The DI, Year One: The Choreographer Suicides — Ranjabati Sircar and the toll of probing the dark spaces within

“Have I missed the mark, or, like a true archer, do I strike my quarry? Or am I prophet of lies, a babbler from door to door?”

— Cassandra, from “Agamemnon,” by Aeshylus

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

Today’s re-publication of this article, which first appeared on July 8, 2000 and which also considers the work of Sean Curran, Mark Dendy, and Roger Sinha, is sponsored by Freespace Dance. For nearly 20 years, these are the kinds of stories the Dance Insider has been covering. If you value this kind of unique coverage, please support the DI today by becoming a subscriber for just $29.95/year. Your sub gets you access to more than 2,000 Flash Reviews of 20 years of performances on five continents by 150+ writers, plus five years of the Jill Johnston Letter, syndicated exclusively on the DI. You can subscribe or donate through PayPal by designating your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address if you prefer to pay by check.

NEW YORK — Every choreographer I have known is, to some degree or another, manic depressive. Clairvoyant in his or her highs, doomed in the lows. Sean Curran seems, on the surface at least, more manic than depressive. Roger Sinha, both in the choreographic text of his “Burning Skin” and in his performance of it, is more obviously darkly manic. But I am thinking of this, to tell you the truth, not so much because of the performances of these two choreographers and their companies last night at Central Park SummerStage, but because of the news I heard, belatedly, just before the concert — and which struck me like a blow to the solar plexus, taking the life out of me — of the death by suicide, at age 36, of Ranjabati Sircar.

I met Ranja in 1995, when I had just started working at Dance Magazine and was something of a neophyte to dance in general, let alone dance from the sub-continent, let alone the distinctions between the various genres of that dance, let alone choreographer-teacher-dancers, like Ranja, who melded classical forms to contemporary ideas, not always to a warm popular reception among audiences or choreographers of an older generation. On top of this burden, Ranja had familial expectations, her mother Manjushree Chaki Sircar being a well-known choreographer and teacher in Madras.

“Is it all right to smoke?” asked the tightly wound, striking young woman who entered my compact office that Fall day. “No,” said I, and for the next hour, while Ranja was forthcoming in discussing her work and Indian dance and hybrid classical-modern dance, she fidgeted and remained tightly wound. Still, we hit it off, and, after some hesitation at its appropriateness, I called her a day later an asked her to a Maria Benitez concert that night. “I would love to go!” Ranja said.

It was a moving concert: Benitez’s conception of the de Falla/Sierra 1915 flamenco ballet classic “El Amor Brujo,” about an older woman driven mad by love and her own demons, followed by a tablao-style second half. We were transported, in fact, to a tablao, notwithstanding that the performance was actually happening in Chelsea at the Joyce Theater. Ranja was positively glowing afterwards; I could feel that she wanted to dance Flamenco right then and there, and indeed she explained to me some of the linkages between that form and certain classical Indian dance forms.

To prolong our virtual visit to Andalucia, we decided to repair to “El Cid,” for tapas and sangria. Something about the Flamenco left us both less tightly wound, we spoke not just as choreographer and journalist but as man and woman. The sangria loosened things further and by the time I walked Ranja to the 14th Street subway stop, we had that automatic, slightly giddy, elbow-knocking intimacy that, in the right circumstances, even strangers can sometimes find when the planets are aligned.

We met up again a couple of days later for San Francisco Ballet at City Center — it was either Val Caniparoli’s African-ballet hybrid, “Lambarena,” or David Bintley’s AIDS fantasia, “The Dance House” — and I can still see Ranja, emerging from the crowd: intent look, oval face, olive complexion, intent eyes finding me right away across the crowded sidewalk.

This time we repaired to Baryshnikov’s Russian Samovar for horseradish-flavored vodka. More significantly, from a culinary perspective, Ranja shared her curry recipe with me. She could never eat at Indian restaurants in the U.S., she said, because the food was too bland, so she carried with her a curry kit packed with the various spices that go into the national dish. Having previously only used a generic Spice Islands “curry powder,” I asked her what the ingredients were: cumin, turmeric, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, mustard seed OR onion seed, cloves, and fenugreek. (The fenugreek is tricky; put it in last or it dominates the whole.) I still make Curry a la Ranja Sircar to this day.

