Archive for April, 2010

PostHeaderIcon Buy a Dot by Seurat

AdoptDotThe Art Institute has devised an imaginative way to both honor your mother this Mother’s Day and support the museum at the same time. It’s a fund-raising gimmick called “Adopt a Dot”. It lets you adopt a dot from probably the signature masterwork of its collection, “La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat.

For each dot purchased at $10 (3 for $25 and 6 for $50), the honoree receives a button featuring a dot from the painting in one of 6 chosen colors: Red, Light Blue, Pink, Light Green, Orange or White.  As of last weekend, the museum had raised at least $70,000 as approximately 7,000 dots had been adopted.

The adoption sale is ongoing but button delivery by Mother’s Day next Sunday cannot be guaranteed. To buy a dot, go to the museum’s website at Perhaps the museum, come Summer, can declare some Sunday “Seurat Sunday” and have all button-buyers show their colors in a recreation of “La Grande Jatte” on the walkway leading to the roof of the new Modern Wing.

This clever marketing ploy should spur wider emulation by other Chicago arts organizations who might employ greater imagination in raising support than endless letters of appeal, usually offering nothing tangible in return. While sports teams have sold off seats, bricks or goal posts prior to demolishing old stadiums, I can imagine Lyric Opera selling a tiny swatch of gold thread from its curtain. Steppenwolf might sell off a page of August: Osage County, Ravinia could offer one of James Conlon’s discarded or autographed batons and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra might offer anything incoming Music Director (or is the proper title Messiah?) Riccardo Muti has touched. The list is limited only by local arts’ organizations imaginations. And isn’t imagination the art world’s leading brand?

So, I raise a glass to the originator of “Adopt a Dot” at the Art Institute and wish to see more of the same spirit of all around town. It’s time for arts leaders everywhere to wean themselves slightly off the unstable, unpredictable and begrudging state and federal dole as well as diminishing levels of corporate and foundation funding.

PostHeaderIcon Swan Lake Shows True ABT

Swan Lake - Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes_ Photo by Gene SchiavoneWhen I returned last Sunday to see “Swan Lake”, I was no longer in America but Tsarist Russia. The opening night performance, however fine, had merely been the crowd-pleasing appetizer portion. As soon as the curtain rose on “Swan Lake”, I immediately knew that this staple of the ballet world was the main entrée. And, keeping the dining metaphor, the performance was a delectable four-star feast.

ABT’s engagement here was an appetizer in another sense as well since the company will open its annual 6-week residency at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in late May. During its stay at The Met, ABT will perform its signature story ballets—Swan Lake, Romeo & Juliet, La Bayadere—in rotation with the All-American selections and tributes to other choreographers.

I must confess that I didn’t expect to enjoy “Swan Lake” as much as I did. My dance viewing has consisted mainly of going to see modern dance company performances featuring three or four selections. Could I be as captivated by a two-hour single work? Well yes, I discovered, proving it’s not a classic for nothing (“Swan Lake” premiered in March, 1877. The Petipa/Ivanov version had its first full-length production in January, 1895 and ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie’s updating debuted at the Kennedy Center in March, 2000). I just let the whole dreamy story unfold and felt a long-lost sense of enchantment roll over me.

The ballet opens at Prince Siegfried’s “coming of age” birthday party (Was that 16, 18 or 21 in those fairy-tale days?). The royal court set and the sumptuous costumes evoked the right ambiance of luxury, beauty and splendor that was carried through the evening, particularly in the Great Ball scenery of Act III.

ABT’s principal dancers in the lead roles of Prince Siegfried, Princess Odette and Odile and Rothbart, the evil sorcerer, all gave technically winning performances.  At the performance I attended, the Prince was danced by Marcelo Gomes and Odette was played by Veronika Part.  This final Chicago performance held a fascinating twist.

Ms. Part was to dance the role of both Princesses as usual. Yet, she gave way to Gillian Murphy as Odile in Act III and IV. Ms. Part may have been overly tired after performing the dual parts the previous night. This created an unintended competition of choosing the stronger portrayal. For me, the winner was Ms. Murphy. Each time she stepped on stage, she brought a greater sense of electricity to the choreography and the audience accorded her a rousing ovation at the end.

If you are in New York between May 27 and July 10, make a date to catch this timeless fairy tale and at least another program in ABT’s extensive dance stable.

