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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 End-of-Year Reading List

Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom. Photo: Focus Features
Don't think of it as homework; think of it as getting a leg up on the upcoming BAM season while putting all those gift cards to good use.

Get lost in Arthur Rimbaud's labyrinthine Illuminations in advance of The Civilians' Rimbaud in New York, read Frank Rich's theater criticism to prepare for his appearance with Fran Lebowitz, get to know the legendary dancer behind the Mariinsky Theatre's upcoming tributes, and much more with this reading list related to BAM in 2016.

Flash of the Spirit  |  By Robert Farris Thompson
Recommended for: DanceAfrica 2016

I was recently in New Orleans—strictly business—where a colleague recommended Flash of the Spirit (African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy) by Robert Farris Thompson. The book was published in 1984 so it’s not new, but the information and perspective are timeless. Mr. Thompson demonstrates how five African civilizations—Yoruba, Kongo, Ejagham, Mande, and Cross River—have influenced visual art, religion, music, and performance by artists of the Diaspora working in the US, Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, and other places in the west. The book tackles assumptions about Voodoo, details the power of women in ancient societies, and connects religious practice to the natural world. The text has been helpful in understanding the multi-dimensional work of Next Wave 2015 artists Carl Hancock Rux (The Exalted and Steel Hammer), Solo Badolo (Yimbégré), and Urban Bush Women (Walking with ‘Trane). Looking ahead, I know that it will deepen my experience of DanceAfrica and, in general, make for a more holistic world view. —Amy Cassello

Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue, 1961-2001  |  Edited by Hendel Teicher
Recommended for: Trisha Brown Dance Company

Among the various contributions to this book, which covers Trisha Brown's impressive choreographic oeuvre, her own essay is the most salient. One of the thrills of her repertory has always been her smart and engaging dance titles—some favorites are Opal Loop, Solo Olos, Floor of the Forest, and If you couldn't see me—which demonstrate her literary flair, and her writing compounds that gift. Take this passage, which explicates her powers of observation:

"The forest was my first art lesson. I learned to look there. Sitting in a small clearing, my eye fell first on the big things, the base of a 40 foot cedar tree, perhaps, then it periscoped down to the creek and over to an ancient tree trunk rotting on its severed roots, and then, oh lord, the whole world would open up to layer upon layer of teeming ecosystems on legs, or many legs, or wings, or belly-feet to crawl upon or buzz the myriad mosses attached to trees and rocks or other florae made lush and large by rain. All of this lit by shafts of light in a state of constant change."

In her typically rich language, she shares details about the creation of several major dances, including Set and Reset and Newark, which both return to BAM this January along with PRESENT TENSE. Set and Reset actually premiered at BAM in the inaugural Next Wave Festival in 1983. Contributors include scholars, writers, and fellow choreographers such as Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton, illuminating this treasured body of work. —Susan Yung

Trisha Brown's Set and Reset, 2013. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for The New York Times, 1980—1993  |  By Frank Rich
Recommended for: Frank Rich and Fran Lebowitz: A Conversation on Art and Politics

Reading Frank Rich’s Hot Seat in 2016, which collects about 300 reviews he wrote as the chief theater critic of The New York Times, is to take a nostalgic trip. Decades after he signed off on writing about theater, his insightful, knowledgeable, and unsentimental reviews (he was known as “Butcher of Broadway”) are still fondly remembered. It reminds us of the many shows (hits and flops) that have disappeared over the years, and how the Great White Way has changed. The book started about the time Stephen Sondheim went off-Broadway and the spectacle-oriented, tourist-friendly musicals were becoming the dominant genre. He was also a sympathetic witness to the many theater talents decimated by AIDS. Moreover, the book recalls a time when waiting for The New York Times to hit the newsstand at the crack of dawn was a ritual shared (and sometimes feared) by everyone who had a show opening. Now when foreign tourists infuse the majority of Broadway audiences, straight plays only sell as celebrity peep shows, and anyone who knows how to use a smartphone can be a critic (typing is not even necessary, just Vine or Instagram it!), “Hot Seat” reminds us how it started. But on March 18 when Rich and Fran Lebowitz meet on the Howard Gilman Opera stage, anything but nostalgia will be served! —David Hsieh

