Tuesday, June 30, 2009

art beat in nyc

 Just to give a sense of the creative stimulation this city has to offer, here is what we’ve been up to this last month.

This amazing, amazing exhibition of paintings and prints from Picasso’s late life (spanning 1962–1972) was on show at a private art gallery, Gagosian, in downtown New York and entry was … FREE! This is what astonishes me about this city – you’re able to see and appreciate first-class art in the most amenable (and surprising) circumstances. The spaces in the gallery were enormous – giant white walls in an airy environment with sometimes just a couple of paintings per wall. The subjects of the works, most in vibrant brash colours, were ‘imaginary personages’ – musketeers, matadors, cavaliers, prostitutes, circus performers – painted in Picasso’s iconic Cubist style yet somehow more realistic, and therefore much more accessible, than some of his earlier work. What bowled me over, though, were his black-and-white sketches and drawings of mainly lovers, reclining, embracing, naked bodies entwined. As one of the NY critics commented, in his later life Picasso only got better and better.

American Ballet Theatre

Known for its tendency to stick to the classical style of ballet (as opposed to New York City Ballet, which focuses more on modern dance), American Ballet Theatre stages the perennial favourites – Giselle, Swan Lake and Carmen, for example. I was lucky enough to be invited to not one, but two ballets recently, Le Corsaire and La Sylphide. Staged at NYC’s performing arts hub, the Lincoln Center, only 30 blocks away from our apartment, the Metropolitan Opera House is the venue for American Ballet. And magnificent it is. The double-storey front façade is all glass window panes through which, to either side, two giant Marc Chagall paintings can be seen. But the main drama lies in the stunning crystal chandeliers. These variously sized starbursts (11 in the lobby, 21 in the auditorium!), affectionately called ‘sputniks’, use 49,000 Swarovski crystals threaded onto metal rods. The chandeliers also glide up into the theatre ceiling when the lights go down.
My luck was in, too, with the principal dancers. I first saw Georgia-born Nina Ananiashvili (a Prima Ballerina about to retire, while still at the top of her game), whose light, effortless dancing had the NY audience erupting spontaneously after each appearance. The next time, Moscow-born Natalia Osipova (a onetime Bolshoi Ballet member) danced the lead role. Her delicately weightless and fluid arms and her wispy-light steps had an appreciative audience baying for more at the curtain call.
So thrilling to be within arm’s length of performance art of this calibre!
[Photo of Nina Ananiashvili at her last performance. Erin Baiano, NY Times]

Antonio Gaudí

Ever since we did a brief trip to Barcelona, we’ve been fascinated by the trippy, fantastical architecture of this Catalan architect. His Surrealist buildings are like fairytale gingerbread houses, all sinuous curves and loops and swirls, with not a straight line or right angle in sight. At NY’s Paris Theatre we watched a movie shot by a Japanese director, Hiroshi Teshigahara, consisting simply of a camera panning the length and breadth of Gaudí’s architectural work, and accompanied only by haunting music – no dialogue. A ‘visual poem’ the promotional flier called it, and that it was, from a high, luminous blue-tiled wall to exquisitely decorated ceramic mosaics; and from candy-swirl chimneys to stained-glass windows that swung open ‘like the wings of a butterfly’.

‘Model as Muse’ – Metropolitan Museum

I was completely pulled in by this exhibition, a melding of photography, music, film, Vogue and Elle colour stills, and mannequins dressed in designer creations. From the classic black-and-white photos of the 1950s by Richard Avedon and Irving Penn to Steven Meisel and Annie Leibowitz, and finally today’s well-known Vogue photographers Mario Testino and Gilles Bensimon, the role and influence of photographic models in the media is beautifully and expertly traced. There were the angular poses of supremely elegant, wasp-waisted Fifties icons, Paco Rabanne disc mini-dresses and Pucci prints from the Sixties, mannequins wearing futuristic silver-metal sheaths, all sharp points and angles, from the Seventies. Sometimes snatches of rock music embodying a specific decade blared across the display. A video projected onto a giant section of wall showing grainy monochrome images of the Nineties’ Supermodels – think Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell – played out to a George Michael song. My favourite was a film excerpt of Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire, an impish Hepburn twirling coquettishly in layered petticoat skirts and chiffon scarves that fluttered behind her in the breeze.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Friday, June 19, 2009

