Exclusive: ‘Trompe-l’oeil’: Michel Ragon’s saga of art, artists, dealers, markets, & critics in Paris in the ’50s (part 4), translated in English for the first time

Feneon Matisse 22 smallHenri Matisse (1869-1954), “Interior with girl” (Reading), 1905-1906. Oil on canvas, 72.7 × 59.7 cm. New York, the Museum of Modern Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller, 1991. Photo © Paige Knight. © Succession H. Matisse. Succession Matisse. On view at the Orsay Museum in Paris from October 16 through January 27 and the Museum of Modern Art in New York next Spring as part of the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse.

by & copyright Michel Ragon, 1956, 2019
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

To be able to simultaneously share, for the first time in English, Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel about the contemporary art market and world in Paris in the 1950s — and which also treats post-War anti-Semitism in France — we’ve decided to illustrate today’s installment with art directly referred to in “Trompe-l’oeil” that readers can see now or soon in Paris, New York, and London, notably at the Orsay Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Jeanne Bucher Jaeger gallery in the Marais, the Waddington Custot in London, and Di Donna Galleries, New York. (See captions for details.) Like what you’re reading and want to see more? Please support independent arts journalism today by designating your donation in dollars or Euros through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check through the mail. Special thanks to Michel and Françoise RagonEdward Winer, and  Jamie. To read the previous installment of “Trompe-l’oeil” (which links to earlier episodes), please click here. First published in the French original by Albin-Michel.

Fontenoy had gotten his start at L’Artiste with a reportage on Matisse. Not that he was particularly interested in this major painter, but his editor tended to ask him to write about the subjects he was the least interested in. He wasn’t trying to irritate or bully Fontenoy. The editor in chief’s dishing out of the weekly assignments to his writers was completely haphazard. What really interested Fontenoy, the new non-figurative painting, had very little chance of being mentioned in L’Artiste. Just the bare minimum coverage needed for the weekly to appear au courant without turning off the majority of its subscribers, only now discovering, with rapture, Impressionism. The editor in chief put up with the whims of his writers as long as they weren’t too glaring. Fontenoy was permitted, like his colleagues, to talk about his fads from time to time. His boss would have been surprised to learn that Fontenoy’s support for Manhès and Ancelin had not been bought and paid for by Laivit-Canne, their dealer.

Fontenoy had submitted, among his pieces for the week, an item on the rift between Laivit-Canne and Manhès. He voiced his surprise to the editor in chief when it didn’t show up in the paper.

“My friend, if we start reporting on the fracases between painters and their dealers, it’ll never end.”

“And yet readers love reading about the quarrels between Vollard and the Impressionists. Why wouldn’t they be interested in reading about the intricate dealings of their own times?!”

The editor in chief shrugged his shoulders. “Vollard isn’t around any more to make trouble for us. Laivit-Canne, on the other hand, is an advertiser. I don’t want to upset a gentleman who supports our newspaper to help out another gentleman who’s not even a subscriber.”

bucher vieira balletMaria Helena Vieira da Silva, “Ballet figure,” 1948. Oil on canvas and black lead pencil, 27 x 46 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. On view at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Marais, in Paris through November 16; the Waddington Custot gallery in London, November 29 – February 29; and Di Donna Galleries, New York, March 26 – May 29, 2020.  “I watch the street and the people walking, each with a different look, each advancing at his own rhythm,” Vieira da Silva once explained. “I think of the invisible threads manipulating them. I try to perceive the mechanics which coordinate them…. This is what I try to paint.”

Fontenoy reddened with shame and anger. He was seized with a violent compulsion to throw up his hands and walk out, but he contained himself. Who would be left to talk about the painters he loved if he quit L’Artiste? Not Morisset, that’s for sure. This last had just walked into the editor in chief’s office sporting a broad smile. Everything was broad with him, for that matter: His shoulders, his handshake, his critical standards. The only time he became particular was when it came to abstract art. Morisset was always nice to Fontenoy, even if their opinions were completely opposed. He was one of those people eager to please everybody. If he ran into one of his enemies, before the latter even had time to dig his feet in he sprung on him, frenetically shook his hand, slapped him on the back, and called him “pal” with such conviction that the concerned party ended up being hoodwinked. As Morisset didn’t take anything seriously, he mingled with the artistic milieu with a casualness that seemed genuine when in reality everything he did was calculated. Except for a handful of abstract art galleries, scattered and without a lot of means, Morisset lined his pockets with tips from all corners. If a painter asked his advice on how to get exhibited, he complimented him on his talent, slapped him on the back and pushed him into a paying gallery where he had a deal for a percentage for every sucker he reeled in. As the painter was not hip to this arrangement, he’d offer him a canvas for his services. If the idea didn’t occur to him, Morisset would be sure to bring it up. He also wrote numerous exhibition pamphlets which he could always be sure to get printed by a shop with whom he had an ongoing arrangement. He resold paintings that he’d been given or extorted. Morisset earned a paltry $24 per month at the paper and yet somehow managed to have his own car. He spent his weekends with his family at his country place. He was a man perfectly content with his lot and at peace with his conscience. One day Fontenoy told him:

“When abstract art has conquered the market, you’ll be its most fervent supporter.”

He assumed Morisset would get pissed off, or protest, but no. He responded in the most natural manner possible: “Of course… How could you imagine otherwise?”

Morisset was bought and paid for from his shoelaces to his beret to such a degree that he wound up laughing about it. For that matter he liked to say, “Painters get rich thanks to us, it’s normal that we should get our portion of the profits. If you don’t ask for anything, my dear Fontenoy, you won’t get anything. You’ll see, your abstract painters, if they make it rich one day, they’ll slam the door in your face because you’ll always be broke. But they’ll still need a good publicity agent and I’ll be there. Do you really believe that painters think of us as anything more than flacks? This being the case we need to take our gloves off and play the game.”

VIEIRA10Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, “Playing Cards,” 1937. Oil on canvas with pencil tracing, 73 x 92 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. On view at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Marais, in Paris through November 16; the Waddington Custot gallery in London, November 29 – February 29; and Di Donna Galleries, New York, March 26 – May 29, 2020.

Another critic arrived in turn in the editor in chief’s office. His name was Arlov and he was as uptight as Morisset was hang-loose. While he wasn’t lacking in intelligence or critical sensibility, his cirrhosis leant him a preference for melancholy paintings. For him Bernard Buffet represented the summit of contemporary art. He was also moody. His opinions tended to follow the course of his digestion. Whether an exhibition was praised or thrashed depended on whether Arlov visited the gallery after a good meal or bursting at the seams a la Kaopectate. In contrast to Morisset, one had to be careful not to load him with free drinks or food. A painter’s career sometimes depended on this perfect understanding of the digestive system of critics.

