Saturday, October 16, 2010

Jan Gossart, Khubilai Khan at the Met Museum

After the show Natasha and I took the M4 bus to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is open until 8:45 pm on Saturdays, and saw two special exhibitions currently on view.

Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart's Renaissance

The first major exhibition in forty-five years devoted to the Burgundian Netherlandish artist Jan Gossart (ca. 1478-1532) brings together Gossart's paintings, drawings, and prints and places them in the context of the art and artists that influenced his transformation from Late Gothic Mannerism to the new Renaissance mode. Gossart was among the first northern artists to travel to Rome to make copies after antique sculpture and introduce historical and mythological subjects with erotic nude figures into the mainstream of northern painting. Most often credited with successfully assimilating Italian Renaissance style into northern European art of the early sixteenth century, he is the pivotal Old Master who changed the course of Flemish art from the Medieval craft tradition of its founder, Jan van Eyck (ca. 1380/90–1441), and charted new territory that eventually led to the great age of Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640).

Jan Gossart (Netherlandish, ca. 1478–1532)
Virgin and Child, ca. 1525
The Art Institute of Chicago
Jan Gossart (Netherlandish, ca. 1478–1532)
Christ on the Cold Stone,
ca. 1530
Real Colegio del Corpus Christi, Valencia
Jan Gossart (Netherlandish, ca. 1478–1532)
Portrait of a Man (Charles of Burgundy?),
ca. 1528–30
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie
Jan Gossart (Netherlandish, ca. 1478–1532)
Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin,
ca. 1520–22
Kunsthistorisches Museum,
Gemäldegalerie, Vienna

Jan Gossart (Netherlandish, ca. 1478–1532)
The Deësis (Virgin Mary, Christ Blessing, and Saint John the Baptist,
ca. 1525–30
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Jan Gossart (Netherlandish, ca. 1478–1532)
Portrait of an Old Couple, ca. 1525–30
The National Gallery, London

Open until January 17, 2011

The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty

Civil official
Yuan dynasty (1271–1368)
Beijing Art Museum
of Stone Carvings, China
Khubilai Khan as the First Yuan Emperor, Shizu
Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), China
National Palace Museum, Taiwan
Military official
Yuan dynasty (1271–1368)
Beijing Art Museum
of Stone Carvings, China
This exhibition covers the period from 1215, the year of Khubilai's birth, to 1368, the year of the fall of the Yuan dynasty in China founded by Khubilai Khan, and features every art form, including paintings, sculpture, gold and silver, textiles, ceramics, lacquer, and other decorative arts, religious and secular. The exhibition highlights new art forms and styles generated in China as a result of the unification of China under the Yuan dynasty and the massive influx of craftsmen from all over the vast Mongol Empire—with reverberations in Italian art of the fourteenth century.
Interestingly enough,
When the Mongols first entered China in the early thirteenth century, Chan (Zen) was the most prominent of the several forms of Buddhism practiced in China, but under Khubilai Khan, the imperial house converted to Esoteric Buddhism, which had been brought to China by Tibetan lamas (emphasis mine—A.S.). The consequent influence of the Nepali-Tibetan (or, more broadly, Indo-Himalayan) tradition on Buddhist art at the imperial court was transformative; on view in the exhibition are several bronze sculptures that are representative of this new, hybrid style. Also on view are objects that were used during elaborate Esoteric rituals, among them painted mandalas and sculptures of terrifying protective deities.

Outside the imperial court, Chan Buddhism still held sway, especially among the educated classes. Chan emphasized meditation and mindfulness in all activities as the means to achieve enlightenment. The exhibition includes paintings by and portraits of several Chan monks, including the famous Chan master Zhongfen Mingben (1263–1323). Other works on view were produced in North and South China before the Mongol conquest and reunification. These include paintings and sculptures associated with the Pure Land tradition, whose adherents were devotees of the celestial Buddha Amitabha. Also noteworthy is the imagery shared between multiple Buddhist practices, including manifestations of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin) and representations of the guardians known as arhats, or luohans.


