The Dance Insider Interview

tahoe coverLloyd Knight of the Martha Graham Dance Company in the “Moon Duet” from Martha Graham’s 1952 “Canticle for Innocent Comedians.” Photo courtesy Lake Tahoe Dance Festival.

Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

(This Dance Insider Interview is sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock Dance. Like what you’re reading? Please show your appreciation today. You can donate to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager through PayPal by designating your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. The interviewer dedicates this piece to Jamie, without whom it would not have been possible.)

Here in rural France — where the natural wonders certainly don’t leave us wanting for diversions — when it comes to onstage summer spectacles, the best we can hope for is tired family circuses starring lions that should have been retired long ago, subsisting largely thanks to regional funding. Back in my home state of California, meanwhile, straddling the frontier with Nevada, for eight years the denizens of Lake Tahoe have come to expect much more: a local festival with an international reach and historic scope, with Lake Tahoe Dance Collective Lake Tahoe Dance Festival founders Christin Hanna and Constantine Baecher, director of the Copenhagen International Choreography Competition, doing the archival work that many dance enterprises with much more resources have all but abandoned, and resurrecting forgotten treasures by the pioneers who made the American dance scene, coupled with new work. As proof of the loyalty they’ve engendered — and that rural residents and vacationers aren’t country bumpkins when it comes to art and will support profound work — they’ve done this with only 30 to 40 percent of the means coming from foundation and modest public grants, the remainder donated by individuals and local businesses. “That was of course different this year,” says artistic director Hanna, who performed with Oakland Ballet, Ballet New York, and Cincinnati Ballet and was a founding member of New Chamber Ballet, on whose behalf she returned to her native Tahoe City in 2006 to initiate a performance and summer workshop. “But we’ve seen our donors step up to make sure we stick around and can offer a wonderful program next year.”

For this year, given that the festival normally performs outside to a modest 400-person capacity audience, it might have been easy for Baecher and Hanna to justify continuing the live event, simply requiring masks and limiting admission to allow social distancing, perhaps making up for the budget shortfall by augmenting the modest $30 ticket charge. Instead, they took the only responsible route a festival operating in one of the areas hardest hit be the Corona virus can: While a Young Dancers Workshop will still be offered live — in a portable outdoor studio and ensuring strict social distancing (see below) — the festival is migrating online, broadcasting three nights of mixed programs from past years and newly recorded for this year by artists meant to feature in the 2020 edition, each interlaced with thematic artist interviews and introductions of the work. Broadcast live at www.laketahoedancecollective.org on July 22, 23, and 24 at 6 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, the programs will remain accessible for 24 hours, with a requested donation of $25. ($75 donors receive a tee-shirt and a wine glass.)

Online or in-person, this event is a vital tonic for these times and for my home state and its neighbor. Perusing the photographs of past performances and of the jubilant hosts on the outdoor stage whose backdrop is the most magnificent, blue-est lake in the world, one can’t help but think of an episode of the t.v. Western “Bonanza” in which Hoss succeeds in calming a raging giant of a man by showing him his favorite spot… a rocky shore on this Lake.

Keeping with the electronic spirit of the event, I interviewed Christin Hanna via e-mail. Her answers, as you’ll see, reflect not only a dance pedigree that also includes training with Margaret Banks’s Nevada Festival Ballet, Joffrey Ballet School, and American Ballet Theatre’s summer school, but a combination of local investment and dance-historical awareness that, while not unheard of at the ‘regional’ level (such as Marcello Angelini’s Tulsa Ballet) or in ‘little’ New York companies (Diana Byer’s New York Theatre Ballet) is rare to find at this — or any — level of the dance eco-sphere.

Paul Ben-Itzak: Ballet companies (American and European) typically have a historical blind-spot when it comes to preserving and presenting indigenous choreographers of the first part of the 20th century, outside Balanchine and Graham. And for the few contemporary dance-makers they retain, it tends to be the same ol’ same ‘ol. (For example, for Agnes De Mille, “Rodeo.”) The Lake Tahoe Dance Festival, by contrast, features choreographers from this epoch rarely produced outside their own companies, where those companies still exist (Hawkins) or ethnically-linked troupes (Ailey for Horton). You seem to have chosen to focus on this slice of our history, rather than, say (given the preponderance of ballet dancers on your guest roster) an assortment of duets and divertissements from classical and romantic ballets, or even Balanchine or Robbins work (where you could profit from the several experienced dancers of their pieces among your performers, including Wendy Whelan, Stephen Hanna, Abi Stafford and Ashley Bouder). Why? (Feel free to disagree with my premise.)

Christin Hanna: Well, we were actually able to add Balanchine, but you’re right. When we founded the festival in 2013, we wanted to create a program that would educate an audience about dance, and you can’t get a real sense of what dance is without knowing where it came from, and also attract dance aficionados for the unique programming. Additionally, I returned to my home of Lake Tahoe to create culture here in the performing arts, inspired by my time performing at Jacob’s Pillow. Growing up here, I had only a 4-hour drive to San Francisco to see world-class dance, and locally we are a community of Olympic athletes — ski racers, mountain climbers, and ultra-marathon runners.

A great example you recognize is the work of Erick Hawkins, which is relatively unknown compared to Graham and Taylor. Hawkins was actually a member of Balanchine’s Ballet Caravan, before marrying Martha Graham and becoming one of her first male dancers, then breaking off on his own. To see this lineage in his work is absolutely incredible, and to be able to present the three to show the audience this context is vital.

We also have a Lester Horton work, and many don’t know that Lester Horton was a prolific choreographer in addition to developing a modern dance technique, known the world over. He actually ran the first multi-ethnic dance company in the United States, in Los Angeles, and when he passed it was the dance critic and writer Frank Eng who sent Horton’s dancers, Alvin Ailey and Carmen De Lavallade among them, east to Jacob’s Pillow in a car to perform!

