapping for a couple of decades. But after a little time at the Joyce watching David Parsons’ repetitive dances followed by an hour-long program of the Summation Company at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, where despite all good intentions, the choreographer simply ran out of ways to express deeply felt emotions, I found myself reminded of another old canard: That the language of ballet, that happily absorbs other forms, actually is much more versatile now when you come down to it. 
 
Last Saturday afternoon, the New York City Ballet fell right into proving that canard when it presented three quite different ballets by three quite different choreographers: Susan Stroman’s For the Love of Duke, George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, and Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces. It seems that you can do almost anything with ballet, except make a good movie with it.
           
Stroman’s piece, For the Love of Duke (she added a first section, Frankie and Johnny…and Rose, to her 1999 commission for NYCB, Blossom Got Kissed) opened the program. Both sections of the work use music by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and both enlist the fabulous David Berger Jazz Orchestra right up there on stage with the dancers, playing “Single Petal of a Rose,” “Such Sweet Thunder,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing” and “Lotus Blossom.” I love seeing musicians on a stage because they’re playing with the same vibrating air as the dancers, and the atmosphere feels more energized.
 
It certainly looked fabulous up there, thanks to someone’s design (the program didn’t say) and Mark Stanley’s lighting, and there was considerable lovely, romantic dancing from Amar Ramasar (the piece shows off both his flair and intelligent phrasing), Tiler Peck, and Sara Mearns.
 
I almost wish Stroman hadn’t decided to add a plot, and although the dancers looked to be having fun, Stroman’s story was not very original, and it got less so when Savannah Lowry and Robert Fairchild kicked in for the Blossom section. There is silly stuff, like Fairchild kissing tutu’d Lowery, who then flings off her tutu and becomes as scarlet clad as the other ladies strutting their stuff. (It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that man.) So much for Sisterhood. Ramasar as Johnny is continually tempted by one vixen after another, and Tiler Peck is sweet Rose, but here comes that vamp, Sara Mearns. The dances themselves aimed at being large but betrayed some hesitation of form, even though the dancers were all get up and go.
 
Well, okay, even if the story wore a little thin and there were a couple of stale ballet jokes in there, I can’t help thinking that NYCB is a good place for Stroman to come to, every so often. She has a profound sense of the big picture, a visionary imagination, and the skills to bring that vision to life. She is, after all, behind a few other enterprises such as Scottsboro Boys, The Frogs, The Producers, and marvelous rethinkings of Oklahoma and Show Boat. She is also the first woman to choreograph a full-length ballet for NYCB (if you overlook Alexandra Danilova’s work on Coppelia) --Double Feature in 2005. This is no small thing given the company’s and the art’s history of chauvinism often masked by romantic claims that ballet is woman, so let’s keep her in her place. And I feel, based on the concept and some teasing bursts of originality in this latest piece, that Stroman’s holding back on us, and I wonder why. It just seemed that there was another ballet in there somewhere. I also was thinking that For the Love of Duke might have looked better in a more intimate house than the erstwhile New York State Theater, which seats over 2500.
 
Yes, Duke is slick, it’s light, it’s Broadway, and that’s to the good for the repertory and the dancers. The critics seemed disappointed by this piece, but I am remembering something from my research. In 1970, Mayor John Lindsay presented Balanchine with the Handel Medallion, New York City’s highest award for contributions to cultural and intellectual life, but critics carped at the slight work Balanchine presented that night. It was called Who Cares, and it’s still got that swing.
 
For the Love of Duke wasn’t Prodigal Son, but who cared because that was next on Saturday’s program. Balanchine’s 1929 work for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes still affects us with its simple, spare, yet expressive choreography. I still am moved to tears by the son’s struggling return to his father as he crawls on his knees, arms behind him, tense with the struggle to stay put or to reach out.
 
Maria Kowroski proved an aloof and even stern Siren although her dancing lacked the necessary resistance to the air; the Siren should control absolutely everything. Even without the headdress, she towered over her captivated prodigal (the vigorous Joaquin DeLuz), who didn’t have a chance in that serpentine pas de deux. She ate him alive, and he’d better like it.
 
