Of fly girls & shy girls: From “Bovary” through the Head-scarf (with cameos by Bernhardt & Bausch) — When the body feminine becomes a moral battle ground

Adrien Henri Tanoux Odalisques 1905From the Arts Voyager Archives and Artcurial’s Spring 2016  sale of Orientalist and Arab and Iranian Modern art:  Adrien Henri Tanoux (1865-1923), “Odalisques,” Oil on canvas, 23.62 x 31.5 inches. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2016, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the Arts Voyager on  May 20, 2016. Tiego Rodrigues’s latest effort to subvert a literary giant’s masterpiece, in this case Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” is currently playing at the Theatre de la Bastille in Paris, this time out abetted by the company Stan. 

PARIS — What I love about Tiago Rodrigues, the director of the Portuguese National Theater who is “occupying” the Theatre de la Bastille for two months with three works, one involving the participation of 90 amateurs in its creation, is that he defies the conventional wisdom that attracting contemporary audiences requires jettisoning the classical canon. Rodrigues understands that if an oeuvre like Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” (whose original title was “Madame Bovary, or Provincial Morals”) has endured for 160 years, it’s because despite changing mores, its portrayal of societal turmoil (above all the conflict between individual comportment and predominant national values) is still pertinent. Even if today it’s not the loose morals of a married woman that are accused of threatening religious norms, as was the case with the story of Emma Bovary, but the custom of a small group of Muslim women to cover all or part of their bodies that is perceived by some as threatening the norms of lay values, the battle terrain is the same: the woman’s body. (And not just in literature: Eight female politicians, some in powerful positions including in the French legislature, recently accused a leader of the Green party of sexual harassment, charges which the official has denied.)

First, some background is in order on the current social context in which Rodrigues’s “Bovary” — which frames Flaubert’s novel with the legal process the government instituted to ban it (he isn’t the first to use this tactic; filmmaker William Dieterle did it in 1949) — hits the Bastille, where it plays through May 28. When a group of female students at Paris’s prestigious Sciences-Po university (which forms many of the country’s political leaders) recently decided to hold a “Hijab Day” to dispel myths about the foulard, or head-scarf, the philosopher-pundit Bernard Henri-Levy tweeted, “What’s next? Lapidation Day? Sharia Day?” And the Left-leaning feminist Elisabeth Badinter called last month for a boycott of fashion houses introducing special lines catering to Muslim women. (French feminists, particularly, tend to assume that if a woman is wearing a veil, it must be because a man is forcing her to do so.)

moma hijabs smallFrom the Arts Voyager Archives: Display figures with hijab, in East Jerusalem market. Photo by Danny-w. Some rights reserved. Used through Creative Commons. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art.

Rodrigues’s “Bovary” also arrives in Paris at a moment in which a group of Left-wing activists calling themselves “Nuit Debout” (Night standing up) has been occupying the Place de Republique at night since mid-March. But while Nuit Debout promotes a very selective vision of Democracy which excludes anyone who doesn’t agree with them (the rest of us are the “Fachos”), Rodrigues, by quoting from the actual transcripts of the 1857 trial the government instigated after “Madame Bovary” first appeared in serial form (the author himself paid for the stenographer), lets both sides present their best case. As formulated by David Geselsen’s defense attorney (once he stops speeding through his lines, an annoying tendency by many young French actors, especially regrettable when delivering legal arguments which require some mastication), a government zeal which followed to its logical conclusion would require deleting suggestive words from the dictionary because of their proximity with upstanding words like “Christianity” has scary resonance at a time when conditions provoked by an attack on free speech (the Charlie Hebdo massacres) have lead to an environment in which one is not always sure what is considered acceptable speech.

For Rodrigues’s “Bovary,” the government case gets an adept advocate in the person of Ruth Vega-Fernandez, perhaps the most charismatic young actress working in France today. (Although she could do to tone down a tic she seems to have adopted for this role, of describing and punctuating her arguments with articulated arms, hands, and fingers; used once or twice, it’s compelling, but over-used it just ends up calling attention to the artifice.)

Between Vega-Fernandez, Geselsen, and the occasional choice interjections by Jacques Bonnaffe’s Flaubert, the “Bovary” trial as recreated on the stage of the Theatre de la Bastille — where I caught it May 13 — provides a valuable example of juicy, rich, and well-founded (on both sides) constructive discourse in a France in which reasoned and polite debate seems to have been supplanted by virulent polemics. It’s almost as if because the immediate question — whether Flaubert’s tale of Emma Bovary, who seeks to escape a suffocating marriage through liaisons with flighty lovers, promotes infidelity, or whether the author is simply reporting on a social condition — is (apparently) so removed in time, the audience is able to patiently assimilate and consider the merits of each argument without the dogmatic predispositions that make healthy debate nearly impossible today. And makes me think that what we need in the current climate of polarization is not more philosopher-pundits or ZAD (Zone a Defend)ists masquerading as Democrats (and attacking police, 350 of whom have been injured this year; they too marched May 18 protesting hatred of the police) but apt theater directors able to reveal the timeless lessons in ‘ancient’ tales. In a country in which, historically, vigorous debate has sometimes been replaced by, on the one side, anarchist violence including bombings and, on the other, stifling of dissent, theater directors and artists in general who have the ability to frame debate in a constructive, non-manipulative way (Vega-Fernandez’s attorney is not just a fall guy, her convincing arguments being delivered with conviction) have a critical role to play in illuminating the issues in a serene fashion.

alma palacio rodrigues bovaryAlma Palacios in “Bovary,” as captured by and copyright Pierre Grosbois and courtesy Theatre de la Bastille.

There’s just one tendency which *almost* gets in the way in “Bovary,” a misunderstanding of the Brechtian style which repeatedly calls attention to the fact that this is just a performance. Alma Palacios’s Emma regularly introduces different segments of the action — for much of the middle and through to the end of the play, the trial reconstruction gives way to a recreation of the actual drama — by stating, “On page 200,” such and such happens, etc. This is a dangerous device in the hands of a younger actress like Palacios, who already has a tendency to recite her lines in a downplayed, matter of fact and borderline ironic fashion, directly to the audience. But eventually, and as a colleague has pointed out, the power and authenticity of Flaubert’s tale and his portrayal of Emma is able to transcend even post-modern irony. Emma seduces Palacios, who seduces the procurer and Flaubert’s attorney (both break from their courtroom cool at one point and embrace Emma) and has the audience shivering when she takes the fateful arsenic. We’re finally at Rodrigues’s mercy when, in a coda, Gregoire Monsaingeon’s Charles declares (I paraphrase), that like his wife,”I eventually died too, as did the procurer, my attorney, and as will the actors on this stage, and as will all of you eventually die. But ‘Madame Bovary’ lives on.” By this time, no one in the audience is chuckling, unless it’s the nervous laughter of recognition.

Sarah Bernhardt would never have been accused of post-modern irony. But if actress Astrid Bas and director Miguel Loureiro spared her that in “Paris-Sarah-Lisboa,” which opened the annual Chantiers (building projects) d’Europe festival organized by the Theatre de la Ville May 11 with a performance supposedly tailored for the Divine One’s old dressing room at the theater, they didn’t offer much else. The 30-minute piece consisted of the actress — dressed not in Belle Epoch style but a zipper-back dull dark blue dress from the 1950s — galloping on her stilettos to different corners of the room (a Bernhardt-sized tiny bathtub, a makeup sink, both framed by mirrors) to retrieve sections of the script, off which she read excerpts from Bernhardt’s journal, with the drop in investment and nuance which reading from a script for a performance often induces. Even the potentially liveliest section, in which Bernhardt prepares for a performance with tongue-twisters (“She sells sea-shells,” etc.) was rote. So that in the end, even if the texts recited were supposedly rare, I didn’t feel I knew anything more about Bernhardt than I did before. It seemed a particularly uneventful way to open what normally promises to be a portentous festival.

