The DI Interview: Sara Rudner, Marathon Woman, talks to Philip W. Sandstrom

By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2007, 2017 Philip W. Sandstrom

(Today’s re-publication of this article, which first appeared on May 10, 2007, is sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock University Dance. If you appreciate this kind of unique coverage of dance and dancers, please subscribe to the DI today at the rate of $29.95/year  by designating your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to subscribe by check.)

NEW YORK — For “Dancing-on-View (Preview/Hindsight),” being presented this Sunday by Danspace Project and the Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC) at BAC, Sara Rudner revisits the concept of her 1975 marathon show in which her company danced non-stop for five hours. In the 2007 version of this idea of long distance dancing, her company will present mostly new and some historical material that Rudner has mined and fashioned from her years of studio movement studies, her dancers, and her 1975 show. By creating new work that reflects upon its own movement and patterns in real time while simultaneously following a pre-ordained trajectory and movement structure, Rudner plans to present a four-hour dance work that will reveal itself over time while continuing to be self-referential. All parts of the dance will represent the dance as a whole, she explains. The audience can come and go as it pleases and still get the essence of the dance. This work will be re-created in Ireland by the Irish Modern Dance Theatre (IMDT), with a cast combining company members and dancers from the New York performance.

I interviewed Sara Rudner on April 22.

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Going the distance: Sara Rudner’s company for “Dancing-on-VIew (Preview/Hindsight).” Adam McClelland photo copyright Adam McClelland and courtesy Danspace Project and Sara Rudner.

Philip W. Sandstrom: What sparked your interest in creating this, as you’ve described it, “long distance dancing” or “marathon dancing”?

Sara Rudner: My interest in doing this kind of work started in the mid-’70s. It was 1975, we did the first marathon; that was a five-hour event for four dancers. That was born of the ideas of context: where do you see dancing, how do you see dancing, what do dancers do, how does dancing fit into life in other ways other than going into the theater, sitting in a dark space and looking at dance?

(When she initially floated her idea of long-form dance works, Rudner explained, the existing standard was to perform two or three works per program.)

… When I told my management the kinds of projects I wanted to do — long continual pieces without a break — they said That’s not going to work, we can’t book you. So, I decided to be un-bookable, and continued to do the work that I wanted to do. (Consequently her bookings were few.) As you know, since then there has been a lot of thought on how to produce dancing and you well know how fashions come and go.

PWS: I’ve seen quite a few come and go.

SR: But I am still interested in this style, the same style (marathon-style), what I’m doing now, and what I have been doing, although I approach it differently than I did in 1975.

PWS: It sounds like you have created an installation dance of dancers commenting on dancing and choreography through the act of dancing. The genre of installation work and work such as yours has never gone in or out of style — it’s a constant.

SR: Exactly. At the time I did my first marathon, I had been thinking about Asian theater, and shows that go on all night. You bring your family, you bring your dinner, you fall asleep, you come and you go. I was thinking about various paradigms as well.

PWS: Did you derive any inspiration from Kei Takei?

SR: I don’t know Kei’s work very well.

PWS: Her “24 hours of Light” went on all day and into the night in the late ’70s early ’80s.

SR: Right, and then, Robert Wilson was also doing his lengthy shows. I think this idea was in the air, as these things tend to be.

PWS: What did you learn doing your five-hour dance “marathon”?

SR: It was a big challenge and that extra hour was even more challenging; you learn how to pace yourself, what it means to be in that paradigm. Now I am working with a number of young dancers, the oldest of whom might be 31 or 32. That’s about how old I was when I did the 1975 marathon. You learn different things as a choreographer; it was a different compositional challenge to work in that format. It’s a choice, not a popular choice, especially not financially; you can’t program something like this back to back, like a matinee and an evening. But I was very eager to pursue that again.

PWS: So how did you approach this project with this group of dancers?

SR: I start with the dancers and ask, what do you want to do? New material? Old material? What are you interested in? Then we go from there; we start having a dialogue. There will be a certain amount of improvisation; these dancers have resources that will reveal themselves in performance. Their solos will be their own, the making and the choosing.

PWS: When and where in the performance will this improvisation occur?

SR: Sometimes in the midst of other performance activity, because there will be a lot of multiple focus work going on throughout the entire event.

PWS: Do you have any sort of map of the structure of the dance or of the choreography?

SR: The entire event is mapped. We have a timekeeper, Gillian Vinton; it’s her job to keep track of who’s dancing what and when. It will be posted for all to see and given out in a program. It would be too hard to remember all of that and keep all of that in your mind. It’s like a score. It will be somewhat cryptic.

PWS: You mean the enigmatic phrases dancers use to identify the sections?

SR: Exactly.

PWS: So there will be some sort of artifact so we can follow?

SR: Yes, the audience will know what we call each section and where we are in real time — this will be important for the new audience members as they arrive. They’ll see that it’s 5:35 p.m., so the dancers must be at this point in the program. It’s literally a program.

PWS: How are you structuring the concert? For example, will you recap everything in the last hour for the lazy people who decided to only show up at the end?

SR: Essentially all the material in the dance will be constantly recycled in many forms, so we’re not going to do a re-cap. Everything is a variation on things that have come before. I like that. As a viewer I like my eye challenged. I like to see complex spatial organization, and rhythmic organization. I am VERY fond of making many variations on the same material. No one is expected to stay for four hours. We hope to convince people to leave and not stay so others may enter. It’s not going to be easy to look at.

PWS: Considering who’s in your cast — Rocky Bornstein, Megan Boyd, Linda Cohen, Erin Cornell, Erin Crawley-Woods, Laurel Dugan, Maria Earle, Liz Filbrun, Peggy Gould, Anneke Hansen, Patricia Hoffbauer, Rachel Lehrer, Merceditas Manago, yourself, Vicky Shick, Maggie Thom, and Lori Yuill — I think it will be very easy to look at.

SR: Oh well, that’s true; I’m talking choreographically. The audience should get the gist of it in about a half-hour to 45 minutes. We won’t have chairs for everyone so we hope that will help move people out after a certain period.

PWS: What’s your role on the day of the performance?

SR: My involvement will be that of the choreographer, although I will be doing some dancing.

PWS: So what’s it been like, putting all this together?

SR: It’s been a very lovely studio experience for all of us. Very good for all of us, very supportive, very intense. They have to learn a lot — it’s complicated, with intense movement — but it’s been a labor of love from just about everyone. It has context in the sense that we are all women and we are performing it on Mother’s Day.

PWS: So dancing with people that you like to dance with is a big part of the pleasure of doing this type of work?

SR: It’s a big part of the pleasure. It has a lot to do with why people stay and work with certain groups; the choreography has a great deal to do with it, but it’s relationships (as well). You can have all the smart ideas you want for choreography but you know who makes the dance?

PWS: And they never get thanked enough.

SR: Exactly.

PWS: You are choreographing “Dancing-on-View” for the upcoming four-hour performance at BAC, and for the Irish Modern Dance Theater. Are you setting the same piece in both places?

SR: I can’t. It’s the same idea and the same concept but I can’t because I don’t have (all) the same people, I have new dancers. The piece depends on who the dancers are and what they know. The dancers and what they know determine what the structure is and what is seen but the intention is the same and the concept is similar. The idea is that dancers dance and they are dancing whether they are seen or not.

Maybe it is born from my experience as a young practitioner working with Twyla (Tharp) in the ’60s. The studio process was essential and many of us, for many years, felt passionate about the work — performing really began to rely on the deep experience that we had in rehearsal. The spirit was there that working on the dance was sometimes as important and sometimes more important than the performance in those early years. Our performance ability and our early style rested on the fact that, even though we were dancing to Sinatra or Jelly Roll Morton, we were still the nerdy dancers. We weren’t the Broadway gypsies, so our performance style was slightly different.

The dancers here in New York, I’ve worked with very regularly in the studio, some for five years, and others, like Patricia Hoffbauer, Rocky Orenstein, and Vicki Shick, I’ve been involved with for a long time.

PWS: In the IMDT press release, you state, “My collaborators helped me experiment with the physical training principles that form the basis of my work.”

