From the Archives: Is Ballet Irrelevant?

Lines Ballet at Yerba Buena CenterLines Ballet in Alonzo King’s “Sand.” Photo copyright Chris Hardy and courtesy Maison de la Danse.

“Things based on a universal truth can never be irrelevant. Ballet is based on universal themes. The same things that informed Copernicus, that informed geometry inform ballet. Most people think of ballet as a style, and they connect that style with 17th-century romanticism. They don’t realize that ballet is not a style, it’s a science of movement. It can be manipulated and explored in a million ways — it’s inexhaustible.”

— Alonzo King, director and founder, Lines Ballet. From the inaugural Summer 1998 print issue of the Dance Insider. Subscribe to the DI with PayPal for just $29.95/year by designating your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out how to subscribe by check, and get full access to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager’s 20-year Archive of more than 2000 exclusive reviews by 150 critics of performances and art from five continents, plus the Jill Johnston Letter. The Dance Insider. Giving a voice to dancers and telling stories not told elsewhere for 20 years.

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The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 4: A Tale of Two Bells

Jill bells group

“I see the bells as a silent scream.”

— Michael Gorra

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston

Flying to Cologne September 14 for an art event, accompanied by Ingrid, I had an unexpected postwar experience at the foot of Cologne’s great Cathedral, its Dom. By “foot” I mean its vicinity, and I was always there. Our hotel was close by, and Museum Ludwig, site of the art event, a pebble’s throw away. The whole city really is in its vicinity because the structure looms everywhere, seen from all vantage points, a giant double-spired sentinel more omnipresent than our World Trade Towers were, or Empire State Building is. The Dom is very old, a structure begun in 1248, and everything way below it is new — or so it seems. In a British RAF “thousand-plane” raid March 30 1942, 90% of the city was firebombed and destroyed. Oh I’ve been in other German cities where I would look for what’s old, and notice the new. Hamburg, in 1943 one of the worst hit, leaving a charred city and 200,000 dead, was one of them. In Osnabruck for a day and a night I saw nothing old at all. I’ve been to Berlin, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt and Hanover. I’d visited Cologne once before, in 1993. But I never had an Experience, not in Germany anyway. In Britain I had the kind of emotional exculpation I’m talking about, a terrible seismic sadness, in Coventry, the midlands city firebombed the night of November 14 1940 by the Luftwaffe in a raid code-named “Operation Moonlight Sonata.” And I had it right on the Cathedral premises, or I should say the ruins. St. Michael’s, like the Dom in Cologne a medieval treasure, dated from the 1300s. All that’s left of the body of St. Michael’s are low decimated walls on three sides, and remains of a polygonal apse with tall arched open-to-the-air windows. Amazingly, its head — tower and spire, rising 295 feet — survived. Like the Dom, it’s another sentinel, here overlooking an impressive carcass, a cross at opposite end fashioned from scorched beams that fell in the November 1940 carnage; and something brand new — a shockingly modern cathedral joined by porch and built perpendicularly to the ruins, dedicated in 1962. Such an enormous architecturally necrologic “birth,” literally from the side of the ruins, was what undid me. I experienced this in 1976. After Cologne last month, I could draw a straight line between the two cities, the perfect zoom lines you see in airplane magazine maps. At home and as of yesterday I’m adding Lubeck, a moderate-sized city in northern Germany on the Baltic Sea, a place I’ve never been. Reading and scanning a book someone gave me that had been lying about in my apartment since the end of summer, showing up unaccountably here and there, I found Lubeck in it. If my lines were finer, and maps more accommodating, they would pinpoint my special interest in these cities of the Dom in Cologne, the ruins of St. Michael’s in Coventry, and most recently the Marienkirche in Lubeck. All three were damaged, one beyond repair, in a war of unprecedented terror against civilians, including six million singled out for special annihilation as Jewish, and all three have extraordinary bells. The ones in Cologne and Coventry survived, but of Lubeck’s pre-war tower bells there are only two, and these are fallen mementos, lying just where they crashed — in a wrecked but somehow aesthetic configuration, under the south tower in the Marienkirche. They are pictured in a photo on the cover of the book I finally got around to investigating. An American professor of English, Michael Gorra, wrote about his travels in Germany after spending a sabbatical year there. Books by professors are not my normal fare, but the photo, and title, “The Bells in their Silence,” could be a curiosity even for those not incurably habituated to these bronze shapes the way I am. For myself though, I’ve passed up many literary references, always quoted to invoke the romance of bells — Dante, Longfellow, Byron, Tennyson and Shakespeare among them — and Gorra’s title seemed fairly belletristic. It took my recent trip to Cologne to make the war connection. Gorra’s beautiful fallen image from Lubeck, embedded in the richly muted grey-green colors of his jacket cover, must be the memento of his travels, the symbol of his search for what Germany once was and  has become: a replete civilization, a land of rubble and devastation, finally of buried memories. One month after Lubeck in 1942, Cologne became Germany’s second city to be firebombed and depopulated by Allied forces. I was there this September to attend the opening of artist George Brecht’s retrospective at Museum Ludwig. Brecht, an ex-pat American and old friend, now 79, has lived in Cologne since 1972. Strangely, or not perhaps, he never appeared at his opening (an event marking an exhibition that’s a major deal for an artist whose work has been dedicated to showing that life is more important than art), and I replaced him, as I fancy now, with the city’s colossal Dom, the tips of whose spires we could see over a lush growth of trees from our hotel windows. The din of its bells had me excitedly opening the windows, leaning way out and shooting pictures. It would be through postcards — black and white pictures dated 1945 — that I realized I was staying in a vast war memorial, buried under the rebuilt city, hidden in the Dom by seamless repairs. Here is a postcard showing the skeletons of burnt and roofless buildings from the heights of the Dom. Here is another, of the Dom’s high Gothic interior — its floor a chunky mass of marble and wooden debris. While we were basking briefly on the Rhine one afternoon, I shot a pretty crescent-shaped iron bridge, later finding a postcard picturing the same bridge, the Hohenzollern in 1945, twisted and broken, half submerged in the river, the Dom looming in the background. At home I made a before-and-after photo album, anchored at the end by a postcard image of Cologne’s magnificent swinging bell, St. Peter, tuned to a deep C, at 24,000 kilograms Europe’s largest, inscribed: “St. Peter is my name of birth,/I protect the German earth;/Sprung of German agony,/I raise my voice for unity.”

