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Monday, June 02, 2003

Arts & Letters

All Around is Nostalgia

All Around Is Light, art-directed by Costa-Gavras, choreography by Lar Lubovitch. American Ballet Theatre, Metropolitan Opera House, New York, May 20; Herod Atticus Theater, Athens, July 6-7; Thessaloniki, July 10-11.

I woke with this marble head in my hands;
it exhausts my elbows and I don’t know where to put
     it down.”
— George Seferis, “Mythistorema 3,” translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

On May 20, the American Ballet Theatre hosted a production entitled All Around Is Light at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. The evening was billed as “A Tribute to the Cultural Olympiad 2001-2004,”and included some of the most celebrated artists in Greek culture and performance. The marathon-length evening (which ended near midnight, despite an 8 pm curtain time) was in many ways more illuminating for what it revealed about the organizers’ didactic vision of Greece than for the actual performances on hand.

The program was quite ambitious, whirling through music, dance, drama, poetry, and film before the night was through, accompanied by a panoply of Greek archival photographs, videos, and artwork projected onto an onstage scrim. (One supposes that such images were meant to establish, codify, and reinforce what “Greekness” and “Hellenism” mean both to the non-Greek and Greek viewers. And certainly, archetypal photos of stoic palikaria and winsome little girls, breathtaking aerial videos of magnificent shorelines, and gloriously ornate Byzantine icons pushed all the right buttons in terms of achieving maximum audience response.) And yet, despite the supposed extensive involvement of filmmaker Costa-Gavras, who “art directed” the evening, All Around Is Light had the feeling of a very high-tech, high-budget elementary-school talent show. Sure, Yorgos Dalaras helmed the program, and there were notable performances by actress extraordinaire Lydia Koniordou, among others, but, taken altogether, the evening was largely an exercise in nostalgia for the Greek Americans who made up the majority of the audience. Although the event aimed to be much more, it was at heart the usual bouzouki sing-along for an audience that rustled restlessly during Koniordou’s recitations from classical drama and the American Ballet Theatre’s world premiere of Artemis, choreographed by Lar Lubovitch.

Certainly, there were those in the audience whose reaction to the presentation was diametrically opposed to mine; New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning, for example, called the event “delightful” in a quite positive review published on May 22. To my Greek American mind and sensibilities, however, the production’s many and varied indulgences in a cloying, self-referential, and self-congratulatory yearning for a mythologized, idealized Greece amounted to just too much sticky-sweetness for one sitting. And although one could anticipate that the political and religious would not lurk far away from the stage, the event conflated Greece’s multiple layers of identity into an implausible, embarrassing, and perhaps even offensive cultural narrative. (I dare say that there are few other ethnic communities in which an image of Christ Pantocrator would hover over a group of musicians performing Sephardic music with nary a passing comment.)

As for the actual performances and film: Dalaras ruled the evening, both in terms of time given to him and his hold on the audience. As one might expect, there was plenty of Theodorakis and Hadjidakis on offer, as well as some classic rebetika from Markos Vamvakaris and Vasilis Tsitsanis (needless to say, the crowd went wild at the first few notes of “Synefiasmenê Kyriakê”). When he first appeared onstage, Dalaras’s attitude and delivery signaled that he might very well cakewalk through some of his best-known and beloved material: he sounded tired and not terribly interested in the proceedings. But when vocalist Savina Yannatou appeared onstage a few songs later (as a last-minute fill-in for ailing soprano Elena Kelessidi), the bar was definitely raised for Dalaras. Although her tone was much thinner than usual (which may have been partly due to the hollow sound of the microphones in a space not normally miked), her engaging delivery and gorgeously rich lower register gave great pleasure.

Aside from the usual suspects, the program featured a few musical surprises — some quite welcome, others less so. Opening the evening quite promisingly was a thick-textured Cretan dance arrangement by the greatly overlooked composer Nikos Skalkottas, one of Arnold Schoenberg’s less well-known students. Shortly following was the lovely, haunting theme song written by Eleni Karaindrou for Theo Angelopoulos’s film, Taxidi sta Kythêra, featuring Dalaras, piano, and a saxophone. In this setting, Karaindrou made the saxophone as idiomatic and natural an addition to the Greek instrument stable as that other great import, the clarinet. And Yannatou’s version of Theodorakis’s “Tou mikrou voria” lent a special feeling of desolation and loneliness to Odysseas Elytis’s words. The traditional “Sto’pa kai sto xanaleo” received a gorgeously spare arrangement, with a subdued piano, string bass, and frame drum shadowing Dalaras’s vocal contours.

Some of the musical arrangements struck an entirely wrong note, however. For several selections, including Vamvakaris’s “Ta matoklada sou lamboun,” Dalaras, Yannatou, and the smoky-voiced Melina Aslanidou were joined by a chorus of angelic kids, the Archdiocesan Metropolitan Youth Choir. Why were children singing rebetika? The result stripped the song of its force and resonance, washing it down to its barest recognizable structure. Another arrangement was also entirely inappropriate. A Ladino tune, “Ta prota logia,” suffered from an overblown orchestral arrangement that reminded me of Charlton Heston’s Technicolor extravaganzas: Sure, the subject matter might have been Jewish, but the delivery was all Hollywood, baby.

