A recent picture: Katy goes cubistic

Katy goes cubistic, 2/01/15

If you weren’t one of the 118 million people who watched the halftime show of this year’s Super Bowl game, you may need to be told that this is Katy Perry. Then again, you may not. The image is also on Flickr, with an explanatory caption.


The Turing situation

Alan Turing, just before World War II.

Alan Turing, just before World War II.

Alan Turing, a gay mathematician and computer pioneer who died in 1954, has been emerging from the shadows for some time now. There are many reasons for this. After decades of silence, the official secrecy imposed by Allied governments on his codebreaking work during World War II began to be lifted in the 1970s. His sexual orientation, almost unmentionable in his time, is now accepted as a matter of course. Technologists nowadays command public attention, even adulation. Vanity Fair’s annual New Establishment list routinely places tech-industry types in the company of media moguls and entertainment-industry stars; Steve Jobs’s demise occasioned an outpouring of public grief perhaps unmatched since the deaths of Princess Diana and John Lennon. Scientific and technical whizzes increasingly share in Western culture’s long-term fascination with geniuses. This is largely a residue of Romanticism, which glamorized rebellious creative titans such as Beethoven and Byron, but sometimes it shows, also or instead, our recognition of semi-mythic personages who fit the pattern of Philoctetes—outsiders who appear to us as both blessed and damaged, who are accepted by society because they’re needed but who remain marked as different, other. As one of those who suffered for his difference, Turing benefits as well from our ongoing efforts to rediscover and rehabilitate past victims of discrimination. He even serves the culture industry’s endless need for new subjects—that is, new products.

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Forest for the trees: Looking at a new dance film

A rehearsal moment from Ballet 422. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

A rehearsal moment from Ballet 422. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Creativity is a mystery. As if trying to discover where a work of art comes from, the dance documentary Ballet 422 (first shown at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, now in limited release) looks into countless details—from the sewing of a single pointe shoe to shots of more than a dozen dancers working in a studio—but leaves us with something of an enigma.

In 2012, Justin Peck, an emerging choreographer who was also a corps dancer with New York City Ballet (he has since been promoted to soloist), was commissioned to create a work for the company’s Winter 2013 season. In Ballet 422 (so called because the piece will become NYCB’s 422nd new dance), filmmaker Jody Lee Lipes chronicles the process of its making, in a sequence of abbreviated moments. Peck himself is almost ubiquitous in this. We see Peck alone in a studio, developing steps to the music while recording himself with a smartphone; Peck and an assistant in numerous studio sessions, working with his leading dancers; Peck talking over possibilities for the women’s shoes with a costume person; Peck in various chats with his rehearsal pianist; Peck and the lighting director working out cues in the theater; Peck at home reviewing rehearsal video; and, now and then, Peck upholding his other job, that of rehearsing and performing existing dances for the company. But we see other contributors as well: the lighting man calling out instructions to an unseen crew member; a shot of the orchestra conductor running the players through a section of music (which I’m pretty sure was a Tchaikovsky piece that’s unrelated to anything else in the film); glimpses of fabric being dyed and cut for costumes, and various momentary discussions of their fit and effect; and dancers caught in a variety of moments.

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On discovering Max Richter

Max Richter in a 2007 performance, by Georg Schroll, from Flickr (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Max Richter in a 2007 performance, by Georg Schroll, from Flickr (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Sometimes there are advantages to not knowing where you’re going. One night in the naughts, I told the website last.fm that I enjoyed the music of John Adams and waited. The site is one of those that takes something you favor and tries to find something else like it; it’s what Amazon does with books, and what Netflix does with movies (leading to imitative ridicule in certain quarters). Although in 5 or 10 years this challenge might become yet another new AI test to supplant Alan Turing’s, none of these systems can yet match a reasonably experienced employee at a bookshop, music store, or video-rental outlet, or for that matter a knowledgeable friend, who can discuss what you liked and why you liked it before proposing something. Netflix, for instance, knows that I liked The X-Files as well as The House of Mirth but has yet to figure out that I admire Gillian Anderson as an actress; though I can easily search the site for her work, it never mentioned Season One of The Fall to me, and it’s probably pushing me to watch the second season only because I liked the first.

Somehow, software has done a little better when it comes to music, at least among the pop varieties, and this was already true 10 years ago. So I wondered what last.fm would understand of John Adams’s work. Would it seize on his music-theater piece I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, connect that with Philip Glass’s music-theater works, and start playing, say, The Photographer? Would it try to exploit the Schoenberg connection in Harmonielehre? Neither of those tactics would’ve been what I wanted, though they would’ve shown glimmers of knowledge, but last.fm seemed a little more lost than that. It started playing tracks that didn’t make much sense but didn’t seem genuinely random—like the way your thoughts wander as you drift off at night, lacking purpose while still following some kind of logic. I left it running but stopped paying close attention for a while.

