Exclusive: ‘Trompe-l’oeil’: Michel Ragon’s saga of art, artists, dealers, markets, & critics in Paris in the ’50s, episode 4, translated in English for the first time

Feneon Matisse 22 smallHenri Matisse (1869-1954), “Interior with girl” (Reading), 1905-1906. Oil on canvas, 72.7 × 59.7 cm. New York, the Museum of Modern Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller, 1991. Photo © Paige Knight. © Succession H. Matisse. Succession Matisse. On view at the Orsay Museum in Paris from October 16 through January 27 and the Museum of Modern Art in New York next Spring as part of the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse.

by & copyright Michel Ragon, 1956, 2019
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

To be able to simultaneously share, for the first time in English, Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel about the contemporary art market and world in Paris in the 1950s — and which also treats post-War anti-Semitism in France — we’ve decided to illustrate today’s installment with art directly referred to in “Trompe-l’oeil” that readers can see now or soon in Paris, New York, and London, notably at the Orsay Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Jeanne Bucher Jaeger gallery in the Marais, the Waddington Custot in London, and Di Donna Galleries, New York. (See captions for details.) Like what you’re reading and want to see more? Please support independent arts journalism today by designating your donation in dollars or Euros through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check through the mail. Special thanks to Michel and Françoise RagonEdward Winer, and  Jamie. To read the previous installment of “Trompe-l’oeil” (which links to earlier episodes), please click here. First published in the French original by Albin-Michel.

Fontenoy had gotten his start at L’Artiste with a reportage on Matisse. Not that he was particularly interested in this major painter, but his editor tended to ask him to write about the subjects he was the least interested in. He wasn’t trying to irritate or bully Fontenoy. The editor in chief’s dishing out of the weekly assignments to his writers was completely haphazard. What really interested Fontenoy, the new non-figurative painting, had very little chance of being mentioned in L’Artiste. Just the bare minimum coverage needed for the weekly to appear au courant without turning off the majority of its subscribers, only now discovering, with rapture, Impressionism. The editor in chief put up with the whims of his writers as long as they weren’t too glaring. Fontenoy was permitted, like his colleagues, to talk about his fads from time to time. His boss would have been surprised to learn that Fontenoy’s support for Manhès and Ancelin had not been bought and paid for by Laivit-Canne, their dealer.

Fontenoy had submitted, among his pieces for the week, an item on the rift between Laivit-Canne and Manhès. He voiced his surprise to the editor in chief when it didn’t show up in the paper.

“My friend, if we start reporting on the fracases between painters and their dealers, it’ll never end.”

“And yet readers love reading about the quarrels between Vollard and the Impressionists. Why wouldn’t they be interested in reading about the intricate dealings of their own times?!”

The editor in chief shrugged his shoulders. “Vollard isn’t around any more to make trouble for us. Laivit-Canne, on the other hand, is an advertiser. I don’t want to upset a gentleman who supports our newspaper to help out another gentleman who’s not even a subscriber.”

bucher vieira balletMaria Helena Vieira da Silva, “Ballet figure,” 1948. Oil on canvas and black lead pencil, 27 x 46 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. On view at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Marais, in Paris through November 16; the Waddington Custot gallery in London, November 29 – February 29; and Di Donna Galleries, New York, March 26 – May 29, 2020.  “I watch the street and the people walking, each with a different look, each advancing at his own rhythm,” Vieira da Silva once explained. “I think of the invisible threads manipulating them. I try to perceive the mechanics which coordinate them…. This is what I try to paint.”

Fontenoy reddened with shame and anger. He was seized with a violent compulsion to throw up his hands and walk out, but he contained himself. Who would be left to talk about the painters he loved if he quit L’Artiste? Not Morisset, that’s for sure. This last had just walked into the editor in chief’s office sporting a broad smile. Everything was broad with him, for that matter: His shoulders, his handshake, his critical standards. The only time he became particular was when it came to abstract art. Morisset was always nice to Fontenoy, even if their opinions were completely opposed. He was one of those people eager to please everybody. If he ran into one of his enemies, before the latter even had time to dig his feet in he sprung on him, frenetically shook his hand, slapped him on the back, and called him “pal” with such conviction that the concerned party ended up being hoodwinked. As Morisset didn’t take anything seriously, he mingled with the artistic milieu with a casualness that seemed genuine when in reality everything he did was calculated. Except for a handful of abstract art galleries, scattered and without a lot of means, Morisset lined his pockets with tips from all corners. If a painter asked his advice on how to get exhibited, he complimented him on his talent, slapped him on the back and pushed him into a paying gallery where he had a deal for a percentage for every sucker he reeled in. As the painter was not hip to this arrangement, he’d offer him a canvas for his services. If the idea didn’t occur to him, Morisset would be sure to bring it up. He also wrote numerous exhibition pamphlets which he could always be sure to get printed by a shop with whom he had an ongoing arrangement. He resold paintings that he’d been given or extorted. Morisset earned a paltry $24 per month at the paper and yet somehow managed to have his own car. He spent his weekends with his family at his country place. He was a man perfectly content with his lot and at peace with his conscience. One day Fontenoy told him:

“When abstract art has conquered the market, you’ll be its most fervent supporter.”

