December 12, 2013
As anyone who has ever taken tap or ballet knows, timing is essential. You need to start on the right foot and step off when everyone else does. Rhythm counts, too.
The exhibition “Dancing the Dream” currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery, explains how timing in a larger sense was crucial to the evolution of dance as America’s culture in motion. For the past century, the fleeting nature of dance has brilliantly reflected America’s life and times in captured “moments.” Examples include the work of Loie Fuller, who danced barefoot and nearly-naked as she interpreted the “New Woman” in the early 20th century, and Russian greats Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, who sought artistic freedom here during the Cold War and electrified the American dance world.
Timing and media technology are inextricably linked in our constantly changing culture, and dance is a fascinating illumination of this connection. Iconic dancers from Josephine Baker to Beyoncé trace the cultural shift from live performance to viral videos, but choreographers have also shaped the cultural landscape.
Recently, my attention has been focused on the work of Bob Fosse. A new biography Fosse by film critic Sam Wasson narrates the choreographer’s creative journey from postwar Broadway through movies and television in post-Watergate America—decades that began with an optimistic sense of unity and ended with a drumbeat of cultural dissolve.
Wasson, author of the best-selling Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, depicts Fosse as a modern master of dance. Timing—gritty, intricate, and aggressive—was his choreographic signature.
Growing up in Chicago, Fosse had a tap dance act that he performed in burlesque houses. His mother thought that nothing untoward would affect him because he was a “good boy.” As it happened, the strippers proved not only fond companions but also stamped Fosse’s work with a lasting appreciation for sleaze. His choreography always reverberated with a cock-of-the-walk intensity and a style that radiated edginess: fingers snapped, shoulders rolled, hips swiveled and dancers strutted.
Fosse’s first Broadway hit was the 1954 Pajama Game, whose big number, “Steam Heat,” featured dancers jerking, bobbing and otherwise comporting like parts of a plumbing system. Over the next 20 years, he became a leading Broadway choreographer with such successes as Sweet Charity in 1955 and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying in 1961. Verging off into movies and television, he created the ground-breaking 1972 movie musical Cabaret, which won eight Academy Awards (including a Best Director Oscar for Fosse), and the 1972 NBC special “Liza with a Z,” which won him an Emmy.
Surprisingly, Fosse’s life-long hero was the elegant, gentlemanly Fred Astaire. Wasson describes how Astaire wowed him even more when he effortlessly toe-tapped a nail lying on the ground—he simply “flicked his foot, and ping!—the nail was in the air and then careening off the sound-stage wall with the force of a rifle shot.” After Astaire floated away, Fosse tried to duplicate the “ping” sound, but after dozens of kicks, Wasson notes, he was still Bob Fosse.
Fosse’s most important partner was Gwen Verdon, his third wife and a strong influence on the evolution of his dance style. A renowned dancer herself, she was instrumental in persuading him to create the 1975 Chicago, a story originally derived from the actual trials of two Chicago women who were both acquitted of murder in 1924. With music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book, direction and choreography by Fosse, Chicago starred Verdon as one of the murderers, Roxie Hart and Chita Rivera as the other, Velma Kelly.
Wasson thinks it was the perfectly timed cultural moment for Chicago to become a smash hit: in the wake of President Nixon’s resignation, the show echoed the country’s cynicism. New York Times critic Walter Kerr called it “deliberately seedy” and filled with “wicked chorus girls” costumed in black netting and spiked heels. He decried its “aura of doomsday,” and regretted that it substituted raunchiness for heart. But people flocked to the box office, and the show ran for 936 performances.
Kander and Ebb’s score included “All That Jazz,” “Cell Block Tango,” “When You’re Good to Mama,” “We Both Reached for the Gun,” “Razzle Dazzle,” and “Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag.” Fosse brought their score to life with a choreography that was in-your-face sinister and brassy. He lived as hard as the dances he created, and he died of a heart attack in 1987. The lyrics for “All That Jazz” suited:
Come on, babe
Why don’t we paint the town?
And all that jazz….
