Best in Show: My Life in HD
Year endings are the time to make lists: best and worst of everything and anything. It occurred to me, given a certain age, one naturally turns memoirist and starts wondering: is there a Best Performance List of an entire life? What would that look like? Which theater, opera, ballet performances were so mind-blowing, shocking, overwhelming that they are unforgettable? Which events marked me in a way that keeps them present in my mind as a sort of bedrock to stand on and compare everything else I see?
Very quickly the list revealed a principle I had not expected or formulated beforehand when I started rummaging through my memory files. I discovered that most of the outstanding candidates were of the genre “Gesamtkunstwerk,” that famous term the old genius and Jew hater Wagner coined to declare that all the arts must to stand together and hold hands onstage: writing, music, acting, movement, stage sets, costumes, lights, and of course direction all have to play equal roles and, needless to say, be top-notch in order to create the peak experience of a “complete” masterpiece. Does this mean I can’t help being a Wagnerian? Well, only one of my Life in HD list entries has to do with Wagner himself, as you will see.
Verdi, who was after the same thing at the same time, called it simply music-drama, and in his mature operas he reached similar heights on shorter roads (works of only 3 hours instead of 5.)
But if one element is missing from the hand-holding circle of excellence, does it still belong? You bet. Dance, dance-theater or “operatic” performances without words have been part of the most powerful peak experiences in my life.
My own road counting backwards became a fun game with memory, gambolling back to age 5 or 6, when a children’s ballet with little girls in Velasquez-style crinoline dresses set my mind spinning, but I won’t bore you with the moments when my teen age mind was blown by ballet performances like Béjart’s Symphonie pour un homme seule, The Green Table by Kurt Joos with Pina Bausch dancing, or theater performances without a record, like actor Klaus Kinsky doing demented Shakespeare in Sunday matinees.
I limited my list to “live in HD” performances that can be shared because they were captured on film and you can get hold of them on Amazon, in more arcane archives, at the Met Archive or on YouTube. It so happens that I already mentioned some of them in these pages. The challenge I set myself here was to define the impact of each one in only a few words—to prevent falling into a novella-length piece of culture commentary.
Here’s my Best of Life List in somewhat chronological order:
1) Balanchine, Apollon Musagète and Agon, New York City Ballet, music by Stranvinsky, conducted by the composer himself on tour in Hamburg, in the 60s. Main reason (apart from a mythical staircase that led nowhere): I fell in love with the new ballerina body à la Balanchine: endlessly long legs and pin heads, bodies clad in the strict, black-and-white, skin-tight tricots or modest little skirts of ballet class; there was the erotic attraction of six-a-clock leg extensions, the sexy hip twists and modernist angular moves no one had ever seen before in classical ballet.
2, 3, 4, 5) Early Pina Bausch “pieces” that toured Paris in the late 70s (all partly or entirely on YouTube):
2) Frühlingsopfer, Sacre du printemps, 1976, music by Stravinsky, stage set by Rolf Borzik. On a stage covered with dirt (peet moss), relentless gender confrontation, driven by the puritanism and shame that I saw as the defining character of Germany after the war: cleanliness at all cost, silence and lies about sex and violence. This Paris performance was my first encounter with the major theme of Bausch’s early works: the dirt shoved under the living-room rug. Her Sacre literally set it flying. We didn’t know yet that this would be her last strictly-dance choreography.
3) Blaubart, Bluebeard’s Castle, 1978, music by Bartok, set by Rolf Borzik in a classicist room filled with dead leaves. This was the birth of dance-theater, “Tanztheater,” revolutionizing classical and modern dance as well as theater. Repetitive violence between men and women, men throwing women against the walls. Desperate, but futile attempts at communication; the music hacked to pieces like the work of a serial axe-murderer. Bausch buried patriarchal man-woman relationships under the rustle of leaves.
4) Café Müller, Paris 1979, music by Henry Purcell, set by Rolf Borzik in a cold pub room filled with chairs. A somewhat autobiographical piece about social and sexual repression that could have been called “Café Germany.” The only piece Pina Bausch herself always danced in. She is one of two women glued to the wall (wall flowers in the pub), dressed in the signature Bausch costume of long, “naked” silk slips. The women sleepwalk away from the wall to Purcell’s aria “Dido’s Lament” (“When I am lain in earth…”), while a man races ahead of them in a panic, kicking the chairs out of the way of their feet. But the women never get away; they blindly stumble back, hit the wall and fall, again and again. In his film Talk to Her, Pedro Almodovar uses a segment of this sleepwalk and shows the response of a man in the audience, who is in tears.
5) Kontakthof (Contact Court), Paris 1980, music collage of kitschy German pre-war hits, set in a ball room by Rolf Borzig. A cruel parody of the society-dance lessons German teen agers of the middle class (like myself) had to go through to learn good manners. Here, the education is in shame, sexual violence and submission. In comical as well as brutal ways, the lessons in a ball room (high heels and suits) resemble contact scenes in a bordello. It’s the only piece that Bausch later recast to great effect with teenagers from her town, who had never danced a single step. (Docu film Tanzträume/Dancing Dreams, reviewed here.)
6) Richard Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier, film by Paul Czinner from the Salzburger Festspiele 1960, conducted by Karajan. With Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Sena Jurinac and Anneliese Rothenberger. The classic and classy “ideal” of a Viennese comedy of manners, carried by superb singers/actresses— two sopranos and a mezzo in an amorous triangle of “girl dressed as boy gets girl by dressing up as girl.” The height of romantic opera before the onslaught of modernism. Most unforgettable moment: when the curtain rises and you see two beautiful women, Schwarzkopf and Jurinac, in bed after a passionate love night.
7 and 8) Robert Wilson, Deafman Glance, Paris 1974, and Einstein on the Beach, Paris 1975. The beginning of Wilson’s theater/dance/opera revolution, turning theater into silent, magical, five-hour-long tableaux vivants (Deafman Glance) and, with a score by Philip Glass, into Einstein on the Beach, an operatic play of slow-motion movement and abstract-absurdist language. With stunning stage sets and magic lighting, all by Wilson, this was the perfect Gesamtkunstwerk of modern times, and it set the stage for post-modern thrill and skepticism. The 50-year memory tour of the opera was reviewed in these pages.
9) Matthew Bourne, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, 1995 on tour in Los Angeles, with the original cast (Adam Cooper and Scott Ambler). Another one-man-Gesamtkunstwerk. A gay Swan Lake, mixing parodies of the British Royal Family with high romanticism and camp. The powerful body language and sexy costume of the male swans made the whole world swoon, me among them.
10 and 11) William Forsythe, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, 1987, music by Thom Willems, with Sylvie Guillen, and Artifact Suite (from 1984, performed at San Francisco Ballet in 2004 and Paris, 2008).
What does contemporary “combat ballet,” as masterminded and mastered by Forsythe, have in common with Balanchine? Everything, as some of his most brilliant choreographies suggest with their great formality and musicality, spacial architecture, moody lighting and their poetic titles. The elements that Balanchine introduced into classical ballet —modern, edgy, sexy—are pushed further to the edge in these works —and so is the body of the ballerina: Sylvie Guillem became the epitome of ballet technique: phenomenal feet and extreme extension, flawless balance of a gymnast on pointe, and the scary off-balances of a dare-deveil. In the last 20 years, the avant-garde she represented in Forsythe’s works has not be outdone.
Sylvie Guillem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHbU5zjUbYw
12) Patrice Chéreau, Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, the Centenary Ring, Bayreuth 1976, conducted by Pierre Boulez. Whole books have been written about the late French theater and cinema director and his shockingly political and psychological interpretation of the Ring as the birth and doom of our modern bourgeoisie. Superbly cast and filmed on DVD in 1979, with the fantastic stage sets by Richard Peduzzi, the 16-hour cycle of four operas seems to be about you and me, a mirror of discordant family clans with their greed for power and moral ambiguity. For the first (and perhaps last) time, the incestuous twins Siegmund (Peter Hoffmann) and Sieglinde (Jeannine Altmeyer) in Die Walküre look alike and blow you away with their acting and their beauty. (I never thought I would see a Ring production of interest afterwards, but Francesca Zambello’s “American Ring” at San Francisco Opera, 2011, to be repeated in the summer of 2018, taught me to never say never.)
Some performances make their mark by being evergreens: I have to see them again and again when the need for a demented, heart-rending, mind-splitting experience is what is needed. Others are on my list because of the unfading happiness they trigger, a kind of repetitive falling in love. I could easily add another dozen, but the year is short and getting shorter, as anybody knows who is getting older, so not this time.
2018 may allow me to give you a few reasons for the rest of my list:
Shockheaded Peter: A Junk Opera, 1998, composed and played by Martyn Jacques and the Tiger Lillies, based on the German children’s book Struwwelpeter
Petr Weigel, 1986 film version of Massenet’s Werther with Brigitte Fassbaender and Peter Dvorsky
Anna Netrebko in Lucia di Lammermoor, 2009 at the Met
Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, at Santa Fe Opera, 2016
Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the film version from 1960 by Joseph Losey, with Raimondo Ruggeri, and live in 2016 at Santa Fe Opera, with Daniel Okulitch
Verdi’s Il Trovatore, Salzburg Festival 2014, with Anna Netrebko, set in a modern museum.
Verdi’s Otello from La Scala, 1978, staged by Zefirelli, with Jon Vickers and Renata Scotto.
Finally, as we are in the era of TV series, a truly epic Gesamtkunstwerk: The Life of Verdi by Renato Castellani, with Ronald Pickup as Verdi and ex-ballerina Carla Fracci as his life companion, opera diva Strepponi.