He assumed Morisset would get pissed off, or protest, but no. He responded in the most natural manner possible: “Of course… How could you imagine otherwise?”

Morisset was bought and paid for from his shoelaces to his beret to such a degree that he wound up laughing about it. For that matter he liked to say, “Painters get rich thanks to us, it’s normal that we should get our portion of the profits. If you don’t ask for anything, my dear Fontenoy, you won’t get anything. You’ll see, your abstract painters, if they make it rich one day, they’ll slam the door in your face because you’ll always be broke. But they’ll still need a good publicity agent and I’ll be there. Do you really believe that painters think of us as anything more than flacks? This being the case we need to take our gloves off and play the game.”

VIEIRA10Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, “Playing Cards,” 1937. Oil on canvas with pencil tracing, 73 x 92 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. On view at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Marais, in Paris through November 16; the Waddington Custot gallery in London, November 29 – February 29; and Di Donna Galleries, New York, March 26 – May 29, 2020.

Another critic arrived in turn in the editor in chief’s office. His name was Arlov and he was as uptight as Morisset was hang-loose. While he wasn’t lacking in intelligence or critical sensibility, his cirrhosis leant him a preference for melancholy paintings. For him Bernard Buffet represented the summit of contemporary art. He was also moody. His opinions tended to follow the course of his digestion. Whether an exhibition was praised or thrashed depended on whether Arlov visited the gallery after a good meal or bursting at the seams a la Kaopectate. In contrast to Morisset, one had to be careful not to load him with free drinks or food. A painter’s career sometimes depended on this perfect understanding of the digestive system of critics.

Arlov was poor. He wasn’t in art for the dough but the dames, his goal being to sleep with as many women as possible. This explained why he presided over the Salon of Women Painters (he’d even created it). His monumental book on the NUDE was the authoritative work on the subject. The funny thing was that his particular gender specialization even encompassed dead painters, with whom short of being a narcoleptic he had no chance of sleeping. He’d even managed to write, who knows how, a spicy “Life of Madame Vigée-Lebrun.” His big dream in life was to rehabilitate Bouguereau; albeit a man, the 19th-century Academic’s nudes weren’t entirely lacking in sensuality. Needless to say, Arlov was not too interested in abstract art.

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun self portrait in straw hatLouise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), “Self-portrait in Straw Hat,” after 1782. Purchased by the National Gallery, London. Public Domain, via Wikipedia. Vigée Le Brun was the official portraitist of Marie-Antoinette.

After having gone over, with their editor in chief, the issue which had just come out and whose pages were spread out over a big table, the three journalists jotted down the vernissage invitations, cocktails, etcetera for the upcoming week…. The editor then took the floor.

“Sunday, Protopopoff is baptizing his son. Mustafa is the godfather. Protopopoff has invited me to the reception, at Mustafa’s digs, but I’m already booked. You, Fontenoy, you can write up a big spread for the front page….”

“Why me? I think Morisset is a lot more qualified.”

“Impossible Old Man,” this last cut him off. “I spend Sundays with the family.”

Arlov quietly tip-toed out.

“What’s the hang-up, Fontenoy,” the editor continued, “you’re not going to tell me now that you don’t like Mustafa’s paintings?!”

“Okay, I’ll go….”

Fontenoy was thinking: Always the frou-frou stuff that has nothing to do with the painting itself. Mustafa godfather of the son of his dealer Protopopoff — what a waste of space when artists who are creating the art of our times don’t have a forum, practically don’t even have champions! What a metier! Embalm cadavers, voila what we’ve been reduced to. When Mustafa had been abandoned in the gutters of Montparnasse by the seedy bar-owners who sponged money off him in exchange for a few jugs of red wine, the newspapers had no space to talk about Mustafa. Today, Mustafa no longer has any need for publicity, and they take advantage of the slightest pretext to put his name on the front page.

Leaving the newspaper office, Fontenoy remembered that he had a date with a young female painter. This Blanche Favard was doggedly pursuing him. The problem was that when it came to female painters, he never knew if these signs of attention were meant for the man or the art critic. When in doubt, he sagely opted for the second possibility.

