A suicide

by Émile Zola
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

In the Spring of 1866, the Paris newspaper L’Evenement commissioned a 26-year-old author, Émile Zola — whose first novel, “The Diary of Claude,” had been published the previous fall — to review that year’s Salon, later to become infamous for the number of influential painters, notably Zola’s chou-chou Edouard Manet, to have work refused. Zola — also close to Paul Cezanne, with whom he’d grown up in Aix-en-Provence — had several axes to grind; his first review would take on the Salon jury by name, reviewing their individual qualifications (and work). By number seven, the public had had enough of this upstart who not only attacked institutional art but rejected established critical norms; the newspaper’s editor, Monsieur Villemessant, ceded to the threats of cancelled subscriptions and other insults and aborted Zola’s assignment. (As detailed by Henri Mitterand in “Zola, Journaliste.”) As a sort of prelude to his reviews — which he’d initially planned to pen under the pseudonym of “Claude” — Zola sent Villemessant and his readers the following account of the suicide of the painter Jalos Holtzhpapfel, after he was rejected by the Salon.* (Zola was not finished with either “Claude,” painters, or artist suicides; the doomed hero of his 1886 novel “L’oeuvre,” loosely inspired by the early critical fates, if not the styles, of Manet, Claude Monet, and Cezanne, would be named Claude Lantier.) To read more of Zola on art, click here. Have a document that needs translating? Contact Paul Ben-Itzak at artsvoyager@gmail.com by pasting that address into your e-mail program. And at the same address to learn more about Paul’s collaborative “Suicide Artists” project.)

April 19, 1866

“You have charged me, my dear Monsieur Villemessant, with talking about our artists to L’Evenement’s readers, a-propros of this year’s Salon. It’s a heavy task which I have nonetheless accepted with joy. I will doubtlessly displease many people, decided as I am to recount many horrible truths, but I take an intimate pleasure in unburdening my heart of all the gripes accumulated over the years.

“You have assured me: ‘Make like chez vous.’ I will thus speak without mincing any words, as a veritable authority. I count on sending you, before the opening of the Salon in several days, an outline of my over-riding credo as well as a rapid study of the artistic moment we are currently living.

“For today, I have imposed upon myself a sad mission. I believe that I have the responsibility of talking about a painter who blew his brains out several days ago, and about whom none of my colleagues will no doubt concern themselves.

“The rumor had been circulating for several days that an artist had killed himself, after the Salon refused his canvasses. I wanted to see the atelier where the unhappy individual committed suicide; I was able to learn the address, and I’ve only just returned from the sinister room whose parquet floor is still splattered with large burgundy stains.

“Do you not think it is a good idea to make the public penetrate this room? I took a kind of bitter pleasure in telling myself that, from the beginning of my task, I’d be hurtling against a tomb. I think about those who will have the applause of the crowd, of those whose work will be spread out widely in the full light of day, and I see at the same time this miserable man, in his deserted atelier, writing his farewell note and spending an entire night preparing himself to die.

“I’m not trying to be maudlin, I assure you. I knocked on this door with a profound sentiment, and my voice trembled with trepidation when I questioned a woman who opened the door and who was, I believe, the suicide’s maid.

“The atelier is small, ornately decorated. At the right, near the entrance, is an oak sideboard, intricately carved. In the corners of the room more furniture, also oak, is arrayed, a sort of paneled trunks with drawers. Ropes attached at either end with red seals quarantine each of these pieces of furniture. One can see that the dead man must have brushed bruskly against them.

“At the right the bed was stretched out, a bed low and flattened out, a sort of narrow divan. It is here… that he was found, the head loping and crushed, as if he was sleeping.

“The pistol hadn’t fallen from his hand.

“I didn’t even recognize his name. I had no idea if he had any talent, and I still don’t know. I wouldn’t dare judge this man who has departed, fatigued by the struggle. I did indeed spot four or five of his canvasses hanging on the wall, but I did not look at them with the eyes of a judge. At the Salon, I’ll be severe, maybe even violent; here, I can only be sympathetic and moved.

“The artist was German, and his paintings reflect his origins. These are compositions of the Charles Comte variety, historic scenes drawn from the Middle Ages. On an easel, I noticed a white canvas with a pencil composition completely aborted. No doubt the final work. The painter killed himself before this unfinished oeuvre.

“Certainly, I’m not claiming that the jury’s rejection was the only factor in the death of this unhappy man. It’s difficult to penetrate a human soul at this supreme hour of suicide. The bitternesses slowly pile up until one arrives to deliver the coupe de grace.

“They nevertheless tell me that the artist was of a gentle character and that he wasn’t known to have suffered any particular vexation. He had some money, he was able to work without worry.

“Truly, I would not liked to have condemned this man. If I were a painter and if I had been among those who had had the honor of excluding my fellow painters from the Salon, I’d be having nightmares tonight. I’d see the suicide again, I’d tell myself that I had without doubt contributed to his death, and in any case, I would be tormented by this horrible idea that my indulgence would have without doubt prevented this sinister denouement, even if the artist harbored some secret disappointments.

“You certainly want me to draw a moral from all this. I won’t give you this moral today, because it will only duplicate the articles that I’m preparing for L’Evenement.

“I’ve written this letter simply to place a fact before the eyes of the readers. I’ll enlarge as I can the file of my grieves against the jury which functioned this year.

“That’s about it for now. I have a strong case to bring against it.”

“Claude.”

We’d initially agreed, Monsieur de Villemessant and I, that I’d review the Salon under a pseudonym. Already signing an article practically every day, I didn’t want my signature to appear twice in the same newspaper.

I am now obligated to remove my mask before I’ve even attached it; there are many jackasses at the livestock fairs named Martin and there are also, it seems, many Claudes among the ranks of art critics. The real Claudes were afraid of being compromised because of my article “A Suicide”; and they’ve all written to inform our readers that it wasn’t them who had the audacious idea to put the jury on trial before the court of public opinion.

That they be re-assured: It has been decided that I should boldly confess that the revolutionary Claude in question was none other than me.

Voila the entire Claude tribe tranquilized.

Émile Zola

*Collected in “Émile Zola: écrits sur l’art,” Editions Gallimard, 1991, edition established, presented, and annotated by Jean-Pierre Leduc-Adine.

Of totems and poles, of Academiciens and Artists, of Pundits and Philosophers

Bucher Rebeyrolle, La vache rouge, 1998, small

Alain Finkielkraut, the French pundit who never seems to miss an opportunity to appropriate a philosophical precept for his own often neo-reactionary agenda, might want to stroll over from the august headquarters of the Académie Française on the Seine of which he’s ostensibly a member to the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger on the rue de Seine in Saint-Germain-des-Près. On Saturday’s edition of his France Culture radio program “Replique,” theoretically consecrated to Albert Camus in this 60th anniversary year of the author’s accidental death, Finkielkraut feebly tried to subvert Camus’s well-known penchant for Nature, particularly present in the author’s luminous eloges to his native Algeria, to bolster his latest retrograde crusade, in which Finkielkraut has been lambasting ecologists for not mentioning enough that Nature is beautiful. (If my Frank Lloyd Wright house was going up in flames, I wouldn’t waste any time composing sonnets in its glory; I’d be too busy trying to put the fire out.) (And forget about Greta Thunberg, to whose Cassandra Finkielkraut has appointed himself Apollo. His argument: She’s too young and should leave saving the planet to the grown-ups. What’s the use of being bestowed with an academician’s sword if you reduce your arguments to just sticking your tongue out?) Paul Reybeyrolle’s 1998 “The Red Cow,” above, a 146 x 114 cm mixed-technique canvas — among the modern masterpieces the gallery has rolled out for its exhibition Animal Totem — manages to simultaneously extol Nature’s beauty and condemn its fragility in our hands. On view through March 14, the exhibition also includes work by Fermín Aguayo, Miguel Branco, Louis Marcoussis, André Masson, Hans Reichel, Noémie Sauve, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, Yang Jiechang, and — for the first time at the gallery (!) — Saint-Germain-des-Près stalwart (and Michel Ragon  favorite) Jean-Michel Atlan. And if Finkielkraut still insists that it’s neither art nor ecologists (let alone lycéenne ecologists) but philosophers (or pundits who just play philosophers on the radio) who will save us, the exhibition press release offers this Nietzsche citation from — wait for it — “Thus spoke Zarathustra”: “Men are more dangerous than animals.” Photo © Jean-Louis Losi and courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. — Paul Ben-Itzak

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.