Afterwards, sensing the imminent end of this visit and Ranja’s return to India, I invited her over for tea. We spoke about everything — life, relationships — and oh, I am trying so hard right now to remember the specifics. About visualization, I think, and astrology. If I close my eyes I can see her face in front of me…. I think we spoke of gurus… and of something magic and inchoate… and she told me about Cassandra. There’s a word in Urdu — which I know is the Pakistani and not the Indian language, but still I think it applies here — “Janoon,” which, I’m told, means obsession. Ranja’s Janoon was Cassandra, about whom she’d written and choreographed a piece, because of what Cassandra says about the position of women in society.

Given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, this daughter of the King of Troy was then deprived by Apollo of the power to make people believe her prophecies, after she refused to sleep with him. Thus, when she accurately warned the Trojans about the Trojan Horse, no one believed her warning that an armed force was hidden in the horse, and Troy was sacked, and Cassandra raped. When Troy was captured, Agamemnon took Cassandra as his prize; both were ultimately murdered by his wife, Clytaemnestra, and her lover Aegisthus. This too Cassandra predicted: “… for me waits destruction by the two-edged sword.” [Cassandra. Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1149] In many realms, Cassandra was and is looked at as “mad,” driven so by her visions.

Ranja invited me to see her “Cassandra” that week at the studio of Mary Anthony, so dear to one of my dance mentors, the late Joseph H. Mazo. From what I can recall, it was a dance of vulnerability and pain, but seemed at its beginnings, Ranja not yet able to externalize a story that obviously resonated so deeply with her.

Ranja and I lost touch until 1998, when I asked her to write a preview about the pioneering Indian choreographer Chandrelekha. Ranja made clear that there was a fission between her and the older choreographer, but that she recognized her importance on the Indian scene. When the article came in, I perpetrated what I now see as an irrevocable minor cruelty; there was no interview with the story, so I declined to use it, or to pay Ranja. This upset her, and we lost touch again. Today I grieve not only Ranja, but that I will never be able to make this right, to compensate for a minor cruelty with a later kindness. And I wonder if this was just one of a series of “small” cruelties that added up, in Ranja’s mind, to only one solution and antidote.

It’s hard to fathom suicide, and I almost don’t want to go to the dark and hopeless place Ranja found herself in on October 23, 1999, when, as police believe, she hanged herself from the ceiling fan in the flat of a family friend in Borivili. According to a report in India Today, just two days before her death, Ranja e-mailed a friend: “I am battling the dark spaces within myself.”

The same report in India Today makes all sorts of conjectures about what drove Ranja as an artist, and what in society and in her own family life — particularly her complicated relationship with her mother — might have driven her to kill herself.

Here, I can only offer the observation of someone who once observed Ranja close-up, in what seems now like a lifetime, indeed a different life ago: Alternately driven and insecure, confident and unsteady. Beautiful and yet perhaps burdened by that beauty. Heir to a pedagogic legacy, and yet burdened by that as well.

In what now seem our all-too-brief but nonetheless intense conversations of five years ago, it seems Ranja and I only started to ask the important questions…. Okay, now it comes back, one thing we talked about, both of us, was how we were trying to live healthier lifestyles; she in particular to give up smoking…. It seems Ranja hit a black impenetrable wall in her own searching and maybe… maybe, for as I write this I am still too stunned, numbed really, from the news of her suicide to barely begin processing what it means… but it seems that even if Ranja was not able to find the insight that would save her from her own hands, she offers one insight, I think, to choreographers — not just artists, but choreographers specifically.

Roger Sinha’s piece, “Burned Skin,” had to do with insecurity about identity — no, with self-hate of one’s racial identity, based on an apocryphal tale of an Indian boy who jumps into a vat of boiling water because he’s heard it will turn his skin white. Alternating with scenes of Pascale Leonard’s serenely brewing chai, the dance that ensues is nonetheless manic, as Sinha tries on all sorts of racial archetypes, from a swaggering, chick-chasing Dean Martin in shirt and tie to a kilted Scotsman. It’s a comic romp, but performed with a mania that suggests the character is not so much whimsically playing with other identities, trying on other masks, as running from his own.

