Slaves to the Rhythm: Kuchipudi Kulture

shivalingappa cover

Copyright 2010, 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

Among the many losses the Paris dance scene suffered with the departure and then death of Gerard Violette was the long-time Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt director’s commitment to a multitude of Indian (and Pakistani) forms of music and dance. (A commitment to world dance that has since been replaced at the theatre Violette lead or co-lead for 40 years by the self-hating aesthetic of the Centre National de la Danse which Violette’s successor relies on for his dance programming, and which leaves little room for authentic, non-ironic world forms, notably from the Indian sub-continent and Spain.) Sol Hurok had nothing on Gerard Violette. Typical of that programming was this concert by the virtuosa Shantala Shivalingappa (and friends), first reviewed on the DI on October 28, 2004. To read about another Indian choreographer, the late Ranjabati Sircar, more in the traditional – contemporary veine — click here. Today’s re-publication is sponsored by Freespace Dance.

PARIS — I don’t know about your Tuesday night, but mine started with the Belgian man from Gent singing from the piano inside his open van on the Place des Abbesses in the heart of Montmartre and ended with a coked-up man from who know’s where chasing me down a dark street above the Moulin Rouge to the upper reaches of the rue des Martyrs (tracing the route Van Gogh once took to hawk his “Potato Peelers” to the Goupil Gallery on the Grands Boulevards), where I began to feel like one. In between there was Shantala Shivalingappa at the Theatre de la Ville aux Abbesses, an Indian dancer in the Kuchipudi mode intent on giving thanks for the simple blessings still ours for the asking even as the world hovers on the precipice.

I’d been avoiding concerts in the traditional Indian mode, not because they aren’t my cup of tea (especially if it’s chai tea!) but because I don’t feel my training as a critic matches these artists’ training in the various forms that come from that country. I am but a pauper babbling feeble prayers at their temple. I made an exception in the case of Shivalingappa because she had knocked my socks off in Pina Bausch’s “Nefes” (“Breath”). In addition to the precision and articulation in her fingers, which we know from other Indian forms, Shivalingappa added — in her Tanztheater Wuppertal appearance — flight.

This also turns out to be the case in the Paris premiere of “Shiva Ganga,” an evening of choreography in the Kuchipudi school or style, accompanied by live music. (Most of the choreography is by Shivalingappa, except for the opening sun worship, by Master Vempati Chinna Satyam, and a dance inspired by the god Ganesha by Kishore Mosalikanti.) Landing on plié — ouch! — or ending the evening simply spinning lyrically, back and head hunched, in a small circle — she is feather light.

But what stands out in “Shiva Ganga” is the mutual respect and relationship between music and dance. Much as in a flamenco concert, the most intriguing dynamic going on here is not necessarily the one confined to the dancer-choreographer’s body, but the one circulating between her and the ensemble of five musicians, including two soloist singers, a flautist, a percussionist and someone (like his instrument, unidentified in the program as far as I could see) on a string-like instrument that produced the underlying drone.

By far the heart of the evening, rhythmically, musically, and choreographically arrives with the extended play “Talamelam.” If you’ve listened to UK- based Indian fusion artist and pop star Sheila Chandra — specifically, “Speaking in Tongues I” and “Speaking in Tongues II” from “Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices” on Real World — or seen Sean Curran’s 1999 “Symbolic Logic,” set to remixes of the Chandra recordings, you’re familiar with the type of rhythm excursion this dance diva and her collaborators take us on. In fact, as Chandra points out in her liner notes, the sound and syllables of the musical composition relate not just to the mrdingam and tabla instruments, but “draw upon the patterns of rhythm used in South Indian dance.”

In her program notes for the evening’s musical and choreographic riff on this theme, Shivalingappa explains, “If melody is the body of Indian music, rhythm is its heart. In India, one says: ‘Melody is the mother, and rhythm is the father’ of the music. It’s the same for dance. The rhythmic system, tala, is an independent discipline, with a complex and subtle technique, finely developed. In effect, the innate mathematical sense of the Indian spirit endows it with a great rigor.”

All forms of classical Indian dance have pursued the tala rhythm, each developing its own personal language, Shivalingappa elaborates. For the form she’s schooled in — Kuchipudi — these investigations take the form of rhythmic variations in the voice and on the percussion instruments, a game or conversation in the rhythmic language, and a conversation which finishes with a dialogue between the dancer and the mrdingam player. Or, as she puts it, “The beating of the feet respond to the virtuosity of the fingers.” This conversation gives the dancer the opportunity to demonstrate the different positions of the Kuchipudi form.

“Talamelam,” the segment in “Shiva Ganga” which features this conversation, begins with a musical section created and directed by Savitry Nair and navigated by the rhythmic creations of B.P. Haribabu. Like the vowels between the consonants that book-ended his emissions, this pure music section was elongated — not just a musical introduction to a dance but a work of virtuosity in its own right. When Shivalingappa enters, the responses in her feet — as elsewhere in the program — demonstrate that for this form, all muscles and landing surfaces of the feet are called into service. Sometimes she balances on the balls, sometimes on the toes; sometimes her feet are simply flat. At other junctures, she arches both feet while maintaining the balls and toes on the ground, then bending at the waist and looking up mischievously at the musicians. In fact, it’s this personal regard — toward her collaborators in this section, and in winking asides to the audience throughout the program — that make dance like this such a tonic in a European environment too-often dominated by disinterested post-modern dance in which the performers seem to try to make like they don’t know the audience is there.

