Chevalier de la Barre, 6-5: Ballerinas bottled up, “pick-up” dancers out of luck

mearns smallBallerina Sara Mearns, by Kathryn Marshall.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

There are dancers who are in it for the lifestyle, and there are dancers who are in it because without it they wouldn’t be able to live. When I first saw Sara Mearns onstage in 2010 at the New York State Theater — it must have been as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” — I knew that not only was she one of the latter, infecting the audience with her joy and welcoming them into the dance and the Tchaikovsky score, but that if she were bottled up and unable to dance, she just might die, or at least whither away, like the heroine of “La Sylphide” when she dons the poisoned cloak. If I disagree with the campaign launched recently by a globally clueless New York organization that claims to represent the interests of dancers which begins with the premise that they are “necessary workers,” ludicrously placing performing artists on the same plane as health and food workers, which only bolsters a generalized popular impression that dance is irrelevant and out of touch with everyday concerns, I like the much more humble confession of Sara Mearns, who this Sunday on YouTube at 7:30 p.m. EDT premieres “Storm,” a five-minute solo choreographed by her husband Joshua Bergasse, to music by Zoe Sarnak: “We filmed this at the height of the pandemic in New York City. Every morning we would wake up to the numbers rising. At that point, I felt lost and questioning what my role or contribution was in and to society. I felt helpless. I felt my being was crying out. This song and the choreography allowed me to express the pain I was in.” Don’t be mislead by that “I,” which might suggest another self-involved dancer more involved with the reflection in the mirror and exploring her own (or her choreographer’s) angst than reflecting the real, quotidian concerns of ordinary people. When the “I” expressing her “pain” is a Sara Mearns, she’s expressing the pain of all of us, in an inchoate, non-verbal way that all the numbers, all the speeches, all the media reports, and all the anodyne politician’s speeches cannot. (And not just speeches but hypocritical postures; to hear Andrew Cuomo, who could have saved so many lives *justement* in New York City had he imposed confinement a week earlier — at last count, which is probably already dated, 21,000 people or a fifth of the national tally had died from the virus in Gotham alone — pose as the grand protector is truly painful.) She’s proving — to cop a phrase from the title of the late Joseph H. Mazo’s chronicle of a year in the life of the New York company Mearns works for — that dance is truly a contact sport, in the most universal sense of the adjective.

…. I need to say another word, or two (You know me, Al) about the funding of this piece, part of the “Works & Process Artists (WPA) Virtual Commission Series,” which the press release  describes as “a direct response to the pandemic…, launched to financially support artists and nurture their creative process during these challenging times by granting over $150,000 in commissioning funds to artists who have been featured at Works & Process at the Guggenheim.” It’s co-presented — funded — by Barrington Stage Company, Broadway Dance Center, Kaatsbaan, the Joyce Theater, New York City Center, the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and Spoleto Festival USA.

It also says down here at the very bottom of the PR that the project has received support — i.e., your tax dollars — from the U.S. Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program and the NYC Employee Retention Grant Program. The problem here — as anyone who has listened to NYC congresswoman AOC knows — is that the “small businesses” benefiting from this public aid are restricted to those employing a minimum number (50?) of people. The ‘smaller’ businesses, not to mention, to go even ‘smaller,’ freelancers and the self-employed, or contractors — and we all know this is the way American, and European, companies have been going for the past decade — are out of luck. The dance equivalent of this category is “pick-up” dancers, or “jobbers,” typically engaged, or anyway paid, on a per-concert basis, often for multiple companies. In France the busiest category of these performers (and technicians) is protected by the “Intermittents” regime, which basically enables them to qualify for unemployment like any other person who works for just one company, even if they accumulate those hours with multiple employers. This stature does not exist in the United States (nor in most European countries), meaning that American “pick-up” dancers, already fragile in a non-virus context, are simply tossed out on the street (perhaps literally, given that, at last report, neither the NY governor nor mayor had proposed suspending rent, unlike here in France) in a period which effectively eliminates public concerts, their sole source for the little revenues they already have. (How about if, instead of lobbying for a ludicrous rhetorical designation which only lowers dancers’ credibility in the eyes of the general public, “Dance NYC,” the organization referred to above which (mal)distinguished itself by enabling New York magazine’s ignominious firing of dance criticism’s eminence grise Tobi Tobias — devoted the time dance organizations have paid for by arguing for getting necessities to “pick-up” dancers? Or to helping their efforts to unionize?)

