Fotografiska New York

Yesterday we visited Fotografiska New York, a Swedish transplant museum dedicated to photography. The museum is housed in the old Church Missions House that resembles an old-Europe church from the outside, situated at Park Avenue South and 22nd Street. The building dates to 1894, squarely within the Gilded Age. Inside, it’s all modern, with a coffee shop in the lobby and five upper floors, four of which contain the exhibits. If not disposed to climb a lot of stairs, you can take the very modest (maybe six passengers) elevator to Floor Six and then walk down.

On Sunday there were two particularly compelling exhibits. A one-woman show by Ellen von Unwerth entitled “Devotion! 30 Years of Photographing Women” contained some extraordinary photographs. Be advised, however, that some of these photos are very explicit and not for most young children’s eyes. We were also impressed especially by Tawny Chatmon’s “Inheritance” show, consisting of stunning shots of Black women and children enhanced with elaborate ornamentation added by hand to the photographs. The result are powerful portrayals of people not normally found in museums that tend to feature extensive historical portraits of white people in room after room.

Helene Schmitz’s “Thinking like a Mountain” is a series of large frame shots of natural formations that dramatically illustrate the impact of man’s rapacious reshaping of the natural landscape of even the most resistant zones of pure rock.

Fotografiska is not a large museum – you can see everything in less than an hour. And it’s open early (9 am daily) and stays late, really late, as in 11 pm except for Thursday through Sunday when it’s midnight.

Finally, my one serious beef with the place and this is not unique to Fotografiska. The labels explaining the titles of photographs and some, usually limited, information in small type-face were typically placed at the lower corner so that a person of six-foot height would have to bend way down to read them, often in limited light. This was not only uncomfortable but in many cases I simply could not make out what the labels said. I can’t understand what the thinking was behind the decision to place the labels so low and in dim light or full shadow, particularly in a museum clearly focused on an adult audience. If the positioning is intended to assist visitors in wheelchairs, wonderful, but then why not (1) put some light on the labels and (2) have a second label at roughly eye-level for average walking visitors so that everyone can read them.

That gripe notwithstanding,, Fotografiska New York is well worth a visit.

 

Bronx Zoo Lights

Since we are catching up on holiday photos, I am going to share a large “sample” of shots taken during our visit to the Bronx Zoo for its Zoo Lights exhibit before Christmas past. It was really cold and there were relatively few people there, a fact I would normally celebrate, but during the holidays, making for a somewhat strange experience. That said, we persevered and discovered the mother lode of displays in the back half of the imposingly large zoo.  Here is much of what we saw.

Holiday Lights

Better late than never, I suppose,  the following sample of photos was taken while we were showing a good friend around the city on a cold and not-quite-wet night before Christmas.. The first ten shots are from the holiday fair at Bryant Park and the lion statue at the New York Public Library. The rest are mainly from stores along 5th Avenue, plus, of course, Rockefeller Center where the large tree attracts huge numbers of viewers every night. The sequence of castle-like light displays is from the facade of Saks Fifth Avenue, a spectacular show that also attracts huge crowds.Happy Belated Holidays!

Disappointment and Exultation

It’s always especially disappointing when you build up hopes about something that, in the reality, doesn’t live up to your expectations.

So it was with the revamped musical West Side Story. We snatched up tickets as soon as they became available. I had seen the musical performed several times over the years in Washington and had watched the movie (1961) many times. Those experiences framed what I was hoping to see in the new production, though I recognized that it had been “updated” for a more modern vibe. I avoided reviews for the most part and thus was unaware of what I quickly came to regard as a catastrophically bad decision: the cast appears on stage in front of what amounts to a stage-sized movie screen as a backdrop. In many scenes, including important ensemble dances, a “film” of the performers appears behind them as they perform on the stage, a multi-media event rather than a play that relies on stagecraft to create its context imagery. Using film for background buildings would be fine but showing a solo singer on the street with the camera viewpoint in the background slowly advancing and shadowy figures moving in the rear was just bizarre.

We found this novelty severely distracting. In addition to dance scenes, there were movies playing behind the performers inside apartments and in the drug store that is a main hang-out scene for the gangs. Sometimes only the movie was playing, while at others there was also action visible on the stage with the movie playing behind.

If I had wanted to see the movie again, I could have done so for less than the $109 we paid for last-row orchestra seats.

