Friday, June 29, 2012

Swan Lake and Memories of Russia

Just a year ago, my husband, Drew, and I left Moscow after living and working there for seven years.  We tried to squeeze in as many "one last time" activities as we could, knowing that chances were slim  we would return.  I was writing a blog at the time called "Arkansas/Russian Reflections," not the catchiest of titles, but one that mirrored my goings and comings to homes in both places, following my retirement.  One of my last Russian postings on May 27th was "Swan Lake."

I wrote, Last Friday night we attended a performance of Swan Lake.  It is the final ballet we will see in Moscow, and it was the first we experienced when we arrived.  It is my absolute favorite!

I didn't expect it to be my favorite. I wasn't even sure I was going to like it when we entered the Bolshoi Theatre on a snowy December evening in 2003.  I opened the program and was unable to read a word of Cyrillic.  I didn't know the story line; I was unfamiliar with the music.

Russia was new to me then.  I knew little of its history, except through the lens of the Cold War - little of its culture - art, music, literature.  I had never read War and Peace, seen a Repin painting, or heard a Rimsky-Korsakov symphony.   What I had missed!

Swan Lake was my introduction to Russian culture.  Over the next seven years, I learned.  Concerts, museums, monuments, the homes of Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Chekov, Pasternak, books, poetry, walks though woods, parks, palaces, into churches, villages, cities. . .
But Russia became more to me than history and culture.  It became the people I met, the friendships I made. Natasha, Zhenya, Natalia, Margarita (Rita) and more.

When I saw a notice in the New York Times announcing that Swan Lake would be performed at Lincoln Center this week, I had to go.  I didn't question why. I simply bought a ticket for the Wednesday afternoon matinee and went.

As the theatre darkened, and the orchestra played Tchaikovsky's first notes, I knew why.  I missed Russia. Certainly not the politics, high prices, language that seemed impossible to learn, or hours spent in traffic jams. . . but the beauty.  It's like a thread that connects a Pushkin poem to a Levitan landscape to a Glinka opera to birch branches glistening in the breeze to a cup of tea with a Russian friend.  Illusive, hard to pinpoint, but present.

For 2 1/2 hours on Wednesday, I joyfully experienced Russia again. As the dancers bowed and accepted flowers amidst applause from a standing crowd, I tried to snap a few departing pictures.  But something was missing -- the signature Russian rhytmtic clapping.

Fortunately, I captured part of the curtain call on video from the last Swan Lake we saw in Moscow.



Friday, June 22, 2012

Art in a Cloud

In last week's posting, you'll recall that I was engaged in a philosophical dialogue with a couple of vocal, and quite opinionated, sparrows in City Hall Park about "What is art?"  We've come to no resolution, but have decided upon a truce.

Leaving them to their banterings, I had another opportunity to explore my own opinions about Art at  the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new exhibit, "Cloud City."  A friend and art mentor, Gary Schwartz, head of the Visual Arts Department at LĂ©man Manhattan Preparatory School, sent me an email titled,  "Amazing!!!"  "Check out the new Installation art at the Met.  I'm taking a group of students.  Hope you can join us."

Anticipating my question, "What is Installation art?" Gary sent me a link to the installation of the Installation art.  I watched and googled.

"Installation art describes an artistic genre of three-dimensional works that are often site-specific and designed to transform the perception of a space." (Wikipedia)

Art designed to transform the perception of a space. . . I was intrigued.

I joined Gary, his students and another friend, Nola, on the Roof Garden at the Met, as temperatures on the first day of summer soared to 98 degrees. Sweat trickled down my back as I walked around and into Saraceno's "Cloud," wishing for a cool mist to seep from the steel and glass modules. Despite the heat, I was entranced.

The reflections of light on glass did indeed transform my perception of space beyond the structure to encompass the sky, trees, ground, people, buildings -- everything in its reach. . . ever-changing.


Walking along the stairways inside, stepping from one pod to another, felt like being inside a puzzle.  Nola and I followed the path up, down, in, out and through as one shape attached to the next.  I often caught glimpses of three, four, even five of me. A sign stating, "500 lb. limit," reassured me as I descended onto a clear pentagon, with nothing but hard concrete below.  It was a matter of trust.  It was art, like I had never experienced it.

Continuing to ponder the "What is art?" question, I asked Gary for his thoughts. . .

"When you challenge people's perceptions about accepted societal norms, when you engage more than one person in a dialogue about a common subject, when you satisfy your own need of self-expression whether it is shown in public or in your own den in the suburbs, if it is honest and speaks to your aesthetic integrity, it is indeed a work of art." 

