Of fly girls & shy girls: From “Bovary” through the Head-scarf (with cameos by Bernhardt & Bausch) — When the body feminine becomes a moral battle ground

Adrien Henri Tanoux Odalisques 1905From the Arts Voyager Archives and Artcurial’s Spring 2016  sale of Orientalist and Arab and Iranian Modern art:  Adrien Henri Tanoux (1865-1923), “Odalisques,” Oil on canvas, 23.62 x 31.5 inches. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2016, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the Arts Voyager on  May 20, 2016. Tiego Rodrigues’s latest effort to subvert a literary giant’s masterpiece, in this case Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” is currently playing at the Theatre de la Bastille in Paris, this time out abetted by the company Stan. 

PARIS — What I love about Tiago Rodrigues, the director of the Portuguese National Theater who is “occupying” the Theatre de la Bastille for two months with three works, one involving the participation of 90 amateurs in its creation, is that he defies the conventional wisdom that attracting contemporary audiences requires jettisoning the classical canon. Rodrigues understands that if an oeuvre like Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” (whose original title was “Madame Bovary, or Provincial Morals”) has endured for 160 years, it’s because despite changing mores, its portrayal of societal turmoil (above all the conflict between individual comportment and predominant national values) is still pertinent. Even if today it’s not the loose morals of a married woman that are accused of threatening religious norms, as was the case with the story of Emma Bovary, but the custom of a small group of Muslim women to cover all or part of their bodies that is perceived by some as threatening the norms of lay values, the battle terrain is the same: the woman’s body. (And not just in literature: Eight female politicians, some in powerful positions including in the French legislature, recently accused a leader of the Green party of sexual harassment, charges which the official has denied.)

First, some background is in order on the current social context in which Rodrigues’s “Bovary” — which frames Flaubert’s novel with the legal process the government instituted to ban it (he isn’t the first to use this tactic; filmmaker William Dieterle did it in 1949) — hits the Bastille, where it plays through May 28. When a group of female students at Paris’s prestigious Sciences-Po university (which forms many of the country’s political leaders) recently decided to hold a “Hijab Day” to dispel myths about the foulard, or head-scarf, the philosopher-pundit Bernard Henri-Levy tweeted, “What’s next? Lapidation Day? Sharia Day?” And the Left-leaning feminist Elisabeth Badinter called last month for a boycott of fashion houses introducing special lines catering to Muslim women. (French feminists, particularly, tend to assume that if a woman is wearing a veil, it must be because a man is forcing her to do so.)

moma hijabs smallFrom the Arts Voyager Archives: Display figures with hijab, in East Jerusalem market. Photo by Danny-w. Some rights reserved. Used through Creative Commons. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art.

Rodrigues’s “Bovary” also arrives in Paris at a moment in which a group of Left-wing activists calling themselves “Nuit Debout” (Night standing up) has been occupying the Place de Republique at night since mid-March. But while Nuit Debout promotes a very selective vision of Democracy which excludes anyone who doesn’t agree with them (the rest of us are the “Fachos”), Rodrigues, by quoting from the actual transcripts of the 1857 trial the government instigated after “Madame Bovary” first appeared in serial form (the author himself paid for the stenographer), lets both sides present their best case. As formulated by David Geselsen’s defense attorney (once he stops speeding through his lines, an annoying tendency by many young French actors, especially regrettable when delivering legal arguments which require some mastication), a government zeal which followed to its logical conclusion would require deleting suggestive words from the dictionary because of their proximity with upstanding words like “Christianity” has scary resonance at a time when conditions provoked by an attack on free speech (the Charlie Hebdo massacres) have lead to an environment in which one is not always sure what is considered acceptable speech.

For Rodrigues’s “Bovary,” the government case gets an adept advocate in the person of Ruth Vega-Fernandez, perhaps the most charismatic young actress working in France today. (Although she could do to tone down a tic she seems to have adopted for this role, of describing and punctuating her arguments with articulated arms, hands, and fingers; used once or twice, it’s compelling, but over-used it just ends up calling attention to the artifice.)

