Breathless: Pina Meets the (French) Press

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the Dance Insider on June 4, 2004. To find out how you can obtain your own complete copy of the more than 2,000 critiques of performances, exhibitions, books, and films from five continents that the Dance Insider’s 150 critics have covered since 1998 in the Dance Insider Archives, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Today’s re-posting is sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance.

PARIS — “What is the source of your imagination?”

The question comes at the end of Pina Bausch’s Wednesday press conference at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt, which tonight sees the French premiere of “Nefes” (Turkish for “Breath”), Bausch’s latest site-created work for the Tanztheater Wuppertal, this one developed in Istanbul, where it premiered last year. Bausch, seemingly forever clad in black, leans her chin on one palm, her eyes rolling upwards — not in exasperation, but as if searching her head for the words — as whispy tendrils of smoke spiral from the long cigarette held in her long fingers. (Only Pina Bausch can imbue cigarette smoke with drama; one could swear the smoke is lit with its own follow spot.)

“Desire,” she answers. Then: “The desire to find the essence of a thing.”

Pina Bausch by Robin Hoffman

Pina Bausch by Robin Hoffman.

The essence of Pina Bausch, much imitated but never replicated, is not to be found in a press conference or in the morsels that one out-of-practice interviewer can salvage from such a group interview, which Bausch has consented to so that she doesn’t have to grant additional interviews; “”I’m not a big talker,” she says. “I do all my things to not talk.” (Contrast this restraint with the increasing number of choreographers of the current generation, here in Europe anyway, who seem to create “dances” so that they can talk.) But for the true Pina (and Tanztheater Wuppertal; let’s not forget those droll performer-collaborators) groupie — for whom even a three-hour spectacle, sans intermission, is not enough — the press conference can and does flesh out the process behind the work, if only a little, and amplify the artist’s motivation and creative universe.

This being France, where the schools until recently have discouraged interrogation, your humble correspondent was obliged to get things going, which he did by reminding Bausch of her remarks at the end of Chantal Akerman’s 1983 documentary (screened at the Centre Pompidou recently), “One Day Pina Asked me to….” “What do you want for the future?” the filmmaker asks. Bausch’s shoulders slacken, as if under the weight of the world, and her head dips, as she repeats gloomily, “What do I want for the future? There are so many problems in the world…. Strength.” Noting that some would say the world has even more problems now, I ask her how she would respond to the question today.

“When she asked me that question, I had more time to think of an answer,” says Bausch, dressed in black slacks, turtleneck, and jacket (discarded halfway through the 75-minute encounter), her long hair in the signature loose ponytail. “I feel still very similar because we all need a lot of strength to continue and to do and make positive efforts, and not give up. Our desire doesn’t stop, to build, create, make friendships. It doesn’t change.”

What does change for Tanztheater Wuppertal is the locale in which it creates a new spectacle. Istanbul, however, felt in one respect like a homecoming. The troupe had been there before, with “Der Fensterputzer” (The Window-Washer). “This was one of the most wonderful performances we ever had — I will never forget it,” she recounts. “There’s a scene where a dancer takes out pictures of herself when she’s small, showing them to the public; later on, all the dancers do this. And suddenly, the public also took their family pictures out and started showing them to each other.”

One might be skeptical about whether an artist, even one of the intuitive capacity of Pina Bausch, can come to know a country and city well enough to create a piece about it after a three-week residency. But the premise would be wrong, because in these site-created works, the ville is not so much the subject as the canvas, or even the wind, inflected gestures of place subtly affecting the gestures of movement and the landscape of story. “Nefes” — which uses Tom Waits as well as the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble, among other music, and even retains tango in the shape of Astor Piazzolla — is “not only about Istanbul, it’s about us in this time — what we want to express,” says Bausch. “Each time” the company creates in residency, the resulting spectacle draws “only a tiny bit from where we are working.” But material assimilated in one milieu might show up later in another piece.

