“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.

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française (Part 2): The Appeal

hugo one portraitsLeft and Right (from the Arts Voyager Archives): From Lot 1 of the Collection Hugo auction at Christie’s Paris, April 4, 2012: Atelier Hugo-Vacquerie (Charles Hugo or Auguste Vacquerie), “Portraits of Victor Hugo, 1853-55.” Four salt prints representing Victor Hugo in Jersey, the first of the Channel Islands where he took refuge with his family in 1852; in 1855 they’d move to Guernesey. Est. pre-sale: 4,000-6,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

Introduced and translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

(Second of two parts. To read our translated excerpts of the first trial, before the Commercial Tribune of Paris, in which Victor Hugo sought to force the Comédie-Française to fully honor its contracts to perform three of his plays — including Hugo’s testimony about the larger stakes involved, for both the theater and the Romantic movement of which he was the champion — click here. If you have not already done so, please support our ongoing  arts, culture, and literary coverage and translation of French authors and history by designating your donation via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to ask about donating by check.)

In Romain Gary’s 1975 “Your whole life is ahead of you” (published, by Mercure de France, not insignificantly under the false name of Emil Ajar– a photo of the fictive author illustrates the back cover), an elderly French Arab monsieur who is slowly going blind and probably losing his wits passes his days on a bench outside the cosmopolitan Belleville apartment building in which the pre-teenaged (also Arab French) narrator lives with an elderly French-Jewish woman who boards the children of whores. In the left pocket of his suit-jacket he retains a copy of the Koran; in the right, a copy of (as he refers to him) “Monsieur Hugo.”

If we’ve chosen to translate and reproduce, in their near entirety, contemporaneous legal journals’ accounts of the proceedings accompanying Victor Hugo’s 1837 lawsuit against the Comédie-Française to impel France’s largest theater to honor its contracted engagements to perform three of his plays and pay modest damages for not having yet done so, it’s not just because Hugo’s lengthy and eloquent elocutions in the two trials are themselves compelling dramatic material. Nor because of the validity of Hugo’s incisive explanation that what’s at stake — what drove him to take his occasional employer to court — is not merely his personal rights as an author but the fate of a new school of literature to which the Comédie-Française (the only publicly-funded theater and the only theater with a literary bent), the literary establishment as represented by a conservative faction of the Academie Française, and a ‘coterie’ of ‘bureaucrats’ at the Interior Ministry have systematically sought to bar the route. Nor even for the resonance this battle has in a contemporary France where the Parisian culturati and mainstream media still tend to favor a narrow coterie of their ‘chou-chous’ and cronies. (It’s not uncommon for hosts at the State-owned middle-brow radio chain France Culture, who went on strike this week — which means they only return to the air-waves to let listeners know how well their strike is going — to use their programs to hawk the books of their fellow hosts and commentators, nor films of which the chain is an official sponsor.) It’s also because at a time when this same media often chooses to defend lay values through the vector of a negative, that is to say by incessant railing over the supposed imminent menace posed to these values, and lay society, by a headscarf, with the resultant potential stigmatization of any Muslim woman who chooses to cover her head, the vivid testimony of Victor Hugo, the most sterling representation of those values in one individual, provides a positive example, or clarion call, of what they actually mean and represent and of the positive cultural manifestations they protect, promote, and produce. An opportunity to, rather than stigmatize  these women because they don’t conform to our conception of lay values — thus, by imposing a negative — positively impress them with the luster of the lay offer (presuming, as the opponents of the headscarf often do, that they’re not already hip to it) when it comes to moral values and of the cultural offer adhering to, and profiting from, these values puts at their finger-tips. (In Hugo’s case, opening the doors of the nation’s leading and only public theater to a whole school of literature.)