Perhaps I'll share my experience and Gary's insights with the birds at City Hall Park, or perhaps they'll hear about it long before I get back.  It turns out that one of their cousins was watching.

Friday, June 15, 2012

What's a Huge, Inflatable Ketchup Bottle Doing in the Middle of the Park?

City Hall Park is one of my favorite places to sit.  Early mornings are especially nice before it fills up with people.

The fountain gracefully arches its water from four corners into the center, creating a continuous flow of refreshing sounds. Gas lamps flicker on both sides, reminiscing about earlier years. Sunlight filters through crowded branches; flowers brighten shaded corners.

Most benches are empty, with only an occasional person walking though on the way to work, or to Starbucks for that second cup of coffee.  In the quietness, I can actually hear birds singing.  If I'm very still, an especially curious sparrow will perch beside me and strike up a conversation.

That's when I first heard about the ketchup bottle.  The birds were all a-twitter about it, in their old-fashioned, pre-cell phone kind of way.

"Have you seen it?" one of them chirped.  "It's unsightly, takes up the whole space."
"Yes, and they even call it art!" replied another, his beak upturned in haughty disbelief.

Hurrying to catch up, I followed them to the Park Row entrance.

There it stood, towering above me like a mini red skyscraper in the middle of precisely planted
shrubs. . .  a gigantic ketchup bottle.  A lady, sipping her cup of Starbucks, joined me as we stared higher and higher, towards the smiling face at the top.

"What is an inflatable ketchup bottle doing here?" she asked.
"I have no idea," I answered, then noticed a powder blue plaque out of the corner of my eye.

The bird was right. It's art.

I began to scout around and discovered other powder blue plaques scattered around the park.  I felt like I was on a scavenger hunt, with most of the sculptures tucked under trees or even stretched out across the ground.  One that I found particularly intriguing was a speaker's lectern, seemingly waiting for a speaker.  The plaque states that the artist "amplifies its symbolism by placing it in a public place, making it accessible both as a physical object and a vehicle for communication."

                                           "Now, Speak! 2011" by Amalia Pica

I won't spoil the fun for those of you living in New York City, or visiting before the exhibit ends on November 30, 2012.  You can enjoy searching for the other sculptures yourself.  If you won't be in the vicinity before then, you can still see the pieces on the website Common Ground.

The sign on the City Hall Park gate indicates that there are 10 sculptures.  So far, I have found only nine.  The birds and I continue to search for the last one while we engage in an on-going dialogue. . .
"What is art?"


Friday, June 8, 2012

A Boat Ride and a Bag of Meatballs

It's a glistening New York City day.  "Glistening" seems the perfect word as I stare down at the sun's jewel-like reflections on the East River.  A barge goes by, a yellow water taxi, then the waterway is clear of boat traffic as far as I can see, from the 27th floor of our building above the Brooklyn Bridge. There's a peacefulness about the water, especially in the morning, when a cool breeze blows across its surface and sweeps through the city.

But there are days when gazing at the water isn't enough; I want to be on it.  I need a different perspective of the city, from the outside looking in.  Luckily, I've found the perfect way to achieve this goal, which is FREE and includes sightseeing and shopping!

I grab my purse, a hat, and walk the quick 10 minutes to Pier 11, located at the corner of South Street and Wall Street.  Ferries go and come from here to points including Brooklyn, Long Island, New Jersey and seasonally to Yankee Stadium, Martha's Vineyard and more.  My destination is Brookyn's IKEA, probably the only IKEA in the world which can be accessed by land and water.  I purchase my ticket for $5, for which I will receive credit at the store. ( I "have" to buy at least $10 of IKEA goods on a weekday for the credit, but who can leave there without spending $10, anyway, even if nothing you purchase was on your list when you walked in?)

As addicting as IKEA may be to a shopper, it's not the destination but the journey there that excites me today. 

 The 20-minute boat ride turns Manhattan into a picture postcard and allows me to breathe.

As I glance back towards the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, they appear to be stretching, lengthening as distance expands viewpoint.

Even the Statue of Liberty, from her distant perch, seems to be saying, "Take me along; I could use a change of scenery."

Sitting on the top of the water taxi, I feel delightfully windblown, as we pull into the IKEA dock.  
Walking the short distance to the store, I have only one item on my mental list - a bag of frozen Swedish meatballs, just like those they serve in the cafeteria.  Ummm. . . not quite $10?  I'll take two.  

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