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Nas Raps About the Spirit of Cognac and Hip-Hop Culture

Hennessy is celebrating its 250th birthday in predictably lavish style. During an exclusive black-tie gala at Lincoln Center last week, the world’s largest cognac producer unveiled a new, ultra-premium release backdropped by a multimedia art exhibit at Alice Tully Hall. The show featured a menagerie of film, interpretive dance, photography, and interactive installations focusing on the past, present, and future of the eighth-generation French liquor brand. It was here that Nas, rap icon — and Hennessy Ambassador — performed a private, impromptu show in front of a handful of ebullient attendees. I sat down with the legend of Queensbridge before he took the stage to discuss his relationship with Hennessy and how it evolved as a fixture within hip-hop culture.

Like with most of the other guests that evening, Nas’s first sip of Hennessy 250 — a limited-run, $600-a-bottle release — came at last Tuesday’s Lincoln Center gala. “It’s really what I would like to drink every time I drink cognac,” he said. “That’s the type of drink I like. It’s smooth. Really smooth.” He might be on the company payroll, but it’s difficult to argue with his assessment. Although the newest addition to the Hennessy portfolio offers exotic, saffron-like spice aromatics, on the tongue, it’s redolent of orange zest and wildflowers with a lush, velvety mouthfeel that demands careful contemplation beyond each sip.

Even for a successful rapper, this precious juice, containing eau de vie aged for up to 50 years in French oak barrels, is reserved for special occasions. As an everyday go-to, Nas prefers his dependable V.S., the brand’s flagship golden blend, which typically retails at around $35 a bottle in the city.

That drink has been familiar to Nas throughout his entire professional career. “We always want to be accepted as an adult, when you’re young,” he explained. “That’s the reason why we didn’t first know about it. I was introduced to Hennessy by an older fellow who told me I was drinking basically bullshit. He told me about better Champagne, he told me about Hennessy. We started rapping about it, and that was it.”

An official collaboration between Nas and Hennessy was bound to happen sooner or later. He’s been repping the company’s spirits long before it paid him to do so. “It was on my first album, before one song, I mention this damn drink,” he recalls, referring to the opening track of his debut 1994 classic, Illmatic. “I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Hennessy, like a family member, throughout my life. So it was funny, ironic, how they contacted me to be an ambassador.”

The partnership hardly affected his lifestyle, as Nas notes: “I just do what I’ve been doing, but now we do it on a big level. It’s pretty cool, just to show my world and their world combining. It starts right there. That’s where it is. ”

It’s hard to fake true passion. And, over the course of even a brief conversation, you wouldn’t dare question Nas’s genuine devotion to this particular liquor. He also takes pride in being included among the other noted personalities who have been associated with Hennessy throughout the years. “[They] had people in the past: Miles Davis, Martin Scorcese, [Manny] Pacquiao. Out of all those guys I’m probably the real Hennessy drinker,” he boasts. “So it was a great idea for us to get together. I’m an old-school fan of rap. Run-D.M.C. meeting Adidas — things like that — I can equate to this.”

Even though Nas still enjoys his “Henny With Sprite,” he concedes that “now I’m a more civilized drinker. Now I enjoy every moment of it — it’s not just a party.” The new 250 release from Hennessy provides plenty of reason to celebrate. And not even Nas would dare dilute this drink with sugar water. “The 250 is neat!” he exclaims.

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The Oldest Boy: Eat, Pray, Cliche

Your feelings about Sarah Ruhl’s touching but
troubling new play, The Oldest Boy — directed by
Rebecca Taichman and now playing at Lincoln Center — will depend on your tolerance for stories where Tibetan
culture propels a white American woman’s spiritual journey.
If that raises hackles, this isn’t your bowl of tsampa.

One day the character known only as Mother — a recovering academic turned spiritual seeker — receives unexpected guests: monks, who announce that her son is the reincarnation of a great lama. Her husband, Father, is a
Tibetan émigré who owns a restaurant. We see them meet-cute there, in flashback. West, meet East! Spirituality, meet rationality! (Ruhl takes some cheap shots at academia. Are we still harping about deconstruction?)

Faced with a precocious child — onstage, a puppet voiced by Ernest Abuba, whose past credits
include the Dalai
Lama’s audiobook
— endowed with the eerie ability to speak in koans, the couple must decide whether to let him embrace his ordained destiny.

Ruhl’s real subject here is the pangs of maternal affection. Buddhism’s renunciations provide a poignant metaphor for the successive separations that begin with childbirth and end with death. The playwright’s evocations of motherhood’s inbuilt sorrows
are moving, but her reliance on stale clichés about East and West undermines the whole enterprise. Speaking of academics, Edward Said would’ve had a few things to say about that.