Before I saw this dance, I was impressed by the musicality of Curran’s effort to the similar Chandra chants, but there’s a difference between dancing on the surface of the music and engaging its soul and burrowing into its sonic meaning, and Shivalingappa and the musicians taught me that.

The only miss, for me, came later, when Shivalingappa squeezed her feet into and balanced on a wobbly disk-shaped basket at center stage; the awkward way in which she shuffled it forward was the one note lacking grace in the entire evening, a ‘prop’ dance we could have done without.

“What’s Dachau?”: Passing Over With Pilobolus Dance Theater & Sendak

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on April 19, 2000. The principal subject of this Flash — and the question above — is, unfortunately, still relevant today, in the wake of the 13 anti-Semitic terrorist attacks which have taken place in the New York metropolitan area alone over the past several weeks, at least one of them, at a Kosher deli in Jersey City, with deadly results. Today’s publication, in this revised version, is sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. (As an indication of how the DI primed exploiting the nascent Internet medium to provide our readers with supplementary information with an immediacy print couldn’t provide, we’ve included the original external links. If they no longer work, please address the sources. We also primed overnight “Flash Reviews”; the one below was written on three hours sleep after a midnight train from Jersey to NY, probably for a 7 a.m. deadline before which I — and our redoubtable webmistress Robin Hoffman — also had to edit and post two other Flashes. So to paraphrase Kate Bush: Be kind to my longeur.)

PRINCETON, N.J. — March 16, a gallery opening in Chelsea: I stand before a photograph called “Wall of Death, Dachau.” The middle-aged woman besides me asks her friend: “What’s Dachau?” April 11, a courtroom in London: British “historian” David Irving loses his libel case against U.S. author Deborah Lipstadt, who he accused of falsely portraying him as a Holocaust denier. Irving claims no Jews were gassed at Auschwitz and that Hitler didn’t know about the mass killings of Jews. April 12, the Metropolitan Museum: Museum director Philippe de Montebello releases an extraordinary list of 393 European paintings of “incomplete provenance” from the World War II era. Notwithstanding de Montebello’s statement that “this is not a list of suspect pictures,” the action is in response to recent outings of works in prominent museums alleged to have been stolen from Jews by the Nazis. April 18, 4:30 p.m., Princeton: Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, tells an audience about the “intolerable trauma that occurs when the imagination experiences a chasm without the intellectual… ability to scan it.” 9:10 p.m., Princeton: Pilobolus, Maurice Sendak, and Arthur Yorinks try to give us a language, in dance and drama and pictures, to understand the Holocaust, reprising their 1999 dance “A Selection” at the McCarter Theater.

What makes “A Selection” troubling — and provides its intellectual girth — is that, for much of the dance, anyway, who the villain is is not clear. On the surface, it must be Otis Cook, a slithery, rubbery, twisted, earthy, perverted, deranged figure who enters ominously, a coat over his head, after the rest of the personae, a sort of family, have missed the last train out of the war-torn city indicated by Sendak’s backdrop of a city aflame, evoking the landscape of Chagall’s “White Jesus.” One by one, Cook tries to separate individuals from the group: giving money to Josie Coyoc’s little girl, obsessively trying to shake hands with a suspicious Gaspard Louis, making a move on the personnage who might be the mother of the group, Rebecca Anderson. Only Matt Kent, as a father figure, seems to sense Cook’s evil.

Kent tries to wrestle Coyoc away from Cook, but the rescuing becomes a brutal one. He swings her around by her ankles, which she stops only by — even as he is still swinging her — grafting onto him first with her knees, then grabbing his torso with her arms. He chases her, and she takes refuge, brilliantly, in the huddled group — Cook, Anderson, Louis, and Benjamin Pring. It’s a serious game of hide-and-seek, Pilobolus-style: Kent scurries behind the group; Coyoc’s head sticks out between two legs in front, upside-down. He sticks an arm into the group; his arm, impossibly elongated, juts out the other side. Her hair protrudes out of the top of this circle, but the bald Cook droops the hair over his pate as if it’s his. Then Kent pulls the hair, and Coyoc, out of her hiding place.

Later — or maybe, actually, it was earlier — Kent placed a possibly unconscious Cook on an operating table and, bare-handed, sliced into his abdomen. His arm bore deeper and deeper, until his hand emerged out of Cook’s mouth. Getting nothing, he then sucked –kissed? — Cook’s stomach. When I saw this dance premiere last summer at the Joyce, this is where the ambiguity kicked in; if Cook is the villain and Kent the innocent Jew, then why is Kent carving up Cook, Mengele-style? Other questions emerged, too: If Cook is the villain, then why is he dressed in what looks like the baggy garb of a concentration camp prisoner? If Kent is the victim, then why does his pursuit of Coyoc — which we at first think might be motivated by wanting to get her out of the clutches of Cook — almost turn brutal?

There are other factors that ambiguize whether Cook is victim or persecutor. He seems a mental case and, perhaps, a homosexual — both groups that were also persecuted by the Nazis. He does a goose-step at one point early on, but is it committed or a mockery?

And yet, on last night’s viewing, the ending couldn’t be more clear. Kent and Anderson are stripped naked by Cook who, suddenly, appears above them and upstage, majestically ordering the naked couple into one line, and the other three into another. One line for the gas chamber, one for the work camps is the more than implied. Cook’s groin-gear cinches it: on his front, a jester’s head covers the crotch; on his rear, a bigger clown head mocks us with a flapping tongue. Blackout.

