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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 25, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Springsteen, Patinkin, and Ballet

Most of the time, my wife and I spend our lives sitting in front of the television griping about how dumb the people on the reality shows are -- that is, when we're not listening to the classical music they play on C-SPAN while Congress is voting.

But now and then we look out the window, notice that the seasons have changed, and suddenly we get the urge to dress up in our Sunday go-to-meetin' clothes and attend some major cultural event.

In these days of terrorism, what with Al-Qaeda wanting to target national icons with enormous sentimental value to the American people, it's kind of scary to go to a Bruce Springsteen concert.

I mean, if you really want to get Americans irritated, it's not the Statue of Liberty you go after, it's the Boss.

Because Springsteen has been writing rock-n-roll songs that are so deep and true and real that you'd almost think they were country music.

Springsteen sang all the songs from his new album The Rising, which is the only truly fine artistic response to 9/11 that I've seen. But he didn't sing them in a row -- he didn't turn it into a political statement or a sobfest. Instead he treated each song on its own, and interspersed other songs from other periods of his career.

For me, the finest moment was when he let the whole band leave the stage and sat down at the piano to give a haunting rendition of "Spanish Johnny" from his first great album, "The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle." It's good to remember, in the midst of all the shouting and stomping, that this man can sing.

It's typical of a Springsteen concert that while he gave his band members an occasional potty break, he never took a noticeable break himself. He was on for hours, segueing from one song to the next without so much as a pause for applause.

Of course, he probably didn't actually need to use the bathroom. He sweated so much that I don't think he had enough extra water in his veins for his kidneys even to function.

Even after he fell down while traversing the back of the platform, scraping his left arm so badly that it bled, his only response was to shrug a little sheepishly and then bleed his way through the rest of the show.

Not even a bandaid.

In his own way, Mandy Patinkin was just as hard-working. There was no intermission in his concert at the Aycock at UNC-G last week. And even though we wanted to applaud for every song he did, there was no chance. He and his pianist (the only two people on stage) flowed from song to song, making wonderful medleys out of everything.

Because Patinkin faced a very different audience (though I suspect we weren't the only people who went to both concerts), he had much more of a chance to chat with us. From these chats we learned several things:

1. Patinkin might seem to be a name-dropper, given the number of famous names per minute; but then, he's worked with people like Patty Lupone and Stephen Sondheim, so why shouldn't he mention them?

And when he told a story involving Angela Lansbury, the point was not how cool it made him to have met her (the way it is when Dick Cavett drops celebrity names) -- the point was usually that he really loves show music and the people who perform on Broadway, and that all of this is part of his life.

2. Patinkin is charming, funny, and a good deadpan comic.

Indeed, his performance, speaking and singing, might be viewed as the opposite of Springsteen's. It was about the words and music. He stood through most of the songs in dynamic stillness, rarely moving out of a very limited area of the stage, not gesturing except at exactly-apt moments.

So when he did dance or move with any kind of extravagance, it had great impact. (And in his stillness, he expressed far more movement and feeling than most strutters and fretters ever get from their backs and forths on the stage.)

Sometimes he deliberately evoked echoes of old-time performers. Since Patinkin's voice is very much like Jolson's, it was appropriate for him to do a dead-on "Swanee," and to drop to one knee to sing the last chorus of "Mammy."

But when he did all three parts of "If I Only Had a Brain" from Wizard of Oz, he didn't imitate the performances in the movie -- not even Bert Lahr's. He made each part of the trio different, and each part was his own.

Nor did he "do" Danny Kaye as he rattled through the Russian composers or sang of the Emperor in the "altogether." Patinkin has a knack for finding the soul of the song and putting it into his listeners' hearts.

Patinkin's music doesn't really work all that well on CD, most of the time, because the adenoidal quality of his voice comes across harshly and his interpretation can seem overwrought. Without seeing the man himself you miss half the dimension of the performance. But ah, to see him sing, to feel those eyes on you as if he saw you alone in the midst of the audience ...


Both concerts were great. The biggest differences, though, were in the audience -- in the concert culture, if you will.

At the Aycock, while a lot of people were relatively casually dressed, there were many who were dressed to the nines. Lots of season ticket holders are longtime Greensboro residents (you know, the ones who remember this town before they built Wendover) and there was lots of camaraderie and bonhomme that made us realize that after twenty years here, we're still fresh off the boat.

And when Patinkin sang, the audience was silent except when he invited our participation or when we laughed or applauded. It was, in fact, a concert.

At the Coliseum, however, it was only partly concert -- it was mostly stock car race. Beer flowed. Down on the main floor, they didn't even bother with chairs. If you had floor tickets, it was assumed you were there to be part of the show, dancing or swaying or singing your way through it all.

People sang and talked and screamed and hooted as much as they wanted, regardless of what was happening onstage -- and they only got louder when Springsteen asked them to quiet down for a couple of softer numbers.

But it didn't matter, because the sound system was turned up so loud that many songs became unlistenable.

