Friday, 18 March 2011

Idiot Tales. The Most Incredible Thing, Pet Shop Boys/Javier de Frutos World Premier, Sadler’s Wells 17/3/11

Stages are mouths into which you can throw the world and their gaping maws will hunger for more. This truth must be haunting the ‘dream’ collaborators of the Pet Shop Boys and choreographer Javier de Frutos today after last night's world premier. They threw every device they could think at this ill-conceived reworking of the Hans Anderson tale - dancers, spoken word, dramatic lighting effects, spinning, whirling scenery yet the Sadler’s Wells stage was left chewing a pea.

Theatrical works live by creating a world, an order into which the action, dance or drama can fit. It doesn’t have to be believable, but it needs logic. Without it the audience is left with the empty spectacle of increasingly futile gestures. Three buxom muses leapt engagingly at our hero as he tried to make the most incredible thing. They were referencing Balanchine’s great ballet, Apollo in their mirrored gestures and mini Grecian togas. But it compared vintage champagne to Thunderbird, making de Frutos’s desperate dance making all the more lame by association with a work of genius.

The evening's doom was flagged up early by the show’s nervous producer asking us to indulge our patience, that this was a world premier and things just might go wrong. These must be the wisest words she’s uttered since taking up this ill-fated project.

It was as if the whole piece lacked a director for it lacked sense. Who with a full-blooded frontal cortex would have agreed to such impressive, but distracting, animation effects (courtesy of BAFTA-winning animator Tal Rosner). It made the frantic leaps of the dancers like mosquitoes beneath a blazing sun.

We left after the second act – the curtain dropped as the cartoon king was thrown spinning across the stage. Behind us two conspicuously empty seats in the centre of Row A of the Circle. It was a low-key, elegant, gesture of disapproval. If only the creators of this debacle could have engaged with these concepts rather than empty bombast they were so determined to nail.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Douglas Gordon's K.364

I was lucky. When I entered the labyrinthine screening halls (there are two wall-sized angled screens showing different angles of the same scene from Douglas Gordon's latest film, K.364) the piece was in the midst of the exuberant first movement of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola (aka K.364, the codified numbering system used to catalogue Mozart's oeuvre). Two Jewish men were doing what they do best - playing their instruments with a gritty immediacy. The intimacy of the camera work with the head of the conductor slipping into view and blurred instrumentalists from the orchestra in the background while her hands danced into shot gave a strange almost slo-mo conter-point to the music's jaunty dotted rhythms.

I've heard the rest of the film dips into pretension with the prolonged train journey taking the musicians from Berlin to Warsaw for the concert I was so enjoying. Train journeys carrying Jewish passengers from West to East have obvious Holocaust-era symbolism. Our two you men talk about their forebears taking a similar route 70 years ago to their deaths, not to make music.

But there are other resonances here too. In 1943 a women-only orchestra was created at Auschwitz concentration camp. The musicians were protected from being gassed or worked to death by their luck at playing an instrument. At one point, a woman called Alma Rose was the conductor of the orchestra, Gustav Mahler's niece.

1941 was the 150 anniversary of Mozart's death. Under Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Propaganda Minister, the first music festival devoted to the Austrian composer was given, book-ended by a Nazi burial ceremony for the composer. Wreaths from Hitler, Goering and the SS were displayed outside Romanesque-Gothic St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna at the festival's close.

Can Jews comfortably play Wagner's music because of his well-known anti-semitism as well as his appropriation by the Nazis? Wagner's music was often played at Nuremberg rallies. Mozart doesn't generate the same ambivalences no matter who is playing him. The librettist of his most important operas, Lorenzo da Ponte, was a Jew and Mozart's enthusiastic membership of the Masons was conveniently air-brushed by the Nazis.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

John Stezaker, Whitechapel Gallery until March 18th

The pleasure of looking at John Stezaker's work is the shiver of seeing something banal made strange. Studio shots of long-dead actors and hand tinted postcards of waterfalls and landscapes are hackneyed and banal. But when Stezaker lays one of these tired images on top of another, or just slices or folds into a photograph, a strange alchemy takes place. Jolted, we see both the material reality of the photo - look it's been chopped up! while still being seduced by the tidal pull of its image.

Like all collage - these pictures play games with our visual perception. While much collage, even going back to Picasso, overlays multiple images in an attempt to make weighty what is ultimately so light, ephemeral and playful - the chance encounter of images and their kaleidoscopic associations. Here is a more controlled simplicity - Stezaker uses only two images at most. His collage is minimalist.