Arlov was poor. He wasn’t in art for the dough but the dames, his goal being to sleep with as many women as possible. This explained why he presided over the Salon of Women Painters (he’d even created it). His monumental book on the NUDE was the authoritative work on the subject. The funny thing was that his particular gender specialization even encompassed dead painters, with whom short of being a narcoleptic he had no chance of sleeping. He’d even managed to write, who knows how, a spicy “Life of Madame Vigée-Lebrun.” His big dream in life was to rehabilitate Bouguereau; albeit a man, the 19th-century Academic’s nudes weren’t entirely lacking in sensuality. Needless to say, Arlov was not too interested in abstract art.

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun self portrait in straw hatLouise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), “Self-portrait in Straw Hat,” after 1782. Purchased by the National Gallery, London. Public Domain, via Wikipedia. Vigée Le Brun was the official portraitist of Marie-Antoinette.

After having gone over, with their editor in chief, the issue which had just come out and whose pages were spread out over a big table, the three journalists jotted down the vernissage invitations, cocktails, etcetera for the upcoming week…. The editor then took the floor.

“Sunday, Protopopoff is baptizing his son. Mustafa is the godfather. Protopopoff has invited me to the reception, at Mustafa’s digs, but I’m already booked. You, Fontenoy, you can write up a big spread for the front page….”

“Why me? I think Morisset is a lot more qualified.”

“Impossible Old Man,” this last cut him off. “I spend Sundays with the family.”

Arlov quietly tip-toed out.

“What’s the hang-up, Fontenoy,” the editor continued, “you’re not going to tell me now that you don’t like Mustafa’s paintings?!”

“Okay, I’ll go….”

Fontenoy was thinking: Always the frou-frou stuff that has nothing to do with the painting itself. Mustafa godfather of the son of his dealer Protopopoff — what a waste of space when artists who are creating the art of our times don’t have a forum, practically don’t even have champions! What a metier! Embalm cadavers, voila what we’ve been reduced to. When Mustafa had been abandoned in the gutters of Montparnasse by the seedy bar-owners who sponged money off him in exchange for a few jugs of red wine, the newspapers had no space to talk about Mustafa. Today, Mustafa no longer has any need for publicity, and they take advantage of the slightest pretext to put his name on the front page.

Leaving the newspaper office, Fontenoy remembered that he had a date with a young female painter. This Blanche Favard was doggedly pursuing him. The problem was that when it came to female painters, he never knew if these signs of attention were meant for the man or the art critic. When in doubt, he sagely opted for the second possibility.

Blanch Favard lived in the Cité Falguière, an affordable housing complex initially conceived and constructed as worker housing and now peopled almost exclusively by Bohemians. From the basements to the attics, as in the honeycombs of a hive, artists of the most diverse schools, ages, and nationalities applied themselves with the patience of worker bees and the passion of alchemists to create their Great Work. All this in the shadows of some major ghosts who continued to haunt the cité, notably that of Soutine, who’d lived in one of the studios when he arrived in Paris in 1913. The painters of the Cité Falguière still talked about Soutine. It was their re-assurance. Because a genie had once lived between these walls, it was always possible that one of them….

Fontenoy was hailed by Blanche Favard, a plump little thing with a laughing visage whose blonde mane was twisted into tresses. She emerged from one of the windows just like a conventional figure in a Viennese operetta. Fontenoy hiked up to the floor that she’d indicated.

The studio was petite, but Blanche Favard painted mostly water-colors. She’d spread them out on the divan which occupied half of the room. The work was delicate. The forms very subtle. But here again one could recognize Klee’s influence. That said, Blanche had her own particular characteristics and personality. She’d started out in one of the same modes as Klee, this was clear, but she’d extended and deepened it. In setting out her work for him, she didn’t smile. Her visage remained tense, worried. She awaited Fontenoy’s verdict with a certain anxiety. And yet he’d never abused painters. He tried to understand them, convinced that a critic always has something to learn from an artist, even the most mediocre artist. Next he eliminated from his choice painters that he didn’t understand or that he didn’t like. He rarely thrashed an artist. He preferred consecrating his articles to vaunting the artists he liked while keeping quiet about those he didn’t.

Fontenoy talked to Blanche Favard about her water-colors, in measured terms, carefully weighing his words, underlining a quality here, a certain heaviness there, or a gap in the composition elsewhere. Little by little, the visage of the young woman loosened up. As Fontenoy concluded his critique, she was smiling again.

She put some water on to boil on the small Bunsen burner posed on the floor, so that she could offer some tea to her visitor.

“I’d love to have an exhibition,” she said. “But I don’t have enough money to pay a gallery. And yet it would really help me in my work to see the public’s reaction. One can’t just paint for oneself all the time.”

Fontenoy considered for a moment, at the same time taking some water-colors over to the window so he could study them in the full sunlight.

“Well, there is a bookstore which might be open to hanging your water-colors on its walls…. It’s not the same as a gallery, but it’s better than nothing. I’ll speak with the bookseller. He’s not really into abstract art, but he trusts me.”

“Yes, but the frames? I can’t just present my water-colors like that!”

“Mumphy! We need to show them to Mumphy. I think he’ll like them. I can’t get mixed up in the financial negotiations, but I can certainly ask Manhès or Ancelin to introduce you to Mumphy.”

“Oh! You’re so sweet,” Blanche Favard exclaimed in clasping her hands together just like a Reubens angel.

Then, amiably ironic:

“I know that you don’t accept paintings, nor money. But you’re doing me a big favor! Isn’t there something I can give you?”

Feneon Matisse 23 smallHenri Matisse (1869-01954), “Nude sitting down,” also known as “Pink Nude,” 1909. Oil on canvas, 33.5 x 41 cm. City of Grenoble, Grenoble Museum – J.L. Lacroix. © Succession H. Matisse. Digital photo, color. On view at the Orsay Museum in Paris from October 16 through January 27 and the Museum of Modern Art next Spring as part of the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse.

“Nothing, nothing,” grumbled Fontenoy, who’d suddenly started furiously mashing his tea.

Blanche laughed archly.

“Well, you can at least accept a sugar cube because you’re crushing the bottom of my cup to death!”

Sipping his tea, Fontenoy surreptitiously examined the young woman arranging her water-colors out of the corner of his eye. How old was she? 25, 30, 35? Fresh-faced if just a tad stout, she was ageless. Fontenoy had known her for a year. He’d noticed her first consignments at the Salon of New Realities and had written a cautiously positive review. Later she’d been introduced to him at an opening, like so many other painters, he couldn’t remember when. They’d continued running into each other from time to time in the galleries or, at night, at the Select. This was the first time he’d seen her in her atelier.

As he was getting ready to go, Blanche ventured: “I have one more thing to ask of you, but I don’t dare.”

“Ask all the same.”

“So, if you succeed in getting this bookstore to exhibit me, I’d be very happy, very flattered, if you’d agree to write the pamphlet.”

“We’ll see….

