Jerome Robbins

The arts moment: back, or ahead?

ArtsWatch Weekly: We're emerging, but into what? The culture, and the arts world, consider the possibilities and make plans.

LIKE MOST OF THE NATION, OREGON HAS ENTERED SOMETHING OF A STATE OF SUSPENDED ANIMATION. Are we in or are we out? Do we shrink or do we grow? Scurry back, or look ahead? In the immortal words of The Clash, should I stay or should I go? Large stretches of rural Oregon, apparently, are eager to go – out of Oregon and into Idaho. Meanwhile, we are free to go unmasked into public spaces if we’re fully vaccinated, but not everywhere and not all the time – and we either are or aren’t on an honor system: Grocery store and restaurant workers and others dealing with the public are being left to police the unmasked to make sure they’re not cheating, and to live with the consequences of their customers’ anger. Businesses that live and breathe on public access, such as the sweet Oregon-scaled Enchanted Forest amusement park south of Salem, have eagerly reopened – and then shut down again in the face of threats from unvaccinated would-be visitors over being required to wear masks. We are one state, it appears, deeply divisible, with liberty and justice dependent on your point of view.

Back to the future? Melvin Van Peebles’ 1968 debut feature “The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” about a Black American G.I. and a white woman who meet and hit it off in France, came two years before his breakthrough hit “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song.” And it is, Marc Mohan writes, “the most revolutionary ‘new’ movie to hit Portland this week.”

Still, the trend appears to be toward motion – moving ahead – and that includes the worlds of culture and the arts. Museums have reopened, with restrictions. Music and theater and dance are once again among us, if mainly via video stream or on outdoor stages. (But not completely: Portland’s Triangle Productions is entering the final weekend of its production of the comedy Clever Little Lies, live and on an indoor stage, with a quarter-of-the-house capacity of 50 people at a time.)

Here at ArtsWatch we’re shifting with the tide, too. For instance, we’ve renamed Marc Mohan’s movie column, which has been called “Streamers” through the pandemic because movies have been available only via streaming, as “FilmWatch” – because, as Marc notes, movie theaters are beginning to open up again, and whether it’s in a popcorn palace or streaming to your living room screen, a movie is a movie. Even then, as he writes in his latest film column, this whole moving-forward thing can be a confusing muddle of present, past, and possible future. “The most revolutionary ‘new’ movie to hit Portland this week is from 1968, of course,” he writes. That movie is The Story of a Three-Day Pass, the debut feature of maverick filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, “a sneakily acerbic takedown of American racism, particularly its internalized effect upon the psyche of Black Americans.” A story ripped, or so it seems, from the headlines of pretty much any year you choose.



FRIDA’S POPPING UP ALL OVER, IN OPERA AND IN ART


LEFT: Catalina Cuervo as Frida and Bernardo Bermudez as Diego Rivera in Anchorage Opera’s 2020 production of ‘Frida’. They’ll repeat their roles this summer at Portland Opera. Photo by Kathleen Behnke, courtesy of Anchorage Opera. RIGHT: Kahlo and Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky are among the figures in artist Molly Van Austen’s 175-foot scroll weaving around the Chehalem Cultural Center. Photo: David Bates

SUDDENLY IT’S FRIDA KAHLO SEASON IN OREGON: Onstage and via stream from Portland Opera, and on paper in a fascinating art exhibition at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. One of a handful of 20th century cultural figures whose work can draw a crowd just about anywhere, the ever-fascinating Mexican artist is either central to or an integral part of both shows. Here’s the word on each: 

  • PORTLAND OPERA’S BOLD NEW SEASON. As we noted here last week, Portland Opera will present Frida, its long-anticipated production of Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s opera about the life and times of Kahlo, in combined outdoor and streaming performances in June. This week, Angela Allen takes us beyond with a broad discussion of the big new changes brewing in the opera company’s new season, which ranges from its still-streaming Journeys to Justice concert of music about the Black experience to the coming traditional Tosca and the contemporary operas The Central Park Five, a Pulitzer Prize winner with music by Anthony Davis, and the “dystopian chamber opera” When the Sun Comes Out, which was commissioned by the Vancouver Queer Arts Festival. “Opera is for everybody, not just for millionaires and folks who get all dressed up,” Damien Geter, one of the company’s artistic advisors, told Allen. “People want to see things about real people, about real things, things that happened in recent times.” Soprano Karen Slack, Geter’s co-artistic advisor, added: “I am both a lover of grand traditional repertoire and new works. Having made a solid career on both sides, I know the power they both possess. A healthy mix of classics reimagined and new works is always exciting. A little something for everyone.”
     
