Flash Flashback, 7-20: Critics Cornered — To Review or not to Review?

By Maura Nguyen Donohue & Paul Ben-Itzak                                                                       Copyright 2006, 2016 Maura Nguyen Donohue & Paul Ben-Itzak

(First published on June 16, 2006.)

To: Paul Ben-Itzak
From: Maura Nguyen Donohue
Subject: Re: Allyson Green

Hi. So I just saw Allyson Green’s concert at Danspace Project. You had mentioned wanting separate pieces for dancemopolitan  at Joe’s Pub and her performance. I don’t think I can. I don’t think I can say that much about Green’s work. Frankly, I decided in the middle of the third and final piece that I was going to refuse to review it, not knowing what the repercussions would be. But I came home and talked it out a bit with husband Perry and have since diffused some of the rant in my head. I just felt like my views and tastes as an artist and subsequently as an audience member were strongly disinterested in this work. But I didn’t feel that this is how I’m supposed to operate as a dance critic. Maybe after tonight’s sleep I’ll be a bit more generous but the work was so conventional that I might consider it banal. But I respect Green and the dancers and all that and just wonder why the hell anyone should care what I have to say about this when it’s so clearly not part of my palette. So I was thinking it’d be best served, if it has to be served up at all, as a gender-related tag to the Joe’s Pub show, which sent me into a lot of consideration about performing gender, and the first two works on Green’s program, which was so much about performing ‘the female’ but in a totally different, very traditional dance manner.
To: Maura Nguyen Donohue
From: Paul Ben-Itzak
Subject: Re: Allyson Green

Hiya,

Well, you know me — I’m not about holding back. At this point, having sat through much (wait until you see my piece to be posted later today) here in France which just fundamentally doesn’t engage me as an audience member, I see my primary responsibility to the audience and to call them as I see them. So — and I’m sorry if I gave you a different impression with my pre-hype of the Green show — you have my support to rant this, as well as to give it but a footnote in a Flash Journal if you prefer. Also remember this: You don’t do the artist any favors by going soft on her, or by (sorry, about to get brutal with you!) looking at the work in a specific context (gender) that lets you avoid critiquing it pure and simply as art. Also, Green is not some 21-year-old straight out of the academy who’s going to either be crushed or get snootty about a bad review — she can take it.

You write that you feel like your views and tastes as an artist and subsequently as an audience member were strongly disinterested in this work…. This is your review, so the tack you take is totally up to you, but my suggestion would be a sort of compromise: In your piece, maybe just note that this particular type of work might not be to your taste, but then go ahead and give your full-bore opinion of it. (I’ve even done this sometimes.) Is this all clear? I think this is an important subject, because it goes to how you consider yourself as a critic….
To: Maura Nguyen Donohue
From: Paul Ben-Itzak
Subject: More on the subject, from Chris and Gus

….which is not to say I’ve brought Chris & Gus in on the conversation, but that some examples from them might be instructive. Here’s a Chris (Dohse) which might interest you (linked in the original), on the subject of criticizing dance that may not be to our taste. I also like the Gus (Solomons jr) approach: As I read Gus, anyway, he often starts by saying what the artist appears to have been intending to do — as Gus sees it — and then says whether they did it well…. I’m not suggesting either of these approaches for you, just giving you some views of criticizing dance….

Yers,

P
To: Paul Ben-Itzak
From: Maura Nguyen Donohue
Subject: Re: More on the subject, from Chris and Gus

Thanks. Yeah. I could almost word for word pull these sections directly from Chris’s piece, just replace piano with cello:

“But modern dance performed to piano, played live or recorded, makes me want to stick pins in my ears. A grand piano onstage calls forth one of the many chips on my shoulder, evoking upper class privilege or highbrow fussiness. This inner bias threatens to shut me down before the dance even begins.

“The movement invention is what I like to call uptown modern, something that often looks like ballet in bare feet. The vocabulary seems to value extended line, buoyancy, ‘correct’ execution of position and steps. I’d rather see bodies in repose or silence or floor-bound abjection; these are my tropes. Not bodies who fill the stage with doingness. I see a similar tensile quality to the styles of Zvi Gotheiner and Lar Lubovitch.

