Monday, May 10, 2010

Be yourself and keep smiling!

I spent a perfect Sunday yesterday eating brunch and ordering Chinese food and sitting around my apartment with my charming inamorato watching movies. Among the movies watched was Smile, one of the most grievously under-rated films of the 70s. It is funny and smart with great performances by every working character actor of the past 30 years, a cast against type Bruce Dern, a very young Melanie Griffith, Barbara Feldon (Agent 99!) and Michael Kidd (more on him later). Essentially, everything that's wrong with middle-America is pretty much skewered. Michael Ritchie also directed the similarly excellent original Bad News Bears and The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (Seriously. If you've never seen this, rent it immediately.).

I couldn't help comparing it favorably to the Siti Company and Charles Mee's bobrauschenbergamerica which I saw a couple of weeks ago. I think the show was essentially trying to make the same points that were made (30 years earlier) in Smile. I'll likely get flack for it, but I really had a lot of problems with the show. It felt airless and arch and didn't work for me at all. But, enough about that and on to more important things, namely Michael Kidd!

In Smile, Michael Kidd plays the "Hollywood professional" who is hired to stage and choreograph the pageant. He is very, very funny in the movie. I didn't realize for years after first seeing Smile that in real life Michael Kidd was one of the most successful choreographers of the 20th century. He was a Jew from the Lower East Side who got a scholarship to the School of American Ballet and received 5 Tony awards for choreography, including for the original productions of Guys and Dolls and Can-Can. He co-starred in It's Only Fair Weather with Gene Kelly and choreographed the film Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. But, for people who really care about dance on film, the most important thing he ever did was to choreograph The Band Wagon in 1953. Fred Astaire mostly choreographed his own dances (collaborating with Hermes Pan on his films of the 30s), so working with Kidd was really something of an anomaly, and the results were spectacular.

Completely coincidentally, as I've been wanting to write something about Michael Kidd and The Band Wagon since yesterday, I discovered that today is Fred Astaire's birthday and my delightful movie-watching companion has an excellent blog post about him up today.

Below is the most famous sequence from The Band Wagon - Michael Jackson payed tribute to it in his Smooth Criminal video and it was also referenced in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical Once more With Feeling. Unfortunately, this truncated version was the only one I could find on YouTube. I have a feeling MGM is sending out cease and desist letters in bulk. But you can mostly get the idea.

Le Cirque Féerique

I don't know anything about baroque dance, but I know a little about ballet and a lot about fairy tales, so I was pretty much thrilled to attend Company XIV's Le Cirque Feerique this weekend.

From what I understand (via Wikipedia, from watching the above show and from a fairly solid understanding of dance history), baroque dance is a mix of 17th century opera and social dance; the French forms of which are fairly well documented with more than a hundred dances preserved via notation. Austin McCormick, the choreographer and artistic director of Company XIV is a visionary of sorts. He has been a student of Baroque dance (and, clearly, classical ballet) since he was a child. He and the performers in his company dance exquisitely (McCormick dances briefly en pointe, only the second or third time in my life I've seen a man do so). But what I think makes his work special is his sense of theater and his aesthetic vision.

The form is simple. A story teller shares a series of tales with the audience. His style is loose and funny and distinctly American. While he talks, the dancers act out and dance the tales. They are accompanied by a rich, layered and varied musical score combining a gorgeous trio of singers, live instrumentation and recorded music. The set, including a slightly off-kilter tin proscenium, a rotating stage and a riotous and gorgeous accumulation of objects looks as if it were, along with the richly imagined costumes, designed by the bastard child of Edmund Dulac and Kay Nielsen (actually designed by Zane Pihlstrom, the co-conceiver of the piece). The court of the Sun King is suggested by all the design elements, but it doesn't feel as if we are watching a wax museum come to life. It's all fresh, alive and immediate.

They tell seven tales from various sources (including Charles Perrault, Munro Leaf, the Grimms and an uncredited Hans Christian Andersen). This might be more an issue of my personal taste, but I found the two Perrault tales - Red Riding Hood and Cinderella to be the best realized. This might partly be attributable to the effective marriage of a baroque literary source with baroque dance styles, but also because Perrault's tales are so resonant and layered. I will restrain myself from launching into a Perrault dissertation, but I think a few words are needed. Most people know the name Grimm, but not Perrault which is slightly bizarre as most people are (unbeknownst to themselves) far more familiar with his tales than they are with those of the Grimms'. Nearly every version we encounter as children of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard and Puss in Boots comes from Charles Perrault. Walt Disney mined his work shamelessly. He spent his professional life in the service of literature in the court of the Sun King and published his volume of stories for his own and his family's amusement upon his retirement. There was a fashion for fairy stories and they sold and sold and sold and are still selling today.

I've written elsewhere about wolf stories and their continued resonance. Red Riding Hood has always been one of the stranger fairy tales as it is so clearly about rape and murder. There is hardly any way to declaw it. There is a lovely pas de deux between Red Riding Hood and the Wolf which is both funny and creepy. Cinderella is a complete joy to watch without a single misstep. It's full of broad humor and grace notes with a surprise ending that feels completely right. There is a long duet between Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother set to a baroque version of Lady Gaga's Paparazzi, with brief choreographic references to Coppélia and probably a lot of other things I didn't catch.

The only remotely negative thing I have to say about the Le Cirque Féerique is that perhaps it could use a little editing and shaping. I could maybe have lived with one or two fewer tales and maybe a little tightening up of the structure over all. But those are really just quibbles. They advertise the show as being for all ages and they are right. There were small children in the audience at the matinee my charming escort and I attended, and they were quiet and attentive for 90 minutes. The show is also witty, sophisticated and layered enough for an adult audience. I also cannot emphasize enough how gorgeous the design is. It's the best looking show I've seen in a long, long time.

Le Cirque Féerique
Company XIV
303 Bond Street, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn
May 8 – June 6
Saturdays 2PM and 7PM, Sundays 2PM and 5PM.
Adults- $30 Kids- $25
Buy tickets here.

(photo: Cristina Ramirez. pictured: (l-r): Austin McCormick, Laura Careless and Marisol Cabrera)