Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Alexander Vertinsky

Shanghai and the exile route of an White Russian...

Shanghai and its port area in the 1920's and the port of Vladivostok at the time of the White Russian débacle

This blogger of yours was fed in his adolescence by high quality Belgian and French comics (“Bande Déssinée” or BD). It turned into an addiction I cannot kick. A couple of years ago I was staying with a future Secretary of Defence during a stop-over in Paris, flying from Moscow to Lisbon. In the guest room I found myself surrounded by BD “albums” and I spent half the night indulging my habit. The five albums of the “Nuit Blanche” series, about the fate of a White Army cavalry officer after leaving Russia were fascinating. Paris, Odessa, Vladivostok, Shanghai, all the romantic and/or exotic places of White-Russianness were invited to the graphic novel. Only very recently I have managed to acquire, through google-research and Amazon-help, the entire series. “Les spectres du tsar”, “Le rossignol de Koursk”, “Agafia”, “Vladivostok” and “Shangaï”, all by Yann (script), Olivier Neuray (drawings) and Marianne Garnier (colouring).

An added bonus, when I compare notes with my recollection of that half-night in Paris, is that I had totally missed then the appearance of Alexander Vertinsky as a character in the “Vladivostok” album. Now, Vertinsky is a most fascinating Russian artist who has a extremely colourful – and dramatic – biography. He was already an outstanding lyrics-writer and singer at the time of the Revolution (a bit like George Brassens or Tom Waits, if the Right Honourable Reader understands what I mean). He fled the Red swarming, singing first in Vladivostok, later spending many years in Shanghai. He returned in 1943 to Russia where he was able to give public concerts again, although none of his verses or songs were allowed to be published or recorded in the Soviet Union. Cocaine consumption loomed large in his early career and no biography is completed without a mention to his sister’s sad OD-eing on coke in the 20s.

The depiction of Vertinsky singing in a cabaret of Vladivostok, in the days just before Bolchevik take-over..

In Shanghai he met and married a deliciously young Russian émigrée, even less than half his age. In due time she would become the mother of the author of the lyrics of the Russian national anthem (both pre and post 1991 versions!) and the grandmother of Andrei Konchalovski and Nikita Mikhalkov, the two DNA-sharing giants of Soviet/Russian cinema. And, if I may add, the great-grandmother of my dear friend Stepan, a Muscovite entrepreneur who opened a few years ago a very successful Shanghai-themed restaurant. Called, The Right Honourable Reader is absolutely right, “Vertinski” (please go to www.vertinsky.com for further details on this excellent spot ).

The great-grandson of Vertinsky had the excellent idea of selling hip-hop and lounge remixes of Vertinsky’s songs in that venue, one of my most cherished CDs.

The last James Ivory’s film, “The White Countess”,
which takes part precisely in Shanghai at the time of its huge non-volunteer White Russian colony, has also cabaret scenes with, who else?, Vertinsky performing.

I hope I have managed to wet the appetite of the Right Honourable Reader to this amazing Russian personality. Get on with Google-research then. I shouldn’t help that much but try also YouTube, under the tag ‘Vertinsky’.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Luis Miguel Dominguin

"Sol y Sombra": Eros-Apollo and Thanatos-Dionysius...

In the world of "Tauromachia", that is, the world of Toreros and bullfighting, the expression "Sun and Shade" means those sectors in the bull-ring where the participant can expect both things during one "Corrida". The most expensive tickets are the "shade" ones (in "Las Ventas" wearing a tie used to be almost obligatory for "Sombra" places). The cheapest are the "Sol" places where one can be scorched by an un-compassionate Sun. In between, the Right Honourable Reader has guessed it right, lies the middle-class world of the "Sol y Sombra". A bit like the chiaroscuro of the Rissorgimiento painters, the term "sol y sombra" with its ying-yang connotations is a very suitable metaphor for simultaneous antithetical forces. Apollo and Dionysius, Eros and Thanatos, you name it.

