Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Look Back In Wonder

In 1956, when John D. Rockefeller III became the first President of Lincoln Center, America's arts scene was at a crucial turning point. Conceived as part of a major urban renewal plan by Robert Moses, the nation's first performing arts complex would rise in an area previously dominated by tenement buildings filled with low-income ethnic populations. On May 14, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower participated in the groundbreaking ceremony for Lincoln Center.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the ground-breaking
ceremony for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts

Cities don't embark on creating major cultural hubs without some idea of what kind of culture is available to fill them. By themselves, some of New York's cultural institutions at the time were struggling with aging facilities that could not accommodate much growth.
The interior of the old Metropolitan Opera House

Following World War II, a new American Renaissance in opera, dance, and musical theatre began to blossom as more and more  Broadway and movie musicals, operas, and ballets were set in American locations with American composers and lyricists telling distinctly American stories. Consider the seminal period from 1950-1962:

When viewed against this very fertile background of arts activity, two new productions take on special meaning.

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Ballet fans will want to get their hands on a copy of Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, a thrilling new documentary by Bob Hercules that chronicles the history of the Joffrey Ballet since its founding in 1956 by two gay men who, at the time, were lovers. This powerful film explains how the company that so dramatically redefined the landscape of American ballet managed to resuscitate itself from being hit with one fiscal crisis after another.

Narrated by Mandy Patinkin, the film features interviews with such legendary dancers from the Joffrey’s past as Dermot Burke, Gary Christ, Helgi Tomasson, Christian Holder, Trinette Singleton, and Kevin Mackenzie (as well as choreographer Lar Lubovitch and dance critic Anna Kisselgoff). Paul Sutherland and Brunilda Ruiz recall what it was like to be performing in the Soviet Union in November 1963 (a month after the Joffrey became the first dance company to perform at the White House) when news reached the company that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

Whether through its choreography or its bookings, the Joffrey was constantly breaking new ground. According to Wikipedia:
"The Joffrey was the first dance company to appear on American television, the first classical dance company to use multimedia, the first to create a ballet set to rock music, the first American company to perform a rock ballet in Russia (bringing with it the first American rock band ever to perform in Russia), the first and only dance company to appear on the cover of Time magazine, and the first company to have had a major motion picture based on it (Robert Altman’s 2003 film, The Company)."
The company's co-founders were brilliant choreographers with a brilliant sense of theatricality. Robert Joffrey broke new ground with Astarte, which used rock music and multimedia to stunning effect. The sheer brilliance of Gerald Arpino can be seen in these clips from The Clowns, Trinity, and Light Rain.

Because I spent many nights watching the Joffrey deliver thrilling performances of exciting new works by Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, and other great American choreographers, I was thrilled to see video clips from such exciting works as Deuce Coupe and Suite Saint-Saens. The only thing missing was any mention of Robert Blankshine, who can be seen in the following clip of Viva Vivaldi (recorded during the company's May 1, 1966 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show).

In 1980, when the San Francisco Symphony moved into its new home in Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, the company was able to expand its performing schedule. The San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet quickly grabbed the vacant time slots left on the War Memorial Opera House's calendar. The sad result is that beloved dance companies like American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, The Royal Ballet, and the Joffrey Ballet no longer perform in San Francisco. Their absence is a great, great loss.

Watching Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance offers a stiff reminder of what we've been missing. Here's the trailer:

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My grandmother, Ida Schreibman, approached life with a simple philosophy: "If I'm going to be miserable, the whole world can be miserable!" Written by John Logan and beautifully directed by Les Waters, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s new production of Red proves that all it takes is one bitter old Jew with a monstrous ego to light up a stage.

David Chandler stars as Mark Rothko, the famous abstract expressionist who, in 1958, received a $35,000 commission from architect Philip Johnson to create a set of murals that would be displayed in the famous Four Seasons Restaurant inside Manhattan's new Seagram Building. For any artist, this would have been a golden opportunity.

However, while sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, Rothko confessed a desire to paint "something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room. If the restaurant would refuse to put up my murals, that would be the ultimate compliment. But they won’t. People can stand anything these days."

Upon returning from their trip to Europe, Rothko and his wife visited the Four Seasons and found it to be insufferably pretentious.  The artist's decision to return the cash advance for his paintings (an act of sheer chutzpah which incensed the art world) provides the inspiration for Logan's play.  However, instead of Rothko's wife providing the voice of conscience which prompts the artist to return his commission, it is the passion and perceptions of his young assistant, Ken (John Brummer), that spur Rothko to action.

Ken (John Brummer) and Mark Rothko (David Chandler) examine a
painting in Red (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

While Chandler does a beautiful job of capturing Rothko’s cantankerous egomania, it is Brummer who triumphs by infusing some genuine humanity and a sense of decency into their working relationship. Although Ken measures his words carefully, when he explodes with accusations that Rothko can’t stand the fact that younger artists are pushing him out of the spotlight -- the same way Rothko did to the cubists and other artists who were popular when he was on his way up -- he pierces Rothko’s carefully calculated suit of intellectual armor with stunning accuracy.

Marc Brummer and David Chandler paint a large canvas in Red
Photo by: Kevin Berne

I have great admiration for John Logan's writing (he recently wrote the screenplay for the Ralph Fiennes film of Coriolanus). The production sits nicely in the Berkeley Rep's thrust stage auditorium (where, minus the usual elevated platform, the audience feels as if it is actually sitting inside Rothko's studio).  Performances of Red continue through April 29 (click here to order tickets).

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