Prodigal Son may seem simple, but it is generous to the imagination and the effect on audiences is gripping, so that the final dramatic moments enfold us in the father’s grasp. You can quibble that the ballet ignores the whole point of the Christian parable by not including the older brother in the story, you can quibble at the too blatant contrast between the two sweet sisters and the Siren, and you can protest that the story’s subtext champions patriarchal power and bourgeois life. But all these quibbles fade with the power of the story that told on stage and the power of the youthful rebel granted wise, unconditional forgiveness. I wonder if the father had ever been the son.
 
Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces closed the program with a stage flooded with energy in the first and last sections. Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall soared in the haunting middle section, Façade, as the corps performed the equivalent of a figured bass to their melody. I was glad to see it again, and glad too that Retta Blaney was with me, seeing it for the first time. She liked it so much that she rushed to the library to find a CD with Philip Glass’ music. Hear the ballet, see the music, and dance! And, yes, there are so many ways to do it.
 
For the Love of Duke, Music by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Choreography by Susan Stroman, Costumes by William Ivey Long., Premiere Jan. 28, 2011. Prodigal Son, Libretto by Boris Kochno, Music by Sergei Prokofiev, Choreography by George Balanchine, Premiere May 21, 1929; Glass Pieces, Music by Philip Glass; choreography by Jerome Robbins; Production design by Jerome Robbins and Ronald Bates, Costumes by Ben Benson, Premiere May 12, 1983.
 
New York City Ballet’s Winter season continues through Feb. 27. For information and tickets, go to www.nycballet.com. 

 
Mary Sheeran is the author of Quest of the Sleeping Princess, a novel set during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet, and
Who Have the Power, a historical novel set during the Comstock Lode era about a pianist discovering that her mother was a healing woman of the Washo tribe.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Amazing Grace Readings, With Josh Young, Matt Bogart, Quentin Earl Darrington


This announcement by Andrew Gans appears on Playbill.com. I'll be there this afternoon. I've been following this show since seeing a concert/reading in Bucks County at the invitation of creator Christopher Smith in October 2007. Two songs from the show have been featured at Broadway Blessing.

By-invitation-only readings of the new musical Amazing Grace will be presented Feb. 10-11 at 3 PM at The New 42nd Street Studios in Manhattan.

Directed by Gabriel Barre, the cast includes Josh Young (Che in Evita at Stratford Festival) as John Newton, Terrence Mann (The Addams Family, Les Miserables), Matt Bogart (in photo, Jersey Boys, Aida), Katie Rose Clarke (Wicked), Quentin Earl Darrington (Ragtime), Harriet D. Foy (Mamma Mia!) and Laiona Michelle (Black Nativity) with Courtney Balan, Rheaume Crenshaw, Trevon Davis, Struan Erlenborn, Rachel Ferrera, Scott Richard Foster, Christopher Kale Jones, Allen Kendall, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Sarah Knapp, C. Mingo Long, Dominique Plaisant, Aaron Ramey, Dan Sharkey, Sasha Sloan, Paul Michael Valley, Kayla Vanderbilt, Robin S. Walker, and Charles E. Wallace.

Amazing Grace features music and lyrics by Christopher Smith and book by Smith and Arthur Giron. The new musical, according to press notes, is described as "an epic musical love story based on the life and trials of John Newton, the former slave-trader who authored one of the world's most recognized songs. The story is told from the point of view of his childhood friend Mary Catlett, the woman who never lost faith in him and whose love, courage and unshakable conviction helped to transform his life. Their journey to find the meaning of their own existence will lead them to love, heartbreak and an epic quest to end the scourge of slavery."

The music supervisor for the readings is Kimberly Grigsby.