“…Perhaps an anthropology of the audience would help me parse the dance’s appeal? If it’s not my cup of tea, then the people here must be here because it is theirs. I don’t see anyone I recognize from the downtown dance crowd; I see few dancers. At intermission, I don’t hear anyone talking about the work, either with praise or disdain. Rather I hear two suburban couples discuss the trouble they’ve been having with their housekeepers and nannies (uh-oh, there’s my class bias again).”

Anyway. It’s just that artist to artist I respect Allyson’s history, dedication and effort. I just personally, and I feel like this is very specifically about what I as an artist want to see, don’t care. It just brought up thoughts about constituencies and the audience I imagine I’m usually writing for and mostly, who would care? I understand there is an audience for this work out there and I think that there should be. People should see dance. Even if it has no singular vision, innovative nature, opinion or offering. Anyway. More on the subject soon since I guess I’m going to have to spend a bunch of time addressing my issues with the work because there was little to say about it. Coming to you shortly. (I hope) — M
To: Maura Nguyen Donohue
From: Paul Ben-Itzak
Subject: Re: Re: More on the subject, from Chris and Gus
Thanks Maura! I respect your perspective…. I would respectfully offer a different vantage point on just one of your points. You write: “People should see dance. Even if it has no singular vision, innovative nature, opinion or offering.” Yes, people should see dance but the problem is that if they see too much (or with some non-danceys, even one is enough!) that has no singular vision, innovative nature, opinion or offering, they won’t come back. I think all art should have some perspective, n’est pas?

Looking forward to your piece!

P
To: Paul Ben-Itzak
From: Maura Nguyen Donohue
Subject: Re: More on the subject, from Chris and Gus

Yeah. I agree. I’m just trying to practice a little democratic generosity because Perry’s always saying things like “What are you, the Dance Police?”

Anyway: So I started working on Green’s but decided it does deserve a bit more consideration. Not the work but my response, which started to get caught up in the ‘what’s wrong with dance writing’ and ‘is NYC no longer the capital of dance’ discussions of late. So if okay I’ll need to get that to you closer to the end of the week since the next couple days and evenings are pretty full.
To: Maura Nguyen Donohue
From: Paul Ben-Itzak
Subject: Green

Hi ‘gain —

Just wanted to get back to you on this…. I guess my perspective — i.e., less empathetic perhaps because I’m not a dance artist myself — would be that we’re not just critics but also reviewers. So that where Perry’s comment implies that you (as a dance artist yourself) are judging whether your fellow dance artists cut the mustard, I think that, as a reviewer, you’re just telling your readers whether in your opinion — ideally backed up — the piece is worth seeing. It’s a little fuzzier with us because we have more dance professionals than non-dancer, simply dance fans in our audience — so that they actually are looking to us maybe even more for ‘judgment’ than ‘should I see it’ — but in general I think it’s appropriate for a reviewer to give an opinion, however damning. I guess where we can show more, well, sensitivity, is simply — as Chris did — ‘could be this is not my bag’ as a sort of qualification, before giving our opinion….

Having said all that, for this piece, I like the idea of exploring it in the context of the ‘what’s wrong with dance writing’ and ‘is NYC no longer the capital of dance’ discussions. On the first, btw, my (and I think many people’s) problem with (the New York Times’s) (Gia) Kourlas & (John) Rockwell is not their opinions but that they’re not qualified…which doesn’t serve the field of dance and doesn’t reflect well on the field of criticism….
To: Maura Nguyen Donohue
From: Paul Ben-Itzak
Subject: Re: Green — another argument for you to say what you will

Hi — Couldn’t resist reading this Roslyn Sulcas Times review of the Green concert and doing what I usually wouldn’t — send it to our reviewer reviewing the same piece [in the original e-mail, PBI pasted in copy of the review into his message] — with this intention: I would would submit that this is one uninspiring review! I know and have worked with the writer, and have no axe to grind with her…. Basically, she was pleased by the performance — not inspired, pleased — and her review reflects that. I submit that whatever you write, your passion for the task — the task of reviewing, even if this particular work didn’t inspire you — will serve the work, the artist, and the readers better. I mean, she writes, ‘spacious in structure and as self-possessed as any mountain range’; that’s not a point of view — that’s a description! And what’s up with, “Ms. Green allows the movement to speak for itself,” — Duh! — “and the dancers resist any descent into emotional excess.” Heaven forbid dancers should ‘descend’ into ’emotional excess’!

