Saturday, January 28, 2012

Mark Morris Dance Group

I love dance.  In the eight years since I moved to the East Coast, I've seen a lot of it.  As with anything, the more you see and know, the better you can judge the quality.  If you'd asked me this morning what I thought were the best dance performances I'd seen, I would have listed the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's performance of Revelations that I saw at the Kennedy Center in 2005 and the Paris Opera Ballet's performance of Prokofiev's Cendrillon that I saw last November

Now, I would add tonight's performance at the Kennedy Center of Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato by the Mark Morris Dance Group

The history of this piece is as follows:  John Milton wrote two poems, L'Allegro (Mirth) and Il Penseroso (Melancholy), that were published as companion pieces in 1645.  In 1740, George Friedrich Handel and his librettist interwove those two poems into a single poem, added a third poem called Il Moderato (Moderation), and set the three poems to music in a pastoral oratorio for solo voices, orchestra and chorus.  In 1988, while in residence at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, Mark Morris choreographed an evening-length dance to the oratorio.  That is what I saw tonight. 

It was perfect.

The music, performed live in the orchestra pit by a strong orchestra and excellent baroque singers, was very lovely and had the best of everything I love about Handel -- delicate melodies, lively choruses (including one similar to the Hallelujah chorus), lots of ornamentation. 

The set and lighting were breathtaking.  There was a series of rectangular arched panels that framed the stage, spaced evenly from front to back, and between which sheer scrims could be lowered and raised.  The panels and scrims were lit with rich and various colors and, when the scrims were moved, the effect was of being immersed in a moving Rothko painting.

Through that landscape the dancers moved with incredible grace, lyricism and expression, performing lovely choreography that was neither quite narrative nor entirely abstract.  It was beautiful and moving and sometimes whimsical -- and it captured, in an astonishing way, the essence of mirth and melancholy that Milton had sought to convey in his poetry. 

During intermission, I heard the man behind me say the choreography was like a painting, and I couldn't have agreed more (obviously, art already was on my mind).  The tableaux that emerged through the movement seemed to be what might result if you mixed a Rubens with a Seurat and then framed it in a Rothko.  It was, to my mind, the best sort of performance, where all the art forms combine to create something so lovely that, for a moment, you forget the rest of the world and want for nothing but what you have before you.

Have a heart!

I did.  Literally.  It was on the menu.

Beef heart with onions and potato
A Peruvian delicacy called anticucho, skewered beef hearts were common on the street vendors' grills that I passed in Peru.

I'd never been brave enough to eat them, though, preferring to chicken out and (ar, ar, this pun wasn't planned) eat the chicken instead.  Tonight, however, I decided to give it a try.  I was eating at El Chalan, a highly praised Peruvian restaurant, and I figured that if any place was going to do it right (or at least safely, which might not be the same thing), this would be it.  I also appreciated that Amy (with whom I have seasons tickets to modern dance at the Kennedy Center) was willing to try it with me.

Turns out, it's delicious.  Very thin and extremely tender, it resembled a very fine steak.  But if you paid attention, you could see how the strips could be reformed into the shape of the heart's chambers, and there were holes where the arteries would have gone out.  (I tried not to pay too much attention.)

The rest of the dinner was tasty, too.  I had lomo saltado especial, which consisted of strips of filet mignon that had been sauteed with onions, potatoes and tomatoes, served on a bed of rice with a cilantro garnish.

Lomo saltado

Two Gentlemen of Verona: A Rock Opera

Can you think something is fun but still not like it?  Lady says no, but I think yes.  Think of roller coasters:  they're fun, but I don't like them.  Ditto for cotton candy.

Well, that's my review of the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Two Gentlemen of Verona: A Rock Opera

I'm probably supposed to like it:  It's a musical based on Shakespeare's play.  The original Broadway production (in 1971) won the Tonys for Best Musical and Best Book.  The Public Theater revived it in 2005 -- and I saw that production at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park right after starting law school.

But I just don't like it.  There are some funny moments, but overall the show feels very 1970s to me:  It's poppy and brash, heavy with political aspirations (lots of feminist and racial awareness and one cynical Vietnam-era anti-war number).  In the end, it amounts to nothing more substantial than the empty calories of a Sprite.

