Art as Resistance in Paris

kristin aab La bête humaine-K.Meller smallLiberté pour tous — ou presque: With (above), “La Bête humaine,” Kristin Meller joins Raoul Velasco, Alain Cabot, Joh Denoa, Françoise Gasser, and Florence Le Van for the exposition “Acte de Creation: Acte de Resistance,” on view through October 15 at the Galerie of the Associated Artists of Belleville at 1 rue Francis Picabia in Paris, with a closing night party Sunday beginning at 7 PM. (Métro Couronnes.)

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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. )

 

Flash Flashback, 1-5: Beneath the Shell –Exploring the Beauty Myth with Jeanne Mordoj, Kataline Patkai, Isabelle Esposito & Marie Chouinard

bastilleLeft: Jeanne Mordoj of Compagnie Bal in “Eloge du Poil,” directed by Pierre Meunier. Photo courtesy Theatre de la Bastille and copyright Marie Frécon. Right: Compagnie Marie Chouinard in Marie Chouinard’s “Orphee et Eurydice.” Michael Slobodian photo copyright Michael Slobodian and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2009, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

For Iréne Gordon-Brassart, the coolest flack in Paris, who knows how to fight for her artists, and who also makes a mean chocolate cake for those lucky enough to be able to call her friend.

(Author’s Note, 1-5-2017: Re-reading my account of Jeanne Mordoj and Pierre Meunier’s intricate spectacle, in addition to the merits already mentioned below it occurs to me that this is the type of show one usually only finds in “off” or “Fringe” festivals or, at best, at the circus, mainstream theaters being content to showcase the tired – and politically safe — visual jokes of James Thierry. The only exception to this rule I can think of is “Squonk,” programmed at New York’s PS 122 by the visionary Mark Russell in the late 1990s. It also occurs to me that the fearlessness of Jeanne Mordoj  — seen here not far from where another, albeit moral, misfit, the Marquis de Sade, rotted away for years — is a lot more risky than the officially approved and aesthetically pleasing rebelry of Marie Chouinard. All the more reason to applaud the curatorial sensibilities of the Theatre de la Bastille. Its experiments might not always work for me, but I will storm the Bastille for its right to conduct them. First published, in different form, on May 18, 2009.)

PARIS — Sure, dance has aesthetic, musical, geometrical, and narrative rewards, but the sexual or if you prefer purely aesthetic appeal of the body as one of the art’s major attractions — to dance fans and critics alike — is not to be denied. And yet does the body have to be perfect in its depiction to compel us? Can a body that doesn’t conform to typical beauty standards nonetheless tell a beautiful story that beautifully communicates to the audience? Can beautiful bodies fail to communicate? Three current or recent creations seen here offer an opportunity for reflection.

If Marie Chouinard’s “Orphee et Eurydice,” in the house at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt through May 19, had been a choreographic monstrosity, all its beautiful topless bodies (male and female, take your choice) and enthusiastic humping couldn’t have saved it from my critical dagger. I also like to think that had the women been ugly and fat and the men sported pot bellies, it would not have diminished my enthusiasm for this new work from the Canadian choreographer, which I rave elsewhere in these DI Archives.  But I have to admit that the beauty of the women made me more open at the beginning of the work to receiving it, whereas if they had been, say, spikey-haired, butch ladies in their 50s essentially bare-breasted (the men and women wore golden nipple rings in strategic spots) I might well have resisted the work’s innate choreographic and narrative charms. My awe at the 20-something, well-honed, hour-glass women parading across the stage where ‘La Divine Sarah’ once commanded made me more open to the work as well as the charm of the individual performers. A good thing, as it turned out, because their garb (or lack of), as well as the sexually-charged tone of much of the action was essential to conveying in a universally resonating fashion what is after all a romantic tragedy.

Jeanne Mordoj, on the other hand, does not fit the typical ideal of feminine beauty in at least one respect: Since the age of 11, Mordoj has sported a beard. She must be aware that this outstanding feature can provoke a degree of disequilibrium in her audience, as the public is alerted to it ahead of time in giant kiosk posters pasted up around town (notably on the promenade that faces the Moulin Rouge, a bastion of idealized feminine sex appeal, not coincidentally memorialized by another ‘freak’ of nature, Toulouse-Lautrec) and in the promotional material for her one-woman show “Eloge du poil” (“In praise of skin-hair”), directed by Pierre Meunier (a specialist in idiosynchratic performances and performers; see elsewhere in these DI Archives) and playing at the Theater de la Bastille through May 31.

Knowing in advance that Mordoj is a bearded lady and that this would be part of the shtick certainly disarmed me. It might have been different if I had not been prepared before I entered the theater on May 14. Without skirting around the bush, so to speak: Objectively speaking I find the concept of a lady with a beard off-putting. My response is visceral and somehwat defensive; I assume that women can shave just like men, so that if a bearded lady’s made a choice to keep hers, what’s on her face is meant to be brazenly flaunted in mine. (Although I guess shaving would invite bristles and five o’clock shadows, so maybe I’m being unfair and idiotic.)

Even though being a performer would seem to give her license, Jeanne Mordoj’s manner of confronting the audience is more nuanced — I’d even say respectful of the audience’s sensibilities, however unfair and prejudiced they may be. She begins the one-hour piece — for which we’ve been arrayed around and above her on circus-like bleachers installed on three sides of the Theatre de la Bastille space — with the lower part of her face hidden by a veil. This also emphasizes the eye contact — for Mordoj has a captivating manner of scanning the audience with her penetrating brown eyes, making contact like the master of a three-ring circus. (And indeed circus arts are part of her training.) She does a little dance to canned corny ’50s-style music, rolling around the floor and always being careful to re-establish contact when she rises. Then she pulls long crochet-like needles out from the folds of her dress and hurls them at a target like a magician throwing knives. Next, after the veil’s been removed and her neat, Walter Raleigh-like beard revealed, an assistant scatters sea-shells across the stage, and Mordoj balances a large bowl on her head and gathers the shells into it with a technique and facility that is anything but routine. It’s not just that she uses her toes to pick up the shells but that before doing so she twists her body into various contortionist bends.

