Archive for January, 2012

Apollo’s Girl

January 30, 2012

Film Society Lincoln Center
Dance Film Association

Dance on Camera: Triple Play and Wow

The problem with Dance on Camera is that it’s only once a year, it runs for only five days, and some of its most memorable programs are only shown once. The Pilobolus event (their 40th anniversary) was a perfect example. Envisioned by Joanna Ney and longtime Eye On Dance host/producer Celia Ipiotis, the idea was to pair Ipiotis’ original 1987 Eye on Dance interview (with Pilobolus founders Jonathan Wolken and Moses Pendleton), and Still Moving: Pilobolus at 40—a new film by Jeffrey Ruoff. And to include a conversation about both.

On paper, it sounded promising. In reality, it was sensational! We learned that Ipiotis’ program was a feat of virtuoso arm-twisting to get Wolken and Pendleton to appear together in the same studio, let alone to talk to one another. The two had undergone an acrimonious split, and Pendleton had formed his own company, Momix. But good exposure is good exposure, and they finally arrived (rather well-lubricated) as agreed. Their interview is tense and barbed, and all the more interesting for it. Ipiotis doesn’t miss a beat, but hangs on every word, alert for signs of impending disaster, and decides to pull the plug early to avoid the rapidly approaching meltdown. This was live television: always on the edge, full of surprises, sorely missed.

Ruoff’s film was a perfect counterpoint: beautifully made, essentially a history of the company, which Wolken continued to run. It was fascinating to see the evolution of the Pilobolus style: part dance, part gymnastics, part physics. And equally fascinating to see the human side of its collective creativity in action. In case you’ve forgotten how truly witty their work could be, or how touching, it’s all here, along with the impact on the company of Wolken’s death, just before filming began in 2010.

The prelude to Pilobolus was a new short, ORA, by French-Canadian virtuoso filmmaker Philippe Baylaucq and choreographer José Navas, whose arm-twisting required obtaining permission to use top-secret thermoluminescent technology from the US military and attracting support from the National Film Board of Canada. (The lion lying down with the lamb?) The results are unique and breathtaking, with brilliant cinematography and editing. The dancers express a “story” combining Darwin’s theories, the legends of Narcissus and Prometheus, create images that reference amoebas, Japanese texts, Kinetoscope discs, and move to a propulsive score by Robert M. Lepage. The light source is as original as the entire film; it’s the heat of the dancers’ bodies.

Check Your Body at the Door

This delicious hour, made the hard way for 20 years, is a dynamic record of an ephemeral subject (the pyrotechnics of underground club dance, hip-hop, and voguing) that turns unexpectedly into a timeless work of art. Filmmakers Charles Atlas and Michael Schwarz have devised an irresistible piece that marries pure entertainment with equally pure deep and abiding passion. Their patience is equaled by the skill with which the film is recorded and, most especially, structured and edited. And the on-camera presence that wraps, and holds, it all together is one Archie Burnett. What a find! If he ever decides to turn in his sneakers, he can have his choice of roles and venues. So, let’s just say that while these dance forms are not usually high on my agenda, I’ve had an object lesson in humility and seen the light! This show definitely has legs, and I will henceforth remember to check my ‘tude at the door. A closing night screening at the Walter Reade Theater is scheduled for January 31 at 9:00 p.m. Of course it’s sold out, but worth a stint on the standby line. Unless the powers-that-be declare an encore….

Cooper’s London

January 28, 2012


At a private concert in London I managed to discover the members of the Loewenberg Piano Trio playing Beethoven, Shostakovich and Bloch. The young musicians had met at the Royal College of Music in London, and formed an ensemble about a year ago.

Individually brilliant musicians, they work together not by blending but by carrying on an intense and utterly captivating conversation or debate in music, exchanging ideas, sometimes agreeing, sometimes almost disagreeing, but always keeping up a high level of musicianship and intensity. Their intonation, ensemble and tone are all of the highest quality. They are multi-national: Hannah Loewenberg-Harnest, the pianist and founder, is German; Ilya Movchan, the violinist, Russian; and Jordan Gregoris, the cellist, French. They all bring youthful energy, enthusiasm and individuality to their work together. My only quibble was that they should have ended the evening not with Bloch’s Three Nocturnes for Piano Trio, but with the Shostakovich E Minor Piano Trio, op 67, because their reading of the Shostakovich was so strong and true that it seemed a shame to move on to anything after that, even the Bloch, lovely as it was.