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The Handheld Stop the Pounding Heart Is Filled with Piercing Isolation and Sadness

You keep waiting for catastrophe to strike in Roberto Minervini’s taciturn Stop the Pounding Heart. The handheld camera drifts without judgment through scenes of home-schooled children in forced prayer, shirtless trailer-park boys riding a makeshift mechanical bull, those same boys mounting a dangerously unqualified elementary-school kid on the bull.

But nothing wrenching happens, just unforgettable moments of piercing isolation and sadness. Stop the Pounding Heart is part of what Minervini calls his “Texas trilogy” (the two other films, The Passage and Low Tide, are not sequels but feature some of the same cast and themes; all three will run between September 19 and 25 at Lincoln Center).

There’s scant plot or dialogue, just glimpses of the daily rituals of the Trichell and Carlson clans (playing themselves), as the former shoot cans or train for the rodeo in their backyard and the latter, when not engaged in group prayer, milk cows and goats on their barren farm. The eldest Carlson, Sara, is attracted to the eldest Trichell boy and finds herself doubting her faith. There is certainly darkness lurking within each family.

The Trichell patriarch is a recovering drug addict, and the Carlsons command their young daughters to be subservient to men (when Sara first rebels by stating she won’t wed, her brainwashed sisters call her a spinster). But Minervini doesn’t condescend to either brood.

He’s hyper-aware of the chilling sermonizing on display, but also the warmth; this time, characters who might have been portrayed as Bible Belt nut-jobs come off as unconditionally loving. That anomaly somehow makes Sara’s deeply felt — but unspoken — loneliness all the more devastating.

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TASTE BREAKER

Considering Divine’s unpleasant dietary habits in Pink Flamingos, you might want to give the concession stand a wide berth before settling in to enjoy the career retrospective of Baltimore’s King of Trash. Titled like a dare, the Film Society at Lincoln Center’s “How Much Can You Take?” brings to theaters John Waters’s 12 features in all their crass glory, as well as numerous shorts (screened free) and even eight boundary-pushers the director is jealous he didn’t make. Tonight’s opener is 1974’s glam-diculous Female Trouble; followed by a discussion between Waters and critic J. Hoberman.

Mondays-Sundays, 6:30 p.m. Starts: Sept. 5. Continues through Sept. 14, 2014

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Lincoln Center’s James Brown Fest Showcases Peak Human Achievement

Is it overselling it to claim that James Brown’s 18-minute performance on 1964’s The T.A.M.I. Show rivals the moon landing as the choicest footage of human achievement of the 1960s? Stanley Kubrick couldn’t fake this: Hot-footing in a crisp, checkered vest and jacket, Brown connected the world of then to the world of now. (You can relish it at two rare screenings of the omnibus concert film at Lincoln Center Aug. 31.)

First, he glides through the mod “Out of Sight,” often on just one foot. Then, stopping on an unexpected dime, he lays into the ballad “Prisoner of Love,” but that archaic song can’t hold him. Like the song form itself, or the teen-oriented pop of Jan and Dean and the rest of The T.A.M.I. Show, “Prisoner of Love” is an envelope, and Brown’s a hot coal, burning right through.

Less than two minutes in, niceties like verse and chorus fall away in favor of a pulsing groove. His cries grow more urgent, the song reduced to the rhythmic bed upon which he humps and screams. Reduction, revelation, revolution: Brown knew that music didn’t need the rest of that song stuff. His Famous Flames’s impassioned vamps would power the birth of funk just more than two years later, and then disco and hip-hop and everything else after.

But that’s now. Then, after leveling “Prisoner of Love,” Brown screams “Please Please Please” in a state of collapse. The business with the cape — a valet ushering the Hardest Working Man offstage — begins just eight minutes into the set. Brown throws it off, pirouettes, shimmies with the Flames, double-times his footwork, executes a slick proto-moonwalk, and then still has it in him to shriek-ask the mostly white crowd to shout back the “night” in “Night Train” 14 separate times. They do.

It matters that it’s “Night Train.” The song has roots in the 1940s, in Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges. Brown reduced it to a groove and chucked lyrics in favor of a list of cities he was booked to play. But it still had to signify: Any train Brown invited America’s youth to hop would have to be a black one. The itinerary he hollers confirms it: Atlanta, Raleigh, Richmond, Baltimore, all part of a chugging, chitlin-circuit tour steeped in the past but surging toward the funk to come — and our rhythmic present. Did those white teens gaping in that audience know that they were on Brown’s train, like it or not? That the whole world was?