Paul Ben-Itzak: As a supplementary question to the above, the conventional wisdom would be that in a resort community like Tahoe (if not year-round, at least during the summer period) not necessarily ‘educated’ to ballet and just expecting extravaganza or “pretty,” one would present more known, popular, or ‘spectacular’ works. Your programming seems to owe more to the type of ballet-archeologic ‘curio’ curating one might find at, say, New York Theatre Ballet, which (while fascinating to notators and ballet eggheads like me) might be more interesting to the Ballet and Modern ‘insider’ than the general public. Why this choice? And how do your audiences respond?

Christin Hanna: One of the things we didn’t necessarily plan, but that I’m extremely pleased with, is that the feeling of the festival is one that is quite intimate, an up close and personal experience where the audience can hear the dancers breathe. As most locals and visitors usually find themselves in Tahoe because of the outdoor recreation, everyone is an athlete, and can identify with that visceral, physical sensation, even if they are new to viewing dance. Part of the reason we show a range of styles is for those new audiences to start to understand what their own personal taste is as they come to watch more dance. For most of our audience, that may just only be the performances we put on year after year.

Paul Ben-Itzak: And an ancillary question to the last: Who is your audience? Is it as typically ‘gray-headed’ (as a former Kennedy Center president, Lawrence T. Wilker, once put it to me) as that of many ballet companies? (Feel free to question my premise here too; it’s been a while since I’ve attended a live ballet performance.)

Tahoe directors Christin Hanna and Constantine BaecherLake Tahoe Dance Festival founders Christin Hanna and Constantine Baecher, at home in their kingdom.

Christin Hanna: The very first performance we held was a spring showcase at the high school auditorium (we have no other indoor performance space) with seven young dancers and four guest professionals. The next week a man wearing full work gear stopped me in the aisle of the grocery store. He said, “You’re that ballet lady!” and I wasn’t sure what was coming next, but he continued, “My son has a crush on one of your dancers, so he dragged us all to the performance last week. I’ve never seen anything like that and I was really blown away!” This is the perfect example of why I’m doing what I’m doing, and that moment was such a wonderful affirmation following our first show. This person was not someone who was going to spend his vacation going to New York and attending a performance at Lincoln Center. Our organization gave him the opportunity to be welcomed into a new experience that he might not have had otherwise.

Our audience is quite diverse, and of all ages. Naturally, in the summer in Tahoe we have a variety of visitors, so this group is really looking for a special evening on vacation. Our locals have been tremendously supportive of the festival and our organization in general; they see the quality of what we’re bringing in and are thankful beyond imagination. In general, the fact that we bring such big names is what may attract those who have not come before, because it’s someone from NEW YORK CITY!

I must also say that we have steadfastly kept ticket prices to performances below $30. It’s my personal feeling that performing arts organizations, commercial or non-profit, have to really keep an eye on who it is who can actually [afford to] come to the theater; I’m talking pre-Covid of course. And there are certainly a number of outreach programs, etcetera, but I’d rather sell 400 tickets at $30 than 75 tickets at $150. The point of this art form is to share it and to touch people’s lives. Someone who makes minimum wage should be able to come to the ballet.

Paul Ben-Itzak: How have the directors you’ve worked with influenced you in this ‘preservation’ optic?

Christin Hanna: Those who have influenced the preservation side of things are actually my collaborators, starting with Constantine Baecher, my best friend and co-founder of the festival. We both see the landscape of dance as deeply inclusive of the past, in addition to simply [being aware] that DANCE can mean a lot of different things to different people, which brings us around the world stylistically and more.

Our teacher from when we met as students at American Ballet Theatre, Daniel Baudendistel, is a treasure of historical information, and he joins us for a portion of the online presentation as well. Also, we’re just old enough to have come up as students before YouTube, and I still have all my VHS tapes from when I recorded PBS broadcasts of performances. We were so hungry as young people to see and know more. Kristina Berger, who brings the Horton and the Hawkins, also comes every year and her connection to those entities is a profound part of her artistry and teaching. I guess you can really just say that we’ve all gravitated to one another with the shared interest of keeping the past alive.

Paul Ben-Itzak: Tell me about Agnes De Mille’s “The Other,” one of the works which will be featured.

Christin Hanna: As you mentioned earlier, I feel like De Mille is one of those from whom we don’t get to see the treasure trove past “Rodeo,” or her work on Broadway. My friend Stephen Hanna actually had the idea, and at first we were looking at “A Rose for Miss Emily,” however that one is quite dark and we didn’t think it would work excerpted out of doors. Anderson Farrell of the De Mille working group sent us “The Other,” and we fell in love with it.

Tahoe Stephen Hanna & Abi Stafford in De Mille's 'The Other'The composition of this photograph — and thus the achievement of photog Jen Schmidt in capturing this moment of Abi Stafford and Stephen Hanna performing the duet from Agnes De Mille’s “The Other” at the Lake Tahoe Dance Festival in 2019 — is not so banal as it might at first appear. Au contraire, it makes a profound statement about the most fundamental gift of the true Danseur Noble. First, Hanna had to transcend the potential distractions in this outdoor performance: The most luminous lake and most legendary trees in the world in the backdrop; the dude in the baseball cap in the front row. Next there’s the standard challenge to the male partner: to make it look easy and effortless. Then there’s the challenge visible, or palpable, only to the ballerina: in two hands he needs to communicate not just “I won’t drop you” but “You’re free to fly”; the only physical concern of that woman should be the precision in her limbs and fingers. Most (good) ballerinos only get to this point. What Hanna achieves here — besides freeing his partner to achieve grace — is his own form of grace. Don’t yet see it? Hint: Feets, don’t fail me now!

Paul Ben-Itzak: What if any Antony Tudors will you be presenting?

Christin Hanna: We’re thrilled to be presenting the opening section of “Jardin aux Lilas,” which pairs beautifully with the De Mille as it was she who suggested Tudor to founder Lucia Chase in the early days of Ballet Theatre, in addition to the fact that both works explore that timeless theme of unrequited love!

Paul Ben-Itzak: For the De Mille and the Tudor, who will be staging, and to what degree will they or you be referring to Labanotated scores of the works?

