Gender-bender: ‘Entre Nous’ with Claude Cahun (From the Archives)

cahun-1Left: Claude Cahun, “Autoportrait,” 1926. Gelatin silver print, 11.1 x 8.6 cm. IVAM, Institut Valencia d’Art Modern, Generalitat. Right: Claude Cahun, “Autoportrait,” 1927. Gelatin silver print, 10.4 x 7.6 cm. Soizic Audouard Collection.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2012, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

(First published on February 3, 2012.)

And what if the artist uses herself as the clay? Not because she’s a narcissist and thinks she’s the most fascinating subject in the world, but because as matter and model, she’s so malleable, and thus an ideal canvas for her own artistic explorations, macro ideas about the culture unearthed on an intimate terrain? This was the case with French-born Claude Cahun in the staged self-portraiture, photo-montages, and prose texts she produced, mostly between 1920 and 1940, more than 80 of which figure in Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun, on view at the Art Institute of Chicago February 25 – June 3. Organized with Paris’s Jeu de Paume museum and co-produced with Barcelona’s La Virreina Centre de la Image, where it continues through Sunday, this first retrospective of the artist’s work in the U.S. reveals a vital source for later feminist explorations of gender and identity politics — to say nothing of how Cahun inspired the Surrealists. In her self-portraits, which she began creating around 1913, Cahun dismantled and questioned pre-existing notions of self and sexuality, at the same time re-assembling artistic ingredients and assembling dreamy mis-en-scenes. Posing in costumes and with elaborate make-up, she appeared masked as various personae: man and  woman, hero and mannequin, both powerful and vulnerable. More than 80 years after Cahun created them, these photographs and their adventurous, unrestrained execution are still pertinent today for their treatment of gender, performance, and identity — and as an example for artists across genres of how to use their small world to speak to the greater one.

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Left: Claude Cahun, “Autoportrait,” 1929. Gelatin silver print, 11.5 x 8.5 cm. Jersey Heritage Collection, ©Jersey Heritage. Right: Claude Cahun, Sans titre, 1936. Gelatin silver print, 17.9 x 13 cm. Private collection, ©Beatrice Hatala.

cahun-3Left: Claude Cahun, “Combat de pierres,” 1931. Gelatin silver print, 21 x 15.5 cm. Private collection, ©Beatrice Hatala. Right: Claude Cahun, “Aveux non avenus,” planche III, 1929-1930. Gelatin silver print photomontage, 15 x 10 cm. Private collection.

cahun-4Left: Claude Cahun, “Autoportrait,” 1929. Gelatin silver print, 24 x 19 cm. Musee des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, ©RMN/Gerard Blot. Right: Claude Cahun, “Autoportrait,” 1939. Gelatin silver print, 10 x 8 cm. Jersey Heritage Collection, ©Jersey Heritage.

When presidents had false teeth but spoke the truth & Texas recruited immigrants

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Copyright 2012, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on January 19, 2012. Like what you read? Then please stop “liking” us and help pay for it. Designate your PayPal donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or e-mail us at that address to learn about donating in Euros or by check.

FORT WORTH, Texas — Heritage is a messy business, especially in a country built out of multiple heritages. There may be no more vivid microcosm of this principle right now in the United States than that found in the few blocks that make up the Cultural District of this cosmopolis which calls itself “Cowtown” with pride and whose concentration of world-class museums and Western heritage seems to justify the city motto, “Cowboys & Culture.”

