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Chevalier de la Barre, 7-16
Suicide of a Dancer; Boston Disses Flamenco; Nai-Ni Honored in China; Bastille Day with the Chevalier

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- A dancer colleague in Australia, reacting to leading Australian dancer Russell Page's decision to end his life Sunday night at a relative's home in southern Sydney, asked: "Life was supposed to be beautiful for everyone, wasn't it?"

When I used the phrase "slow suicides" in a college creative writing class, my professor, Joyce Carol Oates, gave me a copy of her essay, "The Art of Suicide," which was not so much about the art of suicide but a critique of "suicides" (she used the word as a noun, thus taking the title for a final act and applying it to a whole life). No one can truly understand what leads another to end his or her life. I would not think a dancer susceptible to the boredom that precipitates some suicides; on stage at least, dancers seem to experience life at an elevated, hyper-charged level. But perhaps they experience not just the high extremes of the emotional spectrum, but the low as well.

Beyond a perplexed melancholy which will never go away, maybe we do best to say goodbye to Russell Page not by dwelling on the way he said goodbye, but on the impact of his life. Principal dancer in Bangarra Dance Theater, which he joined in 1991, Page was also part of Australian arts royalty: Brother Stephen directed Bangarra and also collaborated with the Australian Ballet on the 1997 "Corroboree," while brother David excelled as a composer. Russell performed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics as well. As Sharon Verghis notes in today's Sydney Morning Herald, his last performance was last week in Sydney, in Stephen's "Walkabout."

The Herald's dance critic, Jill Sykes, remembered the dancer this way:

"As a performer, he was unique -- one of Australia's best and most interesting dancers. And not just in the context of Bangarra. He was light and quick with an intensity that came from within, transforming mere movement into action that was rich in meaning and cultural references to past and present."

Besides leaving his imprint on dance audiences -- including those in the US on a Bangarra tour last fall -- Russell was also an accomplished actor, with leading roles in Tracey Moffatt's "Bedevilled" and Christine Anu's "Wanem Time."

A private funeral for the 34-year-old dancer is scheduled for Brisbane, which was to be the next stop on the company's tour, now postponed.

If this is an issue for you -- suicide -- we'd like to address it more, from a dancer perspective. Please e-mail your thoughts to our Advice for Grown-Up Dancers columnist, Anne Wennerstrand, at anne@danceinsider.com. For a constructive perspective on the topic of suicide among young people, also check the adult comic, Nowhere Girl.

Serious Bidness

If dance is to be taken seriously -- and it is not by much of the world, particularly non-dance journalists -- it's got to take itself seriously. The Ariane Reinhart debacle is upsetting not just because it signifies a failure in this department, but because it originates in one of dance's most serious settings, the American Dance Festival. This week we have a new champion, the Boston Ballet.

On the one hand, newish BB director Mikko Nissenen has implemented many changes which promise the possibility of restoring BB to its once eminent place among US ballet companies, before a round of tragedies and mishaps that began with the death (possibly from an eating disorder) of Heidi Gunther and extended through the company board's letting the last artistic director to be, Maina Gielgud, slip through its hands.

Nissenen has snabbed a veritable all-star team of dancers and dance administrators from across North America for his team. His additions to the artistic team include Trinidad Vives, the would-be heir to Ben Stevenson as artistic director at Houston Ballet, as Boston's new artistic associate; new ballet master Anthony Randazzo, former star dancer and partner par excellenace from San Francisco Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada; and new ballet mistress, prima ballerina Eva Evdokimova, among other things the former touring partner to Nureyev. While Evdokimova has never really worked in a team setting, she and Randazzo, as well as ballet master Raymond Lukens, are highly respected as teachers. But Nissenen's real coupe was to snag Valerie Wilder, the cracker-jack executive director of National Ballet of Canada, as his executive. Wilder, who rode a roller-coaster of budget turmoil in Canada, will insist on financial directness from the Boston board and should make sure Nissinen's ambitious artistic program doesn't run over-budget. Nissinen has also managed to grab SF Ballet principal Roman Rykine as a Boston principal, and New York City Ballet utility player Alexander Ritter as a Boston soloist.

While a company's artistic face should be a director's most pre-eminent concern, how it presents itself to the media is crucial to getting the audience into the theater to see that face. What's boggling, then, is why Nissinen would assemble such an amazing artistic team, and then sabotage himself by issuing ungrammatical and ignorant press releases that would embarrass even Dolly Dinkle, let alone a major company. Forget for a moment that the new Boston publicist feels it necessary, in a release announcing the company's season opening, to have Mikhail Baryshnikov explain (in a press release presumably going out to dance journalists) who Mark Morris is. Boston publicist Tiffany Kehayoglou goes on to state, "Morris's company presents eclectic mixtures of flamenco, ballet and modern movement." Flamenco? Mark Morris's authority in modern is assumed, and his facility at ballet acknowledged. But Flamenco is not a form to be dabbled in, and to insinuate otherwise insults both the form and, indeed, Mr. Morris, who, notwithstanding a sometimes flip facade, takes dance and music more seriously than to pretend he could facilely draw from Flamenco.

....One choreographer who does take ethnic dance forms seriously is Nai-Ni Chen, who moves with ease between traditional Chinese, modern, and post-modern vocabularies and styles. So we were not surprised to learn recently that Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, the only US company performing at the First China Dance Festival in Kunming, Yunan Province, had received the Golden Lotus award, one of the highest honors given to dance companies and dancers in China. After performing in Kunming, the company journeyed to the ancient city of Dali and Lijiang, resident city of several ancient minority cultures more than 4,000 years old, where it performed to an audience of 2,000 and conducted workshop with local music and dance students, many of whom were seeing modern dance for the first time in their lives.

....Speaking of big parties, after two years, I finally found the big Bastille Day celebration. I'm speaking of the fireworks set off near Trocadero and for which the nearby Eiffel is blacked out, which this year were dubbed Victor Hugo Illumine Paris. I didn't see Victor Hugo Sunday night, but from my perch on the statue of the Chevalier de la Barre, in the shadow of Sacre Coeur, comfortably crunched in with a mostly French crowd, I caught some pretty nifty fireworks Sunday night. My imagined soundtrack was provided by Erik Satie, whose abode of eight years I accidentally discovered on a winding, cobbled, tree-overgrown street on the other side of Sacre Coeur, on my way to see Camille Pissarro's house.

The Chevalier, in tribute to whom this column is named, refused to remove his hat before a passing parade of capuccines on July 1, 1766, whereupon the 19-year-old had his hands cut off (for failing to remove the hat) and his tongue cut off (for singing impudent ditties) before, as Voltaire recounts it in a nearby plaque, the torture began. And then he was killed. Afterwards, in typically French fashion, they made a martyr of him, erecting a park and a statue on whom the expression is more carefree than insolent.

These days, it takes a lot more to provoke serious punishment from the authorities. During Sunday's military parade down the Champs-Elysees, Maxime Brunerie, a 25-year-old former municipal candidate from an extreme right party in the district that contains Montmartre, somehow made it through 2,500 cops to within 50 yards of President Jacques Chirac, whereupon he removed a 22-caliber rifle from a guitar case. Accounts are conflicting as to whether he then fired at the president, or the gun discharged as he was tackled by citizens. Me, all I have to do to get stopped by cops is step off a train returning from Belgium. And if I were a person of color, forget it; I'd be four times as likely to get stopped.

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