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The Buzz, 11-26: Giving Thanks, Taking Care
From Persecution to Performance; McKenzie & Melillo on Barnes; Martins 5, Balanchine 2

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2008 Paul Ben-Itzak

It's not easy being a Gay Griot

The United States government doesn't make a habit of granting political asylum to foreigners whose sole claim to persecution is sexual orientation. So when it grants sanctuary to a gay Senegalese Griot performer, that's cause for celebration, especially when the occasion for celebrating arrives in the form of a performance by the rescued artist in New York City, propitiously on Thanksgiving weekend.

Pape Mbaye. Photo by and copyright Max Ruby
and courtesy Spin Cycle PR.

Pape Mbaye was a popular and successful entertainer in Senegal who was reportedly forced to flee the country, after being outed as a homosexual by a national magazine which published photos of him at a gay wedding party the magazine said he organized. Repeatedly attacked, he fled the country; he later returned, and the media immediately began hounding him again, with brutal mobs reportedly attacking his family. Human rights organizations eventually banded together to expedite an asylum request to the U.S., and Mbaye arrived in New York on August 18, prepared to begin again. Now a resident of Harlem, he will be briefly interviewed about his experience onstage Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Cutting Room, 19 W. 24th Street in New York City, and will then give a performance of African drumming, song, and dance. "My first show and my first American Thanksgiving," exudes Mbaye. "I have a lot to be thankful for this year!" Tickets are just $10 (about 10 percent of the cost of the cheapest tickets for Mel Brooks's 'Young Frankenstein' on Broadway!), and can be had at 212-352-3101 or at www.SpinCycleNYC.com.

To read more about Mbaye's saga further contextualized, check this New York Times story.

Attitudes: Melillo & McKenzie say goodbye to Clive

"All of us at BAM are greatly saddened by the passing of Clive Barnes," says Joseph Melillo, executive producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, lamenting the loss of the dean of American theater and dance critics November 19. "In his roles at both the New York Times and the New York Post, Clive was an important eye on art and a delightful colleague. In the early '80s, as BAM was establishing its Next Wave Festival, Clive was an early and enthusiastic supporter who helped generate awareness of the programming in our (then) exotic outpost of Brooklyn. We are richer for having had his voice and will sorely miss seeing him in our theaters."

And Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, notes, "Clive's insights into the art of ballet were cherished by generations of dance-goers. His enthusiasm for his work was unwavering and his appreciation for the performing arts was beyond compare. The theater and dance worlds were illuminated by Clive's presence."

Philistines running the Temple

Sometimes it takes an outsider to call things as they are. And while others have been saying for years that the Balanchine standard at New York City Ballet, the company he founded in 1948, has eroded during the stewardship of ballet master in chief Peter Martins, it's taken Brit critic Alastair Macaulay to finally illuminate the case in the pages of the NY Times. I put it that way because Macaulay does not expressly single out Martins as the culpable in his Times piece of November 16, headlined "Mother Ship Off Balance, Balanchine Still Soars," but the evidence is there:

"Though no company dances nearly so many Balanchine ballets as City Ballet," Macaulay writes, "the main Balanchine story is now happening elsewhere. It's scarcely a matter of contention that American Ballet Theatre, Miami City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet (attached to the Kennedy Center in Washington) and the Kirov Ballet of St. Petersburg have all danced several Balanchine ballets better than the mother company; or that even the Royal Ballet of London is occasionally better in individual Balanchine ballets."

Macaulay does note that things have improved in recent years at 'the mother ship,' but still, think about it: If we were talking about a museum, and masterworks of, say, Cezanne or Picasso that had fallen into disrepair or, at least, had some smudges on them, would we accept that the curator responsible would retain his place? And what if, to celebrate the opening night of that museum's fall season, the same curator moved most of the Cezannes to the basement and replaced them with his own, inferior work? Because, dance insider, that's EXACTLY what happened last night at the New York State Theater, when Peter Martins, de facto director of the New York City Ballet, the house that Balanchine built, presented a scheduled line-up dominated by FIVE of his own works (or excerpts thereof), with only ONE by Jerome Robbins, and two from Balanchine. (Susan Stroman also contributed one.)

When is the board of New York City Ballet going to take some responsibility here? When will it replace Martins with, say, Suzanne Farrell, who would not only bring the Balanchine repertoire up to par but would no doubt make sure that never again will the works of a sub-par choreographer like Peter Martins outnumber those of the leading 20th century ballet choreographer at his own theater?

In the arts, mediocrity should not be acceptable.

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