Sunday, April 25, 2010

spring come and gone in one fell swoop

The seasons are changing as fast as a cat’s paw swatting a butterfly.

There is still an imprint on my memory of the Hudson all iced-up. In my mind's eye I see the frozen waters along the banks, unable to hold their tension against the forces of the river’s current, yielding and buckling into the texture of crushed ice. And here and there, frozen slabs would so pliably contour the shape of the underlying rocks they reminded me of the icing on a Christmas cake. Elsewhere, sheared ice sheets would teeter precariously, taunting the pull of gravity.

And then, suddenly, spring wafted in on weightless feet. Before we were even aware of it, New York’s urban streets were lined with the pretty white blossoms of Callery pear. Richly hued tulips and daffodils the colour of farm butter were amassed on traffic islands and pockets of soil in the concrete sidewalks running past apartment buildings. Leafless magnolia trees were jammed with their gorgeous creamy lilac blooms.

Next came crab apple and cherry blossom. I’ve walked along paths so tightly planted with trees trailing branches positively suffocating under the weight of their flowers that I imagined myself transported to a spring-blossom wedding. A snowstorm of delicate, weightless petals twirled about me, collecting in thick drifts along the paths like confetti. I stepped across a carpet of fragile fallen petals. With lyrical names like Kwanzan and Yoshino, some blossoms fold themselves tightly into tiny cabbage roses, others unfurl into single blooms, or crowd together in bunches. They segue from white to palest pink to deep crimson. One fascinating tree, its beauty belied by the prosaic name ‘Redbud’, produces microscopic flowers in dense colonies all along the trunk and branches.

But spring is as evanescent as wisps of mist dissolving in the sun. The wind arrived, there were a few days of rain, and now the achingly beautiful blossoms carpet the earth instead of the branches like a late-spring drift of snow.

And before we’ve realised it, summer will be upon us with its suffocating heat and fierce humidity.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

a comedy of manners

Well, I know that to most South Africans, doormen don’t feature too high on the scale of Matters of Importance. But here in New York City – and particularly in Manhattan, where most of the population lives in a residential building – doormen, porters and janitors number 30,000.

So, naturally, most of us were going to be affected by the threat of a doorman strike, starting today, after their existing contract expired – and negotiations for a new one were having some hiccups with the unions. Doormen do a lot for us. They greet us with bright, happy smiles in the morning, and the rest of the day. They open doors, carry heavy parcels, sign for personal deliveries and dry cleaning, usher the Chinese takeout guy to our floor, lend us a spare key when we lock ourselves out.

Luckily for us, the strike didn’t happen, although we now have a ginormous waste tip outside our apartment entrance (in case, god forbid, we might have to dispose of our garbage bags ourselves). What did come out of the hysterical run-up to the strike was some wonderful ironic humour. Because . . . NYC is not particularly known for its courtesy and manners (although, as I’ve said before, there’s been a dramatic change in the air for some years now). But the rough edge and raspiness lingers still.

So I really chuckled at the piece in the New York Times by Wendell Jamieson on “How to Open Doors” :

“While it may seem intimidating to the uninitiated, opening a door is actually a simple act. It can be accomplished safely with advance planning and practice. We are talking here about doors with knobs – anyone who lives in a building with swinging or revolving doors is most likely already proficient in their operation. A door with a knob is a bit more complicated…”

And so we get a set of step-by-step instructions on how to turn the knob, and even how to tackle it while balancing a package or, worse yet, pushing a stroller (“pivot, swing the stroller in a 180-degree arc – this may cause your child to become temporarily disorented”).

So out of the potential crisis comes the need for us all to be a teeny bit more courteous to one another. And even though the strike didn’t happen, perhaps a revival of politeness could stay.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

spirit of the big apple

It's time to have some fun. . . Since I'm talking so much about Broadway, musicals, the arts . . . the time has come, once more, to show off my friend Andre's sharp eye for a great picture. Weekends, he whizzes around Manhattan on his bicycle, snapping Kodak moments with his pocket-size digital. But the best is the witty repertoire that accompanies his images. Here he spent some time on Broadway and Times Square.

"Ditch Washington, Mr President . . . join Calvin Klein!" was one of his quips.

Then there was: "Call 1-800-Dentist".

Friday, April 9, 2010

critics and their opinions

Today’s critics, a remnant of over-entitled old-media gray-beards, are fighting a rear-guard action against the democratic forces of the Internet, clinging to threadbare cultural authority in the face of their own obsolescence.

–– A.O. Scott (movie critic)

No sooner had I posted my piece on the implacability of NY critics, stories were appearing in the newspapers on the fading role of film and theatre reviewers. I had nothing to do with it, of course. But the articles gave me some relevant quotable quotes.