The acronym Works and Process has chosen is “WPA,” ironically the same as the federal Works Process Administration which, during the Great Depression, not only funded myriad art projects and employed numerous individual artists across the United States but helped nurture a new generation of art-makers.

What I see looking at the long list of artists Works & Process (with public support from your tax dollars) — and its cohorts listed above — is doling out this money to is a lot of old names. I don’t begrudge these artists what must ultimately pan out to very little for creating new work (judging from the 80 artists among whom a total of $150,000 must be divided) compared to what creators in other fields receive. I would just like to suggest that a Sara Mearns (or a Joshua Bergasse), who is protected by a Union contract (in the upper end of the scale considering the company she dances for, for whom she is a principal dancer) and as an employee has a right not only to the one-time $1,200 allocation that Congress has allocated to everyone but six months of unemployment, does not need this money as much as a “pick-up” dancer who, in the United States, unless she’s got a full-time day job has no claim to unemployment benefits.

And yet these dancers are a fundamental part of the dance ecology system; think of them as the workers carrying the stones for the foundation of the pyramid. (With — like Homer Avila, to whom this proved fatal — no insurance if they break their backs in the process.) And not just in the creation of new work; in New York, it’s these very same “pick-up” dancers — who typically don’t have the access to a free company class of a Sara Mearns — who provide much of the revenue of, say, a Broadway Dance Center.

So I would like to ask these organizations, particularly Works in Process, whose performance roster, with its preponderance of artists from New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, often resembles star-fucking — what are you doing, what do you plan to do, to nurture the worker bees of the dance eco-structure? The future Larry Keigwins and Nicole Wolcotts? And the dancers — invariably, for “emerging” choreographers, “pick-up” dancers — who make their creative work possible.

Warhol’s ‘Little Race Riot’ in Chicago

warhol little race riot 1964 chicagoThis morning I woke up in a curfew: From the New Contemporary collection at the Art Institute of Chicago: Andy Warhol. “Little Race Riot,” 1964. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edlis/Neeson Collection. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Le Feuilleton (the Serial): Exclusive! “Trompe-l’Oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of artists, dealers, critics, & anti-Semitism in Post-War Paris, Part 15: Spectres in the Montparno Machine

Ragon, Jules Pascin, Les Petites americaines, smallBut first, a school: From the exhibition Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940, theoretically on view through August 23 at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme in Paris: Jules Pascin, “Les Petites Américaines,” 1916. MahJ © mahJ / Mario Goldman. Because a number of the artists featured in the exhibition are cited in this episode of “Trompe-l’Oeil,” we’re including some of their oeuvres here. Jules Pascin, the American – Bulgarian artist Hemingway once dubbed “the prince of Montparnasse,” slit his wrists, scrawled the name of his mistress on the walls of his Montmartre studio in his own blood and then hung himself 90 years ago today.

by and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
From “Trompe-l’Oeil,” published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel

Part 15 in the Paris Tribune / Arts Voyager exclusive English-language translation of Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel taking on the world of Abstract art, artists, art collectors, art dealers, and art critics in Paris, as well as post-War anti-Semitism in France. For the first 14  parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click hereBecause today’s episode of Michel Ragon’s “Trompe-l’Oeil” — like the last— deals extensively with Post-war anti-Semitism in France (among other topics), making it singular among literature of the period, we’ve decided to make it available for free to all readers, even non-subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager and think this work is important, please subscribe or make a donation today by designating your payment through PayPal in Euros or Dollars to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to ask how to donate by check.

