Stormy Weather – The Nicholas Brothers
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Lovers of tap dancing, and I count myself in their number, know that the ability to make those clear, sharp sounds with musicality, form, technique and freedom is at least as demanding as the most complex of ballet movements but tap has historically been downgraded as a ‘pop’ or ‘street’ form.
I hate even to whisper this but could it be that this lack of respect for one of the greatest art forms is that it originated among Black artists and only later was ‘discovered’ by the Fred Astaires and Gene Kellys who then popularised it for for mass audiences?
I once asked the great singer Lena Horne what she thought of Astaire and, without any disrespect, she said, “I didn’t need Fred Astaire because I had Honi.” She was referring to Honi Coles, one of the Copasetics, that extraordinary group of 1940s/50s Black tappers who, following in the footsteps of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, almost invented the form. This is not to say that there weren’t some fantastic White tappers who followed them, the aforementioned Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire among them.
Last week I challenged you to identify the greatest dance numbers ever filmed and I promised that, if I could find them online, I’d share them with you. Suggestions have arrived from all over the world and I’ll be sharing them here whenever there’s space. There is considerable concensus about the Nicholas Brothers, perhaps the greatest of them all but almost forgotten now except by a coterie of devoted fans, who are all mad about tap.
The 1943 movie "Stormy Weather", starring Lena Horne, was, of course, in black and white but my friend Martin has discovered this miraculously high quality colourised version of the Nicholas Brothers tap dance scene with Cab Calloway and his orchestra performing "Jumpin' Jive".
It was Fred Astaire, no less, who said this was the best dance scene ever filmed and who am I to argue?
The Making of a Bronze Statue - From the Met Vaults
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How do you make a monument? I was mesmerised by this short film which was produced by the Met Museum in 1922 and perfectly preserved, along with its explanatory placards, as an example not just of the process of making a bronze statue but inadvertently, of the advanced state of documentary film-making in the ‘20s.
This film follows the American artist Alexander Phimister Proctor’s process of sculpting Theodore Roosevelt, from creating a small clay sketch and a plaster model through casting the final form in bronze using the famous lost-wax method.
The work was unveiled in Portland, Oregon, where it remained until it was toppled by demonstrators on Indigenous Peoples Day of Rage in October 2020.
As the role of monuments and public memory remain central to conversations about national character, a wide variety of contemporary artists have started to investigate the complicated histories of celebrated figures and to ask how and why we uphold certain narratives over others. When this film was made, nobody was asking those questions.
This documentary is a real historical treasure. We are fortunate that it has been so carefully preserved and now digitized.
The film is accompanied by a new musical score, composed and performed by Ben Model.
Washington Ballet – Re:member
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The Washington Ballet has been commissioning interesting new ballets in recent years, some by experimental dance-makers who reach beyond the techniques of ballet and contemporary dance to examine ideas and attitudes.
Here, choreographer Andile Ndlovu explores the idea of reclaiming joy and putting back together that which is broken, in a co-commission from The Washington Ballet and Marquee TV.
In re:member, six dancers cross space and time, moving and interacting as if they are characters on a playground. Tapping into themes of nostalgia and reclaiming joy, the dancers shift, taking on new roles and identities, bending, folding, and evoking familiar classroom shapes.
The film is directed by Wes Culwell.
Yuja Wang – Bumble Bee
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Last Saturday at Carnegie Hall in New York, a single pianist played a three-and-a-half-hour marathon of Rachmaninoff’s four piano concertos and “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” in one concert.
It wasn’t a gimmick, in fact Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director, who conducted the Carnegie concert, likened the effort to climbing Mount Everest.
But taking on these Rachmaninoff pieces together — more than 400 pages of music, including some of the most vexing piano passages in the repertory — posed a new test.
Yuja Wang has long been recognised as one of the most innovative pianists of her generation and one of the most energetic, but this Rachmaninoff marathon, which, from the accounts of several highly sceptical musical friends who were there, was a triumph, not just of stamina but also of musicianship, intellectual depth, and skill.
I wish I’d been there but, as a little taste of what this remarkable musician can do, here’s one of her favourite party pieces which she often plays as an encore, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee. The composer wrote it , he said, to “musically evoke the seemingly chaotic and rapidly changing flying pattern of a bumblebee” but that’s not why I’m suggesting it. You’ll see why. Watch, listen and be amazed. I was.
PERFORMANCES TO KNOCK YOUR SOCKS OFF (another in our occasional series.)
Uncle Vanya – Toby Jones
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There is so much to see in this new, well, new-ish adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, one of my favourite plays. As in all of Chekhov, everybody is in love. Sadly, they’re each in love with the wrong person. This makes them all miserable in different and, to me, fascinating ways.
Several major playwrights have made contemporary adaptations of Chekhov’s Russian original for the English stage and each one has brought something new and revelatory. This adaptation, by the Irish playwright Conor McPherson, finds all the humour and internal rhythm that Chekhov wrote into his characters and almost succeeds in making the play into the comedy that Chekhov insisted it was without losing a whit of its drama and pathos. Here in this ramshackle country house you will meet a group of people who, while bound together by unbreakable ties of family, convention and habit, are constitutionally unsuited to being together.
As the title character Toby Jones, perfect casting if ever there was, leads a dynamic ensemble in Ian Rickson’s exquisite production. With one exception, every actor in this accomplished and memorable cast would seem to have had their role written just for them. I’ll leave it to you to decide which one, I believe, is miscast.
Briefly, and just to get you started, Uncle Vanya and his niece, Sonya, are stuck in a cycle of duty and boredom, maintaining their family's crumbling estate. Their world is turned upside down when Sonya’s father shows up with a new wife - forcing the family to look at long-hidden truths and hope for a different future.
Filmed live in London’s West End, this five-star production poses big questions about the power of the truth and the beauty of life. The cast includes Roger Allam (Serebryakov), Richard Armitage (Astrov), Anna Calder-Marshall (Nana), Rosalind Eleazar (Yelena), Dearbhla Molloy (Mariya), Peter Wight (Telegin) and Aimee Lou Wood (Sonya).
I saw this production twice live in the theatre and I have since watched it twice online, each time finding in Chekhov’s masterpiece more hidden details of thought and action than I had ever noticed before.
Ruth Leon is a writer and critic specialising in music and theatre.