Come on, babe
We’re gonna brush the sky
I betcha Lucky Lindy
Never flew so high
‘Cause in the stratosphere
How could he lend an ear
To all that jazz?
December 10, 2013
Schools throughout the Washington, D.C. region and the Federal government are shut down today due to a winter snow storm. But for any parent wondering what to do with the kids today, the Smithsonian museums will be open despite the winter storm. The Smithsonian Institution announced that only the Zoo will be closed today due to the snow. All of the museums on the National Mall, as well as the Anacostia Community Museum and the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum will open their doors to the public today. Hours for operation can be found here.
November 19, 2013
A portrait of Winston Churchill photographed by Yousuf Karsh during the darkest days of World War II reveals a leader resolute in the face of crisis. The year was 1941; Churchill was visiting Canada, and the Nazi puppet government in France had just sworn to wring the neck of Britain like a chicken. Staring straight into Karsh’s camera, Churchill’s eyes are steely, almost obstinate. Moments prior, he had stood in the Canadian parliament, hands on hips, and announced passionately: “Some chicken! Some neck!”
When Karsh took the iconic photo—the one that would grace the cover of Life magazine and launch his international career—he was a young man, excited but nervous about photographing the historic figure. MacKenzie King, former prime minister of Canada, had first noticed Yousuf when he was photographing a meeting with FDR. King asked Karsh if he would photograph Churchill during the Canadian visit, and Karsh agreed.
To prepare, Karsh practiced with a subject similar in stature to Churchill from the waist down. He set up his equipment in the speaker’s chamber in the Canadian House of Parliament, a huge Tudor apartment that was used for the speaker to entertain guests. Wrangling hundreds of pounds of photography equipment, Karsh next waited patiently for the moment when Churchill would finish his speech and exit the House of Commons and enter the speaker’s chamber.
On the tail of his impassioned speech, Churchill came striding into the chamber, arms outstretch, hands open: in one, somebody placed a glass of brandy, in the other, a Havana cigar. It took a moment, but Churchill soon noticed the small, young photographer standing amid his mass of equipment.
“What’s this? What’s this?” Churchill demanded.
Karsh realized, suddenly, that no one had told Churchill that he was to have his picture taken. “Sir, I hope I will be worthy enough to make a photography equal to this historic moment.”
Churchill, reluctantly, acquiesced—sort of. “You may take one.”
One picture, one chance.
Churchill relinquished his glass to an assistant and began to sit for the photograph, still puffing on his cigar. Karsh readied the equipment but, just before taking the picture, he placed an ashtray in front of Churchill, asking that the prime minister remove the cigar from his mouth.
Churchill obstinately refused, and Karsh was perplexed: the smoke from the cigar would certainly obscure the image. He returned to the camera, ready to take the picture—but then with lightening speed, Karsh leaned over the camera and plucked the cigar from Churchill’s lips.
“He looked so belligerent, he could have devoured me,” Karsh would remember later, and it’s a belligerence that comes across in the famous photograph—a scowl over the pilfered cigar that came to represent, seemingly, a fierce glare as if confronting the enemy.
Karsh’s iconic Churchill portrait, as well as 26 other photographs, are on display at the National Portrait Gallery through April 27, 2014. The installation is made possible thanks to a large gift—more than 100 photographs—to the Portrait Gallery by Yousuf Karsh’s wife Estrellita Karsh.
“Yousuf was so thrilled when he came over as a poor Armenian immigrant boy in 1927 to be in this country. He always called it (Canada, America and the United States) the sunshine of freedom,” says Mrs. Karsh. “He would be thrilled that his photographs of Americans are here—and what better home than the Smithsonian, really, what better home.”
The 27 photographs span Karsh’s long career, from the oldest image (a 1936 black and white of FDR, ) to a color photograph of César Chávez, taken 11 years before Karsh’s death in 2002.
