Saturday, May 16, 2009

Back on the Farm: Applebaum's Concerto for Florist and Ensemble

Photo courtesy of Stanford LivelyArts.

The word "interpretive" should be banned from the list of words allowed to describe art. It's vague, cliché, and the ignorant viewer's scapegoat attempt at summarizing an event.

That said, today I witnessed the first ever Concerto for Florist and Ensemble. Or as the composer himself described, "the world's best concerto for florist ever...and the world's worst concerto for florist...ever." Needless to say, I was excited to see what would come from this collaboration. If nothing else, I wouldn't pass up a chance to see Charlotte. She was wearing a fluffy black jacket and pink shoes, adorable as ever. The piece took place in the courtyard of the Cantor Arts Center, at Stanford, where the setting sun cast a Tuscan glow over the audience that spilled to the limits of the space.

After the usual Mark introductions, comedy laced with a minor diatribe about support from the music department, the ensemble began their stopwatches with Mark's conductive gesture and a downbeat of silence. This movement initiated the beginning of the piece, as well as laughter from the audience that would embody its own melody, adding an extra layer the polyphonic composition. That is-- if one could consider the music to consist of recognizable melodies at all. Nevertheless, the piece did feature several paradigmatic musical elements. The elements, however, were produced using typically "non-musical" artifacts. Notions of repetition were provoked by a ritualistic cutting of a white chain-link strand by each member of the ensemble. The ensemble also performed the equivalent of pedestrian "sampling" as one musician removed a new package of socks from a basket and the next musician changed into the socks a few minutes later. One man typed a letter, another stamped it, the man returned and shredded it. In this way, the ensemble worked synergistically, each member drawing on an unconventional motif that another member established.

In contrast, there were few points of synchrony between the florist and the ensemble. In many ways, the florist provided the visual accompaniment to the aural landscape created by the musicians. I was somewhat disenchanted by the lack of observable relation between the florist and the ensemble; yet, I was reminded of Mark's roots in Dadaism and his various allusions to the Cunningham-Cage relationship. Beside the choreographed end where the Florist sipped his readymade martini and cut a final branch from his arrangement in time with the ensemble's final note, the two artistic entities created separately.

Most notably, I never realized the abrasive nature of floral composition. The florist, James Delprince, decapitated roses and skinned artichoke hearts with a short handled blade before piercing the florist foam with the freshly cut stem. Delprince carried a furrow in his brow and a deterministic pace throughout the performance. His gestures stood in stark contrast to the Japanese art of ikebana. His creations traisped along the border between precision and improvisation much as the music itself did. Furthermore, the work as a whole spoke the constant dialogue between the industrial and the organic. The flowers, the hardward tools, the instruments, and the tools of domesticity. A balance of masculine and feminine in less gendered roles. The infamous drum beats against what could only be described as "scaticolo," Terry Longshore's mesmerizing mélange of scat and picolo. As Delprince performed the equivalent of de-spining a long stemmed calla lily only to plunge it into plastic pipes--I couldn't help be feel a visceral gutting myself. There was something violent about taking the life out of this source of "beauty" and "purity."

A letter was stamped and sent, a chain meticulously measured, and a martini mixed. I contemplated Paris Applebaum and Stanford Applebaum, always ready to mediate the line between discipline and creation as shown by his publicity photo that recalls Botticelli's Venus, straight out of the clam. Priceless.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Une Comedia Crude… and lacking order

Although I realize that the Moulin Rouge show Féerie is supposedly an artistic cabaret performance, it was actually one of the funniest comedies I have ever seen. I laughed throughout the entire show because of its ridiculousness. I cannot believe that the show sells out nearly two shows a day to please a total of 1700 viewers. Although there are definitely aspects of the performance to compliment, the dancing and the singing are horrible!

The stage is spectacular. The backdrop and stage itself change often and smoothly. The stage is layered; people fly on invisible strings, descend from the ceilings, and appear from the sides on moving platforms. The backdrops are colorful and extravagant. There is even an aquarium that emerges from the floor.

The costumes and props are equally elaborate and beautiful; for the 100 performers, there are over 1000 costumes. The women are constantly covered in colorful feathers. Many outfits glow in the dark. They sparkle. They are covered in jewels and beads, ruffled undergarments, thongs, and wigs.

The plot, however is not so impressive. According to my online research, the show is split into four acts. However, unless my French comprehension is horrible, I am pretty sure that there is neither a plot nor a clearly defined “act.” At one point there are Siamese twins singing about how they do not ever want to separate, and a minute later there is a couple singing about tainted love. Two scenes later, pirates bombard the stage. Then there are clowns, mini ponies that appear randomly for two minutes on the stage without doing any tricks, an Egyptian-themed dance, a woman swimming with snakes, and a French can-can. Thus, the performances do not relate to each other at all, and I started laughing at the nonsensical acts just after the first song.

