Post-modern classics: In Paxton ‘Bound’ and Jingju Peking Circus ‘Women Generals,’ a tale of two countries’ attitudes towards dance preservation

paxton boundJurij Konjar in Steve Paxton’s “Bound.” Nada Zgank photo copyright Nada Zgank and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003, 2119 Paul Ben-Itzak

(To celebrate its 20th anniversary as the leading artist-driven publication in the United States, the Dance Insider and Arts Voyager  is reflecting on Post-Modern classics, as captured by Dance Insider critics in performances around the world over the past two decades. This Flash Review from the Dance Insider Archive was first published on October 26, 2015. To find out about purchasing your own copy of the DI’s Archive of more than 2000 exclusive reviews by more than 150 leading critics of performances and art exhibitions on five continents over the past 20 years, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . To become a DI/AV sponsor and receive linked sponsor credit in this space for as little as $36, you can make a donation through PayPal in US $ or Euros by designating your donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Today’s re-publication of this Flash Review is made possible by Freespace Dance.)

PARIS — What do the aesthetics of Steve Paxton and the Peking Opera have to do with each other? When performed by, respectively, Jurij Konjar and the Jingju Theatre of Beijing, as they were last week at the Theatre de la Ville – Abbesses and the Theatre de la Ville Sarah Bernhardt, virtuosity and engagement.

When I asked His Judson Eminence after last Thursday’s opening of the 1982 solo “Bound” (continuing through October 27) what distinguished it from his earlier work, he answered: “Spectacle.” When I asked which parts of the 55-minute piece were up to the performer to create, he smiled like the Sphinx and answered: “The dance.” While the humility of this response, from the inventor of a form of dance, Contact Improvisation, wildly popular in France but for which the 76-year-old creator no doubt gets no royalties, is admirable, it does raise the question of variability: In the hands of a less expressive, inventive, intuitively droll, supple, smart, and well-trained interpreter of Paxton’s intentions and design than the 37-year-old (for improvisation, the perfect conjuncture, in which mental maturity and comprehension still has at its disposal a capable vehicle to execute its intentions) Konjur, who trained at Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s P.A.R.T.S. school in Brussels before working with the Ballets C de la B and Boris Charmatz, might the choreographic elements have been less imaginative? The question is partially answered by the slim results when La De Keersmaeker herself apparently left her much younger charges to come up with the moves for her recent “Golden Hours.” And the dancer-dancemakers for that farce (in the ‘rip-off’ sense of the term) had a whole text to work with, Shakespeare’s “As you like it.” But if Paxton doesn’t give his performer a text per se, he definitely furnishes a rule book. It’s easy to forget when Contact Improvisation has become the biggest excuse for aimless and indulgent noodling around that dance has ever seen, but his system for creating dances is as rigorous as those devised by Petipa, Balanchine, and Forsythe. (And a lot more original than recent Forsythe, which regurgitates Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown.) If the choreography is not set, there are still, Paxton explained to me, musical and scenographic parameters, or put more simply certain tasks that the dancer has to undertake at certain times. Imagine this structure as a scaffold. How the dancer gets to the top (or the bottom from the top) is up to him, but he has to make contact with certain points at certain junctures and arrive by the end at a fixed terminus.

