Wednesday, July 18, 2012


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 [Image credit: 8one6 via Flickr]
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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Fantastic and real, touching and true

The orchestra started playing too soon after the audience had finished clapping. Andrew Sill launched into Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade For Strings,” and I thought, “That’s it? The big moment? The beginning of the ballet I’ve been anticipating all year?”

That opening phrase was loaded. I'd listened to the CD of "Serenade" (pronounced like tapenade) countless times after my closest friend gave it to me the year I was in ninth grade. I still had the pointe shoes she wore in her "Serenade" performance at the boarding school that had separated her from me in those days when I loved dance and her more than anything. I'd danced to "Serenade" in my bedroom but had not watched the ballet. With all this anticipation, I could have easily written a sappy piece about finally seeing New York City Ballet perform the first piece that Balanchine, City Ballet’s late, great choreographer made in America. The essay would describe how my expectations were either realized or disappointed. I could have written that essay without ever seeing the ballet.

Here's what really happened.

After the first phrase, the orchestra stopped and the conductor started to talk. This wasn’t the beginning of the ballet after all but a lesson about the music. Balanchine changed the order of the last two movements of Tchaikovsky’s score, Maestro Sill told the audience, in order to end with the “Elegy” that I’ve written about before. The “Elegy” ends with harmonics, high-pitched whistling sounds created when string players barely touch their fingers to the strings above the wooden fingerboard, instead of pressing them down. Sill said that he thinks of the harmonics rising Heavenward, the kind of religious sentiment I avoid, but then he dedicated the performance to the late Hugo Fiorato, a former conductor of New York City Ballet’s orchestra and his first conducting teacher who died April 23, 2012. If anybody were going to dedicate a performance to me, that “Elegy” is the one I would choose. Or “Pavane For A Dead Princess,” though I would feel uncomfortable about the implications there.

With that dedication, “Serenade” began in earnest. A Stonehenge of dancers, standing straight, one arm held out high. A field of females in their hard-toed shoes, long blue sleeveless dresses, waiting until Balanchine tells them to move. Their bare thin arms make quick, concave motions, somehow Grecian. They are his muses; he is their sun, immortal in his choreography and his legacy.

"Serenade" is many domino chains of precise movement, one dancer moving after the next, with just enough repetition for familiarity but not enough for boredom. By the end of the first movement, one female is singled out. She waltzes with her partner in the second movement.

During the next, folk-like movement, pointe shoes becomes clogs, and the dancers intentionally make them noisy (dancers try NOT to clomp), beating the toe of a pointed foot against the stage in a pose called “B+”. This is stylized clomping, not quite at home in ballet nor in a country dance.

At the end of the this movement, I realized that in the “Serenade” poster I’d seen, the female dancers had long, flowing hair. These dancers all had buns. Yes, at the end of the movement, the lead dancer falls to the floor and lets her hair down, as do two other women. I have mixed feelings about women’s hair being part of the choreography, about the male choreographer deciding the women should let down their hair. I don’t know why I feel this way now.

Why do I feel uncomfortable appreciating the visual beauty of ballerinas? I love ballet and respect Balanchine. It’s not wrong for a choreographer to appreciate dancers’ beauty. And in life, it’s not wrong for men to appreciate the beauty of women in ways that go beyond art. Or for women to do so. Anyway, dancers are concerned with their own reflections in the classroom mirror, audience aside. I am that way when I take ballet class, either correcting myself in the mirror or avoiding it, never indifferent to it. I don’t perform.

Yes, the women make a living by being beautiful, physically, artistically. A ballerina had to be beautiful to Balanchine in order to succeed in his ballet company, and the company had to be beautiful to the audience in order to stay in business.

So I’m not criticizing Balanchine any more than I would criticize Petipa or myself or any other audience member for loving to watch ballet. But my discomfort remains.

For most of this piece, there is only one man and many women. At the very end of the "Elegy," two other men come out, in order to pick up the fallen dancer by her pointed feet, and she stands above their shoulders like an elegant, sublime cheerleader. They carry her away as the women rise onto their toes, arms outstretched, yes, to the Heavens.

