Tag: surrealism

Tutus and Teardrops… and More

I was expecting saccharine. It wasn’t. I was expecting soppy. It wasn’t. I was expecting cloying. It wasn’t. Billy Elliot is creative, timely, and thought-provoking, as well as being one of the best pieces of musical theater I’ve ever seen. Yes, ever.

Based on the 2000 Oscar-nominated movie, Billy Elliot is the story of a boy in a small town who dreams of being a ballet dancer. Set in northern England against the backdrop of the year-long 1984-1985 strike that saw the decimation of the British mining industry, the film was a cheering portrait of someone beating the (considerable) odds. Musical composer Elton John, book and lyric writer Lee Hall, and director Stephen Daldry saw the rich potential for staging that lay within Hall’s original material, and in the early aughties they set about to transfer the film into the theater. Shortly after its 2005 opening, the production became a major success, spawning productions in Sydney, New York, Melbourne, Chicago, Seoul, as well as a touring show. It won ten Tony Awards in 2009, and has been seen by over six million people around the world. Brought to Toronto by Mirvish Productions, the show is currently on at the Canon Theatre in Toronto through to July 10th.

Billy Elliot opens with black and white footage of British miners from the 40s and 50s, then moves into news clips from the miners’ strike, when the picture becomes decidedly more grim. This prologue sets the stage for the struggle that takes place between miners and police and workers and government, but, in a larger sense, the battle is internal, occurring within the people in a small community whose perceptions of the world around them inevitably, irrevocably alter as a result of new harsh economic realities. It’s not accidental that Billy (Cesar Corrales) starts off in boxing class; he’s going to need to how to throw punches, as well as take them, if he’s going to survive in this harsh world Daldry has painted.

There’s something heartening about the way the English theatre powerhouse portrays this world. He stages even the most basic of scenes – blue collar workers chiding their kids or hoisting signs, or finishing breakfast -with the utmost respect and love. No twee presentation of quaint small town folk, this is a show with balls; people swear (including kids), throw punches, get drunk, and get bloody. In one telling moment, Billy’s Granny (Cynthia Darlow) muses on the abusive marriage she endured. In another, dancing bobbies sing about sending their kids to private schools as they wield batons against striking workers. Maggie Thatcher’s England has never looked less rosy (or more contemporary – I couldn’t help but think of recent scenes in Wisconsin). The story of Billy and his love for dance works as a kind of metaphor for hope and regeneration against decay and inertia. It also offers the solace of arts and culture as a means of not only escape, but more importantly, connection -between people, classes, and communities. Culture isn’t the sole domain of the upper classes, either -in fact, it’s frequently what hold communities that are in flux together. Billy Elliot makes this point again and again. It remains to be seen, however, how many from the opening night audience will be buying tickets to the National Ballet‘s next season. One can only hope.

Complementing the musical’s strong choreography is its gorgeous design, which is highlighted when Billy and friend mischievous Michael (Dillon Stevens) invade the latter’s sisters’ closet, and are soon joined by gigantic dancing dresses (& a cancan-kicking pair of trousers). It’s a fantastic contrast to the bleak town sets and riot scenes and is a wonderful expression of the power of imagination. The surreal staging blended seamlessly with the upbeat pop music and the pre-Gaga theme of being true to yourself, and was a true celebration of what “play” really means, and how important it is to engage in it. The scene ended with some fantastic tap dancing from the two young boys, with Stevens especially stealing the show with his big personality and dynamic stage presence.

Kids feature largely in Billy Elliott, and I was also impressed with the gaggle of little ballerinas who dance both within their own group as well as between riot police, miners, and parents; their delicate, diaphanous, white tutu’d presence is a lovely counterbalance to the heavy textures and drab colours costume designer Nicky Gillibrand layers the adult world in. Choreographer Peter Darling is a complete genius in blending the children’s and adults’ perspectives, seamlessly integrating the two to produce something both deeply unusual and visually sumptuous. Billy Elliott doesn’t shy away from engaging in some surreal eye-play, but it’s part of its magic appeal, and it certainly makes the return to the story -the struggle for Billy to attend the Royal Ballet School – all the more vivid and engaging. As their teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, Kate Hennig brings a ton of heart, attitude, and no-bs honesty to her role; the exchange she has with Billy’s father (Armand Schultz) on a snowy Christmas Eve doorstep is shattering, and touches at the heart of the class-based issues Billy Elliot revolves around. One isn’t left with any certain answers about who’s right and who’s wrong.

What is certain is that everyone who attended the show’s opening night was leaning over or turning around to get a clear view of Elton John.. His music is stellar, shining as only the score of a true Rocket Man can: ebbing and flowing between aggressive, loud sounds, jaunty pop numbers, and quietly emotional ballads, John shows the full range of his considerable songwriting abilities. Billy Elliot’s score references everything from classical (the choral harmonies at points brought to mind Verdi’s Nabucco and Wagner’s Tannhauser) to rock (especially Queen) to sixties favorites (I swear I could hear The Ronettes hovering around the edges of certain numbers), to other musicals (chiefly Les Miserables), each time breaking and exceeding expectations around what a contemporary musical can and should sound like.

The miners’ song “Once We Were Kings” was an especially powerful moment that showed off both the male ensemble’s strong harmonics as well as John’s profound ability to write operatic, captivating music that works beautifully within set designer Ian MacNeil’s haunting stage setting. Set intentionally after Billy’s big solo number “Electricity” three quarters of the way through the musical, the song is a hymn to the fuel that once fueled a town’s fires, a solemn if proud testament to both the intense toil of a community and the extinguishing of a generation’s “electricity”. The miners’ hats provided a starry (if occasionally blinding) cascade of light into the audience, which is made especially dramatic for the shadowy darkness lighting designer Rick Fisher employs to imitate the effects of journeying deep into the pit. The effect was an eerily powerful symbol of the theme that flashes through Billy Elliott: hope.