For “Bound,” the physical terrain was circumscribed from the beginning by four planks marked along the side by different colors of tape later sometimes predictably arranged as see-saws, but also arrayed and balanced creatively as abstract art. A screen upstage center became a tapestry whose projected kaleidoscope formed a military pattern when Konjar stood in front of it, probably because of the fatigue formed a military pattern when Konjar stood in front of it, probably because of the fatigue shorts he sported over red pants, the ensemble rounded out by a white shirt, Lennon-esque shades and a bathing cap which made him look like an Olympic swimmer circa 1920, the shorts revealed after he stepped out of a box which had been hung from his shoulders by suspenders so that it covered his mid-section. When I asked Paxton later what differentiated “Bound” from his pioneering Judson work, he answered that he wanted to do more “Spectacle,” and Konjar sets that tone right away. This is no blasé post-mod performer who seems to be pretending the audience isn’t there, but an interpreter determined to engage us, to get us to shut off our cell phones and stop zapping and surfing and watch one man taking the time to create a world out of very few elements, pointedly utilized. Mid-spectacle, he brings onstage a wooden rocking chair and a darker mahogony newspaper bin simply to rock them one by one as he sits between them in his box, only his trunk visible. This arrived, as I recall, during a musically quiet moment, but even when it came to responding to the pure music, the Bulgarian State Women’s Choir, and sound effects — resembling first traffic noise, later garbled military commands to a helicopter pilot — Konjar, as directed by Paxton, once again defied what one often expects from a post-modern dancer and actually seemed to be responding to the score, moving lyrically to the Bulgarian adagio sections, swerving around in traffic to the car noise, parading during martial horn music, and frantic and alienated during the military maneuvers.

I was even more startled about the eminent watchability and appeal of this 55-minute piece when Paxton informed me afterwards that for its creation, he had no “outer eye.” It was mostly “thought up” while he was on tour, ahead of the Rome premiere. Given that the choreography can dramatically diverge from night to night, he explained, he was also lucky in the reconstruction of the dance to have recovered two videos capturing radically different outcomes.

This leads to my one gripe, which has less to do with Paxton than the dance world’s lack of care in preserving its own legacies. If one is to believe the promotional material for “Bound,” if not for the fortuitous discovery of the video recordings, this master-work which opens up a multi-dimensional understanding of a critical dance forefather would have been lost. It was not notated. Contrary to the ludicrous, ill-informed, ignorant assumptions proffered by the journal of the Festival d’Automne, which co-produced this presentation with the Theatre de la Ville, it is not a given that there’s no such thing as preserving the original version of a dance. Not just ballet but also modern mavens like Martha Graham and Paul Taylor have been notated. With a dance whose kinetic core is flexible, the task is not so different; the notator would record the ground rules, structure, and props, and then attend several performances or rehearsals to save the variants, already an improvement on video because the methode de travail itself is preserved, not just one performance.

And yet in dance, there seems to be not simply an illusory exaltation that the art is ephemeral, as if this impermanence is a value to be vaunted and boasted about because as each performance is gone forever when it’s over, you will never see it again, therefore, you have been privileged, but a confounding of the uniqueness of a performance and of an interpretation with the oeuvre itself. Paint is liquid too, but what painter would be happy if his work never dried and kept getting smudged over the years? Freedom of interpretation (by interpreter and audience) can only endure if the work itself is preserved and lasts.

Jingio Theatre Peking Theater CircusJingju Theatre’s Zhang Shu Jing in “The Women Generals of the Yang Family,” directed by Shen Jia Xin. DR photo courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

While they certainly didn’t have video in the 12th century, on Wednesday at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt the Jingju Theatre of Beijing and director Shien Jia Xin were somehow able to resurrect the nearly thousand-year old but surprisingly contemporary “The Women Generals of the Yang Family,” no doubt in part because while there may not be a Judson department at Juilliard, there’s still a Peking Opera school in China. Like Paxton, Jingju primes the delectably slow and like Konjar, its interpreters prime the well-articulated and etched gesture. The whole first half of the two-hour, 15-minute show was taken up with his warrior brothers and widow (the divine Li En Jie, who doubles as a sort of narrator in high-pitched song) summoning up the courage to tell the 100-year-old Wang clan matriarch (the sprightly Shen Wen Li) that her grandson has been felled by an enemy arrow defending the country from invaders, and in the grandmother’s campaign to convince the prince to let her and the eight widows of her other warrior grandsons lead the campaign to repulse the enemy. And it took almost the whole second half for an expeditionary squad lead by Li to find the high-mountain drawbridge which allowed them to surprise the far more numerous invading army. If this part was punctuated by some acrobatics — somersaults and meticulously choreographed sword, spear, and bow and arrow battles, often crowned with flourishes of brown peacock feathers streaming from the contestants’ helmets — the dose, particularly when the sublimely graceful warrier the general Zhang Shu Jing was charged with the battle-task, was parceled out just sparingly enough so that one never got the impression that the story was just an excuse for the circus tricks and schticks. And the athleticism wasn’t confined to these displays; when the performers weren’t walking about with splayed feet, they were balancing on high platforms.

