Slaves of New York*: It’s still a helluva town

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on January 7, 2011, with a slightly different title, and reprised, revised, and greatly expanded today because New York City — which at last count had lost 21,000 or a fifth of the national toll to the Corona virus, in no small part because the state’s governor waited too long to impose confinement (San Francisco, which went into confinement a week earlier, has lost less than 100 as of this date) and thanks to his policy of cutting back on hospital beds (thank you, Democracy Now, for these tragic factoids) — is still a helluva town. This one goes out to Sue, Melinda, Jamie, Richard, Margaret, Veronica, Robin, Caitlin, Elizabeth, Julio, Therese, Bonnie, Chris, the memories of Ed Winer, Becky Jung, Joe Mazo, Ranjabati Sircar, and Eileen Darby, and to Maura, Christine C., Matt, Nancy, Tristan, Fabrice, Pilar, Nathalia, Amaury, Laurent, Ruth-Lynn and too many other dancers to name, Michelle, Kevin, Donna, Lisa, Laurie, Phil, Herb, Ingrid, Neil, Eddie, Marty, Amy, Juan, Nimet, Jane, Martin, Anyta, Rebecca, Mark, Jill, Julie, Adam, Jocelyn, Dean, Darrah, Lucie, Harris, Ron, Don, Ben, Jonathan Schwartz, the editorial team at Wunderman Cato Johnson, and to all those who have given me so many New York moments and who are still there trying to make sure that it’s still a helluva town, despite Governor Cuomo’s irresponsibility and the mayor’s callousness towards the homeless. Take a dip in the Bethesda Fountain, New Yorkers, while knoshing on a knish or a dog with da works, de ma part…. (For art related to this column, click here .)

NEW YORK — Dance seems to be calcified in New York, the same fossils that were here 10 years ago — when I left for Paris — even more entrenched. Indeed, the wilderness is so sallow that the New York Times felt the need to send its chief dance critic abroad to review 27 “Nutcracker”s, as if even 27 “Nutcracker”s would have to be more interesting than one more New York dance concert, so desperately desolate has the local mainstream landscape apparently become. (Having once been sent abroad myself, to review a ‘Nut’ in a far-gone bourg of BFLI — Bum Fuck Long Island if you have to know, weisenheimer — where the publicist made sure to seat me next to the company’s director and my Newsday editor excised my mild criticism of a lackluster Clara, I sympathize.)

So this art aficionado has been feeding his art jones with art of the visual variety, as well as the self-made art still on view — nevah change, baby! — in New York every day. In the visual art landscape, between the Impressionist-era paintings one can stumble upon at a corner uptown gallery and what I’m told is the blossoming of the windblown Chelsea Territory — though the new High-line above the Western limits of the neighborhood looking out over the Hudson seems antiseptic compared to the colorful Paris counterpart that apparently inspired it, the coulee verte that starts at the Bastille — things at least seem to be moving. Scouring a Chelsea gallery guide Thursday afternoon to scout out vernissages (opening receptions to you, bub), I couldn’t help but notice some art on the various gallery websites that actually looked interesting, as opposed to the buy-me variety which seemed to be preponderant here 10 years ago, memorialized in Schnabel’s “Basquiat” film when Tatum O’Neal, considering a purchase, asks the artist, “Can you make it more brown?”

While I didn’t see enough art in an abbreviated gallery crawl Thursday night to be able to offer an assessment, let alone pass judgment, what was, on the other hand, dispiriting was that, as was the case 10 years ago, everyone seemed to be standing around talking up each other and I only saw one lost woman looking at the art — yet one more sign that not just dance, but intellectual life in New York may have ebbed. (The biggest indication of this is the effective demise of the Village Voice, a molted praying mantis’s skin of its former self, its last breath expiring with this week’s firing of 33-year-old veteran investigative journalist Wayne Barrett supposedly for financial reasons, the final death knoll for a storied heritage.)