Blanch Favard lived in the Cité Falguière, an affordable housing complex initially conceived and constructed as worker housing and now peopled almost exclusively by Bohemians. From the basements to the attics, as in the honeycombs of a hive, artists of the most diverse schools, ages, and nationalities applied themselves with the patience of worker bees and the passion of alchemists to create their Great Work. All this in the shadows of some major ghosts who continued to haunt the cité, notably that of Soutine, who’d lived in one of the studios when he arrived in Paris in 1913. The painters of the Cité Falguière still talked about Soutine. It was their re-assurance. Because a genie had once lived between these walls, it was always possible that one of them….

Fontenoy was hailed by Blanche Favard, a plump little thing with a laughing visage whose blonde mane was twisted into tresses. She emerged from one of the windows just like a conventional figure in a Viennese operetta. Fontenoy hiked up to the floor that she’d indicated.

The studio was petite, but Blanche Favard painted mostly water-colors. She’d spread them out on the divan which occupied half of the room. The work was delicate. The forms very subtle. But here again one could recognize Klee’s influence. That said, Blanche had her own particular characteristics and personality. She’d started out in one of the same modes as Klee, this was clear, but she’d extended and deepened it. In setting out her work for him, she didn’t smile. Her visage remained tense, worried. She awaited Fontenoy’s verdict with a certain anxiety. And yet he’d never abused painters. He tried to understand them, convinced that a critic always has something to learn from an artist, even the most mediocre artist. Next he eliminated from his choice painters that he didn’t understand or that he didn’t like. He rarely thrashed an artist. He preferred consecrating his articles to vaunting the artists he liked while keeping quiet about those he didn’t.

Fontenoy talked to Blanche Favard about her water-colors, in measured terms, carefully weighing his words, underlining a quality here, a certain heaviness there, or a gap in the composition elsewhere. Little by little, the visage of the young woman loosened up. As Fontenoy concluded his critique, she was smiling again.

She put some water on to boil on the small Bunsen burner posed on the floor, so that she could offer some tea to her visitor.

“I’d love to have an exhibition,” she said. “But I don’t have enough money to pay a gallery. And yet it would really help me in my work to see the public’s reaction. One can’t just paint for oneself all the time.”

Fontenoy considered for a moment, at the same time taking some water-colors over to the window so he could study them in the full sunlight.

“Well, there is a bookstore which might be open to hanging your water-colors on its walls…. It’s not the same as a gallery, but it’s better than nothing. I’ll speak with the bookseller. He’s not really into abstract art, but he trusts me.”

“Yes, but the frames? I can’t just present my water-colors like that!”

“Mumphy! We need to show them to Mumphy. I think he’ll like them. I can’t get mixed up in the financial negotiations, but I can certainly ask Manhès or Ancelin to introduce you to Mumphy.”

“Oh! You’re so sweet,” Blanche Favard exclaimed in clasping her hands together just like a Reubens angel.

Then, amiably ironic:

“I know that you don’t accept paintings, nor money. But you’re doing me a big favor! Isn’t there something I can give you?”

Feneon Matisse 23 smallHenri Matisse (1869-01954), “Nude sitting down,” also known as “Pink Nude,” 1909. Oil on canvas, 33.5 x 41 cm. City of Grenoble, Grenoble Museum – J.L. Lacroix. © Succession H. Matisse. Digital photo, color. On view at the Orsay Museum in Paris from October 16 through January 27 and the Museum of Modern Art next Spring as part of the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse.

“Nothing, nothing,” grumbled Fontenoy, who’d suddenly started furiously mashing his tea.

Blanche laughed archly.

“Well, you can at least accept a sugar cube because you’re crushing the bottom of my cup to death!”

Sipping his tea, Fontenoy surreptitiously examined the young woman arranging her water-colors out of the corner of his eye. How old was she? 25, 30, 35? Fresh-faced if just a tad stout, she was ageless. Fontenoy had known her for a year. He’d noticed her first consignments at the Salon of New Realities and had written a cautiously positive review. Later she’d been introduced to him at an opening, like so many other painters, he couldn’t remember when. They’d continued running into each other from time to time in the galleries or, at night, at the Select. This was the first time he’d seen her in her atelier.

As he was getting ready to go, Blanche ventured: “I have one more thing to ask of you, but I don’t dare.”

“Ask all the same.”

“So, if you succeed in getting this bookstore to exhibit me, I’d be very happy, very flattered, if you’d agree to write the pamphlet.”

“We’ll see….

Blanche Favard stepped towards the young man and took the lapels of Fontenoy’s velour jacket in her hands, tenderly manipulating them. Her face was so close to his that he could feel her breath.

“So, there’s hope?”

“Yes, of course,” replied Fontenoy, trying to disengage himself.

Blanche let go of his jacket.

“I’d love to give you a kiss, but you’d think it was just for services rendered.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” sputtered Fontenoy, uneasy. “So, bon courage. I’ll keep you updated on my efforts.”