Death at La Fenice  |  By Donna Leon
Recommended for: Les Fêtes Vénitiennes

An array of colorful characters; crimes executed in the name of love; pursuits in the dark recesses of an ancient city. These descriptions fit Les Fêtes Vénitiennes presented by Les Arts Florissants (Apr 14—17) as much as Donna Leon’s crime fiction. Over the past 20 years, she wrote a series of crime novels set in Venice, with police commissioner Guido Brunetti serving as her Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. They all started with Death at La Fenice, which, aptly, was set in the famed opera house. A world famous conductor was found dead in his dressing room in the middle of a performance of Verdi’s La Traviata. Who could have put the lethal cyanide in his coffee? As in the best crime story tradition, everyone is suspected, but no solid evidence is apparent. It was left to Brunetti to untangle the layers of mystery. Leon is a genuine opera lover (she founded a Baroque opera company) and the book shows her deep knowledge of Venice, where she has lived for the past 25 years, and the always scandalous Italian opera world. (The diva of Death returned to Venice in Falling in Love this year.) The book, just like Les Fêtes Vénitiennes, is popular entertainment crafted with great care and love. Highly recommended bedside-read on the eve of attending Les Fêtes Vénitiennes. Just remember, no real life resemblance is implied on our part! —David Hsieh

April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Death and How It Changed America  |  By Michael Eric Dyson
Recommended for: Brooklyn Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 2016

Yes, black lives matter. But no, black scholars haven’t agreed lately on the modes of critique best suited to moving the movement, or related movements, forward. Cornel West, who spoke at last year’s annual celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Michael Erik Dyson, who will speak at this year’s, are a case in point. Where West sees neo-conservatism in progressive black clothing, for instance, Dyson sees mistakes with good intentions.

They’re likely to find more common ground in the latter’s recent book, April 4, 1968, which provocatively explores the place of death in the life and imagination of MLK. That fateful day on a hotel balcony in Memphis isn’t the only thing Dyson has in mind; equally important are the scores of close calls—the pair of suicide attempts, the bombing of King’s house, the stage-rushing white supremacist—and King’s frequent references to death in his personal life and in the Promised-Land rhetoric of his speeches. Dyson’s point is, in part, that King was human, and that we should be celebrating the inconceivably brave, if flawed, martyr rather than the deified hero and saint. To do any less is to sanitize his legacy while forgetting its true stakes.

At last year’s MLK Day tribute, West himself spoke against the tendency to sanitize King, remarking that he couldn’t even think of him without “shivering and shuddering.” The dark place on the other side of King's heroics should cause us to do no less. —Robert Wood

Maya Plisetskaya: Portrait of Plisetskaya  |  By Andrei Voznesensky
Recommended for: The Mariinsky at BAM

This anthology’s biggest contribution is its cornucopia of photos of prima ballerina assoluta Maya Plisetskaya, longtime star of the Bolshoi. The pre-computer layout is charmingly imperfect, but the inky blacks add drama to the already highly charismatic subject as she performs many roles, in addition to sundry publicity photos. The several essays (written by Russians, published in English) do well to capture Plisetskaya’s essence—why she captivated audiences so far as to elicit 20 curtain calls at one show, for example: “During the Bolshoi’s American tour the critics wrote that Plisetskaya was ‘like tongues of flame and showering fireworks,’ that she was ‘blinding,’ that ‘her dance has the fragile strength of the bird and the power of the tragic heroine.’” The slender hardcover was published during Communist rule, and Plisetskaya—Jewish—was critical of the political system, although she chose not to defect during her professional career, instead moving to Munich with husband and composer Rodion Shchedrin in her latter years. But it does capture how, despite her innate talent, she dutifully dodged the political traps of her time, which ultimately handicapped an otherwise brilliant and long career. Under Director Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky Theatre plans four tribute programs in February at the Howard Gilman Opera House, including star turns by prima ballerinas Diana Vishneva and Uliana Lopatkina, plus a program of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos played by four illustrious pianists. —Susan Yung

Maya Plisetskaya in Mikhail Fokine’s The Dying Swan in 1974. Photo: Linda Vartoogian/Getty Images