PostHeaderIcon ABT: A Contemporary Classic

ABT - fancy free

Chicago is more a home for modern dance than classical ballet. The names of our most noted local companies stress that point: Hubbard Street Dance, River North Dance Company, Joel Hall Dancers. Yes, we can now boast of our illustrious Joffrey Ballet but it relocated here from New York in 1995.

This preference for modern dance is probably rooted in the nation’s more democratic, pioneering character while “The Ballet” took root in aristocratic Europe.  This town clearly prefers dance with an American pedigree mixed with some Broadway razzmatazz, exemplified by such 20th Century choreographers as Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp to Lou Conte, Bob Fosse and Merce Cunningham.

However, when American Ballet Theatre, one of the world’s great dance companies pays a visit to the Civic Opera House, attention must be paid. They are here through Sunday, April 18 for six performances of an updated staging of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” by its Artistic Director, Kevin McKenzie.

ABT is celebrating its 70th Anniversary this season as “America’s National Ballet Company”(so named by an act of Congress in 2006). That doesn’t mean the company consists of purely American talent. Bios of the company’s principal dancers note they hail from St. Petersburg, Madrid, Havana, Buenos Aires and other international cities as well as the U.S. of A.. The claim refers to its stated mission of presenting the best ballets of the past while also performing new works by outstanding contemporary choreographers.

I used to regularly attend ABT and George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet when I lived in New York more than 25 years ago. For Wednesday’s opening night performance, McKenzie chose to show off its stellar company of 85 dancers in an All-American program. I went, curious to see how predominantly foreign-born, classically-trained dancers executed the contrasting dance steps and style of Tharp, Taylor and Jerome Robbins.

When the curtain rose on Twyla Tharp’s “Brahms-Haydn Variations”, however, we were not in Kansas but some 19th Century Mittel-Europa city like Vienna.  The dancers wore traditional ballet costumes and the ballerinas danced on point. There were many lifts and duet partnering. The only idiosyncratic Tharp touch I could detect were long slides across the stage and one ballerina’s flip of her feet in a dash of exuberance.  Who knew Tharp had a classical period?

As I watched this smartly-executed, semi-enjoyable work commissioned by ABT and premiered in 2000, I longed to see flashes of Tharp’s signature style, as in “Push Comes to Shove” or “Nine Sinatra Songs” and on full display in her Broadway hits, “Movin’ On” and the current “Come Fly With Me”.

Perhaps ABT was reluctant to be too All-American and sought to reassure the tony opening night audience that they were in the right house.  As soon as the perky sounds of the Andrew Sisters opened “Company B” by Paul Taylor, all worries dissolved and I sat back to thoroughly enjoy the company’s catchy swing dance variations to a host of popular World War II songs—“Bei Mir Bist du Schon”, “Pennsylvania Polka”, “Oh, Johnny”, “Tico Tico” and their smash hit, “Bugle Boy of Company B”. The evocative duet by Simone Messmer and Grant Delong in “There Will Never Be Another You” was particularly moving while Craig Salstein’s male heart-throb in “Oh Johnny, Oh”, captured the braggadocio of a single guy in hot pursuit by seven frisky females to winning perfection.

The gingham shirts, red bandanas, hoop skirts and slacks relocated us back smack in the American heartland while the sailor costumes in Jerome Robbins’ classic “Fancy Free” sealed the deal.  The delightful “all-American” trio of Carlos Lopez, Sascha Radetsky and Daniil Simkin (hailing from Madrid, Santa Cruz, CA and Russia respectively) danced up a storm, executing Robbins’ hot-blooded boys meet girls escapade with aplomb and panache.  They moved the audience to its feet, generated lusty applause at the final curtain and left me exiting the Opera House thinking, “Yep, that’s real American”.

PostHeaderIcon Imagists 5, Cubs 0

wrigley fieldThe Cubs opened their 2010 season at Wrigley Field yesterday afternoon. But more than a half-century ago, 5 unknown Chicago artists, who would go on to international notoriety as members of the “Hairy Who” and the Chicago Imagist school, were, unbeknownst to one another at the time, all in the friendly confines on Opening Day, 1954.

Karl Wirsum was a grandstand vendor. Art Green was seated in a box seat on the third base line. It was Suellen Rocca’s first baseball game and Gladys Nilsson (Jim Nutt’s wife) was standing on the nearby El platform at Addison.

The score is lost to history but the one fact recorded for journalistic posterity involved Jim Nutt. Nutt was seated in the bleachers and caught a Hank Sauer home run ball. Twelve years later, these artists had their magic moment, bursting onto the local and later international art scene with the inaugural “Hairy Who” show (curated by Don Baum) at the Hyde Park Art Center, then at 5236 South Blackstone Avenue.  As for the Cubs, they are still waiting for their magic,World Series moment 56 years later.

PostHeaderIcon Modernism Rohe’s On But Driehaus Not On Board

Mies VanChicago’s architectural world turned out last week for two notable occasions.  First, members of the Mies van der Rohe Society gathered at IIT’s Crown Hall for a fun party to honor the famed 20th Century architect’s 124th birthday.  The highlight of the “Riddle Mies This?” event was a Trivia Contest pitting two teams of experts—Cigars vs. Martinis (two of Mies’ indispensable props)—to test who knew the master best.

The Cigar panel included IIT Architecture Dean, Donna Robertson and architect Ed Keegan while the Martini panel featured architecture critic Lee Bey and cultural critic Edward Lifson.  Mies’ grandson and noted architect, Dirk Lohan, along with  critic, Franz Schulze, acted as judges while WTTW producer and architecture buff, Geoffrey Baer, moderated the 30-minute quiz.  The Martini team won, though Cigars huffed and puffed about the score.

Amid the laughs, I learned 10 lesser-known facts about the German-born apostle of Modernism who designed 18 buildings on the IIT campus, who did not exactly utter the words “less is more” and who is Chicago’s unofficial patron saint of architecture.  (For those who can’t wait to find out or wish to cheat, skip to the end).

1)    Mies collected the paintings of which 20th Century artist?
2)    Where is Mies’ final resting place?
3)    What is another name for the Mies-designed Carr Memorial Chapel?
4)    What was the former name of Mies van der Rohe Way?
5)    What years did Mies head IIT’s College of Architecture?
6)    What do Mies and Martin Luther King have in common?
7)    What was Mies’ favorite television program?
8)    What brand cigar did Mies smoke?
9)    Which buildings are on the two U.S. postage stamps honoring Mies?
10)  What color and model car did Mies own?

Two days later, March 27th, Mies’ actual birth date, Modernism’s mortal foes gathered at Murphy Auditorium’s cathedral-like interior on E. Erie Street for the presentation of the Richard H. Driehaus Architecture Prize. It is given each year to an architect who follows classical principles of design and construction.

almagro_academiascullyThis year, architecture’s richest honor, greater even than the more prestigious Pritzker Prize, was awarded to Spanish architect, Rafael Manzano Martos while the Henry Hope Reed Award went to legendary Yale professor and architectural scholar, Vincent Scully.

The New Yorker magazine’s architecture critic, Paul Goldberger, said the Driehaus Prize calls attention to the “unholy alliance between quality and novelty” and that “the present is not as disconnected from the past as we might think.”

The prize’s focus is as much on traditional urbanism, for which Scully was chosen, as on traditional architecture.  It is administered by the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, one of the few schools to stress a more classical approach to the discipline.

Scully taught at Yale for 63 years until his retirement last year at the age of 89. Philip Johnson called him “the most influential architecture teacher ever” and the list of prominent architects he taught includes Johnson, Goldberger, Robert A.M. Stern (the current dean at Yale), Thomas Beeby, Cesar Pelli, Charles Gwathmey and James Polshek.  His early championing of the work of Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi led to their emergence as important architects.

Scully advocated the integration of places and buildings in relation to one another.  He believes that older buildings are special and whose destruction sabotages the conversation that architecture should have between the past and present.

An early modernist, who once said, “Modernism is in my bones”, Scully turned against that architectural philosophy when he observed the horrible effects of urban renewal during the 1960s, most especially with the demolition of New York City’s grand Pennsylvania Station.

It was a great week for architectural tributes and lasting memories.

Answers to Mies Quiz

1)    Paul Klee; 2) Graceland Cemetery; 3) The God Box; 4) Seneca Street; 5) 1938-58; 6) Martin Luther King Library in D.C. was designed by Mies; 7) “Gunsmoke”; 8) Monte Cristo (Cuban); 9) Crown Hall and 860/880 Lake Shore Drive; 10) A Yellow Oldsmobile with Red Interior (Mies couldn’t drive).