Tuesday, October 10, 2006

ramble on

These two most recnet blogs were really long, I know. I'll see if I can be a bit more streamlined in subsequent posting.

Then again, I'm sort of blogging for lost time. I had quite a weekend of concerts. I could write a bit about the Friday concert in which I heard, thankfully enough, an Aaron Copland piece that was NOT the usual over-played Americana stuff I keep getting tired of hearing over and over. Music for Theater was cool. So were Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and Brahms' Third Syphony. Those are works, I know, that some people tire of hearing. YEah, they get overplayed on radio sets and in symphony halls but here's the deal ... DON'T listen to the radio and don't GO every time the symphony gets played and the symphonic works won't lose their beauty or power to inspire. Sometimes I listen to Hilary Han playing Mendelssohn's concerto and I do it when I REALLY feel like hearing that concerto. Great art can diminish in the mind and heart's perception through overexposure.

And the type of exposure is crucial. I would rather hear very little music but hear that music with my mind at work than to hear hours of sonic wallpaper. There are few things more offensive to me than music that is not chosen, music that you are subjected to. I don't mean to say that it is literal torture, or perhaps even that it is mental torture. I just mean to say that after a whilie I'm gonna tune out all those Kenny Loggins songs with conversation or work or something like that and then even the purposes for which Kenny wrote those stupid songs are no longer truly served. Music that is written to be forgotten goes against the heart of why anyone bothers with the struggle of the creative enterprise. So if you're going to have music on have it because you're actually listening to it.

Having said that, I DO listen to music that I just sort of zone out to once in a while and it's usually music I've listened to. Not only that it's usually music I've studied the score for a number of times. When you can sing the whole exposition of Haydn's Op 76, 1 you can give yourself the luxury of not really paying attention to it beyond the generally good vibe it brings you. :)

to dance or not to dance

Public education can be the nadir of many a good thing about the arts. By this I don't mean that public schools shouldn't have music education or art education or anything like that. No, I mean to say that the single greatest reason I disdained dance as an art form and pasttime was the public school system of the state of Oregon. Truth to tell the state itself is not so important as the nature of compulsory education.

Dance and appear to be inextricable. The old joke that having sex standing up looks suppciously like dancing is going to be around for as long as humans are. Point noted. That dancing is considered grounds to determine the sexual vitality or suitability of a potential or actual partner is also a commonplace.

But for me all that was moot because I was compelled to take physical education classes and when I had to choose between one of only two options of swimming or dancing I chose dancing. I think those were the options and that was surely my Scylla and Charybdis moment because I just sink like a stone and the only thing that would be more humiliating for a thirteen year old boy who was self-conscious than dancing would be to have no idea how to swim and be around a bunch of other hormonally lobotomized simians wearing a swimsuit. So I took the dance class in seventh grade.

Whether it was seventh grade or eighth I don't clearly recall now so much as that I remember "sock hops" held in the gymn during lunch hour from time to time. THis was apparantly the low-rent variation of prom and it was considered a big deal. The lights were low and various soft rock standards by Journey or Foreigner were playing. It was the late 1980s, after all. I never ventured in to the gym for any of that because it all seemed like some kind of custom wanting a justifiable explanation. Boys and girls asked each other out without regard to a junior high school having a sock hop. And most of the dancing didn't seem to be dancing so much as opportunites to stand holding each other while rotating, as it were, on invisible turntables while some awful song by Eddie Money played amidst dim lights.

Well the dance class would relieve me of my misconception that dancing didn't involve moves. I learned a couple of simple and simly irritating country dance styles. During this time the boys and girls were paired off randomly (in theory) and then every boy ended up dancing with every girl in sequence. This must have been terrible either for the reason that you wanted to dance with just a handful of cute people of the opposite sex, or that you didn't want to dance at all. There were, no doubt, other reasons. It was the whole compulsory nature of it I grew to detest. I grew to detest that the dancing was always based on the motiff of sexual pairing every single time. The idea that dance had some expressive or social function apart from the sexual bond never got explored and I was a wallflower type so I most dreaded the end of each session.

Slow dancing.