As you know, this is the tenor of the Times reviews these days — with the possible exception, ironically, of Gia, who, however uneducated she may be as a critic, at least attacks her subject with some verve! — the writing is saccharine, the superlatives trite. Rockwell’s lead on the ABT gala: “Monday’s opening-night gala fulfilled most of its expectations: There was a nice preview of season highlights and some superior dancing.”

‘Nice’? ‘Superior dancing’? What I like about you and our other writers is we do better — we engage — we get excited (even when in the negative)….

Yers,

P
To: Paul Ben-Itzak
From: Maura Nguyen Donohue
Subject: Re: Green — another argument for you to say what you will

Eee gahds. So I was hoping to hear from someone who really supported the work. Simply to hear an opposing viewpoint that would reveal to me something I didn’t see in the work. But besides being an exactly opposite response to some specific points, that review was as trite as the work. So I guess if the point was to match the manner of the work… then it was a success of a review. And I agree, at least Gia reflects a point of view.
To: Maura Nguyen Donohue
From: Paul Ben-Itzak
Subject: Re: Green – another argument for you to say what you will.

Well, this really reminds me of a conversation I was having with a visiting choreographer the other day. His argument — or rather, his question — was essentially whether the dance writing is only as good as the dance. For example, it was the task of writing about Balanchine that elevated Croce. Discussing Sulcas really makes me think of this: The fact is, on Forsythe — where I’ve had the chance to edit her raw copy — she is absolutely inspirational and riveting. And yet with Green, she’s mundane. Artist or reviewer? And should we simply not review a concert because it doesn’t inspire us? Or is it our responsibility — to the artist, audience, indeed the field — to say so?
To: Paul Ben-Itzak
From: Maura Nguyen Donohue
Subject: Re: Re: Green – another argument for you to say what you will

Absolutely. Because truly, I could have just written a plain, descriptive piece essentially devoid of true response and I could have done that for a few reasons. One being that, generally, I believe that as a still (barely) working artist I tend to approach reviewing work with a generous spirit. I want to be an advocate for the artist and to respect my peers. So I might have simply chickened out in deference to an experienced choreographer. But, you know, I actually couldn’t. Maybe I could have a few years ago but these days it’s getting harder to subvert actual disinterest. If Green was clearly inept at putting a dance work together and was working with supposed emotional content then I would have been ready to rip but that’s clearly not the case. She knows what she’s doing and she is representing her own vision but within the context of the work that I choose to see to feed my soul, to inspire, to challenge, to rankle, to terrify, to delight, to entertain, to learn, to question this had no place. And I felt like I should have been able to put together a review that saw some of what Deborah Jowitt saw in her Village Voice review. Maybe after I’ve left New York for a while I’ll want to present pleasant peaceful versions of the world as well but that isn’t the world I live in today. And it isn’t part of the discussions of dance that happen here. Here where so much dance is made and shared and commented on every single damn week of the year. Green’s work was supposed to be about women’s grief and joy but the representations of “female” were so “Bridges of Madison County”-esque as to seem like a satirical cliché — clasped chests, over-emoting expressions, a dance vocabulary full of ronde de jambes, sautés and coupé jetés, long flowing dresses. I’m sure members of my mother’s writing group would see this is an accurate dance portrayal of their experiences but not the women I keep company with.

Which brings me to the issue of dance writing and why I think I’m not qualified to respond to this work. I don’t think I get the context within which the artist is working and that is what I think is wrong with a lot of dance writing today. We are not objective observers; it’s simply opinion we’re presenting. Own up. Do some homework. Editors, build a diverse stable of writers and send the appropriate ones out. I think artists deserve to be approached with individual consideration of the circumstances and aims of their art-making and then judged on the success of their endeavors. Which means old white dudes shouldn’t review hip-hop. Nor should anyone be allowed to use phrases like “to these western eyes…” ever again. Because really, what is the point of a dance review anymore? Even Flash Reviews no longer appear during most dance runs. And who tours anymore anyway? So they don’t serve to build (or caution) audiences. Are presenters so incapable of deciding for themselves whether an artist or work merits time in their space that they would be swayed by critical response? And how many of us actually take away constructive information from a negative response? Seriously. Why do we need approval? Or rather, why do we need a record of approval? Or even better, why do we need a record of understanding? Who is being served by public commentary? Why don’t I just write a letter to each artist about my singular response?

