Forty Years of the Hamburg Ballet: Part one

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This season the Hamburg Ballet is celebrating its fortieth year, all under the direction of choreographer John Neumeier. To commemorate this, the company is putting on a record-breaking Ballet Days, three weeks during which a different ballet is performed almost every night. I have been lucky enough to be a part of the Ballet Days, onstage and off.

The celebration began with the opening night of Shakespeare Dances, a mixed bill of excerpts from Themen aus Mozart: Wie es Euch gefällt (As You Like It), Hamlet, and Vivaldi, Oder was Ihr wollt (Twelfth Night). Before the public premier, there was a performance to which all former dancers of the Hamburg Ballet were invited. The audience was full of Mr Neumeier’s dancers, and I doubt any audience could understand and appreciate his work as well as they did. The ballet was delightful. As You Like It was a hilarious romp through the forest, Hamlet just as moody and dark as one expects, and Twelfth Night a sweet touching tale, ending in a joyous finale that brought the whole ensemble on stage in top hats and clown noses. 

This was followed by a guest company, the Bayerisches Staatsballett. They danced two pieces, Jerome Robbins’ Goldberg Variations and Jiri Kylian’s Gods and Dogs. Goldberg Variations was a pretty piece, but dragged on for an hour and a half without ever reaching any sort of climax. Gods and Dogs was one of the most spectacular twenty minutes I’ve seen on stage. 

On Thursday Hamburg Ballet danced John Neumeier’s Kameliendame (La Dame aux Camelias) after Dumas’ novel. The show is always a crowd pleaser, and is one of Mr Neumeier’s most famous pieces. 

Friday brought Romeo and Juliet, which I unfortunately did not see. I saw it earlier in the year, and really enjoyed it. It was an interpretation of the story that felt more full of real feeling than other ballet versions I’ve seen, and even more dramatic power than any theatre production I’ve seen of it. 

Saturday was the Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler (pictured above), in my opinion one of the best ballets ever created. Mr Neumeier has choreographed ballets to eight of Mahler’s ten symphonies, as well as songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Rückert-Lieder. I did not see it performed that evening. 

Sunday was Nijinsky Day. In the afternoon they danced the two act ballet Nijinsky, one of the most powerful  story ballets in existence. Again, I could not get tickets to the ballet that particular afternoon, but saw it two other times earlier in the year. The first act is a beautiful look at Nijinsky’s work and life, the second act a more abstract and disturbing look into his madness. The sets and costumes are gorgeous, and Alexandre Riabko’s interpretation of the great dancer is unmatched. In the evening the company danced Nijinsky Epilogue, two short ballets. This I was lucky enough to see that day. The first ballet is Le Pavillon d’Armide, where Mr Neumeier mixes classical repertoire danced by Nijinsky, Pavlova and Karsavina, mixed seamlessly with his own steps, and recreations of other Nijinsky dances. There is a lot there for audiences to enjoy, especially the wonderful danse siamoise, but a real ballet nerd (or those of us who just spent weeks studying for a dance history final) can see so many clever layers and side-stories. The second half of the evening was Le Sacre, to Stravinsky’s famously scandalous music. Very modern compared to much of Neumeier’s other work. The nearly naked dancers turned the human body into something animal and frightening, and the ending solo is one of the most exhausting women’s solos I have ever seen. 

That was only the first of three busy weeks, during which the Hamburg Ballet had already worked harder than most dancers ever have to in such a short time. 

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Song of the Week: Devendra Banhart, Cristobal

Been busy, haven’t posted for a while.
My family back home in Toronto recently had the pleasure of seeing Devendra Banhart live. Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t free when he played in Hamburg, but it was a good reminder to check out his new album (check it out, good stuff, as usual).
Devendra is a beautiful weirdo, which is pretty much what I’m looking for in any artist. I’m most familiar with the dark, rattly album Rejoicing in the Hands, but I think some of my favourite melodies are in Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon (plus you can’t beat that for an album name).
From an artist with such an enormous range, Cristobal is on his softer side, a gentle heartsore tune.
Spanish is one of my favourite languages to listen to. The text brings me back to my idea that abstract lyrics are more interesting and engaging to the listener. It forces them to use their imagination and deal in ideas rather than spoon-feeding them. This is even more the case when the text is in a language the listener doesn’t understand.

