The Casual Blog

Tag: George Balanchine

Getting close to big cats, a ballet Dream, transgender recognition, and Political Animals

Tiller7Bug 1
On Saturday morning I saw some big cats at the Conservators’ Center near Mebane, NC, where I got a tour with a group from the Carolina Nature Photographers’ Association. We got wonderfully close to lions, tigers, leopards, caracals, servals, and binturongs, as well as wolves, dingos, and coyotes. We were allowed to poke our lenses through holes in the fences, on the condition that we had to be ready to move back quickly when directed, which we were and did. A couple of times we heard several of the big cats roar together, which was a deep, rich sound. The friendly staff seemed devoted to these beautiful animals. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that their lives are unnaturally circumscribed, which made me kind of wistful.
Tiller7Bug 1-6

I got cheered up that evening by the Carolina Ballet’s last program of the season, with Robert Weiss’s Water Music and George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Water Music, with Handel’s iconic score, was at once regal and playful, danced with wonderful elegance by leads Margaret Severin-Hansen, Richard Krusch, and Alicia Fabry. Balanchine’s Dream, with Mendelssohn’s shimmering music, was gorgeous and funny. Pablo Javier Perez threatened to steal the show as an exotic Puck, and Ashley Hathaway, Lindsay Purrington, Adam Schiffer, and Oliver Beres had extended romantic complications. The children who played fireflies and ladybugs were delightful.
Tiller7Bug 1-7

With so much beauty and creativity in North Carolina, it’s particularly unfortunate that our Republican politicians continue to embarrass us on an industrial scale. We’re now known nationally and internationally for our anti-leadership in the area of transgender rights. This week they sued the Justice Department in federal court over their beloved HB 2, a/k/a the bathroom bill. I read the complaint, and I think I now understand how they can view themselves as non-discriminatory.

In a nutshell, these so-called conservatives do not believe transgender people actually exist. There are, for them, only two possible sexes, defined according to a look at the genitals of a just-emerged newborn. Any person whose behavior does not align with gender stereotypes – say, a person with a penis who likes wearing dresses – is by definition a fake and a fraud, and up to no good. We need to protect the children from them.

This binary categorization system is similar to that once widely used to marginalize and dehumanize blacks as inferior and gays as defective perverts. It is ignorant and mean. But, as I’ve noted, it is good that this prejudice is now out in the open where it can be debated and changed. The conservatives’ exclusion of gays from the joys and privileges of marriage got thrown on the ash heap of history more quickly than expected, and the view that trans people are not real people entitled to respect could change quickly, too.
Tiller7Bug 1-4

This week I finished reading Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brains Get in the Way of Smart Politics, by Rick Shenkman. It’s about how our thinking processes often lead us astray because they were developed to serve hunter-gatherers living in small groups and facing many dangers (tigers, snakes, other hominoids). These thinking processes do not always work well in the modern world. For example, we’re strongly biased, when in doubt, to prioritize and react quickly to possible threats, and so overreact to some things that are not actually threats.

Shenkman, a historian, draws ideas from Kahneman and others, and applies them to illuminate various political and historical puzzles. He demonstrates that our powers of self-deception are amazing and almost limitless. I found particularly interesting his discussion of the evolutionary roots of empathy. He proposes that it was an evolutionary advantage to empathize and support our close kin, while regarding unrelated humans with indifference. By supporting and protecting kin who share more genes, our ancestors maximized the chances that their genes would be passed on, but doing the same for unrelated persons was wasted energy from the genes’ perspective.