Mahakala of the Tent
Late 13th–early 14th century, Tibet
The Kronos Collections
Bowl with Eight Buddhist Treasures
and the Tibetan Syllable “Hum”

Yuan dynasty (1271–1368)
Shanghai Museum, China
Arhat (Luohan)
mid-14th century
Yuan dynasty (1271–1368)
Northern China
Victoria and Albert Museum
Mandala of Yamantaka-Vajrabhairava
ca. 1330–32
Yuan dynasty (1271–1368)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Open until January 2, 2011

I may be wrong but it seems that ever since Philippe de Montebello retired, the exhibitions at the Met have become less groundbreaking.

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake at New York City Center

   Stop whatever you're doing, drop everything, go to New York, and see Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake at the New York City Center. I heard of this production 15 years ago, when it first appeared in the UK, and then again in 1999, when it took several Tony awards on Broadway, but never had a chance to see it. As luck would have it, while I was thinking whether I should buy a ticket and go to New York, my friend Natasha who lives in the area got an email from the City Center with an offer of a discount for selected performances. We bought tickets for the Saturday, October 16th, 2 pm matinee, with an additional benefit of a post-performance talk-back with Matthew Bourne.

I knew very little about the show and didn't quite know what to expect. I read that the swans were cast as an all-male troupe but I wasn't sure if Bourne's dance company was an all-male company (it is not) or what his choreographic style was (it is modern dance).
I was certainly not prepared for the frontal assault on all my senses and emotions that followed; what unfurled before my eyes was nothing short of a revelation: I was struck by the strength of the concept; the novelty and cohesion of the choreography; the perfect synthesis of music, dance, and action; and the stunning costume and lighting design.

While the music is that of the original Tchaikovsky's ballet, the plot is totally reinvented. Two basic ideas form its foundation: (1) the main character (Prince) is someone who is trapped into living a life he loathes—life governed by duty, formality, and etiquette, who cannot be who he wants to be, who yearns for love, affection, and touch he cannot get from anyone around him, least of all from his mother, the Queen; and (2) his desire to free himself from the strictures of society and convention, to be independent, wild, and—at the same time—loved and accepted, is personified by an image of a fierce, strong, beautiful, and menacing creature—the Swan. Since the Swan is Prince's alter ego, it absolutely makes sense that swans are danced by males.

So, should this production be dismissed as “a gay Swan Lake?” While the homoerotic undercurrent is undeniably there, the concept is, actually, more ambiguous and rich: in the original Swan Lake, the Prince is in love with a girl turned into a white swan by an evil wizard (the girl, the white swan, and its evil/black doppelganger are all danced by the same ballerina). In the Burne's story, the Prince is in love with a swan that embodies his own idea of himself, someone he wish he could be, and the swan is, naturally, danced by a male dancer. The white swan never turns into a man (the evil/black doppelganger, the Stranger, is a man though), which makes the story resemble the one of Narcissus—if, that is, the image the doomed youth saw in the lake and fell in love with was not his true reflection but rather what he always wanted to be but could not. This subtle conceptual shift from “a boy loves a girl that turns into a swan” to “a boy loves a swan that represents his enhanced self-image” does not make this a story about bestiality nor does it detract from the tantalizing tensions of male-male pas-de-deux but it does offer an interpretation of Burne's piece as something much more nuanced than that of “a gay Swan Lake,” even though it is perfectly legitimate to read it as a metaphor of repressed and awakening sexuality, and the tragic consequences of pursuing your dream. It seems to me, however, that the tragedy of not being able to be true to himself is a broader one, encompassing a failed quest to find love, affection, and the meaning of life.

Be it as it may, one of the appealing qualities of the Burne's work is, indeed, its ambiguity and openness to a multitude of interpretations. Who is the Stranger, the villain that brings about Prince's breakdown? Is he Mr. Hyde to the White Swan's Dr. Jekyll, the dark side of Prince's personality? Where does the last act take place: in an asylum? in Prince's bedroom? in his imagination? Why do the swans turn against and murder their leader: because he wants to save the Prince even though he betrayed him with the Stranger? Or, since the Swan is Prince's self-image, is it Prince killing himself, having realized that his dream of breaking away from the life of convention and achieving freedom and love is unattainable? A lot is left to your imagination.

