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The Buzz, 10-5: Let Them Eat Dance!
Northern American Exposure: France Moves at the Bastille

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- My pal and colleague Jen Macavinta, late of Pilobolus and recently of here, made a point of telling me I was invited as a friend, not a critic, to her French choreographic debut Saturday night, in the shadow of the Opera Bastille. And yet the stakes -- just as they were at that earlier storming of the Bastille -- are simply too important not to write about what happened. We're in the midst of a battle to liberate Dance from the Conceptual Prison in which some (though not all) of France's presenters, funders, pedagogues and managers have locked her up. By 'we' I don't mean Jen -- who would not be so cheeky, and who, after all, is 'just a dancer' who wants to move -- but a French audience which has begun to reject the dance-lean diet presenters are force-feeding it, and is starting to demand real dance in their dance performances. They showed their dance-craving colors again in their receptive response to Jen's "Rest," more proof of their unrest.

The performance took place in the cadre of Off Nuit Blanche, Nuit Blanche (White Night) being the inappropriately named first Saturday night in October -- inevitably chilly -- when, by decree of the city's out Socialist (out sexually I mean; socialists have been out for at least 70 years in France, gays for about five) Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, Paris tries to be New York and stay up all night. (Even the Metro lines, which normally go to bed at about 12:30 a.m., offer some all-night service.) It's another one of those schemes through which Paris, her political leaders no longer secure in the eternal elegance outsiders love her for, is trying to be cool and hip and cosmopolitan (in the Benneton sense) but not quite clear on the concept. Having lived in Alaska, I know that white nights usually happen in the summer, when the Sun doesn't go to sleep and when playing or partying all night does not put you at risk of hypothermia (usually, but watch out, it can hit you at 40 degrees). But there I was, in heavy Eddie Bauer shirt, leather Western vest, and Peruvian by way of Canal Jeans parka, and there was Jen, dispatching her overcoat at show-time for performance wear, a billowing (thanks to the wind) red satin dress and shorts, to jump into the arms of suavely attired and demeanored fellow (Mexican) American dancer Carlos Sanchez, a real rock (he's solid) and wend herself around him for the premiere of "Rest."

But before we get to the rest of "Rest," let's take a diversion to a bit earlier in my Saturday, when I was perusing the vide grenier on the rue St. Denis. A vide grenier -- literally, "empty attic" -- is basically a community-wide garage sale. They're what I do on the week-ends, in search of cool trucs and quartiers, finding treasures and discovering France through its detritus. Saturday's take included Brubeck's "Angel Eyes" (3 Euros or about $3.60) and a pair of Peet's coffee mugs (2 Euros), perfect for the Peet's coffee a friend from back home had just sent me. (The coffee here's too weak for me.) ("From San Francisco," the man said -- like Brubeck -- and I let him have it; Peet's is actually from the East Bay.) From my excitement at finding Peet's trucs in Paris he thought he could interest me in a travel mug, but when he said the magic words Starbucks -- yes, they're multiplying here like they were around Astor Place in the late '90s -- I cut him off, "I don't like Starbucks!" "Oh, politics!" he said. I thought about giving him my standard "Friends don't let friends drink at Starbuck's" imprecation, but not knowing whether it would translate, I let him have that one too. (I am going somewhere with all this.) Then I spotted his two crystal-clear wine glasses with plodding moose and the words "Northern Exposure, Cicely, Alaska," and, in smaller print, "Roslyn, Washington." This was the town where Northern Exposure was actually shot, which I didn't realize until the television series had already suckered me into taking a job in Anchorage, Alaska, which, it turns out, has more in common with Boise, Idaho than Roslyn, Washington. The young French guy selling me the glasses (2 Euros; I had to get them, they matched my Northern Exposure stuffed moose) (I never actually saw a real moose the five months I spent in Alaska) (which became a running joke among my colleagues at the Anchorage Daily News. It seemed that every morning someone would come into the office and casually relate a moose encounter: "Moose came into the backyard today and spooked the reindeer." ((There actually was a citizen who kept a fenced-in reindeer in his front yard, with the sign "Please don't feed Star," which I drove past every day on my way to work.)) "Moose got run over on my way to work.") (There's a rule in Alaska: If you can do it within an hour after the moose has been roadkilled, you can carve up and take home as much moosemeat as you like.) (I did have moose stew for breakfast one morning, brought to work by a Native Alaskan who's sister brought it from the Bush. And I bought moose nugget jewelry, which is just what you think it is. At my don't forget to shut the door on the way out you Klezmer-loving rebel I mean going away party, everyone pitched in and got me a book, "How to be a Great Moose Hunter." I still have it somewhere, as well as the two feline Alaska natives I WAS able to wrangle.).... As I was about to say, the young French guy selling me the glasses seemed to have fond memories of Cicely, or Roslyn, or at least Northern Exposure. It might just as well have been his culture, Chris in the Morning his a.m. DJ..

