The Django Festival AllStars are currently back on tour in the US, and in Philadelphia November 6 for a dynamic one-nighter in the Perelman Theater playing to a crowd of avid fans. Their 90-minute set proved once again that they are the keepers of the flame of the indelible jazz artistry and legacy of guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephan Grappelli,
Reinhardt and Grappelli made more than musical history as Europe’s groundbreaking jazz band Hot Club Quintet in Paris. When the Germans barred jazz as ‘decadent,’ the band was so popular in France, they weren’t shut down, and in some in the band were even part of the French resistance.
This many years later, the music is still hot and The Festival AllStars – accordionist Ludovic Beier, Lead guitarist Samson Schmitt, violinist Pierre Blanchard, Bassist Antonio Liousati, and rhythmic guitarist Philippe Cuillerier- are all virtuoso soloist, together they are joyously a musical band of brothers. Their repertoire includes Reinhardt classics, but mostly they performed their own contemporary compositions which fuses the style of French folkloric, gypsy and American jazz styles. .
The freewheeling 90-minute set of a dozen tunes was kicked off with Samson Schmitt’s flamenco laced guitar solo to ‘Attitude Manouche’ with each player following suit with their own solos.
Next, the band prompted the audience to clap rhythmically to ‘Troublant Romeo’ composed by Pierre Blanchard, as ignited by Ludovic Beier’s rollicking accordion dancing around Schmitt’s steely riffs, then Blanchard taking the floor with a blazing violin lead. Later in the concert, Blanchard’s ‘Nocturne’ starts with a discordant, edgy opening with echoes of Janacek that melt into gorgeous French lyrical lines. Then he flies into a rousing ‘Balkanic Dance.’
Schmitt, Cuillerier and Luiosati’ turned in a smoldering rendition of jazz composer Tchan Tchou Vidal’s 50s classic ‘La Gitane’ arranged for trio.
On Ludovic Beier’s composition ‘Late Train’ starts off as a 20s era foxtrot orchestral before it careens into rollicking big-band swing number. Beier’s hands dancing so fluidly over the dual keyboards of his accordion that one can get transfixed by his precision.
The tune ‘Dorado’s Smile’ is a soulful homage to Dorado Schmitt, who is Samson’s father’s cousin. Dorado guitarist/composer who teamed up with Babik Reinhardt (Django’s son) which led to the formation of the AllStars.
‘Carnegie Hall’ is a comedy number by Philippe Cuillerier’s that was inspired by the panic he experienced the first time he performed in that storied temple of classical music. Cuillerier barks out the lyrics that expose the limits of his voice, but then midway through he starts scat-singing and his voice lands with an impressive range- a combination of bari-tenor growls, feral phrases, and pure manic vocal invention- which blew the roof off to the obvious delight of this audience.
The All-Stars musicians, but it is their immediacy and camaraderie that builds each concert into a musical occasion, and this night, it was greeted with lusty applause throughout from their many Philly fans.
Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra were back in Verizon Hall on October 5th for their season opener that ended18 months away from performing for a live audience. On this night playing to almost packed house for a moving concert program with cello superstar Yo-Yo Ma.
The orchestra was not already onstage as the audience filed in, but instead made their entrance together, and the audience bounded out of their seats to greet them back. In a sartorial switch, the musicians had more modern dress code, sans tails on the men for starters and even maestro Yannick had ruby studs on his shoes. Meanwhile, the crowd had on their required masks, but otherwise were decked out in celebratory outfits- sleek gowns, stylish suits, cocktail hour wraps, studded pumps- giving the evening an added sense of musical occasion.
But the most glittering thing about the night was the program that Nezet-Seguin designed to meet this unique moment. Without ceremony, Yo-Yo Ma entered with the maestro and guest speaker Charlotte Blake Alston. Mr. Ma started to play a somber solo that just engulfed the room and led to Ms. Alston’s invocation for the audience to “stand in the name of human dignity” and spoke to the need for unity in a perilous time and finishing her remarks with a poem by Langston Hughes. Then Ma launched into the Aria from Villa- Lobos’ ‘Cantilena Bachianas Brasileiras’ leading the Philadelphia strings in music that was so appropriate, so reflexive of this moment in time.