The enthralling testimony of Victor Hugo — which constitutes the heart of the appeal proceedings reproduced below in our translation, and in which he simply seeks to assert rights already sanctioned by existing law, explains the larger stakes, and even identifies his real opponent and thus the real enemy in these stakes, “the bureaucrat” (the French word, ‘commis,’ can also be translated as ‘clerk’ or ‘sales assistant’) — provides a vital reminder that the most effective and inspiring way to diffuse lay values is not to stigmatize the personal religious choices of some members of a minority group but to continue to educate citizens about the inherent value of lay society as already promoted and championed in the stirring words and exemplary lives of Victor Hugo, of Voltaire, of Camus, of Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

What if — for example — instead of wasting half of the air time allotted for interviewing two of the authors of a new 3,000-word, three-tome “Koran of the Historians” on a recent edition of his France Culture drive-time show in grilling the scholars about whether the Koran mandates the wearing of the headscarf (the Orthodox kipa or typically ‘moche’ Hassidic wig somehow never seems to come up), Guillaume Erner, who is so obsessed with this subject he must have nightmares about it, had asked them about possible correspondences and correlations between the Koran and the thinking of Victor Hugo? And what if such a discussion had won new adherents among some of these same headscarf-wearing women? And inspired them to rush out and get their own copies of “Monsieur Hugo,” to accompany them concomittently with the Koran? (And more kipa-donning French Jews and habit-wearing French nuns to do the same.)

It is partly with this end in mind that we now turn the floor over to Monsieur Victor Hugo, his attorney, and the attorney for the Comédie-Française, preceded by our summation of this second trial.

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française
Court Royale de Paris
(Presiding judge Monsieur Séguier)
Session of December 5, 1837

 

As reported by French legal journals, reproduced in “Victor Hugo – Theatre Complete,” in the edition published by J. Hetzel, Bookseller – Publisher, Paris, 1872, and translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

 

(Following the Commercial Tribune’s November 20, 1837 ruling ordering the Comédie-Française, in the person of its director, to pay Victor Hugo 6,000 francs in damages and interests for having failed to honor its contracts to perform Hugo’s “Marion de Lorme,” “Hernani,” and “Angelo” — the second of which singularly ushered in the era of Romanticism, the school of which the author was the crowned chief — and the court’s ordering the theater’s director to schedule performances of the three tragedies by specific deadlines as agreed to in the contracts or face fines of 150 francs per day, the organization filed an appeal before the Royal Court.

Much of the appeal proceedings focused on the lawyers for the two sides’ reiterations and bolstering of their cases already addressed in the first trial — and thus in our previous translation of those sessions — and doesn’t need repeating here. But salient details furnished by the attorneys for both sides during this second trial are worth translating for the way they illuminate the popular and boisterous appreciation for Hugo at the time; the refusal by the Comédie-Française, part of whose excuse for not honoring its contracts with Hugo was the alleged mitigated box office receipts for the three plays, to produce records supporting this argument; Hugo’s lawyers producing receipts which suggested the contrary, that the classical playwrights who dominated the theater’s repertory often did much worse at the box office than Hugo, whose plays’ average box-office intake also exceeded that of the Comédie-Française’s leading star; and how Hugo was ready to surrender his meager State stipend when even the barest suggestion of conflict of interest arose.

But most of all this second and last trial — the Royal appeals court would uphold the commercial tribunal’s ruling in the author’s favor — is noteworthy for another improvised speech by Victor Hugo who, once again, signaled the larger questions at stake, specifically: Who controls what the public gets to see? And who lurks behind the effective barring of the country’s only State-funded, literary theater to an entire school of new work?

Voila the pertinent highlights. As with our earlier account, text presented within brackets is the translator’s; the rest is translated from the contemporaneous accounts of the Gazette des Tribunaux:)

As soon as the doors opened, a sizable crowd poured into the courtroom, among them a large number of writers and dramatic artists.

Monsieur Victor Hugo had some difficulty finding a place to sit on the benches reserved for him, already invaded by lawyers.

Maitre Delangle [attorney for the Comédie Française] took the floor with these words…: To read the complete translation on our sister magazine the Maison de Traduction, please click here.

