Introducing the Virtual Museum Visit Series

the louvre museum, photo by Chris Karidis on Unsplash

Do you miss museums? What do you think about a virtual museum visit?

Back in the old days (before March 2020) I liked to find a reason for a museum visit at least a couple of times a year. For me, it was a great way to break out of my routine and get a different perspective on things.  If there wasn’t an exhibit that I was particularly interested in, the people watching alone was usually well worth the price of admission.

Some museums are beginning to open with restrictions. When I think about recent museum visits, a social-distanced museum experience sounds delightful. But I’m probably not going to make a point of going to a museum anytime soon.

Venus de Milo at the Louvre: Photo by Jean Carlo Emer on Unsplash

Recently, I saw a teaser on the internet about virtual museum tours and thought what a great topic for a blog post! Most of us still aren’t traveling anyway, why not check out some of the great museums of the world from home?

I thought that it would be easy to pull together a list of museums and link to their virtual tours and we would be on our way.

Once I started digging in, the first thing that became clear is that not all virtual museum tours are created equal. The second thing was that trying to wander around a museum virtually is not as easy or as much fun as one would hope.

Like most things on the internet, it is better to have an idea about what you are looking for before you begin. Whereas back in the old days, you could decide to go to a museum and just wander around for a few hours, the navigation of even the most user-friendly virtual museum tour is broken down into layers and layers of sub-menus. There are so many decisions to make before you get near any art.

Some virtual museum tours try to make it seem like you are walking through the galleries. I found these tricky to navigate and started to get frustrated. Some are more like online photo albums – it’s really more of a slide show than a virtual tour.

I realized that what I really wanted was some sort of video where someone would take me through a gallery, give me a good look at the work, and tell me about it. I started to find some videos on YouTube, but there is a lot of variation with these as well. So, what I’ve decided to do is start a series here where I will create a curated virtual museum visit for various places. These may include videos, virtual tours, selections from a collection, and articles about the institution, a particular collection, exhibit, or work.

This will give me an excuse to snoop around and see what I can find with a clear goal in mind: providing you, with a manageable, curated experience. I envision it being the kind of thing that you can just read the post and go on with your life or you can take a little time to click through the various resources I’ll link to and have your own little virtual field trip.

St Peter’s Basilica: Photo by Jan Tielens on Unsplash

Some of the places that I have started exploring for us include:

On the one hand, it’s never going to be the same as being there in person. On the other hand, doesn’t it sound fun is it to get to poke around from the comfort of your own home?

I’m going to try to post at least one a month and we’ll see how it goes. If you have any tips for navigating virtual museum experiences or suggestions for particular things that you would like to see, let me know!

Deep Thoughts with Martha Graham

A few years ago, I came across this quote in the course of some random internet trawling that had nothing to do with Martha Graham, dance, or even artistic expression:

You don’t have to believe in yourself or your work.  You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU.

Martha Graham to Agnes De Mille

It really struck me. So I wouldn’t forget, I emailed it to myself and there is sat, in the deep, dark depths of my inbox for some number of years. Recently, I came across the note and thought that Martha Graham would make a good topic for this blog. Of course, today’s post is more of a random survey than a thorough examination of her artistic legacy, but I am just being open to the urges that motivate me.

Did I ever tell you that there was a time in my life that I wanted to grow up to be a dancer in Martha Graham’s company?  It’s true. Although, even in those days I had a hard time visualizing myself living as a starving artist living in New York City.  But there really was a moment in time that I was willing to consider giving up my comfortable, Southern California lifestyle to be a Graham dancer.

Graham technique was very captivating for a young Cynthia whose training up to that point had mainly focused on the classical ballet lexicon.  Not wearing shoes, using the floor in such a way, sure those were novel, but the biggest difference was the power with which one moved.

You see, in classical ballet you are trained to hold your center of gravity roughly around your diaphragm. This enables the lightness and quickness of the legs and feet. Think about lifting, lifting, lifting all of your energy up from your pelvis. Then cap that lift at the shoulders and close your rib cage around it. That energy turns into a little ball that floats around in that area above your waist. You lock it in there and hold it tight, then you move around it.