But the good news is that like Paris, New York itself remains a work of art, even performing (as opposed to performance) art. After a cat-sitting gig in a literary brownstone healthily crammed with a century of books from first to top floor in the Upper East Side environs of Central Park, I’ve spent the past week in the Lower East Side environs of Chinatown where I literally saw it all on Mulberry Street: The Italian stretch of the street may have devolved into a Disney-fied Italian-Land — with young barkers standing outside the restaurants cajoling potential clients, reminiscent of the older men who stand outside Pakistani restaurants in Paris’s Passage Brady or the hawkers of “Pig Alley” — but Chinatown remains authentic, and perhaps the only place in Manhattan where one can still lunch like a monkey king for less than $3. That’s right — less than $3. I’ve had crumbled pork cake (at the Orange Tea House on Elizabeth Street), which is just what it sounds like — pork crumbs on the outside, sweet cake on the inside, for 90 cents. Goopy large noodles woven with shrimp and dribbled with soy and hot sauces for $1.25, (from a stand on Elizabeth Street). My comforting favorite for this weather is what I call a chicken porridge soup — in Chinese I think its moniker is ‘congee’ — of which you can get a nice helping for $1.50, from a woman working out of a cart on Grand Street. But the mecca — for starving journalists as well as starving dancers — is clearly Vanessa’s dumpling house on Eldridge. The signature dish is the owner’s sesame pancake sandwiches, all under and some well under $3 (the vegetable variety is just $1.50), but I’ve stuck to the fried pork dumplings, three plump ones available for just $1.(On this visit, I forgot to ‘vestigate – as the late dancer Becky Jung might put it – into whether Yonah’s Knishes was still dealing this daily staple of my forgotten Lower East Side ancestors. Or head uptown to see if the yamuka-crowned speedheads that used to dish up pickle-packed tahimi-oozing falafel sandwiches to long lines of Mad Men and Women from a van on 46th long before ‘food-truck’ became part of the lingo were still in business. ) If your parents are coming to town and you want them to take you to someplace nice, you might scout out the Vietnamese restaurant dance friends turned me on to earlier this week, which they’d learned of from choreographer and Chinatown institution HT Chen. (The menu even offers “HT Chen Crispy Noodles.”) Here my conch jones was finally satisfied. Since reading during my last NY sojourn, in the Joseph Mitchell classic “Up in the Old Hotel,” that fewer and fewer restaurants were serving conch, the meat that lives in that large sea-shell that whispers ocean gusts when you hold it up to your ear — fisherman only hunted for them by special request — I’ve been on a singular quest to find this item on NY restaurant menus. Last time around, I found three Italian places — in the whole city — that still served scungili, or conch in a spicy tomato sauce. One of those, the fabled Luna cafe on Mulberry Street (where an apprentice Guido once paused before pouring  the chianti for me and my female friend because “I didn’t wanna interrupt the eye contact”), has closed, and the other two have removed conch/scungili from their menus. At first, the waiter at the Vietnamese place disappointed me by shaking his head when I ordered the sauteed conch, listed as a specialty. “All out!” Then he returned excitedly to tell me that the fisherman had just brought some in that morning.

The hazard conch-fanciers face when ordering is the same one calamari-cravers have to deal with, that the dish will probably be over-cooked and thus rubbery and hard to break up. This conch, though, was perfect, as soft, flat, and sea-pungent as abalone. (I hadn’t touched another of my favorite NY-only ethnic dishes, Mofungo – a large plaintain and pork dumpling – since a serving had broken my last good molar left standing in Spanish Harlem. I’d have done better heading further downtown and sinking my delicate choppers into chicken and waffles at Wells’s or Sylvia’s.)

But affordable downtown culinary riches are not restricted to one cuisine. On Sunday — my favorite, maybe the only day for a gambol in the Village if you don’t like crowds — I hied over to El Rinconcita, on E. 10th and Avenue C, which still sells its catfish empanadas for just $1 apiece. (The mofungo is also nothing to kick a can at.)They were out of them when I got there, but I blithely ignored the tired waitress’s suggestion of chicken and asked if they could make some. “I’ll wait!” (The lively cumbia on the juke didn’t make it hard.) The woman who cooked them up for me — perhaps the owner — must have remembered me because she packed the empanadas not just with catfish but juicy jalapenos as well, which I ate on a wet bench in still snow-covered Tompkins Square, sipping the last of my warm cafe con leché. (At a Columbian stand outside a church on 14th street where I used to get it with my dollar enchiladas on Sundays, they used to sell Mexican-style hot chocolate infused with rice.)

If there’s one thing I’ve craved, though, since I returned from France this past summer, it’s duck, the soul-food of the country’s southwest, where I spent most of the past three years. I’d been warned that a Chinatown duck was not the same as a Frenchytown duck, so I had resisted. I was not even tempted by the opportunity to try the one duck part I’d never tried when I saw it here. I’d thought I’d sampled everything — duck carcasses, duck confit, duck hearts, duck blood patties (kind of like boudin but too rubbery for me), duck necks, preserved duck gizzards, smoked duck breast, duck breast with goat cheese sauce, beaujolais nouveau duck. But it wasn’t until I walked into a Chinese butcher’s on Grand street that I discovered duck tongues, 50 of them wrapped tightly in cellophane. Didn’t go for those, but finally gave in and bought a Peking Duck Wednesday. The price was right — $12 — but man was that Long Island (Peking by way of Valley Stream, and no doubt not blessed by my old rabbi Donna Berman) canard skinny compared to its French relatives. Not even a morsel of liver to be found, and forget about heart. (In France, they sell their chickens without the liver, which any Jew, whether he was brought up in Rabbi Berman’s Long Island congregation or the Aquarian Minion in San Francisco, will tell you is the best part.) And in a whole duck probably about four servings, max. Pumping its value to the maximum, I’ll be cooking the carcass up in a duck soup this weekend.