The ending felt beautiful and right to me.

The second piece, “Kammermusik No. 2,” reverses the gender ratio: it’s almost all men. Hindemith’s music took more of my attention than the dance. It made me think of so many other composers at once, but I can’t think of who they are. It sounds like a musical revolution, competing styles fighting for prominence.

The third piece, “Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux,” is Balanchine’s choreography for a bit of the “Swan Lake” score that, according to the program notes, was composed later than the rest, didn’t make it into the ballet, then got overlooked. The best part of this section was not the lost pas de deux but the male and female solos that followed, encores taken from “Swan Lake” proper. Tiler Peck did the fouetté turns for which “Swan Lake” is so famous; her partner, Joaquin de Luz, did the male equivalent of fouettés, turns in second (with one leg out to the side) — and a few little jumps, too. The crowd screamed wholeheartedly. You don’t need to know what a fouetté is to see that this was amazing. After the performance, the dancers bowed and curtsied in the usual courtly way, which seemed ridiculous in response to the hooting in the crowd. Modesty.

Intermission: The Plastic Flute
Intermission was a story not of modesty but of self-importance. I stood in line to buy a plastic flute of champagne from a bartender standing in front of a bowl of shimmering strawberries. A woman carrying her own flute cut to the front of the line and asked the bartender for a strawberry.
“All these people behind you are waiting for strawberries; I’m sorry,” the bartender said.
“Why aren’t there strawberries over there [where she’d gotten her champagne]?” the woman pestered.
“’Cause I’m the only one who has ‘em,” he answered, in a circular way. “That makes me special doesn’t it. I’m the strawberry man.”
The woman huffed off.
“Would you like a strawberry?” he asked me, when it was my turn.
“Oh yes, I must,” I replied. I was wearing a full backpack, turtleneck dress and jeans.

I drank my champagne out on the balcony, in the cool but not rainy night.

After an intermission, the choreography turned to another bird ballet: “Firebird.” This was the beautiful scenery of Russian painter, Marc Chagall, come to life. Or is the painting real life made inanimate? No, this is real life filtered and embellished through Chagall’s mind and his paintbrush, then brought back to life again in ballet, a form that is to the way people really move what Chagall’s paintings are to the way things really look.

The prince wears strawberry-red velvet pants. The ladies of the royal court wear long white, embroidered dresses, some with blue velvet tunics, long hairpieces dangling behind them. The toes of the men’s shoes point up at the ends in a comic, Russian way, something that I suppose is no more ridiculous than the heels of women’s shoes pointing down. These dancers are fairy tale characters in their own world. I forget that this is Balanchine. Instead, it’s a royal court and a magical bird dancing the way they normally do.

The Firebird dances in a spotlight that follows her around the stage, and in that spotlight, she casts a shadow on the stage. Her arms and legs flit around the round shadow of her tutu.

Firebird was one of two unimaginably beautiful experiences I’ve had this week. The first was the peonies and azaleas at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. So I’ve been similarly bowled over by nature and by a fantastical story performed in dreamy, trippy costumes designed after Chagall. Is nature actually fantastic? Maybe Chagall’s “wild imagination” is capturing reality. Perhaps what we consider our real lives — going to offices, walking down sidewalks — are not practical realities dictated by fate but actually inferior products of human imagination. 

I was neither fully satisfied nor disappointed with “Serenade,” but my night at the ballet surpassed my expectations. It seems too much to see the reverence of “Serenade,” the technical magic of “Swan Lake” and the majesty of Stravinsky, Chagall, Balanchine, not to mention the dancers themselves, in “Firebird” all in one evening. It’s like having four desserts in a row.
Actually, not too much. I could get used to this.

So, what’s for after dinner?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Enduring Stars

Sixty-two-year-old researcher, Elizabeth Spelke stares out from the Science Times with bright brown eyes. Reflecting on those eyes, I wonder what makes the brown eyes so bright. Not the color, certainly. I go back to my newspaper to look again. Through the frames of her glasses, each eye has a tiny dot of white, not the eyes themselves, but reflections off them. I immediately think of another woman I know and realize this isn't the first time I've described an older person as having beautiful, shining eyes.

