Skin Games — Katherine Dunham’s Documentaries in Paris; Lauwers’s Racialist Stereotypes in Seine-Saint-Denis

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI on February 10, 2005, this piece is re-published today because incredibly enough given the community’s multi-cultural population, Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room” has been programmed for April at the theater MC93 in the Paris suburb of Bobigny in the county of Seine-Saint-Denis. (Perhaps the brilliant curators who thought up this idea can sell “Tintin in the Congo,” featuring Belgium’s most famous ambassador, in the gift shop. What they really should do is book-end Lauwers’s piece with Dunham’s more noble — and authentic — enterprise.) Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by subscribing or making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small. Subscribe to the DI/AV for one year for just $36 ($21 for students) and get full access to our 20-year archive of more than 2000 reviews of performances and exhibitions from around the world by 150 critics. Paul Ben-Itzak is also available for French to English translating assignments and for DJing as MC World Beat.

PARIS — A colleague who’s also seen Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room,” a.k.a. “La chambre d’Isabella,” tells me he thinks the “‘quaint racial language is appropriate for the historic moment Lauwers was recreating.” Another respected colleague, the New York Times’s Margo Jefferson, sees merely pretension where I see tired racial stereotyping inherited from Colonialism. Reflecting on the needcompany dance-theater-music work, seen Tuesday at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt, I can see the bases for both these opinions, and I wouldn’t take my colleagues to the mat on them. Yet while Lauwers’s bombastic work (in general) often seems pretentious, it is also intentionally provocative. So I think a visceral response to this visceral approach is valid. (And if Lauwers can dish it out, he should certainly be able to take it.) Here’s mine, recorded a couple of hours after the performance, followed by some reflections on the work’s thin dance content and on cultural appropriation and exploitation. Then we’ll finish with the tonic of authenticity, revisiting Katherine Dunham’s early documentaries of Haiti and the Caribbean.

It is past two in the morning here in Paris, and I should be asleep. But I am restlessly pacing. I am on edge because tonight at the Theatre de la Ville – SARAH BERNHARDT (whose corps at Pere Lachaise must surely be restless these days), the Belgian director-playwright and putative choreographer Jan Lauwers used his considerable dramatic gifts to suck me into a world where, before I knew it, I was hit with residual Belgian colonial racialism, grandmother-to-minor grandson incest/rape (at least that’s what they’d call it in the States), and a generally unremitting nihilism.

Perhaps — perhaps — there are hints of hope among the despair. Perhaps, as in the work of other tragedians, the darkness is meant to set off the light. But how are we supposed to discern these signs through the barrage of blatant racialism and pointless violence? How am I to see anything but racialism when Lauwers gives us a heroine who, we’re told, was impregnated by a Black (I think the word Negro was used) performer on the Place Pigalle whose trick was that he could make his “erect p**** *** just by concentrating on it”? (The asterisks are mine, not an external censor’s; just because Lauwers has desecrated Sarah Bernhardt’s stage with this filth doesn’t mean we need to desecrate our pages.) How am I to find an island of hope on a stage whose dominating scenery is what we’re told is a “giant African penis,” on which the heroine hangs her gold necklace and lighter? How am I NOT to perceive racialism in a scenic environment which, in its blithe use and display of (what we’re told are) African artifacts, is probably committing at least one sacrilege, and has made me complicit in a sort of cultural violation? How did I feel regarding this in a sea of white faces? How did I feel when these fellow spectators giggled at the evocation of black p**** tricks?

I know, I know, I hear some of you saying: You dope, he’s not being racialist, he’s COMMENTING on racialism and Colonialism. I just don’t buy it. Jan Lauwers works in a milieu — Belgium — where one can still find vestiges of the Colonial attitude towards Blacks in mainstream postcard shops peddling images of them (thick lips, bug eyes) that make “Birth of a Nation” seem like it was produced by the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). In this context, the similar signposts in “Isabella’s Room” make it hard to receive this work as anything but racialist, nihilistic garbage.

lauwers oneNeedcompany in Jan Lauwers’s “La Chambre d’Isabella” (Isabella’s Room). Photo copyright Eveline Vanassche and courtesy MYRA.