SR: That’s Peggy Gould and Anneke Hansen — of the group, we are the ones that have worked the most intensely together. We traveled to Ireland for the past two summers. There is a different cast for IMDT. Anneke and Peggy, who are in the New York cast, will also be in the IMDT cast. Others from New York may join us but that hasn’t been finalized yet. Peggy also works with me and teaches at Sarah Lawrence. We have been working on developing pedagogic ideas for quite a number of years, along with other Sarah Lawrence faculty. (Rudner chairs the Sarah Lawrence dance department.)

PWS: Where did you meet Anneke?

SR: At Sarah Lawrence. After her graduation, Anneke approached me about working together in the studio, so I said why not? If anyone is willing to go through this, I’m willing to mentor them through it. In this cast there are about six Sarah Lawrence alums. There are also three faculty members, Peggy Gould, Merceditas Manago, and myself, and the two musicians are from Sarah Lawrence.

PWS: Although this is a bit of a sidebar, I am curious: The IMDT press release also mentions a “somatic keeper”; what’s that?

SR: I don’t use videotape.

PWS: I don’t get it, what’s the root of somatic? What does that mean?

SR: She keeps the movement in her body; it’s mostly Anneke. She knows all of the material. She keeps it in the old-fashioned way, in her body.

PWS: No Labanotation? Videotape? Sketches?

SR: We do write ourselves some notes, and for this project I have looked at some videotape of our past projects. The last taping I was able to look at was before Anneke came along; she’s only been working with me for the last five years. So there is some material that we are revisiting that was made before she arrived.

PWS: When did this particular iteration of this marathon project begin?

SR: I’ve subtitled this work ‘Preview/Hindsight’; the thought of doing another marathon was on my mind. I knew when my sabbatical would be. At the same time, John Scott (who directs IMDT) was interested in my work. In order to test the waters, and to introduce his company to my work, we did a series of workshops over the last two years in Ireland.

PWS: Who are ‘we’?

SR: Peggy Gould, Anneke Hansen, and me. We went, we taught, we tried out material, we introduced working methods. A lot of this work is about how you go about stuff, how you do the hard work of splicing different phrases, coordinating arms and legs, and keeping that stuff in your mind and in your body. That’s the work I’m interested in. Both developing movement from the ground up and looking at it visually and how parts of the movement vocabulary resonate with others. What goes together, what doesn’t, do you want to present those that don’t go together, or those that do? How you organize the space and the time, the visual field, and how you deal with it in terms that are usually considered musical, in terms of harmonies, dissonances, repletion, development, etcetera.

Last summer John Scott started talking more seriously about a production. He took me around to look at spaces; we found a lovely one where a marathon would look good.

When I first started working on the BAC effort it was to be a preview of what we would do in Ireland. Then in terms of hindsight I knew that I had to look to my past, to what I have always been interested in, and find new variations on that and new points of view of what I have been interested in. So that’s why it’s named “Preview/Hindsight.”

PWS: So, the idea started with IMDT, which led to the BAC show.

SR: It started with IMDT but it also started with my sabbatical and knowing I would have the time to do studio work. I knew I was going to do something; John’s invitation gave me that extra kick. Even though I teach at Sarah Lawrence, I (have) work(ed) in the studio in the city every week for the past eight years.

PWS: Working…?

SR: Working with dancers once or twice a week, whenever they can make it. I produce a certain amount of work, although not to this extent. I knew the sabbatical was coming up, I knew I had already been doing that work. Then there was John’s invitation. All these things floated around and now will actually result in two very different works with some of the same material but with very different people.

PWS: Earlier you mentioned two musicians; what about music? Will there be any amplified sounds?

SR: The musicians (William Catanzaro and Jerome Morris) will start this week; they’ll have about two rehearsals with us before we have open rehearsals. They are great improvisers. It will be a give and take structure where they will try a variety of things. They are both classroom musicians at Sarah Lawrence; of course, they do other things. They’ve been around dancers forever. This is not like commissioning a score and making a piece. It’s not atmospheric. It’s all acoustic.

PWS: They’re percussionists?

SR: They are percussionists. What we need for dancing, since most of it is ensemble dancing, is unifying time. The musicians will help us with that. Unified time, because it’s tightly choreographed with intricate canon work, and choreographic monkeyshines. They support our work and add a dimension in what they choose. They are our collaborators in the true sense.

PWS: Have you ever chosen music for your work before you make the dance? Or do you make a work and then find music for it?

SR: I’ve worked with composers before, such as Michael Soll, and I have chosen classical music and made a dance to that music or I’ve chosen music and working with a metronome. I’ve worked against the music so the music stands on its own and we dance to a different tempo.

PWS: Do you have an internal musicality?

SR: I attempt to make dance that is musical and expressive and abstract and contextualized and whatever I can pull out of movement itself. The challenge is how to make movement do this. I know it can’t do it all on its own. But sometimes I think that it can, sometimes I operate that way. Huge chunks of this dance will be done in total silence. The big question is, are people going to miss music?

PWS: I don’t think so, certainly not in New York. So, in short, setting your work to music or music to your work is not part of your process, certainly not your current process.

SR: No. I’ve been trying to set dancing to dancing; a lot of the structures in this dance are made that way. The work is done in layers: a phrase is going on in one part of the space, and another phrase, that is built upon that same material, (is going on) in another part of the space. It is all presented in reference to the dance that you’re seeing, like a riff. Layers of riffing upon riffing, all on what you are seeing, with additional material added continuously and simultaneously. Dancing to dancing, just dancing to dancing.

Disclosure: Philip W. Sandstrom and Laurie Uprichard, the executive director of Danspace Project, have had a near-familial relationship for a number of years.

Letter from New York

maura repopst 1 newMaura Nguyen Donohue of Maura Nguyen Donohue / InMixedCompany in her “Strictly a Female Female.” Photo ©Steven Schreiber.

Copyright 2011, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Today’s re-publication of this article, which first appeared on May 24, 2011 and which does not necessarily reflect the opinions of other Dance Insider writers nor DI sponsors, is sponsored by Freespace Dance. If you appreciate this kind of unique coverage of dance and dancers, please subscribe to the DI today at whatever rate you can afford by designating your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to subscribe by check. I’d like to add three qualifications to my original article: 1) If mainstream dance institutions like the Joyce failed a whole generation of choreographers who emerged in the late 1990s, other Downtown theaters like P.S. 122, La MaMa – where Maura and InMixedCompany recently concluded a successful season — and Danspace Project did a much better job of fostering this vital work. 2) If a couple of my superlatives for Rebecca and her work seem over the top and thus, I realize in hindsight, may have been affected by our close friendship, the acclamation – including funding of commissions —  her company received everywhere but among mainstream New York presenters still supports my thesis that the Joyce and BAM failed her by devoting their resources to the same old worn-out chestnuts like Doug Varone instead of nurturing native nascent talent. 3) My argument could also apply to other uniquely talented choreographers of their generation with whom at the epoch this story was written I had no close relationship, for example Ben Munisteri or Chase Angier. Rebecca’s and Maura’s are simply the cases with which I’m the most familiar. – PB-I)

NEW YORK — One evening back in the late 1990s, my friend the choreographer and dancer Rebecca Stenn and I were sitting in a tapas bar in the Village, where a Scandinavian presenter was telling us about Sasha Waltz, already the rage in Europe. In the intervening years, Waltz would go on to be given her own building in Berlin and enough additional means, from Germany and leading theaters throughout Europe, to work with whichever and as many artists as she wanted to in multiple genres and, most of all, the luxury of time to create new work. She never had to put her own work aside to take a teaching job so she could pay the rent and raise a family, thus risking the loss of creative momentum that might come with that. She was also provided the means to hire a full-time dramaturg to make sure the work was disciplined, as well as the resources to employ a permanent core of performers cultivated and schooled in her technique, method, and multi-genre approach.

