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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to board the ark? All aboard avec Malandain Ballet Biarritz at the House of Danse (review in French and English)

malandin noe coverMalandain Ballet Biarritz’s Miyuki Kanei and Daniel Vizcayo in Thierry Malandain’s “Noé” (Noah). Photo copyright Olivier-Houeix and courtesy Maison de la Danse.

par Anne-Charlotte Schoepfer
Copyright 2019 Anne-Charlotte Schoepfer

(English version follows. Today’s online publication of the complete review, in English and French, is sponsored  by Freespace Dance. See Freespace Dance perform and then party with the company February 23 at the Space at Yoga Mechanics in Montclair, New Jersey, lovely this time of year.  More info here.  To find out about sponsorship opportunities with the Dance Insider, the leading voice for dancers since 1998, contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .)

LYON — Les vingt danseurs du Malandain Ballet Biarritz provoquent un déluge à la Maison de la Danse avec leur nouvelle pièce “Noé,” vu le 26 decembre. Thierry Malandain, figure de la danse néo-classique en France, s’est souvent approprié des grands classiques de la littérature pour ses pièces. Les plus récentes étant “La belle et la bête” en 2016, “Cendrillon” en 2013 ou encore “Roméo et Juliette” en 2010. Avec “Noé,”(Noah) il relève le défi encore une fois et il réussit à faire d’un mythe religieux un puissant un ballet moderne plein d’humanité.

La pièce, qui dure 1h10, est plus abstraite que les dernières adaptations dans le sens ou elle est moins racontée et collee a l’histoire. La narration est moins présente, ce qui permet de moins diriger le spectateur et de plus le laisser vaquer à son imagination. Pour illustrer le déluge, un grand rideau de perles turquoises entoure une scène entièrement bleue. Ce décor simple et efficace crée par Jorge Gallardo met les corps en valeur.

Et quels corps… La technique des danseurs de la compagnie est précise et poignante. Il y a bien des tableaux dans l’écriture du spectacle mais les chorégraphies s’enchainent dans un rythme effréné, on est totalement emportés par les mouvements. L’écriture chorégraphique est précise et saisissante : les corps s’entremêlent dans des pas de deux renversants et ils traversent l’espace avec une force fulgurante. Le style est dans la continuité du travail du chorégraphe : une base classique forte et une réinterprétation des mouvements plus moderne. Il utilise par exemple des techniques de sol très contemporaines. Les changements de formation sont vifs et pointus. Le génie de Thierry Malandain se trouve dans sa gestion de l’espace scénique.

L’inspiration pour l’interprétation des danseurs a de multiples facettes : tantôt puissante et bestiale pour illustrer les espèces animales présentes dans le bateau, tantôt légère et poétique avec par exemple l’amour d’Adam et Eve.

Tout le ballet est chorégraphié sur la musique de Rossini “Messa Di Gloria.” Ce qui rend les corps encore plus présents lorsqu’ils se mêlent aux voix puissantes de l’œuvre liturgique.

J’ai vraiment apprécié, pour une compagnie néoclassique, que tous les danseurs soient mis en valeur équitablement dans un esprit de groupe et de communion. Il y a bien sûr une hiérarchie au sein de l’histoire comme avec les deux rôles principaux : Noé interprété par Mickaël Conte et Emzara interprétée par Irma Hoffren. Mais ces derniers ne prennent pas toute la place dans l’histoire. Les autres interprètes sont aussi importants et les ensembles avec les vingt danseurs réunis restent les moments les plus émouvants de la pièce.

Je pense que c’est par ces détails que Thierry Malandain réussit à moderniser la technique classique et à adapter une telle œuvre aujourd’hui. On est loin du cliché religieux et on est totalement saisi par la dimension humaniste et
universelle de l’histoire.

malandin noe oneMalandain Ballet Biarritz’s Hugo Layer and Claire Lonchampt in Thierry Malandain’s “Noé” (Noah). Photo copyright Olivier-Houeix and courtesy Maison de la Danse.

By Anne-Charlotte Schoepfer
Copyright 2019 Anne-Charlotte Schoepfer

LYON — The 20 dancers of Malandain Ballet Biarritz provoked a veritable deluge at the Maison de la Danse with their new piece “Noé” (Noah), seen December 26. Thierry Malandain, a fixture of the French neo-classical dance scene, has frequently appropriated the major classics of literature for his work, most recently the 2016 “Beauty and the Beast,” the 2013 “Cinderella” and the 2010 “Romeo and Juliette.” With “Noé,” Malandain is once more up to the challenge, succeeding in weaving a religious myth into a powerful ballet full of humanity.

The dance, which clocks in at just 70 minutes, is more abstract than Malandain’s previous adaptations in the sense that the choreography is more or less simply sketched out and pasted on to the history. The narrative element is less present, which enables the spectator to feel less manipulated and let the imagination take off. To illustrate the flood, for example, a grand curtain of turquoise pearls surrounds an entirely blue stage. This simple and efficient scenery, created by Jorge Gallardo, highlights the bodies.

And what bodies! The dancers’ technique is precise and poignant. The composition of the show certainly includes fixed tableaux but the choreography flies by so swiftly, with one gesture shifting into the next, that we’re swept away by the movement. The choreographic composition is precise and gripping: the bodies intermingle in jaw-dropping pas des deux and traverse the space with lightning force. The style is in the continuity of the choreographer’s usual approach, built on a strong classical base and a reinterpretation of more modern movement, for example by tapping into contemporary floor techniques. The changing of space is sharp and shrill. Thierry Malandin’s genius  finds itself in the way he manages the stage space.

