A Valuable Tradition, Ballet Endures

By Alicia Anstead   |   Monday, January 3, 2011
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Dec. 20, 2010

For many young dancers and audience-members alike, The Nutcracker is a thrilling holiday tradition. Here, students perform in the North Country Ballet's 2008 production of the show. (DMDzine/Flickr)

Back in October, New Republic dance critic Jennifer Homans suggested that ballet was dead. She couldn’t have known that she would set off a fire storm of response. First of all, it’s the ballet people who interpreted what she said to mean ballet is dead. In fact, Homans said she suspected it was dying or at least falling into a deep slumber like Sleeping Beauty.
As if the ghost of ballet’s godfather Louis 14th himself had been stirred to action, ballet was suddenly everywhere. The New York Times launched a national blog about the dance form and the ballet movie The Black Swan plieted into theaters. A month earlier, the New York City Ballet launched a sexy ad campaign on subway billboards in the country’s hub for all things dance.
I can’t argue with Homans about the place of tradition in a remix world. But her announcement seemed particularly ill-timed. It coincided with the busiest season for most ballet companies in the western world – a period I like to call that Crazy Nutcracker Season.
In part because I wanted to check out Homans’ thesis locally and also out of nostalgia, I made a pilgrimage this month back to the see The Nutcracker. I say “back” not because I grew up going to the ballet. But in the last 20 years, I’ve seen more than 30 productions of The Nutcracker – sometimes as a reviewer, sometimes as the parent of a snowflake. I rarely write reviews these days, and my little snowflake is now a biologist in graduate school – so I haven’t been to The Nutcracker for a long time.
But not much has changed. And I don’t necessarily mean the dancing. I mean the community spirit. On opening night of the Walnut Hill School’s Nutcracker in Natick, the hall was packed with eager family members, teachers, students and little sisters wearing flouncy dresses all rooting for success more than perfection. No one cared when Drosselmeyer abracadabra-ed the holiday tree off the stage – and it whammed into a wall instead of into the wings.
Once, at a production in Maine, fake cannons spurted out a bit too much smoke and set off the theater’s alarms. In minutes, the audience, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Mouse King and Mother Ginger were all standing in the parking lot waiting for the system to be reset. Then the show went on, and no one cared about that extra bit of drama.
Even in a professional setting, such as Boston Ballet Company’s Nutcracker, the mystical spirit of the dance form fills the grand hall. The little boy in front of me last week was seeing the show for the first time. He jostled excitedly between his parents, asking why Fritz was in trouble and did the mice get hurt? When Clara’s dreamscape turned scary, he buried his head in his mother’s shoulder. “It’s just a terrible dream,” she assured the boy. But it was very real to him.
For me, The Nutcracker has lost some of its glitter – not in the productions or the music but the story. This time, I saw a creepy older guy bullying a little girl – whose gilded family probably gets tax breaks this year. And I noticed the elements of war and violence more than ever before.
And yet, it would be a terrible dream, indeed, if ballet were to die. At its best, The Nutcracker and perhaps the unique magic of ballet are symbols of community life at its most generous and most elegant. 

With Help From Stephen Schwartz, 'Blue Flower' Blooms

By Jared Bowen   |   Wednesday, December 22, 2010
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Dec. 22, 2010

Megan McGeary in the A.R.T's production of The Blue Flower. (Marcus Stearn/A.R.T.)

BOSTON — The stars of the new show at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater (A.R.T) may well be the creative team behind-the-scenes. What started as a Beverly couple’s creation of music and images has now matured into a full-fledged show called The Blue Flower-- with a very well known theater legend helping lead the way.
The Blue Flower blooms from an artistic sweet spot in world history: Germany just before World War I. Husband and wife Jim and Ruth Bauer wrote the work, inspired by pivotal figures of the early 20th century like scientist Marie Curie and artist Max Beckmann.

The cast of The Blue Flower is seen in front of one the show's projected images. (Marcus Stearn/A.R.T.) 

“It was a very compelling time. (Art critic) Robert Hughes has said that Weimar was the last time that artists felt like they could change the world and that art could change the world,” Jim Bauer said. “And truly and have that hope. You know. I mean after WWI, everything was pretty much tore to pieces.”