If Rebecca Stenn and Maura Nguyen Donohue (like Rebecca, also a former and longtime Dance Insider contributor) had been working in Europe, this is the kind of support they would have received. And deserved; each, seen Sunday in back-to-back concerts at the 50-seat West End Theater, located on the second floor of a church on the upper west side, is on a creative par with Sasha Waltz, their contemporary, as far as choreographic ingenuity (Stenn), story-telling ability (Donohue), originality, singularity of vision, and musicality (both). But they had the bad luck (as artists I mean) to be creating work in turn of the 21st century New York City, where, even if the supply of talented, intelligent, and mature dancers is plentiful, the major institutions that should have supported their work — and I don’t mean by space grants of limited duration or teaching positions, but by commissioning it on a regular basis — specifically the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center, the Joyce Theater, New York City Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre, didn’t. These institutions, all of whom like to tout with homer pride New York City as the capitol of dance, failed to nurture two of the signature artists who emerged from the New York scene of the mid-’90s and who had the power to travel so far in their art — sweeping us, as critics and audience, along with them — but who were essentially grounded and orphaned at their creative births.

Now, Stenn would protest at about this point that no, she had space grants from the Joyce and teaching work from Lincoln Center. Donohue would probably stick up for the New York dance community, arguing that she had the opportunity to be integrally involved in Dance Theater Workshop as a board member, and institute programs there which had an impact locally and globally. Both would say that they love teaching, thank you.

But this is not what I’m talking about.

I am speaking specifically about the work. In France, where I lived and covered the arts for ten years, the work of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Sasha Waltz, Pina Bausch, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Akram Khan and, more recently, Israel Galvan, is presented — and, frequently, co-produced by the presenting theaters — every single year. And this is before we even get to the French choreographers, most visibly Angelin Preljocaj and Maguy Marin. And before we even mention that 21 of them have their own, largely publicly-funded regional choreographic centers, where they are able to make work year-round, the only expectation being that they will perform it and that they will open their doors occasionally to their regional communities.

As a colleague here at the DI has pointed out, one outcome of such blank check support can be that the artist loses hunger and has no incentive to keep the quality of the work up. I have seen this happen occasionally; most of Josef Nadj’s work of the past ten years that I’ve caught has been derivative, and yet he has that choreographic center in Orleans for life if he wants it. (Author’s note, 2-6-2017: Subsequent to the initial publication of this piece, the rules were changed, and choreographers at these centers limited to 10-year terms.) But none of the others mentioned above show any sign of laxity. De Keersmaeker has made some groaners, and Preljocaj went through a fallow period, but they rebounded, and in a Europe where the new generation of choreographers seems not that interested in choreography, they have become the keepers of the kinetic flame.

Which brings us to Rebecca Stenn and Maura Nguyen Donohue.

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Rebecca Stenn of Rebecca Stenn Company in her “Fantasy, Lies, Hubris and Voyeurism.” Photo ©Julie Lemberger.

Like De Keersmaeker, Stenn believes in music. Unlike De Keersmaeker, she doesn’t repeat herself a lot. In terms of pure choreographic invention — on her own body and for ensembles — Stenn was one of the most rigorous American choreographers of her generation. She has sometimes been dismissed as ‘that Momix girl,’ but in fact, the most important gift she took from Moses Pendleton — the Momix director and Pilobolus co-founder whose primary muse she was for a critical 6-year period — was not his compositions but his ability to compose, to select and edit. Unlike Waltz, who usually makes heavy use of props, Stenn, who at Momix learned how to use them and thus *could have* continued to rely on props, gradually and bravely cast them aside, little by little. Her latest work, “Fantasy, Lies, Hubris, and Voyeurism,” which premiered last weekend at at the West End Theater, had none.

So what did it have?

First, it had Rebecca Stenn, as performer. Like De Keersmaeker, she has her own aura and glow. She is luminous. Possessed. Enchanted. On one of the first occasions I saw her, performing a solo at the Miller Theater years ago to ‘accompany’ an orchestra, I thought of what it must have felt like to watch Martha Graham perform. This is how Stenn transfixes; she doesn’t need to insist on the spotlight; it finds her.

Now, imagine watching Martha Graham — not at the beginning of her career but, say, in 1946 — perform in an upstairs room of an uptown church with 50 seats and the woofer under one of the seats, it’s that small. (Imagine Louis Horst accompanying her and having to have his music filtered through an inadequate sound system.) It broke my heart to see an artist of this stature performing in a theater that did not match her grandeur. This is not to belittle what David Parker and Jeff Kazin have accomplished in making this space available. Apparently the church offered them its use three times per year for Parker’s Bang Group to perform; Parker responded that he had enough performance opportunities, thank you, but could he use the church to feature other artists? In other words, Parker and Kazin, artists whose responsibility it isn’t, are doing what Joseph Melillo at BAM should be doing, and nurturing and fostering the native talent, while Melillo lets the true next waves — for this is what Stenn and Donohue were in the ’90s — peter out, in terms of financial and infrastructure resources, at least. (The only resemblance most of the dance artists BAM presents have with waves is their crests are crowned with white.)

Okay, but what does this mean in practical, danceviewing terms? I have known and been following Stenn long enough that, at Sunday’s performance, I could eventually see past the frame and still be awestruck that in one solo she managed to capture an entire life of dance learning and unlearning, from her pointed feet (Royal Winnipeg Ballet school) to her fast pivots (thank you, Juilliard) to twisting limbs (born at Momix, imbued and invested with poetic resonance by Stenn) to intricate hand ballets (her own innovation) and sometimes arch regard (ditto; born of Momix silliness, given nuance by Stenn), even to an uber-story of this miniature referencing “Coppelia” and all that says about the manipulation of dance bodies by directors and choreographers. So the artistic richness does surpass the humble setting, but….

What does the lack of support through programming her mean in critical terms? It means that instead of getting the top shelf critic at the NY Times, as she likely would have were she, say, being presented by BAM in the cadre of its Next Wave festival, she gets the one who only plays a critic on t.v. and who, predictably, doesn’t get the above solo, witnessing the same movement and movement qualities I just described above but, not being an actually qualified dance critic, records it as “toe-heeling her feet in time to Chopin while rolling her shoulders forward and sticking out her rear.” This isn’t dance criticism. This is crass. It is vulgar. It is ultimately uncouth, uneducated, untrained, illiterate, and uncultured. Not only does it lack critical perspicacity; it doesn’t even atain the level of original physical description. And it’s just bad writing.

(Do Gia Kourlas’s editors at the NY Times have any idea of the existential critical horror they provoke among choreographers when they assign this woman to review their concerts? And that it doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not she likes their work, but disappointment that where exigent aesthetic faculties, perception, and expression are called for to formulate an informed response, they send someone with a locker room vocabulary? “Sticking out her rear”?! HOW IS THAT CRITICISM? Can you imagine Andre Levinson or Edwin Denby speaking like this? What self-respecting critic would? And what self-respecting journal would assign a critic who expresses herself in such base, ignorant, uneducated, and vulgar terms to review a work of art? Theodore Bernstein, the legendary guardian of the style temple at the Times, is probably toe-heeling over in his grave.)

No, Gia. In fact, what Stenn was doing was not “sticking out her rear” but using time-tested Chopin to take a sophisticated rear-view voyage through time and in the process, miraculously, give new life to this almost 200-year-old tune. Making old music seem new. This is one of the things that dance, at its best, can accomplish for those who have the eyes to see it.

But of course, artists shouldn’t be ruled by what critics say — whether they be pretend critics like Gia or under-equipped critics like me. More important is the work, and a more important consequence of the failure by BAM and the other major NY dance institutions cited above to support *and* present her work is that Stenn doesn’t have sufficient time and other resources to devote to and develop it. For while she was preparing “Fantasy, Lies, Hubris and Voyeurism” she was also teaching at the New School and serving as dance mentor and choreographer with the National Association for the Advancement of the Arts and, with her husband and musical collaborator Jay Weissman, raising two kids, among other things. It’s clear that while the individual parts of this new ballet are deft, the ensemble (of fellow veterans Trebien Pollard, Eric Jackson Bradley, and John Mario Sevilla) better woven than I’ve ever seen in this genre (the amoeba genre, in which individual dancers become part of a thriving larger body), they haven’t yet been organized into a clear over-all theme expressed in a dance story with a defined beginning, middle, and end.