The art of the present, the ‘art vivant,’ is still Montparno. But if the artists of the avant-garde still live in Montparnasse, they’re no longer Bohemians. They’re no different, by their wardrobe and their comportment, than anyone else. If one had to identify them with a particular social category purely by their appearance, it would most likely be that associated with journalists, film directors, radio reporters. Already, Kandinsky in his time looked more like an industrial magnate than one of the founders of Abstract art. Mondrian might have been mistaken for a distinguished mathematician or master of ceremonies. They were a far cry from Picasso’s flowered shirt and shorts; Chagall’s photogenic grimaces; and Braque’s grease-monkey cover-alls. Thus today, whether it’s Soulages with his studio overlooking the Montparnasse cemetery, Schneider living on the fringes of the train station, Manessier and Singier with their mansions on the rue Vaugirard, or Hans Hartung near the rue de la Gaité, no one is trying to stand out except by his oeuvre, erected in solitude.

0334296 Piet Mondriaan Aaronskelk Blauwe Bloem Post restauratie 2011From the recent exhibition at the Musée Marmottan Monet: Piet Mondrian, “Arum; fleur bleue,” 1908-1909. Oil on canvas, 46 x 32 cm. © Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, the Netherlands.

The traditional artist cafés of Montparnasse — le Dôme and le Sélect — are all the same still invaded by painters, models from the Grande Chaumière Academy*, and a mob of intellectuals. From time to time, the street-walkers who work the intersection around the Métro Vavin come in to warm themselves up with a coffee at the counter.

Moïse KislingFrom the exhibition Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940, theoretically on view through August 23 at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme in Paris: Amedeo Modigliani, “Portrait of Kisling,” 1916. Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Bertrand Prévost. Born to Jewish parents in Livorno, Italy, after initially installing himself in the Bateau-Lavoir in 1906, Modigliani eventually migrated across the Seine to the cité Falguière in the 15th arrondissement, bordering Montparnasse. Also home to Chaim Soutine’s studio (and, much later, the translator), in Michel Ragon’s “Trompe-l’Oeil” the cité Falguière is where the critic Fontenoy shacks up with the painter Blanche Favard.

Each of these consumers is hoping to resurrect a chapter of the gilded past. The Americans have heard about le Sélect from Hemingway or Miller. The Israelis are following the traces of Soutine and Modigliani. The Scandinavians, the Germans, the Italians, they’re all searching for this mythic École de Paris and they plant their flag in this storied quarter which gave birth to it, awaiting its return or trying to reconstitute it themselves.

Ragon, Juan Gris, Pears & Grapes on Table, 1913From the Arts Voyager Archives and past coverage: Juan Gris, “Apples and grapes on a table,” Autumn 1913. Oil on canvas, 54 x 73 cm. The Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Some, elderly, unknown, linger as a kind of vestige of this glorious Montparnasse past. They sat at this very table 40 years ago with Picasso or Juan Gris, and they continue to come here and steep themselves in café-crèmes. They’ve never left Montparnasse. And they’ll never leave it. Every night, from nine o’clock until one a.m., they remain planted in front of the same cup of coffee, never refilled because they can’t afford it. They cling to their souvenirs. They continue getting high on chimerical dreams in which they only half believe any more. At times, during the Summer months, they seem to have left Paris on vacation. But they’ve only drifted down to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where they spend their evenings on the terrace of the Royal Saint-Germain. This is their sole infidelity to Montparnasse. In this way, they convince themselves that they’ve voyaged.

Ragon Moshe Kisling Cubist NudeFrom the exhibition Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940, theoretically on view through August 23 at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme in Paris: Moshe Kisling, “Cubist Nude,” 1918. MahJ © mahJ / Mario Goldman.

Then one morning, after traipsing back to their Spartan hotel room, or their attic, or their dingy basement, they die, without any pomp or ceremony or anyone  noticing they’re gone. Only the waiters, the café society equivalent of a congressional sergeant of arms, perceive a void among the clientele, quickly filled by the young people arriving from Issoudun or Istanbul. Accustomed to living in colonies, some who’ve spent 30 or 40 years of their lives in Montparnasse die before they’ve learned to speak French. They seem to have this extraordinary capacity of being able to transport intact the street where they were born in Minsk to Denfert-Rochereau.