“Material” might be too crass a term to describe what Bausch retains from her residencies. For instance, asked about working in Istanbul, she recalls the joy of the Wuppertal performers excited to practice their Turkish — they crammed before the trip — with the local technicians after the first rehearsal. And the interaction she wants to talk about did not involve a cultural heavy-weight, but her driver. The morsel he gave her whose essence we might find in a future work — that’s my conjecture based on how it seems to have affected her, not her promise — is the sadness of this older man when they drove past his house, which he’d sold, and around which the new owners had put a fence. Is that a feeling of loss? Is it a feeling of regret? Of finding it difficult to accept change? Is it a theme that could be expressed to sum up a libretto? Probably not, but this is precisely the matter that Bausch deals in, the inchoate; if we can’t (well, I can’t!) reproduce a linear “plot” after we see a Bausch ballet, we know there was a story, we know it took us from a to b to c (if not z), and that if we’re not changed for life — “What we do is so little,” Bausch acknowledges sadly — we’re re-oriented, or at least emerge askew from the orientation we had before the curtain went up. Before I knew — before I really knew — I wrote a clever item simply listing all the props that Bausch had utilized in a show (in fact, “Der Fensterputzer,” seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), but these are a diversion because the drama of a Bausch spectacle comes not from what was seen, but from how it alters your view, whether globally or on an intimate scale.

Also intriguing for her in Istanbul, as a source of inspiration, was that “the women in Turkey are a big mystery…. You don’t see how they look because they are covered, but you have their eyes. And you have a fantasy of how they are… underneath.”

The harsh reality for up to half of all Turkish women, according to a report issued by Amnesty International Wednesday, is that they are victims of domestic violence, including so-called “honor” killings, and that while neither the problem nor its scale are unique to Turkey, the failure of the authorities to adequately recognize and address the crime is. As “Nefes” would seem, from the program description, to treat relations between men and women, I ask Bausch if the piece addresses this aspect of their relationship in Turkey.

“There are many ways we can do a work,” Bausch begins. “I always try to find something that is similar in us — what we have together, why we can understand each other. Why music makes us sad, happy. I try to find a way to speak about this language of being together.” She never addresses something so specific as, in this case, domestic violence. But regarding domestic violence in Turkey, she says, “We know in any part of the world things like this exist.” The local producers who introduced the company to Istanbul, from the International Istanbul Theatre Festival and the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, “didn’t show us only the good sides, only the chocolate sides. They showed us where the problems are too, opposite sides. We saw poor and strange things.” And regarding the situation of women, she found that apparently, “In Turkey, all the people in important positions are women. I don’t remember any other country where women are so strong.”

The violence of our times is not confined to Turkey, and many artists in dance and theater, one questioner pointed out Wednesday, have responded to this violence by reflecting it in increasingly brutal work, while Bausch, by contrast, has become more and more positive in her creations. Why?

“It’s a reaction to this” violence, she explains. “I react different. There is a reaction because it is so terrible. It’s in each one’s hands. I thought years ago, If I now cannot once smile, I have to give up, I cannot continue. If I can help how you are with other people, to try to keep a balance…. I feel like even difficult decisions should be taken on balance. I don’t know if it’s better to all blow on the same horn about ‘How terrible it is,’ or if we need an effort to remind us it could be different.” If she is responding to carnage with roses (my words), “It’s not an escape, it’s a reaction.”

“I did a lot of things before completely different,” she adds, “but that was a different time and I felt the opposite. What we try to do is so little, and I’m happy about any result because it’s so little in relation to what you want to say. It’s never enough, but maybe that’s why I don’t stop. The past few years I’ve still felt like I can’t do anything, and yet I still tried. It’s so little, and I know. So we just try. We are little people making something small….

“I’m like a child — if somebody does something nice or smiles at me, I’m happy…. When we’re travelling, sometimes we think how lucky we are — we have so many experiences. I would like to spend my life giving back some of this beauty we have received — that I can only do with my company.”

The Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt is just across the street from the Seine; across the River on your right, you can see the Eiffel Tower, which now lights up in sparkles for ten minutes every hour after sunset. Cross the bridge just in front of you, and you’re on the Ile St. Louis, where after Pina’s early evening press conference I found myself a spot on the stone boardwalk facing Notre Dame. A soft wind was blowing, caressing the cheek and making the trees rustle like in a Corot painting. Like the wind, the effects of a Pina Bausch spectacle (or a Pina Bausch press conference, it turns out) may be invisible, but the atmosphere has been altered.

Pina Bausch’s “Nefes” (Breath), a co-production of the International Istanbul Theatre Festival and Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, receives its French premiere tonight on the Tanztheater Wuppertal at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt in Paris, where it continues through June 22. Decor and videos are by Peter Pabst, costumes by Marion Cito, and musical collaboration by Matthias Burkert and Andreas Eisenschneider.  In the Fall, Tanztheater Wuppertal brings Pina Bausch’s 2002 “For the Children of Today, Tomorrow, and the Future” to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Next spring, the Paris Opera Ballet performs Bausch’s 1975 “Orphee et Eurydice.

Advertisements

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.