Sean Curran presents a similar contradiction. His Chaplinesque stage persona never really completely hides — and perhaps this is why it resonates! — some sort of tragic, invisible burden. He’s ultimately a sad clown. In “Folk Dance for the Future,” when he gives up and then hangs his head after suggesting he might follow Amy Brous’s pivot-less somersault, it’s funny, but it’s painful too. Curran’s kinetic skill and particularly his gift for inventing new dance geometries is apparent in “Abstract Concrete,” premiered last night, and it’s an enjoyable diversion, expertly danced by a group of performers who are clearly getting inside Curran’s choreographic vision… but it has nowhere near the emotional resonance of his recent “Six Laments.” This dance — and particularly Curran’s own performance, as he gets up, stumbles, and gets up again, repeatedly, always looking over his shoulder, it’s surmised at a departed friend, as if he is being reminded every time he stumbles that the friend is no longer there — is anything but a facile tragedy with cheap plays to the emotion; it’s obviously based on real experience.

I’m thinking also of Mark Dendy. As hysterically funny as “Dream Analysis” was — this 1998 hit conjures Nijinsky, Martha Graham, and Judy Garland among others — it is ultimately a psycho-familial journey that also drove Dendy nearly to hysteria. During the creation, he told me when I interviewed him for the New York Times, he was haunted in his nightmares by an aunt who he also conjured in this dance, the idea being that she couldn’t believe he was going to bare her story in his dance.

Since “Dream Analysis,” interestingly, Dendy has followed an easier route, a pure dancey direction. In one sense I want to scold him for this — Why is he relying on his natural musicality for easy successes, when he can go so much deeper? — but after the death of Ranja, I can see the danger inherent in mining those deep waters.

Here’s what all this is leading up to, at least as close to coherence as I am able to express it this morning. Recently I have been discussing with another choreographer-dancer-teacher from the sub-continent how dance is not looked at seriously by society in general as a career. You’ve probably all heard this after you tell someone you’re a dancer: “Okay, but what’s your real job?”

The suicide of Ranja Sircar — and to a less obvious extent, the work of the artists I saw last night — gives me this epiphany: Dancing, and particularly choreographing, is not only not “not a real job.” It is an expedition no less fraught with peril than the most snake-ridden excavations of Indian Jones. Not all of these prophetic men and women, thank G*d, find their visions so ultimately and unremittingly black and hopeless that they are moved to take their own lives. But I have no doubt that the small deaths are real, and the stakes high.

Notes (from original article): Ranja’s mother passed away this spring. Thanks to Anita Ratnam for her insight.

Hot off the boards….

josephine barbican 3Aki Tsujita in Darren Johnston’s “Zero Point.” Foteini Christofilopoulou photograph courtesy the Barbican.

LONDON — The muffled, thudding beat of Tim Hecker’s ambient sound score reverberates through our bodies — it’s like the noise you might hear waiting outside a cool nightclub. The dazzling bank of lights rotates towards the audience, blinding us before diminishing and plunging both stage and auditorium into darkness. Smoke fills the stage and laser lights shine down on it from above to create giant cones of mist. This is the hypnotically dramatic opening to Darren Johnston’s “Zero Point,” seen at the Barbican on May 26. A male dancer emerges from the claustrophobic gloom upstage and walks meditatively into one of the cones, fluidly progressing through a series of sculptural poses, working within the confines of the translucent edges. He leaves as two women emerge and take up position in the other two cones. In slow motion they sink to the ground then rise up again, turning, then repeat these motions, their mouths gaping open like gargoyles from an ancient civilization. Their physical language mixes Butoh, contemporary and Eastern ritualistic dance. It’s strong and grounded.

British choreographer and visual artist Johnston works with perception-altering visual and aural effects in “Zero Point,” which takes its name from Quantum Physics’s notion of ‘trapped’ space. Video projections, motion sensing digital technology, and trancey music transform the stage into another galaxy while lighting effects unzip the darkened stage into geometric sections for the dancers to perform in. Even time seems to be momentarily suspended.

“Zero Point” is a work that has been inspired by Johnston’s residency at the Museum of Art in Kochi, Japan. His cast of nine Japanese dancers who collectively draw from a range of disciplines including ballet, contemporary, Butoh, and Qigong are alumni of Tokyo’s New National Ballet, Sankai Juku, Netherlands Dance Theatre, and the Forsythe Company. The mixture of styles is performed with a contemplative quality and presence that is inspired by Buddhism and sacred Japanese ceremonial spaces. Movement flows in repeated cycles, with frozen poses pausing the tempo and the performers embodying a theatrical neutrality and modesty. Energy is contained and protracted through their bodies. There’s a welcome stillness and an aura of calm about them but also a lack of humanity. Sitting in the auditorium, I feel distanced from the performers and yearn for a fuller immersive experience.