They scream for Brown, especially a pair of black girls whom director Steve Binder cuts to several times. But the wails are doubled when the Rolling Stones take the stage — the teens seem to tear their throats as raw as Brown’s. The legend of The T.A.M.I. Show, retold in the recent James Brown biopic, has always been that the Stones were shaken following Brown’s set. They may have been, but like time, the kids were on their side. Brown’s act, all that manly too-muchness, had nothing to do with what anyone on that bill but Smokey Robinson’s Miracles were attempting. Young Mick and company may pale behind him, but they benefit from comparison to the bill’s other white bands: Gerry and the Pacemakers, “Surfin’ U.S.A.”–era Beach Boys, also-rans the Barbarians. In that crowd, only the Stones got that rock ‘n’ roll has something to do with sex. (The only white performer who sings songs of any emotional consequence is Lesley Gore, who is more wised-up/grown-up than her heartsick “It’s My Party” suggests. She’s dressed like a valedictorian.)

The T.A.M.I. Show caught Brown at his physical but not musical peak. Its singularity is due less to his having a good night than it is to simple oversight: There’s simply no crisply shot, concert-length recording of Brown in his strongest period, 1967 to early 1971, the pioneering stretch between “Cold Sweat,” the big bang from which most contemporary pop burst, and the dissolution of the J.B.s, the Bootsy Collins band. (The famous 1968 Boston Garden show, available on DVD, is essential but ill-lit and haphazardly shot; a ’68 Apollo date looks somewhat better but runs short — and only rarely is the camera in the right spot.)

There are still treasures to savor in the Lincoln Center lineup. The thrilling doc Soul Power features 13 minutes of Brown and band playing Zaire in 1974. He’s post-peak, barely, but still higher up than most performers could ever hope for, and he hits his splits just fine for a man just north of 40. Funking through ’73’s “The Payback,” perhaps the last of his great hits, Brown himself seems struck by the mad brilliance of the line “I don’t know karate/but I know ka-razy.” He barks it twice, savoring it. Soul Power (directed by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte) is a companion film to Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning 1996 doc, When We Were Kings, which lays out the story behind the Ali/Foreman fight in Zaire in ’74. Kings offers a couple minutes of Brown’s Soul Power performance, the main event at a three-day music fest pairing American and African artists; both films boast priceless scenes of Brown speaking truths that could be lyrics. In Kings, expounding to Don King how the Golden Rule should apply to race relations, the Godfather of Soul uses code to warn everyone he’s getting close to swearing: “I don’t want to have to use the f-m backwards.” Brown closes Soul Power by telling a cameraman that what he’s about to say should be the very last thing in the movie: “When you get up and walk out and look down the street, you say to yourself, ‘Damn right, I’m somebody.’ “

Soul Power catches Brown in hallways, in cars, constantly beset by admirers. Even motormouth Ali pays homage, greeting Brown with Brown’s own words: “I got ants in my pants — I gotta dance!” The rest of the film is choice speechifying from Ali and backstage and concert footage of the other acts: the Spinners, Miriam Makeba, Big Black, and Bill Withers, whose pained and piercing “Hope She’ll Be Happier” has never sounded better. It’s worth scoring a DVD of Soul Power to hear festival or-ganizer Stewart Levine’s behind-the-scenes tales of the event: Withers was often infuriated with vainglorious Brown, especially after Brown showed up for the plane ride to Africa with tens of thousands of extra pounds of luggage. Even Withers’s quiet, stunning performance —with only his own acoustic guitar — owes much to Brown’s ’60s breakthrough. Gorgeous and thoughtful, “Hope She’ll Be Happier” is itself a reduction. It’s a man singing only the best parts over a vamp.

The festival is rounded out by a performance compilation (unavailable for screening at press time) and three comedies (intentional and non-). In these, Brown’s act defibrillates un-funky white folks. The least is Ski Party, a Frankie Avalon time killer in which Brown shuffles through “I Feel Good”; there are more bikinis than you’d expect but little else of note. Rocky IV and John Landis’s The Blues Brothers, meanwhile, both look crazier every year. I prefer Brown’s gaudy, jingoistic Rocky performance to the uncharacteristic preacher-man act that stirs the souls of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Landis’s noisy, deadpan comedy of car chases and cultural appropriation may be the reason Bruce Willis and Steven Seagal have blues bands, but I’ll give the movie this: It means well, even when it casts Aretha as a killjoy. Still, it’s hard not to be thankful Dan Aykroyd was born too early to feel hip-hop.

