Reeling from sheer delight at the National Gallery

September 20, 2014 at 10:51 pm (Art, Ballet, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

Some friends and I wanted to see the Degas / Cassatt exhibit. This was enjoyable, if less than spectacular. Of course, one loves the little girl in the blue chair, the perfect picture of youthful ennu:

Mary_Cassatt_-_Little_Girl_in_a_Blue_Armchair_-_NGA_1983.1.18

(This work puts me in mind of the painting of Agatha Christie as a young girl that hangs in Greenway, the writer’s country home on the Devon coast.

agatha_painting_nt_340x450.1jpg The colors are different; the body language and facial expressions, similar.)

I especially loved Degas’s Rehearsal in the Studio. There’s something about the way the light flows into the room….

Edgar-Degas-Rehearal-in-the-Studio

After viewing the exhibit, we each went our separate ways. I decided to seek out some of my favorites from among the works in the National Gallery’s permanent collection. It had been too long since I’d seen them.
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I actually saw Manet’s The Old Musician while on my way to Degas / Cassatt. It stopped me in my tracks.

Édouard_Manet_-_Le_Vieux_Musicien

I’m not sure why this painting affects me as it does. I am held by the musician’s unwavering gaze.  I feel a powerful urge to enter right into the scene. In my mind, I do just that.
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John_Constable_-_Wivenhoe_Park,_Essex_-_Google_Art_Project

Everything I love about “England’s green and pleasant land” is embodied here in John Constable’s Wivenhoe Park, Essex. (Be sure to click to enlarge.)
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The Danae, by Titian. We’re lucky to have this masterpiece. It was looted by the Nazis and recovered by the famous Monuments Men from inside a salt mine in Austria. 06danae
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Man in Oriental Costume - Rembrandt

Man in Oriental Costume – Rembrandt

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Madame Bergeret - Francois Boucher

Madame Bergeret – Francois Boucher

‘Whenas in silks my Julia goes
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.’
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La Camargo dancing , by Nicolas Lancret

La Camargo dancing , by Nicolas Lancret

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I was not familiar with this moving work by Murillo, but it summoned up pictures I’ve seen of the same subject as portrayed by Rembrandt. (This painting is in Russia’s Hermitage Museum.):

It’s interesting, the power that this New Testament parable holds over the artistic imagination. (It appears only in the gospel of Saint Luke.) The Murillo canvas is certainly beautiful (and I confess that I especially appreciate the sweet presence of the small dog), but Rembrandt’s rendering is something quite apart and almost unbearably poignant.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is my husband’s favorite passage from the Bible.  Ron is especially partial to the ballet, with music by Sergei Prokofiev and choreography by the great George Balanchine. This video is of a 1978 performance by the New York City Ballet, with the incomparable Mikhail Barishnikov as the Prodigal. The last few minutes are just – well, I lack the words to describe that scene. You’ll have to see for yourself:

 

 

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Nine hundred!

August 18, 2014 at 2:04 am (Art, Ballet, Blogroll, books)

Recently I’ve written in praise of favorite blogs and bloggers. I can think of no better way to mark my nine hundredth posting on Books to  the Ceiling than by doing more of the same.

A Commonplace Blog is written by D.G. Myers, a man of uncommonly rigorous intellect and great courage as well. Whether he is writing about books, Judaism, current affairs, philosophy, or any other topic, Professor Myers displays the same fluency and erudition. In particular, I owe him a debt of gratitude for his recommendation of The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis. He calls it “the perfect historical novel.” I agree.

Two blogs that take full and rich advantage of the visual component of blogging are In So Many Words and Letters from a Hill Farm. Yvette blogs at the first; Nan, at the second. In both cases, one feels the full force of their love of books, of life and general – and of grandchildren in particular!

