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Paris Dispatch, 5-31: Bright lights, big pity
Taking it to the streets

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010 Paul Ben-Itzak

PARIS -- If the past couple of weeks have taught me anything, it's that, as has often been the case here, art is being advanced not by the established venues and gatekeepers, but in the ateliers, the squats, the docks, the banks of the Seine, even the eccentric personalities of individual Parisians who, often against great odds, give the city its colors and its dynamism, try to satiate its thirst for the relief and elevation art can provide with, if not a joie de vivre -- it's too much of a struggle to find the means these days to say that -- at least a joie to engage, be it with the elusive muse, the thread that connects a contemporary artistic scene in flux with the phantoms of the past, themselves often barred by the gatekeepers of their time...and most of all with their fellow Parisians and even tourists. So if I was disappointed by a lackluster season-announcing press conference by the Theatre de la Ville in which its director, Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, was averse to taking questions from the press (and no wonder: the 2010-11 dance season offers little surprises), I was inspired and invigorated by a photo on the wall of a tiny atelier in Belleville capturing a darkened forest fleeting by outside a train window and the enchanting smile of its simply dressed proud author, Agata Rybarczyk -- "It was taken in Poland! I'm Polish!" -- who also invited visitors to create their own art out of small cubes.

My descent -- or ascent -- began last Wednesday with Christian Rizzo's "L'Oubli, toucher du bois" (The Forgotten, knock wood), where I didn't see enough to forget, having been chased out by the bright flood lights the brilliant lighting designer, Caty Olive, assaulted the audience with, directing them straight at the spectators. I'm not paid to suffer, so I fled, making my way along the Quay to the Ile St. Louis, arrested en route by a bouquiniste friend, Fabrice, who right away offered me a plastic cup of bourbon. "It's not actually mine to give, it belongs to Daniel, who's descended to retrieve one of my newspapers which blew away," explained Fabrice, particularly jittery that night. "So that's why I'm not giving you that much." When Daniel arrived, baked red from the Sun, and looked from Fabrice to the bottle to me, it was clear that he had already drunk directly from the container. When Fabrice asked me to remind him what I did for a living, I made the mistake of telling him I worked on the Internet. "That's a CIA - Defense department plot, you know. So you must work for the CIA. In fact that's why you have bad teeth, it's a cover." I have known Fabrice for a while, so I decided to go with the scenario. "Yes in fact, if you don't mind, I need to just check the bug I put in your flower to make sure it's working." Then his cell vibrated. "A Chinese guy gave it to me!" he said of the phone. "I know," I said. "We actually gave it to the Chinese guy to give to you so we'd know where you were at all times." At this point he laughed. "Pass by my stand again when you like!" he said before dashing across the street to the Metro.

I still had some time before the after-performance buffet at the theater, so I headed towards the Pont Neuf, where I discovered another government-approved lighting monstrosity. On an official commission from the ministry of culture and communication, a contemporary artist has boxed the statue of Henry IV on a horse into neon tubing, even added a neon sword to his sword flask, thus diminishing the state and blighting the bridge and the views of it from either side. Sometimes I think that the current cultural gate-keepers of Paris and France don't appreciate their own heritage. This impression was confirmed by the theft of five paintings -- by Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Leger, and Braque -- from the Modern Art Museum of Paris earlier in May, the thief entering through a window the alarm on which had been out of commission for two months. Security had signalled the malfunction to the higher-ups but nothing had been done about it. So the thief was apparently able to take his time before neatly cutting the tableaux out of their frames.