From there, without pause, Ma glided into the musical labyrinth of Camille Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto, with its unique structure. Ma performance is completely in the service of the music, from the sustained bowing , dark sonorities, staccato riffs, its joyous lyrical passages to its most profound musical chambers. Ma has been playing the concerto for decades, and still does so with such rapturous immediacy.
Throughout, Ma’s interplay with the orchestra musicians showcases a joyous shared artistry.
The concert was performed without intermission, and Nezet-Seguin spoke about the role that music can play to help heal a traumatized world. And to be together again for the shared expressions of “Joy, reflection, introspection, hopes and dreams.”
He then introduced Valerie Coleman’s ‘Seven O’Clock Shout’ composed in tribute to the front – line workers that saw us through the pandemic. Coleman was inspired by the New Yorkers who banged on pots and shouted their support every evening in solidarity for health care workers, police officers, food service employees, transit workers and who kept serving their communities. The somber atmosphere of the first half of the piece shifts into an orchestral statement of communal solidarity with the musicians shouting out and the percussion banging out a joyful noise of hope.
The closer was Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ which never loses its luster with audiences. Even though the lead solos were sharp, this ‘Bolero’ seemed a tad disjointed in the first half of its slow build symphonics. It all came together midway through, with outstanding solos by Peter Smith (oboe), Daniel Matsukawa (bassoon), Ricardo Morales (clarinet) and the blazing trumpet of Jeffrey Curnow.. When the full strings thundered in, their lustrous depth engulfing Verizon Hall, led by principal violinists David Kim and Kimberly Fisher.
The Fabulous Philadelphians packed their season launch with events, the following night were in New York City for their return to Carnegie Hall performing a completely different program with soloist Yuja Wang, then were back to Philly for a three-concert weekend with a program called American Masters, with pianist Aaron Diehl performing Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’
&Felice&JohnAnthony=et. fuckin’ al. baby nobody walked away empty hearted the corners of the rooms folded up not inside shadow on bluer shadow pulsing resonance concussive dissonance as the body starburst
endlessly through that smashed atom still dancing with Shiva we dance for you&we dance for with you perpetuo molto
on ink-night beholden to our rainbow warriors so mighty real
Graham Greene was one of the 20th century’s most successful novelists, from the droll theatrics of ‘Travels with My Aunt’ to his portrait of a soul-searching rebel priest in ‘The Power and Glory.’ Greene wrote characters that captivated readers for six decades.
The shortlist of his bestseller include– Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter, The Third Man, The Quiet American, Ministry of Fear, The Confidential Agent, The End of the Affair, Our Man in Havana- but that is only half the story of his prolific and adventurous life. Graham was a war-time journalist for LOOK magazine, a part-time British M15 spy, a playwright and screenwriter (often uncredited). And he was a self-styled diplomat who inserted himself in political hot spots around the world, exploits he copiously chronicled in letters and journals.
A new biography by Canadian writer Richard Greene brings new insight and analysis of Graham’s restless nature, his relationships and his creative life. The author had access to previously Greene’s private papers and dictaphone recordings. Graham even kept a copious log of his dreams because he admitted in his sort of autobiography titled ‘A Sort of Life’ he didn’t trust his memory.
Respected all over the world for his accomplishments on all these fronts, his career rarely gave him pleasure, he was in it for the adventure. He sought out adventure in political hot spots around the world, even often flirting with the idea that he would be happier if ‘the bullet’ would finish him off.
As RG reveals, Graham’s restlessness and insecurities drove him to dangerous parts of the world in Latin America, Africa and Indochina where he got the inside track on corrupt regimes, spy networks, military leaders, and rebel enclaves. He even spent six weeks in a leprosarium in Africa for research for his novel A Burnt-Out Case, about a depressed architect. who exiles himself to the Belgian Congo before it became a Democratic Republic.