BUT — and this is critical — this doesn’t make the work a failure. It makes it a beginning. This is the stage at which a Joe Melillo (the executive producer of BAM) would step in and in lieu of demanding, “But does it have the potential to sell tickets?” would ask, “But does it have the potential to be a fully developed, powerful, and perhaps even pioneering work that moves the form forward?” Which “Fantasy, Lies, Hubris and Voyeurism” does, but which, unfortunately, it won’t be given the chance to become because the New York universe in which Rebecca Stenn launched her choreographic career is not the one of 1926 or even 1946 or ’56, when talented choreographers might find themselves on Broadway, sponsored by a savvy producer, or even commissioned by New York City Ballet, but the one of 2011, when the big presenters in town — BAM, Lincoln Center, the Joyce — lack the courage, foresight, and most of all, genuine investment in the creative infrastructure of the art to know a good thing when they see it and nurture it, and when the big ballet companies like New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, lead by directors with no vision and boards who can’t tell the difference, prefer to present, again and again, middling talents like Christopher Wheeldon to recognizing and utilizing the choreographic genius (not just Stenn, there are more) growing in the arid funding climate of their own backyard. The result is that in lieu of the veritable capitol of dance it once was, New York has become simply a museum of dance, and a rather unevolving one at that, its capital more invested in its permanent collection than ongoing new exhibitions.

(A last, practical, suggestion for Stenn for this work: Brave as the musical choice was — in a post-post-modern context — to use Chopin, I would go further and use it exclusively. Save the Weissman original music for another occasion or, if you must, employ it more selectively: Pick one juncture. Also consider experimenting more with silence. There was one moment where the only noise was what sounded like a choir filtering in from another part of the church. This actually enlarged the work’s context, situating the dancers’ movement as a sort of oblivious and determined counterpoint to the sonic ambiance occurring outside the theater.)

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Maura Nguyen Donohue / InMixedCompany in Donohue’s “Strictly a Female Female.” Photo ©Steven Schreiber.

If Rebecca Stenn’s genius was to take the genus Momix/Pilobolus beyond the comedically diverting, sensually alluring, intermittently dramatically moving, and physically impressive to the terrain of kinetically challenging, musically broadening, and sometimes even intellectually provocative, Maura Nguyen Donohue’s genius with her Maura Nguyen Donohue / InMixedCompany was to resuscitate the ‘social issues’ genre and infuse it not just with artistic integrity but entertainment and cross-genre originality and fluidity. The main reason Donohue’s new “Strictly a Female Female” seems to work in the West End Theater space where Stenn’s doesn’t has to do with the format she’s chosen, which invites and inspires audience interaction and participation. This starts with the show before curtain and accelerates from the moment veteran Slant virtuosos Rick Ebihara and Perry Yung enter as supposed sailors just debarking in town. As with her earlier “Lotus Blossom Itch,” the Slant guys do help to leaven the message and are thus part of the reason Donohue is able to make social issues / message themes work as theater. But it’s not just that. Dressing her mostly female (and one female impersonator) and all attractive (including the female impersonator, Timothy Edwards) cast in bright orange shorts and white tank tops, Donohue may be saying it’s normal for guys to gawk at cute mostly Asian women (herself, Peggy Cheng, Miri Park, and Jessica Colotti) in shorts, or she may be catching you in the act before she sucker punches you with your political conscience, but whichever it is, the net effect is to open you to her message.

That message isn’t really new, concerned as it is with responding to racial and sexual stereotyping and gawking, mostly though not exclusively as it pertains to Asian-Americans and women. However, the need for its reiteration is validated by ongoing real-world provocations; most recently, as Donohue reminds us in an opening clip shown on the Ipod of one of the ‘sailors,’ in an anti-Asian-American tirade by Alexandra Wallace seen by millions on You Tube. (After the Ipod clip, the African-American and bearded Edwards takes over, lip-syncing Wallace’s recorded words. I note Edwards’s race just to evoke the aesthetic contrast of his skin color with his blonde wig.)

The artistic justification for Donohue’s attacking this theme again is that it is, in fact, her creative matter. And what’s noteworthy for a long-time observer of the way she’s gone after it and worked with this particular clay (see elsewhere in these DI Archives) is to see the growing sophistication of the artistic tools and elements with which she treats the subject. I’ve been watching social issues theater for 45 years, going back to a childhood in San Francisco in the 1960s where I regaled at the early efforts of the legendary San Francisco Mime Troupe, and I have to tell you that no one I’ve seen on two continents has managed to transcend the social/political message — to create actual art in lieu of just a polemic preached to the converted   — more effectively and eloquently than Donohue. In fact, this artist, who called one of her works “Righteous Babe” (see my review in the Archives) understands that it can actually alienate some portions of an audience to just get up on stage and rant (self-) righteously. In “Strictly a Female Female,” particularly when one considers the way she uses a multiplicity of elements to explore her theme, from the “RENT”-tested diva Miri Park, channeling Pat Benatar on “Hit me with your best shot,” to the vocally versatile Ebihara, sampling everything from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Tim Rice (“One Night in Bangkok” — did you even need to ask?) to Billy Idol, one almost has to ask whether the message isn’t serving the medium, a relatively limited social/political question being tapped to create a richer work of art! If I can be permitted one trite critical cliché (at least you’ll never catch me saying “she sticks her rear out”) — Donohue has a hit on her hands. Park and the Slant guys push it into that territory — the territory that could and should go beyond the self-consuming dance crowd and on to Broadway. I know, the powers that be on the Great White Way would rather revive the actual “Lady and the Tramp” then show us Ebihara, Yung, and Park riffing on one of  that musical’s numbers in such an original fashion that we only recognize the song half-way into it, when the choreographer and her fellow Siamese felines start slinking around in silken black kitty-wear…. And don’t ogle them too long with your devouring eyes and drooping tongue, you dog; in no time, Donohue introduces a 12-foot tall “Hello Kitty” puppet, crafted by Ebihara, to scold the letches in the audience by baring its fangs and swatting Edwards / Alexandra Wallace with its paw.

Okay, so…. The piece works in this venue…. It’s mostly finished… And it could be a hit on Broadway. Why, then, to quote another song recorded by Bobby McFerrin (who also did a version of the above-referenced “Siamese Cat Song”), why can’t I just be happy for Donohue and not worry?

In her penultimate solo, Donohue almost cried, and brought me to tears, when she reported that this was her first full new work in nine years. Nine years. That’s a lifetime for a dancer. Now, for all I know, Donohue has been perfectly happy to devote most of her time to teaching at Hunter College, raising two kids, serving on the board of a crumbling (my opinion — not hers) dance organization, writing for the DI and others, launching and leading the MeKong Project, etc., etc.. So it’s quite possible that even if she didn’t need to work as a teacher to support herself and, with her husband, support her family, even if BAM were presenting her work every year instead of importing modern dance work from Europe that far from being “Next Wave” for the most part (Waltz is an exception) just copies what Donohue’s predecessors in New York were doing 50 years ago and (sometimes) work from Asia that reinforces as opposed to owns, remixes, and responds to Asian stereotypes as she does — it’s quite possible that even if she were programmed every year at BAM or the Joyce to create new work, instead of the poseurs like Sarah Michelson that BAM in its quest for coolness chooses to commission (enabled, of course, by no-nothing Michelson enablers like Kourlas) — it’s quite possible that she would still want to teach just for the pleasure of it. (For more on Michelson, in particular by Chris Dohse, see elsewhere in these Archives.)

But.

Speaking just for myself, as a critic and as someone who believes in and loves this work, I tear up because I see her, at 40 (Donohue referred to her age in the solo), having attained a new, higher plateau of performing charisma. (Emanating, as it so often does in a modern dancer — see reference to Martha Graham, above — in a potently eloquent torso.) I cry because I — we — deserved the joy of following her progression to this point during every one of these last nine years, prime years for a dancer. (As have audiences in Europe — and sometimes at BAM!! – had the pleasure, even rapture of seeing Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker perform every year for the last 25 years, of watching her get better and better … as a performer at least.)