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Song of the Week: Ólöf Arnalds, Crazy Car

I don’t know how I’ve missed Ólöf Arnalds for such a long time. I was at her concert last night, where she opened for laser-focused passionate songstress Scout Niblett. Ólöf is a very different artist, light and cheery, an Icelandic folk sweetheart. She is downright adorable, an engaging and expressive face with a charming accent.
Crazy Car, she explained as being about a friend who was moving to America. She asked for us sing along at the end (and I was surprised by the incredibly beautiful soprano of the woman next to me), but I genuinely might have anyway! The words are pure poetry, and the tune somehow happily light and heartbreakingly pleading at the same time. A beautiful portrayal of young angst, but viewed from the outside, a fresh perspective on that well-worn topic.
I have to add, wouldn’t it be marvellous to work for KEXP? They have the best musicians on their show, it must be a real dream job.

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Song of the Week: The Fiery Furnaces, My Egyptian Grammar

The Fiery Furnaces have a special gift. Actually they have several. There’s probably nobody weirder than Matthew Friedberger (in the best possible way), and teamed up with his sister Eleanor the Fiery Furnaces pretty much do it all. From near jazz to wild techno, album to album they have hardly anything in common with themselves. Musical chameleons, you might call them.
The consistent element in all of their music that I adore is the lyrics. Somehow they manage to tell colourful, brilliant stories, without saying anything explicit. Cryptic “Quay Cur” off the album Blueberry Boat is a nautical epic partly sung in what I am told is Inuktitut. But somehow you can follow the story, or rather build your own shipwrecked fancy.
My Egyptian Grammar is a catchy tune in a more conventional vein than some of their more outlandish stuff (the album Rehearsing My Choir focuses on bizarre recordings of their Grandmother’s stories), but still has a whacky edge to its round and bouncy sound. The lyrics are the stuff of total fantasy, to do with what you will.
The Fiery Furnaces have something for every listener, and something for every mood and setting. Add that to their respective solo work and the Friedbergers are one duo I can barely live without!

Arrested Development Developments

ImageNow the story of a great TV show that lost everything, and the one fan who has no idea how they can put it back together. Mitchell Hurwitz’s Arrested Development is a hilarious mockumentary-style comedy show that was cancelled after three seasons (2003-2006). I have thoroughly enjoyed all three seasons, at least twice through. The writing is great, uncredited narrator Ron Howard is just as funny as the loveable characters the drama is built upon.

The show is about the Bluth family, California super-rich. When patriarch George Sr. (Pope Francis lookalike Jeffrey Tambour) is arrested on the day of his retirement, the family’s company finds itself in trouble. His son Michael (Jason Bateman), rather than taking his son George-Michael (Bateman’s delightfully awkward Juno costar and Canadian Michael Cera) to Arizona, finds himself stuck in Orange County, holding the company and his spoiled, entitled family together. His manipulative, alcoholic mother Lucille (Jessica Walter) strives to keep up the illusion of her image, while caring for her overly-attached youngest Buster (Tony Hale). Amy Poehler’s Canadian husband Will Arnett plays Gob Bluth (pronounced like Job, of biblical fame), an unsuccessful magician, wants to be in charge of the business, but is totally unreliable. His sister, lazy socialite Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) is trying to figure out her marriage with seemingly gay aspiring actor Tobias Fünke (David Cross). Their daughter is the unsuspecting love interest of her cousin, George-Michael. Guest stars like Liza Minelli, Henry Winkler and Scott Baio are excellent support.

The characters are unbelievable, the writing is great and the jokes hilarious. So why didn’t the show last? Why wasn’t it the enormous hit it ought to have been? Easy. All the jokes are private. If you don’t watch the show from the beginning, you don’t get much after the third episode. No joke happens only once, and are often subtly disguised. The audience has to watch carefully to catch the great humour. The show didn’t catch on, but even after it was cancelled, the cast and crew knew the value of the show, and have been promising more since then. There was talk of a movie. It wasn’t until 2012, six years after cancellation, that a fourth season was announced, and I could not be happier. Season four will consist of 15 episodes, starting at the end of May.

What worries me is how they are going to try to fix the problem of the inside humour. They have the potential to hugely increase their fan base, having had six years to consider where they went wrong. But I’m sure it will be a tricky fix, the trouble being that if they don’t keep enough of the old jokes, they will likely disappoint the existing die-hards (hi).

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But looking at this picture, a reference to season one, episode two, and itself a reference to Monty Python, I’d say that they’re going to stay true to the earlier seasons. I’m over the moon, and can’t wait to see what they do. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it in the future!

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Song of the Week: Scout Niblett, Dance of Sulphur

I am PUMPED to see Scout Niblett in June. She’s playing Hamburg’s awesome Kampnagel theatre with Icelandic musician Òlöf Arnalds, who I admit I had never heard of until I heard of this concert.
I’ve known Scout’s music for a fairly long time, as my parents are fans. I didn’t really start listening to her myself until about a year ago.
But Scout Niblett is something wonderfully rare. You don’t come across all that many female drummers, or drummers who sing. But she’s a talented guitarist, too, and is apparently classically trained in piano and violin. Add that to her bold, powerful vocals, and eerily abstract lyrics, Scout is something special.
Dance of Sulphur is definitely one of my favourites. The instrumentals aren’t in a hurry to get anywhere, in fact they are cool and gentle. Scout is passionate and emotional, as always.
I take the words as having something to do with pregnancy, but honestly who could say for sure?
The point is, it’s beautiful music, you should listen to it.

Gender Equality and the Body: Help!

Let me start by reminding everybody, I am a man. Gender equality is, in my layman’s eyes, not a real dialogue, as I am not being offered my say. Feminists, as they are presented to me, are women who don’t shave their armpits and want to yell at me without telling me how to fix the problem. Like horses trampling the aims of brave suffragettes, they seem to make wild demands and don’t want me to hold the door open for them.

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(Kate Beaton’s Straw Feminists in the Closet is funny stuff, as usual)

Reasonable feminists obviously exist. Sense and fairness, though well disguised in the media, are still plentiful if you’re looking for them. There are many women and men with non-threatening views on gender equality, just like there are plenty of Christians who don’t want to see me spend eternity pelted with fire and brimstone.

I’m thinking about all this after hearing a nifty interview on one of my favourite radio shows, Definitely Not the Opera on CBC Radio, with Sook-Yin Lee. Mid-April, DNTO had musician Kinnie Starr on, talking about her sexy new image. Kinnie identifies as a feminist, but is under scrutiny from her fellows for showing skin and wearing eyeliner. For a man, this offered an interesting glimpse into the internal debate among feminists. Is showing skin objectifying yourself? Or is it taking possession of your own body?

I think that that is not Kinnie’s responsibility. Once again, it’s all up to interpretation. In one sense, I concede to the hard-core scary feminists: it’s the men’s fault if they are objectifying women for making themselves look pretty. That’s why gender equality can only happen as a change in everybody’s attitude towards the human body. Nudity doesn’t have to mean sex, and sex doesn’t have to mean subjugation. So, as I find to be the case with a lot of issues, it all comes down to education.

But of course not only women are objectified. Among my own bêtes noires is Abercrombie and Fitch, those dark stinky dens of questionable fashion, where beautiful men sell the clothes by not wearing them. CEO Mike Jeffries comes across as a nasty piece of work to me, staffing his house and private jet exclusively with male models, and discouraging the overweight from buying his brand. It’s an attitude we’re teaching everybody, girls and boys, that the pretty topless boys out front are there to be ogled and photographed. This argument among feminists is not actually a matter of respecting women as equals. It’s about respecting everybody in general, treating every person as a person regardless of what they wear (or don’t). We know it’s wrong, we’ve heard it over and over, but we don’t change. We buy the clothes the pretty people sell us, we listen to the songs about Fergie’s humps (OK, actually I haven’t heard that one since 2005, but it’s musical legacy is going strong), and quietly judge the people who let us commit these errors. 