 

Post-modern classics: In Paxton ‘Bound’ and Jingju Peking Circus ‘Women Generals,’ a tale of two countries’ attitudes towards dance preservation

paxton boundJurij Konjar in Steve Paxton’s “Bound.” Nada Zgank photo copyright Nada Zgank and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003, 2119 Paul Ben-Itzak

(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 October 26, 2015. 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 . To become a DI/AV sponsor and receive linked sponsor credit in this space for as little as $36, you can make a donation through PayPal in US $ or Euros by designating your donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Today’s re-publication of this Flash Review is made possible by Freespace Dance.)

PARIS — What do the aesthetics of Steve Paxton and the Peking Opera have to do with each other? When performed by, respectively, Jurij Konjar and the Jingju Theatre of Beijing, as they were last week at the Theatre de la Ville – Abbesses and the Theatre de la Ville Sarah Bernhardt, virtuosity and engagement.

When I asked His Judson Eminence after last Thursday’s opening of the 1982 solo “Bound” (continuing through October 27) what distinguished it from his earlier work, he answered: “Spectacle.” When I asked which parts of the 55-minute piece were up to the performer to create, he smiled like the Sphinx and answered: “The dance.” While the humility of this response, from the inventor of a form of dance, Contact Improvisation, wildly popular in France but for which the 76-year-old creator no doubt gets no royalties, is admirable, it does raise the question of variability: In the hands of a less expressive, inventive, intuitively droll, supple, smart, and well-trained interpreter of Paxton’s intentions and design than the 37-year-old (for improvisation, the perfect conjuncture, in which mental maturity and comprehension still has at its disposal a capable vehicle to execute its intentions) Konjur, who trained at Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s P.A.R.T.S. school in Brussels before working with the Ballets C de la B and Boris Charmatz, might the choreographic elements have been less imaginative? The question is partially answered by the slim results when La De Keersmaeker herself apparently left her much younger charges to come up with the moves for her recent “Golden Hours.” And the dancer-dancemakers for that farce (in the ‘rip-off’ sense of the term) had a whole text to work with, Shakespeare’s “As you like it.” But if Paxton doesn’t give his performer a text per se, he definitely furnishes a rule book. It’s easy to forget when Contact Improvisation has become the biggest excuse for aimless and indulgent noodling around that dance has ever seen, but his system for creating dances is as rigorous as those devised by Petipa, Balanchine, and Forsythe. (And a lot more original than recent Forsythe, which regurgitates Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown.) If the choreography is not set, there are still, Paxton explained to me, musical and scenographic parameters, or put more simply certain tasks that the dancer has to undertake at certain times. Imagine this structure as a scaffold. How the dancer gets to the top (or the bottom from the top) is up to him, but he has to make contact with certain points at certain junctures and arrive by the end at a fixed terminus.

For “Bound,” the physical terrain was circumscribed from the beginning by four planks marked along the side by different colors of tape later sometimes predictably arranged as see-saws, but also arrayed and balanced creatively as abstract art. A screen upstage center became a tapestry whose projected kaleidoscope formed a military pattern when Konjar stood in front of it, probably because of the fatigue formed a military pattern when Konjar stood in front of it, probably because of the fatigue shorts he sported over red pants, the ensemble rounded out by a white shirt, Lennon-esque shades and a bathing cap which made him look like an Olympic swimmer circa 1920, the shorts revealed after he stepped out of a box which had been hung from his shoulders by suspenders so that it covered his mid-section. When I asked Paxton later what differentiated “Bound” from his pioneering Judson work, he answered that he wanted to do more “Spectacle,” and Konjar sets that tone right away. This is no blasé post-mod performer who seems to be pretending the audience isn’t there, but an interpreter determined to engage us, to get us to shut off our cell phones and stop zapping and surfing and watch one man taking the time to create a world out of very few elements, pointedly utilized. Mid-spectacle, he brings onstage a wooden rocking chair and a darker mahogony newspaper bin simply to rock them one by one as he sits between them in his box, only his trunk visible. This arrived, as I recall, during a musically quiet moment, but even when it came to responding to the pure music, the Bulgarian State Women’s Choir, and sound effects — resembling first traffic noise, later garbled military commands to a helicopter pilot — Konjar, as directed by Paxton, once again defied what one often expects from a post-modern dancer and actually seemed to be responding to the score, moving lyrically to the Bulgarian adagio sections, swerving around in traffic to the car noise, parading during martial horn music, and frantic and alienated during the military maneuvers.

