The Casual Blog

Tag: Alyssa Pilger

Delicious pears and a magnificent Sugar Plum

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One of my favorite things in the holiday season is Harry and David’s Royal Riviera Pears. Every year, we get a box from Sally’s dear godmother (whom I’ve never met), and every year they are incredibly sweet and dripping with deliciousness. So it was this week. You may have seen the Harry and David’s ads and wondered whether a mere fruit could ever be an appropriate holiday gift. Well, my view is yes. They are amazing: the fruit of the gods!

The Nutcracker ballet is another great seasonal treat. It endures because there are a lot of things to like: a great Tchaikovsky score, a story with recognizable characters, a bit of naughtiness, and a lot of sweetness. The Carolina Ballet production has gorgeous costumes and sets. There are a lot of children in the production, who seemed particularly young and touching this year. But the main reason I go to see it is for the wonderful dancers in solos, small ensembles, and choruses.
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Saturday evening Alyssa Pilger, our pointe shoe sponsoree and friend, made her debut as the Sugar Plum Fairy on Saturday. As a dancer, Alyssa has a natural elegance about her. She seems at first delicate, but then there is also a quality that’s almost fierce. Her moments of stillness don’t seem like rests or pauses, but rather radiate energy. She has a musician’s musicality, which goes beyond just staying with the basic rhythmic framework, to understanding it deeply and realizing when and how it can be creatively opposed.

Sugar Plum is a big role. It makes little girls want to be ballerinas, while transporting the big boys and girls to transcendent place. Alyssa rose to the occasion. Her technique was impeccable, as fluent in adagio as in allegro. And there was that extra something, that expressive spark. I got goosebumps, and, I admit it, tears from both eyes. It was so beautiful!

It was, for me, Alyssa’s night, but I need to mention that Adam Crawford Chavis as her partner, the Cavalier, was also wonderful. He’s big and handsome, and amazingly poised and strong. Their pas de deux was intensely romantic. The crowd gave them long and loud hurrahs.
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Re the pictures, this weekend I continued, and concluded for the year, my project of visiting and photographing local parks I didn’t already know well. I went up to Falls Lake on Saturday morning to Blue Jay Point, and then again on Sunday to Rolling View. It was clear and bright and cold both days, and there were almost no people. I also spent some time experimenting with my new Nikon SB910 speedlight in making the portrait here of a Harry and David’s pear sitting on my piano. Afterwards, I ate that pear, which was delicious.

The Casual Blog will be on a holiday break for the last couple of weekends, while we’re traveling. I’m hoping to have some pictures of pretty tropical fish when we return. For my dear readers who celebrate Christmas, I wish you a merry one.
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My happy Thanksgiving: racing, reading, camera tinkering, eating, and seeing Interstellar

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Lately I’ve been consciously trying to cultivate an attitude of increasing gratitude. As is traditional at the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ll note that I have a great many things to be grateful for. For me, gratitude also means noting connections and acknowledging how very little is attributable to my independent efforts. I really owe it all to everybody and everything else. And so, to you, dear reader, and everything else, I’m grateful.

On Thanksgiving morning, I was grateful to be, at 59, sufficiently healthy to undertake the Ridge Road Turkey Trot, an 8 kilometer (4.97 mile) race. I hadn’t tried a road race with thousands of other people for a great many years. Sally sweetly lent her moral support and driving skills, and got me to the starting line five minutes before the 8:00 a.m. start.

My idea was to challenge myself without collapsing or getting sick, and that much I accomplished. I completed the course in 44 minutes, or just under 9 minutes a mile. I wasn’t particularly proud about this time, since I still imagine myself as capable of 8 minute miles, but this T-day that wasn’t happening. My heart rate was in the low-to-mid 160s for much of the race, which is pretty high, and I didn’t want to find out what would happen if it stayed higher. The hills in the middle of the course took a lot out of me, and the last couple of miles were fairly miserable. Part of me badly wanted to try a bit of walking instead of running. But I didn’t quit, and I did survive.