It’s both helpful and disturbing that think that our most natural way of thinking is far from altruistic. It certainly could explain some of our puzzling indifference to war crimes not committed against ourselves and to large-scale humanitarian disasters, like the current refugee crisis. But we also know that it’s possible to acquire moral vision and empathy that extend beyond our close kin. This is one of the challenging lessons of Christianity (“love thy neighbor as thy self”) and other religions. We may be naturally selfish and brutish, but we can become better.
Tiller7Bug 1-5

Winter blossoms, understanding false memories, and lively ballet

After an auspicious Groundhog Day, the weather turned cold, and we started really wishing for spring. Fortunately, our dear houseplants are keeping our spirits up. Sally recently agreed to adopt her mom’s amaryllis bulb, which needed more sun than Diane had ready access to. It’s been getting taller (see photo from last week’s post), and this week it bloomed spectacularly. I got these photos looking west when the sun had just risen.

It was a tough week for Brian Williams, who was suspended from reading the network news for recounting a harrowing war story that didn’t exactly happen, at least to him. I do not know the man, and have no knowledge as to whether he intentionally lied.

But I do know it’s entirely possible that he had a false memory that he mistook for a true one. This has happened to me, and it’s probably happened to you. Plenty of research has established that human memory is highly fallible, and some memory errors are dramatic. Thousands of people “remember” being abducted by aliens (which I’m fairly confident didn’t happen). Quack therapists have persuaded many unfortunates to “remember” childhood sexual abuse that never occurred. And some crime victims “remember” and identify their attackers with apparent certainty, after a bit of police coaching, though DNA evidence shows the attacker was someone else.

Celebrating the downfall of those with disproportionate luck as to wealth and good looks is of course good fun, and there was great schadenfreude in the land over Williams’s I’m-kind-of-a-hero story. But there were a few voices in his defense pointing out some of what we’re learning about our memory imperfections and other mental challenges. The Times had a a useful quick summary.
There was also a good article in Slate by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons that gave some practical suggestions for reducing the likelihood that you will make the kind of mistake Williams may have made, such as checking your facts when you really need to get the fact right. By coincidence, I’d just listened to interviews with these same guys on You Are Not so Smart, a podcast focused on the science of our systematic shortcomings, like memory glitches and unconscious bias.

We like to imagine ourselves as powerful and perfect, but it’s much more useful to be aware of where we are prone to error and delusion. Understanding our cognitive weaknesses can help us avoid some mistakes and make better decisions. Also, understanding that we are all fallible might make us a little more humble and a little less judgemental.


One of the great thing about ballet is that, though mannered, it also has a kind of emotional directness. It doesn’t need much in the way of narrative to involve us. As humans, we are just naturally interested in the physical aspects of other humans. Within the safe zone of the theatre, we are privileged to gaze at the beautiful dancers, as they share themselves and bring us to life.

On Saturday night, we saw the Carolina Ballet do a program with works by Robert Weiss and George Balanchine. Jan Burkhard and Nikolai Smirnov were dazzling in Tarantella. Balanchine’s take on gypsy dancers is light, but also intense, and the dancers seemed to push to their limits. Balanchine’s famous Four Temperaments was more austere, with the dancers in basic black and white and inwardly focused, but it was equally stimulating. Cecilia Iliesiu as Choleric was particularly fine – commanding and regal.

I also really liked the two new Weiss ballets. The Double is a duet of two women, not identical but nearly, moving closely in synch in shadows. Alicia Fabry and Alyssa Pilger were beautifully paired, and entrancing. Weiss’s Grosse Fuge, to Beethoven’s famous and strange late work, had a large cast and high kinetic energy.