On Friday, I took visitors from San Francisco around Belleville for the annual four-day Open Studios of Belleville, as much an opportunity to see art as meet its creators and discover the milieus in which they live and work. We started with the plateau on top of the parc Belleville and a panoramic view which includes my favorite of the Eiffel Tower (also viewed as an industrial age monstrosity in its time, now the typical emblem of Paris). Then up to and down the rue Cascades, so named because (way) back in the day water from a cistern controlled by the local abby flowed down it. We all loved the atelier of Estelle Babut-Gay -- me for the terrace with its view of trees and Paris rooftops, David for the pieces made from Atlantic coast driftwood, Jennifer for the rings made from buttons. (She finally decided on two.) But most of all was the street itself, the patch of late-afternoon sunlight illuminating a corner and the cafe tables around it, then the spectacular view below, the windy street, the panoply of rooftops....

We exited the rue Cascades onto the rue Menilmontant, immortalized by Charles Trenet. I wanted to check the status of la Miroiterie, the artists' squat that takes up an alley at 88 Menilmontant across the street, mostly to see if it was still there, as so many artists' squats have been evicted. The atmostphere was subdued. A few artist-residents were cooking up Merguez to sell for 3 Euros apiece and offering beer for 2, but none of the ateliers were open, except for a graffiti'd space where a DJ played very loud reggae. I picked up a flyer, "Le Pari (s) de la Creation," which explained: "Following so many other popular and prolific artists' squats, la Miroiterie has to quit the Paris scene, whereas the large institutions of contemporary art turn emptily to grand indifference on the part of Parisians." (In the nearby 19th arrondisement, the highly touted city-funded Centre 104 has done just that for a couple of years.) "What do we want? To revindicate a place for artists in a Paris that continues to sigh in the soft pillow of concensus and of the principles of precaution.... We request (simply) a form of tolerance, to exist in the interstices of the city, to occupy temporarily its niches, to live at the most intimate in the neighborhoods, without being attacked and taken to court." Other cities in France and elsewhere have conferred space to artists' collectives, but, the manifesto asked, "What has Paris done? The capital of art and culture, has it become so timorous that it doesn't want to loan orphaned spaces to artists in need of space?"

I actually had a review assignment on Saturday, "The man without a past," a mime spectacle showing at an animation center in the 19th arrondisement. As this same arr. is part of the Open Studios, I thought I would make my way from the rue Menilmontant over to Belleville, past the parc Buttes Chaumont, over the Bassin la Villette to the Metro Crimee and the Mathis animation center. That was the plan, anyway.

From the studio promenade, I was marked most by, besides Rybarczyk's studio showing, which also included inviting visitors into a sort of curtained box, one at a time, to view a life-sized, dishevelled naked woman getting out of an unmade bed, tableaux which mixed 1930s magazine clips and grey-blue paint, in collages by Sylviane Balustre-d'Erneville, as well as several of her photos, including of a market and a backyard in Egypt. Hers was also the most elegant of showings, with cool music and champagne on offer.

At the bassin, I ran straight into a massive design expo, featuring space-age furniture from the '50s through '60s. From there, one could hear from across the bassin pounding techno music. This eventually changed to canned can-can music, accompaning a live performance by four women and one man who made up the Troupe of Mademoiselle Clairette. It only took me ten years, but I was finally seeing can-can live in Paris. The performance stage as well as the audience area was a floating platform moored in the bassin, so the performers were actually dancing -- and performing splits and other calisthenics -- on an unstable wooden floor while being battered by the wind blowing from all directions. I got a real feeling for the ribaldry with which can-can must have been performed back in the day, as well as the athletic strength required of the dancers. And ouch!, those splits on that hard-wood floor!

I had some time before the mime show started, so I plopped down on a concrete bank of the bassin near the rear of an old-fashioned schooner and opened a can of stuffed grape leaves, which I downed with hot spiced tea from a vintage red-checkered thermos I'd scored at a vide grenier for 1.50 Euros. This was probably not a great idea, as the food no doubt contributed to the most sorry part of my day, when I fell asleep as soon as the show which was the one thing I had to do that day started. I drifted in and out during the one-hour performance, by the Theatre de l'Epopee's Hadrien Trigance, which concerned a man who wakes up every morning with no idea what he did the previous day or 30 years. At night, though, he dreams of a woman dressed in purple satin, evoked under a purple satin sheet, before waking up in a white sheet. At one point his memory is jolted and he replays a dinner table scene from his childhood, his parents (heard off-stage in recorded voices) talking while he plays with his food. Trigance's innocent air and alternately grave and playful aspect as he sat on a high chair reminded me of Chaplin. I drifted off again, only to awake in time to see him form a noose with the satin sheet; perhaps the woman of the past now coming back to him had hung herself, which is why he had blotted out all memory. It ends with him bedding down with the sheet, preferring to guard a tragic past to waking up with a blank sheet every day.