Of course the global beauty of my Chinatown digs this past week — the snow is gently falling outside the window to the courtyard as I write, set off by the neighbor building’s tenement brown brick — is the seat they’ve provided in the LES and Soho (a stone’s throw away) neighborhoods, which, despite the boutiques which have replaced the galleries in the latter and the leather jacket stores which have supplanted the Hester Street pushcarts in the former, still retain some of the eternal New York character, inherent in the architecture and the denizens (or as Damon Runyon would say, ‘citizens’) who pass under and between the buildings and who are perhaps inspired by the shadows of their not-so-forgotten ancestors. Is it also fueled by life on the edge, the element of danger lubricating one’s joie de vivre? Perhaps. The other day on Lafayette (I am here!) below Houston (hint to newbies: HOW-ston), in one block I was hit by both the beauty and the terror. In the middle of the block a blonde woman in sweats and tennies was fervently telling a tall worried man with curly brown hair, “This is for all the women murdered in New York.” A few yards further, before I could even take a look at her face, a woman walked past me who could have stepped straight out of a ’30s glamour magazine, everything from her smart felt hat to her long brown coat denoting style. Me, I’ll have one more stylin’ lunch in Chinatown and the LES before heading up to the theoretically more staid digs I’ve now scored on the Upper West Side off Broadway, plopping down on a bench in the middle of a bank of snow, propping my French boots (no Doc Martens this time) up on the concrete barrier between the benches and the basketball court across from her café and chowing down on my first cold sesame noodles of the season, a $3 feast courtesy of Vanessa’s. Bon appetit!

*For the non-New Yorkers among my readers, this title refers to the Tama Janowitz novel, itself encapsulating a particular NY phenomenon. I interviewed Janowitz in Princeton in 1987.

Kisling to Man Ray as Met takes the relay

LT1997.31As part of the exhibition Photography’s Last Century: The Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection, in principle running through June 28, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, New York, it’s still a helluva town is presenting: Man Ray (American, 1890–1976), “Nude,” ca. 1930. Gelatin silver print. We like the photo because it suggests the inspiration of this painting by Man Ray’s fellow Montparnassian Moshe Kisling. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, promised gift of Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee, in celebration of the Museum’s 150th Anniversary.  © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris. Image © the Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Eugenia Burnett Tinsley and Juan Trujillo.

Lutèce Diary / A post-modern American in Paris, 40: The Gift (Le Cadeau) or, Pour en finir avec le Céline-o-mania

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Translations by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

A Sidney, pour les soins….et a Lewis, Jamie, Martin, et tout mes péres, qui rien n’avais obligé d’y etre mais qui se sont comporté comme tel. /To Sidney, for the care…. and to Lewis, Jamie, Martin, and all my fathers who nothing obligated to be but who comported themselves as such.

Prelude: Poete surrealiste chretienne morte a Drancy, car née Juif

“Love thy neighbor”

Who noticed the toad cross the street? He was just a little man — a doll would not have been more miniscule. He dragged himself along on his knees — as if he were ashamed….? No! He has rheumatism, one leg remains behind, he drags it forward! Where is he going like that? He comes out of the sewer, the poor clown. No one has noticed this toad in the street. Before no one noticed me in the street, now children make fun of my yellow star. Happy toad! You don’t have a yellow star.” (Voir dessous pour le V.O. / See below for the original French version.)

— Max Jacob, Surrealist poet, comrade of Cocteau, Apollinaire, and Picasso, arrested by the Gestapo on February 24, 1944, in the Brittany village of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire. In a note hastily scribbled on the train to the Orleans prison, Jacob, who since converting to Christianity before the first World War liked to write personalized proselytizing homilies for his colleagues and whose poetry was suffused with devotional tributes to Christ, wrote: “Dear Monsieur le Cure, Excuse this letter from a drowning man written with the complaisance of the gendarmes. I wanted to tell you that I’ll soon be in Drancy. I have conversions in process. I have confidence in God and in my friends. I thank Him for the martyrdom which now begins.” On March 5, Jacob succumbed to pneumonia at the Drancy way station outside Paris before he could be deported — or confessed. At Drancy, there were no priests. (Poem collected in “Max Jacob,” edited by Andre Billy, published by and copyright Editions Pierre Seghers, Lyon, February 15, 1946. Letter cited by Billy in “The death of Max Jacob,” Le Figaro, September 9, 1945.)

1932: The Semence

Paris, the Grands Boulevards, a winter evening in 1916. The young conscript, on furlough from the hospital where doctors are trying to determine if he’s crazy or just doesn’t want to return to the trenches of a crazy war, enters the Olympia nightclub and observes, as recounted by Louis-Ferdinand Céline in his 1932 “Voyage au bout de la nuit,” still considered by the French and American literary establishments to be the author’s safe, non-Anti-Semitic book (shortly after publication, it was translated into Russian by the French Communist super-star couple Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet; New Directions still proudly hawks the English translation):

“Already in wartime our morose peace was sowing its seeds…. We could imagine what it would become, this hysteria, just from seeing it already agitating in the Olympia tavern. Below in the narrow, shady dancing cave with its 100 mirrors, It pawed the dust in the great desperation of the Négro-Judéo-Saxonne music. Brits and Blacks all mingling together. Levantines and Russians. They were everywhere, smoking, brawling, sad sacks and soldiers, crammed onto crimson sofas. These uniforms, which we barely remember anymore, would sow the seeds of today, this Thing which continues to germinate and would become a dung-hill a little later, with time.” (Translated by PB-I.)

