Skin Games — Katherine Dunham’s Documentaries in Paris; Lauwers’s Racialist Stereotypes in Seine-Saint-Denis

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI on February 10, 2005, this piece is re-published today because incredibly enough given the community’s multi-cultural population, Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room” has been programmed for April at the theater MC93 in the Paris suburb of Bobigny in the county of Seine-Saint-Denis. (Perhaps the brilliant curators who thought up this idea can sell “Tintin in the Congo,” featuring Belgium’s most famous ambassador, in the gift shop. What they really should do is book-end Lauwers’s piece with Dunham’s more noble — and authentic — enterprise.) Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by subscribing or making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small. Subscribe to the DI/AV for one year for just $36 ($21 for students) and get full access to our 20-year archive of more than 2000 reviews of performances and exhibitions from around the world by 150 critics. Paul Ben-Itzak is also available for French to English translating assignments and for DJing as MC World Beat.

PARIS — A colleague who’s also seen Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room,” a.k.a. “La chambre d’Isabella,” tells me he thinks the “‘quaint racial language is appropriate for the historic moment Lauwers was recreating.” Another respected colleague, the New York Times’s Margo Jefferson, sees merely pretension where I see tired racial stereotyping inherited from Colonialism. Reflecting on the needcompany dance-theater-music work, seen Tuesday at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt, I can see the bases for both these opinions, and I wouldn’t take my colleagues to the mat on them. Yet while Lauwers’s bombastic work (in general) often seems pretentious, it is also intentionally provocative. So I think a visceral response to this visceral approach is valid. (And if Lauwers can dish it out, he should certainly be able to take it.) Here’s mine, recorded a couple of hours after the performance, followed by some reflections on the work’s thin dance content and on cultural appropriation and exploitation. Then we’ll finish with the tonic of authenticity, revisiting Katherine Dunham’s early documentaries of Haiti and the Caribbean.

It is past two in the morning here in Paris, and I should be asleep. But I am restlessly pacing. I am on edge because tonight at the Theatre de la Ville – SARAH BERNHARDT (whose corps at Pere Lachaise must surely be restless these days), the Belgian director-playwright and putative choreographer Jan Lauwers used his considerable dramatic gifts to suck me into a world where, before I knew it, I was hit with residual Belgian colonial racialism, grandmother-to-minor grandson incest/rape (at least that’s what they’d call it in the States), and a generally unremitting nihilism.

Perhaps — perhaps — there are hints of hope among the despair. Perhaps, as in the work of other tragedians, the darkness is meant to set off the light. But how are we supposed to discern these signs through the barrage of blatant racialism and pointless violence? How am I to see anything but racialism when Lauwers gives us a heroine who, we’re told, was impregnated by a Black (I think the word Negro was used) performer on the Place Pigalle whose trick was that he could make his “erect p**** *** just by concentrating on it”? (The asterisks are mine, not an external censor’s; just because Lauwers has desecrated Sarah Bernhardt’s stage with this filth doesn’t mean we need to desecrate our pages.) How am I to find an island of hope on a stage whose dominating scenery is what we’re told is a “giant African penis,” on which the heroine hangs her gold necklace and lighter? How am I NOT to perceive racialism in a scenic environment which, in its blithe use and display of (what we’re told are) African artifacts, is probably committing at least one sacrilege, and has made me complicit in a sort of cultural violation? How did I feel regarding this in a sea of white faces? How did I feel when these fellow spectators giggled at the evocation of black p**** tricks?

I know, I know, I hear some of you saying: You dope, he’s not being racialist, he’s COMMENTING on racialism and Colonialism. I just don’t buy it. Jan Lauwers works in a milieu — Belgium — where one can still find vestiges of the Colonial attitude towards Blacks in mainstream postcard shops peddling images of them (thick lips, bug eyes) that make “Birth of a Nation” seem like it was produced by the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). In this context, the similar signposts in “Isabella’s Room” make it hard to receive this work as anything but racialist, nihilistic garbage.

lauwers oneNeedcompany in Jan Lauwers’s “La Chambre d’Isabella” (Isabella’s Room). Photo copyright Eveline Vanassche and courtesy MYRA.

It doesn’t help that Lauwers starts off with the often-mocking presentation of a variety of African artifacts, apparently, we’re told, “collected” by his late father. (The question of Colonial expropriation of such artifacts is not broached.) Perhaps he’s mocking the mockers, but what exactly gives him the right to expropriate another culture’s ceremonial objects for his own ceremonies? Especially given Belgium’s brutal colonial history.

“Isabella’s Room” is also advertised — at least in Paris — as a dance spectacle, and when it comes to integrating dance into his theatrical works, Lauwers hasn’t made much progress since the 1999 “Morning Song.” Jefferson, in her Times review, postulates that the dance here serves the same end as the songs, to “echo the characters’ conscious thoughts and unconscious dreams.” I don’t see this; I can find neither comment, interpretation, nor even counterpoint here; just aimless noodling, which might as well have been created outside of the text, in which the individual performers appear to have been left to their own devices, the choreography often devolving into what Jefferson accurately calls “Merce Cunningham and WIlliam Forsythe cast-offs.”

Except for six hours which she spends there in a vain attempt to save the life of her grandson Frank, the Isabella of the title in Lauwers’s piece is an Africa-fancying white anthropologist who never makes it to Africa. Katherine Dunham, by contrast, is an African-American interpreter of Afro-Caribbean dance — with Pearl Primus, the U.S.’s first — who began her career by traversing the Caribbean, on a Rosenwald fellowship, with a camera. Three of the resultant 1936 documentaries, “Trinidad,” “Haiti,” and “Jamaica and Martinique” were recently screened by the Centre Pompidou here in Paris, part of a festival on voyaging women documentary makers of the ’20s through ’60s.

All three films are brief but effective time capsules of the subject countries. “Trinidad” is the most purely dance document, capturing what looks (to this untrained eye) like a Vodun-like dance with its own vocabulary — one of the vocabularies that Dunham would go on to interpret in her concert form. (What a formidable example of scholarly rigor for contemporary choreographers who have the audacity to adapt a given ethnic style after taking only a few classes in it!) A vocabulary it clearly is, with one older woman, back curved, stomach contracted, seen to be drilling a snappy younger man in his footwork as a circle watches.

“Haiti” is a 15-minute masterpiece of a portrait and travelogue; one can almost feel the young Dunham falling in love with the country that still, nearly 70 years later, plays a central role in her life and work. She begins with a panorama of coastal mountains dominated by what look like the remnants of colonial fortresses. There’s also a cock-fight, in which she follows the flying fowl, then zooms in on a smartly attired man clipping his bird’s toe-nails. Eventually we’re taken — as if we were watching it from behind the barricades — to what could be a Carnival parade. Some of the participants are clad simply in their Sunday finest, some wear large masks in the shape of animal heads, others full-body costumes; two Carnival queens greet their ‘subjects’ from floats. Most are, to one extent or another, dancing, from the sharp dresser to the fluent four-year-old on whom Dunham trains her camera for a couple of minutes.

What emerges — aided by more recent musical field recordings which have been layered onto this silent film — is a poignant memory of Haiti just after the 1934 evacuation of U.S. troops. It’s perhaps a bittersweet memory in light of the U.S.’s recent intervention to help depose Haiti’s democratically elected President Aristide, but the filmmaker, at least, provides a much-needed model of an ambassador from our country who casts a curious eye, not a pointed finger at the rest of the world.

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

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

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

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

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

(To receive the full article, as well as access our complete coverage of the Paris artistic community’s response to the November 13, 2015 attacks and our Archive of more than 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 critics of performances and exhibitions from around the world since 1999, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for one year for just $36 by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check.)

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.

Women aren’t just victims, 1: Vanishing Acts — A play you won’t see in the U.S.

iranian playElham Korda and Setareh Eskandari in Afsaneh Mahian’s production of Mahin Sadri’s “Every day a little bit more.” Reza Ghaziani photo copyright Reza Ghaziani and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2015, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

On Monday, the United States Supeme Court upheld Donald Trump’s entree ban for visitors from several Muslim nations, including Iran  (with the exception, from that country, of those studying in the U.S.), effectively banishing artists from those nations as well.

PARIS — As I watched Afseneh Mahian’s production of Iranian playwright Mahin Sadri’s reality-based drama “Every day a little bit more,” a portrait of three women whose concerns mirror those of women everywhere, unfold Monday night at the Theatre de la Ville’s Abbesses theater in Montmartre, I could not stop thinking, Why aren’t we seeing this nuanced depiction of Iranian daily life in the United States? And the pay-off is infinite; now whenever I hear “Iranian nuclear threat” or skepticism about Iran’s motivations in Syria, behind the word “Iranian” I can see not just ayatollic machinations but a people with the exact same concerns as the rest of us.
Even as I was slipping into my usual critical aloofness Monday and ‘judging’ the work on dramatic criteria, I kept pinching myself in disbelief that I was actually watching three Iranian women and their Iranian theater company permitted into the country like any other troupe to depict universal human dilemmas, something I could never be watching if I were in the United States. You may think I’m exaggerating, but when afterwards I asked Elham Korda (in English; among the Iranian contingent at the after-party Monday, my mother tongue was more pre-dominant than Farsi or French) — who plays the widow of real-life martyr Major General Abbas Doran, who crashed his plane, fatally hit by Iraqi fire, into the Baghdad hotel where Saddam Hussein was planning a meeting of the non-aligned movement to send the message that Iraq was winning its war with Iran — if the play, also touring to Vienna and Brussels, would be going to the United States, she just smiled ironically.

To receive the complete article, first published on November 4, 2015, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. Subscribers receive full access to the DI/AV Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances and art on five continents from 1998 through 2015. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $109 (institutions) Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com.

Vanishing Acts: Waiting in Limbo with Maguy Marin & Lutece

marin umweltCompagnie Maguy Marin in Maguy Marin’s “Umwelt.” Photograph by and copyright Christian Ganet and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2015, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

PARIS — One of the endurance tests of a work of art is its malleability over time. When I first saw Maguy Marin’s “Umwelt” 10 years ago in its Paris premiere at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt, if the choreography was dense, the dance’s spirit was still unrelentingly slapstick, with nine performers taking turns surging rapid-fire — alone, paired, or in triplets — from the opening between three lateral walls of mirrors, le tout, mirrors and humans with their various props (baby dolls, turkey drumsticks, army helmets, guns, aprons, foliage, blonde wigs, laboratory jackets, pills, buckets of dirt…) buffeted about by wind machines as they engaged in everyday human interplay and gestures ranging from kisses to left hooks, with the occasional flashing of buttocks and genitals tossed in to remind you it was, after all, European modern dance. (And to ensure the ‘unfamily friendly’ label from the constipated directors of the Joyce Theater; who needs the NYPD — which swooped down on Anna Halprin’s frolicking performers at the Kaye 50 years ago — when the pre-censoring is done in-house?) Even the bombastic score — played by a single strand of twine which crossed the downstage from one spool to another, caressing the strings of three prostrate electric guitars en route — couldn’t perturb the frothy demeanor of the movement. What outraged me was that where no one had walked out of the same theater during a Wim Vandekeybus spectacle the previous week which projected graphic images of children being tortured and killed, 40 spectators fled “Umwelt,” the more optimistic work. On Friday December 4, though, at the opening of the reprise of “Umwelt” on the same stage, I started sobbing at the first appearance of the performers. With their bright pedestrian outfits and variety of human shapes and ages, in their frantic running back and forth, fighting against the torrential currents of the wind and lost in the confines of the buckling rows of mirror-wall centurions, they seemed to be the innocents killed November 13, discombobulated and disoriented over what had just happened to them, trapped in this antechamber between existance and the afterworld like Captain Kirk hovering between two dimensions, juggling the detrius of their lives on Earth until we the survivors could set things right. At the moment, the verdict is still out, as we too seem to be hovering like Kirk between two worlds — or at least two worldviews, that of trepidation and fear and that of persevering hope.

To receive the complete article, first published on December 11, 2015, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. Subscribers receive full access to the DI/AV Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances and art on five continents from 1998 through 2015. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $109 (institutions) Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com.

Escape from 9-11 & Terrorism: Maguy Marin’s Brave New World revealed in Paris

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Author’s Note: The first dance response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 — today more relevant than ever.)

PARIS — AIDS had its Tony Kushner to write it a fantasia, and now 9-11 has its Maguy Marin to furnish a plan for action, an artist who both captures the actual calamity and lights the escape route. With her new “Points de Fuite” (“Points of Escape”), which premiered last night at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt, Marin not only affirms the appropriateness of an artistic response to 9-11 and the aesthetic potential of such an expression, but its absolute necessity to finding points of escape from the despair, depression, rage and helplessness which continue to emanate from our literal, moral, and political ground zero in the wake of September 11.

To receive the complete article, first published on February 13, 2002, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. Subscribers receive full access to the DI Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $109 (institutions) Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com.