Sunday, 31 May 2015

A great dancer's goodbye

My own programme brochure autographed by Sylvie Guillem

I was really fortunate to get someone else's ticket for Sylvie Guillem's performance at Sadler's Wells on Saturday 30th May (I am so grateful to my friend C. for passing it on to me). I had been unable to secure a booking when the performances were announced last november, tickets were sold out within days, some say hours. Last week's performances at Sadler's were part of Guillem's final world tour before she quits dancing for good. The tour will end in Japan in December 2015 and I am sure that on the very last night there will be some very emotional scenes, as Sylvie Guillem's fans are very devoted to her. Quitting dance sounds so drastic a decision!
The atmosphere was highly charged on Saturday.
Sylvie Guillem is unique, as everyone knows, even people who are not into dance. She does not just have a most fantastic flexibility and mastery of technique, she is also a very intelligent and sensitive interpreter of dance. Her commitment to dance - first to classical ballet, then to contemporary - has been phenomenal. Her determination and strength of character have contributed to making her who she is. Perhaps we will have to wait for another hundred years before we get a dancer of her calibre.
I began to feel butterflies in my stomach from the moment I stepped into Sadler's Wells - I was super early because I was afraid I might be late and at the last minute I was overcome by great anxiety, suddenly convinced for no reason that I had gone to the wrong venue. Is it here or is it at the Coliseum, I asked a young woman selling programmes. Here, she said, somewhat bemused. I immediately grabbed a programme and texted my friend to let her know I was already at the theatre. We are on our way, she texted back. I still could not relax, despite all these reassurances.
I could not wait to get into the auditorium. When the show began and SHE appeared on stage I felt such great excitement, I was shaking. This was going to be a very special evening, I could feel it in my bones.

Bye Images by Sadler's Wells Theatre (reblogged from Arts Desk)
Sylvie Guillem had chosen new choreography to mark her retirement. Techné choreographed by Akram Khan was a very elegant solo for the perfect Guillem, so were the other pieces, Here and After choreographed by Russell Maliphant and Duo by William Forsythe, one danced by Guillem with the lovely Emanuela Montanari, soloist at the Scala, the other exquisitely danced by Brigel Djoka and Riley Watts.
But the one that really moved me was Bye, which Guillem danced in the second half. It was very intense. Mats Ek is one of my favourite choreographers and he really created something that was absolutely right for Guillem, a piece that reminded the audience how incredibly strong, pliable and technically faultless she is and yet she has a fragility about her that makes her very human and approachable. It was a piece that encapsulated Guillem's farewell, with beauty and dignity.
Guillem is a dance goddess but she does not come across as a diva, either on or off stage. She fully inhabits the choreographies she dances, she has subtlety and is able to make the audience experience in full the beauty and emotion of a carefully trained moving body. Everything about her dancing spells perfection, awkwardness is an impossibility for Guillem and it has probably been so from the time she began.
I like what Sylvie Guillem says about dance,  that it 'found' her - it is something that echoes what another dancer I greatly admire, Alessandra Ferri, also says about herself and her relationship to dance - they are contemporaries and it is interesting that whereas Guillem is retiring, Ferri has returned to dance, after a long break. That dance 'found' her does not mean it did not require discipline and rigour. For Guillem - so she says -  it was the thought of her audience, the expectations of those who go and see her that have kept her motivated to try out new things till the end.
She is quitting dance now when she is still so phenomenally good at doing what she does because she feels, quite simply, that it is the right time for her to do so - and who is to question that? These are very personal decisions, never taken lightly: by committing herself  to one last world tour, Guillem is sharing this turning point in her life with her large and very devoted global audience.
I am not usually one to be found queuing up at stage doors after a performance to catch a glimpse of the artists, to get an autograph and possibly, the now de rigueur selfie. But on Saturday night I could not tear myself away, I had to go and see this wonderful woman.