They have been invited to perform at a private event in New York in early February, but you can also hear them play the music I heard, plus a Schumann Trio, on February 5 at 2:00 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Center for Jewish History (15 West 16 Street), near Union Square.

I recommend you be there! And if you want, you can go up afterwards and tell that Mel suggested you come.

Their London concert was one of several by-invitation-only events given every year by Florian Leonhard to promote young up-and-coming musicians, especially string players. Florian Leonhard’s core business is restoring fine instruments. His home also houses his workshops; and his little concert hall is dedicated to the display of excellence. He also gets friends such as Steven Isserlis to give Master Classes there from time to time. The concerts are by invitation only so you either have to lobby a friend who knows Florian Leonhard, get to know him yourself somehow,or, I suppose, buy a Stradivarius from him. A Guarneri may, of course, also do. leonhard


Michael Sheen has just closed in a three-month run of what I believe will become one of those legendary possessions of the role of Hamlet. Every line was delivered with intelligence, nuance, rich subtext and, in his long, intense rendering of the character there was not a moment when he flagged, or when the audience’s attention flagged. The setting, about which I have my quibbles, was in a madhouse; so Sheen’s was without a doubt the craziest Hamlet in a while. But he’s also one of the wittiest, one of the slyest. Funny a lot of the time, he often bordered on scary as well. You could feel the barely controlled rage and despair along with a brilliant mind constantly analyzing and trying to come to terms with an intolerable situation. It was a complex, physical, high-energy turn.

You may know him from his film work (he’s “done” Tony Blair three times), but his Hamlet was a performance to cherish; a real touchstone in the same league as Gielgud’s, Olivier’s, Burton’s, or David Tennant’s.

Although I have been following his plays ever since he did Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Company some years ago, and still remember vividly his Mozart in a revival of Amadeus and his Caligula, in particular, rediscovering Sheen as a stage animal was truly thrilling! So I have questions: was, or will, Hamlet be filmed or broadcast in HD? Are there any plans to make it happen so that the world beyond London and the Young Vic can share the experience? Without a definitive answer, we can but live in hope…..

Apollo’s Girl

January 23, 2012

How Enchanted Is This Island?

This is a call to action for those who relish the impossible. It has just been achieved, and then some, in the Met’s HD version of its new Baroque pastiche, The Enchanted Island. And you’ll have to act fast to see it: virtually all the seats in the New York network theaters were sold out, despite snow, sleet, and plunging temperatures. But there are encore screenings coming up in the US on February 8th, and in Canada on March 3rd (1:00pm) and March 26 (6:30). For schedules around the world:

Even in a season that has seen HD broadcasts of Boris Godunov, Faust, and a few other reinventions of old favorites made new and inspiring by singers acting their hearts out at the very edge of art and endurance, Island pushes the envelope that much further.

”Today is my birthday (his 71st!),” said Placido Domingo at intermission. “For the first time in my life I’m playing a god!” His entrance as Neptune dominating his watery realm is one of many showstoppers. It’s clear he hasn’t had this much fun since he first swaggered onstage in Fanciula, in ankle-length black drover coat, lugging a huge Western saddle, tossing it down on the barroom table and calling for his “Meenie.” Wait til you see him now in his beard, scales and crown, wielding a trident!

As for the rest: new lyrics tell the story (itself a challenging pastiche of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Midsummer Night’s Dream), set to music plucked from the best of the Baroque. Most of it is familiar, but one rare duet (“Men Are Fickle”) — by Hermia and Helena (actually “Amarilli? O dei!” from Handel’s Atalanta) — was ravishing. As the plot spins by, we succumb to a barrage of gorgeous melodies, outright (and hilarious) modern shtick, truly heartbreaking pathos, and some magical, old-fashioned transformations and stage trickery.

