Monthly Archives: February 2015
Edward Degas, one of the most renowned and beloved of the French impressionist painters and sculptors is most often associated with paintings and drawings of the dance. His pale ballerinas in pink, blue, green and white tulle evoke an ethereal world of striking still points of movement. Their delicate loveliness is a gossamer of bodies twirling, bending, stretching, leaping, pirouetting, balancing, posing and dressing. His dancers spark fantasy and mythic beauty. There is not a pose, position or action of the mystic ballerinas that Degas has not rendered in painting or drawing, so avidly possessed was he with ballerinas.
Why did ballerinas stir him? The haunting melodies and beautiful rendering of Degas in New Orleans by Rosary O’Neill, with music and arrangements by David Temple, incisively directed by Deborah Temple suggest a reason. When Degas visited his brother and beloved sister-in-law Estelle, her daughter Jo danced ballet and wished to be a ballerina in Paris. This and other symbols whisper through the characterization, song, direction and staging in what can only be described as a consummate production which which premiered at the Arthur Seelen Theatre Drama Bookstore in New York City in a one-night showcase. The musical connects the tragic time Degas spent with family in New Orleans before he was famous to the evolution of his greatness as the founder of Impressionism.
It opens with the spotlight on the painter Degas reminiscing about his visit to America. He begins with a song of remembrance about the time he lived in New Orleans where his mother was from. He sings of the key family members with whom he lived, family whose unreconciled relationships with him would impact his life and art after he returned to France. Degas (Trevor Kowalsky in a sterling and evocative portrayal of the painter), sings Temple’s wistful melody of nostalgic longing, “I have a picture in my mind,” as the play flashes back to the roiling events in the Degas family household.
The in-laws/cousins, the Mussons, live on Esplanade Avenue in a New Orleans of 1872 that is raging against the carpetbaggers in the last days of Reconstruction. It is the beginning of the racial terrorism that blossomed like deadly nightshade and continued into the twilight of the 20th century. During Degas’ introductory song which sets the events and succinctly reveals the back-story of his visit to the most French city in America, the director has skillfully created the interior rooms of the Degas House. It is here the painter stayed with his brother René and tried to help out the family financially. He was also in New Orleans to escape the tumultuous events occurring in Paris during the days of the commune.
For this memorable opening scene (which also serves as the closing scene of Degas’ flashback), director Deborah Temple cleverly stages a tableau of the characters who are instrumental in spurring on the transformation of Degas’ personality and art: his brother René Degas (Tom Bloxham is wonderful as the arrogant, cruel and duplicitous brother), René‘s Father-in-law, Michel Musson (Patrick O’Shea rings out this sexist, racist, humorous curmudgeon), Mathilde Musson Bell (Elizabeth Lococo in a superb and well grounded performance), Didi Musson (the excellent and heartfelt Natalie LaBossier), René‘s wife Estelle Musson Degas (the exquisitely acted, operatically talented Lucy Makebish), and most poignantly the budding ballerina Josephine (Jo) Balfour, who is Estelle’s daughter from her first marriage (in a wonderful portrayal by Sarah Newcomb).
Together, the sisters (Didi, Mathilde and Estelle), and René subtly effect the influences that sideswipe Degas’ well being to devastate his emotions. O’Neill and the Temples have deftly drawn Degas’ family trials. One cannot help but intuit that this period in his life greatly influenced his career and was a turning point. The superb production and eclectic music (in an amazing rendering of different styles) David Temple ingeniously uses to infer the past and in some numbers suggests hints of blues and jazz that we associate with New Orleans in the present. The cogent directorial elements and memorable songs emphasize the import of Degas’ stay in New Orleans as a time of sorrow, loss and pain, and suggest that these obstacles ultimately served to strengthen him; no doubt they contributed in helping pave the way for his entrance onto the art scene.
Of the three Musson sisters, Estelle, who remains loyal to his adulterous brother René, is the one who breaks Degas’ heart. Degas is unable to shake his lifelong love for her which he nobly expresses and which he more nobly understands will never be consummated because of Estelle’s integrity and sanctity. O’Neill with the help of Deborah Temple’s direction and the adroit actors (the uber talented Makebish is stunning in the part of Estelle and Kowalsky is powerful as her soulful, haunted Edgar) brilliantly weave Degas’ love into a force which compels him toward a spiritual attachment with Estelle and her daughter ballerina Jo. The director wisely stages Jo as a central figure; throughout we see her practicing her positions as she dreams of flying away, perhaps to Paris to one day join the ballet. Jo also hopes with a great and tender love that her mother Estelle who has become blind and attempts to hide this fact from Edgar will one day see again. Encapsulated in Temple’s wistful song, “I dreamed that I could fly,” Estelle and Jo sing to each other echoing these and other yearnings which we later discover never come to pass.
The play develops smoothly following the arc of human foibles and is faithful in following the history of Degas’ life when he stayed in New Orleans. In the flashback Degas arrives at the house and there is great joy and a sense of wonder and appreciation for the painterly cousin, brother-in-law and brother. As the action progresses, we learn why. The family perceives Degas to be the savior who will make everything right for them since they are in a state of physical, mental and emotional devolution. Initially unaware of this situation, Degas is happy to see the one he has always loved, Estelle, whom he knew when she and her sisters visited him Paris. This is his first time in the new world and he has a positive and outlook about America and New Orleans which family letters have kept alive for him.
But family was not forthcoming about their condition or the cultural circumstances of New Orleans after the Civil War. The longer he stays, the more his awareness grows; he begins to understand the darker elements consuming the city and his family. O’Neill’s play and the production masterfully reveal the series of devastating pictures the situations paint for Degas. As a result of these dramatic scenes and the misery he sees and experiences, on his return to Paris he will be forced to emotionally vitiate his suffering through his art. The economic portrait of his family who live in cramped quarters is borderline squalid. We see this especially in the second act when New Orleans floods: rats drop from trees around the house, the family takes in as many homeless as they can to help their neighbors at their own expense. The city is reduced to a fetid swamp whose filth can never been expunged or wiped away. The song “Rats” sung by America (a terrific job by Mickey Lynch and the company) is humorous, dark and revelatory of the city’s torpor, want, financial devastation and foreboding.
By degrees reality stencils terrifying images on Degas’ soul. He discovers Estelle is blind and pregnant though they can’t afford another baby. René has not paid off the debts which are increasing exponentially and threaten to bankrupt the family in New Orleans and France. René and Michel seek the oblivion of alcohol and drink throughout the day, becoming willful, argumentative and confrontational. Mixed race cousin Norbert Rillieux, who was a wealthy free man of color before the Civil War, is being threatened daily by the White League, a white supremacist group growing in political power.
What horrifies Degas most is that René has “turned his back” on beloved, beautiful Estelle and is having an affair with America, a married woman who tutors the children. America (Mickey Lynch is superb), has gradually insinuated herself into the family and by the play’s conclusion is ruthlessly running the household, the sisters and René as she arrogantly steps around Estelle who “sees nothing.” Didi, who loves Degas and wants to be with him in Paris, tells Estelle that René is cheating on her. She does this in a jealous fit of rage after Didi discovers Degas loved Estelle. Estelle tries to be stoic but she eventually confronts René who lies to her. Estelle is a tragic figure caught in circumstances from which, as a woman, she will never escape or rectify. She must just try to survive and prevent her newborn from dying. Degas is appalled at the family’s deterioration and Estelle’s lifestyle. All has turned from the joy of his first weeks with them, symbolized by the song they sang to unmarried Didi for her birthday celebration (“The Sunny Side of Thirty”). Now there is only chaos, argument, racial tensions and impoverishment.
O’Neill has created interesting parallels between the family’s deterioration and the decline of New Orleans which has not recovered economically and whose white citizens angrily blame on Reconstruction politics. Degas learns that many of the white males have joined the White League and the Knights of the White Camellia to take the city and the South back from the Northern marauders. Mathilde’s husband Will and Father/Uncle Michel are important leaders and they have shunned Norbert from their family and most probably would not stop his being lynched. Even René has been persuaded to their side.
As Norbert’s wife Emily (Liz Louie is terrific as a free woman of color who is angry, fearful and sorrowful as she recognizes a new, terrifying city), sings of the augmenting racial hatreds in Act I (“Don’t Matter If You’re Free”), and in Act II when she tells Degas that she and Norbert are leaving for Paris fearing for their lives (“Time to Say Goodbye”). Degas acknowledges New Orleans is a dangerous, racist and demoralized city. In comparison to France and Paris which are havens of justice, New Orleans is reprehensible. Degas is further unsettled when a letter arrives to announce that his father has gone bankrupt and has been thrown into prison. René’s mismanagement of finances and importunity with money have economically destroyed the family in Paris and in New Orleans. When Edgar confronts his younger brother, they argue and he almost pummels him but restrains himself. He is not a brutal man; he will use his hands for painting. René kneels to him for forgiveness, but Degas is powerless to change his brother or the circumstances. He must leave for Paris to help whom he can help, his father. Somehow, he must restore the Senior Degas to wholeness and pay off the creditors. Painting is his only way out.
At the end of the play in a song reprise when Jo leaves for the convent, Jo and her mother again sing “I Dream.” It is a magnificent moment, for we understand the tragedy of hopes never realized: Jo dies of malaria at 18; Estelle, having never regained her sight, is abandoned by René who marries America and goes to Paris. Only Degas’ dream is realized, the dream which establishes him as a world-class Impressionist painter. O’Neill implies and the production so beautifully reveals that the fires of his greatness have been stoked in New Orleans. The regrets of an unfilled love with Estelle and the sorrow of his failure to to stop his family’s and especially Estelle’s decline become the emotional sources of his art.
