Preparation is Nine-Tenths ….

As previously mentioned, one of the great aspects of living in New York City is easy access to both New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater. NYCB was co-founded by George Balanchine, and Misty Copeland is the first African American female Principal Dancer at ABT. One benefit of a membership is the opportunity to observe rehearsals. I recently attended one of the final orchestra rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at NYCB.

The experience begins with a short lecture by one of the volunteers, in this case, Frank, with 10 years under his belt. He explained how Balanchine had developed the score for this ballet by borrowing music from multiple sources and, in effect, cutting and pasting them together with Mendelssohn’s 45 minutes of original music set to the story, so that in total there was enough music for the dancing.

When admitted to the theater, the rules are made very clear: once the rehearsal begins, no talking, texting, applause, photography, recording. Violations will be met with immediate expulsion. There were about 50 attendees and they all got the message. Throughout the rehearsal they seemed almost spellbound by the music.

Now for my usual disclaimer. I am not qualified to judge musical performance. I know what I like, of course, and while I learned a lot about the construction of music during my futile 4-year struggle to play the classical guitar, that effort ultimately failed. That said, I can say without fear of contradiction that the orchestra at NYCB is every bit as good at what it does as the dancers are in their craft.

By the time of this rehearsal, near to performance date, the musicians well know what is expected of them, but as a collective with different roles at different times, they need a conductor to keep time, tempo and, partly through body language, to guide the expressive power of the parts and the whole of the ensemble. This power is more than just volume – it’s timing and something else, as well, something … mysterious, at least to me.

The conductor, Daniel Capps, had postponed the start time for the rehearsal by a half-hour to 10:30, and exactly at time, he said, “here we go.” He takes the entire orchestra through various parts, commenting after each, requiring some replays, directing some changes: “Strings, at 320….” I cannot make out much of what he is saying. This is serious work and it’s just between him and the musicians. The musicians are at the top of their game and can start and stop anywhere the conductor chooses. He’s like a coach, urging his team to execute complicated plays. In some sense he resembles a magician, with the wand in his right hand keeping time/tempo and his left hand directing/beseeching variations with a fist, an open hand gesture, a pointed finger or splayed fingers for different sections of the orchestra.

Two women sit directly in front of the orchestra, but outside the pit, with sheet music, making notations as the orchestra moves along. I believe they must be notating the changes the conductor is mandating, but I’m not sure.

A musical orchestra is an ultimate example of how cooperation and collaboration can produce something entirely new and special that could not exist otherwise. The conductor hears things (e.g., “sluggishness”) that likely few others hear and when he calls for more pace or more power, the collective gives it to him immediately. This is not a debate; it is a performance and the conductor alone is in charge. On a few occasions he speaks to the orchestra while they are still playing. One of the deepest mysteries for me is how each musician can block out what is going on around her and concentrate on what she must do and exactly when, a talent I never acquired but must be essential to keep playing while the conductor is commenting on what is happening but not stopping for evaluation. Obviously, he won’t do this in the actual performance.

The overarching principle here is that the music is being performed so that dancers can dance to it. There are expectations about pace and timing of pauses that are critical to everything synching up in the final realization of the ballet. This is not just another music concert – it is music in concert with dance before the discerning eyes of ballet cognoscenti who have paid a lot to see everything be done perfectly. And it almost always is.

We had been told at the outset that there would be no dancers on stage during the rehearsal, but in the event a number of ballerinas appear from the sides and cruise across the stage silently. During the famous Wedding March, a male dancer appears, going through steps, and then doing hand stands. More dancers appear and cross the stage. The males reappear, doing pirouettes and other moves, clowning to the music.

I don’t think this activity can be pleasing to the conductor and, indeed, after a short break, we return to the theater to find the curtains closed.

I had forgotten how familiar many of the themes from Midsummer Night were familiar. I’ve always liked Mendelssohn’s music, the New Hebrides Overture in particular. The price of the membership that enabled this unique experience was tiny compared to the value received. This Saturday we will see Le Corsaire at ABT and it’s going to be great.

And the Audience Went Wild

Saturday night we went to see New York City Ballet in a three-part program entitled “Balanchine Meets Peck.” As admonition/confession up front, I once again state that while an enthusiastic fan of ballet, I am not qualified by experience, study or otherwise to be a critic. But I paid for our tickets and am entitled thereby to speak my mind. So I will.

In truth, I am in thrall of what ballet dancers are able to do. Their physical discipline and skills, musical sensibility and endurance are beyond my ability to relate. I noticed on this particular night that I was actually holding my breath as they began the program. I had to remind myself more than once to breathe while I tried to focus on one or two individual dancers at a time while the action swirled around them.

