L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Saturday, April 23, 2011

At the Ballet

Gigi and I went to the ballet the other night. We get in a fair amount of live performance, though dance isn't something we see very often. But we attended the opening night of Song and Dance, a program of four pieces put on by our own Oregon Ballet Theatre. A classic Balanchine piece, two contemporary pieces, including one set to rap and hip-hop, and the last piece choreographed to Cole Porter songs. As someone who is very "classical" in all things, it was a surprise that the two more traditional dances left me a bit cold, while I thought the "modern" ones were amazing.

Balanchine, of course, was the great God of twentieth-century ballet. Few, if any, are still more respected. My actual knowledge of dance is extremely limited, but my understanding is that the great respect - reverence - shown to Balanchine most often relates to the extreme purity of his choreography. Clean, cold, naked in its precise line. He set a lot of dance in a very long career; his earliest great work was with Diaghilev. I don't know how Square Dance rates in his oeuvre, but I have to say I couldn't really appreciate it. Set to Vivaldi and Corelli with a square dance caller, it seemed as though it should have been cheekily delightful - the caller certainly was - but it just wouldn't come together for me. Aside from one elegant solo by OBT principal Chauncey Parsons, most of the piece seemed like a strained-for joke. Nothing wrong with the company or performance, I just didn't care for the concept. Or the choreography - God help me for saying so!

The final piece, Eyes on You, was exactly what I suppose it was designed to be: a crowd pleaser. Set by the company's artistic director, Christopher Stowell, it was beautiful to look at. Limiting the "set design" to almost nothing but lighting - in a perfectly judged choice of alternating red, yellow, and blue - with nicely textured, thirties-style, all-white costumes - which was something far better than the cheesy pastiche period costuming one so often sees - it was a smart and attractive production. The dancing was well done, but I feel the choreography could have been sharper. This sort of number easily falls into "too cute" unless the choreography is really smart. Especially in dealing with the larger groups, there were several lost opportunities for patterning that could have taken this endeavor to a higher level. Grouped movement that began well, looked as though it was developing into...and then it didn't. I wonder why, so often in dance, the most exciting parts are the solos and duos; bring everyone on stage and things often go flat. Maybe choreographers should take a look at (non-dance-trained) Busby Berkeley's notebook on how to stage large-scale groups; it might not be "pure", but it might be a lot more effective. And how appropriate his exhilarating sort of patterning could be in something just like this, set in the thirties as it is.

The other two works of the evening I enjoyed immensely. Speak was two short, related pieces created by Trey McIntyre, a very hot property in the dance world. Blank stage, rap/hip-hop style costumes - I guess you'd call them that; what do I know? - a solo and a duo, it was just delightful. I don't pretend to understand how it worked, any more than I "get" the music used. But it was so obviously smart, funny, unexpected - and beautiful - that any understanding beyond the recognition of those qualities isn't really necessary, I think. It's so good, that that is enough. You get it.

The big highlight of the evening for me was Left Unsaid, an amazing piece for six dancers set to music for solo violin by Bach. Made up of vignettes that faded in and out - solos, duos, many different combinations of dancers - it was created by Nicolo Fonte, certainly a world-class choreographer, certainly a world-class piece. Very abstract, very spare, monochromatic, dimly lit - all things that I might find off-putting - I was simply overwhelmed by the beauty of it. Three chairs, three men's jackets, a screen at the back of the stage that went up and down slightly. That was the "set design". And the dancing was fantastic. Everyone. Exceptional dancing.

I don't know enough of choreography to be able to really explain what I experienced but, stepping away from the plain wonder of what the dancers were accomplishing, I kept thinking how fluid and un-repetitive it all seemed. So much dance - great or not - seems to have repetitive movement: strike a pose and repeat, strike a pose and repeat. And so many ta-da moments that seem designed to call attention to themselves. This was completely fluid, every movement led from one to the next and never seemed to repeat. Never called attention to itself. Even when it was dramatic or exceptionally beautiful each movement was completely integrated to the whole. At the same time, the choreography was often so incredibly intricate, the transitions and positions so unexpected, that I found myself holding my breath. From plain excitement.