I turn to the next portrait in my mental album. The skinny woman in her forties, dressed like someone in her twenties, face framed by a frizzy mane of brown hair, also has sharp brown eyes. Why don't her eyes strike me as shining, beautiful? Here the eyes are the last thing I describe.

Aren't the eyes the same, anyway?

It's not a question. The eyes do look the same as we age. That's what is striking. A woman's face becomes pasty, puffy, wrinkled, her hair fades to gray or white. Striking, dark, angular becomes muted, softened, blurry. The eyes remain perfect, glossy marbles. The shining blue eyes of an older person aren't cliché. They really do shine, particularly against a subdued background. Like the inner rings of a big tree or a time capsule buried in the backyard, they make the connection to younger days .
Why don't the eyes age? Maybe they don't see as well as they used to, but they are "well preserved." They are like museum pieces, displayed in the frame of the eye socket, moving behind glass. The eyes move from side to side, up and down, hands exploring the fishbowl for a way out. They try to escape, but find they are trapped. Trapped in time.

Though the eyes can't escape the cage, the frame, the fishbowl, they can and do move the whole thing, turn the head, lift the body from the chair, pull it across the street.

The eyes are more free than the mind in its bony cell. The mind relies on the eyes to bring back photos of the world outside.

My own eyes like to look inward or focus idly on the page, or somewhere between the page and keyboard, more interested in what they have already seen than in what they might see now or later. These eyes are content in their cage.

And as I dance, it's not the eyes that direct my movement. My mind responds to a sound or to the sensation of feet against the floor. My eyes watch as through a train window. They are not manipulative, dragging me around face first.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Artificial Intelligence at the 92nd Street Y

"Reading is just the opposite of writing," someone declared to me the other day, "right?" I didn't think it was, but I didn't know why I disagreed. The answer seemed rooted in this idea of whether or not a writer plans what he is going to say ahead of time. The reader gets the product of a writer's work. If the writer envisioned the final product, put it into words and the reader accessed that very same vision by reading the words, then reading would be the reverse of writing.

But I don't start with a vision of my final product when I write, and even if I do start with some vision, the final work won't be just like it. Even if the writer could magically conjure up an idea into words, I doubt that the reader would arrive at the writer's original idea, because words have so many meanings and connotations, and everyone reads them differently.

Dancing certainly doesn't feel like the reverse of watching a dance performance.  Last night, listening to choreographer Lar Lubovitch talk about how he makes dances, I realized that watching a dance is more the reverse of choreographing than of dancing. The dancers are like choreographer's words.

The audience sees the choreographer's vision -- if he had one.  Lubovitch certainly did, as he explained in an onstage interview with Anna Kisselgoff, the top dance critic for The New York Times (1977 - 2005), last night at the 92nd Street Y. This was the first performance of a five-part series called Stripped//Dressed, in which choreographers present excerpts of their work and explain the concepts behind the dance.

Their conversation hammered into my head this idea that art that seems to flow perfectly, even spontaneously, is often the product of elaborate planning. Just as David Foster Wallace perfected a stream-of-consciousness writing style and Jackson Pollock, a child-with-a-set-of-paint-tubes style, Lubovitch affected a dancers-doing-what-felt-good-and-flowed style.

Almost. The dances were not as spontaneous-looking as that last phrase implies. People leading with their shoulders and chests or holding their arms too high above their waists, wrists slack, don't look natural. Granted, I'm used to ballet, but to me, these movements looked less natural than a ballet where everyone pretends to be a swan. I could tell these dancers were playing roles. It was neither improvised, like a dance party, nor planned and consummately acted, like "Swan Lake."

