The Casual Blog

Tag: Robert Weiss

Lost and found, Hawking, Churchill, Feldman, German, Brewery Bhavana, and Bolero (the ballet)

Durant Nature Preserve on Saturday morning

It’s been a big week for domestic lost and found drama.  I lost, and eventually found, my smartphone, a glove, the battery for my camera, my wireless headphones, the front page of the New York Times, and probably some other stuff I’ve already forgotten about.  I hate that uh-oh feeling, that this-could-be-serious feeling, that tightness in the stomach as you try to stay calm and think carefully, where did I last have that thing?

Some of the losses could be attributable to task overload.  An example: on Friday morning, I drove back from a spin class listening to an audiobook, and as I started to parallel park I saw a friend and her baby on the sidewalk.  So I hurried to park, get out, and say hello. Then back in the apartment, I needed to check my schedule for the day with the phone, and realized I must have left it in the car.  

We had some cardboard boxes flattened and ready to go down to the recycling area, so I carried them along when I went to get the phone, and brought the Times to read while I waited for the elevator.  When the elevator came, inside was a young woman with a dog, and we chatted about her dog. Then I went to the recycling room and tossed the cardboard into a huge bin — along with the Times.

The bin came up almost to my shoulders, and was empty except for my cardboard and the Times.  I couldn’t reach the bottom. To get the newspaper out, I had to do some experimenting, but eventually I figured out how to hoist myself up on the front of the bin, lower myself in, grab the Times, and get back out without injuring myself or the bin.

Last week we lost Stephen Hawking, the great British astrophysicist who was paralyzed for most of his life.  He was one of my heroes. Back in the day, I read his A Brief History of Time, of which I understood not a lot.  It was Hawking’s curiosity and courage that really moved me. I always thought that his life must be as purely intellectual as any human being’s has ever been.  

But I heard an interview with one of his scientific collaborators who said that he was always accompanied by nurses, who frequently needed to help him with bodily issues.  That is, he also was a physical person. According to the interview, it was fun hanging out with him.  

We finally saw The Darkest Hour, the Winston Churchill biopic, on Amazon Prime this weekend.  Gary Oldman certainly deserved his recent best actor Oscar for his Churchill, and so did Kazuhiro Tsuji, his makeup artist.  

Churchill was in many respects a terrible person, accountable for racist imperialism and mass murder, but he also did one truly heroic thing of lasting value:  standing almost alone to rally Britain to fight Nazism. The film conveys both his ego and his understated courage. It shows the importance and potential power of public speaking.  Churchill could orate! The film made me feel gratitude for the English language and all the ancestors who created it.

Meanwhile, I’ve been having another go at learning German, using the Babbel app.  I like the Babbel system, which is well-organized, and also, at least at the beginning, free.  I’ve long been curious about German, the language of many of the great musical minds that have been a big part of my life, like Bach, Haydn, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner, and Mahler.  

But it’s way harder than French, Spanish, and Italian. I’m finding that getting vocabulary is not too difficult, since there are lots of cognates with English, and most of the spoken sounds are similar to English. But the German case system is for me really challenging.  Add that to having three genders for nouns and lots of rules on word order, and it can be densely frustrating. But I’m starting to see some blue sky through the clouds.

Speaking of brain work, I’ve been listening to an audiobook of How Emotions are Made, The Secret Life of the Brain, by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Northeastern University.  In recent years I’ve read a fair bit about evolutionary psychology and neurobiology, hoping to understand more about how humans work. Barrett’s book has opened some new doors for me.

She challenges the orthodox understanding of emotions as inborn, universal, and readily identifiable.  She contends that emotions are best viewed as interpretations of perceptions from inside and outside the body that are dependent on learning, context, and culture. In other words, they are fundamentally social constructions, and vary substantially from culture to culture. This understanding has a lot of implications for how to think of individuals and societies.  

We finally managed to get a reservation at Brewery Bhavana for Saturday night.  It’s a fairly new restaurant in downtown Raleigh that features dim sum and noodles, along with craft beers.  The space also has a small bookstore and flower shop. It seems an unlikely combination, but it’s been a smashing success, sold out for months. Anyhow, we tried the vegetarian dishes and found them delicious, and were happy with our beers.  

