Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Balanchine's Ballets

Last night I had the unique aesthetic experience of going to the ballet. I recently joined the Fourth Ring Society a cheap way to get season tickets to the New York City Ballet, and last night I went to my second show of the season. Both of the performances I’ve attended so far consisted entirely of ballets choreographed by the great George Balanchine. The first show was a series of five short “leotard” ballets (so called because the dancers wear minimalist leotards and the scenery consists only of lighting) set to Stravinsky music, exploring the working relationship between the choreographer and the composer. But last night’s performance was a more balanced introduction to Balanchine’s oeuvre, as it included the leotard ballet Square Dance, the incredibly romantic Liebeslieder Waltze, and a razzmatazz finish: Stars and Stripes.

Having now seen a broader array of Balanchine’s work, I still think his leotard ballets are his best. They seem just as modern and innovative as they did when they were first made. Along with the sets and costumes, Balanchine often expelled narrative formulas, so that the ballet becomes, like the music itself, abstract. What’s left is the beauty of form and emotion, and erasing dance’s extras allows you to concentrate on those beauties more completely. In other words, this is ballet’s Abstract Expressionism.

The principal ballerinas in Liebeslieder Waltzer, Darci Kistler, Kyra Nichols, Miranda Weese, and Wendy Whelan, get extra points for looking light on their feet in floor-length full-skirted evening gowns that were a cross between Godey’s Lady Book (1850s) and Dior’s New Look (1950s). The men, who perhaps should have looked silly in coattails and white ties, only looked elegant. You felt that men were meant to dress and dance in these clothes, and that life would be better if only they did. The ballet also featured four singers and two pianists (playing on the same piano) on stage, and was set in a perfect representation of a Viennese ballroom. Its large mirrors and wedding-cake-like embellishments reminded me of the IES building that I studied in during my four months in Vienna. Actually, the combination of the set and the on-stage musicians made me feel like a little kid (from the 19th century) who had sneaked out of bed to watch my parent’s annual ball, dreaming of the day when I could waltz in a big dress (still hoping for that one). For the second movement the ballerinas changed into lavender-grey tutus, having clearly had enough of the bulky ball gowns. It was like the ballroom had been overtaken by fairies who had been watching from the garden for the adults to go to bed.

I started to fall asleep myself during the second intermission (having woken up at 6am for a work event), so it was a relief when Stars and Stripes began and jolted me awake. Set to Sousa’s marches and given at times a jazzy twist, this ballet was pure energy and fun. Two cadets of ballerinas and one cadet of male dancers each took over the stage like toy soldiers and spinning tops. Then the two soloists, Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette, really brought down the house. This part of the ballet was featured in the movie Center Stage, but while the film emphasizes the athleticism of the male dancer, the real ballet is all about the ballerina. She was on fire, and the audience couldn’t get enough of her.


The evening’s performance was dedicated to Melissa Hayden, who danced in the NYCB for 23 years and had leading roles in more than 20 Balanchine ballets, including Liebeslieder Walzer and Stars and Stripes. Hearing the tributes from her partners certainly added to the emotion of the evening. I walked out of that jewel box theatre into the plaza of Lincoln Center feeling very misty eyed. That big beautiful fountain was shushing, lights in the neighboring trees were sparkling, and, just in case you weren’t yet convinced that it was a magical evening, it was snowing.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Golden Globe Trotters

The red carpet at the recent Golden Globes had a vaguely 1930s feel. Lots of long ruffly dresses (the Paris look) and form-fitting shiny gowns (the Hollywood look). Most of them were pretty boring, like the awards ceremony itself, but a few stars made me sit up and take notice:

Mery Streep and her daughter, Louisa Jacobson Gummer, both looked classically elegant in Carolina Herrera. Salma Hayek wore Christian Dior by John Galliano, whose drpaery is somwhat less classical and somewhat more curve-hugging.

Reese Witherspoon (in Nina Ricci) and Renee Zellweger (in vintage Christian Dior) go for short frocks in bold jewel tones. Witherspoon was criticized for looking a little slutty (something to do with the bangs), but I like the cocktail-dress look. Most of the men attended in suits, why shouldn't the women dress accordingly? Zellweger would have gotten extra points for wearing vintage, but she squandered them with that annoying "I'm ready for my close up" pose.