Image: Andrea Mohin for The New York Times
It is quite astonishing that in this day and age someone has been able to invent, develop, and successfully deploy an entirely new choreographic language. Bourne has a keen observer's eye: he spent many hours watching real swans and devised movements and gestures suggesting that these birds are menacing, aggressive, unfriendly, fiercely territorial, and even clumsy when are out of their element—water. He combined those reality-based steps and gestures with reminiscences of the classic Swan Lake choreography by Petipa-Ivanov to the mesmerizing effect. The Bourne's swans, powerful half-birds/half-males, in their now iconic feathery britches, bring to mind nothing more than Nijinsky's fawn. And here lies another creative tension: unlike in the classic version, the swans choreography is modern dance: there are no pointe shoes, they execute their steps barefoot.

Another amazing thing that just works choreographically is a scene at a seedy bar, where number after number is danced to the Tchaikovsky music, and the fit is perfect. Who could've thought… As an aside, the music tempi are pretty fast: according to Mr. Bourne's comment at the post-performance discussion, the original Tchaikovsky's tempi have over the years become slower and slower, and he tried to restore the original speed.

It just so happened that I saw the Trocks a few days ago, and as part of their program they performed the second act of Swan Lake (!) Both troupes, I am sure, share love for classical ballet; yet, in many ways, the two companies are polar opposites: with Trocks, male dancers make fun of the ballet conventions by mastering and then exaggerating the ballerinas' techniques, dancing en pointe, wearing tutus, etc. In Bourne's production, even though there is plenty of humor elsewhere, the swan scenes are, with one exception, serious; and the dance technique is thoroughly modern.

Indeed, there is plenty of humor in the Bourne's production. He is quite clever that way: the first three scenes, The Prince's Bedroom, The Palace, and An Opera House are full of comic moments, and seeing the poor Prince endure the boring rituals of royal court creates a bond of sympathy between him and the audience, so that when the time comes for his trials and tribulations we are ready to empathize with him. Some in-jokes draw upon one's knowledge of the original ballet: as every fan of the Swan Lake knows, the Dance of the Little Swans is always preceded by the clip-clop of pointe shoes when the ballerinas run from the wings to the center stage to assume their positions before the dance starts. Bourne, hilariously, has his Little Swans deliberately stomp their bare feet for quite a while before beginning their dance! Undoubtedly, there are many funny moments that allude to the West End/Broadway shows Bourne grew up watching but I couldn't appreciate them since I don't know pop culture at all.

What I could see, however, was clever incorporation of self-referential devices, cinematographic influences, and artistic allusions. In An Opera House scene, what the audience sees at the corner of the stage is the theater box with the protagonists watching the spoof classical ballet—which takes place in its own “theater” at the center of the stage! That mock ballet, by the way, is the only instance where the classic ballet technique is used and made fun of, a-la Trocks. The nightmarish last act shows influences of Hitchcock: the shadows bring to mind Psycho, while the swans emerging from the walls and clawing their way through the pillows are reminiscent of The Birds. The final tableau of the Swan holding the young Prince in his arms high above the Queen discovering his dead body on the bed is especially poignant: the Swan's pose of Pietà, a figure of infinite sorrow and compassion cradling the dead body of the son, is a reproach to Prince's real mother whose inability to show him love and affection was one of the things that drove him to insanity and death.

