French Masters of the 20th Century

The Paris Opera Ballet at the Lincoln Center Festival on Thursday, July 11.

Back in October 2008, when I attended a performance of the San Francisco Ballet, I ruefully wondered whether "the New York City Ballet has brainwashed me more than I realize." Nearly four years later, having just seen the Paris Opera Ballet perform, I'm sure of it—in part because I quarrel with the whole idea of brainwashing. Choreographer George Balanchine's crisp, coolly beautiful, exquisitely musical work—which comprises the bulk of the City Ballet repertory and influences much of the rest—is simply superior to most other choreography, is it not? I mean, I'm exaggerating a bit for effect there. Variety is a good thing, and I don't really want all ballet to follow his distinct brand of neoclassicism, but I have to admit that style has become my preference, even when I'm presented with one of the oldest, greatest ballet companies in the world performing masterful work of their own.

One Man, Two Guvnors

Now playing at the Music Box on Broadway.

A comic actor breaking character, or corpsing, by dissolving into laughter generally isn't considered particularly professional. That's one of the reasons that Jimmy Fallon's SNL career, while successful, often isn't afforded much respect: he was notorious for giggling through half his skits. But a flat condemnation of corpsing doesn't work either because, in moderation at least, audiences tend to enjoy moments when the actors themselves start to laugh. Some of my favorite segments of The Daily Show, for example, have been when Jon Stewart is talking with one of the correspondents, and the satire is so absurd that both are clearly on the verge of cracking, and first one does and then the other, and then they pull it together only to break again. Laughter is infectious, and watching that infection spread can be hilarious.

But those moments still constitute a break of sorts—or we're taught to think that way—so I was surprised at first when James Corden, the Tony-winning lead of One Man, Two Guvnors, started breaking into unabashed, out-of-character fits of laughter. It was funny and endearing, but so different from what I had expected that I was a bit taken aback. Eventually, I realized that the performance was even stranger than I'd first thought, for some moments that look like corpsing eventually reveal themselves to be part of the performance; they don't represent a loss of control but rather complete control—which startled me even more.

One Man, Two Guvnors is an adaptation of the eighteenth-century Italian Servant of Two Masters, a famous work of commedia dell'arte, so perhaps this kind of toying with the fourth wall (to use a more contemporary turn of phrase) is an element of that genre. (I confess my knowledge of classic Italian theater is pretty shallow.) Regardless, it contributes to the oddly disorienting nature of One Man, which, in its fervent embrace of commedia dell'arte, manages to be both gleefully frivolous and unmistakably academic. It's a lot of fun and very, very funny, but I never could quite settle on what to make of eccentric duality.

Links of the week, 7/13/2012

These days, I always feel a bit like I'm scrambling, trying to write and cover my freelance copyediting work and maintain some semblance of a life, but I actually have links this week—mostly music-related, for some reason.

Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 19.

After the showstopping tragic-rock-star flash of the Alexander McQueen exhibit last summer, the Met's Costume Institute seems to have swung all the way in the opposite direction. This summer's exhibit is a cerebral, fashion-nerd pairing of the work of two designers, Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada, with relatively little in common—so little, in fact, that the combination is inscrutable at first. The two women are several generations apart (Schiaparelli was born in 1890, Prada in 1949), with such different attitudes toward and approaches to fashion that the comparisons and contrasts drawn between their work often feel cute but shallow: Schiaparelli emphasized a woman's head and torso, while Prada focuses attention on legs and feet! Okay, then. So?

It turns out the "So?" is where the exhibit comes to life. Inspired, apparently, by a series of "Imaginary Interviews" that ran in Vanity Fair in the 1930s, the curators truly have imagined what a conversation between Schiaparelli (who died in 1973) and today's Prada might sound like. They highlight writings and interviews with the designers, of course, but then, in their most audacious choice, they invited director Baz Luhrmann to create videos in which "Schiaparelli" (a heavily made-up Judy Davis) and Prada converse over a long dining table. And as whimsically bizarre as those videos are, they're not frivolous. They engage with the designers' ideas and philosophies and inspirations—riffing on Schiaparelli's documented thoughts and a probing interview of Prada—and in that, they're fascinating.

Cloud City

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through November 4.

Visiting Tomás Saraceno's Cloud City, this summer's Met rooftop installation, inevitably provokes memories of Doug and Mike Starn's Big Bambú, the 2010 installation. Both are enormous structures that one can walk through; both encourage participants to seek new vantage points from which to view Central Park and the structure itself; and both come equipped with considerable academic-intellectual justifications of their artfulness.

But only with Big Bambú did I truly buy what that academic-intellectual justification was selling. The organically constructed, gorgeously chaotic Bambú stirred in me an aesthetic response, an emotional response, while the architectural Cloud leaves me cold. Cloud is undoubtedly cool—it's "participatory" and fun to tromp around in—but unlike Bambú (also "participatory" and fun), it doesn't seem to transcend that kind of shallow experience. No matter what kind of big words you use to describe it, it's still just a high-end jungle gym for grown-ups.

Brave

In theaters.

In some ways, Brave is a disappointingly conventional addition to Pixar Animation's acclaimed oeuvre. The protagonist is a princess, the story follows a traditional fairy tale path, and the humor indulges in some uninspired stereotyping and a few dumb, shoehorned pop culture gags that I consider beneath the beloved studio.

At the same time, the voice acting is delightful, the animation is breathtakingly lovely, and the two central characters, a girl and her mother, are drawn with heartfelt nuance. Princess or not, a female protagonist struggling with a nonromantic relationship is unusual in American cinema, and Brave movingly handles its strained mother-daughter bond. Perhaps only the astronomically high expectations that Pixar's name engenders make Brave disappointing. I still laughed, I still gasped, and even minor Pixar makes me cry.