Loose narratives of re-birth are played out through duets between Yatsutake Shimaji and ballerina Hana Sakai. He carries her onstage then makes her come to life, his hands hovering over her body, commanding her actions as if she’s his puppet. She ascends from the floor and extends to her full height on pointe, before gliding towards him as if under his spell. In their partnering Sakai and Shimaji create imaginative tableaux, but the use of balletic lines, while visually striking in the fractured light, lacks the earthy connection that is seen in the shapes of the contemporary and Butoh dancers. The demanding, ambitious Western associations of ballet jar awkwardly with the selfless Eastern spiritualism of the work as a whole. This balletic duet is also annoyingly patriarchal and while the other women move as equals to the men, with their freer expressions, Sakai does not, restrained by both her partner and her discipline.

While “Zero Point” is a reflective and inventive work which can easily seduce, choreographic ideas feel somewhat undercooked.

Museum dance from a Gauguin muse

gauguin chicago smallAmong the work on view for the exhibition Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist, opening June 25 at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it continues through September 10, is (above) the artist’s oil painting “Te nave nave fenua” (Delightful Land), circa 1892. Musée de Grenoble, bequest of Agutte-Sembat, 1923. Copyright Musée de Grenoble and courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago.

Word up!: Macron names renowned publisher new French culture minister

PARIS — From a minister of culture during the precedent administration who famously admitted that she didn’t have time to read books, newly inaugurated president Emmanuel Macron and his freshly-minted prime minister Edouard Philippe, both famous readers and promoters of literature, today took a major step in recuperating the image of a portfolio for years honored by Andre Malraux by naming as the country’s minister of culture and communications Françoise Nyssen, long-time director of Arles-based Actes Sud, one of the crème de la crème of French publishers. Together with Macron’s campaign promise to increase library hours at night and on the week-ends, and Philippe’s record as mayor of Havre in sending bookmobiles around the coastal city, the appointment of Nyssen, who also founded a school focused on listening to the child after the suicide of one of her own children, augurs well.

Europe at the Crossroads: Choreographers & Artists Converge on Paris — help the DI be there

For subscription and sponsorship opportunities starting at $30, contact Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com.

Berlin’s Constanza Macras, Portugal’s Vera Mantero, Belgium’s Alain Platel, Spain’s Israel Galvan, Crystal Pite — these are just a few of the choreographic giants coming to Paris this Spring that the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager will be able to cover with your support.

Many of you first read about these internationally renowned choreographers for the first time on the DI and, continuing our 20-year mission of bringing you stories not told elsewhere and giving a voice to dancers, we’ll also be reporting on Giulio D’Anna, a Netherlands-based Italian choreographer whose “OOOOOOO” is inspired by Zagreb’s “Museum of Broken Relationships,” and Jasna Vinovrski’s “Lady Justice,” addressing the relationship between justice and art. Speaking of art, we’d also like to bring you Yasmina Reza’s “Art” as interpreted at the Theatre de la Bastille by the pioneering Belgium theater company STAN — co-founded by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s sister. And of intersections between art and society, this year’s Chantiers (Building Projects) d’Europe festival at the Theatre de la Ville features countries in the front lines of the refugee crisis, notably in six short films from Greece addressing this topic and a public brainstorming session with artists from six countries. And we’ll bring you into the studios of the 200+ artists taking part in the Open Studios of Belleville — a neighborhood which in its very MULTI-CULTURAL contours and dimensions provides the best retort to the cloistered vision of French culture represented by the National Front. (We share the FN’s stated pride in traditional French culture; we simply argue that this definition is too limited and does not do justice to the grandeur and ouverture to the world that has always been French culture.)

To be there, in addition to the support of our current subscribers and sponsors, whom we thank infinitely, we need bring in at least $1500 from new subscribers and sponsors. This will be used to help cover housing and transportation. (An American colleague in Paris has offered us a special price on lodging.)