Between Vega-Fernandez, Geselsen, and the occasional choice interjections by Jacques Bonnaffe’s Flaubert, the “Bovary” trial as recreated on the stage of the Theatre de la Bastille — where I caught it May 13 — provides a valuable example of juicy, rich, and well-founded (on both sides) constructive discourse in a France in which reasoned and polite debate seems to have been supplanted by virulent polemics. It’s almost as if because the immediate question — whether Flaubert’s tale of Emma Bovary, who seeks to escape a suffocating marriage through liaisons with flighty lovers, promotes infidelity, or whether the author is simply reporting on a social condition — is (apparently) so removed in time, the audience is able to patiently assimilate and consider the merits of each argument without the dogmatic predispositions that make healthy debate nearly impossible today. And makes me think that what we need in the current climate of polarization is not more philosopher-pundits or ZAD (Zone a Defend)ists masquerading as Democrats (and attacking police, 350 of whom have been injured this year; they too marched May 18 protesting hatred of the police) but apt theater directors able to reveal the timeless lessons in ‘ancient’ tales. In a country in which, historically, vigorous debate has sometimes been replaced by, on the one side, anarchist violence including bombings and, on the other, stifling of dissent, theater directors and artists in general who have the ability to frame debate in a constructive, non-manipulative way (Vega-Fernandez’s attorney is not just a fall guy, her convincing arguments being delivered with conviction) have a critical role to play in illuminating the issues in a serene fashion.

alma palacio rodrigues bovaryAlma Palacios in “Bovary,” as captured by and copyright Pierre Grosbois and courtesy Theatre de la Bastille.

There’s just one tendency which *almost* gets in the way in “Bovary,” a misunderstanding of the Brechtian style which repeatedly calls attention to the fact that this is just a performance. Alma Palacios’s Emma regularly introduces different segments of the action — for much of the middle and through to the end of the play, the trial reconstruction gives way to a recreation of the actual drama — by stating, “On page 200,” such and such happens, etc. This is a dangerous device in the hands of a younger actress like Palacios, who already has a tendency to recite her lines in a downplayed, matter of fact and borderline ironic fashion, directly to the audience. But eventually, and as a colleague has pointed out, the power and authenticity of Flaubert’s tale and his portrayal of Emma is able to transcend even post-modern irony. Emma seduces Palacios, who seduces the procurer and Flaubert’s attorney (both break from their courtroom cool at one point and embrace Emma) and has the audience shivering when she takes the fateful arsenic. We’re finally at Rodrigues’s mercy when, in a coda, Gregoire Monsaingeon’s Charles declares (I paraphrase), that like his wife,”I eventually died too, as did the procurer, my attorney, and as will the actors on this stage, and as will all of you eventually die. But ‘Madame Bovary’ lives on.” By this time, no one in the audience is chuckling, unless it’s the nervous laughter of recognition.

Sarah Bernhardt would never have been accused of post-modern irony. But if actress Astrid Bas and director Miguel Loureiro spared her that in “Paris-Sarah-Lisboa,” which opened the annual Chantiers (building projects) d’Europe festival organized by the Theatre de la Ville May 11 with a performance supposedly tailored for the Divine One’s old dressing room at the theater, they didn’t offer much else. The 30-minute piece consisted of the actress — dressed not in Belle Epoch style but a zipper-back dull dark blue dress from the 1950s — galloping on her stilettos to different corners of the room (a Bernhardt-sized tiny bathtub, a makeup sink, both framed by mirrors) to retrieve sections of the script, off which she read excerpts from Bernhardt’s journal, with the drop in investment and nuance which reading from a script for a performance often induces. Even the potentially liveliest section, in which Bernhardt prepares for a performance with tongue-twisters (“She sells sea-shells,” etc.) was rote. So that in the end, even if the texts recited were supposedly rare, I didn’t feel I knew anything more about Bernhardt than I did before. It seemed a particularly uneventful way to open what normally promises to be a portentous festival.