Vallotton @ the Met (via Apollinaire): a truth believer takes a bite out of art

valllotton Nude Holding Her Gown, 1904 smallI’ll just leave my dentures at the door of the studio, thanks: While we have no proof that the painting represented above, Félix Vallotton’s 1904 “Nude Holding Her Gown,” a 50 3/4 x 37-38 inch oil on canvas, is the one the French poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire — Cubism’s first literary champion — was referring to in the following review of Vallotton’s contributions to the Salon d’Automne in the October 12, 1907 issue of “Je dis tout” (I tell all), the indications, judging from the model’s height, stance, modest dipping of the head and above all pronounced overbite (take it from an expert) are pretty convincing: “Monsieur Vallotton, and we regret it, has not exposed the portrait of a Swiss woman, a tall protestant lady who absolutely insisted on removing her denture before posing: ‘It would not be honest to represent my teeth. In reality, I don’t have any. Those which garnish my mouth are false and I believe that a painter should only represent that which is true.'” (Speak for yourself, lady.) As for you, bub, you can check the original itself out at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Madame will be holding court, teeth or no teeth, through January 26 as part of the exhibition Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet. Private collection. Photo © Fondation Félix Vallotton, Lausanne. Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. To read more about what happens when dental issues confront art head on (so to speak), click here. (Source of Apollinaire citation: Guillaume Apollinaire, “Chroniques d’Art” (1902-1918), NRF / Gallimard, Paris. Copyright Librairie Gallimard.) — PB-I

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française: When the greatest writer of the 19th-century had to take the renowned theater to court to get it to honor its contract to perform his plays

hugo hernani artcurialVictor Hugo (1802-1885), Manuscript of “Hernani” delivered to the censors, 1829. 115 pages in one volume in-folio (35.3 x 22.8 cm). Includes seven requests for correction of the censor. Pre-sale estimate: 2,000 – 3,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

Introduction by Victor Hugo
Translation and preface by Paul Ben-Itzak

If you think all you can glean from a sale of musty old books and manuscripts is a whooping cough, think again. What arises most remarkably from today’s sale of 19th and 20th-century literature belonging to the Collections Aristophil organized by Artcurial, Aguttes, Drouot Estimations and Ader-Nordmann in the Drouot-Richelieu auction facilities in Paris is not dust but history, and not just literary histories but histories of humanity. Among the more than 100 lots comprised of manuscripts, original editions, photographs, and art by or associated with Victor Hugo which constitute the heart of the auction is a 115-page manuscript for “Hernani,” considered by many to be the first salvo launched by the Romantics of whom Hugo was the general on the citadel of the Classicists. If this manuscript — estimated pre-sale by the auctioneers at 2,000 – 3,000 Euros — is the example the author submitted to the censors in 1829, contrary to what one might assume, the impediments to getting Hugo’s plays produced didn’t fall with censorship in the Revolution that followed the next year. They only increased. Herewith our translation of the proceedings of the legal process the author was forced to launch against the august Comédie-Français in 1837 after seven years of trying in vain to get the theater created by Moliere to honor its contracts to perform “Hernani,” “Marian de Lorme,” and “Angelo,” as reported by French legal journals and as included and introduced by Hugo himself in “Victor Hugo – Theatre Complete,” in the edition published by J. Hetzel, Bookseller – Publisher, Paris, 1872 . (A copy of which we picked up not an auction but a ‘vide-grenier’ — like a neighborhood-wide garage sale, meaning literally ’empty the attic’ — above the park Monceau earlier this year … for one Euro.) As you’ll discover, because the plaintiff was Victor Hugo and because the defendant was the Comédie-Française, in other words the guardian of the temple, far from representing just one author’s efforts to get his client to honor its contracts, the affair was a sort of outing of the literary battle of two schools, of the past and the future, previously largely hidden or confined to the corridors of power and the backrooms of the theater. With his later lambasting — in the appeal process — of the ‘coteries’ which controlled what the public gets to see, the proceedings also can’t help but resonate with anyone who observes the programming at the establishment theaters of today, whether in Paris or New York. (In this observer’s view.)

Because Eugene Delacroix was to art what Hugo was to theater — ushering in the Romantic movement in that world, and even designing costumes for Hugo’s first play — we’ve included below a drawing by the former also on sale in today’s auction. There’s also one from Hugo himself.

Our translation is dedicated to Lewis Campbell, for introducing us and so many others to the humanistic power and historical resonance of the theater. To read our translation of George Sand reviewing Victor Hugo for Victor Hugo, click here. And of Hugo appealing for clemency for John Brown, click here.  To support our work via PayPal, just designate your donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com  , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check, or to hire Paul for your translation needs.

