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Worth a closer look?
Doctor Zhivago on íGBH, Rembrandt at the MFA, Balanchine at Boston Ballet
JEFFREY GANTZ

"God is in the details" may have first been uttered by Gustave Flaubert ("Le bon Dieu est dans le detail"), but these days the aphorism is most often attributed to the Dutch-descended architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and little wonder: from Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden on through to Bosch and Bruegel and then Rembrandt and Vermeer and the innumerable landscapes and still lifes, it could be a definition of Dutch and Flemish art. "Rembrandtís Journey: Painter ē Draftsman ē Etcher," which opened this past Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts, is a voyage into the kind of detail you might have thought only God could imagine. A lesser artist would have made it his "Unimaginable Density of Being," but Rembrandtís work is also light, lit in a way that neither darkness nor density can comprehend. What the Neo-Platonist Botticelli is to Annunciation, Rembrandt is to Incarnation.

The incarnation of "Rembrandtís Journey" at the MFA (in February the show will go on to the Art Institute of Chicago, its only other stop) is close to a gift from Heaven. It comprises 218 pieces, of which some 20 are oils and some 30 drawings; the rest are etchings and etching plates. The primacy of "Painting" in the title aside, this is not a show of great Rembrandt oils: you wonít see The Syndics of the Cloth Guild or "The Jewish Bride" or "The Night Watch." But thatís no reason for gnashing of teeth. This artistís genius manifests itself in the tiniest of details. "Rembrandtís Journey" is primarily an etching show, and his etching is all about detail.

At the MFA, the journey has been subdivided into many mini journeys, panels of up to half a dozen works that demonstrate Rembrandtís handling of a particular theme. The museum would appear to have taken its cue from its neighbor the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museumís 2000 show "Rembrandt Creates Rembrandt: Art and Ambition in Leiden 1629Ė1631," one of that museumís one-room, single-theme jewels; instead of being confronted with more than 200 works, youíre invited to look at and think about a few at a time, in the context of a unifying idea. The presentation is very approximately chronological, but you can start anywhere and focus on the themes ó mostly Biblical, but there are also landscapes and portraits ó that most interest you. The one thing you canít do is go in without a magnifying glass. Iím not exaggerating: you can see the oils and the drawings all right, but if you try to look at the etchings with the naked eye, youíll miss out on 95 percent of "Rembrandtís Journey." If you donít have a glass to bring from home, the MFA will sell you a fine one at the door for $3.

The MFA painting thatís on the cover of the paperbound catalogue, The Artist in His Studio (circa 1628), provides a general introduction to this artist. He deals in lifeís ambivalences and ambiguities, so heís not going to tell us whether the subject is Rembrandt van Rijn or a friend of Rembrandtís or just EveryArtist. He shows us the artistís palettes, the artistís whetstone, even the grooves in the easel crossbar where the artist places his feet. But youíll have to decide for yourself why the artist seems to be swaddled in clothes that are too big (the ones Rembrandt is hoping to grow into?), why heís nowhere near the easel, why the canvas on the easel is so huge, why it has its back to us, and why the light in the room seems to be emanating from it. Even the size of this painting seems a sly joke: itís just 10 by 12 inches.

The etchings, on the other hand, mostly describe a battle between light and dark. The Adoration of the Shepherds, who itís clear have come at night, is so black, youíll need the magnifying glass to make out the visitors with their lantern, and Mary as she reveals to them the sleeping Jesus, and Joseph, whoís reading ó by firelight? Or does the light emanate from Jesus? The Stars of the Kings depicts a Twelfth Night procession in similar terms, with the only light coming from the pinwheel star. The three states of Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves show the typical shift in Rembrandtís point of view from outer world to inner, from the chaotic detail, à la Bosch or Bruegel, of the first to the nightmare limbo and sheeting light of the third. The illumination of the first Entombment suggests candles in a crypt and a small gathering of the faithful laying Jesus, with his frozen face, to rest; in the third, darkness has enveloped the scene and only that frozen face is visible, a light departing this world.

Rembrandtís "light" also takes the form of white space: the brown-ink drawing Christ Carrying the Cross looks almost like a Picasso, and "Winter Landscape" is so bare, scholars arenít certain whether the season is winter or summer. But what in the end stamps him as a great artist is his ability to make humanity out of almost nothing, whether itís Maryís rapt expression in The Adoration of the Shepherds or the smirking faces of Sarah and Isaac (heís in the shadows at the extreme left) in Abraham Casting Out Hagar and Ishmael. There is, it seems, nothing Rembrandt canít show us ó and nothing he doesnít want to.