But here’s the real point: The levels of performance and production are so high, so intense and brilliant, that they hypnotize. Glittering costumes and makeup are matched, scene by scene, by truly superhuman vocal fireworks from every principal. There are ongoing miracles by Joyce DiDonato, Danielle de Niece, Luca Pisaroni, David Daniels, the quartet of Dream’s spinning lovers (especially the Hermia of Elizabeth DeShong), and the unstoppable Mr. Domingo.  Then there are the concept and lyrics by Jeremy Sans, the stagecraft of Phelim McDermott, Kevin Pollard’s costumes and Julian Crouch’s sets. William Christie conducted. ‘Nuff said!

It may be the 1% who are paying for the Mets’ productions, but it’s the 99% who benefit from the quality of image and sound that define the Met’s HD broadcasts and encores. So, no matter where you live, you can find a city within traveling distance to enjoy the bounty.

If you have any remaining doubts, know that virtually the entire audience at the Ziegfeld, cocooned in winter coats and snowboots, stayed in their seats all the way through the end credits and curtain calls (still in progress as the screen faded to black). And, of course, they just kept applauding as they reluctantly filed out.

Cogito: John Branch

January 19, 2012

Richard III: To Be or Not to Be

A certain sense of disappointment (as well as the onset of a bad cold) led me to leave BAM’s Harvey Theater at the interval following the longish first part of Richard III ―the final venture in the transatlantic Bridge Project run by BAM, director Sam Mendes, and his Neal Street production company. Of the three parts of this “boy-meets-crown, boy-gets-crown, boy-loses-crown” fable, two had transpired. Kevin Spacey, as Richard, had barely maneuvered his twisted body onto the throne and slipped the crown onto his head before the lights blacked out and the curtain dropped.

Many of the text’s high points and tricky passages were already behind us. Richard’s opening speech came off with great brio, as did his wooing of Lady Anne, in which he wins over a woman whose husband and son he has recently killed. Other fine scenes: the curses upon practically everyone uttered by old Queen Margaret; the murder of Clarence, Richard’s brother, in a scene that’s equal parts macabre, comic, and ironic; and Richard’s seduction of the populace, stage-managed by Buckingham. These had thoroughly won over most of the audience and mostly impressed me on the preview night I attended—the manipulation of the crowd used video and was a perfect delight—and more potential showpieces lay ahead: the prick of Richard’s conscience as he’s visited by the ghosts of all those he has dispatched so far, and the concluding Battle of Bosworth Field.

What seemed amiss, then? Nips and tucks had been made; that was only to be expected. But the costuming made it a little hard to distinguish the supporting players; the production used a spare, vaguely modern design approach, with almost all of the men wearing dark suits and the stage nearly bare most of the time. This show travels light, which is helpful for a world tour but may leave the audience hungry for cues. More important, though, is that the connecting scenes between those showpiece moments sometimes seemed flat, sometimes too brisk, and sometimes both.

One got the sense of events picking up speed and Richard knocking off his obstacles with dispatch; he impressed even himself, as a line reading in his Lady Anne scene revealed. But one also got the sense that details of the drama were being brushed aside. Instead of feeling like the steadily thrilling and chilling rise to power of a brilliant but ruthless man, this big chunk of the play felt sometimes boring—or, to put it more politely (as Ben Brantley of The New York Times did after seeing the show in London last summer), there are longueurs in the show’s brevity. There may even be one gag too many.

Gags? Yes, there are gags. Among the groundlings who nowadays are seated highest, not lowest, in the house, the show was often a riot. What we had at BAM was a Richard III who was a scintillating and multifaceted comic villain surrounded by a Richard III that was lit by flashes but a little less than consistent. Clearly, Richard makes himself the star of his drama, and director Mendes has likewise made this production a star vehicle for Spacey. What disappointed me is that I was left unsure just what kind of play this relatively early work is. Scholars, as far as I know, usually judge it to be a history play but not a tragedy (despite its full title in the First Folio, The Tragedy of King Richard the Third). In the hands of Mendes and Spacey, it’s harder to say what it is, other than a lot of fun.

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