Two blogs that I truly cherish are My Porch and The Argumentative Old Git. At My Porch, Thomas chronicles his love of books and the arts with flair and exuberance. Likewise his unabashed affection for his dog Lucy, as delightfully documented in a series of  photos. Oh, and Thomas – thanks for writing in praise of Eric Ambler.  I had the great good fortune to be reading A Coffin for Demetrios when I was in Paris in 1995.

As for the The Argumentative Old Git – well, he most certainly is not that! Concerning the name chosen for his blog, Himadri explains that  “it’s best to be self-deprecating before someone else deprecates you.” So: sense of humor – check! Also deep erudition and love of books and music – in other words, the Things That Matter. I first found this blog when I was writing- -yet again – about reading – yet again – The Turn of the Screw. Himadri had written a wonderful post on Henry James’s infuriating, fascinating novel and on the terrific 1961 film, called The Innocents and starring Deborah Kerr. I then became aware that he’d also written about Wagner’s Parsifal. It seems we’d both seen the HD broadcast of the Met’s production of this opera in March of last year. Himadri described himself as “somewhat shaken by  the experience.” I felt the same. I’ve seen this opera three times, and every time it perplexes me and moves me profoundly. About a week later, I wrote  a post on The Turn of the Screw; in that post I wrote yet again about Parsifal. I linked to Himadri’s blog, and we had a most pleasing exchange in the Comments section of that post.

Anyway, Himadri is unfailingly gracious and learned; I recommend The Argumentative Old Git to all those who value literate discourse (which I fear is becoming increasingly rare).

Before leaving the subject of blogs, I’d like to mention that  Martin Edwards of Do You Write Under Your Own Name recently shared the great news that he has written a book about the history of crime fiction. Called The Golden Age of Murder and focusing in particular on the Detection Club, it is to be published in May of next year by HarperCollins. You can pre-order this book on Amazon – I’ve already done it.
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Finally, I’d like to conclude with some things of beauty:

 

Portinari Altarpiece Hugo van der Goes

Portinari Altarpiece
Hugo van der Goes

 

 

Spozalizio Raphael

Spozalizio
Raphael

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Svetlana Zakharova and Andrei Uvarov:

 

 

And finally…’Beauty too rich for use; For earth, too dear!’

Alessandra Ferri and Angel Corella

 

 

 

 

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To Russia, with love; or, I can’t seem to get the Polovtsian Dances out of my head

February 12, 2014 at 12:59 am (Ballet, Music, Russophilia)

Why does this phenomenon persist?

It could be due to my watching this over and over again:

And this:

Finally, the Polovtsian Dance sequence was the first music heard in the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics:

Olympics

(Will video eventually be available of this rather amazing spectacle? I certainly hope so!)

The Polovtsian Dance sequence is probably the most famous part of Alexander Borodin‘s  Prince Igor. This masterpiece is currently being staged at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time since 1917. It’s being offered as part of the Metropolitan Opera in HD series and can be seen in select local theaters on Saturday March 1. (Will I be there? You bet I will!)

Borodin

Alexander Borodin, 1833-1887

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I first heard the music of Alexander Borodin when I saw the 1955 film Kismet. I was eleven at the time, and I was simply blown away by this movie. I thought I’d never seen or heard anything so romantic and so utterly beautiful. What does an MGM musical have to do  with a Russian composer? An article on the Classic FM site explains.

In the second video above, the one depicting the grand re-opening of the Bolshoi Theater in 2011, you get a lot more than just the Polovtsian Dances. In particular, be sure to watch the excerpt from the ballet Spartacus (at 27:38). (The segment that precedes it, the ballroom scene from Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, is also worth your while – a truly opulent production.) In this same video, I’d like to note also the presence in the audience of Sergei Filin (first row second from the right, next to the empty chair, at 1:00). A former principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, Filin had become the company’s artistic director in Moscow when, in January of 2013, he was the victim of an acid attack. He has had numerous surgeries since then, but my understanding is that he has lost a great deal of his eyesight – hopefully, not all of it. (The malefactors were caught and tried and are currently serving time.)

