Friday, June 20, 2014

The saddest story in American ballet

Tanaquil LeClercq was exhausted. She faced a wearying transatlantic flight with the other members of New York City Ballet and feared a vaccination might further weaken her. So she decided to forgo the inoculation most of the troupe was getting, a shot of Jonas Salk's recently developed polio vaccine.

She began that 1956 tour as a principal dancer at NYCB, an inspiration to master choreographers George Balanchine (who had made her his fourth wife) and Jerome Robbins. She ended it in a wheelchair, never to walk again.

Documentary maker Nancy Buirski has told her story in "Afternoon of a Faun," now playing on PBS stations nationally in the "American Masters" series. (It premieres on Thursday at 8 p.m. on UNC-TV. It's already running on South Carolina's ETV: The next time is 4 a.m. Monday.) Here's a sample:

If Buirski's name sounds familiar, you may know her as co-founder of the DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival -- now called "Full Frame" -- in Durham. This is her fourth feature film as producer, her second as writer-director (after "The Loving Story").

She has collected remarkable footage of LeClercq, and you can watch some of it at American Masters. LeClercq's swanlike neck, flexible arms and extraordinarily long legs lent themselves to comedy, drama or romance. Sometimes she was both serious and comic by turns in the same piece, as in Robbins' "The Concert." (He dropped the work when she could no longer dance it.)

The Paris-born ballerina had a rare command of styles: She could be alluring yet distant in Robbins' "Afternoon of a Faun," remain elegant in Frederick Ashton's "Illuminations" or whoop her way through dance-hall merriment in Balanchine's "Western Symphony." She even experimented with Merce Cunningham's modern work in 1949, a year after she became a charter member of NYCB.

This all came to an end before her 28th birthday. She went to bed in Copenhagen, weak and shaking, after a performance on NYCB's gruelling European tour. She awoke without the use of her legs.

Besides celebrating LeClercq's greatness, Buirski poses the question every dancer finally has to ask: What do I do when I have always defined myself by physical grace and skill, and my body no longer responds to my will?

Few dancers have had to wrestle with that question as suddenly as LeClercq did, and none so publicly. After a long period of depression, she redefined herself as a teacher. Former NYCB colleague Arthur Mitchell, who co-founded Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, invited her to teach there. She did so from a wheelchair, using her arms to demonstrate steps.

Every athlete -- and dancers are athletes -- eventually asks that question. Think of NFL Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, who's dealing with chronic traumatic encephalopathy and reduced brain function, or Muhammad Ali struggling with Parkinson's disease.

In fact, everyone who has chosen a beloved career and been forced to give it up wrestles in a way with that dilemma. What am I after I stop being a teacher, a journalist, an electrician, a physician? "Afternoon of a Faun" explores a profound artistic tragedy. But in some small way, it's about millions of us who've been pierced by a sliver of the same sadness.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A century of brilliant Irish words

If you consider "Dubliners" the greatest short-story collection in the English language -- as I do --- you must regret not being in New York City tonight. Symphony Space will hold its 33rd Bloomsday, an annual tribute to the language of Irish author James Joyce.

The day often commemorates "Ulysses," the novel about Leopold Bloom that takes place on June 16, 1904. (That's the day Joyce had his first outing with Nora Barnacle, whom he'd eventually marry.) This year, though, it's devoted to "Dubliners," a collection of 15 stories that came out 100 years ago this month.

The last and longest of those, "The Dead," became a movie directed by John Huston just before his death in 1987. (His son Tony wrote it; his daughter Anjelica starred in it.) Here's the final scene of that film, in which a man (played by Donal McCann) realizes his marriage and career have begun to slip away from him, perhaps forever:

The performers reading "Dubliners" at Symphony Space won't act it out. They'll simply let his beautiful, pungent, funny language roll along and speak for itself. Joyce was born into the middle class in that Irish capital and set the stories among the children and adults he knew so well.

Before publishing it at 32, he was an obscure poet whose one volume ("Chamber Music") had come out seven years earlier. "Dubliners" won critical approval, prompting him to finish "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" in 1916. More poems, the play "Exiles" and the novels "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake" followed over the next 23 years.

"Dubliners" remains the easiest of the prose works to read; Joyce hadn't yet begun to experiment with language or deconstruct characters, and the settings are almost all realistic. Yet his insight into peoples' fears, sadness, comic self-importance, loneliness and struggles to be noticed was already keen. If you don't know this book, don't reach the 101st Bloomsday without making its acquaintance.

Friday, June 13, 2014

One man, one dream, one movie

You have to like a guy who calls his company Just a Spark Films. Must be a moviemaking metaphor: You need a spark of inspiration to light a fire and months of sweat to keep it burning.

