The Casual Blog

Tag: ballet

Bees, batching it, basic incomes, Confucius, and a brand new ballet

At Raulston Arboretum

At Raulston Arboretum

Sally’s tennis team made it to the state finals, which was in Greensboro this week. Of course we were proud of her, but also concerned, since this meant leaving Gabe and me, and the three cats and two dogs, to fend for ourselves for a few days. Sally is our goddess, but also our our binding agent, and general civilizing force. There was a risk we’d have a quick return to the state of nature and a Lord of the Flies situation.

In the end, the cats threw up less than normal, the dogs sustained bladder control, and we kept things reasonably tidy and companionable. A couple of evenings, Gabe and I did parallel play, each in the living room with our MacBooks, working on Adobe programs. While I’ve been trying to learn Lightroom, he’s been delving into Illustrator as part of his exploring becoming a graphic designer. I’ve always thought he was talented in this direction, and so this doesn’t seem unrealistic, though I worry that creative careers are for most people underpaid ones.

Speaking of careers, I read more this week about the quick rise of artificial intelligence that will likely render redundant large chunks of the world’s workers. I started Martin Ford’s new book, Rise of the Robots, Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, which talks about the latest advances in AI and robotics, along with unemployment problems. He’s an advocate of the guaranteed basic income to address the problem of increasing structural unemployment. There’s a piece in the Atlantic about the basic income movement — paying everyone enough for the necessities, so they can continue to buy goods and services. This could stave off economic collapse, which would be a good thing.

Of course, the idea of a bigger safety net seems wildly unrealistic in these days of so-called conservative political ascendancy. But this week there were reminders that good ideas that seemed impossible a short while ago can suddenly become the new normal. Nebraska legislators ended the death penalty in that very red state! Kansas legislators who championed tax cutting are talking about raising taxes to pay for basic services. Not so long ago, it seemed impossible that the United States would ever legalize marijuana or gay marriage, and now those things seem more probable than not. And despite continuing fear mongering, it looks like the Patriot Act is going to expire tonight. A guaranteed basic income could become as American as Social Security.

I realize I’m jumping around a bit, but this is related in a way (political ideas/notions of human meaning and purpose): there was a thought-provoking book excerpt by Henry Rosemont, Jr. in the Huffington Post contrasting the libertarian strain of western political thought with Confucianism. About all I thought I knew about Confucianism was that it involved something about ancestor worship, but Rosemont presents some profound and useful ideas about social relations, morality, and the role of the individual.

He writes,

By emphasizing not our individuality but our sociality, the Confucians simultaneously emphasize our relationality: an abstract individual I am not, but rather a particular son, husband, father, grandfather, teacher, student, colleague, neighbor, friend, and more. In all of these roles I am defined in large measure by the other(s) with whom I interact, highly specific personages related to me in one way or another; they are not abstract autonomous individuals either. Moreover, we do not “play” these roles, as we tend to speak of them, but rather live our roles, and when all of them have been specified, and their interrelationships made manifest, then we have, for Confucius, been thoroughly individuated, but with nothing left over with which to piece together an autonomous individual self. Being thus the aggregate sum of the roles I live, it must follow that as I grow older my roles will change, and consequently I become quite literally a different person.

Rosemont goes on to explain that the quest for a single definition of one’s self is futile, because “we are basically constituted by the roles we live in the midst of others.” That is, the self is a dynamic construction made by individuals working in concert. As to meaning, he writes, “My life can only have meaning as I contribute to the meaningfulness of the lives of others, and they to me.” This does not seem radical to me, but it stands in stark contrast to the traditional western view of the individual as autonomous and self-directed. I’m considering getting Rosemont’s book and exploring this more.

Sally got back from the tournament in Greensboro on Saturday in time for us to get to the Carolina Ballet studios for the first ever performance of a new ballet by Zalman Raffael. Sonata 17, set to Beethoven’s piano sonata op. 31, no. 2, was created with a grant from the New York Choreographic Institute, and involved four male and four female dancers, including our friend Alyssa Pilger. It was romantic in the sense that Beethoven is romantic, and had a boy-seeking-girl subplot, but at the same time was coolly modern. My main criticism was that the pas de deux second movement seemed overly minimal.