The singing and dancing are also poorly executed. I am pretty sure that the performers lip-sync the entire time, as their lips often did not match up with the lyrics. The song choices, like the plot, are bizarre and include American songs such as “I Will Survive” as well as cheesy French love songs. When the dancers perform with the songs, their dance moves do not evoke the feeling of the music. They jump up and down spastically to a smooth-sounding song. They also shake their hips often instead of dancing difficult choreography, and their moves are unsynchronized. They look like amateurs one of the most famous Parisian stages.

However, when the performers are not singing or dancing, a lot more talent shines through. There is a ventriloquist who had me in hysterics as he played with puppets, a real dog, and the audience (though, based on the audience members’ reactions—or lack thereof—, I believe that this part of the act was planned out beforehand). There is a juggler who impressively throws 6 batons at once. There is also a pair of performers who execute INCREDIBLE stunts displaying their flexibility and strength. For example, the man holds his female partner above ground using just his hand. Furthermore, many performers are talented gymnasts, and they impress the audience with smooth triple back-handsprings, 5 aerials in a row, and jump-split landings.

A feminist must not go to the Moulin Rouge show if s/he does not want to be angered. The women are completely objectified and they constantly subject themselves to men. First of all, the female performers are often topless and in a thong, while the male performers never even show bare arms. Secondly, the women always shake their hips and do sexual roll-ups against the men, as if to please the men without concerns about being pleased themselves. Also, the women transform often into nonhumans. They assume the roles of apples, lions, masked figures, and puppets. They wear layers and layers of makeup, and they are all underweight.

The materialism exuded by the costumes, the objects that the women become, and the glamour of the stage really detract from the naturalness and beauty of nudity, and there is nothing sexy about the show. I know that the show is unique and the history of the cabaret itself is appealing, but I have a hard time understanding what attracts so many tourists to the performance. The best part about the show, in my opinion, is the humor in its absurd execution… yet no one but my group of girlfriends was laughing!

A fantastical dream at the Moulin Rouge

If you are intrigued by the thought of attractive topless girls in feathery costumes, a woman swimming in a snake filled pool, or a ventriloquist with everything from puppets to audience members, then go to the Moulin Rouge show before you leave Paris. I have never seen such an extravagant or hilarious show in my life. All of us were reeling with laughter for most of the performance, and Ali and Kai were even wiping away tears. There were so many random, ridiculous scenes and acts that completely defied all of my expectations. There was a man and a woman completely clad in neon glow in the dark outfits who emerged from behind the glistening curtains, suspended from the ceiling over the audience.

As they lip-synched a cheesy French song, the woman came close enough to our table that I could see the orange spray paint covering her shoes and her absurdly thick fake eyelashes. Then there was the ventriloquist, whose puppets included a gangly stuffed animal with bright orange-red hair that was supposed to resemble a lion. Other assistants included two fake birds that would periodically pop out of mailboxes, making facetious remarks at the ventriloquist as he tried to deal with the lion. He also called a little dog that looked like a bischon-frise onto the stage, which paradoxically was extremely life-like and robotic at the same time. Finally, he brought several audience members onto the stage and did a hilarious skit in which he spoke for them while they moved their mouths without speaking. Another solo was a very enthusiastic juggler who skilfully handled up to six flashing glow in the dark batons at once. At one point, he was going so fast that the batons looked like lit up spinning blue wheels. I was especially impressed by a duo of a slim but strong man and an effortlessly flexible girl with carrot colored hair who did many amazing stunts. To conclude their performance, she balanced on his forearm while he turned in a circle.

            A pool swarming with enormous snakes that rose from underneath the stage commenced another individual act. A robust woman plunged into the water and began somersaulting and gliding through the water as she wrapped snakes around her body. I was convinced that they were made of rubber until she came up to the surface and draped one of them on her muscular arms. When I saw its thin red tongue flickering as us, I realized that it was almost undoubtedly real. Interestingly, the snake woman had a much different build than every other Moulin Rouge dancer. The other girls were very slender, relatively flat-chested, and had very feminine features. Although they occasionally executed high kicks or turns, some of them were neither very flexible nor graceful. Their purpose is clearly to display their breasts and backsides to the audience members, especially the men. Women with the most “ideal” bodies and beautiful faces were awarded a place in the front of the stage. I noted that while the costumes of the male performers were usually tight fitting, they hardly even showed any skin, let alone a similar level of nudity as the women. The girls were topless in nearly every act, wearing nothing but tan tights and thongs decked with rhinestones on their lower halves. Their costumes were bursting with overwhelmingly lavish feathers, which are specially prepared by a designer that has been making feathers that come from all around the world for 80 years. The women could hardly have been more objectified, strutting around the stage dressed as dolls, red apples or flamingos that rarely failed to block the view of their bare chests. The hot pink costumes that resembled flamingos were probably the most outrageous of all; I felt like I was watching a modern version of Fantasia. My favorite scene with the girls was the can-can themed one, in which they swished the undersides of their frilly, red, white and blue striped skirts back and forth while they danced.

