Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Idea of Datedness (with Jazz Hands)

This week I went to the ballet. The trip was inspired in part by my rant after seeing Black Swan about how yes, she lost a lot of weight and trained hard, but people who said Natalie Portman looked like a ballet dancer just don't know what they are talking about, and were doing a real disservice to the amazing artists the film was trying to be about. It also seemed like a kind of Social Network thing: let's make this world seem even more misogynist world than it is, and kind of condemn, that, but mostly wallow in it, because you know what isn't misogynist: Hollywood! Not to mention the idea of 'reinventing Swan Lake by making it visceral!" as some revolutionary statement. What's next, a visionary theater directory who wants to set Hamlet in Nazi Germany? Zany!

But, in any case, the movie made me want to go to the ballet. I complained to my friend that no one wants to go, and he gamely volunteered, so last week I saw a double Jerome Robbins program, "Dances at a Gathering," originally from 1969, and 1958's "NY Export: Opus Jazz." No offense to black block theaters and their folding chairs, but there's nothing like going to Lincoln Center in the middle of the week. "Dances at a Gathering" is the kind of modern ballet I love best: just enough story: no mythological frufru, no dead virgins, just friends coming together mixing, flirting, pairing off, repairing off, and quietly bidding each other off, all with a classical vocabulary, and gorgeous lines to match the single voice of Chopin's piano line.

But it was the relatively short "NY Export" that just floored me. My friend joked before hand that he wanted to see jazz hands, and he wasn't disappointed. Everyone has seen Robbins choreography, since he did West Side Story (along with Peter Pan, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof and others), and it always kind of kills me when people joke about the dancing gangs of West Side Story, as if musical theater was supposed to adhere to the Dogma rules of social realism. But it's not just the jazz hands: everything about this piece screams 1959, as much as the Weber paintings I last wrote about, from the sneakers to the gorgeous Ben Shahn backdrops. People make fun of the obsessive period stuff on Mad Men, but it's undeniably a huge part of what we love: the illusion of transportation, to which the visual is the best pathway. Nostalgia is dangerous in general, when it's for a time we never lived in as much as when it's clearly a proxy for our own childhoods. But it's also unavoidable, and, taking it with the proper suspicion, we can enjoy it as one of the transporting pleasures of art. I was trying to describe Ben Shahn and all I could think of was the line from Annie Hall, you know the one, "you're like New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandies University, the socialist summer camps, and the father with the Ben Shahn drawings," and of course I'm not that at all, no one could be who isn't a good thirty years older than me, and even going back that wasn't really my family, but it's something to laugh at, and to explain why you like the "dated" more than all the things the hip people have "rediscovered."

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