Stezaker isn't only referencing those great collagists Braque and Picasso, but Magritte too (especially the shadow cutout figures at the beginning of the exhibtion), but mostly Dali. What other image comes to mind when looking at Mask XXXV from 2007 than Dali's Paranoiac Visage of 1935. Stazaker's collages aren't just made of layers, they also lay themselves at the feet of Surrealism's greatest master.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Friends indeed. The King's Speech

The unlikely friendship between Lionel Logue and George VI is the real appeal of The King's Speech. The very unlikelihood of a bond between an Antipodean liberal and the stiffest of stiff upper lipped Royal is compelling. It shouldn't work and it almost doesn't. But somehow it does, and beautifully.

For what this film promises us on a deep level is that we too might find someone who will see us who we really are. It's a kind of love story played out through a chaste friendship, but is no less profound and meaningful for that. It's the yearning we have not for a return to our mother or father's embrace but for the companionship of a sibling. One who will play with us always.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Tutu much. Black Swan - on release

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a good girl and good girls do ballet. She trots to class swathed in snow-frosted scarves and the sort of buttoned up pink coats worn by prim 5-year-olds. Nina is a superb ballerina (and credit to Portman for losing 9 kilos and going up on pointe - ballet's unique form of female torture). But does she have the dark passion to take on classical ballet's most demanding role? Odette/Odlie - the Swan Queen and the Black Swan? That so-tired-it-actually-died-5-centuries-ago virgin/whore claptrap.

This is the narrative thrust of this trash-gothic-campy film in which we see NIna thrust and thrash in an onanistic bed-ballet scene after her lusty svengali (Vincent Cassel) tells her to get in touch herself 'down there'. Which is really what this over blown and silly film is about. It's about Natalie Portman's body - scarred, scratched, feathered and fondled. It's also about her nemesis, a flashy dance rival (Mila Kunis) who dives between her thighs like a hungry cat.

The dance scenes are well filmed, although this viewer got giddy from too many spinning cameras. But what really fascinated me was the packed house at Notting Hill's Gate cinema last Sunday night. What were we all thinking we were about to see? A film about ballet? You're more likely to get an audience to watch a test card. We were there to see the cheap pleasures of soft porn dressed up as art-house cinema. We didn't leave disappointed.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Death Becomes Her - Giselle, Royal Ballet, ROH 19/1/11

Deep are the satisfactions to be found in Giselle currently playing at the Royal Opera House until next month. Set designer John Macfarlaine’s pastoral setting for the maid’s cottage in the first act is little more than a rustic clearing on the edge of an engulfing wood. While his Second Act places Giselle’s grave in a post-apocalyptic blasted forest of tumbled trunks and mangled roots. These are the romantically sublime backdrops for ballet’s first tale of tragic love - nature rendered as a diabolical twin to our heart's own darkness.

Last night’s leads - Leanne Benjamin (Giselle) and Edward Watson (Albrecht) – were a couple we’d instantly place together. Which deepens our shock at Albrecht’s deceit – his two-timing of Giselle with another. These are young lovers who belong together making Giselle’s breakdown and death – a frenzy of tumbling hair, head-clasping bowed stillness as compelling as it is understandable.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Genius of Mozart, BBC Radio 3, 1-12 January 2011

Two thoughts strike me listening to back to back Mozart playing now on Radio 3.

My radio is in my bedroom, so I hear the music from the distance of my living room/office and it sounds like there's a party going on back there. A late 18th century house party. Mozart's music is a witty raconteur endlessly keeping his audience chuckling with delight; hia nudging sauciness, mirth and joy. He's irrepressible - impossible to resist. And even when the music turns towards the shadows as it does in the slow movement of the Clarinet Quintet K 581, there is still beauty - an aching melancholy.

My other thought is about Mozart's unsurpassed invention. Take the sonata for two pianos, K448 of 1871 written when he was 25. Like so much classical music this is built on the idea of a theme and its variations. A simple melody is inverted, ornamented, stretched, shrunk and played with before returning to its original form. This is classic sonata form. It is a journey that yo-yos back to its beginning.

Yet the melody is refreshed and renewed upon its return. And this particular melody and journey improves the spatial awareness center of our brains, known as the 'Mozart Effect'. Sufferers of epilepsy had fewer seizures after listening to this sonata, according to the British Epilepsy Organization. So I'm left marveling at Mozart's joyful invention that is also - hurrah! - improving my brain.