Wonderful Balanchine ballets, and friends

We just loved the new Carolina Ballet program, A Balanchine Celebration, which we saw when it opened on Thursday night.  It ran the emotional gamut, from wrenching (Agon) to carefree (Who Cares?), all, naturally, by George Balanchine, the greatest choreographer of the twentieth century.  
It was all wonderful, but I have to mention especially Lara O’Brien and Eugene Barnes in the Agon pas de deux, with music by Stravinsky.  As I mentioned to Lara afterward, it truly made me uncomfortable, as it surely is meant to do.  She took the angular movements to a frightening extreme.  I was reminded of something I once read about Suzanne Farrell:  she made the audience sweat.  Margaret Severin-Hansen and Pablo Javier Perez were deft and delightful in Tarantella.  I also had a new appreciation for Jan Burkhard in Valse Fantaisie and in Who Cares.  She’s got a spunk and sass, which worked particularly well in the Gershwin.
I need to give a special note of appreciation to the pianist for the Gershwin, Karl Moraski.  I was on the second row, practically inside the piano, and could hear every detail.  In my jazz period, I listened to multiple versions of all these iconic standards, and learned not just the tunes and harmonic structures, but also the words to all these songs.  Moraski was faithful to the spirit of the music; Gershwin would certainly have approved.  I spoke to him afterwards to congratulate him, and verified that he had done the arranging.  I noticed that the dancers seemed to be smiling a lot during the Gershwin, and wondered for a minute if they’d been coached smiling.  Then I realized I was smiling a lot, too.  The great music, and Balanchine’s lighthearted ballet translation of MGM musical-type dancing, was delightful.  
Last year we made a contribution that made us the pointe shoe sponsors of Lola Cooper, and so we always watch her performances with particular interest.  She had a charming pas de deuz with Nikolai Smirnov in the Gershwin piece, S’Wonderful.  She’s got a ton of warmth and vitality, and just keeps getting better.
One of the great things about having exceptional artists in the 42d largest city in America (as opposed, say, to the first, second, or third) is you can, if you want to, talk to them.  Earlier in the week, I’d sent Ricky Weiss a link to a Ted Talks talk by the choreographer Wayne McGregor.  At intermission, he told me that he really appreciated my sending it, and he absolutely hated it!  It was contrary to everything he believed dance should be trying to do.  He found it hollow and superficial.  I didn’t think it was quite that bad, but what do I know?  As I told Ricky, whatever the merits ot McGregor’s choreography, I thought it was worthwhile that the Ted conference was engaging with dance, and it suggested another avenue for exploring and communicating about creativity.  Ricky seemed to be of the view that there was no redeeming quality.  He just couldn’t stand it.  
At the other intermission, we had a glass of wine and a chocolate in the donor’s room, and two of the new dancers of the company came up and introduced themselves:  Colby and Laren Treat, who are twin sisters from Ilion, New York.  I was so impressed that they had the gumption to come right up to us and start talking.  That’s not an easy thing to do, for a young person or any person.  They were really friendly and had interesting things to say about the program.  
I feel so fortunate to be able to meet and be inspired by all these artists.  It’s one more great reason to live in Raleigh, NC.  Earlier in the week, I had lunch with my friend David Meeker, who was recruiting me to join the board the City of Raleigh Museum.  David is still in his twenties, but has contributed significantly to civic life by founding the Busy Bee Cafe and developing the building with Beazley’s and other properties.  We agreed that Raleigh had come a long way and had a ton of great things happening (e.g. arts, food, sports, commerce), but was still struggling with its branding.  I thought the museum might help develop a richer understanding of Raleigh, and agreed to consider joining the board.
As I’m posting this, we’re in RDU airport (free wifi!) about to depart for Italy.   is our first trip there, and has been a long time coming.  I almost made it when I was sixteen, and was recruited for an orchestral music program by the NC School of the Arts in Siena, but lacked the necessary funding.  I almost made it six years ago, but then my Mom fell ill.  So now we’re going to do it.  I’ve reviewed numerous guidebooks, and listened to 15 CDs of Pimsleur’s Italian.  I think it’s going to be great.  More to come.  

Curiosity, live chamber music, and wonderful ballet

Curiosity killed the cat, but I’ve come to see curiosity and openness to new experiences as major contributors to happiness. This week the NY Times science section had a story that supported this view. The story by John Tierney focuses on “novelty seeking” as a personality trait. According to one study, persons with the highest life satisfaction were those who scored high in novelty seeking and balanced that trait with high levels of persistence, meaning staying with an effort when there’s no immediate reward.