Back to Kinnie Starr (I really suggest listening to that interview, and that show in general). If we accept that we are being hypocrites about sex and marketing, then it shouldn’t matter that she is a woman. She is just a person being photographed in a swimsuit, holding a gun. OK, I admit (in all hypocrisy) that sounds bad, but only because we are looking at it that way. She’s wearing a swimsuit in a photo because swimming is an expression of her Mohawk heritage and she is comfortable in the water. The gun, she explains, actually spins her message in an environmental direction. She is defending her people’s waters. That is what she wants to show us, and we can choose to see it that way, or we can just see tits and guns.

And in any case, whether we’re taking a political stand, or just dressing down for the fun of it, there is a personal pleasure in looking good. It’s the same feeling of clean satisfaction as a hot shower, clean shave, good dental flossing and toenail trim. The issue of gender equality goes so much deeper than eyeliner!

So I’m on the side of the mild feminists. I will continue to muss my hair just so, wear skinny jeans and won’t be caught dead wearing crocs. The ladies can continue to wear  makeup and heels if they so choose. Maybe I am missing the point entirely. If that is the case, then I can only ask that any feminists who may come across this look upon poor ignorant me with sympathy, and choose gentle words. Don’t teach feminism like teaching a puppy to behave. People don’t want to be hit on the nose with the rolled-up newspaper, they want to discuss and learn, they want education, not training.

Just Read: Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers

I’ve done a fair bit of reading lately. When travelling, there’s lots of time to gain some literary ground on planes, trains and automobiles. Hamburg-Basel: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Hamburg-Berlin: The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway. And Hamburg-Leipzig was my chance to burn through fellow Canadian Patrick deWitt’s dark Western comedy The Sisters Brothers.

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Great stuff. Brilliantly picaresque, the book follows Eli and Charlie Sisters, hired by the mysterious Commodore to kill one Hermann Kermit Warm, on their journey through Oregon and California of the 1850’s. Narrated by Eli, the younger and less murderously-inclined of the duo, the humour is clever and clear, the mysteries drawing.

First and foremost in the story, the brothers’ relationship is delicately detailed, but somehow intuitively understandable. Each character is intriguing and quirky, from the mad-scientist vibe around Hermann Kermit Warm, to the very horses the brothers ride. Each little side-plot adds happily to the whole, and together form a sort of mystic undercurrent.

Fantastically put together, The Sisters Brothers  is probably my favourite of 2013 so far. Whether you’re a fan of westerns or not, it’s a great read that you won’t want to finish.

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Song of the Week: Regina Spektor, Lady

No special reason for this as my Song of the Week (more like Song of the Month, I’ve been a bad blogger lately), just a little tune that’s been floating around in my head.
I think somehow Regina Spektor has inherited New York, musically. The lady knows her stuff, and is certainly the queen of anti-folk, keeping the genre alive and kicking in its home. But she stays very accessible, with her Russian classical and folk roots keeping things cozy and rich, and a sweet bluesy frosting over all that.
Lady is a shout out to Billie Holiday, the Lady herself. But what I love about songs with cryptic lyrics is that they allow the listener to interpret freely. For me, Lady is a sort of meta-theatrical look at pain in performance. How entertained we are by pain! Anyway, “little wet tears” is right, the melody is crushingly sad.
If you like this side of Regina, take a little listen to her cover of My Man, which was featured on Boardwalk Empire.

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Song of the Week: The Acorn, Crooked Legs

A stressful week calls for The Acorn. Out of beautiful Ottawa, home to more than just politics, The Acorn writes simple, gently flowing music that chills me right out.
I think Crooked Legs belongs in a movie soundtrack. It’s soft, but builds into something big, and has that restless summer feel. I wish it had been playing the time that, past curfew, I ran home from a party, and found a bizarre peace in my ensuing exhaustion. Tumbling guitar and long brass notes are joined by rattling percussion and thoughtful lyrics.
The video is also quite something. Very interesting to watch, the band got a lot more hype in 2009, when Kanye West posted it with the all-caps message “THIS IS BEAUTIFUL”. The band replied by thanking him and inviting him to come over for a barbecue, cold beers and to play with the neighbourhood cats. No word on whether that actually happened.
Listen to The Acorn, relax and sweet dreams!