It doesn’t help that Lauwers starts off with the often-mocking presentation of a variety of African artifacts, apparently, we’re told, “collected” by his late father. (The question of Colonial expropriation of such artifacts is not broached.) Perhaps he’s mocking the mockers, but what exactly gives him the right to expropriate another culture’s ceremonial objects for his own ceremonies? Especially given Belgium’s brutal colonial history.

“Isabella’s Room” is also advertised — at least in Paris — as a dance spectacle, and when it comes to integrating dance into his theatrical works, Lauwers hasn’t made much progress since the 1999 “Morning Song.” Jefferson, in her Times review, postulates that the dance here serves the same end as the songs, to “echo the characters’ conscious thoughts and unconscious dreams.” I don’t see this; I can find neither comment, interpretation, nor even counterpoint here; just aimless noodling, which might as well have been created outside of the text, in which the individual performers appear to have been left to their own devices, the choreography often devolving into what Jefferson accurately calls “Merce Cunningham and WIlliam Forsythe cast-offs.”

Except for six hours which she spends there in a vain attempt to save the life of her grandson Frank, the Isabella of the title in Lauwers’s piece is an Africa-fancying white anthropologist who never makes it to Africa. Katherine Dunham, by contrast, is an African-American interpreter of Afro-Caribbean dance — with Pearl Primus, the U.S.’s first — who began her career by traversing the Caribbean, on a Rosenwald fellowship, with a camera. Three of the resultant 1936 documentaries, “Trinidad,” “Haiti,” and “Jamaica and Martinique” were recently screened by the Centre Pompidou here in Paris, part of a festival on voyaging women documentary makers of the ’20s through ’60s.

All three films are brief but effective time capsules of the subject countries. “Trinidad” is the most purely dance document, capturing what looks (to this untrained eye) like a Vodun-like dance with its own vocabulary — one of the vocabularies that Dunham would go on to interpret in her concert form. (What a formidable example of scholarly rigor for contemporary choreographers who have the audacity to adapt a given ethnic style after taking only a few classes in it!) A vocabulary it clearly is, with one older woman, back curved, stomach contracted, seen to be drilling a snappy younger man in his footwork as a circle watches.

“Haiti” is a 15-minute masterpiece of a portrait and travelogue; one can almost feel the young Dunham falling in love with the country that still, nearly 70 years later, plays a central role in her life and work. She begins with a panorama of coastal mountains dominated by what look like the remnants of colonial fortresses. There’s also a cock-fight, in which she follows the flying fowl, then zooms in on a smartly attired man clipping his bird’s toe-nails. Eventually we’re taken — as if we were watching it from behind the barricades — to what could be a Carnival parade. Some of the participants are clad simply in their Sunday finest, some wear large masks in the shape of animal heads, others full-body costumes; two Carnival queens greet their ‘subjects’ from floats. Most are, to one extent or another, dancing, from the sharp dresser to the fluent four-year-old on whom Dunham trains her camera for a couple of minutes.

What emerges — aided by more recent musical field recordings which have been layered onto this silent film — is a poignant memory of Haiti just after the 1934 evacuation of U.S. troops. It’s perhaps a bittersweet memory in light of the U.S.’s recent intervention to help depose Haiti’s democratically elected President Aristide, but the filmmaker, at least, provides a much-needed model of an ambassador from our country who casts a curious eye, not a pointed finger at the rest of the world.

