The Johnston Letter: “Cunningham belongs to that great shift of focus — from representation to the concentration on materials — which is so central to the revolution in art in this century….”

By Jill Johnston
Copyright Jill Johnston 2009

(Originally published in the Village Voice and Art in America and reprinted by permission of the author, whose many milestones include being the first dance critic of the Village Voice – and thus the oracle of Judson.  Dance Insider subscribers get access to five years of the Jill Johnston Letter, as well as 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances around the world from 1998 through 2015.  Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for just $29.95/year 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. If the Merce Cunningham Dance Company no longer exists, the Cunningham works “How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run,” previously performed in Paris by the company, “Inlets 2,” and “Beach Birds” will be reprised next May 30 – June 2 at the Theatre National de la Danse Chaillot (across the river from another monument, the Eiffel Tower) by the company of the  Centre national de danse contemporaine d’Angers (whose recent directors include the influential Emmanuelle Huynh), featuring veteran Cunningham dancer Ashley Chen. Today’s publication sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock Dance .)

It is not easy to see. Outside the theater, living as we do, most of us see very little with our eyes wide open…. It is rare to see more than a general outline. Or to see more and still enter. That is the crucial transition, from seeing to entering. Not only crucial but mysterious, so I won’t say any more except to note that I think most people who go to dance concerts don’t see very well, not even dancers, sometimes dancers especially, and most often critics, who must attend special classes in becoming blind.

Mr. Cunningham presented a new dance, “Aeon,” almost 50 minutes long, to a score by John Cage and with decor by Robert Rauschenberg. “Aeon” is a dance of great scale. It moves through so much, in range of quality, physical force, the human condition, that the whole thing is staggering to think of in retrospect. Human events: the activity of dancers on a proscenium stage. Other human events: the ways people communicate with each other, or speak for themselves. Exterior events: explosions, clouds, lights, a machine, sounds. And always the dancing, the superb dancing. The stillness too, which is never a mere choreographic stop, but an act of undaunted containment, of simple yet magnificent composure, of not-being which is the essence of being. A complete act, not a choreographic or dramatic transition.

Cunningham’s own range in this dance is fantastic. Not only those typical sudden shifts from motion to stillness, but the subtle gradations of energy (I have a vivid memory of an ‘incident’ originating as a vibration in the thighs, transferred to the stomach, traveling upward to the arms and shoulders and exploding like a geyser at the top); not to mention all the complicated coordinations, and wordless drama that every movement event secretes.

Cunningham is a great dancer, and you know it not by his technical range and command alone; you feel it in the whole man, the whole man is in it every time. You may see a procession of selves and the man never makes a move not true to himself.

— From “Dance: Cunningham in Connecticut,” The Village Voice, September 7, 1961.

The exclusion of Cunningham this summer, despite the anniversary, despite the fact that Limon is a charter member of the whole affair and that Graham is almost a national monument, is a sad reminder of how impossible it is at any moment in a history of anything for certain (controlling) groups of people to see where a thing is going, to put their fingers on the heartbeat of a movement…. Maybe New London should stick to a museum policy only. In this category they can hardly miss. And Limon and Graham easily command the field where statues are in question. They both have attitudes about themselves and about dancing that have more to do with the glory of Greece and grandeur of Rome than they do with life in America at the present moment.

— From “DANCE: New London,” The Village Voice, August 30, 1962.

The dance world is embarrassingly backward. Cunningham should pack Philharmonic Hall for a week at least. He has no peer in the dance as a consummate artist. Moreover, he continues to be abreast, if not in advance of all recent developments…. Cunningham belongs to that great shift of focus — from representation to the concentration on materials — which is so central to the revolution in art in this century…. The curious thing about this kind of dancing is that emotion is created by motion rather than the reverse, which is the traditional view of modern dance. But since there is no specified emotion, I believe that what you feel in the movement is the impact of a total action. Each movement means only itself and it moves you by its pure existence, by being so much itself. It is Cunningham’s magic as a performer to make every action a unique and complete experience. The gesture is the performer, the performer is the gesture.

— From “DANCE: Cunningham, Limon,” The Village Voice, September 5, 1963.

