Monday, November 14, 2011

borrowed glory

I get such a kick out of having talented friends — especially when they’re getting the credit and attention they deserve. The beginning of this month, I went to three different events, each spotlighting a friend and his accomplishments. It’s enough to make me feel like I’m hot stuff myself.

Thursday the 3rd was an evening in honor of Jock Soto, one of my favorite dancers ever, and now the author of an absolutely charming and honest memoir, Every Step You Take. During my years of utter ballet obsession, Jock and his partner, the glorious Wendy Whelan, were etched into my consciousness with their fierce modernism and gorgeous emotional resonance. I couldn’t get enough, sometimes going to see New York City Ballet three times a week during the season (which I now realize ain’t nuthin’ compared to what the real ballet kooks do, but most of them aren’t exactly role models for even a relatively sane person).

Then, when I worked at NYCB, no matter how hellish my day, I could always slip into a rehearsal studio and watch dancers at work. Without a doubt, the best of those times were watching Christopher Wheeldon actually create ballets on Wendy and Jock — first Morphoses, a spiky, dark, twisty piece, brightened by quick jokes and rich connections, and then, glory glory glory, After the Rain, an unbelievable work with one of my favorite pas de deux ever, made for Jock’s farewell year. That brief pas de deux (not quite 10 minutes long) has so much emotion and love and sadness built into it that when it ends, with the both of them lying on the floor and Jock folding Wendy’s body over his as the curtain comes down, the audience goes absolutely crazy, as if they’d just watched an entire epic unfold in front of them.

After Jock retired (performing After the Rain, along with four other ballets, in his final performance), he wrote a memoir, among other things. Last Thursday, the National Museum of the American Indian (located in the handsome old Customs House) hosted an evening in his honor. First, we nibbled on hors d’oeuvres from Jock’s own recipes and watched footage from Gwendolen Cates’ documentary about Jock, Water Flowing Together. Then, we all filed into the auditorium, where Jock charmed the hell out of everyone, talking about his book, reading excerpts, showing off his new wedding ring, and just being generally irresistible.

(A year or two ago, The New York Times ran [on the first page] a classically ham-fisted article about how NYCB dancers were giving brief pre-curtain, onstage chats to introduce the programs; the gist of the article was along the lines of, “BREAKING NEWS! DANCERS SPEAK!,” with shock expressed that they could be so articulate! so winning! so funny! I was embarrassed, really, on behalf of the Times.)

That was Thursday. On Friday, I trekked over to 192 Books in Chelsea, a gem of a bookstore, where the mighty James Wolcott was reading from his new memoir, Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York. Now Jim has become the Fairy Godmother of the blog world (in the Cinderella sense, not the Halloween Parade sense), tapping his shout-out wand to bring light and readers to several lucky bloggers, including myself. He’s also a fellow ballet fan (and fellow hater of the cabal of ballet critics / trolls), and a mean blogger (and Tweeter) himself, especially when it comes to the vicious hypocrisy of the radical right.

He’s also a longtime New Yorker, and Lucking Out chronicles his first years in the city, the gritty and greasy 1970s, and his picaresque adventures that led him from movie screening dates with Pauline Kael, to countless nights at CBGB with the likes of Patti Smith and the Talking Heads, to some fairly sordid and long-gone establishments in Times Square. All this, relayed in Jim’s distinct sentences that loop and dive and leap, and always land precisely on target.

In Jim’s book and on his blog, despite the seriousness of the material or the sometimes blunt language, you always get the sense of delight and effortlessness, as if he’s lightly bounding from one skyscraper tip to another, or gliding across very very very thin ice, no problemo, weaving complicated patterns that deliver thrills to the reader.

Lucking Out is one of those books that, if someone else is in the room with you while you’re reading it, that someone is going to hear a lot of “Oh my god, you have to hear this,” followed by quotes such as these:

On being fired by the Village Voice:
From that point onward, I never worked a regular office job again, soleey writing for a living, something that would have been impossible if New York hadn’t been a city of low rents and crappy expectations that didn’t require a trust fund or a six-figure income for the privilege of watching everything fall apart before your eyes. The availability of affordable, problem-plagued, loosely enforced sublets made zigzag lateral movement throughout the city relatively easy, not like it would become a decade later, when each real-estate decision would pyramid under the worry load of upward mobility. In the early seventies, New York landlords were less choosy about whom they rented to, more laissez-faire as long as you didn’t give off a whiff of arson.

On the birth of the mosh pit:
Pogoing, too, was an English import, an indoor exercise perfect for tight spots, turing the pogoer into a hopping human exclamation mark…. Pogoing was compared to the hopping of the Masai, but the Masai hopped in unison, at least in the African documentaries and dubious colonial-war movie footage I had seen, whereas this indoor bouncing was closer to Whac-a-Mole with shaven and Mohawked heads popping up through the holes.

On the vestiges of the CBGB’s scene:
A stretch of East Second Street was later renamed in honor of Joey [Ramone], the commemorative sign eventually raised twenty feet above ground level after having been stolen so often. That’s where so much creative excitement ends up, with souvenir collecting.

On the aural proximity of the New York neighbor:
The young man in the adjacent apartment to me was having chronic boyfriend problems with Billy, whose name received extra l’s whenever my neighbor was distraught. “Billllllllly, why do you keep doing this to me?” Whatever it was that Billy was doing, he kept doing it, because the same desperate plea bargaining was played out over the phone again and again, as if the plaintiff were stuck to a script written on flypaper. Sometimes Billy would come over, and they would fight for a bit and then go out, or go out and then fight when they got back. I would pound on the wall, they would pound back, and really that’s what being a New Yorker was about then.

Jim gives the reader a vivid vision of his New York in the 1970s, and makes it appealing and exciting without any saccharine sentiment or cloying nostalgia. It’s quite a tightrope act, and one he handles without any apparent hesitation.

My spree of rubbing shoulders with the talented creative class finished up with a terrific performance by SenseDance, celebrating its twentieth season, quite an accomplishment for a small, independent dance company. SenseDance is headed up by Henning Rübsam, a friend from my years in the ballet world (where I was emphatically not a dancer) and an absolutely lovely person who always seems delighted by what the world is offering him. The program last Monday showed his choreographic reach, from taut and modern to sweet and silly to just plain gorgeous. His dancers were wonderful — human and natural, and deeply invested in the choreography. (My favorite was Maria Phegan — what a beauty she is; that's her, pictured at left with former NYCB dancer Max van der Sterre, in an image by Nir Arieli.)

This little whirlwind of fandom served as a helpful reminder that there is a lot of work involved in creating something, and a lot of sacrifices. You have to structure your life around your work, not squeeze in an hour here and there, and you’ve got to crack the whip, and all for delayed gratification: working is satisfying in and of itself, but it ain’t half so satisfying as finishing something. As Jim said in his reading, “Writers write for recognition. Anyone who tells you anything else is lying.” And writers who talk about feeling lost and adrift after they finish a book? “They’re lying. Writing is tough and makes you crazy. Finishing is great.”