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 email@example.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.
Needcompany 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.