Sonnez la matine: La Culture, c’est pas une ‘annexe’

Around the world, French culture is its calling card

“Même si les civilisations successives étaient des organismes, et semblables, la nôtre montrerait deux caractères sans exemple. D’être capable de faire sauter la terre ; et de rassembler l’art depuis la préhistoire.”

— André Malraux, Néocritique*

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

Once upon a time, France’s siren call to the world was its culture, of which the most potent register was its literature. And yet today, this siren call has often been drowned out, or at least muffled — and, at Charlie Hebdo, literally assassinated — by the threat of and acts of terrorism, unfortunately resulting in a state of siege mentality on the part of many. The knee-jerk response to the real and present threat of terrorism in some quarters — in the U.S. as in France — has been to in effect cede to the terrorists by being terrorized, putting up walls, ostracizing the Other, and erecting a citadel we like to think will be impregnable but that risks to swallow us in solipsism. And the understandable and completely justifiable responses of military Defense and verbal Sanction have been under-accompanied by strategies to treat the problem at its roots. To put the question concretely: How to head off that child at risk before s/he becomes a teenager and, in that stage of life so subject to alienation, potentially fertile territory for the manipulation and brainwashing of the ideologues and terrorists?

In France, the tragedy has been that the ‘better offer’ has always been there: In its culture, in ideas, in philosophy, and in the ‘lumieres,’ as they’ve been handed down in the country’s LITERATURE.

To behold this rich heritage and potential anecdote to Obscurantism being so under-exploited has been particularly tragic for an American who from the moment he could have stories read to him has been seduced by the siren call of French and Francophone culture: Babar, “Madeline” (technically not written by a Frenchman, but qualified by its rebel spirit and its luminous setting: PARIS), Tintin and, later, through the lyrics of song, Jacques Brel, Yves Montand, Jacques Dutronc, Serge Gainsbourg…. (Indeed, the first music I remember mimicking is not “Michael row your boat ashore” but “Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques, dormez vous, dormez vous?”) And if we extend the literary rubric to film — also, after all, a form of composition — “The Red Balloon” planted the siren of the Belleville neighborhood of Paris in my young head and heart and, later, Truffaut and Godard made their respective imprints with Gallic right and left brains which mined the poetry in romantic as well as societal strife.

I am not the only American who has been drawn to this heritage. (In some cases, more even than the French themselves. During an initial sojourn in Paris in 2001, accustomed to lines around the block for his films in New York and San Francisco, I was shocked to find that Godard’s “Eloge d’Amour,” fresh from Cannes, was allocated the tiniest screen in the tiniest room of a multiplex near the Luxembourg Garden, where all of 10 people watched his latest experimentations. My French actress friend clutched her head in agonized frustration, while I — at that juncture French illiterate — remained perched on the edge of my seat for the entire picture.)

So you can imagine my chagrin in reading, just before the recent presidential election, New York Times columnist Roger Simon’s “France at the End of Days,” a one-sided portrait of a supposedly crepuscular France in which the Neo-Xenophobes were battling the Neo-Liberals for control of the wheel that would determine the country’s direction for the next five years. (Nowhere in the article was it explained that if the National Front had doubled its support since the last election in 2012, it wasn’t because an additional 17 percent of Frenchmen and women suddenly woke up racists, but because a)like my retired neighbors here in the Southwest of France, they’re weary of making their grocery purchases every week based on what’s on sale, and b) the end run by leaders of both the principal parties around the popular rejection of the European Constitution in 2005 with a Treaty of Lisbon not subject to popular confirmation, capped by Francois Hollande’s running in 2012 as “the enemy of Finance” only to (in the view of some; I’ll take the Fifth) embrace Capitalism after he was elected president left many voters disillusioned with the establishment parties.)

Hollande didn’t do much better with the cultural agenda, all three of his cultural ministers qualified more by their allegiance to the Socialist party than their cultural accomplishments. The low point was a minister who, asked to name her favorite Patrick Modiano work after the latter won the Nobel Prize, couldn’t name a single title, finally explaining that she didn’t have time to read books, as her most famous predecessor André Malraux no doubt jumped out of his grave.