What is Art?  |  By Leo Tolstoy
Recommended for: The Cherry Orchard

For most people, Shakespeare and Chekhov are two of the greatest dramatists who ever lived. (Both are represented in the BAM Winter/Spring Season.) But at least one person had a beef with them. He is no less than another literary titan—Leo Tolstoy. The writer of Anna Karenina and War and Peace famously wrote that reading Shakespeare aroused in him “an irresistible repulsion and tedium” and told Chekhov that he was “worse than Shakespeare.” He could live without Oscar Wilde, too (who will be represented this season with The Judas Kiss.) But this is not a famous writer being deliberately belligerent à la Norman Mailer. It is deeply rooted in his later life conversion to a mystic brand of Christianity. He renounced everything the aristocracy he was born into brought and all he had achieved—including the worldwide fame his novels earned—to espouse an austere simple and moral life. What is Art? came out of that deep self-examination. We do not have to agree with his aesthetic choices, nor his Christianity-based philosophy. But the questions he raised are still worth considering: What is the purpose of art when so many people are suffering from starvation or persecution? Is the content of the art more important than its form? Should “beauty” be the criteria of art or should it be (morally) good? —David Hsieh

Words Without Music  |  By Philip Glass
Recommended for: Trisha Brown Dance Company, anything Philip Glass

With incredible detail and rich self-reflection (and with no co-writer), Philip Glass recounts the journey that took him from working in his father's record shop in Baltimore to his respected place in contemporary music. His studies at University of Chicago (at age 15); his training with Nadia Boulanger in Paris; the founding of Mabou Mines theater company with his wife and colleagues while in Europe; his travels, studies, and spiritual enrichment in India; the DIY promotion of his ensemble’s early performances—all read as practical steps toward an artistic goal that he always saw clearly. Of particular interest are the descriptions of New York’s downtown arts scene in the early 70s: Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, Lucinda Childs, David Gordon, Yvonne Rainer, and other young choreographers and dancers were performing in galleries and lofts. The audiences were composed of musicians, actors, painters, poets, and writers—all inspiring each others’ work. Glass observes Trisha Brown’s vocabulary of repetitive movement as similar to his own.

Interestingly, Glass couldn't make a living from his music until his 40s; he worked as a plumber, cab driver, truck loader, furniture mover, and carpenter—all while composing and raising a family with his (former) wife/theater director JoAnne Akalaitis (Glass was still a cab driver when his landmark collaboration with Robert Wilson, Einstein on the Beach, was staged at the Metropolitan Opera in the 70s). At one point in the late 60s, artist Richard Serra offered Glass a studio-assistant position; he tells Serra he’d like to accept, but he was making good money at plumbing (Serra makes it financially feasible). Glass is always positive in his reflection (even when recounting the walk-outs of audience members who simply didn't get his work, which he took in stride). The calm and kind voice of the composer resonates throughout the memoir. And, interestingly, like most highly accomplished people, Glass cites sheer luck as a factor in his successes along the way. —Sandy Sawotka

Illuminations  |  By Arthur Rimbaud, Translated by John Ashbery
Recommended for: Rimbaud in New York

A young Rimbaud.
Lydia Davis, in her brilliant review of Ashbery’s new translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, tells the following anecdote: “When Rimbaud’s mother asked of “A Season in Hell,” “What does it mean?” — a question still asked of Rimbaud’s poetry, and of Ashbery’s, too—Rimbaud would say only, “It means what it says, literally and in every sense.””

“A disordered collection of magic lantern slides” (Ashbery) the poems are marvels to be experienced on the page, before hearing some of it live, in Steve Cosson’s inspired adaptation. —Violaine Huisman

The Importance of Being Earnest  |  By Oscar Wilde
Recommended for: The Judas Kiss

The Importance of Being Earnest, one of Oscar Wilde’s most famous works, satirizes Victorian-era society, bringing social hypocrisy to the forefront in a funny, genius, and lighthearted way. Wilde’s dialogue expresses human observations that are spot-on and resonate with modern audiences, as the cast of characters are swept up in a series of absurd events surrounding mistaken identities.

Earnest quotes such as, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means,” exemplify the writer’s humor, wit, and uncanny insight into society and the behavior of people. In some cases, his own words eerily reflect events in his own life. In 1895, the same year that Earnest played to enthusiastic audiences in London’s theater district, Wilde was imprisoned for gross indecency. His life ended in exile and poverty. His later years are reflected in The Judas Kiss, written by David Hare and playing at BAM in spring 2016.

Reading The Importance of Being Earnest is a wonderful trip every time, and it displays the brilliance of a sensitive and sincere artist who experienced the extreme joys and sorrows of life. —Anna Troester

Everett (right) with Colin Firth in 2002's film version of The Importance of Being Earnest.

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