Sunday, December 11, 2011

Soaring in dance & film

I. The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly (Nietzsche)

I turned on the TV last month and PBS was airing a fall fund-drive episode of Great Performances with a 10-year old starlet of the moment and my jaw hit the floor in flabbergasted disbelief. This qualifies as a "great performance?!?" As the producer-profiteer waxed on about this new-found “great performer” talent I turned off the TV. The last station of so-called taste in art and culture caved and capitulated to commercialism, ratings-driven sensationalism and the pop-culture spectacle of the latest fad. We have culturally devolved from the discovery of true prodigies (Mozart, Mendelssohn, Picasso, Britten) to the creation of interchangeable products…

In the name of playing up to one’s audience, honoring their intelligence and challenging them to participate in this adventurous – not always smooth and photogenic – journey of art and authenticity, I put in an art-house DVD: Martha Graham / Dance on Film.

This connects to musings on art and music and the "Listening to Paintings" programs I've presented at the Taubman Museum of Art (See my Vissi d'arte posts).

The most modern and severe piece of the set is Night Journey, Graham’s angular take on the Oedipus myth to a taut neo-classical (and haunting) William Schuman score.

Schuman's ballet score reminds me of Elliot Carter's The Minotaur (December 11 is Carter's 103rd birthday. His earliest work dates from the 1930's and his latest work was premiered in NYC earlier this week).

The critic Joan Acocella describes Graham as a “woman called to a high destiny and forced to overcome fear.”

Graham herself labeled the “lonely, terrifying gifts” every true artist confronts, and with whom - like Jacob facing the Angel of God - she must wrestle. I recall her inspiring letter to Agnes De Mille:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a
quickening that is translated through you into action.
And because there is only one of you in all of time,
this expression is unique. And if you block it, it
will never exist through any other medium and be lost.
The world will not have it. It is not your business to
determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it
compares with other expressions. It is your business
to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the
channel open. You have to keep open and aware directly
to the urges that motivate artist is
pleased. there is only a queer divine dissatisfaction,
a blessed unrest that keeps us marching
and makes us more alive than others…

I think of how her protégés - from De Mille to Alvin Ailey to Merce Cunningham – interpreted those directions, forged their own paths and opened new ones for today…

(And I connect again to "Listening to Paintings." The Taubman's exhibit of Nick Cave's remarkable "Soundsuits" reflects their creator's role as an Alvin Ailey dancer. Merce Cunningham was John Cage's partner. Cage worked on some of his watercolors in southwest Virginia; they are among my favorite canvases at the Taubman)

Acocella observes the artist following “a divine command to penetrate into the interior of the human spirit no matter what comfortless truths she might find there.”

Graham sought to portray in her art an aspect of our inherent collective split:
“America, forever torn…between a Puritan heritage and a bold, pioneering spirit…”

II. With a shriek birds fly across the black sky, people are silent,
my blood aches from waiting
(Mesa Selimovic)

That quote from the Bosnian novelist is the epigraph to Milcho Manchevski’s masterpiece film Before the Rain. Ostensibly “about” the Balkan conflict of the ‘90’s seen through three generations around a small Macedonian village, the film is lyrical, poetic and brutally honest.

Dealing with history and myth, the film can be viewed as a triptych of “baroque variations” inside a “circular form” (Ian Christie) indebted to the labyrinthine world of Borges and the new wave inventiveness of cinematic auteurs like Resnais.

The intersection of myth and history is reinforced by realistic modern characters set in the “antique landscape” of the newly independent Macedonia.

The poetic links are classical (Homeric repetition) and connect the settings & characters with details from the elegiac to the banal – from aged cemeteries and freshly dug hillside graves to the recurrence of insipid pop-songs on hand-held radios across Europe.

The interconnectedness is etched & imprinted by the central character (a photographer) and the use of photos in the film – images within images, pictures linking to pictures…

The film critic Ian Christie suggests a strong link to Max Ernst’s desolate surrealist landscape of WWII, Europe After the Rain. A lengthy essay would be required to explore the web-like filaments spun across time from Homer to the present where art and human conflict meet and converse in various media. Ernst’s canvas is but one link in a chain of Borgesian infinitude.

The connection across myth and history of war-torn landscapes with all* their inhabitants is deeply felt, experienced and enacted in works such as Before the Rain.

*Before the Rain features striking images of animals – another strong link to both myth and surrealism. The graphic and touching birth of a pair of sheep contrasts with the senseless, brutal shooting of a cat. The earthy farm animals - from a rooster to a donkey to a herd of cattle - are set against a lone eagle soaring above the mountains. The expressionist painter Franz Marc asked “Is there a more mysterious idea than to imagine how nature is reflected in the eyes of animals?”

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