Pina Bausch Agua Ulli WeissTanztheater Wuppertal’s Regina Advento and Jorge Puerta Armenta in Pina Bausch’s “Agua.” Ulli Weiss photo copyright Ulli Weiss and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

Pina Bausch’s 2001 “Agua,” which I caught the same night at the same theater, as performed by Tanztheater Wuppertal, suffered from an opposite impediment: too much action. The argument for the work’s sonic, scenic, and kinetic splendor would be that insouciance doesn’t need an excuse, especially in an era where the insouciant have become the targets of terrorists, including in this city. And perhaps an audient less aware of how much more Pina Bausch can offer by way of meaning and catharsis would have been sated with “Agua”‘s tropical, life-affirming antidote to the nihilism with which the “Islamic State” is trying to afflict us. But as a dance and theater critic, my problem with much of the late choreographer’s work in the 2000s (she died in 2009) is that for the actual choreography, Bausch seems to rely more on the skills and body maps of the individual performers and the opulent film work of designer Peter Pabst than any grand scheme and for me, calisthenics and pyrotechnics are no longer enough, especially from a master story-teller so much of whose works had something to tell us about the times. (On my way home, I wistfully regarded a poster of Wuppertal performing Bausch’s “Rite of Spring,” which along with the equally somber “Cafe Muller” the festival of Nimes is getting. Can the programmers really think we’re less sophisticated than the provinces?)

From a promising beginning, in which the playful Wuppertal veteran Helene Pikon heartily munches on an apple, the juice dripping, as she recounts how a perturbed sleep which forced her out of bed created an opportunity to catch a breathtaking sunrise, “Agua” devolves into a beach party. Hilarious at times, even riveting — Pabst saturates every corner of the stage with an Imax-style film of a boat ride through what might be the Amazon, leaving the impression that we’re riding on the boat, as is the dancer who cascades across the deck; it was only when the boat became a raft and took to sea that I started getting nauseous — in the end “Agua” is not so much insouciant as feather-light. When a reporter asked Bausch, at a 2006 Paris press conference, why she had turned away from darker work, she answered that it was precisely because of the bad things happening in the world that she felt the need to offer some relief and reveal some light. Things have since gotten a lot worse, and (see above, under “Bovary”), considering the vast and illuminating repertoire available to them, I’m not sure that Wuppertal’s directors really serve an audience in need more than ever of cathartic revelation by giving us a frothy Carnaval.

Speaking of exotica, and getting back to woman’s body as a fertile terrain for cultural battles, a historical reminder of why some Muslim, or Arab women might want to hide their visages from disrobing Occidental eyes was provided by Wednesday’s sale of Orientalist and contemporary Arab and Iranian art by Artcurial, the leading French auction house: Just take a look at the come hither topless babes (one of whom is an alabaster white) in Adrian Henri Tanoux’s 1905 oil “Odalisques,” on sale at a pre-estimated price of 40,000 – 60,000 Euros (above). It certainly confirms my assessment that women’s bodies have been a terrain for political and moral battles for a mighty long time.

 

Post-modern classics: In Paxton ‘Bound’ and Jingju Peking Circus ‘Women Generals,’ a tale of two countries’ attitudes towards dance preservation

paxton boundJurij Konjar in Steve Paxton’s “Bound.” Nada Zgank photo copyright Nada Zgank and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003, 2119 Paul Ben-Itzak

(To celebrate its 20th anniversary as the leading artist-driven publication in the United States, the Dance Insider and Arts Voyager  is reflecting on Post-Modern classics, as captured by Dance Insider critics in performances around the world over the past two decades. This Flash Review from the Dance Insider Archive was first published on October 26, 2015. To find out about purchasing your own copy of the DI’s Archive of more than 2000 exclusive reviews by more than 150 leading critics of performances and art exhibitions on five continents over the past 20 years, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . To become a DI/AV sponsor and receive linked sponsor credit in this space for as little as $36, you can make a donation through PayPal in US $ or Euros by designating your donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Today’s re-publication of this Flash Review is made possible by Freespace Dance.)

PARIS — What do the aesthetics of Steve Paxton and the Peking Opera have to do with each other? When performed by, respectively, Jurij Konjar and the Jingju Theatre of Beijing, as they were last week at the Theatre de la Ville – Abbesses and the Theatre de la Ville Sarah Bernhardt, virtuosity and engagement.

When I asked His Judson Eminence after last Thursday’s opening of the 1982 solo “Bound” (continuing through October 27) what distinguished it from his earlier work, he answered: “Spectacle.” When I asked which parts of the 55-minute piece were up to the performer to create, he smiled like the Sphinx and answered: “The dance.” While the humility of this response, from the inventor of a form of dance, Contact Improvisation, wildly popular in France but for which the 76-year-old creator no doubt gets no royalties, is admirable, it does raise the question of variability: In the hands of a less expressive, inventive, intuitively droll, supple, smart, and well-trained interpreter of Paxton’s intentions and design than the 37-year-old (for improvisation, the perfect conjuncture, in which mental maturity and comprehension still has at its disposal a capable vehicle to execute its intentions) Konjur, who trained at Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s P.A.R.T.S. school in Brussels before working with the Ballets C de la B and Boris Charmatz, might the choreographic elements have been less imaginative? The question is partially answered by the slim results when La De Keersmaeker herself apparently left her much younger charges to come up with the moves for her recent “Golden Hours.” And the dancer-dancemakers for that farce (in the ‘rip-off’ sense of the term) had a whole text to work with, Shakespeare’s “As you like it.” But if Paxton doesn’t give his performer a text per se, he definitely furnishes a rule book. It’s easy to forget when Contact Improvisation has become the biggest excuse for aimless and indulgent noodling around that dance has ever seen, but his system for creating dances is as rigorous as those devised by Petipa, Balanchine, and Forsythe. (And a lot more original than recent Forsythe, which regurgitates Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown.) If the choreography is not set, there are still, Paxton explained to me, musical and scenographic parameters, or put more simply certain tasks that the dancer has to undertake at certain times. Imagine this structure as a scaffold. How the dancer gets to the top (or the bottom from the top) is up to him, but he has to make contact with certain points at certain junctures and arrive by the end at a fixed terminus.

For “Bound,” the physical terrain was circumscribed from the beginning by four planks marked along the side by different colors of tape later sometimes predictably arranged as see-saws, but also arrayed and balanced creatively as abstract art. A screen upstage center became a tapestry whose projected kaleidoscope formed a military pattern when Konjar stood in front of it, probably because of the fatigue formed a military pattern when Konjar stood in front of it, probably because of the fatigue shorts he sported over red pants, the ensemble rounded out by a white shirt, Lennon-esque shades and a bathing cap which made him look like an Olympic swimmer circa 1920, the shorts revealed after he stepped out of a box which had been hung from his shoulders by suspenders so that it covered his mid-section. When I asked Paxton later what differentiated “Bound” from his pioneering Judson work, he answered that he wanted to do more “Spectacle,” and Konjar sets that tone right away. This is no blasé post-mod performer who seems to be pretending the audience isn’t there, but an interpreter determined to engage us, to get us to shut off our cell phones and stop zapping and surfing and watch one man taking the time to create a world out of very few elements, pointedly utilized. Mid-spectacle, he brings onstage a wooden rocking chair and a darker mahogony newspaper bin simply to rock them one by one as he sits between them in his box, only his trunk visible. This arrived, as I recall, during a musically quiet moment, but even when it came to responding to the pure music, the Bulgarian State Women’s Choir, and sound effects — resembling first traffic noise, later garbled military commands to a helicopter pilot — Konjar, as directed by Paxton, once again defied what one often expects from a post-modern dancer and actually seemed to be responding to the score, moving lyrically to the Bulgarian adagio sections, swerving around in traffic to the car noise, parading during martial horn music, and frantic and alienated during the military maneuvers.

