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Scene4 Magazine - Paris - plus ça change... by Renate Stedhal
Scene4 Magazine-inSight

may 2008

plus ça change...

by Renate Stendhal

When I visited Paris this April, after a lapse of a few years, a friend of mine warned me that I would not recognize the usual Parisian cafĂ© experience. The sour French waiter, in his black gilet and white apron, who  refuses to understand any order delivered with a foreign accent, would be replaced by friendly foreigners in all color shades ... and would, after all, be sorely missed.

Indeed, my old haunt, the CafĂ© Rostand across from the Jardin du Luxembourg  was unrecognizable. It had turned into a “hip” place, the walls decorated with lacquered palm fronds in dark beige between African desert paintings. The shabby furniture was packed to the point where the friendly, dark-skinned waiters in Jeans had to do acrobatics to reach the clients. A huge clock dominating the center seemed to remind everyone that in this “Bedouin station hall cafĂ©” there was no time any more for tradition.


The French, of course, resist change by simply ignoring it, and I was relieved to see the same young, chic families with their baby carriages, old ladies with rouged cheeks, students from the Sorbonne and intellectuals from the nearby St. Germain publishing houses jammed together, intensely involved in their discussions, comme toujours. Who cares about café fashions when the concept is still intact: food and drink around the clock in close proximity to other human bodies and excited voices, ideally next to big windows where you can see the changing world go by...

Again to my relief, in the center of St. Germain, at the famous CafĂ© de Flore, all the old traditions were alive and well. The waiters with their classic black bow-tie, the starched white apron almost touching their polished black shoes, were still flitting about like swallows. Young starlets and pretty models (of all genders) were hanging out with their senior admirers, big spenders, and the tourists, comme il faut. The downstairs part  -- red banquettes, art deco mirrors and marbles, the old Coquille St. Jacques mosaic floor -- still affirms the age-old importance of seeing and being seen, while the small upstairs room discreetly bespeaks the elegance of seemingly not wanting to be seen. The menu, printed like a book in a French classic edition, starts with a quote from Sartre and claims its own unchanging youth through Flora, eternal Goddess of Spring. Eternal and unchanging: At the table next to mine, a ten-year-old boy, Parisian by the combination of Jeans and a very expensive haircut, sips his chocolat chaud listening to his father’s eulogy for higher education: only a French father with longish, grayish curls and an impeccable business suit could hold forth to his child on such a topic for an uninterrupted cafĂ© hour... The only noticeable change was the price of admission: a cafĂ© crème was 5.70 Euro, an Irish coffee 14.-, piece of cake 10.50, a glass of champagne 15.- and a bottle of CuvĂ©e Dom Perignon a full 400.-

A glance at two major bookstores, both perfectly placed right next to the Flore and the Deux Magots, revealed similar cycles of eternal returns: feminist pioneer Simone de Beauvoir was still (or once again) in fashion, next to Proust, next to the anti-Semite Louis-Ferdinand CĂ©line.


The same Plus ça change, plus c’est la mĂŞme chose (“The more it changes the more it is the same”) was to be found at La Coupole, one of the chic headquarters of bohemian Montparnasse. The banquettes have changed from red to beige, but the square columns still sport their wild “murals” from the heydays of modernism. To celebrate its eighty years (“La Coupole – 80 annĂ©es folles”), La Coupole had turned itself into an art gallery. The walls were covered with large photos of a late project of the late Niki de Saint Phalle, her Tarot Garden, Le Jardin des Tarots. The popular French artist who once stood out among early feminists with her bold autobiographical sexual abuse film “Daddy,” died in 2002 at the age of 71.  Niki de Saint Phalle is famous for her enormous polyester pop Goddesses called Nanas (“gals”) – sculptures that could be read as a statement of female power outweighing the power of the phallus. Her Tarot Garden in Tuscany, near the town of Capalbio, is the work of some thirty years. A vast wooded landscape is sprinkled with gigantic sculptures of the major Arcana of the Tarot, shaped like Nanas and other magical creatures: “As in all fairy tales,” the author’s statement reads, “before finding the treasure, I met on my path dragons, sorcerers, magicians, and the Angel of Temperance.”


Across the Seine, at the Centre Pompidou, another French monstre sacrĂ© of the international art world was celebrated: Louise Bourgeois, the 97-year old painter, sculptor, object maker who is still going strong. Bourgeois has shocked the art world with her unflinching representations of sexuality, her gendered and transgendered genitals in fleshy marble, iron, bronze... The retrospective showed 200 exquisite works in different media, among them a copy of her gigantic spider (called “Maman”) and recent large-size water colors of her aging body pierced by nails and feeling “like a hunted animal.”


