Staff Picks: Swans, Sieves, and Sentience


This Week’s Reading

The male swan ensemble in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Photo: Johan Persson.

When I was a dancer, performing Swan Lake was a rite of passage. My memories of doing so, though, involve only pain—the pain of standing in regimental lines for impossible stretches of time, of finding the will not to walk offstage. Swan Lake epitomizes balletic femininity as much as it does the exploitation of the female body in dance. But Matthew Bourne’s adaptation, which recently concluded a two-week run at City Center, challenges the ballet’s traditional gendering by featuring a cast of male swans. Setting Swan Lake in Kensington Gardens after dark, Bourne evokes the London of Henry James or Robert Louis Stevenson—where a man walking alone at night might come face to face with the supernatural, if not his own psyche. Bourne’s men pound the ground and heave collective, audible breaths. Their movements accentuate the weight of the physical body rather than creating an illusion of birdlike lightness. I am always wary, however, of Bourne’s indulgence in spectacle. Scenes set in present-day London are so saturated with cinematic gimmicks, so staged for a laugh, that their humor undercuts the psychological and choreographic complexities of the darker sections. That said, the Royal Ballet principal Matthew Ball’s performance as the Swan/Stranger was one of the best New York has seen in years. Bourne’s Swan Lake, kitsch aside, is a testament to the choreographer’s ingenuity and to the enduring allure of the ballet itself. —Elinor Hitt 

Dirty Projectors: another extraordinary musical party to which I am a late arrival. Where did this David Longstreth person come from? Who invented him? Under the banner of indie rock, he draws together a wide array of influences—African music, Latin percussion, classical composition techniques—and bundles them all into a kind of pop overload that is almost always too much, though, at the moment, I can’t get enough of it. Dirty Projectors’ 2018 studio album, Lamp Lit Prose (Longstreth has a penchant for literary lyrics), is a follow-up to their self-titled 2017 album, a belated breakup record about the end of Longstreth’s relationship with his onetime bandmate Amber Coffman (that record, I gather, is supposed to be a melancholy affair, except it sounds to me like Portishead slurped up a big bowl of Björk and then set it on a roof in the middle of a lightning storm). Lamp Lit Prose is a bouncy return to form, a fast-paced and eclectic album that delivers everything listeners have come to expect from Dirty Projectors: overly intricate guitar lines, all kinds of rhythmic feels, multipart vocal harmonies, Longstreth’s rubber-band falsetto, and melodies that are as complicated as they are hard to forget. I can’t get the song “That’s a Lifestyle,” a kind of political diatribe, out of my head, with its infectious singsong chorus: “The monster eats its young / till they’re gone, gone, gone … It wants blood, blood, blood.” As a follow-up, at the end of 2019, the band released Sing the Melody, an in-studio live recording of many of these songs, which is great if you want a second helping. —Craig Morgan Teicher


Robert Glück.


There is a Rufus Wainwright song that is a pretty little number with a pretty little proposition: “Wouldn’t it be a lovely headline, ‘Life Is Beautiful’ on the New York Times?” This week, that headline could hardly feel further away. And yet opening Robert Glück’s soon-to-be-reissued Margery Kempe, I felt a similar stroke of whimsy: What if the New York Review Books Classics version of the literary canon were common cultural currency? Like their fabulous covers (about which much has been said), these books paint a rich and deviant portrait of human life. Over the years, New York Review Books has sieved chunks of gold out of the caverns of forgotten paperbacks: Cassandra at the Wedding, The Juniper Tree, Season of Migration to the North, Lolly Willowes, books that are beautiful and wild and were there all along. Take heart: there was weirdness in the margins, women who cruised by wearing their watches on their pulse. There was room for the strange, and there will be room again. Margery Kempe is a classic NYRB Classic. It’s a novel (maybe) that weaves the story of the religious fanatic Margery Kempe—author, in 1438, of perhaps the first autobiography ever written—with the tale of a love affair in eighties San Francisco between an older man  and an impossibly beautiful younger one who belongs to the tips of America’s upper class. What connects the threads is erotic love: Margery’s for Jesus, whom she understands herself to be fucking, and the two men’s for each other. The writing is lovely. With the subtlety of the obvious, Glück collapses the centuries that separate the two storylines and zips up the space between erotic and religious devotion. Margery’s orgasms are God-given, a mingling of godhead and maiden, an ecstasy of body and spirit. Aren’t most of us as mystified by our sexuality as we are by divinity? Why not consider the former with the awe we reserve for the latter? With Valentine’s Day upon us, let us kneel. —Julia Berick

As they did for the eighties post-punk bands from which Shopping derive their sound, synths play a prominent role in the punk trio’s new album All or Nothing. I’ve long been a fan of Shopping’s music, and All or Nothing continues to mix spiky, danceable compositions with politically biting lyrics that bring to mind the best of Au Pairs and Gang of Four. Highlights include “Initiative,” which makes a mockery of nonsense go-getter language (“Why can’t you show some initiative?”), and “Follow Me,” which slyly turns the tables on the surveillance state. And after you’re finished listening to this one, you’ve got three more excellent albums you can delve into—2018’s The Official Body (produced by Edwyn Collins), 2015’s Why Choose, and 2013’s Consumer Complaints—as well as each band member’s other musical projects (including the guitarist Rachel Aggs’s excellent, Postcard Records–esque Sacred Paws). —Rhian Sasseen

Slipped into all the other early 2020 headlines about the increasingly camp unraveling of our democracy was the revelation that privacy is now a thing of the past. Like so much of the news these days, Kashmir Hill’s stunning investigation into the company Clearview AI reads almost like satire. Funded by Peter Thiel and created by Hoan Ton-That, a thirty-one-year-old self-described “entrepreneur, computer hacker, guitarist and part time model” (whose past work involves apps such as Trump Hair and Friend Quiz), the Clearview AI facial-recognition app allows you to take and upload a photo of someone in order to learn their name, address, phone number, and any other information available online. Without any public oversight, the technology has already been sold to more than six hundred law-enforcement agencies. There is no regulation in place to prevent it from being sold to private companies or becoming a consumer product. If the company is left unchecked, leaving one’s house with any anonymity will soon become impossible. I read about all this while lost in Joanna Kavenna’s Zed, which depicts a technocratic dystopia so engrossing, prescient, and disorienting that the edges between it and the world blurred, and I could no longer tell if Clearview AI had simply emerged from the novel. In Zed, a tech company called Beetle controls the Western hemisphere. Its predictive algorithms are so advanced that people are jailed for crimes their “lifechains” suggest they might commit, home refrigerators offer passive-aggressive suggestions, meetings take place in virtual boardrooms where everyone’s avatars are slightly more beautiful, and personal AI assistants attached to everyone’s mandatory wristband (BeetleBand) must be treated with the respect of sentient creatures. As an uprising stirs in the (aptly named) Last Bookshop, Beetle introduces BeSpoke, which translates all speech into a preapproved, algorithm-selected, reduced vocabulary (“This is not good”). Everything begins to unravel and break, the AI assistants start to speak in poetry, and chaos blooms through the cracks. One of the markers of good art for me has always been its ability to leave a new filter over the world, the way certain museum shows, when one exits the gallery, seem to have transformed the city itself. Zed is a novel about our most eternal concerns—free will, identity, language—transposed onto a future that feels terrifyingly present. Pair it with Anna Wiener’s memoir, Uncanny Valley, a kaleidoscopically vivid fever-dream window into the baby billionaires of the tech boom, and you’ll never want to look at your phone again. —Nadja Spiegelman


Joanna Kavenna. Photo: © Alexander Michaelis.