So when Emmanuel Macron, asked during the 2017 presidential campaign about his cultural program, said that a pillar would be expanding library hours at night and on the week-ends, I was encouraged.

In the lower-class, mixed, crime-ridden neighborhood of East Fort Worth, Texas where I lived before returning to France, the library was always packed — most of all with young people, often bilingual. (As was the library’s small collection.)

The Library is a crucial point of First Contact with Culture.

The Library is a social nexus that provides a constructive alternative to hanging out with and getting recruited by gang-bangers.

Or terrorists.

And, unlike many other cultural outlets, it’s free. And it’s accessible, in the neighborhood.

And yet, around the world, library hours have been eviscerated and libraries shuttered for the past 30 years. (In the Anglophone culture, this is what we call Penny-wise, pound-foolish.)

With Emmanuel Macron, elected president May 7 with a 66 percent majority, increasing library hours is not just a pat solution. This is a man who carefully chooses his words. During his presidential debate with National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, after two hours of not taking the bait and remaining calm, he finally called her and her party “parasites.” This was not an ill-considered empty put-down but an exact diagnoses; parasites feed on bodies whose immune systems have been weakened. (Also along the lines of better immunizing the country’s infants, Macron has pledged to cut class size in difficult neighborhoods in half, to 12 students.)

And yet for France, it doesn’t have to be this way. Words — words — build up immune systems. They build up our defenses against ignorance, against intolerance, against fear, against pain, against hate, against ‘fermeture.’ I’d even argue that they forge pretty solid inroads against mortality because, as Albert Moravia once pointed out, they augment our existence laterally with a multitude of other lives… and cultures.

But let’s pause on that word Defense.

In analyzing the cabinet named yesterday by Macron and his new prime minister, Edouard Philippe (also a book maven, having launched book-mobiles around his coastal city of Le Havre), most of the media I audit has been commenting that even if half the 22 members are women, only one, the new minister of armies, was accorded a ‘regalian’ ministry. (I can’t find this word in any of my French dictionaries, so it must be a recent — Franglaise? — innovation of the political pundits.)

One Radio France reporter even grouped the ministry of Culture and Communication with those he dubbed ‘annex’ ministries.

This in France, the cradle of literature.

Never mind that the most ‘regalian’ of French presidents in the 60 years of the Fifth Republic, the man still more likely to be referred to by the French as “the General” than “the president,” Charles De Gaulle, appointed as his first and long-time minister of culture André Malraux, himself a Nobel laureate.

The General understood that Culture was not an ‘annex,’ but a pillar of national defense and an essential component of the foundation of a society. And that the best way to protect a nation’s heritage is not to pillory other cultures but to incorporate them in the national cultural identity. (As for Macron, he did not, as some media here inaccurately reported, say that there was no such thing as French Culture, but that it was rather a question of French cultures.)

Francois Mitterand — another literary president — understood this too, appointing Jack Lang to incorporate contemporary elements into the French cultural vision and agenda. (It was Lang who implemented the now European-wide Fete de la Musique, coming up this June 21, just when we’ve got something to dance about.) As did even Nicolas Sarkozy, appointing to the post Mitterand’s nephew Frederick, whose outsized erudition would certainly qualify him as ‘regalian.’

Another normally astute Radio France commentator alleged Wednesday that Macron, seeking gender equilibrium in prime minister Edouard Philippe’s cabinet, had called a cultural figure and asked him to provide the names of three women who worked in the sector. Setting aside that this allegation may be the product of a ‘mauvaise langue,’ I’d respond: “Et alors?” Admitting the possibility — if the story is true — of a latent sexism in the idea that Culture is a ‘woman’s ministry’ and thus only fit for dames and pansies, isn’t this an improvement on the procedure followed by François Hollande, who seemed to choose his cultural ministers not for their cultural currency but on the bit-coin of party loyalty?

Macron’s eventual choice, Françoise Nyssen, definitely has cultural credibility. The long-time director of Arles-based Actes Sud, founded by her father in 1978 and since grown to one of France’s most respected publishing houses, Nyssen’s authors include Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster, and Kamel Daoud. The author of “Mersaut: Counter-Investigation,” a response to Albert Camus’s “The Outsider,” and an independent thinker unafraid to criticize Occidental or Oriental mores, Daoud has also described Camus himself as the last Outsider, a man with no country. (Following the suicide of her son, Nyssen also founded a school focused on listening to children, the School of Possibilities.)