Already a subscriber or sponsor? Please forward this article. Want to become one? Contact us at paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Subscribers receive full access to our 20-year archive of more than 2,000 reviews by 150 leading dancer-critics of performances on five continents, plus five years of the Jill Johnston Letter as well as Arts Voyager art galleries, film reviews, and travelogues from Paris, New York, and across the U.S.. Sponsors receive this plus advertising on The Dance Insider, and/or the Arts Voyager.

(If we do not raise enough to return to Paris this Spring / Summer, all new donors, subscribers, and sponsors will be given the option of recuperating their pledge or having it applied to current and/or future coverage, including our ongoing project to put the entire DI 20-year archive online.)

On a personal-professional level, your support will also help me make my own career transition as a French-to-English translator, making it possible for me to participate in a translators’ festival taking place in Paris this June, essential for my being able to continue to pursue 40 years of building bridges between nations in a new form. And to access essential health-care (‘access’ because the costs for this will be paid for by myself with help from my family).

France, too, is at the crossroads. On May 7 — my 56th birthday — the country will choose between the fear represented by the National Front and the hope and optimism represented by Emmanuel Macron. Between closure and opening. In the campaign between these two ‘cultures’ that has raged in this country for the past two years, CULTURE has been all but forgotten. (Among Macron’s refreshing ideas: More library hours.) With your help, we will be able to do our part in restoring some light to what has always been France’s principal calling card around the world. Our calling for more than 20 years.

Many thanks and
Cheers,

Paul
paulbenitzak@gmail.com

Open Door Policy: Taking it to the streets in Belleville, Menilmon’, & along the banks of the Seine and the Ourcq

Belleville CatherineReturn to Innocence: If you want to look for where art is being made in Paris today, don’t look in the hills of Montmartre but the heights of Belleville. And if you want to peek inside the artists’ studios and chat with the creators, check the Portes Ouvertes of the Artists of Belleville, coming up next month May 19 – 22 and featuring the work of, among others, Catherine Olivier (above). Art courtesy and copyright Catherine Olivier.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Want coverage of this May’s Portes Ouvertes de Belleville and a myriad of dance, theater, and visual artists from around the world coming to Paris this Spring & Summer? The Dance Insider & Arts Voyager need your support to make it happen. To subscribe for just $29.95(or Euros) per year and access our Archive of 2000 reviews by 150 writers of performances and exhibitions on five continents over the past 20 years, or make a donation, just designate your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn about payment by check. Already a subscriber or sponsor? Thank you and… please spread the news. This reverie on the Open Studios of Belleville, a variety of dance performances real and pretended, and a tapestry of street art of all colors and characters was first published on May 31, 2010.)

PARIS — If the past couple of weeks have taught me anything, it’s that, as has often been the case here and in any major metropolis, art is being advanced not by the established venues and gatekeepers, but in the ateliers, the squats, the docks, the banks of the Seine, even the eccentric personalities of individual Parisians who, often against great odds, infuse the city with its colors and invest it with their dynamism, trying to satiate its denizens’ thirst for the relief and elevation art can provide with, if not a joie de vivre — it’s too much of a struggle to find the means these days to expect that — at least a joie to engage, be it with the elusive muse or the resilient thread that connects a contemporary artistic scene in flux with the phantoms of the past, themselves often barred by the gatekeepers of their time. So if I was disappointed by a lackluster season-announcing press conference by the Theatre de la Ville in which its director, Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, was averse to taking questions from the press (and no wonder: the 2010-11 dance season offers little surprises), I was inspired and invigorated by a photo on the wall of a Lilliputian atelier on the outskirts of Belleville capturing a darkened forest fleeting by outside a train window and the enchanting smile of its simply dressed proud author, Agata Rybarczyk — “It was taken in Poland! I’m Polish!” — who also invited visitors to create their own art out of small cubes.