Introduction by Victor Hugo

As with “Le roi s’amuse,” “Hernani,” “Marion de Lorme,” and “Angelo” had their trials. At heart, it always comes down to the same thing: Against “Le roi s’amuse,” it was a matter of a literary persecution hidden under a political fracas; against “Hernani,” “Marion de Lorme,” and “Angelo,” of a literary persecution hidden behind the chicaneries of the corridors of power. We’re forced to admit: We’re somewhat hesitant and not a little embarrassed to pronounce this ridiculous term: “literary persecution,” because it’s strange that in the moment in which we’re living, literary prejudgments, literary animosities, and literary intrigues are consistent and solid enough that one can, in piling them up, erect a barricade in front of the door of a theater.

The author was forced to crash through this barricade. Literary censorship, political interdiction, preventions devised in the backrooms of power, he had to solemnly seek justice against secret motives as well as public pretexts. He had to bring to light both petty cabals and ardent enmities. The triple wall of coteries, built up for so long in the shadows, he had to open in this wall a breach wide enough for everybody to pass through it.

As little a thing as it was, this mission was bestowed upon him by the circumstances; he accepted it. He is but — and he is aware of this — a simple and obscure soldier of thought; but the soldier like the captain has his function. The soldier fights, the captain triumphs.

For the 15 years that he’s been at the heart of the imbroglio, in this great battle that the ideas which characterize the century wage so proudly against the ideas of other times, the author has no other pretension than that of having fought the good fight.

When the vanqueurs are tallied, he might be numbered among the dead. No matter! One can die and still be the vanqueur. To read the complete translation — and trial report — on our sister magazine the Maison de Traduction, click here.

Mondrian chez Monet: Death & Devotion

mondrian sunflower and devotionWhile I was initially skeptical of the very premise of Figurative Mondrian: A Secret History, running through January 26 at, appropriately, the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris (whose permanent collection of its namesake’s work traces Claude Monet’s own progression from caricaturist to late-‘Water Lillies’ and ‘Japanese Bridge’ abstractionist — there are none so clairvoyant as those who can barely see), an examination of a selection of the oeuvres featured suggests that at least the Marmottan, as opposed to many of its sister institutions in Paris and New York, has not forgotten that one of the fundamental missions of a fine arts museum is to continually re-evaluate our understanding of historical artists. (As opposed to using the greats as platforms to launch their own fleeting fancies, as the Musée Petit Palais is now doing in marking the bicentennial of the birth of Gustave Courbet by pairing a paltry dozen works by the Modern Master with many more by a contemporary midget.) My initial objection was that one can’t simply lop off the early stage of an artist’s career from the rest and elevate it from a necessary foundation on which what followed was constructed to an independent oeuvre worthy of standing shoulder to shoulder with what artists who made their reputations in that genre accomplished. (If our most representative modernist and surrealist, Picasso and Duchamp, started out as, respectively, eloquent figuratives and last-generation impressionists, it was because these were the worlds they were born into and these were the schools in which their masters created and taught.) And that the most important legacies these formative stages offer is the proof that before he went off the reservation, the artist demonstrated that he had mastered the fundamentals. Before you break the rules, you need to prove you know what they are. Even James Bond had to show he had the rigor to enter Her Majesty’s Secret Service before he was granted a license to kill.  (And even Martha Graham had to pass by Leonid Massine — in whose version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” she played the Chosen One — before she branched out from the ballet tree to create her own Modern system) What the Marmottan was thus characterizing as an oeuvre worthy of an expo in its own right had previously seemed to me to fall more appropriately into this category, Piet Mondrian’s necessary rites of passage to establish that he knew how to depict nature before he set out to denature it, an ‘apercu’ that he’d started out with forests populated by trees before he got to empty spaces dissected by lines. And not much more. This impression was based mostly on Alberto Busignani’s monograph “Mondrian” (Arts et Métiers Graphiques, Paris, in Dominique Fort’s translation, and Sadio Editore, Florence, 1968.) But even the two oils above disprove Busignani’s contention that by 1909-1910 — and already hinted at in 1908 — “the abstraction of the subject absolutely forbids [Mondrian] from creating a painting of story.” You don’t have to be a Moses Pendleton (to evoke Modern Dance’s most famous sunflower-worshiper) to see story in the “Dying Sunflower I” oil on carton at left, measuring 63 x 31 cm, or “Devotion,” the oil on canvas at right, measuring 94 x 61 cm. Both images  © Kunstmuseum Den Haag, The Hague, the Netherlands. — Paul Ben-Itzak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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