Post-Modern Classics: Brown and Rainer Live — Stripping White Oak’s Celebrity from its Integrity

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2000, 2119 Chris Dohse

(To celebrate its 20th anniversary as the leading artist-driven publication in the United States, the Dance Insider and Arts Voyager  is reflecting on Post-Modern classics, as captured by Dance Insider critics in performances around the world over the past two decades. This Flash Review from the Dance Insider Archive was first published on June 10, 2000. To find out about purchasing your own copy of the DI’s Archive of more than 2000 exclusive reviews by more than 150 leading critics of performances and art exhibitions on five continents over the past 20 years, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Today’s re-publication of this Flash Review is made possible by Freespace Dance.)

NEW YORK — Forty years after its genesis, Trisha Brown’s and Yvonne Rainer’s icon-blasting realness, seen last night at BAM, still blows the cobwebs off mummified high art seriousness and still awes the bedazzled sycophants of mummified high art style with a wazoo full of ideas. Their dissimilar artifacts, separately derived from Robert Dunn’s 1960-62 workshop, strip the White Oak Dance Project’s celebrity from its integrity to reveal its pith within complex, lexicon-defying vocabularies.

My taxi got lost on its way to the Brooklyn Academy of Music so I missed a first solo, Mikhail Baryshnikov doing Brown. My program opened with John Jasperse Lite, “See Through Knot.” All five dancers really strained their necks into it, but the vast Gilman Opera House diluted somehow Jasperse’s odd, lugubrious time and stripped his signature idiosyncrasy to compositional strictures. In this particular case of taking downtown style off the street and marching it up the avenue, something got lost in translation.

The correspondences of Brown’s 1979 “Glacial Decoy” are still filled with humor, subtlety and minimal cool, but the rural still life idealized in Robert Rauschenberg’s slides smacks of cultural colonialism, if you bothered to look at them.

Baryshnikov in a Mark Morris solo, “Peccadillos” … Here’s the stuff that fills the seats. I bet the hoi-polloi would applaud wildly to watch either of them wipe their ass. Morris manipulates expectations predictably (toy piano, doll-like staccato) and the crowd chuckled and peed themselves. A bonus treat, Morris jumped onstage to take a bow.

Rainer’s collage of previous elements/homage to the mythos of herself rations dance history in real time. If I was a Marxist I’d guess “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan” critiques commodity, smearing Have and Have Not across Y2K complacency. Rainer is not shy to reveal her own mysteries. Whatever her cast might be doing onstage, the framing device of her intellect is always the real star. Her abiding humor surprises, the sympathy with which she prods the images we call Twentieth Century icons. Rainer is insistently, disarmingly clever; she discovers previously undetected details of White Oak talents and defines their celebrity anew

Blueprints for a New Dance from a New Dance Magazine: Munisterians

By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2000 Tom Patrick

(First published on the DI on January 28, 2000, this Flash is reprinted today for the first time grace of of Freespace Dance. To find out how you can own your own copy of the 2000 exclusive reviews of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2018  by 150 leading dancer-critics published by the Dance Insider  send an e-mail to paulbenitzak@gmail.com.)

NEW YORK — Tonight I got to witness a terrifically refreshing concert: Ben Munisteri and company in “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” at P.S. 122. I had absolutely no idea what to expect in terms of movement or outlook, nor am I now in the least disappointed to say I still wouldn’t know where to classify the choreographer or the work I saw. I didn’t come away with an impression of Mr. Munisteri himself, really, but more like a sparked curiosity.

Except for a disarming little spoken address from Munisteri (intimating we were hearing his own piano playing from yesteryear, and a few other such personal tidbits,) I didn’t really see evidence that the point of the choreography or the concert was intended to be telling us about him. No, something much subtler was going on, and I appreciated it! The four dances — flowing so well into each other and performed without pause or intermission — offer us a banquet of imagery that is never tiresome or predictable. I think it FRESH. Far from just eye-candy or simple sculptural moments, the dances pulse relentlessly with bursts of ideas rising from very pleasing flow. Quite simply, it looks like it feels good, feels rich, even while they’re dodging those support columns on the P.S. 122 stage.

Given the close integration of the four “sections” and the ever-changing soundscape involved, I didn’t punctuate between them in the viewing, and I won’t do so here either. It was truly one dance tonight, thanks in no small part to the imagination and soft touch in Kathy Kaufmann’s lighting. So many wonderful contributions there, to great effect! Ginger Blake’s costumes in all cases showed the dancers’ beautiful selves beautifully, versatile designs in some sensuous fabrics appropriate for a spectrum of situations.