Considering that this event was held at the Met, the production suffered a rather stunning number of mishaps. Costa-Gavras’s film was screened backwards, which meant that all of the narrative titles (entirely in English) ran the wrong way, a slipup that the director merrily waved off at the end of the evening by saying, “The projectionist is English.” Koniordou’s scene from Sophocles’ Electra (again in English) was visually gripping, with the actress kneeling and doubled over, howling in grief and fury; however, her words were totally inaudible, as she was unmiked and, as a result, shouting fruitlessly at the stage floor. And yet the Met’s impressive facilities were occasionally used wisely; the songs’ English translations were provided via the much-lauded digital screens installed on the backs of each seat (which, for the house’s regular visitors, replace distracting supertitles and cumbersome printed libretto translations of operas).

The other portions of the evening’s entertainment were a mixed bag as well. Koniordou’s presentation of a scene from Euripides’ Electra in Greek (paired back-to-back with the Sophocles version) was magnificent and haunting, with its ritualistic use of a frame-drum-bearing chorus and Koniordou’s chanted (rather than recited) delivery; the staging was familiar to those who knew Koniordou’s work with the National Theatre of Greece. The ABT’s contribution, the world premiere of Lar Lubovitch’s Artemis (with a score by the rising young Greek American composer, Chris Theofanidis), presented the myth of Artemis and Actaeon, in which Artemis transforms Actaeon into a deer after he gazes upon her (and violates Zeus’ command that no mortal look upon his daughter). While much of Lubovitch’s work referenced a nineteenth-century imagination of Greek classical myth, there were distinctly modern touches as well; often, when Julie Kent (Artemis) landed lifts with her partner, her limbs drooped into postures resembling a fading tulip: a nice suggestion of her connection to the human concerns of mortality. Lubovitch also assigned non-classical movement to the male lead as well, especially after Actaeon’s transformation: Marcelo Gomes’s (Actaeon’s) quick, quizzical head movements, mimicking those of a curious deer, were a delight. But there were utterly banal moments also, especially at the end of the work, in which the collected dancers pointed for what seemed forever to a stage-lit Artemis constellation in the sky.

The much-vaunted Costa-Gavras film about the Parthenon was an artistic disappointment; its whole purpose was to explain the monument’s history from its building to near-modern times in a series of computer-generated models of what the structure looked like at various moments in history, beginning with the first construction on a bonebare rocky hill through its turns as a Christian (Eastern and Western) church, mosque, and so forth. At this point, the evening ceased being a mosaic-pastiche of Greece; rather, its tone changed entirely, as it broke into an extended narrative on the plight of the so-called Elgin Marbles. The film’s narrative screeched to a halt in 1811, with the friezes’ removal to England, thereby implying that the Parthenon’s history and place of pride in the Greek psyche somehow died that year.

Following the film was a recitation by Koniordou of Lord Byron’s poem, “The Curse of Minerva,” in which Byron condemns Elgin by name for his crime. Costa-Gavras continued his lament with an ecclesiastical hymn for Holy Thursday, “Exedissan me ta imatia Mou” (“They Took My Garments Off”). The video projection following the end of the film was an image of a death by stabbing from a piece of classical pottery. Surely, the conflation of Christianity and Hellenism was no accident: it is a parallel that has been raised time and again over the course of Greek history. (On a purely musical note, Dalaras took the role of the psalti here, accompanied not entirely tastefully by bouzouki, clarinet, and string bass.) And lest we forget that the struggle to return the marbles to Greece continues, the next series of images flashed on screen was a montage of Melina Mercouri’s film appearances.

Much of what the Metropolitan Opera House can offer in stagecraft riches was spent in silliness: to keep with the evening’s theme, a small model boat propelled on an electric track rolled across the stage at the program’s opening. Rather than evoking the glories of Homer and of Elytis’s poem, “To Trelovaporo” (sung at the evening’s conclusion), however, the gimmick evoked long-buried memories of a childhood school mnemonic: “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue….” The ship theme reemerged in the grand finale, when the onstage musicians climbed aboard a ship railing and a cute little tyke materialized clutching a wooden steering wheel. Then, the amateur-hour ambience was complete. Other unnecessary touches included the now-perfunctory 10-minute appearance by a Greek American folk-dance troupe; rather than repeat his words here, I refer the reader to Stelios Vasilakis’s pungent and incisive comments about this issue in a recent edition of (see “Inventing Tradition,” May 15).

In the end, it’s unclear for whom exactly this production was designed and created. Was it a presentation or explication of Greek culture for curious outsiders? Was it a celebration and even reification of the national narrative for the Greeks present that night? Or was it simply a celebration, however uneven, of Greek contributions to the arts, couched in the exuberant terms of the Olympics and the ideals (however vague) of the so-called Cultural Olympiad? Whichever explanation one chooses (and I think there was an attempt to achieve all three goals), I would hope that at this point in our interwoven histories, the Greek and Greek American arts communities could present programming more challenging, innovative, and sophisticated than this tepid spectacle. Perhaps we’ll never find a solution to Seferis’s innate (or, at least, emblematic) contention with the past; if nothing else, however, Greece’s first Nobel Prize-winner knew the difference between nostos and nostalgia.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a columnist for Billboard and also writes about music for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Gramophone, and Jazz Times. She can be heard regularly on NPR’s Weekend America and WNYC’s Soundcheck. More of her work is available at
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