            Although the dancing throughout the Moulin Rouge performance was mediocre, the absurd costumes and acts really should not be missed. It was disheartening to think about how much the dancers are objectified and how superficially they are judged, and this definitely brought down my enthusiasm a little as I watched. However, the constant craziness was enough to keep me entertained for the whole time.



Moulin Rouge

Spectacular, spectacular
No words in the vernacular
Can describe this great event
You'll be dumb with wonderment

So exciting, the audience will stomp and cheer!
So delighting, it will run for 50 years!
So exciting, the audience will stomp and cheer!
So delighting, it will run for 50 years!

-The Pitch (Spectacular Spectacular), Moulin Rouge!


I would consider that to be a pretty appropriate word to describe the Parisian institution that is the Moulin Rouge.  An overwhelming spectacle of dancers, seduction, costumes, music, lights, colors, performers, even included a snake tank. There was no doubt that it was two solid hours of pure entertainment, though maybe not exactly for the reasons that the producers had intended.

From the get-go, the stage was flooded with dozens half-naked dancers in elaborate costumes, lip-synching to the cheesy lyrics which proclaimed the Moulin Rouge to be the "Moulin of eternal love".  Their dance was suggesting something quite different altogether. Between the flashy costumes and the "seductive" dances of the performers, it wasn't hard to assume that the "love" they were advertising wasn't quite true love.  Nonetheless, judging by the reaction of the men seated around our table, I would say that tiny fact was essentially irrelevant.

After some 60-odd song and dance numbers, punctuated by several other acts such as the juggler, the contortionists and the ventriloquist.  Between the pumped-music, the flashing lights, the glittering costumes and the risqué dances; the audience were barely given a second to contemplate the non-stop performances.  This was intentional on the part of the producers, I would assume, since were the audience given a moment to think, it would become all too apparent that the show in fact had no plot, no coherence and no substance.  Instead, it seemed like a nonsensical mix of dances, designed solely to display as much of the dancers' bodies as possible.

Despite all these flashy and overwhelming numbers, the most popular, and arguably the most enjoyable, was still the traditional French can-can.  Dressed in their relatively most conservative costumes with the customary frilly skirts, this act triggered the loudest applause, the greatest audience participation.  The hall was flooded with the booming uniform clapping in time with the rhythm of the famous tune, and the cheers were deafening.  Despite being the most classic dance which everyone had already seen a million times, despite the dancers being more covered up than during any of the other dances, the can-can was assuredly the star of the show.

Evidently, I did not consider any part of the performance to actually be seductive or even remotely sexy.  The overwhelming mélange of legs, feathers, nudity, was too fake for me, too artificial. There was nothing glamorous about the almost-orange fake-tanned and airbrushed legs, the painted-on stage make-up and the incessant plastic smiles. Put together with the cheesy love songs and the almost sleazy costumes of the male dancers, the ensuing result is an unintentionally humorous, decidedly unsexy spectacle.

Yet I wouldn't write-off the Moulin Rouge completely.  Though it failed to seduce me into its world of "eternal love", there is no doubt that the show was enthralling to watch.  The details were exhaustively astounding, the dances were breathtakingly acrobatic, and the costumes were wildly extravagant.  I wouldn't even consider comparing the dancing to the ballet we had seen at the Opera Garnier, not would I categorize it with the significantly more seductive striptease of the burlesque.  But nonetheless, the Moulin Rouge was a thoroughly entertaining experience, a true spectacle.

Moulin Rouge Wins

When we went to Lido a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t know much about it other than there were ads for Lido in the metro stations and I had heard that Lido competes with Moulin Rouge in terms of the cabaret crowd in Paris. I went to Lido, was duly impressed but somewhat under whelmed, and thought myself fortunate to have seen one of the two biggest Parisian cabarets. Needless to say, when I saw the opportunity to see Moulin Rouge, I leapt for it. What better chance to compare the two leading cabarets in the city of love, competing neck-and-neck. My conclusion: Moulin Rouge wins.