The same study mentioned a third trait associated with those who flourished most, in terms of health, friends, and emotional satisfaction, which it labeled “self-transcendence.” This is “the capacity to get lost in the moment doing what you love to do, to feel a connection to nature and humanity and the universe.” Tierney cites research indicating that novelty seekers exhibit more personality growth as they age. But it is also associated with such problems as gambling and drug addiction, compulsive spending, and criminal behavior. Too much of a good thing, perhaps.

I’ve noticed that lately I’m getting more and more enjoyment from music and dance, which may derive from persistently seeking novel forms and self-transcendence. I’ve been getting out to more live performances these last few years, which helps. I heard an interview with James Levine, the great conductor, in which he compared a recorded performance to music to a post card of a scenic view — that is, a pale reflection of the live event. That may be an exaggeration, but I think he was right that there is no good substitute for live performance.

And so Sally and I made our way to Fletcher Hall last Sunday afternoon to hear one of the world’s premier piano trios, named for its members: the Kalichstein- Laredo-Robinson Trio. They were master musicians and played an excellent program of Mozart, Debussy, Richard Danielpour (b. 1956), and Ravel. Laredo (violin) and Robinson (cello) have been married for 35 years, and the Danielpour piece was a duet written for them entitled Inventions on a Marriage. It covered a range of moods, from passionate to tender to humorous, and the musicians were, as you’d expect, in intimate communication.

Unfortunately, the audience was sparse — about 160 people. I felt embarrassed on behalf of Raleigh that there weren’t more people to hear these truly great performers. As a member of the board of the sponsor, the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, I felt some responsibility. Afterwards, several board members exchanged emails theorizing about what happened.

Did we not publicize the event enough? I think we did not. Is the audience for this music disappearing? I sincerely hope not, but I guess it’s possible. Chamber groups like string quartets are what TV ad writers plug in when they want to quickly depict the opposite of cool and hip. And they aren’t really wrong. Unlike things that are cool, chamber music is not instantly accessible. It takes years of training and devotion to play, and it also takes education and experience to enjoy. Those of us who have been privileged to have such education had better figure out some way to educate others, or we may lose something precious.

Enjoying ballet also requires some amount of education and experience, although it doesn’t rank as high on the endangered-arts list. I’ve been fortunate to have had early exposure, starting with my sisters’ elementary ballet recitals and continuing through high school at the N.C. School of the Arts. I got to see George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet and other great companies. And I’m continuing to learn from watching the work of great choreographers and dancers, and also reading. I’ve almost finished Apollo’s Angel’s, Jennifer Homan’s impressive, and daunting, history of ballet.

On Thursday we went to opening night of the Carolina Ballet’s new program, Balanchine Rarities. The program opened with three short but very technically demanding Balanchine works. The dancers were beautiful, even in sequences that seemed designed to test their physical limits. I especially enjoyed A la Francaix, a piece in the playful spirit of Jerome Robbins’s Fancy-Free, with two rambunctious sailors, a fun-loving Flirt, a Dandy with a tennis racket, and a diaphanous Sylph, who competes with the Flirt for the Dandy. Jan Burkhard was delightful as the sexy Flirt, and Lindsay Purringon found a sweet combination of elegance and humor in the Sylph. Eugene Shlapko was athletic and funny as the Dandy. He’s getting better and better.

At intermission we talked with Lola Cooper, who had the night off. She was fighting a bad cold and losing her voice, but excited about working with Marina Eglevsky, who staged the Balanchine works. We also talked with Alicia Fabry, who had broken her right metatarsal the previous week during rehearsal. She was in a plastic cast and using a crutch. Poor thing! She said the break could have been worse and did not require surgery, but would take several weeks to heal.

The company also performed Lynn Taylor-Corbett’s Lost and Found, inspired by the 9/11 attacks and set to piano music by Robert Schumann. It is a elegaic work, somber but beautiful. The last work was Robert Weiss’s Moving Life to piano music of Erik Satie. Roy Dicks’s review in the News and Observer singled out Cecilia Iliesiu for her performance, which I thought was fitting; I also thought she seemed like a rising star.