In the first excerpt, "North Star" (1978), the dancers looked as if they were moving together as one body, like an amoeba moves as a group of cooperating cells. Afterward, Lubovitch revealed his structure: the dancers were moving as one body, but a more orchestrated one than I had imagined. The piece opened in what Lubovitch said looked, from the sky, like fifth position, with different dancers representing right and left legs, torso, and arms. Different groups of dancers represented different parts of a dancer's body, and together, the group executed steps from the ballet canon: glissade, tour jeté, two jumps where the legs move one after the other. These ballet steps are the building blocks of ballet, the epitome of structure. In order for the dancers to represent those steps, they couldn't just do what felt good, by any means, even if it looked like that's what they were doing. The definition of a ballet step and a person's position in the collective dancer's body determined who could do what and where.

Learning how Lubovitch had structured his dance, I had the same feeling of betrayal that I felt when I learned that pieces of music had key signatures that determined the first and last notes of the piece, that the composer hadn't just happened to land on the note he ended with. I try not to feel wounded. It's art, I tell myself. That's one way to define art: something artificial, that comes across as one way (spontaneous, in this case) and is actually another (structured). Just like actors in a play pretend to be living real life. It is deceit, and that's why I feel betrayed when I discovered that art I love was crafted, in the sense of crafty, art in the sense of artifice.

But this artifice is not necessarily malicious. I'm not trying to say that structure is a bad thing. I'm just let down when I realize that art is not what it seems to me. I want the concerto to end on a note because that was the right note, the one-and-only note, the note the composer fell in love with at first hearing, not the note betrothed to the piece by the key signature. 

Unlike a key signature, which composers use but didn't invent, Lubovitch came up with his own rules for the dance, then followed them. The creativity was still there, but not where I thought it was. He wasn't creative in deciding which direction dancer A would go in a tour jeté, but he was creative in deciding to make a dance in which a group of dancers perform ballet steps as one body.

In the second half of the show, the company performed "The Legend of 10," in which 10 dancers, he said, map out a Brahm's Piano Quintet. This was the "dressed" half of the show, a more formal performance. The dancers wore those trendy, calf-hugging hunting boots, black pants, a velvety, ab-hugging bodice with a sheer top, so that they were all black but their arms and faces, which were all white (the color, not the racial descriptor). The dancers moved in a flock when the quintet played together, moving their arms as if doing the macarena, or clapping in a threatening pack (like hyenas), or they were swans running offstage, elbow first. These hand motions seemed purposefully, mockingly affected. The flock of dancers sometimes held hands and danced in a circle, then looking even more like hunters, though fake, fairy-tale hunters, whose flimsy boots are meant to look like the trendy hunting boots people wear on the street but were actually meant for another purpose, in this case, dancing. It's a double affectation, since those boots, even in real life, are fake, flimsy boots made for fashion that look like they were made for hunting or tromping through the woods.

I thought the costumes and movements seemed unnatural and jarring. I interpret that as the artifice of the performance coming through.

Beyond the structure of the dances, there was the interaction between critic and choreographer. Kisselgoff and Lubovitch matched. She wore black with a red and black scarf; he wore a red plaid shirt. They were both born over 60 years ago.  In the way that Lubovich thought about how individual dancers could move as a group, Kisselgoff, dance critic, thought about how the styles of various choreographers--Balanchine, Cunningham, Graham--fit together to create patterns or dissonance.

Kisselgoff had known Lubovitch since the days when he was a dancer in the Harkness Ballet, before he founded his own company. She'd seen his entire modern dance career. She referred to questions that she knew not to ask, like "What does it mean?" and grilled him with better questions, like, "Do your dances have emotion?" and "Do you choreograph as a frustrated dancer or as a choreographer?" She asked the last question more delicately than I'm putting it here. Lubovitch stopped performing earlier than other company founders of his time, they said. Kisselgoff's question was akin to asking me if I wrote about science because I wanted to do scientist but had been unsuccessful in the lab.

Lubovitch responded that he "sat right in the center of a hot fire of emotion" and that dancing, but not necessarily his own dancing, inspired him to choreograph. It was truly a deconstruction of dance, down to its emotional core, so often hidden behind the art.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Reaching An Action Potential

I start to boil water for coffee, put on pants, set the microwave for two minutes my oatmeal, check email. I pack a bag of dance clothes for a ballet class, put on a shirt. I grab a book I want to read during breakfast and put it on the desk in front of me, then pour the water over my coffee grounds. I begin eating my oatmeal, get up to pour the coffee, go back to the oatmeal, realize I can't read, drink coffee, and eat oatmeal, contemplate listening to the radio. But by the time I get the radio going, my oatmeal is finished, and it's time to go use the bathroom if I'm to leave the house at the appointed time.

Instead of the ballet class I'd packed the bag for, I might decide to do my ballet routine at home "to save time" though it ends up feeling like a waste of time. So it's twenty minutes of exercises, splits, and a shower.  I'm trying to squeeze in that routine before I go off to class at NYU. Oh yeah, and at some point, I'm supposed to be reading the New York Times. This all inevitably puts me in a bad mood. Doing one thing prevents me from doing another, and I'm never doing the right thing, or so go my thoughts.

Later that day, my bad mood still with me, I decide to play the violin "for a little while" to cheer myself up.  I play scales, exercises, the Préludio from Bach's E-major partita. Half an hour has gone by. But I keep playing, working on an Andante movement, always Bach. It goes well. My fingers are warm; my sound is warm, too, and the in-tune notes fill the basement. I just want to play it again. So I do. Then, I think of playing a fiddle tune, Baker's Waltz. Then, I play some Swedish music. An hour and a half has gone by. I am happy.

I think that 90 minutes of playing violin, not sure where the playing would lead me, was worth 3 hours of doing various, structured activities in order to check them off a list.  When I do six different activities, some of them at the same time, with an aim to "get them done," I may be efficient, in the sense that I check things off the list, but I don't reach that point of feeling warm, happy and satisfied.

I think that these activities are like nerve impulses.  As a nerve cell prepares to send a message,
positive ions go into the cell, but only when the cell reaches a certain voltage will the nerve "fire": will the ion channels that open in response to voltage open their doors, letting in more ions, which open more doors in a positive-feedback loop. If the nerve doesn't reach that threshold voltage, it can't send its message. Those positive ions entered the cell for nothing. Poor sodium. 

I think that in doing something, like playing violin, if you don't get warmed up, you don't reach the point at which you can do really satisfying work.  That's known about exercise and music, to some extent: you have to warm up. But I think it really applies to all activities. For example, when I start to write, I may not feel inspired. If I write for 20 minutes and stop on my circuit of productive activities, chances are, I won't get anywhere.  I keep going, something usually comes to me. 

There's a certain point in writing an essay where I feel inspired. When I have a deadline, that point usually happens the day before it's due. I remember trying to write an essay about Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly Last Summer" and winding up with some theory about how people who love each other also exploit each other. The essay didn't turn out that well, but I did have a moment of inspiration when I realized what the point of all my writing was.  This happened rather late in the game, too close to my deadline for me to really polish the idea. But sometimes, I don't reach that point at all with a piece of writing. I might just write a piece that doesn't really have a compelling point. Blog posts, published too early, are like essays that don't reach their full potential.

An action potential in one cell is what lets the nerve send its message to the next cell and nudges that cell toward an action potential of its own. I think that activities work the same way. I think that doing one activity to its fullest, being inspired, and being in a good mood leads one naturally into the next activity. When I used to go running in the morning before work, a short run might just put me in a rush and stress me out, but a nice, long run would put me in such a good mood that I would have a great day at work. The runner's high led to other highs throughout the day; the impulse propogated.

I am happiest when I can do things until I reach that inspired point.  Stopping early, like leaving this blog post now and doing something else, would leave me unsatisfied. I might check more items off my list, but I might ultimately feel disappointed. I'd be like a nerve cell that had let in some positive ions but not enough to fire.  That cell might as well have done nothing.

As for a person doing nothing, that may not be such a bad thing. Rest is probably better for the body and soul than a flurry of unsatisfying activities. Better for the mood, too.

