Monday, September 29, 2008

TOWERing genius.

For the most part, I don’t do favorites. Why should I be forced to choose when there are so many things to like? “Who’s your favorite this?” “What’s your favorite that?” I don’t know the answers. But I’ve gone gaga for Alwin Nikolais. So I will commit to this. My favorite choreographer is Alwin Nikolais. And lucky for me, somehow, someway, Salt Lake City is a Mecca for Nikolais’ addictive works.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but a few years ago Ririe-Woodbury was designated as the official re-creator of Nikolais’ works. And it’s paid off for the dance company. Early in the new century, the New York Times chose Ririe-Woodbury’s first all-Nikolais program as one of the ten best performances of the year. That’s the New York Times choosing a performance from a small modern dance company in Salt Lake City as one of the ten best. How did that happen?

Now Ririe-Woodbury is back with another all-Nicolais performance. The evening started with Crucible. This was the third time I’ve seen this work and you haven’t experienced dance until you’ve been through the Crucible. It involves a giant mirror and various body parts reflected in said mirror. It’s genius. I’ve seen very few works of art that are this good. All those multi-million dollar paintings from the same period have nothing on this.

And there was plenty more to love. Tensile Movement is the Alwin Nikolais work I’ve seen more than any other. And no matter how often I see it, it still inspires. Let’s face it, tension is sexy. Like most great artists, Nikolais has themes that appear constantly in his works. Tension is one of his best. Tensile Movement is all about tension. But you also see the theme of tension in several movements from Liturgies. Take Reliquary. It features a women in a lacquered mask tied with stretchy bands to two men. And then the company danced Celebrants, where the performers forced themselves into strange silhouettes that were confined and restricted. It all made for a performance that feels like a precursor to Mathew Barney.

Another Nikolais theme is reflection. It’s most obvious in Crucible. But you also see it in several movements of Liturgies and Tensile Movement. Once again, Nikolais seems to have influenced visual artists after him. Like Jeff Koons’ polished stainless steel works. Or the slick artistry of Anish Kapoor. Even the works of Josiah McElheny. Alwin is a visionary who set the stage for art that followed. And don’t get me started on how Nikolais may have influenced pop culture from Star Trek to Cirque du Soleil.

Tower was the newest work in Ririe-Woodbury’s Nikolais quiver. I liked its 60s, go for broke, performance-art feel. But (and I’ve complained about this before) asking dancers to speak is almost always a mistake. The Ririe-Woobury dancers did better than most. Still, this wasn’t Mr. Nikolais’ best. But even his less-than-best stuff is dang good.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Less than a fair lady.

My Fair Lady is one of my favorite shows. The lyrics, the songs, and the story are just plain loverly. So when I heard Pioneer Theatre Company is opening its current season with My Fair Lady, I was more than excited.

Unfortunately, the Pioneer Theatre production doesn’t live up to the material. The reason, the two leads just don’t deliver. Elizabeth Stanley as Eliza Doolittle is flat. The Eliza character usually makes me choke up in at least two or three moments. This performance? Nothing. I think Ms. Stanley was worrying way too much about the accents and not enough about the acting.

And Paul De Boy is no better as Henry Higgins. In fact, he’s worse. I know Henry Higgins is supposed to be a curmudgeony, sexist intellectual but we’re still supposed to like him. Mr. De Boy’s Higgins is just annoying. What’s with those hand movements? I’ve seen American Idol rejects that give more convincing performances.

OK, I’m probably being too hard on the leads. But these roles are iconic. And I think I have the right to expect more. Thank goodness not all was bad. Jeff Brooks as Alfred Doolittle gets off to a shaky start but warms up to steal several scenes. The trio of men providing back-up vocals turn out to be more than just a little bit of luck. And the costumes during the racing scene are stunning. I just wish the company delivered performances to match.

It’s early in the run. Maybe performances will improve. And there’s always the possibility I just got it wrong. So see for yourself. My Fair Lady at Pioneer Theatre Company runs through October 4.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Classical pop.

Keith Lockhart opened the 2008-2009 Utah Symphony season (and Lockhart’s last season as music director) with what can only be described as classical pop—some of the biggest hits in the history of music. And why not? The house was full, the orchestra was energized, and the crowd thrilled to the all-Beethoven program.

Garrick Ohlsson (who’s become something of a Utah Symphony regular) opened the show as soloist in Beethoven’s Concerto No 4 for Piano in G major. The dizzying demands of the concerto were delivered effortlessly. This is music that moves and astounds. And that was just the first half.

The second half featured Symphony No. 9 in D minor, also called the Choral Symphony and commonly referred to as Ode to Joy thanks to the concerto’s big finale complete with soloists and chorus. This symphony is one great moment after another. The music is so good that even a bad performance is rewarding. But there was no bad performance here. The Utah Symphony delivered a big, confident performance. And by the time the choral finale rolled around, I expected to see banner-waving crowds and cheering in the streets afterward.

I think I’ll spend more time at the Symphony this season.

Monday, September 22, 2008

This ain't no tango.