I presume this “agony” is of that earlier conflagration, the Great War, since St. Peter was cast in 1923. If you have no fear of heights or claustrophobic spiral stone staircases, you could climb 509 steps to see it. Imagine a bell of that magnitude falling like Gorra’s two, and from the Dom’s dizzying summit, 157.38 meters tall. Left as a memorial, to see its shattered remains you would be peering over the edge of a deep crater. “What altar,” Gorra writes of Lubeck’s bells, “could compete with this twisted mass of bronze?” He had originally been drawn to the city because of a literary hero, Thomas Mann, born and raised there. Now he was making his last of many visits to Lubeck before returning to the States. And he saw something in the Marienkirche he had never seen before: “… a gleam of silver in the corner of my eye, and I turned to see two stainless steel spikes, put one against the other in the shape of a cross, the NAIL CROSS OF COVENTRY IT’S CALLED, MADE OUT OF METAL FROM THE RUINS OF COVENTRY’S CATHEDRAL: a gesture of reconciliation from the city that Hitler destroyed to the one on which the British took vengeance.” (Upper case mine.) So Lubeck was Britain’s first catastrophic incendiary strike against Germany — a year and four months following the demolition of Coventry. After 234 aircraft dropped 144 tons of firebombs and 160 tons of high explosives, at least half of Lubeck was destroyed. The Marienkirche had a gaping hole where its spires had been, and its roof had been blown off. I found a phone number for Gorra and put in a call to him after reading about the “nail cross,” wondering if he knew that the altar in Coventry’s new cathedral bears the same kind of cross, made of nails salvaged from the same ruins, its own. No he didn’t. Then I rushed in where fools might, imagining that bells in general, like those at Coventry or Cologne, alive and swinging, should interest him. However, the last line in his book reads, “Other bells may ring, but these (Lubeck’s) will stay silent.” He seems clearly to rest his involvement here. In their “silent scream,” Gorra finds Germany’s culpability (“… the curse that the Nazis laid upon their own house”), and his personal sorrow for the German people. In his moving words and through my discoveries in Cologne, I find my own lament. Ingrid, while traveling through Germany in 1954 with her Danish parents, saw Cologne’s ruins from the tower of the Dom, 509 steps up. She quotes her mother as saying, “This is what happens when people don’t get along.” Is this an understatement, or what? Why, I have asked, did Cologne’s Dom, damages withal, remain standing? And why, you might ask, am I so interested in these Christian edifices? I am not and have never been a Christian, and I find the history of Christianity appalling (as what thinking person does not?). The answer to both my questions lies in the bells. I’m not interested in dinner bells or hand-bells or cowbells or bell telephone, only bells in towers, and many of these, such as university towers, are secular. The Dom in Cologne survived because of St. Peter and his nine companions, several of Middle Ages vintage. It may be hard for Americans to understand how important bells are in European countries. Other traditions were imported to America, but not the concept of Europe’s consummate and ubiquitous bell population, an indispensable spiritual voice of the people — independently of religious faith or ideology. As Europe was in flames, many bells were saved by tacit or open agreement between opposing forces. In one such pact, the Allies consented not to bomb the great swinging peal in Cologne Cathedral if the Axis spared Belgium’s historic carillon in Mechlin. Many historic carillons in the Netherlands, France and Germany, were thus saved. But many carillons and swinging peals did perish, or were stolen to be melted down for armaments. Over 100,000 bells were deposited in holding areas in Hamburg and other German cities.