In the 1980s Cunningham presents a profile of extremes. His iconoclastic approach to choreography (launched in the ’50s in collusion with Cage) — the dance and music co-existing in a common time frame, but otherwise independent of each other; the application of chance procedures to the movement itself; the defocusing of the space in an allover look, no element supposedly more important than another — is still state-of-the-art work. And where Cunningham sees examples of work by younger choreographers in which dance movement is measured in meter, to the music, or in which movement appears to represent anything other than itself, he will characterize it as 19th-century work. Yet in some respects Cunningham himself exhibits 19th-century characteristics. In the ’50s, and even in the ’60s, this 19th-centuryness could hardly have been apparent, if at all, because the deep, or a priori, structure of the work, the gender-given aspect, still went unquestioned, and was therefore invisible.

Conscious gender play has in the meantime entered into the choreographic considerations of a number of younger artists (among them David Gordon, Mark Morris, Steve Paxton, Lucinda Childs). But Cunningham himself clearly continues not to question this ‘deep structure.’ Most apparent, and most boring, in the range of male/female breaching in his work is the predictable lift. “Roratorio,” with its extensive social partnering, has more than the full complements of lifts to be expected in a Cunningham dance. Again, he inherits this convention from the ballet, yet generally the way his men lift or carry or place or drag his women is much more like a vestigial echo of the ballet than anything resembling the no-nonsense support of the ballerina for the purpose of exposing her line and ‘sex’ and sweeping her through pedestals in the air. Although Cunningham’s manipulations of women are comparatively matter-of-fact, frequently like an afterthought, en passant really, they still appear to affirm, if only perfunctorily, the assumed dependency, weakness, helplessness, etcetera, of women. Certainly, his women remain armless in this way, except in the conventional decorative sense. But Cunningham would no doubt say that lifting is, simply, along with leaps, jumps, turns, etc., part of the raw material of his medium, something that bodies can do on stage, and to which he can apply his chance operations, obtaining the most interesting variations in rhythm and sequence.

“Roratorio,” like all Cunningham’s dance, brims with the most wonderful changes in speed, direction, rhythm, dynamics, groupings, as the whole piece moves stage left to right, in a linear action (not, incidentally, unlike the circular structure of “Finnegans Wake”), finally exiting to the right as the dancers carry off the seven or so stools that accompany them as they traverse the space. But the one variation you won’t find is in the lifting of women. Men always lift women, or “girls,” as Cunningham calls them throughout “The Dancer and the Dance,” the excellent book of interviews with him by Jacqueline Lesschaeve. And these days, no doubt because Cunningham, in his late 60s has lost even a hint of virtuosity in his own dancing (he essentially walks, and gestures), the vigor and expansiveness in his work is all projected through the males in his company.

At one time, say as late as 1972, when Carolyn Brown quit the company, Cunningham’s men and women were at least technically somewhat closer together. He had more mature women dancing with him then, not only technically accomplished (Brown was of prima quality) but with interesting character as well, and he and the men also of course were nearer in age. Now there are great gaps in his demography. He is 67, one of his men is 40, the rest are in their early 30s, and 20s. His men are fun to watch, his women are good, certainly attractive, but only Cunningham, immobile and arthritic as he is, carries the weight of character, of presence, of the necessary eccentric factor, that makes any company great. The general impression is of a marvelous gaunt grandfather tree, craggy and leafless, weathered and patinated, amazing in its knotty configurations, its sheer endurance, sticking way up over a band of brightly colored acorns dancing at the foot of its trunk.

There was a certain perfect reverberation between Cunningham, on stage, and Cage, in his box, in “Roratorio.” Cage delivered his Joyce text like some hoary old poet; Cunningham appeared on stage like some ancient satyr. And the panoply of noise along with the explosion of movement that surrounded them invoked that great line of Thomas: “Do not go gentle….”

— From “Jigs, Japes, and Joyce,” Art in America, January 1987.

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Isadora’s Children: Lynda Gaudreau Documents Modern Dance’s Journey, with help from Benoit Lachambre, Meg Stuart, and Jonathan Burrows

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 paulbenitzak@gmail.com. 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 paulbenitzak@gmail.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.

High tidings: Eloize takes a bath

By Angela Jones
Copyright 2005, 2017 Angela Jones

NEW YORK — I hate everything… generally. I’m a typical ex-modern-dancer-turned-downtown cynic who starts by looking for the predictable in every show. But Cirque Eloize’s “Rain,” seen June 23 at the New Victory Theater, where it continues through July 10, blew me out of the water (quite literally). It somehow managed to pull me in and hold my attention from start to finish by being charming, utterly surprising, engaging, evocative, humorous, playful, poignant, and aesthetically pleasing to boot.