From the moment we stepped through the doors, I knew that this experience was going to be very different. First of all, the venue was packed. Every seat was taken and the room rumbled with excited conversation in at least 8 languages (I counted English, French, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Norwegian, German and Flemish). When the show started, it just all seemed fresher somehow. The dancers were younger, the colors brighter. The dancers looked as though they were really and truly happy to be on stage performing, as opposed to simply running through the motions even though they were tired and had to cook dinner when they got home. The structure of the show was similar to that of Lido in that there were the main typical “cabaret” acts with feathers, breasts, rhinestones and dancing interspersed with specialty performances. In terms of the specifically cabaret performances, I was incredibly more impressed with the Moulin Rouge dancers. The choreography was more interesting, more up-to-date, and showed off their ability and athleticism much more than the choreography at Lido. When I was watching Lido, I wanted to believe I was watching incredibly talented trained dancers but it just didn’t show. At Moulin Rouge, they used some of the same campy, jazz-hands, I’m-wearing-far-too-many-sequins movements, but they also jumped and spun and did splits and flips. All of it just seemed to have more energy, more pizzazz.

In terms of the specialty acts, I think that they were actually about on par with those at Lido (I was much more impressed with the specialty acts at Lido than I was with the cabaret). However, my favorite act was without question the ventriloquist. He spoke at least English, French, Spanish and Japanese, maybe more. He not only used puppets, but also members of the audience and a dog. I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe and tears were running down my face. There was also a woman who swam naked in a glass tub of water with big snakes, which I suppose would’ve been a lot more impressive if I had a snake phobia, but as it was I was just thinking, “hmm I could do that.” The juggler at Moulin Rouge was excellent but didn’t do anything particularly original and certainly didn’t have the charisma of the Chinese yo-yo juggler at Lido. The final specialty act was a couple that put on a comedic performance involving lifts and tricks and left me feeling like Gumby had been reborn in the form of this tiny red-haired woman because she could fold her body up in ways I had previously thought to be impossible. The man was also phenomenally strong, at one point lifting and balancing the woman on one arm.

To be fair to Lido, there were hardly any people there. Having performed myself, I know that the mood and quantity of the audience in attendance is absolutely critical. But I also know that the performers at Lido (and at Moulin Rouge) are professional, and so should be able to push through whatever mood-setting setbacks there might be. I think if I were to sum up the difference between my experience at Lido and my experience at Moulin Rouge, I would have to say that it was the attitude of the dancers. They just looked happier to be on stage, happy to be performing for us. And that truly does make all the difference.

All that glitters is not gold.

The Moulin Rouge.

If there’s something I’ve learned about Paris after 8 weeks of surveying its cultural happenings, it is that Paris really does love its appearance, and for that reason, a show, a happening, and an event are all a “spectacle.” That is to say, poor technique and poor performance quality can be covered up with enough glitter, feathers, neon lights, and the buzz of a half bottle of champagne you can’t help but guzzle.

As the four arms of the Moulin Rouge spun outside lighting the main boulevard of Pigalle, images of grungy burlesque women tinged with a vintage sepia hue stomped around in my mind. I longed to see the dirt in the fingernails of a dancer straight from a Toulouse-Lautrec with an air of green about her as she soaked up the exhaled absinthe from her voyeurs. I romanticized the pressing urgency of performance that was so disorienting in the film “Moulin Rouge” that I wanted to vomit from motion sickness. Much to my disappointment, the contemporary dancers of the Moulin Rouge were polished clones without the grunge, the heart, nor the performance flare. They were placed far from the laps of viewers and caged in the dimensions of the stage. The show was like any other variety show you could see in Vegas, especially the parts in English.

The appeal of the Moulin Rouge used to be its sense of danger and excitement that existed despite the tucked in collared shirts of the Parisian exterior. And perhaps it is the fault of pervasive sexuality in the media, but topless women prancing around in sequins is not enough to keep my attention. The show has now turned into an expensive tourist trap. I could not tell one dancer from the next as legs flew up in every direction. The Can Can section was filled with squeaks that seemed to come from trampled chipmunks rather than gutteral shouts, yells, and exclamations that accompanies traditional Can Can. Bent knees, and hunched upper bodies paired with grimaces due to lack of flexibility were indiscreetly covered up with feathered boas in the shape of sea urchins. Even the lip-synching was well, unsynchronized. The show was divided into thematic sections—and true to the movie, the show contained sections of exoticism featuring a Russian dance section, and costumes from what appeared to be Egypt, South Asia, and a non-descript location in the Middle East. I do not mean to say that I supported the exotification of these regions nor that I expected to see a real version of the Hollywood movie. I was just looking for the performance spark that makes a performer, a performer, the special “je ne sais quoi” that the French are supposed to possess. The show was a poor rendition of what I could see at a drag karaoke bar in the Marais for the mere price of a cocktail.