The third movement got off to a blazingly kinetic start, but then Rammaru Shindo fell and was unable to get up. The music stopped, and he was helped off the stage. The other dancers finished the piece, with blanks where Shindo would have been. It was a reminder of that the amazing athleticism of these dancers involves serious risks, and they can and do get hurt. There was a reception afterwards, where we had a glass of wine and chatted with Zali, Alyssa, Michael and Amy Tiemann, and other friends.

That evening we saw a very good documentary on Netflix called First Position about young dancers preparing for and participating in a large ballet competition. The dancers were amazingly talented! It was a pleasure to watch, and also showed the incredible discipline and drive of top dance students.

I took these pictures at Raulston Arboretum on May 29, 2015, at about 6:30 p.m. The season of pure new blossoms has passed, but there were bees hard at work. They work fast, with only a moment on a flower, but photographically frozen, they look like they love their flowers. I was also pleased to come upon a well-camouflaged little snake who was intently sensing the world with his tongue.

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival — some highlights

14 04 05_7994_edited-1Kudos to the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival which ran from last Thursday through the weekend in Durham, NC. The Festival had five main screens on which it screened more than 100 films. There were lots of helpful volunteers, and things ran on time and from what I saw, mostly glitch free. Many shows were sold out, and the crowds were enthusiastic.

I like documentaries most when the makers are passionate about the subject but also trying to maintain their critical distance and integrity. Documentary filmmakers, like all of us, have their blind spots and biases. Objectivity is a fine ideal, but I don’t think it’s possible to tell a coherent story based on reality in any medium without filtering, editing, and reworking; reality is just too messy to present raw. And no doubt some filmmakers are consciously manipulative. But a lot of documentary people seem to work hard to be truthful.

This was, I think true of all five films we saw, which covered a lot of artistic, social, and political ground. Here’s the list, in the order we saw them.

1. Afternoon of a Faun: Taniquil Le Clerq, by Nancy Buirski, is about the famous ballerina with the NY City Ballet. She married George Ballanchine and at her artistic peak contracted polio and never danced, or walked, again. This will be of most interest to other balletomanes, but I very much enjoyed the archival footage of Le Clerq and other great dancers and the interviews with Ballanchine, Jerome Robbins, Jacques d’Amboise, and others.

2. Whitey: The United States v. James J. Bulger, by Joe Berlinger, was organized around the criminal trial in Boston last year of Whitey Bulger, the crime boss who controlled South Boston for decades and then eluded capture for 16 years. You may recall from press reports that the trial was somewhat bizarre, in that Bulger didn’t deny many of the criminal acts that the government was trying to prove, but used the trial to deny that he was a government informant (“rat”) – which wasn’t an issue in the trial.

Bulger’s point seemed to be that a lot of state and federal law enforcement officials were working for him, rather than the other way around. There was ample proof that at least a couple of FBI agents were thoroughtly corrupt. This wasn’t so surprising – one expects that every barrel will have a few bad apples, – but there were indications that the officials working with Bulger were numerous and included some in high places (like the U.S. Attorney’s office). This could explain how he was permitted to run his operation for decades, murdering numerous people and destroying the lives of many others, while Italian Mafia competitors were arrested and convicted. The story was complicated, but the over all impression was that the law enforcement system came off the rails, and may not yet be back on them. It was truly shocking.
14 04 05_7997_edited-1

3. Freedom Summer, by Stanley Nelson, was about the struggle for Black voting rights in Mississippi, including the work by about a thousand mostly white college students who worked there in the summer of 1964. I knew these folks had been courageous and idealistic, but I hadn’t quite realized how harrowing things had been. The old guard racists were fire bombing and shooting at them, and killed three. The film was ultimately inspiring, reminding us that it may not be futile to work for political change in the face of difficult odds.

4. Ivory Tower, by Andrew Rossi, is about the structural problems of higher education in America, including dramatically risings costs, crushing student debt, deteriorating study habits, and confused mission (e.g. whether to get kids ready for the world of work, challenge them intellectually, or entertain them). I was particularly interested in the reporting new education models, incorporating MOOCs and hybrid approaches to teaching.

5. Rich Hill, by Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo, is an intimate look at the lives of three adolescent boys in a small Missouri town. The families were all working (at least at times) poor, and their situations were unsettled and frequently chaotic. With a lot of anger and despair, it was difficult to watch at times — almost too real, with no apparent good solutions.