I was even more startled about the eminent watchability and appeal of this 55-minute piece when Paxton informed me afterwards that for its creation, he had no “outer eye.” It was mostly “thought up” while he was on tour, ahead of the Rome premiere. Given that the choreography can dramatically diverge from night to night, he explained, he was also lucky in the reconstruction of the dance to have recovered two videos capturing radically different outcomes.

This leads to my one gripe, which has less to do with Paxton than the dance world’s lack of care in preserving its own legacies. If one is to believe the promotional material for “Bound,” if not for the fortuitous discovery of the video recordings, this master-work which opens up a multi-dimensional understanding of a critical dance forefather would have been lost. It was not notated. Contrary to the ludicrous, ill-informed, ignorant assumptions proffered by the journal of the Festival d’Automne, which co-produced this presentation with the Theatre de la Ville, it is not a given that there’s no such thing as preserving the original version of a dance. Not just ballet but also modern mavens like Martha Graham and Paul Taylor have been notated. With a dance whose kinetic core is flexible, the task is not so different; the notator would record the ground rules, structure, and props, and then attend several performances or rehearsals to save the variants, already an improvement on video because the methode de travail itself is preserved, not just one performance.

And yet in dance, there seems to be not simply an illusory exaltation that the art is ephemeral, as if this impermanence is a value to be vaunted and boasted about because as each performance is gone forever when it’s over, you will never see it again, therefore, you have been privileged, but a confounding of the uniqueness of a performance and of an interpretation with the oeuvre itself. Paint is liquid too, but what painter would be happy if his work never dried and kept getting smudged over the years? Freedom of interpretation (by interpreter and audience) can only endure if the work itself is preserved and lasts.

Jingio Theatre Peking Theater CircusJingju Theatre’s Zhang Shu Jing in “The Women Generals of the Yang Family,” directed by Shen Jia Xin. DR photo courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

While they certainly didn’t have video in the 12th century, on Wednesday at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt the Jingju Theatre of Beijing and director Shien Jia Xin were somehow able to resurrect the nearly thousand-year old but surprisingly contemporary “The Women Generals of the Yang Family,” no doubt in part because while there may not be a Judson department at Juilliard, there’s still a Peking Opera school in China. Like Paxton, Jingju primes the delectably slow and like Konjar, its interpreters prime the well-articulated and etched gesture. The whole first half of the two-hour, 15-minute show was taken up with his warrior brothers and widow (the divine Li En Jie, who doubles as a sort of narrator in high-pitched song) summoning up the courage to tell the 100-year-old Wang clan matriarch (the sprightly Shen Wen Li) that her grandson has been felled by an enemy arrow defending the country from invaders, and in the grandmother’s campaign to convince the prince to let her and the eight widows of her other warrior grandsons lead the campaign to repulse the enemy. And it took almost the whole second half for an expeditionary squad lead by Li to find the high-mountain drawbridge which allowed them to surprise the far more numerous invading army. If this part was punctuated by some acrobatics — somersaults and meticulously choreographed sword, spear, and bow and arrow battles, often crowned with flourishes of brown peacock feathers streaming from the contestants’ helmets — the dose, particularly when the sublimely graceful warrier the general Zhang Shu Jing was charged with the battle-task, was parceled out just sparingly enough so that one never got the impression that the story was just an excuse for the circus tricks and schticks. And the athleticism wasn’t confined to these displays; when the performers weren’t walking about with splayed feet, they were balancing on high platforms.

Not only was Li’s singing/story-telling exquisite, so was her acting, both in an opening segment in which she struggles to keep her husband’s death secret from the grandmother, reluctant to lift a ceremonial glass of wine for a birthday toast to a man she knows is dead, then faltering before being lead off, and in a sword and spear fight with her son (Chen Yu) to determine whether he’s capable enough to join the crusade. “Mom!” he complains as she continues to dominate. “How am I going to be able to join the expedition if you don’t let me win?!”

Holding up the comedy element was Li Yang’s invading king, whose frustrated sputterings from beneath a long black beard and behind a heavy mask or very thick make-up as the women continued to defeat his male minions sounded a lot like Curly Howard.

One of the many miracles from all the Peking-Opera trained performers was that their facial expressions managed to be nuanced and expressive under layers of make-up so thick that if their mouths hadn’t clearly been moving, I’d have thought they were wearing masks. The dramatic oomph of their delivery was helped by the immaculate timing of the music and sound effects being played — humbly, offstage — by Ma Shuai, Qin Qin, Zhen Rui Fen, Wang Xiao Dan, Ai Zao Sheng, Zhang Ye, Ding Rui, Yin Hang, Sun Yu, and Wang Song Hai. Indeed the timing was so well-synchronized with the onstage performers, at first I thought it was a recording.

