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The Buzz, 6-18: Divine Guidance
Respecting Bernhardt's legacy at her theater

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2009 Paul Ben-Itzak

PARIS -- As historical French cultural icons often seem to resonate more with me than they do with French people, I guess I wasn't expecting that Sarah Bernhardt would mean as much to Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, the newish director of the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, as she means to me, with what feels like my almost occult connection to the Divine One. (Most recently, I found myself the custodian of her personal mirror.) I was nonetheless shocked by his answer to the question I posed at last week's after-party for the opening night of Ea Sola's "Le Corps Blanc," seen at the Theatre les Abbesses, also run by the Theatre de la Ville and thus Demarcy-Mota. So while it may be impolite -- even unethical -- to publish remarks made at a party where I was a guest, his downplaying of Bernhardt's legacy seems so directly related to the way theater is being trashed in dance performances at Sarah Bernhardt's theater right now that it needs to be aired.

I'd asked Demarcy-Mota -- whose metier is theater directing -- how it felt to be running the theater where Bernhardt once reigned. "She wasn't the only one," he said. "There were others."

As we Americans say: Excuse me? There is Sarah. And then there are all the rest. Sarah Bernhardt set the modern standard for acting, and thus for theater, not just in France but around the world. There are many areas where France claims, with some dubiousness, predominance. And yet in the theater, there is no question of Bernhardt's predominance. Why do so many young French theater artists seem so ready to denigrate, or at least minimize, this heritage?

If you're wondering what this question has to do with dance, in the context of the current season of the theater run by Demarcy-Mota -- the theater that Sarah Bernhardt put on the map when it went by her name -- it has everything to do with dance. I've now been to three consecutive 'dance' shows co-programmed by Demarcy-Mota and his immediate predecessor, two at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt and one at its Abbesses theater in Montmartre, which not only featured lots of talking -- fine, a case can be made for this -- but in which the script and/or the acting was just sub-standard. In two of the cases, Meg Stuart (reviewed by me here for ExploreDance.com) and Wim Vandekeybus, the 'acting' was undertaken by dancers untrained at it, and in both of those cases, delivered in English without subtitles at a French theater. (Stuart, an American who's worked in Europe for 15 years, told me later that no one told her it would be an issue. It may have been one to some of the 100 people who walked out before the end of the show; perhaps they weren't expecting to encounter a language barrier at a dance performance in a French theater.) But last week's performance of "Le Corps Blanc" (about which I'll have more to say later on ExploreDance.com) was the most embarrassing, featuring performers reciting the words of a legendary French thinker, Etienne de La Boetie, in a tone so flat and devoid of cadence I thought I was back in my French for foreigners class. (The issue isn't that the readers were foreigners, the issue is that they read the text without any inflection, thus effectively neutering it by robbing it of any theatrical texture.)

So Mr. Demarcy-Mota thinks that Sarah Bernhardt "wasn't the only one," and that "there were others." I beg to differ. And I beg him -- I beg him -- to be more vigilant about not debasing the theater which the Divine one established as a Divine temple for high theatrical art with embarrassing spectacles like the acting and writing we've seen in recent dance shows at the theater that is her legacy to him, and where his custodianship has much broader implications than mine of her mirror. I ask him to remember that he wouldn't have a job, or at least not this particular job, if not for Sarah Bernhardt, and the best way he can honor her gift to him is to live up to her legacy as it pertains to theater -- even in dance shows.

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