Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fandom Redux

Figure skater Kim Yu Na 
Yeow, I hit some kind of nerve with my last post about the difference between sports fans and arts fans. Or maybe it was just because I used a photo of the great quarterback Russell Wilson that so many of you read the post. I was pondering the reason that so many people love sports, relative to arts love. Some of you commented that the reason the arts don't have a larger fan base is, at its roots, financial. Agreed, the arts receive a microscopic percentage of the entertainment dollars spent in this country. Maybe better funding would help build up artistic institutions.

And what about arts literacy? Are we really teaching school kids to not just analyze poetry, but to recognize its inherent beauty, and its importance as a conduit to our emotions? Forget dance education! When I was in elementary school we had square dancing. I don't recall any conversation about historic dance leaders like Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham.

But the recent Winter Olympics got me to thinking about accessibility. Most sports are easy to grasp, right? Football is about scoring touchdowns; ski racing, or track or rowing or cycling, are all about speed. The winner is the first to cross the finish line. Then there are the less transparent sports, like figure skating. Why did a young Russian win the gold medal, when so many thought South Korean champion Kim Yu Na delivered a lovelier and more artful performance? The judging is subjective. In other, triter, words: beauty was in the eye of the beholder.

With art, it's not necessarily about beauty, but about the artistic intent of the work. How important is it that audiences grasp that intent?  Personally, I like to have some idea why I'm listening to or watching something. And often, I really am at a loss. I'm not saying that artists need to be less subtle, or more simplistic. I just have to find a way in somehow, even if it's just a consciousness of my response to something. I'm curious about entry points into art. How important is that at the outset of the artistic process? How important should it be? And would it help develop the arts audience?

Commercial arbiters in cinema, for example, believe the entry points are chase scenes, or gross jokes. Because the goal of commercial film is to make money. But what's the goal of a great painting, or dance, or symphony? The creators were inspired to use their media to say something. How much do we as audience members need to know to understand the artistic message? Or is it necessary at all? Honestly, I don't know the answer to this; I'd love to know what you think.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Art Of Fandom

Seahawks Quarterback Russell Wilson
If you live anywhere near Seattle, hell, anywhere near the Pacific Northwest, you know it was almost impossible to avoid the hype that surrounded the Seattle Seahawks victory over Denver in the recent Superbowl. Impossible to avoid the hype, and nearly impossible to be unmoved by the regional euphoria that set in weeks before the big game. Blue Fridays saw everyone from toddlers to grocery clerks bedecked in Seahawks jerseys, sporting blue and green face paint and the ubiquitous "12" shirts: symbolic of the role of the fan, the 12th man.

12th man-dom transcended race, age, gender and even the stereotypical sports affinity groups. Artists and arts organizations were swept up in the glee. The Seattle Art Museum wagered the loan of artwork with its colleague institution in Denver. Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers donned wee football jerseys to pose with a large flag that sported the Seahawks '12'. I even saw a lovely pair of Seahawks inspired pointe shoes. As a painter friend remarked, "This is like a giant snow day!" And it was.

The effervescent fizz lasted through the victory evening, and a celebratory parade through Seattle's downtown core. The Seahawks rode atop amphibious assault vehicles, smiling and waving at the hundreds of thousands of blue and green bedecked fans who waited hours in atypical cold to greet their idols. Star player Marshawn Lynch had his own wheels. He lounged on the front of this Ride The Duck car, tossing his signature candy, Skittles, to ecstatic fans.

More than two weeks later, the 12th man flags still fly, and some folks surreptitiously sneak peaks at videotaped highlights of the big game, trying to hold that magic tight. But even the finest champagne finally goes flat. And cracks in the civic joy have started to appear. "It was just a football game," grumble some curmudgeons. More often you'll hear understandably jealous folks complain "You'd never see half a million people in the streets to celebrate art." Interesting point, that last one.

In fact, by all accounts, artists have enticed adoring throngs. Charles Dickens readings were massively popular. Singer Jenny Lind, dancer Anna Pavlova: household names during the height of their popularity, spoken of with the same reverence Seahawks fans utter the names Marshawn Lynch or Russell Wilson.
These days commercially successful artists enjoy the same kind of visible fame, the same passion, but what about the so-called fine arts? What's changed?
Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Concerto Barocco", photo by Lindsay Thomas courtesy PNB

I asked my hairstylist that question. He told me he thinks the gatekeepers make art "boring." Those gatekeepers include everybody from the teachers who tell their students how to "analyze" a poem, as well as curators who write dense and complex captions for their museum shows, to media types like me, who are on a constant search for the new, edgy artists we can elevate as the next "big thing." We write about these "finds" with little context or connection to artistic traditions we may not even understand ourselves.