The task accomplished, she diverts her attention to two other personages, both lieder-chanting animal skulls; one appears to have been a ram, the other perhaps a lamb. It turns out that in addition to being a bearded lady, knife-thrower, and contortionist, Mordoj is also a ventriloquist.

After the singing shenanigans — the ram is trying to be serious, but the high-pitched lamb keeps throwing him by distorting the lyrics — Mordoj packs the lamb and a sister lamb into a box, through which she thrusts the long needles. When she opens the box and places her hand inside, one of the creatures bites her and she retracts the hand bloodied. Enraged, she opens a flat in the stage which reveals a pool of water, into which she lowers the box from a quickly erected hangman-like pulley, hoping to drown the lamb skulls. One survives, complaining that “each time you leave us down here longer.”

As the skulls repose, Mordoj turns to more refined work, cracking a half dozen eggs (once with her noggin) and pouring the raw and amazingly intact yolks over the rivulets of her body, nibbling at some of them. Then there are more shells, this time belonging to snails, with the recovered lamb-skull puppet returning to regale us with a tale of an escargot-eating contest,  ending with him vomiting and collapsing face-first into the pile of shells. And where do snails come from? The soil, and it’s there that Mordoj returns, opening another slat in the floor to reveal a pit full of (amazingly clean-looking and fine) dirt, in which she first bathes then buries herself, pulling the slat over her, whereupon a chorus of about two dozen skulls (divided into baritone rams on one side and tenor lambs on the other of course) pops up out of the stage to punctuate her finish and the work’s with a requiem.

You may have noticed that I’ve not mentioned the beard for the last two paragraphs, and that’s because for most of the show one forgets about it, except for a section in which Mordoj makes a point of confronting us, addressing various parts of the audience to ask if her beard frightens us, as well as making the claim that the beard is a useful tool in sexual interplay, enabling her to exclaim, for example, “Enter into my beard!” I say claim because I’m not sure I buy it or if the lady doth protest too much. But the beard is ultimately irrelevant. What the author/performer and her director have successfully done is welcome us into her world with all its personages and accoutrements, in a breathtakingly dazzling one-woman show which embraces us all with a story of life and death, of the shells and pits in which we often entomb ourselves and others.

By contrast, Kataline Patkai’s “Sisters,” one of three works I saw in an evening directed by Patkai at the Studio Le Regard du Cygne (which also happens to be my landlord) as part of its Cabaret des Signes series (this one humbly titled “Jesus and the 12 apostles”), was remarkably self-referential and closed. It starts with five very bored looking women in sweats reposing around the stage, while a sixth reads a book with her exposed back to the audience. Next the work traverses a promising choreographic passage that has the women attaching themselves until they form a centipede, the only head showing being that of the woman in front, who recites a text which references things like nascent death. The text notwithstanding, I kind of wished they’d have continued to explore the possibilities of a centipede (perhaps I was still stuck in the Earth with Mordoj). Instead, the women stripped each other — in slow-mo, yet — down to their bikinis or one-piece bathing suits and became a sort of rolling blob of female pulchritude. Had they been wearing working dancer tops and bottoms, or even neutrally topless I might feel different. But the bikinis — not to mention at least one interchange in which a woman caressed another’s head as it rested in her crotch — made titillation at least a possibility, intentional or not. But what bothered me most was the self-absorption; unlike Mordoj, Patkai seemed more interested in showing off to her audience than communicating with and reaching out to her public.

A second piece ‘conceived’ by Patkai seemed even more solipsistic. In “Krack,” described as a work-in-progress, two women from Latin America, Viviana Moin and Jesus Sevari (in a new bikini), gave us their life stories — first just in Spanish, later with one translating for the other — from their childhoods to the present day. I have nothing against the personal stories of dancers, some of them are quite interesting, but when I go to the (dance) theater I’m there to see dance, not to hear dancers TALK about their personal lives in what is usual, without the mitigation of a professional playwright, a mundane, unedited fashion. Yes there was some rudimentary movement — cavorting with maps, sidling against walls, head-standing — but nothing to justify the program promise of a work which would “question the many origins of dance….”

Rescuing the evening, or at least the three works I saw (I had to leave early to catch another performance in another theater) was Isabelle Esposito’s “La sombre sautillante” (roughly, ‘the dark jumper’), which proved that one can create a world that’s self-contained and all-embracing at the same time. My reading, from the disheveled state of the character, from intermittent “Are you there?”s and from her searching throughout, even under the pile of spaghetti noodles she prepared live on stage, was that this was a woman (Esposito) who had been abandoned by her partner. The defeat was signaled immediately by her slumped posture as she wandered about the stage performing routine tasks — cooking, vacuuming — listlessly and automatically, She revived a bit after squiggling out of her underwear (very chastely, under her dress), doing a little brittle jig and even dancing in the same brittle, restrained fashion when she played “Johnny B. Goode” on the record player, but ended up sitting in front of the television watching herself in close up eating the spaghetti, finally giving up the eating to sift through the noodles for the absent one. Goosing Esposito’s emotional immersion in the character — and ours — through the 18-minute work-in-progress was the physical restraints she placed on herself, mostly in the slumped, restrained, and thus jittery walking. The body here was neither as beautiful as those in Marie Chouinard’s “Orphee et Eurydice” nor as unique as Jeanne Mordoj’s, but like them Isabelle Esposito used hers to tell a story that resonated universally.