The inspired interpretation of the dancers reveals many facets: at times powerful and animal — for instance when it comes to depicting the animals present on the ark — at others light and poetic, as in the portrayals of the love between Adam and Eve.

The entire ballet is set to Rossini’s “Messa Di Gloria,” rending the bodies that much more present when they mix it up with the powerful voices delivering the liturgical oeuvre.

I really appreciated seeing a neo-classical company in which all the dancers were equitably put on the same plane in an ensemble spirit of communion, harkening the spirit of Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. There’s certainly a hierarchy when it comes to the narrative, as with the two principal roles: Noah interpreted by Mickaël Conte and Emzara by Irma Hoffren. But these last don’t take up all the space in the story. The other dancers are equally important and the ensemble sections, with 20 dancers reunited on the stage, remain the most moving moments of the dance.

It’s with details like this that Thierry Malandain has succeeded in modernizing the classical technique and in adapting such a substantial oeuvre today. We’re a long way from the religious cliché and completely gripped by the humanist and universal dimensions of the story.

Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak, with Anne-Charlotte Schoepfer

Celebrating 20 years of telling stories not told elsewhere: Dominique Boivin tosses quixotic spears at lights, shadows, and other technological windmills

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2009, 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

(To receive the complete article, first published exclusively on the DI on May 26, 2009, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for one year for just $36 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.)

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Chaillot National Palace: Celebrating a temple of dance on the Seine

chaillot isadora

From the exhibition Chaillot, une mémoire de la danse, running May 3 – August 26 at the Bibliothèque Nationale Française in Paris to celebrate the official consecration of the Chaillot Palace, located on the Seine facing the Eiffel tower, as France’s National Theater de la Danse: “Orphée” after Gluck’s “Orphée and Eurydice,” Danses et Choeurs d’Isadora Duncan, program from the Trocadéro Palace, Marcy 25, 27, and 29, 191 3. © BnF – Arts du spectacle.

20 Years of Building the Dance Audience: The trial of Isadora Duncan

By André Levinson
Copyright Librairie Bloud & Gay, Paris, 1924
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

(Excerpted from “La Danse au Théâtre,” which assembles Levinson’s critical articles published between April 1922 and April 1923, for the most part in the Paris daily Comoedia, here from a December 11, 1922 piece entitled “The Quarrel Between the Ancients and the Moderns,” with the sub-heading “The Trial of Isadora Duncan.”)

Certainly, Isadora Duncan is guilty as charged. She was the grand switch operator who redirected dance onto a dead-end track and made it derail. Her enthusiastic brand of Hellenism à la headmistress produced unprecedented ravages. Her musical dilettantism grew into a rage of epidemic proportions. “Rise, Lazarus, and dance!” clamored the American demagogue. And a thousand young women suddenly declared themselves dancers. An army surged around Isadora, an international brigade of the barefooted. With the great stamping of her large naked feet she makes Beethoven jump, Chopin run, Gluck trot. Proclaimed the redeemer of the body, which she emancipates from all the conventional shackles, she enters in the Pantheon. Bringing with her, it’s claimed, a re-birth.

I have a dear friend in Russia, one of the country’s most subtle critics. An intelligence that I call gourmontienne* and a pure sensibility inhabiting a sickly and deformed body. Disabled, he drags himself along laboriously with the aid of a crutch and a cane. Well, this man was transported to such a degree by the Duncanian “miracle” that he declared her art to be “the means for all of us to become beautiful.”

Without doubt, the personality of the dancer herself has a lot to do with this infatuation, or rather this idolatry. Without any particular physical beauty, with her figure recalling a kindly school-marm, her torso lacking any suppleness, her feet flattened out and widened by two decades of naked stomping on the planks, Isadora nonetheless has been able to preserve a certain plastic prestige. Her gestures are sober, at times evocative. And if her musicality seems doubtful and approximate, she has the gift of fecund emotions. Her practically non-existent technique can be assimilated in 24 hours by just about any dancer. Her audacity, on the other hand, is incommensurate, genial. Her pupils and imitators are innumerable; to imitate her one has no need of audacity!

Nevertheless, Isadora might have been useful to dance: useful like a good old-fashioned fire is useful for the beautification of a neighborhood.

When Isadora appeared on the scene, dance had been languishing for 20 years. Classical dancers continued their arduous task in a complete moral isolation; artists and poets had lost interest in this grand tradition. And all that was left of the not so distant past of the incomparable kingdom of the ballerina’s court — of which Théophile Gautier, Jules Janin, Théodore de Banville, Stéphane Mallarmé, Gavarni and Lamy had been the reigning dignitaries — were the last remnants of some decrepit members. Even if the handful of simple-minded and upright true believers, gifted with good instincts, who knew how to maintain, despite and against all the others, their unshakeable conviction and keep their metier intact were admirable. Because being a ballerina, only a few years ago, was a perilous distinction.

Well, it was Isadora who brought the masses back to dance, who created a new audience for it. She knew how to promote a vast surge of opinion. One which is not going away, however much she uses her very real power to inculcate deplorable and paltry concepts, and nurtures false sensibilities among this public. Thanks to her, those who have come to clear the terrain and reconstruct will not be operating in a void. And it’s thus that the fruits of her efforts, negative as they may have been, appear considerable and propitious.

*A reference to the journalist and critic Remy de Gourmont (1858 – 1915), known for his vast erudition. In 1889, was one of the co-founders of the new Mercure de France, to which he almost exclusively devoted his literary efforts after being diagnosed with Lupus. Gourmont also worked for the French Bibliothèque Nationale.