On second viewing, then, I think I can at least hazard a guess about the meaning of the apparent ambiguity. Cook’s main objective, at first, seems to be to touch everyone. At one point he massages his crotch with his hand and then smells it ecstatically before eagerly thrusting the hand at others. My guess is that perhaps what the creators of the piece are saying is that evil is an infection, and can infect even the victims. (Cook also suggests a Capo, the Jewish concentration camp prisoners who collaborated with the Nazis.) How else to explain Kent’s mean-ness, and even some ambiguity in the other characters (when Kent is stripped, Anderson gathers his clothes and stuffs them into a suitcase)?

Choreographically, what stands out here is the troupe’s (in collaboration with Sendak and Yorinks’s) ability to invent still-new combinations with its inventive phrases. At one point, Coyoc stands astride — on deck?! — Cook who, flat, seems to glide across the stage. She also stands on Pring’s stomach as he arches himself London-bridge style.

The great irony in Pilobolus, these days, is that while it continues to find newly evocative ways to use that vocabulary in its serious works which, if anything, are getting even deeper and more complex — the 1997 men’s quartet “Gnomen” being another example — its comic pieces seem to this veteran Pilobolus-watcher, in a word, stale. Retro in a decidedly uncool way, last year’s “Uno, Dos, Tray” concerns two leering sailor types’ pursuit of a sexy (sorry, no other word here for the choreographic conceit), saucy waitress. They fixate on her ass; they feel it with their eyes closed, only to discover that they’re feeling each other’s – hardy-har-har; they go to kiss her only to kiss each other. This is comedy that is neither sophisticated, original, or wacky, and borders on the misogynist, notwithstanding that it was choreographed by a woman, Allison Chase, in collaboration with Coyoc (the woman last night), Anderson, Cook, Kent, Louis, and Pring. (A kudo is in order here, by the way; I think most choreographers create in collaboration with the dancers; Pilobolus and Momix are two of the only companies that officially acknowledge this debt. And while we’re on that subject, the Pilobolus directors who worked on “A Selection” were Robby Barnett, Michael Tracy, and Jonathan Wolken, along with Sendak and Yorinks. All the dancers in the piece, mentioned above, are credited as collaborators on the piece.)

The 1999 solo “Femme Noir,” also choreographed by Chase, in collaboration with Anderson and with Rebecca Stenn, while interestingly lit by Stephen Strawbridge and well-danced by Anderson (you can also see the influence of the droll Stenn, a previous Dance Insider contributor, in some of her inflections), is similarly unremarkable and based on a dated, stereotypical humour. Okay, there’s a large sombrero involved, but its use is only mildly amusing.

But there’s another problem that these works, as well as the spastically veering (Comedy? Nightmare?) 1998 “Apoplexy” have in common: Paul Sullivan’s music. Sullivan’s fantasy scores, the ones that are amalgams of spacey New Age trippy music and comic sounds — “Gnomen” is a good example, and I believe he also did the elegiac 1996 “Aeros” and the ominous and tragic “Land’s Edge” — are wonderful and Pilobolus-appropriate. My understanding of the relationship here is that Sullivan comes in after the work has been set, and creates a sound for it.

But where Sullivan’s scores seem anemic is when he imitates a particular style of music. In “Apoplexy,” for instance, when the work was being created, I’m told, the dancers worked/played to real heavy metal music, something like Metallica. But instead of just using that music, the company then commissioned a heavy metal-like score from Sullivan. (To be fair, the trippy stuff and sound effects are involved too, so maybe they had to have an original score.) Remember those ’70s television shows where they’d use faux-hip “rock-and-roll” to try to seem hip? It’s kind of like that. Or, to employ another analogy, the Latinesque music for “Uno, Dos, Tray” sounds like something you’d create on your Casio. Even the piano on “Femme Noir” is so faux Chopin that one has to ask, why not just use the original?

I press this point because when Pilobolus does set to existing music, its musicality is almost an unrivalled achievement. High praise, but what I mean is that even when creating with an unorthodox vocabulary, the directors and dancers are able to achieve a specific, multi-level musicality; sometimes it’s on the notes, and sometimes it’s to the spirit, but it’s always remarkably musical. Even the choice of music itself often has a deeper significance. “A Selection,” for example, is set to the music of Hans Krasa and Pavel Haas. According to the program notes, both were highly-regarded young composers when, in 1938, the Nazis branded their work “Degenerate Music,” putting them in very good company, but starting them on the road to destruction. They were interned first in Teresienstadt, a so-called model concentration camp (Irving would have loved it) in Terezin, Czechoslovakia used to hold up a sort of false front of concentration camp reality to the international public. (Alongside Sendak’s “The Wild Things” and “Chicken Soup with Rice” in the library with which our parents nourished our imaginations was “I never saw another butterfly,” a book of poems and drawings by children interned in the camp.) Let me just turn it over to the program notes: “There they continued, with varying difficulty, to write music until being deported to Auschwitz. They traveled to their deaths together on October 16, 1944. It would be accurate to say that the setting of this work has been inevitably shaped by a response to their music and their lives.”