  • ART FROM THE QUARANTINE LIFE. “Cultural life in Yamhill County hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels of activity, but the engine is revving louder these days,” David Bates writes. “People are making plans, holding rehearsals, scheduling summer art camps.” And at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, he adds, a “delightful new exhibit” addresses the question of what artists will make of the Shutdown Year: “How will a historic, life-changing pandemic translate to the stage, page, and canvas?” The show features suggestions from two artists: Joe Robinson, owner of the East Creek community art studio and anagama kiln near Willamina, who declares that the “large, beautiful pots” scattered around the gallery “can only be accomplished when many hands come together,” and Molly Van Austen, whose 175-foot scroll snaking around the gallery comprises something of a diary of her memories and imaginings during the pandemic. It’s a cavalcade of people: “Each image in this long drawing is a meditation on some dear person in my life. That brings me joy and sadness. Memories prolong life and intensify our emotions.” Among the crowd is a portrait of Kahlo with the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Frida seemed to know everybody – and as likely as not, everybody was at least as eager to be around Frida as Frida was to be around everybody.


PEAK EXPERIENCES: GOING TO THE MOUNTAINTOP


From left: Taylor Feldman, Ryan Stee, Stacey King and Shanita King on the trip to the top of Mt. Hood in Devin Fei-Fan Tau’s documentary “Who’s On Top?”

DEVIN FEI-FAN TAU: WHO’S ON TOP? In her newest Stage and Studio podcast, Dmae Roberts talks with Portland’s Devin Fei-Fan Tau, a gay Taiwanese-American filmmaker, about his new documentary Who’s on Top?, in which he and his crew follow four LGBTQ+ climbers – only one of them with previous climbing experience – in their quest to get to the top of Mt. Hood. It’s not just a physical journey, but an emotional one, too, and Roberts’ interview includes the voices of each climber talking about what led them to this pursuit. As Roberts puts it: “Historically excluded and ostracized as not belonging to the adventurer community, the climbers tackle not only a mountain, but assumptions about who they are and how they belong to the world of outdoor sports.” Bonus: The film is narrated by the great George Takei.

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Lawrence Shlim (American, born 1954). “Volcanic Ash, Centralia, Washington,” 1980. Gelatin silver print. Portland Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 81.41.2

TUESDAY, MAY 18, WAS THE 41st ANNIVERSARY OF THE ERUPTION OF MOUNT ST. HELENS, one of the signal events in the history of the Pacific Northwest. (It was a Sunday morning in 1980, and I was in Seattle, waiting at the depot to board the train back to Portland, which didn’t happen because the tracks were wiped out somewhere south of Centralia). The mountain’s cataclysmic explosion was the focus of the Portland Art Museum’s terrific exhibition Volcano! that opened last spring, and that in turn lost most of its run to another catastrophe, the coronavirus pandemic. Fortunately, the museum assembled this excellent online version of the exhibition, which you can still access. It’s a grand-scale show, with historic paintings going back as far as the 1850s, some wonderful post-explosion paintings by Henk Pander, George Johanson, Lucinda Parker and others, and many photos documenting both the devastation and the recovery that followed. If you click the link, you’ll find your own favorites. One of mine is the photo above, by Lawrence Shlim, of a street scene in Centralia, looking out a window at a man walking through a blizzard of ash. It seems to speak both to 1980 and the plague year of 2020: life enduring and moving on in the midst of disaster. A town staying, and going, too.