And I get frustrated because, while her production values are high, her story-telling and entertainment instincts keen, and the group dance work has gotten tighter, Donohue’s weakest suit is still… the actual choreography. And I cry because, knowing how disciplined she is, from the work she has given to so many others in this community, including me and my publication — I cry because I wonder what level her *choreography* might be at at this point if she had been commissioned and presented every year at BAM. At the Joyce. At Lincoln Center. What she might have been capable of — choreographically — if, instead of allocating their resources to work like that of Sarah Michelson, 90 percent spectacle and argument and 10 percent choreography — the Joe Melillos at BAM and the Linda Sheltons at the Joyce had been supporting Donohue with commissions at a level sufficient to permit her to take a semester off from teachng *just to create.* (A colleague — who hasn’t seen this latest work — even suggests that so many hours teaching might filter into the dancemaker’s creative work and diminish it.) If they had not only commissioned a dance from Stenn so that she also could take time off to devote solely to choreographing, and really sift that creation through her own capable filters to see if it held together thematically, but paid her enough so that she might even be able to bring in a dramaturge, or a Moses Pendleton. Not because she needs the choreographic help but just as a sort of sage to give her a seasoned opinion on whether the narrative held together, and if not to observe and give feedback while she tried different ways to make it work. (Space grant, schmace grant. What Stenn and Donohue need is time.)

So while I applaud these artists for what they have achieved and accomplished in so little time, and for their determination to keep choreographing and creating amongst all their other responsibilities, and I applaud the presenters David Parker and Jeff Kazin for sacrificing their own interests for those of their peers, I say shame on BAM and the Joyce and Lincoln Center for abandoning their best and brightest. For closing their doors to them for 20 years. For leaving them — the artists as well as Parker and Kazin (who turn their receipts over to the artists, while making a fraction of what Melillo and Shelton, the Joyce’s director, do) — to fend for themselves. No, it’s worse than that. I say shame on BAM, the Joyce, and Lincoln Center for their curatorial cowardice, for their lack of mindfulness in not taking care of the legacy they inherited, for orphaning these native New York artists from their own backyard — and there are others in addition to Stenn and Donohue, these just happen to be the two cases I’m most familiar with because I care so deeply about these two women as artists and believe so ardently in what they have been trying to create and continue to be amazed by their investment in their art and the field and their generosity to their colleagues, they are my heroes — even as artists like Stenn and Donohue try to lead the art form these major presenters pretend to be interested in advancing to a rebirth. If New York was once the champion of dance, its present caretakers have given up the title without a fight.

 

 

 

The DI, Year One: The Choreographer Suicides — Ranjabati Sircar and the toll of probing the dark spaces within

“Have I missed the mark, or, like a true archer, do I strike my quarry? Or am I prophet of lies, a babbler from door to door?”

— Cassandra, from “Agamemnon,” by Aeshylus

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

Today’s re-publication of this article, which first appeared on July 8, 2000 and which also considers the work of Sean Curran, Mark Dendy, and Roger Sinha, is sponsored by Freespace Dance. For nearly 20 years, these are the kinds of stories the Dance Insider has been covering. If you value this kind of unique coverage, please support the DI today by becoming a subscriber for just $29.95/year. Your sub gets you access to more than 2,000 Flash Reviews of 20 years of performances on five continents by 150+ writers, plus five years of the Jill Johnston Letter, syndicated exclusively on the DI. You can subscribe or donate through PayPal by designating your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address if you prefer to pay by check.

NEW YORK — Every choreographer I have known is, to some degree or another, manic depressive. Clairvoyant in his or her highs, doomed in the lows. Sean Curran seems, on the surface at least, more manic than depressive. Roger Sinha, both in the choreographic text of his “Burning Skin” and in his performance of it, is more obviously darkly manic. But I am thinking of this, to tell you the truth, not so much because of the performances of these two choreographers and their companies last night at Central Park SummerStage, but because of the news I heard, belatedly, just before the concert — and which struck me like a blow to the solar plexus, taking the life out of me — of the death by suicide, at age 36, of Ranjabati Sircar.

I met Ranja in 1995, when I had just started working at Dance Magazine and was something of a neophyte to dance in general, let alone dance from the sub-continent, let alone the distinctions between the various genres of that dance, let alone choreographer-teacher-dancers, like Ranja, who melded classical forms to contemporary ideas, not always to a warm popular reception among audiences or choreographers of an older generation. On top of this burden, Ranja had familial expectations, her mother Manjushree Chaki Sircar being a well-known choreographer and teacher in Madras.

“Is it all right to smoke?” asked the tightly wound, striking young woman who entered my compact office that Fall day. “No,” said I, and for the next hour, while Ranja was forthcoming in discussing her work and Indian dance and hybrid classical-modern dance, she fidgeted and remained tightly wound. Still, we hit it off, and, after some hesitation at its appropriateness, I called her a day later an asked her to a Maria Benitez concert that night. “I would love to go!” Ranja said.

It was a moving concert: Benitez’s conception of the de Falla/Sierra 1915 flamenco ballet classic “El Amor Brujo,” about an older woman driven mad by love and her own demons, followed by a tablao-style second half. We were transported, in fact, to a tablao, notwithstanding that the performance was actually happening in Chelsea at the Joyce Theater. Ranja was positively glowing afterwards; I could feel that she wanted to dance Flamenco right then and there, and indeed she explained to me some of the linkages between that form and certain classical Indian dance forms.

To prolong our virtual visit to Andalucia, we decided to repair to “El Cid,” for tapas and sangria. Something about the Flamenco left us both less tightly wound, we spoke not just as choreographer and journalist but as man and woman. The sangria loosened things further and by the time I walked Ranja to the 14th Street subway stop, we had that automatic, slightly giddy, elbow-knocking intimacy that, in the right circumstances, even strangers can sometimes find when the planets are aligned.

We met up again a couple of days later for San Francisco Ballet at City Center — it was either Val Caniparoli’s African-ballet hybrid, “Lambarena,” or David Bintley’s AIDS fantasia, “The Dance House” — and I can still see Ranja, emerging from the crowd: intent look, oval face, olive complexion, intent eyes finding me right away across the crowded sidewalk.

This time we repaired to Baryshnikov’s Russian Samovar for horseradish-flavored vodka. More significantly, from a culinary perspective, Ranja shared her curry recipe with me. She could never eat at Indian restaurants in the U.S., she said, because the food was too bland, so she carried with her a curry kit packed with the various spices that go into the national dish. Having previously only used a generic Spice Islands “curry powder,” I asked her what the ingredients were: cumin, turmeric, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, mustard seed OR onion seed, cloves, and fenugreek. (The fenugreek is tricky; put it in last or it dominates the whole.) I still make Curry a la Ranja Sircar to this day.

Afterwards, sensing the imminent end of this visit and Ranja’s return to India, I invited her over for tea. We spoke about everything — life, relationships — and oh, I am trying so hard right now to remember the specifics. About visualization, I think, and astrology. If I close my eyes I can see her face in front of me…. I think we spoke of gurus… and of something magic and inchoate… and she told me about Cassandra. There’s a word in Urdu — which I know is the Pakistani and not the Indian language, but still I think it applies here — “Janoon,” which, I’m told, means obsession. Ranja’s Janoon was Cassandra, about whom she’d written and choreographed a piece, because of what Cassandra says about the position of women in society.

Given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, this daughter of the King of Troy was then deprived by Apollo of the power to make people believe her prophecies, after she refused to sleep with him. Thus, when she accurately warned the Trojans about the Trojan Horse, no one believed her warning that an armed force was hidden in the horse, and Troy was sacked, and Cassandra raped. When Troy was captured, Agamemnon took Cassandra as his prize; both were ultimately murdered by his wife, Clytaemnestra, and her lover Aegisthus. This too Cassandra predicted: “… for me waits destruction by the two-edged sword.” [Cassandra. Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1149] In many realms, Cassandra was and is looked at as “mad,” driven so by her visions.

Ranja invited me to see her “Cassandra” that week at the studio of Mary Anthony, so dear to one of my dance mentors, the late Joseph H. Mazo. From what I can recall, it was a dance of vulnerability and pain, but seemed at its beginnings, Ranja not yet able to externalize a story that obviously resonated so deeply with her.

Ranja and I lost touch until 1998, when I asked her to write a preview about the pioneering Indian choreographer Chandrelekha. Ranja made clear that there was a fission between her and the older choreographer, but that she recognized her importance on the Indian scene. When the article came in, I perpetrated what I now see as an irrevocable minor cruelty; there was no interview with the story, so I declined to use it, or to pay Ranja. This upset her, and we lost touch again. Today I grieve not only Ranja, but that I will never be able to make this right, to compensate for a minor cruelty with a later kindness. And I wonder if this was just one of a series of “small” cruelties that added up, in Ranja’s mind, to only one solution and antidote.

It’s hard to fathom suicide, and I almost don’t want to go to the dark and hopeless place Ranja found herself in on October 23, 1999, when, as police believe, she hanged herself from the ceiling fan in the flat of a family friend in Borivili. According to a report in India Today, just two days before her death, Ranja e-mailed a friend: “I am battling the dark spaces within myself.”

The same report in India Today makes all sorts of conjectures about what drove Ranja as an artist, and what in society and in her own family life — particularly her complicated relationship with her mother — might have driven her to kill herself.

Here, I can only offer the observation of someone who once observed Ranja close-up, in what seems now like a lifetime, indeed a different life ago: Alternately driven and insecure, confident and unsteady. Beautiful and yet perhaps burdened by that beauty. Heir to a pedagogic legacy, and yet burdened by that as well.

In what now seem our all-too-brief but nonetheless intense conversations of five years ago, it seems Ranja and I only started to ask the important questions…. Okay, now it comes back, one thing we talked about, both of us, was how we were trying to live healthier lifestyles; she in particular to give up smoking…. It seems Ranja hit a black impenetrable wall in her own searching and maybe… maybe, for as I write this I am still too stunned, numbed really, from the news of her suicide to barely begin processing what it means… but it seems that even if Ranja was not able to find the insight that would save her from her own hands, she offers one insight, I think, to choreographers — not just artists, but choreographers specifically.

Roger Sinha’s piece, “Burned Skin,” had to do with insecurity about identity — no, with self-hate of one’s racial identity, based on an apocryphal tale of an Indian boy who jumps into a vat of boiling water because he’s heard it will turn his skin white. Alternating with scenes of Pascale Leonard’s serenely brewing chai, the dance that ensues is nonetheless manic, as Sinha tries on all sorts of racial archetypes, from a swaggering, chick-chasing Dean Martin in shirt and tie to a kilted Scotsman. It’s a comic romp, but performed with a mania that suggests the character is not so much whimsically playing with other identities, trying on other masks, as running from his own.

Sean Curran presents a similar contradiction. His Chaplinesque stage persona never really completely hides — and perhaps this is why it resonates! — some sort of tragic, invisible burden. He’s ultimately a sad clown. In “Folk Dance for the Future,” when he gives up and then hangs his head after suggesting he might follow Amy Brous’s pivot-less somersault, it’s funny, but it’s painful too. Curran’s kinetic skill and particularly his gift for inventing new dance geometries is apparent in “Abstract Concrete,” premiered last night, and it’s an enjoyable diversion, expertly danced by a group of performers who are clearly getting inside Curran’s choreographic vision… but it has nowhere near the emotional resonance of his recent “Six Laments.” This dance — and particularly Curran’s own performance, as he gets up, stumbles, and gets up again, repeatedly, always looking over his shoulder, it’s surmised at a departed friend, as if he is being reminded every time he stumbles that the friend is no longer there — is anything but a facile tragedy with cheap plays to the emotion; it’s obviously based on real experience.

I’m thinking also of Mark Dendy. As hysterically funny as “Dream Analysis” was — this 1998 hit conjures Nijinsky, Martha Graham, and Judy Garland among others — it is ultimately a psycho-familial journey that also drove Dendy nearly to hysteria. During the creation, he told me when I interviewed him for the New York Times, he was haunted in his nightmares by an aunt who he also conjured in this dance, the idea being that she couldn’t believe he was going to bare her story in his dance.

Since “Dream Analysis,” interestingly, Dendy has followed an easier route, a pure dancey direction. In one sense I want to scold him for this — Why is he relying on his natural musicality for easy successes, when he can go so much deeper? — but after the death of Ranja, I can see the danger inherent in mining those deep waters.

Here’s what all this is leading up to, at least as close to coherence as I am able to express it this morning. Recently I have been discussing with another choreographer-dancer-teacher from the sub-continent how dance is not looked at seriously by society in general as a career. You’ve probably all heard this after you tell someone you’re a dancer: “Okay, but what’s your real job?”

The suicide of Ranja Sircar — and to a less obvious extent, the work of the artists I saw last night — gives me this epiphany: Dancing, and particularly choreographing, is not only not “not a real job.” It is an expedition no less fraught with peril than the most snake-ridden excavations of Indian Jones. Not all of these prophetic men and women, thank G*d, find their visions so ultimately and unremittingly black and hopeless that they are moved to take their own lives. But I have no doubt that the small deaths are real, and the stakes high.

Notes (from original article): Ranja’s mother passed away this spring. Thanks to Anita Ratnam for her insight.

Taking it higher: Dance Ed

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Sponsor Ads Available for DI Paris coverage

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Europe at the Crossroads: Choreographers & Artists Converge on Paris — help the DI be there

For subscription and sponsorship opportunities starting at $30, contact Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com.

Berlin’s Constanza Macras, Portugal’s Vera Mantero, Belgium’s Alain Platel, Spain’s Israel Galvan, Crystal Pite — these are just a few of the choreographic giants coming to Paris this Spring that the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager will be able to cover with your support.

Many of you first read about these internationally renowned choreographers for the first time on the DI and, continuing our 20-year mission of bringing you stories not told elsewhere and giving a voice to dancers, we’ll also be reporting on Giulio D’Anna, a Netherlands-based Italian choreographer whose “OOOOOOO” is inspired by Zagreb’s “Museum of Broken Relationships,” and Jasna Vinovrski’s “Lady Justice,” addressing the relationship between justice and art. Speaking of art, we’d also like to bring you Yasmina Reza’s “Art” as interpreted at the Theatre de la Bastille by the pioneering Belgium theater company STAN — co-founded by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s sister. And of intersections between art and society, this year’s Chantiers (Building Projects) d’Europe festival at the Theatre de la Ville features countries in the front lines of the refugee crisis, notably in six short films from Greece addressing this topic and a public brainstorming session with artists from six countries. And we’ll bring you into the studios of the 200+ artists taking part in the Open Studios of Belleville — a neighborhood which in its very MULTI-CULTURAL contours and dimensions provides the best retort to the cloistered vision of French culture represented by the National Front. (We share the FN’s stated pride in traditional French culture; we simply argue that this definition is too limited and does not do justice to the grandeur and ouverture to the world that has always been French culture.)

To be there, in addition to the support of our current subscribers and sponsors, whom we thank infinitely, we need bring in at least $1500 from new subscribers and sponsors. This will be used to help cover housing and transportation. (An American colleague in Paris has offered us a special price on lodging.)

Already a subscriber or sponsor? Please forward this article. Want to become one? Contact us at paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Subscribers receive full access to our 20-year archive of more than 2,000 reviews by 150 leading dancer-critics of performances on five continents, plus five years of the Jill Johnston Letter as well as Arts Voyager art galleries, film reviews, and travelogues from Paris, New York, and across the U.S.. Sponsors receive this plus advertising on The Dance Insider, and/or the Arts Voyager.

(If we do not raise enough to return to Paris this Spring / Summer, all new donors, subscribers, and sponsors will be given the option of recuperating their pledge or having it applied to current and/or future coverage, including our ongoing project to put the entire DI 20-year archive online.)

On a personal-professional level, your support will also help me make my own career transition as a French-to-English translator, making it possible for me to participate in a translators’ festival taking place in Paris this June, essential for my being able to continue to pursue 40 years of building bridges between nations in a new form. And to access essential health-care (‘access’ because the costs for this will be paid for by myself with help from my family).