Then, on my way to Jen's show Saturday night, back-to-back I passed a private restaurant party from which emanated "Your Song" and a car blasting "Flash Dance." (As I write this, the eclectic Radio France station I listen to is playing David Byrne.) The point of this seeming digression is that French people LOVE American culture; we're as exotic to them as Alaska was to me. And not just calcified American culture, but what we've produced in the more immediate past. (Every episode of 'Friends,' though under a different name, is readily available on DVD.) One would therefore assume they'd love RECENT American dance too. But the presenting-managing-state funding cabal which rules what dance we get to see here has decided that, basically, all American choreographers since Judson not named Bill suck. I've always known they're wrong about American dance, but in the last two weeks I've had confirmation their presumptions about the tastes of their own French audience may also be wrong. (It's also occurred to me that maybe the dour, chin cupped in hand expressions I've long-observed on the faces of French spectators don't mean they're being pensive but that they're bored out of their minds and are holding their heads up so they don't nod off.) First was New Yorker Layard Thompson, performing Deborah Hay's "The Ridge" in a gallery up the street from me, which I wrote about last week. (Hay's dance concepts actually involve movement.) Thompson's audience lapped it up. Instead of walking out -- as half the audience did in Avignon this past summer -- they talked back, enthusiastically. Even the dog in the audience couldn't stop yapping.

Saturday night witnessed a similar public response to Jen's work and her performance with Carlos. The conditions were trying: They'd selected a petite alcove literally to the side of the steps of the Opera Bastille, which legend has it was based on a design accidentally chosen by Mitterand -- the space is cold and impersonal. I'm speaking of the inside of the theater, home to the Paris Opera and occasionally the Paris Opera Ballet; outside Saturday night was cold and frigid in temperature. I don't know that the scene was particularly a mad house because it was Nuit Blanche. This corner of Paris is always packed, especially on Saturday nights, with an amalgam of 'boarders, teeny-boppers, tourists and the occasional certifiable. One of the latter decided about 10 minutes before curtain that he was going to piss in the upstage right corner of Jen's stage and thus mark it as his stage. Jen's gallant husband Gauthier diplomatically cajoled the mechant to take his business around the corner to another corner. "If he'd have done it during the show," I quipped to Jen, "they'd have thought it was part of the performance." I wasn't exaggerating; my first Paris season just about began with a man from De Keersmaeker's P.A.R.T.S. school bepissing himself on stage. (Now FIP, the Radio France station, is playing an Iggy Pop tune whose lyrics tell me you'll never hear it Stateside.)

Jen's "Rest" -- I caught the second of three shows -- began hardly restful, with, as noted above, the choreographer jumping onto Carlos and weaving her way about him, to pulsating Radiohead. (I hope I said already: Don't mistake this for a review. Although it's starting to shape up as a manifesto.) About, oh, 75 people began gathering from around the plaza and peering from the stairs above and behind the stage. They applauded as this first section ended. Then Jen shifted, refreshingly -- in that she confounded the usual, expected pacing of the build -- into what might be called a 'bring it down' closing section. She and Sanchez each caught their breath, slumping on chairs that could have been before an imaginary television set, occasionally looking at each other as they gasped as if to say, "Whoah! What was that all about?" They had been somewhere intense and were now considering it, shell-shocked, and assessing what it meant. They approached and took in each other. There was movement but it was reflective, appraising.

French people (in my experience) usually run the other way when you try to hand them a piece of paper but at the end of this show, this audience was eager to take the programs being handed out by Seol-Ae, a dancer friend of Jen's, before they disbursed. In fact, these spectators -- ranging in age, I'd say, from about 15 to 75 -- stood in the windy cold attentively watching and considering Jen and Carlos's dancing for the duration of the piece; few walked away. They seemed to love the thrilling windswept kinetics of the first part -- one teenager even grabbed a partner and tried to imitate and join the pros on stage -- and to want to understand the more meditative second part. But really, I think they also liked seeing dancers MOVE. I'm projecting of course; I can't know what was in their minds. I can tell you that for me, I later realized, I had the combined joys of again seeing real movement close-up and of seeing a male-female relationship physically enacted in contours that help me understand that relationship. This is one of the greatest gifts choreographers and dancers offer to us non-dancers: the ability to articulate and express the male-female relationship in ways we can't, but which explain it and amplify it to us. They draw our feelings in ways we can't. In the sea of talking heads that is French dance today (France doesn't so much Move as Think), it's not only dance but the heart that has little place.

At least among most (but not all) presenters and the choreographers they've chosen to encourage, that is. The hope kindled Saturday -- building on that inspired by the audience walk-out in Avignon -- is that they're wrong. My response to Jen's success is not jingoistic; after all, if I just wanted to see American dance, I would have stayed in America! Indeed, when I moved here four years ago, the dance motivation was that I would be pushed and challenged. Things got off to a good start -- the P.A.R.T.S. festival referenced above -- but I realize that this was a false start, because the engine of P.A.R.T.S. is its director Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, the dance ethos of an earlier generation. This current generation is losing dance. So if I root for Jen Macavinta, it's not because she's American nor because she's my friend but because I hope and prey that she -- and others like her, including, yes, French choreographers who just need to be given the opening by French presenters -- can put the dance back in and on the French dance scene. The audience wants it; will the presenters listen?

 

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