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Paris Journal, 1-23: Identity Crisis
Lifting the Veil, Veiling the Dance

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

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PARIS -- These are confusing times for the Republique, currently contemplating a law which, by the latest reports, could ban not just the veil from the French classroom but the turban, the beard, the bandana, and any other sign that could possibly be interpreted as or even substituted for a "visible" or "ostentatious" (the legislators are arguing over which term to use) demonstration of one's religion in a country where most of the public holidays celebrate Christian occasions. Some Muslim proponents of the ban (most notably the Imam of Marseille) argue that there's nothing in the Koran which dictates women should wear the veil, a contention which, if true, would seem to exempt the veil from a ban targeting religious symbols. The Sikhs -- a French community of which apparently everyone in the government was unaware until they started speaking up against this proposed law -- argue that they should be allowed to keep their turbans, because the turbans themselves are not religiously significant, but are worn to veil their hair, which is. A cartoon by Willem in yesterday's Liberation summed up the confusion at its ludicrous best: Before a screaming teacher with electrified hair who's taken refuge on top of a blackboard stands a bow-tied girl with a beard ("But it's a lay-beard!"), a baggy-pantsed boy with a bandana over his chin ("I wear a veil to hide my beard."), a pimply teen ('It's a form of Jewish acne, and I want to protect it!"), a turbaned boy in short pants ("I am not Sikh, I am wounded."), and a tall young man clad only in a loincloth and bandana with his arms akimbo, crucifixion-like, as he insists, "Me, wearing a cross? Where?" Elsewhere on the cultural terrain, it seems that a heretofore under-publicized aspect of the new regime for France's Intermittent (or freelance) performing artists and technicians is that the benefit reductions include the elimination of maternity leave, causing one actor to remark, "It's so that artists can't reproduce."

Countering the official Xenophobia, we have the continuing and generally admirable efforts of theaters to expose French audiences to other cultures. At the Theatre de la Bastille, this has taken the form of a sort of mini-festival, "Complicites portugaises." It began charmingly, with shared concerts by Vera Mantero and Joao Fiadeiro, two giants on the Portuguese contemporary scene, both of whom have significant international profiles as well. I was charmed by the concert I saw and reviewed in November, but looking back after catching a second entry, Tiago Guedes's "A solo," January 12, perhaps I should have been alarmed.

Fiadeiro's piece started with a looping, frequency modulating soundscape that devolved into a drone, and employed a copy machine and a lot of tape, used variously as a clothesline (on which were hung the choreographer-dancer's photocopied self-portraits) and to sketch houses and figures and guns and smoke on the rear wall of the stage area. Mantero's "Olympia" was a sort of cinema verite tribute to the model for Manet's seminal painting of the same name, from the point of view of a model uncomfortable with her pose and trying to retain her poise. Both were droll. I wouldn't have scorned either as "non-dance," because both played with the body and addressed body images in other media.

But Guedes's piece, and the knowledge that its executive producer is Fiadeiro's RE.AL organization, have me wondering why the Theatre de la Bastille is presenting as spectacle what looks more like arts 'n' crafts time. Costumed in what seems to be the uniform du jour for young European post-mods -- baggy blue jeans, sneakers, tee-shirt -- Guedes enters the space, in this case the intimate Galerie Anatome, hangs a hook on a beam and then hangs his backpack on the hook. He regards the space as if he's never encountered it before (in fact, the evening I saw the piece, he'd already given one showing), even (as my dancer companion pointed out) resting his chin on his fist as if he doesn't already know what he's going to do next. He sets six brown-paper shopping bags upside down, three on either side of the space, and eventually makes little activities with each, usually starting by bending over to place his head in the bag and then sitting up and staring at us with his bag-face. Guedes cuts a face in one bag, while his head is still in it, dropping the scissors on his crotch. Another turns out to have an apple inside it; after tossing the bag, he continues to chomp on the apple, looking at us with significant non-significance. He appears about to break the radio silence, placing a tape in a mini-boom-box; but -- surprise surprise! -- when he starts the tape, it's blank.

In general, French audiences -- which often, as in this case, are not just made up of other dancers -- are extremely patient. For this spectacle, however, I found a neighbor sighing with increasing frequency, volume, and apparent exasperation.

Finally -- in what was at least an echo if not a downright mimicry of Fiadeiro's show -- out comes the masking tape, with which the young man frames a paper-bag portrait stuck up on the back wall of the gallery before exiting. The audience was silent for a long moment before according its applause -- and I don't think it was because they were devastated.

At least "Vera Mantero and Pedro Pinto play Caetano Velosa," seen January 9 at the Theatre de la Bastille, was what it promised to be, a concert of song, not involving dance even if the songs were delivered by a noted dancer-choreographer. In a program note, Mantero argued that the modern performer must be able to perform in many disciplines. I can't speak to the theater, but certainly, in a dance context where more and more performers are required to speak, cross-training can only benefit the interpreters and audience. But simply being proficient at a performing skill and being able to make unique contributions to more than one art are two different things. There are those, like John Kelly, who have native talent in more than one discipline, but from the evidence of this concert, Mantero doesn't appear to be one of them. Like the New York City Ballet soloists asked to sing in Jerome Robbins's "West Side Story Suite," Mantero didn't embarrass herself; she was competent, maybe even flawless in the quality of her singing, and used her expressive ability to imbue the songs with comedy or drama, as called for. As a dance fan, and particularly a fan of Vera Mantero, I appreciated the opportunity to see her tackle something outside her metier; as an academic activity, I profited from it. But there was little that was emotionally moving or stirring in her interpretations, and I suspect that were I a music critic -- or even an informed fan of Portuguese music -- I would have been insulted that the theater had brought a favorite dancer rather than a true musician to interpret this important musical canon.

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