And one of the biggest surprises for me, watching this very abstract, minimal work of art, was how moved I was by it. It really got to me. There was a feeling of story in the choreography, even if there wasn't one. And an expression of emotion in the movement - not at all acted out - that was accessed in the most subconscious way. It was so moving, and inexplicable in delivering the gift of that emotion. I love it when a work of art knocks me flat, and I don't even know how I got there!

As I understand it, the choreography is influenced by Fonte's practice of Iyengar yoga and takes some inspiration from the novel The Golden Compass. Neither of those elements is familiar to me. And are, honestly, totally unimportant to my experience. As I said of Speak, I don't think I needed to understand anything about this work. I just let it wash over me. And this performance of Left Unsaid was some of the best, most satisfying dance I've ever been fortunate to witness.


It wasn't until we got home and I read more of the program did I realize that principal Anne Mueller would be retiring as a dancer at the conclusion of this run. She danced in three of the four pieces we saw. All three incredibly different. And she was superb in them all. I don't know how old she is, but she's been with the company for fifteen years. And a still-young person can be a very-old dancer. But how do you give up something like that? Something that she's been living every day since she was a child, I'm sure. How do you just say, I'll stop now?

I can't imagine what it's like to be so attuned to one's body, to understand and be able to calibrate its exact placement in space. As someone who has such poor balance, who's so completely out of touch with his body - if you said to me, "quick, where's your left elbow!", it might take me a shockingly long time to come up with an answer - I just have to marvel at the amazing control and sensitivity a great dancer has in communion with his or her body. The language of movement, the language spoken by the body of a dancer is something I'll never be able to comprehend. And when I see really great dancing its beauty is almost terrifying to me. Which is a rather odd thing to say, I suppose. But there's always something for me about watching a great dancer in action - on stage or on film, classical ballet or Fred Astaire - that makes me think I could dance, too. The perfection of it and the seeming effortlessness somehow put the perverse belief into me that I could actually do that: the music swells and I elegantly rise and fling myself into glorious, effortless dancing. All around the room. Or down the street, like they do in the movies. I always have to struggle to tamp down this madness because, if I ever let loose and threw my real weight behind my incautious imagining, my ignorant body could really hurt itself.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


I've been on a month-long leave from the day job; today was the day I was supposed to return. I took it so that I could spend a good chunk of time painting, to try and get a little bit ahead with my work. But the composition of my Tacoma Art Museum symposium talk took way, way more time than I expected. It was worth it in the long run - it went very well - but it took up three-quarters of my time off. So I asked my supervisors at work if I could have two more weeks, and they thankfully said yes. So now begins the two more weeks.

Besides just wanting to get more time to paint, the other reason for taking the leave was to try and figure out what it would be like to be a full-time artist, the life-style of the thing. I don't know that I'm really all that near to making that transition, but I still wanted to see how much work I could really produce if I didn't have to go to another job. And, maybe more importantly, to see if I could get an idea of the balance I could strike with art-making and non-art-making time. No artist can just sit and make art all the time. Even without having to break to go to a day job, you still have a life that needs to be integrated with the time used for art-making. And if I spent all my time painting, I'd just go nuts. So what would a balance look like? I hope to get some sense of that in the next two weeks.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


My uncle Hugh died this morning. My father was the eldest of the four boys. Hugh was the youngest; his brothers always called him "Baby Hughie". He was a talented baseball player in his youth, and played professionally for a time. But for almost his entire adult life he suffered from untreated mental illness. I don't know if he was ever actually diagnosed, but he was almost certainly schizophrenic. His particular "mania" was a far-beyond-conservative Catholicism. He was always quiet, self-effacing but engaged within the family group. For years he picketed outside the "abortion clinic" at NW 24th and Lovejoy. It appears he did that quietly as well. At least he never got into any trouble that I know of. And because he didn't cause any actual trouble - to himself or others - there was nothing the family could do to get him help; you actually have to make some sort of disturbance or endangerment in order for the authorities to intervene. No one in the family had been able to get him to seek help, himself.

A college graduate, for years he worked at menial jobs - I think he was a dishwasher at Good Samaritan for a long time - but, as I understand it, he would make people uncomfortable with his talk about religion, and had difficulty keeping a job. I believe that for the last several years he wasn't working; his brothers helped him out financially, and I think he may have been getting disability. Sometimes he would show up at family events, other times not. His clothes were always pretty ragged. And we were disturbed by how unhealthy he looked. I have no idea how he spent his days.

I never knew Hugh, really. While I was growing up, we only rarely lived near the rest of our extended family. And when I finally moved back to Portland, he was too far lost to his illness. I hadn't felt any real connection to him, so I didn't make any effort to get to know him better and maybe involve myself with his life or problems. Honestly, no one in my immediate family got very involved with the situation. We left it to his brothers - including my dad, before his death - to worry about.

My mom called on Monday evening to tell me that she'd just found out that Hugh was in the hospital and wasn't expected to live much longer. It seems he'd had untreated prostate cancer for years, and it had spread throughout his body. She went to visit yesterday and told me today that he'd been just barely still hanging on, so she wasn't surprised to hear, this morning, that he'd died. I want to say that he lived a sad, wasted life, and that's it's some sort of blessing that he's at peace now, but what do I really know about it? I think he probably wasn't happy, but what would he have said? It's not my question to answer. But I can say that the way he left his life helps deepen my perspective on the way his big brother did so.

Ever since my father's death, all of us in my immediate family have agreed that the way he died - instantly, unexpectedly, with none of us there - was the way he would have chosen. That he wouldn't have been able to bear being sick and incapacitated, and - as he would have seen it - a burden on any of us. And it would have been horrible for us to see him suffering that way. If we, in any way, choose an accidental death, he chose his. He was happy, having a fun bike ride with his friends, and then he was gone. As hard as the loss has been, knowing that has been a big comfort to us all.

Seeing Hugh after my father's death was difficult for me and, especially, my mom. Because Hugh looked so much like my dad. To see him ravaged the way he was was really disturbing; it was like seeing my father that way, too. When my mother saw Hugh at the hospital yesterday, she was really struck by the resemblance again. She said it was like she watching my dad dying. And she said to me over the phone today that it made her so grateful that my dad never had to go through that, was spared the indignity of it. That since he had to die - and we agreed that we're all headed there, sooner than we'd like - she was actually glad that it happened as it did.

There was a lightness in her voice, talking about it, that was different from what it's been in the almost four years since my dad's been gone. She seemed so much more sure of the unexpected rightness of this thing that has utterly changed her life and caused her such pain, seemed so much more healed. In my way, I feel the same. I'm my father's son, not his wife, so it's a very different map of progress. And as time goes on, I miss him more, not less. But I'm still surer of the blessing of the way he died. And I want to thank my uncle Hugh for helping us to be sure.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Finished and ready to roll

I think I'm finally done pulling at and tweaking my presentation for this Sunday's symposium, The Figure in Contemporary Art, at the Tacoma Art Museum. Approximately forty minutes and one-hundred and eighty some powerpoint images in length, putting this together has nearly done me in. I've been saying, maybe if I had gone to art school - any college, really - I might have had to put together this sort of thing, learned how it works. But I came to this completely unprepared and ignorant.

How to you tell everything you think about your art? How you developed as an artist? Your feelings and thoughts about art, in general? I've taken a month-long leave from work to get ahead with my painting and here I am, three weeks in, and all I've been working on is this presentation. Working on it day and night. Not sleeping very well. Alright, I'm obsessive.

I mentioned to G the other night that I'd been thinking recently about how weird it would be if either one of us was with someone who wasn't as obsessed with their work as both of us are. Someone who wouldn't work and work until they finally felt they'd got it right, like we do. Someone who said, "Oh, that's good enough", when it wasn't, really. "No sweat." "It doesn't really matter." I can't imagine. In a lot of ways, it would probably be much healthier to not be so fixated on "getting it right". But what G and I both work at isn't a group effort, where the individual isn't always crucial to the end product. If you're writing something or painting something that only you can do, that is so personal and singular that, in a way, it says who you are, how do you find an easy place to compromise?

Well, anyway, I think I've got this thing together as best I can. G has been an enormous help, reading and listening and watching. She even skipped class last week so she could help me edit. She's been wonderfully tough, and I've made almost every single cut she suggested - and very happy for it, too. She'll sit again, tonight, while I run through the whole thing once more; it might be the last time before the actual event. It feels good to be on this side of the process. I'm nervous, of course, but I'm looking forward to Sunday.

And, now, what I really need is a manicure!