Thus, while the new artists of the avant-garde, conscious of their social standing, break with this romanticism of poverty, of the night, of alcohol, of girls, particular to the Montparnos who made Montparnasse, a bearded, long-haired clientele, arrayed in cast-off schmatas, continues to furnish tourists with the living proof that Montparnasse is not yet dead.

Jewish Museum Mondzain La Faim From the exhibition Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940, theoretically on view through August 23 at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme in Paris: Simon Mondzain, “Hunger,” 1914. Private collection. © Christophe Fouin.

The new Montparnos in our story were nonetheless not all complete failures, because Manhès, Ancelin, and Fontenoy spent practically all their nights there. Atlan, who occupied an atelier next-door to where Gauguin once lived, also permanently held court at le Dôme or le Sélect. But he and Manhès also found kinship in a larger community of Jewish artists. They hob-knobbed with the painter Michonz, who had been one of Soutine’s few confidents, or with Zadkine or Mané-Katz.

Jean-Michel Atlan, Untitled, 1955 smallFrom the Arts Voyager’s previous coverage of art auctions at Artcurial, Paris: Jean-Michel Atlan, Untitled, 1955. Image copyright Artcurial.

Of all of them, Mané-Katz was without doubt the only one who fully symbolized the cosmopolitanism of the Montparnos. He lived not far from le Dôme on the other side of the Boulevard Montparnasse, in Othon Freisz’s former atelier, which he’d bought upon the death of the latter. Small, svelte, with a curious, entirely white head of hair in the shape of an aureole, he bore a simultaneous resemblance to Leopold Stokowski and François Fratellini. Like the second, he possessed a sense of repartee, brio, a slightly clownesque sense of humor, and above all the laugh, a laugh both childlike and expressive. He might well have belonged to the same generation as Soutine and Picasso and be rich and famous, but this didn’t stop him from sitting down at Manhès’s table with an entirely unassuming simplicity and regaling him with comic anecdotes in which he was invariably the victim, the first to laugh at his own misfortune, ending up by infecting all around him with his good humour.

When he was finally decorated with the Legion of Honor, his joy was unbridled. Fontenoy, who ran into him a few days later, could not understand how a man already crowned with so many honors could be so proud of a little piece of cloth. Mané-Katz suddenly grew serious:

“It’s hard for you to understand, you’re French by birth. Me, it took me dozens and dozens of years to become French. The little Jew from the Russian shtetl decorated by the French minister…. Now I feel more at ease. I’ve finally been accepted by your country.”

The next night, Manhès and Fontenoy were seated at their regular table in le Sélect when they saw Mané-Katz enter. Spotting the pair, he approached them, his hand extended, in a hilarious mood:

“Ah, Fontenoy! Remember what I told you yesterday? Well, today I went over to get my plane ticket in a travel agency next to the Opera House, for New York, where I’m going to have an exhibition. Coming out of the agency, I ran into an American I know. I accompanied him back into the agency, we talked, then I came out again. Then I ran into another American I know. I walked back into the agency with him, we chatted, I walked out again. Suddenly I felt someone yank the collar of my jacket, and a gruff voice barked, “What are you trying to palm off on them, those Americans? And that red ribbon, how dare you? Come on, you, to the police station!” I tried to explain to the cop that I was going to New York, to show him the proof of my decoration. But try to reason with a symbol of authority. The precinct captain had to launch an investigation. You see, Fontenoy, I was mistaken to believe that I could become French just like that, ipso-facto. He mistook me for a Jewish Black market trafficker!”

For a moment, Mané-Katz let his bitterness seep through. But then he executed a perfect pirouette and picked right back up mocking himself, breaking out in laughter and slapping his thighs.