Damn it, this was why I didn't go to those stupid sock-hops. It was literally a ree for all until you were literally the wall flower and then you were told to find someone, anyone, and dance with them. I was always one of the people chosen last or had someone chosen for me, usually, to be quite blunt, a fat and inscure girl who didn't deserve to be forced into it any more than I did. I'd occasionally get made fun of for getting who ever it was I got stuck with. The only thing worse than being the last kid picked to be on a team sport is to be the last kid picked (and entirely not by your own choice) to dance with someone you don't know and don't like and don't consider attractive. What's there to like about it? Does it build character?

Now if people like dancing, cool. I'm happy for them. If people consider dancing to be a sign of character, though, I'm afraid I must always disagree. Gene Kelly kicked ass. Really, I love Singing in the Rain, and I totally dig how Kelly elevated dandce to a level where a non-dancer can appreciate his art for its narrative and archtypal value. But, dude, most people are NOT Gene Kelly or Cyd Charisse. For one thing they don't look that good and for another thing they surely dont' dance as well.

I know, it's sort of cowardly to not like dance or dancing as a personal activity for these reasons but I was really soured on the whole idea by that formative experience. If you don't win a kid over to the idea of dancing at that point then basically the average boy is going to feel like any dancing that doesn't involve a female is going to be pretty gay. I know, not exacty PC or caring or thoughtful but I'm revisiting teenage trauma, for want of a better phrase.

I will say that there have been a tiny handful of times when I have danced. I have a five-year old niece who likes to dance and because she likes to dance I sometimes dance with her. I might put on Stravinsky's Petrushka (see, I can connect this to my earlier post on Spectrum). Or I might play Stravinsky's awesome violin concerto. My dances are simple pogo jumping deals and my niece doesn't mind that simplicity.

ANd I can have fun doing it even though it's tiring and I don't think I'm great at it because the five year old girl isn't judging me by any preconceived criteria and it's not about some mandatory pairing off of guys and girls in some tacitly endorsed mandatory dating ritual or something like that.

In short, I dance with my niece because it is a form of expression that isn't tied to a social requirement imposed from the outside but because I care about my niece. THIS is what dance should be about, in my highly biased non-dancer opinion.

I've never been very good at sports ofteam activities. I never had the eyes for them, really. So I'll admit to being small-minded about the value of the two arts in which the body is most front and center--dance, and theater. In film and TV the body is still present and there is often dancing but the screen is a mediator. In a live setting something seems faintly silly about actors and dancers. It's as though the certainty of the ilusion cannot be revoked and the fourth wall is not the fourth wall so much as the very medium of perception. Mystery Science Theater 3000 is what it is because it produces at a meta-level the meta-entertainment of ripping into bad movies. Watching a TV show about puppets watching bad movies just drives the point home more forcefully.

Whereas in a theater production or a dance production the mediation, the barrier, isn't there. It's just you and the people up there on the stage. Where actors and dancers, it seems, sense some kind of sacred connection or interaction for me it merely amplifies and reinforces the distance. My eyes are bad, after all, so what I don't see are the various shades that actors and dancers may bring that for them carry the heaviest weight. And sometimes the acting is just laid on so thick to project from the stage that there is no subtlety to it. It is sometimes said that theater is life, film is art, and TV is furniture and I, as I must have said somewhere before, believe that distinction to be reversed. If you have the disposable time and money to go out of the house to see a dance or theater production you are buying a form of cultural furniture that proves you have some status as an intellectually-functioning being. It sounds really harsh, harsh than I actually mean it to be because film snobs and music snobs aren't any better and, believe me, I know I'm a music snob. I'm a cartoon snob, too!

I have tried over the years to appreciate every form of art and here is my rambling account of why in at least one medium of artistic expression that journey took a while because of some mundane but very trying and irritating formative expriences.

dance of the S&M fairies

This Saturday the Spectrum Dance Company staged Petrushka (music by Stravinsky) and The Miraculous Mandarin (music by Bartok). Being a fan of both composers I did what I could to attend this concert. Now that I have my feelings are decidedly mixed. My brother had never been to a ballet production before and I was anxious to take him to an event that had music I know he loves. He adores th emusic of Stravinsky and Bartok. Who doesn't? Well, who doesn't who would ever read this blog? That might be an irrelevant question. So noted.

At any rate the big event came and I and my brother went down to the Moore theater to check out the event. The Moore is, first of all, qute a bit smaller than I thought it might be. We're not talking the Paramount here, let alone McCaw Hall, and the Moore as a theater is more the broom closet to the living room in terms of sheer size.

This didn't have to be a bad thing and it wasn't. It meant I didn't need the binoculars I brought with me after all. I brought 8x binoculars on the assumption that I wouldn't be able to see much of anything. Not the case. I managed to see a decent amount.

Sort of. Don Byrd came out and seemed to half apologize for staging these "violent" and "disturbing" productions. The program notes spoke of the latent racism, misogyy, and homophobia in the ballets. Homophobia? Where exactly is homophobia in Petrushka or The Miraculous Mandarin? I mean, I've read through the score and read the basic story and I'm not sure where the homophobia is. Maybe because I'm not gay I just don't see it.

Racism? Ah, yeah, I TOTALLY get that there are are racist bits in the two ballets. The Mandarin as the "other" is obvious and perhaps too obvious for a sophisticated Seattleite to fret about. I mean, come on, who would really be shocked that people from an aristocratic Russian background with nominal Russian Orthodox history like Stravinsky would think gays are the greatest thing on earth? More or less ditto for Bartok. That's sort of like being shocked that Bible believers attend fundamentalist or evangelical churches. Now speaking as the son of an interracial marriage I'm hardly condoning racism but it just seems, as my brother pointed out, that if you apologize too much in advance for all the things you find objectionable about the ballets what on earth are you staging them for?

Apparantly the solution or explanation was to restage Petrushka in an S&M club. Great. So the audience was regaled with a black woman reading boldly about the "definitions of terms" as said definitions pertain to sadism and masochism and power and pleasure and so on. Then we got a techno/mod dance routine in which the basic power inequalities that come out in Petrushka are presented in advance. On the one hand I liked that the basic essence of Petrushka's plot could be distilled into a single scene, on the other hand, it annoyed me that the whole story and its most rudimentary meaning had to be telegraphed out to music that I found boring before I got to see the actual Petrushka staging I had ostensibly paid money to see.

And then we got to Stravinsky. Turns out the smallness of The Moore meant we got a trio performance. Two pianos and one percussionist. It was a bit underwhelming. Getting Stravinsky's music without Stravinsky's orchestration is, I don't know, it's sort of like seeing black and white photos of Rita Hayworth and being told she was a sultry redhead. Well, cool, hot redhead, so I'm told, but I have to take people's word for it. Similar deal with hearing Petrushka without the instrumentation.

But I want to be generous so I watch all the dancing and I guess it's okay but I keep hearing these people, mostly women, screaming. Why they're screaming I'm not really sure. It's a bit beyond me. I'll admit to being mostly a neophyte and a Phillistine on the matter of ballet. I know that I thought Pacific Northwest Ballet's staging of the Firebird, Apollo, and Rite of Spring was a lot of fun. I also had the distinct sense that this staging of Petrushka was, to put it nicely, a bit overcooked.

The black dancer came back on stage and turned out to be the magician. The magician apparantly has a much bigger role than a short perusal of the score would tell you. As in she's on stage the whole time. I've never seen any other stagings of Petrushka and if I'm to believe the program notes the likelihood of seeing another staging is remote, but I just wondered what the deal was with the Magician turned young black woman dominatrix was about. Is it supposed to mean something? I mean, the idea that an old white guy with magical powers is abusing his puppets I could sorta see maybe.

But it could also be that most dances and dancers are not that great at telling stories, at least not stories like Petrushka. Truth be told when I look at the story of Petrushka I see something that makes about as much sense as an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. No, seriously, I like some Aqua Teen Hunger Force I'm just not sure that means it makes a whole lot of sense. Well, Petrushka's plot is sort of like that. Magician brings puppets to life and the puppets proceed to bicker and fight and have amorous relations with each other while a huge circus rolls thorugh town, replete with a dancing bear.

I knew where that came in and I knew that in addition to the two pianos being in place of the orchestra I was not going to see any dancing bear. Call me small but I wanted to see a dancing bear! Come on, people! Dancing bear.

