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.

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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.)

20 years of giving a voice to dancers: The Sum of P.A.R.T.S. — De Keersmaeker (and Charges) Storm the Bastllle

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001, 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

PARIS — Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, paired with former Ballet Frankfurt principal Elizabeth Corbett, was the star attraction at the Theatre de la Bastille last night for the opening of P.A.R.T.S. a Paris, a five-week, 15-program extravaganza of the best that the dancers and choreographers of De Keersmaeker’s Brussels-based Performing Arts Research Laboratories and Training Studios have to offer.

As dancers go, you can’t get much better then the tyro also known as De Keersmaeker, whirling and twirling her way across and around a stage, the question not being will she catch the light but will the light catch her. But the ‘kids’ (most are about 20) were pretty all right too, a vivid manifestation of what can happen when young people are actually given serious and prolonged study in composition….

(To receive the complete article, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for one year for just $29.95 be designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. First published exclusively on the DI on September 21, 2001, this Flash of the opening night of the landmark month-long Paris celebration of Anne Teresa De Keersmaker, her company Rosas, and her school P.A.R.T.S. is just one example of nearly two decades of coverage by the DI of ATDK & Co. in performance in Paris, New York, London, Brussels, Antwerp, Vienna, and Toronto, to which DI subscribers enjoy full access. )

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20 years of giving a voice to dancers: Who Owns Martha Graham™ ? Last Will and Testament

By Martha Graham
(As taken from public probate records)

(First published on the Dance Insider on January 18, 2001, as part of its comprehensive, unparalleled coverage of the Graham v. Graham legal saga pitting Ron Protas, Graham’s legal heir, against her company, school, and center. DI subscribers get full access to the complete coverage, plus our archive of 2,000 reviews of performances, news, and art from around the world by 150 leading dance critics dating back to 1998. To subscribe to the DI for just $29.95/year, just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. Martha Graham was born 124 years ago today.)

I, MARTHA GRAHAM, of the County, City and State of New York, make, publish, and declare this to be my last will and testament.

ARTICLE I

I hereby revoke all former wills and codicils thereto made by me at any time.

ARTICLE II

I appoint my friend, Ron Protas, to be executor thereof. If he shall not qualify or, having qualified, shall cease to act as executor hereof, I appoint my friend, Alex Racolin, to be executor hereof. I direct that no executor appointed herein shall be required to give bond or other security for the faithful performance of his duties in any jurisdiction.

ARTICLE III

All personal and household effects, and other tangible personal property, held for purposes of use or enjoyment as distinguished from business or investment purposes, which I now own or may hereafter acquire, if owned by me at the time of my death, I give and bequeath to my said friend, Ron Protas, if he shall survive me. I request, but do not enjoin, that he distribute certain of such items in accordance with my wishes which are known to him.

ARTICLE IV

The residue, remaining after funeral and estate administration expenses and debts have been paid and after the foregoing provisions hereof have been satisfied, of all my property, real and personal, of every kind and description and wherever situated, including all property over which I may have power of appointment at the time of my death, all such powers being hereby expressly exercised, and including all property not otherwise effectively disposed of hereunder (said residue being hereinafter referred to as my “residuary estate”), I give, (unclear), and bequeath to my said friend, Ron Protas, if he shall survive me, or, if he shall not survive me, to the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, Inc.

In connection with any rights or interests in any dance works, musical scores, scenery sets, my personal papers, and the use of my name, which may pass to my said friend Ron Protas under this Article IV, I request, but do not enjoin, that he consult with my friends, Linda Hodes, Diane Gray, Halston, Ted Michaelson, Alex Racolin and Lee Traub, regarding the use of (unclear) rights or interests.

ARTICLE V

To provide for the execution of the provisions of the will, the administration of my estate and related matters:

(A) I give to my executor, in affirma[tion] and extension of the authority and power given to executors by law, the authority and power (1) to retain and hold my property, real and personal, or any part or parts thereof, in the form in which the same may be invested at the time of my death, and to sell the same at public or private sale, with or without notice, for cash or credit or upon such terms and conditions as my executor may deem wise, and in like manner to convey, exchange, lease, mortgage, pledge or otherwise encumber the same; (2) to invest funds and change investments without regard to whether such investments or reinvestments are of the character prescribed or authorized by law for the investment of trust funds; (3) to exercise or assert in person or by proxy all rights, privileges and powers accruing upon, appurtenant to, or available in connection with securities included in my estate; and (4) to execute all such instruments and to perform all such acts as shall be incidental to or necessary or expedient in connection with the foregoing authority and power or the proper execution of the provisions of this will or the proper administration of my estate, all the authority and power given herein to be exercised for such purposes as in the discretion of my executor maybe deemed proper without the authorization or confirmation of any court.

(B) I direct (1) that the term “executor,” as used herein, shall be deemed to mean the executor or alternate executor appointed herein, whichever shall be acting; (2) that a person shall be deemed not to have survived me as such term is used herein where such person dies simultaneously with me or dies under such circumstances that in the judgment of my executor it cannot be determined with certainty whether such person survived me or it would be impracticable to attempt to do so; and (3) that my executor shall pay my death taxes without apportionment, as if they were expenses of administering my estate, out of property which, otherwise would be included in my residuary estate; and the term “death taxes,” as used herein, shall be understood to mean all inheritance, transfer, succession and estate taxes levied by reason of my death, regardless of whether such taxes are levied on property passing or not passing under this will, and to include all interest and penalties on such taxes.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand and seal at New York, this (handwriting unclear) day of (handwriting unclear), 1989.

(The will is signed here, in handwriting, “Martha Graham.”)

The foregoing instrument was subscribed by the above-named MARTHA GRAHAM, on the day and year first above written, (unclear) our presence and was at the same time published and declared (unclear) her in the presence of each of us to be her last will and testament, and thereupon we, at her request, and in her presence and in the presence of each other, did subscribe our names as attesting witnesses.

(The will is signed, here, in handwriting, with three names, the only one of which is legible in the copy provided to the DI by the Martha Graham Center is that of Linda Hodes.)