Not only was Li’s singing/story-telling exquisite, so was her acting, both in an opening segment in which she struggles to keep her husband’s death secret from the grandmother, reluctant to lift a ceremonial glass of wine for a birthday toast to a man she knows is dead, then faltering before being lead off, and in a sword and spear fight with her son (Chen Yu) to determine whether he’s capable enough to join the crusade. “Mom!” he complains as she continues to dominate. “How am I going to be able to join the expedition if you don’t let me win?!”

Holding up the comedy element was Li Yang’s invading king, whose frustrated sputterings from beneath a long black beard and behind a heavy mask or very thick make-up as the women continued to defeat his male minions sounded a lot like Curly Howard.

One of the many miracles from all the Peking-Opera trained performers was that their facial expressions managed to be nuanced and expressive under layers of make-up so thick that if their mouths hadn’t clearly been moving, I’d have thought they were wearing masks. The dramatic oomph of their delivery was helped by the immaculate timing of the music and sound effects being played — humbly, offstage — by Ma Shuai, Qin Qin, Zhen Rui Fen, Wang Xiao Dan, Ai Zao Sheng, Zhang Ye, Ding Rui, Yin Hang, Sun Yu, and Wang Song Hai. Indeed the timing was so well-synchronized with the onstage performers, at first I thought it was a recording.

During the intermission, the Chinese-Frenchman sitting next to me — judging by their presence in the audience, the Theatre de la Ville did a great job of promoting this engagement, part of a mini-festival “Focus on China,” among the French Chinese community — told me that for the Chinese, respecting one’s parents is vital, moreso than in Western cultures. Comparing the deliberate preservation of this 1,000-year-old oeuvre with the accidental preservation of the work of a vital American ‘ancestor’ like Paxton seems to confirm this observation.

Thanks to Denise Luccioni for her help in understanding Steve Paxton’s ground rules, and as always to Robin Hoffman for help in understanding the importance and fundamentals of dance notation and preservation.  

“Never Again” to concentration camps: Americans 1941, Immigrants 2019

lange camps child small

Dorothea Lange Manzanar Relocation CenterNever Again: During World War II, 120,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in 700 concentration camps and “re-location centers” including Manzanar Relocation Center, captured above in bottom photo by Dorothea Lange (on assignment for the U.S. government; the top photo of a child en route for a camp is also by Lange) and Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where the Indian leader Geronimo had also been imprisoned and Indian children forced into government-operated schools after being wrested from their parents. On Saturday, as reported by Democracy Now, five survivors of those camps and their supporters demonstrated at Fort Sill to protest plans by the Trump administration to lock up 1,400 immigrant children there beginning in July, with one survivor proclaiming “Never again.”

Everything you always wanted to know about Dance & Sex but were afraid to ask, 2: Corpus Displayum — A Dialogue on the Power of Sex in Dance

By & copyright 2000, 2019 Asimina Chremos
& Paul Ben-Itzak

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The Lutèce Diaries, One: Paris, quelques choses que je sais sur elle (Paris, a few things I know about her)

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PARIS — The dirt-encrusted brown calves and bare feet slowly wriggling up out of the mound of aromatic detritus behind the green fences overlooking the debut of the Canal St.-Martin and the irritation in my throat suggested that if mayor Anne Hidalgo has good intentions, pollution and living conditions — at least for the poor and wretched in the latter case — may have deteriorated since my last sojourn here in 2016. N’empeche que there was still Sarah Bernhardt to welcome me at Austerlitz.