Taking selfies with Sylvie Guillem. Photo by a friend
I felt like an awkward teenager when she came out, with her flaming red hair, and all smiles. I addressed her as Madame and she was kind and friendly, signed my programme and even suggested a better angle for the selfie - there was such a strong glaring light, it ruined my picture, she saw that and graciously posed for a second one. She was affable to everyone and spoke several languages at once - English, French, Italian. Guillem's fans love her and she genuinely loves them back. She knows they all want to take home a piece of her, with the selfies, the autograph, the handshake and ever the consummate professional, she does not hold herself back. There was a mutually respectful attitude in this post performance encounter between Sylvie Guillem and her audience and it was a real joy to watch her being so at ease. There was none of the preciousness that other great artists sometimes display.
I now have a programme brochure I will treasure in the years to come and probably show to my grandchildren if I ever have any. I have been reading it from cover to cover several times and love looking at Guillem's flowery signature and the picture of herself as a pretty little girl, sitting beautifully straight and looking somewhat quizzically into camera, with a hint of a smile, a picture which she chose to have on the brochure's cover. If I close my eyes,  the memory of her on stage is still very vivid.

Selfie with Sylvie Guillem
Sylvie Guillem: Life in Progress. That was the title chosen for the world tour. A reminder that life goes on, doors close but new ones also open, even though we may not yet know about them. A reminder, also, that everything ends and that sometimes it is better to take control and decide when to end, rather than letting it passively happen or worse, trying to stop the inevitable.


Friday, 29 May 2015

Women artists at Tate Britain

Tate Britain. Photo by me

After my last blog post about Artemisia Gentileschi, I was itching to see the work of more women artists and so I dashed to Tate Britain, where I knew I would find a few, having read an article about the women artists represented at the Tate published on their website a while ago. I went on an impulse, it was already 4.30 pm by the time I got there and the gallery closes at 6 pm on a weekday. I had with me a list of the paintings I wanted to see and  had been able to note down the gallery number, so I walked in resolutely, determined to take my own pictures of the artworks on my list. There was a time  I used to do this kind of thing constantly, when I was a research student  and would make it a point to go and photograph every artefact, every art work relevant to my dissertation's topic. There is a routine one embodies: scanning the room  at a glance to locate immediately the work of one's interest, ignoring everything else and negotiating crowds (there is also the thing about getting into the habit of going early or at times when the gallery might be less crowded, but that depends on luck), the catalogue number having been memorised as well as having an idea of the object's position in the gallery from viewing published photographs taken by others - the point of taking your own photograph is usually to focus on some specific aspect of the work, a detail you intend to discuss in your dissertation.
 But art works are in  the 'habit' of travelling from their permanent home to some other gallery or museum that borrows them for a temporary exhibition or they are, from time to time, whisked away from display for some conservation work. A friend of mine keeps on being frustrated in his desire to view Canova's Three Graces permanently housed at the V&A, but constantly on the move, it seems. He told me that on all his recent visits to London he went to the museum and was told the work was not available.
I am currently not writing a dissertation, so yesterday I was a little more casual in my approach to the paintings, in the sense that I did not do all the necessary preparatory work, I just went and hoped to find them, though I had a list.

Mary Beale's Sketch  of the artist's son Own photo
Needless to say a couple of them had been moved. The very polite warden sitting in one corner of the room told me that The Deluge (1920) by Winifred Knights had just been taken away. I was obviously disappointed. But the others were all there and were so pretty. No photograph can ever do justice to the real thing. It seems such an obvious thing to say, but we are getting so used to seeing art works in reproductions. The original colours cannot be faithfully duplicated, no matter how good the camera and the photographer are. There is also something else to take into account: the way the light falls on the painting and the way it is displayed. Of course sometimes the only way to acquaint oneself properly with a painting is only by looking at reproduction: the Mona Lisa in the Louvre is surrounded by glass and there are throngs of people around it. The painting is actually quite small so when you finally get there, after elbowing and pushing, amidst a cacophony of clicks, you often end up seeing your own reflection in the glass and very little of the Mona Lisa itself.