Thirty of these ended up in Lubeck’s rebuilt tower of the Marienkirche after the war. They had belonged originally to a 36-bell carillon in Gdansk (Danzig), Poland. When Hitler annexed Gdansk in 1939, a key moment in the outbreak of war, he pirated the contents of the city’s towers. The story goes that Lubeck received its gift in thanks for hosting many postwar refugees from Gdansk. Now I can extend my zoomy airplane magazine lines to a city in Poland, not a place I could previously even envision on a map. But I return always to Coventry for my signature experience of an event I would never know first-hand, not until September 11 2001 when I saw our Towers in New York come down. And Coventry held a second coming for me. In May of 2002, Ingrid and I were approaching St. Michael’s tower and steeple when a huge ruckus filled the air. A band of change-ringers holding ropes to 14 bells was making the most stupendous ear-rending cacophony. I never knew that bells existed here at all. They ring out wildly over St. Michael’s ruins and new cathedral body — a resurrection and the life.

©Jill Johnston 2005; originally published on www.jilljohnston.com and syndicated exclusively on the Dance Insider. Photos courtesy Jill Johnston. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here.

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Women aren’t just victims, IV: From Gaza to the World Stage — Nidaa Badwan’s Freedom-forging Odyssey

nidaa badwan100 Days of Solitude: Nidaa Badwan in her room transformed into studio in 2015. Photo by and courtesy Nidaa Badwan.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Please join Nutmeg Conservatory Ballet,  Freespace Dance and and Slippery Rock Dance in sponsoring this article and the Dance Insider/Arts Voyager by designating your donation via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Please tell us our work matters.)

When we last checked in on Palestinian artist and photographer Nidaa Badwan in 2015, she’d just created the photography project 100 Days of Solitude, in which she’d transformed her nine-square meter room in Gaza into a pin-hole camera with a kaleidoscopic view, the 28-year-old’s response to Hamas’s releasing her from jail after eight days only after she signed a statement agreeing to only go outside with her body fully covered and accompanied by her father or brother — using imagination to spark creation and sequestration to produce liberation. (Badwan remained in this self-imposed quarantine from late 2013 through early 2015.) “This space,” she told the television station France 24 at the time, “gave me the freedom that I couldn’t find outside — a freedom from the dullness and ugliness of Gaza, from the Israeli siege, from the impositions of the men of Hamas.” If this inventively courageous response was not a complete surprise — Badwan even refused to leave her home during the 2014 Israeli bombing of Gaza — the happy ending that followed was.

Nidaa rooster smallDescribing the impetus behind what she considers her most important photograph, part of the series 100 Days of Solitude, Badwan explains: “In Arabic symbolism, the rooster represents the man. It’s a masculine energy that wants to silence me. I have an Oud with me, a Middle-Eastern instrument. With my gesture, I invite the rooster to shut up and let me be free to express myself and my art.” Photo by and courtesy Nidaa Badwan.

If Israel had refused to authorize her to leave Gaza to attend an exhibition of 100 Days of Solitude organized by the Institute Française in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Badwan was eventually able to depart, in September 2015, when the Italian municipalities of Monte Grimano Terme and Montecatini Terme invited her to share her works and protest and, later, when she expressed her concern about her security if she returned to Gaza, welcomed by the tiny Republic of San Marino.  In April of this year, the Italian municipality of Monte Grimano Terme offered her own atelier to create art and to organize animations for the public.

Badwan’s artistic itinerary since leaving Gaza, meanwhile, has included, in 2016 alone, collective and individual exhibitions in Denmark, Berlin, the French commune of Couthhures-sur-Garonne (for the Festival Internationale du Journalisme Vivant), Dubai, Miami Beach, and New York’s Postaster Gallery, often in group shows where she’s been surrounded by a choice selection of the leading young Arab (and young, period) artists. Meanwhile, the World Bank  in Washington acquired six of her works. She capped the year back in San Marino by participating in an evening dedicated to the theme of autism in which she displayed four paintings created by Abood, her autistic brother, and four of her own inspired by him, part of a planned  solo exhibition on the theme featuring more work.  “Along with me,” she recounts, “there was an autistic boy, very young, who played Chopin. It was an indescribable and marvelous evening.” Badwan’s comments to the assemblage should be required reading for every Beaux Arts student:

“My brother is nine years younger than me, has autism, and lives in Gaza. Stepping into this world and exploring it from within is a rich and unique experience. To penetrate the meanderings of this situation is neither difficult nor easy. Abood needs nothing. He doesn’t need words — he only needs a piece of paper and a pencil. He draws his own world, and usually he asks me: ‘How do you find it?’ To his question, I spontaneously reply: ‘Nice! I want to see more.’

“As time went by, I started to observe and interpret what his drawings revealed. In his works, there are many crying faces, usually smoking a cigarette and surrounded by curvy patterns. A sole fragment of a painting can harbor the contradiction between sadness and happiness. Abood has battled with solitude, the same feeling I experienced for two years. During my isolation, he would wait by the door to make me a surprise with a handful of drawings he made around midnight. Every time he saw me crying, he would give me a new painting. He knows that this makes me vibrate. I imitate what he does; I can follow the curvy patterns and draw like he does. I needed more of these sketches, and even more. I became autistic just like him, learning how to walk through his world. I learned how to speak to him, how to make mistakes in the sentences’ structures and to mutter when I speak. This world is very rich, if the poor ones like us know the truth.”

nidaa badwan new room smallNidaa Badwan in her studio in the Italian village of Monte Grimano Terme: “New Room.” Photo courtesy Nidaa Badwan.

Since the beginning of this year, Badwan has already participated in two exhibitions in Italy, taken part in a collective exhibition in the United States, and addressed the UNESCO conference “Cultural Heritage and Identity: an Arab Youth Perspective” in Carthages, Tunisia. She inaugurated her studio in Monte Grimano Terme in May, in the presence of the mayor, the former education and culture minister of San Marino, and Palestine consul for Italy Nidal Thawabi. In June she participated in both the White Nights of the University of San Marino, creating a sculpture in real-time on the theme of femininity, and the collective exhibition “Ri-crazioni” in Prato, Italy. Through January you can catch her exhibiting with (fellow) revolutionary Arab artists in Valencia, Spain, at the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern and at the “En Rebeldía” and, currently, in a touring version of this show on display in Berlin’s Gorki Theater.