Moods are rooted in action potentials and communication among nerves, after all. Maybe this allegory is more scientific than I realize.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Journalist and Mrs. Brown

In her 1924 essay/lecture, "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," Virginia Woolf talks about how novelists from different literary periods develop characters, and as an example, she creates a hypothetical character, "Mrs. Brown," whom Woolf imagines encountering in a carriage on the way to a train. Some writers, she says, would be inclined to focus on Mrs. Brown's situation (her house, her town, the property laws in her area) and discuss her in relation to it. Woolf, on the other hand, is inclined to start with Mrs. Brown and develop the novel around the character.

I think it's worthwhile to think about how journalists would treat Mrs. Brown, even though Woolf created Brown for a speech about how novelists develop characters.

After all, journalism has limits not only of reality -- you have to describe the people and events you choose to discuss as truthfully as you can -- but also of fiction -- you have to create a story that makes sense, and that sometimes requires you to pass by real people and true stories that don't make sense in the story.  In a story about obesity, for example, you can't just spy an obese person on the street, call her Mrs. Brown, observe her and write about her without interviewing her or asking her permission, as you could if you were writing a novel. Nor would you want to approach Mrs. Brown and say, "I'm writing a feature story about obesity; could I interview you?" Instead, you look for people who admit, by joining a support group or chat room, to being obese and indicate that they are open to discussing it. Even then, you can't just write about anyone. You need someone who is who is obese, willing to talk and has a simple enough story without too many twists and turns. Twists and turns confuse the reader, but in journalism, you have to face them. In fiction, you can just leave them out, or your character might not encounter them in the first place. In order to find a suitable journalistic subject, you may end up sending message after message to people in chat rooms and forums. It's sometimes a lot of work to come up with a real character you can use. (As Coleridge wrote, "Water, water, everywhere; Nor any drop to drink.")

To me, this seems like a contradiction, because I like to think of nonfiction as writing ready-made stories with ready-made characters. In fiction, you have to make your own characters before you can write about them, or as you write about them, which seems like it might be more work.  I realize now that, to some extent, you are making up the character in both cases. In both cases, you have certain requirements for Mrs. Brown: she has to be obese and go through some kind of ordeal. In fiction, you can make Mrs. Brown act just as your story demands. In journalism, you have to choose among a limited number of real people. Sometimes, I think writing fiction might be easier than finessing reality as a journalist.

This journalistic process, of starting an article with a situation and developing a character within it, is analogous to starting a novel in which Mrs. Brown is the heroine by describing her house and the property laws that govern it.

For example, in Katherine Eban's Self piece, "The Hidden Dangers of Outsourcing Radiology," which is about doctors reading X-rays  from afar and failing to communicate critical information, Eban opened with a compelling story about a character who was the victim of this medical neglect, then described the larger problem.  She started with Mrs. Brown, then described her house.  In fact, though, the author started the story knowing what kind of house she wanted in her story, then searched for a character who could inhabit it. The character she found, rather than driving the story, was someone she finally found at the end of a long search for a suitable subject, Eban told my NYU journalism class.

Not only do journalists use characters, like Mrs. Brown, as props in stories about houses, but they sometimes write the stories in a form that makes them seem like they are stories about Mrs. Brown, when really, the stories could have been about anyone who happened to live in the right house.

I think that a novelist does more justice to the real Mrs. Brown by observing her and making up a story about her than a journalist who wants to write a story about housing laws and decides to use Mrs. Brown in the lede. Even if the journalist quotes Mrs. Brown and writes only facts about Mrs. Brown, that journalist may be able to or even want to express what's most important about Mrs. Brown's character.

Mrs. Brown might not tell a journalist that she's a poor old woman about to sell her property to the domineering man in the carriage next to her. The journalist can observe her mended clothes and the way she seems to recoil in front of this man, but the journalist can't print a story about how this paunch-faced old man intimidates Mrs. Brown without quotes or some kind of proof, which the proud Mrs. Brown and the power-hungry man will not furnish. The journalist can't really tell Mrs. Brown's story. The novelist can - but only by making it up.  

Which way of telling a story is more truthful, describing a character or describing a house? I think both ways of telling stories are valid, but I think that people go through life as characters interacting with other characters whose lives are affected by their circumstances but who deal with them on a small scale, not as brushstrokes in the big picture.