Blanche Favard stepped towards the young man and took the lapels of Fontenoy’s velour jacket in her hands, tenderly manipulating them. Her face was so close to his that he could feel her breath.

“So, there’s hope?”

“Yes, of course,” replied Fontenoy, trying to disengage himself.

Blanche let go of his jacket.

“I’d love to give you a kiss, but you’d think it was just for services rendered.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” sputtered Fontenoy, uneasy. “So, bon courage. I’ll keep you updated on my efforts.”

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For the heretics: New translated extracts, Lola Lafon’s “Mercy, Mary, Patty”

by Lola Lafon & copyright 2017 Actes Sud
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

Today’s translation is dedicated to Linda Ramey, Gertrude Mayes, and my own Gene Nevevas, from their Violaine. “Mercy, Mary, Patty” is looking for an Anglophone publisher. Got ideas? E-mail artsvoyager@gmail.com . Today’s work is sponsored by Freespace Dance. Happy Birthday, Lulu!

From pages 218-240 (conclusion of “Mercy, Mary, Patty”)

We’re back where the novel began, in 2016, with the nameless narrator – Violaine’s prodigy as the latter was Gene Neveva’s four decades earlier — on a pilgrimage to Smith College in Northampton to find Professor Neveva and perhaps her own way as she nears 40. After a preliminary meeting in which Violaine’s name does not come up, Neveva suggests that the narrator enroll in her course – even though she normally does not accept adults as they have a predisposition for short-cuts and simple answers.

Your class is not the Sunday Mass I feared it might be, even if the fervor of the participants lends itself to confusion, the way they stampede into the room, piling into every nook and cranny, spilling over from the seats onto the stairs and hunkering down as if preparing for a siege, provisioned with sandwiches, bottled water, trail mix. The very first day you warn us: We’ll emerge from your course neither swept away nor converted, you insist, above all not converted.

The weeks glide by and slip away and I don’t have time for anything, neither strolling in Northampton nor pique-niquing by the lake, nor even to write a long letter to Violaine. You submerge us in tales of captivity from the 18th and 19th centuries, every one constructed around the same model: “savages” capture a frail young woman, are subsequently slain by the defenders of civilization who save her, freeing the young woman all the better to enslave her “chez elle.” I’ve chosen, for the oral report which caps the first month of the course, to focus on the cases of Mary Rowlandson and Mary Jemison. The former, a pastor’s wife captured in Lancaster, Massachusetts in 1682, penned a first-hand account of her 11 weeks of captivity, the first best-seller in America, reprinted regularly up until 1913. As for Mary Jamison, in 1823 she confided to a young doctor the story of her kidnapping and adoption at the age of 15, in 1753, by the Senecas. The sophomores recount to me with delectation how you grilled one of them for two hours after her presentation, forced another to improvise, grabbing her papers from her hands, the time you cut off a student before she could even finish her introduction, which you judged “cliché-ridden.” Only to execute perfect figure eights a moment later by contradicting themselves in emphatically evoking how you’d already ‘saved their lives,’ a telephone call on a Sunday when they were feeling particularly gloomy, a last-minute excursion when they felt overwhelmed with schoolwork, the little bags of dried fruit.

The morning of my presentation, my classmates urge me on with taps on the shoulder as I approach the lectern. I await your questions without too much trepidation, I know the texts practically by heart. You have but one sole thing to ask me, you say reassuringly:

“Why did these two stories resonate – and why do they still resonate today – so strongly?”

The stunned silence of my fellow students overwhelms me. Nothing about the actual texts, nothing about their authors, the exhaustion from having slept so little for months leaves me drained, it doesn’t help matters that my words come to me in French, the various theses imbibed superimpose themselves one over the other, your own book, “Mercy Mary Patty,” which you detest us citing is the only one which comes to mind, your clear grey eyes stare at me, is this how you reduced Violaine to being little more than a spectator of your affirmations, you lean towards me, am I all right, would I like some cashews? You suggest we break for lunch and leave the room, my classmates comfort me, delighted to count me among the victims, Welcome to the Club, this is typical Neveva.

Many days elapse before I dare respond to your question by e-mail: Perhaps the resonance of these stories owes itself to what their authors suggest: Having learned to be well-behaved and obedient was of no succor to them, this is not how they survived among the Indians.

“Nor at Smith College, for that matter,” is your irrelevant response, with this PS: “Don’t forget that despite their sincerity, these stories were politically exploited by the powers that be for their own ends. They served as the pretexts for undertaking all kinds of punitive actions against the Indians in the name of our besieged civilization. They need to be read with more distance than you seem to have read them.”

One morning during the final week, you find yourself confronted with the first grumblings of a revolt. Mercy, Mary, all right but… when are we going to finally get to Patty? We’ve been talking about her since the very first day, you whisper emphatically, exasperated.

(New chapter)

I remained at Smith a little over a quarter. I often had the impression of being immersed in the décor of an idealized novel about an ideal boarding school where no one asks you about your nationality, your sexual orientation, your religion, a happy hermetically-sealed world in which benevolent professors are there to teach without professing. The morning of my arrival, a roll of Lifesavers was left on my doorstep and a postcard bid me welcome to the campus, the following day, on the route leading to the library, a chalk-drawn message on the asphalt pavement celebrated my decision to go back to school; the “Big Sis – Little Sis” rite had begun, each of the newbies would be showered with attention by an upperclasswoman for an entire week. Last month, I was amused by a day dubbed “There’s No Such Thing as a Stupid Question Day,” we were encouraged to ask any sociology professors or students we ran into about any aspect of society, they all wore badges to this effect: “Ask me!” I was present at rituals without taking part in them, like the night, on the eve of finals, on which everyone leaned out of their windows and simultaneously screamed for a whole minute to release their tension and anxiety, after which they all resumed prepping.

At Smith I was a nearly 40-year-old “provisional” student surrounded by young women bearing no resemblance to me when I was their age. They intimidated me, as if it was I who was their little sister, I envied the splendid nonchalance with which they employed the first person singular and the verb “to choose,” I chose to stay and fight. (9)

On “Ivy Day,” standing beside their parents, I applauded these women who were neither my daughters, my sisters, nor my friends, a procession of hundreds of tulle gowns, of satin, and of ribbons exposing plump arms, of rumpled shorts with matching derbies, of tank tops revealing bra straps, they advanced slowly towards us, being careful not to let the chain of laurels which bound them slip off their shoulders.

(New chapter)

At Smith, I listened to all the tape recordings of Patricia Hearst from start to finish, poured through forgotten theses from the 1980s, the anarchist club permitted me to consult the student fanzines of the epoch which supported the SLA and were enamored with Tania. In the archives, I unearthed articles from the dailies relating your arrest in April 1969. The announcement that Smith had fired you. The tracts calling for your re-instatement. The photos of a demonstration in solidarity with your cause. A petition from 1995 calling for you to finally be granted the academic honors you had a right to. More recent articles deploring the re-release of “Mercy Mary Patty,” Ms. Neveva should stick to indoctrinating the lesbians of her Communist university. But nothing, nothing at all on your report for the Hearst defense team. I believe I can confirm today that you attended the trial as a spectator.