Last year Stephen Koester contributed to the dance season with Demolition Derby, an evening length work that was mostly a wreck. Mr. Koester was back for this year’s Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT) Link Series with a presentation titled Who We Are? I can answer that question. We are a lot happier with this year’s program.

Who We Are? featured four works choreographed from 1999 to 2008, several were premieres. Koester’s choreography is frequently predictable with movement that could come from dozens of choreographers. Sometimes it feels like the dancers are just making it up. But in this performance there were several bright spots.

Men’s Suite featured two such moments. The first came in a movement called #1 Posers—Veloci-Italians. Performed by Juan Aldape and Jersey Reo Riemo, this work made you realize how gay machismo can be. The results were entertaining and amusing even if the dancing wasn’t perfect. For better dancing, see another movement from the same work, #3 The Ascetic. Graham Brown delivered a powerful performance with Agnus Dei, a track by Rufus Wainwright, as music. You can’t go wrong with moving music and a strong dance performance.

Even with some less-than-enjoyable works, Who We Are? was one of the better performances I’ve seen in the Link Series. And I’ll bet we’ll see more from Stephen Koester in future series.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Be careful what you wish for.

I love first time novelists. And I particularly like it when a writer’s first novel is good. That’s why I recommend All We Ever Wanted Was Everything by Janelle Brown. This novel has everything. A drug addicted mom. A lousy, cheating husband. An even lousier, cheating best friend. Teen pregnancy. A crazy, bitter feminist. Christians. Even a stoner pool boy. And who doesn’t love a good pool boy?

The thing that makes this book great is that it’s trashy enough to be a fun, page-turning read. You could read this at the beach or on a rainy weekend and be perfectly happy. But it’s so well written, you don’t have to be embarrassed that you’re reading it. You can even recommend it to your snobby book club friends.

This is a cautionary tale; that greed, and lust, and desire will just make you miserable. But it delivers this lesson without preaching or beating you over the head with morality. Now, some might put this novel firmly in the Chick Lit category. But I’d be careful making that assessment. The crazy feminist might hunt you down and kill you.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Basket case.

A long time ago I went to an exhibit at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C. The show was called Language of Containment. All the works were baskets created by a single artist whose name I can’t remember. Woven into the bottom of each basket were words written in deep, 3D letters. Those were baskets. But they were also art.

Baskets as art now come to Utah with Interweave: Innovations in Contemporary Basketry, now showing at the Salt Lake Art Center. The exhibit features 17 works by 10 artists and many of them dazzle. As a side note, I once again pay tribute to the people running the Salt Lake Art Center. I complain constantly about how poorly art is shown in Salt Lake City. But the Salt Lake Art Center always delivers. And this show is even more beautiful than usual. You should go just to see how well these baskets are displayed. Plus, the baskets are really cool.

You can see Interweave: Innovations in Contemporary Basketry from now until October 4. And as always, admission to the Salt Lake Art Center is free.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Viva la curator!

You may recall last summer’s 337 Project; before tearing down the building at 337 South 400 East right here in Salt Lake City, the owners decided to open it up to a free-for-all of artists who transformed the property into what turned out to be a mess. I wrote about it here, here, here, here, and here. While there were a couple of interesting moments, the overall result was sloppy.

Fast forward one year and behold the power of the curator. That’s right, I said curator. Artists are sometimes better when they’ve been corralled by a good curator. Case in point, the Salt Lake Art Center’s current show, Present Tense: A Post 337 Project. While this show masquerades as a review of the 337 Project, I’d bet that almost nothing currently in the Salt Lake Art center ever set foot in 337 South 400 East. Maybe the concrete spheres in Shawn Porter’s Impermanence of Containment, which by the way was one of my picks for the best works in the original project.

Here’s the amazing thing. By assigning a curator, by selectively choosing appropriate artists, by thoughtfully displaying the work, the current show at the Salt Lake Art Center is leaps and bounds better than the original project. Many of the works still maintain some of the manic nature, the chaos of the original project. But they are presented so artfully that the whole dialogue changes. In fact, was there really any dialogue in the original project? Instead, guest curator Campbell Gray gives us something to talk about. His selection of artists drives the discussion of how art changes space. The artists deserve their credit too. They deliver works that are more thoughtful than those from the original project.

Here are few of my favorites:
  • Master Blaster’s Big Day, Trent Call and Shri Whipple’s large, candy-colored canvases that can be viewed with 3-D glasses for added effect.
  • Dave Dornan’s The Garden maintains an attitude of street art but with a decidedly sophisticated edge.
  • American Mandala by Dessi Price doesn’t need the “sofa, coffee table, and bowls.” The kaleidoscope canvas with drawn fast-food logos is delicious on its own.
  • Impermanence of Change by Shawn Porter looks glad to have escaped 337 South 400 East. It was good before. It’s better now.
  • And my pick for the best piece in the show, Benjamin Wiemeyer’s Self Titled featuring “latex on Tyvek, walnut, steel, 12v. battery, winch.” I can’t explain it. You should see it.
Present Tense: A Post 337 Project is on view at the Salt Lake Art Center until September 27. Go now. It’s free.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Three to see.