The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 5: Dance Quote Unquote: The Spirit of the Sixties

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston

(First published on The Dance Insider in November 2005. Subscribers contact Dance Insider publisher Paul Ben-Itzak to access more Jill Johnston. This essay was originally commissioned by Sally Banes for her book “Reinventing Dance in the 1960s,” published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1999. This version has been revised and edited by the author.)

Dear Sally,

I’m studying a list of performances I did during the 1960s, looking for a common thread, or at least some sweeping reason for having done them. There were 13 performances altogether, although two had only one audience member. That was Andy Warhol, who was shooting them as home movies. One took place the day of JFK’s funeral in November 1963 at Billy Kluver’s house in New Jersey. I doubt that it was premeditated, and I have no memory of what we were both doing there. But while the funeral was in progress on TV in the living room, Andy was shooting me in Billy’s muddy backyard running around in circles with a rifle slung over my shoulder, wearing a beret, a red jacket, cut-offs, and tall black boots. Afterwards, we drove into the city to a party where Larry Rivers, taken by my outfit, asked me to pose for him at his Chelsea Hotel studio for a painting as a Moon Woman. When he was finished I appeared life-size in one panel of a diptych; the other panel would be occupied by a painting of an astronaut in full gear. Was posing for Larry also a performance? I suppose so, by the lights of the sixties. But my list includes only dance-like or dance-contextualized activities. Or things that were Happenings, the form that a number of “dance” performances assumed then. Dance quote unquote was a leading conundrum of the day. If it was done at the Judson Church by the Judson Dance Theater, no matter what it was, it was called dance.

Running in circles, even or especially in the mud, was definitely an appropriate dance activity by Judson articles of faith. I never “danced” at Judson, though I presented an entire evening there, in 1962, before the first Judson Dance Theater performance in July of that year. I know someone asked me to do it. Probably Al Carmines, the Judson minister. I would never have offered or asked to do it myself. Had I heeded that fact, I wouldn’t have done anything when asked either. So there you have it. The whole evening was a nightmare, beginning with the martinis I consumed beforehand to dull the violent edges of my fear. The effect of course was to prolong the night’s agony, my multifaceted field of action involving quite a few people slowing down considerably while I performed under the influence. John Cage was there — the man we all believed had the last word on art then. And at the end he came up to tell me he wished he could be so “free.”

I doubt he meant that exactly. If he were that free we would never have known of him. He sought plenty of freedom in his work, but only after establishing structural conditions for it. “It” was widely called indeterminacy. Later that year John found me at a party wearing the same red dress in which I had staged my disorderly masterpiece at Judson, and asked me to perform with him and David Tudor in his 1958 piece, “Music Walk.” He intended perhaps to help me find some form. I could do whatever I wanted during the ten-minute length of the piece, but within limits imposed by his “score.” I must have felt buoyed up to realize that the primary responsibility was not going to be mine and that I would be appearing in very good company. How could anything go wrong? Moreover, I was billed as a “dancer,” lending me some legitimacy. “Music Walk” was originally for one or more pianists. Then in 1960, dancers were added, and the piece was retitled “Music Walk with Dancers.” John took it on tour with Tudor, and with Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown, the most legitimate dancers around. Now for our upcoming version, it would have yet another title: “Music Walk with Dancer.”

