Saturday, March 3, 2007

Black holes, anyone?

Empire of the Stars: Obsession, Friendship, and Betrayal in the Quest for Black Holes by Arthur I. Miller (2005)

This largely boringly written book – the best parts are the footnotes that discuss the findings dully presented in the text – chronicles the career of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who first proposed and calculated that there was an upper limit to the mass of a white dwarf: any white dwarf with a mass of over 1.4 times the solar mass would began a process of collapse that would lead to a singularity, a point of infinite density and zero volume. Chandra presented his findings in 1935, only to be met with harsh resistance, particularly from Arthur Stanley Eddington, then the pre-eminent astrophysicist in the world.

Miller tries to make a case that racism played a part in the professional response to Chandra’s calculation; certainly the professional goals of other prominent scientists led to the ignoring of Chandra’s findings, as did presuppositions from well-regarded scientists, like Eddington and Einstein, that the universe would not yield an infinite result. But to me, the story sounds all too typical of academia – the group in power wants results and conclusions that match up to their own way of thinking and are resistant to novelty. What else is new?

Although Chandra undoubtedly felt the condemnation from Eddington and the slighting of his work by his peers for the rest of his life (he was angry that he didn’t win the Nobel Prize twenty years earlier than he did), he went on to make significant findings in other fields away from astronomy, and did not seem to be professionally crippled by the experience, no matter how it wounded him personally.

Of greater interest in the book is the intellectual evolution towards the acceptance of black holes: from the 1935 negative reaction to the 1960s theorizing that indeed, black holes must exist, although evidence of their existence had not been found to date. There’s some cool stuff in this book about the nuclear arms race, hydrogen bombs, and the death of stars, but I really would never have finished this book if I hadn’t been stuck in an airport for 4 hours and wanted to avoid digging through my luggage for another book. It’s not the content, which could be fascinating. It’s the writing, dull as dishwater.

One fine example (pg 178): “Chandra had a keen eye for lurking stability problems; his forte was identifying the exact point at which a star is likely to collapse. He spotted a flaw in Gamow’s argument. The challenge was irresistible, and he decided to turn his attention to white dwarfs one last time.” Absorbing mystery yarn? Action-adventure for the teen-boy crowd? Cliched phrases, Alex, for $600!

Anytime reading the footnotes becomes more engrossing than the actual text, something is wrong. (One of the gems of the footnotes is that there may be white dwarfs that are diamonds, composed entirely of compressed carbon. Another is the story of Fuchs’ espionage.)

So unless anyone wants to know more from me about this book, I’ll put a black hole tutorial in this space.

(Abbreviated in parts from Stuart J. Robbins' site)

Classifications of black holes: mass, spin, and magnetic field

Stellar black holes: have a mass of 10-100 times the solar mass.

Supermassive black holes: have a mass of millions to even billions of solar masses.

Schwarzschild black holes: no spin and no magnetic field. It has two main components - a singularity and an event horizon. The singularity is what is left of the collapsed star, and is theoretically a point of 0 dimension with infinite density but finite mass. The event horizon is a region of space that is the "boundary" of the black hole. Within it, the escape velocity is faster than light, so it is past this point that nothing can escape.

Reissner-Nordstrøm Black Holes: no spin and a magnetic field. It has a singularity and two event horizons. The outer event horizon is a boundary where time and space flip. This means that the singularity is no longer a point in space, but one in time. The inner event horizon flips space-time back to normal.

Kerr Black Holes: spin and magnetic field. A Kerr black hole adds another feature to the anatomy - an ergosphere. The ergosphere resides in an ellipsoidal region outside the outer event horizon. The ergosphere represents the last stable orbit, and the outer boundary is called the static limit. Outside of it, a hypothetical spaceship could maneuver freely. Inside, space-time is warped in such a way that a spaceship would be drawn along by its rotation.

An interesting point that comes up in the case of a spinning black hole is that of the naked singularity. The faster the black hole rotates, the larger the inner event horizon becomes, while the outer event horizon remains the same size. They become the same size when the rotational energy equals the mass energy of the black hole. If the rotational energy were to become more than the mass energy, the event horizons would vanish and what would be left is a "naked singularity" - a black hole whose only part is the singularity.

Yet another distinguishing feature of the Kerr black hole is that, since it rotates, the 0-D point that is the singularity in the Schwarzschild and Reissner-Nordstrøm black hole is spun into a ring of 0 thickness. Interesting theoretical physics can take place around this ring singularity. One consequence is that nothing can actually fall into it unless it approaches along a trajectory along the ring's side. Any other angle and the ring actually produces an antigravity field that repels matter.

NOTE: The only physical part of a black hole is the singularity. The other parts mentioned are mathematical boundaries. There is no physical barrier called an event horizon, but it marks the boundaries between types of space under the influences of the singularity.

Two other features can characterize a black hole: accretion disk and jets.

An accretion disk is matter that is drawn to the black hole. In rotating black holes and/or ones with a magnetic field, the matter forms a disk due to the mechanical forces present. In a Schwarzschild black hole, the matter would be drawn in equally from all directions, and thus would form an omni-directional accretion cloud rather than disk.

The matter in accretion disks is gradually pulled into the black hole. As it gets closer, its speed increases, and it also gains energy. Accretion disks can be heated due to internal friction to temperatures as high as 3 billion K, and emit energetic radiation such as gamma rays. This radiation can be used to "weigh" the black hole. By using the doppler effect astronomers can determine how fast the material is revolving around the black hole, and thus can infer its mass.

Jets form in Kerr black holes that have an accretion disk. The matter is funneled into a disk-shaped torus by the hole's spin and magnetic fields, but in the very narrow regions over the black hole's poles, matter can be energized to extremely high temperatures and speeds, escaping the black hole in the form of high-speed jet.

Where do black holes come from?

Current theory holds that black holes form in three main ways. The first is that if a star has more than nine solar masses when it goes supernova, then it will collapse into a black hole. The reason that a neutron star stops collapsing is the strong nuclear force, the fundamental force that keeps the center of an atom from collapsing. However, once a star is this big, the gravitational force is so strong that it overwhelms the strong nuclear and collapses the atom completely. Now there is nothing to hold back collapse of the star, and it collapses into a point (or, in theory, a ring) of infinite density.

A second way for black holes to form is that, in some rare instances, two neutron stars will be locked in a binary relationship. Because of energy lost through gravitational radiation, they will slowly spiral in towards each other, and merge. When they merge, they will almost always form a black hole.

