Tag Archives: Modern Art

An American in Paris – Dominion Theatre

An American in Paris, Dominion Theatre

With the world back in love with the classic musical thanks to La La Land, the arrival of the 2015 Broadway Production of An American in Paris couldn’t be more timely. After a brief stint in Paris and rave reviews on Broadway, this much anticipated revival, based on the 1951 film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, has its press night at the Dominion Theatre tomorrow. But this isn’t the standard all-singing all-dancing musical you might expect, and while there are a number of memorable songs, this is really a dance and classical music piece, with choreography drawn from ballet rather than modern dance and tap. But more than that, this tale of soldiers and restoration is couched in the consequences of conflict and its effect on the arts – a romantic fantasy very much grounded in the aftermath of World War Two.

Demobilised in 1945, Jerry decides not to return to America with his colleagues and to pursue his career as a modernist painter in Paris, where he unexpectedly meets Lise after rescuing her from a pushy crowd. He falls instantly in love with her but she disappears into the night and instead Jerry becomes involved with fellow American Milo, who offers to help him promote his work to local gallery owners and as a set designer at the ballet. Meanwhile Lise has also caught the attention of pianist Adam who is charmed when she becomes principal ballerina in a work he is composing but Lise is engaged to Henri whose mother is patron of the ballet. When Henri, Adam and Jerry become friends and with the ballet premiere approaching, how soon before they realise they’re all in love with the same girl and who will win her?

Most musicals open with some big all-cast number with another either side of the interval and a rouser to send people home at the end. But An American in Paris has a more muted trajectory, opening with only a piano on a dark stage because this is one man’s memory, the story of Adam reflecting back many years later on what appears to be a lost love affair, a happier time not just for him personally but for the whole of France as it emerged from occupation. That piano becomes a key focal point throughout the show moved skilfully around the stage, identifying times when the audience is privy to Adam’s direct memories. But, as it’s clear from the start that we’re seeing things from his point of view, crucially the piano’s absence implies events between other characters that he has imagined – such as any private encounter between Jerry and Lise – which adds to, and partially explains, the heightened fantasy element of the sections where Adam is not present.

In many ways this is an intimate show, concerned with the relationships and developing affections among a small group of artists in post-war Paris, and while this bigger picture is an underlying theme it’s really the smaller human interaction that is the focus. With that in mind, the size of the Dominion Theatre stage is frequently a problem with even the largest dance numbers looking a little swamped amidst the acres of empty space, although surprisingly that’s not always the case with the duets. That aside, the dancing is beautifully choreographed by Director Christopher Wheeldon, perfectly capturing the lyricism and romance of Gershwin’s score mixing fun upbeat numbers such as I’ve Got Rhythm set in a local café during a power cut, with the extraordinary I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck in the department store where Lise works as three sets of display cabinets whirl around the stage allowing Jerry to hop between them as dancers parade and spin in the latest ‘new look’ fashions creating the sense of the old counter-style service in a busy store as well as the disruption Jerry causes by turning up out of the blue. As a set-piece its elaborate glamour is very much in line with things like the Ascot race from My Fair Lady and Beautiful Girl from Singing in the Rain.

But Wheeldon also brings genuine tenderness and emotion to Jerry and Lise’s interactions, demonstrating their growing connection and the somewhat wistful nature of their romance as they meet in secret by the Seine. He christens her ‘Liza’, encouraging her to take more risks and their dance along the riverbank is beautifully staged. It’s a classic 50s musical concept of love presented in an emotionally touching but chaste way.

Yet, the traditional dream-like quality of the romance is constantly buffeted by the realities of post-war France and the intrusion of modernist notions which we see particularly in Jerry’s art and how this is reflected in the design of the extraordinary ballet sequence. While this type of art first emerged as a response to the First World War, rather than the Second, its use here emphasises the idea that the world has been fundamentally changed by the experience of conflict, where new ideas and freedoms, driven by the young, are demanded to challenge the cosy traditionalism of the elder generations. So the way in which Jerry’s painting captures the imagination of Milo Davenport leads quite naturally to the fully modernist ballet that in look and feel entirely eschews more classical approaches, is redolent of this new wave of art and interpretation that pits two halves of Paris against each other in this show.