A very wise arts administrator told me a few years ago why she thought football attracts legions where opera or ballet can't. "We grow up with football," she explained. Kids play it when they're little, maybe continue in high school or college, where they can watch it with friends on a sunny autumn day, or watch it every Sunday or Monday on television. Football, in America, is a life long experience. Art, not so much.

Little kids sing and dance with abandon. They paint pictures, tell stories, make theater that we call "pretend." Then, somebody tells them they're using the wrong color for the sky, or that their bodies are too fat or the wrong color to continue dancing. With the exception of PBS, there are no regular broadcasts of artistic performances. Even commercially successful musical theater barely gets a nod. How can you become an arts fan akin to a sports fan if you don't have ready exposure to art?
Cast members, ACT Theatre production of "The Ramayana", photo courtesy ACT

That's one reason why I love flash mobs: those ditzy crowds that dance in train stations or shopping malls, musicians who haul their instruments out onto the streets or down into subway stations. The art is right in front of us, unavoidable and it always draws an appreciative crowd. And really, when you think about it, how different is Seahawks coach Pete Carroll from Seattle Symphony maestro Ludovic Morlot? Both men are charged with forging a team out of a disparate group of individuals. Carroll's goal is to get these men to move in tandem, to anticipate each other's moves, to make touchdowns. Morlot also must coordinate his troops, putting them in synch with one another and the composition they're performing. And I've been at symphony performances that elicit as much exuberant glee as any football game.
Zoey-Juniper's "A Crack in Everything", photo courtesy On The Boards

Loving art and loving sports are not mutually exclusive activities. And fans of each react in similar ways. I remember a blustery late autumn day in 1991. Thousands of people waiting in the rain and wind for their chance to come into the new downtown Seattle Art Museum for the very first time. They were as patient as the thousands who waited on a chilly February morning to celebrate the Seahawks. Next football season, tens of thousands will go to Century Link field. Thousands will also flock to McCaw Hall to see Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Nutcracker." It's not an either/or choice. Both sports and arts can enrich our lives.
But I confess, it would be great to have Monday Night Ballet, or Sunday Night Symphony. Where can I submit my resume to be the first play-by-play arts color commentator?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Shakeups At Pacific Northwest Ballet

Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers in the Stowell/Sendak "Nutcracker" photo by Angela Sterling
The rumors are true. Pacific Northwest Ballet will say farewell to its long-running production of "Nutcracker" this year. Choreographed by former PNB Artistic Director Kent Stowell and designed by the late Maurice Sendak, "Nutcracker" will have a final run over the 2014 holiday season. PNB plans to replace it in 2015 with a new production of George Balanchine's Nutcracker, with sets and costumes by Ian Falconer.

The Stowell/Sendak production has delighted Seattle area audiences for decades. PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal performed in the Balanchine version during his days at New York City Ballet, Balanchine's company. We'll find out how Northwest audiences respond to the swap.

In other PNB news, last month the company promoted five dancers: Margaret Mullin, Elizabeth Murphy and William Yin-Lee move from the corps de ballet to soloist positions. Laura Tisserand and Lindsi Dec were promoted to principal dancer. Both of these tall, dark haired women are lovely performers, but I'm especially excited to see Lindsi Dec recognized for her work. In the past five years, Dec has exploded from the corps de ballet. She is elegant and precise, passionate and stately. It's delicious fun to watch her perform with her husband, Karel Cruz. Can you say sizzle?
Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancers Lindsi Dec and Laura Tisserand in Balanchine's "Concerto Barocco".
Photo by Angela Sterling
And finally, PNB's 2014-15 season includes an all-William Forsythe program. It's called "The Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe." On that March 2015 bill: "In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated," long part of the PNB repertoire, plus two local premiers: the 1996 dance "The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude" and "New Suite," a collection of duets that include "Slingerland Pas de Deux" and the pas de deux from "New Sleep", choreographed for San Francisco ballet in 1987.
Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancers Jonathan Porretta and Carrie Imler in William Forsythe's "In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated." Photo by Angela Sterling

During his tenure in Seattle, PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal has tried to balance productions of the classical ballets like "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty" and "Coppelia" with presentations of contemporary work by Forsythe, Crystal Pite, and Victor Quijada. Given that his company is the largest in the region, Boal bears the responsibility to both preserve the ballet tradition and to help push it forward. When it comes to new work, that's exciting for audiences. When it comes to retiring a beloved tradition like the Stowell/Sendak "Nutcracker," is Boal inviting the wrath of that same audience? We'll have to wait and see.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Being Artful

Ezra Dickinson in downtown Seattle, performing "Mother for you I made this" photo@Tim Summers
Not too long ago, my friend and fellow arts writer Rosie Gaynor invited a group of her colleagues to contribute our favorite dance performances of 2013 for a "yearbook" she's creating.