And the dancers, ah, the dancers. Well, they were not only covered by and bathed in intriguing ideas from Munisteri, Kaufmann, and Blake. They had quite a bit of their own to say. There was, even in the intimacy of the venue, an understatement in their regard for each other that might almost be the protective discretion of love, and certainly of respect. The concentration and cooperation among all was riveting in itself sometimes, for I swear they were directing our (my) attention between them, along and across their backs, from the ends of their purposeful limbs. Turning their attention frankly toward us sometimes, there was, I felt, a great inclusiveness to their attitudes….”C’mon, I want to show you something….” It was not ingratiating or blank or anything but…hmmm…intriguing again.

A further word or two about these facile performers: Loved ’em all –Kudos! I’m always amazed at Tricia Brouk’s effect on me: What an amalgamation of sacred and profane…and what an ability to make it all look so easy. Likewise Chris McMillan, whose fluency belies the difficulty inherent in plenty of these sequences, yet she soars like bird in the sunshine. Lisa Wheeler was tirelessly engaging, throughout. She, too, exemplifies an enviable “appropriateness” that is a great gift in my opinion. In witnessing this I felt drawn into “what” she was doing, sometimes “why,” but not distracted by the “how.” This surety and ease was displayed across the board: The organic dancing was really satisfying to behold. Mr. Munisteri danced in the work throughout, their quarterback, and shone especially I thought in a duet with Ms. Wheeler. Tonight was the New York debut of Francisco Graciano as well, as the fifth of five. He too betrayed no nerves or reservations, just the willingness to show us something. They all did.

I came away from the concert stimulated from the hour-long ride, my head filled with suggestions and memories and hope. The run of Ben Munisteri and these evocative dances continues at P.S. 122 through Sunday, January 30, and Thursday-Sunday, February 3-6. I recommend it!

Relationships, Shallow & Wise: When a Body Meets a Body at New York City Ballet

By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2000, 2019 Alicia Chesser

(Editor’s note: Chesser, connecting ballet to life. Can ballet be relevant? You bet. First published on the DI on June 2, 2000.)

NEW YORK — When non-balletomanes ask me what makes dance valuable in the modern world or how it could have any relevance anymore, I often say that it’s important for us because of its unique ability to teach us about human relationships. We are, after all, beings who live in space and time; we know each other first by meeting a body, and we want to know more the moment that body — the eyes, the hands, the smile — responds to ours. These are the simple realities of human interaction about which dance has something to tell us. Last night at New York City Ballet, there were three statements put forward about such matters: Balanchine’s “Agon,” the premiere of Kevin O’Day’s “Swerve Poems,” and Jerome Robbins’s “I’m Old Fashioned.” It was an inspired bit of programming: I learned something about what a shallow relationship looks like by looking at a couple of wise ones.

The O’Day piece showed its youth in more ways than one. It’s actually a rather pretty ballet (O’Day was standing behind me at an intermission, telling someone not to worry, it’s a very light piece) — simple blue costumes and bare legs, with Arch Higgins and Albert Evans in ballet-class skirts for some reason; pigtails on some of the women and a shock of short red hair on Stacey Calvert; lovely lighting; and a minimalist set composed of a big black curtain upstage and a smaller white one stage left that kept moving up and down at random. The opening trick is a fun one, featuring a sort of cliff-edge at the back of the stage. Tom Gold starts out the piece as the spastic sprite amidst a company of very swervy kiddos who begin in a big group hug; he’s zipping and leaping every which way, and suddenly he slides backwards on his stomach and disappears (audience gasps!) into the floor. He’s the life of the party, the fun equivalent of what Peter Martins gave Damian Woetzel to do in “Slonimsky’s Earbox.” (See Flash Review 2, 5-4: Tears for the Ballet.) Then it’s many minutes of woozy tripping from the kids, grouped in twos or fours or sixes — they really did remind me of the people at the parties I used to go to in high school, where everyone was a smidge tipsy and trying awkwardly to get each other over to their side of the couch.

There was lots of very cool dancing here — the astonishing Abi Stafford and Carrie Lee Riggins got the moves and the groove especially well — and lots of steps, lots of moving in and out and popping up and being dropped and carried (plus some rather blatant “echoes” of steps I’d just seen minutes before in “Agon,” a lift lifted straight from “Serenade,” and a “West Side Story” bit for the marvelous boys). But one question kept coming to mind: What’s the reason for these steps? Why this way rather than that? Most of all, what are these people doing together? I couldn’t see a mind behind the ballet, couldn’t see any logic to the progression of events. Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal looked like the chaperones of this party; Whelan seemed to be aching for more time, more space to move in, for the bustle to quiet down for just a second so she could reflect. I was feeling much the same way. These wispy relationships, this periodical hugging, this randomness dressed up to look like a savvy comment — enough. This is what the depressing Gen X phenomenon known as the hook-up looks like set to music.