The point is, the Internet, social networks, blogging and a gazillion people who all have their own opinion and as many cyber outlets to ensure those opinions are heard are making erudite criticism obsolete. (As one newspaper report said, now there is Rotten Tomatoes … a website dedicated to movies that enables everyone to be a critic.) Cue the end of TV movie-critiqueing as we know it. At the Movies, made famous by the ‘up’ or ‘down’ thumbs (too reductive, many said) of duo Siskel and Ebert, will be a dinosaur after August this year.

But my interest was piqued when a Broadway show I’d booked to see – using Frank Sinatra’s voice and based on the songs he made so famous – had one NY critic loving it, another loathing it. (‘That’s Life’ quipped The New York Times.)

Good one.

Here was my chance to test their critical powers against my own (see the Blog post below). But in the meanwhile, I give you dance critic Alastair Macaulay’s view on the art of critiqueing:

Our first task is not to determine what big-theater audiences will like, but what we think is good and why. We’re critics because we have criteria and we use them … Sometimes we’re going to object strongly to shows that we can see are very popular indeed; sometimes we’re going to enthuse passionately about productions that leave most people cold.

Exactly my earlier point – that New York’s critics produce a daunting minefield of opinionated views to tiptoe gingerly through.

frank sinatra & twyla tharp

So …

I took myself off to see a new Twyla Tharp-Frank Sinatra dance show in the city – not because I’m any great fan of the velvet-smooth crooner or even that I’m familiar with Twyla Tharp’s dance moves, but simply for the fact that, together, they embody the heart and spirit of New York. And, as I said in the post above, there were two wildly divergent views by NY critics that I wanted to test. The most appealing part was that Frank Sinatra’s vocals were used, with live backing from a 19-piece band. And Tharp’s reputation in the city is legendary, having choreographed for her own and multiple dance companies (among them American Ballet Theatre and NY City Ballet) in modern dance, ballet and on Broadway.

Well, let’s just say that I liked “Come Fly Away” less than I expected. Staged around a string of romantic tête-à-têtes in a nightclub, the first half, in particular, was full of the razzle-dazzle that you’d expect from a Broadway dance spectacular. But I have to grudgingly admit that I had to agree with one of the critics that the pace was simply too frenzied and frenetic. The dancers throw themselves across the floor, spinning cartwheels, sliding through their partner’s legs and twirling wildly in their arms.
It’s all a little breathless.

A nice touch, though, is the screen backdrop of a star-spangled night sky with, etched onto it in pinpricks of light, the profile of Sinatra, arms crossed, in his Trilby hat.

My personal criticism (uh-oh … here we go…) is the lack of warmth and passion in Sinatra’s voice. The producers have chosen the slickest, smoothest, studio-produced vocals they can find and it’s all just too glossy and polished to engage you emotionally. Which is a pity. Because the band is fantastic, particularly the brass section; and when a powerful, smoky-voiced female jazz singer joins in (sometimes uniting with Sinatra’s vocals), she injects some of that feeling that’s missing. My favourite piece, “That’s Life”, has the dancers grappling and sparring; twisting, writhing and sulking in the fury of spitefulness, anger, rejection. Now, here is raw emotion for the first time.

The second half is much nicer; the dancers have time to ease into the music, they are sinuous, more controlled, there is more of an emotional connection.

And when the band segues into Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”, well, as far as I’m concerned, they could have played forever.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

naked cowboy in times square

Oh me, oh my . . . I've heard of him and read about him but never physically seen him.

Well, today I did.

Now that the NY Transport Authority has permanently closed parts of Broadway, around Times Square, and turned them into pedestrianised zones replete with cafe tables and chairs - GOOD MOVE, Big Apple! - the area was crammed with summer tourists. (Hey, peeps, hold off, Spring has hardly unfurled its pretty petals yet!)

And why was I perplexed at the bunched up crowd filling one of the pedestrianised spaces? Well, it was the Naked Cowboy, of course! Flicking his long, scraggly blond locks, strumming his guitar (badly) and posing endlessly for gasping, giggling, iPhone-toting girls.

So I thought I'd make your day and share a couple with you.

This guy is an institution. He even has his own website with hundreds of photos. And with one click you can "Vote for Naked Cowboy as Mayor".

He claims to have appeared in Times Square every single day for over 10 years. And besides being a "musician", it seems that his accomplishments include modelling, body-building (well, that I believe), and writing. So, intrigued, I visited his website to check out his pen skills.

Exactly like the spirit of a run-on sentence, he returned day after day completing 1295 days today – October 20th, 2004 – according to the code of which ridiculous human conjuncture defines the passage of time. I would submit that today was the first never ceasing day of eternal prosperity and sensory rich magical elegance. A day that has existed forever, emanates as powerful as ever now, and only yearns to intensify. No matter what day you come to Times Square in the History of History, you will feel me burning within your soul!

Say what?

Experience for yourself: