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Flash Flashback, 5-22: Climbing the Walls
In the steps of Piaf and Frehel, Courvoisier scales Belleville
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2009, 2014 Paul Ben-Itzak

(First published on May 19, 2009 by ExploreDance, and reprinted here for the first time. Helene Courvoisier returns to the steps and hills of Belleville May 24 and 25 for the 25th anniversary of Portes Ouvertes (Open Studios) Belleville, performing her solo "Mariannes desarmees," inspired by the Paris Commune, under the auspices of Compagnie Annette Leday / Keli. Shows take place May 24 at 4 p.m. at the foot of the stairs on the rue Levert, and May 25 at 6 p.m. at the corner of the rue Desnoyez and the rue Lemon.)

PARIS -- As is often the case in major cities, but seems to be more true here, last weekend (May 15 - 17) there were almost too many possibilities for distraction, especially for a boy who's spent the better part of the past two years isolated in the French countryside. (Cue smallest accordion in the world.) I'd planned to terminate Saturday night with a tour of a few of the special events being offered as part of the annual Europe-wide, mostly free Night of the Museums: a 50- year retrospective of photographer Marc Riboud on capturing the moment, at the Museum of the Romantic Life; performances by the museum guards at the Gustave Moreau (perhaps you've seen his Salome or his Leda and the Swan) museum in my old neighborhood, right below Montmartre, and maybe the recently re-opened Orangerie, which was proposing a live concert with music matched to Claude Monet's massive "Water Lillies." That was the plan. But a morning jaunt to lower Montmartre tired me out, with stops first at what's loosely referred to as the Arab market on Barbes for low-priced highly-spiced merguez sausage, then at a 'vide grenier' (literally: 'empty the attic'; it's like a community-wide garage sale) on a charmingly removed impasse off the beaten path, where for 50 centimes (or 65 cents) I scored a musical razor, toothbrush, and comb set that played "Mademoiselle de Paris" when you wound it up, and for the same price a classic English- made flask. By the time I climbed the hill to upper Bellevue, where I'm renting a flat a few blocks from the stairs where Piaf was born, I'd nixed the museum jaunt. Fortunately, there was plenty of art to be had in the 'hood, in the form of Bellevue's annual Open Studios taking place here and in another, adjoining Paris quarter rich with history, Menilmontant. Aside from the visual artists, one dancer-choreographer, Helene Courvoisier, managed to wedge herself into the programming, with performances of two related pieces in six different spots, with the uber-title (translated here) "The Walls of Nadja or Ghost's Skin," and the sub-titles "Apparitions I" and "Apparitions II."

On Saturday evening at 8:45 (night had not yet descended, although the sky was overcast), Helene Courvoisier arrived at the Place Frehel almost unobtrusively, a long dark green wool coat covering her short skirt and lanky form, placing her costume valise on one of the dubious mattresses piled at the lower end of the playing space. Since this was a 'site-specific' performance, let me tell you about the site: The Place Frehel is located where Bellevue's Chinatown takes a Mideastern and North African turn. Further up the hill it gets more Bohemian. Frehel was Piaf before there was Piaf. Hovering over the Place Frehel, above the mattresses, is a mural, covering most of one wall, of a hoodlum-type rolling dice. The other wall is a classic Medieval-style stone wall, interlaced with crevices. But what seemed to me the most difficult surface for Courvoisier to grapple with was the concrete surface, littered with cigarette butts, left -overs and mystery puddles and splotches.

During the first part of the short piece, set to a sort of hyper-Gipsy music from Tony Gatlif's "Exiles," Courvoisier began by sitting on the back of a bench parallel to the one I was sitting on, then leaning on it, then crouching to the ground and crawling on its grimy surface on hands and bare knees -- without the benefit of knee-pads. Then she collapsed against the remnants of the wall situated beneath the hoodlum, returned to the bench, and leaned against the stone wall before running around the circumference of the space. During this time a random kid joined the dance, racing across the space before being corralled by his mother. Next the fearless Courvoisier executed a series of jetes -- did I say she was dancing on and over concrete? -- as if possessed and struggling against solid matter. Then it was up against another wall before the tone shifted with new music, Leonard Cohen's "Avalanche," which began with a flamenco-like guitar.

Here the theme seemed to be runway model show, as the dancer-choreographer strode back and forth, pulling clothing items out of her costume valise downstage, putting them on and then returning upstage to pose before an imaginary mirror placed beyond where part of the audience -- numbering about 50 at this point -- was standing. She donned a torn black stocking, then a single black glove, a black sweater, jeans over the stocking, then a black dress over the jeans, then a black shawl which she made into a turban. When she turned it into a veil, I wondered if this was a comment or at least reflection on The Veil, given the significant Muslim population in this polyglot neighborhood. Or maybe it was a comment on artistic posing; as she tested the various somewhat rag-tag garments, Cohen sung, "Do not dress in these rags for me, I know you are not poor."

That was "Apparitions II." On Sunday, I ran down the hill and then down a set of those classic French stairs that I sometimes think are all that remains of pre-Haussman Paris for "Apparitions I." These stairs, at the foot of the rue Levert, are in between residences and the side wall of a primary school. Now I should tell you about primary school walls, which since 1999 have also become walls of remembrance. It was about then, 60 years after the fact (perhaps they were waiting until most of the local culpables died off; although a few of the signs did show up as early as 1979), that plaques started sprouting up on schools around Paris commemorating the children from the respective schools who were deported to the death camps, with -- it's the least one can say -- the active complicity of French er Vichy authorities. Of the roughly 72,000 Jews deported, 11,000 were children. Most did not return. In Bellevue alone, 1,000 children were rounded up -- some at home but many at school. Including at the very school where I stood and where Courvoisier was about to perform Sunday night.

Here's what the plaque on the wall of the primary school -- dated April 10, 1999 -- that made part of her playing space says:

"To the memory of the students of this school deported from 1942 to 1944 because they were born Jewish, innocent victims of the Nazi barbary with the active complicity of the Vichy government. (Some signs go farther and add here: "in the name of France.") They were exterminated in the death camps."

Perhaps as a Jew I'm too conscious of these shadows, aware that if I were here then I wouldn't be here. Perhaps I expect too much site-specificity of a site-specific performance. But I was really hoping that, having chosen this particular spot (among the many others available in Bellevue; she passed over the plateau above the House of Air that offers one of the most splendidly full views of the Eiffel Tower), Courvoisier would in some fashion deal with the sign and its implications, especially in a piece called "The Walls of Nadja or The Ghost's Skin" and subtitled "Appartions I." However, she spent more time grappling, even sidling against the opposite wall. As I consider the performance a couple of days after, is it reading too much into this pose to suggest that she might have been recoiling from the horrors evoked on the opposite wall?

In fact, what I found most curious to watch in this viewing was the various reactions (or non- reactions) of the passersby. Unlike the previous night's setting -- a setting which pedestrians didn't need to traverse, thus relatively free of traffic -- for this one Courvoisier seemed to have placed herself right in the midst of a major thoroughfare, with a constant stream of people descending the stairs as a shortcut to the street below, on the other end of where she was performing. Unlike the Place Frehel show, where most of the audience consisted of those who happened to be walking by, were surprised by the performance, and stopped to see it, this time a sizable group, also of about 50, had arrived ahead of time, and most of the accidental witnesses didn't stop. A couple of Chinese-French kids coming back from basketball giggled nervously; a couple of other people cast nonchalant glances; two women in the residence that made up the opposite wall opened up their window for the performance and took pictures; but for most of those walking by -- even walking through the performance space -- it didn't seem to register. Just another Sunday afternoon in Bellevue in City of Light.

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