As assured as Graham was in his professional achievements, he suffered from manic depression, and from a young age, contemplated suicide. He was a heavy drinker and at various times he was addicted to opium. His marriage to Vivien was tumultuous, even though he was genuinely but he had casual and serious affairs that eventual caused their permanent separation, but they did not divorce.
Greene had a relationship with Catherine Walston and their affair lasted years, only splitting, sort of, when he fell in love with actress Anita Bjork, a star of Swedish theater and international cinema.
Meanwhile, his Greene’s relationship with his son Francis Charles and his daughter Lucy Caroline remained distant. His work keeping him abroad for long stretches, with him sending letters that didn’t make up for missing key events in their lives. His daughter Caroline eventually moved to Canada and literally build a horse ranch. And even though Greene put up the money, when he finally visited her, she told him how hard his absences and reputation as a womanizer, drinker and political instigator had negatively impacted his family.
Greene was equally critical of political ideologies as mechanism of power and corruption whether it was in communist, socialist, democratic republics or dictatorships. Greene chronicles Graham’s lifelong commitment of putting himself in ‘harm’s way’ to bring attention to human rights abuses around the world. In Haiti to research The Comedians, his scabrous depiction a corrupt Duvalier presidency. After the book’s became an international bestseller ‘Papa Doc’ admitted that he wanted to assassinate Greene, but was ultimately afraid of suffering international reprisals that might hurt Haiti’s tourism.
The last two decades of his life, Greene didn’t slow up, but his heavy drinking, drug use, strained relationships and ceaseless globetrotting caught up with him. He had several serious health problems, but they slowed him down for as long as it took to get back to his hectic life of traveling and writing.
Richard Greene insights into Graham’s compulsive creative process is fascinating and authoritative and gives the background on the real people Graham knew whose character and deeds were the source of his most compelling fictional characters.
The author’s methodical and illuminating machinations of corrupt regimes- the setting of so many of Greene’s best novels- bring new insights into Graham’s exclusive access to top officials around the world. This biography is a fine line a portrait and Richard Greene’s comprehensive research and understand of Greene’s body of work, is an authoritative, wryly observed portrait of the man, his work and his daring times.
BalletX has been confronted with an industry shutdown of theaters and venues with a slate of specific limitations to work around to train, create, rehearse and perform dance and do it safely for all concerned. But the company hasn’t paused creating new works. Artistic director and executive director Christine Cox a platform to nurture new ballets, residencies and commissions with a new generation of vanguard and seasoned dancemakers.
They are maintaining and even reaching new audiences through the production of BalletX Films with single ticket and subscription access digital on media platforms through their website.
Vitally, BalletX’s realized that dance on film is a separate collaborative art that requires rethinking everything to transfer the same aesthetic and energy that the dancers conjure in a live performance.
Their current Winter series features three films by choreographers Tai Hai Hung, Manuel Vignoulle and Francesca Harper, has proved to be their best so far, artistically and production wise.
The dancers are performing in the film dancing without masks in these pieces, but were sequestered or ‘bubbled’ a method being used by sports teams, during the rehearsals, and filmed performances.
Tai Hai Hung’s ‘Two X Two’ a dance duel starring Roderick Phifer and Princess Grace Award winner Stanley Glover is set in a wood panel room ensconced in Philadelphia’s historic Franklin Institute. In this scenario it evokes an exclusive academy, the dancers costumed in long silk coats and the duet punctuated with ritualized gestures. They are locked in each other’s gaze as they circle each other in an antagonistic athletic duet. pugilistic attitude and some martial arts moves are laced with balletic turns, jumps and arabesques. Are they friends, adversaries, competitors, intimates or simply dance duelers?