1940-45: The Harvest

Some 13 years after Louis-Ferdinand Céline thus fulminated (the parallels between his own trajectory and that of his first-person hero, “Ferdinand,” make the defense that an author doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the opinions of his personage dubious), the ‘semence’ he (and his publishers, including Gallimard) helped sow (in ‘Voyage’ and three pamphlets taxed as being anti-Semitic, although the Judeophobic grotesque Céline paints of himself and of the anti-Semitic rationale in general in the 1937 “Bagatelles for a massacre,” in which he also wrote: “In the leg of a dancer the world, its waves, all its rhythms, its follies, its views are inscribed…. The most nuanced poem in the world!,” the ‘bagatelles’ being ballets without music, makes that epithet problematic here) by furnishing civilized literary cover for his countrymen who would collaborate with the German occupiers in the Deportation of 76,000 of their Jewish neighbors, including 11,000 children, only 3,000 of whom would return from the death camps — Auschwitz was liberated 75 years ago this month — manifests its real-world toll on the sixth-floor balcony of a building on a corner of the rue Hauteville above the “Bonne Nouvelles” (Good News) Metro station, several blocks up the Grands-Boulevards from the Olympia, where a woman straddles the railing, distraught that the daughter arrested by a good French policeman after she was turned in by a good French neighbor has still not returned after the war, the room the woman has reserved for her child remaining vacant.

The precarious mental state of the woman had recently prompted her brother and his wife to return from the United States to France, where the wife will later give birth to three sons, the semence of a new generation of French Jews who have not lost hope in France. Two of the sons will grow up to become, respectively, a general practitioner and a dentist — my doctor and my dentist starting when I lived on the rue de Paradis up the street in the early 2000s — converting the apartment on whose balcony rail their aunt once teetered into a medical bureau, their offices separated by a waiting room decorated by posters of Satchmo blowing, Gabriel, blowing, his cheeks puffed up; Marilyn Monroe’s white skirt billowing from the gusts of wind rising out of a subway grating on location for “The Seven-Year Itch” to reveal her underwear; and Jean-Paul Belmondo ‘draguing’ the American Jean Seberg on the Champs as she hawks the New York Herald Tribune with its logo emblazoned across her chest in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” this last poster a nod to what I’d always understood as the doctors’ mixed Franco-American heritage, their mother being an American citizen…. For the complete article,  click here.

Remembering Robert Frank Remembering New York City 1950, City of Immigrants, City of Patriots

New York City, 1950sFrom the Arts Voyager Archives: Robert Frank, “New York City,,” 1950. Courtesy of the artist and Collection Fotostiftung Schweiz. Robert Frank died Monday at the age of 94.

The Lutèce Diaries, One: Paris, quelques choses que je sais sur elle (Paris, a few things I know about her)

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PARIS — The dirt-encrusted brown calves and bare feet slowly wriggling up out of the mound of aromatic detritus behind the green fences overlooking the debut of the Canal St.-Martin and the irritation in my throat suggested that if mayor Anne Hidalgo has good intentions, pollution and living conditions — at least for the poor and wretched in the latter case — may have deteriorated since my last sojourn here in 2016. N’empeche que there was still Sarah Bernhardt to welcome me at Austerlitz.

I first ‘met’ the Divine Sarah during the Met’s Belle Epoch exhibition in 1982, even if I didn’t know that the thin woman with the piercing eyes — enveloped in a fur scarf and a skin-tight velour dress, luxuriating on a velvet divan with a submissive but wary panther at her feet — who peered out with a come-hither look from the poster I’d procured was the greatest actress ever. Even if the image subsequently starred on all my walls, it wasn’t until I moved into a third-story walk-up on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village (next to Electric Lady, where Jimi Hendrix had reigned before Carly Simon recorded Anticipation and became my first crush with “You’re so Vain,” and around the corner from where Robert Joffrey bunked up with Gerard Arpino; Joffrey’s portrait was still visible in the window, and Arpino, already relocated with the ballet company to Chicago, had told me he would be “delighted, Darling” to discuss the possibility of my renting the pad) that I discovered the identify of my companion when I saw the same poster — from a painting by Bernhardt’s pal George Clarion — peering out from the cover of a paperback left in the tenants’ communal garbage area: A biography of Sarah Bernhardt by one of her theatrical descendants, the Broadway stalwart Cornelia Otis Skinner. Later I’d score a recording of Sarah from the soundtrack of a WW I propaganda film in which, after allowing, “Forgive them G-d, they know not what they do,” she viciously lashes out at the Germans, and still later happen upon an exhibition devoted to her relics at the Bibliotheque National’s musty quarters on the rue Richelieu, up the street from the Moliere fountain where a lion vainly spouts out undrinkable water. Finally, hurrying up the Boulevards La Chapelle, Rouchechouart, and Clichy towards the Montmartre Cemetery with an urgent need one Saturday morning in 2004, I’d spot a sign for a garage sale where I ultimately scored Bernhardt’s personal mirror, encadred by cherry wood with encrusted abalone shells no doubt fabricated in one of the ateliers along the rue St.-Honoré.

