Saturday, April 18, 2015


By Charles Kessler

Readers of this blog know I hardly ever write about dance, even though I love it and go to at least one or two dance concerts every month; and I've never written about opera. But Norte Maar's dance concert CounterPointe3 and LoftOpera's production of Lucrezia Borgia have inspired me to stretch a bit. 
Standing Ovation for LoftOpera's Lucrezia Borgia.
LoftOpera is a small company – small for an opera company, that is. Their recent production of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia had 20 performers including 6 in the chorus, a 24-member orchestra, and 16 people listed in the program under production, but I’m sure there were a lot more people involved that weren’t credited. And tickets were only $30 to $50 (vs. $160 average for the Met). 

The company is young and enthusiastic, and it plays to a mostly young and enthusiastic audience. They have been staging full operas in various temporary spaces in Brooklyn for a couple of years now. (I saw their Barber of Saville last year.) And they're great! They've gotten raves in the Times and other places and have become so popular that all their productions not only immediately sell out, but people are actually scalping their tickets. 

A great deal of their popularity, aside from the first-rate music, is due to their casual, unpretentious and intimate presentations and settings — and that's probably why they appeal to a young audience. The spaces are large lofts that seat 200-300 people, usually in the round, so everyone is close to the singers. 
Nikhil Navkal as Gennaro and Joanna Parisi as Lucrezia Borgia.
The singers moved in and out of the the audience. One time, had I not ducked, I would have been hit in the head by a large table when they moved it. (We were warned in advance.) And talk about casual – beer is served before and during the performance, and every once in a while you can hear a bottle roll on the floor. 

At this performance the audience was so exhilarated that at intermission they got up and excitedly talked to each other and the performers. I struck up a conversation with Cody Rowlands, one of the trumpet players, who told me that he thought the experience of this production was probably more like it was in Donizetti’s time. He has a point. Donizetti operas played in large, opulent opera houses like the Met, but unlike the staid, hushed opera audience of today, his audience was raucous, loudly cheering and jeering the singers. While the LoftOpera audience didn't interrupt the performance, I imagine we had a sense of engagement similar to what the 19th-century audience experienced because of the intimate and casual setting of this production.

One little thing that I think exemplifies why it was so great: the hanging globes were occasionally lowered, and the singers every once in a while got smacked in the head by one, but that didn't phase them – nothing did. They were so focused, so intense and so all-out in their singing that you couldn't help being taken along for the emotional ride. 
Lucrezia Borgia (Joanne Parisi) pleading with her fourth husband, the evil Duke of Ferrara (Matthew Anchel) to save Gennaro (Nikhil Nevkal), who, unbeknownst to the Duke, is secretly her son.
Lucrezia Borgia is a ridiculous melodrama with a particularly farfetched ending: Gennaro, who is poisoned (for the second time – don't ask), tries to stab Lucrezia because she caused him and his friends to be poisoned, but she stops him by revealing (spoiler alert) that she is his mother (gasp!). Lucrezia begs Gennaro to take the antidote (again) but he refuses, preferring to die with his friends. 
The prologue to LoftOpera's Lucrezia Borgia – Joanne Parisi as Lucrezia recognizing her long-lost son.
But as ridiculous and unbelievable as the final scene is, Joanna Parisi, who starred as Lucrezia, sang it with such a frenzied passion that it brought some of us to tears. The closing aria is the famous and very demanding "Era desso il figlio mio."  Donizetti’s star soprano insisted he write it for her in order to showcase her vocal agility. (Donizetti later removed it because he thought it made the ending unbelievable, as if that would make a difference.) Parisi was awesome (and I mean that literally). She put her all into it and sang with such bravura, it brought the audience to their feet. 

And that's another thing about opera in general, but especially as experienced in a small, closeup environment like this: the sound coming out of the singers is uncanny — so powerful, and preternaturally beautiful it seems superhuman. I mean, real human beings aren't supposed to sound like that. It's magical. 

Intermezzo, choreography by Julia K Gleich. Dancers: Izabela Szylinska, Łukasz Zięba, Ahmaud Culver. (Photo courtesy Gleich Dances and Norte Maar.)

CounterPointe3 is the third annual series of dances choreographed by women for women en pointe – i.e., ballet. Women invented modern dance – Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham in the United States and Mary Wigman in Germany, to name some of the main creators; and women still predominate in the field. Sadly, it's not so with ballet. It's not surprising, then, that most of the choreographers for CounterPointe3 had more experience with modern dance than ballet. As a happy result, the dances integrated of the power, angularity, weight and expressiveness of modern dance with the weightless grace of traditional ballet.  

