Postcard from Paris
Ivo van Hove/, Les Damnés; Rocío Molina, Caída del Cielo; Leyla McCalla at the Bouffes du Nord; Kronos Quartet, Steve Reich Unlimited
It's been an ambivalent time, with the shocking victory of Trump midway through our second week. When I was here last July it seemed that the European Union might be falling apart; who could have foreseen that it would be Britain and not Greece that would finally upset the apple cart; or that Brexit would foreshadow the election of a nationalist-populist president in the United States, which itself now seems to be falling apart, along with the rest of the world? Indeed after an early-evening visit to the Opéra Bastille last Tuesday my American beloved and I even spent a couple of hours at a Democrats Abroad all-night election party in the hideous Palais de Congrès – a complacent bubble of liberal enthusiasm which burst shortly after we left when a slew of white rural working-class states in the midwest all tumbled to Trump, exactly as he had promised and the media commentariat, polls and bookies had almost all failed to predict.
And then to top it off at the end of the week came the news of the death of Leonard Cohen. I’m glad he didn’t live to see Trump’s victory, though I suspect he saw it coming.
In this context perhaps it’s apt that the most powerful performances I’ve seen here have all been political in content as well as form. Indeed if the triumph of Trump like that of other nationalist-populists before him (and I fear yet to come) is from a cultural-aesthetic perspective the triumph of pseudo-traditional reactionary content (racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, global conspiracy theories) wrapped in pseudo-progressive contemporary forms of expression (reality-TV celebrity culture, mass-mediated rallies and the internet bubbles of Facebook and Twitter), then the challenge for a truly progressive art, culture and politics is perhaps to achieve the reverse: a genuine reinvention of traditional forms (theatre, music, democracy) to create and communicate something new.
Whether we can do so in time to save the world or our souls remains to be seen.
Les Damnés, Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s stage adaptation of the screenplay for Visconti’s cult classic film The Damned with the Comédie Francaise, premiered as an outdoor courtyard spectacle at the Avignon Festival earlier this year. Even indoors it’s a spectacular work, especially in the grand neoclassical setting of the Salle Richelieu.
More importantly though (and here I’m going to stick my neck out and risk offending the purists) in many respects it’s an even more accomplished work than the original film, and one that speaks even more powerfully to our contemporary political and psychological condition. In Visconti’s hands, the saga of a declining German industrial-aristocratic family in the aftermath of the Nazi takeover seems mired in the director’s predilection for melodrama, decadence and perversity; the performances (with the exception of Helmut Berger as the emotionally and sexually retarded Martin and Ingrid Thulin as his increasingly desperate mother the Baroness Sophie) seem stiff; and the film only really achieves greatness in the extraordinary restaging of the internecine Nazi massacre of Röhm’s brown-shirted SA by Himmler’s black-uniformed SS which consolidated Hitler’s power over his former allies on the Night of the Long Knives.
Van Hove’s version also boasts a performance of outstanding intensity from Christophe Montenez as Martin, rivalled by the more understated work of Denys Podalydès as his bullying and ultimately pathetic SA officer uncle Baron Konstantin; but unlike Visconti’s uneven gallery of stars (including Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling, neither at their finest in this film), van Hove marshalls a flawless ensemble cast (the Comédie Francaise being the only state-funded permanent troupe of its kind in France) and harnesses them to a carefully staged and most restrained truthfulness which is far removed from melodrama. Indeed it’s this quality of truthfulness which characterises the best work I’ve seen by this director, from his remarkable staging of the Cassavetes screenplay Opening Night with the Toneelgroep Amsterdam (Melbourne Festival 2010) to a revelatory production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible which I was lucky enough to see in New York earlier this year.
Like Opening Night, Les Damnés augments the action onstage with live-feed (and in some cases cleverly pre-shot) video projected onto a huge screen at the back. Some of this footage picks up close-ups of the actors, who sit in the wings on one side at dressing-tables when not actually onstage, either absorbed in their own private worlds or engaged in dialogue; some of it takes us into a more hidden world backstage (primarily associated with Martin and his sexual crimes against children) and even into the rest of the theatre building (where his mother at one point goes looking for him); and some of it takes us inside the coffins arranged in the wings on the other side of the stage, into which the characters climb and are interred one by one as they die, after which we watch them silently screaming and banging on the lids like prematurely buried people out of Poe. The ‘acts’ of the tragedy (for unlike the melodrama of the film, the play truly is a tragedy of classical proportions and dimensions, the fates of its characters being as pitiable as they are terrifying) are also punctuated by brief archival video sequences: the Reichstag fire, the mass burning of books by Jewish and ‘decadent’ authors, the industrial re-armament of Germany and finally the industrialized horror of the concentration camps. These effectively contextualise the domestic drama in the broader sweep of a social and political catastrophe which the film somehow fails to evoke.