Ragon Chagall Khalista smallFrom the exhibition Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine… Paris pour école, 1905-1940, theoretically on view through August 23 at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme in Paris: Marc Chagall, “Khalista Revue,” No. 2, 1924. © MahJ / Christophe Fouin, © ADAGP, Paris 2020. Khalista or Khalyastre (the Gang), a literary and artistic review created in Warsaw in 1922, was edited by the poets Peretz Markish and Oser Warszawski and illustrated by Chagall. Other reviews published by the community of artist-immigrants which buzzed around “the Hive” in Montparnasse prior to World War II included Menorah, which ran from 1922 to 1933, and the Jewish Review, created by Albert Cohen and put out by Gallimard. 

Montparnasse absorbed Fontenoy, as it did Manhès, as it did all the others. And yet Fontenoy also resented the hold the quartier had on him. He told himself that he was spinning his wheels amidst the flotsam and the jetsam and that he was in danger of being swallowed up by the quicksand like all the others. Manhès echoed his sentiments. But despite their efforts to meet up elsewhere, in their homes or in other neighborhoods, they invariably ended up on this corner of the rue Vavin, this corner on which all the streets, all the roads of the world seemed to converge.

Towards one or two in the morning, Fontenoy and Manhès usually separated near the train station. Manhès went home to Isabelle and Moussia, Fontenoy back to Blanche. This last was going out with him at night less often. She told him:

“I’ve about had it with Montparnasse. What’s the point of frittering away half the night blabbering about painting or poetry! I’d rather stay here and paint. I
think it would also be a lot more productive for you to devote your evenings to writing.”

Fontenoy knew that Blanche was right, but this didn’t stop him from inevitably descending every evening, by eight or nine o’clock, to le Sélect. It was winter. Returning five hours later he’d find Blanche asleep. When he got into bed, she’d grouse because he’d awoken her and he was glacial.

 

*A studio popular during the epoch with many artists, where they could have ready access to live models; this summer, to encourage social distancing — and reach a global audience — the Grande Chaumière Academy is offering this service by video remote.

War is over (esperant), summer is here, & a très bean toe Marcel Gromaire

gromaire roubaix marne

Gromaire Roubaix warAs 150 paintings, drawings, engravings, and other oeuvres by Marcel Gromaire (1892 – 1971) ride off into the sunset after successive exhibitions in Séte, Honfleur, and most recently la Piscine (Swimming Pool) in Roubaix, France — many of Gromaire’s explosions of color no doubt returning to languish in the sombre basement of the Modern Art Museum of the city of Paris, which apparently prefers exhibiting contemporary artists no one’s ever heard of to Modern artists more people should know about — we thought we’d give you two last, in our view appropriate for the particular juncture we’re living in the world and in France right now, perspectives from the versatile artist who was as at home writing comics for a satirical magazine as sketching his comrades in the trenches of “the Great War,” conceiving massive public murals and tapestries, penning the first book (in 1925) on painting and the infant art of cinema, illustrating a book of Charles Baudelaire’s “Spleen” poems (you can find it at the Art Institute of Chicago), or infusing buxom bare-breasted babes with splendiferous color, often in hues of bright green, gold, and red. And no matter the subject, Gromaire almost always made sure to include a splotch of sky in the background. ‘Scuse us while we kiss him (in good Franglais) ‘a bean toe’. Top: Marcel Gromaire, “Les bords de la Marne,” 1925. Oil on canvas. Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris. Photo: Eric Emo et Stéphane Piera © ADAGP, Paris, 2019. Bottom: Marcel Gromaire, “|La Guerre,” 1925. Oil on canvas, 130 × 97 cm. Paris, Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville. Photo: Julien Vidal/Parisienne de Photographie. © ADAGP, Paris 2020.

When Gromaire celebrated ceramics

Marcel Gromaire, Sevres, smallerFrom the exhibition Marcel Gromaire, l’élégance de la force, theoretically on view through Sunday at la Piscine in Roubaix, France, after earlier runs in Séte and Honfleur: Marcel Gromaire, “Sèvres ou Les Arts de la Terre et du Feu ou Les Loisirs ou Les Temps libres ou La Paix sous le soleil de France” [model for a ceramic mural for the pavilion of Ceramic and Glass Art at the 1937 Exposition], 1936 . Oil on canvas, 89 × 250 cm. Roubaix,
La Piscine – Musée d’art et d’industrie André Diligent. Dépôt du Musée national d’Art moderne en 2000. Photo: A. Leprince © ADAGP, Paris 2020. For more coverage of the exhibition, subscribers please e-mail artsvoyager@gmail.com. Not yet a subscriber to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager? You can subscribe today for just $59 or Euros / year ($32/Euros for students, independent artists, healthcare or food service workers or the unemployed), by designating your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or writing us at that address to learn how to pay by check.