My descent — or ascent — began last Wednesday with Christian Rizzo’s “L’Oubli, toucher du bois” (The Forgotten, knock wood), theoretically a dance piece, and in which I didn’t see enough either to forget or remark, having been chased out before the artist-spectator contract could be consummated by the bright flood lights the brilliant lighting designer, Caty Olive, assaulted the audience with, directing them straight at the public. I’m not paid to suffer (and when it comes to bright lights, migraines don’t grant artistic license), so I fled, making my way along the Quay towards the Ile St. Louis, arrested en route by a bouquiniste pal, Fabrice, who right away thrust a plastic cup of Kentucky bourbon into my mitts. “It’s not actually mine to give, it belongs to Daniel, who’s descended to the river to retrieve one of my vintage newspapers which flew away,” explained the chronically frenetic Fabrice, even more jittery than usual that night under the Chinese lantern hat shielding him from the Sun. “So that’s why I’m not giving you that much.” When Daniel returned, baked red from the Sun and, I surmised — from a visage as weathered as Balzac’s “Peau de Chagrin” – living outdoors, and looked from Fabrice to the bottle to me, it dawned on me that he had probably already drunk directly from the container. When Fabrice asked me to remind him what I did for a living, I made the mistake of telling him I worked on the Internet. “That’s a CIA – Defense department plot, you know. So you must work for the CIA. In fact that’s why you have bad teeth: It’s a cover.” I have known Fabrice for a while and am accustomed to his delires, so I decided to go with the scenario. “Yes, in fact, if you don’t mind, I need to just check the bug I put in your flower-pot to make sure it’s working.” Then his cell phone vibrated. “A Chinese guy gave it to me!” he said of the phone. “I know,” I said. “We actually gave it to the Chinese guy to give to you so we’d know where you were at all times.” At this point he laughed. “Pass by my stand again when you like!” he said before dashing across the street to the Metro, leaving Daniel to guard the newspapers and the bottle.

I still had some time before the after-performance buffet at the theater (hazard pay for the blaring lights, even if they’d ejaculated me prematurely), so I headed towards the Pont Neuf, where I discovered another government-subsidized lighting monstrosity. (To indigenous culturati readers who may be tempted to interject at this point, “If you loathe what we fund so much, why do you stay?” I respond: By objecting to your new-fangled projects, I’m postulating for admission to a longstanding pantheon of cultural curmudgeons. Never mind that they also despised one of my own chou-chous, the Eiffel Tower.) On an official commission from the ministry of culture and communication, a contemporary artist has framed the statue of Henry IV on a horse with purple neon tubing, even adding a neon sword to his sword-sheathe, thus diminishing the statue and blighting the bridge and the views of it from either side. Sometimes I think that the current cultural gate-keepers of Paris and France don’t appreciate, or at least under-value, their own heritage. This impression was recently bolstered by the theft of five paintings — by Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Leger, and Braque — from the Modern Art Museum of Paris earlier this month, the thief entering through a window the alarm on which had been out of commission for two months. Security officers had signaled the malfunction to the higher-ups but nothing had been done about it. So the thief was apparently able to take his time before neatly severing the tableaux from their frames.

All this as a prelude to explain why on Friday, on a quest for art created by a less official tribe, I took visitors from San Francisco around Belleville for the annual four-day Open Studios of Belleville, as much an opportunity to see art as encounter its creators and discover the milieus in which they live and work. We started with the plateau on top of the parc Belleville and its panoramic view, which includes my favorite perspective on the Eiffel. Then up to and down the winding rue Cascades, so dubbed because (way) back in the day water from cisterns (two examples of which have been preserved) controlled by the local abbey flowed down it to the faubourgs around the Place de la Republique. We all loved the atelier of Estelle Babut-Gay — me for the terrace with its view of trees and Paris rooftops, David for the sculptures crafted from Atlantic coast driftwood, Jennifer for the rings made from buttons. (She finally decided on two.) I was enchanted (literally) by the gauzy, ephemeral pyro-gravures of Catherine Olivier, crammed into her atelier above a corner café. But most of the allure came from the street itself: the patch of late-afternoon sunlight illuminating the catty-corner below Olivier’s studio and the cafe tables around it, the spectacular view of a panoply of rooftops of varying heights and the skyline below, the serpentine street, conjuring a Belleville which has haunted me since repeated childhood viewings of “The Red Balloon.”  (As Jerry tells Peter in Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story,” sometimes you have to take the long way around to come back home.)