Fénéon a l’ordre du jour toujours: Au revoir Paris, a très bean toe New York

Feneon by SignacPaul Signac, “Opus 217. Sur l’émail d’un fond rythmique des mesures et d’angles, de tons et des teintes, portrait de M. Félix Fénéon en 1890.” Oil on canvas, 73.5 x 92.5 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller. © Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. (For more on Signac and his relationship to Fénéon, as described by Guillaume Apollinaire — and more art — click here.)

Text by Michel Ragon
(from “Dictionnaire de l’Anarchie,” published by and copyright Editions Albin Michel, 2008)
Translation by Paul Ben-Itzak

As the exhibition “Félix Fénéon: Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse,” migrates across the Atlantic from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris to the Museum of Modern Art in New York — with a tweaked title for the Spring show that emphasizes the critic, editor, and modern art promoter’s status among French anarchists — we thought we’d commemorate the occasion with (justement) Michel Ragon’s sketch, as featured in “Dictionnaire de l’Anarchie,” published and copyright Editions Albin Michel, Paris, 2008: (To read our previous coverage of this transatlantic extravaganza — and see more art — start here, then follow the additional links at the end of that article. Click here to read more from Michel Ragon on Anarcho-Syndicalisme,  in translation, and here to read translated excerpts from Monsieur Ragon’s “Trompe-l’Oeil.”)

Fénéon, Félix (1861 – 1944): Anarchist intellectual, dandy, eminent critic of the art of Neo-Impressionism (Seurat, Signac, Lautrec), employee (highly-regarded) of the War Ministry, Félix Fénéon was also an important anti-militarist, suspected of posing a bomb at the Foyot restaurant. Incarcerated [in 1894] during the ‘Trial of 30,’ judged, and acquitted (Mallarmé testified in his favor), he directed [the anarchist artistic journal] L’En Dehors until 1895.

felixAlphonse Bertillon, “Fénéon Félix,” in “Album des anarchistes,” 1994. Albumin silver print after glass negative, 10.5 x 7 cm. Gilman Collection, Museum Purchase, 2005. © New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bertillon is typically regarded as the father of forensic science — the man who made the various CSIs possible.

Secretary of “La Revue Blanche” (1895-1903), he glorified Bonnard, Vuillard, Matisse.

His short stories in three lines for Matin (1905-1906) are miniature masterpieces. He paraded alcoholic clergymen and syphilitic soldiers and denounced universal suffrage and the right to vote.

In January 1893, in a period when the winter was particularly severe, he wrote, “The moment is propitious for the extinction of pauperism. In a few days, if the frigorific acceleration progresses, the dying-of-hunger race will have completely disappeared.”

He liked to say that the Fatherland is “an entity entirely empty and hollow, like God, like Society, like the State, like Nature, like Morality, etcetera.”

Art critic at Père Peinard, he adopted the tone of [Emile] Pouget [the journal’s publisher, a labor militant and comrade of Paris Communard Louise Michel]: “And merde to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, it’s just a run-down jalopy that needs a good kick in the ass like all the academies, all the institutes and the other bureaucratic machines of the precious pigsty of governance. Therefore no jury, for the independent artists. That’s good that, my God.”

Jean Paulhan, in his preface to Fénéon’s works, wrote: “The anarchist attacks had their reasons, good or not; it’s not for me to judge. Societies have their defects; it seems that French society of the post-War period was particularly ignoble and lack-luster at the same time: detestable and as if disgusted with itself. Even if their only ambition was to provoke precise, explainable, and intelligent crimes, this is enough for the anarchists to warrant our sympathy.”

Feneon, Seurat_Marine avec ancresBye-bye Paris, a bean toe New York: Georges Seurat (1859-1891), “Marine avec des ancres,” 1890. Oil on canvas, 65.4 × 81.9 cm. New York, the Museum of Modern Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. William A. M. Burden, 1963. Photo ©John Wronn. Félix Fénéon was the first to champion Seurat, Signac, and the Neo-Impressionists.

“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.