Afterwards, we walked over to the Carolina Ballet’s Bolero program.  I slightly dreaded once again hearing Ravel’s Bolero, a great composer’s most repetitious work, but Lynn Taylor-Corbett’s new ballet turned out to be a treat.  It features a couple having a day at the beach, and addresses the reality of global warming with another unlikely combination — humor and horror.

The first ballet on the program, Zalman Raffael’s latest work, was  set to Ravel’s Piano Concerto.  It was highly kinetic, angular and energizing. The last piece was Robert Weiss’s Des Images, which was a meditation on the ballet choreographer’s art.  I found some of it a bit languid, but Alyssa Pilger’s solo in the pizzicato second movement was electrifying.

I took these pictures yesterday at Durant Nature Preserve in north Raleigh while testing out a new lens.  The weather was on the chilly side, so I brought along my photography gloves, which have cut off fingers and mitton tops that can be folded back.  I put the gloves in my jacket pockets, but ended up not using them. After walking part way around the lake and most of the way back, I noticed one glove was gone.  I really liked that glove, so I did the walk a second time, and found it.  The clouds were starting to lift at that point, and that’s when I got the shot at the top of this blog Read the rest of this entry »

Missing dragonflies, and welcoming motorcycles, new ballets, and Wagner

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I didn’t have any luck finding dragonflies this weekend. I tried Lake Benson, Lake Wheeler, and Yates Mill Pond, but it looks like we’ve about come to the end of another dragonfly season. I did see some butterflies and wildflowers, though, and enjoyed walking beside the calm and calming lakes. It was quiet, except for periodic thunderous roars from passing motorcycle groups.
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It was the 12th annual Capital City Bikefest in Raleigh this weekend, and on Saturday evening we walked downtown to have a look at the hundreds of bikes parked on Fayetteville Street. The bikes were mostly enormous Harleys, but with endless gleaming customizations, objects of pride and passion. Lacking tattoos and denim, we may have stood out a bit, but we didn’t notice any negative energy directed our way.
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We ate at Living Kitchen, the new vegan restaurant, where the clientele did not include any obvious biker types. I had the lunasagna, which was cool and tangy, and Sally enjoyed the living burrito, a collard green wrap. Our server, Rebecca, was friendly and efficient.
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Afterwards, we strolled over to Fletcher Hall for the first Carolina Ballet program of the season. Zalman Raffael’s new work, La Mer was a “non-linear” story ballet involving family dynamics and natural forces. We liked it a lot. I was particularly taken with Amanda Babayan’s character, the daughter with the troubles of adolescence.
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Robert Weiss’s first new piece was titled Stravinsky Pas de Deux, with highly dissonant music and angular gestures, danced with wonderful electricity by newcomers Lily Wills and Miles Sollars-White. Weiss’s The Double featured Alicia Fabry and Lindsay Purrington in startlingly close, tense unison. The final work was Weiss’s new Beethoven Piano Concerto # 5, which was very joyous and musical, with great leaps, spins, and lifts. I especially enjoyed Ashley Hathaway’s graceful solo in the second movement, and Alyssa Pilger imperial command in the finale.

Finally, I need to give a shout out to the N.C. Opera for its outstanding production last weekend of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. This little company somehow assembled a cast of world-class Wagnerians for two performances of this complex and thrilling work. Conductor Timothy Myers was masterful, and the singing was superb. Todd Thomas as Alberich managed to touch some unsettling psychological depths as he drove to his famous curse. I got goose bumps.
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Getting close to big cats, a ballet Dream, transgender recognition, and Political Animals

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Beauty, violence, and delusions: a Macbeth ballet, a Vietnam history, and a Kenya drone strike movie

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It was raining lightly on Saturday morning when I got to Raulston Arboretum, and there were quite a few new irises and roses. I enjoyed the colors, textures, and strange architecture, as accented by the raindrops. I had to work fast, because I’d scheduled a spin class for 9:30. But I had 25 minutes of strolling, peering, sniffing, and clicking, and made it to Flywheel in good time for the spin class with the cheery, peppy, hard-driving Vashti.