Christin Hanna: Diana Gonzalez-Duclert staged the “The Other” on Stephen and Abi [Stafford] last spring before the 2019 Dance Festival; we’ll be showing archival footage of that. Diana was De Mille’s rehearsal assistant and originated the role Abi danced. As for the Tudor, we have graciously been lent footage by Diana Byer at New York Theatre Ballet from a performance in 2013. NYTB has presented many of Tudor’s works, as well as De Mille’s.

Paul Ben-Itzak: Any other works or choreographers on the programs to be presented you’d like to highlight?

Christin Hanna: We’re always particularly excited to show works being made today by budding choreographers, so we’ve selected our favorites from past festivals to showcase. One of these is “Red-Spotted Purple,” which is danced by Ashley Bouder, who commissioned the work for her Ashley Bouder Project performance at the Joyce in 2018 and then brought it here that summer. Ashley’s company is dedicated to furthering the inclusion of women and marginalized people in leadership roles in the performing arts world, and this work was an all-female collaboration with composer Stephanie Ann Boyd and Lauren Lovette, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet and a budding young choreographer. In our third night, we highlight contemporary works that have previously been shown here in Tahoe. One of note is by Bryan Arias, whom I knew when he was a student, and who has become a phenomenal dancer (Nederlands Dance Theater, Kidd Pivot) and choreographer too. In 2014, he brought his dance partner Rachel Fallon to perform a section of his work “Notice,” which had won the Copenhagen International Choreography Competition that spring, which my co-director Constantine Baecher founded. His career has blossomed; he’s currently making a work at the Bolshoi!

Paul Ben-Itzak: Any chance the festival will eventually produce any of the ten ballets by Martha Graham which belong to the public domain (thus, no royalty costs, no Graham trust to go through): “Appalachian Spring,” “Night Journey,” “Chronicle/Steps in the Street,” “Lamentation,” “American Document,” “Heretic,” “Flute of Krishna,” “Frontier,” “Panorama,” or “Celebration”? “Appalachian Spring,” with its grand score and evocation of mountains, would seem particularly appropriate.

Christin Hanna: We would be thrilled to present any of those…. We are happy to be working with Lloyd Knight of the Graham company, performing opposite Wendy Whelan in the “Moon” duet from Ms. Graham’s 1952 “Canticle for Innocent Comedians,” still as relevant today as when it was created. This duet can be held up against anything choreographed today by anybody! The piece has an emotionality that is hard to state in mere words. The Graham trust generously gave us the rights for this performance free of a charge. As a young and small company, we have a limited budget in the number of professional dancers we’re able to bring in, and in the summer the additional challenge is housing, as it’s the height of tourist season…. So the pieces in the festival tend to be [for] smaller groups. “Appalachian Spring” would certainly be wonderful!

Paul Ben-Itzak: And any chance of presenting the work of Katherine Dunham?

Christin Hanna: Certainly. We’re also interested in some of the Ted Shawn solos he did later in his life. Our bucket list is long!

Paul Ben-Itzak: I note that in addition to the guest artists, you have a larger number of local dancers. How and where do you find — and nurture — them in the Tahoe/Truckee area? (Are you also a native of the region?)

Christin Hanna: Yes, I train dancers and work with them throughout the year, and bring in guest teachers and choreographers to work with them. I was born and raised here in Tahoe, and there was no professional training available, so my parents drove me to Reno for classes and rehearsals seven days a week (an hour each way!), and where I trained with Margaret Banks at Nevada Festival Ballet. The idea of creating a mecca for dance in Tahoe was inspired by my time at Jacob’s Pillow, and my desire to be able to offer our community the highest level of dance possible. It’s always bothered me that more rural areas don’t have as much culture as big cities, and that’s why the Pillow in particular was so inspiring. The dancers who come to work with me do so at a time when they are making the decisions in their lives about what they’d like to focus on, and they’ve chosen to take dance more seriously and can therefore dedicate themselves to being in the studio every day after school.

Paul Ben-Itzak: Who are the artists who will actually be in place — present there
this year — and thus (if I understand correctly) teaching, live, the Young Dancers Workshop?

Christin Hanna: Kristina Berger, Damien Johnson, and Erik Wagner, in addition to myself, are here teaching at our Young Dancer’s Workshop. We own our portable stage, so we set that up as a studio in late May and have been able to have completely safe classes with a limited number of students in masks and maintaining social distancing.

Paul Ben-Itzak: In the press release, you opine, “When faced with the inability to have a festival, we knew we had a unique opportunity.” Recognizing that we all wish the tragic crisis which has prompted these opportunities (others in the arts and other sectors have also made this observation) happened, how can art, specifically, and dance, specifically, if you like, make an opportunity (or find an opportunity) out of crisis and tragedy? How is art and how are artists particularly equipped to spot and ‘exploit’ these opportunities?

Christin Hanna: We’re mostly excited that anyone around the world [will be able to see the performances], which is why we wanted to keep it free, with a suggested donation. It also offered us the opportunity to use this format of the three nights — to weave together the connections between Balanchine and Graham and Hawkins and share these insights with our audience. Every piece is introduced by either the dancers or choreographer giving unique insight, which we feel keeps that feeling that the audience usually has at the [live] festival. Last year, an audience member wrote to me and thanked us for creating the kind of event where one could walk up to a dancer after the final bows and thank him or her personally. That is the connection to this art form that I believe we need to nurture — the personal connection.

Paul Ben-Itzak: Dance — or live dance performance — can seem flat (and two-dimensional) captured on film or video. Realizing that you’re not the only performance company facing this dilemma in these times, and of course the health necessity to go this route (instead of performing in front of a live audience in a closed or constrained space), how, specifically, will the video-taping or filming be handled / produced to mitigate against this potential flatness?

Christin Hanna: Most of the video being shown is [archival footage of] our past performances or performances elsewhere. In my opinion, there’s really no way to have as vital an experience on a screen as you would at a live performance. However, two of the works filmed specifically for this are the final male solo from Balanchine’s “Apollo,” which Adrian Danchig-Waring and his husband Joseph Gordon filmed outdoors in Shelter Island, New York, and Hawkins’s “Greek Dreams,” filmed right here on our outdoor stage/studio this past week. We are incredibly lucky to be going through this time with the technological advances we have today that make advanced camera work and file sharing possible.