In Graham technique, you drop your center of gravity below your belly button. I didn’t know anything about Kundalini yoga at that time, but now I would say that you locate your center of gravity in your svadhisthana chakra. All motion then originates and radiates from your center, initiated by either a contraction or release. It creates a very powerful way of moving.

Here is a short video of Graham technique:

Martha Graham (1894-1991) was an innovator during a time of tremendous artistic innovation. She is sometimes referred to as the mother of modern dance because of the thoroughly developed technique and prodigious repertoire that she created. Graham’s early dance training was at the Denishawn School in Los Angeles where she eventually taught before moving to New York City in the 1920’s. There she began creating her own work. She is noted for creating 181 ballets over her 70-year career. Among her students was Merce Cunningham. Isamu Noguchi created sets for many of her ballets including the 1944, Aaron Copeland commissioned, Appalachian Spring.

 Here is an excerpt of Appalachian Spring with Graham dancing the lead role:

 Ok, back to the quote. The thing about it is that in this statement, she completely eliminates the role of ego from artistic expression (at least in principle). What she is saying is that you don’t have to think you’re great (or even good) and you don’t have to like what you create. Your job is just to be open to the act of creation. There are a lot of people who have used a lot more words to express this same idea. I love how Graham is so no-nonsense about it.

Is there something creative that you’ve been putting off?  Maybe it’s time to do it.

A History of Art

A long, long time ago, when I was just a wee lass, I went to college. I was looking forward to learning all sorts of new things and exploring all there was to offer. I did what I could but being a dance major and having ballet class every day in the middle of the afternoon put a big crimp in my schedule and I never got around to taking figure drawing or English literature, or the history of art.

After I graduated, I took up reading in a big way. I was going to make up for not taking English literature in the bargain aisles of Barnes and Noble. One day, I spied this tome, the same book that had been used as the textbook for the art history class that I could never work into my schedule.  Now was my chance, I would be my own art history class!

It is an unruly book and did not lend itself to beach chair reading (my preferred reading method).  I tried to be studious and read a bit of it, but I don’t know when last time was that I opened it.

I’ve dragged it around for the past *cough* 20+ years, always telling myself that one day, I would get around to breaking it open again. I would sit at a table with a good reading light and learn everything about art history.

Fast forward to last Monday. Because of the national hermitage movement, no one is meeting in person anymore. But everyone wants to meet on ZOOM.  Which is fine, except for the multi-neck, potato head effect that occurs when I have my laptop on my desk.  I needed a little booster, something sturdy that would raise my laptop enough that the camera was more at eye-level than chin level. And guess what, A History of Art is just the thing!

Since this book will be living on my desk for a while, I decided that I might as well crack it open. When I did, I laughed out loud!  The dust jacket flap was marking the place I had stopped at all those years ago … page 54, Ancient Near Eastern Art.

Here’s the thing, I know why I stopped. I wanted to learn about post-Renaissance, Western European art through mid-20th Century American art. And while I wanted to be a good student and begin at the beginning, I only managed to get from the Paleolithic era to roughly circa 2,000 BC.

It’s not because I don’t think that ancient art isn’t interesting or doesn’t have something to illuminate about the human condition, it’s just that I have a hard time relating when something is so far removed from my frame of reference.

Which got me thinking, I wonder if teaching history chronologically is the wrong approach? I wonder if we might be better served learning history backwards?

I flipped through the book to find where I thought I wanted to start, and I landed on page 636. This chapter deals with the period referred to as Mannerism, which seems to be the late Renaissance period immediately preceding Baroque. I think I’ll start there and work my way forward for a bit, then jump back and take a stab at the first half of the book again.

I’m looking forward to filling in the gaps in my knowledge of art history, even if it is in a haphazard way. And more importantly, to being able to ZOOM without looking like a potato head!

2020 Ballet Season Opener, Cinderella

It’s that time of the year again!  What time is that?  It’s Ballet Season of course!