Most remarkable of all is the use of video to augment the staging of the Night of the Long Knives: in contrast with the wild, crowded orgy that precedes the massacre in the film, van Hove constructs a hypnotic and highly stylised sequence intially involving only two actors (Konstantin and a handsome young storm-trooper, both in their SA uniforms) and their simultaneous images on the screen, along with a barmaid who brings them foaming steins of beer (and is later violated by other SA revellers). Slowly stripping off their clothes while singing a Nazi folk song, the two men engage in a ritualized act of sado-masochistic domination, and are gradually joined by other recorded voices and other bodies onscreen, who also strip and writhe naked on the floor, like the figures in Rodin’s Gates of Hell or Pasolini’s Salo, until finally the black-clad SS appear like angels of death both onstage and onscreen and shoot them where they lie, while the stage-floor beneath them and the real actors themselves are ritually drenched in stage-blood.
Throughout this epic journey (2 hours 15 minutes without interval) van Hove remains faithful to the screenplay (if not the style) of the film until the closing image, when a triumphant Martin enters with a machine gun (the very same weapon which has appeared earlier in the play both onscreen and onstage as the paradigmatic product of the family factory) and rakes the audience with it while lights flicker into our eyes and a deafening round of recorded gunfire is heard.
Unlike the film, Les Damnés is not simply about the rise of Nazism and the complicity of the German Junckers, but about a catastrophe that continues to this day: the infernal military-industrial death-machine in which we as the audience are both complicit and victims – Nazis and Jews, black and white, police and protesters, sexual predators and their prey, terrorists and the states or communities they strike against. Watching, it was difficult not to think of the massacre at the Bataclan Theatre in Paris a year ago; difficult too not to think of massacres committed by more ‘sophisticated’ state-sponsored weaponry like planes and drones against civilians in war-zones like Syria and Yemen; or even on the streets of a country with a personalized consumer gun-culture out of control like the US.
This sense of contemporary and even universal resonance was enhanced by the abstract stage and lighting design of van Hove’s regular co-creator and partner Jan Versweyveld and the subtly non-period-specific costumes by An D’Huys. As with van Hove’s production of The Crucible, explicit visual references to 1930s Germany or 17th Century New England were eschewed, so that the impact of the social-psychological phenomenon under observation (religious-ideological mass-hysteria, the military-industrial death-machine) could not be reduced by the reassuring lense of cultural or historical distance.
After we left the theatre, my beloved observed that there was not a single swastika to be seen in the show.
A week later Donald Trump was elected president of the United States of America.
Somewhat by way of consolation, two nights after the election we were at the Chaillot Théatre National de la Danse to see resident artist Rocío Molina perform her latest work Caída del Cielo (‘fall from the sky’). Molina is an Andalusian dancer and choreographer in her early thirties who specialises in her own subversive take on flamenco as well as public improvisations in non-traditional venues (including outdoor sites in Paris and a disco in New York) where she collaborates with other artists ranging from dancers and choreographers to musicians and sculptors.
Caída del Cielo features Molina herself as solo dancer accompanied by a band of four male musicians – a singer/electric bassist, a guitarist (both traditional acoustic flamenco and electric), a drummer/percussionist and a second percussionist and electronic musician. All are also adept at traditional flamenco hand-clapping and calling; and Molina too makes a formidable battery of claps, slaps and clicks while dancing. Music, movement and costumes alternate between more traditional elements of flamenco and more contemporary and even pop-cultural references: the show begins with a burst of grunge rock from the band (who are dressed in dark tracksuits or t-shirts and baggy pants) which is scarcely recognisable as being derived from flamenco; the band then exits and Molina enters in a white flamenco dress with an enormously long ruffled train, like a bride, and performs a long, slow, anguished, unaccompanied movement solo, which mostly involves crawling across the floor and over the train of her dress, like a beached mermaid. It’s a clear challenge to anyone expecting anything traditional, and an implicit feminist critique of the restrictions of the form itself.