Paul Ben-Itzak: If I understand correctly — but please correct me if I’m wrong — all the pieces presented here are from previous years’ festivals. Thus perhaps this issue has not yet come up for you. But how do dancers confront the real health threat of continuing to rehearse and perform at such close contact (often breathing hard from exertion) in such times (assuming working with a mask would be physically trying as it constrains breathing when one is exerting oneself)?

Christin Hanna: We are at 6,200 feet of elevation and wearing masks daily in our outdoor classes. It’s not ideal, but like anything else, you get used to it, and it’s so much better than being in your kitchen on Zoom! The staff I have here has all been tested and quarantining together, so we are able to work safely. I imagine that until there’s a vaccine, we’ll be seeing more companies following this kind of model, which is really like an artistic residency, but now it’s just a matter of also quarantining.

(Observation added by PBI, upon re-reading this response while transcribing our e-mail interview: What Hanna expresses here is a quintessential part of the working ethos of the dancer; is any artist more adaptable? Here we’re talking about the artistic metier which, in Covid conditions, is most exposed to risk — the one metier in which the practitioner puts her instrument and her body on the line every time she steps out on stage or into a class or rehearsal — Covid or no Covid — and which, for most forms of the art, already has a ‘perishable by’ date stamped on it; and yet the dancer, as always, just adjusts.)

Paul Ben-Itzak: How does your magnificent setting — I assume that when there are live performances, they are outdoors, with the lake as a background? — contribute to the experience, for performers, presentation, and audience?

Christin Hanna: People who attend our festival for the first time are completely mesmerized, because yes, Lake Tahoe is our backdrop, and we perform with the sunset as our lighting. Programmatically, not everything works when having to compete with this environment, but other than that it’s a dream. When dancers have performed here they always tell everyone how magical the setting is!

Paul Ben-Itzak: Does the Lake Tahoe Dance Collective organize year-round activities, and if so, for example….?

Christin Hanna: Our Spring Performance is usually a mixed evening, but with more focus on our local dancers and with just a few guests.

Paul Ben-Itzak: You might not necessarily have a comment here, as this is more about my observations on the subject based on one of the photos we’re going to use (from De Mille’s “The Other”) with this story — pertaining to certain evident skills of male partnering indicated by the photo — but do you have any thoughts or observations on the subject of the male partner, and/or Stephen Hanna (husband? brother? I ask because your familiarity enhances your qualifications as an observer)’s partnering skills and values particularly?

Christin Hanna: As far as we know, we are not related, but I do think we may have a distant connection somewhere — I guess we’d have to do one of those genealogy kits! Stephen is an exceptionally kind human being and a wonderful partner — we were actually going to dance together this summer for the first time in a new work. But yes, “The Other” is heavy on partnering. What reads to me when I watch Stephen’s partnering skills, from the front of the room in the director’s side of things, is that it’s so solid that you almost forget or don’t realize what an amazing feat he’s pulling off. Because of that skill, the ballerinas he works with always look effortless.

This is their history too: Re-opening with Jacob Lawrence show, NY’s Met Museum shows which post-Covid camp it’s in

Met LawrenceJacob Lawrence (American, 1917–2000), “Struggle Series — No. 10, Washington Crossing the Delaware,” 1954.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text by and copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

The post-Corona world — using the qualification ‘post’ guardedly, that horizon seeming distant, particularly in the United States — seems to be shaping up into two camps: Those who want to return to business as usual, and those who recognize that circumstances have changed forever, and that our comportment has got to change with it. If there’s nothing unusual about the protective measures the Metropolitan Museum has promised to take when it re-opens its doors August 29 after a five-month closure — it’s not the only institution to require masks, limit admissions, disinfect regularly and provide sanitizing stations — what is exceptional is that the 150-year-old New York City institution has not rested at ‘assurance’ but upped the ante to justification, recognizing that the stakes have changed.

That recognition comes in the form of the new exhibition Jacob Lawrence: the American Struggle, highlighting the American modern painter’s multi-paneled series Struggle … From the History of the American People (1954–56).

For in the United States, as if it was not already enough that their community, along with those of Latinos, Native Americans and Alaskans (where the tiny Bush village of Northway last week experienced its first cases), prisoners (1000 cases in San Quentin alone), and detained migrants (3,000 cases at last count), has been particularly hard-hit, the virus-cide of Corona has been joined by a stepped-up, government-institution (police; not all, obviously) generated genocide of African-Americans. If not in scale, the term genocide is justified in nature, as the underpinning dehumanization is the same here as that that enabled the European genocide of Jews and the Rwanda genocide.

Given that they often lionize white conquerors and conquistadors, enslavers and murderers, the toppling of statues (in highly symbolic places) by these oppressed groups and their sympathizers has been understandable.

The problem with this approach, however, is that one can’t just erase history by demolishing its monuments.

I prefer the approach suggested by no less than Angela Davis, the Black Power pioneer and philosopher who, in a recent interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, suggested these monuments should not necessarily be destroyed, but moved (from public places, e.g. State-houses, where they suggest their racist values still prime) to museums… where they can be viewed in a “pedagogic” context.

What I love about the Met’s Lawrence exhibition is that it refutes a spurious suggestion made recently by a European president who indirectly implied that those who would “unbolt” statues (he confounded “unbolt” with “destroy,” making the same mistake as those who destroyed Courbet, who, as the artistic commissar during the Paris Commune of 1871, simply wanted to move, not destroy, the statue at the Place Vendome, as demonstrated by Michel Ragon in “Courbet, Painter of Freedom”), or demand that their country live up to its principles, are “separatists.”

Whether in Europe or on the other side of the Atlantic, these demonstrators don’t want to ‘destroy’ and they are not separatists but, as former French justice minister Christine Taubira pointed out, inclusionists. They want to claim the rights that their countries’ constitutions accord them, and to belong to those countries’ histories..

carter 2 lawrence migration

From the Arts Voyager archive and the 2012 exhibtion “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection,” at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas: Jacob Lawrence (1917 – 2000), “The Migration Series, Panel no. 3: From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north,” 1940 – 41. Casein tempera on hardboard. ©2011 the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Acquired 1942, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. .