In addition to the stimulating films, the food concession was good; I was very happy with my salad combo plate. There was an unfortunate postscript for me – I lost my iPad Air. I probably left it in the theatre on Saturday night. It has most of the books I’m reading on it, as well as many other things I care about. In short, it’s gotten to be more than just another computing device, but more like a little piece of me. I’m feeling a bit shaken to be missing it.
14 04 05_7987_edited-1

A Philip Glass opera and remembering B Berkeley

Sally and Jocelyn at the Mill House Inn, East Hampton, New York

Thursday night I went with friends to see the NC Opera’s production of Les Enfants Terrible by Philip Glass. I was interested for three reasons: I like some of Glass’s minimalist music, I like to support the NC Opera, and this production was billed as a dance opera. Ricky Weiss, artistic director of the Carolina Ballet, choreographed and directed the production.

I liked it. The story is a strange, surreal, dark tale of a brother and sister who are close — too close. The music is both driving and dreamlike. Each character had two physical bodies — a singer and a dancer — and each body expressed part of the emotional reality. This opened up interesting expressive possibilities. Opera fans are familiar with the enormous range of emotional possibilities from singing plus acting, and adding dance in as a vital element was fascinating.

One problem, though, was that the dancers could so easily steal their scenes, without meaning to. They are so much more graceful and expressive than ordinary humans, and even more than trained actors. At times it was difficult to give equal weight to the non-dance parts of the action, because the dancers were so compelling. The singing was rather good, particularly the soprano Jessica Cates as Lise. But her dancer twin, Lara O’Brien, had tremendous emotional range, and a kind of wildness. I thought the idea of the singer-dancer pairs was great, and worth exploring further.

The next day Sally and I flew to New York to attend the memorial service for her father, Norborne Berkeley, Jr., affectionately known to my generation as B. Gabe and Jocelyn flew in from Colorado and we rendezvoused at a hotel near La Guardia, then drove out to East Hampton. I was so happy to see the kids! We stayed in a lovely bed and breakfast called The Mill House Inn. It was good to see the Berkeley side of the family, and revive happy memories of East Hampton from our younger days.

We drove by the old Berkeley place in Bridgehampton and did a little shopping in East Hampton. I bought Gabe a pair of corduroy pants and The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, on the sole condition that once he finished it he tell me his impressions. Such a rich book, and I know too few people who have read it. It snowed six inches that night.

The service on Saturday was in an Episcapol church and was well attended despite the snow. It had a heavier religious component than I expected from this relatively unreligious family. But Bill Berkeley did a fine job in his eulogy recognizing the strengths and accomplishments of B, and the good qualities we’ll want to remember. B meant a great deal in my own life, and I’ll miss him.

The Black Swan — a ballet fan’s take

On Saturday night Sally and I did dinner and a movie — Tom Yum Thai and The Black Swan. I had the tofu spicy noodles, which were tasty (medium spicy means spicy!). We were looking forward to and slightly dreading The Black Swan, but for ballet fans, it’s hard to avoid it. Hollywood makes about one big ballet movie a generation, so this may be it for a while.

There were several things about the movie I liked. Natalie Portman as the rising ballerina has a porcelain mixture of delicate fragility and surprising power. She is convincing as a normal, if unusually hardworking and talented, young woman. But little by little, the mask slips, and we realize she is laboring hard to portray normality, and she’s becoming deranged. She has a lot of close-ups, and her fleeting micro expressions and larger meltdowns convey an interior tempest. Watching her is at first just fun, and then, increasingly, excruciating, but never boring. It’s an impressive performance.

The movie got a lot of little things about ballet right or at least close, from the dancer’s preparation of toe shoes to costuming details. It’s not a bad introduction to what happens behind the curtain leading up to and during a production. It also conveyed the unusual combination of camaraderie and intense competition among dancers.

I also liked one of the central themes: that dancing is more than the steps. Ballet is full of paradoxes. To fulfill the basic demands of the form is tremendously difficult. Mastering the vocabulary of movements require tremendous physical ability plus years of training, and the enormous technical demands are complicated by the need to assimilate generations of custom and tradition. To be even adequate as a dancer requires an extraordinary human. But the technical achievement alone is not the real point. A true artist is not simply going through a predetermined set of movements. A great ballet performance explores and communicates difficult-to-reach emotions. This does not always happen, but when it does, it is sublime.

