A Woman Named Marilyn Monroe

Some stories overwhelm me; Marilyn Monroe’s is one of them.

Reading The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe (Taraborrelli), I was reminded of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (Fadiman), in that the complexity of the situation from which the story unfolds is more than the brain can process. Then there is the story…

At the crossroads of mental illness, paternity questions, foster homes and parental instability came a girl called Norma Jeane who would grown up to be a woman named Marilyn Monroe. I had never read much about Monroe but I’m glad this is the book I chose. What Taraborrelli does so well is focus on the relationships between the women-- and mental illness—in Norma Jeane’s family. He does so with compassion and the 21st century perspective needed to understand what a hellhole Marilyn Monroe found herself in.

After finishing the book, which I read obsessively for two weeks, I was stunned not by the tragedy of her passing but the fact that she was courageous enough to live as long as she did.

The Genius of George (Plus Felix and Will)

Since cities were built their dwellers have tried to escape; get out of the crowds, noise and filth to take in nature, clean air and space.

A Midsummer Nights Dream is the idyll that results from the combination of George Balanchine, Felix Mendelssohn and William Shakespeare. This is Arcadia: where beauty, comedy and mystery all conspire to create a world where butterflies hover over lovers who are a little confused. Then there are the fairies, at the beck and call of their Queen, Titania, danced by the ethereal Miriam Miller. It is just a dream...

I always forget how, in classic farce, the plot intricacies are complex enough that there is no one story. That's fine; no need to worry who is going to end up with who. It's sufficient to celebrate summer with a full house of New Yorkers roaring at the stunning costumes of Karinska, the glorious music of Felix Mendelssohn and the genius of George Balanchine, the man who made it all happen.

Sensing His Help

Last night’s performance, Classic New York City Ballet II, is my favorite one this season. I know I will change my mind when I see A Midsummer Night’s Dream next week (I cannot wait…) however the program yesterday was sheer joy.

George Balanchine once said, “In everything I did to Tchaikovsky’s music I sensed his help. It wasn’t real conversation. But when I was working and saw that something was coming of it, I felt that it was Tchaikovsky who had helped me.”

Balanchine’s masterpiece Serenade, the first original ballet he choreographed in the United States, is a take-your-breath-away meditation on movement, rhythms, and patterns, all in a blur of ice-blue tulle. There is a stunning moment in the middle of the piece when five female dancers slip into splits, then form a circle, twisting around themselves into a knot that eventually unfolds. The light, long skirts cannot keep up with the rapid body work of the dancers, creating a delayed reaction effect between dancer and costume that is mesmerizing.

I first saw Serenade when I was an undergrad at SUNY Purchase and its conversation between modern dance and classical ballet never fails to fascinate. The elegance of the classical line pared against the company snapping into first position from parallel or the flexed hands that begin and end the piece must have been revolutionary when they were first introduced at the School of American Ballet in the summer of 1934.

 

New York City Ballet -- American Music

The first element I noticed was that her feet were bare. Barber Violin Concerto (Peter Martins 1988) is choreographed for two couples, one more modern in style (hence bare feet) and one dancing classical ballet.  It was a stunning contrast, to have the two mirror each other, in white costumes that resembled silk floating across a sky, accompanied by Barber’s sometimes tense yet mostly lilting, ethereal visions.  

If the kids from West Side Story took a train to the suburbs they would end up in N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz, Jerome Robbin’s 1958 piece that was first performed in Italy at the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds. The dancers all wear candy colored t-shirts with Keds-style sneakers to match. Creating a kaleidoscope of colors they circle each other warily, like dogs approaching each other on the street. There are street scenes and a dark, club-like number with some very Audrey Hepburn-in-Funny Face moves. The backdrops, by Ben Shahn, are stunning, giving the work an abstract setting that only the 1950s could produce.

Less is definitely more in The Most Incredible Thing (Justin Peck 2016) based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. The story, of a contest to win a king’s daughter, is on a grand scale that employs a large cast. I felt the costumes, while impressive on their own, were a distraction bordering on camp, as was the scrim that opened the piece. There were too many patterns, colors and words that were not discernible. The work would have been much more powerful if it had put the City Ballet stamp of minimalism on it. I would have loved to see this work with simple colors and no patterns to showcase the dancing. The story would certainly fall into place if this had been the case. 

Dark and Inky

Wall Street.  A hotel room.  An open window.

The players? A waiter, a traffic cop and a hotel guest. Only the guest has disappeared…

There is another character, though, in 1951s’ noir-ish Fourteen Hours: the pre war architecture of lower Manhattan, which supports the missing guest (Richard Basehart), who has taken to the ledge outside his room at the Hotel Rodney.

This is a dark and Dickensian New York, one devoid of light white modernism (Lever House would only begin its Midtown construction in 1951), which does a perfect job of hiding the scared young man with a plan.

As the Manhattan and now Brooklyn skylines of 2016 constantly change it is revelatory to gaze back at the New York of 1951, one whose architectural landscape seems almost uniform in style.

Shot on location and named one of the ten best films of 1951, Henry Hathaway’s Fourteen Hours was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Art Direction and was based on a true story that appeared in The New Yorker in 1949: The Man on the Ledge by Joel Sayre.

In the dark and inky landscape of Fourteen Hours we are also introduced to the young Grace Kelly (making her cinematic debut), Ossie Davis (playing a cab driver), Richard Beymer (later of West Side Story) and John Cassavetes in an uncredited role.

Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance

What a joy my evening was at Paul Taylor.

The curtain opened on a proscenium of yesteryear while a crackly LP played in the background. The players: A couple of Fez-wearing, gum-chewing song-and- dance men, a ballerina who loses her tiara, and a tap-dancing horse, all set to the music of Donizetti. Welcome to vaudeville, where the show always goes on and our beleaguered stage hand has to pick up the fallen dancers, clean up after them, and peal their gum off the wall (then eat it). Also Playing, though, is his beautiful closing moment in the spotlight of a naked light bulb, where he reveals the ultimate truth: he is the triple threat, singing, dancing and acting more poignantly then any of his slapstick-comedy cohorts.

If the Sharks and the Jets met on a 2016 subway, they’d find themselves in Doug Elkins’ explosive The Weight of Smoke, hip-hopping their way across the stage (and each other) in fabulous patterns and stripes, then making interludes in passionate pas de deuxs. The energy is contagious and I’m glad they have the stage at the Koch to host them, as no subway car could contain them. Starring beside them is the stunning soundtrack, a “mix tape” mash-up of Justin Levine, Matt Stine and George Frideric Handel. The closing door went bing-bong but I did not want to get off the train.

There’s snow predicted this evening but not on the stage of the Koch, where spring is truly here. The energy, synchronicity and spirits of the company were soaring as they brought in Mercuric Tidings, set to Symphonies No. 1 and 2 of Franz Schubert. Glorious movement was everywhere as the dancers celebrated the season in the bleeding pink and white of perfect tulips.