Slaves of New York*: It’s still a helluva town

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on January 7, 2011, with a slightly different title, and reprised, revised, and greatly expanded today because New York City — which at last count had lost 21,000 or a fifth of the national toll to the Corona virus, in no small part because the state’s governor waited too long to impose confinement (San Francisco, which went into confinement a week earlier, has lost less than 100 as of this date) and thanks to his policy of cutting back on hospital beds (thank you, Democracy Now, for these tragic factoids) — is still a helluva town. This one goes out to Sue, Melinda, Jamie, Richard, Margaret, Veronica, Robin, Caitlin, Elizabeth, Julio, Therese, Bonnie, Chris, the memories of Ed Winer, Becky Jung, Joe Mazo, Ranjabati Sircar, and Eileen Darby, and to Maura, Christine C., Matt, Nancy, Tristan, Fabrice, Pilar, Nathalia, Amaury, Laurent, Ruth-Lynn and too many other dancers to name, Michelle, Kevin, Donna, Lisa, Laurie, Phil, Herb, Ingrid, Neil, Eddie, Marty, Amy, Juan, Nimet, Jane, Martin, Anyta, Rebecca, Mark, Jill, Julie, Adam, Jocelyn, Dean, Darrah, Lucie, Harris, Ron, Don, Ben, Jonathan Schwartz, the editorial team at Wunderman Cato Johnson, and to all those who have given me so many New York moments and who are still there trying to make sure that it’s still a helluva town, despite Governor Cuomo’s irresponsibility and the mayor’s callousness towards the homeless. Take a dip in the Bethesda Fountain, New Yorkers, while knoshing on a knish or a dog with da works, de ma part…. (For art related to this column, click here .)

NEW YORK — Dance seems to be calcified in New York, the same fossils that were here 10 years ago — when I left for Paris — even more entrenched. Indeed, the wilderness is so sallow that the New York Times felt the need to send its chief dance critic abroad to review 27 “Nutcracker”s, as if even 27 “Nutcracker”s would have to be more interesting than one more New York dance concert, so desperately desolate has the local mainstream landscape apparently become. (Having once been sent abroad myself, to review a ‘Nut’ in a far-gone bourg of BFLI — Bum Fuck Long Island if you have to know, weisenheimer — where the publicist made sure to seat me next to the company’s director and my Newsday editor excised my mild criticism of a lackluster Clara, I sympathize.)

So this art aficionado has been feeding his art jones with art of the visual variety, as well as the self-made art still on view — nevah change, baby! — in New York every day. In the visual art landscape, between the Impressionist-era paintings one can stumble upon at a corner uptown gallery and what I’m told is the blossoming of the windblown Chelsea Territory — though the new High-line above the Western limits of the neighborhood looking out over the Hudson seems antiseptic compared to the colorful Paris counterpart that apparently inspired it, the coulee verte that starts at the Bastille — things at least seem to be moving. Scouring a Chelsea gallery guide Thursday afternoon to scout out vernissages (opening receptions to you, bub), I couldn’t help but notice some art on the various gallery websites that actually looked interesting, as opposed to the buy-me variety which seemed to be preponderant here 10 years ago, memorialized in Schnabel’s “Basquiat” film when Tatum O’Neal, considering a purchase, asks the artist, “Can you make it more brown?”

