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Flash Review Journal, 2-10: Skin Games
Dunham at the Source; Lauwers's Racist Titillation; Valeska Storms the Pompidou

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- A colleague who's seen Jan Lauwers's "Isabella's Room" tells me he thinks the "'quaint' racial language is appropriate for the historic moment Lauwers was recreating." Another respected colleague, the New York Times's Margo Jefferson, sees merely pretension where I see blasphemy. Reflecting on the needcompany dance-theater-music work, seen Tuesday at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, I can see the bases for both these opinions, and I wouldn't take my colleagues to the matt on them. Yet while Lauwers's bombastic work often seems pretentious, it is also intentionally provocative. So I think a visceral response to this visceral approach is valid. Here's mine, recorded a couple of hours after the performance, followed by some reflections on the work's thin dance content and on cultural appropriation and exploitation. Then we'll finish with the tonic of authenticity, revisiting Katherine Dunham's early documentaries of Haiti and the Caribbean, and take you to where Valeska lives again, and all the sad young men keep dying.


Statutory Rape, Grandmother-Grandson Incest, and Big Black P****s from Jan Lauwers

It is past 2 in the morning here in Paris, and I should be asleep. But I am restlessly pacing. I am on edge because tonight at the Theatre de la Ville - SARAH BERNHARDT (whose corps at Pere Lachaise must surely be restless these days), the Belgian director-playwright and putative choreographer Jan Lauwers used his considerable dramatic gifts to suck me into a world where, before I knew it, I was hit with residual Belgian colonial racism, grandmother-to-minor grandson incest/rape (at least that's what they'd call it in the States), and a generally unremitting nihilism.

Perhaps -- perhaps -- there are hints of hope among the despair. Perhaps, as in the work of other tragedians, the darkness is meant to set off the light. But how are we supposed to discern these signs through the barrage of blatant racism and pointless violence? How am I to see anything but racism when Lauwers gives us a heroine who, we're told, was impregnated by a black (I think the word Negro was used) performer on the Place Pigalle whose trick was that he could make his "erect p**** *** just by concentrating on it? (The asterisks are mine, not an external censor's; just because Lauwers has desecrated Sarah Bernhardt's stage with this filth doesn't mean we need to desecrate our pages.) How am I to find an island of hope on a stage whose dominating scenery is what we're told is a "giant African penis," on which the heroine hangs her gold necklace and lighter? How am I NOT to perceive racism in a scenic environment which, in its blithe use and display of (we're told) African artifacts, is probably committing at least one sacrilege, and has made me complicit in a sort of cultural rape? How did I feel regarding this in a sea of white faces? How did I feel when they laughed at the evocation of black p**** tricks?

I know, I know, I hear some of you saying: You dope, he's not being racist, he's COMMENTING on racism and colonialism. I just don't buy it. Jan Lauwers works in a milieu -- Belgium -- where one can still find vestiges of the colonial attitude towards blacks in mainstream postcard shops peddling images of them that make "Birth of a Nation" seem like it was produced by the NAACP. In this context, the similar signposts in "Isabella's Room" make it hard to receive this work as anything but racist, nihilistic garbage.

It doesn't help that Lauwers starts off with the often-mocking presentation of a variety of African artifacts, apparently collected by his late father. Perhaps he's mocking the mockers, but what exactly gives him the right to expropriate another culture's ceremonial objects for his own ceremonies? Especially when one considers that, given Belgium's brutal colonial history, at some point, for some of the objects, their provenance in European hands probably includes theft, even assuming his own father acquired them legitimately and with earnest intent.

("Isabella's Room" is also advertised -- at least in Paris -- as a dance spectacle, and when it comes to integrating dance into his theatrical works, Lauwers hasn't made much progress since the 1999 "Morning Song." Jefferson, in her Times review, postulates that the dance here serves the same end as the songs, to "echo the characters' conscious thoughts and unconscious dreams." I don't see this; I can find neither comment, interpretation, nor even counterpoint here; just aimless noodling, which might as well have been created outside of the text, in which the individual performers appear to have been left to their own devices, the choreography often devolving into what Jefferson accurately calls "Merce Cunningham and WIlliam Forsythe cast-offs.")


Dunham as Documentary-maker

Except for six hours which she spends there in a vain attempt to save the life of her grandson Frank, the Isabella of the title is an Africa-fancying white anthropologist who never makes it to Africa. Katherine Dunham, by contrast, is an African-American interpreter of Afro-Caribbean dance -- with Pearl Primus, the US's first -- who began her career by traversing the Caribbean, on a Rosenwald fellowship, with a camera. Three of those 1936 documentaries, "Trinidad," "Haiti," and "Jamaica and Martinique" were recently screened by the Centre Pompidou here in Paris, part of a festival on voyaging women documentary makers of the '20s through '60s.

All three films are brief but effective time capsules of the subject countries. "Trinidad" is the most purely dance document, capturing what looks (to this untrained eye) like a Vodun-similar dance with its own vocabulary -- one vocabulary that Dunham would go on to interpret in her concert form. A vocabulary it clearly is, with one older woman, back curved, stomach contracted, seen to be drilling a snappy younger man in his footwork as a circle watches.

"Haiti" is a 15-minute masterpiece of a portrait and travelogue; one can almost feel the young Dunham falling in love with the country that still, nearly seventy years later, plays a central role in her life and work. She begins with a panorama of coastal mountains dominated by what look like the remnants of colonial fortresses. There's also a cock-fight, in which she follows the flying fowl, then zooms in on a well-appointed man clipping his bird's toe-nails. Eventually we're taken -- as if we were watching it from behind the barricades -- to what could be a Carnaval parade. Some of the participants are clad simply in their Sunday finest, some wear large masks in the shape of animal heads, others full-body costumes; two Carnaval queens greet their 'subjects' from floats. Most are, to one extent or another, dancing, from the man in the suit to the fluent four-year-old on whom Dunham trains her camera for a couple of minutes.

What emerges -- aided by more recent musical field recordings which have been layered onto this silent film -- is a poignant memory of Haiti just after the 1934 evacuation of US troops. It's perhaps a bittersweet memory in light of the US's recent intervention to help depose Haiti's democratically elected President Aristide, but the filmmaker, at least, provides a much-needed model of an ambassador from our country who casts a curious eye, not a pointed finger at the rest of the world.


Valeska's Solo

While we're at the Centre Pompidou, if you're in the neighborhood tomorrow 'round 4:25 p.m., or Saturday at 6:30 p.m., make your way to the museum's basement level where, in the cadre of the ongoing (and free) Videodanse festival, you'll be able to catch Volker Schlondorff's 1979 "Kaleidoscope: Valeska Gert - Rien que pour le Plaisir, rien que pour le Jeu." Just months before her death -- so says the program -- the legendary star of the German stage sat down with Schlondorff to recall her life and work and to recreate, at the age of 84, one of her most celebrated solos, "Mort." Death is also on the program earlier Friday afternoon, in videos of Jean Cocteau and Roland Petit's "Le Jeune Homme et la Mort," captured in 1962 with Jean Babilee and Claire Sombert (3:35 p.m.); and in work by Olga de Soto (2:30 p.m.) and Rachid Ouramdane whose titles referenced the original until Petit told them to stop.

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