In a free-associative leap from a body pierced by nails, I had to take a look at what’s old and new at the Opera Ballet. The ancient opera house, the  Palais Garnier with its gilded “little Versailles” foyer, showed an exhibition en hommage Ă  Roland Petit, the prolific French choreographer and showman who turned eighty this year. Roland_Petit-crThe exhibition showed splashy photos and videos of his works, hugely popular story ballets, starting with Carmen, featuring himself and his partner Zizi Jeanmaire, a ballet that made both of them a sensation in 1949 and has since been performed over 5000 times. His titles, Notre Dame de Paris,  Le Loup, Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, Le FantĂ´me de l’OpĂ©ra, Paradis Perdu etc. evoke the ballet history of the 20th century with interpreters like Nureyev and Fonteyn, artists like Picasso and Cocteau, costume designers like Yves Saint Laurent. Petit, who started the Ballets National de Marseille, gave two dozens of his creations to the Paris Opera, most recently his strongly homoerotic Proust ballet from 1974, “Proust ou les Intermittances du Coeur.” (The DVD of the revival from 2007 shows the stars of the Opera Ballet in top form.)

The new house, OpĂ©ra Bastille, was a sellout with a soirĂ©e “Nureyev-Balanchine-Forsythe.” The program was set up with an interesting concept: presenting the evolution of classical ballet in a single evening. The evening opened with Balanchine’s neo-classical reinvention of the traditional language of dance, his provocative “Four Temperaments” of 1946, set to music by Paul Hindemith. From there, the journey went  forward and backward at the same time: Shortly after his defection from the Kirov, Rudolf Nureyev recreated from memory the historically important ballet Raymonda (from 1898) for the pleasure and education of the West. Raymonda was the strange culmination of Russia-based French choreographer Marius Petipa’s works (among them Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty): not really a story ballet, but rather a first series of “pure” dance numbers, loosely held together by a story line of no interest or import. All that matters  are the steps (it is amusing that to a French-accustomed ear the name Petipa unavoidably sounds like “petit pas” -- Marius Smallstep.) With its arrangements of solos, pas de deux, and ensembles, mimed action scenes, processions and exotic folkloristic divertissements, Raymonda is a veritable encyclopedia of classical dance – the solid foundation (some ballet lovers would say, the height of boredom) of all that was to come in the next hundred years of choreographic evolution. The culminating point of this evolution closed the program: William Forsythe’s 2005 Artifact Suite, a convincing example of the extreme edge to which modern sensibilities and modern bodies have pushed ballet.


This brilliant concept of a historical sweep was unfortunately less brilliantly realized. The Paris Opera Ballet – like most other major ballet companies in the West – proved unable to dance Balanchine with the innocent charm and sassy sex appeal his work requires. The female dancers paraded their Parisian style by acting high-nosed and remote, as if they were made of a rarer essence than “ordinary” ballerinas. They were certainly gorgeous and their technique irreproachable, but their overly controlled performance and stiff charm reminded me of the French saying, “MĂŞme la plus belle fille du monde ne peut donner que ce qu’elle a.” (“Even the most beautiful girl in the world can only give what she has got.) Raymonda suffered the same destiny, but luckily William Forsythe proved stronger than any Parisian style, and at the end of the night things finally kicked into excitement. No wonder, Forsythe is an irresistible force in Paris. In 1983, Nureyev, the new director of Opera Ballet, already invited the young American choreographer who was on the verge of creating his soon-to-be-famous Frankfurt Ballet. In one of his many consecutive visits, in 1987, Forsythe created his stellar piece, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated at the Paris Opera – and because of him a new star was born: ballerina Sylvie Guillem.


Recently in these columns, I reviewed Artifact Suite performed by the San Francisco Ballet and I would say that thanks to the more spectacular dancers and better lighting, the San Franciscans outshone the Parisians. Nevertheless, the piece proved once again that with its dislocated series of choreographic, musical and scenography fragments it is one of the most beautiful and extreme examples of the deconstruction and reconstruction of classical ballet. As the erudite program has it, Forsythe, in reference to Michel Foucault, “chooses to approach the history of ballet like an archeology of the body. He sets out to trace in choreographic terms the genesis, the stages and ruptures of the evolution of the classical technique through a series of themes and variations that the dancers repeat and take apart onstage, thus constantly revising the basic steps of the academic vocabulary until more and more complex themes appear.”

These “ruptures” of the tradition, however, were not taken lightly by the Parisians. When the curtain came down all of a sudden in the middle of a sequence while the music, Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin No 2, went on playing, half the audience insisted on applauding the now invisible dancers. The other half tried as energetically to shush the clappers. Did this Paris audience not know how to behave at a spectacle de ballet? Was this an expression of mere irresistible enjoyment or did it perhaps amuse the audience to deconstruct the behavior traditionally expected at the ballet when the ballet itself is not what you would expect? In other words, it was hard to tell whether this Parisian audience eruption was a celebration of ruptures or a rebellion... against change.

Photos by Renate Stendhal
(except where individually credited)


©2008 Renate Stendhal
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Renate Stendhal, Ph.D., is a writer and writing coach
based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes and a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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