While I didn’t see enough art in an abbreviated gallery crawl Thursday night to be able to offer an assessment, let alone pass judgment, what was, on the other hand, dispiriting was that, as was the case 10 years ago, everyone seemed to be standing around talking up each other and I only saw one lost woman looking at the art — yet one more sign that not just dance, but intellectual life in New York may have ebbed. (The biggest indication of this is the effective demise of the Village Voice, a molted praying mantis’s skin of its former self, its last breath expiring with this week’s firing of 33-year-old veteran investigative journalist Wayne Barrett supposedly for financial reasons, the final death knoll for a storied heritage.)

But the good news is that like Paris, New York itself remains a work of art, even performing (as opposed to performance) art. After a cat-sitting gig in a literary brownstone healthily crammed with a century of books from first to top floor in the Upper East Side environs of Central Park, I’ve spent the past week in the Lower East Side environs of Chinatown where I literally saw it all on Mulberry Street: The Italian stretch of the street may have devolved into a Disney-fied Italian-Land — with young barkers standing outside the restaurants cajoling potential clients, reminiscent of the older men who stand outside Pakistani restaurants in Paris’s Passage Brady or the hawkers of “Pig Alley” — but Chinatown remains authentic, and perhaps the only place in Manhattan where one can still lunch like a monkey king for less than $3. That’s right — less than $3. I’ve had crumbled pork cake (at the Orange Tea House on Elizabeth Street), which is just what it sounds like — pork crumbs on the outside, sweet cake on the inside, for 90 cents. Goopy large noodles woven with shrimp and dribbled with soy and hot sauces for $1.25, (from a stand on Elizabeth Street). My comforting favorite for this weather is what I call a chicken porridge soup — in Chinese I think its moniker is ‘congee’ — of which you can get a nice helping for $1.50, from a woman working out of a cart on Grand Street. But the mecca — for starving journalists as well as starving dancers — is clearly Vanessa’s dumpling house on Eldridge. The signature dish is the owner’s sesame pancake sandwiches, all under and some well under $3 (the vegetable variety is just $1.50), but I’ve stuck to the fried pork dumplings, three plump ones available for just $1.(On this visit, I forgot to ‘vestigate – as the late dancer Becky Jung might put it – into whether Yonah’s Knishes was still dealing this daily staple of my forgotten Lower East Side ancestors. Or head uptown to see if the yamuka-crowned speedheads that used to dish up pickle-packed tahimi-oozing falafel sandwiches to long lines of Mad Men and Women from a van on 46th long before ‘food-truck’ became part of the lingo were still in business. ) If your parents are coming to town and you want them to take you to someplace nice, you might scout out the Vietnamese restaurant dance friends turned me on to earlier this week, which they’d learned of from choreographer and Chinatown institution HT Chen. (The menu even offers “HT Chen Crispy Noodles.”) Here my conch jones was finally satisfied. Since reading during my last NY sojourn, in the Joseph Mitchell classic “Up in the Old Hotel,” that fewer and fewer restaurants were serving conch, the meat that lives in that large sea-shell that whispers ocean gusts when you hold it up to your ear — fisherman only hunted for them by special request — I’ve been on a singular quest to find this item on NY restaurant menus. Last time around, I found three Italian places — in the whole city — that still served scungili, or conch in a spicy tomato sauce. One of those, the fabled Luna cafe on Mulberry Street (where an apprentice Guido once paused before pouring  the chianti for me and my female friend because “I didn’t wanna interrupt the eye contact”), has closed, and the other two have removed conch/scungili from their menus. At first, the waiter at the Vietnamese place disappointed me by shaking his head when I ordered the sauteed conch, listed as a specialty. “All out!” Then he returned excitedly to tell me that the fisherman had just brought some in that morning.

The hazard conch-fanciers face when ordering is the same one calamari-cravers have to deal with, that the dish will probably be over-cooked and thus rubbery and hard to break up. This conch, though, was perfect, as soft, flat, and sea-pungent as abalone. (I hadn’t touched another of my favorite NY-only ethnic dishes, Mofungo – a large plaintain and pork dumpling – since a serving had broken my last good molar left standing in Spanish Harlem. I’d have done better heading further downtown and sinking my delicate choppers into chicken and waffles at Wells’s or Sylvia’s.)