In his prime, Sergei Filin was a wonderful dancer. A number of tributes to his artistry have been posted on YouTube. I’m especially fond of this one:


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My fascination with Russian culture derives in part from my own background. All four of my grandparents immigrated to this country from the Ukraine in the early years of the twentieth century. At the time that they made this epic journey, Ukraine was still part of the Russian Empire.

My maternal grandparents, Nathan Gusman and Mary Davidoff Gusman

My maternal grandparents, Nathan Gusman and Mary Davidoff Gusman

When reading David Brown’s biography of Tchaikovsky, I learned that Ukraine was often referred to as “Little Russia.” Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony is nicknamed Little Russian. The final movement –  an absolute joy! – makes use of “The Crane,” a Ukrainian folk song. Here is the USSR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov, who was in his time a tireless champion of Russian music:

(As best as I can determine, the USSR Symphony Orchestra is now known as The Russian State Symphony Orchestra. This puts me in mind of an observation made by Neal Ascherson in his book Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland. Russia, he says, is a place “…where the past is said to be unpredictable.”)

So now, of course, I can’t get the finale of the Little Russian Symphony out of my head. No matter -I’ll gladly let it dwell there, right alongside the Polovtsian Dances.

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Magnifique! Giselle, the Paris Opera Ballet’s rare gift to the nation’s capital

July 9, 2012 at 12:14 pm (Ballet, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

   Thursday night was opening night at the Kennedy Center for the Paris Opera Ballet. In their performance of Giselle, this renowned company combined grace, precision, and pathos to produce a thing of transcendent beauty.

The first act is festive and filled with light and color.        (Isn’t that set marvelous – like something out of a Grimm’s fairy tale. It was designed in 1924 by the artist Alexandre Benois.)

Alas, all ends in tragedy. The beautiful young Giselle has fallen in love, but she has been wooed under false pretenses. She goes mad with grief, and dies.

Aurelie Dupont as Giselle

The second act provided a stark contrast. It is night. All gaiety has fled. And sylph- like beings appear, clad all  in white. They are the Wilis.  As young girls, their hearts had been broken and death had overtaken them, putting an end to their dreams of love. Now they haunt the graveyard, seeking vengeance on the men who wronged them.

(At the beginning of this excerpt, the Wilis appear veiled. They then discard those veils, which seem literally to fly offstage into the wings. I saw this happen live Thursday night; I have no idea how it was done.)

What made this performance so moving, so riveting?  In“Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle Soars at the Kennedy Center,” veteran dance critic Sarah Kaufman, brings her deep love and knowledge of the ballet to bear on that question:

Bright, fresh energy coursed through the entire cast. It has been 19 years since the Paris Opera Ballet last performed here, and I have relished the memories of the dancers’ willowy physiques, beautifully shaped feet and musical sensitivity ever since. All that is present, but the dancers’ buoyancy surprised me. How uniformly light and airborne they were, from the corps dancers to the stars.

There was an extraordinary level of excellence in all ranks and a thorough familiarity with the romantic ballet style: the suppleness of the torso; the softened, modest proportions. The sheer human grandeur, expressed in the simplest ways, had this hardened critic near tears at several points. One of them was a choreographic feat I’ve seen a hundred times, yet never seen before: A pinwheel suddenly materialized out of interlacing rows of dancers like the wind lifting from a field.

I have sometimes felt that perfection is inimical to beauty. This was most emphatically not the case Thursday evening. Instead, Romeo’s exclamation upon first seeing Juliet came to mind: “…I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.”

Did I mention that this performance played to a packed house Thursday night?  At the end, the applause was thunderous, the company called back for numerous curtain calls. I turned to my cousin Stephany, my  companion for the evening, and said, “We’re incredibly lucky to have been here tonight!”

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Here is the video trailer for the Paris Opera Ballet’s 2012 U.S. tour:

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For Christmas Day: a celebration of music and family, along with a heartfelt thank you.

December 25, 2011 at 6:05 pm (Ballet, Christmas, Family, Music)

The Christmas tree in the Medieval Sculpture Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The music:

“Dance of the Mirlitons” from The Nutcracker, danced by the Kirov Ballet, now once again known as the Mariinsky.. Music is by Tchaikovsky.

Here is a concise history of the Nutcracker Ballet. (An advertisement must be endured at the outset, alas.)

The quaity of this video from the English Baroque Festival is not great, but the costumes and the music – Handel’s Water Music – are quite delightful:

I’ve long loved this video of Luciano Pavarotti and his father Fernando singing Cesrar Franck’s “Panis Angelicus” at the Modena Cathedral. They’re high up in the choir, while the celebrants below receive Holy Communion.

Here, Pavarotti sings the same piece, backed by two choirs, at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Montreal, Canada, in 1978.

Here’s Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus,” sung by the King’s College Choir of Cambridge University:

Click here for the  “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” from the Great Mass in C, also by Mozart, sung by the English Baroque Soloists, the Monteverdi Choir, and conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, whose lifelong service and devotion to this music deserves the highest praise and gratitude.

Another “Gloria,” this one from the Vivaldi work by the same name. We here Trevor Pinnock at the harpsichord and conducting the English Concert.

And once again we have John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque soloists in “Jauchzet, Frohlocket,” the rousing opening of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio:

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The family:

Etta Lin, Erica, and Ben Davis

 This little family has brought us boat loads of joy this year!

I just have to slip this in: It’s Etta’s first school picture! She is currently matriculated  at a Montessori School Daycare, where she is honing her social skills and even learning to dance (now that she’s up on her two feet).

Here is Ron, taking pictures during our England sojourn in May. This is the man who always puts himself in the background while cheering on his (occasional drama queen) wife. I sometimes kid that he’s “the wind beneath my wings,” but the fact is: He is my everything.

And no, I have not forgotten – as she sits patiently awaiting yet another food bowl refill – the dependable provider of comic relief around here (and lots of affection too):

Miss Audrey Jane Marple

I feel deeply blessed and just as deeply grateful. Thank you to  the great artists of the past and present, to my wonderful family.

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What is that music?

January 11, 2011 at 9:14 pm (Ballet, Film and television, Music, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

Here are two separate musical encounters: the first, a new and welcome experience; the second, an equally welcome return.

The first one began with a video of the great Natalia Osipova.  At the time of this film, she was seventeen years old; now in her mid twenties, she is a principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet. Click here to see Natalia Osipova performing Liturgy.

Of course, I loved Osipova’s dancing. And I loved her choice of music. Then, much to my astonishment, I heard that music again in a most  unlikely place, or so it seemed to me: the opening credits of the police drama Southland:

Intrigued by this odd confluence, I did some digging and found out more about Cancao do Mar, or Song of the Sea. The vocalist is Dulce Pontes. According to  Wikipedia: “Her songs contributed to the 1990s revival of Portuguese urban folk music called fado.” Here is a video realization of this haunting melody.

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It’s been a long wait, but the BBC film versions of Reginald Hill’s venerable Dalziel & Pascoe novels are finally available on DVD. We first viewed these on the A&E network many years ago and have not seen them since. This would account for our having forgotten who composed the soundtrack. As soon as we fired up the first disc and heard that music, we looked at each other and smiled…

Yes, it’s the work of Barrington Pheloung, whose legato saxophone riffs and notes of embedded code were so powerfully identified with in the Inspector Morse series – Ah yes, Inspector Morse and John Thaw, of blessed memory:

(My heart aches, whenever I hear that music…)

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Ballet at (the new and improved) Lincoln Center, where even the fountain dances!

June 30, 2010 at 2:23 am (Ballet)

Recently, I traveled to New York to see ballet at Lincoln Center: The American Ballet Theatre in the Opera House on Friday night; New York City Ballet at the David H. Koch Theater on Saturday. In both cases, I was going with dear friends of long standing, who love dance as much as I do. What I didn’t realize was that for the past three years, Lincoln Center has been in the throes of a major redesign project.

