The Casual Blog

Tag: Jan Burkhard

Izzie the cat, questionable executions, and ballet love

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Izzie the cat took her last trip to the vet this week. After almost 14 years together, we were sad. Our pets enrich our lives and make us better, more loving humans, even the ones with mercurial moods like Izzie. One minute, she would be seeking affection, angelically purring, and hissing like a little demon the next. Of course, we probably seemed strange to her.

From time to time I tried to get her to do some modeling for me and my camera, but she never cared much for that. I cannot say that any of my photos quite got her essence. White with black splotches and wings, she was a strange, pretty thing. It will be a slightly different world without her.

Deciding to put down a beloved pet is a hard decision. We considered for a while the evidence of Izzie’s diminishing capacities and increasing behavioral problems, and balanced as best we could the pros and the cons. In the end, we decided it was a good time for her death. But there remains a little nagging discomfort, along with sadness. To actively take on the choice of life or death is unsettling, which it should be.
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This week U.S. fighter planes reportedly blew up several dozen people in a Libyan terrorist training camp. The target was a single Tunisian individual I’d never heard of, Noureddine Chouchane, based on his participation in terrorist attacks in Tunisia. I found this disturbing. Assuming Noureddine Chouchane was a thoroughly evil person who committed heinous acts (we couldn’t possibly get that wrong, could we?), should we be the judges and executioners for all terrorist acts, no matter how far removed from the U.S.? And even if we can justify that, how to justify taking the lives of dozens of other people who, so far as we know, committed no crimes? Do we really think it’s OK to kill all potential terrorists (who are, after all, also potential future non-terrorists)?

The Times had a story this week headlined (in the print edition) “Scars Left by American Bombs Resist Fading, 25 Years Later.” The particular scar in issue was damage from our bombing of civilians in 1991 at the beginning of the Persian Gulf War. We dropped an especially powerful bunker busting bomb on a shelter in a middle class Baghdad neighborhood and killed 408 people, most of whom were burned alive.

I can see how ordinary Iraqis could find this a moral outrage. Wouldn’t anyone? Yet I had never heard of the incident before, and after digging through 25 years of Times coverage on Iraq, couldn’t find an earlier story about it. It makes you wonder whether there are some other military atrocities that even faithful Times readers have not heard about.
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The Atlantic has a good piece by Peter Beinart titled “Why Attacking ISIS Won’t Make America Safer.” Beinart notes that most Americans favor attacking ISIS, but argues that history shows that our military actions in the Middle East have resulted in inceased, not decreased, terrorist attacks. He calls it “the terror trap”: the more terrorists we kill, the more terrorists there are trying to kill us. Beinart doesn’t say this, but I will: the military solution will not work.

On a lighter note: Saturday night we went to the new Carolina Ballet show, Love Speaks. It was delightful! The theme of romantic love never gets old, and it’s right in the sweet spot of this wonderfully talented company. Lynn Taylor-Corbett’s new work has a narrator providing some poetry of Shakespeare, and a sort of Elizabethan look, but also kind of jazzy, with quickly developing flirtations, fascinations, and jealousies. I really liked it. I also particularly enjoyed Jan Burkhard and Richard Krusch in the balcony scene of Weiss’s Romeo and Juliet. It was profoundly romantic.
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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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An eye exam, a veggie burger, and a new ballet

It was a busy week at work, with many new issues popping up as I tried to address the existing backlog. I also made a visit to the Duke Eye Center for an exam in preparation for my eye surgery next week. My ophthalmologist, Dr. Prithvi Mruthyunjaya, seems both brilliant and humane, but his patients have to spend an awfully long time in the waiting room. This was also true of Drs. Denny and Casey. Is this a retinological tradition? Are damaged retina patients more-than-usually patient? Dr. M. described my prognosis as “guarded.” At a number of levels, I felt not so great.

On Friday Sally and I did dinner and a ballet. For dinner, we made our first visit to Chuck’s, a new place on Wilmington Street that features in gourmet hamburgers. We quit eating cows many years ago, and so initially assumed Chuck’s was not for us, but then were told on good authority that they made the best veggie burger in town. It was, in fact, really good. It had flavor and pleasing, chewy consistency. And it didn’t fall to pieces.

The Carolina Ballet led off with a new work called A Street Symphony by Zalman Raffael. It was set to hip hop music, which, as almost everyone knows, is music emphasizing pulsing polyrhythms and rhyming gritty lyrics, and deemphasizing melody and harmony. I developed a taste for hip hop a few years back, when I found the Sirius radio hip hop channels, and found it to be good music for driving a sports car. I liked the raw immediacy and experimental transgressiveness. It is also, of course, good dancing music, but hip hop dancing seems worlds away from the ballet tradition.

Combining radically different movement vocabularies could be a banal experiment or a disaster, but Raffael succeeded brilliantly. His work Rhapsody in Blue, presented earlier this season, was soundly designed and had some marvelous flashes, but seemed more the work of a skilled apprentice than a master. With A Street Symphony, he has arrived, with a strong sense of architecture and humor.

The work is made up of seven songs, with the dancers arrayed in solos, couples, and ensembles. The set and costumes are minimalist, with the women wearing gauzy tutus of various colors pulled above their tights. In the beginning, the pounding rhythm is unsettling, and the first piece, Clockwork, uses a robotics theme that is fairly familiar. But Alicia Fabry’s replicant is both energized and vulnerable, with limbs shooting about at amazing speeds and a startled doe-eyed gaze.

I also really liked Jan Burkhard and Yevgeny Shlapko in Best of Me. Jan is a dancer with an sensual quality, and here she was fearless. Classical dance walks a fine line with respect to sex: it candidly reveals dancers’ bodies and deals with intimate subject matter, but almost never references the act itself, and is careful not to push the red button. But hip hop is sexy, and Jan embraced it. So did Eugene, who had a rangey freedom that recalled the hood.

Lindsay Purrington was really touching and beautiful in Cry Me a River. She did various transformations, including a streetwise tough and a Swan Lake swan. At one point her tutu started to fall to pieces, which added an unplanned degree of tension to the performance, but she dealt with the issue with grace, eventually ditching the thing stage right, and strutting boldly forward. Adam Crawford Chavis lifted her magnificently overhead.

This was unquestionably ballet, with pointe shoes and the traditional vocabulary, but augmented with exciting movements from urban street culture. The most successful dancers seemed to personalize their roles, though some stuck close to the familiar classical lines. For one, Margaret Severin-Hansen, who is a fantastic classical technician, was sharp and intriguing, but seemed to me to hold back a bit from the street. On the other hand, I thought Sokvannara Sar, Nikolai Smirnov, and Cecilia Ilieusiu all found interesting individual ways of combining the upmarket and downmarket.

Anyhow, I really liked A Street Symphony, and also Robert Weiss’s new work Idyll, set to Richard Wagner’s lovely Siegfried Idyll. It featured three couples and flowing lines. I was looking forward to The Rite of Spring, but it came after the second intermission, and I was just too tired to take it all in. Sally thought it too was wonderful.

It’s time to subscribe to next year’s ballet season. We’ve been going on Friday nights for fourteen years and have excellent front-center orchestra seats, but I think we’ll switch to Saturdays. On Fridays I often find myself tired after a busy week that includes 5:30 a.m. workouts, and not always able to hang in there intently for a full evening of beautiful performances. Our NC Symphony subscription has been on Saturdays, and so we’ll have to manage some conflicts, but it seems worth it.

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.