The 1992 (’94?) “Women’s Duet” is another example of the Pilobolus choreographers having the chops to find movement that matches the most exotic and evocative of musics. To “Rosenfale,” based on Norwegian songs, arranged by Jan Garbarek and sung by Agnes Buen Garna, they created an erotically, sensuously charged duet in which the relationship of the women is ambiguous: they might be sisters, might be lovers, might be mother and daughter, might be simply friends. Many are the choreographers who are drawn to exotica; few are those with the skill to create dance at the same high level as the music, but Pilobolus can do this.

And then there’s “Sweet Purgatory,” set to a stirring Shostakovich string quartet. Created around the time of Stalin’s purges, this music is powerful, cutting, and melancholic, bespeaking some kind of horror, or Shostakovich’s reaction to horror. When the American Dance Festival brought the piece to Russia a few years ago, audiences wept. Part of this response was due to the music, certainly, and their knowledge of what it meant when it was created; but if the dance had been inadequate, just a surface match to the music, the response would not have been felt so deep.

And again, the brilliance of both the entwined, supportive, inter-dependent choreography and the dancing in “Sweet Pea,” as it’s affectionately referred to by the performers, is that it matches the music specifically and in capturing its overall spirit. So powerfully, in fact, that when I’ve seen others attempt to create to this music — and a couple have tried to in the past couple of years, including David Brown of Monte/Brown Dance — I can’t even see their dance, but can only see and feel “Sweet Pea.”

So where does this leave us? With a company that, I think — talking now on three hours sleep, folks, after having taking the last trains (you take the Dinky at the WaWa to the junction for the big train) from Princeton to Penn Station! — is, simultaneously, an under-achiever in its recent attempts at humour, and the standard-bearer for serious dance work. (For more on this, see my Flash Review of April 3: Getting Piazzolla.) Modern, ballet — no one is creating work at this high level of musical and dramatic achievement. And, most blessedly, COMPLEXITY. Pilobolus is to most seriously-themed narrative dance like foreign films are to American flicks. Sure, the Pils prompt a visceral reaction, but the other part of their uniqueness in dance today is that they make you think — not just about dance, but about life, history, and the human psyche. And that they don’t provide easy answers. More like riddles.

Okay, I’ve found at least a temporary answer to the riddle. It strikes me — having returned from a place, Princeton, that was the site of some of both my own high thinking and undergraduate shenanigans — that this company founded by Dartmouth folks still has in its kernel the heavy and light sides of a college milieu. They can annoy you with their sophomoric hi-jinks one day, and the next astound you with a cerebral achievement that makes you think things you never thought before, and introduces questions that continue to germinate in your mind. And reminds you why you admitted them to your school in the first place!

And we need art like this, so we don’t forget.

…. As well as testimony. Here is one bit of that, a poem called “The Garden” written by Franta Bass, a child who perished in the Holocaust, and who wrote the following while interned in Terezin. It’s collected in a Holocaust classic I referred to above, “I never saw another butterfly: Children’s drawings and poems from Terezin concentration camp, 1942-1944.” (Schocken Books, 1978) Appropriate, I think — as was “A Selection” — for Passover, which starts at sundown today.

A little garden,
Fragrant and full of roses.
The path is narrow
And a little boy walks along it.

A little boy, a sweet boy,
Like that growing blossom.
When the blossom comes to bloom,
The little boy will be no more.

(Pilobolus’s Princeton season concludes tonight, with its signature “Day Two” substituting for “A Selection.” Pilobolus purists take note: Tonight’s a “family program,” meaning no nudity and you’ll have to settle for those dreaded flesh-toned “Esthers,” as the dancers refer to them. For more info on tour dates go to http://www.pilobolus.com.)

(To see the list of paintings released by the Met, go to http://www.metmuseum.org/news/index.htm. To read more about the David Irving case, click here.)

When Helen Keller lifted Merce, & more danced stories from Martha at Mother

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI on March 2, 2000. Today’s republication sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. To read more about the late Pilobolus dancer Rebecca Jung, click here.

NEW YORK — The first time I saw Merce Cunningham perform his “Chair Dance” a couple of years ago, I cried. (I know, some of you probably think I cry all the time, but really, it’s only death, Merce, Pina, New York City Ballet, and loves that might have been that drive me to tears, and not all for the same reason. Drop me a line at artsvoyager@gmail.com and I’ll shoot you the appropriate Flash Reviews and love letters.) It was partly Merce’s powerful presence, partly that he shook when he walked. I imagine I would also cry in the presence of G-d, and Merce is the dance equivalent. The dance was entirely tasteful; Merce at 78 didn’t choreograph for himself as if he were 38. It was made for a 78-year-old, and one who shakes when he walks at that. It was an act of generosity more than one of vainglory by an aging trooper who refuses to leave the stage. When I saw Alicia Alonso, the great Cuban ballerina, dance a “chair dance” at 74 or so – here, in Fokine’s “Spectre de la Rose” — I regretted it immediately. Not having seen Alonso in her prime, this enfeebled, blind ghost was how I would remember her. Last night, Merce reprised his chair dance for Martha at Mother, the occasional dance revue at a tiny Meatpacking district bar (Mother), hosted by faux Martha Graham Richard Move. (Though officially, she leaves the “Graham” off for legal reasons.) Standing at the rear of the tiny space, I cried again, tears that linger still.