… Or, I’d argue, multiple countries — like Nyssen, an immigrant whose publishing house excels in promoting authors in translation; thus eminently French and open to the world. Not so anecdotally, Arles itself is best-known outside France for having welcomed Vincent Van Gogh, yet another foreigner who expanded French culture even as it assimilated him. (These days, also not so anecdotally, the Provencial city is home to ATLAS, the country’s leading association for literary translation.)

As have so many of us (assimilated French culture), even those who rarely set foot in France. Take Ludwig Bemelmans, the author of the “Madeline” series of children’s adventures, whose courageous heroine exemplified the Gallic strategy of responding to terror with words during a visit to the Paris zoo:

“To the tiger in the zoo
Madeline just said, ‘Pooh-Pooh.'”**

*Published in “Malraux: Être et Dire,” with texts assembled by Martine de Courcel. Plon, Paris, 1976. Copyright André Malraux.

**From “Madeline,” copyright Ludwig Bemelmans, 1939, renewed Madeleine Bemelmans and Barbara Bemelmans Marciano, 1967.

Europe at the Crossroads: Portes Ouvertes de Belleville & the Prè Saint-Gervais, Performers from Around the World — Artists Converge on Paris; Help the Arts Voyager be there

Parce que oui, la Culture française – comme d’ailleurs tous les cultures qui déferle vers Paris – appartient au monde qu’elle a si souvent rayonné, et il faut refusé de la laisse etre confiné et sequestré par les forces de l’Obscurantisme.

For subscription and sponsorship opportunities starting at $69, contact Paul Ben-Itzak at artsvoyager@gmail.com.

 The Open Studios or Portes Ouvertes de Belleville  and those of the Prè Saint-Gervais, performers including Berlin’s Constanza Macras, Portugal’s Vera Mantero, a major exhibition devoted to Camille Pissarro paintings rarely seen in France, Belgium’s Alain Platel, Spain’s Israel Galvan, Crystal Pite — these are just a few of the major cultural happenings in Paris and environs this Spring that the Arts Voyager and Dance Insider will be able to cover with your support.

Many of you first read about these internationally renowned artists and events for the first time in English in our journals and, continuing our 20-year mission of bringing you stories not told elsewhere, we’ll also be reporting on Giulio D’Anna, a Netherlands-based Italian choreographer whose “OOOOOOO” is inspired by Zagreb’s “Museum of Broken Relationships,” and Jasna Vinovrski’s “Lady Justice,” addressing the relationship between justice and art. Speaking of art, we’d also like to bring you Yasmina Reza’s “Art” as interpreted at the Theatre de la Bastille by the pioneering Belgium theater company STAN . And of intersections between art and society, this year’s Chantiers (Building Projects) d’Europe festival at the Theatre de la Ville features countries in the front lines of the refugee crisis, notably in six short films from Greece addressing this topic and a public brainstorming session with artists from six countries. Most of all we’ll be able to bring you into the studios of the 200+ artists taking part in the Open Studios of Belleville — a neighborhood which in its very MULTI-CULTURAL contours and dimensions provides the best retort to the cloistered vision of French culture represented by the National Front. (We share the FN’s stated pride in traditional French culture; we simply argue that this definition is too limited and does not do justice to the grandeur and ouverture to the world that has always been French culture.) Click here to read our coverage of last year’s Open Studios / Portes Ouvertes de Belleville.

Already a subscriber or sponsor? Please forward this story to your colleagues. Want to become one? Contact us at paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Subscribers receive full access to our 20-year archive of more than 2,000 reviews by 150 leading artist-critics of performances on five continents, plus five years of the Jill Johnston Letter as well as Arts Voyager art galleries, film reviews, and travelogues from Paris, New York, and across the U.S.. Sponsors receive this plus advertising on The Dance Insider, and/or the Arts Voyager.