The first section, entitled Principia, choreographed by Justin Peck, listed in the program as Soloist, Resident Choreographer and Artistic Advisor to NYCB. The name roughly translates to “first principles” and is explained on the composer’s website this way:

“The new ballet is called “Principia,” based on the work of Isaac Newton and inspired by the neo-classical architecture of Étienne-Louis Boullée, who designed Newton’s Cenotaph (though it was never built). We can think on the order of the universe to better understand our role in it. Ballet is a great vehicle for investigating the basic principles of life—of movement, physics, thought, aesthetics, politics, and behavior.  New York City Ballet is a great company to see right now as they undergo big changes and return to form. We live among the chaos and according to the laws of nature (and society). Let us not forget ourselves for what we have become. Let us remember who we are called to be.”https://sufjan.com/

Even after seeing the performance, that description escapes me. Nevertheless, there was both structure and connection between the dancers and the music in the performance and, though I am no fan of “modern music,” the performance captured and held my attention from beginning to end. The audience was enthusiastic in its applause for what had to be challenging for the dancers.

The middle section, Symphony in Three Movements, was a wholly different matter. The music was by Igor Stravinsky who, for reasons I cannot explain, is one of my favorite classical composers. George Balanchine choreographed the dance; there is nothing I can add in that regard that would be worth reading. Everything about this was magnificent and, in my view, the audience reaction was stronger than for Principia.

Then, the show went off the rails. The third installment, The Times Are Racing, performed to music by Dan Deacon and also choreographed by Peck, was for me a total failure. It had little to nothing to do with ballet, as I understand the concepts. The music was a monotonous repetitive electronica beat that sounded like what I would expect to hear in a video game arcade. The dancers wore what looked like street clothes, including tennis-style shoes, and I could detect no unifying concepts in their movements or any real connection to the music, such as it was. It’s obvious, of course, that only highly skilled dancers could have “enacted” this performance, but it was not “ballet.” It would have been quite at home, I think, at Paul Taylor Dance Company.

I have to report, however, that the audience response, that I do not begin to understand, was more enthusiastic for this piece than either of the first two or, perhaps, the first two combined. Such are the mysteries of the arts.

No need to belabor this, but I am concerned that Justin Peck’s vision for New York City Ballet is going to dominate the future of its culture. That would be very unfortunate, because I believe this approach to “ballet” at one of the city’s great art institutions will ultimately cost it a large share of its audience. Experimentation is a good thing in art – recreating classical works only goes so far – but if NYCB is going to be dominated going forward by the type of music and dance exhibited in The Times Are Racing, it is headed for trouble. Just one person’s opinion, but strongly held.

What If a Man (Woman) Could Fly?

That line from one of the early Superman movies came to mind the other night as my wife and I were privileged to see the New York City Ballet performance of Sleeping Beauty. At times I had to remind myself to breathe as the dancers leapt, spun and “flew” to perfect landings again and again.

What was I worried about? The answer, I think, was the mind’s innate reluctance to accept so much defiance of the laws of gravity and the normal limits of physical stamina, all accompanied by the NYCB full orchestra playing the extraordinary music of Tschaikovsky, brilliant costumes and staging, and on and on. Just stunning. No other word for it.

I readily confess I am no authority on this art form, but one particularly interesting thing occurred last night. By virtue of a membership my wife bought, we were able to attend a full dress rehearsal of the performance a week earlier. We only stayed for the first act and thought it was amazing. The rehearsal was only stopped twice, for very brief consultations; otherwise, it was the complete show, so we thought. But the real performance was almost like a different ballet. Everything about it seemed outsized, bolder, more precise, more … powerful.

This was clearest in the performances of the Lilac Fairy danced by Miriam Miller, a member of the corps de ballet, and of Princess Aurora danced by Lauren Lovette, an NYCB principal dancer. As great as all the dancers were, these two seemed to be at a different and higher level. Miller’s use of her long arms made her seem, in my wife’s word, ethereal. Lovette exuded power, grace and confidence. And several dozen students from the School of American Ballet performed in the huge cast – they all looked like seasoned professionals to me.

I have nothing more to say about this without blathering, but if you ever have the chance to see Sleeping Beauty at NYCB, don’t pass it up. Or any of the other amazing performances at New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater. You will be convinced, as I now am, that a man and a woman can indeed fly.

 

Never a Dull Moment — Year One in Review

New Years Day dawned unseasonably warm in New York City, with temperatures in the upper 50s and now the sun has emerged to add an almost festive aura to the first day of the rest of our lives. We have completed a full year in The City and thought it appropriate to review what we have done besides working and resisting [if interested in the latter, go to http://www.shiningseausa.com]. To put it mildly, 2018 was an extraordinary time for us. Here are some of the experiences we had.

As is well known, New York is a “walking city,” meaning that one walks to get most places. And walk, we did. Personally, I averaged 1.8 miles per day. Other data from those walks:

2,356  – Dog poop/pee avoided (there are bazillion dogs of every description here and few places to “go” but the sidewalks and streets, so they do)

242 – Days with unpredictable/unpredicted weather events

            17 – People who asked me for directions

    14 – Number of times I gave accurate directions

      3 – Number of people never heard from again

Other experiences:

DANCE COMPANIES

Continuum Contemporary/Ballet – see https://autumninnewyork.net/2018/06/18/ballet-bryant-park/

Paul Taylor Dance Company

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – Wife takes ballet lessons there

BALLETS

American Ballet Theater’s Firebird & AFTERITE

New York City Ballet’s Jewels

New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker

BROADWAY & OFF

Miss Saigon

Waitress

Band’s Visit

Book of Mormon

My Fair Lady

Avenue Q

King Kong

MARCHES

Women’s March

Families Together

March For Our Lives

JAZZ

Cyrus Chestnut

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

Bill Charlap

Chris Potter

Warren Wolf

SF Jazz Collective

OTHER MUSIC

Brandon Niederauer

MUSEUMS/ART

Photoville Brooklyn

Whitney

Natural History

Jerome Robbins at Lincoln Center Library

EVENTS & OTHER STUFF

High Line

Oculus & One World Observatory

U.S. Open

National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey

Chelsea Market

New York City Marathon

Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade Balloon Inflation

Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade

Ferry around Manhattan

Mets baseball game

Yankees game

Central Park Zoo

New York Botanical Garden

Central Park Zoo

Feast of San Gennaro

Christmas Lights/Windows/Rockefeller Center Tree

Street Fairs – several

Movies – several with reserved seats!

Stephen Colbert Late Show

Extras in a short indie movie: “Howard,” not yet released – see https://www.facebook.com/HowardTheMovie/

FAVORITE RESTAURANTS
Bricco – neighborhood Italian, small, quiet, great food

Greek Kitchen

SURPRISES

Mandarin Duck in Central Park

Lots of visits from out-of-town friends

This morning we walked in Central Park again and mused about how it felt like spring. Obviously we were intoxicated by the warmth. The crowds were small, likely because the one million people who spent New Years Day and night in Times Square were at home and unconscious. So it goes. We look forward to this 2019 with optimism – there is so much left to do. We hope to see some symphonies and other purely musical performances, and, of course, more ballets.

Happy New Year!

Sign of the Times, Just Rude … or Both?

I have played Mr. Nice Guy about New York City for almost a year now, and that has been genuine. I actually do enjoy living here. At times though, it’s like being a menhaden or other schooling fish. You go where the other fish go and try to stay out of their way when they, driven by mysterious forces, suddenly decide to change direction. If you prefer a flocking bird metaphor, that’s fine too.

So, it’s time to unload a few frustrations. I’m pretty sure these are not unique to New York. I am reliably advised that Washington DC has similar issues but, having lived in the Virginia suburbs for several decades, I mostly steered clear of DC.

There are four things: blocking the sidewalk, wearing giant backpacks on the subway, removing shoes at the ballet and, last but certainly not least, making out during a Broadway show.

First, the sidewalks. Even people who’ve never been here have seen enough movies to know that NYC is crowded. There are people everywhere, often in large numbers, and they are usually in a hurry. Yesterday, a Sunday, the area around Macy’s and Herald Square was mobbed. I have written about the rushing before, but this issue is about … not rushing. It’s about people who are walking along and suddenly stop to look at a life-changing text message … or to send one they just thought of – or to catch up on the news, or, more likely, to check again since the last time five minutes ago to see if a friend has posted anything new on Facebook or Instagram. These people seem to be oblivious to the fact that there are other people trying to use the same sidewalk to which they have now staked an adverse possession (legal term, sorry) claim. Another variation occurs at the city’s numerous hotels when departing guests, waiting for their rides, park their suitcases in the middle of the sidewalk while they chat, smoke or, yet again, check their phones for incoming messages of earth-shattering importance while ignoring the other pedestrians just trying to get somewhere. There oughta be a law.

Second, I get the idea that people want to carry a lot of stuff when moving around the city. People need their work papers and, of course, laptops, iPads and other “devices.” I also see a lot of water bottles (in case there is a water shortage) and enough “stuff” to support a Himalayan expedition. If you have to carry all that stuff, take the damn thing off and place it between your feet or clutch it to your chest. Anything but occupying the space of two people when, as is often the case, there is only room for one-half a person in the first place. I think the city should revise its passenger counts for subway usage to include an extra person for every large backpack. The data would then show that more people used the subway than could possibly fit in the total available space unless they were stacked in their like logs. Well, they often are.

Third, and now we’re getting down to the serious stuff, there is removal of shoes at the ballet. Admittedly, I have only seen this once (at Lincoln Center, mind you; Lincoln Center!!), but it has stuck with me like a bad dream ever since:

I suspect this person was sending the message, “see my damaged feet? I’m a dancer too.” But, to quote Rhett Butler, frankly, madam, I don’t give a damn. I didn’t pay all that money to look at your bare feet during the performance.  Or during intermission, or any other time, for that matter. Keep your bare feet to yourself. Please!