At home in my fifth-floor walk-up in Washington Heights, I puzzled over John’s “score.” I was free to select any number of activities. Then the order of their performance and allotted times for them would be determined through readings obtained by placing a transparent rectangle having five parallel lines over nine different sheets full of points. Harnessed finally in my red dress, armed with a stack of three-by-five index cards bearing the proper notations according to John’s score, and a carload of household equipment including a baby bottle, a toy dog on wheels, and a vacuum cleaner, I arrived at the theater — the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan — for a brief rehearsal before the performance. Right there something went wrong. My stack of cards came afoul of a pool of water, blurring the inked notations on them. After a moment of consternation I coolly abandoned them, and during the performance proceeded from station to station where my household items were set up, in whatever order occurred to me, and without much regard to time spent, except to stay within the ten-minute frame of the piece. John and David were all the while fiddling with their radio dials and monkeying around with the insides of a grand piano, following instructions on their own graphically immaculate, intact — of course — cards. Everyone seemed happy with the event until afterward, when we were partying at a restaurant and I told John, with a certain misplaced glee, about my accident with the cards. Learning that I had forsaken his score, he scolded me for not giving up my ego. He meant I suppose for not giving it up to him — an ulterior design I would grow to suspect of him.

My list tells me I became a para-Judson performer or dancer, a wall-flower in waiting for an opportunity, usually upon being asked, to create some disorder at large. There was one area, however, where I needed no invitation, and that was the world of parties, many of them in artists’ lofts, where I excelled at making rare spectacles of myself. My signature tableau vivant was hanging upside down on horizontal loft pipes close to the ceilings. A torn dress or a lost shoe was the expected result. Otherwise I was a very enthusiastic party dancer, making the most of the step or move du jour and of the new style of pretending to be dancing with a partner while really doing one’s own thing. As for performances proper, I never felt left out of the Judson Dance Theater, even though non-dancers along with dancers were acceptable or sought-after performers there. After all I was continually writing about Judson work at that time, and it would have been unseemly for the critic to be evaluating concerts in which she appeared. But opportunities arose to perform with the artists and dancers outside the inviolable space of the church.

One such chance was a series I produced at the Washington Square Art Gallery in August 1964. A carte blanche feeling about the situation evidently overcame me. People were away for the dog days; key members of the Judson scene were on tour dancing with Cunningham in Europe. I asked Yvonne Rainer, a captive on my program, to do an improvisation with me, and I suppose she could hardly say no. An evening that would live in downtown infamy was underway. Yvonne chose a lush operatic Berlioz to accompany us, perhaps with intent to drown us out. By the time we started I was already drowning — in alcohol, a half of a fifth of vodka as I recall. Thus while I know I stayed on my feet in fulfilling my obligation to perform, I thankfully had and have total amnesia as to what transpired. A single photographic record shows me in dark shades hovering menacingly from the top of a gallery staircase, legs astride its ironwork, in black tights and my well-traveled tall black boots. I was, it seems, about to jump onto and kill Yvonne on the floor below, at that moment having an intimate relationship with a gallery pillar, her arms wrapped lovingly around its circumference. Afterward I learned she was displeased, not with the event per se (necessarily), but with my need to perform blotto. I took the criticism to heart and never performed blotto again.

At the Buffalo Festival of the Arts in the spring of 1965 (here I had been asked to present Judson choreographers, and decided to include myself) I did another duet, this time with artist Robert Morris, and became very particular about its form. It seems I had learned something by then. He would build a structure onstage out of two-by-fours; it would have a horizontal crossbar strong enough to hold me when I got ready to hang from it, and unhinged enough to cause the whole structure and myself to crash to the floor. While Bob built this damage-worthy assemblage stage left, I busied myself stage right stuffing a box with crumpled newspapers, in preparation for making a daring leap into it from the height of a chair. That accomplished, I ambled over to Bob’s shaky skeletal frame and self-destructed on or with it — a finale that was surely fraught with significance, perhaps a dire warning about the future. I think I was very ill that evening with a Shanghai flu or something. Photographic evidence shows that I had advanced from the tall black boots to white pants. However, I was not through yet with the boots. They had been so serviceable. In June 1963 at the Pocket Theater on Third Avenue, I had done a really successful performance in them.