Like The Red Shoes (wonderfully staged by Matthew Bourne at Sadler’s Wells recently), An American in Paris contains a lengthy ballet within a ballet as the audience gets to see the show composed by Adam, designed by Jerry and danced by Lise. And it makes for a striking contrast with what has gone before as the stage is filled with geometric shapes in bold primary colours – reflecting work of artists like Mondrian – while the dancer’s costumes are similarly unusual if you’re used to traditional ballet. It’s an incredible piece of work and although it doesn’t add anything much to the direct plot, it is one of highlights of a show that emphasises the integrity of the dance and the emotional turbulence of the characters primarily.

If you’ve never seen the film, then there is a genuine uncertainty about who will end up with who, with the three supporting players nicely fleshed out, giving them proper rounded characters and a realistic stake in the eventual outcome. There are benefits and downsides to this however which slightly take away from the eventual resolution.  As our narrator, Adam is already a highly sympathetic character with the audience deliberately on his side from the start and David Seadon-Young really draws on the luckless and lonely composer who writes beautifully but cannot translate his feelings into a real relationship. His unrequited affection for Lise is subtly portrayed and his generosity to his good friend and fellow veteran Jerry make him highly sympathetic.

Likewise the semi-cuckolded Milo becomes Jerry’s rebound love interest which is given considerably poignancy by Zoe Rainey. It’s clear to the audience that she’s just a passing thing but her continued efforts to enhance his career and a growing sense of hopelessness are nicely charted. Joining her is Lise’s fiancé Henri (Haydn Oakley) who is doggedly devoted to his ballerina girlfriend, offering her a less explosive but steady and consistent love. And while the French accents get a bit Allo Allo at times, these characters and their stake in their mutually dependant future are very nicely drawn, which adds considerably to the audience’s dilemma over who to root for.

As a consequence though, and despite beautiful dance performances from Robert Fairchild as Jerry and Leanne Cope as Lise, it becomes increasingly difficult to be entirely on the side of the leads when they deliberately and wilfully string other characters along until they can be together. This did happen in the original film of course but then that was Gene Kelly, and how can you not want smiley charming Gene Kelly to get whoever he wants. Here, Cope and Fairchild are a convincing pairing, but maybe we’re more cynical or we take a more rounded perspective these days, so even if the happy couple dance off into the sunset as the curtain falls you can’t help but think ‘what about all those poor people you hurt.’ And because of the sympathetic portrayal of these other characters, this for me slightly undercuts the “love conquers all” tone of the finale.

The technical design by 59 Projection is stunning helping to create a variety of locations, show big events and reflecting the particularly French style of visual design which add considerably to the atmosphere, bringing a different sense of spectacle and innovation to the West End than we’ve really seen before on this scale. And while the first half is arguably a tad lacklustre, the second draws you into the emotional heart of the story. It may look small on the Dominion stage and while the central romance may not be as transporting as it once was, An American in Paris utilises Gershwin’s beautiful score to offer something quite different to the standard musicals format.

An American in Paris is at The Dominion Theatre until 30 September. Tickets start at £17.50 with reduced prices until 31 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Art – Old Vic

art-old-vic

Modern art can still be incredibly controversial and more often than not the annual Turner prize nominees raise more than a few eyebrows. In some ways little has changed since Yasmin Reza’s play Art was first premiered in the West End over 20 years ago with debates still raging between those who prefer classical to contemporary art. Can a giant sculpture of a bottom be art; what about a brick, an unmade bed or, in the case of Serge in this play, a white painting crossed with thin white lines? And would you really be prepared to lose friends over your taste in art?

The Old Vic’s revival of Art should feel very timely then – a discussion that never goes out of fashion – but there’s something about this 90 minute play, though interesting and well performed, that never seems to get beyond its own surface engagement with the issues it tries to debate. There are two key themes that it considers; the questions about art and taste that divide the three friends in this story, and a second strand on the nature of (particularly) male friendships and whether longevity alone is a good enough reason for sustaining them.

At the start of the play, Serge has purchased a large entirely white canvas for a considerable sum which he shows to his friend Marc, an intellectual with a preference for the Dutch Masters who baulks at the stupidity of Serge’s decision. With their friendship now under strain, they both appeal to mutual friend Yvan, a people pleaser in the midst of stressful wedding plans, who is caught between them. Over the course of several meetings, the discussions about the painting reveal deep rifts in their friendship which may end their association for good.