This flurry of activity doesn’t mean that Badwan doesn’t miss her nest in Gaza, where her family still lives. As for  the butterfly emerged from its cocoon, the outside world can be as daunting as it is exhilarating. “When I was in Gaza,” she tells me, “I had a small space, my little world, but I had an infinity of ideas in my head. I could only spin the world with my mind.” She was confident that “this was my world, and I could do what I want. Now, paradoxically, I have all the freedom I want to turn and create in a vast space, like the world, but I do not have my ‘world,’ ‘my’ space where I can be quiet no one can tell me to ‘go away’ if I do not pay rent,” and does not have to think about things like changing her immediate environment.

Still, I can’t help but think that Badwan’s changed circumstances must be liberating. If her previous situation inevitably made her simple act of creating art be perceived as an act of ‘defiance’ by journalists (not to mention polemicists), she’s now escaped from the box and free to find her path without the constraints of her politically loaded identity. All the better.

“I do not define myself as a political artist,” she says, “and I would not like to be. I prefer to leave politics to politicians and to the Press. Of course, I personally have my own ideas, but art and politics should not be confused, though sometimes this may happen. For me art speaks of experiences directly lived, interior and exterior. That particular experience came to me. If anything else had happened, I might have talked about something else or in another way.”

For more information on Nidaa Badwan, including more examples of her work — and to keep up with her ever multiplying cavalcade of exhibitions — check her web site.

Max Jacob rolls the dice

Max Jacob dice cup artcurial Jean Hugo

Among the precious books and manuscripts sold off last week at Artcurial Paris were, above, one of a limited edition of 22 vellum copies of Max Jacob’s 1917 Surrealist classic “The Dice Cup” (Le Cornet à dés) with color gouaches by Jean Hugo (1894-1984; Victor’s great-grandson), in wood engravings by Jules Germain, Robert Armanelli, and André Marliat, published in 1948 by the Nouvelle Revue Française. Estimated pre-sale by France’s largest auction house at between 200 and 300 Euros, the book and its case sold for 227 Euros. Jacob (b. 1876), an intimate of Picasso, Cocteau (he is said to have introduced them), and Apollinaire who converted to Christianity before the first World War and actively proselytized, was arrested as Jewish in 1944 and died in the Drancy transfer prison outside Paris before he could be deported. Click here to read an example from the book. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

Fake News! Fake News!

By Max Jacob
Copyright Editions Pierre Seghers 1946
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

If you think John Cage and Merce Cunningham were the first to toss a dice cup to create surrealist art, think again. First featured in “The Dice Cup” or “Le Cornet à dés,” published by Jacob himself in 1917. Selected by Andre Billy for inclusion in the album dedicated to the colleague of Cocteau and Picasso as part of the “Poetes d’aujourd’hui” series and published by Pierre Seghers in 1946, two years after Jacob died in the Drancy camp as he was being deported from France.

During a performance of “For the Crown” in the Paris Opera House, at the precise moment that Desdemona was singing out “My father is in Goritz and my heart is in Paris,” a shot rang out in a fifth floor lodge, then a second in the orchestra seats and instantly rope ladders were unfurled and a man began descending from the rafters; a bullet stopped him at the balcony level. Everyone in the audience was packing, and the house was full of … and of …. Neighbors were gunned down, jets of petrol ignited. The lodges were attacked, the stage was attacked, the standing room only section was attacked, and this battle lasted 18 days. It’s possible that the two sides were provisioned, I don’t know, but what I do know for certain is that the journalists converged on this gruesome spectacle, and that one of them, being under the weather, sent his mother, who was fascinated by the sangfroid of a young French gentleman who held his ground on the lip of the stage for 18 days sustained by nothing but a little bouillon. This episode of the War of the Balconies worked wonders for voluntary enlistment in the provinces. On the banks of my river alone, under my trees, I know three brothers in spanking new uniforms who embraced each other dry-eyed while their families were in the attic looking for their woolies.