A good name and a good interior design theme for a bar where the sunny enjoyment of youth goes hand in hand with the louche, shady, undercurrents of night life. "Sol Y Sombra", this Friday's trendy spot in the Barrio de Las Letras.

Anton "Chejov"

Sasha should be pronounced "Sasha"...

"Encuentros com Chéjóv", a double-bill program with the theatrical adaptation of the texts "Casa con buhardilla" and "La Novia", at the Chekov Chamber Theatre in Madrid was a flop of heroical proportions.

A evening-out to meet dear old Anton Pavlovitch is always a treat-in-waiting… as long as any director, company or group of actors stick to the fundamentals of playing Chekhov, which is to achieve totally realistic, Stanislavski-era, credible acting. Chekhov wrote plays and wrote prose texts that he had chosen not to be plays for some reason. To adapt his short-stories for the theatre is therefore always tricky. In the Soviet Union/Russia it was done with extreme care and I personally witnessed a fine successful example in Moscow with “The Lady with a Lapdog”, one of the all-time favourite “shorts” in his oeuvre. But those texts have to be turned both into theatre and into “Chekhovian” theatre, otherwise it just falls flat, like a concert version of an opera, with no dramaturgy.

Angel Gutierrez, the director of these “Encuentros con Chéjóv”, is someone, I am told, who has probably done more to bring Chekhov to Madrid and to the Spanish audiences than any other Spaniard. His good intentions are not in doubt. Maybe it works to Spanish-Only-speaking audiences but, man! , it has not worked for me… Nor to Russkaya for obvious reasons. First advice to Spanish speaking actors doing Chekhov: get a voice coach and train very hard. I am sorry to say this but if you can’t pronounce “Sasha” , and your very best is “ssassa” you should seriously consider a different play-writer. If you can’t do better than “andrei andreii” when you’re supposed to say “andrei andrei~ivitch” (or even “andrei andrei-itch”, which would be largely acceptable) I’m afraid you have to stay clear of the Russians. Or else change the names of the characters. Ivan Timofeyitch to Chema Gomez or Sasha to Paco, for instance.

In fact the actors, with an embarrassing Russian actress among them, for Goodness sake!, were all acting in pre-Stanislavskian mode. It reminded me the TV theatre in my own country when I was a child. Over-acting, over-posturing, over-here and over-there. That same actress, which I will not name out of humanitarian concern, was having a bad trip or something. She had the cheek to return eight times (eight!) for applause at the end of the play, as if we were attending “Le Spectre de la Rose” with Nureyev in his prime time. I’m no “luvvie” and I don’t move in theatre circles so I can afford to be direct and painfully truthful. This theatrical evening was rubbish and a disservice to the cause of defending the standards of Chekhov’s theatre.

The little chamber theatre was deliciously evocative of Moscow, though. A XIX century dusty niceness that half-redeemed the kitsch factor:

When Russkaya and this blogger of yours were actively engaged in the debriefing exercise, in front of a credible, no frills, solomillo, a thing or two came about as having justified the trip to the theatre at Calle San Cosme y San Damian.

The sense that something was imminent that would wipe out the leisurely life style of the serf-exploiting classes was more crudely expressed in “The Bride” that in many of the famous Chekhov plays. In fact, we agreed, at the time of the Crema de Leche (the local ersatz for “Crème Brulée”), that Anton Pavlovitch did more than his share for the advent of the Revolution. As the true humanist that he was he would never have endorsed the excesses of the revolutionary apocalypse, but he paved the way alright for the general feeling that a moderate way out for Russia was doomed.

Chekhov as a “compagnon de route” of Chernichevsky? Well, thank you, Angel Gutierrez, for the insight.

Helmut Newton

At "Sol Y Sombra" a young photographic talent. Helas! she might be destined to be a future paparazzi feeding the ever more greedy prensa de corazon.

Marius Petipa

The Ressurection of the Swan....

"The Swan Lake" by the National Ballet Company (Lisbon) at the Teatro de Madrid this week.