France, too, is at the crossroads. On May 7  the country will choose between the fear represented by the National Front and the hope and optimism represented by Emmanuel Macron. Between closure and opening. In the campaign between these two ‘cultures’ that has raged in this country for the past two years, CULTURE has been all but forgotten. (Among Macron’s refreshing ideas: More library hours.) With your help, we will be able to do our part in restoring some light to what has always been France’s principal calling card around the world. Our calling for more than 20 years.Many thanks and

Cheers,

Paul
artsvoyager@gmail.com

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.

Witness

pinter-belarusBelarus Free Theare in “Being Harold Pinter.” Photo copyright Alexandr Paskannoi.

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

(Author’s note, 2-8-17: On Tuesday, Amnesty International reported that an estimated 13,000 people had been killed by the Syrian government in Syrian prisons in the first four years of the Syrian war. On Friday, United States president Donald Trump attempted to bar the doors of the United States to refugees and other visa-holders from seven predominantly Muslim countries, ranging from Syrian refugees to Iranian doctoral students to 12-year-old Yemenite girls whose parents are American citizens, prompting a national, multi-colored, multi-gendered revolt. On Saturday, addressing a gathering in front of the Stonewall Bar in New York, where in 1969 a raid by authorities ignited the Rainbow Revolution on the same day Judy Garland died, Sex in the City actress Cynthia Nixon, speaking after Egyptian out of the closet refugee Omar Sharif Jr., proclaimed, “We are allies united by our Otherness… And if we didn’t know it before, thanks to Donald Trump we know it now.” All of this evidence that the subject of the piece below, first published on January 14, 2011, is today more crucial and relevant than ever.) (Source for Nixon citation: Democracy Now.)

NEW YORK — In his 2005 work “Puur,” which I caught in Paris that year (see elsewhere in the Dance Insider Archives), the Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus promised “an act of resistance in the face of the violence of the world.” In fact he did little more than replicate the brutality — including acts of barbarism against children — on film, as live dancers writhed about on stage. The film was simply repulsive, the dancers simply not credible; what did they know about torture? And where was the resistance, let alone the tools for resistance, or even proposed mechanisms for coping with such violence? If I’d been familiar with the work then, I might have thought of Devlin’s interrogation of Rebecca in Harold Pinter’s two-person play “Ashes to Ashes”: “What authority do you think you yourself possess which would give you the right to discuss such an atrocity?” To which Rebecca responds: “I have no such authority. Nothing has ever happened to me. Nothing has ever happened to any of my friends. I have never suffered. Nor have my friends.”

By contrast, the members of the Belarus Free Theatre, who last night performed “Being Harold Pinter” at La MaMa, where it continues through Sunday with an added performance Monday at the Public Theater, have authority, authenticity, and even Harold Pinter, a melange of whose plays, notably “Ashes to Ashes” — as well as his 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance lecture (see elsewhere in these DI Archives) — they mash up with actual testimony from survivors of repression in Belarus, one of the last remaining Soviet-style dictatorships in the former Soviet Union. The work is also a testament to Pinter’s authenticity in that sometimes it’s difficult to tell which sections and text are drawn from his plays and which come from the reality of the country the performers had to literally escape from just to get to New York and present the piece, part of the Under the Radar festival curated by Mark Russell. That they knew they had a venue waiting for them which would attract an audience which would make their escape worth it is also a tribute to Ellen Stewart, who founded La MaMa 50 years ago and whose demise the night before, at the age of 91, was announced on stage last night prior to the performance by Russell and his La MaMa colleagues, each tolling a single bell before they surrendered the stage.

To receive the rest of the article, 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 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances on five continents 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 .