Lawrence has certainly distinguished himself as a chronicler of African-Americans’ particular history, notably in the “Migration” series. (Ironically, in the current context, depicting Blacks fleeing the South to seek work in the north, notably Chicago, where contemporary Blacks seem to have targets on their backs that make the Plantation persecution seem like a picnic.)

Here, by taking ownership of no less a nation-making chapter than (slave-holder) Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, Lawrence moves beyond celebrating his own ‘tribe”s history to staking a claim in the larger, national story.

The Met also moves beyond the revisionist, overly race-conscious cultural history that’s been in vogue at U.S. museal and academic institutions for several years now (typified by Huey Copeland and the Art History department at Northwestern University, and its affiliated museum) to a curatorial statement that recognizes that an ‘equal regard’ doesn’t just mean trotting out racialist exhibitions, but really doing the work — race-blind — to scout out artistically equal visions from across the spectrum.

Cry, the beloved Texas

Morris Engel, Buda, Texas. Dairy Farmer-Rylander Family, 1949, Amon Carter MuseumFollowing the viral popularity of yesterday’s posting  of the first of Morris Engel’s 1949 gelatin silver prints, “Buda, Texas. Dairy Farmer-Rylander Family” from the exhibition Looking In: Photography from the Outside, theoretically on view through July 5 at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, we thought we’d make another visit to the Rylander family, as immortalized by Engel in the same series and on view at the same exhibition. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.

(Belles) Surprises in a time of cholera: Journal d’une artiste maman parisienne

julie sabrinia bizien

Sabrinia Bizien, “Abundance.” Just one of the elements that helped the author find – and plant – surprises around the compact apartment in the East of Paris that she shares with her husband Thomas and their sons Armand (8) and Aimé (4) during the two months France’s population was confined at home.

By Julie Safier-Guizard
Translation by Paul Ben-Itzak with the author

(V.O. Française follows translation.)

How does an over-worked, overtly creative Parisian mother, daughter, musician, youth choir director and writer make sure she stops and smells the roses? By noting, recording, and sharing them with friends and family. For Julie Safier-Guizard, for the past 630 days this has meant keeping daily journals of “Petites Joies” and “Surprises.” When the pandemic arrived, bringing with it, on March 15, a government order to shelter in place (lifted May 11; French restaurants, cafés, and other workplaces fully re-open today, public schools beginning next Monday), allowing just one-hour per day outings for health and family imperatives, physical exercise, or grocery shopping, Julie Safier-Guizard, the daughter of an American man and French woman and a Paris native, saw no reason to stop looking for surprises.

March 15 – 21, 2020

Surprise, Day 186

Against all odds, not knowing what exactly I might have nor when I’ll be better, I’ve decided to continue the challenge of “Surprises,” so that these little scintillating sparks of mischief, joy and life might do some good for us every day. I’d dreamed up scores of possibilities with the wild things; at the end of the day they found, entirely on their own, a passionate, all-consuming pastime: Skinning carrots!

julie kids and carrotsShort-order chefs en germe: Armand and Aimé on voluntary KP duty.

Surprise, Day 186 1/2:

Unable to go outside to see the flowers bloom, we’ve created our own… in all colors!

First, we draw by hand or with the computer flowers that we then color. Then we cut them up and then, finally, fold the petals over one by one. When the flowers are placed in the water, the petals  unfold more or less rapidly.

julie bizien hidden with flowersFlower-power: Les vrais fleurs chez Julie and Thomas – a professional gardener – soon got some company thanks to  apprentice faux fleurs gardeners Armand and Aimé.

Surprise, Day 186 2/3

“We are at war….” The voice of our dear president resonates in the kitchen from the small crackling radio, missing half its antenna.

Thomas is frozen stiff, holding the radio in his hands like a fragile object.

I imitate the orator and tell myself that it won’t be tomorrow that we’ll be getting a television. I like imagining too much….

Sitting on my knees, Aimé finishes his apple sauce (the only dish that he seems to like at the moment).

As for Armand, at the same time riveted to the radio and a trifle antsy, he ends up asking, after the president has enumerated all the activities to be proscribed, “But why doesn’t he say to not watch television too much?”

How true! What an unpardonable omission!

 

Surprise, Day 187

Aimé seizes my pills:

“Mom, it says here, ‘Pills for never being sick.'”

Génial!

Surprise, Day 187 1/2

To liven up meal-times in a way that insures they don’t degenerate into total chaos, we make up riddles. Aimé gets into the spirit of the thing… in his fashion:

“You’ve guessed what it is?”

“An animal?”

“Yes!”

“Yellow?”

“No! Blue.”

“An… elephant?”

“No.”

“A bird?”

“No, a leopard!” cries Aimé, delighted to divulge the answer.

“But Aimé… a leopard, it’s…”

“A blue leopard is blue!” he declares in a tone that allows no room for debate.

And indeed, he’s right!

Surprise, Day 188

We cannot guarantee that the words which follow are correctly spelled.

“Mom, I don’t want you to dye!”

“What do you mean, Aimé?”

“I don’t want you to dyonos!”

“Er, Aimé….”

“I don’t want you to morose… that you’ll be dead, if you really need me to spell it out! You understained now?”

Surprise, Day 189

“Aimé, I don’t want you hanging out alone on the balcony.”

“It’s not ‘balcony,’ Mom, it’s ‘balcokneeeee’!”

“How’s that?”

“I said, It’s not ‘balcony,’ it’s ‘balcokneeeeee!'”

“Oh, of course: the balcokneeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

“Yes, ‘balcokneeeeeeeeeee’ is ‘balcony’ in Aimish…”

But of course!

Surprise, Day 190

“Mom, can I be a girl?”

“Um, Aimé, you’re a boy…. So you’d rather be a girl?”

“Yes!”

“Okay…: Is it that you want to do things girls do, or that you want to be a girl?”

“Be a girl! Just a little bit! But after I’ll be a boy again, okey-dokey?”

Magic wand, anyone?