One day I mentioned your personal involvement in the Hearst trial to another student; she nearly fell out of her chair, why didn’t you talk about the report in your course, it must be fascinating, the young woman suggested that we work together, we could read it faster, dividing the report in two, and eventually include it in our final paper. I hemmed and hawed, maybe it was just a rumor, we should ask you first. Which is exactly what she did at the next class. You didn’t bat an eye, for several instants it seemed to me that you noticed my crimson visage and then, with a shrug of the shoulders, you dismissed the matter as a negligible anecdote – in effect, like dozens of others at the time, you were solicited by the Defense team but it didn’t go any further than that, and if one were to list all your moments of glory, you were also handcuffed on campus centuries ago, does dwelling on the past get us anywhere, no, we need to return to the present.

The night before my departure for France, you called me up. Good evening, it’s Gene Neveva. You offered to drive me to Boston in your car, I must have a lot of luggage, it’ll be better than taking the bus in this heat and besides you have some friends to visit there.

(New chapter)

You apologized for the sorry state of your car, empty cookie packages strewn over the upholstery and crumbs on the seats, blanket and parka rolled up into a ball on the back seat, ink-stained class pages stuck under the seats and tracts in the front window. We passed Main Street and the bookstore announcing your appearance the following weekend, such hoopla 40 years after the book’s initial publication, “You’re a celebrity!” You winced, not really, unless being accused by Fox News of “glorifying teen-aged terrorists” is something to brag about. Smith will always be your only fiefdom, you concluded, to which one might add California, for the rest, America has never appreciated questionable territories and you’ve been pointing this out for 40 years.

You indicated the glove compartment overflowing with CDs and were surprised by my choice. Patti Smith, this wasn’t my generation. I responded that “Hey Joe” was one of the soundtracks of my childhood – Violaine’s 33 record that you’d given her – we stopped talking while Patti Smith harangued Tania Hearst.

You know what your daddy said, Patty? He said, well, sixty days ago she was such a lovely child and now here she is with a gun in her hands.

You told me about Patricia Hearst’s entrance into the courtroom, hailed by whistling and vociferations, the rows of teenagers standing up brandishing her photo like a weapon, We love you, Tania, we love you. You described Patricia pouring water into her lawyers’ plastic cups as delicately as if she were serving tea. She who might have spent her whole life being served by others.

Her mother clad entirely in black, from her pumps through her purse, in mourning for her ideal daughter. The prosecutor’s opening argument accusing the SLA of being a foreign army at war against the United States. Patricia stammering in front of the jury, moved to tears, that she’d been raped by a member of the SLA. A very short-lived compassion which ended abruptly the moment the prosecutor asked Patricia if the perpetrator might possibly be the same person of whom she’d sketched a loving portrait in a funeral oration, on the last tape. From that point on, the jury had considered her a liar, a manipulator. When in fact both were probably true, as contradictory as this might seem. You confessed your regret that you hadn’t included a chapter expanding on this idea in “Mercy Mary Patty.” The story of a young woman accused of not having said No loudly enough, thus suspected of having given her consent….

You described Patricia’s pallor as the jury entered the courtroom, even before they’d proclaimed the verdict, she’d whispered, “Guilty.” It was so lousy.

The crucial question of whether Patricia had acted of her own free will had been quickly sidelined in favor of an interminable debate of a quasi-religious nature, the taped messages treated like heretical documents. Patricia had not been judged solely for the acts that she’d committed but for having subscribed to the “diabolical” ideology of the SLA, for having denounced a certain America.

As I listened to you I pictured you young and furious, powerless to contradict the simplistic experts from your bench in the audience, yes or no, true or false, good or bad, innocent or guilty. You who’d devoted more than 300 pages to the nuances of irresolute minds, fluctuating identities. In this country, you bitterly concluded while handing me your cigarette so I could light it, we glorify politicians who never change their opinions, it’s even seen as a sign of strength of character, and Patricia had paid the price, she who’d continually responded Maybe, I don’t know, I don’t know any more.

I was expecting you to add that you’d also paid the price, but you slapped yourself on the wrist, We’re not in class Gene, stop!

We decided to make a pit-stop in Springfield, which we took advantage of to buy drinks and ice cream. In the coffee-shop, young African-Americans were huddled in front of a t.v. broadcasting in constant replay the declaration of a state of emergency in Baltimore. The eye-witness testimonies succeeded each other on the screen, a vehement policeman, a woman in tears, a story with the inevitable end: an adolescent body covered in a shroud, asphyxiated, beaten, killed. His feet surpassed the stretcher, the shoelaces of his sneakers half untied, the policeman will plead legitimate defense, he’ll get off. We were less than 10 miles from Smith College, with its glossy brochure vaunting how the school welcomed serious young women of all colors, white, Asian, Black, pictured leaning over books or in lab jackets. A commercial for a fiction in which I loved believing, we expostulated on the equality in the fortress behind the high Victorian gates.

I was talking too fast because time was running out, searching in vain for an angle without finding it, you were focusing on the road, I continued, I loved your course but was disappointed that we hadn’t studied Cinque’s (10) riposte to the FBI official who, several days after the kidnapping, convinced that the SLA was made up entirely of Blacks, had insinuated on t.v. that “the Blacks, these people, we know who they are.” For the first time you seemed disconcerted. Many moons ago, you’d been fired from a pseudo-libertaire (11) French establishment for having read this very discourse to your students, I already knew this but I didn’t say anything. We attempted to recite it from memory, each of us taking over when the other forgot the words.

You know me, you’ve always known me, I’m the hunted and feared Negro, you’ve killed hundreds of my people to find me; but I am no longer he one steals from and assassinates […] oh yes, you know us all and we know you […].

We stopped talking. The closed cockpit of the car warped time, I prayed we’d never get to Boston. The rain had been falling for a while but now it blotted out the atmosphere with horizontal lines, a violent tempest, the first summer storm, forcing us to pull up into a parking lot deserted except for a man and his dog. The animal toddled along in the opposite direction of the stick his owner’d just thrown, he hunted without success and finally resigned himself to coming back limping, embarrassed at having failed at his task, the man stroked his back, the emaciated hind paws of the dog trembled, the young man lifted the animal up into his arms, the dog unable to get into the car by himself, he curled up on the back seat, exhausted. I remembered the disoriented look of an ageing Lenny when he’d hurt himself for the first time after jumping from a wall, out of breath and panic-stricken when Violaine and I had rushed over to him, he’d struggled to his feet like one gets up hurriedly to ward off a threat. Will you come back one day to the Southwest of France, I asked, without looking at you directly.