I was even more startled about the eminent watchability and appeal of this 55-minute piece when Paxton informed me afterwards that for its creation, he had no “outer eye.” It was mostly “thought up” while he was on tour, ahead of the Rome premiere. Given that the choreography can dramatically diverge from night to night, he explained, he was also lucky in the reconstruction of the dance to have recovered two videos capturing radically different outcomes.

This leads to my one gripe, which has less to do with Paxton than the dance world’s lack of care in preserving its own legacies. If one is to believe the promotional material for “Bound,” if not for the fortuitous discovery of the video recordings, this master-work which opens up a multi-dimensional understanding of a critical dance forefather would have been lost. It was not notated. Contrary to the ludicrous, ill-informed, ignorant assumptions proffered by the journal of the Festival d’Automne, which co-produced this presentation with the Theatre de la Ville, it is not a given that there’s no such thing as preserving the original version of a dance. Not just ballet but also modern mavens like Martha Graham and Paul Taylor have been notated. With a dance whose kinetic core is flexible, the task is not so different; the notator would record the ground rules, structure, and props, and then attend several performances or rehearsals to save the variants, already an improvement on video because the methode de travail itself is preserved, not just one performance.

And yet in dance, there seems to be not simply an illusory exaltation that the art is ephemeral, as if this impermanence is a value to be vaunted and boasted about because as each performance is gone forever when it’s over, you will never see it again, therefore, you have been privileged, but a confounding of the uniqueness of a performance and of an interpretation with the oeuvre itself. Paint is liquid too, but what painter would be happy if his work never dried and kept getting smudged over the years? Freedom of interpretation (by interpreter and audience) can only endure if the work itself is preserved and lasts.

Jingio Theatre Peking Theater CircusJingju Theatre’s Zhang Shu Jing in “The Women Generals of the Yang Family,” directed by Shen Jia Xin. DR photo courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

While they certainly didn’t have video in the 12th century, on Wednesday at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt the Jingju Theatre of Beijing and director Shien Jia Xin were somehow able to resurrect the nearly thousand-year old but surprisingly contemporary “The Women Generals of the Yang Family,” no doubt in part because while there may not be a Judson department at Juilliard, there’s still a Peking Opera school in China. Like Paxton, Jingju primes the delectably slow and like Konjar, its interpreters prime the well-articulated and etched gesture. The whole first half of the two-hour, 15-minute show was taken up with his warrior brothers and widow (the divine Li En Jie, who doubles as a sort of narrator in high-pitched song) summoning up the courage to tell the 100-year-old Wang clan matriarch (the sprightly Shen Wen Li) that her grandson has been felled by an enemy arrow defending the country from invaders, and in the grandmother’s campaign to convince the prince to let her and the eight widows of her other warrior grandsons lead the campaign to repulse the enemy. And it took almost the whole second half for an expeditionary squad lead by Li to find the high-mountain drawbridge which allowed them to surprise the far more numerous invading army. If this part was punctuated by some acrobatics — somersaults and meticulously choreographed sword, spear, and bow and arrow battles, often crowned with flourishes of brown peacock feathers streaming from the contestants’ helmets — the dose, particularly when the sublimely graceful warrier the general Zhang Shu Jing was charged with the battle-task, was parceled out just sparingly enough so that one never got the impression that the story was just an excuse for the circus tricks and schticks. And the athleticism wasn’t confined to these displays; when the performers weren’t walking about with splayed feet, they were balancing on high platforms.

Not only was Li’s singing/story-telling exquisite, so was her acting, both in an opening segment in which she struggles to keep her husband’s death secret from the grandmother, reluctant to lift a ceremonial glass of wine for a birthday toast to a man she knows is dead, then faltering before being lead off, and in a sword and spear fight with her son (Chen Yu) to determine whether he’s capable enough to join the crusade. “Mom!” he complains as she continues to dominate. “How am I going to be able to join the expedition if you don’t let me win?!”

Holding up the comedy element was Li Yang’s invading king, whose frustrated sputterings from beneath a long black beard and behind a heavy mask or very thick make-up as the women continued to defeat his male minions sounded a lot like Curly Howard.

One of the many miracles from all the Peking-Opera trained performers was that their facial expressions managed to be nuanced and expressive under layers of make-up so thick that if their mouths hadn’t clearly been moving, I’d have thought they were wearing masks. The dramatic oomph of their delivery was helped by the immaculate timing of the music and sound effects being played — humbly, offstage — by Ma Shuai, Qin Qin, Zhen Rui Fen, Wang Xiao Dan, Ai Zao Sheng, Zhang Ye, Ding Rui, Yin Hang, Sun Yu, and Wang Song Hai. Indeed the timing was so well-synchronized with the onstage performers, at first I thought it was a recording.

During the intermission, the Chinese-Frenchman sitting next to me — judging by their presence in the audience, the Theatre de la Ville did a great job of promoting this engagement, part of a mini-festival “Focus on China,” among the French Chinese community — told me that for the Chinese, respecting one’s parents is vital, moreso than in Western cultures. Comparing the deliberate preservation of this 1,000-year-old oeuvre with the accidental preservation of the work of a vital American ‘ancestor’ like Paxton seems to confirm this observation.

Thanks to Denise Luccioni for her help in understanding Steve Paxton’s ground rules, and as always to Robin Hoffman for help in understanding the importance and fundamentals of dance notation and preservation.  

Blueprints for a New Dance from a New Dance Magazine: Munisterians

By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2000 Tom Patrick

(First published on the DI on January 28, 2000, this Flash is reprinted today for the first time grace of of Freespace Dance. To find out how you can own your own copy of the 2000 exclusive reviews of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2018  by 150 leading dancer-critics published by the Dance Insider  send an e-mail to paulbenitzak@gmail.com.)

NEW YORK — Tonight I got to witness a terrifically refreshing concert: Ben Munisteri and company in “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” at P.S. 122. I had absolutely no idea what to expect in terms of movement or outlook, nor am I now in the least disappointed to say I still wouldn’t know where to classify the choreographer or the work I saw. I didn’t come away with an impression of Mr. Munisteri himself, really, but more like a sparked curiosity.

Except for a disarming little spoken address from Munisteri (intimating we were hearing his own piano playing from yesteryear, and a few other such personal tidbits,) I didn’t really see evidence that the point of the choreography or the concert was intended to be telling us about him. No, something much subtler was going on, and I appreciated it! The four dances — flowing so well into each other and performed without pause or intermission — offer us a banquet of imagery that is never tiresome or predictable. I think it FRESH. Far from just eye-candy or simple sculptural moments, the dances pulse relentlessly with bursts of ideas rising from very pleasing flow. Quite simply, it looks like it feels good, feels rich, even while they’re dodging those support columns on the P.S. 122 stage.

Given the close integration of the four “sections” and the ever-changing soundscape involved, I didn’t punctuate between them in the viewing, and I won’t do so here either. It was truly one dance tonight, thanks in no small part to the imagination and soft touch in Kathy Kaufmann’s lighting. So many wonderful contributions there, to great effect! Ginger Blake’s costumes in all cases showed the dancers’ beautiful selves beautifully, versatile designs in some sensuous fabrics appropriate for a spectrum of situations.