The rue Cascades spit us out (to cop a phrase from Léo Malet) onto the rue Menilmontant, immortalized by Charles Trenet. I wanted to check the status of la Miroiterie, the artists’ squat that takes up an entire alley at 88 Menilmontant across the street from Cascades, mostly to see if it was still there, as so many artists’ squats have been shut down lately by officials of the Socialist city government. The atmosphere was subdued. A few artist-residents were cooking up spicy merguez sausages to sell for 3 Euros apiece and offering beer for 2, but none of the ateliers were open, except for a graffiti’d space where a DJ played very loud reggae. I picked up a flyer, “Le Pari (s) de la Creation,” which explained: “Following so many other popular and prolific artists’ squats, la Miroiterie has to quit the Paris scene, whereas the large institutions of contemporary art continue to turn emptily to grand indifference on the part of Parisians.” (In the nearby 19th arrondissement, the highly touted city-funded Centre 104 has done just that for the past two years.) “What do we want? To revindicate a place for artists in a Paris that continues to sigh in the soft pillow of consensus and the principles of precaution…. We request (simply) a form of tolerance, to exist in the interstices of the city, to occupy temporarily its niches, to live at the most intimate proximity in the neighborhoods, without being attacked and taken to court.” Other cities in France and elsewhere have conferred space to artists’ collectives, but, the manifesto asked, “What has Paris done? The capital of art and culture, has it become so timorous that it doesn’t want to loan orphaned spaces to artists in need of space?”

…. On Saturday, I actually had a review assignment, “The man without a past,” a mime spectacle showing at a recreation center in the 19th arrondissement, on the other side of the Ourcq canal from outer-outer Belleville. As this same arr. takes part in the Open Studios, I thought I would make my way from the rue Menilmontant over to Belleville, past the man-made parc Butte Chaumont with its precipitous waterfalls, over the Basin la Villette to the Metro Crimee and the Mathis animation center, discovering some more studios along the way. That was the plan, anyway.

From the studio promenade, besides Rybarczyk’s showing, which also included inviting visitors into a sort of curtained box, one at a time, to view a life-sized, disheveled naked woman getting out of an unmade bed, I was impressed most by  tableaux which mixed 1930s magazine clips and grey-blue paint, in collages by Sylviane Balustre-d’Erneville, as well as several of her photos, including of a market and a backyard in Egypt. Hers was also the most elegant of showings, with cool jazz and Gainsbourg and champagne on offer.

At the basin, near a grounded destroyer converted into a children’s play structure, I collided with a massive design expo, featuring space-age furniture from the ’50s through ’60s. From this retro outpost one could hear techno music pounding from across the basin. This eventually devolved to canned can-can music, accompanying a live performance by four women and one man who made up the Troupe of Mademoiselle Clairette. It only took me ten years, but I had finally stumbled upon can-can being performed live in Paris. The performance stage as well as the audience area was a floating platform moored in the basin, so that the performers were actually dancing — and performing splits and other calisthenics — on an unstable unprotected wooden floor while being battered by the wind blowing from all directions, with  no Marley in sight. I came away with a real sense of the ribaldry with which can-can must have been performed back in the day, as well as the athletic strength required of the dancers. And ouch!, those splits on that hard-wood floor!

I had some time before the mime show started, so I plopped down on a concrete bank of the basin near the rear of an old-school schooner and opened a can of stuffed grape leaves, which I downed with hot spiced tea from a vintage red-checkered thermos I’d scored at a vide grenier (like a neighborhood-wide garage sale; vide = empty and grenier = attic) for 1.50 Euros. This turned out to be not one of my most brilliant inspirations of the week-end, as the food no doubt contributed to the most sorry part of my day, when I fell asleep as soon as the show which was the one thing I actually had to do that day started. I drifted in and out during the one-hour performance, by the Theatre de l’Epopee’s Hadrien Trigance, which concerned a man who wakes up every morning with no memory of what he did the previous day or the last 30 years. At night, though, he dreams of a woman dressed in purple satin, evoked onstage by a purple satin sheet, before he wakes up wrapped in a white sheet. At one point his memory is jolted and he replays a dinner table scene from his childhood, his parents (heard off-stage in recorded voices) talking while he plays with his food. Trigance’s innocent air and alternately grave and playful aspect as he sat on a high-chair reminded me of Chaplin. I drifted off again, only to wake up in time to see him form a noose with the satin sheet; perhaps the woman of the past now haunting his dreams had hung herself, which is why he had blotted out all memory. The spectacle ends with the hero bedding down with the purple sheet, choosing retaining a tragic past over waking up with a blank sheet ever morning.

Afterwards, when Trigance’s manager asked me what I thought of the piece’s evolution since a 20-minute version I’d caught two years ago at the Mimos international mime festival in Perigueux, I hedged: “It’s…developed.” Later, when Trigance came out, I came up with something (I thought) better, “You remind me of Chaplin.” “Oh,” said the mime, hanging his head. “It’s a compliment, really!”

