The Casual Blog

Tag: Lara O’Brien

A fine start to a new dance season

Looking south from Casa Tiller at sunrise.

Raleigh, where I live, is definitely not New York or San Francisco, but still, it has interesting people, universities, sports, and good restaurants. Also, lots of beautiful trees. And a thriving arts scene, including excellent music and dance. I’m particularly proud of our ballet company, the Carolina Ballet, which punches way above its weight class, both in terms of great choreography and great dancers. It started its fifteenth season this week.

On Friday we had a fine dinner at Poole’s Diner and then saw the new program, which features four works by artistic director Robert Weiss. Weiss, an alum of the City Ballet, is a legitimate and distinguished heir of George Balanchine, and he’s still creating masterworks. Each piece of the new program was quite different from the others and touched on different emotional places.

My favorite was a new piece titled Meditation from Thais, with familiar music by Jules Massenet. It was an adagio pas de deux performed by Lara O’Brien and Marcelo Martinez. The dancers, both in white leotards, began clasped together in single shape, which gracefully transformed itself and then divided into other aspects. There were no program notes on the piece, probably because the subject was clear: a man and a woman. It was sensuous. Lara is at once willowy and strong, and in this piece, intensely tragic.

The other new Weiss ballet was Intimate Voices to music by Jean Sibelius. Its theme seemed to be families and loss. The distinguished cast was headed by Melissa Podcasy, who is retiring after this program and assuming new coaching duties. Fortunately, she’s still in great form. The first movement had gorgeous Edwardian costumes, with the ladies in pastels and hats and the gentlemen in tails, and ended with a patriarch’s death. The scenery involved projections of country scenes, which were effective. I found the piece touching and look forward to seeing it again.

We talked with Ricky Weiss at intermission. He was happy with the performances, but worried about the company’s finances. Ballet is a labor-intensive business, and even with dancers working for less than seems fair and reasonable, the costs are high, and balancing the budget is a constant challenge.

The most cheerful piece was the first one, set to Prokofiev’s first (“Classical”) symphony. This involved classical costumes, complete with tutus, and a more traditional movement vocabulary. The last piece was Symposium to music of Leonard Bernstein, which is one of my favorite Weiss ballets. Eugene Barnes was particularly wonderful as Dionysos.

On Saturday we walked a few blocks to the SparkCon street festival and looked at dozens of pastel drawings on the Fayetteville Street pavement. There were musicians and circus performers, and lots of spectators. At sunset we went to the top of a parking deck at Salisbury and Hargett and watched hundreds of chimney swifts darting and swarming, and finally dropping into a large chimney.

Sharing piano music, buying a painting, and going to a new ballet

Stuart is not overly excited about our new painting

What does art mean to life? I’ll take a strong position, and say, simply, everything.

My brother, Paul, and sister-in-law Jackie were passing through last week, and we convened for dinner at Zely and Ritz. But first, they came up to our apartment to see the view and have a cocktail. I wanted to play some piano music for them, but hesitated to propose it. Sharing serious music just isn’t something people normally do in these modern times.

I also recognize that for some people it would be an imposition. I think my playing is thoughtful and nuanced, but it isn’t perfect. Even if I were a seasoned professional concert artist, it would still be true that my nineteenth and early twentieth century repertoire would not be to the taste of everyone. Although it amazes me, I understand that some people find it bewildering or boring. I hope this is mostly because of lack of education and exposure — which is one reason I think it’s important to share it.

Fortunately, Paul and Jackie studied music in college and enjoy various genres. And so I played for them some Chopin (the Nocturnes in c-sharp minor and D flat) and Debussy (the First Arabesque). They sounded good, though maybe a little stiffer than when I play for myself alone. Playing for someone else dramatically changes the sensation of making music. Perhaps it’s from adding adrenalin. Things that seemed settled can become unsettled. Sometimes new beauty emerges, and sometimes things fall to pieces. This is one of the reasons I was happy to have these family listeners — without listeners, it’s impossible to learn how to communicate the music. Paul and Jackie seemed to enjoy it, and were very gracious.

At lunch time on Wednesday, Sally and I met at the Adam Cave gallery to look at some paintings. Sally had followed up on a review she’d read with investigation on the Internet, and come up with some works that might work for us by Byron Gin. Adam, the proprietor of the gallery, had agreed to pull together his stock of Gin works, and told us more about the artist. We both felt excited about Three Birds and a Cup, and discussed it more over a lunch at the Remedy Diner (great veggie sandwiches and rock music). The next day, we decided to take him up on his offer to take the painting home and see how it looked before committing.

Three Birds and a Cup, by Byron Gin

I think it’s a touching, slightly funny and engaging painting. The house sparrows look like quizzical house sparrows, but the space looks vibrant blue and gold paint. The yellow cup looks like a cup. The eye and mind shift back and forth between the birds and the cup, and the natural and human world. I find it nourishing and stimulating.

Friday night, we ate at Buku before going to the ballet. It was unseasonably mild, so we sat outside at dinner. Buku has increased its vegetarian offerings, and the ones we tried were good: baba ghanoush, arepas, and lentil wat. I also had the flight of three half glasses of Chilean wines, which were quite delicious.

At Fletcher Hall, we heard choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett speak on the new work to be performed that evening, The Little Mermaid. We’ve liked many of LTC’s works, including Carmina Burana and Carolina Jamboree. She’s a very engaging personality, and articulate and down-to-earth about what she’s trying to do.

She didn’t put it this way, but The Little Mermaid seems designed for ballet newcomers and kids. This was somewhat true of her The Ugly Duckling, but I found Duckling more elegant and touching. Jan Burkhard as the mermaid was lovely and girlish, and fun to watch, and Randi Oseteck as the sea witch was a great villain. And I particularly liked Lindsay Purrington as the sly village girl who tricks the prince. She made the part more sympathetic than the story might have suggest, so that I was sorry when she got her comeuppance. The costumes were mostly delightful. But I found the music intensely cloying, and the narration at times plodding.

The second half of the program was duets of a serious and more classical nature. I particularly enjoyed Lara O’Brien in an intensely tragic Weiss pas de deux with music by Gustav Mahler (one of the true greats). Peggy Severin-Hanson and Marcelo Martinez were powerful and delightful in Le Corsaire pas de deux. It was great to see this significant chapter in ballet history brought intensely to life.

I recently finished reading Apollo’s Angels, a history of ballet by Jennifer Homans. I found some of it heavy going, particularly the early stages, but it was worth it all for the last couple of chapters, including her writing on Balanchine, which was full of insight. It’s unfortunate that she ends the book on a sour note in which she opines that ballet is dying. From where I sit, there’s still a lot of life. I just checked the repertoire list of the Carolina Ballet, and noted that they’ve presented versions of many of the works that Homans discusses and treats as high points of the art. I’m so glad they’re here.

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.

Welcome to fall and a new ballet season

Of the four seasons, fall is my favorite. Finally there’s a break in the hot weather, and the cooler temperatures make it easier to move. Days shorten, leaves change their colors, and migrant birds flock and prepare to move south. Harvest time is at hand. And the new arts season begins.

Our first event of the new arts season was Carolina Ballet’s performance last Friday of a program entitled Firebird. I was sorry to see the there were a good many empty seats. The audience is an important part of a performance. Those of us without dance training have a role to perform — that is, the audience role, absorbing and responding. I always feel like a better person after the ballet, with posture at least temporarily improved.

Why were there empty seats in Fletcher Hall? I do not know. People squander their precious life hours on the most amazingly nonsense yet pass up such richness close at hand. At any rate, those who made it were well rewarded. There were strong new works by Weiss and Bourtasenkov, as well as the repertory masterpiece set to the great Stravinsky score. And of course, the incredibly talented, disciplined, beautiful dancers.

As a Mahler fan, I was especially interested in Weiss’s new Sturmische Liebe, a pas de deux to a Mahler chamber piece with Lara O’Brien and Alain Molina. It was taut and tragic to the danger point, as though the end of love could only mean the end of life. It seemed to draw on the spirit of tango. I admired Lara’s intensity and her total immersion in the character, which was so somber that I briefly forgot it was acting and worried she might be a danger to herself.

I also particularly enjoyed the very different new Weiss piece Moving Life, a non-story to three enigmatic works by Erik Satie. Part of the music, the Gymnopedies, was familiar to me from a marathon performance I helped with years ago, and I went home after the show and ordered the sheet music online from Sheet Music Plus. Peggy Severin Hansen was again magnificent as the Firebird, in many regards birdlike — astonishingly light and quick, yet elegant and powerful.

Sal and I spotted Lola Cooper at the second intermission with a cast on her foot. She greeted us warmly and brought us up to date on her news. She’d had surgery a few weeks before to address a congenital bone problem. She seemed upbeat about the good progress she was making on her rehabilitation. It has to be so difficult for a dancer with such dedication to be sidelined even for a few weeks.

After the performance, Sally and I parted temporarily, she to hunt for her Mini Cooper and I my Clara. There was a street fair on Wilmingstreet called SparkCON. I spent a few minutes watching performers dancing with fire to African drumming. I couldn’t figure out how a flaming hula hoop didn’t case burns. It was fun to see the street performers, and I would have given them a few dollars if they’d asked.