I first ‘met’ the Divine Sarah during the Met’s Belle Epoch exhibition in 1982, even if I didn’t know that the thin woman with the piercing eyes — enveloped in a fur scarf and a skin-tight velour dress, luxuriating on a velvet divan with a submissive but wary panther at her feet — who peered out with a come-hither look from the poster I’d procured was the greatest actress ever. Even if the image subsequently starred on all my walls, it wasn’t until I moved into a third-story walk-up on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village (next to Electric Lady, where Jimi Hendrix had reigned before Carly Simon recorded Anticipation and became my first crush with “You’re so Vain,” and around the corner from where Robert Joffrey bunked up with Gerard Arpino; Joffrey’s portrait was still visible in the window, and Arpino, already relocated with the ballet company to Chicago, had told me he would be “delighted, Darling” to discuss the possibility of my renting the pad) that I discovered the identify of my companion when I saw the same poster — from a painting by Bernhardt’s pal George Clarion — peering out from the cover of a paperback left in the tenants’ communal garbage area: A biography of Sarah Bernhardt by one of her theatrical descendants, the Broadway stalwart Cornelia Otis Skinner. Later I’d score a recording of Sarah from the soundtrack of a WW I propaganda film in which, after allowing, “Forgive them G-d, they know not what they do,” she viciously lashes out at the Germans, and still later happen upon an exhibition devoted to her relics at the Bibliotheque National’s musty quarters on the rue Richelieu, up the street from the Moliere fountain where a lion vainly spouts out undrinkable water. Finally, hurrying up the Boulevards La Chapelle, Rouchechouart, and Clichy towards the Montmartre Cemetery with an urgent need one Saturday morning in 2004, I’d spot a sign for a garage sale where I ultimately scored Bernhardt’s personal mirror, encadred by cherry wood with encrusted abalone shells no doubt fabricated in one of the ateliers along the rue St.-Honoré.

And there she was again Sunday night– the same exact image from the Clarion painting whose poster has accompanied me for 37 years (now so torn up I had to leave it at home for this last trip) — on a rotating pillar ad for the Paris Museums at the bottom of the ramp connecting the Austerlitz train station with the Metro. (The original is now at the Musée Petite Palais along the Seine.) As I was expecting a somewhat different reception (“I’m a New Yorker; fear’s my life” — Jonathan Larsen, “RENT”), it was a good omen.