Since so little of Petrushka lends itself to the least bit of explication as narrative I get to the end quickly here. Petrushka gets killed and there's no ghost of the little guy taunting the Magician, the Moor has this whole time been a big beefy white Aryan dude who beats people around. At the cl.imactic moment of Petrushka's demise some dancer screams "What are you waiting for?" Was this because a dancer missed a cue? Was it supposed to indicate that the Moor was compelled to action by peer pressure? Does this have something to do with a somewhat nebulous "violence cure" talked about in the program notes to the effect that 20s art relied on violence as a resolution in contrast to a "talking cure" advocated by Freud? Well, if so, wasn't Petrushka composed and staged BEFORE the 1920s? This study provided by Spectrum's program notes seems a bit ahistorical.

So the production of Petrushka ended and well, what can I say? It was competently danced, even well-danced. The music was Stravinsky's and it was fun to listen to but the whole thing seemed overdone and yet underdone. If the ballet was or is as problematic and strange as described why not have the nerve to stage it as it was? Why recast the entire drama into an S&M club and then tweak the end a bit?

So then came the Miraculous Mandarin. Here Spectrum seemed closer to the mark in as much as they stayed closer to the story in the ballet Bartok wrote music for. Since this is Seattle the guy who was the "brute, the Moor, in the Petrushka production is now the Mandarin in the Bartok ballet. How obvious. Symbolically the idea that the abuser becomes the abused and that the abused becomes the abuser holds traction in a work of art if the two switches happen within the same dramatic work, the same story. Merely juxtaposing two drasticallly different tales and then making that juxtaposition via casting just comes across as too knowingly PC and self-conscious.

Okay, so the set-up is a dreary little flat in which two guys and a girl lounge about. SOme kind of conjugal something or other happens and then the girl gets out of bed, off the floor, and rather comic and absurd slowness puts some clothes on. This is the girl who is going to seduce two or three guys throughout the production. I heard a few people snort and ssnicker and my hunch it was because the gestures were too obvious. I don't mean merely in the sense that lingering on an undressed dancer in a stage production might be cause for tittilation or something. No, it's that the staging was done in such a way that it conveyed the sense that this was supposed to be defused.

See, in my limited experience no artists have greater pretense to relevance and profundity with so little grounds for the presumption as theater troupes and dance troupes. Why? Well, because who watches the stuff who hasn't already consigned themselves to a cultural elite that is rare? I implicate myself. Dude, I am part of the middle clas and I know it. I have the disposable income to see art productions. So to me the pretense of art troupes to confront the indifference of the middle class is pretty stupid since they need the money of patrons to do that. Tangent, yes, I know. That's what blogging is for.

TO put trhings another way, if you're casting a dancer to be aseductress then if her dances are so mechanical as to be comic that COULD be a commentary on the artifice of seduction. Okay, cool, I'm there with you. The big 80s hair suggests as much. But by now I'm wondering about the fcomment about misogyny. Maybe, maybe there's something to it. But at the same time the idea of having the one woman in the ballet as a whore is subversive in a way that from a modernist angle would make sense. If you're really upending the expectations of dance as a traditional form then by having the only female in the ballet as a prostittute shows how you upeend ballet's presentation of women as iconic of what is beautiful and salutory about the human race. I mean, we could even consult something no further away in Stravinsky's output than, say, the Firebird, or Apollo to see what seems to be a more conventional deployment of the woman as dancer. It makes sense even to a neophyte to dance like myself.

Mandarin worked as a ballet staging for Spectrum partly because they stuck to the story and partly because there was a story, a simple one, but a story. In terms of dance as naarrative I'm not sure I'm likely to see anything cooler and more narratively senseible than Gene Kelly's huge set piece in Singing in the Rain. But here, too, the experience felt a bit small without Bartok's orchestration. In Bartok and Stravinsky you have two 20th century masters of orchestration. The tone colors and sounds they coaxed from instruments were amazing! And even though Bartok's music survives a purely pianistic approach for the sim ple reason that Bartok could shred on the keyboard it was still a let-down.

I wouldn't say the productions were altogether bad but they just seemed overdone and overthought. So apologetic were they for elements that the troop thought unsavory and offensive that it left me wondering why they bothered. Why are things like homophobia, misogyny and racism so particularly bad in THESE productions and not in countless other ballet productions that reflect the same nasty tendencies in human nature? It's a strange thing for the dancers and choreographer to find the material more offensive than I, schmuck from the street, find it.

This hasn't put me off ballet by any means. It's just put me off trusting the advance self-praise of the Spectrum Dance company.