Even though the 2020 season opened much like last year with a fairytale ballet, it was certainly not a romantic-era ballet or even an update of a romantic ballet.  This production of Cinderella was created by Christopher Wheeldon in 2012 as a joint commission of the Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. Its War Memorial premiere was in 2013.

The libretto was written by Craig Lucas, the playwright who you may be familiar with from Prelude to a Kiss (there was a 1992 film adaptation with Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan). He brings that same soupçon of strangeness to this work. There is no fairy godmother or mice.  All of the magic in this version of the story comes from a tree that grows out of Cinderella’s mother’s grave.  Of course, you can’t leave Cinderella sidekick-less but instead of mice and birds, she has four fates who provide the magical catalyst (and help her with the chores). This Cinderella also has a respectable amount of gumption for a story where the happy ending entails getting married (spoilers!).

Wheeldon choose to work with Prokofiev’s 1940 score. For me, the music didn’t do much, it is certainly isn’t on par with his Romeo and Juliet.  But I didn’t find choreography particularly impactful either. I don’t know if one fell flat and impacted my impression of the other or if both were just meh. 

As far as the choreography goes, there was a lot of dancing. Really athletic dancing. Maybe too much, as in too many steps. The principals were on stage for long stretches and the corps de ballet really moved. There wasn’t a lot of standing around or running off and on stage. I don’t tend to miss the conventions of romantic ballet, but I do feel that this work would benefit from some of the pauses, stillness, and space that are traditional in the romantic ballets in order to give the brilliant and athletic dancing space to shine.

The night my mom, sister, and I were there, Cinderella was danced by one of our new favorite dancers, Sasha de Sola. She brought a great combination of sassiness and compassion to the role. Luke Ingham was the Prince.  But the stepsister Clementine, who was danced by Ellen Rose Hummel, was the character who really stole the show.  Clementine is the sweet stepsister, who wears glasses and takes the brunt of her mother’s and sister’s meanness when Cinderella isn’t readily available. She is funny and kind-hearted, and she gets the guy too, winning the heart of the Prince’s sidekick.

The novel libretto allows for creative applications of production elements.  The scene where Cinderella is transformed to go to the ball is wonderfully weird and full of inventive staging and effects. For me, this scene is the highlight of the show.

There is so much to like about this production, but like I said before, there was just something about it that felt overwrought.  The last time it was presented was 2017 and I remember enjoying the innovative elements, but I don’t know that it made my heart leap that time either.

World Ballet Day 2019

Guys!  It’s World Ballet Day again!

I’m glad that I didn’t mark my calendar after last year’s World Ballet Day because World Ballet Day 2019 is certainly not on the same date.  But there are a bunch of new ballet videos on the internet today for our viewing pleasure, some from companies that we got to know last year and some that are newly discovered.

*Disclaimer: I don’t have hours to spend watching videos of ballet classes and rehearsals either. But by linking a bunch of them here we can all find them whenever we do have time to squeeze in a few minutes of ballet viewing in our day.

The Royal Ballet is back again with four hours of content. I love watching their class so much.  I also really love all of the studio fashion statements.

The Royal Ballet

The Australian Ballet has also posted four hours’ worth.

The Australian Ballet

A new discovery for me this year is Teatro alla Scala.  I skipped ahead to a terrible turns exercise – double attitude, double arabesque, double a la seconde, double pirouette en de dan – the stuff of my dance nightmares.  Fortunately, it looked like many of the professional dancers were having a hard time with it too.

Teatro alla Scala

The Wiener Staatsballett has given us a rehearsal of a Balanchine ballet that they are adding to the repertory.

Weiner Staatsballett

I hope you’ll take a few moments to watch a little ballet today and remember these links are here if you need a fix in the future.  Afterall, ballet season is just around the corner.

The Real Housewives Triad

Twice a month, my writing group does flash fiction writing exercises.  This is not a strong area for me, and most efforts are nothing that I would try to get you to read.  This one however just makes me giggle.  Here is the photo and below, my story about the Real Housewives Triad.