Merce, however, was not crying. He showed more bonhomie than I would have, being interviewed by a drag queen channeling the woman for whom Merce was the second male dancer. “You look like someone I know,” he told Move before recalling various experiences with the real Martha. Most memorable: A visit to the studio by Helen Keller, who asked Martha if she could touch a dancer. Martha asked Merce to stand at the barre. When Keller held him around the waist and lifted him, Merce recalled, she said he felt “as light as the mind.”

As for Merce’s dancing Wednesday night, well. His “Chair Dance” at 78 entailed some movements around the chair and some in it, and a lot of hand stuff and some footwork. The shaking became part of the choreography. Last night, it was as if Merce’s landscape continues to shrink. (That’s a compliment.) We saw a face ballet at times; the eyes seemed almost to shut at points, and the face opened into a warm, cherubic grin.

The one sour point for me was Move’s presuming to perform with Merce at the end of the dance. I thank him and Janet Stapleton for bringing Merce to their event, but I thought it over-moxie for Move to dance with him; it presents them as equals, and they’re not.

A more successful collaboration was the premiere of a video created by Charles Atlas and Cunningham, which gave us a Merce’s-eye view of Paris, during a recent Cunningham tour. The camera appeared mounted on Merce, who also narrated, bemusedly.

Isaac Mizrahi MC’d the performance by Move’s company that opened the evening. Particularly sharp in this ersatz Graham troupe was a dancer who reminded me of a young Rebecca Jung, the former Pilobolus stalwart. Looking at my program now….Oh, it was Rebecca Jung. (Funny how time blurs the memory.) The ersatz bothers me–my concern is that people who don’t know the real McCoy will think that Graham was just about melodrama, when her psychodrama rings very true. But judging from the number of Graham insiders on stage–Donlin Foreman also performed last night–as well as other dance insiders in the audience (Baryshnikov among them), I’m probably in the minority on this.

Infectious: Untainted Love for Dance from Donna Scro & Freespace Dance

donna for re-postPhotograph of Donna Scro Samori of Freespace Dance by and copyright Lois Greenfield.

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2002,. 2019 Maura Nguyen Donohue

First published on the DI on September 23, 2002.

NEW YORK — On occasion one might be lucky enough to see a dancer whose love of the dance is absolutely infectious. Donna Scro continued to reveal herself as one of those dancers in work with her own company, Freespace Dance, this past weekend. Scro shared a program, as well as one progressively unraveling duet performed in parts throughout the course of the evening, with fellow Sean Curran dancer JM Rebudal as part of the self-produced Dance Access program at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church.

Scro is a radiant performer and a capacious dancer. She eats up the space around her and exudes a kind of excitement that practically bubbles over when she’s dancing. In “Paso” (2001), a quartet choreographed with Pilobolus alum Gaspard Louis, she’s a lovably girlish tomboy, willing to play with the boys on their level but on her terms. The quartet is a resoundingly athletic tour de force straight out of the Pilobulus mold but no less enjoyable. There is a cheekiness to the frolicking that keeps the playful work engaging beyond the immediate thrill of taut, daredevil bodies flying through the air.

“Innercurrent,” also choreographed with Louis, featured performances from the company including the equally lithe Amy Brous and powerful Maureen Glennon. Glennon is a co-founder and fellow artistic director of Freespace, which follows a collaborative mission. Louis’s six years with Pilobolus are evident in this work’s derivative partnering and tableaus, but this younger company maintains the kind of active enthusiasm currently lacking from Louis’s former company.

Rebudal’s company, Rebudal DanceGroup, was seriously out-danced in the evening. The company, made up almost entirely of recent Connecticut College alums, had an overall effect of earnest but bland dancing. Rebudal’s “Mercurial Relapse” looked well scrubbed but hardly witty. His dancers need a few seasons before they can handle Rebudal’s athletic movement sense and flair for dramatic phrasing with the kind of command their evening’s partners held.

Fear and Loathing in New York: Mrs. Grundy Rears Her Head at the Times

“Here is nothing, we are sorry to say, but the desire to attract attention at any price.”
— Theophile Gautier, critiquing Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” in the Moniteur Universel, June 24, 1865, cited by Jacques Letheve in ARTnews Annual, 1959

“…what an idiotic project…. A night in the slammer probably caused him at least as much fear as he caused straphangers.”
— Michael Kimmelman, critiquing Clinton Boisvert’s site-specific project for the School of Visual Arts in the New York Times, December 18, 2002

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(First published on the DI on December 19, 2002. To learn how you can obtain your own copy of our archive of more than 2,000 reviews by 150 artist-critics of performances, films, exhibitions, and books from five continents published on the DI /AV since 1998, as well as PB-I’s Buzz column, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com .)

As alumnus Eugene O’Neill once wrote, Princeton University is a tradition-bound place. It was still that when I arrived about 70 years after O’Neill, and I frequently felt the need to overtly demonstrate that I was a non-conformist. One afternoon in 1984, this took the form of deciding to wear a white cowboy mask for the day. My rounds included a visit to the bank and, well, you can guess what happened. The police were very nice about it, simply advising me that it’s not a good idea to wear a mask into a bank. My classmates put it more bluntly: How could I be so stupid?