Ruth Bauer said the two were fascinated by the idea that those artists might choose to go to war eagerly. “That’s not…I suppose it’s stereotyping artists but it certainly was a very, very compelling thing for us to research. That really drew us in.”
The story is told through the character Max as he recalls friends he lost and their impact on his life. Jim Bauer explains that the show’s title refers to a sort of utopia. “It’s a symbol for the continuous search for artistic perfection. The one you never stop.”
That definition that could well reflect the Bauers’ own endeavor. The couple has been developing the show for over ten years, slowly cultivating their vision and story. Guiding them is musical theater titan Stephen Schwartz.
 “This is my first -- and only, I want to add -- venture to producing,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz, who wrote Pippin, Godspelland Wicked,began working with the Bauers seven years ago. He says it was the music that immediately bowled him over—the apparent combination of German composer Kurt Weil and…country western.

The Blue Flower takes place in an art studio just before WWI.

"I have no idea why it works. I have no idea what you can put a bassoon and pedal steel and an accordion together with kind of rock, drums and keyboards and that all comes together in a way that seems to make perfect sense even though no one has ever thought to do it before,” Schwartz said.
Jim Bauer felt that mixing culture east and west of the Atlantc would hold special symbolism.

“For Europe for a long time the American west is sort of the symbol of new. And the new horizon and the place to go,” Bauer said. “So it seemed to me blending that brooding cabaret music of Weimar and then the light country western of young, youthful kind of adolescent of music of the west, of the United States, America land of the free.”

 It was Schwartz who introduced the work to the A.R.T.  As is suggested by the enormous success of Wicked, he knows how to shepherd a show.
The Bauers say they’re very grateful. “Of course Stephen is a very powerful figure in the theatrical world, and it certainly for two artists who are just entering the theater world, it certainly gives us a great deal of legitimacy that we wouldn’t otherwise have.”
Which suggests that with its first major run at the A.R.T., The Blue Flowernow has solid roots. 

Irish Dance And Culture In Beijing

Tuesday, November 30, 2010
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MacBeth Comes To Life In Stalin's Russia

Tuesday, September 28, 2010
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Rupert Goold's take on MacBeth sees the story transported from Scotland to a stark and brutal Stalin-era Russia. The reimagining of Shakespeare's drama won both Goold and Sir Patrick Stewart, who portrays the central character, several awards from both the British and American theater communities.

Now the production is transformed once again into a sweeping epic film, presented on public television by Great Performances. The film premieres Wednesday, Oct 6 at 9pm on WGBH 2.

Watch a preview.

Watch the full episode. See more Great Performances.


Watch an interview with Sir Patrick Stewart.

See more Great Performances.

Awoken by Sleep No More

By Alicia Anstead   |   Friday, August 6, 2010
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"My friend and I recently had a conversation about a show we saw last year – the wildly popular “Sleep No More,” which American Repertory Theater produced with the English group Punchdrunk. “Sleep No More” combined the tragedy of “Macbeth” with the creepiness of Hitchcock. Actors performed on several floors of an abandoned Brookline high school. Classrooms were converted into medieval chambers, or a Scottish heath or a 1940s noir hotel lobby. Scrums of audience members raced to follow actors in character or stumbled upon the ghostly Banquo dinner scene. And sometimes you felt like you were walking into someone’s bedroom. Because you were. The Macbeths, for instance.

My friend and I argue passionately about shows but mostly we argue to argue because in the end we seem to agree on nearly everything. But in this particular instance, we disagreed about the take-away you get from a work of art. He liked the show when he saw it. I admired the imagination of “Sleep No More,” but I get the jolt my friend did. I’m not really into audience participation. I like the fourth wall, and “Sleep No More” didn’t have it for me. It was fine, but I wasn’t powerfully moved standing there in Burnham Wood.

I did have to admit that while “Sleep No More” didn’t shake me in the moment, it forever changed the way I perceive not theater but real life. I saw the show alone on a spooky rainy night, and when I left the old school, I suddenly had a heightened awareness about the world on the street. “Sleep No More” had awakened in me a voyeurism for human activity, and everything I saw that night on the way home seemed like the stuff of drama: the couple making out on the subway, the mother screaming at her baby, even a machine shop eerily lit after hours. “Sleep No More” gave me permission to stand in the middle of humanity and see it as a love story, as a family saga, as a set waiting for its actors.

When does art happen? In the theater? Or later: out in the real world? My friend and I could argue that one endlessly, but I suspect we’d finally agree on this point: Art happens on its own schedule. That may not be when you’re in the museum, or in the theater, or when you finish a poem. It may be later, when art sees that you’re ready for it. But watch out: Art can sneak up on you months later, ambush you like an argumentative friend, and change you from a regular person walking down the street to an audience member in the middle of life."

About the Authors
Alicia Anstead Alicia Anstead

Jared Bowen Jared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts. 

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