All the performers are clearly seasoned and know their apparatuses inside and out. They also manage to build and develop their individual characters throughout, creating not only cohesion but also a piece with clear direction and intention, the likes of which most other circuses only aspire to. The beauty of “Rain” is also that even though we are taken on a journey, I couldn’t tell you exactly what the story is, but there is a sense of one. It takes place quite a while ago, in a place we can somehow all remember. Time and place are malleable — right when you think you know where something is about to go, it gets turned on its head, sometimes literally….

To receive the complete article, first published on June 30, 2005, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.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 paulbenitzak@gmail.com, 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 $129 (institutions) Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@@gmail.com . $99 if you purchase before October 15.

Making decoys with Trisha Brown and Robert Rauschenberg at MoMA in NY

trisha moma smallFrom the exhibition Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends, running through September 17 at the Museum of Modern Art: Trisha Brown, “Glacial Decoy,” 1979. With costumes, set, and lighting (with Beverly Emmons), by Robert Rauschenberg. From  performances by the Trisha Brown Dance Company at the Marymount Manhattan College Theater, New York, June 20–24, 1979. Left to right: Trisha Brown, Nina Lundborg, and Dance Insider contributor Lisa Kraus. (See below for Kraus on setting Brown’s “Glacial Decoy” on the Paris Opera Ballet.)  Photograph: Babette Mangolte © 1979 Babette Mangolte. (All Rights of Reproduction Reserved) Courtesy Museum of Modern Art.

Downtown Decoys: Trisha Brown, and Liebeslieder Walzing with George Balanchine, at the Paris Opera Ballet

By Paul Ben-Itzak, with contribution by Lisa Kraus
Copyright 2003, 2017, Paul Ben-Itzak & Lisa Kraus

PARIS — Why does Trisha Brown have to cross the Atlantic Ocean to find a major ballet company to undertake her choreography? Why does New York City Ballet refuse to look below 42nd Street for additions to its repertoire, instead padding its Balanchine and Robbins legacy with filler from Peter Martins and others? I fumed over these questions last week at the Palais Garnier, as I exalted over the Paris Opera Ballet’s breathless interpretations of two newly acquired American masterpieces, Brown’s 1979 “Glacial Decoy,” with photography, sets, and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg, and Balanchine’s 1960 “Liebeslieder Walzer,” to Brahms.

To receive the complete article, first published on December 30, 2003, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.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 1998 through 2015. 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. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $99 (institutions) Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@@gmail.com .

Europe at the Crossroads: Choreographers & Artists Converge on Paris — help the DI be there

For subscription and sponsorship opportunities starting at $30, contact Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com.

Berlin’s Constanza Macras, Portugal’s Vera Mantero, Belgium’s Alain Platel, Spain’s Israel Galvan, Crystal Pite — these are just a few of the choreographic giants coming to Paris this Spring that the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager will be able to cover with your support.

Many of you first read about these internationally renowned choreographers for the first time on the DI and, continuing our 20-year mission of bringing you stories not told elsewhere and giving a voice to dancers, we’ll also be reporting on Giulio D’Anna, a Netherlands-based Italian choreographer whose “OOOOOOO” is inspired by Zagreb’s “Museum of Broken Relationships,” and Jasna Vinovrski’s “Lady Justice,” addressing the relationship between justice and art. Speaking of art, we’d also like to bring you Yasmina Reza’s “Art” as interpreted at the Theatre de la Bastille by the pioneering Belgium theater company STAN — co-founded by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s sister. And of intersections between art and society, this year’s Chantiers (Building Projects) d’Europe festival at the Theatre de la Ville features countries in the front lines of the refugee crisis, notably in six short films from Greece addressing this topic and a public brainstorming session with artists from six countries. And we’ll bring you into the studios of the 200+ artists taking part in the Open Studios of Belleville — a neighborhood which in its very MULTI-CULTURAL contours and dimensions provides the best retort to the cloistered vision of French culture represented by the National Front. (We share the FN’s stated pride in traditional French culture; we simply argue that this definition is too limited and does not do justice to the grandeur and ouverture to the world that has always been French culture.)

To be there, in addition to the support of our current subscribers and sponsors, whom we thank infinitely, we need bring in at least $1500 from new subscribers and sponsors. This will be used to help cover housing and transportation. (An American colleague in Paris has offered us a special price on lodging.)