The New 42nd Street Studios is at 229 W. 42nd St. For more information visit www.agmusical.com.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

This Was Mine, Nearly


By Mary Sheeran

The Summation Dance Company is a group of women who, in their world premiere of co-founder and artistic director Sumi Clements’ Keep Your Feathers Dry at the Baryshnikov Arts Center last week, participated in the world of grief, which is mythically women’s work. This was evident in the dance even if one hadn’t read Clements’ “what I meant” notes in the program. (Why do choreographers do that? Dance is a wordless art. Tell me later.)

The hour-long program was divided into three sections: Fortitudine, Whac-a-Mole, and No Man’s Landing. There was much in Clements’ choreography to draw you in. From the start, you were trying to make sense of a world that didn’t. Three women spoke rapidly in gibberish as if on their cell phones, but the incomprehensible words were pungent with emotion, while we tried to hear but were unable to make sense of it. It was a quick and telling introduction. While dancers moved with fierce, angular movements, one woman, all in black, moved through with sweeping movements suggesting that underneath the confusion was a profound depth of feeling. There followed a dance of touching and caught dependency among the dancers, with imploring movements, anger (a kind of “acting out,”) followed by moments when the women supported each other tenderly.

Clements apparently liked to roll her dancers on the floor and they did that in unusual ways as they did so much else. In the third section, No Man’s Landing, a woman (Julie McMillan) in a low lunge balanced on one foot, for a very long time, and I thought, that’s how it is. At another point, dancers hurled themselves from the wings onto the floor so smoothly I didn’t even wince in sympathetic pain. They curled into fetal positions, sleeping with a reluctance (I inferred) to keep going, but their motion soon became, nevertheless, relentless. The same could be said of all the dances, where someone was always sleeping, curled up, fraught.

In another segment, they ran across the stage or – contrariwise – stood absolutely still, in one striking moment, turning their heads in what could be thought of as a Jerome Robbins Dancers’ at a Gathering moment, but with a very different feel, as if all the turbulence seen now rested within them, but now how should they move forward?

I understood without written words that this rapidly changing movement and the quick turns of emotion (dancers in black being pushed but not yielding; women in flowered garb fighting these dancers as if trying to shove their grief away – and then the tables turn, the “grief” dancers relentlessly calm and unmoving) were physicalizing shock and grief.

Certainly, these were interesting movements and well done, but the three sections in themselves could not sustain the narrative of the piece or the audience’s attention. Too much of the movement was the same – the rolling, the up and down, lying on the floor, the anger, the caring, the similar themes from one section to the next. Not enough was different to indicate progression. I hate to say that “the work is promising,” but it is. In addition to the interesting way Clements’ work demonstrated trauma and grief, the groupings of the dancers was both classical and fluid, and there seemed to be more dancers than there actually were. But there didn’t seem enough language to keep the dancing going for even the hour that we had.

Now for “what it meant.” Clements, according to her note in the program, was expressing her “heartbreak as I watched my boyfriend’s reactivation into the Marine Corps and his subsequent deployment to Afghanistan...I was flung into a storm of the unknown and even today continue fighting my way out.” Clements divided the sections of this piece “from confusion and despair, into the slightly deranged, leveling off into an emotionless precipice on which I currently stand.”

I’m not sure how much of that we needed to know right away, for without the description and pointing to herself, I wonder if we would have been able to point to ourselves as we watched what she created. I think we could have. Then, in learning the impetus for the dance, we would have thought, "Yes, I know what that feels like."


The Summation Dance Company’s Presentation of Keep Your Feathers Dry at the Baryshnikov Arts Center Feb. 4, 5. Choreographed by Sumi Clements. Produced by Taryn Vander Hoop. Lighting by Simon Cleveland. Music by Moby, Four Tet, Blockhead, Kyle Olson. Dancers: Sumi Clements, Angela Curotto, Cat DeAngelis, Sarah Holmes, Allie Lochary, Julie McMillan, Erin Okayama, Kristin Schwab, Yohta Tsagri, Taryn Vander Hoop (Apprentice: Kelsey Berry). For information, go to www.summationdance.org.