Surprise, Day 190 1/2

Opening the window yesterday, I received a shock. It wasn’t like usual. Because my nose had a sudden urge to plunge into the nocturnal air and take it in completely. It was the aromas…. Yes, that’s it, one senses the night’s aromas like never before. I felt as if I were enveloped in a soft quilt made up of a thousand aromatic corners, innumerable patchworks, patchworks each of which offered its own unique perfume…. It was somewhat fluid, indeterminate, but at the same time it was like I was getting inebriated inhaling each aroma in such an exquisite manner. Starting tonight, every night I plan on opening my window and making a ritual out of trying to recognize at least one of these patchworks. Odors, effluvia, and perfumes will be my playground.

Our Planet is finally able to breathe and reclaim its colors. I want to cry with joy.

Surprise, Day 191

This morning everything is perfectly quiet. I enter their room discretely and find the boys, for once, calm … and very busy!

The room is filling up little by little with stickers and collages of all kinds. It’s entirely likely that the walls will soon be saturated, given the length of the wait which is expected….

julie picture in bathroomSalle des surprises: Art ‘caché by Sabrinia Bizien.

Surprise, Day 191 1/2

I divert myself by planting surprises all around our apartment, utilizing glossy paper, the printer, and poster putty…. In this way, the eye settles on the gentle tableaux (by Sabrinia Bizien) and gets lost for a moment.

Not far from the dish-washing liquid… above the kitchen table… to the left of the stove, in the bathroom….

I’ll see how the boys react….

Surprise, Day 191 2/3

With the kind permission of Miss MM, “Paint-brush meets plume” goes public for at least 14 days. 14 days with a daily painting and accompanying poem….

In this way we hope to provide a bit of balm for these difficult times.

julie unicornAnd what about you? Do you still believe in wonder-full surprises? Art by Mariane Mazel.

Painting by Mariane Mazel
Poem by Julie Safier-Guizard

First Encounter

From the gushing of purple
I cry towards you
I am red lip-stick
I am cherry blossoms
Dangling from ear-lobes
And I cry towards you
Born from my pallor
Cousin of violet
It is
all the same
inside me that this cry
Vibrates the most intensely
Purple cry
Violetas.

(Author’s biography follows original French version below.)

Version française originale
par Julie Safier-Guizard

Depuis 630 jours, Julie Safier-Guizard, maman – artiste parisienne, enregistre les ‘Surprises’ et ‘Petites joies’ quotidienne, y compris dans le foyer qu’elle partage avec son mari Thomas et leurs fils Aimé (4) et Armand (8). Et ce ne serai pas un petit confinement de 2 mois qui vas les faire arrêté, les surprises. Au contraire. — PB-I

Du 15 au 21 mars

Surprise, jour 186

Envers et contre tout, ne sachant ni ce que j’ai exactement, ni quand j’irai mieux, j’ai décidé de continuer le défi des SURPRISES, pour que de petites étincelles de malice, de joie et de vie, nous fassent du bien chaque jour.

J’avais prévu plein de possibilités avec les fauves, finalement ils se sont trouvé eux-mêmes une activité passionnante : l’épluchage de carottes !!!

Surprise, jour 186 bis

A défaut de se promener pour voir les fleurs éclore… On en a fait de toutes les couleurs !

Dessiner ou imprimer des fleurs que l’on colorie. Puis les découper et enfin replier pétale sur pétale. En mettant sur l’eau chaque fleur de papier, elles vont se déplier plus ou moins vite…

Surprise, jour 186 ter

« Nous en sommes en guerre… »

La voix de notre cher président résonne dans la cuisine à travers le petit poste grésillant auquel manque une moitié d’antenne.

Thomas s’est figé, tenant le poste comme une chose fragile.

Je me figure les mimiques de l’orateur et me dis que ce n’est pas demain la veille que nous aurons une télévision. J’aime trop imaginer….

Assis sur mes genoux, Aimé finit sa compote (seul plat qu’il semble apprécier en ce moment).

Quant à Armand, à la fois attentif et un peu agité, il finit par lancer :

— Mais pourquoi il ne dit pas de ne pas trop regarder la télévision… ?

(C’est vrai ça ! Quel impardonnable oubli !)

Surprise, jour 187

Aimé se saisit de mes médicaments :

– Maman, il est écrit dessus « Pastilles pour ne plus jamais être malade ».

Génial !

Surprise, jour 187 bis

Pour animer les repas de manière à ce qu’on parte un peu moins dans tous les sens, on fait des devinettes.

Aimé joue… à sa manière :

– Vous devinez alors ?

– C’est un animal ?

– Oui !

– Jaune ?

– Non ! C’est bleu.

– Un… éléphant ?

– Non

– Un oiseau ?

– Non, un léopard, s’écrie Aimé, ravi de divulguer sa devinette.

– Mais Aimé… un léopard c’est…

– Un léopard bleu, c’est bleu !, lance-t-il d’un ton sans réplique.

Et il a bien raison !

Surprise, jour 188

[Nous ne certifions pas la bonne orthographe des mots qui vont suivre]

– Maman, je veux pas que tu moures !

– Pardon Aimé ?

– Je veux pas que tu mourisses !

– Mais Aimé…

– Je veux pas que tu mors… que tu sois mort, pour que tu comprennes !

Vous avez comprisse ?

Surprise, jour 189

– Aimé, je préfère que tu ne restes pas seul sur le balcon.

– Pas le balcon maman, le baaaalcon !

– Pardon ?

– Je dis : pas le balcon, le baaaalcon !

– Ah, oui : le baaaaaalcon !

– Oui, baaaaalcon c’est le balcon en « français Aimé » !

Ah mais bien sûr !

Surprise, jour 190

– Maman, est-ce que je pourrais être une fille ?

– Euh… Tu es un garçon Aimé… tu aimerais être une fille alors ?

– Oui !

– Bon… Tu as envie de faire des choses de fille ou être une fille ?

– Etre une fille, juste un petit peu ! Mais après je serai encore un garçon, d’accord ?

Baguette magique, anyone ?

Surprise, jour 190 bis

Hier soir, en ouvrant la fenêtre, j’ai reçu un choc. Ce n’était pas comme d’habitude. Car mon nez a eu envie de se plonger dans l’air nocturne et de l’accueillir entièrement. C’étaient les odeurs… Oui, c’est ça, on sentait les odeurs de la nuit comme jamais !