After the race, I took a long hot shower, and then sat down and read for a while. I finished E.O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence. Wilson, a world-renowned exert on ants and a leading theorist on evolution, is now 85, and going strong. I enjoyed reading The Social Conquest of Earth, and liked this book as well, in spite of its grandiose title. Wilson puts things in perspective, and helps us grasp that humans are just one of the millions of species on the planet. His basic message is that we can improve our chances of survival and happiness by using the tools of science and better understanding our evolutionary nature.

Wilson contends that natural selection proceeded along two paths, individual and group. He argues that this accounts for our dual nature as selfish individuals and altruistic group members. These conflicting tendencies are fundamental drivers of the human experience, which means we’ll always be in some degree of tumult in our interior emotional lives. But Wilson thinks our contradictions are essential to what it means to be human, and we need to understand them and manage them. He seems to think there’s a chance that humanity can overcome ignorance, delusion, and violence, and quit destroying the natural world.
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I spent part of the afternoon assembling and testing my new Ikelite underwater camera housing and strobe setup. I thought long and hard before buying the equipment, both because it is pricey and because it is labor intensive. But I’m really interested in sharing some of the joy of diving through images of the extreme beauty beneath the surface. Even in this time of over fishing, ocean acidification and reef destruction, there’s still an incredible profusion of life down there.

If you’re going to use an underwater housing with an expensive camera, the stakes are high. The Ikelite housing opens at the back to receive the camera and the front to receive the lens. You’ve got to be extremely careful to prevent leaks, which can easily be fatal to the equipment. And working the camera through many unlabeled buttons and levers is challenging. Just figuring out how to put it all together took me several hours. And hauling the it safely to dive spots while staying within airline weight restrictions will be challenging. But I’m looking forward to new dive photo adventures.

We had our Thanksgiving dinner at Irregardless, Raleigh’s first vegetarian restaurant, which now also accommodates meat eaters. Gabe and Jocelyn decided to wait until Christmas for a visit, so Sally and I ate with her mom and sister, Diane and Annie. We also were joined by Alyssa Pilger, the Carolina Ballet dancer we’ve been sponsoring, who is enormously talented. It was fun to hear about ballet company happenings, and about the professional dancer’s life. Professional dancers are almost by definition intensely focused people with superhuman work ethics, but Alyssa offstage seemed comfortable, relaxed and un-self-absorbed.

Sally and I saw the movie Interstellar on Friday night at the Marbles Imax theatre. I didn’t think it was particularly well constructed or acted. I found it cheering, though, that the movie has found a mass audience. The basic set up is a post-climate apocalypse world, which is something we should be trying hard to visualize and then prevent. It would be nice if a good-looking astronaut and his attractive physicist daughter could save us all, but that seems extremely unlikely. We’ve got to figure out how to repair our dysfunctional political structures so that we can get organized and address global warming and related problems with the intense commitment and resources we once used to go to the Moon.

A new Firebird, and a great egret

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Whew! We finally made it to the start of the new Carolina Ballet season. After a long summer without any dance, I was particularly looking forward to the CB’s first program, with The Firebird as the featured work. And I was particularly excited to see Alyssa Pilger make her debut in the role of Firebird.

Full disclosure: based on a donation to the company, we were invited to be the pointe shoe sponsor of a dancer, and we picked Alyssa. She was then in her second season with the company, and struck us as especially talented. It’s been fun getting to know her. The Firebird is a big, difficult part, and not usually (maybe never) danced by such a junior member of the company. I went over to see her first performance of the role at yesterday’s Saturday matinee, and felt a few butterflies, like an anxious parent.
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Fortunately, she was fabulous! I’ve seen Weiss’s ballet to the great Stravinsky score at least twice before, and always enjoyed the solos for the magical sparkling red bird. The creature flits, darts and dashes, with sudden quickness and sudden stillness. Alyssa’s creation was a firebird of elegant exoticism and power. Out at the end of her long arms, her hands seemed almost like individual creatures, sending their own strange messages. With some of the extreme stretches and twists, it was easy to believe she was part bird. I found her performance completely transporting. It gave me goosebumps.
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I also really enjoyed Zalman Raffael’s new ballet, Brahms’ Violin Sonata No 3. I’m a Brahms man from way back, and know this great piece very well, but it never occurred to me that it could be a ballet. If it had occurred to me, I wouldn’t have guessed that a young choreographer would grasp and know what to do with its complex romantic pleasures. Indeed, I don’t know many people who care much for this music, which sometimes makes me wistful.
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Raffael, however, left no doubt of his grasp of Brahms. I found the ballet faithful to the spirit of the music, while managing to push against it and find new aspects. Jan Burkhard’s pas de deux with Yevgeny Shlapko showed tremendous emotional range. She was lovely and languid in the slow movement, as well as fiery in the finale. Jan has always had a lot of vivacious charm, but she seems to have extended her range into the darker modes in recent seasons. Yevgeny also looked great (he must have spent some time in the gym this summer).
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The other piece on the program was a new ballet by Robert Weiss called Les Saltimbanques. The music, Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, was Weiss’s primary inspiration. The piece, which I was not familiar with, is not as tuneful and romantic as The Firebird, but instead is more polytonal with irregular accents. Here too, I thought the choreography was faithful to and illuminating of the music. The organizing idea of the ballet is street performers (acrobats, clowns, and the like) filtered through a Picasso-esque vision. I found it bright and involving, and look forward to seeing it again next week.