Gwen John's Self portrait Own photo
But yesterday Tate Britain was quite empty.  The paintings I saw which represent women artists - still far too few - are as you may have guessed from the photos and their captions.: Mary Beale's Sketch of the Artist's son (1660 - a contemporary of Artemisia Gentileschi, the first female professional painter in Britain, her husband was her assistant; Gwen John's Self portrait (1902) - she trained at the Slade School of Art but predictably had to face discrimination throughout her career; Dora Carrington's Farm at Watendlath (1921) - the article published by the Tate focuses on her sexuality and sexual behaviour and I find that somewhat unnecessary; Winifred Nicholson's Sandpipers, Alnmouth (1933).

Christina Mackie's The filters Own photo
Then there is of course the installation by Christina Mackie The filters (2015) that is being  shown until October in the Duveen Galleries. Mackie is a British artist currently living in Canada.
I did expect to find a number of artists active in the 20th century but I am aghast at the lack of representation of female artists from the 18th and 19th century. Two entire centuries! I will look at other galleries and see what I find.
Certainly, it seems that the 17th century was a real turning point and marked the rise of the professional female painter in Europe. That is in itself most encouraging and we should salute these pioneers.


(The above photos were taken by me. I am an amateur photographer and only take snaps primarily to illustrate my blog. When not snapping away I am a professional model. For my modelling work please see here)

Photo of me by Aleksandra Kingo

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Artemisia

Photographer: Ian Mcilgorm. Model: me

A friend I met soon after returning from Florence asked me whether I had seen Artemisia Gentileschi's paintings at the Uffizi. I am really interested in her, my friend said. I replied that yes, I had seen Artemisia's work but had not given it sufficient attention.  I said that I did remember her from the days when I began to discover women artists but I had never really engaged with her work - I had not looked - and  in my mind I kind of conflated her with Madame Le Brun, who lived a century later in France and was patronised by Marie-Antoinette. I felt quite ashamed at my ignorance. My friend suggested I should read Gentileschi's biography by Anna Banti, with a foreword by Susan Sontag. I ordered the book but I could not wait to get started, my curiosity having been piqued, and over the long weekend I dipped into Susan Vreeland's fictionalised biography, which I could download immediately,  just to appreciate Artemisia a little better. Even though Vreeland injected her Artemisia with very contemporary thinking, I  began to realise how wonderful she was, as a woman and as an artist. I also watched A woman like that by Ellen Weissbrod, a documentary about Artemisia lovingly pieced together, underpinned by much serious research into Gentileschi's artistic worldview.


I may be a latecomer to Artemisia Gentileschi's fan club and apologise to those readers that already know about her. I just think that for a woman who did not come from an aristocratic family to decide to earn a living from her art in the 17th century was an extraordinary feat. Artemisia's early life was marked by a very public trial following her rape and dishonouring - in 17th century Rome it was not so much the rape but the dishonouring that warranted legal action - by her father Orazio's friend and collaborator Agostino Tassi, also a painter. He had been hired to teach young Artemisia, whose talent was very obvious, the art of perspective. Tassi was acquitted but Orazio was compensated (for it was Orazio who had started legal proceedings, it would not have been possible for Artemisia to do so as she was a woman) and following the trial, Artemisia was hurriedly married off to a painter from Florence and moved away from Rome. A film that came out in 1997 by Agnès Merlet recounted her trial and the torture of the thumb screws she had to undergo to prove her innocence.
Artemisia insisted on carrying on painting, making her way to success in a totally male dominated world that viewed her with antagonism and occasionally, scorn, for being female.
Hers had been a marriage of convenience. She pursued patronage and was able to travel. She even came to London at the invitation of Charles I and Henrietta Maria to paint together with her father, with whom she continued to have a difficult relationship throughout her life, the ceiling of Central Hall, Queen's House, Greenwich (now Malborough House).