Strasbourg Night Fever: When dancing was crazy and dancers were drowned

Strasbourg Dance Fever Durer“We’re cursed by these sick people who won’t stop dancing.” Thus complained the poet Sebastien Brant shortly after July 1518, when, as the scholar Elisabeth Clementz puts it — in the press packet for 1518, the Dance Fever, running through February 20 at Strasbourg’s Museum of the Oeuvre Notre-Dame, Arts of the Middle Ages — “the city of Strasbourg was confronted with a curious public health problem. Some 50 people began dancing in the streets until they were worn out. For the 21st century observer, the symptoms of this sickness, referred to as ‘St-Vitus’s Dance’ or ‘chorée,’ might seem strange. In reality, the term ‘St.-Vitus’s Dance’ (or ‘St.-Guy’s Dance’) was applied to numerous illnesses. For some, it was a matter of epilepsy…. [for] others… encephalitis. By the 17th century, Thomas Sydenham was describing it as a neurologic phenomenon. For the 19th century psychiatrist Witkowski, the woman who started the dancing was ‘subject to nervous attacks.’ With several other hysterics of the city, she dragged along with her children, the feeble-minded, the lazy, the vagabonds, and the imposters. Witkowski claimed there were numerous contemporary testimonies to the incident. But this was a myth.” Above: Albrecht Durer, “Dancing couples falling in a river as punishment for their disrespectful attitude during God’s Fete,” engraving pulled from Hartman Schedel, “Nuremberg Chronicle,” Nuremberg, Anton Koberger, 1493. Folio CCXVII recto. Strasbourg, Prints and Drawings Cabinet. Photo: Strasbourg Museums, Mathieu Bertola. Click here for more art from the exhibition.

Love & Death in the Time of Cholera: Keith Haring sketches penises in front of Tiffany’s, Vega channels McCullers in the Village, and the Bush band played on

haring for repostingKeith Haring’s “Red” (detail), on view at the Gladstone Gallery through July 1.1982-1984. Gouache and ink on paper. Complete work 106 3/4 x 274 inches (271.1 x 696 cm). ©Keith Haring Foundation. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011, 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

(First published on the DI/AV on May 9, 2011 and re-published today in memory of Randy Shilts. Keith Haring is one of the 100,000 Americans and one million people world-wide who had died from AIDS-related illnesses by the end of  George H.W. Bush’s presidency, a presidency largely indifferent to their plight. Bush died on Saturday, World AIDS Day, at the age of 94. And the band played on.)

NEW YORK — “These are markers,” Bill T. Jones was telling me. We were at last Wednesday’s opening for the Gladstone Gallery’s ambitious exhibition of the three mammoth works Keith Haring painted in real-time during a series of performances by the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company in 1982, as well as two long display cases packed with drawings taken from Haring’s notebooks, including a couple of dozen sketches of penises, most poignantly several under which the artist has written, “Drawing penises in front of Tiffany’s.” Jones looked from tableau to tableau, reflected, and added: “I’m a marker.” Only Bill T. Jones can say this without seeming ostentatious or self-important. What he meant is that, like Haring and like the affliction they shared, the one ultimately succumbing and the other surviving, still here, he signified the artistically audacious and personally daring gestalt of a certain New York epoch. Where he was being unfair to himself, though, was that his tone implied the word *was*, and of the three iconic signifiers of the ’80s NY art scene I encountered last Wednesday meandering from Gladstone’s vast Chelsea gallery near the Hudson to the intimate Rattlestick Theater on Waverly Place, where Suzanne Vega was holding court as Carson McCullers, or pretending to, Jones was the only one who was of his time without being trapped in it. That said, with this courageous exhibition, Barbara Gladstone has liberated Haring from the sanitized version that has been passed down to us in the two decades since his death from AIDS-related illnesses in 1990, at the age of 31. If Jones is “Still / Here,” thanks to Gladsone, Haring is here again, in his full unadulterated glory.

