Thursday, September 30, 2010

Miners and Principals Impress a Cynical Soul

A scene from "Why I am not where you are," above, one of three ballets in New York City Ballet's new "See the Music" series. It is on a program with "Estancia" and "Luce Nascosta," below. Photos by Paul Kolnik.

Head’s Up: Please welcome another contributor to the fold. The multi-talented Tamara Beck will occasionally offer comments on ballet, theater and concerts.


NEW YORKERS lead a tough life: In one weekend, I saw a Doo wop show and Sheryl Crow in concert. I also made time to take in a Broadway play and a ballet.

I arrived at the Manhattan Theatre Club for a Saturday matinee performance of “The Pitmen Painters” with low expectations. I thought it would be rather lame.

Direct from a sold-out and well-received run at London’s National Theatre, this production from Tony award winner Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) concerns the real-life pitmen of the title. They are coal miners who take an art appreciation course and become renowned folk artists – The Ashington Group after the mining area from whence they hailed.

Christopher Connel, Michael Hodgson, Ian Kelly, Brian Lonsdale, Deka Walmsley and David Whitaker portray the men and their instructor. Lisa McGrillis appears as an artist's model and shocks the men by taking off her clothes to pose for them. Phillippa Wilson plays a rich art lover who offers one of the artists, Oliver Kilbourn, a stipend to spend his days painting. "No" is his answer. He is a pitmen.

The staging is simple and chairs are moved around to depict the hall where they meet, the galleries where they exhibit. Slides projected on a screen mid-stage show first the works of Titian and Michelangelo, then the works of each of the men.

The play also addresses what it means to be creative and anchored in your real life. The painters know who they are and develop a vocabulary of art and creativity that matches that of their more educated teachers and mentors. “The Pitmen Painters” has lots of meat and potatoes to it and, plenty of heart.

Meanwhile, New York City Ballet makes its debut at Lincoln Center this season. Also new is the seemingly annoying series, "See the Music," which offers glimpses of the ballet’s musical repertory and 62-piece orchestra. Initially, it felt a little like going to school – but not in a good way. The series continues in repertory through June 2011. The next one is 20 Jan. In the end, though, it proved very educational. (See we are always jumping to conclusions.) Fayçal Karoui, NYCB’s charming music director, explained the movements in great detail, contributing to my understanding of the three ballets on the program I saw.

“Why am I not where you are" was Benjamin Millepied's premiere last season. I was indifferent to it then. BM, an NYCB principal dancer and choreographer, has created a number of dances over the years. Although I still find it a little creepy – there is a mild stalkerish quality to the dance although it is more about visibility versus invisibility – I must report that it is brilliant. Dancers are in the same space but are unseen unless they are wearing brightly colored outfits. Once I "saw the music" as explained by FK before the curtain rose, it enhanced the experience of this distinguished piece. Suddenly, it had elements of familiar ballroom dances and each encounter was part of those dances. The set design by architect Santiago Calatrava added to the poignancy of this work, too. The structure for “Why am I not …” served as a platform for the dancers to "hide" from each other, to disappear and to be in another space, but behind each other.

The second of the three dances is Christopher Wheeldon's exciting “Estancia.” The story is based on a poem about a city slicker who falls in love with a country girl, loses her when he is unable to hold onto the wild horse she has captured and wins her back when he tames the wild horse. It is both realistic and fantastic. What could possibly be uninteresting about a dance with wild horses? Loved it in it premiere last season; adore it still.

I dismissed the final piece of the afternoon, too, as unimpressive. How wrong I was! Mauro Bigonzetti's “Luce Nascosta” (“Unseen Light”) has a fierce verve and terrific, complicated energy. Bodies move in a tangle; there is noise and silence; the stage is dark and light. Star turns for all the ballerinas whose pointe work made me gasp. Bruno Moretti's score is dazzling and enchanting! It is romantic and energetic – modern and classic – at the same time, with grand sweeps of sound to match the grand sweeps of movement and mood on the stage.

Visit for tickeets and more information about “The Pitman Painters”; visit for tickets and information about the New York City Ballet season, including “See the Music.”

Tamara Beck is President, Clean Lists Associates, Inc, an association management firm. And an avid theater-goer.

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