The dancer and choreographer Kayla Harley in her dance run-on sentences of I miss you … is a case in pointe (sorry). She doesn’t have the typical willowy body of a ballerina, but her compact energy, speed, precision and ability to quickly snap into odd angular positions and hold them rock steady, brought to ballet the type of expression found more often in modern dance. 
run-on sentences of I miss you ... (work in progress), choreographed and danced by Kayla Harley.
Quilll/t by Julia K. Gleich, one of the organizers of CounterPointe3, incorporated a mesmerizing video projection by David Chang, showing the hand of a calligrapher writing the word "quill/t" multiple times; and the amplified sound of the pen on the paper contributed to the score. Quilll/t was a complicated dance with intricate patterns of movement that were clarified and pulled together by apt arrangements of arms and legs. My favorite move (and Kayla Harley was superlative at it) is when the dancers would quickly snap into a 90 degree bent-over position, with their backs arched and their elbows akimbo – not a move one would ordinarily see in a traditional ballet. This was a riveting dance that required, and rewarded, my full concentration.
Qull/t choreographed by Julia Gleich and Lynn Parkerson with music by Ranjit Bhatnagar and video projection by David Chang. The dancers are Kayla Harley, Savannah Lee, Miku Kawamura and Christine Sawyer. 
Once again, a magical experience. Real people (okay, they're in better shape than normal) become weightless, fly, and move more quickly and with more grace than mere mortals. And they get into positions and postures that human beings just can't do. These are just some of the reasons I'm so awed by dance, and why I love it so much.

Jersey City dance news: this year Julia Gleich will be one of the curators for the fifth annual Your Move dance festival; and Nimbus Dance Works will be appearing at BAM on May 8 - 9. I saw a rehearsal, and it is terrific. 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Four Days in Washington D. C.

By Charles Kessler

The Enid A. Haupt Garden behind the Smithsonian Castle.
My friend Tom Wolf curated a major Yasuo Kuniyoshi exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art (through August 30th), and he also wrote a definitive essay for the exhibition catalog. So a gang of us went down to Washington D. C. for a few days to help celebrate the opening. I will be writing about the show soon, but in the meantime, here’s a rave review by Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post. For now I want to briefly write about some of the other shows I saw while I was there. (I wrote a guide to the Washington art museums that you can download here if you’re interested.) 

The Phillips Collection
It was not a good time to visit Washington. The Easter and Passover holidays resulted in droves of tourists and their rambunctious kids descending on the museums. Least crowded was the Phillips Collection, probably because it’s in Dupont Circle, not near the Mall with the other museums. They had an exhaustive exhibition of the work of the Dada/Surrealist Man Ray from about 1935-1950: Man Ray–Human Equations: A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare (through May 10th).  
Man Ray in his Studio, ca. 1948 (Photo © Arnold Newman / Liason Agency).
In 1934, on the advice of his friend the artist Max Ernst, Man Ray went to see display of exquisite three-dimensional mathematical models at the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris. This prompted a 15-year exploration of the models in various mediums; and it's the subject of this exhibition. In addition to an impressive amount of Man Ray’s art from the period (70 photographs, 25 paintings, and eight assemblages), the exhibition includes 25 of the original three-dimensional plaster, wood, papier-mâché, and string mathematical models. (The Phillips didn't allow photography, even of the models, so below is a photo of three similar polished plaster ones from the website hyperbolic crochet.)
Mathematical models on display at the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris.
In the mid-1930s, Man Ray photographed these models for the avant-garde publication Cahiers d’Art, but rather than do straightforward documentation, he lighted them in dramatic ways to suggest human anatomy or futuristic mechanisms. 
Man Ray, Mathematical Object, 1934-35, (Collection L. Malle © Man Ray Trust).
In 1947 these photographs inspired a group of paintings that he associated (tenuously, I believe) with titles of Shakespeare’s plays. (A somewhat skull-like painting, for example, he titled Hamlet.)
Left: Man Ray, Objet Mathématique, 1934-1936 (photo); right: Man Ray, All's Well That Ends Well, 1948 (painting).

And he also used these models to inspire surrealist assemblages.
Man Ray, Main Ray, 1935 (The Israel Museum). 
The thing that struck me was how simple and beautiful the original models are, and how fanciful, even arty, the work Man Ray derived from them is. Man Ray was not able, or willing, to restrain the sentimental and romantic nature of his art, unlike his more uncompromising friend, Marcel Duchamp.

Smithsonian Museum of American Art
It’s good to see museums are exhibiting folk and outsider art on a regular basis now. (I wrote about an outsider art exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art here.) There was a lot of powerful and striking work on display, including James Hampton’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly, which wins the prize for flamboyance. 
James Hampton, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly,  ca. 1950-1964, gold and silver aluminum foil over furniture, paperboard and glass, 180 pieces overall, 10 ½ x 27 x 14 feet.
For fourteen years Hampton worked on what he considered a holy space that would welcome the return of Christ. He constructed it out of old furniture, wooden planks, cardboard, insulation board, light bulbs, jelly glasses, desk blotters, mirror fragments, electrical cables and other found objects; and he covered all this with metallic foils and purple paper (now faded to a yellow-tan color). Only a small portion of the 180 components are currently on view. Seeing the complete in its original setting (a rented garage) must have been mind-boggling. 