Artemisia Gentileschi: self-portrait. Royal Collection. Photo by Larry Brash

Schooled in the realism of Caravaggio, Artemisia's uniqueness was in the way she painted the female nude, injecting her figures with a sensitivity that male painters struggled to achieve. Female painters of her day were primarily hobbyists and never did any more than pretty landscapes. Artemisia's excellence at figurative painting was all the more startling.
Artemisia is truly an inspiration for women, even today. Her doggedly determination to paint, her unwillingness to be defeated, are a great example to follow, even in these postfeminist times.
After her death,  she suffered the ignominy of having her work attributed to her father or other male painters and she slipped into oblivion.  It took a long time for her to be reinstated as one of the most remarkable modern painters of Europe.
Her Susanna and the Elders remains my favourite, painted when she was only 17. In it she captured the anguish of a young woman harassed by the lecherous elderly men.

Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi. Photo: Larry Brash

The website set up by Larry Brash is entirely devoted to Artemisia Gentileschi and is being constantly updated and I suggest you visit it and also, if at all possible, try to get a glimpse of Artemisia Gentileschi's paintings by going on a 'grand tour'.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Serendipity

Photo by Kati Turkina Model: me

I have always been fascinated by the notion of serendipity. Often conflated with chance and fortune and carrying with it a sense of magical occurrence,  in my view serendipity is much more complex in that it taps on one's creativity and inventiveness, as a number of writers have noted. Serendipitous discoveries in science were often due to the scientists's openness and readiness to see opportunities. I am convinced that openness and readiness are the key to serendipity, as also the ability to make links and connections, often without thinking them through logically.
I am fascinated by  the tale that gave the name to serendipity, the story of the three Princes of Serendip. I am using here as a source the book by Robert Merton and Elinor Barber The travels and adventures of serendipity: a study in sociological semantics and the sociology of science (2004).
It was Horace Walpole that coined the word serendipity  in 1754, in a letter to Horace Mann in which he refers to a Persian tale translated into French and then into English about the Princes of Sarendip or Serendib which was the name for ancient Ceylon. The Princes  had been wrongly accused of stealing a camel because when a camel driver who had lost one his camels had asked them whether they had seen it, the Princes had been able to describe the camel in great detail on the basis of clues they had found on the road which led the camel driver to believe they had stolen it. Walpole used the story of the Princes and their great sagacity to explain  his own fortuitous finding of information about the Capello arms. Since then serendipity has become part of the English language, even though as Merton and Barber note, Walpole somewhat manipulated the story to fit his own discovery.

Photo by Kati Turkina. Model: me

Be that as it may, serendipity is a word with great charge and I believe it could be used to describe almost everything that happens in one's life. Every encounter can be serendipitous. Some New Age writers and thinkers would associate serendipity with flow and being in alignment. I do understand what they are saying but I prefer to think of serendipity as serendipity. The thing is that serendipity is linked with sagacity. And what is  sagacity? According to the OED sagacity is:
wisdom, (deep) insight, intelligence, understanding, judgement, acuity,astuteness, insight, sense, canniness, sharpness, depth, profundity,profoundness, perceptiveness, penetration, perception, percipience,perspicuity, discernment, erudition, learning, knowledgeability,thoughtfulness; rare sapience
So serendipity is about astuteness and awareness of opportunities, among other things. I am happy with this gloss.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Being a tourist and snapping away


View of Florence from Palazzo della Signoria
Here I am, enjoying a few days in Florence. I had not been to Florence since the early 1980s (I know, it has been THAT long) so I finally decided to avail of some friends' kind offer of hospitality, there is so much I really wanted to see here and see it properly, not in the hurried way I did it when I first came in the 1980s. I flew to Pisa on Tuesday and then moved to Prato on Wednesday.
The past two days have been incredibly hot, yesterday it really rained in bucketfuls and as I am not keen on rain I had to delay quite a few things, such as visiting the beautiful Boboli Gardens, which have always been the butt of jokes in my family, because of some incident involving my brother-in-law, who is a Florentine born and bred.
On my first day in Florence I got to the Cathedral and the queue of people trying to get in  - it's free - was endless. I am not very good with queues and I resolved there and then that there was no way I would stand in the sun to be admitted in. Something had to be done. I noticed some people took a different entrance and did not queue at all  Intrigued, I asked and discovered the existence of the FirenzeCard for which you pay seventy two euros upfront and for three days you have priority access to all monuments and museums and you even get a ticket valid on all busses and  on the tram - not that I have been using this ticket much, it's so wonderful to walk around and Florence is quite small. I immediately bought the card. I negotiated the Brunelleschi's Cupola and Giotto's Campanile, quite a climb, with 'traffic jams' involving groups of people on the way up the very narrow stairs and back down. I also had a good view of the church's interior, from the balconies. Then off I went to the Uffizi and all the other museums, including my very favourite, Palazzo Strozzi, filling myself up en route with gorgeous gelato (ice cream), which here they make supremely tasty and serve in very generous portions for just a few euros. You call this small, I asked the lovely girl that gave me a huge cone filled with gelato al tiramisu'. Yes she said and pointed to the large version which honestly was enough for two people.
I soon got over the fact that everyone thought I was French - it happens all the time, even in England, only the French do not ever think I am French because my French is accented, albeit fluent. I was complimented for speaking 'such good Italian' by various people and found it hilarious. I got so tired of explaining my personal circumstances, I just went on with the fiction of being a foreigner who speaks the local language and wants to practise it, no one ever asked me where I was from and I never volunteered the information, how bizarre, when I am in England people ask all the time. I never tried to fool anyone, I just let people believe what they wanted to believe, in other words.

Fashion shot by Kati Turkina at London College of Fashion. Model: Me

But I realise I am getting carried away and digressing. I really wanted  to post about taking snaps in museums and galleries, as this has suddenly vexed me. So I will proceed.

(The photo above has nothing to do with this post's  topic, it is just an interesting shot of me taken by young photographer Kati Turkina).

I went to the Accademia to admire Michelangelo's David, the one in Piazza della Signoria is just a copy. And I was appalled by what I saw. I took a camera with me and began to take pictures but then I changed my mind and put the camera away because  there were hundreds of people just snapping, everyone wanted a piece of the art work and the only thing that mattered was snapping, snapping, snapping, they would not even look , just snap. I saw girls and grown women turning themselves into 'models' and posing by the David or other famous work with a pout, while a friend of theirs snapped with a smartphone, people making silly faces and being snapped. It's not something I thought would ever bother me but suddenly it did, because I wanted to look without being elbowed and without being distracted by the endless snapping. I was relieved when I went to see the current exhibition which my card gave me access to and was told that no photos were allowed. Suddenly the number of people in the galleries appeared to be more manageable, it seems that people only go and see certain pieces, and that's it, exhibitions hold no interest to them, is it because no snapping is allowed, I wonder?
Clothes on display at Palazzo Pitti, Florence
At Palazzo Pitti, which is where all the major fashion shows take place, I saw the beautiful 'Costumi' collection, tastefully arranged, with each gallery showcasing the clothes of a few women who were renowned, throughout the 20th century, for being elegant and chic and for being collectors of fashion. It was a great display, yet hardly anyone was around.  I did take photographs, even though by the time I finished my tour of the galleries I was so enthused I decided to go and buy the catalogue, which has much better pictures than the ones I took - mine are of the clothes behind glass cabinets, whereas the catalogue has excellent prints of the clothes out of their cabinet and also pictures of their wearers.
 As a blogger I need pictures, my own preferably, so as not to run into copyright problems. But do people take snaps of art works they see when holidaying only because they want to put them on social media? I am guilty of doing the same the thing, I have certainly done it in the past without giving it a second thought, only now I am  having some serious doubts on whether it is a desirable practice. After all if we go to a concert or a theatre or a dance performance we are not allowed to snap or record the event. But taking pictures in museums and galleries? Museum shops have hundreds of excellent postcards of their exhibits and they are cheap. There are catalogues, and images are also available online. So what is it about snapping? I am still pondering over this whole matter. Meanwhile I have decided to take pictures only sparingly whenever I find myself visiting a museum. I guess the attitude to adopt is the same as when you eat chocolate: a little bit is wonderful, too much will give you indigestion.