Pina Bausch Agua Ulli WeissTanztheater Wuppertal’s Regina Advento and Jorge Puerta Armenta in Pina Bausch’s “Agua.” Ulli Weiss photo copyright Ulli Weiss and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

Pina Bausch’s 2001 “Agua,” which I caught the same night at the same theater, as performed by Tanztheater Wuppertal, suffered from an opposite impediment: too much action. The argument for the work’s sonic, scenic, and kinetic splendor would be that insouciance doesn’t need an excuse, especially in an era where the insouciant have become the targets of terrorists, including in this city. And perhaps an audient less aware of how much more Pina Bausch can offer by way of meaning and catharsis would have been sated with “Agua”‘s tropical, life-affirming antidote to the nihilism with which the “Islamic State” is trying to afflict us. But as a dance and theater critic, my problem with much of the late choreographer’s work in the 2000s (she died in 2009) is that for the actual choreography, Bausch seems to rely more on the skills and body maps of the individual performers and the opulent film work of designer Peter Pabst than any grand scheme and for me, calisthenics and pyrotechnics are no longer enough, especially from a master story-teller so much of whose works had something to tell us about the times. (On my way home, I wistfully regarded a poster of Wuppertal performing Bausch’s “Rite of Spring,” which along with the equally somber “Cafe Muller” the festival of Nimes is getting. Can the programmers really think we’re less sophisticated than the provinces?)

From a promising beginning, in which the playful Wuppertal veteran Helene Pikon heartily munches on an apple, the juice dripping, as she recounts how a perturbed sleep which forced her out of bed created an opportunity to catch a breathtaking sunrise, “Agua” devolves into a beach party. Hilarious at times, even riveting — Pabst saturates every corner of the stage with an Imax-style film of a boat ride through what might be the Amazon, leaving the impression that we’re riding on the boat, as is the dancer who cascades across the deck; it was only when the boat became a raft and took to sea that I started getting nauseous — in the end “Agua” is not so much insouciant as feather-light. When a reporter asked Bausch, at a 2006 Paris press conference, why she had turned away from darker work, she answered that it was precisely because of the bad things happening in the world that she felt the need to offer some relief and reveal some light. Things have since gotten a lot worse, and (see above, under “Bovary”), considering the vast and illuminating repertoire available to them, I’m not sure that Wuppertal’s directors really serve an audience in need more than ever of cathartic revelation by giving us a frothy Carnaval.

Speaking of exotica, and getting back to woman’s body as a fertile terrain for cultural battles, a historical reminder of why some Muslim, or Arab women might want to hide their visages from disrobing Occidental eyes was provided by Wednesday’s sale of Orientalist and contemporary Arab and Iranian art by Artcurial, the leading French auction house: Just take a look at the come hither topless babes (one of whom is an alabaster white) in Adrian Henri Tanoux’s 1905 oil “Odalisques,” on sale at a pre-estimated price of 40,000 – 60,000 Euros (above). It certainly confirms my assessment that women’s bodies have been a terrain for political and moral battles for a mighty long time.

 

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The Lutèce Diaries, 18: How I rescued 2000 years of Eastern & Western Philosophy from a toilet at the Luxembourg Gardens, learned that my shit doesn’t stink as bad as all that, and didn’t resolve the latest Jewish and Muslim questions dogging France

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation so that we can continue this work. Please designate your PayPal donation to paulenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. To read this article entirely in French or any other language, just click the translation button at the right.)

PARIS — Ever think someone is trying to send you signs? From Plato, Confucius, and Krishna ambushing me in a Luxembourg Garden ‘sanitaire’ to accordionists hounding me across the Left Bank to Albert Camus and Maria Casarès winking at me from a balcony on the rue Vaugirard, from busty marble goddesses having coffee with me at the Delacroix Fountain in the Luxembourg to collaged porn queen sirens in St.-Germain-des-Pres beckoning me to call them on a communication system which no longer exists (the Minitel, France’s Internet avant l’heure), from being snobbed by Germanopretan art gallery interns to welcomed by Ile de France artists on the rue Francis Picabia in Belleville, from trying not to knock knees with a supercalifragelosis architect’s assistant on the Metro to learning that, echoing a similar tendency in the United States — so I’m not picking on France here —  if a new law passes France will officially no longer distinguish between anti-Zionism an anti-Semitism (which makes me, what, a Jewish anti-Semite?), from trying to decipher “Botoxed” feminine incarnations of Henry Darger’s Vivienne Girls to learning that my shit doesn’t stink too as badly as all that, yesterday  like the days that preceded it was as replete with signs as any I’ve had here  this past month and a half. To read the rest of the story on The Paris Tribune, click here.