Actually, John King’s music (for violins, viola, cello, and bass clarinets) was the star of the show; it reminded me of Philip Glass’s harsh, tender string quartets, strangely moving in a way that O’Day’s dance never quite came to be. The audience, incidentally, knew it should have been over about seven minutes before it was. Gold reappeared and did his sliding thing again, the crowd started clapping in recognition of a nice full-circle ending, but then there came more slurpy boys and girls, until there was another false conclusion and yet more pretty slurping (this time, God knows why, unacccompanied) before they finally just sort of ran out of steam and stopped dancing. Don’t get me wrong: This is a perfectly lovely, if long and increasingly boring, ballet with some truly touching moments (I’m thinking here of Calvert and Evans lying on the floor, she on her side on top of him on his side in a sort of fetal position). But it’s a ballet with a teenager’s sensibility about human relationships: tender, smart, and beautiful in its way, but lacking a center and a purpose.

“Agon” presented a group of human beings who had somewhat more to say to each other, and somewhat more with which to say it. It was an unusually lively and endearingly imperfect performance. This wasn’t the normal cast, and there were definitely some unsure moments, most surprisingly from Damian Woetzel, who’s usually so sure of himself it’s scary. Here, in the Sarabande, he lacked Peter Boal’s expansiveness and picture-perfect poses; instead we got a solo with lots more slinkiness. Jennifer Tinsley and Deanna McBrearty were refreshing in the Gailliard; McBrearty especially was wonderfully flirty, her head peeking out from under her arm from time to time, her little jumps purring and winking. She’s a very expressive dancer, without being obvious. It was Kathleen Tracey in the Second Pas de Trois where we usually see Whelan or Maria Kowroski. Tracey looked like she was trying to move with Whelan’s force in those potent opening leaps, but it just wasn’t working. She couldn’t get any propulsion, and the effect was jarring. The men were, well, competent, if a little slow to respond.

Kowroski appeared, all legs and eyelashes, with Jock Soto in the pas de deux. This was a dance between an older man and a young nymphette: she was challenging and teasing him, he was downright intoxicated. There was a great moment where Soto, having grasped the point of Kowroski’s shoe, just let go of it suddenly in a gesture that said, “wow, what IS this girl?” Kowroski was enjoying the attention; when she had to reach waaay down to get hold of her ankle so she could lift her leg waaay up behind her, you could tell she was taking her time for the sake of his agitated pleasure. It was the first time in a while that she’s been fun to watch. And I saw something new in the final movements: a floor full of deranged court dancers. That’s how it should look! All the way through, the dancers looked a bit like people playing dress-up, and in an odd way it worked. These are court dances stripped down, sped up, turned inside out, and gone a little batty in the halls of modernity — you see the old-time arrangements of courtly manners radicalized, and most of all you see the blood beneath the forms.

If “Agon” shows human relationships at their most extreme — exposed, anxiety-ridden, trying to keep a hold on things — then “I’m Old Fashioned” shows us the grace. It’s been a long time since I was as moved at the ballet as I was during Whelan and Nikolaj Hubbe’s pas de deux last night. Here, at last, were adults encountering each other in the fullness of who they were — pensive, cautious at times, a little goofy, totally in love. What made it so moving was that she, this whole woman, was responding to him, this whole man, and vice versa; because we could see them thinking, their gestures had depth and purpose, and their smiles when they looked at each other were all the more welcome and authentic. They were ENGAGED; you could see them really meeting each other in the moment. An extraordinary moment it was, too — I’ve rarely seen Whelan so deep and alive, as if she was letting us into her secret world. How wonderful it was, at the end of the evening, to be told a story about dignity and respect and graciousness, a story of adults encountering each other, and one that, in its very simplicity, whispered a truth in the ear of the audience, and carried us away. That’s ballet with a soul, ballet for OUR souls, and it couldn’t be further from the sweet immaturity of Kevin O’Day.

The Jill Johnston Letter, Volume 2, Number 6: Complete Surrender

jill dancing for warholFrom the DI Archives and the recent Museum of Modern Art exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done: Andy Warhol, “Jill and Freddy Dancing,” 1963. 16mm film (black and white, silent), 4 minutes. Original film elements preserved by the Museum of Modern Art Collections of the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Contribution the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2007 Jill Johnston

First published on the Dance Insider on in 2007. Today’s re-publication is made possible by Dance Insider co-Principal Sponsor Freespace Dance