Monday at the Will Rogers Memorial Center — named after the American cowboy journalist, humorist, actor and philosopher — the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, running through February 4, celebrated the opening of its 116th year with a Cowboys of Color Rodeo, aptly held on the day honoring Martin Luther King, who did more to emancipate African-Americans than any other American in the 20th century. Across Gendy Street, the Cowgirl Hall of Fame is honoring with her own exhibition (“The cowgirl who became a justice”) retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who, in voting to stop the Florida ballot re-count in the 2000 presidential election, helped enable the disenfranchisement of thousands of African-American voters. Right across the street, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History is hosting an exhibition on George Washington — including the last intact set of his dentures — that acknowledges that the father of our country was also a slave holder, as well as an exhibition which recalls when Texas *campaigned* to bring a million immigrants into the U.S. through the port of Galveston… which was also a major entry for… slaves. And the Rodeo, meanwhile, seems to have forgotten that a founding principle of the nation whose Western heritage it celebrates was freedom of religious expression, which also means that the majority should not impose its religion on the minority; spectators for Cowboys of Color had no choice but to listen to the announcer open the event by invoking Jesus Christ before the first bull even hurtled out of the chute. (Here’s what Will Rogers said about religion: “I was raised predominantly a Methodist, but I have traveled so much, mixed with so many people in all parts of the world, I don’t know just what I am. I know I have never been a non-believer. But I can honestly tell you that I don’t think that any one religion is the religion.”)

Being American is not in itself often thought of as an ethnicity. And yet there seems to be at least one ethnic trait that most Americans have inherited: Bad teeth. This correspondent for one feels a little less self-conscious about his own dilapidated mashers after pondering a set of our founding father’s dentures and reading about his troubled dental history in “Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon,” a touring exhibition on view at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History through January 22. Most revelatory is the text accompanying the display of dentures (composed, by the way, of ivory, cow teeth, and human teeth; other sets also included hippo teeth — and none of the president’s eight dentures were made of wood). Beset by dental problems from his early 20s, by the time he was sworn in as the first president in 1789 General Washington had only one of his natural teeth remaining in his mouth, a possible explanation for his sallow cheeks, we’re told. (The exhibition also uses computer science to construct life-sized mannequins of the younger Washington from later portraits.) On another occasion, he provided a lesson in resourcefulness that perhaps ought to be included in our history books alongside Valley Forge for health-care strapped contemporary children to consider: Following his dentist’s instructions, Washington used wax and plaster of Paris to make a mold of the inside of his mouth to send away to the dentist. By the time he left office, all of Washington’s original teeth were gone.

Does the exhibition’s attempt to digest Washington as slave-holder have any teeth? Visitors can watch a series of video interviews with African-American scholars and others who differ on the degree to which perceptions of the president should be influenced by his having owned slaves. Most say it taints him, but one suggests that Washington  wanted to free his household’s slaves, but most of them were owned by Martha Washington, and he couldn’t afford to buy their freedom from his wife.

galveston-1From the exhibition Forgotten Gateway: Coming to America Through Galveston Island. Images courtesy Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

“Forgotten Gateway: Coming to America Through Galveston Island,” a massive exhibition running in the gallery next door to ‘Washington’ through April 1, does a much better job of balancing the pride and shame of American heritage related to immigration, devoting almost equal time to the slaves who were hauled in chains through this Texas Gulf port beginning in 1845, and the voluntary immigrants who decamped there through 1924, an immigration not merely welcomed by the nation and later state of Texas, but encouraged. At one point, we’re informed, the state launched a campaign to bring a million immigrants to Galveston. Even the railway companies pitched in, offering free jump on, jump off privileges so that the immigrants could explore the state at their leisure to pick a place to settle, where they could usually find low-cost housing. About the only immigrants who — late in the game, after 1913, when rules became stricter — had a harder time getting in were people like me: Jews, who some immigration officials claimed were shifty. (Perhaps tolerating invocations of Christ at Texas rodeos is one of the costs of our admission.) The exhibition even features a wall with an immigration timeline to which visitors can add their own family’s entry history with handy post-its. The only criticism I have of the exhibition is that it’s heavy on explanatory text, audio, photographs, and reproductions and very light on actual artifacts. A better bet is to head over to the Cattle Raisers Museum, housed in the same building, and into the legacy room, where “legacy drawers” contain photographs as well as personal memorabilia from pioneering cowboys and the occasional cowgirl.