There were other less dramatic problems, the most prominent for me being that the director (I assume) moved the “Gee, Officer Krupke” piece, a humorous play on the foibles of sociological and legal thinking about juvenile delinquency, into late in the “second day” of the show when bad and ominous things have already happened and are portended. I understand it was that way in the original musical and was moved forward in the movie, to some controversy. See https://bit.ly/35m41o1 Nonetheless, it is a strikingly discordant note late in the show and I cannot accept the reasoning behind putting the song there.

All that said, there are many positives. You know a show is great when, despite knowing precisely how it’s going to end, you are still moved by it. Such is true with West Side Story. The ultimate moral idea – that hate breeds destruction and little else – is as powerful, maybe more so, now than when the show debuted in 1957. It is, as Yogi Berra famously said, déjà vu all over again. Shereen Pimentel, who plays Maria, has a Julliard-educated voice that could shake the rafters loose. Probably the star dancer was Yesenia Ayala who plays Bernardo’s girlfriend. It was hard to take your eyes off of her in the ensemble numbers, especially the highlight of the evening (for me), America.

The dancing overall was extraordinary, despite a lot of talk about changing the more ballet-driven originals by Jerome Robbins to a more modern style. We didn’t notice a real difference. The set pieces were very complex, involving both gangs and a lot of separate parts all well-integrated. If only they hadn’t also played the dancing on the movie screen background.

As a final observation, and this is not so much criticism as recognition of the difficulties of “updating” a classic like this, we had expected more “modern” motifs for the dialogue and, possibly, a more contemporary perspective on gang life. Instead, it’s the old Jets and Sharks going at each other for dominance of the neighborhood and using language like “daddy-o” and “buddy boy.” It’s also true, I suspect, that too much modernity would have made the story too dark and the romance at the heart of the morality play too unreal to capture the imagination.

In the end it’s still a great show and should be seen.

 

 

Murdering “Cats”

The critics have apparently done it again. Sneering snidely, they have likely sunk any chance of success for the movie Cats, the film version of the long-running Broadway musical. Having seen and enjoyed the musical a few times, we decided to ignore the critics and went to the movies. After battling our way through throngs of people there for the twenty-third running of the Star Wars quintology (not a real word but it fits), also slammed by some critics, we sat in a nearly empty theater as the opening scene appeared.

To be clear, the movie version of Cats has some serious flaws; I about to tell you what they are. But to say that the movie is a “disaster,” etc. as some critics have exclaimed, is, I think ridiculous.

First, one must recognize that the Cats story is a fantasy intended to entertain. It is not a serious thing, except perhaps in one way I’ll come to. It was, after all, a musical based on some poems about cats. If you want to taste the kind of over-analyzed attempts to give some profound meaning to the story, you have many choices but a good one is https://screenrant.com/cats-movie-ending-explained-grizabella-heaviside-layer/ It’s a spoiler in many ways, however, so you may want to avoid it and the others if you’re considering watching the movie (it likely will be “free” on some Internet service soon since it’s being massacred at the box office). I am, frankly, tired of critics condemning works of art because they don’t fit some pre-conceived narrative of what “should” have been done.

Second, the musical is recognized even by the critics (however grudgingly) as much-loved by audiences. According to Wikipedia, the “London production ran for 21 years and 8,949 performances, while the Broadway production ran for 18 years and 7,485 performances, making Cats the longest-running musical in both theatre districts for a number of years.” That doesn’t count the many other performances (like Washington DC where I first saw it). Not bad for a fluffy piece of fiction with a somewhat puzzling story line and no dialogue.

Third, all that notwithstanding, the movie version has some serious flaws. They detract from the heft of the music and special effects, sometimes in major ways. First, and most serious for me, is the modern practice of having the camera viewpoint constantly shifting from one vantage point to another every few seconds. Rather than letting you see a dance scene as a whole, the director, or whomever, has the camera viewpoint constantly changing.

One moment it’s on the lead dancer, Victoria, played by the stunning Francesca Hayward, who in real life is a principal dancer in the Royal Ballet at London’s Covent Garden. Then it shifts to a group of cats dancing, then back to Victoria, then to another cat doing something different, then to the entire scene from a different vantage than the first one, and so on and so on. Why, I have to ask, when you have a talent as beautiful and skilled as Francesca Hayward as a main character do you not just show her dancing as the center of attention in the larger frame? If you were watching a live ballet you likely would focus most of your attention on her. But, no, the director, or whoever makes these decisions, wants us to see everything from a constantly changing viewpoint.

This practice is commonplace in music videos I have seen (rarely to completion) but I suggest it does not belong in the staging of a musical as movie.

Fourth, there are several “episodes” in the movie version that occupy an inordinate amount of space/time seemingly to accommodate the actors chosen for the roles. These include James Corden, Rebel Wilson and Jason Derulo. I was struck that at the end of the movie, when the credits roll, Corden was given top billing. I lack the imagination to understand how that could be warranted by anything related to the movie.

Fifth, the most iconic music from the stage version is, of course, Memory. It is sung by the aged and defeated Grizabella, played in the movie by the powerful Jennifer Hudson. Unfortunately, her rendition is an over-wrought downer, over-acted and overwhelmed. I don’t fault Hudson. This had to be the director’s choice and it was a bad one.

Finally, the handling of Macavity, played, inexplicably, by Idris Elba, was a major error. In the story he is a malevolent creature with magical powers and the presentation seems discordant with the rest of the story, albeit that it contains many fantasy elements throughout.

Well, then, with all those flaws, how did the critics go wrong? The answer, I think, is in condemning the whole because of a few defects, unhappy ones, to be sure, but hardly fatal to the overall concept. In the end the story is about redemption, goodwill and generosity triumphing over evil and selfishness. It is a fantasy, a divertissement that should not be taken seriously. It is intended to amuse you and, in the end, lift you up. I thought that, flaws notwithstanding, it did that. It’s a movie, after all, not a major philosophical dissertation.

I suspect it’s too late for a “market correction” that might save this movie from the dust heap where severe criticism tends to push productions that the true critics don’t like. Too bad. Many people who would enjoy the spectacle will now miss it because self-important and self-appointed “experts” have decided that the movie is a “debacle.” Debacles do happen in Hollywood as elsewhere, but I don’t think this Cats is fairly condemned.

P.S. — I had a similar response to the critics’ treatment of Bohemian Rhapsody [see https://autumninnewyork.net/2018/11/04/bohemian-rhapsody-ignore-critics/] that, according to Wikipedia, grossed over $903 million worldwide on a production budget of about $50 million, making it the sixth-highest-grossing film of 2018 worldwide and setting the all-time box office records for the biopic and drama genres. The film earned 4 Oscars and was Best Motion Picture – Drama at the 76th Golden Globe Awards, among other awards and nominations. Just saying. Since the Bohemian Rhapsody post was in the AutumnInNewYork.net blog, I am simultaneously posting the Cats piece in both blogs.

Dinner at DeGrezia

We discovered this marvel of a restaurant in the below-street level at East 50th Street about 15 years ago. We reserve it for very special occasions, most recently for our 13th anniversary last night. It never disappoints.

As the photos below show, DeGrezia is a “traditional” Italian establishment, tastefully decorated with soft music as background so you can have quiet conversation – no need to shout over the music. A lot of Frank Sinatra, Sarah Brightman and Billie Holiday, among others. This creates an atmosphere in which everyone’s conversation is muted. The wait staff wears tuxedos and are attentive without being overbearing. The overall atmosphere is one of muted sophistication, a really nice way to enjoy a special occasion meal. The scale of the main dining area is such that even at full capacity the typical din of a New York restaurant is usually avoided.

Then, there is the food. We started by sharing a “giant shrimp” dish with white beans in a delicious red sauce. Since there were two giant (really) shrimp, it was easy to share and there was no pushback from the waiter. It was so big and tasty that I failed to take a photo.

The main courses were even better. A cream sauce covered my lobster ravioli special with very small shrimp generously added. Even the tiny shrimp had great flavor. My wife ordered gnocchi with Bolognese sauce and had to get a doggy bag (pictured below) to take some home. We completed the meal by sharing a flourless chocolate cake and a surprisingly robust decaf coffee.

With two glasses of wine and a club soda with lime, the total bill for this feast was only $120, an amazingly reasonable price, especially for a fine restaurant in New York City. DeGrezia is a gem that will satisfy anyone looking for fine food in a pleasant atmosphere.

 

Supernatural Happenings at NYCB

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to watch New York City Ballet perform a “working dress rehearsal” of two upcoming ballets. The first was Summerspace choreographed by Merce Cunningham in 1958, followed by a performance to Tschaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

I knew nothing of Cunningham or Summerspace, but one of the Lincoln Center docents provided an explanation in the lobby before the rehearsal began. [These lectures are also provided before and during intermissions at actual performances, a wonderful opportunity to learn about the history and concepts of the performances] Cunningham was romantically connected to John Cage, described in Wikipedia as a “pioneer of indeterminacy in music” and “one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde.” Cage’s studies of Far East philosophies led to the idea of “chance-controlled music.