When Gerald Ford died I learned that his wife Betty was once a Martha Graham auxiliary and that she had her own dance company in Grand Rapids. When her husband became president, her new press secretary asked her what she could do for her, and Betty said, “I don’t know, what am I supposed to do?” I clipped the color photo of her at the Washington Cathedral service being escorted to her seat by Mr. Bush, whose wife and parents look on around him. It’s a great shot. You can count 24 people in three rows, eight of them the living presidential couples, all in identical photo-darkgray suits and dresses, and turning to look at the new widow, except for Hillary, who hasn’t turned and is staring downward. She’s wedged between Bill and Chelsea, only a piece of her head visible. Barbara Bush, in the forefront, tilts hers slightly and wears an expression of pained sympathy. Laura Bush looks a little stunned, like, “Is that what’s going to happen to me?” Betty is really old and not her former self. I can see her dancing though. I suppose after she was done with Martha and Grand Rapids she did the Chubby Checker Twist like the rest of us. I was once an auxiliary of sorts myself, however to Martha’s competitor Jose Limon. At a holiday season party someone told me they thought I had been a dancer. I said no no, I was an auxiliary. In that capacity all I did for Jose, besides taking his classes on West 57th Street for four years, was fill in for one of his three premier females at a single rehearsal. Betty Ford first studied with Graham at the Bennington Summer School of the Dance — in 1936. A decade and a half later, when the Summer School had moved to Connecticut College in New London, I endured some classes with Graham myself, easily a terrifying experience. So when someone dies, you find things out. I scan the papers very selectively. In the case of Saddam Hussein, hanged by our government (to be elliptical about it) December 30, only four days after the death of Betty’s husband Gerald, I plundered the write-ups on him for scraps describing his early life, and found a whole “narrative” of about a dozen unsurprising facts. He was raised by a class of landless peasants, and his father deserted his mother before birth. Are these reasons to kill people? Not the way we see it. But Hussein’s first job in politics, when he was 22, was a commission to assassinate, along with nine other youths, the Iraqi general then ruling the country. “Bloodshed,” the report I read went on, “became the major theme of his life.” Rooted in a culture of tribal violence, Hussein reached the summit of his tradition upon becoming dictator — an equivalent aspiration to the “presidency” for boys in democratic systems. A great hero of Hussein’s was Stalin. We have an analogous blood-group in our lawless subculture of mafias where the gang-head is anointed “godfather.” Dictators, unlike presidents or prime ministers, have been able to murder their enemies with impunity. Now things have changed. Presidents can kill dictators and behave just like them. In order to kill with impunity however, the president has to go abroad, or I should say send people abroad to do it for him, to the dictator’s territory. He can’t do it at home yet, i.e., that we know of. He can only imprison people without due process. If JFK had been able to assassinate Castro, as planned, wouldn’t we simply have annexed Cuba? Why are we saying we want Iraqis to take over their own country after we condemned to death the man who had held them, more or less, together, and we continue to occupy them? Mr. Bush doesn’t know. His mission was accomplished when Hussein was hanged December 30. The man on whose behalf he acted is standing right behind him in the Washington Cathedral photo — his father Bush Senior. Has anyone forgotten the claim that Saddam wanted or tried to assassinate his father? Are we living in father/son dramas called governments or what? Imagine all the stories swirling around these photo-darkgray outfits. Did Betty give up dancing for the fatherless Gerald? Yes Gerald’s father, like Hussein’s, deserted his wife too. And Gerald, similarly to his stepfather after whom he was happily renamed, was asked to supplant a father called Nixon when Nixon betrayed his country. Wouldn’t Betty just have been marking time until Mr. Right came along? Dancing was never very important. And girls as ambitious as Martha Graham were rare as lemons in an orange grove. Her original competitor was not Jose Limon of course but another rare fruit, Doris Humphrey, who became Jose’s advisor when an arthritic hip stopped her from dancing. I would have been a Humphrey auxiliary had hip replacements been available then. I was solidly in the Humphrey camp, where we tribally despised the “Graham Crackers.” It would never have occurred to me that nice people like Betty were over there — across town on the East side — hugging the floor tortuously in emotive contractions. In Jose’s studio, with Doris looking on, and despite Jose’s Mexican earthiness, we were celebrating the air. It was out of the air finally that I landed and broke a fifth foot metatarsal, leaving Jose’s studio for the greater world — a room in the 42nd Street Library called the Dance Collection, which was tucked into the Music Division. One day Martha Graham’s longtime associate, advisor, musical director and publisher of the Dance Observer, Louis Horst, came into the library and asked me to write a review for him. The rest became my history, and I was no longer an auxiliary. When JFK was assassinated a few years later, the four living presidential couples and two widows in this memorial photo were leading auxiliary lives, i.e. in waiting for their futures. When Betty became first lady she lobbied successfully and proudly to have Martha Graham receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. One future I awaited myself would involve trying to understand who these people were, or