Finally, a third way was proposed by quantum cosmologist Stephen Hawking. He theorized that trillions of black holes were produced in the Big Bang, with some still existing today. This theory is not as widely accepted as the other two.

AG again, providing cool facts about black holes (see Hawking's Brief History of Time or Greene's The Elegant Universe for more):

Black holes aren’t really black. As proposed by Stephen Hawking, black holes emit a type of radiation due to escaping particles. The intense gravitational field near the event horizon of a black hole can briefly split a pair of photons apart. If one falls through the event horizon, the other particle, which would have been annihilated by its partner when they came into contact, is now left outside the black hole; indeed the energy from the fall of the one partner of the pair over the event horizon will give the other partner energy to move further away from the event horizon. The particles emitted from a black hole in this way are called Hawking radiation. Which leads to…

Black holes may evaporate. Although not yet observed, if blacks holes leak energy (through the Hawking radiation) we know from Einstein’s famous E = mc2 that the black hole will also lose mass. However, for a typical black hole, the evaporation time would amount to more than 1067 years (the age of the universe is around 109 years). But lightweight black holes formed in the first few moments of the Big Bang (according to Hawking’s calculations, less mass means higher temperature and hence more radiation) may exist and may be on the verge of evaporation, emitting Hawking radiation and gamma rays that could be picked up by observatories. Even more fascinating: as a black hole emits radiation, its mass shrinks and the distance between its center and the even horizon diminishes. As this happens, does the space that was previously in the black hole still contain its old information? Hawking has bet that black holes destroy the information.

Black holes have entropy. This was actually one of the starting problems that lead to the two solutions described above, formulated in 1974 by Hawking. Starting from these theoretical observations/calculations: the area of the event horizon increases in physical interactions (calculated by Hawking), and black holes must have entropy (Jacob Beckenstein), and with a whole lotta intuition and math, Hawking arrived at the above conclusions.

There may be massless black holes. Formed from a black hole that has lost its mass; these black holes would lack an event horizon. In string theory, the loss of mass is attributable to the shrinking of a piece of the Calabi-Yau portion of space to a point. (Calabi-Yau spaces are where the extra dimensions required by string theory can be curled up.)

And of course, this sci-fi question remains: at the singularity, where space-time is infinitely curved and time ends, could it be possible for another universe to be attached? String theory provides possible solutions, but that’s another discussion.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

Self-Portrait, 1893-4

I first discovered Gauguin's work in college and he became a favorite. A post-Impressionist, Gauguin's use of curving, distinct lines with bold colors (Cloisonnism) creates a strong visual impact, as does his use of exaggerated proportions. And because I have to bring everything back to ballet, Gauguin became a proponent of primitivism in art, with the ballet "Le Sacre du printemps" being a primary work of this artistic movement. If one ever gets to see the original 1913 choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky with recreations of the sets and costumes of Nicholas Roerich (The Joffrey Ballet has a revival every decade or so), to the famous pounding Stravinsky score, one can see how the shapes of the bodies, the movements (strong lines, turned in, bent arms and legs) and the earthy colors used on the costumes contrasting with the post-impressionist pastoral scenes of the sets reflects this artistic period.

Vision After the Sermon, 1888

(From two letters to Vincent Van Gogh, Pont-Aven, September 1888)
...Yes, you are right to want painting to have a coloring evocative of poetic ideas, and in that sense I agree with you, although with one difference. I am not acquainted with any poetic ideas - I'm probably missing a sense. I find everything poetic, and it is in the deepest recesses of my heart, that are sometimes mysterious, that I glimpse poetry. Forms and color brought into harmony produce poetry by themselves. Without allowing myself to be distracted by the subject, contemplation of a painting by another artist induces in me a feeling, a poetical state that becomes more intense the more the painter's intellectual powers emanate from it....

...I have just painted a religious picture, very badly done but it interested me and I like it. I wanted to give it to the church of Pont-Aven. Naturally they don't want it.

A group of Breton women are praying, their costumes very intense black. The coifs very luminous yellowy-white. The two coifs to the right are like monstrous helmets. An apple tree cuts across the canvas, dark purple with its foliage drawn in masses like emerald green clouds with patches of green and sun yellow. The ground (pure vermilion). In the church it darkens and becomes a browny red.

The angel is dressed in ultramarine blue and Jacob in bottle green. The angel's wings pure chrome yellow 1. The angel's hair chrome 2 and the feet flesh orange. I think I have achieved in the figures a great simplicity, rustic and superstitious. The whole thing very severe....

The Green Christ/Breton Calvary, 1889

(From a letter to Vincent Van Gogh, Le Pouldu, October 1889)
...Seeing this every day fills me with a sensation of struggle for survival, of melancholy and acquiesence in implacable laws. I am attempting to put this sensation down on canvas, not by chance, but quite deliberately, perhaps by exaggerating certain rigidities of posture, certain dark colors, etc...All this is perhaps mannered but what is natural in art? Ever since the most distant times, everything in art has been completely deliberate, a product of art, truth is what a person feels in the state of mind he happens to be in. Those who wish to or are able to can dream. Let those who wish to or are able to abandon themselves to their dreams. And dreams always come from the reality of nature. A savage will never see in his dreams a man dressed like a Parisian - etc....

(From a letter to Theo Van Gogh, Le Pouldu, November 1889)
...I'm seeking to express a general state rather than a single thought, and at the same time to make another person's eye experience an indefinite, never-ending impression. To suggest suffering does not mean to specify what sort of suffering; purity in general is what I am seeking to express, not a particular kind of purity. Literature is one (and painting another). In consequence, the thought is suggested but not explained...

It's the same with the painting of the 3 stone women holding Christ. Brittany, simple superstition and desolation. The hill is guarded by a line of cows arranged in the form of the calvary. I've tried to make everything in this picture express belief and passive suffering in the traditional religious style, as well as the power of nature with its great scream. I am wrong not to be good enough to express it better - but I am not wrong to conceive it...

You know that I have Indian blood, Inca blood in me, and it's reflected in everything I do. It's the basis of my personality; I try to confront rotten civilization with something more natural, based on savagery...

D'où venons nous? Que sommes nous? Où allons nous?/Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897-98

(From a letter to Andre Fontainas, Tahiti, March 1899)
Color, which is vibration just as music is, is able to attain what is most universal yet at the same time most elusive in nature: its inner force.