(New chapter)

I didn’t have any handkerchiefs in my purse and neither did you, we didn’t even know where to start as the beginning of the story had already taken place and we hadn’t met, or not exactly, we kept interrupting each other, sorry, we needed to resituate the times, your hands perched on the steering wheel were shaking, how did she pronounce it, VIO-LAI-NE, you never knew, you closed your eyes momentarily, voila. Upon arriving at the airport, I sputtered out that I didn’t know if we’d ever see each other again and that you’d been right the very first day we met, I’d loved Patricia as an image one can never live up to, I hadn’t chosen anything for years, how to fight against what’s ravaging us, what flag of what SLA to raise, do you even have to rally behind a flag and whose side are you on if you’re not completely on Tania’s?

“And at the end of the day, what was in your report?”

You burst out laughing, as if I’d just said something particularly hilarious, we arrived at the international departures building, you locked me briefly in your arms, more of an accolade than a hug, you didn’t have time to wait around, a horde of freshmen to whom you’d given too many books to read – as if such a thing was possible – were no doubt already whining at your door. Then at the ticket counter as we were about to go our separate ways, you asked me if by any chance I had “Mercy Mary Patty” in my purse but it was already stashed away in my suitcase, we hurriedly unpacked it, hunching over in front of the armed security guards, extracting tee-shirts, underwear, skirts and notebooks. You thumbed through the book and ear-marked pages 50 through 65, voila the report, you seized my hand and grasped it between yours, beware of pat stories and I don’t know if Gene Neveva was referring to Patricia Hearst, Violaine, or me.

(New chapter)

There’s a certain grace in being among those who seek to connect the dots, who tirelessly keep their ears peeled to discern the voices of centuries of equivocal missing persons, disseminated over elongated spans of time, which have trouble reaching us. You hadn’t saved Patricia Hearst but you’d completed, without fail, your report, which bore little resemblance to a legal brief.

You wrote it for Mercy Short, she is 17 years old in 1690 and has been sequestered in her bedroom for a week. Around her bedside huddle pastors from neighboring villages and boys her own age, 50 bystanders who don’t take their eyes off her, observing what she eats, the way she talks, her dreams that she has to recount down to the most minute details for the small assemblage, monitoring every one of her words, they sing and chant until daybreak, strengthened by being united against the Devil. Mercy must be saved, she’s unrecognizable since she was rescued, without a doubt her kidnapping has left its mark, she has to get her two-cents’ worth in even when nobody asks her opinion, she has no sense of decency, if we let things go on like this before long she’ll be talking to her boss like he’s her cousin. She calls her father a hypocrite after listening to him pray to God. And the way she dresses, the top button of her frock permanently unbuttoned, it’s not proper! We must save Mercy Short’s soul, bring back the Mercy we all know and love, the adorable Mercy, she in whom, concludes the pastor Cotton Mather in the account he consecrates to her, the “faculties are now in complete disarray and who is exhibiting a freedom in her tone of voice that is absolutely extraordinary and in this respect, disturbing.”

You write for Eunice Williams, she who was baptized Marguerite by her adoptive parents, Mohawks, when they converted to Catholicism. Eunice-Marguerite kidnapped in Deerfield on February 28, 1704 by a troop made up of French soldiers and their Indian allies, the Abenaquis and the Mohawks.

Eunice-Marguerite who one day receives a visit from an old man, he stutters, no doubt from the cold, tears flow from his eyes which he dries off with a hand roughened by frostbite, he’s been searching for her for months, he’s scoured all of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. She offers him a cup of tea and invites him to sit down on the warmest bearskin rug, covered with woven blankets. He talks a little bit too loud, detaching each of his words as if she can’t understand him. She doesn’t need to call him Sir, he’s her father. The teenager shakes her head, her father is out there, with her mother. She points her finger at a Mohawk couple who wave back, they’re gathering firewood. The reverend raises his voice, clearly not, he’s her father, he never gave up, sure that he would find her, bloodlines are so strong, from the moment he’d been liberated he’d been searching for her without let-up. And now they’re reunited. The nightmare is over, in a few days, the time it takes to get to Deerfield, Eunice will be safe, nothing can ever happen to her again, John Williams swears it, he’ll make sure of it. Then the girl who no longer goes by the name of Eunice shakes her head firmly, flabbergasted. He’s welcome here. He can stay as long as he likes. She’ll present him to her husband. Show him what he built last month, an ingenious construction of tree branches over which they’d stretched a buffalo skin to protect it from storms. He can rest. Eat. But leave with him, to go where? This is her home, here.

A few months later, the reverend returns. On each of his visits, she listens to him patiently like one might listen to someone afflicted by fever, his discourse won’t brook any interruptions, he captures the young woman’s time, assails her with this first name with which he re-baptizes her, Eunice my Eunice, I recognize you all the same. The sole account of Eunice’s choice is the one published by her father in 1707: “The Redeemed Captive,” it inspired James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.”

You, you write for Eunice’s descendants who still live in Kahnawake, they tell anyone who asks the story of their grandmother, great-grandmother, great-grand-aunt who refused to be liberated, she was not a prisoner. You write stories without epilogues or revelations, a tightrope walker in the gray zones who looms up when one least expects it, you write a postcard, “Attention: Violaine,” which I receive yesterday, if she consents to budge to Northampton, Violaine will feel right at home in your class, it’s off-limits to adults.

***********************************

9. In English and French in the original.

10. “Nom de Guerre” of Donald DeFreeze, leader of the SLA.

11. A contemporary French term for non-violent anarchism. I’ve chosen to leave it in the French original here because the most obvious English translations, “anarchist” or “Libertarian,” have respectively more radical and conservative connotations in American English than that intended by the French term.

Please support independent arts journalism by making a donation to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager now

dad atelier art for donation pitchWe appreciate your likes, but they won’t feed us. We’ve been writing and reporting up a storm recently and sharing lots of incredible art. Please show your appreciation today for independent arts and cultural journalism by making a donation to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager now through PayPal in either dollars or Euros by designating your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com (all lower-case) , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Art by and copyright Lead Dance Insider & Arts Voyager Sponsor Edward Winer.

20 years of stories not told elsewhere: When Blackface (& body) reared its ugly head onstage at the Paris Opera Ballet

By Paul Ben-Itzak 
Copyright 2006, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

From the Dance Insider Archives: First published on October 24, 2006. Today’s re-publication (to which the only addition is the term ‘lilly-white’)  sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. To learn how to obtain your own copy of the DI / AV Archive of  2000+ reviews of performances, exhibitions, films, & books  from around the world by 150 artist-critics,  e-mail  paulbenitzak@gmail.com . 