It’s not that Haring’s animated tableaux don’t appeal to adults as well as children — they do. But I suspect my own fascination with them is in large part nostalgic, because they recall the at least surface innocence of that period in Greenwich Village, a sort of resurrection of the down but not out Beat spirit of  New York in the ‘50s after the anarchic disarray of the ‘60s and the downer of the ‘70s, with its taint of corruption and its tint of soot. Jones danced, Haring made figures who danced — cartoons that managed to be simultaneously hip and naive, innocent rather than ironic — and Vega sang of an innocent neighbor child (his name was Luca, in case you’ve forgotten),  beaten by his parents. Even the monotone vocal delivery and accompanying a-musicality of “Tom’s Diner” didn’t prevent that anecdotal anthem from being playful, a romp in an older Manhattan — the diner — seen through the eyes of a hip young singer, perhaps slightly jaded but still able to appreciate the scene she was describing. This was when irony still seemed a novelty.

But wait. Look more deeply at Haring’s murals painted for Jones’s 1982 shows and you see a serpent extending from the prolonged body of one of the dancers. Consider the dozens of drawings of penises, apparently including at least one of his own (one ageing original hipster at Wednesday’s opening, picking a penis to pose by so his friend could take a photo, passed on one which Haring noted was a a true depiction of the author’s, erect, saying, “Not accurate.”), and, being told earlier in the day by another survivor about what John Giorno wrote about having anonymous sex with Haring in the subway bathrooms of New York while others watched, one also has to recall the moment it all came crashing down in a shower of T-cells, and Haring’s death at 31 of AIDS.

When I told my AIDS survivor friend that I was considering publishing Haring’s sketches under which he has written “Drawing penises in front of Tiffany’s,” (part of his 1978 series, “Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks”), juxtaposing them with the fact of his dying of what Prince called the big disease with a little name, my friend suggested I would be stigmatizing Haring, and by inference other gay men who died of AIDS. In other words, I would be saying, “This is what all their penis fancies lead to.” Perhaps, if the art in question was called, “Drawing penises in front of the subway restroom,” but what’s jarring here is the tragic transformation signified by the Tiffany’s context and framing. When Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn in Blake Edwards’s 1961 film) stands in front of the famous Fifth Avenue display window after a night of partying staring winsomely at diamonds while eating her croissant and coffee one early New York morning, the route that might open that window for her is sleeping with wealthy men. When Keith Haring stands in front of the same window some 20 years later, the baubles, bangles, and bright shiny beads he’s dreaming of will (probably; the exact reason he contracted AIDS was not divulged) ultimately serve as the instrument of his death. Both Holly and Haring arrived from small towns with Big Apple dreams, but oh how the booty of those dreams — of the free lifestyle celebrated by Golightly and pursued by thousands of Hollys and Harings afterwards, perhaps inspired by her story — had changed! And as far as stigmatization goes, well, look at the way society treated each: Holly was lionized — never mind that her means were greased by a lighter form of selling herself; and Keith, or at least the larger social strata which encadred him, gay men, was stigmatized — never mind that unlike Holly he wasn’t using others to get rich, he was just a guy who wanted to have fun.

haring penises for re-posting

Keith Haring, “Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks,” 1978. Graphite on paper. 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches (21.6 x 14 cm). ©Keith Haring Foundation. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York.

Are Haring’s drawings of penises in front of Tiffany’s great art? In my view, no. (But, as a colleague here at the DI pointed out to me, who am I to judge?) Viewed with the awareness that he would die of AIDs a decade later, do they make a powerful statement about a prodigious artist, and about how the consequences for innocents who arrived in New York with the dream of living an artful life changed so direly over the span of just two decades, and about the death of innocence? Absolutely. (And even without this social context, when juxtaposed with Haring’s later, technically more sophisticated and graphically more involved and intricate work — as we’ve done on this page — they do in fact help complete the portrait of the artist.)

