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.”

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

It's not much...

... but it was home for a few days. This is the château we stayed in, which was very quiet, very elegant, very secret. "We don't really want the publicity," the dapper manager, Olivier, told us when we asked why there was so little info on the property.

As long as there's a room available, I don't really care about the marketing outreach strategy. Just please bring me some more baguette and jam and coffee, and then I'm off to stroll along the terrace, and wander through the woods, and breathe in the impossibly clean air.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A typical day in La Loire - part two

After a tragically disappointing lunch at a little spot in the village, about which I will say no more, we zoomed off to the next château on the itinerary: Villandry, which is known for its astonishing gardens. The story of the château is quite something: it was built in the 16th century, on the grounds of a demolished 12th-century fortress (the keep and the foundation are all that remain); it was "upgraded" in the 18th century, and the traditional garden was destroyed in the 19th century in favor of an English-style park (Arcadia, anyone?).

In 1906, it was acquired by an American heiress, Ann Coleman, and her Spanish husband, Joachim Carvallo. These two non-French people restored Villandry to its earlier glory, and lived there with their children (it's so odd to wander around this museum, looking at both 17th-century paintings and 20th-century family snaps). Carvallo became determined to turn the grounds into gardens appropriate to the château's era, and to make them absolute show-stoppers.

As you can see from the photos, he succeeded. For all of you out there planning your summer gardens, here are a few Villandry-inspired tips:

Design your garden to replicate Renaissance ideals: highest should be a formal water garden (swans included), signifying the soul. On a lower level you'll need an ornamental garden, symbolizing the heart, with intricate arrangements of boxwood-bordered flowerbeds delineating various concepts of love: tender, passionate, fickle, and tragic. And then at the lowest level, symbolizing the body, set up a vast checkerboard of a potager, or vegetable garden, with all the beds outlined in hedges, and each overseen by a single rose bush standing in for the monk who would have tended gardens like this back in the day.

Throw in a maze, a canal, a garden of medicinal and cooking herbs, ancient pruned lime trees bordering every square centimeter, and a belvedere high above it all for the view, and you'll be the talk of the neighborhood association.

After hours spent wandering the gardens and taking zillions of photos, we headed to our fourth château of the day, Château de Noizay, where we had a lovely dinner. It wasn't quite as special as Le Bon Laboreur — a bit too Relais & Château-y for my taste — but nothing to sneeze at.

Then we headed home to our own little château, the one we love best; one always prefers one's own castle, even if it's not quite as grand as Villandry.

A typical day in La Loire - part one

Obviously, a typical day in the Loire involves châteaux. On Tuesday, we hit four of 'em.

We had a lovely breakfast at "our" château (which included some butter that I could have eaten straight up, with a spoon), then drove over to Azay-le-Rideau, which everyone had told us was the absolute gem of the Loire, so beautiful, so charming, the setting, the mirror effect, etc.

Maybe I was already jaded, one day in, but Azay-le-R, to me, had nothin' on Chenonceau. Or maybe it's just that your first château is always your best, and even after one day, Chenonceau had already acquired a golden haze of loveliness.

At any rate, the best thing about Azay to me was the name, which kept morphing in my head to Zazie-dans-le-Métro — a lovely film, to be sure, but not very Renaissance, perhaps. Of course, Azay is indeed lovely, but half of it was shut up for renos (which they neglected to mention at the ticket desk), and it just didn't have the pizzazz of Chenonceau. (However, it is on a charming little island, and having to cross over water to get to the front door just has such class.)

The weather, however, was absolument parfait — finally. A truly gorgeous spring day that didn't start off with morning haze or trickle off into afternoon gloom. Just bright blue skies, loads of sunshine, and a charming little French breeze filled with charming French birdsongs.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

My first châteaux

On this, my fourth trip to France, I finally took a trip outside of Paris: to the Loire valley, where I found out that fairy-tale castles do indeed exist. We hopped on TGV and an hour later were in a dingy suburb of Tours, where we picked up a rental minivan (my first time driving in Europe!) called, incongruously enough, Le Picasso and headed to Amboise. Just the day before, when we still had not made any concrete plans for our three-day excursion, a friend excited said, "You have to go to where we were married! You have to stay in the château!" No complaints from me — I've always felt, on some level, that I belonged in a château, and this one fit the bill: not too big, as châteaux go, quiet, unpretentious (no cheesy certification from some random corrupt hotel association, no ostentatious "luxury" items), on the most beautiful grounds, and with a staff of invisible workers who we never, ever saw. Our only contact was with Olivier, the manager, who nonchalantly chose a room for us when we arrived, not even asking for a credit card.

The Loire is magical. We visited one château on Monday — Chenonceau, which is privately owned and in excellent condition. It's built over a river — Catherine de Medici's idea — and the rooms are filled with objets and paintings and furniture and so forth, as well as piles of fresh flowers from the gardens.

You approach the château by walking down a long allée of tall trees, with just a glimmer of the castle in the distance: exactly like New York City Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty. I just could not get over it. Oh, and you pass an ancient keep, then cross a drawbridge. I mean, come on.

We spent hours there, checking out every room, wandering the gardens, trying unsuccessfully to get lost in the maze. The sun came out (finally!) in the late afternoon, just before we discovered the tulip garden, which was positively aglow. I took about six hundred pictures of the flowers (like I've said, it's been a loooooong winter), and bored R. silly going on about the ancient wisteria.

Then we had possibly the best meal of the whole trip: dinner at Le Bon Laboreur, an auberge right by Chenonceau. Highlights were the amuse-bouche of carrot velouté with cumin cream, the local chèvres, and the roasted pineapple with chantilly cream and sponge cake. Oh, and the local wines: Vouvray pétillant (my new favorite word from the trip, translated as "sparkling") and the Pouilly-Fumé.

Note: All the photos are of Chenonceau.

Friday, April 8, 2011


Perhaps our top Paris experience was an impromptu late afternoon / early evening Velib ride. On your next trip to Paris, you must rent a Velib and bike around, and please please please, go to the Louvre courtyards after dark, when the exterior is lit up, and the pyramid is glowing, and then ride across the Seing and watch the Eiffel Tower's spotlight shine against the sunset.

PS: I'm back in NYC, and catching up on the blogging -- I'll post a few more "from" the Loire and Paris.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


For almost our entire time in France (and I'm writing this on our eighth day), the weather forecast for the coming days has been gorgeous: sunny, 70s, breezy. And then the day comes, and it's grey and windy and damp. It's rather like a "Jam yesterday, and jam tomorrow, but never jam today."

However, Saturday was gorgeous — a perfect Parisian spring day, with everyone out and enjoying the parks, streets, outdoor cafés, and plazas. We finally made it to Grande Epicerie (one of my favorites), the huge food hall at Le Bon Marché. For home, I bought preserves, tea, tisane, and crunchy sugar, and for lunch in the adjacent park, we bought roquefort, comté, two mini baguettes (one white, one multi-grain), brandade de morue, marinated baby artichoke hearts, grapes, blood oranges, and mineral water. It was quite a feast.

We then hit Hugo + Victor, a highly hyped modern pastry shop, where I bought more preserves (my luggage is getting heavier and heavier), as well as an exquisite box of chocolates. And then, just to top off the afternoon, we wandered along the Seine, basking in the late afternoon glow.

Saturday night was the birthday party that was the excuse for this trip in the first place: a splashy blowout in a beautiful 19th-century building near Parc Monceau, complete with hip new band, fancy finger food, and a deadly pastry and cake selection.