I was awed by the bravado craftsmanship and exuberant expressionism of the ceramic vessels made by Navajo women:
Betty Manygoats, Wedding Vase with Horned Toad Appliqués, 1988, fired clay with piñon pitch, 23 x 11 3/8 x 11 3/8 inches (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1997.124.162).
Christine McHorse, Wolves Courting at Full Moon, 1988, fired micaceous clay with piñon pitch, 11 5/8 x 13 7/8 inches (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1997.124.161).
Louise Goodman, Bear, 1990, fired clay with piñon pitch, 22 x 11 x 11 inches (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1997.124.154).
and the uncannily animate animal sculptures by Felipe Archuleta:
Foreground, on the left: Felipe Archuleta, Gorilla, 1976, carved and painted cottonwood with glue and sawdust, 40 x 27 x 42 inches (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1986.65.228); and on the right: Felipe Archuleta, Baboon, 1978, carved and painted cottonwood and pine, 69 x 42 x 16 inches (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1986.65.227).

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
What is it with contemporary art museums? Why are the spaces so often too large, too noisy, and too bright? The Hirshhorn was by far the most chaotic of the museums I went to, especially since they had a Barbara Kruger exhibition that was a visual cacophony – an assault to the senses. (Warning: so is the Hirshhorn website.) 

Fortunately the Hirshhorn has several small, quiet, and dark theaters in the basement devoted to video where I could escape and concentrate. The best of the videos, especially given the mood I was in (a Ryan Trecartin video, much as I ordinarily like them, would not have done), was by Ragnar Kjartansson – his S.S. Hangover, 2013–14 (through April 19th).
Still from Ragnar Kjartansson’s video, S.S. Hangover, 2013–14. © Ragnar Kjartansson.
This was one of Kjartansson's typically gorgeous videos that's reminiscent of Vermeer with its soft golden light and jewel-like color. Basically the S.S. Hangover video shows a small, wooden, old-fashioned looking boat, gliding in and out along a canal, picking up and dropping off members of a brass band who would join an on-board concert. A simple idea, but haunting and affecting. 
Still from Ragnar Kjartansson’s video, S.S. Hangover, 2013–14. © Ragnar Kjartansson.
Freer Gallery of Art
This is my favorite place to look at Asian art. They will be closing for renovation from January 2016 until summer 2017, so enjoy it while you can. In two of the smaller galleries, there's a show of Chinese Ceramics:13th–14th Century (through January 3rd). What sophisticated and exquisite work, especially the celadon-glazed ceramics from Longquan and the porcelain vessels decorated with cobalt pigment from Jingdezhen. The two areas competed with each other for the international market, and the competition drove technical and expressive innovations.  
Bottle, Jizhou ware, Yuan dynasty, 14th century, stoneware with iron glaze splashed with ash glaze, 13 x 8 inches.
Longquan ware vase or bottle, Yuan dynasty, 14th century, stoneware with celadon glaze and reserved bisque panels, 11 x 7 inches. 
And as readers of this blog know, I have a visceral love for ancient Chinese bronzes; and there's always a selection of great ones at the Freer. Here's a group of particularly strange, aggressive and delightfully creepy ones:
Fitting in the form of a tiger, Middle Western Zou dynasty, ca. 900 B.C.E., bronze, 10 x 6 x 29 ½ inches
Lidded ritual ewer with dragons, birds, tigers, elephants, fish, snakes and humans, Shang dynasty, ca. 1600 B.C.E., bronze, 12 ½ x 12 ½ x 6 inches.
On the left: ritual grain server with spikes, ribs, and dragons, Western Zhou dynasty,  ca. 1050 B.C.E., bronze, 9 x 15 inches; and on the right: lidded ritual wine container with birds, Western Zhou dynasty, ca. 1050 B.C.E., bronze, 20 x 14 x 11 inches.

National Gallery of Art
Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence (through May 3rd).

As can be seen in his painting The Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot, ca. 1489-1490, Piero di Cosimo was among the most technically proficient of early Renaissance painters. His work was influenced by Flemish art and has the same highly realistic detail. 
Piero di Cosimo, The Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot, c. 1489-1490, oil on panel, 72 1/2 x 74 inches (National Gallery of Art, 1939.1.361).
Yet there's something primitive (in a good way) about Piero's art. Like some outsider and folk artists, he had an obsessive concern with wildly imaginative details that he would cram into his larger paintings (see detail below).
Close-up detail of the right side showing "The Annunciation" in the background and "The Massacre of the Innocents" in the foreground. 

Piero di Cosimo, Liberation of Andromeda, c. 1510–1513, oil on panel (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).
Or this one (above) about Ovid's legend of the beautiful princess Andromeda (on the left, provocatively bare-breasted and tied to a tree) who was sacrificed to a horrible sea monster (or, in this case, a goofy sea monster) and saved by Perseus, flying in on winged feet.
Close-up detail of Perseus slaying the sea monster.
Piero's portraits and smaller devotional paintings, on the other hand, aren't as whimsical as his large paintings, and fit in well with more typical Italian Renaissance painting.
On the left: Piero di Cosimo, Madonna and Child with a Dove, ca. 1490, oil on poplar wood, 33 x 23 inches (Musée du Louvre); and on the right: Piero di Cosimo, Saint Mary Magdalene, 1490s, tempera on panel, 28 ½ x 30 inches (Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, palazzo barberini, Rome).