It’s that quality, shining as a bright as a lighthouse beam by the musical’s end, that fuels an audience’s fire. Billy’s literal “flying” may be technically impressive but it’s the heart of it that really matters: witnessing his literal soaring, we recognize our own figurative capacity to open to new things, eyes wide open, arms spread wide, ready for take-off. Billy Elliot matters because it shows us the electricity for a new way of being amidst the detritus of the past. This is a Big Musical in every sense, but it never for a moment falls into the hokey theatrics that mar so many efforts of its ilk. Funny, frank, moving, and more than a little profane, Billy Elliot is one theatrical experience that wears its heart on its spit-stained sleeve -even as it tap-dances by you, feathers, blue collar, and all. Hold me closer, tiny dancer… and don’t let go.

Photo credits:
Top photo, Cesar Corrales (Billy) in BILLY ELLIOT, Photo by Joan Marcus
Second photo, Cynthia Darlow (Grandma) and the cast of BILLY ELLIOT, Photo by Joan Marcus
Third photo, Kate Hennig (Mrs Wilkinson) and Alex Ko (Billy) with Ballet Girls in the Broadway Production. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg
Bottom photo, Broadway Opening Night Curtain Call – Photo by Lyn Hughes

Oh Coco

Conan O’Brien came out of nowhere in the 1990s and rocked my late night world. I was never a huge fan of David Letterman back then (too snarky) or Johnny Carson (too old), though I loved Arsenio Hall, for the great musical guests and generally modern feel of his talk show. But it was Conan who really showed me how comedy could work in a late night talk show context. The wacky cast of characters, combined with O’Brien’s zesty silliness and embrace of surrealism immediately hit a nerve, and it never really left -even when he homogenized his sweet-sour-salty humour upon moving to Los Angeles to host The Tonight Show.

Conan is funny, but he’s also shrewd, and I suspect he knew that his loopy cast of late-night characters probably wouldn’t gel with viewers in that time slot, people who were more accustomed to Jay Leno‘s gentle (some might say dull) comedy. But he was (and, I think, remains) keenly aware of the power of fun: his farewell speech on lastnight’s final Coco-hosted Tonight Show episode proves it. “I hate cynicism,” he said, and continued:

For the record, it’s my least favorite quality. It doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen…This massive outpouring of support and passion, from so many people, has been overwhelming for me. The rallies, the signs, all this goofy outrageous creativity on the internet …you made a sad situation joyous and inspirational.

No kidding. Nothing kills the fun, the zany, and the childlike instincts faster than narrowed-eyes, tight-lipped “I don’t think so”-ism. Good for Conan for not giving in and for knowing his funnybone is more important to protect than his ego.

Still, I’m naturally saddened by the entire Tonight Show/NBC debacle. I’ve followed Conan’s career for years and it’s truly horribly sad to see an original voice in comedy be so shut out, in such a brutal, mean-spirited way. But, in a larger sense, I think this might all work out for the best. The Masturbating Bear, Pimpbot 5000, Heavy Metal Inappropriate Guy, the hilariously tacky “If They Mated” and the zany famous mouths have run their respective comedic courses, and Conan’s new-found freedom is a golden opportunity to dream up 21st century counterparts.

Creative, strange, surreal… and funny, Conan and Co. have a unique humour that isn’t to everyone tastes. But it is important to have in the late-night landscape, as an equal, alongside everyone else. Go Coco. I can’t wait to see what you do next. Just make sure it’s appropriate to your gifts… otherwise, I’m sicking Triumph on you.

Conan O’Brien – Inappropriate Reaction Channel

| MySpace Video

Making Time

Work work work work work work work.

That’s all I’ve really been up to the last little while. I’m fortunate that I adore what I do, though I’m still navigating the for-work/just-fun bleed-overs that inevitably occur when one loves the arts, and happens to report and write on them.

This past week, I read, with great interest, the increasing rarity of freelancers taking vacations, which was good timing, considering I’d been thinking the exact same thing for months now. The last time I took a real, honest-to-God, non-working vacation, was 2002. Yikes. While I love stay-cations -and lord knows they’re getting to be the norm now -I am hungering to go away. I love what I do, I love the people I get to interact with, but… I just want to turn off the mind (and the computer) for a while and re-connect with the stuff that inspired me to go into arts reporting in the first place.

Yesterday I rang up a friend. We’d talked about going to the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Surrealism exhibit the last time we’d brunched, which was in… eeek, May.

“We said we should go when it was opening, “she mused, “and now it’s going to be ending!” Yes, ridiculous.

Sp we both agreed to make the time to get together and go art-ying.

Making time -for friends, for art, for life and for one’s self -is so vital these days.
It’s getting harder and harder to do, and yet it as the days and weeks rush by, it becomes more and more important.

I may not be able to up and take off for the month-long break I’m hankering after (but Eastern Europe, I hope to see you in the spring). So, in lieu of that, I’m hoping to make time -for friends, family, art, me -amidst the rush this week. Walking, workouts, lunch, coffee, painting, drawing, and, would you believe, writing -the kind I have been doing now and again, just for me. I want to make time for the things and the people I care about -now, more than ever, crappy summer weather be damned.

For now, back to work.

Oh yeah: featured painting is by favourite artist and mondo-personal inspiration Louis Le Brocquy. I plan on seeing his work in-person someday in the near future, and not merely spread across my laptop’s screen. Yes indeed… I’ll make the time.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén