Jane Avril by F. Caradec: More than just a pair of legs on a Toulouse-Lautrec poster

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.)

(Updated noon French time) Paris année zero: Keeping our word — A program of solidarity for our times

by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota
Artistic director, Theatre de la Ville, Paris
Translation and Introduction by Paul Ben-Itzak

(Translator/editor’s note: While the Theatre de la Ville furnished the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager with a copy of Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota’s statement in the original French, what follows is a journalistic, and not official, translation, as the English text was not coordinated with the Theatre de la Ville. Demarcy-Mota’s stance here is striking in both a global and historic context. In the first realm, whereas “Dance NYC,” which should get the Bessie award for “Least Effective and Most Out of Touch Arts Lobbying Organization in the United States,” is now making the ludicrous claim that “dancers are necessary workers,” putting them on the same level, essential worker-wise, as health and food workers (exactly the kind of insulated naval-gazing thinking that makes dance be treated less serioiusly in the U.S. than in Europe), EDM has a more global, less self-interested, au-dela de sa propre nombril perspective. And in the historic context, and given that French president Emmanuel Macron has likened the battle against the pandemic to “a war,” it’s no accident that Sarah Bernhardt, in whose former stomping-ground the Theater de la Ville EDM directs is based, turned her own lavish home into a MASH unit during the Prussian siege of Paris of 1870 — herself volunteering as a nurse.)

Five propositions imagined with an ensemble of players from the domains of Health, Culture, Education, and Justice.

Four temporalities whose rhythm has been determined by the epidemic: the confinement, the deconfinement, the coming season and the Day After. Four pillars to put in place: Culture, Health, Education, Justice.

Health has been our absolute priority these past few months. Culture is our absolute priority at this moment that we emerge from confinement.

Our country, certainly attenuated but profoundly modified, has a strong desire to reconstruct itself with a view to creating a different kind of world where the idea of solidarity is at the heart of the debate.

In order for our society to recover its strength, we would like to propose a new model able to bring together the arts, science, and education with, as its corner-stone, the union between health and culture.

We wanted to bring together an ensemble of allies from the fields of health, justice, education, and the arts to create a new space for dialogue and coordinate new actions.

Together we are founding “Tenir Parole” (Keeping our Word), a new alliance of leaders from different realms who share a common desire to stimulate and propel a new approach to imagination.

We will strive for the emergence of new forms of solidarity in relying on our capacity to think together. We will work against frontiers, whether they be of the physical or mental variety or between disciplines or human beings.

We will create a proximity and an amity to traverse this unprecedented period of history together.

“Tenir parole” (Keeping our Word) is a way to infuse power in the imagination, to incarnate a convergence of visions, to stimulate the manifestation of life and give hope.

Rather than allow an uncertain present to be imposed upon us, we want to invent desirable tomorrows. Thus, at the end of this tempest, if we’ve “kept our word,” we will have learned, reflected, exchanged, and created.

One Calendar, Five propositions

The Troupe of the Imaginary

Created during the confinement and engaged amidst poetic and scientific consultations, the troupe brings together at this stage more than 50 people from various horizons: the actors of the Theatre de la Ville troupe, joined by young Italian, Senegalese, Egyptian, Cameroonian, Central-African, Congolese, Taiwanese, and French actors, as well as by scientists associated with the project: the neurosurgeons Carine Karachi and Hayat Belait; the neurology professor David Grabli; biologist Marie-Christine Maurel; biologist and philosopher Georges Chapouthier; physician Kamil Fadel; architect Denis Laming; and astrophysicist Jean Audouze.

Together, we have developed, in order to be able to act from the moment confinement began (March 15 in France), invent alternative ways of creating, maintain a link with the population and combat individual isolation, “poetic and scientific consultations by telephone,” which have already reached nearly 5,000 people across France and beyond.

The consultations have been offered in 15 languages: Seven European languages (French, Greek, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and German), six languages spoken on the African continent (Wolof, Beti, Lingala, Sango, Congo, and Pidgin) and also in Arab and Mandarin.  “The troupe of the Imaginary” will develop new actions and continue its consultations in the months to come.

Dancers, musicians, and historians, partnering with the Rectorate of Paris, are joining this team beginning May 18 to suggest new forms of consultations.

The European Encounters of May-June

Meetings will be held starting the week of May 18. In rapport with the evolution of the deconfinement, they can be held by distance and bring together the world of culture — public and private — as well as those of health, justice, and education.

The emergence from confinement as a moment to learn together is the occasion to create bridges, to propose a new model which brings people together to co-construct perspectives on a common future. Because ignorance is also a form of confinement and it is through knowledge that we must find the emergency exit that will enable us to escape from asphyxia.

At the hour when we must all construct the 2020s, let us make our theaters the place for a community gathering, the reflection of our social commitments and of our will for esperance. Let us build a new Europe, a Europe of culture but also of sciences, of the environment and of young people.

Open-air artistic propositions beginning in June

The cultural world must now support the care-givers, the care-receivers, the confined. This is the moment to experiment, test, invent.

We will be allying ourselves with the doctors of the Salpêtrière Hospital and with the Rectorate of the City of Paris to initiate the first experiments, artistic manifestations to be held outdoors and in different spaces around Paris. Performances, readings, concerts, testimonials by the caregivers, actions for the sick, film screenings and art installations will be proposed in unexpected places: from the gardens of the Champs-Élysées to those of the Salpêtrière, not forgetting the parks, retirement homes, elementary schools, and high-school courtyards.

These propositions must be geared towards the population in its entirety and inscribe themselves in the continuity of our art education programs and of our commitment to re-inventing a place for the arts in schools.

“The troupe of the Imaginary,” with the ensemble of 50 actors, scientists, dancers, and musicians who constitute it will be fully mobilized from the end of May and throughout the Summer.

The Academy of Health and Culture

In connection with the program “Charter 18XX1 – Turning 18 in the 21st Century,” a new academy centering on health and culture will be launched to work with young people and recreate ties with the experienced of the older members of our society. Encounters around art and science will take place during the month of August, and can be open to the public.

For the first time in its history, the Theatre de la Ville’s spaces will be open all Summer:

* At l’Espace Cardin, in partnership with the doctors of Salpêtrière Hospital, young artists and young care-givers will work to elaborate projects which can be prolonged this fall on themes linked notably to movement: “Normality and abnormality,” “Liberty of movement, Liberty of thought.”

* At the Theatre des Abbesses [in Montmartre] ateliers on the practice of dance and theater will be offered, free and open to the public of all ages. This new project is inscribed in a partnership with the city of Paris and can include European partners, to trace new perspectives together and share our desire for a theater without borders.

* A 2020/21 season of solidarity and re-invention: Today, we need to deconstruct our seasons to be able to reconstruct them in another fashion, in imagining many potential scenarios. Together, we are ready to adapt, to re-invent, to re-assess our different propositions to amplify the occasions for solidarity with the artists, the health milieu, the worlds of education and justice and also our European and African friends and partners.

Three scenarios:

* Scenario #1 incorporates the obligation for physical social distancing as health regulations evolve, leading us to drastically reduce our capacity to accommodate the public in our theaters.

* Scenario #2 adds to this the absence of all international theater, dance, and music companies outside Europe, the frontiers outside the European member states remaining closed.

* Scenario #3 includes the absence of European as well as extra-European companies, who combined represent more than 50% of the planned programming at the Theatre de la Ville and the city-wide Festival D’Automne between this September and December. Under this scenario, we will only be able to welcome companies situated on the national territory.

Whichever scenario comes to pass, nothing will be, nothing can be, like before. So why not transform these obstacles into a new challenge? After months of strict confinement, we now need to push back the walls, quench our thirst for creation, for bodies and movements, for encounters with the population. We will mobilize artists and those from other disciplines to invent innovative propositions which rely on our capacity to imagine together. Next season we will go into the hospitals, the elementary and middle schools, the high schools, the parks and the gardens, the stadiums if need be.

In the theaters, we will invent unprecedented subterfuges, adapted parcourses and real artistic propositions in dance, in music, and in theater which turn sanitary restrictions into the stipulations for a new imaginary, and we will find the pathways to economic viability. If the virus has felled a number of our fellow citizens, we will take back the edge on the terrains of the imagination and of thought, of sharing and of solidarity.

The Day After

If we have collectively been able to invent new spaces and new forms, to experiment with new ways of being and making, to create dialogues between the ensemble of the arts, the sciences, and different domains of thought and of the economy, we would now attempt to erect new foundations for the future.

It is the moment to consider that this epidemic is also a factor in the acceleration of our choices and of our commitments. Today, we must imagine a Day After which will be comprised of a new reflection on a planet that will be durable and solidary. Today, we need to keep our word.

Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota
May 13, 2020
Paris

We would like to extend our thanks to all those who have committed themselves with us and to those who will do so in the future.

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Dance Insider/Arts Voyager/Paris Tribune / Maison de Traduction new content now available exclusively to paid subscribers

Starting today and in part in order to cover increased expenses and allow for increased risk under current conditions, all new articles, literary translations, and art on the Dance Insider, Arts Voyager, Maison de Traduction , and  Paris Tribune will be available exclusively by paid subscriptions, either via password-only access on the magazines or lavishly illustrated PDF articles e-mailed directly to subscribers. These articles will include the message of our Principal Sponsors, Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock University Dance. Limited, low-cost, content-related text with link ads will also be available. Subscriptions are $59 / year, or less than $5 / month. Subscriptions for working dancers, students, and the unemployed are $44/year. You can subscribe by designating your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check sent through the mail.

Ephemeral & Eternal: Helen Levitt’s “Chalk Drawing” at the Met Museum of Art

LT1996.04As 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: Helen Levitt (American, 1913–2009), “Chalk drawing,” New York, ca. 1940. Gelatin silver print. 7 1/8 × 11 3/8 in. (18.2 × 28.8 cm), Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection. © Helen Levitt Film Documents LLC. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Thomas Zander Gallery Image. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Eugenia Burnett Tinsley and Juan Trujillo.

A suicide

by Émile Zola
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

In the Spring of 1866, the Paris newspaper L’Evenement commissioned a 26-year-old author, Émile Zola — whose first novel, “The Diary of Claude,” had been published the previous fall — to review that year’s Salon, later to become infamous for the number of influential painters, notably Zola’s chou-chou Edouard Manet, to have work refused. Zola — also close to Paul Cezanne, with whom he’d grown up in Aix-en-Provence — had several axes to grind; his first review would take on the Salon jury by name, reviewing their individual qualifications (and work). By number seven, the public had had enough of this upstart who not only attacked institutional art but rejected established critical norms; the newspaper’s editor, Monsieur Villemessant, ceded to the threats of cancelled subscriptions and other insults and aborted Zola’s assignment. (As detailed by Henri Mitterand in “Zola, Journaliste.”) As a sort of prelude to his reviews — which he’d initially planned to pen under the pseudonym of “Claude” — Zola sent Villemessant and his readers the following account of the suicide of the painter Jalos Holtzhpapfel, after he was rejected by the Salon.* (Zola was not finished with either “Claude,” painters, or artist suicides; the doomed hero of his 1886 novel “L’oeuvre,” loosely inspired by the early critical fates, if not the styles, of Manet, Claude Monet, and Cezanne, would be named Claude Lantier.) To read more of Zola on art, click here. Have a document that needs translating? Contact Paul Ben-Itzak at artsvoyager@gmail.com by pasting that address into your e-mail program. And at the same address to learn more about Paul’s collaborative “Suicide Artists” project.)

April 19, 1866

“You have charged me, my dear Monsieur Villemessant, with talking about our artists to L’Evenement’s readers, a-propros of this year’s Salon. It’s a heavy task which I have nonetheless accepted with joy. I will doubtlessly displease many people, decided as I am to recount many horrible truths, but I take an intimate pleasure in unburdening my heart of all the gripes accumulated over the years.

“You have assured me: ‘Make like chez vous.’ I will thus speak without mincing any words, as a veritable authority. I count on sending you, before the opening of the Salon in several days, an outline of my over-riding credo as well as a rapid study of the artistic moment we are currently living.

“For today, I have imposed upon myself a sad mission. I believe that I have the responsibility of talking about a painter who blew his brains out several days ago, and about whom none of my colleagues will no doubt concern themselves.

“The rumor had been circulating for several days that an artist had killed himself, after the Salon refused his canvasses. I wanted to see the atelier where the unhappy individual committed suicide; I was able to learn the address, and I’ve only just returned from the sinister room whose parquet floor is still splattered with large burgundy stains.

“Do you not think it is a good idea to make the public penetrate this room? I took a kind of bitter pleasure in telling myself that, from the beginning of my task, I’d be hurtling against a tomb. I think about those who will have the applause of the crowd, of those whose work will be spread out widely in the full light of day, and I see at the same time this miserable man, in his deserted atelier, writing his farewell note and spending an entire night preparing himself to die.

“I’m not trying to be maudlin, I assure you. I knocked on this door with a profound sentiment, and my voice trembled with trepidation when I questioned a woman who opened the door and who was, I believe, the suicide’s maid.

“The atelier is small, ornately decorated. At the right, near the entrance, is an oak sideboard, intricately carved. In the corners of the room more furniture, also oak, is arrayed, a sort of paneled trunks with drawers. Ropes attached at either end with red seals quarantine each of these pieces of furniture. One can see that the dead man must have brushed bruskly against them.

“At the right the bed was stretched out, a bed low and flattened out, a sort of narrow divan. It is here… that he was found, the head loping and crushed, as if he was sleeping.

“The pistol hadn’t fallen from his hand.

“I didn’t even recognize his name. I had no idea if he had any talent, and I still don’t know. I wouldn’t dare judge this man who has departed, fatigued by the struggle. I did indeed spot four or five of his canvasses hanging on the wall, but I did not look at them with the eyes of a judge. At the Salon, I’ll be severe, maybe even violent; here, I can only be sympathetic and moved.

“The artist was German, and his paintings reflect his origins. These are compositions of the Charles Comte variety, historic scenes drawn from the Middle Ages. On an easel, I noticed a white canvas with a pencil composition completely aborted. No doubt the final work. The painter killed himself before this unfinished oeuvre.

“Certainly, I’m not claiming that the jury’s rejection was the only factor in the death of this unhappy man. It’s difficult to penetrate a human soul at this supreme hour of suicide. The bitternesses slowly pile up until one arrives to deliver the coupe de grace.

“They nevertheless tell me that the artist was of a gentle character and that he wasn’t known to have suffered any particular vexation. He had some money, he was able to work without worry.

“Truly, I would not liked to have condemned this man. If I were a painter and if I had been among those who had had the honor of excluding my fellow painters from the Salon, I’d be having nightmares tonight. I’d see the suicide again, I’d tell myself that I had without doubt contributed to his death, and in any case, I would be tormented by this horrible idea that my indulgence would have without doubt prevented this sinister denouement, even if the artist harbored some secret disappointments.

“You certainly want me to draw a moral from all this. I won’t give you this moral today, because it will only duplicate the articles that I’m preparing for L’Evenement.

“I’ve written this letter simply to place a fact before the eyes of the readers. I’ll enlarge as I can the file of my grieves against the jury which functioned this year.

“That’s about it for now. I have a strong case to bring against it.”

“Claude.”

We’d initially agreed, Monsieur de Villemessant and I, that I’d review the Salon under a pseudonym. Already signing an article practically every day, I didn’t want my signature to appear twice in the same newspaper.

I am now obligated to remove my mask before I’ve even attached it; there are many jackasses at the livestock fairs named Martin and there are also, it seems, many Claudes among the ranks of art critics. The real Claudes were afraid of being compromised because of my article “A Suicide”; and they’ve all written to inform our readers that it wasn’t them who had the audacious idea to put the jury on trial before the court of public opinion.

That they be re-assured: It has been decided that I should boldly confess that the revolutionary Claude in question was none other than me.

Voila the entire Claude tribe tranquilized.

Émile Zola

*Collected in “Émile Zola: écrits sur l’art,” Editions Gallimard, 1991, edition established, presented, and annotated by Jean-Pierre Leduc-Adine.

Of totems and poles, of Academiciens and Artists, of Pundits and Philosophers

Bucher Rebeyrolle, La vache rouge, 1998, small

Alain Finkielkraut, the French pundit who never seems to miss an opportunity to appropriate a philosophical precept for his own often neo-reactionary agenda, might want to stroll over from the august headquarters of the Académie Française on the Seine of which he’s ostensibly a member to the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger on the rue de Seine in Saint-Germain-des-Près. On Saturday’s edition of his France Culture radio program “Replique,” theoretically consecrated to Albert Camus in this 60th anniversary year of the author’s accidental death, Finkielkraut feebly tried to subvert Camus’s well-known penchant for Nature, particularly present in the author’s luminous eloges to his native Algeria, to bolster his latest retrograde crusade, in which Finkielkraut has been lambasting ecologists for not mentioning enough that Nature is beautiful. (If my Frank Lloyd Wright house was going up in flames, I wouldn’t waste any time composing sonnets in its glory; I’d be too busy trying to put the fire out.) (And forget about Greta Thunberg, to whose Cassandra Finkielkraut has appointed himself Apollo. His argument: She’s too young and should leave saving the planet to the grown-ups. What’s the use of being bestowed with an academician’s sword if you reduce your arguments to just sticking your tongue out?) Paul Reybeyrolle’s 1998 “The Red Cow,” above, a 146 x 114 cm mixed-technique canvas — among the modern masterpieces the gallery has rolled out for its exhibition Animal Totem — manages to simultaneously extol Nature’s beauty and condemn its fragility in our hands. On view through March 14, the exhibition also includes work by Fermín Aguayo, Miguel Branco, Louis Marcoussis, André Masson, Hans Reichel, Noémie Sauve, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, Yang Jiechang, and — for the first time at the gallery (!) — Saint-Germain-des-Près stalwart (and Michel Ragon  favorite) Jean-Michel Atlan. And if Finkielkraut still insists that it’s neither art nor ecologists (let alone lycéenne ecologists) but philosophers (or pundits who just play philosophers on the radio) who will save us, the exhibition press release offers this Nietzsche citation from — wait for it — “Thus spoke Zarathustra”: “Men are more dangerous than animals.” Photo © Jean-Louis Losi and courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. — Paul Ben-Itzak

Slaves to the Rhythm: Kuchipudi Kulture

shivalingappa cover

Copyright 2010, 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

Among the many losses the Paris dance scene suffered with the departure and then death of Gerard Violette was the long-time Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt director’s commitment to a multitude of Indian (and Pakistani) forms of music and dance. (A commitment to world dance that has since been replaced at the theatre Violette lead or co-lead for 40 years by the self-hating aesthetic of the Centre National de la Danse which Violette’s successor relies on for his dance programming, and which leaves little room for authentic, non-ironic world forms, notably from the Indian sub-continent and Spain.) Sol Hurok had nothing on Gerard Violette. Typical of that programming was this concert by the virtuosa Shantala Shivalingappa (and friends), first reviewed on the DI on October 28, 2004. To read about another Indian choreographer, the late Ranjabati Sircar, more in the traditional – contemporary veine — click here. Today’s re-publication is sponsored by Freespace Dance.

PARIS — I don’t know about your Tuesday night, but mine started with the Belgian man from Gent singing from the piano inside his open van on the Place des Abbesses in the heart of Montmartre and ended with a coked-up man from who know’s where chasing me down a dark street above the Moulin Rouge to the upper reaches of the rue des Martyrs (tracing the route Van Gogh once took to hawk his “Potato Peelers” to the Goupil Gallery on the Grands Boulevards), where I began to feel like one. In between there was Shantala Shivalingappa at the Theatre de la Ville aux Abbesses, an Indian dancer in the Kuchipudi mode intent on giving thanks for the simple blessings still ours for the asking even as the world hovers on the precipice.

I’d been avoiding concerts in the traditional Indian mode, not because they aren’t my cup of tea (especially if it’s chai tea!) but because I don’t feel my training as a critic matches these artists’ training in the various forms that come from that country. I am but a pauper babbling feeble prayers at their temple. I made an exception in the case of Shivalingappa because she had knocked my socks off in Pina Bausch’s “Nefes” (“Breath”). In addition to the precision and articulation in her fingers, which we know from other Indian forms, Shivalingappa added — in her Tanztheater Wuppertal appearance — flight.

This also turns out to be the case in the Paris premiere of “Shiva Ganga,” an evening of choreography in the Kuchipudi school or style, accompanied by live music. (Most of the choreography is by Shivalingappa, except for the opening sun worship, by Master Vempati Chinna Satyam, and a dance inspired by the god Ganesha by Kishore Mosalikanti.) Landing on plié — ouch! — or ending the evening simply spinning lyrically, back and head hunched, in a small circle — she is feather light.

But what stands out in “Shiva Ganga” is the mutual respect and relationship between music and dance. Much as in a flamenco concert, the most intriguing dynamic going on here is not necessarily the one confined to the dancer-choreographer’s body, but the one circulating between her and the ensemble of five musicians, including two soloist singers, a flautist, a percussionist and someone (like his instrument, unidentified in the program as far as I could see) on a string-like instrument that produced the underlying drone.

By far the heart of the evening, rhythmically, musically, and choreographically arrives with the extended play “Talamelam.” If you’ve listened to UK- based Indian fusion artist and pop star Sheila Chandra — specifically, “Speaking in Tongues I” and “Speaking in Tongues II” from “Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices” on Real World — or seen Sean Curran’s 1999 “Symbolic Logic,” set to remixes of the Chandra recordings, you’re familiar with the type of rhythm excursion this dance diva and her collaborators take us on. In fact, as Chandra points out in her liner notes, the sound and syllables of the musical composition relate not just to the mrdingam and tabla instruments, but “draw upon the patterns of rhythm used in South Indian dance.”

In her program notes for the evening’s musical and choreographic riff on this theme, Shivalingappa explains, “If melody is the body of Indian music, rhythm is its heart. In India, one says: ‘Melody is the mother, and rhythm is the father’ of the music. It’s the same for dance. The rhythmic system, tala, is an independent discipline, with a complex and subtle technique, finely developed. In effect, the innate mathematical sense of the Indian spirit endows it with a great rigor.”

All forms of classical Indian dance have pursued the tala rhythm, each developing its own personal language, Shivalingappa elaborates. For the form she’s schooled in — Kuchipudi — these investigations take the form of rhythmic variations in the voice and on the percussion instruments, a game or conversation in the rhythmic language, and a conversation which finishes with a dialogue between the dancer and the mrdingam player. Or, as she puts it, “The beating of the feet respond to the virtuosity of the fingers.” This conversation gives the dancer the opportunity to demonstrate the different positions of the Kuchipudi form.

“Talamelam,” the segment in “Shiva Ganga” which features this conversation, begins with a musical section created and directed by Savitry Nair and navigated by the rhythmic creations of B.P. Haribabu. Like the vowels between the consonants that book-ended his emissions, this pure music section was elongated — not just a musical introduction to a dance but a work of virtuosity in its own right. When Shivalingappa enters, the responses in her feet — as elsewhere in the program — demonstrate that for this form, all muscles and landing surfaces of the feet are called into service. Sometimes she balances on the balls, sometimes on the toes; sometimes her feet are simply flat. At other junctures, she arches both feet while maintaining the balls and toes on the ground, then bending at the waist and looking up mischievously at the musicians. In fact, it’s this personal regard — toward her collaborators in this section, and in winking asides to the audience throughout the program — that make dance like this such a tonic in a European environment too-often dominated by disinterested post-modern dance in which the performers seem to try to make like they don’t know the audience is there.

Before I saw this dance, I was impressed by the musicality of Curran’s effort to the similar Chandra chants, but there’s a difference between dancing on the surface of the music and engaging its soul and burrowing into its sonic meaning, and Shivalingappa and the musicians taught me that.

The only miss, for me, came later, when Shivalingappa squeezed her feet into and balanced on a wobbly disk-shaped basket at center stage; the awkward way in which she shuffled it forward was the one note lacking grace in the entire evening, a ‘prop’ dance we could have done without.

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.

The Futurist Anarchist Funeral is Now

orsay carraFrom the exhibition Félix Fénéon, Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse, on view at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris through January 27 before moving to the Museum of Modern Art in the Spring: Carlo Carrà (1881-1966), “Les Funérailles de l’anarchiste Galli (the anarchist Galli’s funeral),” 1910-1911. Oil on canvas, 198.7 x 259.1 cm. New York, Museum of Modern Art, bequest of Lillie P. Bliss (exchange), 1948. Photo ©Paige Knight. In the entry for Angelo Galli (1883-1906), in his “Dictionnaire de l’Anarchie” (Albin Michel, 2008), Michel Ragon writes: “Brother of Alessandro Galli, stabbed to death by a guard at the factory where he’d gone to check on strike-breakers on May 10, 1906. During his funeral procession, joined by an exalted crowd, violent scuffles broke out with the mounted troops. The painter Carlo Carrà, who at the time frequented the anarchist milieus, found himself among the crowd and, moved by the mass demonstration, the violence of the brawls with the police, the black oriflammes being brandished and the shrouds covered with red eyelets, painted in remembrance one of the most astonishing Futurist tableaux…,” of a mammoth scale, exposed to great success in Paris, London, and Berlin in 1912. A contributor to the newspaper Il Tempo upon its founding in 1918, on March 8, 1910 (as Guillaume Apollinaire would note in Le Petit Bleue on February 9, 1912), Carrà joined Umberto Boccioni, the poet Filippo Marinetti, and a handful of others on the stage of the Chiarella theater in Turin to deliver the Futurist Manifesto, in their words “a long cry of revolt against academic art, against museums, against the rule of professors, of archeologists, of …. antique dealers…..” Fist-fights and cane battles immediately broke out, Apollinaire noted, the “great audience tumult” only ending when the police intervened. (Guillaume Apollinaire, “Chroniques d’Art,” Gallimard, Paris,  1960.) For more on anarchists and unionists from Michel Ragon, click here. For more Ragon on art — exclusively on the Dance Insider and Arts Voyager — click here.