Nevertheless, there were some redeeming factors that kept me tuned in. The dance sequences were divided by a juggling act, a contortionist couple, a ventriloquist, and a naked woman doing tricks with snakes in a pool. I really felt as if I was making my rounds at the town circus and that soon I would come across a two-headed man. But that was just it—the disjunction between the intermediary acts in which the “other” really was put on display versus the dance sequences when airbrushed legs only posed as being the exotic “other.” There was a sincerity to the performance of the contortionist couple—an extremely skinny woman with a dreadlock and her buff manly companion—that when they balanced on poles, or did flips in a split position, or merely shared a coat sleeve that led me to buy into their act. There was a cute factor in the oddity of the couple, a certain pizzazz that made them unlike other couples I had seen. This was not the case for the other dance sections.

Now, one could argue that I am fairly more versed in dance than I am in contortionism, however there are still performances that literally evacuate the air from my diaphragm with it’s creativity. Mainly, Le Parc, a ballet choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj for the Paris Opera. A pas de deux between dancers wearing little more than nightgowns that managed to captivate and paralyze me not with numerous turns or virtuosic leaps, or bare legs, but rather in the quiet commitment to a single brush of the back of a hand against a cheek. A commitment that the dancers of the Moulin Rouge, regrettably, lacked. At the very least, Opera dancers have a place to retire to once they weigh more than 100 pounds, are over the hill at the age of twenty-five, and have lost their "umph".

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Louvre Lovin'?!

8.5 million visitors in 2008. 35,000 objects of art. 60,600 square meters. Can you guess what I’m talking about? Of course, because you’re a foreigner! The Louvre has the simultaneous ability to attract and repel, with its size, importance, and reputation as a tourist trap.

Still, the Louvre was not what it is today. First, the history of the building itself. Built in the 12th century by Philippe II, le Palais du Louvre was originally intended to be a French fortress. Some of the remnants of the original building still exist, but most of the building has been altered through the ages. But it was the French revolution that transformed the Louvre into a public museum. On August 1793, the doors of the Louvre were opened to the public, and free entry was granted three times a week. In the early days, artists lived in residence, paintings were hung without labels, and the organization of the building was debated.

Today, the building has changed. The large glass Louvre pyramid designed by I. M. Pei presents a juxtaposition of old and new architecture. The galleries are immense, well organized, and well-curated. Admission is not free – except for a specific day of the month. The French government owns the Louvre, but since the 1990s it has become more independent. Tons of tourists visit the Louvre each year.

But what I found more interesting is my own conception of the Louvre that has changed. I first visited the Louvre when I was 8, on a class field trip. What I remember and what I keep dear to me, was my own fascination with art. I also thought the building was just another large, belle-époque institution that held art inside. As a French élève, I took for granted that my admission would be free.

Now, returning to the Louvre as a Stanford student studying art history, I feel that my conception of the Louvre has changed. I disdain the Asian tourists that take massive amounts of photos of pictures that they have not learned the history of. I detest the large crowds that cluster around famous pictures. I consider the Louvre as a tourist trap that is over-rated and over-visited. For me, there is less of an attraction.

But I can understand how others can find the Louvre such a seductive museum. Walking around the exhibits, I overheard a telling conversation in English. “Wow! Look at that painting! It’s Napoleon 1er!” Others maintain a fascination with the history that the paintings represent; the Louvre and Paris are two ideas so inextricably intertwined. To get at the heart of the matter, the Louvre is something uniquely French that defines Paris. One would not be able to go to another museum in the world and have the same satisfying feeling of saying that “I went to the Louvre and saw the Mona Lisa.”

This experience of visiting the Louvre buys into the mystique of Paris and the idea of consumption of this experience. The museum medium facilitates politically-driven exchanges of culture and ideas between the objects that it houses and museum-goers. Museum goers go in, look at artwork, take pictures, buy replicas of art work in gift shop, and leave. Bien sûr, materiality is intimately linked to this phenomena. Despite the fact that museum goers cannot touch the objects themselves, they consume them them in the way that they can – with videocameras, cameras, and gift-shop replicas.

Perhaps that is what bothers me the most about the Louvre – that I believe that most museum goers go to the Louvre to consume and not to experience the art to be inspired. But my negative impression does not detract from my own fascination with the Louvre in its massive, touristy glory.