And there she was again Sunday night– the same exact image from the Clarion painting whose poster has accompanied me for 37 years (now so torn up I had to leave it at home for this last trip) — on a rotating pillar ad for the Paris Museums at the bottom of the ramp connecting the Austerlitz train station with the Metro. (The original is now at the Musée Petite Palais along the Seine.) As I was expecting a somewhat different reception (“I’m a New Yorker; fear’s my life” — Jonathan Larsen, “RENT”), it was a good omen.

But Paris is not only the heritage of Bernhardt and the redemptive elegance of a courtesan become deity, a life journey crowned by a funeral in which tens of thousands crushed together along the Grands Boulevards (streets memorialized by another French Jew, Camille Pissarro) to follow the 1923 procession from her theater on the Seine to an oblong tomb at Pere Lachaise (where a certain Ex-pat journalist would later be chastised by an ersatz tourist guide for nibbling his croissant on the rim while in deep conference with his most famous guardian angel — “In France, we don’t dine on graves”; never mind that the doyenne in question didn’t know Bernhardt from Bara, having just explained to her clients that the former had been a star of the silent screen). It is also the heritage of Zola, only instead of Gervaise — the tragic heroine of “L’Assommoir,” named after the homemade gin joint on the Boulevard La Chapelle that proves her downfall — curling up in the niche under a stairwell which is the only home she can still afford, making my walkabout du retour yesterday, from digs in le prè St.-Gervais to the Grands Boulevards, after turning onto the Canal St.-Martin off La Chapelle and turning my head towards a heap of reeking garbage sequestered behind a cluster of the still-omnipresent green construction fences I saw the garbage suddenly begin to move and wretch up the pair of squirming legs. A cursory examination indicated more living African bodies coming to life among the festering refuse. Sickened, I turned down the canal towards Le Valmy, the bar-resto that for years was my other shrine (this one of the living), where I was heartened to find Momo, my original bartender from 2001, still holding forth at the wine bistro next door. The last time I’d seen Momo was shortly after the November 13, 2015 terrorist massacre that took the lives of 130 people, many of them mowed down on the brasserie terraces where Momo reigned, a contemporary deity of Parisian life. Smoking a clope while looking out over the canal, he had been clearly distraught. “Des cons,” he pronounced, shaking his head before tossing the butt and returning to the bar. Missing him during my 2016 visit, I’d assumed he hadn’t had the courage to continue in the milieu, now wounded. So even if he has less hair and I have less teeth, I was delighted to find Momo back at his perch. When I asked him yesterday if things had calmed down since the attacks, he answered, finishing his spaghetti, “A bit,” only now there’s the troubles around the so-called yellow-vests and their clashes with already over-taxed police. (“Macron will never resign,” Momo told the barista he was dining with. “A president never resigns.”) If some of their claims are just, particularly those of the retired people like my neighbors in the Southwest of France who find it difficult to make ends meet on fixed incomes *not* indexed to inflation, I was reminded this morning, when the radio news reported that one of the movement’s more law-breaking inclined leaders is also the president of a car club vaunting ’80s models (French DJs are also inexorably hooked on the epoch’s top-10 music), that in the end for these self-proclaimed rebels whose cause has been fueled more by media hype than real popular numbers — their revolt has nothing to do with that espoused by Camus, even if the father of pro-active Existentialism did give personal names like “Desdemona” to his cars, as his recently-released letters to his lover the actress Maria Casarés reveal, and died in one — it’s all about retrograde resistance by worshippers at the shrine of the automobile to cleaning up the air before it’s too late. (The yellow vest in question is required wear for automobilists because it glows in the dark.) This is Anne Hidalgo’s fight and Emmanuel Macron’s fight — these are the luddites they’re up against — which is why I’m on their side. I just pray that the former succeeds in cleaning up the air of all of Paris — she’s noted that 45,000 die of pollution every year in France — and that Macron succeeds in fulfilling his promise that in France, no one, of any color, should be living on the streets. Or sleeping in garbage piles. Shortly after crossing the Peripherique from Pantin to Paris — my neck bundled up in three home-made scarves, my Paris hair-cut head covered in beret and sailor’s cap, and my gams retrieving their Saturday Night Fever stride (“You can tell by the way I move”), as I headed towards the cabinet of my dentist pledged to restore my teeth and smile before he heads off into the sunset (taking with him the poster of Belmondo courting Seberg on the Champs, a sign of the doctor’s Franco-American heritage), sequestered behind more green fences I came across a municipal employee sawing up Christmas trees so that they could be made into fertilizer, instead of just being discarded. Here’s hoping that the lost lives can be recycled too.