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One of the first things immigrant Charlie Hoffman (left) did after debarking at Galveston Island was to don cowboy gear so he could take a picture to send back home. Jewish immigrants (right) found it harder to gain entrance after 1913, with some officials labeling them slackers.

If you thought the cowboy was an artifact, then you’ve never been to the rodeo. I attended my first on Martin Luther King Day, when the 116-year-old Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo — one of the three largest in the U.S., running through Feb. 4 at the Will Rogers Memorial Center — offered as one of its opening events the Cowboys of Color Rodeo. This wasn’t just about token inclusion; a third of the wranglers who settled the West were cowboys and cowgirls of color. I however felt momentarily excluded with the opening prayer invoking “the Lord,” i.e. Jesus Christ.

I was quickly distracted by the bareback riding, in which the cowboys appear to be surfing the horses while straddling their backs (the legs have to start out over the animals’ shoulders). I was just noting how cruel the tie-down roping seems, with the calves quickly and rudely wrestled to the ground and then bound, including around their necks, when the informative announcer pointed out, “For those of you attending your first rodeo who might be thinking [this is cruel], remember this is where your meat comes from, and to do things like give the cows their medicine and get ’em to the doctor, you gotta rope ’em down.”

More pure — and seeming like more of a collaboration between horse and rider — was the thrilling Pony Express Relay Race, which is just what it sounds like, two relay teams racing around barrels, barely slowing for the hand-off of a rolled up parcel until the final rider drops it into a barrel in the center of the arena. The teams were mixed, cowboys and cowgirls; the prior event, pure barrel racing (with the winner being the fastest to get around the barrels and cross the finish line), was all cowgirls, as young as nine, and all fleet. My biggest thrill came during the bull-riding, when a bull the size of a killer whale tried to bolt from the chute above which I was sitting and into the stands. (“Arts journalist mauled by bull.”) This event still struck me as cruel and, as a Taurus, I found myself rooting for the bulls. Not that the combat isn’t dangerous for the human participants, despite that the points were trimmed from these animals’ horns. The performers who seemed to be putting their lives most at risk were the three ‘clowns.’ I put clowns in quotes because don’t let the make-up, floppy costumes, and wigs fool you: their role is serious, to distract raging bulls from fallen cowboys long enough for the cowboys to amscray. One of these jesters, sporting a multi-colored wig, took up his post in a barrel, ducking into it just before a bull charged and pushed the barrel around the grounds with his horns.

After the rodeo I moseyed (sorry) over to the animal barns, avoiding the ‘swine’ hangar and making straight for the boer goats. Except for the occasional “baaaaaaaaaah,” these animals, about the size of deer and just as pretty with white coats, brown heads, and floppy ears, seemed like they’d make ideal pets. Some even propped themselves up with their fore-legs on the fences of their pens. “Are these used for milk?” I asked a middle-aged woman minding one of the goat pens, meaning “cheese” but not wanting to seem too effete. “Meat,” answered the goat-keeper matter-of-factly. I decided maybe it was time to re-think my hankering for a particular recipe from “The Cowboy Grill” cookbook, edited by Cheryl Rogers-Barnett (Roy Rogers and Dale Evans’s daughter), Ken Beck, and Jim Clark: Johnny Cash’s Barbecued Mexican-Style Fiery Goat.

Finally I left the stock show grounds and gamboled towards the giant blue crop-duster plane hovering over the corner of Montgomery Street, turning left towards the Trinity River. I stopped at the empty lot below the railroad tracks to pour a hot cup of java from my ’60s-era red polka-dot German thermos scored for a buck at a Paris garage sale. (“These days, Tex Ben-Itzak does his wrangling at flea markets.”) A sign by the tracks warns, “Many of these trains have no human conductor and will not stop,” but I still like to look up at the mustard-colored engine cars with “Union Pacific” in red letters over the rusted wheels and imagine there’s a real-life conductor making them march forward and go “choo-choo.” I looked up at the thunder clouds in the big 6 o’clock calico sky and decided they’d dubbed the wrong state “Big Sky Country.” Then I lifted up my dark brown working cowboy boots (Fort Worth garage sale, $10 with bandana) and headed towards the underpass and the Trinity, stepping right into a field of wet cement, a wanna-be cowboy grounded by progress.