I’d felt a little discouraged after my spin class last week, when I was aiming for 300 points and managed only 281. I decided on a slightly different approach this week, involving more conscious pacing and allowing for short recovery periods. My results were better, with a final score of 307, and an average heart rate for the 45 minutes of 154, tying the record.

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That evening we went over to Durham for some food and ballet. We ate at Watts Grocery, where I had a delicious asparagus salad and couscous with beets. At DPAC we saw the new Carolina Ballet production of Macbeth. Shakespeare’s play is a bloody one, dense with painful emotion. This new ballet by Robert Weiss is also violent and anguished, but with interludes of light – friendship, play, and love. It succeeds as storytelling and as dance, with many subtleties and flourishes. Unfortunately, the music was not very interesting and highly repetitious. But I really liked the dancing, the craggy set, and the costumes.
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Speaking of bloody intervals, last week I finished reading a history of U.S. misconduct in Vietnam by Nick Turse, entitled Kill Anything That Moves. It is a difficult and almost unbearable story. The catalog of American atrocities is long – wanton murder of civilians, widespread rape, torture, and mutilation, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed on a wholesale basis by massive bombing and artillery. Hardly any of those who engineered the policies behind this carnage or those who carried it out were held accountable.

This history has been substantially suppressed, ignored, and forgotten. The human capacity for sustaining ignorance and self-delusion is a remarkable thing. In general, we are amazingly adept at suppressing new information that’s inconsistent with our prior beliefs, at justifying bad conduct when it fits with our preferences and self-interest, and at repressing memories that don’t fit into our preferred narratives. For Americans, coming to grips with any story of American action where we aren’t heroes is extremely difficult.
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But doing so is important work. Understanding the conditions that give rise to cruelty can help us prevent it. Therefore, with some hesitation, I recommend Turse’s book, with the caveat that it should be read only by mature readers not currently considering suicide or other violence and that, when reading, they take frequent breaks from these dark chapters to get hugs and kisses from their loved ones. One of my takeaways was that it’s usually or never a good idea to invade distant countries where we are ignorant and contemptuous of the people and culture.
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We saw Eye in the Sky last week at the Raleigh Grande. It was our first visit to the recently upgraded theater, and we liked the soft reclining seats. The movie is about setting up a drone strike by combined British and American military leaders and technicians in Kenyan on Al-Shabab terrorists. The primary tension in the movie is whether they should fire a powerful hellfire missile when it looks like it will kill a sweet little girl.

I thought it was well-played, and it was interesting to see what may well be close to state-of-the-art spying and killing technology. It was nice, in a way, to think that some military leaders might find it hard to decide whether to kill one little girl when they had a chance to execute several terrorists. The big question I left with, though, was never addressed in the movie: why would the U.S. and Britain be devoting themselves to fighting enemies of Kenya?
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Duke blossoms, rising ballerinas, AlphaGo’s victory, and the Age of Artificial Intelligence

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On Saturday morning it was overcast and threatening to rain when I drove over to Durham to see what was blooming at Duke Gardens. Did you know it’s one of the top 10 public gardens in the U.S.? It is certainly a treasure. There were new cherry blossoms, tulips, and many other delights. I shot 234 closeup images with my Nikkor 105 MM macro lens before it began to drizzle. I got a few that revealed aspects I’d never looked at as closely before, and expressed some of my own joy of the season. The images here are all from Duke, except for the daffodils, which I took late Friday afternoon at Fletcher Park.
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That evening we saw the Carolina Ballet with new works by Zalman Raffael and Robert Weiss. Raffael’s new piece was set to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. As it launched, I worried a little that 24 variations to this familiar music could easily bog down, but far from it: this was a lively, kinetic work that developed organically with continual surprises. Working in the Balanchine tradition, like Weiss, Raffael makes ballets that are abstract but intensely expressive. He’s so accomplished and assured already, and so young!

