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

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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

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

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

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

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From International Palace of Human Rights to Palace of the Danse/Dance

25 - cadre-1

Seventy years ago today representatives of 50 nations, lead by the American Eleonor Roosevelt, convened in Paris’s Chaillot Palace to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If Chaillot, which soon after hosted Jean Vilar’s Théâtre National Populaire, has since become the country’s only National Dance Theater and the principles it launched on December 10, 1948 honored as much in the breach as in the act — and the United States recently withdrew from the Human Rights Council — the location still celebrates universal principles, both in the citations that ring out from the parvis of the Trockadero Palace (commissioned from Paul Valery) and on its stage. Or, as regular guest Angelin Preljocaj recently explained, “Dance allows me to learn about the world.” Above, from the recent Bibliotheque National Francaise exhibition Chaillot, une mémoire de la danse: Festival populaire de ballets, Poster for the Théâtre National Populaire by Marcel Jacno, illustrated with a drawing by Yves Saint Laurent (1936-2008), décembre 1962 – janvier 1963. Courtesy BnF – Arts du spectacle.

D.O.A.: Le Riche Kills “Carmen,” Sucks the Life out of “The Young Man and Death”

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005, 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

PARIS — April 1946: “One Spring evening, I went to the rue Monpensier to knock on the door of Jean Cocteau to, once again, ask for his help,” Roland Petit recalls in “I have Danced on the Waves.” (Editions Grasset, 1993; cited in the Paris Opera Ballet program.) With Boris Kochno, Petit, just 22 — he would go on to become France’s greatest choreographer of the second half of the 20th century, rivalled only by Maurice Bejart — was preparing for the second season of the Ballets des Champs-Elysees. The two didn’t want to lose any momentum after a sensational debut season. Who better to conjure up a new scenario for their grand dancer, Jean Babilee, than their “grand magician friend”? Cocteau had just emerged from his bath. Covered in towels except for his face and hands, he proceeded to improvise “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort,” dancing the story with his hands. On June 25, 1946 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, swathed in Karinska’s simple costumes and amidst Georges Wakhevitch’s simultaneously stark and marvelous sets, to music by Bach chosen at the last instant — they had rehearsed to jazz records and later accented piano rhythms* — Babilee and his equally young wife, Nathalie Philippart, took the stage in the title roles of what would become the first important French ballet of the post-war era…..

(To receive the complete article — which considers the above ballet’s reprise by the Paris Opera Ballet’s Nicolas Le Riche and Marie-Agnes Gillot as well as the video record of a 1962 revival with Jean Babilee and Claire Sombert — first published on July 15, 2005, subscribers please e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for one year for just $36/year or $21 or Euros for students, as attested to by a copy of your student I.D., by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check, and receive full access to all new articles plus our 20-year archive of 2000 reviews by 150 critics of performances and art exhibits on five continents.)

20 Years of telling stories not told elsewhere: This ain’t no Hanoi Hilton

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2000, 2018 Maura Nguyen Donohue

(First published on the DI on August 4, 2000, this Flash Dispatch’s re-publication today is sponsored by Slippery Rock Dance . )

HANOI — Chao cac anh chi from Hanoi. I’ve been situated in the seat of a former enemy (to both of my half-selves, American and Vietnamese) for almost two weeks now. After only ten days in Southern China we decided to head to the capital of Vietnam so as to squeeze in a few days of language lessons. Unfortunately, Perry only seems to retain sentences that involve beer. This should make our impending visit with my mother’s family in Central Vietnam and our — ahem — wedding there interesting.

With its many lakes, shady boulevards and parks Hanoi is a more physically attractive city than Saigon. The maze of the charming 1000-year-old Old Quarter provides endless exposure to a rich cultural heritage. However, I have to admit to a heavy amount of apathy in my pursuit of contemporary performance here other than Quyen Van Minh’s Jazz Band (mostly Tom Petty and Nirvana covers). Art galleries abound but performances are harder to find. And my southern Vietnamese and American roots reveal themselves incessantly. The righteous rhetoric gets tiresome and I’ve been biased by a wonderful experience seeing work and talking to artists in the south three years ago about the challenges to artistry in a Communist country. Though people tell me today that things are better than five years ago, I must note that “better” is a relative term. That stated I was still able to enjoy yet another viewing of water puppets as well as a trip to the Central Circus and an unexpected audience for the ritual of an indigenous sect.