Photo courtesy of: Starrchez; character: Anann (Sara Maraffino) from short film, Killing Anann; courtesy of C3Stories and Dreamwalker Productions
Photo courtesy of: Starrchez; character: Anann (Sara Maraffino) from short film, Killing Anann; courtesy of C3Stories and Dreamwalker Productions 

The Real Housewives Triad

In behavioral psychology the “dark triad” describes the convergence of psychopathy, narcissism, and machiavellianism.  Researchers have also identified a “light triad.”  But there is another, less understood triad, the “Real Housewives triad.”  This describes the convergence of hunger, drunkenness, and menopause resulting in explosive and irrational behavior.

Jen had had it!  Who did he think he was?  After taking two bites of the extra-large slice of princess cake that he had requested, he stood up, dropped the rest in the trash, set his plate in the sink, and headed for the sofa in the other room.  He wouldn’t even put his plate in the dishwasher.  Two bites!  He had no idea what she would give for two bites of princess cake.  The heavenly combination of raspberry, almond, and cream.  Princess cake was everything to her that he wasn’t and she had had enough.

Calmly, she pushed her chair back from the table.  There was a locked box in the kitchen junk drawer. 

He padded into the kitchen, “hey, do we have any ice cream?” 

The look in her eye told him that he had asked the wrong question.  She raised her right arm, pointing the barrel of the 9-millimeter Luger at his head. 

“Outside, now.” She was not about to get brains all over her new marble backsplash. 

The End

I learned about the light and dark triads from this article by Scott Barry Kaufman.  His website also has a personality test to see where you fall on the light triad scale.  As far as I’m aware, no one has begun conducting research on the Real Housewives triad…yet.

Monet at the De Young

monet water lilies

Monet: The Late Years

I happened to be in San Francisco for the weekend last May for Mother’s Day.  My dear, sweet brother-in-law had arranged for my mom and my sister to see the Monet exhibit at the De Young Museum for Mother’s Day and since I was in town, I had the good fortune of getting to tag along.

I thought that it was interesting that Monet was such a prolific and esteemed artist that the 50 or so works in the show were all made after he was established and successful.  The subjects of these paintings were almost exclusively locations in his own gardens on his estate in Giverny.

For great biographical information and a more comprehensive description of the paintings in the show, check out this page on the De Young Museum website.

The earliest painting in the exhibit is Morning on the Seine from 1896.  Unfortunately, I didn’t take a better photo of it.  At first glance, it seems just very grey, soft, and muted.  But when I really took a moment to look at it, I started to notice a tremendous depth to the foliage.  Monet used many different green and purple tones to build these shapes that appear flat from a distance, but up close have an unexpectedly rich dimensionality.  Once I got sucked into this painting, I started to notice the subtle contrast between the way that he rendered the landscape and its reflection in the water.  This is the kind of painting that you could look at for years and notice something new every day.

Morning on the Seine, Claude Monet

More than 20 of the pieces in the show were water lily paintings.  This is such an iconic Monet subject and one that is so often reproduced on merchandise that it seems like something that you think you have already seen and not necessarily special.  But seeing so many different variations on the same subject all together was fascinating.  Particularly when there were multiple paintings in a series that all portrayed the exact same vista from the exact same spot.  When was the last time that you really looked at something that you see every day?  Try it.  And then go back again a few hours later and take a moment to look again.  Think about how it now appears different from what you saw just a bit earlier.  What a wonderful reminder that everyday things we think we have already seen have something new to offer us if we can be bothered to take a moment to open ourselves up to them.

I took many notes on the differences in paintings of similar subject matter, the variations in color and texture and focus and size of various pieces.  Another subject of Monet’s that gives a very explicit example of this were the paintings of the Japanese Bridge. 

One thing that I found even more unexpected and interesting were the paintings where he really just seemed to have to get the idea on canvas as quickly as possible.  These were paintings where the canvas showed through.  There was a raw-ness and an energy to these works that really spoke to me. 

Toward the end of the exhibit was a series of Weeping Willow (1918-1919 and 1921-1922). I think there were more than the three that I photographed.  The later piece just blows my mind a little bit. This is the same guy painting the same thing that he had already painted over and over and it is so different and unexpected!  Now, this was all during the period when his vision was degenerating, but that alone does not explain the difference.