In the performance we saw, some of the younger company members who normally are in the background stepped into the spotlight, and performed beautifully. I very much enjoyed the subtle elegance of Courtney Schenberger and Rammaru Shindo in Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie. Ashley Hathaway, with Adam Crawford Chavis, was really sensual and powerful in the adagio Meditation from Thais. Amanda Babayan was a lovely Miranda in Weiss’s Tempest Fantasy. So much talent, developing quickly, like those blossoms. It’s a privilege to receive their art.
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Speaking of surprising progress, this week AlphaGo finished its five game Go match with a popular Korean grandmaster in Seoul, in which it prevailed 4-1. It was a significant moment in the advance of artificial intelligence. I learned the rudiments of Go a few years back. It seems so simple at the very beginning, as you take turns laying single stones, black or while. But it is massively more complex than chess. There are more possible moves than there are atoms in the universe.

Anyhow, I tweeted congratulations to the Google team, though with mixed feelings. The Age of AI is on its way, and the prospects are both good and bad. Computers are mastering tasks that we thought impossible for them a few years ago, like driving, reading MRIs, and reviewing legal documents. In the new Age of AI, there will be safer cars, more reliable medical care, and cheaper legal services. On the down side, a lot of jobs are going to disappear forever. We’re going to need to figure out what to do about having a lot of redundant humans. We’ll probably need to come up with a system with a guaranteed minimum wage, which seems impossible at present from a political perspective.
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But maybe the AI on the way can help with some of our political and mental problems. I’m thinking particularly of our magical thinking – areas where our biases and received ideas prevent us from seeing what’s right in front of us. The drug war is an example. After several decades of being taught that particular plants and chemicals are inherently evil and threatening, and that we need to fight those drugs, we have trouble conceiving of any alternative. It makes no difference that the drug war never moves any closer to victory, and that the human collateral damage is enormous. The facts that do not fit with our long held beliefs are suppressed or ignored.

Climate change denialism is another example of magical thinking. Another one: the Republican mainstream belief that cutting taxes will lead to increased growth, higher tax revenues, and balanced budgets. The New Yorker had a good essay by James Surowiecki this week explaining that decades of evidence now show that, as you might initially expect, cutting taxes leads to lower tax revenue. But current Republican leaders and followers, like those before them, devoutly and streadfastly deny the obvious.
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The WSJ had a must-read essay this week by David Gelernter on AI. Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, argues that the intelligence of our machines will inevitably surpass our own, and we cannot reliably predict what will happen after that. Thinks of machines with IQs of 500, or 5000. They could be dangerous, perhaps viewing us as we view houseplants. Gelernter suggests that in experimenting we exercise the kind of caution we use with biological weapons.

But hey, assuming that the machines do not decide to enslave or kill us, they could really be helpful. They would almost surely see more possible moves in addressing difficult problems, like global warming. Perhaps it would be so obvious that they’re reliable authorities that we would give up on magical thinking. Then again, such thinking is almost perfectly hermetic and impervious.
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Winter blossoms, understanding false memories, and lively ballet

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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A delightful evening with the Carolina Ballet

We saw the Carolina Ballet’s new program on Friday night, and loved it! The first of the two feature works was Fancy Free, by Jerome Robbins with a jazzy score by Leonard Bernstein. It’s about young three sailors out on the town (and led to the musical On the Town) looking for female companionship. The sailors joke around, drink, fight, and come to full attention at the sight of a passing lady. It is sweet and funny, and also marvelously accurate on the overwhelming force of male and female attraction. We particularly enjoyed Eugene Shlapko’s solo work, but everyone was wonderful.

The other piece on the program was Carolina Jamboree, choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett. It featured music by The Red Clay Ramblers, seven musicians who describe themselves as “a North Carolina string-band” with a repertoire based on “old-time mountain music, as well as country, rock, bluegrass, New Orleans, gospel, and the American Musical.” It is nothing if not eclectic, and in fact there are not just strings — there are drums, brass, and electronics, among other things. Most every one plays an instrument, or two or three, and sings. I wouldn’t say any Rambler’s singing by itself is great, but together they’re fantastic. It did not seem bogus when the audience joined in, shouting and clapping — it seemed irresistible. Alicia Fabry was haunting as the unhinged girl in the Red Rocking Chair. Also outstanding was Lindsay Purrington as Nell in the Mystery of Beautiful Nell Cropsey.