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Jazz digs roots as Lincoln Center Out of Doors’ ambitious inaugural Americanafest NYC continues with “A Sacred Steel Love Supreme,” wherein the Campbell Brothers apply their superb gospel-steel-guitar skills to John Coltrane’s most exalted opus. And expe

Jazz digs roots as Lincoln Center Out of Doors’ ambitious inaugural Americanafest NYC continues with “A Sacred Steel Love Supreme,” wherein the Campbell Brothers apply their superb gospel-steel-guitar skills to John Coltrane’s most exalted opus. And expect jazz singer Cassandra Wilson to lean toward the blues and folk standards heard on 2012’s Another Country.

Fri., Aug. 8, 7 p.m., 2014

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The Top 16 Dance Events in NYC This Summer

DanceAfrica

May 23–26

More than a mere performance, Baba Chuck Davis’s annual downtown Brooklyn festival anchors a neighborhood-wide celebration of the African diaspora, this year featuring music and dance from Madagascar’s Groupe Bakomanga (making its U.S. debut), as well as select artists from around New York state. Come hungry and with an eye for crafts; be prepared to respond to Baba’s calls. BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, bam.org

MalPaso Dance Company

May 27–June 1

American foundations have circled around this brand-new Cuban troupe, steeped in the country’s diverse dance traditions and directed by Osnel Degado. Their support allows MalPaso to make its New York debut with a work by Ronald K. Brown, whose own company fills the theater the following week. Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, joyce.org

John Jasperse

May 28–31

The smartest and farthest out of our mid-career choreographers, Jasperse renders big ideas in irresistible formats. His new quartet, Within between, grapples with the habits of his own history, a 30-year exploration of the cultural landscape. Jonathan Bepler provides an original score, played live. New York Live Arts, 219 West 19th Street, newyorklivearts.org

Daniel Gwirtzman
Dance Company

May 30–June 1

The voluble choreographer celebrates his troupe’s 15th anniversary with the world premiere of Oracle, performed in the round by a dozen dancers who explore gatherings that define the cycle of life. Composer Jeff Story provides an original score. BAM Fisher, 321 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, bam.org

From the Horse’s Mouth

May 30–June 1

Tina Croll and Jamie Cunningham’s irresistible combo of dance improvisation and spoken word has been delighting audiences since they first developed it decades ago. This version brings two special programs: a gala celebrating the centenary of Frederic Franklin with performers who knew and loved him, and all-male versions of the venerable score, which lets dancers tell how they got into the profession and why they stayed. Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, 3 Spruce Street, schimmel.pace.edu

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet

June 11–14

The Walmart-funded, Euro-centered, Chelsea–based troupe of terrific dancers, now directed by Alexandra Damiani, celebrates its 10th anniversary with a Brooklyn debut, mounting three programs featuring choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (Belgian), Hofesh Shechter (Israeli), Alexander Ekman (Swedish), Jo Stromgren (Norwegian), and Crystal Pite (Canadian). BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, bam.org

Alvin Ailey American
Dance Theater

June 11–22

A world premiere by the San Francisco–based choreographer Robert Moses, on June 12, highlights this spring season, which features four programs including dances by Hans van Manen, David Parsons, Asadata Dafora, Wayne McGregor, Ronald K. Brown, Ohad Naharin, Bill T. Jones, Aszure Barton, and, needless to say, Alvin Ailey. David H. Koch Theater, 20 Lincoln Center Plaza, davidhkochtheater.com

Jason Samuels Smith

June 20

Terrific tapper Smith collaborates with Owen “Flidia” Brown on Transformation: Rhythm’s Roots, a musical response to the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave. The free evening begins with a master class by Brooklyn-born African dancer Jamal Jackson and includes live music by Flidia’s all-star combo. Herbert Von King Park, Marcy Avenue between Greene and Lafayette Avenues, Brooklyn, summerstage.donyc.com

Savion Glover

June 24–July 12

The “king of tap,” a consummate performer and teacher, brings a new show, showcasing his extraordinary virtuosity and uncompromising style. Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, joyce.org

Urban Bush Women

July 2

A new work, Chalabati, made for dance students across the South, commemorates the troupe’s 30th anniversary, to music by the Moroccan Gnawa people. Sharing the bill: Laurie M. Taylor/Soul Movement, which concentrates on “sound perception.” Central Park Summerstage, Rumsey Playfield, Fifth Avenue at 69th Street, summerstage.donyc.com

