Into the Woods

Raavan (2009, dir. Mani Ratnam). Aishwarya Rai’s Ragini remains too little marred by abduction, rock-scaling, near-drowning, food refusal, traumatic witnessing, being dragged from cave to pit to cave and so on. The camera still fondles her face as it might any cover-girl—confirming this face to be as fascinating as that of some infant cyborg. Abhishek Bachchan’s Raavan is a convincing maniac, however, in whom a certain fathomlessness carries forward the fantastical Ramayanan subtext. His hands chopping about his face, acting out the knives in his head: a brilliant, dramatically efficient tic.

Raavan’s forest is vitally extrajurisdictional space. The forest villagers protect him, want to be left alone—and here the bleeding heart may think: alas, the Indian state has trammeled upon these people’s bare but honest subsistence lives. But how suspiciously convenient, for any state in fact inadequate as provider, when the people do not want to be civilized—or therefore subsidized. This is the story’s social pathos: as Ragini asks her police-chief husband Dev (played by Tamil screen stalwart Vikram), “Is he Raavan or is he Robin Hood?”

Thunderous zombie-like rain-dance to the song that assaults whatever haute Delhi may think of them: the best song-dance of the film, perhaps of any popular Hindi film of the last decade. Abhishek may not have the liquid flow of Hrithik Roshan’s dance moves—e.g., all cartilage in Krrish opposite J.-Crewish Priyanka Chopra—but ever since Refugee, and even throughout Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, he has grown peerless in transmitting compressed, punctuating intensity.

However gorgeously cinematographed, Ratnam’s obsession with waterfalls, rainfall, and rotational views, and concession to gratuitous violence during climactic scenes, only venn-diagrams this film with Bollywood’s triter image-sectors. The directorial triumph lies rather in an insistence that Raavan’s attraction to Ragini stay indefinite, as a sort of inter-species gravitation: she pure wife, he bog demon, though each susceptible to the pull of another life. (He is thus a different animal from the Beast or Frog who’s actually an incarcerated prince, say, and from the altogether irredeemable Alberich lusting after Rhinemaidens.) There is a wondrous delicateness to Raavan’s seeming monstrosity; he contemplates possessing her, yet never seems merely to want to ravish her—and yet there’s also nothing chaste about his heated state. That honor-bound Dev cannot imagine forms of close encounter other than the coital, cuckolding kind—and so exacts his crude, cruel revenge—may leave the viewer rather depressed for being human.


Basement Bhangra 13th anniversary Friday at the Fillmore Irving Plaza: a re-inspection after many years away. The combination of busy yet puzzling performer line-up with low bhangra-to-hip-hop ratio, and probably roomier venue, and probably too-predictable playlists, resulted in a night of fits and starts and mostly waiting. Nina Sky: cute; random. Raghav (who he?): low-blow attempts at crowd-arousal, launching each song with the hook of some trusty evergreen (“Choli ke peeche,” “Ek ladki ko dekha”) before plummeting treacherously into his own bland work (one song built on a trope about “peanut-butter cups”). On the floor one saw moves tested out, practiced, repeated, repeated—the peril of the dance lessons? Missing were the large dance circles, except one that lasted all of six minutes. Energy fields generally curdled into clusters of those who’d come clustered to begin with. People were friendly, people were ready; there was just too little impetus supplied for collective enthusiasm. An imperfect night to re-rapprocher with this scene.

Ice, Oceans, Earth, Mahler

Belatedly catching up on the Winter Olympics, especially the figure-skating pair upon which China has been pinning its dreams. After near-misses at three prior Olympics, Shen Xue (31) and Zhao Hongbo (36) finally took the gold Monday—with a new world record. In the flawless clinching of each most critical moment one sensed the poignant history of their determination.

Is there anything in the world more beautifying of the dyad than pairs figure-skating? Dance can express a greater range of truths, but skating dreams all the friction out of dance, out of relation, even as it exquisitely refines a sense of danger and vulnerability. There’s no scampering, no chase; one merely glides, until one crashes, either for having attempted something more or for having been unable to stop. For the dyad on ice dramas of apartness remain but never inevitably: even when the very rhyme of their routines keeps them separate, the two figures stay always linked—the diagonal corners of a flexile, collapsible parallelogram. “Earth’s the right place for love”—yes—because it’s a place of frictive pleasures, because there’s something honest and effortful in the discrete biped tread. But one could imagine others who find the peculiar beauty and brinksmanship of love on ice more irresistible.

The Royal Concertgebouw’s Mahler Third tonight at Carnegie Hall: this was oceanic feeling. This was earth as drummed immensity, whose concussions only this music, and in our time maybe only this orchestra—its sound both muscular and of measureless depth—could fully body forth. In the opening movement one could feel the very tendrils of summer shivering into life, the season’s sunny resplendence still tenuous at the edges, before full fulmination. The second-movement minuet had a gorgeous, lilting airiness, and the third movement was all expansive breath. Mezzo Jill Grove’s voice melted gracefully into the orchestral scoring during the O Mensch! and Es sungen drei Engel songs. Infinite steadfast patience: what the final movement instilled and sublimely rewarded.