These pictures were taken this morning (September 14, 2014) at Yates Mill Pond in Raleigh. The great egret is a bird we don’t see every day around here. I watched this one hunting for a half hour or so, and was enraptured.
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Buds, laughs, and cries, including Romeo and Juliet (the ballet)

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Sally’s taking a flower arranging class at Wake Tech, and here is her latest project, which I really liked. With spring officially here, I’m very much ready for the big blossoming , and took a Saturday morning walk through Fletcher Park and Raulston Arboretum to see what was up. They’re not here in numbers just yet. But it was fun to take a close look at some things on the point of bursting out.
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Is there anything more boring than people bragging about their marvelous kids? Perhaps hearing people complain about their aches and pains. But other people’s impressive kids are still a serious problem, conversation-wise. Why is it, then, that stories about my own kids are so interesting?

So, sorry, but here goes a proud papa: Jocelyn, having conquered the book publishing business in Manhattan (i.e. getting an entry-level job in ebooks at Macmillan), has now published her first professional writing. It’s a humorous essay about getting the fun of a good cry, which you may read at Quarterlette, a site for twenty-something women. The pay was not good (zero), but she was very excited to be a beginning author. Who knows what comes next? She’s got a piece on online dating in the works, and we kicked around ideas for a funny piece about the annoyances of Facebook.
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At an opposite extreme, there’s a piece in last week’s New Yorker by Andrew Solomon about Peter Lanza, the father of Adam Lanza. Remember Adam, the Sandy Hook killer, who took the life of 26 little kids, his mom, and himself? This is worse than a parent’s worst nightmare. I hadn’t known that he was a high functioning autistic kid who may also have been psychotic. We want to know why he did what he did or what might have made things unfold differently, but there are no full, satisfying answers. Nobody saw Adam’s potential for horrific violence, including the mental health professionals who examined him or his parents. I was moved by Peter Lanza’s struggle with both the pain of loss and profound guilt.
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There’s another good story about death and love called Romeo and Juliet, which the Carolina Ballet performed on Saturday night. We’ve seen Robert Weiss’s choreographed version several times over the past 15 years, and it’s one of my favorites. Shakespeare’s story, it turns out, works quite well without words. The language of ballet is fully sufficient to convey the richness of the trembling, tingling ecstasy of first love, and the explosive violence of feuding clans.

In this production, Margaret Severin-Hansen played Juliet with sweet innocence, and her Romeo, Sokvannara Sar, was strong and sensitive. Their balcony scene was complete, unmitigated, overwhelming love — love that obliterates everything else. Eugene Barnes was a smoldering, intimidating Tybalt. I thought the group sword fights could have used a bit more edge and brio, though I hesitate to say so – I wouldn’t want any dancers to actually get hurt.

Lindsay Turkel was radiant in the trio of gypsy street dancers. We were also happy to see Alyssa Pilger, a corps member and our pointe shoe sponsoree, get a high-profile solo as the Mandolin Girl. She rocked! I’d previously been struck by her beautiful technique, but last night she danced with amazing power, impassioned and electrifying.