After this provocative opening the rest of the show unfolds over an hour and a half (in itself an incredible feat for a dancer who almost never stops moving or leaves the stage) in a brilliantly judged sequence of tableaux that alternate between thrilling virtuosity, playful satire and heartbreaking lyricism. Between dances, Molina changes costumes onstage, from bridal white traje to a man’s silver waistcoat and white trousers; to leather SMBD gear combined with a cowboy hat; and finally to a purple-red soaked dress, which she climbs into while standing in a vat of dye before slowly dancing across the stage and leaving a smeared trail in her wake (as with Les Damnés, this climactic sequence is mirrored by live-feed video projected onto a huge screen at the back of the stage, so that the trail of blood becomes a kind of abstract form of graffiti-calligraphy).
There’s even a moment of cruel comedy involving the guys in the band noisily eating packets of crisps (amplified by mics) while Molina changes into her bondage gear and is then ‘forbidden’ to eat or make any noise herself; her own crisp packet is then velcroed over her groin. Needless to say, she then explodes into a spectacular dance of defiance, eating crisps and taunting the men who have briefly played at being her tormentors.
Along with the rest of the audience, my girlfriend (who has a passion for social and ethnic dancing) and I leapt to our feet at the end of the show, which we found both thrilling and liberating. Somehow it felt like the perfect antidote to the depressing results of the US election: an affirmation of the unextinguishable power of the individual, of women, of cultural minorities and of artists, to confront and reinvent traditions, and to do so with style, grace, energy, intelligence, virtuosity, and the controlled fury that is characteristic of flamenco itself.
My beloved left Paris two days later to return to the uncertainty of her divided and conquered country, and I remained for two more days before flying on to New York to visit my daughter, experience Trumpland at first hand and take in some more theatre (about which more in my next Postcard). That last weekend in Paris, however, I saw two concerts which moved me deeply and also spoke to our troubled times.
Leyla McCalla is a New Orleans-based folk singer-songwriter of Haitian parentage. She’s also a cellist with a classical background who has made the instrument her own (she also plays banjo) and bent it to her repertoire, which mingles original compositions, Haitian folk songs in French Creole, and (on her first album) original settings of poems by the great African-American jazz-age poet and activist Langston Hughes.
I saw her on the last night of Festival Worldstock, a two-week celebration of world-music at what is for me the most atmospheric theatre on earth, the Théatre des Bouffes du Nord – a delapidated 19th century ruin which has been the creative home of Peter Brook since the late 1970s (I had a life-changing experience seeing his production of Carmen there in 1981). It was a fantastic and intimate setting for a memorable night of music-making; the auditorium only seats about 500 and embraces the stage, which is usually undecorated and extends beyond the proscenium to the cracked and peeling plaster of the back wall.
The opening act was Canadian–Haitian singer-songwriter and guitarist Melissa Laveaux, whose quirky personality, voice, picking-style and fusion of alt-pop, folk, roots and blues were the perfect amuse-bouche for McCalla when the latter finally strolled onstage and delivered a rich set of songs from her first two albums, Vari-Colored Songs and A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey (the titles indicate their social-political content). She was accompanied by Daniel Tremblay on banjo and guitar, and fellow black woman Free Feral on viola and backing vocals; Feral’s stage persona, voice and instrument (closer in pitch and timbre than a violin would be to McCalla’s cello) complemented the latter perfectly and created a rich, at times almost orchestral sound.
Despite the uncompromising content of her songs (especially the Langston Hughes settings) and her stage conversation (mercifully delivered in a halting French that even I could mostly understand) McCalla’s own personal style is refreshingly gentle and even humble. Nevertheless as an artist and spokesperson for women and minorities she’s as powerful in her own way as someone like Rocío Molina.
Stand-outs included a calypso song about rich men getting away with murder ‘dedicated to the next president of the United States’ and her closing speech: ‘Vraiement le monde est fou. Donald Trump est le prochain président des États-Unis, et Leonard Cohen est mort.’ She then invited Laveaux back onto the stage to join her in ‘a song of hope’, and all four musicians (with us joining in on choruses) shared a haunting rendition of ‘Hallelujah’.