Afterwards, when Trigance's manager asked me what I thought of the piece since I'd seen it in its 20-minute version two years ago at the Mimos international mime festival in Perigueux, I hedged: "It's...developed." Later, when Trigance came out, I came up with something (I thought) better, "You remind me of Chaplin." "Oh," said the mime, hanging his head. "It's a compliment, really!"

On Sunday, after a day of recovery resting my tired dogs, I arranged to meet my friends David and Jennifer at Niki de Saint Phalle's Stravinsky fountain next to the Pompidou museum. I had them take a picture of me next to the big-breasted mermaid that is just one of the fanciful objects spouting water from the fountain. Then my friends stopped to photograph a large chalk pavement drawing, with the Eiffel Tower, then the artist painting the Eiffel Tower, then his dog; the real-life model was yelping from protective covering in an open suit-case, no doubt complaining about the late May drizzle and wind. The artist had scrawled at the base of the work that he needed money to live. My friends dropped some coins into the hat. Then we scrambled over through Les Halles to the rue Montorgueil, in search of a high-class pizza joint. "What church is that?" Jennifer asked as we came to Saint Eustache. "That's the church where a children's choir director named Gounod told a child named Renoir that it was 'dommage' that he was becoming a painter, because he had such an angelic voice." Then up Montorgueil, regretting the Starbuck's sign which now marks its entrance on the uptown side of this street made famous by Monet (rue Montorgueil on the 14th of July), and the rue Reaumer, where Jennifer gave a lesson in the art of grabbing a taxi to a poor young French man trying to protect his head from the rain with a newspaper, as he waived vainly for a taxi. Jennifer simply walked up ahead of him. David, who had studied at the Sorbonne in the sixties, started talking about being in the now. "This moment, for instance," he suggested, looking down what to me is one of the most non-descript, boring streets in Paris, downgraded to downright depressing under gray skies and dampened by drizzle. "I love this moment, this place, right here, right now." Later, when we finally found the pizza place -- in between there was a taxi driver who joked that he thought he saw Che Guevara (me, in my beret with the Captain Haddock button) -- David pulled out the photo, on his Blackberry, of the salade Nicoise he'd had at our first RDV for this visit, when I took them to the cafe of the place Edith Piaf. Me, I saw that there were no anchovies and that the charming server who likes to ask, "How's he doing, the American?" had not mentioned he was out of anchovies, didn't think it was important, and charged me the same, quand meme. On Friday, before a hefty steak dinner at the Relais of the Entrocote, David and Jennifer had taken me to Bob Cool, where it was Western theme night and Johnny Cash was in the house. Johnny, Edith, David -- they find the art in the tragic, the hard, the mundane. Me, I wonder whether I can manage to pull it off, even in the City of Light, to lift the clouds of blackness that obscure my view so much these days, to live up to a credo scrawled in my year-book by an Italian friend, Sonia, who I lost in dispute then found 20 years later: "Never stop looking for beauty, never." Until then, I'm off to the Piaf. Hold the anchovies in that coffee, Isham.

Sponsors for Paris coverage on Dance Insider include Pro Danza Italia/USA Summer Dance Workshop in Italy. To find out about becoming a sponsor, for as little as $49, contact DI publisher Paul Ben-Itzak.

For more of Paul's reflections on life, society, culture, food, and politics in France, click here. E-mail Paul by clicking here.

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