Jennifer Lopez dressed in Marchesa, continuing her asymmetrical one-shoulder theme but giving it a Sari-like spin.

I'm a particular fan of Chloe Sevigny's dress, a vintage Yves Saint Laurent. It's refreshing to see a graphic print migrate from sundress to evening dress. At right is Jeanne Tripplehorn in a little black dress by Giambattista Valli that has a vaguely 1960s charm. Ginnifer Goodwin strikes the right note in the middle wearing Dolce & Gabbana. Her dress is reminiscent of Poiret, glamorous and flattering without trying too hard.

It's always a treat to see haute couture in action. Heidi Klum in Givency and Hilary Swank in Chanel wear gowns that build on the legacies of those house's original designers. Swank's Chanel creates a long lean line, and is unfussy without being boring. Klum has the stature to make Givency's volume look sexy, and she gets extra points for wearing gloves and a diamond choker, very Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.

Springing into Haute Couture

Last week a few privileged designers showed their Spring 2007 haute couture collections in Paris. Although, as many of you know, I could write at length on the history of haute couture within the context of fashion design, art, and life as we know it, I thought I would reserve this space, my first post on my new blog, for a good old-fashioned rating of the collections. So, the eight shows, from worst to best, were:

8. Christian Lacroix: Uninspiring silhouettes got pepped up with fabrics and flourishes that only succeeded in making each outfit revolting. Although Sarah Mower, the reviewer for insists that Lacroix's collection "continues to entertain," I must disagree with her statement that "nobody will ever complain." If there was any doubt as to Lacroix's banality, just consider his program preface, which claimed the collection was about flowers. A spring collection about flowers? Didn't he watch The Devil Wears Prada?

7. Chanel: Karl Lagerfeld began the show with a group of Chanel jackets belted at the waist and worn as dresses with shiny black tights. Although the look was clearly aiming for a mod reinterpretation of Chanel classics, Lagerfeld couldn't quite pull it off. Instead you got the impression that some little girls were trying to play dress up. His slightly longer dresses were more successful, but then he erred again by turning 1920s silhouettes into armor-plated evening gowns.

6. Givency: Riccardo Tisci went Gothic and even somewhat Star Wars this year, which occasionally succeeded in making evening wear look interesting again. For example, now that glitzy glamour as once again become de rigeur on the red carpet, I would like to see a celebrity (not Angelina Jolie) show up at the Oscars in the daringly minimalist gown at left.

5. Armani Prive: Armani showed a coherent collection of theatrically 1940s suits and evening wear, all glazed in iridescent greys, silvers, and golds. The 1940s not being my favorite fashion decade, and the glittering fabrics not being particularly flattering, this collection does not rate especially high.

4. Eli Saab: I'm beginning to feel that if you've seen one Saab collection, you've seen them all. Saab is always elegant and wearable, favoring iridescent fabrics and flattering, accessible silhouettes, but his work could use more variety from year to year as well as within each collection. This spring, the most exciting gowns were also the most classical, as at left.

3. Jean Paul Gaultier: Gaultier showed a surprisingly wearable collection that was supposedly inspired by traditional Catholic garbs and images. Maybe the minimalism of the nun's habit was just what Gaultier needed to make his usually fantastical creations work in the real world. Who knew Catholicism could be so chic?

2. Valentino: It's hard to say why Valentino's collection seemed so significantly more interesting than Saab's or even Lacroix's. It too built on a mix of tried-but-true silhouettes evoking mid-century glamour. Yet somehow Valentino's work looked remarkably fresh, perhaps because almost every outfit was shown in a clean bright white.

1. Christian Dior: In a season of underwhelming shows, where the best compliment I can often pay is that a collection is "wearable," John Galliano reminded me why haute couture is still around and (for some) still going strong. The collection fused the glamour of Japan and Balenciaga, with a few fans and hats evoking the 1900s thrown in for good measure. Each outfit was fantastical yet logically so. It is not a collection of clothes many of us would actually wear, as haute couture rarely is and perhaps never should be. But instead of mentally altering the clothes to fit my life, I found myself imaginatively recreating my life to fit these sumptuous concoctions. I'm including a few highlights below, but take the time to see this inspiring collection in its entirety.