LIKE REMBRANDT, GEORGE BALANCHINE was a master of the obvious: his simple things, done right, have the look of divine creation. Last weekend, it was Boston Balletís task to do things right, with the help of guest artist Ethan Stiefel from American Ballet Theatre, yet another member of ABTís Born To Be Wild quartet. Called "Stars and Stripes," the program had Balanchineís Mozartiana (1981) and Stars and Stripes (1958) sandwiching David Dawsonís The Grey Area, which got its premiere last year from the Dutch National Ballet. I had thought Mozartiana, which Balanchine redid for Suzanne Farrell, would have too much gravity for an opener, but it became almost lighthearted in juxtaposition with the purgatorial gloom of Dawsonís work, which in turn gave Stars and Stripes more weight than it often has at the end of an all-Balanchine program. (Marcia Siegelís take on this production is in the "Dance" section.)

When the curtain rose on The Grey Area and I saw the immense gray curtain stage left, my first thought was the Berlin Wall, but the sonic booms of Niels Lanzís electronic score suggested Gavin Bryarsís The Sinking of the Titanic, whereupon the wall became the hull of the great liner and the sub-aqueous movement began to recall Elisa Monteís Treading. The five dancers (opening night they were Adriana Suárez, Sarah Lamb, Yury Yanowsky, Lorna Feijóo, and Sabi Varga), wearing not much more than the rags of their souls, start facing the wall; Suárez moves away from it with Lamb and Yanowsky, then returns to "collect" Feijóo and Varga. A period of yearning and stretching but not much connecting culminates in a duet for Lamb and Yanowsky that had some breathtaking lifts. The duet for Suárez and Varga ends in his walking away from her; thereís an interlude in which all five dancers, each in his or her lane, retreat upstage writhing like tortured sea anemones before running back downstage and starting over; then Feijóo dances with Varga before the work returns more or less to where it started, Feijóo and Varga now in medias res, the other three moving out from the wall, Suárez distanced from Lamb and Yanowsky.

These last two in particular created meaning out of sheer speed and extension, and overall there was no lack of energy or commitment, but after four viewings I still had no sense of where the piece is moving to (if in fact itís moving anywhere), whether the three duets are distinguished from one another in any way or just represent dancers blowing in the Infernal wind like Paolo and Francesca. The second cast ó Romi Beppu, Larissa Ponomarenko, Jared Redick, Sarah Lamb, and Raul Salamanca ó seemed a hair less committed, or maybe just less rehearsed.

Set to Tchaikovskyís Fourth Suite, with the Ave Verum Corpus Preghiera ("prayer") third movement placed first, Mozartiana is a novel kind of totentanz, death and afterlife in black and white, for a ballerina (Farrell, in black with a white tulle underskirt) and her partner (white shirt and tights, black vest), a psychopomp jester (black with white trim), and eight women (four corps members, four students, all in black). As in 1994, when the company last did this piece, Ponomarenko was Blessed VirginĖlike, devout, otherworldly, almost ecstatic. Stiefel was big, soft, and centered; together they brought to mind the Count and the Countess of Le nozze di Figaro. Suárez and Miao Zong, on the other hand, were Susanna and Figaro. More earthbound than Ponomarenko, more naive and yet more knowing, Suárez was as moving as Iíve ever seen her, from the anguished extension of her clenched hands in the Preghiera to the witty withholding of that last step in the first two phrases of the Theme and Variationsí first variation. Zong wasnít exactly a raffish Figaro, but he danced cleanly (his sixth variation entrechats were particularly limpid) and partnered her with attentive grace. As the man in black, Nelson Madrigal moved with disarming ease, the suggestiveness of his steps suggesting the transitory nature of life. Jared Redick was more solicitous in delineating the choreography (itís clear heís improved his technique over the summer) but left me wondering whether Death should have to work so hard. The corps members and students didnít lack for effort, but sometimes it seemed that arms and legs were assuming positions rather than flowing into them. Doing simple Balanchine just right is hard enough; doing it to Tchaikovskyís Mozart is almost impossible.

Stars and Stripes almost seems to do itself, but thatís just Balanchine making the impossible look easy. Its Five Campaigns ó all named after marches by John Philip Sousa ó combine the sensibilities of a West Point weekend and a John Ford Western, with Liberty Bellís yellow feather like the ribbon that Joanne Dru puts in her hair in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Itís both a salute to and a send-up of the American í50s; you canít tell whether the cadets and the drum majorettes are part of a war machine or a football gameís halftime marching band.

Iím not sure why Boston Ballet wanted to stage this piece: as opposed to solo performers who can do Balanchineís steps and imbue them with feeling (which this company has), it calls for the kind of precision-drilled corps that the Paris Opera Ballet showed off in its Balanchine program earlier this month. The company did Stars and Stripes back in 1969, but to my knowledge the only part of it Boston has seen since is the El CapitánĖLiberty Bell duet that Jock Soto and Lourdes Lopez performed as the finale of the "Principal Dancers of NYCB" tour that came to the Shubert Theatre in October of 1993. The ladies of the Corcoran Cadets and the Rifle Regiment can get their legs up and kick just fine (so who needs the Rockettes?), but as in Mozartiana limbs donít snap into place, and ensemble isnít sharp. This choreography is hard to do when you donít do it all the time.

Kudos to the Thunder and Gladiator men, however, for the quartet of double tours landed square and on the button, and especially to leader Christopher Budzynski, who melded big technique to Mickey Rooney swagger. As Liberty Bell and El Capitán, Sarah Lamb and Ethan Stiefel were as iconic as Cathy Downs and Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine, Lamb exquisite in her positions, Stiefel hick-humorous in attitude and in his secondes executing jawdropping little hops on his standing leg. Pollyana Ribeiro and Nelson Madrigal were more playful; Lorna Feijóo and Yury Yanowsky, so well-matched the week before as Kitri and Basilio, looked like refugees from a Howard Hawks film. I wonder whether Feijóo might have worked better with Madrigal (whoís her husband) and Ribeiro with Yanowsky. Most notable of the other soloists were Lamb (just a little tentative) leading the Corcoran Cadets and Melanie Atkins (the right attitude but not quite the weight) and Barbora Kohoutková (the spirit but not the speed) heading the Rifle Regiment. For all that the performances were a little ragged, I found them warmer than the one time I saw NYCB do Stars and Stripes, February 2000, with Wendy Whelan and Damian Woetzel.

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO offers detail on an entirely different scale. Boris Pasternakís 1957 epic begins around the turn of the century and follows Yurii Andreievich to his death in 1929, tacking on an epilogue from 1943. The novel pinpoints ó Pasternak was also a poet, after all ó but it also elides, and it often reads more like an essay, Pasternakís voice obliterating those of his characters. David Lean made what he could of this in his 200-minute 1965 film, shaping and simplifying it into a glossy romantic melodrama and getting accurate performances from Rod Steiger (Viktor Komarovsky), Tom Courtenay (Pavel Antipov), and Alec Guinness (Evgraf Zhivago) and heartfelt ones from Omar Sharif (Yurii), Julie Christie (Lara Antipova), and Geraldine Chaplin (Tonia Zhivago).

Now Masterpiece Theatreís puzzlingly titled "American Collection" is bringing us a 240-minute British remake. The idea, I presume, is to be truer to the novel, and itís been realized to some extent: Lara misses Viktor when she tries to shoot him at the Sventitskysí Christmas party; Lara is present when Tonia delivers her second child; Pavel turns up at Varykino and talks with Yurii after Lara has left with Viktor. But huge chunks of the novel are still missing, notably the last eight or 10 years of Yuriiís life, when he returns to Moscow, goes to seed, takes up with Marina Markelovich, and has two daughters before dying of that heart attack (and no, itís not because he sees Lara). This version also dispenses with Evgraf, Yuriiís half-brother, and instead of a daughter, Yurii and Lara have a cute little boy whose freedom becomes the final image. The real problems here, though, are that the script is hopelessly English ("I donít think you give tuppence for me," Pavel says to Lara at one point) and that, Sam Neillís magnificent weasel of a Komarovsky (Steiger was more bearish) aside, the actors give small performances, from Hans Mathesonís Hugh-Grant-as-a-young-buck Yurii to Keira Knightleyís makes-Julie-Christie-seem-Russian Lara. The best I can say for this Zhivago is that itíll make you appreciate Leanís original.

 


Issue Date: October 31 - November 6, 2003
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