And no, I'm not one of those old coots who doesn't like loud music. Quite the contrary. But at this concert they had the music so loud that it was too loud for the speakers to handle. The distortion was obvious, and it made it almost impossible to understand the words being sung.

Which is a shame, because most people haven't memorized the words to the great songs from The Rising and it would have been nice to hear them from Springsteen's own lips. What we heard instead was a lot of vowels fuzzed up by the amplification system, and almost no consonants at all.

(For that matter, Patinkin's amplification was too loud, too -- just enough to add a kind of tinniness to his voice -- but nothing like the electronic overkill of Springsteen's.)

They had to have the music loud at the Coliseum in order to outshout the audience -- but they achieved that level of loudness and then went way beyond it.

If only they could have found a way to drown out the incredibly rude people who think that because it's a rock concert, it's OK to smoke. One guy, when challenged, put out his cigarette; one woman and her date became quite huffy, as if I were unspeakably rude for expecting them not to inflict their vices on others.

Why is it that some smokers regard it as a sacred right to satisfy their craving here and now, without regard to the discomfort it causes others (for instance, I get a piercing between-the-eyes headache from one whiff; my wife faints if it goes on long enough)? The very same people have no problem waiting to urinate -- and if they can't wait, they go to a private place to do it. And that's a habit that everyone has. But the unnatural, self-chosen habit of smoking is apparently more of a right than peeing. Go figure.

Then again ... after the Springsteen concert (and the incredible dozen songs performed in the encores), as the main floor emptied, we realized that the floor was splashily wet from one end to the other. The hundreds of abandoned beer bottles made us assume, at first, that it was spilled beer that covered the floor.

But then I thought, maybe those people who don't leave the room to smoke also don't leave the room to ... no. No, I'm sure that wasn't it.


The other performance we attended recently was the Shanghai Ballet Company doing Coppelia.

My wife is a lifelong dancer, from ballet to folk to ballroom to Broadway, and my daughters have both studied dance. Heck, I took modern and stage dance in college and did my share of folk and square dancing in my teens.

My point is, I like dancing. I like to watch dancing.

And I hated this performance.

It didn't help that they weren't very good dancers. They all moved through their parts mechanically, as if they had forgotten -- or never knew -- that you don't just follow your chart, you put your heart into it.

And the poor leading man was way too small and weak to do his job properly. When, in a pas de deux, the man lifts the woman, it's supposed to seem so effortless that it's as if the woman took flight and the man were merely a spectator.

Instead, this guy strained as if he were doing a clean-and-jerk at the Olympics. The woman was tiny -- when she played around with a feather, you could sometimes lose track of which was which. Yet this guy lifted her as if he were trying for the world record, but had forgotten to wear his truss.

It also didn't help that Coppelia is a really dumb ballet. The story's not bad, but you could dance your way through the whole thing in about ten minutes. Indeed, the entire story was complete by the end of the second act. The third act was little more than an extended curtain call.

There are better ballets, and better ballet companies. I've seen films of electrifying performances, and even some good live performances.

But when push comes to shove, one thing is plain: Ballet is a dead art. Even at the best of times, it's got way too much of the Ice Capades about it.

That is, it isn't about the story at all, or the music -- or even the choreography, because all you ever see are the same movements you see in every other ballet.

Instead it's about the skill of the individual performers as they do the same old athletic stunts, over and over, while the audience interrupts the music with applause. It is, in short, a contest between the music and the dancers. Sometimes the dancers win; the other night, at the Aycock, they lost, and miserably.

Only Major League Baseball approaches ballet for lifelessness.

No wonder Isadora Duncan got fed up with the whole ballet scene and invented modern dance. Brilliant, powerful, innovative modern dances are being choreographed all the time, with dancers exploring amazing new movements and finding new musics to express with their bodies.

And when I want repetition of familiar forms, I can see a Broadway show, where the dancers are superbly athletic but the dancing actually accomplishes something and the story still matters.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, that's great dancing. Or Stomp. The ballet is a zombie art. It keeps moving because it doesn't know it's dead.


But before you write in to tell me I'm a philistine and to explain why ballet is wonderful, let me remind you:

(A) I may be a lout, but I'm not an ignorant one. I know what I'm seeing when I watch ballet.

And (B) just because I disdain the whole of contemporary ballet culture doesn't erase one single moment of it from the stage. So lighten up. There's plenty of opportunity yet for narcissistic, anorexic young people to show us how well they can imitate the physical prowess of the great dancers of the past.

And even though I disliked one performance, it doesn't mean I don't appreciate the eclectic and wonderful programming of the University Concert/Lecture Series. I was out of town, but my family tells me that the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico was as electrifying as the Shanghai Ballet was drab. We'll be getting season tickets next year, too.


Meanwhile, it's Thanksgiving weekend. See you at the Crafts Fair at the Coliseum! I've been out of town for Thanksgiving the past four years, and I'm looking forward to catching up on all my favorite artists and artisans -- and getting a kick out of all the kitsch, too.

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