I arrived – June 10 – as work on the project was entering its final phase. My friend Lynn, for whom the city is a second home, was the ideal tour guide. To begin with: a new sign:

Henry Moore's sculpture Reclining Figure now floats above a refelcting pool at the Center's North Plaza

Festive poster display in front of the Opera House

The fountain at the center of the Main Plaza has become a whimsical, even playful accompaniment to the Lincoln Center experience. Not everyone was initially happy with this innovation. But Saturday night, just prior to the eight o’clock curtain at both the Opera House and the Koch Theater, the waterworks suddenly got high and wild. People were exclaiming in wonder; some  got wet; everyone seemed delighted by  the show.

This video will give you some sense of what the scene was like, although in this instance, we really do have a classic case of You Had To Be There:

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Here’s another shot of the reflecting pool at the North Plaza:. I took this picture to make a point; namely, that virtually every new  feature currently to be seen at Lincoln Center is named for a major donor. The fountain, for another instance, is more properly termed the Revson Fountain, for Charles Revson, founder of Revlon Cosmetics. But the example I got the biggest kick out of was “the Roslyn and Elliot Jaffe Family Drive.” This is basically an underpass directly in front of the complex, allowing a noxious and perilous street to go underground.

Although these various enhancements were not without controversy, I found them for the most part quite wonderful – a material improvement of an already priceless resource. The Kennedy Center in Washington DC was supposed to undergo a similar makeover, but Congress declined to vote the necessary funds. I wonder if they’ve considered going the naming rights route? It’s obviously worked wonders for Lincoln Center. (As I sit here, I’m trying out “the Ron and Roberta Rood Underpass.” Not sure how that sounds, never mind where the money would  come from!)

Well, enough of this – what of the ballet? Ah, the ballet…

Here’s the banner proudly displayed on the opera house facade:

Lynn and I saw three one act ballets performed by this venerable company. First on the program was  Brahms-Haydn Variations, choreographed by Twyla Tharp. what a splendid work! In his review in the New York Times, Alastair Macaulay could not heap enough praise on Tharp and on this ballet:

“Brahms-Haydn” changes mood alchemically from one variation to the next, builds cumulatively to its finale and develops variations on those original two lifts and other early movement in ways that look inevitable. In one variation, a woman takes that jumping lift right over a man’s back. When she arrives, she wheels her raised leg around until it almost hits him; then she wheels it back again. Ms. Tharp makes this look like an experiment in action (is this going to work?) as no ballet choreographer ever did before. With such strokes she has enlarged the nature of spontaneity in choreography.

From the Brahms-Haydn Variations

The next ballet was “On the Dnieper,” with music by Sergei Prokofiev and  choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. I was  especially delighted to be seeing this,, because I love the music of Prokofiev, and I was keen to see something of the work of Ratmansky, formerly of the Bolshoi and now artist in residence at the ABT.

“On the Dnieper” is a tale of love and heartbreak. It was beautifully done.

Finally: Fancy Free. I realized that I had actually never seen this storied collaboration between Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. Or at least I hadn’t seen it all the way through. All I can say about this justly famous work is: to see it is to love it:

Fancy Free debuted in 1944. In 1957, Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein collaborated again, this time on an  musical destined for Broadway. Into this ambitious project they drew a young lyricist and compose unknown at that time to theater audiences. His name was Stephen Sondheim. The show was West Side Story. At the tender age of thirteen, I had the enormous privilege of seeing it with the original cast, shortly after its sensational opening.

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The New York City Ballet’s Saturday night program was equally memorable. Again, we saw three one act ballets. The first was “After the Rain,” choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon to the music of Estonian composer Arvo Part.  This ballet has two sections; the second half, danced by Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall, was riveting. I had seen my first Wheeldon ballet  this past January: Liturgy, also with Wendy Whelan. These dances are like nothing I have ever seen before, and Wendy Whelan – age 43! – is simply amazing. In “Terrestrial Wanderings in a Place Rich With Atmosphere,” New York Times critic Gia Kourlas said: “Wendy Whelan seemed to float in [Craig Hall’s] arms like gosssamer; they should always dance together.”

Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall

The second ballet was “Luce Nascosta” or “Unseen Light.” The choreographer was Mario Bigonzetti; the score, by Bruno Moretti, was commissioned by City Ballet. While parts of this dance were fascinating, as a whole I did not think it was entirely successful. For one thing, it was too long; for another, the dancers’ movements were sometimes jerky and hieratic in a way that I found unlovely. The stage was in darkness much of the time.

All the more reason to cheer for the third and final number on the program:  “Who Cares,” a delicious confection set to music by George Gershwin and choreographed by George Balanchine:

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I recently came across this rather spectacular promotional video for  the Dutch National Ballet’s 2010-2011 season. I wonder of this company tours at all? If not, I may have to pop over to the Netherlands to see them:

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Celebrating the season with music, dance – and the Tooty Ta song!

December 25, 2009 at 6:20 pm (Ballet, Christmas, Music)

For years, I’ve been a great fan of The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. First held on Christmas Eve of 1918, this is a comparatively new tradition at Cambridge University – which  this year has been celebrating the eight hundredth anniversary of its founding. (Yes, you read that right – 800!!)

The Chapel of King’s College is one of the chief architectural glories of England.

King's College Chapel, by JMW Turner

Here is how the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols begins:

Additional selections can be viewed here.

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The haunting song “I Wonder As I Wander” has a fascinating history; click here to read about it. Fredericka von Stade sings it in this excerpt from a 1991 Carnegie Hall concert. She is followed by Kathleen Battle, who sings “Mary Had a Baby.”

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Here is our favorite Christmas music in the classical repertoire: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. It is here performed by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, led by Sir John Eliot Gardner:

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The Nutcracker ballet has become an integral part of most Christmas celebrations. Its history is recounted in this video:

Here is “the Dance of the Mirlitons” in a performance by the Kirov (now the Mariinsky Theatre):

And here is a rather astonishing, seemingly Cossack-inspired version of the Russian dance , choreographed by Alex Kalinin:

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Finally, this has nothing directly to do with the holidays – except to remind us to cherish the children!

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Ballet

December 15, 2009 at 9:35 pm (Ballet, Music, Performing arts, Russophilia)

Here is a 42-second video clip that threw me back in my chair, gasping in amazement:

This is the great Alexander Godunov as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet (Bolshoi, 1979). First, there is the arrogance, the smug heedlessness, of pure evil; then, the death agony. Watching this – over and over again – I am not only astonished but also downright frightened. Such is the intensity of this performance.

As an artist, Alexander Godunov embodies the idea of the flame that burns too brightly and must, inevitably, consume itself. We can only be grateful for the brilliant legacy he has left to the world of dance. (Additional videos featuring Godunov can be found on YouTube.)

Here is another clip of a performance of Romeo and Juliet by the Bolshoi.

Alexandr Tetrov is  wonderful as Tybalt, but Vladimir Derevianko pretty much steals the show as Mercutio. I can’t take my eyes off his legs – he becomes effortlessly airborne, then whirls like a top. Later, he turns around and taunts Tybalt – one is filled with dread, knowing what will happen next. I confess, I have never watched this video through to the end. I can’t bear the thought of losing Mercutio, the mercurial sprite so cunning and so free.

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Sergei Prokofiev is a composer that Ron and I both love. He wrote much great music; for us, Romeo and Juliet is his masterpiece.

Sergei Sergeevich Prokofiev: 1891 - 1953

Russians really connect with the heightened passion that informs Shakespeare’s play. They have taken this timeless, turbulent tale of  love in adversity and through the magic of music and dance, made it their own.

[Valery Gergiev conducts the London Symphony in November 2008.]

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