And the dancers, ah, the dancers. Well, they were not only covered by and bathed in intriguing ideas from Munisteri, Kaufmann, and Blake. They had quite a bit of their own to say. There was, even in the intimacy of the venue, an understatement in their regard for each other that might almost be the protective discretion of love, and certainly of respect. The concentration and cooperation among all was riveting in itself sometimes, for I swear they were directing our (my) attention between them, along and across their backs, from the ends of their purposeful limbs. Turning their attention frankly toward us sometimes, there was, I felt, a great inclusiveness to their attitudes….”C’mon, I want to show you something….” It was not ingratiating or blank or anything but…hmmm…intriguing again.

A further word or two about these facile performers: Loved ’em all –Kudos! I’m always amazed at Tricia Brouk’s effect on me: What an amalgamation of sacred and profane…and what an ability to make it all look so easy. Likewise Chris McMillan, whose fluency belies the difficulty inherent in plenty of these sequences, yet she soars like bird in the sunshine. Lisa Wheeler was tirelessly engaging, throughout. She, too, exemplifies an enviable “appropriateness” that is a great gift in my opinion. In witnessing this I felt drawn into “what” she was doing, sometimes “why,” but not distracted by the “how.” This surety and ease was displayed across the board: The organic dancing was really satisfying to behold. Mr. Munisteri danced in the work throughout, their quarterback, and shone especially I thought in a duet with Ms. Wheeler. Tonight was the New York debut of Francisco Graciano as well, as the fifth of five. He too betrayed no nerves or reservations, just the willingness to show us something. They all did.

I came away from the concert stimulated from the hour-long ride, my head filled with suggestions and memories and hope. The run of Ben Munisteri and these evocative dances continues at P.S. 122 through Sunday, January 30, and Thursday-Sunday, February 3-6. I recommend it!

Redemption Song: For Roland Petit and the Paris Opera Ballet, the Charm of ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’ is in the Details

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

(Last night and this morning a fire destroyed two thirds of the rafters and cross-beams of Notre-Dame. If the church — first constructed 800 years ago with a message of redemption — is still standing this morning, said France’s deputy interior minister, it’s because a group of heroic fireman risked their lives to enter the building and work to put the fire out. As of this morning, Notre-Dame’s two towers were still standing; it’s storied gargoyles had already been put in storage to facilitate the renovation work that may have precipitated the fire, no doubt spurred on by the relentless Spring winds which have been buffeting Paris. This Flash was first published on October 10, 2001. It’s re-publication today is sponsored by Freespace Dance, presenting Freespace Dance 2019 40+ at the space at Yoga Mechanics in  Montclair, New Jersey.)

PARIS — As spectacles go, you can’t get much more spectacular than Roland Petit’s 1965 ballet “Notre-Dame de Paris,” based on Victor Hugo’s novel and created for the Paris Opera Ballet and performed by the POB from etoiles to corps with gusto last night at the Garnier, as its opening production of the season. As I suspect that this ballet and its creator are less new to many of our readers than to myself, who was encountering both for the first time, I’m not going to describe the libretto in detail. I don’t even know that, having not seen enough other interpretations to formulate a base-line, it’s fair for me to evaluate the principal interpreters of last night’s performance. Because we have rather been plagued by new story ballets in recent years, however (“Othello,” “Pied Piper,” “Snow Maiden,” and more Draculas than there are corps maidens to feed them), I would like to comment on what Petit, a past and present master of spectacle, teaches us about how to make the form not just work, but work on our emotions.

In a word, it’s in the details.

It seems to me that in spectacles like Lar Lubovitch’s “Othello” (a plodding, over-produced, over-costly, under-choreographed behemoth wisely absent from American Ballet Theatre’s repertoire the last couple of years, not so wisely retained by San Francisco Ballet), the choreographers and producers became so pre-occupied with the spectacular, they forgot that it takes more than rich effects to make a story. Thus in Othello, Lubovitch essentially gave us two hours of flailing, including perhaps the biggest waste of a diamond dancer (Desmond Richardson) ever seen on the ballet stage. So what if the ice-like block of scenery at the rear of the stage cost three-quarters of a million dollars? The choreography was cheap, and ABT was definitely cheated on the music. John Harbison’s haunting yet lush music for David Parsons’s “Pied Piper,” on the other hand, was a perfect match of composer to subject. Parsons’s choreography, however, notwithstanding a promising prelude featuring three generations of pipers, borrowed mercilessly from his older works (created on and for modern dancers). Heartfelt, complex portrayals in the title role by Hector Cornejo and Angel Corella elevated the principal choreography to something better than the sum of its parts, but the story and Parsons delivered less than their potential.

In “Notre-Dame de Paris,” based on the Victory Hugo novel more typically translated in the U.S. as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” we are provided with the potential for grandeur and intimacy, and Petit delivers on at least one of these levels, and the more important one. And in the Paris Opera dancers, who have this story and that poet in their blood memory, he couldn’t have found better vessels.

What struck me — and I use that word “struck” literally, for it hit me as a blow — most about Petit’s choreography for the four principals, as they were interpreted last night, was that it is Quasimoto who emerges as the most human of the quartet. As portrayed by Wilfried Romoli — and I use that phrase guardedly, having no other interpretations for comparison and thus handicapped from distinguishing the interpeter from his material — Quasimoto is not so much “a hunchback,” as dehumanizing as reducing a man to such a description can be, but a noble soul trapped in a body that can’t quite meet, or can’t quite rise to, the elevated level of his soul and aspirations and heroic and romantic inclinations. He does, in fact, often, regularly straighten his spine and rise, but can only stay straight for a fleeting moment, before, almost ritually, collapsing on bent knees, his right arm pulling his shoulder down (the hunch, in a just-right choice, is communicated not by an actual hunch in the actor-dancer’s back, but by the way he carries and arrays the rest of his body, most notably the arms and a constantly drooping shoulder), his lower arm left to swing, lifelessly and out of his control, back and forth, its fingers splayed.

Indeed, the most compelling moment for me arrives in a sort of role-reversed Rose Adagio: Technically Quasimoto is lifting heroine Esmeralda’s arm and hand so that she can lift one leg up and stand on just one pointe; but really, it is she that is lifting him so that he can stand up straight, as becomes clear when they release and he automatically crumples and re-hunches. (And is also a nice contrast with the arch deacon Frolo’s treatment of Quasimoto, manifest in his constantly pushing him down into a hunch.)

This passage is delivered in what is also the ballet’s romantic pay-off, the final duet between Quasi and Esmeralda, who he has secured — only tenuously, it turns out — in the church, having just saved her from the gallows. Both Romoli and Marie-Agnes Gillot, last night’s and the opening night’s Esmeralda, deliver. I didn’t know quite how to evaluate Gillot’s interpretation at first, and proceed now only haltingly because of the afore-mentioned lack of any baseline — specifically, to be able to know what is the responsibility of the ballerina-actress, and what can be attributed to the choreography. For example, in her first appearance, aptly telegraphed by a solitary tambourine (played with gusto by a soloist of the Orchestre Colonne, as was the entire Maurice Jarre score, conducted by Paul Connelly), Gillot’s Esmeralda struck me as rather cold and constrained for a Gypsy Dancer. It might also have been her white tight short skirt designed by Yves Saint-Laurent, whose costumes overall affected me as almost too sleek and modern for a tale driven by such raw individual and crowd passions. (Rene Allio’s stage designs, on the other hand, were much more appropriately medieval.)