PARIS — When racism rears its ugly head in a supposedly civilized setting, a sort of stunned, incredulous shock can set in. So it took me a minute Saturday night, sitting in my lush red orchestra chair in the ornate Paris Opera House, presided over by a colorful Marc Chagall panorama of the arts painted around the chandelier, to realize what I was seeing up there onstage, a few minutes into Serge Lifar’s 1947 “Les Mirages”: Two characters straight out of an “African” “tribal” “sacrifice rite” from 1930s Hollywood, clad entirely in black body suits, hands and faces included. Eyes and lips in a pronounced white, of course. Making bugaboo facial expressions and doing some sort of stereotyped to the nth degree savage dance — they stopped just short of scratching their crotches. (Just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, I checked the program after my premature but necessary exit: Ah yes, these would be “Les Negrillons.”)

What is this petrifying example of racist stereotyping doing on the stage of a theater in 2006? What was the (lilly-white) Paris Opera Ballet’s dance director Brigitte Lefevre thinking? (Obviously, she wasn’t. Voila le problème.) (Incidentally — or not so — Serge Lifar was condemned for collaborating with the Occupiers after World War II.)

On my wall is the second edition ever of Paris Match, and the first to feature just one person on the cover: Katherine (or “Kathrin” as the magazine spelled it — they Frenchify everything here) Dunham. It’s dated April 1, 1949. I don’t know if Katherine Dunham was here in 1947, but if she was, and happened to find herself at the premiere of “Les Mirages,” she likely would have had a much more demonstrative response to offer than my polite exit from the theater.

Luce: The case of the pertinent painter

luce military transportMaximilien Luce, “Transport d’un blessé.” Oil on canvas, 1916, ©Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu.

Text copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
Images courtesy Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu

First published on the Arts Voyager on March 29, 2012, this story is re-posted today  with revisions to celebrate the upcoming exhibition  Les temps nouveaux, Seurat à Matisse, opening October 16 at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and migrating to the Museum of Modern Art in New York next spring. The exhibition’s through-line is the critic Felix Fénéon, whose artistic inclinations and anarchist tendencies made him a natural compagnon de route of Maximilien Luce (1858 – 1941). It was also Fénéon who invited Luce to organize his first personal exhibition in 1888, at the Revue  Indépendante. See below for more on their connections, notably as detailed in Michel Ragon‘s  2008 “Dictionnaire de l’Anarchie,” published by Albin Michel. Like what you’re reading? Please make a donation to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager today in dollars or Euros via PayPal by designating your payment to e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check.

Imagine that Pissarro didn’t die in 1903 but continued to live and work for 38 years, extending his explorations in the various streams of Impressionism. Then imagine that he decided to consecrate the force of his talent and energy to more depictions of the poor sap, the working stiff, the pour conscript sacrificed as cannon fodder in a wasteful war, and the social movements championing them. Imagine that his brilliant palette became more dense, retaining the sense of color values he learned from Camille Corot, the precision he picked up from Georges Seurat, and his native curiosity, then augmenting them with the lessons of the Fauves, of late Claude Monet and even Pierre Bonnard. Well, you don’t have to imagine this artistic extension of a life; Pissarro’s friend, pupil, compagnon de chevalet and fellow anarchist sympathizer Maximilien Luce embodied it. Imagine, now, that you could see the living proof. Click here  to  read the rest of the article and see more images.

Out of the Mirror and into the Gaga with American-Israeli choreo Ohad Naharin, in performance and in his own words

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2006, 2019 Aimee Ts’ao

From the Dance Insider / Arts Voyager Archives, first published on November 10, 2006. Today’s re-publication sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. To learn how to obtain your own copy of the DI / AV Archive of more than 2000 reviews of performances, exhibitions, films, and books from around the world by 150 artist-critics, including Aimee Ts’ao, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Pull-quote from Hendrix added by PB-I. 

“Cover your mirrors or break them. Don’t use mirrors when you dance. Don’t use mirrors when you live. They are very limiting, they are an illusion.”

— Ohad Naharin

“I used to live in a roomfull of mirrors.
All I could see was me.
Well I took my spirit and I crashed my mirrors
Now the whole world is there for me to see.”

— Jimi Hendrix, as sung by the Pretenders

SAN FRANCISCO — Sometimes it is not just the performance of a choreographic piece that has an impact, but also the serendipitous events surrounding that performance that covertly conspire to reshape one’s perceptions of that first viewing. And so my recent experience with the Tel-Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company turned out to be far richer than I could have imagined before I walked into the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater for the Thursday, October 26 performance of artistic director Ohad Naharin’s “Three.” The next day, both interviewing Naharin and participating in a company warmup gave me further insight into the performance and deepened my appreciation of these exceptional artists.

Granted, I had already been to YBCA the previous Tuesday night to see two films, “Israel Dancing,” a documentary by Czech television and “Boobies,” a dance choreographed by Inbal Pinto and performed by her company. The latter was so long and eclectic, or derivative, that you could use it as the sole visual aid to teach a course on the influence of every dance and theater style of the 20th century on current work. The former featured some interesting footage of various Israeli dance companies as well as interviews with choreographers. The one moment that lodged in my mind was Naharin saying, “Everybody should dance every day, for a few minutes at least.”

Now it’s Thursday night, as I take my seat after conversing with other critics, dancers, and a couple of my teachers in the lobby. It’s quite gratifying to see so many from the local dance community in attendance. “Three” runs 70 minutes, with no intermission. There are three sections (hence the name), which I later learn by searching online are called Bellus (beauty), Humus (earth) and Secus (‘otherwise’ or ‘to the contrary’ in the Latin legal definition; “this…not this” in Naharin’s more poetic rendering). They can be performed separately as well as together, I also read.

The opener, Bellus, is danced to a number of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” recorded by Glenn Gould. (I confess that I am a serious admirer of the late Canadian pianist.) Basically the dance begins with a solo section, then a second dancer enters and stands to the side. As the first dancer exits, the second continues with some of the same choreographic material as well as new phrases, while a third enters, then the second dancer exits and the third begins, and so on. There is a pas de deux and a section of ten dancers running and jumping in what I would call an imaginary primitive folk dance. In the final section the movement is both new and recycled from previous sections, but seamlessly woven together, befitting the nature of musical variations. For me, there is one exquisite section in which the dancers stand in a line across the stage facing the audience. Each performer gently raises his/her arms straight up, sometimes from the shoulder, sometimes only from the elbow, at varying times and at varying speeds. There is no readily obvious pattern, though the complexity increases; then they shift into new material that includes different gestures and epaulement (angling the shoulders), executed while they’re still in line. It is so utterly simple yet so profoundly deep and resonates with the spirit of Bach’s music in a mysterious way, visually reflecting its essence without being a slave to the notes, motifs or compositional form.

In Humus, to music by Brian Eno, nine women explore weight, balance and gravity, first in a very slow and purposeful manner then gaining momentum as they walk or run around the stage to another location for another exploration of the possibilities of their bodies.