Je me suis sentie enveloppée dans une douce couette aux mille recoins odorants, aux patchworks innombrables, patchworks qui chacun proposait son parfum… C’était assez flou, indéterminé, et en même temps j’étais comme saoule de recevoir chaque odeur de manière aussi fine.

A partir de ce soir, chaque nuit, j’ouvrirai ma fenêtre et m’amuserai à reconnaître au moins l’un ces patchworks. Odeurs, effluves et parfums seront mon terrain de jeu.

Notre Terre respire enfin et reprend des couleurs. Je voudrais crier de joie…

Surprise, jour 191

Ce matin, c’était très silencieux… Je suis entrée discrètement et j’ai vu les garçons, pour une fois, tranquilles et très occupés !

La chambre se remplit peu à peu de gommettes et collages en tous genres. Il est très probable que les murs arrivent à saturation étant donné la longueur de l’attente qui s’annonce…

Surprise, jour 191 bis

Je me suis amusée à semer des surprises dans notre appartement, en utilisant le papier photo, l’imprimante et la pâte à fixe… De cette manière, l’œil tombe sur les doux tableaux et peut s’y perdre un instant.

Non loin du liquide vaisselle, au-dessus de la table de la cuisine, à gauche de la cuisinière, dans la salle de bain…

Je verrai comment réagissent les garçons….

Surprise, jour 191 ter

Avec l’aimable autorisation de Demoiselle MM, « Pinceau et plume se rencontrent » devient public pendant au moins 14 jours.

14 jours avec quotidiennement une peinture et son poème…

Nous espérons ainsi diffuser un peu de baume en ces temps difficiles.

julie unicornEt vous? Est-ce que vous croyez toujours aux surprises? Art par Mariane Mazel.

Peinture de Mariane Mazel
Poème par Julie Safier-Guizard

Première Rencontre

Du jaillissement du pourpre
Je crie vers toi
Je suis bâton de rouge aux lèvres
Je suis fleurs cerises
Aux lobes d’oreilles
Et je crie vers toi
Né de ma pâleur
cousine du violet
C’est pourtant en moi que ce cri
Vibre le plus
Cri pourpre
Violetas.

Une petite chaise d’enfant, un dessin et des pinces à linge. C’est avec ces objets que Julie Safier-Guizard a commencé à fabriquer des histoires, à l’âge de 5 ans. Le dimanche, chargée de son matériel, elle sonnait à la porte des voisins de son immeuble, et s’ils voulaient bien l’inviter, elle accrochait un dessin au dossier de sa chaise et inventait pour eux un conte. Aujourd’hui, si Julie est devenue musicienne de métier, elle n’a jamais cessé d’écrire. Auteur de fragments de vie et de nouvelles pour adultes, Julie fait aussi jouer son imagination pour les enfants : en avril 2017, la maison lunii lui a commandé une série de 18 histoires audio pour les 3-6 ans et elle est en train de terminer l’écriture d’un roman jeunesse.

A small children’s chair, a drawing, and a few clothes-pins. It was with these objects that Julie Safier-Guizard started making up stories, at the age of five. On Sundays, her arms loaded with her props, she’d ring the doors of the neighbors in her Paris apartment building, and if they were up for inviting her in, she’d hang a drawing on the back of her chair and invent a story for them. These days, if Safier-Guizard has become a musician by metier, she’s never stopped writing. The author of fragments of life and short stories for adults, she also makes her imagination play for children: In April 2017, the Paris publisher Lunii asked her to make a series of 18 audio stories for children three to six years old, and she is currently finishing a novel for adolescents.

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.

(Updated 6 p.m. French time)What’s wrong with this picture? In the Heart of Darkness with Marcel Gromaire and the ‘Humanists,’ or, Pour quoi nous ne sommes pas tous Princesse Tam-Tam