It was called “In an English Country Garden.” I had asked Malcolm Goldstein to sit onstage and play that famous tune over and over again on his violin. My garden was further set with a round tin tub of water afloat with artificial flowers. While Malcolm sawed away, I appeared in the boots and heavy black rain gear, a slicker hat and slicker coat, and stepped into the tub of water and flowers. Bob Morris in the meantime was walking down the aisle of the theater toward the stage dressed in a sheet with a sign on the back that read HILL. When he climbed onstage and approached the tub, he stood on a chair there (like a hill — get it?), produced a watering can from under his sheet, and sprayed its contents over my head. When his can was emptied I threw off my slickers, appearing in a skimpy black dress, and showered the audience with the soaked plastic flowers, tossed with much gusto and great merriment into its midst. The audience was happy (they were cheering and laughing); the next performers, David Gordon and Valda Setterfield, were not. The stage, I would hear later, had been flooded with water that they had had to mop up. Morris, by the way, has claimed that he was not costumed in a sheet at all but a kind of “hoop dress” of a beige color, with possibly suspenders or harness or bra on top. He remembers being like part of a bell. He felt “upholstered more than gowned.” I just cannot imagine how he could have been a “hill” in a hoop skirt. But with no photographic evidence, it’s his word against mine. Anyway, the piece was great. And it didn’t stop there. It went on into the night, an endless party at an Egyptian belly-dancing place where I got uncorked and became seized with the inspiration to dance like Isadora on a restaurant table, as I had read about her doing someplace in Europe or Russia. The black boots, of course, went there too.

And on to Los Angeles in the spring of 1965 at the L.A. County Museum, where curator Jim Elliott had invited Bob Rauschenberg to bring his Judson friends out to perform. We were kept for three weeks in an apartment on the pier over a merry-go-round. Besides Bob, Steve Paxton, Barbara Dilley, Trisha Brown, and Deborah and Alex Hay were there. We drove go-carts and played multiple competitive solitaire, whiling the time away until we had to perform. I never found out why I was included. But summoned within the clique, I gave my contribution my very best thought and put on a most organized effort, free of spilled substances and other unwanted disturbance. As a sort of guerilla performer, I seemed containable when asked “inside.” In October 1964, Allan Kaprow asked me to join a host of other performers in a presentation of KarlheinzStockhausen’s “Originale” — a big, teeming Happening to take place at the Carnegie Recital Hall. Here a formless situation — a bewildering pileup of unconnected activities — became a prescription for unlimited lawlessness. Kaprow made the mistake of casting me as a “free agent,” and I got into all kinds of trouble there — denounced, for instance, by a painter and his wife for interfering in their act. On my own, one way or another, I was reliably unpredictable and reckless.

During 1967 and 1968, I presented three panels at New York University’s Loeb Student Center. The first was relatively conventional; the next was a deranged critique or commentary on panels. Lists of Q’s and A’s were passed out to panel members beforehand. Any Q could be answered by any A, to be interpreted at will. Steve Paxton, who was in the audience, remembers Barbara Dilley in a large turban walking a pig around; I remember Willoughby Sharp taking all his clothes off, and someone else parading or dancing across the long panel table. The plan called for replacing ourselves as panel members at random from the audience. A steady march toward anarchy was afoot from the start. I was shocked myself by the chaos I had let loose. A man at the back unleashed a scare, yelling “FIRE, FIRE, FIRE….” And a young woman, evidently new in town, began to have a public breakdown. I thought she was demonstrating, but Steve, who took her in hand to calm her, has told me that no, she was just pleading for humanity. My third NYU panel was my last performance of the sixties. It was 1968, by which time I had passed through various transitional fires.

All of which had led to an abandonment of criticism, and to a column representing my life. I was no longer split between serious writing and theatrical hijinks. Serializing my life, the things I now covered were completely self-generated. I was the performance; the writing was an extension of it, a running account and commentary. And freed of criticism, the writing got very twisted, guaranteeing a continuance of attention. My last panel at NYU, titled The Disintegration of a Critic, heralding this new life, or memorializing the old, called for my absence. Critic David Bourdon, armed with some of my phone bills and bank accounts, moderated it. Cellist Charlotte Moorman participated, accompanied by her cello; Andy Warhol was there, probably with recording equipment. And I don’t remember the rest — well except for John de Menil, the oil tycoon. I never tried to find out what they all said about me, if anything.

During the 1970s I continued performing, but now as a common lecturer at large. A microphone, I discovered, was a great crutch — lending confidence and shelter. A mike and a lectern were the only objects involved in the performances. I didn’t have to bring them, and they stood still like a house or a tree. I had had lots of trouble dealing with objects. I could just dance, no quotes around it. But the object-ridden sixties dictated dangerous collisions for someone like me, living essentially in her head. The general form of my lectures was a reading of my last column followed by audience questions or interaction. I construed these gigs differently from my presenters — universities most often. While addressing the radical subjects upon which I was invited to speak, I subversively viewed my writing as the raison d’appearance. Indeed, what else brought me there?

Love, Jill
©Jill Johnston 2005. In addition to the book “Reinventing Dance in the 1960s,” this essay has also been published in revised form on www.jilljohnston.com

Contact Sport: La vie d’un refugee, fan de foot

 

cartonrougesm

A scene from Backa Teater’s “Carton Rouge.” Photo copyright Åsa Sjöström and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

Par & Copyright Anne-Charlotte Schoepfer

(English version follows.)

PARIS –Une petite pièce de théâtre Suédoise pleine de douceur, « Carton Rouge » a eu sa premiere en France au Carreau du Temple le 23-24 mai, sous le cadre des « Chantiers d’Europe » organisé par le Théâtre de la Ville. D’une durée de 40 minutes, elle nous emmène dans le quotidien de Léo, réfugié, et Rasmus Lindgren, son coach de football. La mise en scène par Gabriela Pichler pour le Backa Teater est osée et intéressante, le public prend place sur la scène, sur des bancs surplombant un terrain de football. Déjà, le fait d’être proches des deux interprètes nous permet de ressentir le caractère bon enfant et familial. L’écriture et le jeu sont par la suite plutôt simples ; c’est par l’intermédiaire du football que l’on découvre le quotidien d’un enfant réfugié en Suède. Il nous parle des déménagements incessants, de la police, de la peur et des limites de sa liberté. Ce qui est touchant dans cette pièce c’est finalement sa sincérité : il n’y a aucun jugement, aucun discours larmoyant sur la condition des réfugiés et aucune morale à retenir. Les deux camarades sont juste là pour raconter, jouer au foot, se déguiser et danser. On aborde ici un thème très médiatique mais de façon très naturelle. Ce naturel est surement dû au fait que l’histoire est vraie et interprétée par les vrais protagonistes. Le travail de jeu et de mise en scène est alors moins poussé que dans d’autres pièces, on ressent des moments plus vides. Le sous titrage en français est aussi quelquefois plus lent que leur parole. Mais au final, cette pièce est pleine de fraicheur et les personnages sont attachants. On sent leur implication et leur vérité dans leur présence. On s’attache surtout à Léo, qui a surement trop vécu et trop souffert pour son âge (12 ans) ; mais qui reste digne et heureux en jouant au football et en acclamant son équipe préférée comme tous les autres garçons…

 

PARIS — An intimate piece of theater from Sweden, full of tenderness, “Red Card” had its French premiere at the Carreau du Temple May 23-24 (when I caught it), in the cadre of the Chantiers d’Europe festival organized by the Theatre de la Ville. 40 minutes long, the piece invites us into the daily life of Leo, a refugie, and Rasmus Lindgren, his soccer coach. The direction, by Gabriela Pichler working with Backar Teater, is daring and intriguing; the public takes its place on the stage, sitting on benches overlooking the facsimile of a soccer field. Already, the simple fact of being so close to the two actors allows us to intimately sense this environment.

The writing and acting of “Red Card” are for the most part direct and simple; it’s
via the medium of soccer that we discover the daily trials and travails of a child refugee in Sweden. Leo talks to us about incessant moving and re-locating, the police, his fear, and the limits of his liberty. What’s ultimately most touching in the work is Leo’s sincerity: He makes no judgment, and doesn’t offer any tear-jerking speeches on the condition of the refugees, nor try to send us out of the theater with any moral lesson. The two comrades are just there to recount, to play soccer, to dress up and dance. Even though this particular theme may be highly mediatized in these times, the approach here is very natural. This honesty is surely due to the fact that the story is true and the actors its actual protagonists. The acting and the direction are thus less insistent than in other works, leaving some moments more empty then others. The French sub-titles also at times had trouble keeping up with the live actors.

In the end, though, “Red Card” is full of freshness and the characters compelling. One senses their involvement and their truth in their very presence. One gets attached above all to Leo, who has surely lived too much and suffered too much for his age, 12, but who remains dignified and happy in playing soccer and in championing his favorite team — like any other boy.

Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak, with the author.