“In selecting the portraits to feature, I wanted to spotlight Karsh’s ability to create distinctive and evocative images of such a wide range of famous Americans—from Eleanor Roosevelt to Colonel Sanders to I.M. Pei,” Ann Shumard, curator of the exhibit, explains. “It is my hope that visitors to the exhibition will come away with a new appreciation for Karsh’s singular artistry as a portraitist.”
Spanning nearly six-decades, Karsh gained a reputation for photographing some of the most iconic and influential men and women in the world, from Fidel Castro to Queen Elizabeth. But behind the iconic faces lies a kind of radiant humanity that Karsh was so skilled at capturing: the person behind the mask of society.
“His honest, open approach, his great ability to have the viewer give the best in himself—that comes through,” Mrs. Karsh explains. “And this is what people see whether they’re going to see it in 1920, 1930, 2015 or 3000. That is the element that remains.”
The Churchill portrait is on view until November 2, 2014. From May 2, 2014 to November 2, 2014, the museum will display an ongoing rotation a selection of portraits from the Karsh collection. To see a selection of the portraits online, visit our photo collection.
October 25, 2013
I am an unapologetic fan of show biz glitz. When organizing an exhibition, my approach is to dip scholarship in dazzle: I firmly believe that injecting an exhibition with spectacle and showmanship fuels the path to understanding. The idea is to inspire visitors rather than to intimidate, baffle or bore them. I’ve always wanted to roll out the red carpet and this time I did.
In the current exhibition, “Dancing the Dream,” which recently opened at the National Portrait Gallery, the idea was to show how Broadway, Hollywood, modern, classical and contemporary dance have captured American culture in motion. In 1900, Loie Fuller unleashed her barefoot and uncorseted version of the “New Woman” on stages around the world; in the 1930s, Fred and Ginger danced an elegant escapism for Depression audiences; at the height of the Cold War, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov sought asylum and sparked a mania for ballet in America; from the 1980s to today, MTV and YouTube have showcased such dancers as Michael Jackson and Beyoncé and created audiences that are both more diverse and more individualized than ever before.
The dance exhibition’s basic ingredients—strong images of iconic personalities—were already present, as the Gallery has an extraordinary collection of key dance figures—Isadora Duncan, Irene Castle, Josephine Baker, Busby Berkeley Rita Moreno, Alvin Ailey, Shakira and Justin Timberlake, to name a few. The challenge for the museum’s design team was to create a lively showcase that conveyed dance’s dynamism. “I don’t like white walls,” I chirped. “Make it dazzle.”
And they did. One of the most exciting design elements is the red carpet that runs down the center hall connecting each of the six exhibition rooms. Yes, the National Portrait Gallery has a real red carpet. Designer Raymond Cunningham told me that he researched A-List red carpet events and discovered that the “red” used by the Golden Globes is a bluer red than the brighter hue used for the Academy Awards. The color used for “Dancing the Dream” is close to Oscar’s, but has been uniquely created for the Gallery.
Tibor Waldner, the museum’s chief of design, and his remarkable staff created a space that radiates with color—a drawing of Josephine Baker shimmies and shakes in a gallery with stunning teal walls; young ballet dancer Misty Copeland soars as a flaming Firebird in a gallery the color of her fires; Beyoncé hot-steps her “Single Ladies” number in a yellow-green gallery that I call “the riot of Spring.”
I was vastly intrigued by Raymond’s red carpet research, and have since discovered that the red carpet itself has an amazing history. The earliest reference to “walking a red carpet” is in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon in 458 B.C., when the title character is greeted by his vengeful wife Clytemnestra, who invites him to walk a “crimson path” to his house. In Georgetown, South Carolina, a ceremonial red carpet was purportedly rolled out for President James Monroe when he disembarked from a riverboat in 1821. Mainly, though, it seems the red carpet was a railroad phenomenon: in 1902, the New York Central used plush crimson carpets to direct people boarding the 20th Century Limited. It was this usage that seems to mark the origin of the phrase “red carpet treatment.”