France, too, is at the crossroads. On May 7 — my 56th birthday — the country will choose between the fear represented by the National Front and the hope and optimism represented by Emmanuel Macron. Between closure and opening. In the campaign between these two ‘cultures’ that has raged in this country for the past two years, CULTURE has been all but forgotten. (Among Macron’s refreshing ideas: More library hours.) With your help, we will be able to do our part in restoring some light to what has always been France’s principal calling card around the world. Our calling for more than 20 years.

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Cheers,

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Open Door Policy: Taking it to the streets in Belleville, Menilmon’, & along the banks of the Seine and the Ourcq

Belleville CatherineReturn to Innocence: If you want to look for where art is being made in Paris today, don’t look in the hills of Montmartre but the heights of Belleville. And if you want to peek inside the artists’ studios and chat with the creators, check the Portes Ouvertes of the Artists of Belleville, coming up next month May 19 – 22 and featuring the work of, among others, Catherine Olivier (above). Art courtesy and copyright Catherine Olivier.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Want coverage of this May’s Portes Ouvertes de Belleville and a myriad of dance, theater, and visual artists from around the world coming to Paris this Spring & Summer? The Dance Insider & Arts Voyager need your support to make it happen. To subscribe for just $29.95(or Euros) per year and access our Archive of 2000 reviews by 150 writers of performances and exhibitions on five continents over the past 20 years, or make a donation, just designate your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn about payment by check. Already a subscriber or sponsor? Thank you and… please spread the news. This reverie on the Open Studios of Belleville, a variety of dance performances real and pretended, and a tapestry of street art of all colors and characters was first published on May 31, 2010.)

PARIS — If the past couple of weeks have taught me anything, it’s that, as has often been the case here and in any major metropolis, art is being advanced not by the established venues and gatekeepers, but in the ateliers, the squats, the docks, the banks of the Seine, even the eccentric personalities of individual Parisians who, often against great odds, infuse the city with its colors and invest it with their dynamism, trying to satiate its denizens’ thirst for the relief and elevation art can provide with, if not a joie de vivre — it’s too much of a struggle to find the means these days to expect that — at least a joie to engage, be it with the elusive muse or the resilient thread that connects a contemporary artistic scene in flux with the phantoms of the past, themselves often barred by the gatekeepers of their time. So if I was disappointed by a lackluster season-announcing press conference by the Theatre de la Ville in which its director, Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, was averse to taking questions from the press (and no wonder: the 2010-11 dance season offers little surprises), I was inspired and invigorated by a photo on the wall of a Lilliputian atelier on the outskirts of Belleville capturing a darkened forest fleeting by outside a train window and the enchanting smile of its simply dressed proud author, Agata Rybarczyk — “It was taken in Poland! I’m Polish!” — who also invited visitors to create their own art out of small cubes.

My descent — or ascent — began last Wednesday with Christian Rizzo’s “L’Oubli, toucher du bois” (The Forgotten, knock wood), theoretically a dance piece, and in which I didn’t see enough either to forget or remark, having been chased out before the artist-spectator contract could be consummated by the bright flood lights the brilliant lighting designer, Caty Olive, assaulted the audience with, directing them straight at the public. I’m not paid to suffer (and when it comes to bright lights, migraines don’t grant artistic license), so I fled, making my way along the Quay towards the Ile St. Louis, arrested en route by a bouquiniste pal, Fabrice, who right away thrust a plastic cup of Kentucky bourbon into my mitts. “It’s not actually mine to give, it belongs to Daniel, who’s descended to the river to retrieve one of my vintage newspapers which flew away,” explained the chronically frenetic Fabrice, even more jittery than usual that night under the Chinese lantern hat shielding him from the Sun. “So that’s why I’m not giving you that much.” When Daniel returned, baked red from the Sun and, I surmised — from a visage as weathered as Balzac’s “Peau de Chagrin” – living outdoors, and looked from Fabrice to the bottle to me, it dawned on me that he had probably already drunk directly from the container. When Fabrice asked me to remind him what I did for a living, I made the mistake of telling him I worked on the Internet. “That’s a CIA – Defense department plot, you know. So you must work for the CIA. In fact that’s why you have bad teeth: It’s a cover.” I have known Fabrice for a while and am accustomed to his delires, so I decided to go with the scenario. “Yes, in fact, if you don’t mind, I need to just check the bug I put in your flower-pot to make sure it’s working.” Then his cell phone vibrated. “A Chinese guy gave it to me!” he said of the phone. “I know,” I said. “We actually gave it to the Chinese guy to give to you so we’d know where you were at all times.” At this point he laughed. “Pass by my stand again when you like!” he said before dashing across the street to the Metro, leaving Daniel to guard the newspapers and the bottle.

I still had some time before the after-performance buffet at the theater (hazard pay for the blaring lights, even if they’d ejaculated me prematurely), so I headed towards the Pont Neuf, where I discovered another government-subsidized lighting monstrosity. (To indigenous culturati readers who may be tempted to interject at this point, “If you loathe what we fund so much, why do you stay?” I respond: By objecting to your new-fangled projects, I’m postulating for admission to a longstanding pantheon of cultural curmudgeons. Never mind that they also despised one of my own chou-chous, the Eiffel Tower.) On an official commission from the ministry of culture and communication, a contemporary artist has framed the statue of Henry IV on a horse with purple neon tubing, even adding a neon sword to his sword-sheathe, thus diminishing the statue and blighting the bridge and the views of it from either side. Sometimes I think that the current cultural gate-keepers of Paris and France don’t appreciate, or at least under-value, their own heritage. This impression was recently bolstered by the theft of five paintings — by Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Leger, and Braque — from the Modern Art Museum of Paris earlier this month, the thief entering through a window the alarm on which had been out of commission for two months. Security officers had signaled the malfunction to the higher-ups but nothing had been done about it. So the thief was apparently able to take his time before neatly severing the tableaux from their frames.

All this as a prelude to explain why on Friday, on a quest for art created by a less official tribe, I took visitors from San Francisco around Belleville for the annual four-day Open Studios of Belleville, as much an opportunity to see art as encounter its creators and discover the milieus in which they live and work. We started with the plateau on top of the parc Belleville and its panoramic view, which includes my favorite perspective on the Eiffel. Then up to and down the winding rue Cascades, so dubbed because (way) back in the day water from cisterns (two examples of which have been preserved) controlled by the local abbey flowed down it to the faubourgs around the Place de la Republique. We all loved the atelier of Estelle Babut-Gay — me for the terrace with its view of trees and Paris rooftops, David for the sculptures crafted from Atlantic coast driftwood, Jennifer for the rings made from buttons. (She finally decided on two.) I was enchanted (literally) by the gauzy, ephemeral pyro-gravures of Catherine Olivier, crammed into her atelier above a corner café. But most of the allure came from the street itself: the patch of late-afternoon sunlight illuminating the catty-corner below Olivier’s studio and the cafe tables around it, the spectacular view of a panoply of rooftops of varying heights and the skyline below, the serpentine street, conjuring a Belleville which has haunted me since repeated childhood viewings of “The Red Balloon.”  (As Jerry tells Peter in Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story,” sometimes you have to take the long way around to come back home.)

The rue Cascades spit us out (to cop a phrase from Léo Malet) onto the rue Menilmontant, immortalized by Charles Trenet. I wanted to check the status of la Miroiterie, the artists’ squat that takes up an entire alley at 88 Menilmontant across the street from Cascades, mostly to see if it was still there, as so many artists’ squats have been shut down lately by officials of the Socialist city government. The atmosphere was subdued. A few artist-residents were cooking up spicy merguez sausages to sell for 3 Euros apiece and offering beer for 2, but none of the ateliers were open, except for a graffiti’d space where a DJ played very loud reggae. I picked up a flyer, “Le Pari (s) de la Creation,” which explained: “Following so many other popular and prolific artists’ squats, la Miroiterie has to quit the Paris scene, whereas the large institutions of contemporary art continue to turn emptily to grand indifference on the part of Parisians.” (In the nearby 19th arrondissement, the highly touted city-funded Centre 104 has done just that for the past two years.) “What do we want? To revindicate a place for artists in a Paris that continues to sigh in the soft pillow of consensus and the principles of precaution…. We request (simply) a form of tolerance, to exist in the interstices of the city, to occupy temporarily its niches, to live at the most intimate proximity in the neighborhoods, without being attacked and taken to court.” Other cities in France and elsewhere have conferred space to artists’ collectives, but, the manifesto asked, “What has Paris done? The capital of art and culture, has it become so timorous that it doesn’t want to loan orphaned spaces to artists in need of space?”