update: hawk fledglings

Taking advantage of a very brief break in a week of rainy weather, I put on my running shoes and dashed outdoors to the Hudson River. I paused at the giant untidy nest of red-tailed hawk fledglings, only to see that two were practising to fly! One fluttered briefly up to a higher branch while another, much braver, stepped up to the edge of its nest, extended sizeable wings and glided smoothly, low over our heads (there were a few of us gathered), to another plane tree some distance away. In perfect view on a horizontal branch, the russet band of its tail, which gives the raptor its name, was clearly visible. It was followed by another sibling, who settled on a tree nearby. I can't get over how special it is to see these raptors on Manhattan!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

the rainbow nation

One topic I haven’t even mentioned yet, though it’s in my face every time I step out onto the streets, is New York’s cultural diversity. We so love to call South Africa a rainbow nation.
Think again. This is the rainbow nation. At a Thai restaurant the other evening, sitting to either side of us were people of Indian, Asian, African American and Mexican descent. A veritable melting pot of cultures.
In New York, Hispanics are the biggest ethnic group. They hail from the West Indies - Puerto Rico, Haiti, Cuba - and Mexico and South America. There are Hispanics working in the fruit and vegetable stores, the delis and in every restaurant – bringing water to your table, clearing away your plates. Spanish is spoken wherever you turn; subway signs and ads display the lingo. Twenty years ago, it was the Koreans who presided over the fresh food street markets … it all depends on the year and the political climate.

Then there are the Asians – from China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand. And noticeably in recent times, the Russians, together with others from Eastern Europe. At my gym, a tall, swan-like green-eyed dancer from the Ukraine presides over the Pilates classes. I almost signed up just to watch the graceful way she glides across the room.

I’ve not yet mentioned the Italians, Dutch, French and, of course, the Irish! The French, in particular, seem to be here in their droves. I can’t turn around in a deli or food market without hearing the rapid machine-gun fire of colloquially spoken French.

The reassuring part of all this cultural diversity is that there are so many shapes, sizes and hues on the streets, dressed in so many variations of fashionableness – or utter unfashionableness – that there’s simply no room for feeling that self-consciousness of being in unfamiliar territory. Americans are exquisitely uninhibited (witness the decibel levels at which they conduct personal conversations right in your space) and they’re so busy doing their thing, they don’t give a fig about the person next to them. So feel free … stand on your head in the subway train, droning Om in reverse posture. No one will bat an eyelid.

[Image: Andre Neethling]

Friday, June 12, 2009

new york surprises

Red-tailed hawks on the Hudson

Who’d have thought that at the fringe of a pincushion of skyscrapers we’d get to spy on … raptors? Earlier in the week I’d been alerted to a giant, scruffy, twiggy nest caught in the high brances of a beech tree in Riverside Park. Birdy nuts were craning their necks and aligning giant telephoto lenses skyward, so, curious, I stopped to investigate. There, their heads just visible as they scuffled about in their nest, were two fledgling Red-tailed hawks!!!

Vowing to return with my 8x40 binoculars, H and I did just that on Sunday. Of course we had to share the birds with all the weekend strollers and a handful of professional photographers and their hi-tech equipment, but we were enthralled. The babes were already discovering their wings, extending and flapping them in wonder at their own power – and what a wing span it was, despite such a tender age. Even more exciting … there, on a branch directly above us perched Mama, peering down at us through fierce golden eyes. Quite non-plussed by the sea of faces staring goggle-eyed up at her, she was nonetheless keeping a vigilant watch on her brood. Who would’ve thought – in New York City?! It was absolutely thrilling.

This is one of the surprising pleasures of NYC. From the glass eyrie of our 15th floor apartment, I watch Double-crested cormorants and Great egrets and maybe even Great blue herons flying over the brick and steel skyscrapers spread out before me. I relish it.
[Photo: New York Field Guide to Birds/National Geographic]

‘Thunder and lightning, very very frightening …’

I’ve always felt electrical thunderstorms belonged to Africa and the hothouse air of the Equator. I’ve since discovered they also belong in the Big City. The other night was a spectacular example. We were awoken by a flash so blinding I could make out the second hand on my wristwatch. It was followed by a series of cracks, crisp as gunshots, segueing into rolls of thunder that reverberated round the sky like Japanese taiko drums.
That was just the beginning. For an hour or so, the heavens were ripped and slashed by tongues of fire, accompanied by a resounding booming symphony. It must have looked mighty dramatic from our lounge, but we cowered beneath the bedcovers instead. You’d never believe we’re Africans…

To more complex issues … same sex marriage

This one perplexes me greatly. America being the ‘land of the fair and the free’, I always assumed it was also a country filled with free-thinkers. Not so. Conservatism is still waay entrenched in the American psyche. And it’s none more so evident than in the debate over same sex marriage. If you can believe it, to date there are only six states out of 52 who’ve approved legislation for same sex unions – and New York’s not one of them!
Neither is California, in spite of San Francisco’s sizeable gay population. Bar one state – Iowa – the balance of the open-minded six states are all neighbours, clustered together in the remote northeast corner of the US continent. I’m gobsmacked.