I am so glad that I had the opportunity to tag along with some of my favorite mothers on their special day.  It was a great opportunity to be reminded of how much there is to see if we just take the time to look.

Stories of the Great Ballets

I just finished perusing this book titled, Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets .  I won’t claim to have read it since I *may* have skipped the first 734 pages. Those pages contained an exhaustive catalogue of “great ballets” according to George Balanchine (from skimming the table of contents, it appears that some of those listed are greater than others). 

It is certainly a “great” reference tool and I will plan on keeping it handy for the next time that I’m going to see a pre-1977 ballet (this was the fifth edition).  I just can’t imagine that anyone would need/want to read that whole list.

The remaining 150 pages seemed interesting so I dug in. 

First was a chapter titled “How to Enjoy Ballet” where Mr. Balanchine explains his thoughts on how someone who is new to ballet should approach seeing a ballet performance for the first time.  What was interesting to me is how much importance he ascribed to familiarizing oneself with the music before one attends a performance.  He didn’t feel that it was necessary to have any technical knowledge of dance, just an appreciation for the skill of the dancers.

The other key piece of Mr. Balanchine’s advice for the novice balletgoer really made me smile. It was basically, “if you go to the ballet and you think you don’t like it, just keep going and eventually you will like it!”  I suppose that you could call that the “eat your vegetables” approach to ballet appreciation.  

The next chapter was “A Brief History of the Ballet,” followed by “Chronology of Significant Events in the History of Ballet.”  This was a detailed timeline beginning with Lorenzo de Medici (ballet was imported to France by Catherine de Medici as a part of courtly spectacles). I felt that I had a good grip on the timeline, dissemination, and evolution of ballet, but this had some interesting details in it that raised some questions – I have a few things to look into and will report back!

Next is a brief autobiography by Mr. Balanchine, “How I Became a Dancer and Choreographer.” 

Then, “Ballet for Your Children,” “Careers in Ballet,” and a glossary which contains some very good illustrations of positions and steps.  It was surprising to me how adamant Mr. Balanchine was that children shouldn’t begin studying ballet until they are eight years old.  It just goes to show how long I’ve been away from that world that his talk about dancers’ development was a bit shocking in its frankness.  It certainly isn’t the way that those things are talked about these days.

I love classic books, and this is certainly a great addition to my dance book collection.  If you have questions about a “great ballet,” please let me know and I can tell you what Mr. Balanchine has to say about it!

Shostakovich Trilogy

This past Saturday marked the end of our 2019 Ballet Season. Happily, the program was excellent and left us excited for 2020 (yes, we have already renewed our seats).

This program was comprised of three works choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, all to music by Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich Trilogy was co-commissioned by San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. The SF Ballet premiere was in 2014.

Alexi Ratmansky is a Russian choreographer who is currently artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre. Previously, he held the position of artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet where he is known for remounting some of the Soviet-era ballets. You can see the influence of his experience with artistic productions of that era in the deft way that he layered the pieces in Shostakovich Trilogy with nuance evocative of the time and place in which the music was created.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was an early-twentieth century, Russian composer. Unlike Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) and Stravinsky (1882-1971), Shostakovich spent his entire career in Stalinist Russia where he experienced constraints on his work. Despite these constraints, his music is powerful and timeless. One has to wonder what he could have accomplished if he had the artistic freedom of some of his contemporaries.

Symphony #9 has a movement vocabulary that combines classical ballet steps with traditional Russian folk-dance movements in a very elegant way. The music, composed in 1945, was commissioned by the government as a celebration of the victory of the Soviet people over the Nazis and the conclusion of WWII. This piece sort of switches back and forth from a feeling of self-conscious restraint to rah-rah proletarian propaganda, highlighting the dichotomy of Soviet society at that time.

Chamber Symphony was the most narrative piece in the program. The backdrop for this work was a series of oversized, cubist-style heads suspended in front of the back scrim. The heads shifted and different effects were created with lighting throughout the course of the piece. It created a sort-of “big brother is watching you” feeling. At one point, the music become quite bombastic and the most center-stage heads became quite prominent and menacing.

The main character in this piece represents Shostakovich. Watching it without reading the program notes first made for an interesting exercise in deciphering a story. I was left with the firm conclusion that the central character was a depressive cad.

The corps de ballet in this piece is composed of eight couples who seem to be exerting influence on the behavior of the main character. He alternates between going along with the group, acting out, and utter dejection.   There are also three female soloists who represent different women in the composer’s life. These roles were danced divinely by Sasha de Sola, Yuan Yuan Tan, and Mathilde Froustey.

Piano Concerto #1 was my favorite piece of the three. That being said, I can’t describe the dancing to you at all. I was completely mesmerized by the costumes, which were these extremely simple and effective two-tone unitards. Yes, that’s it. The front was blue, and the back red and it was visually spectacular. I guess that I could say that the dancing was interesting and dynamic because it didn’t detract from the excellent effect of the costumes.

There was an energy to the dancing on this night. We all got the impression that the dancers really enjoyed performing these works (maybe they were just happy that it was the end of the season). It was nice to see such a consistent program of interesting, contemporary work, I think this had to do with the strength of the music.

At any rate, it was a satisfying end to the season.

The Little Mermaid

San Francisco Ballet 2019 Program 7, The Little Mermaid

This weekend’s ballet adventure was a performance of The Little Mermaid.  This is not your Disney Little Mermaid.  This version, choreographed by John Neumeier, more closely resembles the original Hans Christian Andersen fable.  The ballet was created in 2005 for the Royal Danish Ballet to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Andersen’s birth, and it was first staged by the San Francisco Ballet in 2010.

The Little Mermaid is considered one of Andersen’s most autobiographical stories due to his well-documented history of unrequited love of both men and women.  Neumeier inserts an Andersen-like character in the ballet, in the form of “The Poet.” This is a very successful element of the libretto in as much as it clarifies the way in which the little mermaid and the sea witch represent different aspects of the poet’s inner emotional landscape.

The story begins with the poet aboard a ship, remembering when the object of his love, Edvard married Henriette.  A single tear falls into the ocean, serving as the catalyst to ignite the story of the little mermaid in his imagination. The poet spends most of the production on stage, sometimes mirroring, other times seeming to direct the actions of the little mermaid.

Ok, now let’s talk about the production and the dancing.

In addition to the choreography, Neumeier also created the sets and costumes both of which are innovative and interesting.  The way that irregular lines of light (think stage-width florescent light tubes flown in from above) are used to delineate the surface of the water is highly effective.  The combination of the light tubes with stage lighting changes were used to great effect to indicate location changes from onboard the ship to under the sea to on land.

The mermaid costumes are very clever.  They wear these extra-long, wide-legged, silky pants. The ends of the pants can be manipulated by other performers to create the effect of swimming, but the dancers can move around the stage and dance (carefully).  One (three) of my favorite characters were the magic shadows (or as I like to call them, the Dread Pirates Robertses).  These three guys partnered the little mermaid when she was enjoying her happy life under the sea.  One would lift her and the other two would each manipulate one of the long legs of her flowy pants, it was a fantastic effect.  Later, they became the sea witch’s henchmen.  They wore black, billowy pants, long-sleeved black shirts, eye masks and black head scarves the whole time, so no matter what their function was, they were the Dread Pirates Robertses to me.

The dancing was very good.  Again, this is a ballet with characters (even the background dancers were characters) which suits San Francisco Ballet’s strengths.  A couple of crowd scenes on the ship made me think of Sweet Charity.  There was an eclectic assortment of characters and everyone had their own little schtick/movement vocabulary.  I’m a huge fan of Fosse’s work, so those moments were delightful to me.

Yuan Yuan Tan, our favorite, favorite ballerina was the little mermaid.  This role calls for tremendous emotional expression more than virtuosic dancing and she was very effective.  She was not just acting with her facial expressions, her hyper-flexible back and lithe figure helped to convey the difference between her happy, carefree life under the sea and her painful (physically and emotionally) life on land.

This was a psychologically deep ballet.  All of the elements of the production worked together to tell a complex and nuanced story and I really enjoyed the performance.