So, you may ask, why should anyone see a 15-year-old production? Especially if you saw it back then or watched a 1996 DVD?
Much has changed since then: for this run Bourne has significantly revised and tightened his choreography, toned down the comedy, beefed up dramatic tension, and de-emphasized dated references to Diana-Charles-Camilla-Fergie scandals. Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake has become a modern classic, and a whole generation of dancers grew up studying it and watching Billy Elliott. Some of them are now with the company. At the post-performance discussion, Mr. Bourne relayed that he was sent an original script for the film, and in its final scene Billy was shown in the leading role in some classical ballet. Mr. Bourne indicated that he liked the script but not the ending: since in the traditional ballet the leading males are relegated to supporting ballerinas, it was not really a very inspiring finale. Well, as we know, at the end of the film Billy is about to leap on stage as the Swan and Mr. Bourne's troupe New Adventures has acquired a permanent phantom member :)    
The work has matured and bears little resemblance to the earlier version; importantly, there is no DVD for this production. As the poster at the New York City Center proclaims, “SEE IT! Or live to regret it.”

In the production I saw, Dominic North was Prince; and Richard Winsor, the lead Swan and the Stranger.

Continues through November 7, 2010, at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, (212) 581-1212,

Thursday, October 14, 2010

TruthBeauty: Pictorialism & the Photograph as Art, 1845–1945 at the Phillips

One evening after work I was waiting for a train at the Dupont Circle station, and a billboard advertising an upcoming exhibition at The Phillips Collection caught my eye: TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845–1945. As a member of The Phillips, I enjoy free admission to special exhibitions and events, and can also bring a friend or two. On Thursdays the museum is open until 8:30pm, so I invited Wanchuk and Sam to join me this evening for a lecture and the show itself.
The speaker was Dr. Alison Nordström who created and curated the original TruthBeauty exhibition when it first opened at the George Eastman House in 2009. She also edited a critically acclaimed book by the same tile as the exhibition. “It was the Pictorialists' core assertion that photography could be a vehicle for personal expression—rather than merely a factual description of the world around us—that is now widely accepted despite the changes in style and philosophy that have characterized the medium through its subsequent phases,” wrote Nordström, along with Eastman House archivist David Soures Wooters, in the book's essay “Crafting the Art of the Photograph.”
Dr. Nordström's talk was great: engaging, informative, and featuring lots of photographs. Pictorialist movement sought to elevate photography from a merely mechanical tool documenting reality to an art form equal to painting and drawing. She talked a great deal about sophisticated photographic printing processes employed by Pictorialists to achieve the desired artistic effect, and she concluded by tracing fascinating connections between Japanese and European art: Pictorialists were clearly influenced by Ukiyo-e woodcuts and paintings—but their work, in turn, influenced the art of photography in Japan.
The exhibition comprises more than 100 amazing photographs drawn solely from the George Eastman House collection and features works of both celebrated photographers, such as Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and lesser known ones, such as Russian-born Elias Goldensky.
Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882–1966)
Fifth Avenue from the St. Regis, ca. 1905
Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946)
Reflections, Night-New York, 1896

Peter Henry Emerson (1856–1936)
Cantley: Wherries Waiting for the Turn of the Tide, c. 1884
Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882–1966)
Wapping, London, 1910
TruthBeauty and Coburn and the Photographic Portfolio complementary exhibition are both open until January 9, 2011.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Whimsical Arcimboldo at the Natilonal Gallery

My Boston friend Yulia was in town on a business trip. Whenever she is here we try to see an art exhibit, usually at the National Gallery. Today was no exception: she called and asked me what was going on in museums and galleries. I mentioned, among other things, the Truth/Beauty photo exhibit at the Phillips, the Palladio exposition at the National Building museum, the Arcimboldo show at the National Gallery, and she chose the latter. I have heard of Arcimboldo but, until today, never saw his paintings. The NGA has put together a delightful Arcimboldo: Nature and Fantasy exhibition. For the first time, Arcimboldo's famous bizarre heads were on view in the U.S.
Anyone looking at Arcimboldo's composite heads for the first time feels surprised, startled, and bewildered; our gaze moves back and forth between the overall human form and the richness of individual details until we get the joke and find ourselvesamused, delighted, or perhaps even repelled. Any transformation or manipulation of the human face attracts attention, but the effect is accentuated when we are confronted with monsters where, instead of eyes, mouths, noses, and cheeks, we find flowers or cherries, peas, cucumbers, peaches, broken branches, and much else. Arcimboldo's paintings stimulate opposing, irreconcilable interpretations of what we are seeing and thus are paradoxical in the truest sense of the word.
Soon forgotten after his death, Arcimboldo was rediscovered in the 1930s when the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Alfred H. Barr, included the artist's paintings in the exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism. Ever since, Arcimboldo has been considered a source of inspiration for the surrealists and their successors.
Read Abigail Tucker's article Arcimboldo's Feast for the Eyes from the January 2011 Smithsonian magazine.


Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1526–1593
Vertumnus, c. 1590
Skokloster Castle, Skokloster
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1526–1593
The Jurist, 1566
Stockholm, Nationalmuseum
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1526–1593
Four Seasons in One Head, c. 1590
National Gallery of Art,
Washington, Paul Mellon Fund
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1526–1593
The Librarian, c. 1566(?)
Skokloster Castle Stokholm, Sweden

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Chick Corea Trio at the KC's Terrace Theater

I've heard Chick Corea's name many times, and finally he made his appearance at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater with his new trio on their World Tour. I don't understand jazz as an art form very well (I'm more used to the structured development found in the so-called “classical” music than to the variation form typical of jazz) but I'd like to expand my horizons.
Chick Corea's newest trio features the 16-time Grammy-winning pianist, NEA Jazz Master, and Kennedy Center Living Jazz Legend in the company of a stellar rhythm tandem: Grammy-winning bassist Christian McBride (Sting, Pat Metheny, McCoy Tyner), one of the most outstanding talents and celebrated musicians of his generation, and drummer extraordinaire Brian Blade (Herbie Hancock, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell) a longstanding member of the Wayne Shorter Quartet.

The three initially forged an indelible chemistry as the rhythmic backbone of the Five Peace Band in 2009, when Blade took the drum chair for the band's Asian and American tours.

Their instant, easy rapport naturally stimulated the idea of yet another outlet for Corea's tireless creativity. And a new trio was born. As a trio, they'll take up the musical dialogue that started there—dynamic, deeply interactive and irrepressibly swinging.

The trio gave only two performances in Washington, D. C., both on the same night: 7:30pm and 9:30pm, and I chose to buy a ticket to the late one. Both shows had been sold out quickly. There was an excitement in the air, and the musicians didn't disappoint.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Trocks at the Kennedy Center

Image courtesy The Arts Desk

This evening Wanchuk and I went to the Eisenhower Theater to watch Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo affectionately know as “The Trocks.” What follows is a pastiche review I have cobbled together from:

I have always loved classical ballet. From the Kirov's Bayadere to the Royal Ballet's Don Quixote I've seen and adored hundreds of hours of this most venerated of dance forms. But I've always been aware that there's also something faintly absurd at the heart of ballet. For starters, the classical tutu is one of the most preposterous garments ever to grace the female form; and don't get me started on that dancing on the end of your toes business. I love ballet, but I love laughing at it even more. Fortunately, for fans of both ballet and comedy, that's a twin joy shared by Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.

Born in 1974 in an “off-off Broadway” loft on New York's West 14th Street, the Trocks have taken the world by storm over the past three decades with their comedy drag ballet, a fusion that celebrates both the beauty and the essential absurdity of classical ballet. The idea behind a Trocks performance is simple—hairy-chested men in size 12 pointe shoes dance classical roles, exaggerating the diva glares, prima pouts, and comic melodrama of the Russian ballet tradition.

The company could best be described as a Monty Python grafted onto dance: on the surface everything appears to be normal, then the oddities begin to appear and change the stage performance into something absurd and entertaining. The level of invention is so complex that each dancer has both a female and a male alter ego, complete with stage names and hilarious biographies of fake Russian ballerinas and dancers.

The show begins with thickly-accented compere announcing the artists: “Nina Enimenimynimova” and “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince Myshkin”, signaling an evening of affectionate (and sometimes groanworthy) parody. However, this opening spiel in a cod-Russian accent, listing endless changes to the program and advising that “Natasha Notgudenov will not be appearing,” is surely due for a few fresh jokes.