And now, my three favorite picks from Monet to Picasso at the Utah Museum of Fine Art (UMFA).

1. Pierre Bonnard’s The Dessert, or After Dinner, 1921. OK, so I like Bonnard and the fact he was included in this show is one of the reasons I was excited to go. This work (unlike the other Bonnard in the exhibit) demonstrates why the artist is so likeable. I could stare at this painting for hours trying to figure out what’s going on. The woman, looking concerned; or is that disdain. The boy who seems lost in a daydream, or did he just disappoint. And then that dog. I like the brushwork, the colors, the subject matter. I could live with a painting like this.

2. Auguste Rodin’s The Age of Bronze, 1875-76. There are plenty of nice Rodins in this show. But this life-sized statue stops you dead in your tracks. It’s hard to communicate the emotions inspired by the young man; the clenched hand, the grasped hair, the powerful stance. You can see why people found it hard to believe that this wasn’t cast from an actual human. Ah, the magic of art. I may not know what it means. But I know it means something.

3. Salvadore Dali’s The Dream, 1931. I like Salvadore Dali. From the Lobster Phone, to time melting, to those wacky films, I’m not sure Mr. Dali gets the credit he deserves. I’m pretty sure that without him we wouldn’t get to Pop Art. And many of today’s most well-known artists like Jeff Koons seem to have a direct line to Dali. Even artists like Marc Quinn, Damien Hirst, and Tim Hawkinson seem to tip their hats at Surrealism. This painting is classic Dali; the creepy figure with no eyes or mouth; the meticulously painted ants. And is that two guys making out in the background? It just makes you want to grow a crazy mustache.

Now it’s your turn. Visit the UMFA before September 21 and pick your three favorites.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Monet to Picasso and right on through to the break room.

The Utah Museum of Fine Art’s (UMFA) current exhibit Monet to Picasso is crowded with so much art, I decided it was worth a second visit. So recently I made trip two to spend more time with some of the works I liked best.

Let me start with a few general comments about the exhibit. First, the show is crowded. A little too crowded for my taste. The early galleries offer some breathing room but by the time you get past Picasso, things are cramped. The Expressionists and the Surrealists are crammed into what feels like a break room. Seriously, I’m talking industrial gray carpeting and a tile ceiling that begs you to throw pencils at it.

This show is also a reminder that just because a painting is by a great artist, it isn’t necessarily great. The show could have easily lost a dozen works and been better for the editing.

Then there’s the audio tour. I used the audio device my first visit. I enjoyed the exhibit more without the audio tour. And don’t even think about listening to the “family” audio segments.

But enough complaining. Let’s talk about the good stuff. The show features some dang good art. And it’s a dandy little art history lesson, going from pre-Impressionism all the way through to Surrealism. In fact, there’s enough to see, that I’m going to split my post. This post will talk about the exhibit from a general perspective. A later post will offer my picks for three must-see works.

Here are some highlights:

July: Specimen of a Portrait (1882) by Jacques-Joseph Tissot is a lovely transitional work early in the show. The beautiful portrait of a woman in a lace dress is intoxicating.

Just around the corner, past the Manets, you run into the Monets. (Yes I just skipped Manet. As I said, there’s a lot in this show so I can’t talk about everything.) Three works by Monet offer excellent examples of how beautifully the Impressionists used color and light.

The post Impressionists offered some nice surprises. I expected to enjoy The Poplars at Saint-Remy (1889) by Van Gogh. It’s thick, shiny paint made you want to touch it. (But in general, museums don’t like it when you do that.) I was surprised by a different arboreal work, Pine Tree (1897) by Giovanni Segantini. The thick paint and dark colors made for an extravagant picture.

I think the show features more works by Picasso than by any other single artist. There were at least eight. I’m not the world’s biggest Picasso fan. Cubism tends to leave me cold. But I was surprised at how much I liked the earlier works like 1903’s La Vie.

Past the Picasso gallery, the art work is crammed in as tightly as possible, with little or no room to stand back and admire. There’s Matisse, Modigliani, a surprising self portrait by William Orpen, Gauguin, and a whole bunch of other stuff. And that’s all before you get to the break room.

The break room is home to the Expressionists, like Karl Schmidt-Ruttluff. His Self Portrait with Hat from 1919 uses blues and greens in a style that made me want to like Cubism. Not to be outdone, Louis Corinth offered a 1915 painting called Self Portrait with Hat and Coat. Apparently self portraits with hats were all the rage among the Expressionists.

The Surrealists made a strong showing with works by Max Ernst, Rene Magritte (although the Magritte was a little on the boring side), and Salvador Dali.

Alright, I’ve bored you long enough with paintings, and sculptures, and art works. But if you haven’t seen the show, go. For two reasons. First, there really is stuff worth seeing. And second, it will encourage UMFA to bring in more shows like this. But hurry, because it all goes away September 21.