Archive for Sunday, December 28, 2003

The arts suffer but show resilience in 2003

December 28, 2003

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It was a year of extremes -- overnight lines for the latest "Harry Potter" book and record art auction sales for Modigliani and Klimt. But Broadway struggled to find a hit.

It was a year of stolen antiquities and an exquisite ballerina.

The ailing economy continued to threaten opera and dance companies, symphony orchestras and Broadway. But the arts showed their resilience.

Art

Inspired exhibits and rising prices for high-end works characterized 2003. But art's biggest story was the looting of priceless antiquities from the Iraqi National Museum.

When U.S. troops left the Baghdad museum unguarded after ousting Saddam Hussein, raiders carted off 14,000 treasures from Mesopotamia's cradle of civilization. Only about 4,000 objects have been recovered despite a worldwide alert.

Acclaimed retrospectives were mounted during the year despite the soaring costs of insuring and transporting loaned works after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- estimated at $10,000 or more per masterpiece.

Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris unveiled "Gauguin Tahiti" after four years of curating. London's Victoria and Albert Museum staged the biggest-ever display of art deco. Madrid's Prado unveiled Titian's biggest retrospective in 50 years, and the Netherlands celebrated van Gogh's 150th birthday.

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art awed the public with shows on Leonardo, Manet-Velazquez and El Greco. The Guggenheim Museum featured Matthew Barney's lusty "Cremaster" happening and pop art genius James Rosenquist. The Museum of Modern Art was the last stop -- after Paris and London -- for the stupendous "Matisse Picasso" retrospective, attracting 350,000 visitors to its temporary digs.

Modern works triggered lively bidding at the benchmark fall auctions in New York, where Modigliani's 1917 "Reclining Nude" sold for $26.88 million at Christie's, and Klimt's 1917 "The Villa at Attersee" fetched $29.1 million at Sotheby's. Both auctions set records for the artists.

-- David Minthorn

Dance

Despite a grim economy, exciting young companies such as Shen Wei Dance Arts, Akram Khan and George Piper Dances delighted in 2003 while guest dancers like the Royal Ballet's 21-year-old Alina Cojocaru dazzled audiences with her American Ballet Theatre debut in New York.

But many looked back this year as the dance world celebrated pioneering luminaries. The New York City Ballet launched the two-year "Balanchine 100: Centennial Celebration" to honor the centenary of the great choreographer's birth, while smaller but no less heartfelt tributes were offered to Katherine Dunham (still going at 94), Alwin Nikolais (1910-1993) and Gregory Hines, who died in August at 57.

Meanwhile, contemporary choreographers treated audiences to special seasons. Merce Cunningham paired with rock bands Radiohead and Sigur Ros to conclude his 50th anniversary season at BAM, while Bill T. Jones honored his late partner, Arnie Zane, with an intimate kickoff at The Kitchen. Trisha Brown revisited early seminal works with a performance and an exhibit tracing her artistic collaborations.

Finally, following a lengthy court battle over copyright issues, the Martha Graham Dance Company returned to the stage with its first full engagement in more than three years.

Such reminders of dance's illustrious history came as the future of many companies felt more vulnerable than ever. The dance world remains, as Ballett Frankfurt's William Forsythe noted wryly, "at the bottom of the funding food chain."

With his own company disbanding, Forsythe wowed audiences with final performances under the Frankfurt moniker. Ballet's reigning superstar plans to remain in Germany, much to the disappointment of his native America. By necessity, his new company will be smaller.

-- Claudia La Rocco

Publishing

Publishing in 2003 was both lively and distressing, with a handful of blockbusters, including Hillary Clinton's "Living History" and Al Franken's "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them," standing out in a year of slow sales.

Interest in works of subtlety and contemplation suffered both from an uncertain economy and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Instead, worried readers sought out the topical arguments of Franken and other political writers and the escape of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code."

Oprah Winfrey revived interest in John Steinbeck's "East of Eden," but only a few new literary novels -- among them Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake," Toni Morrison's "Love" and Jonathan Lethem's "The Fortress of Solitude" -- showed up on national best-seller lists. And none compared in sales to Brown's million-selling thriller.

Stephen King, this year's winner of an honorary National Book Award and himself a blockbuster author, is among those concerned that publishing has increasingly become a story of extremes. He has accused publishers of being too corporate-controlled to take risks on unknown writers and too snooty to relate to the masses, leaving the public to choose between unreadable "literature" and forgettable commercial books.

Introducing King at November's awards ceremony, mystery author Walter Mosley noted that the great writer and the popular writer can be one and the same, examples including Shakespeare, Dickens and Twain. But neither Mosley nor King mentioned a writer who in 2003 really did bring us back to the fabled days when readers rushed to the docks for the next shipment of a Dickens novel.

Hers was a book so notable that The New York Times printed a rave review on its front page, so commercial that in its opening weekend it generated as much money as the concurrent film debut of "The Hulk" and so desirable that fans read it and read it until their heads literally ached.

The book, of course, was "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." And should the sponsors of the NBAs want to further the unity of art and commerce, they might next year waive the requirement that recipients be U.S. citizens and give the honorary prize to Britain's J.K. Rowling.

-- Hillel Italie

Theater

In 2003, Broadway was still looking for a hit to match "Hairspray," the last big musical to open in New York and winner of eight Tony Awards, including best musical.

For a while, the hot-ticket honor was held by the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of "Nine," when it starred Spanish heartthrob Antonio Banderas, although business dropped soon after the film star left in September. Banderas' wife, Melanie Griffith, did sturdy business when she opened in the long-running revival of "Chicago" and played the role of Roxie Hart for several months during the summer.

The Pulitzer Prize for drama went to "Anna in the Tropics," with the judges basing their decision on reading Nilo Cruz's script and not seeing the play. When "Anna" reached New York in November, enthusiasm was more muted, although many critics found merit in the play's soaring, often poetic, language.

The play's main competitor for the Pulitzer, Richard Greenberg's "Take Me Out," the story of a gay baseball player, made a successful transfer from off-Broadway to Broadway and won the 2003 Tony Award for best play along the way.

Greenberg's most recent effort, "The Violet Hour" was chosen to reopen the Biltmore Theatre, now the Broadway home of the nonprofit Manhattan Theatre Club. The play about a young publisher and a mysterious machine was not as well-received as the handsome renovation of the venerable theater.

Composer Stephen Sondheim suffered a setback when "Bounce," his first new musical in nearly 10 years, never made it to New York and folded after engagements in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

The fall Broadway season was the busiest in years with several big-budget musicals, "The Boy From Oz," "Wicked" and "Taboo," opening to less than unanimous critical acclaim. And there were several quick flops, "Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All" never got past its opening night, while "Bobbi Boland," starring Farrah Fawcett, died in previews.

Yet hope remained. A rapturously received adaptation of Shakespeare's "Henry IV" opened in Lincoln Center with critics hailing Kevin Kline's portrayal of Falstaff as perhaps the best of the year.

-- Michael Kuchwara

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