Skin Games — Katherine Dunham’s Documentaries in Paris; Lauwers’s Racialist Stereotypes in Seine-Saint-Denis

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI on February 10, 2005, this piece is re-published today because incredibly enough given the community’s multi-cultural population, Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room” has been programmed for April at the theater MC93 in the Paris suburb of Bobigny in the county of Seine-Saint-Denis. (Perhaps the brilliant curators who thought up this idea can sell “Tintin in the Congo,” featuring Belgium’s most famous ambassador, in the gift shop. What they really should do is book-end Lauwers’s piece with Dunham’s more noble — and authentic — enterprise.) Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by subscribing or making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small. Subscribe to the DI/AV for one year for just $36 ($21 for students) and get full access to our 20-year archive of more than 2000 reviews of performances and exhibitions from around the world by 150 critics. Paul Ben-Itzak is also available for French to English translating assignments and for DJing as MC World Beat.

PARIS — A colleague who’s also seen Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room,” a.k.a. “La chambre d’Isabella,” tells me he thinks the “‘quaint racial language is appropriate for the historic moment Lauwers was recreating.” Another respected colleague, the New York Times’s Margo Jefferson, sees merely pretension where I see tired racial stereotyping inherited from Colonialism. Reflecting on the needcompany dance-theater-music work, seen Tuesday at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt, I can see the bases for both these opinions, and I wouldn’t take my colleagues to the mat on them. Yet while Lauwers’s bombastic work (in general) often seems pretentious, it is also intentionally provocative. So I think a visceral response to this visceral approach is valid. (And if Lauwers can dish it out, he should certainly be able to take it.) Here’s mine, recorded a couple of hours after the performance, followed by some reflections on the work’s thin dance content and on cultural appropriation and exploitation. Then we’ll finish with the tonic of authenticity, revisiting Katherine Dunham’s early documentaries of Haiti and the Caribbean.

It is past two in the morning here in Paris, and I should be asleep. But I am restlessly pacing. I am on edge because tonight at the Theatre de la Ville – SARAH BERNHARDT (whose corps at Pere Lachaise must surely be restless these days), the Belgian director-playwright and putative choreographer Jan Lauwers used his considerable dramatic gifts to suck me into a world where, before I knew it, I was hit with residual Belgian colonial racialism, grandmother-to-minor grandson incest/rape (at least that’s what they’d call it in the States), and a generally unremitting nihilism.

Perhaps — perhaps — there are hints of hope among the despair. Perhaps, as in the work of other tragedians, the darkness is meant to set off the light. But how are we supposed to discern these signs through the barrage of blatant racialism and pointless violence? How am I to see anything but racialism when Lauwers gives us a heroine who, we’re told, was impregnated by a Black (I think the word Negro was used) performer on the Place Pigalle whose trick was that he could make his “erect p**** *** just by concentrating on it”? (The asterisks are mine, not an external censor’s; just because Lauwers has desecrated Sarah Bernhardt’s stage with this filth doesn’t mean we need to desecrate our pages.) How am I to find an island of hope on a stage whose dominating scenery is what we’re told is a “giant African penis,” on which the heroine hangs her gold necklace and lighter? How am I NOT to perceive racialism in a scenic environment which, in its blithe use and display of (what we’re told are) African artifacts, is probably committing at least one sacrilege, and has made me complicit in a sort of cultural violation? How did I feel regarding this in a sea of white faces? How did I feel when these fellow spectators giggled at the evocation of black p**** tricks?