…. On Saturday, I actually had a review assignment, “The man without a past,” a mime spectacle showing at a recreation center in the 19th arrondissement, on the other side of the Ourcq canal from outer-outer Belleville. As this same arr. takes part in the Open Studios, I thought I would make my way from the rue Menilmontant over to Belleville, past the man-made parc Butte Chaumont with its precipitous waterfalls, over the Basin la Villette to the Metro Crimee and the Mathis animation center, discovering some more studios along the way. That was the plan, anyway.

From the studio promenade, besides Rybarczyk’s showing, which also included inviting visitors into a sort of curtained box, one at a time, to view a life-sized, disheveled naked woman getting out of an unmade bed, I was impressed most by  tableaux which mixed 1930s magazine clips and grey-blue paint, in collages by Sylviane Balustre-d’Erneville, as well as several of her photos, including of a market and a backyard in Egypt. Hers was also the most elegant of showings, with cool jazz and Gainsbourg and champagne on offer.

At the basin, near a grounded destroyer converted into a children’s play structure, I collided with a massive design expo, featuring space-age furniture from the ’50s through ’60s. From this retro outpost one could hear techno music pounding from across the basin. This eventually devolved to canned can-can music, accompanying a live performance by four women and one man who made up the Troupe of Mademoiselle Clairette. It only took me ten years, but I had finally stumbled upon can-can being performed live in Paris. The performance stage as well as the audience area was a floating platform moored in the basin, so that the performers were actually dancing — and performing splits and other calisthenics — on an unstable unprotected wooden floor while being battered by the wind blowing from all directions, with  no Marley in sight. I came away with a real sense of the ribaldry with which can-can must have been performed back in the day, as well as the athletic strength required of the dancers. And ouch!, those splits on that hard-wood floor!

I had some time before the mime show started, so I plopped down on a concrete bank of the basin near the rear of an old-school schooner and opened a can of stuffed grape leaves, which I downed with hot spiced tea from a vintage red-checkered thermos I’d scored at a vide grenier (like a neighborhood-wide garage sale; vide = empty and grenier = attic) for 1.50 Euros. This turned out to be not one of my most brilliant inspirations of the week-end, as the food no doubt contributed to the most sorry part of my day, when I fell asleep as soon as the show which was the one thing I actually had to do that day started. I drifted in and out during the one-hour performance, by the Theatre de l’Epopee’s Hadrien Trigance, which concerned a man who wakes up every morning with no memory of what he did the previous day or the last 30 years. At night, though, he dreams of a woman dressed in purple satin, evoked onstage by a purple satin sheet, before he wakes up wrapped in a white sheet. At one point his memory is jolted and he replays a dinner table scene from his childhood, his parents (heard off-stage in recorded voices) talking while he plays with his food. Trigance’s innocent air and alternately grave and playful aspect as he sat on a high-chair reminded me of Chaplin. I drifted off again, only to wake up in time to see him form a noose with the satin sheet; perhaps the woman of the past now haunting his dreams had hung herself, which is why he had blotted out all memory. The spectacle ends with the hero bedding down with the purple sheet, choosing retaining a tragic past over waking up with a blank sheet ever morning.

Afterwards, when Trigance’s manager asked me what I thought of the piece’s evolution since a 20-minute version I’d caught two years ago at the Mimos international mime festival in Perigueux, I hedged: “It’s…developed.” Later, when Trigance came out, I came up with something (I thought) better, “You remind me of Chaplin.” “Oh,” said the mime, hanging his head. “It’s a compliment, really!”

On Sunday, after a day of recovery resting my tired dogs, I arranged to meet David and Jennifer at Niki de Saint Phalle’s Stravinsky fountain next to the Pompidou museum. I had them take a picture of me next to the big-breasted mermaid which (who?) is just one of the fanciful objects spouting water from the fountain, right out of her plexi-glass nipples. Then my friends stopped to photograph a large chalk pavement drawing featuring the Eiffel, then the artist who’d created it, then his dog; the real-life model was yelping from protective covering in an open suit-case, no doubt complaining about the late May drizzle and wind. The artist had scrawled at the base of the work that he needed money to live. My friends dropped some coins into the hat. Then we scrambled through Les Halles to the rue Montorgueil, in search of a high-class pizza joint. “What church is that?” Jennifer asked as we came to Saint Eustache. “That’s the church where a children’s choir director named Gounod told a ragamuffin named Renoir that it was ‘dommage’ that he had chosen painting over music, because he had such an angelic voice.” Then up Montorgueil, regretting the Starbuck’s sign which now, like a portal, marks its entrance on the uptown side of this street made famous by Monet (“Rue Montorgueil on the 14th of July”), and the rue Reaumur, where Jennifer gave a lesson in the art of grabbing a taxi to a poor young French man trying to protect his head from the rain with a newspaper. As the man waved tentatively at the faraway driver, Jennifer simply marched up the block ahead of him. David, who had studied at the Sorbonne in the ‘60s, started talking about being in the now. “This moment, for instance,” he suggested, looking down what to me is one of the most non-descript, boring streets in Paris, degraded to downright depressing when the gray sky is dribbling drizzle. “I love this moment, this place, right here, right now.” Later, when we finally found the pizza place — in the interim there was a taxi driver who joked that he thought he spotted Che Guevara in his mirror (me, in my beret with the Captain Haddock button) – by way of furnishing another example of temporal bliss David pulled out the photo, on his cell phone, of the salade Nicoise he’d had at our first RDV for this visit, when I took him and Jennifer to an unremarkable neighborhood café on the place Edith Piaf. (‘Took’ being relative; they treated.) I’d retained from this lunch that there were none of the advertised anchovies in the salad and that the charming server who typically greets me with, “How’s he doing, the American?” had not mentioned he was out of them, didn’t think the absence of anchovies in a salade Nicoise was worth an avertissement, and charged us the same, quand meme. On Friday, before a hefty steak dinner at the Relais of the Entrecote on the place Saint-Germain-des-Près (most American writers in Paris would have slipped this reference in 20 paragraphs earlier, and I’m not even going to attempt to capture the ambiance in the nearby lobby of that expatriate Valhalla the Hotel Montana or correctly spell Germanopretan), David and Jennifer had taken me to Bob Cool, where it was Western theme night, Johnny Cash was in the house, and I had to resist the temptation to explain that you don’t leave the ice cubes in the Cosmos. Johnny, Edith, David — they find the serendipitous and the art in the tragic, the hard times, the mundane. Me, I wonder whether I can manage to pull it off, even in the City of Light which has compelled my artist’s soul like a moth since I first opened the pages of Ludwig Bemelmans’s “Madeline” and saw “Pascal” lifted over the streets of Belleville by a barque of balloons — to lift the clouds of blackness that obscure my view so much these days, to live up to a credo scrawled in my high-school year-book by an Italian friend, Sonia, who I lost in a dispute then found 20 years later: “Never stop looking for beauty, never.” Until then, I’m off to the Piaf. Hold the anchovies in that noisette, Isham.

(Some updates, 4-20-2017: La Miroiterie was eventually closed down by city authorities, who claimed that a wall bordering the alley threatened to tumble. A law that would have galleries pay artists for the privilege of exhibiting them has been proposed. Benoit Hamon, the Socialist candidate for president in the election whose first round is April 23, has proposed a regime for visual artists which would resemble the unemployment convention for which freelance performance artists and technicians are currently eligible. Except for Hamon and that when it’s preceded by ‘multi-’ it’s become a Right-wing epithet, culture has been conspicuous by its absence in the presidential campaign, a lapse in attention I’d ascribe more to the Media than the candidates. All the more reason for the artists of Belleville to once again take it to the streets, May 19 – 22. )