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The Buzz, 6-1: Of Retro and Retrospectives
Graham Dancer Mecene Returns to the Guinguette; Mills Dances Godard in Soho; Rainer Films Feted in the East Village

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

PARIS and NEW YORK -- I am always in search of the eternal France, the Paris d'autrefois which seems ever more elusive today. It's one of the reasons I haunt the roving brocante (a cross between a flea market and an antiques fair, similar to what you might find around Chelsea on a given Sunday). This week-end I scored a record player in a valise, complete with speaker in the cover and able to play 78s, for 13 Euros or about $17, plus two baby blue formica chairs (7 Euros) to go with my blue formica table, a green-plaid '50s-vintage thermos and other artifacts. I just missed a late-'50s set of multi-colored wooden petanque balls in their own wooden carrying case, but the twinkle in the eyes of the young French man who scored them for 20 Euros was fair compensation -- just to see a young French person with nostalgia for souvenirs French. On my way back from the backside of the 18th arrondisement, I found a nook beneath a classic Montmartre staircase and street-lamp, shaded by chestnut trees, and sat down on one of my chairs to make a picnic. When I returned chez moi, I couldn't figure out how to get the needle of my new record player to drop enough to touch the records, so I simply stacked them -- as we used to do in other times -- until they reached the needle, and placed a Charles Trenet record on the turntable. The Technics turntable plugged into my modern stereo system may provide a fuller sound, but listening to vintage French music -- or vintage American jazz -- on my new/old record player is like nostalgia twice-over. Not only the music, but the sound and the means of hearing the sound take me back.

I tried to continue the search Monday -- a holiday here, for Pentecost, although it too will be gone next year, eliminated as part of the government's plan to better prepare for the next heat wave (don't ask) -- taking my picnic by the Medici fountain at the Luxembourg Gardens. They often have music in the gardens on the week-ends or holidays, but it's invariably neither chanson nor even French. Yesterday, this timeless Parisian setting was yanked into the present by the strains of an American high school band playing the themes from the Flintstones and Hogan's Heroes. Forget about finding traditional music at the Bastille Day fetes; so far as I've discovered, it's strictly bad '80s techno.

And if you think you'll find vintage French music at a modern dance concert in France -- au contraire! If it's a post-modern concert, you'll lucky to find any music at all.

You might just have to leave France to find a French person who appreciates French music. At least, this is the profile of Virginie Mecene, who grew up along the Marne and who now dances for the Martha Graham company. For the Marymount Manhattan College season of the Martha Graham Ensemble opening Thursday, Mecene has choreographed "La Guinguette," which recalls the dance-concert-cafes that used to dot the Seine and the Marne (where several are still to be found, Mecene assures me). "I wanted to represent the atmosphere of the guinguettes during the time between the two world wars," she says. "I am using some old French songs, sung by Jean Gabin, Lina Margy, Georges Guetary, and Mary Jose, and music by Leo Petit and Jacques Bolognese." These artists rose to fame mainly through the guinguettes, although Gabin is today chiefly remembered as a titan of French film from the early '30s to the '60s -- you may have seen him in Renoir's "Grand Illusion," among other films. (The name "guinguette," by the way, may be traced to the manner of rancid wine served at some of the venues, a sort of "petit vin" verte or green, also known as ginguet. For this and other guinguettisms, go here.) Also on the program at Marymount's Theresa Lang Theater Thursday through Saturday are Graham's "Adorations," "Diversion of Angels," and "El Penitente," plus the duet from the film "A Dancer's World." For performance details and ticket information, please click here.

If finding vintage French tunes played live here is not so easy as you might imagine, try looking for old French movies. Sure, they pop up, but not with anywhere near the regularity of entire festivals devoted to Woody Allen, Billy Wilder, the Western, and other American artists or genres. (The Cinematheque Francaise, just down the street from me on the Grands Boulevards, succumbed most of last summer to vampires.) Even the brainy post-post-modern kids who experiment at the Menagerie de verre, when they decided to render homage to the cinema, chose kung-fu flicks over Jean-Luc Godard. J-LG may be too heady for them; shortly after I arrived here in the summer of 2001, I dragged my actress friend Sabine to catch the master's latest, "L'eloge d'amour," which had just been released at Cannes. (The film starts at the end of the story and progresses to its beginning; one half is shot in black and white, the other in digital color, which Godard messes with.) There were all of ten people in the tiny projection room. Notwithstanding that I had but a passing acquaintance with the French language at that time and she had mastered it, Sabine spent most of the picture pulling her hair out in frustration, while I remained riveted to the edge of my seat.