This production didn't help itself by being a "concert staging," meaning that instead of doing a full-on production of the play, all they did was put the orchestra on stage with actors who'd spent nine days rehearsing and had just enough blocking to sketch out the scenes -- while carrying scripts!  Quelle horreur.  Maybe if I'd known ahead of time that they weren't going to be off-book, I wouldn't have minded so much.  But it surprised me, and I spent the whole time feeling distracted by the fact that the leads were declaring undying love with their nose in a stack of papers.  Then when they tossed their scripts (which were looseleaf) in the air during a moment of passion, all I could think about was HOW ARE YOU GOING TO FIND YOUR PLACE AGAIN WHEN YOU FORGET YOUR LINE?  Very stressful.

I've never yet walked out on a live performance.  Other members of the audience weren't so patient.  Part of me wished I'd gone with them.

Dinner beforehand, however, was lovely.  I finished work around 6:00pm with plenty of time before the 8:00pm curtain, so I headed over to the newly opened Le Pain Quotidien down the street.  For those who aren't familiar, this is a Belgian cafe chain that I came to love in Brussels (they had this thing called a "bombe au chocolat" that was awesome) and which has since crossed the pond.  They started opening cafes in New York while I was there for law school, and now they've made it to DC.  I settled in with my new biography of Catherine de Medici (who, by the way, is fascinating) and had a wonderful dinner until it was time to walk over to the theater.

Tartine with Paris ham, aged Gruyere cheese
and three mustards

Gaufre liegeoise

Shakespeare Theatre: Sydney Harmon Hall

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Boise - Raclette Party

I gave Heather and Jordan a raclette grill for Christmas last month.  It was a gift motivated, in part, by the fact that I genuinely thought they would enjoy eating raclette and having people over to share it with them.  It was also motivated by my own interest in eating raclette -- I knew that my visit would be a great excuse to have a raclette party.  (Jordan agreed that one of the first things to cross his mind when he heard I was coming was, "Great, we can have raclette again!")

We invited Mark and Erin to join us, and together we had quite a feast!  The cheese was plentiful and pungent (the kids would have nothing to do with it and sought refuge in the playroom upstairs), and we had a wide variety of grilled vegetables and deliciously marinated meats (steak, pork loin and chicken).  I also introduced everyone to cornichons.

I was happy to see that, despite some initial skepticism, the cornichons were a huge hit.  As so often happens, they were gone by the time we were done.

Boise - Dancing Queen

Both Brynn and Shae are in ballet, and this week I had the great luck of attending one of their recitals!  It was great fun to see them get dressed up in their costumes, makeup and hairdos.  They were clearly in little girl heaven as they became the beautiful princesses of the day.

Shae, loving the attention, started demonstrating the positions she had learned in class this year.

Fifth Position
First Position
The recital started at 4:00pm, so naturally we left at 2:30pm.  That's what happens when you combine general admission seating and dance moms (among whom Heather definitely holds her own -- we were the first ones in line!).  Normally you might think that standing in line for an hour and a half wouldn't be that fun with three little kids, but our three were very well behaved.  As other people started arriving and getting in line behind us, Jaron saw one of the other little boys that he plays with while the girls are in class.  Jaron walked over and said, "Do you want to come stand calmly over here with us?  You can if you want to."  The boy didn't want to, but the other moms were super impressed (and we all had a good laugh).

As a result of our aggressive line-standing, we had the best seats in the house.  Right down in front, with an unobstructed view of the stage, we were able to get some great shots of the girls.  I didn't have enough battery power or memory space to record the entire dance for either one, but I did get some good footage.  Both girls did an excellent job and stood out as among the most focused and accurate performers in their respective groups.

Sorry about the shaking in that second film!  Shae's little boogie there in the middle was just SO funny -- the entire audience (including your intrepid cameraman) was cracking up.  She definitely got the best response of anyone through the entire show.  The funniest thing is that Heather, Jordan and I had a sneaking suspicion she might bust out some of those moves.  Here's a clip of a private, living room dance party from the night before:

After the concert we gave the girls flowers and joined them onstage for some post-show photos.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Boise - Life Aquatic

A new aquarium recently opened in Boise.  It's a relatively small affair, stuck in a random strip mall between a pawn shop and a party place.  But it's the only aquarium in town and had been getting a lot of attention among the younger-than-ten crowd.  Since yesterday was a day off from school, Heather and I took the kids to check it out. 

The first exhibit showcased colorful tropical fish of the sort that kids would know from their books and movies like Finding Nemo
Clown Fish
(and a baby starfish?)
That hallway led to a wide room with various "petting" pools.  One was an old boat and filled with giant clams and anenomes.

Another pool, infinitely cooler, had sharks and rays.

Bat ray
While the other kids (and not a few parents) cheerfully splashed in the water as they reached in to pet the rays, sharks, and other fishes, the Allen kids kept a skeptical distance. Those critters might be fun to look at through the glass, but NO WAY were they going to touch them.
But then Mom and Uncle Jason started getting our hands wet . . .

Petting the bat ray
and suddenly everyone started feeling much braver.



In the heady rush of having touched a creature as dynamic and dangerous as a rock -- without losing a single finger! -- the kids decided they were ready for larger prey. Back to the shark and ray tank!




Some of us, with shorter arms, resorted to baiting the leviathan with small dead fish (which, alarmingly, reminded me of a certain meal I had a couple of years ago in Croatia...).




Unfortunately, no quantity of baitfish would compensate for the length of three-year-old arms.  So Shae stuck to shallower waters and their immobile mollusks.


From there, we moved down the hall to see the lion fish and, after much waiting, the feeding of the eels.  Unfortunately I don't have any photos of the feeding.  The caretaker (whom I'll call Rapunzel) let her unruly tresses dangle in front of the tank in a manner that obscured all interesting munching.

The kids had a blast and talked about their aquatic adventures for the rest of the day.  My view is that the aquarium was off to a nice start but still had a ways to go.  Much of the facility was still under construction (we passed signs indicating where the otter and seal exhibits would be, and workmen were laying carpet around the clam boat), and the operation generally felt understaffed -- so my sense is they'll need another six months to get things fully up and running.  But still, a fun activity for a rainy January morning.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Boise in the snow

Yesterday, after a great visit chez les parents, I flew up to Boise for Part II of this January vacation.  Mark met me at the airport in his Jeep and gave me a ride to Heather's house, where we had a fun afternoon playing with the kids (being the favorite uncle that I am, of course I brought new toys with me).  Eventually Erin (Mark's girlfriend) came over and joined the party.  The four of us talked for a while after the kids went to bed.  Then Mark and Erin left and Heather and I continued talking until 2:30am -- at which point we reminded ourselves that I'm not leaving until Sunday, and promptly went to bed. 

When we got up (too few hours later!), we found ourselves in the middle of a snowstorm. 


Naturally, we wasted no time in piling on our winter gear and heading outside to shovel the driveway and play in the snow.

Official starting measure:  4 inches
(Finished with probably around 6 inches)

Assistant Shoveler

Unfortunately, my capacity for winter play is limited by the fact that I don't have full snow regalia anymore.  After finishing the driveway (and winning a few snowball fights) my peacoat was damp and I was getting chilly, so I went inside.  The kids, however, took the adventures to the as-yet pristine backyard.

When Brynn came home from school, she joined in, too (she's the giant pink snowsuit).  Under her expert direction, they "baked" snow cakes (that eventually morphed into snow mountains) on the patio table.

Finally even the kids wore out.  They came in and we warmed up with peppermint hot chocolate.  Yum!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Death Valley

Death Valley is the hottest, dryest and lowest spot in North America.  It's an extreme moonscape; a fantastic geological kaleidoscope of rock, salt flats and a handful of insane plants.  It's also only about 150 miles from Las Vegas, so on Monday morning we packed our lunches, filled our water bottles, donned our Lawrence of Arabia costumes, and trekked into the desert to see this natural wonder.

As we left Las Vegas, we passed the lovely rock formations of Red Rock Canyon.

But that geological variety show quickly gave way to more barren wasteland, inhabited only by cowboys, wild burros, and some of the few legally operating prostitutes in the U.S.

Surprisingly, there is an opera house in the middle of nowhere.

The local fire department.
(In case someone yells "Fire!" in a crowded opera house?)

After that burst of culture and civilization, it was back to the desolate wilderness.

Eventually we came to Twenty Mule Team Canyon.  It's a fascinating maze of rocky dunes named after the twenty-mule wagon teams that were used in the borax mining operations that were active in the region during the 19th Century.

From there, on to Zabriskie Point.

We had been traveling downhill for quite a while, with periodic elevation markers to indicate our progress.  We knew we were getting serious when we got to sea level.

But we hadn't hit bottom yet -- the land kept falling away toward the salt flats at the end of the valley.

Badwater Basin is the lowest point of the valley.  A helpful sign gives the relevant stats. 

A boardwalk bridges the delicate salt-water marsh, leading us to the snow-white expanse of crystallized salt.   

Thirty-three years ago next month, Lady and Dad came here on their honeymoon.  When we got home, we pulled out the old photo album -- lo and behold, so many of the photos were the same!  What a fun way to retrace the ancestors' steps.