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.

Celebrating 20 years of giving a voice to artists: Don’t stop the music — In Paris, a double-victory for ‘Double Coquette’

november 13 for repostMailys de Villoutreys and Isabelle Poulenard in “The Double Coquette,” directed by Fanny de Chaille from Antoine Dauvergne and Charles-Simon Favart’s score and lyrics as amended by Gerard Pesson and Pierre Alferi, with costumes by Annette Messager. Marc Domage photo courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2015, 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

(First published on November 18, 2015, as part of the DI/AV’s extensive coverage of the artistic commnity’s response to the November 13 attacks which killed 130 people in the stadiums and music halls and on the cafe terraces of Paris and Seine-St.-Denis. The first line of defense in this war has been the police, whose numbers have been decimated so far this year by 30 suicides, the latest that of Maggy Biskupski, a 36-year-old officer who killed herself yesterday with her service revolver. Today’s playlist for memorial ceremonies in the city’s 11th arrondissement, hardest hit by the attacks, included Serge Gainsbourg’s “La Chanson de Prevert,” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.” This one goes out to the memory of Naomi Gonzalez, U.S. citizen and Mexican immigrant, gunned down on the terrace of “Le bon biere” at the age of 20.)

PARIS — They wanted to stop the music, and they did not succeed, as Parisians last night filled theaters re-opening after three days of national mourning. “We are very happy with your presence tonight,” the soft-spoken Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, director of the Theatre de la Ville and the city-wide Festival d’Automne, told the audience assembled last night at the TDLV’s Abbesses Theater in Montmartre (whose lively cafe terraces were more full than one might expect on any typically drizzly fall Paris evening, let alone four nights after this same terrain was turned into a killing field) for the opening of choreographer Fanny de Chaille’s production of Antoine Dauvergne and Charles-Simon Favart’s 1753 comic opera “La Double Coquette,” amended by composer Gerard Pesson and lyricist Pierre Alferi as a bisexual love story. “We are proud to re-open this grand theater in this grand city that we love so much, with a light work” that is not entirely irrelevant to defending the values targeted by those who massacred 130 people and wounded 350 more Friday in the worse terrorist attack on France in 70 years, concerned as the work is with “the liberty of our hearts and the liberty of movement.” But what moved me most, just three days after 89 people were gunned down in the Bataclan theater for participating in what their killers dubbed the “perversity” of an innocuous rock concert, was seeing the dozen musicians onstage, hearing their auburn violins resonate, and realizing just how precious music is.

(To receive the full article, as well as access our complete coverage of the Paris artistic community’s response to the November 13, 2015 attacks and our Archive of more than 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 critics of performances and exhibitions from around the world since 1999, 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.)