Here near my cabin, in complete silence, amid the intoxicating perfumes of nature, I dream of violent harmonies. A delight enhanced by I know not what sacred horror I divine in the infinite. An aroma of long-vanquished joy that I breathe in the present. Animal figures rigid as statues, with something indescribably solemn and religious in the rhythm of their pose, in their strange immobility. In eyes that dream, the troubled surface of an unfathomable enigma.
...In praise of certain pictures that I considered unimportant you exclaim, 'If only Gauguin were always like that!' But I don't want to be always like that.
...To go back to the panel [Where do we come from]: the idol is there not as a literary symbol, but as a statue, yet perhaps less of a statue than the animal figures, less animal also, an integral part, in my dream before my cabin, of the whole of nature, dominating our primitive soul, the unearthly consolation of our sufferings to the extent that they are vague and incomprehensible before the mystery of our origin and of our future.

And all this sings with sadness in my soul and in my design while I paint and dream at the same time with no tangible allegory within my reach - due perhaps to a lack of literary education.

Awakening with my work finished, I ask myself 'Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?' A thought which no longer has anything to do with the canvas, expressed in words quite apart on the wall that surround it. Not a title but a signature.

Mahana No Atua/ The Day of the God, 1894

(From a letter to Charles Morice, Atuona, Hiva-Oa, 1903)
...You were mistaken one day when you said I was wrong to say that I am a savage. For it is true: I am a savage. And civilized people suspect this, for in my works there is nothing so surprising and baffling as this 'savage in spite of myself' aspect. That is why it is initimable....In art we have just undergone a very long period of aberration due to physics, mechanical chemistry, and the study of nature. Artists have lost all their savagery, all their instincts, one might say their imagination, and so they have wandered down every kind of path in order to find the undisciplined crowds and feel frightened, lost as it were, when they are alone. That is why solitude is not to be recommended to everyone, for you have to be strong in order to bear it and act alone. Everything I learned from other people merely stood in my way. Thus I can say: no one taught me anything. On the other hand, it is true that I know so little! But I prefer that little, which is of my own creation. And who knows whether that little, when put to use by others, will not become something big?...

(Letters in "Gauguin by Himself" edited by Belinda Thomson, 2001)

Thursday, March 1, 2007


On a few ballet moments

In MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet (music by Prokofiev), at the end of the famous balcony scene where Romeo and Juliet have declared their love, Rudolf Nureyev plants his left foot and stretches his back leg in a long line (fourth position), and from the small of his back, stretches his chest upwards towards Juliet (Margot Fonteyn), giving her his heart. This is the purest demonstration I’ve seen that turnout, one of the hallmarks of Western classical dance, is not just about turning out at the hips so that the feet form a 180 degree line. Turnout is instead a physical and moral commitment to open outwards and upwards from the major vertical axis of the body, straight through one’s head and heart, and reveal the soul. The soul of Nureyev’s Romeo is about two inches outside of his body, drawn towards Juliet as Fonteyn crosses her hands over her heart.

Violette Verdy’s Eurydice and Francisco Moncion’s Orpheus (Balanchine’s Orpheus, music by Stravinsky) move around an identical axis after he’s rescued her from Hades. They do tango steps, legs entwined, and she surrounds him to plead with him to look at her. She wraps her legs entirely around his body – around his waists and thighs, and in a back bend begs. He removes his blindfold, eyes lifted towards heaven, and she collapses dead on the stage.

Spurned by her lover Solor, Altynai Asylmuratova as Nikiya (in La Bayadere, original choreography by Petipa and music by Minkus) turns her back to him, goes on to her knees, extends her left leg behind her, arches her back and cries to the gods, hands clasped above her head.

In Balanchine’s Diamonds pas de deux (music by Tchaikovsky), Suzanne Farrell releases Peter Martins’ hand and balances for a moment on her left leg with her right leg held high (developpe a la seconde). She drops her leg in an arc like the swing of a pendulum, bourrees towards Martins (those tiny steps on pointe – Farrell’s here look like moving ripples in water), does a double inside-out pirouette which blinds her to where Martins actually is, establishing their trusting relationship; she kicks and pauses, her torso bent over an extended leg, creating an image of a unicorn, and instantly tosses her torso and extended leg backwards. Suddenly she is the image of a vulnerable woman, neck and breast exposed, arm behind her in submission, and her leg (in attitude) recreates the lines that form the conch shell, the golden mean. Farrell is the hunted, the hunter (“on the scent of her own mystery” as Croce wrote), and the archetypal woman.

Allegra Kent, in her idiosyncratic reading of the second movement of Balanchine’s Symphony in C (music by Bizet), releases her arms from a circle above her head into the space in front of her as she is spun around – she releases her energy, draws it into herself again, then gives it away once more.

Near the end of Suzanne Farrell’s solo in Der Rosenkavalier Waltz (music by R. Strauss from Balanchine’s Vienna Waltzes), on a dark, empty stage where her imaginary lover has once again disappeared, she rushes to go off stage, pauses, and as she does the famous backbend of supplication, she disappears in the brightness of all the stage lights coming on at once.

In the Darkness: Un-knowing and Becoming

A Lenten Reflection

In the second week of Lent, I’m sitting here writing about art, while many, more spiritually-minded, are staying away from these types of self-reflections or reviews. But in my weakness, I need the distraction, the time to pause, from a few other obligations. (Or maybe I’m establishing that I’m really the worst-type of Novus ordo Catholic: Lent, schment.) Excuse my self-justification for indulging this behavior, and you are of course free to stop reading now.

I have loved two particular stories about darkness and mistaken identity since pre-teen days. The first is the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, as first encountered in Edith Hamilton’s classic school text Mythology. I was baffled as to how Psyche could not know that Cupid, her husband and lover who came to her only in the darkness, was not some awful serpent who would devour her. After Psyche has betrayed him by gazing upon him as he slept, Cupid delivers a parting line that I loved: “Love cannot live where there is no trust.”

The other story is of that deceiver, Jacob, who uses Isaac’s blindness to receive the blessing meant for his brother, is himself tricked in the dark when he mistakes Leah for Rachel, and wrestles with an angel in the dark. By sunrise he has a new identity as Israel.