During the intermission, the Chinese-Frenchman sitting next to me — judging by their presence in the audience, the Theatre de la Ville did a great job of promoting this engagement, part of a mini-festival “Focus on China,” among the French Chinese community — told me that for the Chinese, respecting one’s parents is vital, moreso than in Western cultures. Comparing the deliberate preservation of this 1,000-year-old oeuvre with the accidental preservation of the work of a vital American ‘ancestor’ like Paxton seems to confirm this observation.

Thanks to Denise Luccioni for her help in understanding Steve Paxton’s ground rules, and as always to Robin Hoffman for help in understanding the importance and fundamentals of dance notation and preservation.  

Redemption Song: For Roland Petit and the Paris Opera Ballet, the Charm of ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’ is in the Details

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

(Last night and this morning a fire destroyed two thirds of the rafters and cross-beams of Notre-Dame. If the church — first constructed 800 years ago with a message of redemption — is still standing this morning, said France’s deputy interior minister, it’s because a group of heroic fireman risked their lives to enter the building and work to put the fire out. As of this morning, Notre-Dame’s two towers were still standing; it’s storied gargoyles had already been put in storage to facilitate the renovation work that may have precipitated the fire, no doubt spurred on by the relentless Spring winds which have been buffeting Paris. This Flash was first published on October 10, 2001. It’s re-publication today is sponsored by Freespace Dance, presenting Freespace Dance 2019 40+ at the space at Yoga Mechanics in  Montclair, New Jersey.)

PARIS — As spectacles go, you can’t get much more spectacular than Roland Petit’s 1965 ballet “Notre-Dame de Paris,” based on Victor Hugo’s novel and created for the Paris Opera Ballet and performed by the POB from etoiles to corps with gusto last night at the Garnier, as its opening production of the season. As I suspect that this ballet and its creator are less new to many of our readers than to myself, who was encountering both for the first time, I’m not going to describe the libretto in detail. I don’t even know that, having not seen enough other interpretations to formulate a base-line, it’s fair for me to evaluate the principal interpreters of last night’s performance. Because we have rather been plagued by new story ballets in recent years, however (“Othello,” “Pied Piper,” “Snow Maiden,” and more Draculas than there are corps maidens to feed them), I would like to comment on what Petit, a past and present master of spectacle, teaches us about how to make the form not just work, but work on our emotions.

In a word, it’s in the details.

It seems to me that in spectacles like Lar Lubovitch’s “Othello” (a plodding, over-produced, over-costly, under-choreographed behemoth wisely absent from American Ballet Theatre’s repertoire the last couple of years, not so wisely retained by San Francisco Ballet), the choreographers and producers became so pre-occupied with the spectacular, they forgot that it takes more than rich effects to make a story. Thus in Othello, Lubovitch essentially gave us two hours of flailing, including perhaps the biggest waste of a diamond dancer (Desmond Richardson) ever seen on the ballet stage. So what if the ice-like block of scenery at the rear of the stage cost three-quarters of a million dollars? The choreography was cheap, and ABT was definitely cheated on the music. John Harbison’s haunting yet lush music for David Parsons’s “Pied Piper,” on the other hand, was a perfect match of composer to subject. Parsons’s choreography, however, notwithstanding a promising prelude featuring three generations of pipers, borrowed mercilessly from his older works (created on and for modern dancers). Heartfelt, complex portrayals in the title role by Hector Cornejo and Angel Corella elevated the principal choreography to something better than the sum of its parts, but the story and Parsons delivered less than their potential.

In “Notre-Dame de Paris,” based on the Victory Hugo novel more typically translated in the U.S. as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” we are provided with the potential for grandeur and intimacy, and Petit delivers on at least one of these levels, and the more important one. And in the Paris Opera dancers, who have this story and that poet in their blood memory, he couldn’t have found better vessels.

What struck me — and I use that word “struck” literally, for it hit me as a blow — most about Petit’s choreography for the four principals, as they were interpreted last night, was that it is Quasimoto who emerges as the most human of the quartet. As portrayed by Wilfried Romoli — and I use that phrase guardedly, having no other interpretations for comparison and thus handicapped from distinguishing the interpeter from his material — Quasimoto is not so much “a hunchback,” as dehumanizing as reducing a man to such a description can be, but a noble soul trapped in a body that can’t quite meet, or can’t quite rise to, the elevated level of his soul and aspirations and heroic and romantic inclinations. He does, in fact, often, regularly straighten his spine and rise, but can only stay straight for a fleeting moment, before, almost ritually, collapsing on bent knees, his right arm pulling his shoulder down (the hunch, in a just-right choice, is communicated not by an actual hunch in the actor-dancer’s back, but by the way he carries and arrays the rest of his body, most notably the arms and a constantly drooping shoulder), his lower arm left to swing, lifelessly and out of his control, back and forth, its fingers splayed.

Indeed, the most compelling moment for me arrives in a sort of role-reversed Rose Adagio: Technically Quasimoto is lifting heroine Esmeralda’s arm and hand so that she can lift one leg up and stand on just one pointe; but really, it is she that is lifting him so that he can stand up straight, as becomes clear when they release and he automatically crumples and re-hunches. (And is also a nice contrast with the arch deacon Frolo’s treatment of Quasimoto, manifest in his constantly pushing him down into a hunch.)

This passage is delivered in what is also the ballet’s romantic pay-off, the final duet between Quasi and Esmeralda, who he has secured — only tenuously, it turns out — in the church, having just saved her from the gallows. Both Romoli and Marie-Agnes Gillot, last night’s and the opening night’s Esmeralda, deliver. I didn’t know quite how to evaluate Gillot’s interpretation at first, and proceed now only haltingly because of the afore-mentioned lack of any baseline — specifically, to be able to know what is the responsibility of the ballerina-actress, and what can be attributed to the choreography. For example, in her first appearance, aptly telegraphed by a solitary tambourine (played with gusto by a soloist of the Orchestre Colonne, as was the entire Maurice Jarre score, conducted by Paul Connelly), Gillot’s Esmeralda struck me as rather cold and constrained for a Gypsy Dancer. It might also have been her white tight short skirt designed by Yves Saint-Laurent, whose costumes overall affected me as almost too sleek and modern for a tale driven by such raw individual and crowd passions. (Rene Allio’s stage designs, on the other hand, were much more appropriately medieval.)

But my first impression may have been wrong. First, I do have something of a baseline for evaluating Gillot, having seen her last season in Angelin Preljocaj’s “Annonciation,” and she has no shortage in the passion department — if anything, the opposite! But more important, as the ballet progressed, she displayed that greatest and rarest of acting gifts — she seemed to be responding and reacting to her progressive partners and in a way suitors, her temperament changing based on what they gave her. Thus, to Jose Martinez’s Frollo — he’s the supposedly tormented arch deacon whose passions get the best of him and wreak the death ultimately of Esmeralda and her suitor Phoebus, a captain of the guards — she teases a little, but is ultimately and reliably cold. (I say “supposedly tormented” because Jose Martinez’s portrayal, while using his pristine dancing articulation, particularly his scissory legs, to great effect to portray his evil, was otherwise one-dimensional. One didn’t see any struggle.) She instantly warms to Phoebus (Karl Paquette, physically the spitting image of ABT’s Ethan Stiefel) when he rescues her from Quasimoto (who is reluctantly pursuing her on orders of Frollo, who has become obsessed with her), but as instantly draws away from him when he is easily seduced by harlot-dancers (rather ridiculously costumed with obviously false huge breasts) in a tavern, who strip him until he looks like a Chippendale. But it’s not too hard for him to convince her of his devotion, and he strips her too, which is followed by a slow seduction scene haunted by Frollo, who, when he’s not meditating on his murderous course, constantly insinuates himself into the duet in place of Phoebus, who seems not to see him until Frollo stabs him.

But it’s Quasimoto who ultimately, gradually, wins her heart, and in revealing the effect he’s having on her Gillot is savoringly subtle. She begins to question her fear of him when he turns from pursuer to potential rescuer, early, in the world of shadows amongst the cut-throats and other undesireables, tentatively reaching an arm out to him as he hunches protectively between her and the mob. With careful, mindful ceremony, she glides towards him on pointe, her hands cupped with food or water after he is beaten by Phoebus’s men. When he almost savagely (though gratefully) laps the sustenance from her palms, rather than shirk at this contact, she sends her hands twinkling up, the separated fingers quivering. (The splayed fingers by the way is a leitmotif, perhaps the main, for Petit. Everybody, from Quasi to the other principals — Frollo often turning away from the others and gripping his back — to the corps who reacts to the action by shaking their arms and hands up, freezing them, and lowering them, uses the motif.) Far from recoiling, this reaction in her hands, reverberating down her body to her on-pointe toes as she glides away in the scene’s final moment, indicates that he has affected her.

In the church, Esmeralda has finally made the journey from pitying Quasimoto to seeing him as a playmate. When she does display compassion — for example, on beholding him repeatedly trying to straighten his spine and flourish his arms like a swain, only to crumple — it’s no longer pity, but the true empathetic sorrow of a woman for her lover. Again, here her own body reacts, her spine slumping ever so slightly, but enough in her otherwise straight-up body to make the point.

It’s an exquisite duet, which ends with as close an indication of coupling as is possible, as he lifts her on her back, she wraps her arms around his neck, nestles her head on his, and flexes her legs out at his side as he flexes his arms, before he, this time, doesn’t crumple but gently lowers himself and bends his back, placing her lengthwise on it, before setting her to the ground and leaving her to a contented sleep.

Alas, it’s not to last. Frollo and fate intervene as soon as he leaves her, the priest torturing her (and, perplexingly, tormenting her mentally as well — with her and with all, in fact, Frollo seems to have the power of a wizard who can direct people just by his will, Myrtha-like, in this scene making her dance herself to exhaustion…. I didn’t quite get this power, whether he had it and why) and this time, removing her from the sanctuary and delivering her to the gallows.

It’s a tragic moment, but somehow the duet Petit has created, and which Gillot and Romoli gave so convincingly and with such chemistry last night, made us almost forget the gallows by the time the ultimate moment arrived a moment later, and we saw Quasimoto lift his dying bride, flinging her arms around him repeatedly while he walked heavily upstage into the light coming from the rafters, until her head finally dropped to one side, her hair under it. The moment was at the same time tragic and triumphant, signifying that she was his bride, and that they both found love before she died.

The Paris Opera Ballet performs Roland Petit’s “Notre-Dame de Paris” again tonight, Thursday and Friday 7:30 p.m., and Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m.

Everything you always wanted to know about Dance & Sex but were afraid to ask, 2: Corpus Displayum — A Dialogue on the Power of Sex in Dance

By & copyright 2000, 2019 Asimina Chremos
& Paul Ben-Itzak

(To receive the complete article, first published on May 25, 2000, subscribers please e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for one year for just $36/year or $21 or Euros for students, as attested to by a copy of your student I.D., by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check, and receive full access to all new articles plus our 20-year archive of 2000 reviews by 150 critics of performances and art exhibits on five continents.)

Time to board the ark? All aboard avec Malandain Ballet Biarritz at the House of Danse (review in French and English)

malandin noe coverMalandain Ballet Biarritz’s Miyuki Kanei and Daniel Vizcayo in Thierry Malandain’s “Noé” (Noah). Photo copyright Olivier-Houeix and courtesy Maison de la Danse.

par Anne-Charlotte Schoepfer
Copyright 2019 Anne-Charlotte Schoepfer

(English version follows. Today’s online publication of the complete review, in English and French, is sponsored  by Freespace Dance. See Freespace Dance perform and then party with the company February 23 at the Space at Yoga Mechanics in Montclair, New Jersey, lovely this time of year.  More info here.  To find out about sponsorship opportunities with the Dance Insider, the leading voice for dancers since 1998, contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .)

LYON — Les vingt danseurs du Malandain Ballet Biarritz provoquent un déluge à la Maison de la Danse avec leur nouvelle pièce “Noé,” vu le 26 decembre. Thierry Malandain, figure de la danse néo-classique en France, s’est souvent approprié des grands classiques de la littérature pour ses pièces. Les plus récentes étant “La belle et la bête” en 2016, “Cendrillon” en 2013 ou encore “Roméo et Juliette” en 2010. Avec “Noé,”(Noah) il relève le défi encore une fois et il réussit à faire d’un mythe religieux un puissant un ballet moderne plein d’humanité.

La pièce, qui dure 1h10, est plus abstraite que les dernières adaptations dans le sens ou elle est moins racontée et collee a l’histoire. La narration est moins présente, ce qui permet de moins diriger le spectateur et de plus le laisser vaquer à son imagination. Pour illustrer le déluge, un grand rideau de perles turquoises entoure une scène entièrement bleue. Ce décor simple et efficace crée par Jorge Gallardo met les corps en valeur.