In my case, it was I who was not thinking, and it was the bank employees who were reacting as they should to a customer wearing a mask. However, the case of Clinton Boisvert, a freshman at the School of Visual Arts, is another matter altogether. Responding to an assignment for his Foundations of Sculpture class that he create a site-specific work, Mr. Boisvert (whose last name would translate in French as “Green wood”) last week reportedly painted 37 Fed Ex boxes black, scrawled the word “Fear” on them, and attached them to girders and walls in the Union Square subway station. Not having seen the work, I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that it taps into the post 9/11 NYC zeitgeist. But from reading numerous reports in the local media, I see nothing that warrants a) the charge of reckless endangerment with which, if one can believe the New York Times — a big if — the district attorney intends to prosecute young Boisvert, or b) the condescending crucifixion with which Times critic Michael Kimmelman attempted to lacerate the courageous artist in yesterday’s paper. But then, it wouldn’t be the first time in history that an artist was working beyond the ability of a critic to comprehend.

“As the saying goes, art this bad ought to be a crime,” Mr. Kimmelman writes. Is this the best ‘criticism’ the chief art critic of the New York Times can come up with? Well… no! He then goes on to cite, approvingly, an even higher critical authority: the NYPD. (This would be the same NYPD who busted an artist of an earlier era, tapping into an earlier cultural zeitgeist, when Anna Halprin’s troupe was arrested for dancing nude at Hunter College in the 1960s.) “‘The kid is clueless, basically,’ a police official said on Monday,” Mr. Kimmelman continues, referring to the policeman’s quip, “demonstrating remarkable acumen as an art critic.” Well, actually — no. At best, what the police demonstrated, in responding to Mr. Boisvert’s installation by closing off the subway station for several hours and calling in the bomb squad, was a circumspection understandable from law enforcement in a post-9/11 New York. Never mind that, as even Kimmelman acknowledges, many New Yorkers had already guessed that the 37 boxes were an art project and not a security threat; a reasonable argument could be made that it is law enforcement’s job to err on the side of caution. One might also argue that it is their training to recognize even the slightest possible threat to public safety, and that they are not trained to recognize art projects.

An art critic, however, should be able to make this distinction. However, it seems to elude Mr. Kimmelman, who writes of Mr. Boisvert:

“Trying to imagine what he intended, I can only guess that he might say the boxes bearing ‘fear’ were meant to make tangible, as sculpture, what New Yorkers have felt since 9/11 — to give physical form to prevalent emotion. But that’s art mumbo jumbo. By provoking fear, the work trafficked in emotional violence.”

What a stunningly ignorant (“Mike, you ignorant slut!”) statement for a supposed art critic to make! Not all, but much art is MEANT to provoke emotional response. And not just of safe emotions. It is meant to hit us where we live. Cutting the NYPD the slack for actually removing the boxes — unlike Mr. Kimmelman, it’s not the cops’ job to recognize art — where, exactly, is the basis for charging Boisvert with ‘reckless endangerment’? Was there something inside the boxes they’re not telling us about?

And speaking of boxes: Also at Princeton, I had a professor of Russian literature named Ellen Chances. With her raven hair, pallid complexion and taste for old-fashioned dresses, Professor Chances looked like a heroine straight out of Tolstoy. Every session, she would write on the chalkboard elaborate charts explaining the literary and social context of that week’s assignment. One afternoon, Professor Chances did not show up for the beginning of class. When she strolled in 20 minutes late, she was wearing, for the first time ever, pants — blue jeans. She commenced to talk about boxes: The boxes we put things in, literal and figurative — she even pointed to the iron frames of the bright classroom’s windows as evidence. And when she was done, with 15 minutes left to go before the class normally concluded, she abruptly left.

In the United States right now, there is a big, huge box labelled FEAR. Can you see it? The Bush Administration grabs Iraq’s declaration on weapons before anyone else can see it not, of course, to edit out references to the numerous U.S. corporations and government agencies alleged (according to a German newspaper which claims to have obtained copies of some of the deleted pages) to have aided Iraq’s weapons programs over the years, but because the excised portions might help others construct weapons of mass destruction. Yup, put that one over in the FEAR box, my fellow Americans. Trust us. We know what you should fear.

Much of the coverage of Mr. Boisvert’s project has emphasized that he just arrived in New York three months ago, the inference being that he’s just a rube from the Midwest. I would draw a different lesson here: Plopped down in an alien mileau, Mr. Boisvert is, perhaps, able to see things — big picture things — that New Yorkers (or many, anyway) cannot see about themselves, captive as they are to the post-9/11 neurosis — how else explain Mr. Kimmelman’s exagerated response to a college art project? I could WRITE a thesis about this, but in painting that one word and those 37 boxes and placing them in a subway station, Mr. Boisvert has made much a more eloquent and communicative statement. I encourage his professors at SVA to affirm that he has a special gift. He didn’t “cause” the fear, as Mr. Kimmelman would have us believe; he identified it, as only an artist can. Mr. Kimmelman didn’t have to like the results, but he could have at least have had the eye to recognize the intention, and to reveal it to his readers, instead of abdicating his critical responsibility to law enforcement. But it’s not the first time in history a visionary artist has been pilloried by a tunnel-visioned critic. Mr. Boisvert, you have arrived

Vanishing Acts: Waiting in Limbo with Maguy Marin, Nidaa Badwan, Gaza, & Lutèce

marin umweltCompagnie Maguy Marin in Maguy Marin’s “Umwelt.” Photograph by and copyright Christian Ganet and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2015, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI/AV on December 11, 2015, in the wake of the November 13 massacre in Paris of 130 innocents from France and around the world on the café terraces, outside the stadiums, and in the Bataclan concert hall by a bunch of cowards. For an update on Nidaa Badwan — who is no longer waiting in limbo — click here.

PARIS — One of the endurance tests of a work of art is its malleability over time. When I first saw Maguy Marin’s “Umwelt” 10 years ago in its Paris premiere at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt, if the choreography was dense, its spirit was still unrelentingly slapstick, with nine performers taking turns surging rapid-fire — solitary, paired, or in triplets — from the opening between three lateral walls of mirrors, le tout, mirrors and humans with their various props (baby dolls, turkey drumsticks, army helmets, guns, aprons, foliage, blonde wigs, laboratory jackets, pills, buckets of dirt…) buffeted about by wind machines as they engaged in everyday human interplay and gestures from kisses to fights, with the occasional flashing of fesses and genitals tossed in to remind you it was, after all, European modern dance. Even the bombastic score — played by a single strand of twine which crossed the downstage from one spool to another, caressing the strings of three prostrate electric guitars en route — didn’t perturb the frothy demeanor of the movement. What outraged me was that where no one had walked from the same theater during a Wim Vandekeybus spectacle the previous week which projected graphic images of children being tortured and killed, 40 spectators fled “Umwelt,” the more optimistic work. On Friday December 4, though, at the opening of the reprise of “Umwelt” on the same stage, I started sobbing at the first appearance of the performers. With their bright pedestrian outfits and variety of human shapes and ages, in their frantic running back and forth, fighting against the torrential currents of the wind and lost in the confines of the buckling rows of mirror-wall centurions, they seemed to be the 130 innocents killed November 13, discombobulated and disoriented over what had just happened to them, trapped in this antechamber like Captain Kirk hovering between two dimensions, juggling the detrius of their lives on Earth until we the survivors could set things right. At the moment, the verdict is still out, as we too seem to be hovering like Kirk between two worlds — or at least two worldviews, that of trepidation and fear and that of persevering hope.

On Thursday, I returned to the Place de la Republique, where previously, reading a note *whose message I didn’t agree with* implying a causal relationship between these senseless murders and Western intevention in the Middle East (Da’esh attacked us first!) — I was nonetheless heartened to see the statement, and that no one had taken it down, because this is the France they want to destroy, the France which embraces debate and disagreement and dissent. In the United States, striking workers are kept a block away from the workplace they’re picketing; in France, they actually occupy the workplace, and police aren’t called in to clear them out. (These rights aren’t a given; workers died for them.) At the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie right now, as part of the first biennial of photography of the contemporary Arab world, an entire floor is taken up by an exhibition on the disastrous effects of the Israeli invasion of the Gaza strip in 2014, particularly in polluting the area’s water supply. The MEP is an institution of the city of Paris. A similar exhibition would never happen at a municipal museum in the United States, or if it did, Israeli lobbyists would insist on a counter-exhibition postulating a false equivalence of victimhood. It’s institutions like these — vaunting free speech, and a wider opening to Arab perspectives than anywhere else in the Occident — that protected France for so long from the terrorists, with their lying attempts to justify their actions as vengeance for mistreatment of Arabs and Muslims. And it’s this France which the terrorists want to destroy. To them — horrible as this is to say — it’s not so much the body count that matters, as how we react to the blood-letting and whether they succeed in dividing us and getting us to modify our values, or at least our interpretation and implementation of them.

Shepherding the reaction is new terrain for a president who was elected above all to address economic challenges. So far — while there are those on the far Left here who might disagree with me — the response, particularly by the patient interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve, has been considered and tempered, given the unprecedented circumstances the country faces, *and* the crucial regional elections he must supervise at the same time and that, if the far Right takes three to four of the new 13 super-regions in Sunday’s second round as they have a good chance to do, could weigh heavily on the 2017 national elections and the fate of liberty, fraternity, and equality in a country that swears by them. So the following is offered not as back-seat driving, but as the perspective of a foreigner who doesn’t want to see France lose what in a way, we all feel a ‘proprietary’ stake in (and should not imply that there are not Frenchmen and women who feel the same, up to and including the president).

Returning to the Place de la Republique Thursday December 3, then, I found the monument around which the notes have been posted below the votive candles encircled by barricades which made it impossible to approach closer than 100 meters, and thus no longer possible to read the declarations which were the main souvenir compelling Parisians and visitors to hover there in silent contemplation. The two discrete national police officers patrolling the place had been augmented to 20, with a fleet of vans standing nearby. There was a reason and even a noble motivation for this; on the previous Sunday, some demonstrators had reportedly trashed some of the mementos, so that the police were there to protect the shrine and prevent further damage. Still, it made me sad that, at least at this site, it was no longer possible to link ourselves in solidarity around the WORD, the word which has been precious to France and Frenchmen and women since Descartes, since Voltaire, since Moliere, the Chevalier de la Barre, Balzac, Hugo, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Sand, Zola, Jaures, Sartre, Camus and De Beauvoir and right up to modern scholars and philosopher-pundits Stora and Onfray.

gazaGaza, Beti Hanoun, April 2015: A girl from Beti Lahia leads her little brother to a water distribution point. In June the U.N. described the devastation in Gaza  following Israel’s 2014 invasion as “unprecedented.” According to the U.N., Israel killed 2,251 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians among whom 551 were children. Hamas killed 72 Israelis, including 67 soldiers and five civilians. Photo copyright Massimo Berruti, who received the Prix Photo AFD / Polka for his work. Courtesy Maison Europeenne de la Photographie.