The Black Swan in effect said this, although it will probably not convince ballet skeptics that it really happens. The dancing in the movie does not look hokey, which is good. But it never seems transcendent. This is problematic for the story line, which concerns transcendence. But the failure of the dancing to catch fire didn’t disappoint me greatly. It is, after all, a movie. To see real ballet, you need to go to the ballet.

My bigger problem with the movie was that it organized itself around the stereotype that the quest for beauty is a dangerous obsession, and the artist is a sort of madman/woman. As with all stereotypes, there’s a grain of truth in the mad artist story, but great art does not at all depend on sickness. It is fundamentally healthy and life affirming. Mental illnesses of an artist are real problems for the artist. Of course, a movie about a well-balanced young woman pursuing dancing greatness in a calm and well balanced manner would have had less kick. And probably zero box office.

But it’s disturbing to think that a lot of people will take away the idea that great ballerinas must be crazy or that there’s something basically sick about the art. It’s also unfortunate that there are a few scenes of gore in the movie that will disgust some audience members and overwhelm all their other impressions. For those with reasonably a reasonably strong tolerance for suspense and gore, though, The Black Swan is worth seeing. I’m not sure how I’ll feel about the movie as time goes by, but it certainly transported me out of my usual world and into another one.

Ballet class and open source

This week Sally and I went over to the Carolina Ballet studio at lunch time and sat in on a class taught by Ricky Weiss.  We needed to return a borrowed DVD, and also to meet Lola Cooper, a dancer whose shoes we’d decided to pay for.  We sat in front of the class close to the first line of dancers, which felt awkward at first.  I wondered if we would be a distraction or otherwise be inhibiting.  I would certainly feel ill at ease practicing the piano in front of strangers.

I gradually realized that our presence mattered little if at all.  The dancers were deeply focused on their work.  Their dress was varied, with some in leotards, some in sweats, some in shorts.  It was, of course, an attractive group — youthful and graceful.  Also remarkably strong and powerful.

Weiss didn’t have to say very much to direct the dancers.  A couple of comments, a couple of gestures, and he’d have the dozens of dancers moving in a new complex pattern in unison.  There is, of course, a ballet vocabulary of movement that has a long history, in which all these  professionals have long been schooled.  But the complex combinations of movements were demanding.  There were, not surprisingly, struggle and mistakes.

Practice makes perfect.  This aspect of ballet is very like classical music.  The musician’s performance is the net of hours and years of diligent practice, considering each tiny detail, shoring up each possible point of failure, developing the mind and body to serve a particular musical message.  It takes repetition, with the challenge of somehow avoiding mindless repetition.  I think of practicing the piano as a tool for exploring something inside that is otherwise unreachable, for connecting with both the deeper self and something greater than the self.  But it also is a discipline that looks toward the future, and the possibility of greater transcendence, paid for by hard, diligent effort.

One important difference from music was the social aspect of ballet class.  The dancers worked very hard, but there was also laughter.    A few times, they applauded for the extraordinary sequences of their colleagues.  At one point, Weiss directed the dancers to spin and do enormous hurdling leaps towards the corner where we sat.  Teams of three dancers at a time came flying at a high rate of speed directly towards us.  I tried to stay cool, but I was aware that  a small miscalculation by one of them could result in serious injury — to us!  They came close.  Ballet is more dangerous than you normally think.

After the class, we met Lola.  In the class, she showed grace and powerful technique, and in conversation, she was poised and confident.  She told us about her early enthusiasm for horses, her six years as a student at the American Ballet school, and her time in Seattle.   Along with seeking her pursuit of artistic excellence, she’s also a communications major at N.C. State.

She asked what we did, and I told her a little about my work with open source software.  I tried out on her my idea that open source methods are actually close to how a ballet is made.  A choreographer borrows freely, taking preexisting ideas from all available sources, and modifies those materials to make something new.  It’s very similar to the method of open source software developers.  Lola didn’t appear to buy it, but I still think the idea has merit.  She invited us to see her do a solo in a couple of weeks, which should be fun.

Daunting derivatives and Sleeping Beauty

Tuesday evening I boarded the flight from RDU to Dallas, and was confused at first as I looked in the coach section for my seat.   5E wasn’t there.  It slowly dawned on me that I had a first class ticket, either as a result of a computer glitch or some unexpectedly generous rewards system.  After I wedged my way forward through the human tide and found my seat,  I tried not to look too ecstatic.  Ah, such a comfy, roomy seat.  And so sweet to have a flight attendant who’s attentive, and little luxuries like warm peanuts and hot towels.  My neighbor was a precocious nine-year-old boy with a stuffed toy traveling to see his mom.  He’d flown this route many times.  He wanted to be an inventor when he grew up.

On the trip, I finished The Big Short by Michael Lewis.  I picked up the book on the strength of his earlier book, Liar’s Poker, and out of concern that I probably didn’t fully understand the drama in the U.S. and world economy in the last two years.  After reading the book, I’m quite sure I didn’t.  I now know a little more, but my larger takeaway is that part of the cause is that the mechanisms involved are so complex that they defy conscious human understanding or control.  I don’t think this is Lewis’s intended message.  He tries to create some heros and villains, or at least intelligent actors and dupes.  The intelligent actors had rational thoughts, and realized that subprime-mortgage-based derivative investments were much riskier than advertised.  He casts some blame on clueless regulators and unscrupulous investment bankers.

Lewis implicitly suggests the slightly cheering possibility that if people were more reasonable and diligent, they might set up regulatory and other systems to avoid financial catastrophe.  I found this encouraging message not very persuasive.  There were surely some monsters and frauds involved in the recent debacle, and plenty of examples of unsavory pure greed and indifference to human welfare.  But right now it looks to me like the big driver was the financial engineering of investment vehicles that were practically impossible to understand, even for professional investors and regulators, never mind individuals.  Creating them was far from unnatural.  In nature, technology, and other human  systems, greater and greater levels of complexity over time is generally the rule.  At some point, there’s simply too much for the human mind to deal with.  Our rational systems are overwhelmed, and our fallback emotional systems have no guideposts from experience.  Disaster is not necessarily inevitable, but we are less and less in control.  Yes, it’s scary.

But life, amazingly, goes on.  Sally and I went to the last program of the season for the Carolina Ballet last night, which was Robert Weiss’s version of Sleeping Beauty.  The music is by Tchaikovsky, and as Weiss explained at the beginning, the choreography comes in significant part directly from Marius Petipa’s nineteenth-century work.  For the most part, this was a very traditional, classical form of ballet.  I generally prefer the more abstract athleticism of Balanchine and his school (including Weiss) with modern dance inflections.  No matter.  Sleeping Beauty was wonderful.  Even the junior members of the corps de ballet showed considerable authority with classical technique, and the soloists were masters who communicate emotional depth within that framework.   Margaret Severin-Hansen as Aurora was etherial.  The costumes were also classically inspired (gowns and embroidered waistcoats and many tutus), and gorgeous.

We got a backstage tour courtesy of our friend Ginny at intermission.  It turned out, the action hadn’t really stopped.  On the stage behind the curtain, some of the dancers were practicing difficult passages or doing deep stretches.  It was disconcerting at first to shift from observer of a carefully planned spectacle to quasi-participant in the assembling of the spectacle, but fascinating.  We met Lilly Vigo, a great favorite of ours who was off for the night, and talked about her new baby, who was six months old that day.  We examined up close the intricate costumes and saw the swan boat and the huge dragon puppet in the wings.  A friend once told me that I was the kind of  person who likes to look behind curtains and see what’s really going on, and it’s true.  One of my fantasy careers is to be a stagehand.

After the show, we decided to have a drink at the Foundation, a tiny bar on Fayetteville Street that features a huge menu of American-made designer spirits.  The downstairs space was crowded, so we settled on stools at street level and did some people watching.  Two of our favorite soloists from the company, Lara O’Brien and Eugene Barnes, arrived shortly afterwards, and sat down next to us.  They seemed pleased that we were big fans, and we really enjoyed talking with them about favorite ballets, goings on in the company, and the travails of the professional dancer’s life.  This is the end of an arduous season for them, and both are looking forward to recovering from injuries over the summer.  We’re looking forward to seeing them again.