The show was at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium, which had an enthusiastic crowd, but quite a few empty seats. It’s disappointing that it wasn’t sold out. Some ballet is not instantly accessible, but these pieces really are. I can’t imagine anyone not relating to the funny randy sailors, their admired and harassed love interests, or the colorful country characters in Jamboree. The performances were touching, energizing, and tremendously fun.

Perhaps more than with any other art, there is no substitute for the experience of live ballet. Filmed ballet doesn’t come close to the experience of a live performance. I discussed this recently with Ricky Weiss, the company’s artistic director, and he confirmed that, although he looks at lots of ballet footage, the essence of a piece is nearly impossible to capture on film. That leaves human memory, which is imperfect, to hold what it can.

In this respect, the audience is essential to the art. If a performance drops in the forest and no one sees it, does it exist? Not fully. Performing arts are about communicating feelings, and it takes both a communicator and recipient to complete the artistic circuit. We need our dancers, of course, for the beauty and truth they give us, but they also need us.

After this weekend, the Carolina Ballet is presenting the Fancy Free/ Carolina Jamboree program one more time, in Durham, on Friday April 26.

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.

A piano tuning and a ballet board meeting

My Steinway grand piano (an A) is a gorgeous musical instrument, but it is subject to entropy. It needs a regular tuning, and lately a few notes in the lower-middle range sounded overly bright to me.

On Saturday, Phil Romano, a master Steinway technician, tuned it and did some voicing by needling the hammers. Phil was about to take off on another tour with Paul McCartney, and shared some interesting stories of Sir Paul’s performing in the Queen’s Jubilee, the Olympics, and South America.

With the benefit of Phil’s good tuning and voicing, I had a gratifying session with my instrument on Saturday. Recently I’ve felt a bit stuck on the same musical plateau. Although this has happened from time to time over the years, each time it’s uncomfortable, as I wonder whether I’ve gone as far as I can go. An essential part of the joy and challenge of the classical tradition, for me, is forward movement. It’s true that I’m now playing better than I ever imagined I would, but still, I would see no point to practicing if I didn’t expect to achieve greater technical and artistic mastery. This is one of the reasons it is so important to have a teacher — to get you unstuck when you’re stuck.

Anyhow, today felt as if I was getting unstuck. For a devoted student of the piano, there are few things more pleasurable than a freshly tuned Steinway. I played some of my favorite Chopin, Debussy, and Liszt works, and made some headway on my assignments from Olga — Rachmaninoff’s Elegy and Chopin’s etude op. 25 no. 12. Also, for a special treat, I read through some of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. The Waltz of the Flowers really works as a piano piece! I’d like to polish it up for the holidays if I can find the time.

Speaking of the Nutcracker, this week I had my first meeting as a new member of the board of directors of the Carolina Ballet. I’m really pleased to be able to help support this wonderful company. It’s also good to meet other people who really love ballet. As Ricky Weiss pointed out at the meeting, not everyone likes it, and some actively dislike it, but those who care about it care a lot.

In his report, he noted that we have a particularly strong group of dancers now. In the all Balanchine program, he had four different Apollo’s. It is, he said, an extraordinary thing, particularly in a company of this size, to have four males who are all capable of fully expressing this difficult role. (In an interesting coincidence, this morning the dance critic of the New York Times discussed Balanchine’s Stravinsky ballets and led off the discussion with Apollo.)

There are lots of things to be happy about, including the company’s large number of performances, the large number of new works, and the consistently high standard of performance. Weiss noted that the current group of dancers have achieved a high level of individuality, by which I think he meant they are artists who express not only the classical tradition but also themselves.

At the same time, there is a real concern about company finances. This is no great surprise. Since the recession of 2008, times have been hard for lots of people, including lots of arts organizations. But realizing this does not lessen the difficulty for this particular organization. I continue to think that there are more people around here who would enjoy ballet who haven’t yet discovered it, including some who would find it rewarding to help support the company. I hope so.