The Casual Blog

Tag: Zalman Raffael

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 »

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

At Raulston Arboretum

At Raulston Arboretum

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

In the end, the cats threw up less than normal, the dogs sustained bladder control, and we kept things reasonably tidy and companionable. A couple of evenings, Gabe and I did parallel play, each in the living room with our MacBooks, working on Adobe programs. While I’ve been trying to learn Lightroom, he’s been delving into Illustrator as part of his exploring becoming a graphic designer. I’ve always thought he was talented in this direction, and so this doesn’t seem unrealistic, though I worry that creative careers are for most people underpaid ones.
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Speaking of careers, I read more this week about the quick rise of artificial intelligence that will likely render redundant large chunks of the world’s workers. I started Martin Ford’s new book, Rise of the Robots, Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, which talks about the latest advances in AI and robotics, along with unemployment problems. He’s an advocate of the guaranteed basic income to address the problem of increasing structural unemployment. There’s a piece in the Atlantic about the basic income movement — paying everyone enough for the necessities, so they can continue to buy goods and services. This could stave off economic collapse, which would be a good thing.

Of course, the idea of a bigger safety net seems wildly unrealistic in these days of so-called conservative political ascendancy. But this week there were reminders that good ideas that seemed impossible a short while ago can suddenly become the new normal. Nebraska legislators ended the death penalty in that very red state! Kansas legislators who championed tax cutting are talking about raising taxes to pay for basic services. Not so long ago, it seemed impossible that the United States would ever legalize marijuana or gay marriage, and now those things seem more probable than not. And despite continuing fear mongering, it looks like the Patriot Act is going to expire tonight. A guaranteed basic income could become as American as Social Security.
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I realize I’m jumping around a bit, but this is related in a way (political ideas/notions of human meaning and purpose): there was a thought-provoking book excerpt by Henry Rosemont, Jr. in the Huffington Post contrasting the libertarian strain of western political thought with Confucianism. About all I thought I knew about Confucianism was that it involved something about ancestor worship, but Rosemont presents some profound and useful ideas about social relations, morality, and the role of the individual.

He writes,

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

Rosemont goes on to explain that the quest for a single definition of one’s self is futile, because “we are basically constituted by the roles we live in the midst of others.” That is, the self is a dynamic construction made by individuals working in concert. As to meaning, he writes, “My life can only have meaning as I contribute to the meaningfulness of the lives of others, and they to me.” This does not seem radical to me, but it stands in stark contrast to the traditional western view of the individual as autonomous and self-directed. I’m considering getting Rosemont’s book and exploring this more.
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Sally got back from the tournament in Greensboro on Saturday in time for us to get to the Carolina Ballet studios for the first ever performance of a new ballet by Zalman Raffael. Sonata 17, set to Beethoven’s piano sonata op. 31, no. 2, was created with a grant from the New York Choreographic Institute, and involved four male and four female dancers, including our friend Alyssa Pilger. It was romantic in the sense that Beethoven is romantic, and had a boy-seeking-girl subplot, but at the same time was coolly modern. My main criticism was that the pas de deux second movement seemed overly minimal.

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

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

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