Judson & Johnston, together again, II: Reviving Amsterdam & Schneemann ‘Newspaper Event’ in New Amsterdam

momajudsonpapersFrom the exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done, running at the Museum of Modern Art through February 3: Al Giese’s photograph of Ruth Emerson in Carolee Schneemann’s “Newspaper Event,” 1963. Performed at Concert of Dance #3, Judson Memorial Church, New York, January 29, 1963. © Estate of Al Giese/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of Carolee Schneemann, Galerie Lelong & Co., and P•P•O•W, New York.

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston

(Today’s re-posting of this article — first published on the DI/AV in 2005 as the Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 1 — in conjunction with the Museum of Modern art exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done,  is sponsored by Slippery Rock Dance . Like what you’re reading? Please consider making a donation to the DI/AV today by designating your donation through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check.)

Once upon a few decades ago I wrote a column. A title for one could easily have been OLYMPIC GREASY WATERMELON — words I saw just last week, down the street on a T-shirt at my Crunch gym. The guy wearing it was at the counter where I show my plastic card to sign in. I used to think up zany titles for my columns, ones that might make you want to find out if they had any bearing on anything, thus read on. Since the column appeared in a newspaper I could be sure someone would see it. Here a click is involved. I’m trying to adjust. I adjust all the time, otherwise I’d be dead by now. I go to the gym for instance even though I can’t go places on their running and biking machines. I mingle with the biceps jocks in the pushing pulling and lifting areas. I never walked or ran or danced on my arms, which therefore don’t mind my trying to use them this way. Sometimes when I check in and a worker asks me if I want anything, like a towel, I say yeah two new legs. They smile agreeably, not collusively exactly, but patronizingly I suppose. When I was their age, God will know, I saw the likes of me as a species apart, arrived here perhaps from another planet fully formed in this steeped or percolated state. An important adjustment to make as you await new legs or launch a click column is to forget about saving the world, realizing you will only offend people. By world of course I mean self. I start every day at my c.s. or coffee shop, before going to work which entails returning home. I’ve called it Segafredo after the first name I gave it, before knowing that Segafredo is the coffee they make, not its real name. Lately I just say c.s. Practically the whole place is distressed — the walls, floor, ceiling, bathroom and my favorite table, a large round wooden leaning affair, its top thick as a butcher block, with half inch crevices unevenly crossing its scurfy surface. The bathroom is masterfully small and has a nice mirror if you can get far enough away from it to appreciate your dubious morning visage. The front end of the toilet lid is all of six inches from the wall it faces — a hastily hammered raggedy-edged vertical stretch of graffiti-decorated plaster board. The friends I make at the c.s. are a bit like those you meet on shipboard or airplane. You may see them there repeatedly but not anyplace else. If you leave the c.s. with one of them you are probably in trouble. Not that you can’t get in trouble inside too. I made a big adjustment when I started hiding more or less at the back, in relative darkness, at the large leaning wooden table, next to the kitchen, armed with my newspaper, papers in general, my journal and book du jour. Just last week, opting to sit at one of the two small round window tables up front, I had an adventure. Two points of interest suddenly converged — a striking lady of years sitting at another table, and an arresting quote in my biography of T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence is my latest love. I fall in love with dead people — as who does not. It isn’t just my percolated state. And I still have arms for embracing the living. I should have used them, strengthened by Crunch machines and all, to embrace Bertha Harris before she died last month. I may have been making up for it at the c.s. by approaching this beautiful picture of decrepitude, a lady of surely eighty plus, stark white hair straggling to shoulders, a vase of flowers at one elbow, a bleached face, a look pensive and defeated, with my quote by T.E. Lawrence. I had just excitedly come across it. Having adjusted to an unexciting life, this wasn’t easy to handle. I almost ran the four yards to her table. A little earlier I had introduced myself by way of passing her and commenting on her pretty vase of flowers, which came, she remarked impassively, from a friend’s garden. Now, breathless after four yards, I laid my book in front of her, open to the page with the quote. She read it and said she wanted to copy it. I gave her my pen and she found a piece of paper in her bag. The quote goes: After 70 an unearthly richness attacks most of our elders and they become wells of satisfaction to me. Only then one gets to like them too much and away they go and die. After that great deed I finished reading my book and went to work. I have something new at home — a giant pot housing my avocado plant. The pot blocks out one third of the light from one of our two tallish windows facing south. By “our” I mean myself and Ingrid, who set up this space for a click column. She designed the whole website . My son Richard did the technology. On Ingrid’s part, it’s a conspiracy of sorts. Back in 1969 long before we met she saw one of my columns on an Amsterdam newsstand. By 1980 when we got together I was no longer writing them and between then and now I have written books and sundry articles in many publications. Now, as it seems, Ingrid has revived Amsterdam, and resurrected the reason she wanted to know me. I’m a very obliging person, during the day at least, full of eagerness to adjust. At night I’m focused on nothing more or better than begging every power in creation to help me sleep. When I get up I celebrate survival with agreement. I haven’t entirely adjusted to my new pot, which my daughter Winnie brought here one day with her son my grandson Ben, creating an astonishing replanting scene involving hacking apart the old pot long cracked down one whole side of it anyway and banging in a board to extend the window shelf. Wrapping up this column replanting, I have more watermelon news: Those three words, OLYMPIC GREASY WATERMELON, seen on a T-shirt at Crunch, describe a game played by Olympic hopefuls or Crunch trainers involving two teams standing at pool’s edge poised for a greasy watermelon to be thrown into the water whereupon they all dive in and grapple to secure this dirigible fruit and bear it off to the opposite team’s goal. That was a good day at the gym. I might forget sometimes to set a pile of blocks at my grand weight of 15 pounds and start pulling on the cords. One day the cords wouldn’t budge. I thought the mechanism was broken or something, and consulted a biceps jock standing nearby. He said it was set at 100 pounds! At the c.s., I have had worse moments but the other day, working at the back next to the kitchen I was in for a pleasant surprise. A woman with upswept white hair approached me on her way to the bathroom. She was wearing a copious long white like peasant dress, dotted all over with appliquéd flowers. I didn’t recognize her until she said she wanted to thank me for that quote. She was the quote lady! Today she was smiling, and she inquired animatedly, “How did you know I was over 70?” Making me sort of gape. “How old are you in fact?” I asked her. And she came up with 71! But really even smiling and wearing a cheerful dress she couldn’t be a day under 80. She wandered off murmuring over the quote, the “wording of it…so unusual.” The word “attacks” struck her fancy the most. “At 70 an unearthly richness attacks our elders.” I wish I could tell Lawrence. He was still alive when I was born. I’m clicking away. It’s a new age, heading for the open seize, in publishing.

©Jill Johnston 2005. Originally published on www.jilljohnston.com ; first published on the DI/AV in 2005 as Volume 1, Number 1 of the Jill Johnston Letter.

June 11, 1998: Birth of a dance magazine

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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”

— Margaret Mead, cited on the back cover of Issue #1 of The Dance Insider, Summer 1998

“Dance writing shouldn’t hide backstage, but should join in the wider cultural critical dialogue.”

— Dancer Z, inaugural issue, The Dance Insider

Please help us celebrate our 20th anniversary by subscribing to the DI today, for just $29.95 / year, or making a donation. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check. Subscribers get access to our DI Archives of more than 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 writers of performances, films, art exhibitions and more from five continents, as well as our five-year Jill Johnston and extensive Martha Graham archives, plus new articles. Subscribe by June 24 and receive a free photo ad.

On June 11, 1998, in SoHo, New York City, a new dance magazine was born, printed on 100% recycled paper paid for by the Eddy Foundation: The Dance Insider, with founding editor Veronica Dittman, founding publisher Paul Ben-Itzak, and a stable of professional dancers, journalists, and photographers, notably Jamie Phillips and Robin Hoffman. Features editor Rebecca Stenn provided the model of the dancer-writer and choreographer-educator Sara Hook the brain trust. Eileen Darby eventually became our senior advisor. Officially launched later that month at (and graciously hosted by) the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina, the issue featured original cover and back cover photography by Phillips of Pilobolus Dance Theater performers Rebecca Anderson, Mark Santillano, and Gaspard Louis. (The Pilobolus connection having been secured by Pils alumna Rebecca Jung.) Our mission (besides going where no dance magazine had gone before):  To give a voice to dancers, to tell stories not told elsewhere, and to build the dance audience. The content included:

** Insider Picks of upcoming performances by the Hamburg Ballet, whose artistic director, John Neumeier, confided in the DI, “The most successful ballets, if they are stories…, are stories we cannot retell — just as it is very difficult to tell what you dreamt last night”; ODC / San Francisco; and, at Jacob’s Pillow and the ADF, respectively, Joanna Haigood and David Grenke, the latter of whom explained to the DI: “All of this stuff comes out of my body, and then it’s a matter of having it make sense to other people.”

** An Insider Forum in which Joffrey Ballet star and choreographer Christian Holder, American Ballet Theatre principal Ethan Stiefel, Joffrey alumna Hoffman (at the time in-house notator with the Paul Taylor Dance Company), Ben-Itzak, and moderator Veronica Dittman debated the question: “Is ballet irrelevant?” The article also featured interviews with Lines Contemporary Ballet director Alonzo King and Kennedy Center president Lawrence J. Wilker, and was illustrated with photography by Marty Sohl and Weiferd Watts.

** Insider News, illustrated with photography by Roy Volkmann of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company’s Mucuy Bolles and Don Bellamy, on personnel changes, promotions, guest appearances, and upcoming performances by the Ailey, Dallas Black Dance Theater, Mark Dendy, the Frankfurt Ballet, and Hamburg Ballet, plus labor strife at the Martha Graham Dance Company. Contributors to the section included recently retired Ailey star Elizabeth Roxas, the DI’s modern dance editor.

** “Fear and loathing with the fungus,” PBI’s inside report from Washington Depot, Connecticut, on the creation of Pilobolus’s collaboration with laureated jazz composer and big band leader Maria Schneider, who told the DI after one session with the dancers and the choreographic triumvirate of Robby Barnett, Jonathan Wolken, and Michael Tracy, “You get the feeling they all want something different….” The article was accompanied by a Pilobolus lexicon, more photography from Philips featuring Anderson, Louis, Santillano, and Trebien Pollard, and a first-hand report from an audition for Momix, the company of Pilobolus co-founder Moses Pendleton.

** An interview with Donald McKayle on the occasion of his 50th year in dance, illustrated with a photograph of McKayle and Carmen De Lavallade performing the former’s “Rainbow ‘Round my Shoulder” provided by fabled archivist Joe Nash and ADF. “When you find the linkage between dance and story,” McKayle told the DI, “you have found something very rich.” The article offered an exclusive excerpt of McKayle’s upcoming autobiography.

** “Inside Presenting,” sub-titled, “From the cradle to the grave, new ways to build your audience,” and featuring interviews with Wilker, ODC co-director KT Nelson, Pacific Northwest Ballet co-founder Francia Russell, Walker Art Center director Philip Bither, and many others, and illustrated with Keith Haring’s body painting of Bill T. Jones. The article was accompanied by a side-bar by Stenn recounting her experience performing for and teaching children on behalf of Pilobolus.

** A farewell to San Francisco Ballet diva Evelyn Cisneros, with a review by Aimee Ts’ao of Cisneros’s swan song and a tribute by Cisneros’s colleague (and DI education editor) Edward Ellison.

** An exclusive interview with flamenco legend Lola Greco on her controversial departure from the National Ballet of Spain.

** Dittman’s unique perspective on a performance by American Ballet Theater: “It is truly heartening to be reminded that there is still plenty in the world of dance, where lately I’ve seen only paucity.” (Harald Landers’s “Etudes” did not fare so well.)

** The DI’s inaugural issue terminated with a manifesto from “Dancer Z,” the nom de plum of a busy NYC modern dancer. Analyzing the current critical landscape, Dancer Z wrote: “The mere reportage of events which comprises most dance reviews seems directed towards the audience member who fell asleep and missed what happened on the stage, or for the viewer who seeks a poetic recapitulation.” Dancer Z terminated with an appeal and formula which the DI would adopt a year later when it began publishing online Flash Reviews of performances, most written by active dance artists:

“I want opinions, I want comparisons, I want meaning. Dance needs to be talked about not only in the context of its own history and trends, but in conjunction with trends in other art forms. I would like to read reviews which attempt to identify dance’s place in the constellation of ideological, economic, social, and aesthetic influences involved in its creation. Dance writing shouldn’t hide backstage, but should join in the wider cultural critical dialogue.

“I want to feel that writers are not only watching dance, but are asking the questions which need to be asked, drawing the parallels that need to be drawn, and fueling the wheel that struggles always to turn. In providing the push, the next challenge, or simply the truth, dance writers can be more involved in gathering and preparing the audiences of the future. Through writing which looks at dance in a larger context and acknowledges it as a citizen of the world capable of the responsibility which that invovles, dance can find the bridge to understanding itself and making itself understood, a connection imperative to its growth and ultimately, its survival.”

In other words, as Skoop Nisgar said: If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.

Which the DI did.

Your turn.

— Paul Ben-Itzak

DI subscribers who would like to receive text versions of any of the above stories from the DI’s inaugural Summer 1998 print issue, please e-mail DI publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com . DI subscribers also receive access to the DI’s 20-year archives of more than 2,000 exclusive articles by 150 writers related to performances, films, and exhibitions on five continents. Not yet a subscriber? To subscribe, for just $29.95/year individuals or $49.95 institutions, 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 or in Euros .

Back to the Future: How to access stories on the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager

Returning to its roots as a Direct E-mail List — as the most effective, efficient way to serve our subscribers, writers, advertisers, and readers — the DI will heretofore make all new content, as well as reprints from our 20-year archive of more than 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 writers of performances on five continents, plus news, commentary, art, and the Jill Johnston Archive, available strictly by e-mail. To subscribe to the DI and access both this new content and archived stories, for just $29.95/year individuals or $49.95 institutions, 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 or in Euros. (In the latter case, the payments will be directed to our European correspondents.) You can also contact us at that address to find out about limited, well-integrated e-mail advertising options.

Warhol Chelsea Girls (& Guys) @ MoMA

moma andy afternoon smallIn the fall of 1966, “The Chelsea Girls,” Andy Warhol’s double-screen endeavor, began its journey from downtown marvel to uptown hit. To celebrate the new book “Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls” and the ongoing Warhol film digitalization project, the Warhol Museum and the Museum of Modern Art are presenting the premiere of a new high-quality digital scan of the film. Running May 4 through May 13 at MoMa, the Chelsea Girls Exploded also features related films and never-before-seen material shot by Warhol to create his epic of the New York underground scene. Above: Andy Warhol, “Afternoon,” 1966. Pictured: Donald Lyons, Dorothy Dean, Edie Sedgwick, Ondine, Arthur Loeb. [MOM 15170 frame-055327] Copyright 2018 the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of the Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved. Film still courtesy the Andy Warhol Museum.