But Paris is not only the heritage of Bernhardt and the redemptive elegance of a courtesan become deity, a life journey crowned by a funeral in which tens of thousands crushed together along the Grands Boulevards (streets memorialized by another French Jew, Camille Pissarro) to follow the 1923 procession from her theater on the Seine to an oblong tomb at Pere Lachaise (where a certain Ex-pat journalist would later be chastised by an ersatz tourist guide for nibbling his croissant on the rim while in deep conference with his most famous guardian angel — “In France, we don’t dine on graves”; never mind that the doyenne in question didn’t know Bernhardt from Bara, having just explained to her clients that the former had been a star of the silent screen). It is also the heritage of Zola, only instead of Gervaise — the tragic heroine of “L’Assommoir,” named after the homemade gin joint on the Boulevard La Chapelle that proves her downfall — curling up in the niche under a stairwell which is the only home she can still afford, making my walkabout du retour yesterday, from digs in le prè St.-Gervais to the Grands Boulevards, after turning onto the Canal St.-Martin off La Chapelle and turning my head towards a heap of reeking garbage sequestered behind a cluster of the still-omnipresent green construction fences I saw the garbage suddenly begin to move and wretch up the pair of squirming legs. A cursory examination indicated more living African bodies coming to life among the festering refuse. Sickened, I turned down the canal towards Le Valmy, the bar-resto that for years was my other shrine (this one of the living), where I was heartened to find Momo, my original bartender from 2001, still holding forth at the wine bistro next door. The last time I’d seen Momo was shortly after the November 13, 2015 terrorist massacre that took the lives of 130 people, many of them mowed down on the brasserie terraces where Momo reigned, a contemporary deity of Parisian life. Smoking a clope while looking out over the canal, he had been clearly distraught. “Des cons,” he pronounced, shaking his head before tossing the butt and returning to the bar. Missing him during my 2016 visit, I’d assumed he hadn’t had the courage to continue in the milieu, now wounded. So even if he has less hair and I have less teeth, I was delighted to find Momo back at his perch. When I asked him yesterday if things had calmed down since the attacks, he answered, finishing his spaghetti, “A bit,” only now there’s the troubles around the so-called yellow-vests and their clashes with already over-taxed police. (“Macron will never resign,” Momo told the barista he was dining with. “A president never resigns.”) If some of their claims are just, particularly those of the retired people like my neighbors in the Southwest of France who find it difficult to make ends meet on fixed incomes *not* indexed to inflation, I was reminded this morning, when the radio news reported that one of the movement’s more law-breaking inclined leaders is also the president of a car club vaunting ’80s models (French DJs are also inexorably hooked on the epoch’s top-10 music), that in the end for these self-proclaimed rebels whose cause has been fueled more by media hype than real popular numbers — their revolt has nothing to do with that espoused by Camus, even if the father of pro-active Existentialism did give personal names like “Desdemona” to his cars, as his recently-released letters to his lover the actress Maria Casarés reveal, and died in one — it’s all about retrograde resistance by worshippers at the shrine of the automobile to cleaning up the air before it’s too late. (The yellow vest in question is required wear for automobilists because it glows in the dark.) This is Anne Hidalgo’s fight and Emmanuel Macron’s fight — these are the luddites they’re up against — which is why I’m on their side. I just pray that the former succeeds in cleaning up the air of all of Paris — she’s noted that 45,000 die of pollution every year in France — and that Macron succeeds in fulfilling his promise that in France, no one, of any color, should be living on the streets. Or sleeping in garbage piles. Shortly after crossing the Peripherique from Pantin to Paris — my neck bundled up in three home-made scarves, my Paris hair-cut head covered in beret and sailor’s cap, and my gams retrieving their Saturday Night Fever stride (“You can tell by the way I move”), as I headed towards the cabinet of my dentist pledged to restore my teeth and smile before he heads off into the sunset (taking with him the poster of Belmondo courting Seberg on the Champs, a sign of the doctor’s Franco-American heritage), sequestered behind more green fences I came across a municipal employee sawing up Christmas trees so that they could be made into fertilizer, instead of just being discarded. Here’s hoping that the lost lives can be recycled too.

Schnabel in the Ring at the Orsay

Schnabel Tina in a matador hat smallJulian Schnabel, “Tina in a Matador Hat,” 1987. Oil, broken plates and Bondo on wood, 182.9 x 152.4 x 18 cm. Bischofberger Collection, Männedorf-Zurich, Switzerland, Inv. GBB No. 5027. © Julian Schnabel Studio / Photo by Phillips/Schwab. Featured in the exhibition “The Orsay as viewed by Julian Schnabel,” on view at the Paris museum through January 13. See below for more information.

Schnabel, in exile at the Orsay

Schnabel The Exile Small

If one didn’t know it was 2018 in Paris, one might think it was 1985 in Greenwich Village, with what with Basquiat taking over the private Musée Louis Vuitton and his biographer Julian Schnabel invited to juxtapose his work with that of Van Gogh and Cezanne, Manet and Courbet in “The Orsay as seen by Julian Schnabel,” running through January 13. While we’re usually sceptical about such pairings — which seem to reflect more classic museums’ nervousness that even the Impressionists won’t sell without a modern angle to juice them up than any legitimate aesthetic scheme — with Schnabel it actually works, particularly when the New Yorker dialogues with the Dutchman Van Gogh. Both artists reflect a poverty-informed discomfort with their spendthrift eras. And neither is locked into his times. Besides its qualities as collage, Schnabel’s canvas “Exile” is a reminder that exiles come in all colors and stripes. Julian Schnabel, “Exile.” Oil and buck’s antler on wood. 228.6 x 304.8 cm. Männerdorf-Zurich, Courtesy Galerie Bruno Bichofberger, Inv. GBB No. 15325. © Julian Schnabel Studio / Photo by Phillips/Schwab.