The next day (my last in Paris) was Sunday 13 November, the anniversary of last year’s terrorist attacks in the city. I was especially mindful of the Bataclan theatre shootings as I made my way to Christian de Portzamparc’s elegant Salle des Concerts opposite the looming space-ship of the Philharmonie de Paris in the Parc de la Villette, a vast public space allegedly inspired by the philosophy of Jacques Derrida and located in the former slaughterhouse district of the 19th arrondissement.
It was a misty Sunday afternoon and crowds of people were strolling around the park, which comprises a bizarre assemblage of postmodern buildings and cultural institutions including the Cité de la Musique, the Cité de la Science et de l’Industrie and a vast geodesic dome containing an IMAX cinema. Finally I entered the inviting embrace of the concert hall, with its curling walkways and light-filled spaces surrounding the hall itself.
I was here to see the Kronos Quartet playing Steve Reich’s works for string quartet. It was the second day of Steve Reich Unlimited, a weekend in honour of the composer’s 80th birthday, and today’s concert was dedicated to the victims of the attacks of 13 November 2015.
The works all juxtaposed live and recorded music, sound and voices, and included three pieces composed specifically for Kronos. The Triple Quartet, which opened the program, involved them playing live against two pre-recorded versions of themselves. WTC 9/11 also uses three quartets, one live and two pre-recorded, as well as tape recordings of voices during and after the attacks on the World Trade Centre: the first movement includes archival recordings of air-traffic controllers increasingly alarmed by the change in trajectory of the planes, as well as the voices of members of the Fire Department of New York dealing with what was happening on the ground; the second movement incorporates reminiscences nine years later by people who lived nearby, members of the fire department, and the first ambulance volunteer to arrive at the site; and the third movement features the voices of another local inhabitant and two women who conducted a vigil and recited psalms over the bodies and remains of the victims, as well as archival recordings of a cellist/singer and chanter of psalms at a New York synagogue.
Finally, Different Trains commemorates train journeys taken by the composer as a child between New York and Los Angeles in the early 1940s to visit his parents after their separation, as well as the very different trains on which other Jewish children were transported at the same time in Nazi-occupied Europe. It includes recordings made forty years later by the composer of Reich’s governess who accompanied him on the train, a porter who worked on the same line, and survivors from the Shoah who were the same age as Reich; as well as archival recordings of American and European trains in the 1930s and 40s.
The concert also included extracts from The Cave, another work for string quartet and pre-recorded tape, concerning the Tomb of Patriarchs, a contested site of great importance to both Jews and Muslims, which is now located in the predominantly Arab village of Hebron (itself the site of a massacre of local Jews by Arabs in 1929, and now under Israeli military occupation). The original work is a three-act video documentary opera; each act poses the same questions to Israelis, Palestinians and Americans, concerning the significance for them of the cave.
None of this would count if the music itself (as well as the material on tape and its use) was not so hypnotically compelling. For me Reich is the most radical and exciting of the so-called New York minimalist composers; his use of recorded voices and sounds mostly involves atomised fragments, which are then mimicked and developed by the ‘voices’ of the strings. Most moving for me (perhaps because of my own family history) was the last and longest (but earliest-composed) work on the program, Different Trains; but I found myself on the edge of my seat with anxiety from the opening of WTC 9/11, a relatively brief work at only 15 minutes which begins with the first violin mimicking the sound of Reich’s own telephone signal when ‘engaged’, as it was continuously during the attacks while he was on the phone to his children and grandchildren in New York.
After the concert, I emerged back into the crowded wintry evening park. Perhaps it was the end of a holiday weekend (Friday 11 had ironically been Armistice Day), but the crowds in the Métro were more frenetic than usual, and I found myself feeling a little unsafe for the first time that fortnight. Despite the omnipresence of heavily armed soldiers patrolling the streets and security checks at every church, theatre or museum, everything had felt typically civilized and even surprisingly friendly until now; and I was relieved when I finally got back to the apartment.
The following morning I was flying to New York: another microcosm of civilization and barbarism, and another site of previous personal and now political upheaval. Trump and Clinton were both there, hunkered down in their own towers, in the aftermath of another event which, perhaps more subtly but no less surely than 9/11, had redefined the world.