Portrait of the Artist

Classic Arts Features   Portrait of the Artist
In October at New York City Center, American Ballet Theatre premieres a work about the artist Chuck Close, set to music by Philip Glass.

In 1969 Chuck Close took a casual, close-up photograph of one of his friends, Philip Glass. Both were young artists starting to make their way in the heady experimentation of the time: Close as a painter of obsessively observed, astonishingly detailed portraits that looked like nothing anyone had seen; Glass as a composer of hypnotic, propulsive music that sounded like nothing anyone had heard. Over the years, Close has used the photo of Glass — in which he looks sort of like Lou Reed — as the source for so many paintings and drawings that his images of Glass have become iconic: portraits of the artist as a young man.

In 2005 Glass returned the favor with A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close, a two-movement score for solo piano that reflects abstractly on events in Close's life and the long friendship between the two men. The piece was commissioned and performed by Bruce Levingston, a concert pianist who heads Premiere Commission, a non-profit foundation that has launched more than 30 works by emerging and established composers. Glass's musical score is a case of Phil portraying Chuck, who portrayed Phil — man creates art creates man.

The high-art hall of mirrors gets a new twist this fall when American Ballet Theatre presents the world premiere of a new version of A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close, this time as a ballet titled C. to C. (Close to Chuck) by choreographer Jorma Elo. Commissioned by Ballet Theatre, the work for six dancers, to Glass's score, will be given its first performance on October 27 at City Center. Levingston will play Glass's technically demanding score onstage.

Elo is no stranger to Ballet Theatre: his Glow — Stop was a hit at its world premiere during the company's 2006 season at New York City Center, and it's danced to music of Mozart and, of course, Philip Glass. So here's a choreographer translating into his own visceral, highly kinetic vocabulary, works by artists in other media — a contemporary echo of the close associations and cross-disciplinary collaborations of the Ballets Russes in its heyday. Adding to the mix will be displays of Close's self-portraits, suspended on the stage as backdrops and executed at differing periods, and costumes by Ralph Rucci, the vanguard fashion designer whose couture-quality clothing was the focus of a landmark exhibition last year.

American Ballet Theatre's new work brings together a rare concatenation of world-class talent. But the whole thing all came about serendipitously.

"I was playing a concert at Rockefeller University," Levingston recalls, "when I saw one of Chuck Close's portraits of Philip Glass. I kept thinking about the friendship Delacroix had with Chopin, and Picasso's friendship with Stravinsky and Satie. At that time, I was playing Schumann's Kreisleriana, which depicts a character from E. T. A. Hoffmann. That got me thinking about musical portraits. When I happened to be introduced to Philip Glass, I talked to him about the idea of a musical portrait of Chuck Close, and he instantly accepted the commission. I was so surprised. About six months later, I received the score, and it was wonderful. As he and I talked, it emerged that he had been composing two scores simultaneously and that his assistant had sent me the 'incorrect' score. But we realized that the two scores speak to each other. They make a beautiful diptych. So that's how this came to be a two-movement work. It's been a very special collaboration."

The leap from musical score to ballet was equally personal. "When I played the score for Barbara Hemmerle Gollust, a good friend of mine, she immediately thought it would make a wonderful ballet," Levingston adds. "Barbara is on the board of ABT. She called [ABT Artistic Director] Kevin McKenzie, he came over to her house, I played the score, and Kevin said that he thought it would make a great ballet. We discussed various choreographers, and Jorma was right at the top of the list."

Although officially credited as one of the ballet's leading underwriters, Hemmerle Gollust views her role modestly. "The seed started in my home and then it blossomed," she says. Hemmerle Gollust has been on the board of Ballet Theatre for a decade, and her husband, Keith, serves on the board of the Juilliard School. She grew up in artistic circles in Europe and had long admired ballet — she mentions Balanchine as a touchstone — but she made her career as an arbitrageur on Wall Street. "When Bruce played the Glass piece at my house," she recalls, "I found it very moving. It was obvious to me in a fraction of a second that this was a beautiful story to be told. And it had to be told as a ballet. Kevin agreed, and he really heard the movement and the beauty of the music. You feel the pain and the joy that Chuck Close has gone through; you understand his spiritual and physical life."

Once the project was up and running, McKenzie says, selecting Elo as choreographer was a natural fit: "Given the subject matter and personalities of this piece, I wanted a choreographer who faces life like a painter and that is definitely Jorma. He was completely open to it. Not only does he have to create the artwork, he has to make the collaboration work. His process is fluid; he doesn't arrive with the whole thing planned out. Instead, when he goes into the studio to improvise with the dancers, it's as if he's working with the paint and looking at the canvas."

Elo first hit the radar of U.S. dancegoers with a batch of quirky, densely packed works for Boston Ballet. He was named that company's Resident Choreographer in 2005, and in 2006 American Ballet Theatre presented the world premiere of Glow — Stop. Born in Finland and trained at the schools of the Finnish National Ballet and the Kirov Ballet, Elo danced with Finnish National Ballet, Cullberg Ballet, and Netherlands Dance Theater. He's a busy guy, creating works during the 2006-07 season for Boston Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Royal Danish Ballet, and Norwegian National Ballet, among others. His dances merge a deep understanding of classical training and placement with contemporary edge. Moving at warp speed, they get audiences all worked up. He also has a flair for the provocative title: Happy Is Happy and Twisted Shadow (for the Finnish National Ballet), Plan to A (Netherlands Dance Theater), and Slice to Sharp (New York City Ballet).

Elo was immediately interested when ABT proposed a new work to music of Glass. "I think he's a great composer," the choreographer says. "I first heard his music when I saw Koyaanisqatsi [the 1982 film with music by Glass], although that work didn't strike me as music for ballet. The piano pieces for the new ballet really fit all the ingredients — the story, the fabulous dancers I'm working with, and the stage space. Everything seems to fit the music."

The one element he wasn't familiar with was Close. "I may be the only person on the planet who didn't know about Chuck Close," Elo admits with a laugh. "I know that he is really famous in America and Europe, but preparing this ballet was the first time I saw his work. So I spent a lot of time staring at his paintings. Chuck let me come to his studio, and that was really cool. He was so happy to show his work and introduce it to me. To be in his studio and see his work was amazing."

Rather than a strict narrative of Close's life, Elo's ballet will be more abstract, just as Close refers to his portraits as "heads," as exercises in form, and Glass builds even his most programmatic works from pure sound. The new ballet looks at the struggles of an artist; Close was afflicted by a spinal aneurism in 1988, and lost the use of his legs and hands. He returned to painting only after great effort.

"The themes that the music and now the ballet embrace — that of a human being facing a crisis and transcending it — are ones that everyone can relate to, even if one has not suffered the illness that Chuck did," says Levingston. "Chuck describes it as loss and celebration. Loss in the sense that he lost the ability to walk, but celebration in the sense that he regained the ability to express himself artistically. One thing in particular struck me. After all of that, Chuck has no bitterness, no sadness. Instead, there is a sense of joy. This piece evokes that."

Robert Sandla writes frequently about the arts.

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