Et quels corps… La technique des danseurs de la compagnie est précise et poignante. Il y a bien des tableaux dans l’écriture du spectacle mais les chorégraphies s’enchainent dans un rythme effréné, on est totalement emportés par les mouvements. L’écriture chorégraphique est précise et saisissante : les corps s’entremêlent dans des pas de deux renversants et ils traversent l’espace avec une force fulgurante. Le style est dans la continuité du travail du chorégraphe : une base classique forte et une réinterprétation des mouvements plus moderne. Il utilise par exemple des techniques de sol très contemporaines. Les changements de formation sont vifs et pointus. Le génie de Thierry Malandain se trouve dans sa gestion de l’espace scénique.

L’inspiration pour l’interprétation des danseurs a de multiples facettes : tantôt puissante et bestiale pour illustrer les espèces animales présentes dans le bateau, tantôt légère et poétique avec par exemple l’amour d’Adam et Eve.

Tout le ballet est chorégraphié sur la musique de Rossini “Messa Di Gloria.” Ce qui rend les corps encore plus présents lorsqu’ils se mêlent aux voix puissantes de l’œuvre liturgique.

J’ai vraiment apprécié, pour une compagnie néoclassique, que tous les danseurs soient mis en valeur équitablement dans un esprit de groupe et de communion. Il y a bien sûr une hiérarchie au sein de l’histoire comme avec les deux rôles principaux : Noé interprété par Mickaël Conte et Emzara interprétée par Irma Hoffren. Mais ces derniers ne prennent pas toute la place dans l’histoire. Les autres interprètes sont aussi importants et les ensembles avec les vingt danseurs réunis restent les moments les plus émouvants de la pièce.

Je pense que c’est par ces détails que Thierry Malandain réussit à moderniser la technique classique et à adapter une telle œuvre aujourd’hui. On est loin du cliché religieux et on est totalement saisi par la dimension humaniste et
universelle de l’histoire.

malandin noe oneMalandain Ballet Biarritz’s Hugo Layer and Claire Lonchampt in Thierry Malandain’s “Noé” (Noah). Photo copyright Olivier-Houeix and courtesy Maison de la Danse.

By Anne-Charlotte Schoepfer
Copyright 2019 Anne-Charlotte Schoepfer

LYON — The 20 dancers of Malandain Ballet Biarritz provoked a veritable deluge at the Maison de la Danse with their new piece “Noé” (Noah), seen December 26. Thierry Malandain, a fixture of the French neo-classical dance scene, has frequently appropriated the major classics of literature for his work, most recently the 2016 “Beauty and the Beast,” the 2013 “Cinderella” and the 2010 “Romeo and Juliette.” With “Noé,” Malandain is once more up to the challenge, succeeding in weaving a religious myth into a powerful ballet full of humanity.

The dance, which clocks in at just 70 minutes, is more abstract than Malandain’s previous adaptations in the sense that the choreography is more or less simply sketched out and pasted on to the history. The narrative element is less present, which enables the spectator to feel less manipulated and let the imagination take off. To illustrate the flood, for example, a grand curtain of turquoise pearls surrounds an entirely blue stage. This simple and efficient scenery, created by Jorge Gallardo, highlights the bodies.

And what bodies! The dancers’ technique is precise and poignant. The composition of the show certainly includes fixed tableaux but the choreography flies by so swiftly, with one gesture shifting into the next, that we’re swept away by the movement. The choreographic composition is precise and gripping: the bodies intermingle in jaw-dropping pas des deux and traverse the space with lightning force. The style is in the continuity of the choreographer’s usual approach, built on a strong classical base and a reinterpretation of more modern movement, for example by tapping into contemporary floor techniques. The changing of space is sharp and shrill. Thierry Malandin’s genius  finds itself in the way he manages the stage space.

The inspired interpretation of the dancers reveals many facets: at times powerful and animal — for instance when it comes to depicting the animals present on the ark — at others light and poetic, as in the portrayals of the love between Adam and Eve.

The entire ballet is set to Rossini’s “Messa Di Gloria,” rending the bodies that much more present when they mix it up with the powerful voices delivering the liturgical oeuvre.

I really appreciated seeing a neo-classical company in which all the dancers were equitably put on the same plane in an ensemble spirit of communion, harkening the spirit of Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. There’s certainly a hierarchy when it comes to the narrative, as with the two principal roles: Noah interpreted by Mickaël Conte and Emzara by Irma Hoffren. But these last don’t take up all the space in the story. The other dancers are equally important and the ensemble sections, with 20 dancers reunited on the stage, remain the most moving moments of the dance.

It’s with details like this that Thierry Malandain has succeeded in modernizing the classical technique and in adapting such a substantial oeuvre today. We’re a long way from the religious cliché and completely gripped by the humanist and universal dimensions of the story.

Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak, with Anne-Charlotte Schoepfer

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.