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.

Blanche Wiesen-Cook, author of an eminently readable three-volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt and an attendee, not a presenter, was certainly the most charismatic-looking biographer present, costumed in slim black pants and the most flamboyantly decorated cowboy boots I’ve ever seen. Her comments in a round table discussion of writing women’s lives were sharp and to the point, as is her writing. I loved her.

Eudora Welty and the biographers’ dilemma: what to put in, what to leave out. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/1962

I loved, too, Claudia Pierpont-Roth’s understated candor on the “What to Leave Out” panel, an issue she grappled with when working on a long profile of Eudora Welty for The New Yorker, where she has been a staff writer for many years. What she had to say about writing about a woman she admires, who did some unadmirable things, spoke to some concerns I have as a biographer who has fallen in love with her very human subjects.

While I may not have acquired specific solutions to the problems I’m having in finishing my book, I did expand my knowledge of a field that has interested me as a reader since I was very young, when I gulped down enormous biographies of 19th century women such as Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton from the Provincetown library, and consumed slender ones of Anna Pavlova and Martha Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson’s daughter) given me by my biography-loving mother. I am now eager to read a number of books by writers who participated on the various panels I attended, including Carla Kaplan’s Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance and Justin Spring’s The Gourmand’s Way, which is about a group of American expatriates (not Julia Child or M.F.K. Fisher) who were eating and drinking their way through French cuisine in the 1950s.

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THE NEXT FORMAL PERFORMANCE I ATTENDED  was, except for opaque program notes, a wordless one. On Wednesday, May 23, I made my way across town by cab to the Lincoln Center area for lunch with a colleague, after which we raced to the Metropolitan Opera House to see American Ballet Theatre perform Alexei Ratmansky’s Firebird, with Misty Copeland in the title role, paired in an all-Stravinsky program with Wayne McGregor’s futuristic take on Nijinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, titled AfteRite, which had premiered earlier in the week at the company’s spring season gala. The ABT orchestra, led by Charles Barker, played Stravinsky’s earliest, radically groundbreaking scores for ballet marvelously well.

Misty Copeland in American Ballet Theatre’s “Firebird.” Photo © Marty Sohl

I was eager to see Copeland’s Firebird. I had seen her perform in Twyla Tharp’s The Brahms-Haydn Variations in the fall of 2016, but never in a so-called tutu role, and her debut performance in Ratmansky’s reimagining of the 1910 Fokine ballet had been an important step on her way to becoming ABT’s first African-American principal ballerina. Balanchine’s 1949 version, made specifically for his wife, Native American ballerina Maria Tallchief, propelled her to stardom in much the same way, and also put the fledgling New York City Ballet on the national map.

That happens to have been the first Firebird I saw, also the first ballet, and in the intervening decades I have viewed many, many renditions of a work that has played a significant part in the development of ballet as an American art form. Portland arts watchers most recently saw the career-track dancers at The Portland Ballet dance John Clifford’s Balanchine-influenced rendition, and before that, Yuri Possokhov’s charming, good-humored storybook version made on Oregon Ballet Theatre during Christopher Stowell’s tenure.

Charming is not a word I would use to describe Ratmansky’s overtly sexualized, and expanded (mostly—he’s eliminated the monsters) rendition of this Russian fairy tale. It is nevertheless compelling and engaging and visually rich, with otherworldly scenery designed by Simon Pastukh and flamboyant costumes created by Galina Solovyeva. Moreover, Ratmansky employs all of Stravinsky’s magnificent score, rather than the shortened version used by Balanchine and many of today’s choreographers.

Ivan’s role as well has been fleshed out considerably. Far from the hapless hero he is in many productions, he is given a great deal of dancing to do, and at the matinee I saw Herman Cornejo was predictably wonderful – ardent and anguished and in the end, triumphant – in a role that Ratmansky has made dramatically and technically demanding.

Ratmansky’s most radical expansions are of the cast of characters: Ivan, while searching for his lost love (note: he is not out hunting!) encounters not a solo Firebird but a whole flock of them, male and female, costumed in feathered unitards and led by a leaping bird/woman, whom he captures. In their first pas de deux, Copeland’s Firebird is measured, controlled, a wild thing indeed; but nothing like as frantic or fierce as Tallchief’s. She doesn’t so much struggle for her freedom as barter for it, persuading Ivan to let her go in exchange for a magic feather, with which he can summon her for help if he needs it.

Which he soon does, when he encounters maidens held in thrall to the evil Kaschei, here costumed and made up to look like a particularly lascivious rock star. The maidens are presented as wild children, adolescents – logical, since they’ve been held captive away from civilization for some time. Nevertheless, Ivan immediately falls in love with their leader, danced by Skylar Brandt, who is winsome even in a fuzzy green wig and dowdy-looking costume to match. Ultimately, Kaschei’s spell is broken, and a damned good thing, because he has been sexually abusing these captive maidens, and imprisoning a number of young men. All ends happily, with the magic powers of the Firebird, again majestically wielded by Copeland in the famous berceuse, as she stills the roiling action and assists love in conquering unspeakable evil. Ratmansky’s Firebird premiered in 2012, well before the 2016 election, but I couldn’t help relating these trapped adolescent kids to those who are being separated from their families on our southern border by an administration that makes Kaschei look like Albert Schweitzer.

American Ballet Theatre's new "Firebird." Photo © Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theatre’s new “Firebird.” Photo © Gene Schiavone

In Wayne McGregor’s AfteRite – based loosely (very) on Le Sacre du Printemps, another Stravinsky ballet of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes era, which premiered in 1913 – a child is substituted for the virgin maiden who is sacrificed in Nijinsky’s vision of a Russian primitive tribal ritual. The reason for this sacrifice, however, is unclear. This is McGregor’s libretto:

“Inside the last colony, humanity is a fragile frontier and survival demands the fittest. As nature reclaims its rites, a mother must choose what she holds most dear and what she can afford to lose.”

The curtain went up on a stark set based on images of Chile’s Atacama Desert, with what looked like the lobby of a medical building (complete with ferns) stage right. Having learned from a review or two that the child is sacrificed in a representation of a concentration camp oven, I was sorely tempted to take Balanchine’s oft-quoted advice to audience members who might not like what was happening onstage and shut my eyes and listen to the music.

I wish I had. I’m no more wedded to what we think Nijinsky’s Rite looked like than I am to Balanchine’s Firebird. That’s not the issue. Christopher Stowell, assisted by Anne Mueller, did an interesting Rite for OBT in 2009, in another all-Stravinsky program, in which there was no sacrifice, but rather what could be interpreted as a communal grope at the climax. Nashville Ballet does the late Salvatore Aiello’s postmodern version, featuring a mixture of modern and classical movement and a solo by the sacrificial maiden that is one of the most grueling to watch (and to do) in the repertoire. But AfteRite’s choreography is as incoherent as the libretto, and while the dancers — some of ABT’s best, including Isabella Boylston – perform McGregor’s highly torqued contemporary movement very well indeed, what comes across as the choreographer’s dispassionate, clinical view of maternal sacrifice is at odds with the passionately driving rhythms of Stravinsky’s score. Maternal sacrifice is nothing new. Christianity is based in part on a maternal sacrifice, and much beautiful art has been made about that, but a stabat mater this is not, nor is it a Renaissance pieta. It is, however, disjointed as it is – extremely disturbing to watch, in the context of our truly terrible times.

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FROM THIS PERFORMANCE, I CHARGED BACK ACROSS TOWN to the 92nd Street YMHA, driven by a woman cabbie made surly in anticipation of the president’s mercifully brief visit, to watch the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, my oldest friend, engage in a public dialogue with Cathy Solnit, a highly successful, innovative executive coach.

Mary Catherine Bateson, 2004. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mary Catherine Bateson, 2004. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Solnit has written a book titled Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work and is the CEO of Performance of a Lifetime, a global training and consulting firm. Their topic was crucially timely: “Embracing Disruption and Change,” something the Ballets Russes demanded of its audiences in pre-World War One Paris when they performed the originals of the program I had just left, and something we are having to deal with on a daily basis personally, politically, and artistically.

Both of these women are expert, experienced performers. Bateson uses her hands and arms, opening them wide, in a gesture as giving as a Bournonville port de bras, when she wants her audience to remember a point she’s making. Solnit uses her trained singing voice and comic timing to loosen audience inhibitions. These skills came especially to the fore when it was time to take questions from the audience. Both women responded using what moderator Sevanne Martin (Bateson’s daughter, a professional actor now using her dramatic skills as a member of Solnit’s company) referred to as the “science of improvisation.”

I was glad to be there, viewing something far afield from my own field, but not from childhood memories of Bateson and me, and some of our friends, dressing up and putting on plays, and yes, improvising, something I wish children did a lot more of these days. I thought, too, of Bateson’s performance at the Schnitz a couple of decades ago when she gave a well-attended lecture, sitting alone on that big stage, on a high stool, telling a story of life-long learning to an audience intently listening to every word.

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THE NEXT NIGHT IT WAS BACK TO THE WEST SIDE of town with my hostess to a performance of Dan Cody’s Yacht, produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club, in whose 1996 production of Leslie Ayvazian’s play Nine Armenians I had seen the actress Sevanne Martin deliver a speech that included a list of famous Armenians, among them “Margaret Mead’s son-in-law,” who happens to be her father. Nine Armenians is a family saga and in a way so is Dan Cody’s Yacht, but a very different one. In it, Giardina, a former actor who is of working-class origins and now teaches at an elite women’s college, addresses a number of social issues for our times in, I’m pleased to say, non-didactic or sardonic ways, with a couple of deeply cruel lines to remind you that American society is not in terrific shape these days, for several reasons, none of them particularly entertaining or amusing.

"Dan Cody's Yacht" at Manhattan Theatre Club. Photo © Joan Marcus

“Dan Cody’s Yacht” at Manhattan Theatre Club. Photo © Joan Marcus

The action centers on four characters: Kevin O’Neill, a single father who left his wife when he discovered he was gay; Conor, his teen-aged son; Cara Russo, Conor’s English teacher, a single mother, whose husband left her for a younger woman and who is thwarting the paternal ambitions for a Yale education by giving Conor an F on a paper he wrote about F.Scott Fitzgerald; and Angela, her very talented, overweight daughter whose dream is to go to Vassar and become a poet. The father wishes his son to fulfill his own ambitions. The mother wishes to support her daughter’s dreams, and so strikes a Faustian bargain with the senior O’Neill — on which she subsequently reneges – in order to do so.

Does this make good theater? Yes and no. As the senior O’Neill, a shady private equity investor, Rick Holmes is convincingly seductive if somewhat over the top in a long speech about how sexy he finds the very decimal points and dollar signs that so frighten Cara Russo, the economically struggling teacher, who is played with physical intensity by Kristen Bush. She is on the faculty of a public school in a wealthy Boston suburb, next door to the working-class suburb in which she lives and her daughter attends school. As Carla, Casey Whyland’s portrayal of the would-be Edna St. Vincent Millay (who did actually go to Vassar) is impeccably timed. A mother-daughter row halfway through the play, which ends with Whyland’s righteous flounce out the kitchen door and Bush’s collapse on the floor in a true-to-life replica of a toddler’s frustrated tantrum, clearly resonated with every mother of female children in the audience: there was an audible collective gasp. But the two-act trip on Dan Cody’s Yacht is way too talky and about a half-hour too long. Moreover, it ends inconclusively, the unethical, possibly criminal O’Neill still on the loose, Conor attending Oberlin rather than Yale, and Carla, who at her own insistence has gone to the local community college, possibly because Kevin has told her she’s too fat to succeed at Vassar (you heard me), reading aloud a poem at graduation.

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Megan Fairchild in New York City Ballet's "Coppélia." Photo © Paul Kolnik

Megan Fairchild in New York City Ballet’s “Coppélia.” Photo © Paul Kolnik

“BALANCHINE IS DOING COPPÉLIA AND AMERICAN BALLET IS DEAD,” Todd Bolender wrote to a friend in 1974.  Bolender was wrong. The impeccably, joyously danced performance I saw New York City Ballet do on Friday, May 25, at what is now called the David H. Koch Theatre at Lincoln Center with the beautiful Tiler Peck in the role of Swanilda, was as expressive of American character today as it was of some aspects of European culture 200 years ago. Swanilda, the heroine of the piece, is as feisty and fearless and curious and smart as the fictional Nancy Drew or the real-life Michelle Obama, whose husband (unlike some American presidents) was never deceived by a doll, sexist pun intended.

Here’s the plot, which is nothing like as silly as it sounds: Franz – Swanilda’s beloved; another clueless ballet hero – is besotted with Coppelia, a wax doll made by Dr. Coppelius, who has posed her like a department-store dummy in the window of his workshop. Franz and his friends steal the key to the workshop from a drunk Dr. Coppelius, and Franz sneaks into the workshop, alone, where he is caught by Dr. C. and drugged. Swanilda and her friends also sneak into the workshop, rescue Franz, and everyone dances happily ever after, to the French composer Leo Delibes’ music, some of the most irresistibly danceable ever written.

I was already primed to view Swanilda as a feisty leader of her girlfriends by an on-line post by New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay, demonstrating with video of City Ballet’s Megan Fairchild and her corps of cohorts precisely how the choreography shows us who this young woman is, and how she rolls. I knew that the company’s dancers, whose execution of Balanchine’s pioneering plotless ballets and Jerome Robbins’s eclectic repertory remains by and large unparalleled, would dance this war horse, family-friendly ballet well. But I did not expect to leave the theater feeling as high as the proverbial kite.

New York City Ballet's "Coppélia": Who's real, who's a doll? Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet’s “Coppélia”: Who’s real, who’s a doll? Photo © Paul Kolnik

That doesn’t happen to me very often: an American Ballet Theatre touring production of Swan Lake at Portland’s Keller back when it was called the Civic Auditorium with Cynthia Gregory as Odette/Odile comes to mind, as does Luciano Pavarotti making his Metropolitan Opera debut in Rigoletto as the philandering Duke in the early seventies. More recently, Trisha Brown dancing “If You Couldn’t See Me” at the Schnitz twenty years ago had the same effect, as did Alison Roper’s Odette in Christopher Stowell’s staging of Swan Lake.

The buzz in the theater before the curtain went up on Rouben-ter-Arutunian’s charming if slightly corny set for Coppélia should have told me. And the presence of Jacques d’Amboise and Allegra Kent in the audience, City Ballet stars who had danced for Balanchine and Danilova, who staged this Coppèlia’s second act from her memories of dancing it in Russia. Surely they were there in part because under the company’s new interim artistic directorship (Peter Martins was compelled to resign in January of this year due to accusations of abusive behavior with dancers over a long period of time) Patricia McBride, who had originated the role of Swanilda in 1974, was brought back to coach the various Swanildas, and to polish up the mime.

Everyone in the enormous cast gave this opening-night performance everything they had, and what they have in technique, acting skills, and artistry in most cases is a lot more than most. That included Joaquin de Luz as a Franz having a palpably wonderful time throughout, but especially in his virtuoso variations; Robert La Fosse, as a dithering Dr. Coppelius; the hordes of little girls from the School of American Ballet in the third act celebration; the corps members in the rather peculiar dance of Discord and War, also in the third act; and everyone in the orchestra pit, where conductor Andrew Litton’s accounting of that marvelous music was as revelatory as the dancing, in a performance that had the entire audience on its feet at the end, including some of New York’s toughest critics.

Nearly a month later, the memory of this performance still makes me smile, at a time when those Americans with a heart – which I like to think is most of us – find less and less in life to make us do that. Art distracts as well as reflects and informs, and we need both kinds, badly. Thank you, New York, for providing me with both.

 

 

 

 

 

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