Already a subscriber or sponsor? Please forward this article. Want to become one? Contact us at paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Subscribers receive full access to our 20-year archive of more than 2,000 reviews by 150 leading dancer-critics of performances on five continents, plus five years of the Jill Johnston Letter as well as Arts Voyager art galleries, film reviews, and travelogues from Paris, New York, and across the U.S.. Sponsors receive this plus advertising on The Dance Insider, and/or the Arts Voyager.

(If we do not raise enough to return to Paris this Spring / Summer, all new donors, subscribers, and sponsors will be given the option of recuperating their pledge or having it applied to current and/or future coverage, including our ongoing project to put the entire DI 20-year archive online.)

On a personal-professional level, your support will also help me make my own career transition as a French-to-English translator, making it possible for me to participate in a translators’ festival taking place in Paris this June, essential for my being able to continue to pursue 40 years of building bridges between nations in a new form. And to access essential health-care (‘access’ because the costs for this will be paid for by myself with help from my family).

France, too, is at the crossroads. On May 7 — my 56th birthday — the country will choose between the fear represented by the National Front and the hope and optimism represented by Emmanuel Macron. Between closure and opening. In the campaign between these two ‘cultures’ that has raged in this country for the past two years, CULTURE has been all but forgotten. (Among Macron’s refreshing ideas: More library hours.) With your help, we will be able to do our part in restoring some light to what has always been France’s principal calling card around the world. Our calling for more than 20 years.

Many thanks and
Cheers,

Paul
paulbenitzak@gmail.com

Open Door Policy: Taking it to the streets in Belleville, Menilmon’, & along the banks of the Seine and the Ourcq

Belleville CatherineReturn to Innocence: If you want to look for where art is being made in Paris today, don’t look in the hills of Montmartre but the heights of Belleville. And if you want to peek inside the artists’ studios and chat with the creators, check the Portes Ouvertes of the Artists of Belleville, coming up next month May 19 – 22 and featuring the work of, among others, Catherine Olivier (above). Art courtesy and copyright Catherine Olivier.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Want coverage of this May’s Portes Ouvertes de Belleville and a myriad of dance, theater, and visual artists from around the world coming to Paris this Spring & Summer? The Dance Insider & Arts Voyager need your support to make it happen. To subscribe for just $29.95(or Euros) per year and access our Archive of 2000 reviews by 150 writers of performances and exhibitions on five continents over the past 20 years, or make a donation, just designate your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn about payment by check. Already a subscriber or sponsor? Thank you and… please spread the news. This reverie on the Open Studios of Belleville, a variety of dance performances real and pretended, and a tapestry of street art of all colors and characters was first published on May 31, 2010.)

PARIS — If the past couple of weeks have taught me anything, it’s that, as has often been the case here and in any major metropolis, art is being advanced not by the established venues and gatekeepers, but in the ateliers, the squats, the docks, the banks of the Seine, even the eccentric personalities of individual Parisians who, often against great odds, infuse the city with its colors and invest it with their dynamism, trying to satiate its denizens’ thirst for the relief and elevation art can provide with, if not a joie de vivre — it’s too much of a struggle to find the means these days to expect that — at least a joie to engage, be it with the elusive muse or the resilient thread that connects a contemporary artistic scene in flux with the phantoms of the past, themselves often barred by the gatekeepers of their time. So if I was disappointed by a lackluster season-announcing press conference by the Theatre de la Ville in which its director, Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, was averse to taking questions from the press (and no wonder: the 2010-11 dance season offers little surprises), I was inspired and invigorated by a photo on the wall of a Lilliputian atelier on the outskirts of Belleville capturing a darkened forest fleeting by outside a train window and the enchanting smile of its simply dressed proud author, Agata Rybarczyk — “It was taken in Poland! I’m Polish!” — who also invited visitors to create their own art out of small cubes.