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cubaaab1-smallThis afternoon on French public radio, a high school student said that if she could vote in next May’s presidential election, she’d choose the Front National, because at least Martine Le Pen’s party would close the borders and keep the foreigners out so they’d stop attacking France. (Never mind, as a classmate pointed out, that the majority of those who have massacred more than 236 French and other nationals over the past two years here have been French.) All the more reason to give thanks for associations that continue to champion crossing borders and frontiers like the Ateliers d’Artistes de Belleville and L’Un dans l’Autre, the former of which is hosting an exhibition of the fruits of the latter’s May residence and collaboration with the Cuban artists of the Espacio Altamira in Havana. The exhibition runs December 8 – 11 in the AAB’s gallery at 1 rue Picabia in Belleville, Paris, with an opening night vernissage from 7 p.m. on. Featured artists include: Guillaume Berga, Luis Blanco, Sigolène de Chassy, Jorge Braulio Rodríguez, Jean-Christophe Cibot, Edel Bordon, Sarah Dugrip, Pablo Victor Bordon Pardo, Nicolas Dupeyron, Ignacio Carballo, Laurence Geoffroy, Michel Deschapells, Patrizia Horvath, Inès Garrido, Hector D. Palacios, Raul Villullas, Yamilé Pardo, Aissa Santiso, and Catherine Olivier, an Arts Voyager featured artist who took the bottom copyrighted photo of the collective work “Trinidad.”  The top photo of the collective work “La Rampa” was taken by and is copyright Sarah Dugrip. — Paul Ben-Itzak

 

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Stereotype or not, the mercenary reputation of some art merchants — or gallerists, if you prefer — hasn’t much improved in the 60 years since Michel Ragon‘s novel “Trompe-l’oeil” pilloried them as arbitrary taste-makers ready to ruin an artist over a caprice. But they can also be capable of not just unveiling new talent but re-awakening interest in forgotten figures. Such was the role of Jean-Claude Riedel, who after re-discovering the Franco-Chinese denizen of Montparnasse Sanyu in the middle of the 1960s — Sanyu died in 1966 — championed him for the next four decades from his gallery on the rue Guénégaud in Paris. “The importance of Jean-Claude Riedel in the post-humous recognition of Sanyu cannot be over-estimated,” explains Rita Wong, author of the three catalogues raisonnés on the artist. “Of the 257 paintings repertoried in the first volume of the catalogue raisonné, more than half passed through his hands.” In China and southeast Asia, some of Sanyu’s paintings can go for as much $10 million. The 45 drawings from Riedel’s collection to be dispersed in Artcurial’s December 6 sale marking the 50th anniversary of Sanyu’s death — and on exhibition at the auction house’s Paris headquarters December 1 – 5 — are estimated at much more modest prices, starting in the high four figures. “Sanyu’s paintings are today impossible to find, and collectors are crying for his works on paper,” said Bruno Jaubert, Artcurial’s director of Impressionist and Modern Art. “Jean-Claude Riedel’s collection is exceptional.” Left: Poster for a Sanyu exhibition organized at the Galerie Jean-Claude Riedel. Right: Sanyu (1911 -1966), “Femme au chapeau bleu.” Watercolor and ink on paper, 46 x 30 cm. Collection Jean-Claude Riedel. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 20,000 – 30,000 Euros. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial. — Paul Ben-Itzak

Cross-Country, a Memoir of France, 20: The Man with the Child in his Eyes

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”                    – F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”

“He’s here again: The man with the child in his eyes.”                                                                       – Kate Bush

 By & Copyright 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

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In an old  house in Paris, les paradises reel

“She loves books,” I insisted, struggling to get Pierre’s attention. “She’s serious. She’s got eyes to die for. She appreciates that I’m a writer.”

Briskly shelving cellophane-sealed histories of art and philosophy, squeezing dust-covered profiles of anarchist agitators and existential theorists in between musty biographies of Belle Epoch clowns and Front Populaire officials, carrying whole rows of obscure scientific revues from the balustrade overlooking the Seine lapping at the banks of the Ile St. Louis across the way — where Gauthier and Baudelaire once threw lavish hashish parties and Camille Claudel plummeted into “the years of darkness” — to his three bruised dark green metal stalls, occasionally brushing his long stringy pony-tailed graying brown hair away from his John Lennon glasses or flicking the soot off the sleeves of his Tang-colored jumpsuit, not even taking time to glance at the fathomless river rippling under the reflections of the crepuscular Sun, Pierre didn’t seem to be listening to my rapturous account of my first dinner date with Emilie, who I’d met at his 40th birthday fete near the Place Edith Piaf.

In Henry James’s “The Ambassadors,” Lambert Strether takes a break from trying to rescue a friend’s errant son from the jaws of a man-eating Parisienne to troll for literary treasures in the bookstands lining both banks of the Seine, finally scoring a complete volume of the works of Victor Hugo, poet-champion of les miserables and exiled political opponent of Napoleon III whose anguished militating against the death penalty from an island in the English Channel stretched even across the Atlantic to plead mercy for the abolitionist John Brown. If it’s true that, as pointed out by Robert Badinter – who as Mitterand’s attorney general would fulfill Hugo’s dream of decapitating the guillotine a century after his death – France is not so much the country of the Rights of Man as the country which declared the Rights of Man, it was Hugo picking up the mantle of Voltaire before passing it on to Zola who would try to ford the abyss between the declarations and the deeds. The gap between the piss-poor metier of bouquiniste – Pierre’s — and that of published author, by contrast, had frequently been bridged. Michel Ragon, the most cultivated man alive in France today (as of this writing, in late 2016), got his start as a bouquiniste before becoming the country’s premiere critic of art and architecture in the second half of the 20th century, as a side oeuvre keeping a log of proletarian movements that culminated in “La Memoir des Vaincus” (the memoir of the vanquished) the loosely fictional biography of a sort of Zelig among the anarchists or, more specifically, anarcho-syndicalists (anarchist labor organizers). (There’s a strain of anarchism in even the most encadred of French souls; as I write this, French policemen and women – the very embodiment of State order —  are defying both their government and their unions by marching for more modern means and the right to shoot in self-defense.)  Léo Malet – who was baptized by the anarchists and accompanied the surrealists before inventing Nestor Burma, the down-at-the-mouth French answer to Philip Marlowe, a poor man’s Maigret unafraid to dive into the muck of the Seine to catch a bad guy, whose rich vernacular and poetic vocabulary make Simenon look like Hergé and who left a trail of bodies in each of the 15 arrondissements in which his New Mysteries of Paris were set — was rewarded for this fidelity to the city with a bouquiniste’s concession, only to give it up after a few months because “I preferred reading the books to selling them.” And when another Léo, Carax – the bad boy of French cinema – wanted to demonstrate how far off the deep end the hero of his 1986 “Mauvaise Sang” had plunged after agreeing to steal a sample of HIV-contaminated blood with Juliette Binoche and Michel Piccoli, he had him break into a bouquiniste’s box after roaming the fog-addled bridges of the Seine in a midnight delirium. It was about the most fragile target one could pick; Pierre supported his metier de coeur by working part-time as a museum security guard, further trimming his expenses by jumping Metro turn styles.

So when I bought my first art book from Pierre, a tome on Impressionism published in the 1950s (the ideal epoch for the quality of the reproductions) with a portrait of Berthe Morisot as painted by her brother-in-law Manet on the cover, it was as if I had procured a part of Paris history directly from one of its guardians, another way to insert myself into the city’s lore.

Finally padlocking the last of the rusty boxes and starting off at a clipped pace for “Le chope des compagnons,” the bar across the street from his stand and the Hotel de la Ville, where he’d promised to introduce me to an Italian mason who specialized in tombstones (my dance magazine wanted to restore what at that juncture we still believed was the ballerina Taglioni’s dilapidated grave in the Montmartre cemetery, only to learn later from Edgar Allen Poe that the mother of pointe was actually buried in the Pere Lachaise sepulcher of the Bonapartiste ex-husband who’d barred her from the domicile congugale when she refused to stop dancing), Pierre scoffed, “Ecoute, it’s not you she’s interested in. She’s a little girl from the provinces set loose in Paris. For her you’re the American —  you’re exotique. If it doesn’t cost you anything, pourquoi pas? Mais fait gaffe:  Already she’s taking advantage of Marcel.” Marcel was the fellow bouquiniste who’d been putting Emilie up since she’d debarqued from Toulouse. “She was supposed to stay for a week-end, already she’s been there for three weeks. He has a thing for her, and she’s abusing his kindness.” As with his attempts to debunk the authenticity of Sarah Bernhardt’s ornate personal mirror, which I’d recently purchased from a Bohemian couple at a Montmartre garage sale, Pierre seemed bent on denying the legitimacy of my burgeoning French connections, be they anchored in the past or present. For me however it was clear that his skepticism derived from too many years of seeing tourists leaf through his precious books – the cellophane wrappers were meant to discourage such marauding —  without buying anything, while he paid his rent watching the same Philistines photograph themselves in front of the museum masterpieces he guarded.

