Performance Critic

by Richard Kostelanetz (April 2014)


I never wanted to be a regular book critic or theater critic or music critic, because I’d be obliged to read or observe too much lousy work, if I stayed awake at all. No, the only art I could write about regularly, if selectively, is scarcely covered in the American press. Wherever some people agree to perform for others—that’s Performance, which is my favored term for kinetic work that falls between drama and dance, but sometimes also incorporates kinetic sculpture and sport. Most of it isn’t promoted as art at all. Even since writing The Theatre of Mixed Means (1967), I have preferred performance to yak-yak theater, say, and to most strictly musical concerts. Typically, in my book about the rock venue Fillmore East (1994), I regarded the best rock musicians principally as great live performers. Back in 1987, I wrote in both The New York Times Magazine and Smithsonian an appreciation of George Rhoades’s intricate kinetic sculptures, in the NYC Port Authority bus terminal among other places, as exemplary Mechanical Theater.

Were I reviewing performance in my hometown of New York City, I would necessarily write about circuses, beginning with the classic Barnum & Bailey annual presentation, which I’ve always found impressive, though some years have been better than others. The traditional stars, for decades now, are, of course, elephants trained to possess an intelligence that seems almost human. The B&B traditional three-ring structure (that is ideal for a venue that also presents the oblong sports of basketball and hockey) requires an abundance of strong individual acts apparently recruited from around the world. One stunning act with several motorbikes speeding within a small globe I saw in Shanghai before it came with B&B to New York. I saw the Torres Family again in Brooklyn this past March.

Contrast B&B with the more modest single-ring circuses based in New York City, such as the Big Apple Circus, which disappointed me the one time I saw them; or Circus Amok, which depends upon the compelling presence of a heavily bearded woman who juggles and also gives monologues that become tiresome too easily. Neither the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus nor New York Circus Arts have I seen, though both are based in my home town. Nonetheless, nowhere in local print do I find much critical intelligence about various circuses.

A performance critic should also judge sports stadia for esthetic merits. By this criterion, I would necessarily say that the new Yankee Stadium isn’t much better than the old, except perhaps for superior lavatories, and that I miss the magisterial voice of Bob Sheppard, the public address announcer from 1951 to 2007, whose slow-talk introduced players as no one else ever could or will.

While the Citi Field that replaced Shea Stadium is certainly more spacious, especially in its seating, its location is still disadvantageous. Airplanes taking off from La Guardia Airport come suddenly from behind home plate, causing too much noise especially in the upper decks (cheaper seats) and often visibly distracting players from the visiting teams. I can recall one relief pitcher telling Sports Illustrated that his least favorite venue in the National League was Shea Stadium because, he said, the bullpen was in an airport.

The most spectacular baseball venue in New York City is the Richmond Country Bank Ballpark in Staten Island. Only a few hundred feet away from the Staten Island Ferry’s dock, it faces the harbor, which provides a stunning back show, directly behind center field, of container ships and tugboats. During evening games these tall large boats become beautiful shadows as they cruise around Staten Island to New Jersey ports. Since these games aren’t televised, the intermissions between innings are filled with silly amusements that seem designed for children.

The Brooklyn minor league ballpark is several blocks away from the Stillwell Avenue subway terminal that is the terminal stop for several subway lines. One recurring logistical problem here is that behind center field is the Coney Island beach that traditionally hosts multiple fireworks at 10:30 pm every Friday. I witnessed one game in which this show went off on the scheduled time during the seventh inning, distracting the audience for sure, the players probably, to a greater degree than, say, the airplanes that take off over home plate at Citi Field/Shea Stadium.

For the performance standpoint, my favorite events in Madison Square Garden are boxing matches, some of which are quite engaging, especially if the card contains fighters from a certain ethnic group (say, Puerto Ricans or Russians). For years I loved the annual Millrose Games, which is a capacious track meet that includes high-school and college runners along with a few international track stars and club teams from the Metropolitan Area, mostly in relay races on a four-line track banked on its narrower ends. When I first attended, decades ago, the Millrose Games sold out the arena. However, by 2010 less than half the seats were filled. So the 2012 Millrose Games was held in the Washington Heights armory that also houses intercollegiate meets in makeshift balcony seating. Meanwhile, MSG hosted another track meet mostly with professionals. I found it lacking the charm of the Millrose Games. Since attendance was sparse, it might not happen again.

A performance critic should also cover religious institutions. My favorite midnight mass on Christmas Eve is St. Francis Xavier’s in the Flatiron District. Its strong choir is professional in the best sense; so is that at Ascension, an Episcopal Church nearby down Fifth Avenue. St. Barthelomew’s in midtown is pretty good. All of them have spectacular interiors. I’ve gone to other NYC churches I won’t mention, except for say that St. Patrick’s in Midtown is simply a tourist trap too big for performers’ comfort.

For Eastern Orthodox Easter, the midnight mass at Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity is stunning, not only for the Archbishop’s two-man Byzantine choir that chants liturgy in both Greek and English for an hour before midnight, but also for the ceremony that begins with the presiding bishop’s candle in the darkened space. From this single source all the parishioners’ candles are ignited before everyone goes outside on East 74th Street, where the presiding minister announces that Christ has again arisen. This is knockout theater.

For synagogues, I prefer Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, which has for decades has conducted its Yom Kippur services in the incomparable Crystal Palace of the Javits Center, overlooking the East River. Its rabbi, Sharon Klienbaum, is incidentally a champ at holding an audience not only with prayers and sermons but humor. CBST’s music, however, has been erratic. A few years ago it had a “cantorial intern” named Magda Fishman, whose propulsive singing was so spectacular that she repeatedly got applause during the service, much to the rabbi’s visible annoyance. At last report, Ms. Fishman was working in Long Island. Simply as architecture, no New York City synagogue rivals those in Rome or Florence, Italy.

A performance critic should also discover art elsewhere here, beginning with street acts in Washington Square and the breakdancers occasionally at the Union Square stop of the MTA subway. I’d like sometime to write an appreciation of the spectacular stagecraft at the Metropolitan Opera.

Especially if a performance critic worked for a national magazine, he or she should make regular visits to Las Vegas, which has become the most fertile ground for live acts ranging from Penn & Teller to B. B. King, whom also reside there. In my considered opinion, few shows anywhere in the world rival those by Cirque de Soliel in tasteful venues that were built especially for it.

These are some of my great enthusiasms. However, with too much else to do, I don’t want this job that someone else can probably do better, especially if he or she likes to travel more than I do now. Decades ago, this would have interested me. Much as Arlene Croce established dance criticism in America, I could have done likewise by the art I call Performance.

_______________________

 

Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Webster's Dictionary of American Writers, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Directory of American Scholars, Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in American Art, NNDB.com, Wikipedia.com, and Britannica.com, among other distinguished directories. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked.

 

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