ALVIN AILEY | Festa Barocca


Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at NY City Center

Sunday, December 6, 2009, 7:30 PM

Festa Barocca (2008), choreographed by Mario Bigonzetti; music by G. F. Handel; costumes by Marc Happel.

This is a big, ebullient, full-ensemble piece that captures the spirit of the baroque—as its title and Handel soundtrack properly assert (and as its detractors have seemed oblivious to). Music apart, moreover, we see Baroque and baroqueness everywhere: in the wild abundance of color, in the generous undulations of silk, in spines’ swiveling slopes and limbs’ curlicues, in the mutability yet precision, extravagance yet playfulness overall. Amid the ornate, boisterous choreography here—especially lovely in the three duets—there are touches of flamenco, of courtly mannerism (at one moment a dancer’s stretch becomes a fancy curtsy), of hip-hop, of tango, of capoeira, of breaking, of voguing, of queeny righteousness. Where there’s baroque, there is exuberant attitudinal flaunting; so, too, here.

The piece begins with Hope Boykin dancing center-stage to the minuet from Rodelinda in front of a bright array of nearly still dancers, who move out little by little, step-wise and on beat, collectively like the slow-motion expansion of some impossibly colorful underwater plant. Boykin is MC-cum-sorceress, igniting the proceedings with each snap, conjuring forth movement from her still marionettish crew. When conscripted—or freed—into motion, the dancers in their larger formations soon reveal a choreography that is particularly upper-body-intensive. Arms coil, thrust out, frame the body at big angles, weave before the face in quick flourishes like a magician before the reveal, hoop around the partner’s body at great speed and varying heights—but without touching—like a game of tag for desiring adults.

Having now seen this performance, one cannot but find the two New York Times reviews of Festa Barocca’s debut this time last year wildly—perhaps willfully—out of touch. Alastair Macaulay complained of too much that is “acrobatic”—any trace of stunty mass entertainment clearly heretical—as well as “foot fetishism.” But what he deemed “foot fetishism” was Bigonzetti’s attempt to consider for feet in dance some role other than points of gravitation, tips of leg extension, deserving tangency only with the ground. Why not use the foot’s flexed firmness to hook and hang from, why not let the curves of that neglected ticklish surface between toes and heel run over and find rhyme along the partner’s body? Two of the most affecting duets in Festa Barocca—between Constance Stamatiou and Clifton Brown, and then between Linda Celeste Sims and Glenn Allen Sims—do just that. One gets the impression that feet—the biped’s workhorses, after all, the body parts that affirm our earthliness with every use, precisely by keeping the rest of our bodies from touching the ground—are for Macaulay, who writes so superbly on ballet, still the bloodied, bruised embarrassments to be tucked up in shapely satin.

In a less protracted dismissal, Roslyn Sulcas in her review marveled of what she deemed “no kind of refinement” that “The audience loved this, as though they were privy to some sort of insider joke.” One might marvel instead, however, that such a disdainful and uninformative sentence, along with non-descriptions such as “fake-intense, semi-sexy, semi-anguished duets,” can get by as dance criticism. That it has might even lead one to presume some telltale demographic gap between NYT readers and Alvin Ailey ticket-holders that does not in fact exist. It is Sulcas’s problem, in other words, not the audience’s. To imply that “refinement” should be dance’s sole ambition, sole criterion, is to amputate from dance’s universe a majority of its cultures and epochs. And indeed there were jokes throughout Festa Barocca. And that was the point—this transmutation and elaboration of recognizable vocabulary (recognizable from neighborhoods, from clubs, from television if nothing else) into abstracter forms, more complex formations. One need not have been any insider to revel in them, or to find splendor and take joy in the whole.

CARNEGIE HALL | Yes to Janáček

Monday, March 9, 2009 at 8 PM

Pre-concert talk by Ara Guzelimian, Provost & Dean, The Juilliard School.

JANÁČEK | Sinfonietta
SZYMANOWSKI | Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 35. Soloist: Frank Peter Zimmermann
STRAVINSKY | Pulcinella (complete). Soloists: Roxana Constantinescu (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Phan (tenor), Kyle Ketelsen (bass-baritone)

The Janáček work was surprisingly revelatory—a work, one feels, modeled on nothing but its own sense of wonder and exuberance—and a reminder of Boulez’s tremendous contribution to programming. The opening twelve-trumpet fanfare immediately engages, yet so many ideas spring up and develop—entailing some transportingly beautiful spots for strings—before it returns again to close the work. Once in a while one hears for the first time, in concert or on the radio, a work one knows must urgently join one’s own inner repertoire; this piece had that effect. Juilliard Dean Ara Guzelimian’s fluent pre-concert lecture nicely evoked the faintly magical role of Kamila Stösslová—the 25 year-old wife of a small-town antiques dealer, with whom Janáček fell in love at 63 and who became the wellspring of nearly all of his important (i.e., late) output.

For my tastes the Szymanowski concerto suffers a bit from overlong lyricism—and its orchestration suggests more fantasia than concerto—but Zimmermann rendered the work with impressive precision, meeting its demand that the violinist stay strenuously in his instrument’s highest, most wracking range while producing notes of dreamlike delicacy.

A delight as always to hear Pulcinella again, especially so soon after seeing Douglas Dunn’s exhilarating, hilarious choreography.