Consider the late Rudolf Nureyev, who transformed ballet's nobly neutral male image into that of a tempestuous firebrand. Also, think about the uniquely enduring Plácido Domingo, still stageworthy at 78, with a vibrant voice that refuses to wear out. And know this: Both are beyond acclaim.
The daring Russian dancer's early years, up to his notorious escape from Soviet authorities -- he defected at Paris' Bourget Airport in 1961-- now rolls out as a feature film, courtesy of Ralph Fiennes' captivating bio-pic, "White Crow." Catch it while you can, preferably in a theater.
Ditto for the record-breaking singer and general director of LA Opera, currently heading the cast -- in his 151st role, that's right -- at the Music Center Pavilion in "El Gato Montés," a zarzuela sure to make Spanish speakers happy, not to mention countless others.
Domingo, a baritone now that his high tenorial notes are elusive, portrayed the titular wildcat. He sings with the gusto of a brave outlaw and the heart of a love-lorn romantic. His voice still boasts that electric timbre and he delivers it with ample heft. But while this quasi-anti-hero commands the stage as a fearsome fugitive returning to claim his sweetheart, there's also a streak of tenderness in his demeanor, a quality he commonly brings to his characterizations.
And lest you think of zarzuela as a Viennese operetta that ends in smiles -- it's Spanish here, instead of German -- beware: this one concludes as tragedy, with all three principals in its love triangle dead. Yet the milieu is mostly that of entertainment, with flamenco-inspired dances, lots of ensemble singing and standard storybook narrative.
Storybook, also, is the essence of Nureyev's career beginnings, as told in "White Crow," although its realism, its black-and-white scenes of Ufa, the small town of his childhood, cry out from the grim, starvation poverty he lived with -- which is astonishingly opposite the luxurious life that stardom and money madness quickly afforded him (as the owner of several houses and an island off the Amalfi coast, as the darling of the whole international celebrity set).
Director Fiennes, who also plays the famed Vaganova teacher Alexander Pushkin, made a splendid picture, with David Hare's script based on Julie Kavanagh's cut-to-the-quick biography. Both its images and characterizations resonate long after leaving the theater.
All that we know about Rudy, reasonably portrayed by the dancer Oleg Ivenko, comes into view: his zeal for learning and accomplishment, his obsessive hunger for artistic experience (that even included conducting when physically forced to give up the stage). Only his sharp wit and glints of darkness went missing.
Early scenes in Leningrad, when, as an academy student he ordered government officials out of the rehearsal studio, show his forceful temperament, his defiance of authority. And once, when company dancers asked what he thought of a Kirov Ballet performance he was struck from, he said: "I did not see it. I went to a concert."
Also, he joined groups that debated intellectual issues. He spent much time in museums gazing at paintings. This Rudy gobbled up life, in all ways, as the world beat a path to his magnetic door -- even Pushkin's wife seduced him in the couple's one-room Soviet apartment.
Smartly, Fiennes cuts back and forth in time sequences. So once we've followed bits of the handsome star's compelling, fully-forged performances, he returns us to the eight-year-old's private folk dance session, in the grainy black-and-white-shot studio, his determined grasp of its idiom, each step, each arm gesture an exercise in precise, strong-backed gusto. A marvelous scene.
But, as usual with camera directors who are not dance mavens, the adult Rudy's performances go for close-ups that cut off the full picture, losing the ankles and feet. Shameless.
Nothing was lost, though, when Mirga (remember her?) Grazinyte-Tyla made an only return visit to the LA Philharmonic podium since giving birth to the son who will keep her at home for a while in Birmingham. We were happy for the catch-up. She's grown in experience, commandeering her whole program -- Debussy's "La Mer" had palpable excitement, its inherent drama full of contrasting urgency; Unsuk Chin's "Spira" dealt a sense of mystic sound absorption -- but her collaboration with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja was off the interpretive charts.
They were each other's match. Or rather Mirga sensed the Moldavan-born soloist's every brain wave, giving her a freedom with the Tchaikovsky concerto that led to revelation after revelation.
For this was not the mere virtuosic rendering of time-honored, beloved music, it was a new reading -- one so personalized that it seemed like the singing of an art song, intimate, present-tense, the musing over a thought, a word, a simile, the quiet spaces in a conversation, so quiet, at moments, it could be played in a sleeping child's room.
And wouldn't you know, some heaped criticism on her -- for not being strictly by the book. Neither was the physical image of Kopatchinskaja (remember that name, accent on skaja).
She arrived onstage in baggy tuxedo-like dress and red slides, which she slipped out of during performance (the better to grasp the floor bare-foot while moving this way and that). But her technique was solidly in command, ripping when need be. No fault there. And let me say that it's nothing less than formidable for a musician to re-think a warhorse and individualize it with stellar ideas for further illumination.
But for Igor Levit, a musician who has forged his whole body into the function of his art, to drop half of that unit in a prescriptively limited performance like the Ravel, now that's a feat. A noticeable feat.
Such was the experience of seeing the Russian pianist play Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand. Yes, he went at the piece with his expected powers of persuasion, Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Philharmonic.
Because of his normal whole-body immersion, though, it seemed an unnatural effort, with that right hand grabbing the edge of the sound board frame in compensation for its uselessness. Bottom line: he's not the sort who can easily leave behind one arm/hand. No fault of his.
Salonen, though, has evolved in his conducting style. No longer does he compulsively wave every beat of music. The orchestra gets it by now. And thereby he can give more focus to a score's nuances. He can excel in music that is not primarily percussive or big-throated. And so he did on this latest excursion to Disney. But he also returned to his specialty, Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps," or, as it's usually called here, "Rite of Spring."
Just as the Russian composer, an LA resident for many years, found sensational vitality in his brilliant mix of the primitive and the contemporary, so does Salonen (now the San Francisco Symphony director/elect) live out a kinship with those elements. What's more, he absolutely makes riveting work out of the complex rhythmic punctuations. Galvanizing, to say the least.
And wasn't there something galvanizing about the Night of 100 Solos at UCLA's Royce Hall? That is, the simultaneous three-city staging in honor of Merce Cunningham's centenary on the very date of his birth?
The undertaking itself -- in London, New York and Los Angeles -- was a globally-streamed, world-wide proclamation of an Event, the avant-garde choreographer's name for many of his presentations. Those were invariably abstract movement essays calling on such artists as Robert Rauschenberg and, of course, his partner composer John Cage.
But this time, the man who exploded the whole modern dance idiom 7 decades ago and saw others build a shrine to his aesthetic of chance and his rare cosmic humor, was nowhere to be seen, of course. He died at 90. Still, we had all been im-"merced."
The wizened imp, this sublime trickster who gave the unique spark to his ensemble's ever-abstract maneuvers, left his fans a sleek enterprise, one with balletic postures, stretched and arcing limbs and pointed toes.
Still, what materialized on the Royce Hall stage was compelling. Not so much because of the well-trained dancers whose random entries and exits, relating or soloing, proceeded over 90 minutes, but because of the enthralling animation of digital projections (trees, fabrics, flowers) that extend 38 feet high and 23 feet wide. Simply gorgeous. Mesmerizing in their sweeping, fluctuating movement. By comparison, they made the performers before us small and uninteresting. Too bad. In its self-important purity, this Event failed to mention a word about the man who stood as the creative reason for it all.