I'm not the only American fascinated by Godard. Take the choreographer Tiffany Mills, who this week-end at the Joyce Soho shows excerpts of her work in process, "Godard." "I am fascinated with the process of filmmaking," Mills tells me. "I am interested in the techniques used to create and edit film and Jean-Luc Godard is high on my list of master filmmakers." So, she has been systematically viewing J-LG's films, in chronological order, and has been "particularly taken" by "Le Mepris" (in its English release, "Contempt") -- "his use of the camera -- splicing, jump-cuts -- as well as his ability to make the audience become part of the film, by turning the camera towards us at times." Like other of Godard's films, "Le Mepris" is both a film with its own integral subject and a comment on film-making, with much of the setting involving the mythical filming of a Fritz Lang epic on Homer's mythic "Odyssey."

For Mills's Godard odyssey, John Zorn has created a jagged score, "an urban, fantastic, nonlinear story," explains the choreographer. "Three voices form a multi-bodied narrator. An American newscaster's voice breaks up over a poor signal; the jingle of a merry-go-round loses power to the vibrations of an electric guitar and shouting French Count; a woman's voice whispers in Mandarin. The tone for the dance will draw upon Zorn's colorful, fractured composition." I'm always leery to quote the promise of a choreography before seeing the work, but it seems so rare these days to hear of a multi-media dance work which doesn't forget its dance origins that I'll do so here. Says Mills, the dance in this dance "will weave together turbulent relationships through physical partnering and precise gestures that dip into the subconscious. A partnership between two men continually breaks off. A fight turns into a caress. A brush across the cheek becomes a clutching for an eye. This duet will splinter as another emerges."

The other promising element of Mills's approach -- and a promise is all it can be before one's seen the work -- is that rather than pretend to suddenly be a multi-phore expert in film, she's commissioned a specialist, Ela Troyano. "She shares my interest in Godard, and will be creating a video installation which will be inspired by his film and some of his stunning images, characters and relationships developed on screen."

By the way, the relationship is not one-way. Godard also gives respect to artists beyond just his own medium. In contrast to Cannes jury president Quentin Tarantino, who chose to be blissfully ignorant about the crisis facing France's Intermittent or freelance performing artists and technicians, Godard in effect gave over his Cannes press conference to them.

The Tiffany Mills Company, with collaborators John Zorn and Ela Troyano, presents "Godard (excerpts-in-process)" and other work this Thursday through Sunday at the Joyce Soho. For more information, please call 212-334-7479.

Of course, there are some dancemakers who become so fascinated with film they switch mediums. Such a one was Yvonne Rainer, the seminal Judson choreographer who went on to become a seminal filmmaker, shooting 12 features or short films. "She is certainly a choreographer who had as many film reference points as choreographic," writes Erin Brannigan in "Senses of Cinema," "evidenced in the use of projection in her stage work and her erudite use of cinematic quotation in her film work. What links Rainer's dance and film work is an intense critique of disciplinary conventions and a profound interrogation of the role of performance. Performance is central to all aspects of Rainer's work; she herself refers to performance as the subject matter in her films."

One film which features both of Rainer's worlds is the 1972 "Lives of Performers," in which the choreographer-filmmaker moves not entirely seamlessly (but that's one of the charms) between backstage banter rich with allusion to other Judson-era personnae and romance, loosely a love triangle with Valda Setterfield (or, as the Pompidou Centre program had it when I saw the film here last year, "Valava Betterfield) at its center. Where the other performers are garbed strictly a la mode pedestrian (Rainer as a classic hippy chic, a headband intersecting her long hair), Setterfield sports an elegant, low-cut black evening dress for the drama within the film, including the finale, "Lulu in 35 shots."

"Lives of Performers" will be part of the Yvonne Rainer Retrospective opening June 11 at the Anthology Film Archives at 2nd & 2nd in New York. (Who's getting nostalgic now?!) To check the complete schedule, which includes an appearance by Rainer elle-meme before the June 17 screening of "Privilege," please visit Anthology's web site.



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