Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Filling the God-shaped hole at the School of Life

I learnt How to Fill the God Shaped Hole at the School of Life last week. The School is ploughing an erudite furrow in the rich intellectual alluvium of Bloomsbury. This is a perfect location as this corner of the capital thrums with the joy of book learning, pondering and cogitating like an auto-didactic librarian on speed. Several colleges of London University are a book toss away.

The School also looks like a bookshop so it’s surprising to walk down to its trompe l’oeil lecture room whose monochrome murals imply a messy, book-filled lounge looking out onto a garden more Hampstead than Holborn. We were fed and watered upstairs first with wine and snacks – the tuck shop before the school bell.

I sat next to Steve who’d had a spiritual revelation the previous week so he thought perhaps his god-shaped hole didn’t need much filling. Others, ‘a flurry of radio 4 listeners’ as someone said, were bright, middle class and mostly female. Many I’m sure were familiar with the residents of Ambridge, but luckily more besides. Several had been to School of Life lectures and sermons before. Students ranged between mid twenties and late forties. One woman was in her sixties.

Our lecturer was Mark Brickman a documentary film maker and all-out renaissance man (he takes several classes at the school). We’d been given homework via email a few days before – exercises in thinking about our spiritual pasts.

Referencing philosophy, cultural history, psychology and anthropology, Brickman took us whistle stop tour of spiritual hole filling. We had breaks to reflect and ruminate like masticating judges on Master Chef. Barely had we sniffed existential philosophy then we were nibbling a ripe slice of St. Augustine, and knocking back Buddhist meditation with a chaser of nihilism. The evening was more running buffet than set menu. Usefully, our input and personal throughts were an important structure for the evening. We kicked off early evening and had finished by 9.30pm.

In a break Steve explained how he was using meditation to assist his dealings as a day trader – perfectly personifying the current trend for all things spiritual while not missing the chance to earn some lucre. ‘It’s not about the money,’ he said, ‘the money is a sign that you’re winning.’

For me, I hadn’t realized I was filling my god-shaped hole with such useful wadding as love, friendship, gift giving and growing strawberries. Useful to be reminded, though.

Evening lectures at the School of Life cost £30

Monday, 14 June 2010

3 Times Table, Triple Bill Royal Opera House 10/6/10

The current Royal ballet triple bill, Chroma, Tryst and Symphony in C runs counter-clockwise. This is wise. Balanchine's paean to classical form - its spectacle of spins, militarily precise corps de ballet and here with Sarah Lamb partnered by Steven McRae (standing in for Ivan Putrov). She was an exotic ingenue at her coming out ball, leaving me giddy and exulted. It's champagne cocktails on an empty stomach. If we'd begun the evening with this, we'd have ended up feeling deflated no matter what came next.

The Royal's embrace and mastery of Balanchine (this was their 51st performance of Symphony) is now total. Paris Opera Ballets Jewels revived last November (with ecstatic sets and costumes by Christian Lacroix) surpasses the Royal for glamour, but our home team's lyrical and technical mastery of the Russian master's 'pure dance' is also world class. It can even outshine New York City Ballet's more thrusting, athletic approach. When will more Balanchines become core repertoire for the Royal? What about an evening of all Stravinsky ballets? Apollo is already in the rep. Why isn't the violin concerto in there too?

Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon are choreographers have Janus-like responses to the body. McGregor is like a schoolboy holding a magfnifying glass and wondering what happens when you pull, contort or otherwise disturb the balance of dancers spiderish limbs. His movements are deliberately ugly and off kilter yet end up stressing physical perfection when each throw of the hips or awkward head angle resolves itself. It's like Kate Moss gurning followed by her dimpled smile. With nude costumes, a compulsive orchestrated score by Jack White III, Chroma is face-pinching a crowd pleaser.

Tryst should be an even bigger hit. Wheeldon's choreographic language is no dissection of classical technique. It is the beauty and unexpectedness of his positioning of groups, the coming together and parting of couples and his creative collaborations which keep his work up-to-date. Tryste, however, is played out to James MacMillan's discordant, repetitive and sometimes harsh score which is only leavened in the later sections.

Melissa Hamilton's solo followed by her pas de deux with Eric Underwood was pure Wheeldon magic. She danced alone into statuesque arabesques on a back lit stage while Underwood prowled the outer stage like a hungry shadow. Ballet has no more beautiful image of what? Ennui, alienation, loneliness? Whatever, it was poetry manifest. A line from Satre's Being and Nothingness made flesh.

This is the couple to watch.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Darkness visible, Come, Been and Gone, Michael Clark Co. Barbican 9/6/10

Dancers in metallic orange cat suits, faces pressing to the floor, hips cocked, triangulated legs in static raises as David Bowie’s thrashing guitar rains down the ear-bleedingly loud final chord of The Jean Genie. Light cuts. And the audience, cheering, exuberantly applauds the end of Come, Been and Gone, Michael Clark’s newest work in front of a packed out Barbican last night. The dancers take their curtain calls. Clark himself is in the wings.

The punk ballet master’s absence is a reminder of the darkness we’d just seen before this explosive finale. Dancer Kate Coyne had only minutes before contorted, writhed and staggered in a remarkable body suit pierced with bouncing syringes accompanied by The Velvet Underground’s Heroin.

Clark’s own wrestling with drug addiction is well known. Were we watching biography? If so, Clark is in a much brighter place now, exuberantly reconnecting to his Puck-like self from the mid1980s. His own brief legato presence was muted and shadow-like. Yet Simon Williams and Nathan Cornwall with Clark’s jerky, juddering, stiff-armed choreography are baton bearers of his younger electrifying self.

In the row behind me were Jarvis Cocker, DJs Princess Julia and Jeffrey Hinton and Pop magazine editor, Ashley Heath. Clark’s showmanship and membership of the demimonde have always graced his shows with the best ballet audience in town. And if the music and dancing didn’t grab you urgently enough, those were Peter Doig paintings suspended over the screen at the back of the stage.