Finally, and this one was probably more disturbing than the others combined because it went on, and on …  and on. We went to see the Broadway musical King Kong. I wrote a blog post about the show which was wonderful. The couple sitting in front of us, estimated to be in their late 20’s or early 30’s, could not keep their hands off of each other. They were snuggling, kissing and hugging, and whispering in each other’s ears, throughout the show. He repeatedly put his arm around her, then after a bout of whatever, made a big show of removing his arm, swinging it up in front of my face.

They were oblivious to everyone around them, implying that they behave this way in public all the time. Yet, every time Kong appeared or did something spectacular, the young man hooted and yelled like he was in a country bar. And the guy was incredibly tall so all the sideways movement as he and his lovely came together and separated left me constantly shifting in my seat to see around his moving head. The people behind me could not have been happy either. Then, at the end of the show and while the curtain was still descending, the pair was out of their seats like a shot, not willing to take even a minute to participate in the standing ovation so richly deserved by the cast.

So, there it is. I feel better. I think. Maybe not. Continuing the Gone With the Wind theme, Vivien Leigh famously said, “tomorrow is another day.” It is, but will it be better? It will. We have tickets to The Band’s Visit and the Nutcracker. And it’s a new ballet season. Does Amazon sell blinders for humans?

Ballet in Bryant Park

The first time I saw ballet performed was an exhibition in St. Petersburg many years ago. The performances were brief but spectacular, especially the leaps of the male performers. I had never seen anything to equal it, but it did not trigger a passion to see more. Indeed, I found the length and pace of the traditional ballets I later saw as a bit much, though, again, the artistry and sheer physical power of the performers was almost supernatural.

When we arrived in New York, one of the obvious benefits of our location was Lincoln Center, literally a few blocks from our apartment. And, miraculously, within months, the one ballet I really did want to see, Stravinsky’s The Firebird, was scheduled for the Metropolitan Opera House. The added treat was entitled AFTERITE, danced to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, one of my favorite pieces of classical music, with Misty Copeland to boot! As a side note, we were so excited to see all this that we sprang, first time ever, for box seats. They turned out to be cramped and difficult for viewing unless you were in front row or elevated third row (we weren’t). I was also interested to observe that in order to enter the box at any time, an attendant, usually nearby, had to unlock the door. I kept thinking of Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. As a further and final side note, we didn’t much care for AFTERITE. Misty Copeland’s amazing talent was largely wasted as her role involved more standing and walking around the stage than dancing.

But I digress. All of the above being true, I remain an uninformed, inexpert observer of ballet,  but still awed by the superhuman effort, grace, athleticism and artistry of the dancers. So, facing Friday night with my wife out of town on business, I went to Bryant Park for what was advertised as a “A Night of Ballet, including a Master Class led by Cynthia Harvey, Artistic Director of the American Ballet Theatre Onassis School, a discussion of personal histories with two ABT Company dancers and performances by three local New York City ballet companies.

Bryant Park shares with the New York Public Library the rectangle bounded by 5th and 6th Avenues and West 40th and 42nd Streets. There is a lot going on there all the time. See http://bryantpark.org/

Arriving early, I snagged a seat in the first row, on the stage side of the rope separating the walkway from the Lawn in front of the Fountain Terrace. After the Master Class, in which I did not participate [contain your amusement] and the discussion, the first group of dancers came onto the stage. The first good shot I managed to get is the featured photo at the top of this post. There is nothing meaningful I can say about the extraordinary talent of these young dancers except that I was mesmerized. Rather than pretend to be a critic, for which I am, as noted above, grossly unqualified, I will let the photographs speak for themselves.

I’m just going to show a small sample of the shots I took that night. The first group, Continuum Contemporary/Ballet, danced Concerto Geloso to the amazing music of Vivaldi. The second “group” is just two dancers, from Doug Baum & Artists performing Tangle, and the final group is Da’Von Doane & The Artists of the Shift performing Dances for Brass: Sacred and Profane. These photos do not do full justice to the performance because they lack the music and the continuity of the moves, but I think you’ll get the idea.

 

 

Continuum Contemporary/Ballet

  Choreography: Donna Salgado

 Dancers: Laura DiOrio, Dorothea Garland, Shoko Fujita, Donna Salgado,

 Vanessa Salgado

Doug Baum & Artists

Choreography: Doug Baum

Dancers: Doug Baum, Katie Currier

Da’ Von Doane & The Artists of the Shift

Choreography: Da’ Von Doane

Dancers: Malik Berry, Daniel Cooke, Paunika Jones, Cortney Key, Courtney Cochran