I know, I know, I hear some of you saying: You dope, he’s not being racialist, he’s COMMENTING on racialism and Colonialism. I just don’t buy it. Jan Lauwers works in a milieu — Belgium — where one can still find vestiges of the Colonial attitude towards Blacks in mainstream postcard shops peddling images of them (thick lips, bug eyes) that make “Birth of a Nation” seem like it was produced by the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). In this context, the similar signposts in “Isabella’s Room” make it hard to receive this work as anything but racialist, nihilistic garbage.

lauwers oneNeedcompany in Jan Lauwers’s “La Chambre d’Isabella” (Isabella’s Room). Photo copyright Eveline Vanassche and courtesy MYRA.

It doesn’t help that Lauwers starts off with the often-mocking presentation of a variety of African artifacts, apparently, we’re told, “collected” by his late father. (The question of Colonial expropriation of such artifacts is not broached.) Perhaps he’s mocking the mockers, but what exactly gives him the right to expropriate another culture’s ceremonial objects for his own ceremonies? Especially given Belgium’s brutal colonial history.

“Isabella’s Room” is also advertised — at least in Paris — as a dance spectacle, and when it comes to integrating dance into his theatrical works, Lauwers hasn’t made much progress since the 1999 “Morning Song.” Jefferson, in her Times review, postulates that the dance here serves the same end as the songs, to “echo the characters’ conscious thoughts and unconscious dreams.” I don’t see this; I can find neither comment, interpretation, nor even counterpoint here; just aimless noodling, which might as well have been created outside of the text, in which the individual performers appear to have been left to their own devices, the choreography often devolving into what Jefferson accurately calls “Merce Cunningham and WIlliam Forsythe cast-offs.”

Except for six hours which she spends there in a vain attempt to save the life of her grandson Frank, the Isabella of the title in Lauwers’s piece is an Africa-fancying white anthropologist who never makes it to Africa. Katherine Dunham, by contrast, is an African-American interpreter of Afro-Caribbean dance — with Pearl Primus, the U.S.’s first — who began her career by traversing the Caribbean, on a Rosenwald fellowship, with a camera. Three of the resultant 1936 documentaries, “Trinidad,” “Haiti,” and “Jamaica and Martinique” were recently screened by the Centre Pompidou here in Paris, part of a festival on voyaging women documentary makers of the ’20s through ’60s.

All three films are brief but effective time capsules of the subject countries. “Trinidad” is the most purely dance document, capturing what looks (to this untrained eye) like a Vodun-like dance with its own vocabulary — one of the vocabularies that Dunham would go on to interpret in her concert form. (What a formidable example of scholarly rigor for contemporary choreographers who have the audacity to adapt a given ethnic style after taking only a few classes in it!) A vocabulary it clearly is, with one older woman, back curved, stomach contracted, seen to be drilling a snappy younger man in his footwork as a circle watches.

“Haiti” is a 15-minute masterpiece of a portrait and travelogue; one can almost feel the young Dunham falling in love with the country that still, nearly 70 years later, plays a central role in her life and work. She begins with a panorama of coastal mountains dominated by what look like the remnants of colonial fortresses. There’s also a cock-fight, in which she follows the flying fowl, then zooms in on a smartly attired man clipping his bird’s toe-nails. Eventually we’re taken — as if we were watching it from behind the barricades — to what could be a Carnival parade. Some of the participants are clad simply in their Sunday finest, some wear large masks in the shape of animal heads, others full-body costumes; two Carnival queens greet their ‘subjects’ from floats. Most are, to one extent or another, dancing, from the sharp dresser to the fluent four-year-old on whom Dunham trains her camera for a couple of minutes.

What emerges — aided by more recent musical field recordings which have been layered onto this silent film — is a poignant memory of Haiti just after the 1934 evacuation of U.S. troops. It’s perhaps a bittersweet memory in light of the U.S.’s recent intervention to help depose Haiti’s democratically elected President Aristide, but the filmmaker, at least, provides a much-needed model of an ambassador from our country who casts a curious eye, not a pointed finger at the rest of the world.