It is the last part, Secus, that is the most substantial, both in length and choreography. Over the course of 35 minutes, to Ohad Fishof’s compilation of music (Chan Chan, Kid 606 and Rayon [mix: Stephan Ferry], AGF, Fennesz, Kaho Naa Pyar Hai, Seefeel, and The Beach Boys), the dancers go ever so gradually from the chaos of everyone doing something different to the entire ensemble moving in unison. One section has the performers in three groups. One dancer from each articulates a brief phrase or action, then goes to the end of the line while the next dancer does the step in his/her own personal way. Usually there are only two or three repetitions before the dancers move on to new movement phrases. At one point the women on the right turn their backs one at a time to the audience, jump straight up in the air and quickly pull their pants down and up, flashing ever so briefly their derrieres. The men in the middle also pull their pants down, again one by one, but facing the crowd while concealing their private parts between their legs, a la emasculated Ken dolls. In general, the choreography for Secus is brilliantly crafted, from the use of space, to the permutations and combinations of movement phrases and finally to the ominous ensemble marching around the stage, hunched over, grabbing the air and chanting the word “welcome” as the lights dim.

Rarely do I see such emotionally powerful dancers. They are not mere automatons replicating steps. They touch us in a profoundly human way because their movement is born from intensely personal depths.

Batsheva for re-postBatsheva Dance Company in Ohad Naharin’s “Three.” Gadi Dagon photo copyright Gadi Dagon and courtesy San Francisco Performances.

The next morning I meet Naharin at his hotel for an interview. We find a quiet corner in the atrium on the mezzanine and settle in. As we talk for more than half an hour, what follows are only a few main points of our conversation:

Aimee Ts’ao: You seem to resist being called an Israeli choreographer.

Ohad Naharin: It’s trivial information in terms of what I really do. Because [then] you put all the Israeli choreographers in one box. I think the community of choreographers shouldn’t have national, ethnic or religious connotations. I’m also an American citizen, by the way. So you can call me an American-Israeli choreographer. My grandparents were from Russia and Poland, so maybe you can call me a Russian-Polish-Israeli-American choreographer. Being Israeli is not even a race; being Israeli describes geographically where I’m from. It doesn’t tell anything about who I am or what I am.

AT: I’m reading a biography of Gertrude Bell called “Desert Queen.” She was a British woman who lived and worked in the Middle East from the 1890s through the 1920s. It’s all the same problems we still have today. Nothing has changed. It really reinforces for me that the world doesn’t really change that much in a very fundamental way.

ON: That’s reassuring too.

AT: But it’s sad on the other hand.

ON: Very sad, I agree.

(Later, responding to a follow-up question in which I ask his opinion on the Israeli occupation, the wall and Israel’s recent actions in Lebanon, he offers: “The current situation is not new, it shows ignorance on the part of our leaders and many people, and it is distorting the desire for peace. It is the same as what is going on with the current government in the USA. It is not stupidity, this ignorance is intelligent but a one-way one, in which our leaders react only to their own reflections while totally blind to what is really in front of them. It means that they are not in touch with reality — while possessing so much power they create innocent victims, unnecessary suffering, and a much less secure world.”)

AT: What made you start to dance?

ON: I don’t know exactly what you mean, but when I think of starting to dance, it’s starting to live. As long as I can remember I’m dancing. Not dancing in a classroom, but being very aware of my body, my weight, being aware of the pleasure and joy I got out of movement, of the extreme physicality and effort. I think a lot of how we dance today has to do not with just our training, it has a lot to do with how we grew up, our genes, and what we did since we were born, with our body development. Our weaknesses, our strengths, our sexuality, our intelligence, our awareness of the universe has a lot to do with how we dance.

AT: How did you arrive at developing Gaga [as Naharin calls the movement language he uses in daily company training]?

ON: In order to be able to talk about it, I have to decide to make it more systematic than it really is. I’ve decided to talk about two important points, or maybe three. The first point will be my back injury. More than 20 years ago I had a very serious back injury, where I shattered a disc and I was paralyzed in my left leg and I didn’t think I’d be able to dance. I had a serious operation, but I was already choreographing, so coming back from the injury I needed two things: to get my body to move a little bit and also to be able to give other people the keys to the way to move in my work. This process of finding keys for me and for my dancers brought me to deal with my weaknesses and efficiency of movement. I needed to be so efficient because I was so limited. I developed an awareness that had to do with finding where in my body I’m not hurting and where in my body I have unused muscles, unused movement. I discovered my explosive power, the efficiency of movement. I started to really be able to connect between pleasure and pain, and between effort and joy. At the same time I needed to articulate it because I needed to give it to myself and others. So it became a language and a method. That was one, then about ten years ago, almost as a joke I started meeting [with] a group of non-dancers, workers of Batsheva company who are not dancers [but] who wanted to dance. So I started meeting [with] a group of five people twice a week in the morning. Very quickly I realized in these meetings with non-dancers, I learned a lot about movement, movement habits, all the things I described before but in a new light because none of them had the ambition to be on stage. They just wanted to feel better, and to move better and to get stronger. So then Gaga became something that had nothing to do with performing arts, just had to do with the maintenance of your body. Healing your body, finding pleasure and joy in movement and nothing to do with ambitions to be on stage. That became a very serious thing in my life — working with non-dancers. Today we have a venue with hundreds of non-dancers who come to take Gaga classes.

AT: Is it possible for someone to start as a child and be completely trained as a dancer? Or do you need to supplement with other forms?

ON: Right now I think of Gaga as the higher education of dance. You do elementary school, high school and go to college. So Gaga is this part of your education. We do have schools which approach us to teach kids. I’m more interested [in working] with adults. This year we allowed Gaga to be in the curriculum of the performing arts school in Jerusalem. But that is for 17-year-olds and over, not for kids. All the people already have [dance] training. The important idea is to make people excel in the method they already know. It’s not to abolish or cancel or change their techniques. If someone wants to be a ballerina, then Gaga can help her to be a ballerina. You should come and take Gaga class with us. We do it before the show as a warmup.

AT: I wanted to ask you about your choreographic process. Is it something that evolved, that you started in one spot and then the more you did it, you got more ideas of how you work? Not the actual choreography, but your whole way of thinking about it.

ON: Evolved is the key word. It’s evolving. It’s a process that takes me to places I’ve never been before. Otherwise I would be bored with it. The sense of discovery is always there. I think it has a lot to do with how my relationship with my dancers evolved, too. They [have] become more and more meaningful contributors to the process, especially since we started doing Gaga as our training about four years ago.

AT: I wanted to ask about music, because it is obvious that it’s an important element for you.