Thursday, 7 May 2015

La Bayadère


A friend called me this afternoon, we had not seen each other in months, and invited me to join her  and watch a performance of Bayadère the ninth life, a contemporary dance work choreographed by Shobana Jeyasingh. At first I politely declined - the theatre was miles away and it was such a foul day, with rain aplenty, and so cold that I needed to have the heating on at home (and it is May!).  But then I gave in, I had not seen my friend in ages and this particular dance was something that  really intrigued me - when it was premiered I was in Germany, so this was my only chance, as it was the  day before Jeyasingh's company went  to Exeter for the last leg of their tour. Off I went,  to Watford Palace Theatre.
I have known Shobana Jeyasingh from her days as a classical Bharata Natyam dancer. She turned into a choreographer in 1988 and since then she has made work that bears the stamp of her original Bharata Natyam training but is enriched and expanded with her knowledge of contemporary choreography, occasionally referencing more explicitly her Bharata Natyam roots.  She has won several awards for her creative approach  and has secured her place among the most successful UK choreographers since her company first began. Not a small feat.
I was really curious to see how she had approached one of the most famous and best loved 19th century classical ballet works, La Bayadère by Petipa with music by Minkus. And why she chose it. The answer to this  turns out to be quite straightforward. The piece springs from Jeyasingh's reflection on the incongruities of an orientalist jamboree that is the narrative of Petipa's  La Bayadere and her own choreography is actually a very beautiful and sensitive response to the romantic classicism of the original work, more so than I expected.


Jeyasingh's Bayadère begins with a young man sitting  on stage with his iPad telling us the story of Petipa's Bayadere through his blog.  "I went to see La Bayadere which was an interesting experience for me as an Indian" he begins and briefly the audience is told the story of Nikiya, the temple dancer and her lover prince Solor and princess Gamzatti who is bethrothed to Solor and who schemes to kill Nikiya through giving her a bouquet hiding a poisonous snake. The original ballet is set in an imaginary Indian court,  inspired by the real life court of the rajah of Golconda, where the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, donated to Queen Victoria, came from.

The Koh-i-Noor diamond. Photo: Crown copyright

The most iconic moment in Petipa's ballet is Act III, also known as the Kingdom of the Shades, a kind of after life dream world ( a common trope in the Romantic -Classical ballets of the 19th century, think of Giselle) where we find Nikiya and Solor reunited, albeit briefly, and the Shades dancing around them. Jeyasingh's work is multilayered and the Kingdom of the Shades is presented to us to a soundtrack, spoken by an actor,  consisting of the original writings of Theophile Gautier, about the devadasi (temple dancer)  Amany, who was part of a group of them that had been brought to Europe on a tour, and with whom Gautier became infatuated. In the finale the dancers come out of the dream, so to speak, on into a more real, everyday, world, to a soundtrack by composer Gabriel Prokofiev that occasionally reminded me of Steve Reich's Different Trains .
The interrelated frames devised by Jeyasingh work very well, except that the last portion of the dance is perhaps a tad too long. For sixty minutes I was transported. I loved Jeyasingh's intelligent interpretation and her postcolonial critique was not lost on me. I also loved her references to Ingres' odalisques, interspersed in the middle section and her dancers were magnificent. Her bayadère was performed by a male dancer whose Bharata Natyam technique was superb - I love the gender inversion here which can be interpreted in more than one way.
If anything Jeyasingh's rendition has made me appreciate the 19th century ballet even more. I can't help being enticed by Petipa's Bayadère. The poetry of the Kingdom of the Shades remains unsurpassed, its music is haunting, the ballet choreography exquisite.
Petipa's La Bayadère: an orientalist pastiche it may be, but one that has held audiences spellbound for decades. Jeyasingh's task of deconstruction was most difficult and one which other choreographers would have found very daunting. She has definitely succeeded in turning it into a beautiful contemporary piece, with great elegance and panache.