A story that resonates with this issue is the recent American Idols series, which has been clouded by some controversy. Before the finalist was announced, newspaper headlines here wondered aloud whether America was ready to vote in a ‘gay’ Idols winner. Huh? That’s a problem?
I write ‘gay’ in quotes because Adam Lambert – edgy with pitch-black dyed locks, jet nail-polish and eye-liner – had not, at the time, admitted to his sexual leanings.
It was bland, conservative, nice Kris Allen from Arkansas who took the Idols crown, to howls of a rigged vote on blogs, Twitter, Facebook and the like. All vehemently denied by the Idols organisers.
So . . . America wasn’t ready for a ‘gay’ Idol. . .

celebrity sightings

Bernadette Peters, with her untamed red corkscrew curls and tiny John Lennon spectacles, walking on the Upper West Side with two dogs on a lead. An actress, singer and prolific Broadway performer, most people in South Africa will know her from the TV show Ally McBeal.
[Photo: Boss Tweed]

Robert Joy, who plays Dr Sid Hammerback in CSI: New York, also walking his dog on the Upper West Side!
[Photo: Jean-Paul Aussenard/Wireimage.com]

Caroline Kennedy, who sat five rows in front of us at the Lincoln Center at a performance of La Sylphide staged by the American Ballet Theater.
[Photo: Martyna Borkowski]

Concert tickets booked for Steely Dan (who will play songs from their fantastic Gaucho album) and Chris Isaak. Yay!

NY Style flash

the ‘in’ barometer
* Pumps or ballet flats still very much in evidence, especially with very skinny jeans wrinkled above the ankle

* Gladiator sandals absolutely rife, in every style, colour and incarnation. So much so, I won’t be wearing any – far too conformist…

* Spring trenchcoats, from tan and grey to pink and pastels

* Newest, hottest item: round sunglasses as in John Lennon’s or Harry Potter’s spectacles; some come in tortoise-shell frames like those made famous by Ralph Lauren in his safari-style lifestyle ads

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Brooklyn Half Marathon - the gory story

So the day finally dawned… It was exciting enough catching two subway trains to Brooklyn at an ungodly early hour (everyone else on the train had just come off night shift and was nodding off to sleep) while eyeing out other lunatic runners on the platform in their race numbers and athletic gear. And we got to walk (and run) through Prospect Park, which is meant to rival, if not better, Central Park. But it must have been partly the chilli pasta of the night before (I know, I’m a seasoned runner and I still haven’t learnt) and partly the sickly sweet, compressed-fruit energy bar I ate for breakfast that did it. I spent more time in those dastardly porta-potties (that’s what they call ‘silver bullets’ at this end of the world) than I did on the road. Well, almost.

It was the longest 13.1 miles (21km) I’ve ever run. The leafy foliage and boat lakes and Brooklyn’s fancy brownstone row-house facades didn’t quite do the trick of distracting me from my pain. I’ve decided that porta-potties, in all their gory, smelly, exposed splendour, have been given to us to remind us of our ape origins. Sooo effectively they reduce us to base animal instincts and behaviour, to the basest of human functions – undeniable, necessary, and impossible to ignore, whatever the conditions. The social veneers we affect to get us through life are cruelly stripped away when we’re faced with the ‘potty’. Simply put, I had a bad race.

The Brooklyn Half’s crowning glory is a wooden boardwalk that runs alongside a beach, washed by the Atlantic, to Coney Island, famous for its Ferris wheel and bright funfair paraphernalia. That boardwalk just wouldn’t end, the giant red wheel always felt just out of reach. I dragged my sorry body in at 2hrs and 20-something minutes.
Not my best.

But the memory is short, and the pain recedes. The very next weekend, for my sins, I was persuaded to run a 10km Ladies Race in Central Park! (Madness, yes.) Painful memories were disguised as I joined five boisterous, fun-loving New York women to form “Team Insanity”.
“Running is a mental sport and we are all Insane!” was the slogan on the back of our Sunkist-orange tank-tops, printed specially by one of the ladies for the race. And that set the tone for the day. Some 4500 excited, chattering women pitched up, the day was clear (very hot!) and we finished at Sheep’s Meadow, with the New York skyline painted across the horizon. My time? An hour and a couple of minutes, which felt decidedly better than the week before…