A good deal of the Trocks' comedy derives from the sheer absurdity of masculine bulk balanced on a toe's width of blocked satin, but other aspects of ballet conformism are pointed up too. One of the Trocks wears glasses, another has a Cyrano nose, and another dwarfs her weedy partner, kindly giving him a bunk-up now and then. The humour wouldn't work without a technically proficient company, however—the Trocks train daily, have their own ballet mistress, and appear as comfortable en pointe as one could expect anyone to be. The arms may be more muscular and the chests bushier than might be expected of female primas, but the Trocks have plenty of ballon and extensions most would die for.

The program includes Act Two of Swan Lake, The Dying Swan, a pas de deux from Le Corsaire, Go for Barocco—a Balanchine parody, and variations from Paquita. The arrangement appears to be unusual in that Swan Lake, the most humorous piece, is performed first. Although it has a frenetic continuation later with The Dying Swan, the most effective crackers of the fireworks display are set off at the beginning of the performance.

Act Two of Swan Lake or, as the Trocks call it with their passion for old-style Ballets Russes glamour, Les Lac des Cynges, features a bleached-blonde prince (Ashley Romanoff-Titwillow, also known as Joshua Grant) and a bossy swan princess (the grand diva of the company, Olga Suppohozova, or Robert Carter) who, after she is captured by the hunter-prince, gives him a “don't mess up my tutu, sonny” look. Many of the jokes work on two levels—Swan Lake is one of the broadest, prat-fall-iest parodies the Trocks do, but as well as the limelight-hogging corps de ballet member, and the evil magician who gets lost inside his cloak, there were also wonderful balletomane-focused jokes, such as the prince who has to ask his swan-princess to repeat her mime, because he can't understand it— as, let's face it, who can?

Image courtesy The Arts Desk © Dusa Gábor

Ida Nevasayneva (the great Paul Ghiselin, who is also Ballet Master for the company) gives a memorable interpretation of Anna Pavlova's signature solo, The Dying Swan. Even the introduction to the piece is brilliant: the spotlight sweeps the empty stage missing the target, while the dancer begins in the dark. As with Pavlova, Ghiselin's performance leaves hardly a dry eye in the house, but for altogether different reasons—his sick bird, strewing feathers all over the stage and dancing a version of the Funky Chicken en pointe that has to be seen to be believed, has the whole audience rolling in the aisles.

© John Ross © John Ross

Le Corsaire pas de deux is danced (almost) straight by Nina Enimenimynimova (you try and type that stone-cold sober: sorry, I mean, danced by Long Zou) and Mikhail Mypansarov (Emanuel Abruzzo). Zou has a delicate grace and is the least dragged-up of all the Trocks, but here she had the manner down pat: her small head-tilt towards her partner, and the death-ray eyes that said, “You've missed your cue: just get yourself over here now,” while still giving the audience a demure, pained-ballerina smile, is worth the price of admission alone. Zou/Abruzzo performance coupled strong ballerina technique with laughs; however, the relationship has yet to fully blossom humorously. They have both joined recently and it was a real reminder that the Trocks hone and develop their comic skills over several tours.

“Go for Barocco” is set, with timing that makes every beat matter, to Bach. A happily devout lampoon of the mannerisms and devices of Balanchine's ballet classicism in general and of his “Concerto Barocco” in particular, it is so well constructed that jokes that refer, say, to specific details of “Apollo” and “Serenade” still work if you have no knowledge of those ballets.

© Dusa Gábor Image: Juana Arias for The Washington Post

In “Paquita,” after Petipa, the troupe appeared in a rainbow of tutus, some with extra small trunks to expose more buttocks. It took three to lift the principal ballerina, and the weakling cavalier took a quick break for some pushups. Yet, beyond the slapstick and the catfights, the piece had luscious moments of freedom: when one of the gents does a walkover in perfect time with the music and two of the dancers celebrate the finale with a sweaty chest-bump, their velvet bodices clapping together with gridiron gusto, a toast to sheer pleasure. That never gets old.


See Wanchuk's blog entry.