AV Gallery (from the Archives): The Political Line — Keith Haring in Paris

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Keith Haring, “Untitled,” April 9, 1985. Personal collection. Acrylic on canvas, 152.4 x 152.4 cm. Copyright Keith Haring Foundation.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2013, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

The monographic Keith Haring exhibition which closes this week-end at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris singularly rescues the signature New York artist of the 1980s from play-land by deliberately placing and arraying the work — in this case, nearly 250 oeuvres executed on canvas, tarpaulins, and even subway walls — in the context of the political engagements that mattered to Haring, as the kid who arrived from Pennsylvania and Holly Golightly-like sketched penises in front of Tiffany’s (see elsewhere in these DI – Arts Voyager Archives) grew into and framed the increasingly harrowing world around him, addressing threats to the environment, Apartheid, racism, the specter of nuclear war, homophobia, and the AIDS epidemic which would take his own life at the age of 31 in 1990. It’s a needed reminder that the apparently fanciful expression, so often imitated since by a generation of gobbling Chelsea regurgitators, distilled a much more considered response to his times. Signifying Haring’s particular attachment to the City of Light, in April Sotheby’s in Paris, in conjunction with the Keith Haring Foundation, even auctioned off some of his work to help pay for the restoration of a mural Haring painted on a wall of the city’s University Necker – Enfants Malades hospital.

In all, the exhibition reveals the textural density and intellectual and art-historical depth behind the deceptively simple line of Haring’s figures and the pronounced colors of his palette. Herewith a sampling.

To receive the rest of the article from the Arts Voyager Archives, first published August 16, 2013, including more images, Arts Voyager & Dance Insider subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Arts Voyager & Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, employees, company, association and collective members, etc.) and receive full access to our  Archive of 2,000 articles by 150 leading critics on performances, film, and art and culture from five continents published from 1998 through 2017. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check or in Euros. Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

moma-parksFrom the exhibition From the Collection: 1960–1969, on view through March 12 at the Museum of Modern Art: Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006). “Harlem Rally, Harlem,  New York,” 1963. Gelatin silver print, 9 3/16 x 13 3/8″ (23.3 x 34 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Photography Fund. © 2016 Gordon Parks Foundation.

‘The Naked Martini’: Next to Leonard, ‘Lights’ dim (While Gatsby’s Green Light shines)

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

Long before the Bolivian soldiers marched through Jay McInerney’s 1984 coke-infused “Bright Lights, Big City,” the demi-Bohemians of John Leonard’s gin-addled “The Naked Martini” stood on the precipice that was 1964, straddling the wall between the space-age bachelor-pad early ’60s and the mind-blowing latter part of the decade, hovering between semi-conciousness and heightened consciousness, the strictures of the ’50s and the freedom of the late ’60s. Which drug might be more dangerous or more enlightening is open to debate — pick your poison — but there’s no question which is the higher literary achievement.

I was drawn by the lurid title of Leonard’s first novel — he’d go on to become better known as a critic of books, as well as television and culture in general, starting with a stint as editor of the New York Times Book Review and going on to write for or edit at the Nation, New York Magazine, Newsday, Harper’s, Life, and many others, also book-ending his career with tenures as drama and literature director at KPFA, the Pacifica station in Berkeley, and on CBS Sunday Morning, surfing the American lit-crit universe from alt-cult to mainstream. “The Naked Martini” telescopes this trajectory in the hero’s meanderings from downtown to uptown while earning his bread in midtown. From the first paragraph (the book’s first part is heralded as “The Gladiators”), which finds Leonard’s protagonist, Brian Kelly, adjourned with his superiors and colleagues from the Madison Avenue ad firm of Schaefner, Kornfeld, Atworthy & Gannymede (SKAG) to Tommy’s Bar — “in the Lexington Avenue foothills,” and which lights up “like a refrigerator” when you enter — already highly marinated in martinis, I expected a Mad-Menesque frolic, and was looking forward to relishing it, not least of all because I’d be doing so from temporary digs in the upper Lexington Avenue foothills some 46 years later.

In fact, young Kelly spends very little time at work; it’s evidently just a landing pad and allowance furnisher for a young man’s first New York follies, which will take him from his downtown Greenwich Village pad and the neighbors and friends who seem to leech off him, as a relatively solid nucleus of their world, to Spanish Harlem, where he picks a fight with some local hoods that lands him in the hospital and gets him fired from the ad agency (a midnight ride on a pilfered horse up Sixth Avenue doesn’t help), and even far afield to Princeton, and the wedding which provides, if not a moral compass for himself, at least a modern morality play, juxtaposing the Jewish bride and her family (they drink Manhattans, reflecting American Jews’ penchant for candied cherries and other sweet concoctions) with the WASP family of the groom Cranston (martinis, Protestant dry), effectively Brian’s Gatsby, whose Bohemian beard ultimately loses out to his patrician soul. (One Princetonian quibble: Leonard places the wedding at the Nassau Inn, but his description — particularly of the hotel’s proximity to the golf course — sounds more like the Princeton Inn, which I know only because I lived there after it became a dormitory, sharing similarly libidinous adventures on the same pastoral terrain.)

This exquisitely narrated penultimate act could almost stand on its own as a quintessentially cross-cultural American drama to match any in Phillip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus”: It ends with the bride — who obligated the groom to marry her after he and his buddies essentially raped her by getting her drunk — announcing to the assembled Protestant royalty, which has more or less stiffed her the whole night, that she actually doesn’t know if Cranston is the father, recounting the fateful night and the many candidates. As for Brian, he ends up being purged: In lieu of the constant stream of Tommy’s martinis, Cranston’s permanently inebriated mother serves him warm gin, insisting he drink though it’s only breakfast time, too early even for Brian, who sneaks out to empty the gin into potted plants, tossing a growing pile of emptied glasses under his car seat. He’s emptying, but as is often the case, not in time: Returning to the city with Jill, the down-to-earth upstairs neighbor whose unemployed leech of a husband abandoned her after she had their baby, he insists on sex even though she’s not in the mood, and doesn’t accede to her need to talk, so she gives up on him. By the time he realizes how much he needs her — after a see-the-light excursion to his preppy fiancé’s New England estate which he flees on a midnight train — it’s too late; Jill’s errant husband has returned, she informs Brian when he calls her.

The ending seems, at least on the surface, almost a throw-away:

“He hung up. Trying to extract himself from the telephone booth, he got his tie caught in the folding door and almost choked himself to death. This was because he was casual, and didn’t wear a tieclip.”

Besides the absence of forced poetry, what I love about this ending — and several other flights of fanciful philosophical thought in “The Naked Martini” — is precisely its semi-obliqueness, which is also what sets it apart from later struggling to come of age in New York first novels such as “Bright Lights, Big City,” and what would later distinguish Leonard as a critic and creator  of offbeat rhapsodies in cultural criticism. This is also what elevates his first book — published when he was just 25 — to the level of literature, unlike the books of the ’80s literary brat pack trio of McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, and Tama Janowitz, which left little to mystery. Anyone can make a martini (Brian’s recipe: Seven parts gin to one part dry vermouth, plus a sliver of lemon); few can concoct literature. (Rarer still those who, like Leonard, could concoct literature out of criticism.)

Post-script, 2-21-2017: Re-reading Leonard’s last paragraph and final sentence, it strikes me that despite the deliberately throwaway tone, this conclusion is not so oblique as it seems. Indeed it evokes another conclusion by another 25-year-old writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and might well be an offering at his shrine and before the grail of the Great American Novel “The Great Gatsby” has represented for succeeding generations. Towards the end of ‘Gatsby,’ the narrator, Nick Carroway, observes, after Gatsby fatally takes the rap for Daisy Buchanan’s running down Myrtle Wilson, that Tom and Daisy were “careless people…. [T]hey smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….” Thus Leonard’s finish seems almost a comic, distorted echo and clin d’oeil commentary on ‘Gatsby”s universe: the absence of a tie-clip contrasting with Gatsby’s many-colored shirts, Brian Kelly’s rather haphazard if not downright botched efforts to protect the women in his universe from the despoiling of other men ultimately defeated by a casualness that almost kills him.

I also can’t help but wonder what John Leonard the erstwhile television critic and astute cultural observer would have had to say about the nexus of these two realms in the cavalcade of Trumperies.

Liberté & Fraternité: Brassens stripped by Sfar

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“Brassens Danse.” ©Joann Sfar and courtesy Cité de la Musique.

brassens-doisneau“Georges Brassens au métro Glaciére avec un sans abri, 1953.” (Georges Brassens at the Metro Glaciere with a homeless man, 1953.) ©Robert Doisneau and courtesy Cité de la Musique.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

If there are four things the French adore, they are: anniversaries, anarchists, comics, and Georges Brassens. The new exhibition at the Cité de la Musique at the parc La Villette in the north of Paris, co-curated by comics giant Joann Sfar (author of “The Rabbi’s Cat” comics series and director of the film “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life”) testifies to all these amours in a giant way, commemorating the 90th anniversary of the birth and 30th of the death of Brassens, France’s signature poet-troubador, in an creatively curated exhibition that uses comics to help revive the anarchist the patina of nostalgia has often obscured.

To receive the rest of the article from the Arts Voyager Archives, first published June 1, 2011, including more cartoons by Joann Sfar, Arts Voyager & Dance Insider subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Arts Voyager & Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, employees, company, association and collective members, etc.) and receive full access to our  Archive of 2,000 articles by 150 leading critics on performances, film, and art and culture from five continents published from 1998 through 2017. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check or in Euros. Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

Vivre Utopié

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Louise Bourgeois in Jonas Mekas’s new “Sleepless Nights Stories.” Image courtesy Jonas Mekas.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

Halfway through “La Commune,” Peter Watkins’s 5-hour, 45-minute tour de force which simultaneously resurrects the insurrectional barricades Parisians erected around their city to stave off a new monarchist-leaning government and tears down the barricades between documentary and fiction, I had to stop and e-mail a Parisian friend to ask if she’d seen the film. My friend — an artist denizen of Belleville, one of the quarters which lead the rebellion — had not even heard of it. This vindicated Watkins as far as the one reservation I have about “La Commune,” that the otherwise educative inter-titles, filling in the basic historical timeline around the events of March – May 1871, sometimes cede to the film-maker’s rants about the obstacles to getting his film distributed in France — even its co-producer the German-French television network Arté screened “La Commune” from 11 at night to 4 in the morning — and claims that the Commune is under-taught in French schools. The media blockade is not incidental, indeed validates the pertinence of a film which resurrects a utopian societal ideal which directly menaces the financial elites.

To receive the rest of this article from the Arts Voyager Archives, first published December 13, 2011, including more images and, in addition to “La Commune,” reviews of Alain Tanner’s “Charles, Dead or Alive” and Jonas Mekas’s “Sleepless Nights,” Arts Voyager & Dance Insider subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Arts Voyager & Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, employees, company, association and collective members, etc.) and receive full access to our Archive of 2,000 articles by 150 leading critics on performances, film, and art and culture from five continents published from 1998 through 2017. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check or in Euros. Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .