Martha Ullman West

 

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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‘Terra’ firma: OBT’s dancers shine

A ballet program of Nacho Duato and Helen Pickett, including the premiere of her "Terra" belongs to the company's performers

Xuan Cheng, Thomas Baker, Peter Franc, Michael Linsmeier, Avery Reiners, and Brian Simcoe, gazing upward, their mouths held open in a butoh-like silent scream, in the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s Terra.

Jacqueline Straughan wrapping her long, beautiful legs around Franc’s bare torso in Nacho Duato’s El Naranjo.

Martina Chavez, bent double, skittering across the stage barefoot in Duato’s Jardi Tancat.

Emily Parker, metaphorically taking down Linsmeier and Franc with a flick of her pointe shoe aimed at the back of their knees in Pickett’s Petal.

The OBT company in the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s “Terra.” Photo: James McGrew

For better or worse, these are some of the images – all of them of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s dancers ( this show belongs to them) – I’ve been mulling over since Thursday night when the company opened its annual mixed repertory program at the Newmark Theater.

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Men, bottled up and burning

Skinner/Kirk's "Burn It Backwards" dances in and around the way men try, and sometimes fail, to make relationships

Over the past twenty years, give or take, Eric Skinner and Daniel Kirk, founders of skinner|kirk DANCE ENSEMBLE, have developed what you might call an autobiographical movement vocabulary: a braiding-together of ballet lifts, modern floor falls, spins and jumps and tumbles that reflect their performing careers in Portland with Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox, and the Gregg Bielemeier Dance Project. At OBT they danced in work by Portland choreographer Josie Moseley, and there is a lot of her particular branch of modernism in their choreography.

I saw all that and more in Burn It Backwards, their new evening-length work, which opened Thursday night at BodyVox Dance Center, performed to music by Elliott Smith, played live—extremely live!—by Bill Athens, Galen Clark, Catherine Feeny and Chris Johnedis. Smith, who died in 2003 at a very young 34, lived most of his short life in Portland, and according to Wikipedia (yes, I had to look him up) was strongly influenced by the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. Of his own songwriting, Smith said, “I don’t really think of it in terms of language, I think about it in terms of shapes.”

Brent Luebbert and James Healey, facing off. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Skinner and Kirk took the title of their piece from a line in Smith’s Sweet Adeline, one of the thirteen songs arranged by Clark specifically for these performances. They chose it, they say in a program note, “because it speaks of forming a new history, both erasing and creating.” That’s a pretty good description of the choreographic process, or the creative process generally, but what Skinner and Kirk actually put on stage was a finished, polished series of dances for themselves and three other men, Chase Hamilton, James Healey and Brent Luebbert, all of them accomplished, well-schooled dancers.

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