But affordable downtown culinary riches are not restricted to one cuisine. On Sunday — my favorite, maybe the only day for a gambol in the Village if you don’t like crowds — I hied over to El Rinconcita, on E. 10th and Avenue C, which still sells its catfish empanadas for just $1 apiece. (The mofungo is also nothing to kick a can at.)They were out of them when I got there, but I blithely ignored the tired waitress’s suggestion of chicken and asked if they could make some. “I’ll wait!” (The lively cumbia on the juke didn’t make it hard.) The woman who cooked them up for me — perhaps the owner — must have remembered me because she packed the empanadas not just with catfish but juicy jalapenos as well, which I ate on a wet bench in still snow-covered Tompkins Square, sipping the last of my warm cafe con leché. (At a Columbian stand outside a church on 14th street where I used to get it with my dollar enchiladas on Sundays, they used to sell Mexican-style hot chocolate infused with rice.)

If there’s one thing I’ve craved, though, since I returned from France this past summer, it’s duck, the soul-food of the country’s southwest, where I spent most of the past three years. I’d been warned that a Chinatown duck was not the same as a Frenchytown duck, so I had resisted. I was not even tempted by the opportunity to try the one duck part I’d never tried when I saw it here. I’d thought I’d sampled everything — duck carcasses, duck confit, duck hearts, duck blood patties (kind of like boudin but too rubbery for me), duck necks, preserved duck gizzards, smoked duck breast, duck breast with goat cheese sauce, beaujolais nouveau duck. But it wasn’t until I walked into a Chinese butcher’s on Grand street that I discovered duck tongues, 50 of them wrapped tightly in cellophane. Didn’t go for those, but finally gave in and bought a Peking Duck Wednesday. The price was right — $12 — but man was that Long Island (Peking by way of Valley Stream, and no doubt not blessed by my old rabbi Donna Berman) canard skinny compared to its French relatives. Not even a morsel of liver to be found, and forget about heart. (In France, they sell their chickens without the liver, which any Jew, whether he was brought up in Rabbi Berman’s Long Island congregation or the Aquarian Minion in San Francisco, will tell you is the best part.) And in a whole duck probably about four servings, max. Pumping its value to the maximum, I’ll be cooking the carcass up in a duck soup this weekend.

Of course the global beauty of my Chinatown digs this past week — the snow is gently falling outside the window to the courtyard as I write, set off by the neighbor building’s tenement brown brick — is the seat they’ve provided in the LES and Soho (a stone’s throw away) neighborhoods, which, despite the boutiques which have replaced the galleries in the latter and the leather jacket stores which have supplanted the Hester Street pushcarts in the former, still retain some of the eternal New York character, inherent in the architecture and the denizens (or as Damon Runyon would say, ‘citizens’) who pass under and between the buildings and who are perhaps inspired by the shadows of their not-so-forgotten ancestors. Is it also fueled by life on the edge, the element of danger lubricating one’s joie de vivre? Perhaps. The other day on Lafayette (I am here!) below Houston (hint to newbies: HOW-ston), in one block I was hit by both the beauty and the terror. In the middle of the block a blonde woman in sweats and tennies was fervently telling a tall worried man with curly brown hair, “This is for all the women murdered in New York.” A few yards further, before I could even take a look at her face, a woman walked past me who could have stepped straight out of a ’30s glamour magazine, everything from her smart felt hat to her long brown coat denoting style. Me, I’ll have one more stylin’ lunch in Chinatown and the LES before heading up to the theoretically more staid digs I’ve now scored on the Upper West Side off Broadway, plopping down on a bench in the middle of a bank of snow, propping my French boots (no Doc Martens this time) up on the concrete barrier between the benches and the basketball court across from her café and chowing down on my first cold sesame noodles of the season, a $3 feast courtesy of Vanessa’s. Bon appetit!

*For the non-New Yorkers among my readers, this title refers to the Tama Janowitz novel, itself encapsulating a particular NY phenomenon. I interviewed Janowitz in Princeton in 1987.