what they would become, like was president or a president’s wife a calling, a directive, an accident or what? When JFK was elected — the first and nearly the last president I ever voted for — all I thought was that he and his wife looked like a beautiful couple. How could we go wrong? The Cuba mess? Heard of it; never tried to find out what it was really about. Vietnam? Very distant. The assassination? Got extremely interested, but the news behind the news was not available, and the details were soon exhausting. Quite by chance, I commemorated the event the day of the funeral with a “dance.” Curiously, in the 1960s I became a dancer, just by saying so if I wanted to — in the Dada tradition then undergoing a renasissance. I mean you could walk down the street, or do much less than that, and advertise it as a dance. Just living was dancing. I was out at Billy Kluver’s house in New Jersey for some reason, and since Andy Warhol was there also along with his camera, he shot me running around in circles in the November mud of Billy’s backyard wearing tall black boots, cutoff denims, a red jacket and a beret. A rifle, presumably Billy’s, was slung over my shoulder. At the same time, the funeral was appearing on TV in Billy’s living room. That may have been a good place to stop, but life does move us along. We know about Betty’s traumas when she was first lady and in the aftermath. Right behind Jimmy Carter in the Cathedral photo is his wife Rosalynn, her face half hidden, a sturdier woman than Betty but not nearly so fun-loving. Is that Mrs. Reagan standing behind her — in shades, at the end of the first row? I’m sorry but I’ve crossed her off, have tended to think she’s dead. I loved the California funeral on TV for her husband, though I was surely one of those who thought it was pretty dopey to elect an actor president. By now I have figured out that it’s not their fault, becoming president, but their father’s. And keep going back to the fathers’ fathers. The written JFK history is rich with them, especially his immediate one. If Hillary becomes president, and I had hoped not to mention it here, who would we blame? Her husband I guess. A number of wives around the world have pursued their husbands into the graves of presidencies. We think men die in the Senate, but look what happens to them as top gun. I voted for Bill, then regretted it the moment he followed his military into the “don’t ask don’t tell” crime against truth and thousands of our fellow citizens. Still, I favored him for having never known his father, who died in a car accident before his birth. Like Saddam and Gerald, he had special credentials for any leadership sweepstakes. I had hopes for him. But I was fooling myself because behind the unknown father stands their fathers’ fathers anyway, and if not them the whole idea of them from 4,000 years or more back. Is Hillary going to save us from this? Is it supposed to matter that she voted for the “war”? Of course it does. It means she wasn’t thinking. And if nothing else, we need someone who thinks. Which brings me to Obama, another fatherless boy, but so exotically it gives you a tremor. I cast my preemptive vote for him in a book I wrote titled “At Sea on Land,” published in 2005, having read his first memoir, “Dreams from my Father.” After a peanut grower, an actor, a lawyer (a couple of whom had also been governors), a navy pilot and a businessman, why not a writer? I know I know, Obama didn’t vote for the “war” because he wasn’t there to vote, but I’m dead certain he would not have. Now people are saying he doesn’t have enough experience to be president, but time is running out for us; and a born leader, if you recognize one, walks right into experience knowing at least that he is having one. Never mind the charisma, or admit it if you like: he’s warm, he cares about people, and he thinks internationally. If he wins, I’ll dance in complete surrender — on my new titanium hip. Lately I’ve resembled the great choreographer Doris Humphrey in her hip dotage, leaning painfully on a cane, a woman with no chance of ever dancing again. I say “complete surrender” advisedly. I found the phrase in an article about the discovery of a long-lost brother by the English novelist Ian McEwan. The story rests in my favorite realm of permanently lost fathers. A wartime mother from Reading, England, in 1942 put a want ad in a local newspaper offering her one-month-old son for adoption. Soon she was handing her newborn baby over to strangers on the Reading railroad station platform. The mother, Rose, had been having an affair with Ian McEwan’s father David, an army officer, while her husband Ernest was away at the front fighting. Two years later during the 1944 Normandy landings, Ernest died. And Rose married McEwan, with whom in 1948 she had Ian, the future novelist. The baby handed over at Reading railway station had his father’s name, David. The name of the couple adopting him was Sharp, so he became David Sharp. His new mother was another Rose. Eight years later this Rose would die. When David was 14 he discovered he was adopted, and was told only that the family “got him out of a newspaper.” Later he found the clipping, a priceless (looked at in a certain way) kind of “certificate” of origins. Squeezed between ads for musical instruments and secondhand furniture, it reads: “Wanted, Home for Baby Boy, age one month; complete surrender. — Write Box 173, Mercury, Reading.” (My italics). In later adulthood David contacted a tracing service, and located his lost family. A photo in the article shows Ian and David happily together. This may seem unrelated to my color photo of the solemn living presidents and their wives and two widows at the Cathedral ceremony for Gerald Ford. But it does explain my title, a sentiment to which I believe I should aspire.

©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please 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.