In Manuel Vignoulle’s ‘Heal’ a neo-baroque chant underscores a trilogy of scenarios simultaneously. Dancers Shawn Cusseaux and Skyler Lubin in a hypnotic duet in a hillside where they tumble, collapse, and vault into elegant lift sequence conveying support, commitment and resolve. Meanwhile, on a rocky outcrop Roderick Phifer is prone in a black suit, writhing and unwrapping surgical gauze from his face and torso. Then, a flash cut to Blake Krapels, cowered in a corner of a mirrored cell, in corrosive postures and anguished backbends. Then, in another part of the forest, Krapels does the earthiest dance imaginable in a mud pit. All of these primal screams in dance, and their resolves, linger.
The longest of the films is Francesca Harper’s Thaw, with six dancers- Shawn Cubbeaux, Savannah Green, Blake Krapels, Chloe Perkes, Ashley Simpson, Richard Villaverde, Andrea Yorita- was filmed at BalletX studios in South Philadelphia. Harper created the work with the dancers via zoom, not easy, but the choreographer is already an accomplished in the dance-film genre.
With themes of social activism, a pas deux of about a bi-racial couple and reaction to the events of references of the violent politics around the election. The ballet also evokes what dancers have faced in a year of pandemic and industry shutdown. Now a negotiation with a virtual world as the new normal stage in which to perform.
They use their mobiles as their images of their bodies float off of their screen in the air around them. In an effect that is so seamless effects that don’t upstage the dancers or deflate the energy of the performance. Credit Daniel Madoff, a former dancer with Merce Cunningham and now a filmmaker working in several genres filmed these works with a dancer-centric sensibility, and vitally, a masterful skill for editing, so crucial in filming dance.
They line up along the wall with no barre, they lock into mechanicals, but are automatons, their eyes blank. Yorita moves with an illuminated tech wire wrapped around her body. Chloe Perkes, many months pregnant, oscillates her body with in protective determination. They write words SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE. The music is metallic and dissonant; Yorita slashes her arms around in a primal dance out.
The dancers pantomime protecting their faces with their hands up protectively from something unknown. The music becomes more propulsive and they break out in liberated expression. Richard Villaverde flies into some slam ballet phrases that etch a sharp ballet line as he presses against the wall. A voice over poem with piano accompaniment in an intimate & choreographically inventive love duet between Simpson and Krapels.
All three works evoke a cathartic dance in passionate ways and each with moments of a choreographic primal scream. Dance artists who display their art in the ways they have trained for, in the studio culture, the necessary lab and exchange of creative energy and over this extended period, without the alchemy of the energy of live performance with an audience. BalletX is proving that live, or virtual, they are ready for their close-ups and so much more.
She was a ballet dancer, ballet master and visionary, the one George Balanchine chose to be founding artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet. Equally legendary as a gifted teacher and over six decades a dance guru for generations of dancers ~ Barbara Weisberger was an indelible advocate and architect for contemporary ballet in Philadelphia and beyond.
Mrs. Weisberger died on December 23 at the age of 94, but her legacy lives on in the lives of danceartists and dancemakers.
Here are a few personal remembrances of her remarkable legacy and her radiant generosity she extended to everyone who was fortunate enough to know her.
The first time I met Mrs. Weisberger was at the company’s longtime studio home at the Rock School building on Broad & Washington. It was many years after Barbara had resigned as director and when I saw her coming out of the studio’s office and speaking to the receptionist, I introduced myself, telling her it was a thrill to meet her. She said something to the effect that she was laughed and said something about being surprised that “anybody remembers me.” Of course the exact opposite was true- who could forget her.
Barbara was not only chosen by George Balanchine to teach Balanchine’s post modern/neoclassicism for his School for American Ballet, when the Ford Foundation underwrote the funding for Balanchine to establish eight regional American companies, he wanted Barbara to establish the Pennsylvania Ballet, citing her not only as a gifted ballet instructor, but trusting her to set the highest artistic classical standard.