My descent — or ascent — began last Wednesday with Christian Rizzo’s “L’Oubli, toucher du bois” (The Forgotten, knock wood), theoretically a dance piece, and in which I didn’t see enough either to forget or remark, having been chased out before the artist-spectator contract could be consummated by the bright flood lights the brilliant lighting designer, Caty Olive, assaulted the audience with, directing them straight at the public. I’m not paid to suffer (and when it comes to bright lights, migraines don’t grant artistic license), so I fled, making my way along the Quay towards the Ile St. Louis, arrested en route by a bouquiniste pal, Fabrice, who right away thrust a plastic cup of Kentucky bourbon into my mitts. “It’s not actually mine to give, it belongs to Daniel, who’s descended to the river to retrieve one of my vintage newspapers which flew away,” explained the chronically frenetic Fabrice, even more jittery than usual that night under the Chinese lantern hat shielding him from the Sun. “So that’s why I’m not giving you that much.” When Daniel returned, baked red from the Sun and, I surmised — from a visage as weathered as Balzac’s “Peau de Chagrin” – living outdoors, and looked from Fabrice to the bottle to me, it dawned on me that he had probably already drunk directly from the container. When Fabrice asked me to remind him what I did for a living, I made the mistake of telling him I worked on the Internet. “That’s a CIA – Defense department plot, you know. So you must work for the CIA. In fact that’s why you have bad teeth: It’s a cover.” I have known Fabrice for a while and am accustomed to his delires, so I decided to go with the scenario. “Yes, in fact, if you don’t mind, I need to just check the bug I put in your flower-pot to make sure it’s working.” Then his cell phone vibrated. “A Chinese guy gave it to me!” he said of the phone. “I know,” I said. “We actually gave it to the Chinese guy to give to you so we’d know where you were at all times.” At this point he laughed. “Pass by my stand again when you like!” he said before dashing across the street to the Metro, leaving Daniel to guard the newspapers and the bottle.

I still had some time before the after-performance buffet at the theater (hazard pay for the blaring lights, even if they’d ejaculated me prematurely), so I headed towards the Pont Neuf, where I discovered another government-subsidized lighting monstrosity. (To indigenous culturati readers who may be tempted to interject at this point, “If you loathe what we fund so much, why do you stay?” I respond: By objecting to your new-fangled projects, I’m postulating for admission to a longstanding pantheon of cultural curmudgeons. Never mind that they also despised one of my own chou-chous, the Eiffel Tower.) On an official commission from the ministry of culture and communication, a contemporary artist has framed the statue of Henry IV on a horse with purple neon tubing, even adding a neon sword to his sword-sheathe, thus diminishing the statue and blighting the bridge and the views of it from either side. Sometimes I think that the current cultural gate-keepers of Paris and France don’t appreciate, or at least under-value, their own heritage. This impression was recently bolstered by the theft of five paintings — by Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Leger, and Braque — from the Modern Art Museum of Paris earlier this month, the thief entering through a window the alarm on which had been out of commission for two months. Security officers had signaled the malfunction to the higher-ups but nothing had been done about it. So the thief was apparently able to take his time before neatly severing the tableaux from their frames.

All this as a prelude to explain why on Friday, on a quest for art created by a less official tribe, I took visitors from San Francisco around Belleville for the annual four-day Open Studios of Belleville, as much an opportunity to see art as encounter its creators and discover the milieus in which they live and work. We started with the plateau on top of the parc Belleville and its panoramic view, which includes my favorite perspective on the Eiffel. Then up to and down the winding rue Cascades, so dubbed because (way) back in the day water from cisterns (two examples of which have been preserved) controlled by the local abbey flowed down it to the faubourgs around the Place de la Republique. We all loved the atelier of Estelle Babut-Gay — me for the terrace with its view of trees and Paris rooftops, David for the sculptures crafted from Atlantic coast driftwood, Jennifer for the rings made from buttons. (She finally decided on two.) I was enchanted (literally) by the gauzy, ephemeral pyro-gravures of Catherine Olivier, crammed into her atelier above a corner café. But most of the allure came from the street itself: the patch of late-afternoon sunlight illuminating the catty-corner below Olivier’s studio and the cafe tables around it, the spectacular view of a panoply of rooftops of varying heights and the skyline below, the serpentine street, conjuring a Belleville which has haunted me since repeated childhood viewings of “The Red Balloon.”  (As Jerry tells Peter in Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story,” sometimes you have to take the long way around to come back home.)

The rue Cascades spit us out (to cop a phrase from Léo Malet) onto the rue Menilmontant, immortalized by Charles Trenet. I wanted to check the status of la Miroiterie, the artists’ squat that takes up an entire alley at 88 Menilmontant across the street from Cascades, mostly to see if it was still there, as so many artists’ squats have been shut down lately by officials of the Socialist city government. The atmosphere was subdued. A few artist-residents were cooking up spicy merguez sausages to sell for 3 Euros apiece and offering beer for 2, but none of the ateliers were open, except for a graffiti’d space where a DJ played very loud reggae. I picked up a flyer, “Le Pari (s) de la Creation,” which explained: “Following so many other popular and prolific artists’ squats, la Miroiterie has to quit the Paris scene, whereas the large institutions of contemporary art continue to turn emptily to grand indifference on the part of Parisians.” (In the nearby 19th arrondissement, the highly touted city-funded Centre 104 has done just that for the past two years.) “What do we want? To revindicate a place for artists in a Paris that continues to sigh in the soft pillow of consensus and the principles of precaution…. We request (simply) a form of tolerance, to exist in the interstices of the city, to occupy temporarily its niches, to live at the most intimate proximity in the neighborhoods, without being attacked and taken to court.” Other cities in France and elsewhere have conferred space to artists’ collectives, but, the manifesto asked, “What has Paris done? The capital of art and culture, has it become so timorous that it doesn’t want to loan orphaned spaces to artists in need of space?”

…. On Saturday, I actually had a review assignment, “The man without a past,” a mime spectacle showing at a recreation center in the 19th arrondissement, on the other side of the Ourcq canal from outer-outer Belleville. As this same arr. takes part in the Open Studios, I thought I would make my way from the rue Menilmontant over to Belleville, past the man-made parc Butte Chaumont with its precipitous waterfalls, over the Basin la Villette to the Metro Crimee and the Mathis animation center, discovering some more studios along the way. That was the plan, anyway.

From the studio promenade, besides Rybarczyk’s showing, which also included inviting visitors into a sort of curtained box, one at a time, to view a life-sized, disheveled naked woman getting out of an unmade bed, I was impressed most by  tableaux which mixed 1930s magazine clips and grey-blue paint, in collages by Sylviane Balustre-d’Erneville, as well as several of her photos, including of a market and a backyard in Egypt. Hers was also the most elegant of showings, with cool jazz and Gainsbourg and champagne on offer.

At the basin, near a grounded destroyer converted into a children’s play structure, I collided with a massive design expo, featuring space-age furniture from the ’50s through ’60s. From this retro outpost one could hear techno music pounding from across the basin. This eventually devolved to canned can-can music, accompanying a live performance by four women and one man who made up the Troupe of Mademoiselle Clairette. It only took me ten years, but I had finally stumbled upon can-can being performed live in Paris. The performance stage as well as the audience area was a floating platform moored in the basin, so that the performers were actually dancing — and performing splits and other calisthenics — on an unstable unprotected wooden floor while being battered by the wind blowing from all directions, with  no Marley in sight. I came away with a real sense of the ribaldry with which can-can must have been performed back in the day, as well as the athletic strength required of the dancers. And ouch!, those splits on that hard-wood floor!

I had some time before the mime show started, so I plopped down on a concrete bank of the basin near the rear of an old-school schooner and opened a can of stuffed grape leaves, which I downed with hot spiced tea from a vintage red-checkered thermos I’d scored at a vide grenier (like a neighborhood-wide garage sale; vide = empty and grenier = attic) for 1.50 Euros. This turned out to be not one of my most brilliant inspirations of the week-end, as the food no doubt contributed to the most sorry part of my day, when I fell asleep as soon as the show which was the one thing I actually had to do that day started. I drifted in and out during the one-hour performance, by the Theatre de l’Epopee’s Hadrien Trigance, which concerned a man who wakes up every morning with no memory of what he did the previous day or the last 30 years. At night, though, he dreams of a woman dressed in purple satin, evoked onstage by a purple satin sheet, before he wakes up wrapped in a white sheet. At one point his memory is jolted and he replays a dinner table scene from his childhood, his parents (heard off-stage in recorded voices) talking while he plays with his food. Trigance’s innocent air and alternately grave and playful aspect as he sat on a high-chair reminded me of Chaplin. I drifted off again, only to wake up in time to see him form a noose with the satin sheet; perhaps the woman of the past now haunting his dreams had hung herself, which is why he had blotted out all memory. The spectacle ends with the hero bedding down with the purple sheet, choosing retaining a tragic past over waking up with a blank sheet ever morning.

Afterwards, when Trigance’s manager asked me what I thought of the piece’s evolution since a 20-minute version I’d caught two years ago at the Mimos international mime festival in Perigueux, I hedged: “It’s…developed.” Later, when Trigance came out, I came up with something (I thought) better, “You remind me of Chaplin.” “Oh,” said the mime, hanging his head. “It’s a compliment, really!”