But my first impression may have been wrong. First, I do have something of a baseline for evaluating Gillot, having seen her last season in Angelin Preljocaj’s “Annonciation,” and she has no shortage in the passion department — if anything, the opposite! But more important, as the ballet progressed, she displayed that greatest and rarest of acting gifts — she seemed to be responding and reacting to her progressive partners and in a way suitors, her temperament changing based on what they gave her. Thus, to Jose Martinez’s Frollo — he’s the supposedly tormented arch deacon whose passions get the best of him and wreak the death ultimately of Esmeralda and her suitor Phoebus, a captain of the guards — she teases a little, but is ultimately and reliably cold. (I say “supposedly tormented” because Jose Martinez’s portrayal, while using his pristine dancing articulation, particularly his scissory legs, to great effect to portray his evil, was otherwise one-dimensional. One didn’t see any struggle.) She instantly warms to Phoebus (Karl Paquette, physically the spitting image of ABT’s Ethan Stiefel) when he rescues her from Quasimoto (who is reluctantly pursuing her on orders of Frollo, who has become obsessed with her), but as instantly draws away from him when he is easily seduced by harlot-dancers (rather ridiculously costumed with obviously false huge breasts) in a tavern, who strip him until he looks like a Chippendale. But it’s not too hard for him to convince her of his devotion, and he strips her too, which is followed by a slow seduction scene haunted by Frollo, who, when he’s not meditating on his murderous course, constantly insinuates himself into the duet in place of Phoebus, who seems not to see him until Frollo stabs him.

But it’s Quasimoto who ultimately, gradually, wins her heart, and in revealing the effect he’s having on her Gillot is savoringly subtle. She begins to question her fear of him when he turns from pursuer to potential rescuer, early, in the world of shadows amongst the cut-throats and other undesireables, tentatively reaching an arm out to him as he hunches protectively between her and the mob. With careful, mindful ceremony, she glides towards him on pointe, her hands cupped with food or water after he is beaten by Phoebus’s men. When he almost savagely (though gratefully) laps the sustenance from her palms, rather than shirk at this contact, she sends her hands twinkling up, the separated fingers quivering. (The splayed fingers by the way is a leitmotif, perhaps the main, for Petit. Everybody, from Quasi to the other principals — Frollo often turning away from the others and gripping his back — to the corps who reacts to the action by shaking their arms and hands up, freezing them, and lowering them, uses the motif.) Far from recoiling, this reaction in her hands, reverberating down her body to her on-pointe toes as she glides away in the scene’s final moment, indicates that he has affected her.

In the church, Esmeralda has finally made the journey from pitying Quasimoto to seeing him as a playmate. When she does display compassion — for example, on beholding him repeatedly trying to straighten his spine and flourish his arms like a swain, only to crumple — it’s no longer pity, but the true empathetic sorrow of a woman for her lover. Again, here her own body reacts, her spine slumping ever so slightly, but enough in her otherwise straight-up body to make the point.

It’s an exquisite duet, which ends with as close an indication of coupling as is possible, as he lifts her on her back, she wraps her arms around his neck, nestles her head on his, and flexes her legs out at his side as he flexes his arms, before he, this time, doesn’t crumple but gently lowers himself and bends his back, placing her lengthwise on it, before setting her to the ground and leaving her to a contented sleep.

Alas, it’s not to last. Frollo and fate intervene as soon as he leaves her, the priest torturing her (and, perplexingly, tormenting her mentally as well — with her and with all, in fact, Frollo seems to have the power of a wizard who can direct people just by his will, Myrtha-like, in this scene making her dance herself to exhaustion…. I didn’t quite get this power, whether he had it and why) and this time, removing her from the sanctuary and delivering her to the gallows.

It’s a tragic moment, but somehow the duet Petit has created, and which Gillot and Romoli gave so convincingly and with such chemistry last night, made us almost forget the gallows by the time the ultimate moment arrived a moment later, and we saw Quasimoto lift his dying bride, flinging her arms around him repeatedly while he walked heavily upstage into the light coming from the rafters, until her head finally dropped to one side, her hair under it. The moment was at the same time tragic and triumphant, signifying that she was his bride, and that they both found love before she died.

The Paris Opera Ballet performs Roland Petit’s “Notre-Dame de Paris” again tonight, Thursday and Friday 7:30 p.m., and Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m.

Relationships, Shallow & Wise: When a Body Meets a Body at New York City Ballet

By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2000, 2019 Alicia Chesser

(Editor’s note: Chesser, connecting ballet to life. Can ballet be relevant? You bet. First published on the DI on June 2, 2000.)

NEW YORK — When non-balletomanes ask me what makes dance valuable in the modern world or how it could have any relevance anymore, I often say that it’s important for us because of its unique ability to teach us about human relationships. We are, after all, beings who live in space and time; we know each other first by meeting a body, and we want to know more the moment that body — the eyes, the hands, the smile — responds to ours. These are the simple realities of human interaction about which dance has something to tell us. Last night at New York City Ballet, there were three statements put forward about such matters: Balanchine’s “Agon,” the premiere of Kevin O’Day’s “Swerve Poems,” and Jerome Robbins’s “I’m Old Fashioned.” It was an inspired bit of programming: I learned something about what a shallow relationship looks like by looking at a couple of wise ones.

The O’Day piece showed its youth in more ways than one. It’s actually a rather pretty ballet (O’Day was standing behind me at an intermission, telling someone not to worry, it’s a very light piece) — simple blue costumes and bare legs, with Arch Higgins and Albert Evans in ballet-class skirts for some reason; pigtails on some of the women and a shock of short red hair on Stacey Calvert; lovely lighting; and a minimalist set composed of a big black curtain upstage and a smaller white one stage left that kept moving up and down at random. The opening trick is a fun one, featuring a sort of cliff-edge at the back of the stage. Tom Gold starts out the piece as the spastic sprite amidst a company of very swervy kiddos who begin in a big group hug; he’s zipping and leaping every which way, and suddenly he slides backwards on his stomach and disappears (audience gasps!) into the floor. He’s the life of the party, the fun equivalent of what Peter Martins gave Damian Woetzel to do in “Slonimsky’s Earbox.” (See Flash Review 2, 5-4: Tears for the Ballet.) Then it’s many minutes of woozy tripping from the kids, grouped in twos or fours or sixes — they really did remind me of the people at the parties I used to go to in high school, where everyone was a smidge tipsy and trying awkwardly to get each other over to their side of the couch.

There was lots of very cool dancing here — the astonishing Abi Stafford and Carrie Lee Riggins got the moves and the groove especially well — and lots of steps, lots of moving in and out and popping up and being dropped and carried (plus some rather blatant “echoes” of steps I’d just seen minutes before in “Agon,” a lift lifted straight from “Serenade,” and a “West Side Story” bit for the marvelous boys). But one question kept coming to mind: What’s the reason for these steps? Why this way rather than that? Most of all, what are these people doing together? I couldn’t see a mind behind the ballet, couldn’t see any logic to the progression of events. Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal looked like the chaperones of this party; Whelan seemed to be aching for more time, more space to move in, for the bustle to quiet down for just a second so she could reflect. I was feeling much the same way. These wispy relationships, this periodical hugging, this randomness dressed up to look like a savvy comment — enough. This is what the depressing Gen X phenomenon known as the hook-up looks like set to music.

Actually, John King’s music (for violins, viola, cello, and bass clarinets) was the star of the show; it reminded me of Philip Glass’s harsh, tender string quartets, strangely moving in a way that O’Day’s dance never quite came to be. The audience, incidentally, knew it should have been over about seven minutes before it was. Gold reappeared and did his sliding thing again, the crowd started clapping in recognition of a nice full-circle ending, but then there came more slurpy boys and girls, until there was another false conclusion and yet more pretty slurping (this time, God knows why, unacccompanied) before they finally just sort of ran out of steam and stopped dancing. Don’t get me wrong: This is a perfectly lovely, if long and increasingly boring, ballet with some truly touching moments (I’m thinking here of Calvert and Evans lying on the floor, she on her side on top of him on his side in a sort of fetal position). But it’s a ballet with a teenager’s sensibility about human relationships: tender, smart, and beautiful in its way, but lacking a center and a purpose.