Of course, darkness has always held great significance – God separates darkness from light; Christ enters a darkened world. The world again darkens at Christ’s death. The womb and the tomb are in darkness. All manner of scary stories are told “in the dark.” To be in the dark is to be uncertain and vulnerable, in a state where people can make and re-make themselves, as with Jacob and Leah and all our legends and fairy tales of people who can shape-shift once the sun goes down. In the dark, one can lose one’s identity, one can be tricked, and one can emerge in the daylight changed.

Far from being in the dark, I’ve always thought of our modern world as glaringly in the light – we may have bad vision, but we certainly have a lot of brightness. There’s almost nothing that can’t be uncovered and dissected and discussed – we hate mystery. Everything needs to be explained and put up for public discussion.

I grew up during the time that sex, at its most technical and mechanical, began to be discussed on shows that even children (such as myself) would commonly watch. This development was at least partly the response to HIV and AIDS, but certain elements of popular culture also took advantage and began to further endorse a hyper-masculine American culture where hyperactive male sexual expression was the only type allowed. Thus, even the most intimate of activities was put under blinding bright light.

An aside: I’ve always thought that the relationship between the main characters, Paul and Jeanne, in Last Tango in Paris would have at least possibly had a chance if they had engaged in at least some of their sexcapades in the dark. Of course, that it seems they never did has its own meaning.

When we look at our culture, it’s like looking in a mirror – not seeing yourself as you are, but seeing yourself looking at yourself. The great thing about art, when it works, is that you don’t experience self-reflection, but a kind of re-making. For purely practical reasons, of course, we usually experience the arts in semi-darkness (except for sculpture and architecture, of course). But in the darkness of a theatre or concert hall or a museum (except for the modern art sections of the museum, haha), where no one can really see you, you have an opportunity for a type of self-emptying to be filled back up with the beauty and mystery that the artist invites you to participate in. In the dark you can’t see your own reflection. You can only experience, and maybe be inspired. Train yourself to do this in the arts enough, and you may find yourself more easily doing it before God.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

If I Were George Balanchine (1904-1983)

If I were president, I would devote at least one speech to a very large section of our population which is not usually thought of or addressed as a separate unit by people in the government - I refer to the intellectuals and artists of the United States and to people who are interested in the intellectual and artistic life of our country, in other words in the spiritual and not just the material values of our existence.

There are a great many of us: writers, painters, sculptors, actors, composers, instrumentalists, and dancers. And there are uncounted millions of those for whom their interest in our creative efforts is as important and sometimes more important than all the other ordinary details of their lives. That is why we would like the president to show an interest in and speak to us about that other half of our life - the nonmaterialistic part of life, which we represent. Actually this very large group of citizens of whom I am speaking has never made any very great demands. None of us is especially interested in money or power, but all of us want to be recognized and given the possibility to create and to enjoy art. Certain forms of art have received wonderful support from the public itself, from private citizens and groups of interested people, who have created libraries and museums and supported symphony orchestras, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude. But writers and artists have never been fully accorded full recognition by a government body or official - and the person who first gives us this recognition will earn our wholehearted gratitude and support.

I firmly believe that woman is appointed by destiny to inspire and bring beauty to our existence. Woman herself is the reason for life to be beautiful, and men should be busy serving her. That is why I feel that if the woman will take into her hands the task of restoring the true purpose and values of life, then the man who in our civilization is caught like a squirrel in the wheel of fortune, will find the strength to escape out of it and bring all his highest qualities to this purpose.

This brings us to the important problem of our children who are our future. Their taste for art should be developed from early childhood. They should learn to love the beautiful and impractical as well as the useful and practical. One should give them fairy tales, music, dance, theater. This is real magic for children, and it is strong enough to overcome many dangers that threaten them, mainly because their minds are unoccupied and their imaginations unfed. Developing these qualities in our children is the first step to promoting peace in the world - by giving them true standards of what is most important in human life. Inner nobility will safeguard them from the cynicism of utilitarianism. Some twenty thousand young children saw special performances given for them by New York City Ballet. It was absolutely extraordinary to see how avidly they devoured these performances. The children must be reached before they are corrupted by life.

In conclusion I would like t osay a few words about my special field of art - the ballet. American people have a special affinity to movement in general and to ballet in particular. They are superb dancers, and their interest in this art deserves to be encouraged and channeled in the right way.

In ballet, woman is all-important. She is the queen of the performance, and the men surround her like courtiers. This is perhaps why I have thought so much about the woman's role and enormous possibility in real life as well as on the stage. (1961)

George Balanchine became an American citizen in the 50s and was the first official visitor to the Kennedy White House. He was also in the first class of honorees for the Kennedy Center Honors (1978), and received the Congressional Medal of Freedom from Reagan in 1983; it was accepted on his behalf by Suzanne Farrell.

First comes the sweat. Then comes the beauty - if you're vairy lucky and have said your prayers. - Balanchine

I mean here only to encourage people to go out and see dance. Dance is extraordinary in that it is the only occasion I know of, outside of a church service, where people gather to participate in an activity that's been passed down from body to body over generations, where the most important aspect of the performance is that the participants believe in what they are doing, first and foremost, and there is no disconnect between what is thought in the mind and expressed through the body in gesture and form. Dance, ideally, is a seamless coming together of the human body, sound, space, and time. My own favorite dance form, as should be obvious, is ballet. Ballet's realm is above the earth, in the real world of the spirit, not the material world under our feet. It exists in another world of ideal behaviors and attitudes; more than any other Western dance form the goal is to achieve something that the human eye and soul recognize as beauty. The beauty that can be achieved conceals the physical strain and effort of the participants. Ballet movement is unnatural, and yet spiritually it shows how we should be. As Balanchine once said to a woman who asked him if he thought her daughter could be a great ballerina: "Madame, la danse - c'est une question morale."

Or, as Balanchine would say, just go to listen to the music. Balanchine was a huge proponent of 20th century music, and if you go to see a Balanchine ballet, you have a chance of listening to music by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Weill, Ives, Webern, Pierre Henry, Xenakis, and Schoenberg (actually, Schoenberg's arrangment for orchestra of Brahms' Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor). Just this past season, NYCB was performing Jerome Robbins' ballet In Memory Of... to Berg's violin concerto "To the Memory of an Angel." Robbins, Eliot Feld, Laura Dean, and Lar Lubovitch have all choreographed dances to Steve Reich's music; both Graham and Agnes de Mille used Copland's music. Merce Cunningham has had a long creative association with John Cage; Paul Taylor has choreographed Piazzolla Caldera, many (too many) contemporary choreographers use the music of Arvo Part. Robbins' Glass Pieces and Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room were recently performed in NY; those are among several ballets choreographed to Philip Glass's music. And I'm only mentioning the use of Bach, Mozart, Gluck, Glazunov, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Delibes and so on. Sheesh, Leonid Massine even choreographed ballets to Mahler and Beethoven symphonies. Get a music education and a dance eduction - two for the price of one! Just go, and bring your friends and your children! And you can ask me questions afterwards....