Thus, the docent explained, Cummingham believed, like Cage, that meaning and art should be separated. The musical score for Summerspace, actually composed by one Morton Feldman, indicated which instruments would play a specified number of notes at which moments in the performance but the notes were to be chosen by the musician on the spot. The orchestra leader’s job was simply to metronomically keep the time of the beats. The choreography was completed in the absence of music which was then “added” to the performance. As described in Wikipedia:

The I Ching, an ancient Chinese classic text decision-making tool, which uses chance operations to suggest answers to questions one may pose, became Cage’s standard composition tool for the rest of his life. In a 1957 lecture, Experimental Music, he described music as “a purposeless play” which is “an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cage]

If you can accept the idea that art has no meaning, that music should not follow any thematic or melodic structure and that music can be a sequence of random sounds, you might be able to appreciate Summerspace. I am not one of those people, so I was thoroughly put off by seeing the rehearsal involving 4 ballerinas and 2 male dancers accompanied by a grating sequence of beeps and squeaks provided by flutes and a few other instruments. The dancing was more “modern dance” than ballet and involved a lot of running around (and on and off) the stage with random leaping and interactions of sorts among the dancers.  For me, at least, a major part of the magic of ballet arises from the correspondence of the dancers’ feet and the music. I am hardly an “expert” but I know what works for me.

Summerspace was, in any case, a minor distraction. The Piano Concerto rehearsal was next. This stunning piece was performed by a large corps de ballet of 22 dancers and a seven-dancer lead group at the head of which was Sara Mearns who gave the term prima ballerina its full and true meaning. I was transfixed trying to imagine what this ballet would look like when the dancers were in costume. When the rehearsal wound down, I raced home determined to buy tickets if we could get decent seats at an affordable price. We could and I did.

By the time Saturday night arrived, I was afraid I had over-hyped the coming spectacle to my wife but in the event there was no reason for concern.

The first performance was to Tschaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, choreography by George Balanchine. Even without any dancing, this would be a great experience because of the glorious music, but with the ballet, it was sublime, a taste of things to come. Then came Summerspace, pretty much as rehearsed.

And then … Sara Mearns and company, again to music by Tschaikovsky, based on a very difficult score but, unlike the rehearsal, with the full orchestra involved and the dancers in beautiful costumes with tiaras both adorned with Swarovski crystals. Watching Mearns was both exhilarating and exhausting. Her gifts seem truly supernatural – she must have been on the stage at full tilt for 90 percent of the entire performance, rarely at rest. Mearns and Russell Janzen were in perfect synchrony throughout and despite the physical demands of their roles, no loss of grace, style or command could be seen.

I remarked at the end that Mearns must need a 24-hour sleep to recover but the truth is likely otherwise. In a 2017 interview, she answered the question: What is a typical day in the life of Sara Mearns?

 A typical day during performance weeks start off with me trying to get up to my alarm around 9:00AM. My nights at the theater can end as late as 11:00PM, which makes it hard to get moving in the morning. I take a really hot shower to get my muscles warmed up before I roll out and stretch for about 45 minutes at home. I get to the theater around 10:30AM and then start rehearsals between 11:30AM and noon. We rehearse between 5-6 hours a day depending on our repertory schedule and each ballet can range from 15-20 minutes a session. We have a 2 hour break between rehearsal and the show, which offers an opportunity to eat something, receive hair and makeup, and then it’s showtime. I eat dinner around 11:00PM and don’t usually fall asleep until 1:00AM. It takes a while for the body to wind down and relax after such a grueling day. [https://www.sakara.com/blogs/mag/sara-mearns-prima-ballerina-nyc-ballet]

That article describes Mearns’ early dance history, starting, unhappily (the ironies), at age 3. Fortunately for those privileged to see her dance as a mature woman in full command of her mind and body, her early unhappiness with dance didn’t last long.

The only other astonishing aspect of this event was that many of the seats in the upper (4th) ring of the theater remained unsold. I had never seen anything like this since our first ballet and it was disconcerting that so many people missed this opportunity. The lesson is to never assume that even the greatest performances will be sold out. We had a perfectly fine view of the entire stage and from the heights could see the action in the back and front equally well. It’s a shame that when there is this disconnect between supply and demand, the seats cannot be made available to schools (for example). I understand there are issues of impact on demand for the “better” higher priced seats. and I don’t know how that can be solved. It just seems tragically wasteful that so much talent and beauty is not witnessed and enjoyed by the maximum number of people, many of whom would be converted, as I was, to fans for life.