“Agon” presented a group of human beings who had somewhat more to say to each other, and somewhat more with which to say it. It was an unusually lively and endearingly imperfect performance. This wasn’t the normal cast, and there were definitely some unsure moments, most surprisingly from Damian Woetzel, who’s usually so sure of himself it’s scary. Here, in the Sarabande, he lacked Peter Boal’s expansiveness and picture-perfect poses; instead we got a solo with lots more slinkiness. Jennifer Tinsley and Deanna McBrearty were refreshing in the Gailliard; McBrearty especially was wonderfully flirty, her head peeking out from under her arm from time to time, her little jumps purring and winking. She’s a very expressive dancer, without being obvious. It was Kathleen Tracey in the Second Pas de Trois where we usually see Whelan or Maria Kowroski. Tracey looked like she was trying to move with Whelan’s force in those potent opening leaps, but it just wasn’t working. She couldn’t get any propulsion, and the effect was jarring. The men were, well, competent, if a little slow to respond.

Kowroski appeared, all legs and eyelashes, with Jock Soto in the pas de deux. This was a dance between an older man and a young nymphette: she was challenging and teasing him, he was downright intoxicated. There was a great moment where Soto, having grasped the point of Kowroski’s shoe, just let go of it suddenly in a gesture that said, “wow, what IS this girl?” Kowroski was enjoying the attention; when she had to reach waaay down to get hold of her ankle so she could lift her leg waaay up behind her, you could tell she was taking her time for the sake of his agitated pleasure. It was the first time in a while that she’s been fun to watch. And I saw something new in the final movements: a floor full of deranged court dancers. That’s how it should look! All the way through, the dancers looked a bit like people playing dress-up, and in an odd way it worked. These are court dances stripped down, sped up, turned inside out, and gone a little batty in the halls of modernity — you see the old-time arrangements of courtly manners radicalized, and most of all you see the blood beneath the forms.

If “Agon” shows human relationships at their most extreme — exposed, anxiety-ridden, trying to keep a hold on things — then “I’m Old Fashioned” shows us the grace. It’s been a long time since I was as moved at the ballet as I was during Whelan and Nikolaj Hubbe’s pas de deux last night. Here, at last, were adults encountering each other in the fullness of who they were — pensive, cautious at times, a little goofy, totally in love. What made it so moving was that she, this whole woman, was responding to him, this whole man, and vice versa; because we could see them thinking, their gestures had depth and purpose, and their smiles when they looked at each other were all the more welcome and authentic. They were ENGAGED; you could see them really meeting each other in the moment. An extraordinary moment it was, too — I’ve rarely seen Whelan so deep and alive, as if she was letting us into her secret world. How wonderful it was, at the end of the evening, to be told a story about dignity and respect and graciousness, a story of adults encountering each other, and one that, in its very simplicity, whispered a truth in the ear of the audience, and carried us away. That’s ballet with a soul, ballet for OUR souls, and it couldn’t be further from the sweet immaturity of Kevin O’Day.

Lutèce Diaries (A post-modern American in Paris), 22: Rien n’est joué, mon cœur batte encore (It ain’t over ’til it’s over)

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation so that we can continue this work. Please designate your PayPal donation in dollars or Euros to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. To translate this article into French or another language, see the button at the right.

PARIS — I met someone over the week-end and in lieu of making like Albert Camus watching his telephone for four hours on a dreary autumn afternoon in his pad near the Luxembourg Gardens in 1944 waiting for Maria Casarès to call, it occurs to me that the best way to retain the sensation or feeling this girl provoked — even if it ultimately has to move on to someone else, because I have no idea whether I did the same for her — is not to evoke the details of the encounter itself in this forum (which might rightly put off the woman in question, even if I don’t know whether I’ll ever have the opportunity to tell her face-to-face the effect she had on me, preferable), but to flash back to the last time I experienced this sensation, in junior high school. Then at the least I’ll be able to retain this ability to be almost instantly smitten by a girl — which I’ve not experienced for 22 years — even if I never hear from the woman who triggered the sentiment this weekend again and the feeling ultimately has to migrate to someone else. (In which case I’ll just see “La Strada” alone this week.) If I’m aware that I’m taking the risk of alienating her by making the visceral reaction I had to her public even in this veiled manner, sharing a junior high school memory still seems a lot more innocuous than Camus’s coping mechanism in 1944-45, grappling with his own impotence in the face of a retreating Casarès by writing about a Roman tyrant who kills everyone in sight to prove he’s not powerless against fate after his sister-lover dies.

Her name — I mean the junior high school flame — was Felicia French. It seems that my mom must have already known her mom when they introduced us in the Glen Park recreation center nestled in Glen Canyon in … 1974. Typical for San Francisco — and the girls I had the tendency to fall in love with then — she was a mix of white, black, and Latino, with big luminous Nathalie Wood eyes under her frizzy bunned hair. “Crush” is the closest I can come to describing the sensation, which was/is pure — nothing to do with sex, everything to do with the heart warming over as if stirred by a gentle wind. Boulevarsé quoi. And it’s almost entirely centered on the effect the girl’s visage — and manner, in the simplest of gestures — has on me. (Fortunately, the activity over which we met this week-end provided a convenient excuse for looking her in the eyes; not that I was able to keep it up for long. And I’ve probably already said too much.) It’s a sensation that’s completely innocent; there’s no fantasizing of “la suite,” of a physical escalation. Not even the urgency of “I want to be with this person”; one is simply enchanted and entranced. Tongue-tied, stiff, and awkward. Even the little things the girl (or woman) does have this attenuated allure. And if she looks at you, forgetaboutit it. (I practically floated down to the Seine afterwards and when the Eiffel Tower started scintillating, it seemed a natural expression of what was going on inside of me. Now I’ve really said too much.)

So let’s get back to Felicia French. And to Nathalie Wood. A year after our Glen Park encounter, transferring to my local junior high, James Lick, I found myself acting opposite Felicia in a Tennessee Williams one-act which the author would later expand into a full-length film starring Nathalie Wood, “This Property is Condemned.” In the one-act version, a 14-year-old girl balances on a deserted train track and talks a lot about her dead older sister, Alma (in the film, Nathalie), to an audience of one person, a boy, Tom, whose (thus, my) biggest line comes when the girl explains that the sister “is in the bone orchard.” “The BONE orchard?!” answers the boy, flabbergasted. (A bone orchard — the Catacombs, where all the ancient bodies in Paris are really buried, and where the Resistance met during the Occupation — also served as a sort of oracle to my encounter of this weekend: Et maintenant, mec, tu vas avoir la chance de faire quelque chose pour manifeste que tu n’es pas encore un squelette.) In the play (for which I won the Best Supporting Actor award in a city-wide junior high drama contest in which my opponent was a good friend from my previous junior high, Chip Williams, who by high school would announce he had a brain tumor and wouldn’t live past 20; what have I done, who have I loved — and who has loved me? — to prove that I have?), the Girl/Felicia sings a song which goes like this (didn’t have to look it up; imagine the words being sung in the wistful soprano pitch of a 14-year-old):

Wish me a rainbow and wish me a star,
All this you can give me wherever you are;
And dreams for my pillow,
and stars for my eyes,
And a masquerade ball where our love wins first prize.

