Leaning forward in a loge

RENOIR, the French painter, objected heartily to the lights being turned out in theaters during the performance. ``It's absolute tyranny,'' he complained. ``I might want to look at a pretty girl sitting in a box.... For me there is as much show in the audience.'' Film director Jean Renoir - his son - did not approve: ``I cannot share my father's enthusiasm for people's habits of chatting during a performance.''

I agree. I find it impossible to remain indifferent to what is occurring on stage. Lights or chatter aren't precisely the problem these days. For me it's obstructions. I rather like a clear view. Big hats and vertical hair-concoctions are red rags to the bully in me.

Over the years, I've been subjected to a remarkable variety of obstructions in theaters. Classical columns of Norman girth. Horizontal handrails crossing at eye level. The silhouettes of body builders of unimaginable proportions. I've sat sideways in awkward corners for plays of Bernard Shaw length. I've climbed so high in ``the gods'' that the stage has become a postage stamp on a pavement, the actors poor insects strutting and fretting their hour over it.

In spite of all this I have never, until a few days ago, sat in a box. But now even this ultimate indignity has happened - in Vienna, in the grandiose and golden State Opera House.

It may have been the result of a misunderstanding at the ticket agency - there was some unemphatic suggestion of restricted views - but the dire mistake of spending more than 25 a ticket for my wife and me dawned on us too late. The seats were placed at random behind the three front seats in the loge. Even the people in the front seats had to lean over the balcony to see the stage. For us it was worse.

An optimum view commanding almost half the stage was possible for my wife if she stood up and leaned closely over the woman in front. And for me - about a third of the boards were visible if I placed a seat exactly behind my wife, and stood on it. My head was jammed hard into the top corner of the box. I felt like Atlas holding up the globe.

Further experiments grasping monkey-style at the pelmet fringe gave me a mite larger view - while strength lasted. But sometimes I had to take a break, climb down, and unfold for a while. If either of us had actually sat on our expensive seats, we would have been unable to see any of the ballet - ``Swan Lake,'' with Nureyev - at all.

All the same, this unforgettable experience had some intriguing compensations. It forced unfamiliar views. It demanded ingenuity to appreciate what I believe may have been a laudable production.

A guess at the whole had to be made by an assessment of parts. A blank stage from our angle indicated that the rest of it was bursting balletically. Somebody would have to be responding to all that Tchaikovsky pouring from the orchestra pit.

Little hints suggested great effects. Nine-and-a-quarter swans with fluttering hands and frothy tutus ranged where we could see them made us calculate a probable 12 or 13, and thus a matching number in the opposing (invisible) team.

If we glimpsed the tip of the prima ballerina's right toe in midair, we could be sure that Nureyev was holding her aloft with unmistakable panache. And if the great dancer himself, as now and then he did, heaved into view, we would relish, with the intense concentration of the semi-starved, the experience of that lithe man.

In the end it was not so much Renoir who came to mind as Degas. That painter of ``la danse'' made art out of the partial view. He cut dancers in half. He pictured tops and no feet, or toes and no head. One leg or arm stood for two. It was his way of suggesting in paint the fleeting passage of dance. He composed as if he were a camera, taking a section out of some continuum. He also let his eyes wander from stage to orchestra. He made the instruments and physiognomies - shadowy in warm, subdued lighting - act in contrast to the dazzling pinks, blues, and greens, the frenetic movements, the artificiality, of the half-glimpsed extravaganza beyond the footlights.

What I appreciated as I perched like Quasimodo in that absurd opera box was not ``Swan Lake'' or Nureyev (I gave him a third of a clap, in justice); it was the witty observation of Degas's-eye view of the world: a view of cropped images, of passing moments, of unexpected foreshortenings, of movements forever passing beyond his limited frame of reference. Ah, yes, I thought, just so. This is what Degas painted.

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