gromaire abolitionThe press packet for the exhibition Marcel Gromaire, l’Elegance de la Force, theoretically on view through Sunday at the Piscine in the Northern French city of Roubaix after earlier runs in Sete and Honfleur, describes the massive fresque “L’Abolition de l’esclavage” (above), commissioned by the State in 1949 to commemorate the 1848 abolition of slavery in France and celebrate its primary government instigator, undersecretary of state Victor Schoelcher (at right) and Marianne, the icon of French democracy (at left), as a ‘humanist’ composition. And yet an even cursory study of the picture, whose original measures 40 square meters, suggests a more nuanced interpretation: the Black (naked) savages liberated by the benevolent white bwanas. I’m of course not calling into question either Marianne or Schoelcher themselves, both laudable, voir heroic and justifiably lionized figures, but specifically questioning the hierarchy in Gromaire’s composition, his depiction of the Black personages (more the men than the women, whose curves and bare breasts are typical to Gromaire women of any color, and about which you won’t find this misogynist complaining, in fact it’s part of the allure for me of the painter who up until now has been my favorite) and their supplicating postures, and thus the painting’s qualifications as ‘humanist.’ This over-simplification — and apportioning of the roles of victim and liberator — is not unique to French artists. Abraham Lincoln was also mythologized (including by Black artists) as the savior of Black people, as if the Civil War were fought only for their freedom. More troubling is that in reality, by 1949, 100 years after their liberation on paper, Blacks were far from free from racialist denigration by French writers and artists (as was also the case in the United States, where the consequences were more lethal) . (I prefer the term ‘racialist’ to ‘racist,’ which implies a malevolent intention which isn’t necessarily always there; I myself was — and am — racialist when it comes to my idea of Black men. I don’t know if I’ll ever rectify this in my heart; all I can do is try to correct it in my deeds and writings.) Already, in 1935, a French film director, Edmond T. Greville, could make a movie (also released in the U.S.) starring Josephine Baker, “Princess Tam-Tam,” which, notwithstanding its American star’s enjoying more civil rights in France than she would have in her native country (let alone not risking being shot in her own home, as was a young Black woman in my former home city Fort Worth, Texas, not too long ago), terminates with Baker, portraying a ‘native’ that the ‘cultivated’ white novelist has ultimately been unable to civilize (for much of the movie he appears to have done so, until he wakes up to realize this was just a dream, and not of the Martin Luther King Jr. variety), smiling approvingly as the monkey she’s let into the Tunisian villa the white man’s left her knocks over a shelf of books and a jackass gobbles up a tome called “Civilization.” (Returning home from a pique-nique on the Ile St. Louis in 2019, in the corridor of the City Hall Metro station I spotted a billboard for a line of lingerie — in which only one of the half-dozen scantily clad models was moderately dark-skinned — announcing “Nous sommes tous Princesse Tam-Tam,” “We are all Princess Tam-Tam.” When I later asked an employee of the brand’s boutique — ironically flanking the entrance to the Montmartre space of the Theatre de la Ville, lately known for presenting a number of dance companies from Africa — the origin of the name, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know.”) In 1957 — eight years after Gromaire’s monumental work was unveiled in the l’Assemblée de l’Union française in the château of Versailles — Léo Malet, the father of the Modern French detective novel, could have his hero PI / narrator Nestor Burma observe, in “Micmac Moche au Boul’Mich’,” part of Malet’s “New Mysteries of Paris” series (later made into a popular television show): “They say that Negros diffuse a particular smell….” In 2006, the Paris Opera Ballet could present, in the august Garnier Palace, a ballet by its former director, Serge Lifar, in which white male dancers covered with black make-up portrayed ‘savages’ leaping about like gorillas. These racial stereotypes — and if anything they were and still are as if not more widespread in the United States, and with much more vehemence in certain states, than in France — are not benign. Far from being ‘humanistic,’ they vehicle a dehumanization of the Black man and woman which ultimately leads to events (because they are depicted as less than fully human) like the recent stalking and murder of a Black man in Georgia and Monday’s murder in Minneapolis of a Black man named George Floyd, whose stifled cries of “I can’t breathe” did not convince a white police officer to take his knee off Floyd’s throat, as three other officers allegedly stood by. (I’m NOT saying the 1949 painting lead to the 2020 slaying, but rather that its one-dimensional depiction of Black people is part of a long, ongoing history by Occidental, white artists and writers of reducing people because of their race which makes it easier to not see them as fully human.) Among the tributes at an impromptu memorial to Floyd deposited on a Minneapolis sidewalk was this handwritten sign: “I’m not black but I see you.” The problem with Marcel Gromaire’s “L’Abolition de l’esclavage” — and which makes it more dehumanizing than ‘humanist’ — is that while he sees the white re-enfranchisers, he doesn’t really see the liberated Black men and women as anything but helpless victims completely reliant on their previous enslavors for their liberation, his one-dimensional depictions ultimately denying them their franchise as fully realized human beings. (To those who would defend Malet by saying that his, or at least his hero-narrator’s, views on Blacks are just a reflection of the times — I say ‘are’ because the novel with that description of Blacks was proudly re-published by Robert Laffont in 1985, with no exculpatory note by editor Francis Lacassin — I would answer with Eugene Sue. In Sue’s “Mysteries of Paris,” written a hundred years earlier and whose title inspired Malet, by far the noblest character is an African-American physician from Louisiana, Dr. Paul, who has a crisis of conscience when the hero, his employer, barbarically orders him to pierce the eyes of the saga’s villain as an alternative to sending him to prison. There are none so blind as those who will not see.) The press pack for the Rubaix exhibition also quotes Gromaire, while he was working in his ‘hangar’ on his ‘great machine,’ as confessing, “I’ll be happy… […] [to] find out if I succeed in revitalizing painting by official commission; let Delacroix protect me!” The invocation is unfortunate; despite the reputation he has for inspiring the original sin of Orientalism, the sketches Delacroix made when he accompanied an official French diplomatic delegation to North Africa in the 1830s were much more respectful than Gromaire’s results here, unafflicted by any Romanticism — negative or positive. What ultimately bothers me in the hierarchy of Gromaire’s composition — and prompts me to dispute the painting’s claim to a great ‘humanism’ — is his perspective: “L’Abolition de l’esclavage” doesn’t so much fete that milestone as canonize the cagers for simply deciding to open up the cage and free those who should never have been enchained in the first place, in the process freeing themselves. Painting credits: Marcel Gromaire, “L’Abolition de l’esclavage (detail),” 1950. Oil on canvas pasted on wood. Commissioned by the State; deposited at the Centre national des arts plastiques in 1991. Photo: A. Loubry – © ADAGP, Paris 2020. George Floyd tribute seen on the website of The Progressive. — Paul Ben-Itzak

PS: Speaking of Delacroix: To make sure it’s absolutely clear that the target of my criticism in the Gromaire painting is not Marianne, but rather the relative importance of the roles the painter assigns to her and to the Black personages in their liberation, I’ve decided to also share a reproduction of Eugene Delacroix’s 1831 painting “Liberty Guiding the People.” Note that here the Marianne-like figure isn’t *liberating* the people, but rather *leading* them; they are active players in their own liberation from oppression.

Le 28 juillet 1830 : la Liberté guidant le peupleEugene Delacroix, “Liberty Guiding the People,” 1831. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Louvre, Paris.

Protected: Le Feuilleton (the Serial): (English translation followed by V.O. française) Exclusive! “Trompe-l’Oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of artists, dealers, critics, & anti-Semitism in Post-War Paris, Part 14: Anti-Semitism rears its concrete head in the Abstract art World (Subscriber-only content; to learn how to subscribe, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com.)

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

From Dali, the Persistence of Memory

dali persistence of memoryFrom the collections of the Museum of Modern Art: Salvador Dali, “The Persistence of Memory,” 1931. Oil on canvas, 9 1/2 x 13″ (24.1 x 33 cm). Given anonymously. © 2004 Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photographed by Jonathan Muzikar.

Protected: Le Feuilleton (the Serial): (English translation followed by V.O. française) Exclusive! “Trompe-l’Oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of artists, dealers, critics, & anti-Semitism in Post-War Paris, Part 13: The Empire Strikes back against Abstract art (Subscriber-only content; to learn how to subscribe, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com.)

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below: