Clear, Afternoon of a Faun, and Fancy Free

The American Ballet Theatre at the New York City Center on Saturday, October 28.

When selecting which dance repertory programs to see, I usually pick based on strong interest in one particular piece. When I actually attend, however, that special piece is rarely my favorite and occasionally a disappointment. It’s a fun reminder that although I’ve studied music and film and theater, dance is still new to me, and I really don’t know what I’m doing when I make my choices.

Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, Meadow, and In the Upper Room

The American Ballet Theatre at the New York City Center on Tuesday, October 24.

I will never forget the sold-out performance of Oroonoko I saw in a small black-box theater. It was a new play, based on Aphra Behn’s seventeenth-century novel and produced by a revered theater company, and I had been excited to see it. My excitement quickly died. The writing was hackneyed and shallow and simplistic—offensively so. Not one character was more than a stereotype, not one plot turn was organic, not one would-be tragic moment earned the emotion it tried to wrench from my tear ducts. I hated the play … and when it was over, everyone around me burst into wild applause and gave it a standing ovation. I have rarely felt so alone at a theatrical performance.

I experienced a similar feeling of alienation of the conclusion of Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room Tuesday night. Set to Philip Glass’ relentless minimalism, the cluttered, graceless choreography bored and annoyed me. I was relieved when the work finally ended and mystified that seemingly everyone around me loved it.

The Prestige

In theaters.

The Prestige is one of those movies with a big final act twist, a plot device about which I have extremely mixed feelings. I love a challenging, surprising story as much as anyone, but I hate when the twist becomes the whole point. If the only question worth pondering in a story is What’s the twist?, that’s not a story worth telling.

The Prestige, however, raises many questions beyond the What?, which is why it doesn’t matter that any observant moviegoer can puzzle out the movie’s secrets before the official revelation. After all, director Christopher Nolan, who cowrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, plays fair, lacing the film with clues, both traditional and figurative, hinting metaphorically at the revelations to come. The Nolan brothers don’t need to make a fetish of the twist, concealing it with falsehoods and pointless distractions, because What? is not nearly so interesting a question as Why? and What next?, even What are the moral implications of the twist? and What might the twist symbolize?. The Nolan brothers know what notorious twist-abuser M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t: A great twist isn’t a gimmick; it’s the heart of the story.

Glow – Stop, Sinatra Suite, Known by Heart, and The Green Table

The American Ballet Theatre at the New York City Center on Thursday, October 19.

I love going to the ballet, but I attend as much for the music as the dancing. When I choose my tickets for the season, I consider the composers as well as the choreographers, and my enjoyment of the performances depends a great deal on how well I think the movements interpret the music. I’m not sure that’s the best way to evaluate dance—it’s actually quite limited—but for one who majored in music in college, it’s probably unavoidable.

My focus on the relationship between movement and music led to enormous frustration with choreographer Jorma Elo’s new work, Glow - Stop, for the American Ballet Theatre. Elo has an extremely distinctive style: a sort of hyper-kineticism that turns the dancers into perpetual motion machines. The steps are intricate and physically demanding, and Elo seems to employ them indiscriminately, regardless of the style or contour of the music he is using.

Cold Case

Sundays at 9 p.m. on CBS. Season four in progress.

People who don’t like police procedurals often point out that they’re formulaic, one episode interchangeable with the next. As one who rather likes police procedurals, I respond, “Well … yeah.” It is, in fact, the formula that keeps me coming back. As simple and familiar as comfort food, the police procedural formula is the small-screen equivalent of macaroni and cheese after a long day at work. After all, it isn’t just any formula; it’s a primal one. Someone commits a great moral transgression, and someone else uncovers it. Watching that happen is a kind of ritual: entry into an illusory world in which wrongs are righted and the truth is revealed.

The creators of Cold Case understand that ritual. The CBS procedural, now in its fourth season, follows not only a narrative formula but also an aesthetic one. Using the same distinctive visual and auditory techniques each week, Cold Case serves as a lovely example of the genre, artfully singing each episode’s new stanza before returning to the show’s familiar refrain.

The Queen

In theaters.

Helen Mirren was born to play royalty. Many actors can exude the condescension, self-assurance, and entitlement of aristocracy, but Mirren can do so without sacrificing her character’s humanity and vulnerability: a real feat. In The Queen, Mirren dramatizes one of Elizabeth II’s least sympathetic moments—the Windsors’ tone-deaf handling of Princess Diana’s death—and turns Queen Elizabeth’s plight into real tragedy, an aging woman’s realization that she has lost touch with contemporary culture, that her once-lauded stoicism is no longer valued in the pornographically emotional world of talk shows and tabloids and reality TV.

Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Peter Frears, The Queen is a sort of docudrama comedy of manners about the tension between Her Royal Highness and the newly elected prime minister, Tony Blair, played by Michael Sheen. In retrospect, I find it remarkable that the filmmakers managed to make such a compelling movie out of a story without any real “action,” just people watching the news on television and making agitated (but oh-so-polite) telephone calls. And yet all 97 minutes of nonaction—especially the scenes between Mirren and Sheen—are thoroughly absorbing.

L’Enfant et les sortilèges and Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3

The New York Philharmonic on Friday, October 6.

Sneering at melody is one of the classic postures of the music snob. To describe a composer as a “mere melodist” is to condemn his or her work as shallow crowd-pleasing: pretty tunes with nothing of substance underneath them. I usually dismiss that sort of criticism. It underestimates how difficult it is to write a truly memorably melody, and it often overlooks the other qualities of the music in question.

But in the case of Camille Saint-Saëns’ third symphony, well, I think it’s the sort of work that gives melody a bad name in critical circles. I enjoy much of the composer’s other music, but listening to the so-called Organ Symphony, I recall Claude Debussy’s great put-down: “I have a horror of sentimentality, and I cannot forget its name is Saint-Saëns.”