May 31st, 2011

Milwaukee Ballet, "Coppelia"

On Sunday afternoon May 22nd, we saw a very fine production of Leo Delibes' ballet "Coppelia," as delivered by the Milwaukee Ballet, with the original choreography by Arthur Saint-Leon augmented with new work by Michael Pink. The story of the mechanical doll that is mistaken for human is one of several works adapted from E.T.A. Hoffman's story,  Der Sandmann.

It was a different, but equally enjoyable, performance to that one that we had seen at the Vienna Staatsoper. I recall that ballet as being very technically brilliant, with great power and precision in the dancing, but perhaps by contrast with Milwaukee's, a bit remote. Pink is a very fine storytelling choreographer, and it is always easy for the audience to tell what is going on, even in his very lively crowd scenes. There is no doubt, for example, when the lead character, Swanhilda, is telling off her wandering-eyed boyfriend, Franz. The pas de ane when Swanhilda is trying to catch the attention of the Coppelia doll, believing at the time as they all do that she is a real woman, is a masterpiece of growing frustration as the automaton remains oblivious to her efforts. There were some good running gags, such as the Swanhilda's father who hasn't quite accepted yet that he can't keep up with the young men any longer. The ethnic dances such as the Czardas and the Mazurka were redone by Pink (perhaps drawing on Milwaukee's deep folk dance resources) with new authenticity. There were very handsome sets by Desmond Heeley who also provided gorgeous and (mostly)ethnically appropriate costume designs. (The festival dancer outfits which reach back to classical ballet are a not unpleasant exception.)

We saw the Friday/Sunday cast, lead by Julianne Kepley as Swanhilda, and David Hovhannisyan as Franz, both of whom were splendid. Kepley in particular both danced beautifully in a demanding role, but showed good comic timing as in trying to read over Dr. Coppelius' shoulder without his noticing, while the Doctor is trying to enchant the drugged Franz. The role of Coppelius was done as a non-dancing role, and very well done by actor Daniel Mooney. To make Coppelius a non-dancer is one of the standard options for this ballet, but making this choice was one area where we felt the production was weaker than Vienna's, who gave Coppelius a very dynamic dancing role.

We were very pleased with this production overall, and felt that Pink and the Milwaukee Ballet have become a first-class company.

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Burrahobbits, "Under Heaven"

On Tuesday evening, May 24th, the Burrahobbits reading group met at the home of Jan and Jeff Long to discuss"Under Heaven," the most recent novel by Guy Gavriel Kay.  This is the newest of his fantastic historical adaptations, this time set in a milieu approximating the 8th Century T'ang Dynasty, and the events leading up to and into the "An Shi Rebellion" of that time. 

The protagonist, Shen Tai, has been mourning the death of his father, a famous general, by spending two years single handedly burying the dead who had been left lying on the field of the General's greatest victory. This earns him not only the gratitude of the ghosts that haunt the field, but also that of the rulers of the opposing kingdom, who gift him with five hundred of their fine horses--a gift equivalent in value to several emperors' ransoms, and of great political and strategic value that pitches Shen Tai  deeply into the dangerous politics of his homeland.

Shen Tai's challenges work out as threads of the tapestry that also involves an Emperor in his dotage, competing heirs, scheming ministers, ambitious concubines, threatening barbarians, and dissatisfied generals--in short, all the characters one would expect in an epic of Mythic China.

Kay writes a very good story with believable danger and intrigue and a rather surprising denouement, without getting too caught up in "Orientalism" for its own sake. The book was well-liked by the group, and recommended for fans of Kay, and of historical fantasy.

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Wiscon 35, Friday

We got to WisCon a bit after noon Friday the 27th, and as usual, began making connections with friends and acquaintances. We were able to link up with Jeanne Gomoll and Scott Custis early on and gave them custody of the cake that Georgie had prepared for the Tiptree Award 20th "birthday" party that evening. (Cake pictured below.)

We walked and talked our way around the Gathering, dropping off a small donation for the Tiptree Auction as we did so. We also dropped into the Dealers' Room and made arrangements with Darlene Coltrain and Steven Vincent Johnson to go out to dinner the following night. We ran out and got a late lunch/early dinner at Mediterranean Cafe, and got back in time to take in the panel on "Dressing to Make a Statement" which was quite a lot of fun. It was interesting to hear about the contrasts between garb genres which are basically "anything goes," such as current "Steampunk," and those that have more rigid expectations, such as "Lolita" and its various sub-genres.

We went to the Opening Ceremonies, with a very minimalist but humorous quiz-show skit presented by Think Galactic, and then cruised parties until it was time for my first panel, "What is the duty of a citizen?" Rich Novotney gave a good shot at moderating the panel but was a bit overwhelmed by very opinionated (and well-prepared) panelists such as myself, Richard F. Dutcher, and Geoff Ryman, not to mention a motivated and engaged audience. This was a very good and very informative panel that generated a lot of courteous debate about the nature of citizenship and the citizen's relation to the state and other polities. I was very glad to have had Geoff Ryman on the panel, since he, as technically a "subject" of the United Kingdom, gave some non-USA perspectives on the issues. I don't think we ever succeeded in defining "citizen" to the satisfaction of the audience, but some interesting and viable alternatives were proposed (I will write mine up as a separate entry.) After this late panel, we only took a quick look at parties, and then to bed.