Don Johns is what French critics like to call an auteur: He's the "author" of "Do No Harm" in the truest sense. He wrote, directed and produced this debut feature, did his own cinematography, edited it after shooting and even composed the score. Here's the trailer:

He shot the film around Troutman. Like many an artist with a small budget and a yen to do a full-length project, he chose a familiar genre (horror) and set it in places where he wouldn't have a big construction budget: a rural house, a convenience store, an eatery off the interstate.

Johns begins in the usual way: Four friends (roughly of grad student age) take a road trip that carries them away from the highway and into trouble. When the "check engine" light goes off in their car, they ask for help at a solitary house. A wheelchair-bound father and his strangely glum son tell them the vehicle can be fixed in the morning and offer them shelter. But what's going on in the shed out back?

One development may catch you by surprise, but this isn't the kind of film that relies on plot twists. Johns wants to make our flesh creep by establish a menacing atmosphere, catching us off-guard or teasing us with camera angles. (One long tracking shot works especially well.) I liked the touch of the "Dies Irae," the ominous eight-note motif Rachmaninov inserted into most of his orchestral pieces, on the soundtrack.

You'll learn more about the movie here. Johns has been selling DVDs directly but says he has just signed a distribution deal with Panorama Entertainment, which means wider circulation for "Do No Harm." I always like to see a realized dream being shared with the world.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

First the killing, then the music

John Allemeier has just released a compact disc titled "Deep Water: The Murder Ballads" on the Albany Records label, which is devoted mainly to work by living classical composers. Allemeier, associate professor of composition at UNC Charlotte, wrote this hour-long set of three pieces for a performance last year, in which dancer/choreographer E.E. Balcos created three works based on famous folk tunes about violent death. Here's a sample:

The album's a Charlotte-centric project. It's performed by local musicians, notably flutist Erinn Frechette and violinist Jenny Topilow; it was recorded at Acoustic Barn Studios and mastered by Rick Dior. (Allemeier produced it himself.)

And all three of the ballads used ("Poor Ellen," "Pieces of Silver" and "Omie Wise") come from North Carolina slayings. In the first, a lover shoots the woman he wants to quit. In the second, an abused wife turns her husband's gun on him, allegedly as he's planning to plug her in a drunken rage. (Both perpetrators were hanged.) In the third and most famous ballad, retitled "Deep Water" here, a man indicted for drowning a woman near Asheboro served 47 days in jail -- not for killing her, but for breaking out of prison while awaiting trial.

James Grymes' comprehensive liner notes provide guides to both the history of these songs and Allemeier's compositions. Though the music springs from murder, it's seldom violent: He uses a string quartet in "Ellen," a mixed ensemble in "Silver" and an assortment of winds with piano in "Water." The sounds are frequently melancholy and reflective; Allemeier isn't so much depicting the acts of the characters as their states of mind before, during and after their misdeeds. (Murder ballads often depict the perpetrators' remorse.)

I didn't see the live performance, so I can't tell you how effectively it reworked its source material. But the music suggests deep emotional waters indeed.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Why aren't you in Charleston?

You have four days left to get to one of the best Spoleto USA festivals I've attended in three decades of covering it. Here's a little taste of "Facing Goya," the opera with music by Michael Nyman. The woman in the center has obtained control of the skull of Spanish painter Francisco Goya; the four people circling her are not angels but scientists, who are trying to measure it in hopes of isolating a "talent gene."

This is Spoleto at its most typical: presenting a work you'll see almost nowhere else (this was its U.S. premiere) and hiring an inventive international director to challenge audiences. But not all of the festival was this cerebral: A theatrical adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's suspenseful novel "My Cousin Rachel" wanted nothing but to keep you at the edge of your Dock Street Theatre seat.

It's rare that everything I see there works for me, but I went six-for-six this year. Both operas ("Goya" and "Kat'a Kabanova"), the play, two chamber music concerts and an afternoon of virtuosity and high emotion from Hubbard Street Dance all left me smiling and/or thinking.

Maybe it's not important to love everything at Spoleto, anyhow. Like everybody, I entertain myself in ways that don't stimulate my brain: "Edge of Tomorrow," the excitingly shallow science fiction movie that opens tomorrow, is a perfect example. But I go to Spoleto to have my consciousness expanded.

An interesting artistic failure doesn't provide the same immediate pleasure as a less ambitious success. But I often find myself chewing it over later, wondering what other people saw in it that I didn't. When a festival takes you to new destinations, which Spoleto aims to do, the journey may be as important as the arrival.