On Sunday, after a day of recovery resting my tired dogs, I arranged to meet David and Jennifer at Niki de Saint Phalle’s Stravinsky fountain next to the Pompidou museum. I had them take a picture of me next to the big-breasted mermaid which (who?) is just one of the fanciful objects spouting water from the fountain, right out of her plexi-glass nipples. Then my friends stopped to photograph a large chalk pavement drawing featuring the Eiffel, then the artist who’d created it, then his dog; the real-life model was yelping from protective covering in an open suit-case, no doubt complaining about the late May drizzle and wind. The artist had scrawled at the base of the work that he needed money to live. My friends dropped some coins into the hat. Then we scrambled through Les Halles to the rue Montorgueil, in search of a high-class pizza joint. “What church is that?” Jennifer asked as we came to Saint Eustache. “That’s the church where a children’s choir director named Gounod told a ragamuffin named Renoir that it was ‘dommage’ that he had chosen painting over music, because he had such an angelic voice.” Then up Montorgueil, regretting the Starbuck’s sign which now, like a portal, marks its entrance on the uptown side of this street made famous by Monet (“Rue Montorgueil on the 14th of July”), and the rue Reaumur, where Jennifer gave a lesson in the art of grabbing a taxi to a poor young French man trying to protect his head from the rain with a newspaper. As the man waved tentatively at the faraway driver, Jennifer simply marched up the block ahead of him. David, who had studied at the Sorbonne in the ‘60s, started talking about being in the now. “This moment, for instance,” he suggested, looking down what to me is one of the most non-descript, boring streets in Paris, degraded to downright depressing when the gray sky is dribbling drizzle. “I love this moment, this place, right here, right now.” Later, when we finally found the pizza place — in the interim there was a taxi driver who joked that he thought he spotted Che Guevara in his mirror (me, in my beret with the Captain Haddock button) – by way of furnishing another example of temporal bliss David pulled out the photo, on his cell phone, of the salade Nicoise he’d had at our first RDV for this visit, when I took him and Jennifer to an unremarkable neighborhood café on the place Edith Piaf. (‘Took’ being relative; they treated.) I’d retained from this lunch that there were none of the advertised anchovies in the salad and that the charming server who typically greets me with, “How’s he doing, the American?” had not mentioned he was out of them, didn’t think the absence of anchovies in a salade Nicoise was worth an avertissement, and charged us the same, quand meme. On Friday, before a hefty steak dinner at the Relais of the Entrecote on the place Saint-Germain-des-Près (most American writers in Paris would have slipped this reference in 20 paragraphs earlier, and I’m not even going to attempt to capture the ambiance in the nearby lobby of that expatriate Valhalla the Hotel Montana or correctly spell Germanopretan), David and Jennifer had taken me to Bob Cool, where it was Western theme night, Johnny Cash was in the house, and I had to resist the temptation to explain that you don’t leave the ice cubes in the Cosmos. Johnny, Edith, David — they find the serendipitous and the art in the tragic, the hard times, the mundane. Me, I wonder whether I can manage to pull it off, even in the City of Light which has compelled my artist’s soul like a moth since I first opened the pages of Ludwig Bemelmans’s “Madeline” and saw “Pascal” lifted over the streets of Belleville by a barque of balloons — to lift the clouds of blackness that obscure my view so much these days, to live up to a credo scrawled in my high-school year-book by an Italian friend, Sonia, who I lost in a dispute then found 20 years later: “Never stop looking for beauty, never.” Until then, I’m off to the Piaf. Hold the anchovies in that noisette, Isham.

(Some updates, 4-20-2017: La Miroiterie was eventually closed down by city authorities, who claimed that a wall bordering the alley threatened to tumble. A law that would have galleries pay artists for the privilege of exhibiting them has been proposed. Benoit Hamon, the Socialist candidate for president in the election whose first round is April 23, has proposed a regime for visual artists which would resemble the unemployment convention for which freelance performance artists and technicians are currently eligible. Except for Hamon and that when it’s preceded by ‘multi-’ it’s become a Right-wing epithet, culture has been conspicuous by its absence in the presidential campaign, a lapse in attention I’d ascribe more to the Media than the candidates. All the more reason for the artists of Belleville to once again take it to the streets, May 19 – 22. )

 

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