Throughout the 60s, Weisberger not only established the Balanchine syllabus, he also gave her license to stage his most popular, and defining ballets. Barbara’s artistic relationship with the legendary Balanchine started when she was 8, the youngest student in the 30s, when he first emigrated to the US and formed his first company, before establishing New York City Ballet. Weisberger established the training and Balanchine aesthetic, but also championed a new generation of choreographers during the 60s and 70s that was giving PABallet its own distinct artistic identity.
‘Flash forward to 2014, when Angel Corella, current director of PABallet re-established the PAB school, with director Arantxa Ochoa, they gave their first performance at the Annenberg Center. After the student showcase performance of the senior class performed Serenade , scored to Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece synphonic and Balanchine’s first ballet made in America. It was full circle moment for Barbara- In the 30s, as he was creating the ballet, Barbara was his youngest student, age 8, sitting under his grand piano watching him choreograph on the dancers and absorbed everything. After the performance Corella came into the audience to talk to Weisberger, later she mentioned to me how thrilled she was to see the school re-established, which was always part of her vision for the company.
~From her creative directorship starting in 1961, to her resignation from the Pennsylvania Ballet in 1982, Weisberger made PABallet one of the top ballet companies in the US, setting a high bar of technical artistry for a new generation of dancers. She was candid about the breakup in the New York Times, noting she was forced to resign when the board wanted to diminish her position as artistic director. She also pointed out that that she was running the company, which toured then, with a completely underfunded fiscal budget compared to other ballet companies.
She recalled those events with me in a phone conversation in 2010, without bitterness “When I left Pennsylvania Ballet he called me into his office. It was a terrible time for me and he took my hand and said “no…no…don’t cry. We will start all over again.”
And that she did, if equally meaningful ways as an educator and innovative standard bearer for ballet training locally and nationally. Among her many initiatives, Weisberger created the Carlisle Project for emerging ballet choreographers and was to become a legendary teacher at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.
Mrs. Weisberger organized an outreach program as a hands-on artistic advisor, commuting back and forth from her home in Kingston, Pa. She developed the program with Carol Bartlett, dean of Peabody Dance at that time. Together they have assembled a network of ballet stars to work with the students.
In 2013 at Peabody Preparatory school in Baltimore, where Weisberger had organized auditions for black and brown youth. Seeing her in her 80s and moving around the students so nimbly, her style was encouraging and intimate, and you could feel the energy in the room as she worked with these the young men. Seeing her in action was always a distinct privilege and always instructive to dance writers lucky enough to see her in action. She reached out to me to report on this program and I was so honored. The scholarship program she guided had such an auspicious beginning, that it is receiving Diversity Recognition Award from John Hopkins.
The last time I saw Barbara was in the lobby of the Academy of Music in 2018, in for Corella’s revival of Balanchine’s Jewels trittico, she was with her daughter and as we greeted each other Barbara said with a huge smile “you know I’m 92 Lew.” and said I could call her anytime (she famously did not use the internet) I had tears in my eyes seeing her back in the Academy, where her company made ballet history for so many years.
I always recorded our conversations, because no matter how granular she was with vivid details of the people, places and events in her years in New York as a dancer, teacher, and in Philadelphia as the founder of Pennsylvania Ballet, she spoke of student dancers, and dance educators with the same passion and commitment to arts education.
Aside from Barbara Weisberger’s knowledge about dance technique, expression and foundational artistry, there was always something more she gave. A personal connection and philosophy that she taught by doing not telling.
Her influence was summed up this week by PABallet principal dancer Jermel Johnson sums it up best as he paid tribute to Barbara on social media this week and expressing what many dancers who has professional and personal relationships with her, in studios and on the dancestage where she nurtured-
“A bond few will understand and even fewer will be blessed enough to experience. This is a photo of the incredibly loving and inspiring Barbara Wiesberger and me having a conversation.A conversation without words but with love and the exchange of energy. I feel what she is saying with her heart. And for anyone who doesn’t understand, she is telling me to be strong. To love and respect all the way I was taught. To use that love and respect and joy and pain I feel and put it into my dancing.“