Today, we associate red carpets as fashion and celebrity runways at major entertainment events. I asked Linda Mehr, director of the Academy of Motion Pictures’ Margaret Herrick Library, when the Academy began using a red carpet, and she told me that it wasn’t until 1961. Television broadcasts of the Oscars had begun in 1953, and by 1966 when the awards were first broadcast in color, the red carpet had become a major factor in the Oscar experience. Turner Classic Movies primetime host Robert Osborne has said that “for most of us, even a walk down the red carpet is just a dream.” It has also has become the stage for one of the biggest fashion events of the year. At the 2013 Oscars, Jessica Chastain told a reporter that “as a little girl…I always dreamed about my Oscar dress. I love fashion that celebrates a woman’s body, and that maybe is a throwback to the glamour of Old Hollywood.” Amy Adams said of her Oscar de la Renta dress, “I’ve worn a lot of different dresses, but I’ve never worn a big ballgown, so I thought I wanna wear a dress you can’t wear anywhere but the Oscars.”
Many of the iconic figures in the dance exhibition have walked the red carpet: several have won Oscars—including Gene Kelly, James Cagney, Rita Moreno, and Liza Minnelli—and several have been awarded Grammys, including Lady Gaga, Justine Timberlake, and Beyoncé
Installing the red carpet was the exclamation point that finished the exhibition’s high impact design. But once it was unrolled, there was yet another surprise: the carpet’s red reflected off the walls and ceiling in a way that suffused the entire corridor with an unexpected glow.
Dancing the Dream will be open at the National Portrait Gallery until July 13, 2014.
October 17, 2013
The doors of the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums and galleries will open today, following the 16-day government shutdown. The National Zoo will reopen on Friday, October 17 at 10 a.m.; but the Pandacam is expected to go live Thursday afternoon. Regularly scheduled hours—10 to 5:30 for the museums located on the National Mall, and 11:30 to 7 for the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery—are to resume. Programs will also get underway, but officials recommend checking the Institution’s website for updates on rescheduling and reimbursement for previously canceled events.
The Smithsonian’s fall calendar of exhibitions has a number of much anticipated shows in the works including the highly acclaimed “Dancing the Dream” at the National Portrait Gallery and the Sackler Gallery’s much-anticipated “Yoga: The Art of Transformation.”
As the doors open and the staff welcomes visitors, a number of old favorites await the crowds—the Hope Diamond, the Wright Flyer, Lincoln’s Top Hat, the Ruby Slippers, to name a few of the 137 million artifacts and artworks held in the collections. The Zoo, meanwhile, promises to release an update later today of the panda cub’s growth over the past two weeks.
Five exhibitions you won’t want to miss include:
“You Can, You Will, You Must” Just before the government shutdown, the National Museum of American History installed a stunning billboard from the World War II era. The poster was conserved and reassembled in 12 separate parts and looks just as fresh and vibrant as it did at the beginning of the war, when it debuted.
“Mud Masons of Mali” On view in the Natural History Museum’s African Voices Focus Gallery, this exhibition profiles three generations of masons: master mason Konbaba, 77; masons Boubacar, 52, Lassina, 49, and Salif, 33; and apprentice Almamy, 20. They belong to the Boso ethnic group, which founded present-day Djenné (pronounced JEN-NAY) in the 13th century A.D.
“The William H. Gross Stamp Gallery” The National Postal Museum’s new 12,000-square-foot addition, which opened last month, features some 20,000 philatelic objects, including America’s most famous stamp, the Inverted Jenny.
“Portraits of Planet Ocean: The Photography of Brian Skerry” The how features 20 poignant images of life under the sea. Brian Skerry, an award-winning National Geographic photographer, has spent the last 30 years documenting the world’s most beautiful—and most imperiled—marine environments.
“Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds” Did you know that Leonardo da Vinci was an early innovator in the science of aviation? Between 1505 and 1506, the legendary polymath created his “Codex on the Flight of Birds,” an 18-page notebook containing detailed observations on aerodynamics. A digitized version of the d0cument went to Mars on the Curiosity Rover in 2011. The original codex is at the National Air and Space Museum, but only until October 21, so hurry in.