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.

Lutèce Diaries, 19, “L’amour en fuite”: As Romeo’s teeth lie bleeding, love leaks out

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PARIS — So there I was at dusk, heart broken and sentiments seeping out, teeth throbbing and gums bleeding profusely into a bandage I was trying in vain to grit (hard to grit when half of your teeth are gone; I’m in Paris to have them replaced), staggering up the rue des Martyrs towards the Montmartre cemetery and the grave of the man I blamed it all on: François Truffaut. To read the rest of this article on our sister site The Paris Tribune, click here.  To read more Lutèce Diaries, click here.

Lutèce Diaries, 21: Born to be a post-modern American in Paris or, Hello I’m Dracula, and I’ve come to Dance

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 — Having decided that what I’m living and seeing and sensing and experiencing around me in Paris in 2019 (from my particular perspective, that of a California-born, San Francisco-bred, Princeton-educated, Alaska-humbled, New York-baptized, Texas-burned, Paris-tested, Dordogne-mellowed Eastern European – American – Western European migrant) has more resonance as a post-modern remake of Vincente Minelli’s 1951 film — albeit with my efforts to trace the footsteps of a 39-year-old Gene Kelly hobbled by the chronic sciatic of a 57-year-old I’m not a dancer, I just play one on the dance floor DJ-translator-actor — than a resurrection of Gallo-Roman Paris, and also in the hopes I’ll stop feeling (romance-wise) like a gladiator who keeps getting thrown to the lionesses and instead find my own Leslie Caron, still nursing her wounds as only a Frenchwoman can but ultimately ready to be healed and coaxed into taking my hand and dancing besides me along the Seine (think you might be her? Or just want to play ping-pong? Click here to find out more about me), I’ve decided to change the name of this column from “Lutèce Diaries” to “A post-modern American in Paris,” with a nod towards the mentor who first suggested this deconstruction.

On Wednesday night, then, I found myself comfortably ensconced in an Art Nouveau-style iron chaise attached to a concrete pillar of the belvedere perched atop the park Belleville looking out over the rooftops of Eastern Paris — if the Beaux Arts ball at which Kelly finally heals Caron’s war wounds and convinces her to click heels with him for a lifetime were held today, it would be displaced from Montmartre to Belleville, which has supplanted its Northern neighbor as the city’s artistic nucleus, notwithstanding what appears to be a losing battle to the encroaching forces of BoBo-dom — at just after twilight, waiting for the Eiffel to start scintillating as I gingerly gummed a morsel of Balkan Ajvar (eggplant and red peppers), spread on Lebanese flat bread, with the recalcitrant aid of the sole tooth remaining on the lower right side of the mouth, the lower left just coming out of the effects of the Novocain after my dentist had lopped off the morsel of sharp projecting bone which had been delaying the modeling of a downstairs denture to join the upstairs one.

Between beginning my day by telling the lioness who had chewed up too much of my precious time over the past month “Ca suffit” and terminating it with the dentist removing the bone spike which was impeding my efforts to pique Caron, I felt as though my day had been bookended by the removal of two bone spurs, one from the heart and one from the mouth, leaving my two most sensitive/sensuous organs now liberated to fully profit from Paris, my city. Whence the ethereal sensation that had subsumed me as I’d mounted the rue Menilmontant 30 minutes earlier (after crossing the Place de la Republique, my dentist being located on Pissarro’s Grand Boulevards near the Metro Good News), a soul sensation completed by a brain epiphany furnished by the black tee-shirt of a pony-tailed, Mediterranean-complexioned lady about my age going the other direction, whose white writing read (in English):

I’m not perfect
I’m an original.

Despite a festering blister (on the heel of the foot already occasionally numbed by the sciatic), I’d decided to start my search at a new cafe-associative opened by a couple of transplants from Lyon, “Dorothy’s,” named after the American Catholic Worker Dorothy Day, but whose website had promised “We may be run by Christians, but we’re open to everybody.” I wasn’t looking for Christ, but for a dancing partner, this being “Folk Ball Night.” As there was no mention of a price on either the website or the door poster, I’d assumed that apart from the bar the evening was free, and was ready to accept attempted proselytization as the price of admission. (This seems like a fair trade. In eastern Fort Worth, where I’d spent a spell before returning to France, I sometimes scored free hot bar-b-que, butterscotch icinged-cake, sandwiches, donuts, and even tee-shirts from a Christian help organization which set up in the parking lot of the Fiesta super-market across from the library on Saturday evenings. You didn’t even have to eat sur place but could take the fixin’s with you. Except for one holy roller, the closest they got to proselytizing me was the warm, genuine “God Bless you!” with which the pretty zaftig Latino woman who seemed to be in charge would send me off with my goodies; that she was on crutches the last time I’d seen her had not diminished her exuberance. The time after that — my last Saturday in Texas — she didn’t show up, so I’d left the Tennessee Ernie Ford religious songs record I’d brought for her with another volunteer.) Perhaps my being ready to dance with the Lyonnais Christians on the rue Menilmontant was also a reaction to the atheist lioness who’d just chewed me up and spit me out.

Unfortunately, I’d no sooner entered the long hall leading to Dorothy’s dance hall (after stuffing a fourth bandage into my bleeding jaw), half-way up Menilmontant than I saw the cash box at the entry. Apparently the chance to harvest my soul was not enough for the Christians; I’d also have to show my filthy lucre. Despite that this meant abandoning my entry line — “Hello, I’m Dracula, and I’ve come to dance” — I turned away, down the hill, and right onto Cascades to head towards the parc Belleville.

With my fellow Bellevilloises already gathered there, many of them chugging beer, swigging wine, or pique-niquing on the concrete, planted parapets separating the belvedere from the closed park below, the ambiance made me think back to another gathering in the same place — several days after the November 13, 2015 terrorist attacks that took the lives of 130 fellow Parisians — spontaneously convened for the silent bonhomie and to regard the park, the rooftops, and most of all the sparkling Eiffel, as if to reassure ourselves that beauty still existed. So I suppose I should have been content that when the Eiffel began sparkling on this early Spring Wednesday evening, sharply at 8 p.m., I seemed to be the only one who noticed, my companions being too busy talking and laughing and drinking and looking at each other (and shouting at their ‘putain des I-phones’) to notice. It’s the kind of comfort in crowds that only big cities can offer. I’ve had a similar feeling on subways since the attacks, not unlike the sensation I felt riding the 22-Filmore bus in San Francisco right after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. You don’t really feel alone, but joined with others who want to be here, in this place, in this moment.

As for Leslie, heading home down the rue des Pyrenees, at the book exchange box near the place I scored a copy of Katherine Dunn’s “Geek Love,” which I thought was a good omen. She doesn’t have to be perfect — just in the market for an original.

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.

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.