Felicia and another girl, Linda Mull, liked to taunt me by singing “Soldier Boy,” replacing the title with “Monster Boy.” They even gave me a baby-blue tee-shirt with “Monster Boy” in black letters. This was at my 15th birthday party, which is about when I started lowering my ambitions, girlfriend-wise. Not even dreaming of trying for my dream-girl Felicia, I instead decided to go for a girl named Lisa Craib. It wasn’t that she wasn’t pretty — she was. But I think it was that she was the underdog — the other girls and boys teased her as being flat-chested — that made me think I’d have a better chance of interesting her than Felicia; less competition.

We were playing Truth or Dare in my basement bedroom near the ping-pong table — Felicia and Linda were there also, and, *I think*, even Tracy Wedemeyer, my very first girlfriend (we met in the maternity ward at Marin General). At one point — Tracy must have left (like her, Lisa had long straight blonde hair) — someone (was it Felicia? Did I miss another cue?) asked me this Truth question: “Who’s the girl in this room you like the most?” “Lisa.” When we were alone — the lights must have gone out because I remember assuring Lisa that the unzipping she heard was that of my sweatsuit jacket — Lisa confessed, “Remember what you said? If they asked me, I would have said you.” (This is not the only proximity ping-pong tables had with my pre-adolescent crushes. In 6th grade — when I was 11-12 — I’d dedicate my games over our basement table to Christine LaMar, my very first crush, ennerving my brother and best friend with my insistence on declaring before each match, “This game is dedicated to Christine LaMar. If I win this game, I will be … and …. If I lose it, I will be … and …..” By the time Christine broke my heart by announcing she was transferring to another school, I was able to pronounce, through tears, “… if I win ((sob)) I will be ((sob)) 187 and 9.” Which I did and was.)

Glen Canyon also figured into my Lisa love story; we’d gotten to second base locked in a laying down embrace (whence was born my adoration of the supple female tummy) at the bottom of the canyon, and it was at about that time that Lisa announced that her father — their house was above us on a lip of the canyon — was into guns. (I pictured him already having me in his sights, clutching his daughter.) In my yearbook Lisa would write, “Paul, As Fi (Felicia) says, You are the man of my life. I’ll never forget you.” (Felicia had written, “Have fun with beautiful Lisa.”) We tried to keep it up that summer — the summer before we’d go our separate ways for high school — but the decline started (fittingly enough) over a tennis court. Lisa, a city champion, complained that my game was bringing hers down… Our phone calls also deteriorated, with Lisa cutting the awkward silences with “What else?”

My telephone calls with Felicia, on the other hand, would last for hours, with my mother and brother yelling at me to get off the phone. Couple this with the memory of one particularly graphic dream of me she shared after one of us had told the other s/he was in the process of taking a bubble bath, and I sometimes wonder if I was completely dense in not even trying to make a romantic move. I was devastated when Felicia sent me a postcard at summer camp announcing she’d be going to a different high school, shortly after which around a campfire under star-strewn skies in the shadow of Yosemite I made a move, reciprocated, towards another girl, T.C. (she went by that acronym), and who I was not really attracted to. (And thus assumed would not reject me.)

I know the Felicias don’t always work out as Felicias. (Some of them even remain alone because no guy has the balls to move beyond the hopeless crush stage, assuming she’s unavailable. At about the same time in high school when I was doing — or not doing — this with another crush, Karen Sullivan, I read a story collected in his “Welcome to the Monkey House” in which Kurt Vonnegut, Jr writes about a girl so beautiful she remains alone, because men assume she’s unobtainable. I’ve had an actual relationship with one Felicia — it started out as a crush — in which by the end this “Felicia” of my dreams was showing up as a monster in my nightmares. And it was she who’d made the first move; the relationship would probably not have happened if it had been left up to me, as I’d have gone on considering her out of my league and beyond my reach.)

But I also know that if you don’t declare yourself — coupled with “Caligula” in the paperback copy I purchased for a buck this weekend at a vide-grenier or community-wide garage sale on my way down to the Luxembourg Gardens, Camus’s turf, shortly before meeting this current “Felicia,” was Camus’s “Le malentendu ” — you risk losing everything. In this case, the ability to dream. (I know, Camus probably didn’t have a publicly broadcast declaration in mind, but this is the message I need to send to the Universe right now to increase the chances that if it’s not the person I met this weekend, whoever it is will continue her route towards me.)

And the desire to continue to try to actualize those dreams. The sensation that meeting this woman provoked in me (I put it that way because I’m not saying she did anything express to provoke it) is a sensation that for the last 22 years I’ve only felt in dreams, only to wake up and discover the girl wasn’t real. Against that heartbreak I’ll take the disappointment of potential non-reciprocacity any day. And so even if I will be disappointed if I never hear from this girl again, I thank her for restoring my faith that I have the right to dream and to aim high, to not just settle, to demonstrate that je ne suis pas encore une squelette. And that I can still be smitten and stirred — on first sight — by the face, the eyes, the gestures and the sage words of a woman. Et par l’imperatif de toujours heed the chanson….

…la chanson de Felicia.

Wish me a rainbow and wish me a star,
All this you can give me wherever you are;
And dreams for my pillow,
and stars for my eyes,
And a masquerade ball where our love wins first prize.

The Lutèce Diaries, 20: American post-moderns in Paris or, how Rosemarie Castoro carved out hallowed spaces in the sexist space of the art world

Rosemarie Castoro in Beaver's Trap studio performance 1977 polaroid estate of rosemarie castoro jpegRosemarie Castoro in a 1977 studio performance of her work “Beaver’s Trap.” Besides the sexual innuendo, the title also refers to the English translation of the artist’s Italian last name. Polaroid. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. ©The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

“I’m not a minimalist. I’m a maximist.

— Rosemarie Castoro (1939-2015)

Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation so that we can continue this work. Please designate your PayPal donation in dollars or Euros to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Special thanks today to DI co-founder and long-time supporter Jamie Phillips, who like Rosemarie Castoro created art for many years on the 100 block of SoHo’s Greene Street — where the Dance Insider was born in 1998.

PARIS — The first headline above echoes the way a mentor has characterized these meanderings. If I plead guilty, I could still do with more of Gene Kelly’s aplomb and serendipity in dancing with, wooing, and landing Leslie Caron from the quays of the Left Bank to a Beaux Arts Ball misplaced on the Butte Montmartre. Instead I keep feeling like Henry James’s Lambert Strether, who in “The Ambassadors” has more luck scoring a set of Victor Hugo at a bouquiniste’s Seine-side stand then scoring with an older Frenchwoman who finally rebuffs the middle-aged Boston Brahmin with a dose of Old World cynicism. So after a month — that’s a month too much — of having my American optimism sucked up by the Old World specimen in question, on Saturday I limped up the hill to Belleville, down the hill to a Place de Republique where 30 yellow-flag waving Kurds outnumbered 20 yellow-vest brandishing demonstrators and into the narrow ancient streets of the Marais. If there was too much American signage for my taste — I don’t care if your window boasts that “Our donuts are really fabulous,” would anyone really pay 6 Euros for a krispy-kreme sized beignet and a thimble-scale cup of coffee? — the angst produced by encroaching American cuisine was worth it for the delight of dancing with the Judson-era American artist Rosemarie Castoro on the four floors of the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac (it’s like a mini-museum except it’s free), where through March 30 curator Anke Kempkes has mounted an extraordinary multi-media (Castoro excelled in all of them) exhibition on the artist who was like Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Robert Rauschenberg and Allen Ginsberg rolled into one.

rosemarie castoro photo portraitArchival Photograph, “Rosemarie Castoro Portrait,” 1965. Vintage B&W photograph. 19.25 x 15.5 cm (7.58 x 6.1 in). (RC 1121). Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. © The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

Just emerging s I am from break-up, you-just-waisted-my precious-time hell (see above; and click here if you might be the cure), of course the work that moved me the most in Rosemario Castoro: Wherein lies the Space was a quotidian journal that Castoro kept in 1970, when she was in the process of breaking up with fellow artist Carl Andre. (Who would later be charged with — and acquitted of — second-degree murder in the 1985 death of his wife Ana Mendieta after she plummeted from the window of the couple’s 34th-floor apartment at 300 Mercer Street. Mendieta was recently the subject of a major retrospective at Paris’s Jeu de Paume museum; Andre — many of whose exhibitions since Mendieta’s death have been picketed — is included in the Ropac Gallery’s current minimalism show at its space in nearby Pantin, where it hosts a conference on the subject Saturday. RSVP to laura@ropac.net.) Using a stop-watch, Castoro notes how much time simple tasks like opening the door to her studio or carrying a canvas from point x to point y take. If the language is straightforward, the emotional suffering she was going through is nonetheless suggested; for example, in the fact that it takes her 35 minutes to eat an ice cream cone.