A lot of people really love this play and during its extended eight year run in the early 2000s it attracted a large number of comedians in its frequently rotating cast, including The League of Gentlemen, Jack Dee and Frank Skinner, as well as established actors. Mixing the two, as the Old Vic does here, actually accentuates the slightly shallow story while not quite resolving the serious introspection vs slapstick tone, which draws quite a distinct line between the times experienced thespians Paul Ritter and Rufus Sewell are on stage alone, and the scenes that utilise Tim Key’s comic talents.

And while it skirts a number of intellectual questions it doesn’t really delve beneath the surface of its characters and their traits in any meaningful way. Characterisation on the page is rather thin; who these people are, the nature of their relationship to each other and any sense that they genuinely exist outside the rooms of this play, despite repeated references to partners, seems brittle and unlikely. It feels in many ways like it starts a conversation that it doesn’t finish which can be a bit frustrating to watch and this production focuses on getting the laugh – which it frequently does – rather than on anything more meaningful.

Yet, in this case, as in many previous versions, it is the strength of the performances that carries you along. Rufus Sewell rarely disappoints, here adding much needed gravitas to the tricky role of Serge – a man who has purchased a controversial painting at great expense and initially at least is surprised by his friends’ lack of acceptance. Sewell is very good at keeping the audience mostly on his side, and while Serge is an arrogant bachelor living a pretty comfortable existence, able to make elaborate purchases on a whim, Sewell makes him seem reasonable, calm and appealing – although this will depend on your views on modern art I suppose.

Likewise Paul Ritter’s Marc has an entrenched academic flavour, a man who has spent years committed to his way of thinking and enraged by the idiocy of his friend. Marc expresses his rage more visibly that Serge, and while occasionally petty, feels genuinely affected by the cracks in their friendship which reveal he is not the person he thought he was. Much of Marc’s self-worth is invested in the role of “intellectual” he feels he has played amongst his friends, particularly with Serge, and seeing him make a rash choice so far from a purchase Marc would have made is demoralising and eye-opening for him.  Again this is hinted at in the text but Ritter gives a much fuller life to it than the character suggests.

Tim Key, as the only professional comedian in the group, takes a slightly different approach, naturally playing up the humour of the luckless middle-man whose chaotic personal life takes precedence over his friend’s minor wrangles about a painting. Yvan is easily swayed however and initially is talked into his opinion, agreeing with whoever he is with and it is only when the three come together for the only time in the play that his people-pleasing is put under pressure. Given his background, Key’s approach is more sitcom-like so the balance with the straighter approach of the other two actors isn’t always quite right and although he understandably has less stagecraft – with one previous play to his credit –  there are a lot of fans in the audience who enjoy every minute.

Looking back on previous versions of this play some commenters have noted that what you get out of Art will depend considerably on the cast and while that’s probably true of most theatre, that feels particularly relevant here. The Old Vic’s version is pitched somewhere between serious drama and sitcom which somewhat blunts any deeper points the production is trying to make. More than ever it really felt like a product of its time – that late 90s period of Damien Hirst conceptual art, shamelessly wealthy individuals and conspicuous consumption – that just doesn’t seem real in quite the same way anymore. London has changed so much since this play was first premiered with international investment being more prominent, so while art is still being brought and sold the shamefacedness of it is less obvious. Perhaps the slight feeling of disassociation this production creates comes from the fact the play just doesn’t resonate in our more austere and ecological times?

Matthew Warchus – who directed the original London run – keeps things moving swiftly in the mere 90 minute uninterrupted runtime and Christopher Hampton’s translation has lots of funny moment, while Mark Thompson’s set flexibly creates two, rather fancy, apartments with only a lighting change and a swivelling wall revealing that we’re in Marc’s home rather than Serge’s although it’s not clear that we’re in Paris particularly. Like art itself your response to this play may be very different to mine – there are people who love it and tomorrow’s press night will be particularly interesting. While it could say much more about the approach to modern art and the competitive nature of male friendships, the chance to see Ritter and particularly the ever-excellent Sewell keeps you watching.

Art is at the Old Vic until 18 February and has an age appropriate rating of 12 years+. Tickets start from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Alice Anderson: Memory Movement Memory Objects – Wellcome Collection

The Wellcome Collection is probably not the first place you’d expect to see modern art but after the success of their excellence Forensics exhibition earlier in the year which mixed scientific objects with art and installation, the Wellcome has successfully progressed to a full-on art exhibition, albeit one with a link to the nature of human cognition. The way we form and retain memories both as individuals and as a society is a fascinating subject. Often on a personal level the things we remember change over time, becoming distorted, embellished and embedded by frequent retelling, while the things a nation or culture chooses to memorialise are often sanitised, stripped of emotion and form, empty platitudes to some significant event. Anderson’s work speaks to both of these interpretations which makes this exhibition well worth seeing.

Now our memories are increasingly recorded in online forms; websites that hold our pictures, record our thoughts encapsulated as Tweets or Status Updates, or suggest people it thinks we should know. Anderson represents this using the fine copper wire she uses to wrap everyday objects, and by wrap I mean completely encase, mummify and cocoon so they become both unable to be the things they were and something else at the same time.

It opens with the exhibition’s centrepiece a Ford Mustang car which you can help to wrap – book ahead and you can spend an hour helping to shroud the car in gleaming copper. Already heavily covered by my visit it is a strangely fascinating item to look at, recognisably a car still from all but a few angles, particularly the back where it’s begun to lose form. Divested of its natural function, is this still a car or just the memory of one? It’s beautiful but it can no longer do any of things it is supposed to, and you can barely discern its usual features all now moulded into a smooth and glittering shape. When you can’t look beyond the surface, then the surface is all there is, and what a damning insight into our modern culture, a love of shiny surface things that deep down have no purpose.

Next up is a dark room like a museum, filled with items on pedestals that look reverent against the blackness. Strangely the wrapping process seems to change the physical form of the objects making them seem soft and squishy so you want to touch them to check, which obviously you can’t. Shears, glasses, a video camera, iphone plug and mobile phone all recognisable but changed. Some of the most impressive pieces, however, are on a considerably larger scale – a globe that becomes a giant ball of hair, a flat screen TV that has been covered so meticulously with such faultless straight lines that it starts to look like a giant shiny pillow or an electric guitar, all of these things are divested of their purpose, muffled but preserved forever. As a statement on memory it is interesting, each object represents a moment in time frozen and just a fleeting idea of what it once was.

It is the meticulous skills of Anderson’s work however that is so fascinating and the centrepiece of the exhibition is a giant staircase which even up close looks like perfectly created wood grain. The way the wire has been wrapped around each step is in perfectly straight lines which glisten invitingly in the centre of the room. As a symbol it is very striking, an empty staircase leading nowhere seems to be the epitome of Anderson’s other work which while preserving or ‘mummifying’ these objects is simultaneously stripping them of their purpose.

The next room artfully wraps and arranges recognisable items in new ways to create innovative forms, and here you’ll need the accompanying text to tell you what some of these things are. You’ll notice as the exhibition progresses that it becomes harder to distinguish all the things on display as the wrapping process reduces them to mere geometric shapes. Here there are some eye catching pieces including a tower of what could be wastepaper bins stacked to the ceiling, the light dramatically catching the lines of the copper wrapping to draw the eye upwards. Also impressive is a wall of ladders used to create block patterns as different sets of rungs are bound together, so again we see how Anderson’s technique changes something’s function to art. One of the most interesting items is further on, a collection of tall rectangular panels arranged in a circle, each wrapped with a slightly different pattern. There’s something Stone Henge-like about it and you can stand in the centre of the panels or between them as part of the circle. What it means is largely open to interpretation but it perhaps suggests something about the way we ritualise memory-making, like a form of pagan festival.

The final room looks at destruction and picks up again on this theme of removing an items purpose, but this time by using the wrapping process to crush or distort it. We see how the screen of a laptop has buckled, the contortions of a crushed wheelbarrow and some straight planks that have become curls and waves under the strictures of their binding. So this is asking us to consider the pressure memory-making can exert on the remembered moment, squeezing it over time to become useless and changed, which reflects how susceptible our memories are to later distortion.

This is my favourite kind of exhibition, while there is some guidance on the artist’s intentions there is still plenty of scope for the viewer to see whatever they choose. While on the one hand I did see Anderson’s intention to focus on memory formation, you could also argue that she’s commenting on our shallow engagement with the wider world. Arguably we no longer care about depth or the truth of something, preferring to have only superficial engagements with a lot of things, thus Anderson’s perfect shiny surfaces belie what’s underneath and hold a mirror up to the shallow digital world we have created. But that’s only one interpretation and as this show offers no answers, perhaps it doesn’t mean anything at all. The Wellcome has opened its doors to modern art and offers a fascinating exhibition that combines impressive technical skill with wider philosophical debates about the way we preserve and record the world around us.

Alice Anderson: Memory Movement Memory Objects is at the Wellcome Collection until 18 October. Entrance is free.


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