Discussing open source ballet with Robert Weiss

Do open source software and ballet have anything in common? Sure, they have some obvious differences. But they share an imperative to collaborate and a creative spirit. Anyhow, I’m a big fan of both, and I’ve been thinking about whether some of the lessons of open source could be applied to ballet. Last week got a chance to kick ideas on this around with a great choreographer, Robert Weiss.

Weiss, who goes by Ricky, is artistic director of the Carolina Ballet, which plays out of Raleigh, N.C. He spent the early part of his career as a dancer at the New York City Ballet with its famous director, George Balanchine. In more than a decade with the Carolina Ballet, he has been a prolific choreographer, producing dozens of ballets. He’s also recruited superbly talented dancers from around the world and melded them into an outstanding company. When we met last week, along with my friend CB Board Chair Melanie Dubis, at Buku for lunch, I thought, this must be close to the world’s greatest job — working every day with beautiful, talented, dedicated people to create art for the ages. What could be more wonderful?

When we met for lunch last week, it quickly became clear that it would be more wonderful to not be constantly worried about money. If only, he said, he had better funding, he could spend more time thinking about dance and less about fund raising. Ballet is an art form that entails numbers of dancers, all requiring paychecks, and the same for musicians, costume designers and costumers, set designers and sets, lighting designers and lights, stage management and crew, and of course, choreographers. As an art, it is capital intensive. There are inherent barriers to reaching a wide audience, including lack of exposure to the form and its traditions.

As Ricky described the process of creating a new work, it was plain that it was highly collaborative. When he choreographs a new work, it is created on specific dancers, and the work is shaped in view of their individual qualities. The work draws on a tradition that goes back to the Renaissance, with a large vocabulary of movements that are available for re-use. (As Ricky warmed to the subject, he stood up from the table and showed a couple of classical gestures, and his sudden transformation from regular person to dancer was electrifying.) And of course, there’s collaboration with the aforementioned costume designers, set designers, and many others. It is in general an art of great idealism and unselfishness, at least in the sense that almost no one expects to get rich from it, and many are prepared to subsist on a shoestring budget.

But in ballet as in most of our endeavors, there is an unexamined assumption that intellectual property protection is important. Thus copying of videoed performances is subject to the draconian penalties of copyright law. The dances are kept locked down, on the assumption that making them freely available could result in lost value. I raised the question with Rocky and Melanie whether this really makes sense. Is copyright protection actually increasing the value proposition of ballet, or is it lessening it?

As I explained, the open source software community has learned some lessons about this that the rest of the world is starting to apply. Open source innovators, whose projects are based on freely sharing their code, realized that the traditional approach to intellectual property would not work for them, and so they created new licensing models, such as the GPL, that encouraged sharing and re-use. That approach has led to incredible growth in open source software. The model is spreading outward to other creative endeavors with such tools as Creative Commons licensing.

Could it be that less IP protectiveness could expand the audience for ballet and bring in new funding? What if, instead of protecting ballet as carefully as possible with copyright, the product was unlocked and made available under a Creative Commons license? For example, if well-produced video of the Carolina Ballet was readily available on the internet without charge, couldn’t that introduce many more people to ballet, with some of them eventually becoming balletomanes?

Ricky noted that even the best video of ballet is only a pale reflection of the experience of live performance. But he also admitted that he knew of people who had had transformative personal experience through a recorded performance. He also noted that it would require funding to make video recordings of a quality that he’d be comfortable presenting in public. (Footnote: a couple of days after our meeting, I saw a documentary on the choreographer Jerome Robbins called Something to Dance About, which is great, and illustrates how video can communicate something meaningful about dance.)

Open source innovation generally involves experimentation. I noted that there could be approaches to video and to funding that none of us has thought of yet. We agreed to talk more about what might be possible. It may be that you have ideas or experience in applying open source methods to artistic endeavors. If you have ideas, please share them.