Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Culture?

This month was full of fun! It was the start of the 30th birthday season with a hen do thrown in for good measure, resulting in lots of drinking, partying and fancy dress. There’ll be more on this soon, but first, for some culture! After my lazy Sunday of watching low-rate telly, I thought I should attempt to look a bit more civilized and intellectual. It doesn’t really suit me though, so I’ll start working on posting the less cultured stuff soon… 

Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement

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My lovely company gave me some free passes to an exclusive out-of-hours viewing of the Degas Exhibition at the Royal Academy. To be honest I'm a bit of a pleb when it comes to art and not really a gallery person. I'm more about art in situ – a picture of a historical figure on the wall somewhere like Hampton Court is much more spine-tingling for me. Standing in the room that it was painted for, on the same floor boards as the commissioner, looking at it in the same light as it was seen in then, is more what "art" means to me. A picture on a white wall in a room with a plaque to tell you about it leaves me a bit cold, but, being a former dancer, I’m familiar with a lot of the Degas works, and I was interested to be given the “behind the scenes” information that really makes them come alive, and with free, "backstage" access, who can say no? I took my mum and my aunt, both avid ballet fans, and it was great to spend some time wandering amongst the famous paintings, sculptures and films with a guide who knew all the history, meaning, references to other artists and hidden jokes in the pictures.  The exhibition was about Degas' "preoccupation with movement" and it claimed to "trace the development of the artist's ballet imagery throughout his career, from the documentary mode of the early 1870s to the sensuous expressiveness of his final years".  

I saw all of those things, and more.
Despite the pictures being of dancers, and being replicated in various pretty, feminine and fluffy ways (I've seen them on girly lunch boxes, post it notes, and pencil cases to name but a few) I’ve never thought that they were particularly pretty or nice pictures. But they are some of the most recognised images in history, especially for dancers! I’ve always thought them rather ugly and they make me uncomfortable to look at. Probably, because, in my mind, the dancers in the pictures don’t look particularly comfortable with their art, the scenes are messy, and the movement is not as precise or honed as I was taught they should be. There is a fuzzy ugliness to the paintings in my (untrained) eyes.
Hearing the curator talk about how Degas wasn’t portraying flouncy, pretty, dainty ballerinas, but dancers who were prostitutes to make ends meet, who joked around in rehearsal studios and who were a world away from modern day ballerinas in terms of their physiques, made me realise that perhaps I had been seeing the pictures correctly all along. Albeit for different reasons. He told us about the pictures being less about the subjects, and more about the movement, hence the title, and also about space. Having never looked too closely at the pictures as anything but pictures before I had never noticed the subtle "mistakes" that weren't actually mistakes. Repeated figures, figures seemingly cropped out of the shot, but in fact very purposefully so. Movement lines. Clever composition to suggest a whirlwind of fouette turns across the canvas. Figures copied from photographs or referenced in famous studios of the time. Portraits of notorious ballet masters in the background of various paintings. All of these details were pointed out to us as the gallery staff went about their pre-opening rituals around us. We then moved on to his sculptures (just as the fire alarm test went off), including that famous little dancer he never intended for the world to see, to hear a little bit of background about this little girl who disappeared from records not too long after posing for Degas, and about how she came to be one of the most famous "dancers" in history.  It was brilliant to see how she aided his works going forward.
He pointed out jests, references to other artists who were studying the human form and the art of capturing movement at the same time in history, and also poking fun at those that he didn’t deem “proper” artists, namely photographers. I learned about his life, the way his vision and technique changed over time, as his sight diminished and as other artists influenced him, and I saw the only piece of film, on record, of Degas himself. It is in fact a paparazzi-style film, captured by a biographer whom Degas refused to pose for, so he shot it in secret from across the street outside his home. It was enchanting. It’s literally only 15 or so seconds long and it’s of him walking along a Parisian street with his niece, narrowly avoiding a lamp post. I sat and watched that 15-second film repeat itself for about five minutes before dragging myself back to Canary Wharf to do some work!
I'm not an art buff (in fact I'm far from it), I've never had any affection for Degas as an artist, nor his ballet dancers, save for a little bit of interest on the dancing side, but i did find this exhibition incredibly interesting, moving and informative and i definitely took something away from the hour or two i spent there, even if it was just clarification that my initial thoughts on his works weren't blasphemous!
If you have any interest in art, movement, the history of photography, sculpture or even just in ballet I would most definitely recommend it. And if you're not, but can get your hands on some free tickets, I'd still suggest you pay a visit!
Warhorse
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Warhorse was exquisite. Having seen the fabulous puppeteering skills in The Lion King, I didn’t think it could be beaten, but I was wrong. As the show begins you’re looking for the puppeteers, you’re watching them and the way they control the “animals”, marvelling at their skill and accuracy, and by the end of the show they are invisible and the animals take on a life of their own. I’m a bit of an animal lover and I especially love horses, so I don’t know if it was just me, or if the puppet animals had the same effect on everyone, but if the horses were on stage the humans became peripheral to the action. I was transfixed by them and had to remind myself to pay attention. I grew more and more emotionally attached to the animals’ stories, than those of the humans.
The overall story is a familiar one, not only if you’ve read the book, or the reviews, but because it’s set in the first world war and touches on the themes that we see whenever the Great War is referenced in modern media. At the macro level, the hopelessness of our chances as we sent millions of boys out to die as machine gun fodder and the barbaric nature of the conflict in the field. At the micro level, the camaraderie amongst the Tommys, both with those on their own side and with those on the other side of No Man’s Land.
We see the story through the eyes of a spirited horse named Joey and his new owner, trainer and friend, Albert. Bought at market in a small village in Devon by a poor family for their farm, he proves himself to be spirited, intelligent, loyal and a loving companion. The start of World War I finds Joey sold to the British cavalry and he sees battle, on the ground in France, for both the British and the German armies. We, and Joey, meet various characters along the way and we see the war from all their points of view. Albert’s selfish cousin, a disillusioned German officer, a friend that Albert makes in the trenches pining for his girl back home, a proud horse named Topthorn, a gregarious French farm girl and her frightened mother. Some of the dialogue is even played out in German and French and I was rather proud, not to mention astonished, that I understood all of it!
The staging and the effects are amazing, inventive and at times, funny. The use of the space and props is both clever and appropriate for the subject matter, being sparse and simple, but meaningful. The acting didn’t blow me away, but there was enough emotion there to bring me to tears a number of times, and it was believable. I don’t find it as comfortable to sit and watch dramatic acting on stage as I do on film. I’m much more relaxed with dance or comedy on a stage, but in this instance, it was more about the puppets and staging. The script and story itself were good. Great, even, especially when you start to think of the story’s roots. However, there were parts where I found myself drifting away from the moment and thinking about other things or my eyes began to wander with my mind, and I don’t know if the fault there is mine or the director’s for not keeping the pace up with the dialogue and particularly the monologues and soliloquies. The music and singing was, however, wonderful. It added atmosphere, passion and sentiment in the way that only a tuneful human voice can. I did think about buying the soundtrack, but I think, when taken out of context, and played on my iPod on a packed commuter train it’s not going to hold the same weight!
But, ultimately, the script, staging, props, singing and acting all come second in my eyes as nothing can compete with the emotion, skill and devotion of the puppeteers, and the puppet designers.
I won’t ruin the ending, and I shan’t ruin the surprise of the puppets by telling you anymore but I will tell you that you should book tickets to see it as soon as you can!
And finally...