ON: Yes, yes. There’s something about music and structure and order and mathematics. There is something particular about this Bach piece [“Goldberg Variations”] and the way that Glenn Gould is playing it that the beauty of it really comes from making the music very bare. It’s so beautiful without any decoration. You really feel how the structure of the piece and the rhythm and the logic of it actually can create all the emotions and transport you into this landscape. This music is also almost like the sound of a metronome. Something so clean and minimalistic about it. Somehow meditating with it brought me to create the system of lifting the arms [in the Bellus section], which is really different from the system of the music. But I still feel loyal to it somehow.

AT: You also have a sense of space.

ON: It’s space that gives me the reason I can dance. I consider the importance of space in my existence more than time. I feel time passes anyway. I have no control over time, but I have control over space. I can really change the space and create the space, but I cannot change time and I cannot create time. I’m aware of time, how long it takes to do something, and I make a decision how long I want to do something, but it’s more about how long it takes to go from one place to another and that has more to do with space than with time.

AT: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

ON: Every interviewer asks me that. Yes. Cover your mirrors or break them. Don’t use mirrors when you dance. Don’t use mirrors when you live. They are very limiting, they are an illusion. They have really stopped dance from developing as far as it could go without [them]. That’s for sure. Every time I come to a ballet company to choreograph, I cover the mirrors. At the beginning it is so difficult, but at the end of the process, the dancers are so grateful.
Much later the same day I arrive at the stage door of YBCA, wondering if trying to do the Gaga warmup is really such a good idea. Nearly two years ago, I was hit by a car while walking across a street. The whiplash from being thrown at least eight to ten feet still plagues me and I have had major setbacks from such minor events as picking up a flowerpot. The ballet classes I do every day are at least a known quantity and quality, but what am I really signing on for now?

On stage the company is getting notes from Naharin, and I watch the dancers run through several sections of “Three,” which I saw last night. Finally they get a 15-minute break before warmup and I continue my stretching even more as a prophylactic against re-injuring myself. I need not have worried. Gaga turns out to be very liberating. I can just tune into what my body is feeling and then figure out what it needs. I am listening deeply to what it is telling me about its limits, but it reminds me, too, that there are strengths. Watching Batsheva’s members doing Gaga also shows me why they are so powerful on stage, individually and as an ensemble. By the end of the warmup, my body feels looser and more fluid than it has for a long time. I am positively exhilarated. I’m a convert; I’m thinking about incorporating some of it into my daily routine. You might even say — I’m going ga-ga over Gaga.

A helluva year for dance: An American on 42nd St. — At Home with David Dorfman

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2004, 2019 Maura Nguyen Donohue

Celebrating 20 years online as the leading  magazine for the dance profession, the DI is re-visiting 2004, a helluva year for dance and for the DI. As a distillation of American post-modern at the dawn of the new millenium, this one, first published on March 26, should be required reading at college dance departments. To learn how to obtain your own complete copy of the DI Archive, with more than 2,000 critiques of performances, exhibitions, books, and films from five continents since 1998 by 150 critics, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Today’s re-posting is sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance.

NEW YORK — I’ve been thinking a lot about American-ness lately. Actually, I think about American-ness all the time but having been enmeshed in an international collaboration with a troupe from Vietnam for the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about it as related to contemporary dance. Last night, as part of the 10th anniversary season of the 92nd St. Y Harkness Dance Project at the Duke on 42nd Street, David Dorfman Dance provided me with the example I want to cite the next time I have to describe American dance to an Asian peer. We are deep and humorous, adamantly informal and absolute mad dog dancers.

Before the show David Dorfman works the crowd, wandering amidst the audience, saying hellos and pressing flesh like the affable mayor of Danceville. The dancers are warming up on a bare stage that has been stripped to the walls to resemble a working studio. Dorfman later says this choice reflects the disproportionate nature of brief performances versus months of rehearsal. It is most appropriate here, where so much of the process is part of the work.

“Lightbulb Theory,” a premiere, begins with a solo for Dorfman. He walks across the stage, Michael Wall begins playing the piano and I feel a rush of pride or delight or anticipation. I want to nudge my Vietnamese collaborators with a “yeah dawg, you’ll see, we come in all shapes and sizes here.” Dorfman can stun any noviate to modern dance. He’s the sneaky Average Joe who looks like a linebacker and creates work with overwhelming craft. Of course, this crafty choreographer’s greatest gift may be his cultivation of excellent collaborators, primarily dancers. This company could represent a utopian vision of dance-making where dancers are fully creative artists, credited as collaborators and allowed their individuality.

After Dorfman reads a passage referring to fathers and sons, Paul Matteson, Heather McArdle, Jennifer Nugent and Joseph Paulson are revealed first on the backstage balcony performing a post-modern kick line. After then entering through the upstage left door they begin a quartet quietly, as Paulson pounds his fists, reflecting an internal stress. A bright dance follows with a series of movement phrases and marching punctuated by the women’s giddy squeals and shouts of “Wow!” The dancers repeatedly ask us if we’ve heard the two different theories about light bulbs: Some are said to flicker before they go out and some just go out. The text is returned to several times in impressive solos by each dancer, along with the question of whether it is “better for a life, I mean light, to flicker or just go out” and in the midst of infectious dance I’m pondering grief and loss.

Dorfman’s dances can race past you. There are rushes of sweeping movement that flow over you so that in reflection you only remember sparks. It’s appropriate, because Nugent is explosive. She sweeps and kicks and drops with ferocious glee. She is powerful, strong and flexible, cute and sexy. She’s the dancer I want to be when I grow up. When she’s paired with Matteson, the two become a new entity, one creature rabidly devouring the space in a series of thrilling weight shifts.

The evening’s second work and premiere, “Impending Joy,” has an entirely different tone. Chris Peck’s electronic score, also performed live, is a sonic assault. This landscape is painful as compared to the nostalgic feeling evoked by the piano of “Lightbulb Theory.” A pile of wire netting and pickets from a fence sits downstage center. The other dancers pile Paulson with pickets and urge him out of the space. He begins a solo full of direct movement, sharp slices and aggressive drops while Matteson, McArdle and Nugent stand in half of the stage washed in red light, designed by Josh Epstein. Paulson throws himself at Matteson even after Matteson has vacated the space. Then he pathetically drops pickets across the stage. Matteson performs a constricted, distressed solo gesturing to his gut and reaching away while speaking phrases and partial phrases like “You deserve to be” and “You will die.”

There is an automated rigor to the dancing that serves as an enjoyable companion to the expansiveness of the first work. As the piece draws to a conclusion, each dancer pulls parts of the fence apart. Nugent is wrapped in the fence; McAdle winds the metal wire around herself and the men struggle with piles of pickets. As Nugent delivers a series of lines beginning with “This is where…,” a last light cue of red on the balcony sets a hallucinatory tone and I suddenly glimpse the special little hell that home ownership can offer.

David Dorfman Dance continues at the Duke Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 & 7 p.m. There is no show Friday.

Click here to read about Maura Nguyen Donohue / In Mixed Company.