The “Swan Lake” felt like “Le Temps Retrouvé” for me… Last time I was into classical ballet must have been two decades ago. Two Royal Ballet performances in more recent times were the exceptions that just underline the rule. (One, in London, was a last minute empty seat opportunity; and the other, in Moscow, was more a chance to boast about having been in the dressing rooms of the Bolshoi, courtesy the Duchess of Parma, or was it the Queen of Ruritania?) . I like modern dance and I have not much free time left for indulging the classical repertoire. How many Giselles, Swan Lakes, Bayadères can one swallow during one’s life? Is it not a question that at some point you hear yourself whispering “Been there, Done that”?

Think for a moment in Morris, or Bausch, or Bailey, isn’t that more exciting and interesting? The uncountable boutique dancing companies of modern dance are a much more appealing reality, as far as I’m concerned.

But it was not always like that, once upon a time. The first love interest of this blogger of yours was a classical ballerina, you see? Near anorectic-like slim, wide green eyes and the brains of a researcher in Immunogenetics, Lilith tried to pursue simultaneously two professional challenges. Ballet and Medicine. A PhD now, at some point of these post-adolescent youthful times she might have rather been a Prima Ballerina, but destiny chose otherwise. For those brief dilemma years I had an almost insider’s view of the Ballet scene in Lisbon. Felt like being in the maternity ward, in the building at least, when this “Companhia Nacional de Bailado”, CNB, was born.

CNB is visiting Madrid with a “Swan Lake” that pays justice to the continuing tradition of classical ballet in my hometown. (Curiously enough there’s no equivalent to the CNB in Spain). The art direction and the clothes were refreshingly unstuffy, the average level of dancing seemed to me highly commendable and the very first roles were superbly performed. Ana Lacerda has arms as long as Cyd Charisse’s legs and her Odette has an incredible, almost street-wise, sex-appeal. She doesn’t die in this version and that has robbed one from a moment one looks forward to. (After the performance, I congratulated Ana Lacerda but, apologizing, I told her I truly regretted that she didn’t die. )

Ana Lacerda at top form...

Prince Sigfried, on loan from the Royal Ballet, was Carlos Acosta who has an athleticism and all-round technique up there with the very best in today’s Barishnikov-free ballet world. I particularly liked Filipa Castro dancing the flamenco-like bits in Petipa choreography with a stilized trajo de luces, to the evident delight of the madrileño audience.

And that brings me to Marius Petipa, the foremost choreographer of the Imperial Ballet of St Petersburg whose colourful biography well deserves some space in this blog. In fact, Marseilles-born Petipa actually lived in Spain for four years working as a dancer (like his brother and their father before their time) and studying Spanish (flamenco) dance. He both choreographed and danced at the time flamenco-inspired pieces with titles like “La Perle de Seville” or “La Fleur de Grenade”. He left hastily Madrid upon being challenged to a duel by the Marquis of Chateaubriand, a diplomat at the French Embassy, who suspected, rightly, that his wife was having a pas-de-deux “de trop” with Marius.

Petipa went to Petersburg in 1847, first assumed choreographic responsibilities in 1849 and finally took charge of the Marynsky in 1869. (The same Marynsky who was known as the Kirov during Bolchevik times.). Almost as an ironical illustration of the well known phrase of Pushkin (“Petersburg is my beloved wife but Moscow is my mistress”), Marius married first a prima ballerina of St Petersburg and later a Lubova (“Love”) from the Moscow Ballet.

A last delicious - and typically Russian – piece of gossip on “The Swan Lake”. The first Odette should have been the foremost female dancer at the time, Anna Sobeschanskaya, but the pressures from high office prevented it. Anna had accepted jewels, and presumably love declarations too, from the Governor-General of Moscow, but married a dancer, Stanislav Gillert, instead. Gillert promptly sold the jewels for cash and the Governor-General was not amused. In a final twist, the very first Prince Siegfried was Gillert himself!

I wish this kind of stuff could be read in a nice programme or leaflet handed over before swans and princes started to dance, maybe sponsored by the Ornithological Society and the Monarchist League….