On Sunday, after a day of recovery resting my tired dogs, I arranged to meet David and Jennifer at Niki de Saint Phalle’s Stravinsky fountain next to the Pompidou museum. I had them take a picture of me next to the big-breasted mermaid which (who?) is just one of the fanciful objects spouting water from the fountain, right out of her plexi-glass nipples. Then my friends stopped to photograph a large chalk pavement drawing featuring the Eiffel, then the artist who’d created it, then his dog; the real-life model was yelping from protective covering in an open suit-case, no doubt complaining about the late May drizzle and wind. The artist had scrawled at the base of the work that he needed money to live. My friends dropped some coins into the hat. Then we scrambled through Les Halles to the rue Montorgueil, in search of a high-class pizza joint. “What church is that?” Jennifer asked as we came to Saint Eustache. “That’s the church where a children’s choir director named Gounod told a ragamuffin named Renoir that it was ‘dommage’ that he had chosen painting over music, because he had such an angelic voice.” Then up Montorgueil, regretting the Starbuck’s sign which now, like a portal, marks its entrance on the uptown side of this street made famous by Monet (“Rue Montorgueil on the 14th of July”), and the rue Reaumur, where Jennifer gave a lesson in the art of grabbing a taxi to a poor young French man trying to protect his head from the rain with a newspaper. As the man waved tentatively at the faraway driver, Jennifer simply marched up the block ahead of him. David, who had studied at the Sorbonne in the ‘60s, started talking about being in the now. “This moment, for instance,” he suggested, looking down what to me is one of the most non-descript, boring streets in Paris, degraded to downright depressing when the gray sky is dribbling drizzle. “I love this moment, this place, right here, right now.” Later, when we finally found the pizza place — in the interim there was a taxi driver who joked that he thought he spotted Che Guevara in his mirror (me, in my beret with the Captain Haddock button) – by way of furnishing another example of temporal bliss David pulled out the photo, on his cell phone, of the salade Nicoise he’d had at our first RDV for this visit, when I took him and Jennifer to an unremarkable neighborhood café on the place Edith Piaf. (‘Took’ being relative; they treated.) I’d retained from this lunch that there were none of the advertised anchovies in the salad and that the charming server who typically greets me with, “How’s he doing, the American?” had not mentioned he was out of them, didn’t think the absence of anchovies in a salade Nicoise was worth an avertissement, and charged us the same, quand meme. On Friday, before a hefty steak dinner at the Relais of the Entrecote on the place Saint-Germain-des-Près (most American writers in Paris would have slipped this reference in 20 paragraphs earlier, and I’m not even going to attempt to capture the ambiance in the nearby lobby of that expatriate Valhalla the Hotel Montana or correctly spell Germanopretan), David and Jennifer had taken me to Bob Cool, where it was Western theme night, Johnny Cash was in the house, and I had to resist the temptation to explain that you don’t leave the ice cubes in the Cosmos. Johnny, Edith, David — they find the serendipitous and the art in the tragic, the hard times, the mundane. Me, I wonder whether I can manage to pull it off, even in the City of Light which has compelled my artist’s soul like a moth since I first opened the pages of Ludwig Bemelmans’s “Madeline” and saw “Pascal” lifted over the streets of Belleville by a barque of balloons — to lift the clouds of blackness that obscure my view so much these days, to live up to a credo scrawled in my high-school year-book by an Italian friend, Sonia, who I lost in a dispute then found 20 years later: “Never stop looking for beauty, never.” Until then, I’m off to the Piaf. Hold the anchovies in that noisette, Isham.

(Some updates, 4-20-2017: La Miroiterie was eventually closed down by city authorities, who claimed that a wall bordering the alley threatened to tumble. A law that would have galleries pay artists for the privilege of exhibiting them has been proposed. Benoit Hamon, the Socialist candidate for president in the election whose first round is April 23, has proposed a regime for visual artists which would resemble the unemployment convention for which freelance performance artists and technicians are currently eligible. Except for Hamon and that when it’s preceded by ‘multi-’ it’s become a Right-wing epithet, culture has been conspicuous by its absence in the presidential campaign, a lapse in attention I’d ascribe more to the Media than the candidates. All the more reason for the artists of Belleville to once again take it to the streets, May 19 – 22. )