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“Ballet 422,” or the Hard Work of Art

The work of writers is notoriously hard to see from the outside. Leaving aside the eternal (but rather adolescent) question of where ideas come from, creative work in show business is easier to depict. A new documentary film called Ballet 422 follows the process for a work that Justin Peck choreographed for New York City Ballet, which was unveiled early last year. Judging from review excerpts, film critics have praised it, but that may leave one wondering how ballet-savvy viewers see it. Here’s how dance writer Marina Harss assessed Ballet 422 after a festival screening. (The film is now playing in New York City. For more on its release schedule, see the distributor’s page.)

Dancing Around

BALLET422_PRESS_01Having just returned from a screening of Ballet 422 at the Tribeca Film Festival I can say that it is one of the finest dance films I’ve seen, far surpassing the director Jody Lee Lipes’ previous foray into the genre, New York Export: Opus Jazz. Heretical as it may sound, I found it better than Frederick Wiseman’s documentary La Danse, the film it most closely resembles, partly because much of the choreography in that documentary was so dire. (At almost three hours, it was also excessively long.) Like Wiseman, Lipes doesn’t identify the characters, my one complaint. But he does well to focus his film on a single subject, the creation of a ballet, from start to finish. It’s a nailbiter.

The ballet is Justin Peck’s Paz de la Jolla, made for New York City Ballet last winter. (It was the company’s 422nd work, hence the…

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Briefly noted: A new play about Oppie

The idea of a play dealing with J. Robert Oppenheimer, about which I speculated briefly in this recent post, turns out to have occurred to others, as I learned yesterday evening from Mel Cooper’s report on the Don’t Miss It blog (to which I formerly contributed). Other reviews of the Royal Shakespeare Company production must be out there or on the way; I haven’t had time to check. In the light of this play and Sir Tom Stoppard’s new work (which considers the problem of consciousness), a broad question comes to mind: Why do historical, biographical, political, and scientific dramas seem beyond the reach of most American playwrights?

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What a Blast!: Optimizing Oppenheimer
(Stratford: It’s not just about Shakespeare…)

The newly commissioned play, Oppenheimer, by Tom Morton-Smith is a total triumph for the Royal Shakespeare Company in every way. It introduces an exceptionally talented new playwright, who has risen to the demands of his commission and the requirement to use a large ensemble company brilliantly; a strong new director and his team; and much acting talent that one will want to follow. Every element meshes beautifully to make a truly gripping, dramatic, thought-provoking and thrilling event.

morton-smithTo begin with, Morton-Smith has given the production the strongest possible foundation in a script that’s compellingly intelligent, beautifully constructed, dramatically articulate and deeply theatrical. He’s made vivid and real the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the whole team of extraordinary geniuses (and their wives, lovers and military keepers) involved in the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb…

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Recent picture: a view from One World Trade Center

In one of those essays he called “mythologiques, Roland Barthes remarked of the Eiffel Tower that it’s both an object to be seen and a place from which to see. That struck me when I read it as incontestable, yet somehow surprising, far from obvious. Taken in its entirety, his essay imparts a distinction to the Eiffel Tower that remains unsurpassed. The Burj Khalifa, for example, undoubtedly dominates its landscape, yet hardly anyone, upon hearing its name, will immediately think of its image, much less the city in which it stands. But the dual quality of landmark and viewpoint that Barthes found in the Eiffel Tower also inheres in a number of other structures (which is obvious), among them the building in Lower Manhattan officially called One World Trade Center.

I recently began working in 1WTC, as a freelancer for Vanity Fair magazine, and like many of my Condé Nast colleagues I’ve been acknowledging its value as a vantage point by taking pictures through the windows. VF’s previous quarters, on the 22nd floor of a building in Times Square, originally offered rather impressive views, but over time these were mostly cut off as other skyscrapers rose around ours: the Ernst and Young building at 5 Times Square, for instance, and the Bank of America Tower, which rather spoiled the privileged view out the windows of the editors’ row. We’re now higher up, on the 41st floor, and we have fewer obstacles, and everything we can see from there is, for now, fresh. Whereas I often forgot at 4 Times Square that the Empire State Building was visible—though mostly from offices that weren’t normally accessible, such as those of editor-in-chief Graydon Carter—I can now see it out the window behind my desk, and I often look its way, imaginatively hoping to see King Kong clambering up its side or a dirigible mooring at the top.

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