THE NIGHT JANET REED DANCED INTO BALLET HISTORY


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Young, fit, and ‘Fancy Free’

On an April evening in 1944, a young dancer from Portland made history as a star of Jerome Robbins' first ballet. What it felt like to be there.

In this excerpt from her new book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet, dance critic and frequent ArtsWatch contributor Martha Ullman West writes about Oregon native Reed’s crucial role in the creation of an American classic, Jerome Robbins’ 1944 Fancy Free, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and was set to a score by Leonard Bernstein. Reed danced the role of one of the three young women who go out on the town with three sailors on shore leave. West’s book explores the growth in the 20th century of an expressly American style of ballet, and of the vital roles that dancer (and later, ballet mistress for New York City Ballet) Reed and dancer/choreographer Bolender played in the process.

Excerpted from Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet by Martha Ullman West. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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April 18, 1944, the opening night of Fancy Free, Robbins’s first ballet, was the stuff of artists’ dreams. Nobody, least of all Robbins; Leonard Bernstein, whose first theatrical score it was; or any of the cast members, including Reed, imagined they would take more than twenty curtain calls and make American ballet history. “We all knew something very special had just happened,” Bolender, who was in the audience, said decades later. [Poet and dance critic Edwin] Denby described the scene at the Metropolitan Opera House:

Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free, the world premiere given by Ballet Theatre last night at the Metropolitan, was so big a hit the young participants all looked a little dazed as they took their bows. But besides being a smash hit, Fancy Free is a very remarkable comedy piece. Its sentiment of how people live in this country is completely intelligent and completely realistic. Its pantomime and its dances are witty, exuberant, and at every moment they feel natural. It is a direct, manly piece: there isn’t any of that coy showing off of material that dancers are doing so much nowadays. The whole number is as sound as a superb vaudeville turn; in ballet terminology it is a perfect American character ballet.37

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Remembering Jacques d’Amboise

The great American ballet star, who died this week at age 86, was also a great teacher and a great human being: a reminiscence

The news of Jacques d’Amboise’s death came to me in a Facebook message, and it came, this great American dancer/teacher/father/human’s age notwithstanding, as a shock.  His presence was enormous. His absence – he died May 2, at age 86 – is even more so.       

That being said, I can see him, will always see him:

  • As the toddler Apollo, learning to walk, at the beginning of George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky’s 1929 ballet, Apollon Musagete, the original title of the ballet we now know as Apollo.
  • As an exuberant American teenager, working as a gas jockey, in Lew Christensen and Virgil Thomson’s Filling Station, alleviating his boredom on the night shift by reaching for the sky in his tours jetes over the fuel pumps.
  • As a popular-culture cowboy,  an “aw shucks” expression on his face, as he inserts an American macho swagger between the Russian pyrotechnics Balanchine choreographed for him and Tanaquil Le Clercq in the last movement of Western Symphony.
  • Teaching legions of New York City’s public school children, via the National Dance Institute, the organization he founded thirty-plus years ago to give kids regardless of income the opportunity to express themselves by dancing. There are offshoots of NDI all over the world.
  • And, ten years ago, teaching barre to advanced students at The Portland Ballet: knees and feet gnarled from arthritis, his fire banked, but glowing, still with the same hot passion for dancing we saw on stage and in movies like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, back in the last century.
Jacques d’Amboise, with advanced students from The Portland Ballet, while in town in 2011 on a book tour for his memoir “I Was a Dancer.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

I don’t remember when I first encountered d’Amboise offstage—probably in 2004, and very briefly, at the Wall to Wall Balanchine celebration at New York’s New Victory Theater. He came in late, stumbled over my feet on his way to a seat on the other side of Todd Bolender, and paused to give me (and Bolender) a warm and apologetic hug.  But I do remember, very well indeed, the encounters with him from the distance of the upper reaches of the second balcony of New York City Center, where that passion for dancing – and his phenomenal stage presence, elevation, musicality, ballon, and ability to inhabit every role he performed with every fiber of his being – contributed to my own love for this art form and its many permutations. Maria Tallchief, Bolender, Andre Eglevsky, Tanaquil Le Clercq, and Janet Reed also had a little something to do with that, not to mention the choreography of Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.

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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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