Choosing favorites was a difficult task for me, partly because I can't remember everything I saw last year. Even if I remember a dance, often I have a hard time placing the date of the performance. Was it 2012? 2013? Could have been five years ago. More than a faulty memory, I tend to be very impulsive when somebody asks me to name my favorite anything. Favorite dance performances? When Rosie asked, three leapt to mind: Ezra Dickinson's poignant "Mother, for you I made this," Andrew Bartee's performance of "L'Effleure," a solo created in 2010 by Anabel Lopez Ochoa and included in Whim W'him's June program, and last, but certainly not least, Crystal Pite's monumental "Emergence," staged in November by Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Ever since I submitted my choices, I've been contemplating not only why I landed on these three dances, but what they have in common. Superficially, that's an easy question to answer. All three were performed by technically excellent dancers who committed themselves fully to the work. Beyond that, though, these dances communicated something, at least to me. None of them is a straight-ahead narrative. But each conveyed emotion and ideas skillfully and artfully.
Ezra Dickinson's "Mother for you I made this", photo @ Nate Watters
If you didn't have the opportunity to see these three performances, let me re-cap briefly. I'll start with the first of the three: Ezra Dickinson's site-specific solo. "Mother for you I made this" was inspired by Dickinson's mentally ill mother. At one time, she was homeless in downtown Seattle, occasionally hanging out near the Greyhound Bus Station. And that's where Dickinson began his performance. A limited audience followed him along the streets, listening to a recorded soundtrack through individual headphone sets and radio receivers.

Ezra Dickinson is one of those dancers you see in different performances around town. Classically trained at Pacific Northwest Ballet, Dickinson has performed with Seattle Dance Project (founded by former PNB dancers). He also has created work for his own group, the Offshore Project. He's an excellent dancer, seemingly able to bend his body like Gumby into any position.

With "Mother...," Dickinson has created a transcendent work. Months later, I still remember vividly both the experience of following him along the streets, and the surge of emotion that overcame me when the dance ended.
Andrew Bartee in "L'Effleure", photo @ Bamberg Fine Art courtesy Whim W'him
Emotion was at the heart of Andrew Bartee's performance of "L'Effleure." I've known Bartee since his days as a PNB Professional Division student. Bartee is very interested in contemporary work, and he's performed with his former colleague Olivier Wevers' company Whim W'him almost since that troupe formed in 2009. This month he teams up with choreographer Kate Wallich at Velocity Dance Center for "Super Eagle."

Bartee is a lanky redhead with extremely long limbs. In "L'Effleure," he performs shirtless with tight black pants, a red rose clenched between his teeth. Anabel Lopez Ochoa created the piece for Rubinald Pronk, who performed it at Jacob's Pillow in 2010. The choreographer reworked it for Bartee, and the young dancer truly possessed this melancholy abstraction. Set to music by Vivaldi, the solo feels like an elegy, demanding muscular precision from its performer, along with the ability to wordlessly convey all the emotions that accompany loss and remembrance. Bartee stunned the Whim W'him audience with his full commitment to the work and with his level of execution. I saw it not long after Ezra Dickinson's solo. Despite the differences in tone and style, they both impressed me greatly.

I've already raved endlessly about Crystal Pite and "Emergence" at PNB last November. All I need to add here is that I've seen four of Pite's dances in Seattle, and I'm invariably impressed by how she successfully weaves together the choreography, music, and visual design with her intellectual curiosity. The final product is far greater than the sum of those components. Pite is interested in the aesthetics of her creation, but she's also exploring ideas; she pushes her audience to think as well as to feel. What could be more artful than that?
Pacfic Northwest Ballet company members in "Emergence" by Crystal Pite. Photo courtesy PNB

I sometimes joke that Crystal Pite may have ruined things for other Seattle-area performers. Her work sets such a high bar, one I now use to measure everything I see. I expect technical competence, at a minimum. But I hope for beauty combined with something more, something that touches my heart and my mind.
Gustave Flaubert wrote in his great novel "Madame Bovary":  "Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars."
It's something I think every artist strives for, but very few achieve. These three 2013 performances, for me, were transcendent. I long for equal pleasures in 2014.