It is not too much to consider a well-performed ballet a rite, executed and followed with intense devotion, that shares in some sort of moral figuration. The response of the audience to good dancing is a release of body and breath, a thanksgiving that is selfless, generous, complete, and leaves the spectator corroborated in the hope that, despite the world and its horrors, here somehow is a paradigm of perfection. - Lincoln Kirstein (1983)

Books on Balanchine

Only God creates; I assemble. - George Balanchine

I was recently asked to suggest a good book on Balanchine. The first book I'd recommend is Garis' Following Balanchine (for reasons I explain below). Unfortunately, there are no exceptional biographies of him that combine thoroughness with insights; so far, all the biographies written about him have been no more than serviceable. Of those, Robert Gottlieb's George Balanchine: The Ballet Master (2004), part of Harper's Eminent Lives series, gives perhaps the best brief overview. Gottlieb knew Balanchine for several years and was on the board of directors for NYCB, and he's respectful, sensitive, and engaging about his subject. A more thorough book, though not more insightful, is Bernard Taper's Balanchine: A Biography (reprinted 1996), some parts of which were written and published while Balanchine was still alive and able to confer with Taper. (One can read a "brief" 4 part biography of Balanchine here.)

IMO, the best book on Balanchine, the man, is I Remember Balanchine: Recollections of the Ballet Master by Those Who Knew Him (1991), edited by Francis Mason, a collection of 85 interviews from people who knew him. If one wants to know how Balanchine impacted the lives of those he came into contact with and how he was frequently several different personas to many different people, this is the must-read.

Balanchine's own opinion, told to Taper after reading a copy of Taper's biography: "You've written too much about me, and not enough about my dancers."

And so, there are the autobiographies of dancers associated with him: wives Tamara Geva, Alexandra Danilova, Vera Zorina, and Maria Tallchief have all written autobiographies. (Tanaquil Le Clercq, Balanchine's fourth or fifth wife, depending on whether his common law marriage to Danilova is counted, never wrote an autobiography and largely refused to speak about her life with Balanchine. A prominent ballerina at NYCB in its infancy, they married in 1952, but in 1956 she contracted polio and remained paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of her life. After setting aside his work and diligently caring for her for almost two years, he returned to NYCB and in fast succesion choreographed Agon, Stars and Stripes, Gounod Symphony, and Square Dance. They separated after he fell in love with Suzanne Farrell - and made it known to the whole world - and they divorced in 1969.) Dancers Barbara Milberg Fisher, Jacques d'Amboise, Edward Villela, Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell, Peter Martins, Merrill Ashley, Toni Bentley, and Gelsey Kirkland have also written autobiographies in which he plays a prominent role.

Of these (so you have no doubts that I have indeed read every single book about Balanchine that I'm referring to here and plenty more than I'm not including), Milberg Fisher presents a fascinating account of life as a corps member and soloist in the first decade of NYCB; Kent's is the wittiest and most "out-there." Gelsey Kirkland's is probably the most famous and the harshest - her Dancing on My Grave (1986) practially (and completely unfairly) lays at the foot of Balanchine her eating disorders, obsession with plastic surgery, and drug addiction, and she was undoubtedly still very unstable when this book was written; however, she and Villela provide the few dissenting voices among the many, including his wives, who describe him as a near deity. And Suzanne Farrell's is, of course, my favorite.

If one is interested in the music angle, Charles Joseph wrote Stravinsky and Balanchine: A Journey of Invention (2002), about the artistic collaboration of these two geniuses (warning: a good knowledge of music is recommended for reading this book), and Balanchine's own opinions on Tchaikovsky and other Russian composers, the St. Petersburg of his childhood and the Revolution, Russian writers, Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes, and other topics are contained in Balanchine's Tchaikovsky: Interviews with George Balanchine (1985) by Solomon Volkov. This book is invaluable if one wants to hear Balanchine's "voice" and ideas on the arts near the end of his life. If one wants to hear Balanchine's actual voice, watch Balanchine.

If one is interested in Balanchine's choreographic output and wants to learn the impact of his work and his dancers on the life of a member of the audience (who was also a music critic and professor of English), Following Balanchine (new ed 2006) by Robert Garis is required. I'd probably read this book and Gottlieb's brief biography in tandem, to gain a hold of Balanchine's background and his creative output at NYCB through the eyes of an audience member. This book is also the must-read for anyone who believes that one's life can be profoundly affected through art and wants to understand why Balanchine's work mattered so much to people; as one NYCB audience member of the 1960s and 70s wrote, "Balanchine was our God and the State Theater was where we worshipped." (Balanchine himself would not have wanted to be called God, though he did once say, in response to why he only had the title "Ballet Master" at NYCB, as opposed to artistic director or head choreographer, etc., "God doesn't have to call Himself God.")

Unfortunately, no biographer has been able to crack the enigma of Balanchine, the man and the work. Ballet fans have been waiting over a decade for eminent dance critic Arlene Croce's promised study on Balanchine and his work. Part of the problem is certainly that Balanchine himself was not interested in introspective self-analysis and even to those close to him he was impenetrable. Whether because he was a life-long adherent of the Russian Orthodox Church or he had a massive ego and was utterly secure in his own choreographic genius - though he would be the first to point out that God gave him his gift for choreography and God told him, "This is the only thing you're going to be good at" - or he followed his judgment alone: "I like what I like and I disagree with everyone and I don't care to argue." A slightly more self-deferential quote in response to a question about the hows and whys of his many marriages and affairs and how it tied into his artistic output: "I am a dancer; I lead a dancer's life. It's like a horse. No one asks a horse what he does - he just leads a horse's life. That's what I do."

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Oh, the people you meet...

The Sarabite has honored me with his own blog entry, On Statues..., based on my Lenten New Orleans post. Please read it.

Then read my comment to his post, reproduced here below (I decided my thesis writing could wait a few more minutes):

Sometimes I feel like singing “gimme that old-time religion,” ‘cause I love me some Roman Catholicism, with all the prayer cards and scapulars and plastic statues sitting out in the yard. Where you hold your breath to hear about saints who have had the stigmata or Mary’s consecrated life in the temple. As I wrote on my own blog, I left deeply rooted Catholic soil when I was in six. I’ve been living in Protestant America since that time. I first entered it when my family moved to Houston and we became parishioners at the local church that was pentagonal and had a flat, mosaic, empty cross above the stage/altar and I was a member of the children’s choir, singing only songs that were composed after 1960. That’s Novus Ordo to me.

I don’t know what my faith would be like had I not been raised in a devoutly Catholic family where we said Rosaries and litanies every day, in a constant cycle of novenas. I learned my faith in the family, for after the age of six, the local Catholic parishes were of little to no help other than as dispensers of sacraments; CCD classes were even detrimental.

My mom would sign us up for all manner of ‘traveling’ religious artwork, so the pilgrim statues of Our Lady of Carmel, Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Lourdes, and a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe would visit our house for a month at a time, and we’d keep a votive candle burning next to her and pray in front of these depictions of the Blessed Virgin every night. When we were in pain, the first response out of my mom’s mouth was, “offer it up for the poor souls in purgatory.” We blessed ourselves with holy water every time we left the house and Lourdes water was always on hand, as were palms from Passion Sunday to burn above a candle whenever bad weather approached. My mother also kept a picture of Christ’s face, in agony and covered in blood while wearing the Crown of Thorns, on our refrigerator door. The big pictures of Mother Mary and Jesus with their chests opened and fingers pointing towards their Immaculate Heart and Sacred Heart, respectively, were in the bedrooms. Even now, my mom calls me whenever she lights a candle at church for me – which is as soon as the last candle she lit for me has burnt out - to tell me to make sure I say a special prayer to St. Joseph or Mary.

I was once involved in Catholics apologetics – I left it not only because I got tired of the same old arguments, but because of the intellectual oddities of some of the Catholic converts I would encounter. A former Baptist who, when asked why people light candles in front of statues of saints, said “of course we pray to the saints, but the candle lighting is just some superstitious thing some people do.” A former Presbyterian who, after attempting to explain a few of the Marian teachings, said “as a Catholic, you actually pay very little attention to Mary. It’s no big deal – other than the only three times she’s mentioned in the mass, you don’t have to do any of the other Marian devotion stuff.” What kind of Roman Catholicism did these friends of mine convert to? What in the world did they see in the Church? Why in the world do they, newborn in the ancient faith as they are, think they know better than people who have lived it for generations?

I suspect they had a hankering for a connection to the apostles, but with the 2000 years between then and now somehow smoothed over and wiped out. I sometimes think they became HUGE defenders of every Catholic teaching because they want that apostolic succession to be true OH SO BAD, because otherwise, why even bother being Catholic? They seem to find only the certainty of it attractive, not the ‘get your arms in all the way up to your elbows’ ways it’s been lived out (prior to V2, of course). I think it’s a hollow religion they have, one where they love being part of the communion of saints but are completely embarrassed that anyone would have such an effusive love for Mary and the saints that they’d seek to have depictions of them around, even if it’s bad artwork. Somehow the assent (bad Newman!) to Catholicism is, so they think, more important than the experience. I have no idea what kind of Church people like my Catholic convert friends are trying to re-build. We believe that a crucified Jewish carpenter rose from the dead. Some Lourdes water won’t kill you.

Sorry if I’ve used your combox as the beginning of a love letter to that old time religion.

Little Ode to Suzanne Farrell

No ode is big
or fast enough to have
the very all of you inside it, so
I will have to be like you
and climb inside myself and fly
into the outline that the pattern
of my moving self has left behind

the outline of the possible you impossibly beautiful in everyone

like a little girl suddenly seeing the angles in
a light blue protractor and therefore being them

Where was I and who?

You for whom
we get dressed up
and go uptown and up
the elevator shaft as
the curtain goes up and when
you glide in on your diagnoal
we fall into the elevation of a dream
that has a hummingbird and Saint Teresa of Avila in it

and you

who hover in the air like a disembodied heart
shocked into eternity for the split second the music
turns to face you and you find your face up there
in the dark where we are and a smile on it

There is space here and air and breath, clarity
of perfect tears that beauty makes us cry so automatically

as you wrap the world around
your finger, then wrap yourself around the world

poem by Ron Padgett; photo by Martha Swope: Suzanne Farrell as Dulcinea and George Balanchine as Don Quixote (1965)

Monday, February 26, 2007

Brokenness and Love

“I’m going to love you, like nobody’s loved you, come rain or come shine”

Leaving Las Vegas (1995) directed by Mike Figgis, starring Nicholas Cage and Elisabeth Shue

I have watched Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) three times over the past two months; I’ve watched Cries and Whispers (1972) three times in the past six (the latter requires longer intervals between viewings) and I’m becoming a Bergman believer. In five of the films he made between 1966 and 1972, including the two already mentioned – I’ve not yet seen The Rite (1968) or The Touch (1971) – the characters are utterly brutal to themselves and each other. Only Alma (Liv Ullman) in The Hour of the Wolf (1968) and Agnes (Kari Sylwan) in Cries and Whispers are largely unscathed, enclosed by a certain innocence and simplicity; of course, that is not all that goes on in these films and as overwhelming cinematic art, they are required viewing.

Note: Make sure you turn up the volume in Cries and Whispers to be able to hear the whispers. They will leave you feeling haunted.

However, it is Lent, and watching Persona this weekend (viewing Bergman should indeed count as a sacrifice – these films are not for the emotionally faint of heart) and communicating with a new friend, I began to see how much the characters in these films are in despair over their own brokenness and fragility, those that aren’t already engaged in self-evisceration are out-ed as hypocrites and cruelly torn apart. The doctor (Erland Josephson) points out everything that is physically and spiritually wrong with the thoughtless Maria (Liv Ullman) while making her look at herself in the mirror in Cries and Whispers. Andreas (Max von Sydow) calls Anna (Liv Ullman) on every self-delusion she has had about her first marriage in The Passion of Anna (1969). The characters look deep inside and see nothing but overwhelming ugliness that leads to emotional violence towards themselves and others. Considering this theme in Bergman’s movies from this period, I started thinking about one of my favorite movies, Leaving Las Vegas, and how the theme is nearly the exact opposite.