“She’s pretty helpless, Pierre. She needs a friend. And as for taking advantage of Marcel, it’s not her fault if she can’t find work. She’s a social worker with ado’s at a time when the government has just cut 8,000 aide jobs from the schools.”

“Okay, Candide! Fait comme tu veut.  Just don’t come crying to me afterwards. The problem with you Americans is you’re too romantic about France.  You think every waif you encounter wandering the quays has just stepped out of the pages of Les Miserables, is harboring the soul of Piaf, and is looking for a Marcel Cedran to protect her. And you don’t even like boxing.”

“Dans une vieux maison a Paree

Ont vecu  12 petites filles

dans deux etroite files.”

Filles,” (sniff), “doesn’t rhyme with files,” Emilie pointed out with nasally muted contentiousness before taking a sip of chicken soup with approximated matzo balls. Unable to find Manischevitz, I’d bought a box of matzo crackers (or pain d’azyme) imported from Oran — the Algerian city on a hill in which Camus had set “The Plague,” which hosted a large Jewish colony — and pulverized them to compose the body of the balls, pulling out the major gourmet artillery to lure Emilie to my petite coin de Paradis on the rue de Paradis when she’d wanted to cancel our rendez-vous, pleading an incipient cold. “I’ll make you a big pot of hot chicken soup with matzo balls.”

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?”

 “It’s like Jewish penicillin.”

 “You see? It’s like I told you, your Jewish genes are trés important to you.”

“It has nothing to do with my Jewish genes,” I insisted. “It’s my California roots. My father built one of the first Nouveau California Cuisine restaurants in San Francisco, and my mother did the cooking. The only difference is her matzo balls were made of whole wheat.”

Pourquoi pas tofu?”

“She was Old School Nouveau California Cuisine.”

“If I drink the soup, it will make me Jewish?” French humour often being more refined than American, I never knew whether Emilie was kidding.

“It won’t make you Jewish, but it might make you less blueish.” Getting no response – the “Yellow Submarine” film reference escaping her, or maybe she just didn’t get my own sense of humour – I added, “It might help your cold.”

Emilie was now perched primly on the futon with her delicate fingers clasped between her knees, looking thinner in a somber brown skirt over black tights, a light-weight tan pullover not helping her ghostly, wan pallor. In an effort to rally her spirits – the soup had only increased the sniffling, and I was having trouble charming her —  I’d pulled out my Madeline omnibus. Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline – the hero of a series of children’s stories set in Paris which no one in France has ever heard of, just as many have never heard of “The Red Balloon” — had been the obsession of Mimi Kitagawa, my childhood best friend who’d turned over in her crib on Liberty Street in San Francisco in 1964 at the age of three and a half and breathed her last breath. During a desperate late-night passage in Greenwich Village in 1997, reeling from a push-and-pull, now I love you, now I don’t relationship with an exotic modern dancer-contortionist and meandering up Broadway in search of salvation, I’d ended up at the Strand (“8 miles of books, millions of bargains”), where a copy of the Madeline collection had beckoned to me from a display shelf near the ceiling, which I took as a hail-Mary from Mimi, by then my guardian angel. Later, whenever the ameritune of past experience threatened to blind me to present possibilities, I’d try to let Mimi become the child taking over my perspective (in Californese: “I’d channel her”), and remind myself that I had a responsibility to live my life for two.

I was now (we’re back on the rue de Paradis, in October 2004) attempting to translate the first Madeline tale into French to make it legible for Emilie, or at least get a rise out of her with my maladroit bungling.

Filles,” Emilie was pointing out, “Is pronounced ‘fee’; files,” French for ‘lines,’ “is pronounced ‘feeel.’ So in fact, Monsieur Paul” – she looked up from the book to emphasize the point with her eyes – “they do not rhyme.” Seeing my deflated disappointment – and realizing I was doing my valiant best to distract her from the cold — she added, this time with a slight upturn to her lips and an accompanying humour in her eyes to indicate she was being ironic, “Et pour ma part, je commence a perdre le file,” the latter phrase meaning ‘lose the thread.’

Dans deux FEEEEEEEEEEEL etroites donc, ils ont coupé leur pain,” or broke their bread, I continued, “et ont lavé leurs teeth,” which I emphasized by pointing to Bemelmans’s simple sketch of the 12 girls aligned on either side of the orphanage dinner table brushing their teeth, “avant de se mis au LITH,” I concluded, adding the lisp to “lit,” the French word for ‘bed,’ to get the rhyme with ‘teeth.’

Turning the page to a double-spread demonstrating the girls’ attitudes towards, respectively, the forces of good and those of evil, I translated “They smiled before the good” as “Devant le bon, ils se sont rejoui” to get the rhyme with my translation of “and frowned on the bad“:  “Tandis que devant le mal, ils aviez que du mepris.

Pas mal,” Emilie admitted, finally smiling through the sniffles. “But I don’t understand why for the good he draws a picture of a rich woman feeding a carousel horse in front of les Invalides – “

“Maybe it’s Napoleon’s horse?” I offered feebly, Bonaparte’s ashes being stored at the army museum.

“And maybe you lead me to Waterloo! Et apres?”

I continued reading and translating until the page on which Madeline, after an emergency appendectomy, wakes up in a hospital room full of flowers.

Putting her thin fore-finger on one of the pictured vases, Emilie complained, “She gets all those flowers for her appendix, and you have nothing for me?”

Au contraire! So, my belle-mere has a boutique in San Francisco where she sells exotic soaps, shampoos, bubble-baths, and body oils.  It’s actually how she and my father met; her store was across the street from his restaurant.”

Ah bon?” This had spiked her interest, as I’d cleverly maneuvered food, perfume, and romantic rendez-vous  into the same sentence.

“My step-mom – er, belle-mere – actually has a French last name. So you could say I’m part French.”

She smiled, if just with her eyes.

“Anyway, I have something she sent me that I want to give you.” Even though I’d asked my step-mom to send me the wild rose body oil specifically for such an occasion, I was trying to casualize the gift so as to not scare Emilie away. Normally I’d pretend to pull such small packages out of my victim’s ear, but the last time I’d tried that trick (inherited from my grandpa in Miami Beach, a liquor salesman, who used to do it with pennies or his wide gold ring with the oval black stone), the recipient had shrieked, thinking I was plucking a bee out of her bonnet, dissipating the ambiance. So this time I merely pulled the present, enveloped in bubble-wrap, out of my pocket.

“It’s very sweet of you,” Emilie said after twisting the cap off the miniscule glass tube and taking a whiff, patting and looking down at my hand to avoid looking me in the eyes. “If you don’t mind I will save it for later, because it could make me sick if I put it on now with my cold.”

“Speaking of roses,” I said, jumping to the stereo to cue “La Vie en Rose,”  “Would Mademoiselle care to dance?” Looking up noncommittally at my offered hand, which at that moment felt to me like a gorilla’s, she tentatively placed her downy palm in mine  and rose with an effort. In theory, waltzing with a French girl to Piaf singing “La Vie en Rose” in my own Paris apartment on the rue de Paradis across the street from where Pissarro  and Morisot learned to paint from Corot should have felt like a dream fulfilled, but my predominant sensation as I strained my back over Emilie’s doll-like hunched shoulders was the memory of dancing with Jocelyn Benford at the Lowell High School 1976 sophomore dance (“I need someone to ride the bus home with,” Jocelyn had explained, counting on my junior high crush still lingering), our ersatz silk shirts sticking sweatily together, broken up only by the ridged outline of Jocelyn’s bra, as we rotated to Earth Wind & Fire singing “Reasons.” As this French girl and I spun slowly on Paradis, the rose light-bulb I’d switched on coronating the reflection of our faces in Sarah Bernhardt’s abalone encrusted beveled mirror with a velvet aureole, Emilie felt even more fragile and fleeting in my American grizzly-bear grasp than that long ago 14-year-old.