Ballet in Russia, a quintessential splurge

Even though my Russian visa still hasn’t been officially issued — it’s in the tortured, Kafkaesque pipeline, though they have said (brusquely) that it should ship in two days — I went ahead and bought a ticket for the ballet at the famous, chandelier-encrusted Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.

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Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

I’ve been to the ballet once in my life — Nijinsky and Stravinsky’s clashing “Rite of Spring” in San Francisco, eons ago. Granularly, I know next to nothing about the art form, though my appreciation for it is lavish. I think Misty Copeland is recklessly awesome. (I think the Natalie Portman movie “Black Swan” is curdlingly rotten.)

Misty Copeland in the title role, American Ballet Theatre

Misty Copeland in the title role of “The Firebird,” American Ballet Theatre

The mid-October matinee is for Stravinsky’s 1910 “The Firebird,” a Technicolor Russian fairytale told in two “scenes,” which runs a zippy 50 minutes. The ballet, with choreography by Michel Fokine, was Stravinsky’s breakthrough as a composer, followed famously by “Petrushka” and the “Rite of Spring.” My ticket in the Dress Circle was a doable $48.

I’ve been reading up on the performance, and came across choreographer Fokine’s fascinating notes:

“When staging the dances I used three principles that are utterly different in terms of character and technique in this ballet.

“I created the evil kingdom using grotesque, angular and sometimes freakish and sometimes amusing movements. The monsters moved on all fours, jumped like frogs, did different ‘tricks’ with their legs, sitting and lying on the stage, their hands like fish fins, at times under the elbows, at times under the ears, the arms were entwined, they moved from one side to the other, squatting and so on, in a word they did everything that twenty years later began to be known as modern dance and what at the time seemed to me to be the most suitable means of expressing a nightmare, horror and ugliness. Virtuoso leaps and frivolity were also used.”

This sounds splendidly transporting. Which is precisely why I travel. Expect a vivid report next month. And if anyone has opinions or comments about this ballet or St. Petersburg or what have you, please share. Thanks.

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Coruscating culture quotations of the day

These are a few quotes about the arts that I’ve carried around for a while. I believe they’re intellectual gold:

On art:

“Art, love and God — they’re dumb words, and probably the dumbest is art. I don’t know what it is, art. But I believe in it, so far.” — Damien Hirst

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 “The last hope is that art may transmute the disappointments of life into something more radiant and stable; the lasting bitterness is that although art may guide ‘what pangs there be/Into a bearable choreography,’ it does not repair the original life-rift.” — Helen Vendler, with excerpts from poet James Merrill

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On theater and art:

“The new generation of theatergoers are suburban know-nothings dumbed down to the point of expecting art to be some kind of inclusive, fraudulently life-affirming group-grope, instead of what it is: arrogant, autocratic, and potentially monstrous!” — David Hirson, “Wrong Mountain”

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On acting:

“If you intend to follow the truth you feel in yourself — to follow your common sense, and force your will to serve you in the quest for discipline and simplicity — you will subject  yourself to profound despair, loneliness, and constant self-doubt. And if you persevere, the Theatre, which you are learning to serve, will grace you, now and again, with the greatest exhilaration it is possible to know.” — David Mamet

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On writing:

“One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment.” — Hart Crane

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“What writers hear when they are trying to write is something more like singing than like speaking. Inside your head, you’re yakking away to yourself all the time. Getting that voice down on paper is a depressing experience. When you write, you’re trying to transpose what you’re thinking into something that is less like an annoying drone and more like a piece of music.” — Louis Menand

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“More than ever, critical authority comes from the power of the critic’s prose, the force and clarity of her language; it is in the art of writing itself that information and knowledge are carried, in the sentences themselves that literature is preserved. The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.” — Katie Roiphe

An easy, breezy interview with the late Sam Shepard

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Sam Shepard, who died last week of Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 73, was a consummate actor, all crinkled deep-West cool, and a groundbreaking, Pulitzer-winning playwright. He was also hell of a good sport during my interview with him in Austin, Texas, in 2006. He laughed off my blind spots, stuck with me, and seemed to have a good time. But who knows? Shepard was also something of a mystery man, solo, soulful, if often smiling.

In a small tribute to the artist, here is our interview:

Sam Shepard laughs more than you’d think he would, considering the actor-playwright’s sun-crisped cowboy persona, which dons the dusty, romantic despair of a desert loner.

Namely, Shepard laughs at me. He has a great dry chuckle that heh-heh-hehs whenever I demonstrate my sweeping ignorance of things cow, horse, rope and ranch. This happens often.

Best remembered as Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff,” Shepard was in Austin to screen his film “Don’t Come Knocking” during South by Southwest. He was disappointed that the movie wasn’t playing at the grand Paramount Theatre.

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it,” he says in a soft drawl. “That beautiful big theater.

“Instead,” he laughs, “it’s in some stockyard theater.” (It screened at the Alamo South.)

Shepard co-wrote “Don’t Come Knocking” with director Wim Wenders, their second collaboration since “Paris, Texas” in 1984. Shepard stars in the film with longtime partner Jessica Lange.

Tall, lean, with striking blue eyes, Shepard, 62, cuts a suave figure in a black leather blazer, blue jeans and fancy cowboy boots. He sits down in the Four Seasons hotel bar and orders iced tea. He has written dozens of plays, including “Fool for Love” and “True West,” and acted in more than 40 films.

One of those films is Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.” Shepard was having dinner with Malick and Wenders that night. I ask if I can come. He just laughs.

Q: Yesterday I interviewed John C. Reilly. He says hi. Do you have any words about him?

SS: He’s here? I didn’t see him. He’s a remarkable actor. We had a lot of good fun doing “True West” together (in 2000 on Broadway, with Philip Seymour Hoffman). It was unique in that he and Philip would switch roles every two nights. The transformations were amazing. Philip just won the Academy Award, bless his heart.

Q: How does “Don’t Come Knocking” fit into your body of work? It’s set in a familiar world of yours with a familiar character, but it’s steeped in valediction and redemption much like Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.”

SS: I really don’t think about any of my work like that. I don’t know how to categorize it. I just go instinctively with certain ideas and allow those ideas to play themselves out. Because I’m the same person, obviously there’s going to be similarities with what’s done before. But if anything, Wim and I were trying to avoid similarities to “Paris, Texas.”

Q: Yet there are thematic similarities between the two films.

SS: Of course there are. The main characters share the same sort of alienation and strandedness and remoteness.

Q: Is that where the wide-open settings come into play, as metaphors for the characters’ predicament?

SS: Yes. It’s interesting to set characters like that against an overwhelming landscape, almost like he’s lost in the ocean.

Q: What kind of boots are those?

SS: Leddy.

Q: Leddy? Is that a famous brand?

SS: Yeah, man! Where you from? (Laughs) These are made in Fort Worth. They’re belly ostrich.

Q: That’s ostrich? I notice your belt buckle’s kind of elaborate, too.

SS: I have cutting horses. I won this.

Q: You won that? It’s like a trophy?

SS: Yeah. WHERE are you from?

Q: Can you tell me what cutting is?

SS: It’s an activity with quarter horses where you go in and separate cattle and keep the calf from getting back into the herd. It’s an old art form.

Q: You do that?

SS: Yes.

Q: The buckle says you won it in 2003. Is it gold, some valuable item?

SS: It’s Montana silver.

Q: What’s next for you?

SS: I’m in the middle of a play right now.

Q: One of yours that’s currently being staged or a new one you’re writing?

SS: I’m writing a play. I’m a playwright.

Q: I know. (He laughs.) Your (Pulitzer-winning) play “Buried Child” is being staged right now.

SS: It’s a workshop production that I didn’t even know about. And someone’s doing “The Late Henry Moss.” And I’m acting in a new film in Shreveport. You follow horse racing at all? Probably not. There was a famous filly called Ruffian in the ’70s, an extraordinary horse. Every time she ran she broke a track record. She died in a match race against a colt, snapped her leg. I’m playing her trainer.

Q: Sounds perfect for you. Who’s directing?

SS: A guy from Quebec. I don’t really know his name. (Laughs) A French guy.