Contrast this tribute with Suzanne Vega’s “Carson McCullers Talks about Love,” a shallow homage to a complicated artist which takes absolutely no risks in what was billed as an effort to understand the author of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” “The Member of the Wedding,” and other work that played its own part in signifying an earlier era. McCullers championed misfits, and in probing her story, one would have hoped that Vega would have taken a deeper look at the personal idiosyncracies that informed her oeuvre, particularly ‘Heart,’ and made it ring so true.  Vega not only avoids exploring these facets — including McCullers’s sexual ambidextrousness – but after making the decision to go with a generic southern accent, she can’t even bother to develop its nuances. Every line has the same cadence, except when she flubs one, which is frequently. The lyrics of the dozen or so songs are trite, which almost has the effect of trivializing their subject; how can one treat a personality whose chief talent was verbal lyricism with such one-dimensional language? The evening appears to have had a director, Kay Matschullat, but desperately needs a dramaturge. Vega’s fascination with McCullers seems to have started with seeing her photo on a book jacket — “She looked like a wise old child,” the singer recalls in a short introduction spoken as herself before dawning a wig and the unfortunate accent — but her stage portrait doesn’t really delve deeper than that one dimension. In effect, Vega has become the man standing outside the window of Tom’s Diner. She has not ventured inside the restaurant, leaving us to wonder if she really sees her subject. One gets the feeling that we’re beholding a sanitized version of an artist, McCullers, who was anything but. Consequently, she has taught us nothing new about the author; we leave the theater no more enlightened than we were coming in.

Barbara Gladstone, the owner of the Gladstone Gallery, could have gone the same route. She could have just presented the three large works on paper Haring painted during the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane performance, which, lustrous and enjoyable as they are, would simply have confirmed the Keith Haring we already know, the one who’s art is safe enough to put on coffee cups. But she clearly didn’t want to just profit from the artist — she wanted to serve him and enchance his reputation and the public’s appreciation of his authenticity and understanding of his art. Personally, on a visceral level, I was repulsed by the penis images. But as an art maven recently returned from France, where the performing arts at least still have some intellectual heft and pose difficult questions, to a New York — New York City, skyscrapers and everythang! — where the lively arts (at least as manifest in what I’ve seen) rarely seem to go beyond the surface any more, where the former town crier the Village Voice is a shadow of its former self, where the spectators don’t seem to know the difference, and where the majority of the artists who populate the Chelsea galleries seem to be so lightweight, and most of the curators not to know the difference, I celebrate the opportunity to get to know an artist I thought I already knew even better, and I applaud a gallery owner’s caring enough to provide the opportunity

20 years of telling stories not told elsewhere: Here’s a work I don’t ‘like.’ Which doesn’t mean it’s bad.

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2005, 2018 Chris Dohse

(To receive the complete article, first published on October 14, 2005, subscribers please e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for one year for just $36/year or $21 or Euros for students, as attested to by a copy of your student I.D., by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check, and receive full access to all new articles plus our 20-year archive of 2000 reviews by 150 critics of performances and art exhibits on five continents.)

Building the dance audience: Rat-faced Bastards in the Kitchen with Michelson

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2003, 2018 Chris Dohse

(To receive the complete article, first published on April 18, 2003, subscribers please e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for one year for just $36/year or $21 or Euros for students, as attested to by a copy of your student I.D., by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check, and receive full access to all new articles plus our 20-year archive of 2000 reviews by 150 critics of performances and art exhibits on five continents.

Judson, secret origins and exiles: The San Francisco / New York dance dichotomy

momajudsonhalprin smallFrom the exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done, running at the Museum of Modern Art through February 3: Anna Halprin, “The Branch,” 1957. Performed on the Halprin family’s Dance Deck, Kentfield, California, 1957. (Halprin’s husband was the noted San Francisco architect Lawrence Halprin.) Performers, from left: A. A. Leath, Anna Halprin, and Simone Forti. Photo: Warner Jepson. Courtesy of the Estate of Warner Jepson.

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2000, 2018 Christine Chen

(To receive the complete article, first published on September 27, 2000,, subscribers please e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for one year for just $36/year or $21 or Euros for students, as attested to by a copy of your student I.D., by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check, and receive full access to all new articles plus our 20-year archive of 2000 reviews by 150 critics of performances and art exhibits on five continents.)