by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak
(An earlier version of this article was published on ExploreDance.)
PARIS — If it’s relatively easy to find reasonably priced biographies of French artists in the bookstalls that line the Seine, it’s harder to find chronicles as interested in the artistic legacies of their subjects as they are in artfully recreating the more superficial aspects of their personal lives. A biography I found of Suzanne Valadon, the one-time Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir model who became a painter in her own right, developing a uniquely personal and natural, thick-lined and sensuous style, turned out to be less a serious study of her life and work and their originality than a fanciful re-imagining of the colorful conversations she must have had with her son, the painter Maurice Utrillo, and her companion/his friend Felix Utter. Another on Marie Laurencin — a member of the pre-WWI circle of Picasso, Apollinaire, and Rousseau, and a sometimes designer for dance, notably Nijinska’s “Les Biches” — spent more time on Laurencin’s relations with the author’s mother than analyzing the creative force behind her willowy, dreamy portraits and the impact they produced. Jane Avril, by contrast — you know her as the svelte long-legged redheaded dancer immortalized by Toulouse Lautrec — lucked out in landing François Caradec, a giant of the French literary scene and the author of “Jane Avril,” to pen her story. (Published by Fayard in 2001 with the price of 18.75 Euros; Caradec passed away in 2008.)
Caradec, a leading member of the Pataphysics Club co-founded by Boris Vian and Jacques Prevert, was a tireless bibliophile, and this passion served him well in reconstructing the life of this seminal thinking-dancer’s dancer, so that the portrait that emerges comes not from an imaginative 20th-century novelist but from scribes of Avril’s epoch who had the good fortune to see her, and who returned the favor with detailed, inspired accounts of her dancing, that of an autodidact as adept at the can-can as at improvising to her own inner music.
Here’s Francis Jourdain, quoted by Caradec from his memoir “Born in ’76,” comparing the relative merits of Avril (nick-named ‘la Melinite,’ after the explosive) and other members of the famous Moulin Rouge can-can troupe, notably the more earthy and raw “la Gouloue”:
“One must admit that la Gouloue was not particularly distinguished. She was not the same as Jane Avril — la Melinite — of the strange and aristocratic pale visage, the intelligent eye, at times nuanced with sadness, the spiritual legs that enchanted Lautrec….
“Confusing la Mome Fromage (roughly translated, “the darling cheese”; sounds better in French) and her colleagues with Jane Avril would be like — without meaning to offend anyone — mixing napkins with dish-towels. I wouldn’t dream of reproaching old gentlemen for the pleasure that they take in perceiving, between the drawers and stockings of la Gouloue, a bit of naked flesh, but the agreeableness that the art of Jane Avril procures us is of a rarer quality…. The queens of the quadrille leap about; Jane Avril dances. In her lives this instinctive grace in which the dance loses its abstract character and becomes a language, ceases to be a purely decorative art and takes on a human accent; the arabesque traced in space by an inspired leg is no longer a vain sign, it’s writing. La Melinite expresses herself with her legs; Lautrec is not wrong.”
And this, from Gabriel Astruc:
“Strange sylphide, always solitaire, a sort of wader who remains in equilibrium on one leg and balances the other like an isolated part of her body…”
And a commentary from Raoul Ponchon, on the first time he caught Jane Avril at the Moulin Rouge, which might be describing a modern dancer today. Not enchanted at all by the can-can, sitting before a glass of something he can’t identify, Ponchon was about to flee it “like the plague” when…. (My rough translation sacrifices the rhyming of the original.)
“I was solicited by a petit, frail being,
Gracious and childlike,
Who responds when one calls her
To the name Jane Avril.
She dances all alone
Without having to worry about a partner
Not that she’s prudish,
Certain people who know her tell me.
She dances alone because
It pleases her to do so
And because she finds it more entertaining.
She’s right, I as well.
She slides, dainty,
Supple between narrow rows
Without ever inconveniencing anyone
And without ever saying: Enough.
Certainly, her dance
Is not that which we see
At presidential balls….
Nor is it this infamy
Of dance that one
Learns at the Academy
She knows much much more.
She dances like one dances
At the Moulin Rouge, mon Dieu…
But with what elegance!
She’s anything but cheap!
She is total charm, harmony
She’s the sole, in my opinion,
Saltatrice (Latin for dancer) of genius
That I’ve seen.
She is at the same time mischievous
And melancholy. She has
As rules only her own caprices.
And voila, art.
To any old music
She improvises steps;
Rhythms the least classic
Don’t disconcert her.
She dances, I think,
Also, a thousand times in 10,000,
To the strains of ‘Queen Hortense,’
or of ‘De Profundis.’
… She dances like… one drinks.
…She makes you think
That her only purpose on Earth
is to dance.”
These literary portraits — this is just a sampling — are fleshed out with a generous selection of (black and white) images, including not just the expected Toulouse-Lautrec reproductions, such as the famous poster of Avril at the Divan Japonais with a leering older gentleman (Edouard Dujardin) at her elbow, but journal and book illustrations by Steinlen (famous for his cat drawings) and others, the photograph of the troupe of Mlle Eglantine on which Toulouse-Lautrec based his familiar poster, the program for a 1939 gala benefit in her honor, and a photograph of Avril kicking her leg up in 1935.
Caradec certainly touches the essential and piquant aspects of Avril’s biography — her crazy mother, teen years in the famous Salpêtrière, then a renowned psychiatric center (for young and sometimes frail Jane, it was just a medical refuge), shacking up with a poet near the Luxembourg Gardens until she decided her independence was more important, and her death at the age of 76 on January 17, 1943, in Occupied Paris.
“She could hardly breathe,” Caradec writes of the dancer’s final hours, “but she thought of her will and murmured, ‘The papers, the papers, I must sign them.’ She asked for something to write on, a morsel of paper on which she wrote in crayon: ‘I suffer the martyr’ and ‘I hate Hitler.'”
“At the end of her ‘Memoirs’ (published in the newspaper Paris-Midi in 1933), Avril wrote:
‘If, in the other world, there exist “dancings,” it’s not impossible that I will be convoked to perform the Dance macabre!'”
Like that of Marie Taglioni, Jane Avril’s name is not on the map of famous people buried at the famous Paris cemetery Pere Lachaise, but for those who wish to pay homage to her at her tomb, Caradec notes that she’s buried at the beginning of the 19th division, second line, fourth plot of the 26th section. (Where, at night, some swear one can discern les feux follets en train de danser une can-can.)