Rosemarie Castoro Self-Portrait in Studio 1980 jpegRosemarie Castoro, Self-Portrait in Studio 1980 jpeg: Rosemarie Castoro, “Self-Portrait in Studio,” 1980. Polaroid. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. ©The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

In addition to writings, sculptures, paintings, and installation photos, the exhibition also includes the projection of Yvonne Rainer’s 1966 “Carriage Discreteness,” which features Castoro walking determinedly across the stage in its premiere moments, whence my one frustration: Instead of showing the video in a darkened room as is customary, the gallery projects it on a white wall in broad daylight, making it difficult to actually see anything. (You can watch an excerpt here, but ignore the text below the clip as there are some inaccuracies.) The accompanying documentation helps situate Castoro in her milieu and in her epoch: A blow-up of a gathering at her home at 112 Green Street includes an appreciation from Lawrence Weiner, while the program from a performance by the New Poets’ Theater at the Unit Playhouse (157 W. 22nd Street) — with a $1 admission price to see a stellar cast — offers this quaint promise: “In case of sufficient demand there will be a further performance at 10h15 p.m.”

Rosemarie Castoro_Group Photo_Studio in Soho_New York_Polaroid_1969_© The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro_Rosemarie Castor, Group Photo, Studio in Soho, New York, 1969. Polaroid. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. ©The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

Speaking of demandes — in French, “requests” — mine to the Ropac Gallery for a few images was met with an unexpectedly generous helping of photographs of Castoro in performance and of her most famous installations, sculptures, paintings, and poems. So I think I’ll just shut up now and let Rosemarie Castoro dance across your screen. (If you’re in Paris through March 30, you can even score your own images and informative text; in lieu of the standard one-page information sheet, the gallery offers visitors a free, generously illustrated booklet.)

Rosemarie Castoro studio polaroidRosemary Castoro, Studio Polaroid. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. © The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

… But not before a little rant: Given all the Judson-era hype to which I’ve been exposed since I began focusing on dance 27 years ago, including six living in the heart of Greenwich Village (next door to Electric Lady Studios), I was troubled that I’d never heard of Rosemarie Castoro until stumbling into a gallery in the Marais…. and that it took an astute Parisian curator to make up for the superficial curating of a museum in Castoro’s hometown, the Museum of Modern Art, which completely left her out of all the hype it sent out on its recent Judson exhibition. Besides MoMA’s curatorial laziness, a hint to the reason for the larger historic oublie is provided by an Art News cover displayed in the Ropac show which, over a group photo of female artists, ironically asks the question: “Where are all the good male artists?” An answer is suggested by a comment the choreographer Sara Hook made years ago at a New York roundtable discussion on the challenges faced by female dance-makers. In her own eclecticism an artistic descendent of Castoro, Hook pointed out that whereas a male dance star retiring from the stage can simply announce, “Voila, I’m a choreographer,” and the critics who ogled him on stage flock to see his work (that last part is my analysis) female dancers are expected to prove it. In other words, they don’t shout as loudly as their male counterparts. (Living up the street from the Centre National de la Danse, which recently changed its name to the Centre National for l’Art and la Danse — a standard clearly left out when the building, which looks more like a prison than a dance or art center, was designed — I also have to ask why, as far as I can see by its programming material, a center for *art* and *dance* has completely left Castoro out, missing a golden opportunity to coordinate performances with the Ropac, whose Pantin facility is right across the Ourcq canal from the CN “and A” D. Do we really need three months of Xavier Roy — another over-hyped male choreographer?)

All the more reason to shout about Rosemarie Castoro.

Rosemarie Castoro_Studio Performance_ca 1971_Polaroid_© The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro_300dpiRosemarie Castoro, Studio Performance, circa 1971. Polaroid. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. ©The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

rosemarie castoro performingChoreography and performance featuring Rosemarie Castoro and Frank
Calderoni, February 11-18, 1963. Pratt Institute, 1963. Vintage B&W photograph. 5.1 x 7.6 cm (2 x 3 in). (RC 1130). Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. ©The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

Rosemarie Castoro flashers third avenueRosemarie Castoro, “Flashers.” Installation view at 780 Third Avenue, New York, 1984. B&W print on photo paper. Print: 11.7 x 17.8 cm (4.6 x 7 in). (RC 1049). Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. © The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

rosemarie castro socrates sculpture parkArchival photograph: Rosemarie Castoro, “Ethereal Concrete,” Socrates Sculpture Park, Long Island City, NY. Installation view with children, 1986, 1986. Vintage B&W photograph, 35.4 x 27.7 cm (13,94 x 10,91 in). (RC 1149). Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. ©The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

rosemarie castoro painting oneRosemario Castoro, “Red Blue Purple Green Gold,” 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 182.2 x 361 cm (71.75 x 142.12 in). (RC 1118). Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. ©The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

Rosemarie Castoro wordsRosemarie Castoro, “Untitled (Concrete Poetry),” 1969. Prismacolor marker and graphite on graph paper. Paper 27.9 x 21.6 cm (11 x 8.5 in). (RC 1107). Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg. © The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro. Another Castoro poem, similarly presented and displayed in the Ropac show, pays tribute to the conscienteous objector.

rosemarie castoro in front of wall spring street padPortrait of Rosemarie Castoro in front a ‘Free Standing Wall’ in her studio, Spring Street, New York, 1970. Vintage B&W Polaroid Photograph. Dated on verso: “1970.” 8.26 x 10.80 cm (3.25 x 4.25 in). (RC 1148). Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, Salzburg. ©The Estate of Rosemarie Castoro.

In case the Castoro exhibition has you thinking “Ca y est, women artists are finally getting their due alongside their male equals (and inferiors),” think again: Walking up the Street of the Old Temple in the Marais after catching the show, I ran smack dab into the most Lilliputian park in Paris, and whose one remotely adult attraction, a solitary ping-pong table, was surrounded by the smallest of those ugly green ‘off-limits’ construction barriers that continue to blight the city. A park named after the great surrealist artist Leonor Fini. Well, half-named after Fini, who shared the billing with the 17th-century salt tax profiteer who owned the property before the city bought it to house the Picasso museum. That ended up getting a much more luxurious space, while Fini — the woman — got (half) the left-overs. (The name of the park is something like “The Square of the Old-Salt-Leonor-Fini.”) Meanwhile Picasso, the second half of whose oeuvre any child playing in the Old-Salt-Leonor Fini square could scrawl or make with play-dough, is currently sharing his museum with yet another male artist, Alexander Calder, neither of whom can hold a candle to Fini. The fight is not yet over.

Everything you always wanted to know about dance & sex but were afraid to ask, 1: The 58 Group Sizzles at HotHouse

By Asimina Chremos
Copyright 2000, 2019 Asimina Chremos

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