Note Two: Ben (Nicholas Cage) is actually far healthier looking and more lucid than a typical person dying of complications from alcoholism would be. Likewise Sera (Elisabeth Shue) probably is a bit too put together and lives quite nicely for someone who’s supposed to be a street hooker. And this is a fictional movie, so no point in discussing the likelihood of the scenario.

I first saw Leaving Las Vegas when it came out (a suggestion: don’t ever go see a movie about prostitution and alcoholism with one’s mother). I was sixteen at the time and in a certain Spanish mysticism phase: St. John of the Cross’ ‘desire nothing,’ ‘love makes equality and similitude,’ and, ‘Faith is not knowledge which enters by any of the senses, but is only the consent given by the soul to that which enters through the hearing.’ In this film, I saw two people, an alcoholic and a prostitute, sinners extraordinaire by any measure, encounter each other and see not brokenness and sin, but a human person to love. In their acknowledged fragility, in some ways they are spiritual planes higher than those modern marriages with pre-nuptial agreements that put under a microscope another person’s possible failings – tough luck, people are going to fail you in this world and all you have are faith, hope, and love. They demonstrate nearly divine mercy towards each other – Ben calls Sera his angel, though that may also be the alcohol talking – for the next few days/weeks until Ben successfully drinks himself to death. Some, from movie critics to my own sister, have called it “the most depressing movie ever made.” Funny, I think it’s one of the most life-affirming movies I’ve ever seen. It's supposedly a tragic love story, but I find it quite beautiful and hopeful although neither of the characters is in any way redeemed by the end.

Note Three: this film can be truly depressing if one has personally known someone who is afflicted by the disease of alcoholism. When writing this, I do not mean to imply that alcoholism or a life of prostitution are not terrible things, but that that is not what I take away from this film. Nor am I making light of the fact that the author of the novel, John O'Brien, committed suicide before the film was complete.

When discussing this film with others, I’m always surprised to encounter this reaction: “Well, if they really loved each other they would have actually helped each other,” as if being the one last person someone has to just hold on to isn’t help and mercy and charity are overrated. In this line of thinking, anything less than Sera forcing Ben to stop drinking and Ben helping Sera out of the cycle of prostitution is not really love, but enabling. But what a weak vision that focuses exclusively on sins and sets up people to fail! Ben won’t stop drinking: to paraphrase he is drinking as a way of killing himself, or killing himself to drink. And no single human person other than Christ can be so much to another that he or she could plug up all the holes and heal what is likely years of sexual and physical abuse from childhood into adulthood to “fix” Sera. Don’t even get me started on the utter ridiculousness of Jerry Maguire’s (Tom Cruise's) line: “You complete me.” Ugh.

Early on, Ben looks Sera straight in the eye and tells her, "You can never ever ask me to stop drinking. Do you understand?" Her response: "I do, I really do." Wretched sinner, meet wretched sinner. We all have our vices, our sins that we just can't give up, to which we can only say "have mercy on me." Neither Ben nor Sera makes a serious attempt to alter the other and there’s real compassion in that – at the time when they do start to focus on each failings and sins, things fall spectacularly apart. These are two utterly lonely people who know they’ve managed to dig themselves deep into a hole and have nothing worth offering to anyone except kindness and mercy, an I’m here for you. Nothing like the title of a play that’s been running in Chicago for the past several years: I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change! They don’t seek perfection in the other in an exchange of emotional goods. They simply want to exist for the other person in whatever time they have together, to be side by side. That, to me, is true love, caritas. It desires nothing, doesn’t demand or impose change, but is simply an offering, I give to you, can you accept it? Christ on the Cross is, of course, a prisoner of love, giving until it hurts and far beyond.

Since I like to force my friends to watch/listen/read what I’ve found valuable, I once made a devoutly Christian friend watch this movie with me. At the end, she said that she found the last scene, when Ben and Sera make love for the first (and last) time, morally wrong. Yes, extramarital sex is wrong. But this is a man in the last few moments of his life whose body is wracked with tremors. The woman who loves him and has taken part of his sufferings for the past several weeks comforts him in these dying moments with an act of physical intimacy. Go get the scarlet cloth and sewing shears! Prepare the stake! Sera grants Ben communion with one last person before he leaves the earth. How awful is that? It’s only awful if your version of God is one who is just waiting to getcha and make you pay for that one last sin after so many accumulated in your lifetime, one who hasn’t already borne the sins of the whole world in an act of love.

The God of Bergman (one of the reasons he eventually began to alternate between atheism and agnosticism) and of people who find Leaving Las Vegas to be a moral and spiritual failure of a film seems to me NOT to be the vision of the Ancient of Days of Daniel or Revelation that causes one to fall to hands and knees in fear and awe, but some wild-eyed, crazed god as painted in Goya’s Saturn Devouring One of His Sons. A god who hungrily devours humanity in its weakness, who sees us in our brokenness and desires to tear us limb from limb for his own sport. I’ve never seen Satan in Goya’s Saturn as other’s have, perhaps because I think we are utterly clueless as to the what/why of Satan’s desires.

Perhaps I consider Leaving Las Vegas a life-affirming film because in the end, Sera chooses to give whatever she can to Ben even if she doesn’t know how long or how capable he is of accepting her gift. Not many of us would ever be capable of that, and perhaps only a woman as broken in so many ways as Sera is could do so, though what is probably crucial in her gift is that she knows she’s broken, and most of the rest of us would never chalk up to that. In Ben’s acceptance, he affirms her own humanity and grants her participation in what it means to be a person and not a sexual object. But maybe my interpretation is skewed since I’m also someone who hears the voice of God as lover in the lyrics of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, 1946).

I’m gonna love you like nobody’s loved you, come rain or come shine
High as a mountain and deep as a river, come rain or come shine
I guess when you met me, it was just one of those things
But don’t ever bet me, cause I’m gonna be true if you let me

You’re gonna love me like nobody’s loved me, come rain or come shine
Happy together, unhappy together and won’t it be fine?
Days may be cloudy or sunny
We’re in or we’re out of the money

But I’m with you always, I’m with you rain or shine

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Opera Productions: When is it Gilding the Lily? Or the Opposite?