Anne Teresa De
Keersmaeker/Rosas

July 8–9

Kicking off this year’s Lincoln Center Festival, the high-strung Belgian choreographer returns with a “greatest hits” offering that includes her shattering Fase (1982) to music by Steve Reich, Rosas danst Rosas (1983), Elena’s Aria (1984), and Bartok/Mikrokosmos (1987). Live music is played by Ictus. Gerald W. Lynch Theater, Tenth Avenue at 59th Street, lincolncenterfestival.org

Bolshoi Ballet

July 12–27

Moscow’s big company brings Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and Yuri Grigorovich’s mostly-male Spartacus, with a score by Aram Khachaturyan played by the Bolshoi Orchestra, to the Lincoln Center Festival. David H. Koch Theater, 20 Lincoln Center Plaza, davidhkochtheater.com

Shen Wei Dance

July 17

Hopefully the last Rite of Spring for this century, the choreographer of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics brings us another performance to Stravinsky’s world-changing score. Prospect Park Bandshell, 9th Street and Prospect Park West, Brooklyn, bricartsmedia.org

Lincoln Center Out of Doors

July 20–August 10

Bill Bragin’s cornucopia of international music and dance overflows this summer, featuring A Batalha Do Passinh, a new Brazilian street dance form, plus Rennie Harris Puremovement (July 24), Pam Tanowitz Dance (July 25), Paul Taylor Dance Company and Pablo Ziegler’s New Tango Ensemble (August 1), Camille A. Brown and Dancers (August 2), and Ragamala Dance and Chinese dancers from New York and Philadelphia (August 7). And more, all free. Lincoln Center’s Plazas, West 62nd to West 65th Streets, lcoutofdoors.org

Dance Theater of Harlem

July 31

The reinvigorated ballet troupe, under the direction of Virginia Johnson, brings a program that includes dances by Donald Byrd, Robert Garland, and Marius Petipa. Opening the free show is New Orleans musician Leyla McCalla. Prospect Park Bandshell, 9th Street and Prospect Park West, Brooklyn, bricartsmedia.org

Spectrum Dance Theater/
Sidra Bell Dance NY

August 6

In one of the great American second acts, choreographer Donald Byrd moved to Seattle and revitalized Spectrum; his troupe makes a rare local appearance on a bill shared with Sidra Bell’s cinematic choreography and glamorous performers. Central Park Summerstage, Rumsey Playfield, Fifth Avenue at 69th Street, summerstage.donyc.com

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Campbell Brothers

More than 60 years ago, the pedal-steel guitar came along to add a tart electric twang to the music-driven Pentecostal church ceremonies in Florida’s House of God. A terrific series of Arhoolie albums have documented the phenomenon, but Rochester’s Campbell Brothers are among the few guitarists to present this beatific gospel innovation outside the fold. The Campbells kick off Lincoln Center’s annual White Light Festival with tonight’s free performance.

Thu., Oct. 24, 7:30 p.m., 2013

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FASHIONABLY LOUD

Don’t think that New York Fashion Week is over just because the tents are coming down at Lincoln Center. Find new designers and clothes that you’ll actually be able to afford at Williamsburg Fashion Weekend. Here, you don’t have to be on the A-list to sit in the front row. Since spring 2006, designer and artist Arthur Arbit has been organizing this democratic alternative to Lincoln Center that often mixes live music, theatrical performance, and dance on the catwalk, all for less than the price of a movie. Tonight, see the latest collections from Brittany Erb, Mark Tauriello, Nathalie Kraynina + Kaci Head, Uta Bekaia, Gregory Apparel, and DEVOWEVO. Another six designers will show on Saturday.

Fri., Sept. 13, 9 p.m.; Sat., Sept. 14, 9 p.m., 2013

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AMERICAN SPIRIT

Like catching two decent shows for the price of none, Lincoln Center Out of Doors’ annual Roots of American Rock fest presents a historic confab of rock ’n’ roll elders alongside a pair of no-depression singleton stars. The Rockin’ Rockabilly Revue of septuagenarian ass-kickers includes impeccable Sun Records guitarist James Burton, larger-than-life Arkansas powerhouse Sleepy LaBeef, two-hit Beatles influence Charlie Gracie, groundbreaking Motown signee Johnny Powers, and Texas tornado Gene Summers. The remainder of the evening centers on recklessness and redemption: British pub rock, punk, and new wave linchpin Nick Lowe is a brilliant smoothie who cloaks nuanced menace in classic country warmth. And former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell’s new Southeastern reflects the difficult and often dark aftermath of life-or-death rehab.

Sat., Aug. 10, 6 p.m., 2013