Mary Sheeran is the author of Quest of the Sleeping Princess, a novel set during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet, and Who Have the Power, a historical novel set during the Comstock Lode era about a pianist discovering that her mother was a healing woman of the Washo tribe.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

This is America


"This is America, where a white Catholic male Republican judge was murdered on his way to greet a Democratic Jewish woman member of Congress, who was his friend. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year old Mexican-American gay college student, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon, all eulogized by our African-American President."
--Mark Shields, PBS

(Gabrielle Giffords, the injured Congreswoman, in photo.)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Presiding bishop to join Obama administration as advisory council member


From the Episcopal News Service

President Barack Obama announced Feb. 4 that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori would be joining his administration as a member of the President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

"I am grateful for the opportunity to be of service to the larger community in this way," Jefferts Schori said, according to a press release from the Episcopal Church's Office of Public Affairs. "The
ability to build partnerships between civic and religious bodies can only expand our capacity to heal a broken world."

The council "brings together religious and secular leaders as well as scholars and experts in fields related to the work of faith-based and neighborhood organizations in order to make recommendations to the government on how to improve partnerships," a White House press release noted, adding that the president will announce additional members at a later date. Each council serves a one-year term.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

You've Got to Be Carefully Taught: A Child's View of Integration


You’ve got to be taught
To be afraid
Of people whose eyes
Are oddly made
And people whose skin
is a different shade.
You’ve got to be carefully taught.



Long before anyone ever imagined Black History Month, the fight for many Americans was for legal equality and access. I was witness to one of these historic struggles, although I had no idea of its significance at the time.

Gwynn Oak Amusement Park was one of my favorite places when I was a small child in Baltimore. It featured three roller coasters, a haunted house ride that scared the living daylights out of me, a carousel and many other kiddies attractions. My memories are happy but vague, except for the final one.

I hadn’t known I was living in a segregated society anymore than a fish knows it’s in water. My world -- neighborhood, church, school, stores -- were all white in the early 1960s. But times were changing, as we all know now, and the Civil Rights Movement was on its way to Gwynn Oak.

This little amusement park, just across the Baltimore County line from the northwest corner of the city, had been a target for integration since the mid-50s, with occasional picketers and protesters showing up. If they were there in the early 60s when I started going, I never saw them.

But I sure saw them on Aug. 28, 1963 when they finally integrated the park. My mother took me to Gwynn Oak that day, but not for the rides. She was interested in the excitement on the outside.

Only 8, I didn’t know what was going on. My parents were not the type who explained things to their child, and even if they had been, in this case their explanation would have been neither informed nor charitable. All I know is what I felt -- palatable tension in the air. The street leading up to the park was lined on either side with mostly white people and police officers. Everyone stood looking down the street, anticipating something.

The wait seemed long and I was frightened about what was going to happen. Finally, a long line of black people, adults and children, appeared and began walking toward Gwynn Oak. I had never seen so many black people and the air of them-versus-us terrified me. I wanted to leave, but my mother wasn’t going to miss a thing. I felt small and vulnerable in that crowd, and worried that fighting was going to break out at any minute, even though I don’t remember any harsh words or gestures.

This day was the quiet culmination of one that had occurred the month before, on July 4. That day brought hundreds of peaceful demonstrators to the park. Many where clergy people, white and black, from states up and down the East Coast. It was the first Civil Rights protest for one young man, Michael Schwerner, and sadly, one of his last. He would be killed by the Ku Klux Klan the following year in Mississippi along with Andrew Goodman and James Chaney at the start of Freedom Summer.

I was unaware of the July event. On the day I remember, the black people didn’t stop at the door. They entered the park, never to be kept out again. For me it was just the opposite. As we walked away later my mother said, “Well, you’ll never go there again.”

And she was right, I was never taken there again, nor was any child I knew. The white people didn’t consider the idea that they could share Gwynn Oak. They just abandoned it to the black people. It had been a segregated park and it remained one.

As we drove home, I pictured a little girl my age going through the park for the first time. I mentally journeyed with her, wondering what ride she was on and what she would see next. I was genuinely happy and excited for her. As we got closer to home, though, it really began to hit me that I would never go to Gwynn Oak again. I didn’t feel angry or jealous, just sad. It wouldn’t have occurred to me anymore than it did to the adults that we could share the park. But I remember a stirring in the back of my mind that wondered why it had to be either/or.

In the years that followed, attendance fell off and the property eventually was purchased by developers. Life was changing in more ways than just integration. Amusement parks became big, elaborate ventures and turned into day trips a long ride away on the highway. Gone were the little attractions on the other side of town that thrilled children for a couple of hours on a hot summer night. Gwynn Oak’s rides were too quaint for the new operations. They were all sold and my beloved little carousel moved south where for many years it was (and possibly still is) in operation on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Gwynn Oak’s integration was one tiny link in the mighty chain of the Civil Rights Movement. I was there for it. Unfortunately it took me years to reevaluate the messages I learned that day, for I had been “carefully taught.”

You’ve got to be taught
Before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate.

You’ve got to be carefully taught.



(Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, from South Pacific.)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

New Art is True Art: Parsons Dance at the Joyce Theater


By Mary Sheeran
 
Should I start with the good news? Okay. Once again, out of a varied dance program, Monica Bill Barnes is the standout choreographer. That’s the good news after taking in two programs of Parsons Dance at the Joyce Theater.
 
MBB rolled out a new piece, Love, Oh Love, and the first section of that piece (to Through the Years by Stephen Hartley Dorff and Martin Panzer) is still with me to this moment, and it’s so nice when that happens. This section has couples (gay and straight) lined up on the stage wearing somewhat cheap evening clothes (poignantly so in these economic times) and dancing through life. Boy, that sounds corny, doesn’t it? Time passes, and the dancers stop to pick up “stuff” that could hurt (you see a bent knee, a bent back) and affect their dancing. But the dancers keep on with an occasional silly breakout, with each other, through the years. You’d think this would be sentimental, and maybe it is, but like other Barnes work I’ve seen, there’s bite to it; she sprinkles in quirky moves and unexpected humor throughout, which the Parsons troupe performs delightfully.
 
Her second section is almost as good. A man and woman launch into some glorious ballroom stepping while other dancers mark time on the side, rather like a chorus effect. Then one man approaches another, the other seems tentative, and suddenly, there is this sudden casting off business – the dancer removes his trousers, and so do all the other guys, and the women remove their skirts and dance the rest of the piece in black shorts. The piece ends poignantly, even though it does all sound silly, doesn’t it? But Barnes has a gift of being able to mix creative dance movement with wicked snappiness, obvious humor, and sentiment, while making the cohesion work. Perhaps all choreographers should start out studying philosophy. At any rate, I saw Love, Oh Love twice, and it was richer the second time around.
 
Aside from Barnes’ piece, the rest of the programs featured works by David Parsons. Good news, bad news. His new work, Portinari, has not stayed with me, and I wish I could say it had. In the first place, I confess to being annoyed by lengthy paragraphs in the program that pretty much answer the question, “What did I mean when I made this dance?” – I especially am annoyed when I notice the words after I’ve seen the dance.
 
Without words, the piece began with a dark stage, with the exception of the center, where a woman (Sarah Braverman) stood in the light, draped in an aqua colored mantle. Miguel Quinones stood before her, shaping his hands over her – not touching – he was a painter or sculptor, that much was clear. What would you think? I thought Pygmalian. They step together, her head to his heart. They embrace. They are sad. He circles her as if critical of what he’s done. He lifts her. She falls headfirst. He catches her. Then he falls, and we have a Piéta moment at the end.
 
Okay. What Parsons meant: “Portinari is inspired by the acclaimed Brazilian painter, muralist and political activist, Candido Portinari. Portinari created two 46-foot tall murals, titled ‘War’ and ‘Peace’ for the United Nations General Assembly Building. They were donated by the Brazilian government and first displayed at the UN in 1957. When delegates enter the building, they see ‘War. As they exit, they see ‘Peace.’ The murals took more than four years to complete. In 1962, Portinari died at the age of 58, of poisoning from the lead-based paints with which he worked.” 

Now that you mention it, I did know about Portinari and his murals, and recalling that might have helped me. But should that be the case? What is the relationship between a piece’s intent and what I see?  Well, without this program note, what we have is another piece in this world that is primarily another man eyeing a woman as object, another muse and her creator, another woman who is what men use to think with – and who survives her creator, whom she also loved. Perhaps that is enough to see without all the words. Alas, the use of the overused Barber "Adagio for Strings", lovely as it is, did not help me sort out the associations. All I could think of was the movie "Platoon" (okay, war, peace). I must say that the dancing was exquisite, all by itself. And that’s something real.
 
I had a better time with Parsons’ The Envelope. It’s quite witty, quite like my life, actually, with the envelope coming back and back. And back. The dancers who just can’t shake that thing are shrouded in black pants, tops, and hoods. They were certainly impersonal and indistinguishable, except for that one lady who sang (who was that?). They slunk about like Spy vs Spy, tiptoeing, forming fun shapes, and it all seemed whimsically keystone coppish. It’s a wry little piece, it doesn’t shake the world up, but it’s well done, and the effective use of Rossini’s music adds to its humor.
 
The dancers pranced with an outgoing childlike glee in the charming Bachiana, moving as if they needed to shape and stretch every part of their body. Hand Dance, Sleep Study and Run to You (which was also a new work), were cute and unremarkable. Hand Dance is just that – all you see is the hands dancing to barn dance music, fiddles and such. (I half expected the envelope would come back!) Sleep Study is probably better for children’s audiences. Dancers wear pajamas and lie down on the floor. One starts rolling around, then others, and one stays asleep, straight through the curtain call. He didn’t miss anything. Run to You, like Slow Dance, is strictly junior high dancing. I enjoyed the running in the first section of Run to You – the dancers were like racehorses in lovely clothes – but they didn’t go anywhere.
 
Then there is Caught. As in “Every program includes Caught!!!”  cry the posters outside the Joyce. The first time I saw this piece, I was intrigued, the second – oh, not so much. It’s a trick. It annoys me in the same way that when I took the Universal Studios tour, all the tour guide could talk about was special effects, when for me, special effects are all about human communication. As in acting! Call me Throwback. Anyway, as I was saying, Parsons' Caught is just a trick. Strobe lights focus on one dancer who is otherwise in darkness. When he dances, the light focuses on his leaps, and the effect is that he is caught in the air. After a few minutes, the trick wears off. When the dancer (I saw both Miguel Quinones and Steven Vaughn) stands, resting (as he does a few times here), he looks real, human, breathing deeply, and that is the real special effect. For the rest, it’s like watching photographs zipping by, the kind of thing people watched in the nineteenth century before there were movies. We weren’t watching real movement. The dancer is indeed caught, as in trapped. Nothing of his individuality is part of the dancing. Everyone around me thought this was exciting. To me, it was depressing. Well, every relationship has its ups and downs through the years.
 
Love, Oh Love. Choreography by Monica Bill Barnes. Music by Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, and Diana Ross (Through the Years was written by Stephen Hartley Dorff and Martin Panzer. Works choreographed by David Parsons: Portinari. Music by Samuel Barber. The Envelope (1984), Music by Gioacchino Rossini. Bachiana (1993), Music by JS Bach. Hand Dance (2003), Musical arrangement by Kenji Bunch. Sleep Study (1987), Music by Flim & the BBs. Run to You (2011), Music by Steely Dan; Caught (1982), Music by Robert Fripp.

Photo © B. Docktor

Parsons Dance in Slow Dance
Sarah Braverman & Miguel Quinones, Elena D’Amario & Eric Bourne, Melissa Ullom & Steven Vaughn

  
Mary Sheeran is the author of Quest of the Sleeping Princess, a novel set during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet, and Who Have the Power, a historical novel set during the Comstock Lode era about a pianist discovering that her mother was a healing woman of the Washo tribe.