We were in and out of the Tiptree party, and I missed the cake cutting due to my panel, but Georgie brought me a piece--. The cake was admired both for its decoration, and for its excellent flavor. The large cake, sixteen inches in diameter, was devoured by grateful guests in a very short time.

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Wiscon 35, Saturday

Saturday, the day began early, with Georgie's panel on "Northerness" which explored the lure of the North in literature and folklore, in particular exploring differences between the European and Canadian/Alaskan views, with a healthy bit of Icelandic lore thrown in. (This panel got written up in "A Momentary Taste of Wiscon" as "only at WisCon do you have the audience and panel simultaneously chanting Norse sagas." Well, it was more like two audience members and two panel members reciting a short section, but still a nice moment. The panel was fun, informative, and well received by an appreciative audience.

I was up next with "Age and Treachery: The Older Fan," which dealt with how fandom has changed, and our strategies for staying current, preserving the good parts of the past, and leading the newer fans into productive paths. There was considerably more "age" than "treachery" on exhibit as I, David Emerson, Gerri Balter, Chip Hitchcock, Jeanne Mealy and Deb Stone reminisced about the better parts of our fannishly mis-spent youths and how to continue the goodness into the future. Regrettably, the audience was neither large nor young overall, but did seem appreciative.

After lunching at the Tiptree Bake sale, we went to the "Traveling Fates" concert in the Assembly room and were very pleased by it. We were not familiar with any of the musicians, but found they gave an excellent performance in a filkish/folkish/rockish genre we enjoy (compares favorably with Tallis Kimberly, or example--).

After that, we dropped in on the "Evolving Animal Intelligence" panel, a topic we are both interested in, and thought the panelists did a very good job of discussing how non-human intelligence in terrestrial creatures might be defined, measured, and differ from the human. They also reviewed the current findings on whales, octopuses, and birds, among other creatures.

Next, we went to the "Bechdel Test in Books" panel, but were rather disappointed. It was a rather narrow topic to begin with, none of the panelists seemed prepared with examples to discuss, and the panel ran out of steam early on. We did not stay until the end.

At dinner break,we went out with Darlene and Steve for an unrepentantly luxurious and delicious dinner at Nadia restaurant on State Street, and came back to the hotel in time to catch part of the Tiptree auction and a sampling of parties before winding up for the night.

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Wiscon 35, Sunday

Sunday morning, we didn't start quite as early, with my first panel being "Ooku" at 10:00AM. We were fortunate to have a scholar of Japanese history and some others very conversant with various genres of manga on the panel, and I thought I made a couple of good points from the Western, male reader standpoint. There was a lot more that could have been mentioned about this very complex work than we had time for, so the panel moved along rapidly and covered a lot of ground. I was a bit surprised that none of the Japanese attendees were on the panel, and also that they all seemed to be in the audience. I wonder what they thought of it? At least they seemed to be enjoying it and didn't laugh when the rest of us weren't--.

After lunch break,I went to my last panel, on "The Evolution of WisCon," while Georgie had "Audacious Women of the Eighteenth Century." While the History panel, including myself, David Emerson, Jeanne Gomoll, Tom Porter, and Bill Humphries was a good panel and brought out some surprising bits, it was poorly attended with a significant number of the audience members, such as "Orange Mike" Lowery and Carl Marrs, being people who could just as well have been on the panel. It appears that fannish history is not a big draw, with most of the attendees being more focused on the present and the future--.

Georgie's audacious women panel was better attended and sparked a lot of interest, as did
Wild Women of the 17th Century" the year before. A synopsis of the panel has been helpfully posted by panelist Cynthia Gonsalves on Livejournal in the WisCon community.

In the next segment, we moved around, bought some things in the Dealers Room (books, natch) and caught bits of the "Lit Up Night" and "Not Another $%&" Race Panel" panels.

Georgie was back on for "Where ie the Indigenous American Fantasy?" panel, which was also a very well-researched and well-presented panel with a number of very passionate and well-informed panelists, and I am sure a lot of audience members went away with ideas to use.

We went out to dinner at Kabul restaurant, accompanied by Mary Prince, and got back in time to relax a bit and change before Guest of Honor speeches. The program was opened by Timmi Duchamp and others giving a very touching and heartfelt tribute to the late Joanna Russ, who had touched the lives of many present. Nisi Shawl's guest of honor speech was a very nice piece on recognizing and nurturing genius around and inside you. It had the distinction of being perhaps the only GoH speech we have had that was in part sung. I'm not sure I share Nisi's enthusiasm for classifying Michael Jackson as a "genius", gifted entertainer that he was, but I must say she made a good case. The program ended with presentations by the Carl Brandon society and the by-now obligatory Tiptree Committee song, honoring this year's winner, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg.

We enjoyed the parties at a bit greater length this evening, noting with pleasure that the tradition of dressing up Sunday night was still being carried on (with some interesting energy from the "Genderfloomp Dance Party" added).  Georgie's ensemble got a lot of compliments, and we went to bed feeling very good about this year's WisCon.

We were feeling tired Monday morning, so just packed up, got breakfast at Michelangelo's, and headed home, but we were very happy with this year's convention in all aspects.

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