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 ...I also popped in to the O2 to see Britney's Femme Fatale tour (again courtesy of my lovely company!), that certainly doesn't fit here, but I'll tell you about it briefly anyway! Bless her heart, she tried, she really did. So much harder than she tried on the Circus tour but just not hard enough to live up to the standards she set long ago, nor the standards being set by the new (and some old) faces on the block, like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Beyonce. But it's over now. She just needs to go home and be a mummy. She will always have a special place in my heart. She will always be the princess of pop, but for now she needs to get off the stage and do what she wants to do, not what her p!mps, sorry, management want her to do!

The production was so small I was certain that we were in the wrong place, or a whole stage was going to fall from the ceiling to make the show more spectacular. But it didn't. And it's probably a good thing as poor Brit would never had had the energy to cover any more stage than she absolutely had to. It was incredibly small in comparrisson to Circus, but back then I think all the production was put around her so as to mask the fact that she was (a) miming, (b) not dancing and (c) doped up to the eyeballs. The stages was set up like a big top in the middle of the arena so that there was nowhere to put screen so essentially we never saw Britney close up to tell. Just to clarify - miming is fine in my mind so long as you're pulling out some astounding choreo. If you're not then please sing. Even better, make like Gaga or Beyonce and do both. Thank you.

Anyway, back to Femme Fatale. The stage was about the size of the stage at my old dance school, which was a bit disappointing. The theming relating to "Femme Fatale" was pretty loose with long drawn out video voice overs (was she back stage having a sit and a cuppa between tunes?) from a malevolent controlling male stalker seeking out Britney's secret agent character all over the world - cue Egyptian scenery and dancers, some Japanese costumes and the obligatory police cell dancing requiring scantily clad females to dance in tiny "cells" with sexy policemen. I've asked Mr G... this is not reality. So he says...

Britney walks around a lot, flicks her (fake) hair a lot and yells "HEY [INSERT CITY]!" a lot. That's about it. The dance moves were sluggish and she put so little effort in it was actually quite distressing. Brit was the queen of isolation. Where did the passion and attack go? It didn't matter that she mimed in the past, to me, because her moves had me transfixed. Now, it's as much as she can do to hit the flick-ball-change on the right beat and walking from one side of the stage to the other to wave and sparkle at the fans is about as energetic as she gets.

What was even more upsetting was that the choreography was, quite frankly, incredibly dated. It belongs in the Grade 2 modern class I took 18 years ago! Even worse was that the choreographer stood about 2 metres in front of the stage and did the ENTIRE performance in front of Britney so she could copy him. At first I thought he was an over-exuberant fan, but after a while I realised that not even the most dedicated of Britney fans would spend their time learning all that tosh. He even stood in front of her to do the "stand on the podium at each side of the stage and do jumping movements and blow kisses toyour fans" sections for her to copy.

It made me sad.

She perked up a bit when she did the older songs, clearly she remembers the funky choreo of old and pulls out a bit more fire for those numbers. But for the newer stuff, she could have walked off stage and left her (equally lack-lustre) dance troupe to deal with it for her and you wouldn't notice. In fact she did this several times to change uniforms, sorry, costumes.

At one point about 20 members of the audience end up on stage dancing with the backing dancers. I'm not exaggerating when I say that there were times when it was hard to tell the difference bewteen the fans and the professionals.

In her defence, she was a lot more interactive than on the Circus tour and there was a lot more actual singing, despite autotune and vocal effects.

I don't think her heart's in it anymore. So I'll let her off. Also, she used to pull out a spectacular show so in reverence to that, I will forgive. But, as a message to her management, and/or her parents... just leave her alone now. She's worked so hard for you. She's earned millions for you. Let her do what she wants to do now and stop wheeling her out on stage like a performing monkey.

She was legendary. Let's leave it on a high, eh?



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