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By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak
(First published on the DI on February 10, 2005. Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room” will be reprised November 9 – 11 at the Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles. Lauwers’s “Le poète aveugle” — The Blind Poet — which the director calls “an exploration” of the performers of his needcompany’s “family trees…, cultures and languages,” opened tonight at the Theatre National de Colline in Paris, where it plays through October 22. To listen to a discussion about the piece on France Culture’s popular critical review “La Dispute, ” as well as of Romeo Castellucci’s new “Democracy in America” — in French — click here. Today’s publication sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock Dance . )
PARIS — A colleague who’s also seen Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room” 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 mere 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. 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, and take you to where Valeska lives again, and all the sad young men keep dying.
Jan Lauwers’s Artifacts
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 (we’re told) 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. In this context, the similar signposts in “Isabella’s Room” make it hard to receive this work as anything but racialist, nihilistic garbage.
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.”)
Dunham as Documentary-maker
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 those 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 in scholarly rigor to 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.
While we’re at the Centre Pompidou, if you’re in the neighborhood tomorrow ’round 4:25 p.m., or Saturday at 6:30 p.m., make your way to the museum’s basement level where, in the cadre of the ongoing (and free) Videodanse festival, you’ll be able to catch Volker Schlondorff’s 1979 “Kaleidoscope: Valeska Gert – Rien que pour le Plaisir, rien que pour le Jeu.” Just months before her death — so says the program — the legendary star of the German stage sat down with Schlondorff to recall her life and work and to recreate, at the age of 84, one of her most celebrated solos, “Mort.” Death is also on the program earlier Friday afternoon, in videos of Jean Cocteau and Roland Petit’s “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort,” captured in 1962 with Jean Babilee and Claire Sombert (3:35 p.m.); and in work by Olga de Soto (2:30 p.m.) and Rachid Ouramdane whose titles referenced the original until Petit told them to stop. (For my review of Schlondorff’s film, subscribers drop me a line at email@example.com.Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. Subscribers receive full access to the DI Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $109 (institutions) Contact Paul at email@example.com . )
Paul Ben-Itzak’s positive reflections on needcompany and Jan Lauwers were featured recently in Sorbonne scholarship published in Paris by Classiques Garniere.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Editor’s Note: The first of many DI forays connecting the grandmothers of dance reposing in Paris’s cemeteries — including Isadora Duncan, Marie Taglioni, and La Goulue — with the current state of their legacies as enacted on the stages of Paris, New York, and around the world. First published on October 30, 2000, this article has been updated by the author. What’s that you say? “Seen anything lately?” If you don’t like what’s being reviewed, go out and make some reviews of your own: The DI is expanding and looking for Flash Reviewers in Berlin, New York, Brussels, and Paris. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to the DI for $29.95/year and get full access to 2000 reviews by 150 leading critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to email@example.com , or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. Today’s publication sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock Dance.)
PARIS — The remains of Isadora Duncan lay stored behind a 12″ by 12″ plaque, amidst a vast wall of urns, one of many walls in the columbarium at Pere Lachaise cemetary here. (And not far from the ashes of Alwin Nikolais.) Under her gold-lettered name, “Danseuse” and “Ecole de Ballet de l’Opera de Paris” are all that identify the grandmother of Modern Dance. In the margins around Isadora’s columbiarium, someone has written “natural movement.” I thought of what remains of Isadora’s legacy — and of how broadly her progeny (not to mention her progeny’s progeny’s progeny) have extended that definition, and what they consider the “natural” terrain to be investigated — Saturday night, a few hours after visiting Isadora’s final resting place, while watching the geometrical experiments of Lynda Gaudreau’s company at Theatre de la Ville’s space on Rue des Abbesses, a few stops on the Metro from Pere Lachaise, and right up the hill from Paris’s Red Light district.
Whew! That’s a loaded first paragraph. But I think both juxtapositions are appropriate. On the one hand, Modern Dance’s universe has expanded at least four times since Isadora’s early expeditions, which started from the base of natural movement, entranced by Hellenistic ideals, idols, and idylls. Rather than taking a codified system (ballet) and making up a dance to music which she then had to incorporate into her body, Isadora started from her body, and how it naturally responded to music and other environmental stimulae. (N’empeche que ballet modernizers like Fokine were impatient to learn from her.) From those rather humble first steps, her successors have charted a universe which goes way beyond exploring how the body moves naturally to the psychic explorations of Martha Graham, the socio-therapeutic screes of Bill T. Jones, the simultaneously chancey and architecturally meticulous and large-scale dances of Merce Cunningham (which sometimes seem if anything more mathematical than ballet), the socio-cultural dance-theater of Alvin Ailey and Donald McKayle, the light-fantastical dance theater athletics of Alwin Nikolais, Murray Louis, Pilobolus and Momix, and all the branches and limbs of these various exponents. And these are just the American strains. In European dance theater alone, Kurt Jooss, Pina Bausch, Sasha Waltz, Maguy Marin and Peeping Tom dwarf — at least in their best work — their American contemporaries. (Well, except for Mark Dendy and Jane Comfort.) And until she got blasé in the last several years, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker was the proud bastard child of Trisha Brown (gestures) and George Balanchine (musicality).
Double-whew! That’s a rather loaded second paragraph, so let me jump straight to the second juxtaposition: Despite all this hard work, through which these choreographers and others, aided by not a few dedicated dancers, have in a hundred years developed, essentially, a whole new school of one of our oldest art forms — despite all this, if you tell your average Joe or Jane in Middle America that you’re a dancer, he’s more likely to think of the type of sex-based action that was going on near the Place Pigalle Saturday night than the abstract art that five talented dancers and a few prodigious choreographers were creating up the hill at the Theatre des Abbesses in Montmartre.
Would the action near Pigalle be more titillating, at least to the hetero male sex? Perhaps. But would it feed your mind in the same way as the exacting and dense repertoire virtuosically danced by Lynda Gaudreau’s company? No way! This is my very long-winded way of saying that while “Document 1,” the 1999 multi-choreographer collage presented Saturday by Gaudreau, is not necessarily “entertaining” for the non-dancer, it elucidates like a clarion call that there is a cadre of modern dance choreographers who, from Isadora’s intentions to simply make it acceptable to move naturally to music, have extended Modern Dance’s mission to a search for a vocabulary which, in its pure science and demands on the dancers’ bodies and intellects has surpassed ballet as a complex system of movement and vocabulary for creating challenging abstract art. In terms of actually searching for new ways to move the body to create art, these choreographers are attempting so much more than just about anybody creating in the ballet field today, with the possible exception of William Forsythe. (Author’s note, 10-6-2017: If this last observation was still valid in 2000, it stopped being so by 2005, when the former American prodigal son ran out of kinetic ideas and started regurgitating theatrical tricks that were already old by the 1970s.)
The choreographic mix in “Document 1” included Jonathan Burrows, Adam Roberts, Matteo Fargion, Meg Stuart, Benoit Lachambre, and Daniel Larrieu.
While it was hard to distinguish where one work began and the next ended — not that I’m complaining, because Gaudreau’s conception of presenting the whole as one 75-minute seemless evening succeeded — more than anything the area covered reminded me of Burrows, whose work I saw a couple of years back at The Kitchen. Like that piece, whose title escapes me, much of this evening was concerned with exploring grids: grids of the body, grids clearly marked on the stage, grids of two or four bodies together, grids on one body, grids of the hands. Grids on the ground. The play area was defined by a brown paper colored marley (whose hue Lucie Bazzo’s lights sometimes changed to orange, black, or white). Dancers move repeatedly confined in one of two rectangles of sometimes blue light up and downstage. Towards the beginning and at the end, the five dancers (Sarah Doucet, Mark Eden-Towle, Sophie Janssens, Sarah Stocker and guest artist Lachambre), dance in a chorus line, albeit one whose moves are much more restricted and localized than what you might find at the nearby Moulin Rouge. Instead of kicking out, to reveal itself, a leg kicks in, swiftly. A foot beats against a calf.
In between these bookends of the evening, the explorations are also localized per dancer; sometimes with one or two performers on stage, but often with all four present, in their own spaces or divided, with two in one rectangle and two in another. At one point, when two of them converged on space and selves in a tape-defined area downstage right, I had a movement epiphany: Twister! Right foot red! Left hand green!
Choreographically as well as in its execution, the most virtuosic moment was provided by Lachambre, dancing an excerpt from Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods’ “No Longer Readymade.” Think Trisha Brown (the minuteness of hand-jive), remixed inna lockin’ and poppin’ mode by Doug Elkins, at 78 rpm, and you get the idea. How Lachambre moved not only his hands, but particularly his head, back and forth like that in such a cartoon-quick blur, is beyond me! The only stop-pauses in the frantic pace were ones in which Lachambre appeared to be shooting up, precisely pricking his inner elbow.
Lachambre also shined, literally, in a self-choreographed “Solo a la Hanche.” I see here by my handy-dandy French-English dictionary that “hanche” means hip in French, and that’s what we saw a lot of here, in its resplendent rippling-muscled full glory, from the moment Lachambre split open his pants to reveal thick hip, thigh, and left leg, in profile.
The guest artist also figured prominently in the wind-up toy section, where he winds up, then sets loose, a series of toys, which mercilessly pursue the other four dancers, who try to maneuver around them. Lachambre scrambles after them, often on his belly or back, catching the sonic action with his microphone. The section, er, winds up with a penguin solo, as this bird, the largest of the toys, waddles around for a while, alone in center stage, before finally winding down and being scooped up by a dancer.
During this section, the only sound is that of the winding up and down. And this is one more thing that reminds me of how far modern dance has travelled since Isadora’s initial expeditions — so far that many choreographers see music as unnecessary, so much has their work become about exploring space more than music. That’s not an entirely fair comment as applies to Gaudreau’s company, however; in fact, there was sound for much of this, but not what many would consider music: Glottal clicks, for example, also figured in the score. When sitting “off stage” at the sides, the dancers often held mikes into which they whispered the sounds for those still on stage. (Author’s note, 10-6-2017: Unfortunately, this particularly gimmick was soon run out ad infinatum by choreographers around the world.)
Film figured heavily in the evening. Most winningly in footage of a young girl dribbling a basketball, who is shortly accosted by two men who try, mostly unsuccessfully, to steal the ball from her. (Apparently, she’s a ringer.) Towards the beginning of the evening, we see Burrows’s film “Hands,” which is just that: hands folding, unfolding, extending, folding again. One for the hardcore localized digit movement fans, but didn’t do much for me. (Author’s Note, 10-6-2017: I liked this one much better live when I saw it, or at least a variety, “Sitting Down Dance,” a few years later at the Round Point Theater, performed by Burrows and Fargion.) And, at the end, there’s a film that’s a lesson in needlepoint or crochet. This provides the pat ending to an otherwise refreshingly non-linear evening of geometrical experiments: “And then you just keep going,” says a voice offstage.
…. If I can keep going for just one paragraph longer: What moved me most about this very abstract evening was the composition of the audience. A similar program in New York would probably have been packed, but mostly by fellow-travelers: dancers and choreographers. I’ve got nothing against dancers and choreographers in the audience, but if I do have a bone to pick with some post-post-modern choreographers, it’s that their work seems to exist in a vacuum: fascinating to them from a process point of view, and maybe to some of their colleagues and mine, but just too remote to appeal to a non-dancer like me. This is not an argument against abstraction; far from it. What impressed me about Lynda Gaudreau’s concert Saturday, both on the stage and in the audience, is that a crowd of (apparently) mostly non-dancers who knew how far Modern Dance has traveled from its roots in Isadora, and who also could look beyond the dancer stereotype being represented down the hill in the Red Light district, had come to see high art — and the choreographers and dancers had given it to them.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak
PARIS — The main reason I love dance is its ability to dream, and to help me dream. It dreams every time a dancer leaps for the sky, and everytime she contracts her abdomen. It dreams when a lover instinctively clutches a partner and when the partner instinctively falls into the lover’s arms and is caught. It lives from image to image, with the flow of a dream; nothing seems pre-meditated, everything seems instinctual. As in a dream, the connections aren’t always logical, or even readily decipherable. But also like a dream, the images convey a tangible, not always describable, feeling. With “DeaDDogsDon’tDance,” which sold out three performances this weekend at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt here, Needcompany and Ballet Frankfurt have upped the anti, creating a danced play that presents as totally unpremeditated. This is as rough and raw as it gets, folks — the stuff that dreams, and nightmares, are made of.
To receive the rest of the article, first published on November 6, 2000, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at firstname.lastname@example.org. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015, plus five years of the Jill Johnston Letter. Just designate your PayPal payment to email@example.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $129 (institutions) Purchase by May 31, 2017 and receive a second, free copy for the recipient of your choice. Contact Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org .
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 1999, 2000, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Author’s Note: When this review was initially sent out via e-mail on October 22, 1999, I wrote that Needcompany’s production of Grace Ellen Barkey’s version of Bela Bartok’s “Miraculous Mandarin” was “a true, one-time only, never to be repeated in this lifetime gift to the audience.” My observation proved prophetic; several months later, the Bartok estate prohibited the piece from ever being performed again and Barkey’s ‘Mandarin’ died a second death.)
NEW YORK — Shortly before the world premiere of Grace Ellen Barkey’s production of Bela Bartok’s “Miraculous Mandarin” at P.S. 122 Thursday night, P.S. executive producer Mark Russell hailed me. “It’s either going to stink or it’s going to rock,” he said — well, maybe it was me that said it, but Russell concurred. The thought that it might stink was not uttered with dread but anticipation. Stinker or rocker, Russell was excited to be giving something new to his audience and New York — new even to him.
To get the rest of the article, first sent out to the DI’s e-mail list on October 22, 1999, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at email@example.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1999 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to firstname.lastname@example.org , or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $99 (institutions) Contact Paul at email@example.com .