Julie Taymor’s The Magic Flute (shown on PBS’s Great Performances)

I had planned to blog about a guided tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple (thank you Dawn for the invite!) But a combination of my building’s elevator being down, having to walk down 17 flights of stairs, icy conditions on the roads, and ridiculous traffic on I-55 towards the west suburbs made that impossible. Instead, having turned off near Millenium Park to get out of traffic, my roommate and I went to the movie theatre and saw Reno 911!: Miami. The less said the better.

So I’ll review Julie Taymor’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute for the Met instead, as shown on PBS. There are really two issues here: Julie Taymor’s work and opera productions. (I’m not going to argue about whether The Magic Flute is actually an opera or not - it's technically Singspiel.) I’ll start with the latter and then get into the former.

Opera productions can of course be elaborate recreations of the original setting of the opera or what the original sets may have looked like or they can be stark and minimalist. The best (most appropriate?) I’ve ever seen is Berg’s Wozzeck (unfortunately I’ve long since forgotten which production it was, watched as it was on video in one of those awful cubicles in a university library). The worst was the recent production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Lyric Opera of Chicago. It took place outside of a building in Sante Fe that had only one door and no windows and at the climactic moment our Don (Bryn Terfel) supped on a huge wooden table outdoors with only a plate, a cup, and a few utensils. It was also hopelessly out of balance due to the presence of Terfel – Leporello was turned into a buffoon.

There have been a few silly ones: Wagner’s Parsifal, designed as if “a railroad runs through it.” Coincidentally, Parsifal was the opera I arranged for my classmates and myself to attend our first year of grad school. Don’t ever ever choose Wagner for a person’s introduction to opera. But I’ve also seen a number of elaborate, traditional sets, my favorite being Houston Grand Opera’s production of Verdi’s Aida performed in the late nineties.

A note: I’m not complaining about Lyric Opera of Chicago as it has provided three of my top five live opera experiences: Renee Fleming in Massenet’s Thais (Thomas Hampson as Athanael) with her beautiful pianissimo completely clear and lyrical; Olga Borodina in Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila (the recording with her and Placido Domingo is a must-have); and Act IV of The Marriage of Figaro, in a perfect moonlit garden with glowing lamps and Count Almaviva singing "Contessa, perdono."

There have been a number of notable productions of The Magic Flute: Bergman’s 1975 filmed version sung in Swedish; a performance with Kathleen Battle aired on PBS, and (not a version) but any performance that has Kiri Te Kanawa. Taymor’s version is “designed for children,” although it’s hard for me to imagine The Magic Flute being inappropriate for kids (too many Freemason references?). As a result - this is criticism number one – the opera has been abbreviated (to 100 minutes! And in English!) and arias have been cut. The most disastrous is the elimination of Pamina's “Ach, ich fuhl’s.” Papageno (Nathan Gunn) is played for the usual jokes but Pamina (Ying Huang) has had her part so curtailed that one can't tell that her story is the heart of the opera. As to the famous "Der Holle Roche kocht in meinem Herzen," the Queen of the Night (Erika Miklosa) is as awful as I’ve ever heard.

Some of the designs also bear an unfortunate resemblance to the set and costume designs of The Cell, that awful movie with Jennifer Lopez and Vincent D’Onofrio. I have never seen so many triangles and pyramids in a small space in my life. The dancing bears are beyond obnoxious, but I’m also slightly beyond childhood. While some I'm sure enjoy the blending of Japanese theatre, Indonesian puppetry, Masonic symbols and some sort of strange numerology - I was told by a friend that those are references to Kabbalah - I found it produced a disjointed effect, not universal appeal or mystery or the ultimate success of the Enlightenment (!). But there are some magical features, like the flying spirits and the movable masks of the muses. Frequently the sets change like a kaleidoscope. Especially charming is the hypnotic effect of Papageno's bells on all who hear them particularly the rolly-polly Monostatos. There are even women in pointe shoes when Papageno is dreaming of his Papagena and several birds walk around with stork-like legs, though it also reminds of the unfortunate way pointe was used in Hollywood movies of the 30’s and 40’s – not as an expressive medium but as tricks.

Interlude: The ballet sequences of The Goldwyn Follies (1938) were choreographed by George Balanchine, part of his Broadway and Hollywood stage in the late 30’s and early 40’s. It features his second wife, Vera Zorina, in a famous water nymph ballet: she comes out of a pool of water with her swimsuit clinging to her skin. But the best part of this largely forgettable movie is the solo danced by the firecracker ballerina Marie-Jeanne. She was the original lead in both Concerto Barocco and Ballet Imperial (both choreographed by Balanchine in the early 40’s) and like so many of his lead ballerinas, for a time they were romantically involved. In this brief part she shows the explosive jumps, speed, athleticism, and rubato that originally characterized those major roles in the Balanchine canon; in the 60’s Suzanne Farrell would redefine both of these roles with her long-legged lyricism. As far as I know, this is the only footage of her dancing that is commercially available; all else is tucked away in public or university libraries.

Back to Taymor. I suspect she may not do her best work when in collaboration with great material from another great artist. Her own vision either seems to become diluted as in Frida, or require distortions of the original material, as in this production. (Frida looks like a Mexican tourist brochure and features bad casting except for Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera.) However, she shows real vision and originality with weak material like Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Disney’s The Lion King.

In the end, I don’t like her version of The Magic Flute because it conceals and cuts Mozart’s work - the morality in it is completely loss somewhere between the all-seeing Eye, samurai stances, and kitschy feathered flamingos. I don't mind when the letter isn't followed, but the spirit was also thrown out in this one too, and Taymor's vision strikes me as more confused than Mozart's. It’s an elevated version of dumbed-down musical theater and since I think audiences have been dumbed-down quite enough I’d prefer for Mozart’s material not to be used. Ms. Taymor's work can be more focused and powerful than this and I don’t really think that children can’t handle exposure to the German language or need to be distracted by eye candy to sit through opera. Nevertheless, I can appreciate the strong visual impact this work must have when seen live.

Three facts that aren't really relevant to this discussion other than perhaps showing that I'm a snob: 1) Susan Stroman is not a great choreographer or stager; she dumps every theatrical conceit and cliché of the past 50 years into a pot and then spoon-feeds it to audiences who, because they can easily follow along with what’s going on thanks to its tired familiarity, think “Finally! Art I can understand!” 2) Bob Fosse is not a great American choreographer; he keeps the body completely turned in so that the only movement can occur in the pelvis, thus reducing all dance movement to the vulgar and sexualized. 3) Just throwing this out there, but I also hate most of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music. And you and your little dog too.