Archive for the Dance Category

Day 43: Fosse’s fancy footwork is BTS

Posted in Dance, Film, People with tags , , , on August 7, 2008 by Vince

In the cabaret of Fosse masterpieces, death and eroticism are old chums that can’t keep their hands — and rhythmic heels — off each other. 

Conjure up an iconic moment from any film in Bob Fosse’s oeuvre — from the slinky gyrations and vocal bravura of Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli) in the bowels of the Kit Kat Klub in “Cabaret” to the feverish exertions of Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) in the back-to-back showstoppers escalating into the climax of “All That Jazz” — and you’ll be hard-pressed to miss that maniacal display of virtuosity and neediness and damn fine footwork. It’s a mix that has not only induced many a cinephile’s le petite mort but also reveals a lesser-known guise of Fosse: a pimp with a heart of darkness. 

Desire is a pimp’s stock-in-trade and, in Fosse’s case, his drug of choice as well. In “Cabaret” (1972), a musical reworking of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories which set out to juxtapose the socio-political tenor of 1931 Weimar society with the smoky, kitschy milieu of a Berlin nightspot on the eve of German Nazism, Sally Bowles is a young American performer hoping to break out of the Kit Kat Klub and make the silver screen her stage as a UFA movie star. Sally is doggedly driven by need and neediness, often blurring indistinctly into each other. It’s the hunger to both dazzle and seduce her faceless, nameless audience that sustains Sally and ultimately makes her a casualty of the Weimar-variety sex, drugs and rock n’ roll she’s become chummy with. 

What’s remarkable about Sally (as played by Minelli, so staggeringly pitch- and pathos-perfect for the role that she’s never fully recovered from it post-”Cabaret”) is the dichotomy of charming naivete and seasoned worldliness in her inevitable descent. Who else is she, really, but Holly Golightly’s enfant terrible half who’s not above choreographing her own moral collapse to realize her potential (or legitimize her self-perception) as an artist. She beatifically surveys the carnage that is herself, buttressing her tenuous grasp on sanity by ricocheting between the affections of two men as the debris continues to pile up from under her. It’s a vision both macabre and captivating: Sally and her Kit Kat cohorts chanting “Wilkommen! Bienvenus! Welcome!” and morphing into goose-stepping Nazi soldiers. When Sylvia Plath, who fashioned her own dramatic exit within years of the film’s release, penned “Every woman adores a Fascist/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you,” she couldn’t have crafted a more prescient postcard-quality bon mot. 

Sex, genius and self-destruction are again in play and transparently more so in Fosse’s thinly veiled autobiographical masterpiece celebrating his own larger-than-life persona, “All That Jazz” (1979). Film critic Peter Hemp calls Joe Gideon “not a character but a stage name”. Indeed. It is no accident that Fosse bathes his alter ego in reflected doubled images in case viewers miss the parallels. Gideon glories in his excesses — from his carnival of inamoratas to the madman’s passion for his art to more mundane types of poison — and expects the audience to drink in every abuse and be mesmerized by it. And for the most part, we do and we are. It is a testament to Fosse’s talent, which he pulls no punches in flaunting in this sensual overload of musical and choreographic delights. Quite simply, it’s all in a day’s work: Gideon works, fucks, gets high, and chainsmokes himself to death, literally. The angel of death pays Gideon a visit who, to no one’s surprise, can’t quite resist his charms. 

Fosse’s footwork might have gotten the ink — and deservedly so — in accounts of his cinematic legacy but it is his oceanographer’s investigation — and celebration — of the nether regions of the human id that need to be discovered. After all, it’s that cabaret the old chum has always invited us to.

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Day 39: The American Ballet Theatre’s “Giselle” is BTS

Posted in Dance with tags , , , , , on August 2, 2008 by Vince

If somebody challenged you, in a game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, to connect Tim Burton with 19th-century French composer Adolphe Adam, go see the American Ballet Theatre’s “Giselle” next time it’s playing at the Lincoln Center.

What started out as an innocuous pastoral love story where you half-expected Bambi and Maria from “The Sound of Music” to make an apparition morphs into a live-action version of Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride”, the romance-drenched pirouettes and side leaps infused with a macabre relish. “Giselle” does a good job in weeding out squeamish dilletantes from the true romantics; if you’re grossed out by the fact that the second act dances with – literally! – necrophilia, you’re an impostor. If you passed this crucial test (as did Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, making sweet pottery posthumously together in “Ghost”), you just might be able to appreciate a “Happily-Ever-Afterlife” ending. 

Don’t worry, though: the protagonists start out alive and breathing. In the first act, a feckless village maiden named Giselle (played wonderfully by Nina Ananiashvili who replaced Diana Vishneva who was injured) is in love with a man she knows only as Loys. In reality, the man is Albrecht (the Cuban Jose Manuel Carreño, whose footwork is about as distracting as the flexing of his butt muscles) a nobleman disguised as a peasant, who is betrothed to Bathilde, daughter of the Duke. One scene has Loys swearing to Giselle his eternal love and she takes the traditional test with a daisy – “he loves me not, he loves me not”. When it appears that the answer will be “not”, Loys surreptitously retrieves the flower and discards a petal, coming up with the answer “he loves me”. And – the fool! – she  believes him! This was the point in the ballet when I realized that Giselle could not conceivably be a New York City type, not even a Charlotte without the brain for pre-nuptial agreements. Anyway, when Giselle discovers publicly the true identity of her inamorato, she is crushed and goes mad. I have never seen the progressive deterioration of one’s mental bearings (and eventual death) choreographed so well, right down to the very last chaînés turn. Ananiashvili’s Giselle gives “graceful exit” a whole new meaning.

While the first act seemed tame and cutesy, the second act was a dizzying and dazzling spectacle. The production took on a more somber, ghoulish mien, its evocations of a massive tree with gnarl-like branches as good as any in Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow”. The scene is laid in a clearing in the forest near Giselle’s grave. The wilis – vampiric ghosts of betrothed girls who were betrayed by their lovers and died before their wedding day – are summoned by their queen, Myrta, to attend the ceremonies that will initiate Giselle into the sisterhood of the traveling ghost tutus. Their spirits are forever destined to roam the earth from midnight to dawn, vengefully trapping any male who enters their domain and forcing him to dance to his death. Albrecht arrives to leave flowers on Giselle’s grave. He too is trapped and commanded to dance until death. Giselle resolves to protect him and dances with him until the clock strikes four, at which hour the wilis lose their power.  The two pledge their love to each other and she descends back into her grave. Sadly, they will forever be separated; Giselle is now a wili – a wili doomed to look like a svelte, long-necked twentysomething forever, how sad – for the rest of eternity. I like it that way. Since “Giselle” started making audiences bewitched, balleted and bewildered in 1841, we’ve remained happy preys to her brand of witchcraft.

One question, though: I wonder what Adolphe Adam was thinking when he named these dead unrequited brides ‘wilis’. Must they still be plagued by penis envy well into their graves?!