Based at the shore of Hoan Kiem Lake is the Municipal Water Puppet Theater (Roi Nuoc Thang Long). At 40,000 dong for a first-class seat, I was able to see this troupe for 1/16 the price I paid to see them at Lincoln Center a few years ago. Water puppetry is one of the few indigenous art forms in a country that spent 1,000 years under Chinese rule, 50 under the French and another 10 dealing with the Americans. It originated among the rice farmers, who carve the puppets from waterproof fig tree lumber. The characters were modeled on the villagers, animals from their daily lives and creatures of myth and legend. 11 puppeteers operate from behind a bamboo screen in waist-deep murky water. The murk of the water conceals some of the mechanics, and allows the puppets to appear and disappear with ease. Many of the puppets have articulated limbs and heads. The series of vignettes depict pastoral scenes and legends. The show includes live music, and I was particularly pleased to hear Ru Con Nam Bo played live. I use this lullaby, played on the Vietnamese monochord, dan bau, in a work about abandoned Amerasian children, “SKINning the surFACE.”

Hanoi’s old-school circus (Xem Xiec) provided an intriguing evening. Many of the performers were trained in Eastern Europe. The relatively simple acrobatics (compared to those of neighboring China) were entertaining, but I thought I was having hallucinogenic flashbacks when the elephant started doing yoga and the monkeys riding bicycles in running shorts.

The most interesting performance I’ve seen (other than the ballets of ‘no-road-rules-traffic’ and ‘street-peddling-women-running-from-the-police-with-60-lbs-of-fruit/tea/soup /etc-in-their-baskets’) was when we accidentally stumbled into a temple ritual on our first day in town. Thanks to a side door and Perry’s newly acquired 80-cent flute, we were invited in to witness a Hoa Hao ceremony. Perry joined the musicians while sister Maeve, Dragon (an auspiciously named Yugoslavian we met at the border crossing from China) and I watched a middle-aged woman dance with incense, fire and bells for the next three hours. She worked her way through at least ten costume changes. With each new outfit came a new story told through movement and props. At one point, she was steering a boat; at another she was a woman selling towels from the bags dangling at either end of her pole. The vignettes each included a bouncing dance that seemed to represent travel and walking. In between each dance there would be a formal walk towards the altar before she’d drop to her knees and bless various gifts. These gifts (cigarettes, raincoats, fruit, cookies, noodles, money, facecloths, etc) were then distributed to the temple and to everyone in attendance. The ironic twist though is that Hoa Hao was started as a reformed Buddhism that embodied personal faith rather than elaborate ritual. Perhaps this is progress, perhaps prosperity. Regardless, they were wonderful people and we’ve since been to two of their homes for dinner. Between leaving the ceremony with bags full of goodies and being overstuffed at their homes, I’m amazed at the generosity of some in a country where the average monthly income is $50. I thought WE were supposed to be the haves giving to the have-nots!

For more information on choreographer-dancer Maura Nguyen Donohue, visit her dance company’s web site.

The Big Bang Axiom: Back to the Future with “Inventing Abstraction” at MoMA

abstraction severini for repost

From the Arts Voyager archives: Gino Severini, “Mare = Ballerina (Sea = dancer),” 1913. Tempera and pastel on cardboard, 25 13/16 x 18 ½” (65.5 x 47 cm). Triton Foundation. ©2012 Gino Severini / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo courtesy of the Triton Foundation.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2013, 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

If you think the world only started getting smaller — and the many worlds of art cross-fertilizing — with the advent of the Internet, you need to get yourself to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. With “Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925,” a pan-media exhibition of 350 paintings, drawings, prints, books, sculptures, photographs, recordings, dances, and more, running through April 15, MoMA returns to its historical and pedagogical roots and, not incidentally, furnishes a much-needed refresher for a 21st century New York art world as evidently rootless as it is profligate, as well as a template for today’s would be multi-media hopscotchers, too often content with dilettante dabbling and dipping into their sister art forms.

(To receive the complete article, first published exclusively on the DI and AV on January 8, 2013, including more images, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for one year for just $36/year by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check.)

But first, a Patron of the Arts: Lincoln Kirstein finally gets his due at MoMA

Moma Kirstein CadmusChampion of the eight-hour, unbutchered version of Sergei Eisenstein’s “Que Viva Mexico,” art critic and essayist, avid collector of the photographers Walker Evans and George Platt Lynes, ardent admirer of the sculptures of Elie Nadelman and Gaston Lachaise, Lincoln Kirstein was much more than the co-founder, with George Balanchine, of the School of American Ballet. A font and funder of the New York Modern Art scene, he fervently acquired Latin American art for the Modern Art Museum, notably by Antonio Berni and Raquel Forner. Now Lincoln Kirstein, Patron of the Arts is finally getting his due, in an exhibition running March 17 through June 30, 2019 at MoMA and featuring more than 200 works, including, above, Paul Cadmus (American, 1904–1999), set design for the ballet “Filling Station,” 1937. Cut-and-pasted paper, gouache, and pencil on paper, 8 × 10 7/8″ (20.3 × 27.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Lincoln Kirstein, 1941. © 2018 Estate of Paul Cadmus.