Martha Ullman West

 

Tripping on Memory Lane

Turning points in a life of dance: Eric Skinner moves on, Balanchine's grave, Paul Taylor's passing, Pacific Ballet Theatre days, 'Napoli'

A visit to Balanchine’s grave (and my mother’s).

The departure of Eric Skinner for a new life in Chicago.

A reunion of Pacific Ballet Theatre’s dancers.

The death of Paul Taylor.

These are the happenings of the past five weeks that have sent me tripping on Memory Lane, making me realize that the personal and the professional are, in my case as in many, inextricable from each other.

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George Balanchine, who died on April 30, 1983, is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor, Long Island, one of this country’s oldest whaling ports, and now, for better but more often worse, one of the Hamptons. He made no stipulation in his will about his final resting place, and some, according to Bernard Taper, his first biographer, thought he should have been buried in Venice, with Stravinsky and Diaghilev, or in Monte Carlo. But Balanchine detested Venice, was charmed by Sag Harbor on his visits there when he was in residence at his Southampton condominium (he reportedly told someone it reminded him of the South of France). And while he remained firmly rooted in Russian culture, he was without question the principal creator of American ballet style – an American citizen, and proud of it.

George Balanchine, right, with New York City Ballet dancers, in Amsterdam, August 26, 1965. Dutch National Archives, The Hague / Wikimedia Commons

Which made it entirely appropriate to bury him in this historic American cemetery, which contains a monument to whalers lost at sea, a marker for a soldier of the Revolutionary War who, and I quote, “Did not run away,” and the graves of novelists Nelson Algren and William Gaddis, playwright Lanford Wilson, writer and actor Spalding Gray, pioneering site-specific artist Gordon Matta-Clark, and, across the path from Balanchine, dual pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, who were longtime friends of his. Close by as well lies Alexandra Danilova, his muse and common law wife, whose impact as ballerina and teacher on American dancers was nearly as powerful as his.

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Dancing in the Underworld

The movement's uninspired, but Portland Opera's production of Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice" is musically magnificent. By all means go.

With its glorious melodies , menacing harmonies, and inclusion of music for dances that actually drive the plot rather than functioning as interludes giving singers a chance to catch their breath, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s 1762 opera Orfeo ed Eurydice has inspired some extremely distinguished   20th and 21st century choreographers.   George Balanchine did a radical version for the Metropolitan Opera in 1936, in a conceptual collaboration with painter Pavel Tchelitchew, that put the singers in the pit and the dancers in the air. Forty years later, having choreographed to Gluck’s music several times in between, Balanchine made the beautiful Chaconne as a vehicle for Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins. In 1953 Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed it for Covent Garden. Mark Morris staged it first in 1986 for the Handel and Haydn Society, and in 2007 directed and choreographed a modern-dress production for the Met, with the chorus dressed as characters from history placed on a platform above the stage, commenting, so to speak, on the action taking place below them.

A dance scene in Portland Opera’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.” Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

Because of this history, and my own longtime affection for Gluck’s score (I’ve been listening to this gorgeous music since I was fifteen), I was delighted to learn that the Portland Opera was performing this version of the Orpheus story for the first time (they did Philip Glass’s in 2009), and at the Newmark Theater at that, vastly preferable to the all too spacious Keller Auditorium. The knowledge that Oregon Ballet Theatre principal dancer Peter Franc and OBT soloist Katherine Monogue, lovely dancers both of them, would perform added to the attraction.

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Backstage at the Big Stage

New York City Journal: From ballet to theater to taxis to an open book of biographers, ArtsWatch's Martha Ullman West takes the city's pulse

NEW YORK – All New York’s a stage, and there is nothing “merely” about its citizens as players. I witnessed the following players make their exits and entrances in a packed visit to my hometown last month, in no particular order:

  • Taxi drivers muttering imprecations against the President for snarling up traffic with a brief visit to midtown Manhattan;
  • Writers and academics performing at a biography conference;
  • An anthropologist and an innovative (very) executive coach holding a public dialogue about using improvisation to cope with change;
  • Actors of varying ages in a production of Dan Cody’s Yacht at the Manhattan Theatre Club;
  • American Ballet Theatre’s dancers giving their all to fine choreography and not-so-fine in an all-Stravinsky program at the Metropolitan Opera House;
  • And New York City Ballet’s dancers, fleet of foot, airborne, and miming like mad in Balanchine and Danilova’s Coppélia.

I arrived in the city close to midnight on Friday, May 18, and at 8:30 the following morning, bleary-eyed and not exactly bushy-tailed, scampered into a building I will always think of as Altman’s department store on Fifth Avenue and 35th Street (it is now the Graduate Center of the City University of New York). I had paid big bucks to attend the second day of the Biographers International Organization’s ninth annual conference on the writing of, and – it almost goes without saying in these Mammonite times — the marketing of biography. I was headed to four sessions, the first on Writing Multiple Lives, the second on Resurrecting Forgotten Figures, the third on Biography and the Arts, the fourth on What to Leave Out. Each panel bore some relevance, I hoped, to the dual biography I’ve been working on for more years than I wish to admit to, Dancing American Character: Todd Bolender, Janet Reed and the Flowering of American Ballet.

Iceberg Slim, a.k.a. Robert Beck, subject of two biographies by Justin Gifford. Photo: Phase4 Films, for the documentary “Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp,” produced by Ice-T.

And yes, there were performers on each panel, the most interesting of whom was Justin Gifford, an associate professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, who was on the one on Resurrecting Forgotten Figures. A lanky figure in full hipster costume, jeans, stubble, and long hair, he was bare-headed for the conference yet unabashedly wearing two hats: writer of a trade book and author of a scholarly one, both about the same subject, Iceberg Slim, who wrote and was the publisher of black pulp fiction. The self-styled Marxist (an ideology not perceptible from the language he used in his presentation) summed up succinctly and well the difference between writing for the academy and the marketplace: for the first you are argumentative, the second narrative. Nobody throughout the conference mentioned the word readable, at least in my presence.

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A lioness of the mind

Fire-yellow eyes fixed on her heart: A friend of more than 50 years pays a farewell tribute to the writer Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

I have been reading the many tributes to Ursula K. Le Guin, my friend of 52 years, who died on Monday at age 88, and they are, mostly, wonderful. They make me remember my own reactions to her work, as novelist, poet, teacher, feminist rabble-rouser, and performer (something I’ve not seen mentioned).

On Facebook, people speak of which book they loved best, which ones influenced them the most, and why; and that has made me think about all that, as well. I have loved the  Earthsea books, and Sea Road, her most “Oregonian” book (it’s set in a town on the coast), and what I think is her most difficult, Always Coming Home. The night before she died I was happily rereading Sur, the harrowing and funny short story about the women who discovered the South Pole and kept it secret, so a man could take credit for being the first.

Ursula K. Le Guin. Photo: Eileen Gunn

But at the end of the day it is her last novel, Lavinia, about Aeneas’s last wife, in which Virgil makes appearances from time to time, and her poetry, the music of her poetry, that speak most eloquently to my mind and my heart. In recent years I have hated, and I mean hated, her titles, because they sound so much like leave-takings, starting with Finding My Elegy, published in 2012, which I wrote about here, and Late in the Day, published in 2016. I’m none too fond of the title of her new collection of essays taken from her blog, either: No Time to Spare.

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Fresh faces, historic ballet

A hundred years after Ballets Russes's sole Portland performance, the young dancers of The Portland Ballet delve into the Russian tradition

“Ms. Davis, this is my daughter, she’s 5, and I’m wondering if you have a class she could take?”

“What a wonderful show. My daughter has been studying ballet since she was 8, she’s 12 now, do you think she could study at Portland Ballet?”

These were two of the many questions fielded by Nancy Davis, who with Anne Mueller is co-artistic director of the The Portland Ballet, immediately following the conclusion of their spring concerts at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall on the last Saturday in May.

And I couldn’t help thinking that these and other questions were inspired by the palpable pleasure the young performers were taking in being on stage, dancing their hearts out in a difficult program that demanded the mastery of quite different techniques and styles.

Henry Winslow and Naomi Rux in “Les Sylphides.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The program was keyed to ballet history in Portland and elsewhere, and began with Les Sylphides, the Michel Fokine ballet that Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes performed here a century ago, in the spring of 1917. Set to an arrangement of Frédéric Chopin’s music by that most Russian of composers, Alexander Glazunov, it premiered as “Chopiniana” at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1907. The version performed by TPB, its third revision by the choreographer, was made for the Ballets Russes’s first tour to Paris, and premiered at the Théâtre du Chatelet, in 1909, with Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky heading the cast.

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Noguchi, no ‘Dark Meadow’

The dancing was splendid when the Martha Graham Company hit town. But without Noguchi's essential set, a masterpiece was ... something else.

White Bird Presents closed its 2016-17 season about three weeks ago with a single, brilliantly danced performance by the Martha Graham Company at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. I was determined to make it to the Graham show because Dark Meadow, in a shortened version by company artistic director Janet Eilber titled Dark Meadow Suite, was on the program.

As often as I have seen the Graham troupe perform (three times here in Portland, thanks to White Bird; multiple times in New York), I had never seen this particular collaboration with Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, arguably the inventor of three-dimensional sets for dance. And while I have some qualms about the rearrangement of a choreographer’s work undertaken after she’s bourréed off the planet, and therefore has no say, surely a distilled version of Dark Meadow –described by Deborah Jowitt as a “Jungian adventure,” by Noguchi as about the “primordial time of the mind,” and by Senator Dale Bumpers as “about sex” – would be better than not seeing it at all.

Dark Meadow Suite opened the show and turned out to be a charming, seductive, lively demonstration of Graham’s vocabulary: the little jumps, the angled sideways leaps, the deep, second position pliés, the drumming feet. It was an ideal curtain-raiser showcasing the best dancers this company has had in many years. But, and it’s a big but: Just as Cave of the Heart would not be Medea’s story without Noguchi’s set pieces (the rocks that form Medea’s path, the spiky metal “dress” to which she returns again and again) and just as Night Journey (Oedipus Rex from Jocasta’s point of view) is inconceivable without the tilted “bed,” Dark Meadow minus the mildly phallic-looking stone shapes that Noguchi made to define the space and represent the movement of time becomes a very different dance. In Noguchi’s New York Times obituary, Graham made very clear how important his designs were to her dances: “The works he created for my ballets brought to me a new vision, a new world of space and the utilization of space,” she said. Noguchi brought that vision, as well as the idea of integrating dance, sculpture and props, to many other choreographers: In Portland, Jann Dryer, Mary Oslund, and Linda Austin come readily to mind.

Xin Ying as the Woman in Red in Graham’s 1948 “Diversion of Angels.” Photo: Hibbard Nash

Like the Limon Company, and now the Paul Taylor Company, the Graham Company has sought to keep itself alive by commissioning new work from today’s choreographers, who, ideally, have some connection with their founders’ aesthetic, and/or share their points of view. Nacho Duato is one such choreographer, and his Rust, created for the Graham Company in 2013 to an incredible score by Arvo Pärt, came next on the program. Stark, raw, with glaring lights, it begins with simple walking, and dancers soon descend to the floor of what looks like a basement prison. Several men are being tortured; one observes or directs, it’s unclear. I thought immediately of Franco’s Spain, in which Duato came of age, and to which Graham reacted in 1937 with an enraged, grief-stricken solo titled Deep Song. However, a program note states that Duato wanted to raise a seemingly indifferent world’s awareness of the torture taking place in our own time. And more power to him and the dancers who performed the tightly choreographed piece with grim, chilling stoicism.

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Gershwin in Paris: S’wonderful

The Broadway tour of "An American in Paris" creates a gorgeous spectacle of song and dance inside Keller Auditorium

“S’wonderful, it’s marvelous,” this Broadway version of An American in Paris, playing at the Keller Auditorium through Sunday.

I thought so when I saw it in New York a year ago, and I still thought so last night, when the national touring company version opened here with a cast that is not as accomplished as the one I saw on Broadway, but nevertheless gave some outstanding and absorbing performances. All the other elements that make this such a wonderful show are, happily, unchanged, except for the orchestra, which is smaller. Christopher Wheeldon’s signature choreography; Bob Crowley’s stylish multimedia sets and costumes, which put you squarely in wartime Paris; and Natasha Katz’s lighting design, giving us both a city of light and one of war-time darkness, remain the same, as does the book by Craig Lucas.

Puttin’ on the ritz: the “American in Paris” company. Photo: Matthew Murphy

These elements come felicitously together in the service of George Gershwin’s music, the jazzy orchestral “American in Paris,” composed in 1928 as an homage to the city of the Lost Generation, as well as songs with lyrics by Ira Gershwin such as “I Got Rhythm,” “S’Wonderful,” and “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” familiar to the many members of the not-so-young audience who remember the 1951 film on which the show is based.

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