The second decision which saddened me — even if I understand the well- intentioned reasoning — was that to temporarily suspend free Wednesday late afternoons / early evenings at the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie. The reasoning is evident; a magnet for the (mostly) young (less likely to have the resources to pay for a ticket), cosmopolitan, hip, and decoratively dressed, of all cultures, this is demographically exactly the type of event that was targeted on November 13. Popular and crowded — even if the MEP carefully monitors capacity — with several floors and essentially one exit, it’s obviously a vulnerable assemblage. Still, the contemporary Arab world photography exhibition is the perfect counter-argument to the terrorists’ (false and duplicitous) recruiting tool that the West is out to harm Muslims and Arabs. Andrea & Magda’s “Sinai Park” shows the deleterious effects of, among other factors, Daesh’s terrorism on tourism investment in the Sinai. And the Italian photographer Massimo Berruti’s “Gaza: Eau Miracle” shows the calamitous effects of Israel’s 2014 invasion of this occupied territory on the area’s water supply, particularly in his photos of Gazan children searching for water amidst the rubble. In other words, the high visibility of both the biennial in general and these exhibitions in particular proves the contrary of Daesh’s claims as regards France. Perhaps MEP could take a cue from Theater de la Ville director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, who, in the face of restrictions on school outings following the declaration of the state of emergency, has promised to bring the artists to the school so that the theater can continue its ambitious education programs. MEP could, for example, bring a slide-show version of Berruti’s award-winning work to French schools, including the banlieus or suburbs.

The MEP room devoted to Berruti’s Gaza work also featured, in continuous loop, a France 24 television report on the devastating effects of Israel’s Gaza invasion, part of which was a featurette on Nidaa Badwan, a Gazan artist caught between two extremes. Prevented by Israel from leaving Gaza, frowned on by Hamas’s “morality” police (who even beat her after arresting her for an outdoor performance) because she dresses like, well, like any Belleville artist, and distressed by the dilapidation that confronts her every time she goes outside, the 28-year-old artist decided to create her own cocoon in her 9-square-foot bedroom, lining it with egg-carts to diminish the outside noise and taking a series of self-portrait photographs (illumined by rare moments of sunlight). When the director of the Jerusalem French Institute read about Badwin’s book based on this project, “100 Days of Solitude,” in the New York Times, the institute organized an exhibition in East Jerusalem. When it came time for the opening, Israel refused to issue her a visa.

nidaa badwan100 Days of Solitude: Gaza Artist Nidaa Badwan captured — and free — in her home and studio. Photo courtesy Nidaa Badwan.

I think of Badwan, armed only with her beret and her camera, determined to make her art even in the face of extremes on both sides. And it occurs to me that if she can persist and create a niche in a space of liberty smaller than even many Paris apartments, maybe we can maintain ours, and liberate Noemie Gonzalez and the other 129 November 13 martyrs from their limbo.
PS: Taking my lunch yesterday abreast of the Ourcq canal in the suburb of Pantin, right outside the Paris Peripherique, I noticed a motorcyclist in a municipal uniform stopping by each of the trees and lowering his vacuum…. to suck up dog poop. We here are much more comfortable preserving beauty than fighting destruction. We are finding our way. So when the Canadian militant Naomi Klein gets up, as she did earlier this week in Paris during the climate conference, and invites her followers to defy the State of Emergency’s prohibition of demonstrations, having the gall to call the government’s ban “draconian and opportunistic,” I want to say: You are a guest here. (And one who has been welcomed on the public media waves.) We are not here to help you sell your books. Please take your self-promoting defiance elsewhere while we work this out, in our fashion.

nidaa badwan new roomNidaa Badwan in the “New Room” — as this photo is called —  and studio accorded to her by Italy after this story first appeared. Photo courtesy Nidaa Badwan

American stories: From civil wars to civil rites: Moving beyond John Brown with David Dorfman & Camille A. Brown

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2009, 2019 Maura Nguyen Donohue

(First published on the DI on July 16, 2009 and re-published today thanks to DI Co-Principal Sponsor Slippery Rock Dance this  piece is  one of the more than  2,000 Flash Reviews of performances, books, cinema, and art from around the world by 150 artist-critics covered by the  DI/AV since 1998. To learn how you can obtain your own copy of the DI Archives, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com. To support the DI/AV’s ongoing work, please make a donation today by designating your gift through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Camille A. Brown performs this Saturday and Sunday at the Joyce Theater in New York.)

NEW YORK — David Dorfman is a messy guy. A subversively messy guy. Not his army of superhuman dancers, nor his luscious, sweeping choreography. Not his design team, nor his vision. Not his workshops for corporate outreach, nor his master classes for athletes. Not his chairmanship of the Connecticut College dance department, nor his stewardship of one of our most important companies — his own. His is not an untidy craftsman, but David Dorfman is a messy artist. Messing with things in disarming, informal, personable, personal, complicated, volatile, well-meaning, demanding, unpleasant and thus deeply, vitally, importantly, and inherently American ways. He will not provide easy resolutions for the violence and chaos of our historic and contemporary foils. But, once again, with “Disavowal,” seen at Danspace Project, he remains ever loyal to banging away at our hostilities in a constant search for our shared humanity.

In “Disavowal,” Dorfman takes famed abolitionist and “race traitor” John Brown as his springboard. For the full Flash, click here.