This intriguing and memorable musical, Degas in New Orleans, creates a new vista for understanding Edgar Degas’s life and work. In appreciating the impact and importance of the painter’s time in the crescent city, the production reveals the extent to which influences born of tragedy can be translated into great good. And it shows how spiritual love and remembrance can be translated into artistic genius. Whether or not the symbolism of Jo’s wish to go to Paris to be a dancer is rooted in fact, O’Neill’s characterization of Jo coupled with Temple’s melodic compositions and Debrah Temple’s high concept production values anchor Degas’ love for Estelle and her daughter which is historically accurate. The work illuminates the idea that Degas’ ballet dancers are a tribute to Estelle’s daughter who “flies” in the still point of his artistry. In his work during the time he was in New Orleans and his work afterwards, Degas remained inspired and he dreamed. Through these dreams he was able to direct his career onto a completely new path, helping to establish an artistic trend which is globally loved today.
Edgar Degas most probably carried his love for Estelle and Jo to the grave, a spiritual attachment which Degas in New Orleans conveys. After seeing this incredibly realized production, we know that if not for that fateful visit, we would not be able to appreciate the 24 works he painted in the Big Easy such as “A Cotton Office in New Orleans,” or his three paintings of Estelle completed at the Degas House. As for Estelle’s daughter from her first marriage, Jo, whose wish to go to Paris and be in the ballet was cut short?
Perhaps she got their after all. Degas’ loving remembrance of her, manifested in his numerous paintings of the ballet, is the triumphant iconography of his work. These paintings, sketches and sculptures of ballerinas when not loaned out to museums around the world, have remained in Paris and in France through wars, protests, floods and plagues. It is vital that the meaningful connections between Paris and New Orleans in Degas’ life and work be acknowledged. The wonderful Degas in New Orleans is a step in the right direction to uplift the life and work of this incredible artist for the upcoming 100th year anniversary of his death in 2017.
The production was awarded a generous grant from Red Hook School District in New York and was produced by Deborah Temple with the Red Hook Performing Arts Company.
The documentary ‘1971’ screened in a World Premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. I screened the film and later reviewed it giving it 5 stars. The amazing documentary chronicles a time in our history that has tremendous currency and importance for us today. In fact, Laura Poitras (she directed CitizenFour which is about Edward Snowden’s revelation of the US massive surveillance program), is one of the co-executive producers of the film. As Snowden’s revelations were coming out, Hamilton (who also produced), her co-writer and editor, Gabriel Rhodes, producers Katy Chevigny, Marilyn Ness and others were stunned to see that the events of 1971 were being played out but this time on a global stage with Snowden. The chilling question was, since technology had gained huge strides that few comprehended, was it even possible to know how long and to what extent the government’s security programs were covertly vitiating American citizens’ constitutional rights? Snowden’s revelations and the events in 1971 (revealed for the first time in the film), are most likely the “tip of the iceberg.”
Hamilton’s documentary is a superb and thrilling true account of how 8 very ordinary and very brave American citizens, calling themselves The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI, risked their lives, their family’s well being, and their freedom to expose the unconstitutional, covert surveillance program COINTELLPRO. In the film Hamilton explores how and why The Citizen’s Commission felt there was a moral imperative at stake: they esteemed the principles of freedom in the Bill of Rights. Their beliefs and our American principles were held in the balance when they went to the Washington Post with FBI files that they had taken, files that were “secret,” and revealed surveillance of average Americans who did not adhere to the politics and philosophy supporting the Viet Nam War. Would the Washington Post prevent publication, in effect censoring the files? Or would they publish the damning documents? Hamilton reveals the fascinating account of what happened in its entirety and includes the identities of the 8 heroic and unassuming Americans who wanted to uphold the constitutional foundations of the country they believed in.
I had the opportunity to interview Johanna Hamilton via email and ask her about the film which is opening on February 6th in Cinema Village in New York City and on March 13th in Los Angeles.
The film tells a fascinating story of individuals who broke the law. It is revelatory about our segments of the government which in effect exceeded their powers to push forth a political agenda that was damaging to our country. Why/how is this story especially relevant for us today?
Sometimes people have to do things that are courageous and even controversial in order to stimulate conversations about checks and balances that are the lifeblood of democracy. I think this film is relevant today because a number of people acknowledge that post-9/11 we have lost a lot of those check and balances. And that was perhaps understandable in that moment but, perhaps, in hindsight we lost too many and maybe it’s time for a fresh look. That was true even before the Snowden revelations; and then he gave us empirical proof just as the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI did back then.
Is the country in better or worse shape than it was in 1971, politically, ethically? Today, do you think that citizens might be less likely to take a stand as these individuals did as a collective group remaining quiet about their actions? Why or why not?
There is so much to say and this subject has filled many books; I feel like you’d need a dissertation to encapsulate the first part of the question! Without doubt, the country is very different than it was in 1971; that was pre-Watergate. Today it is probably more politically polarized than it was then. The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI is unusual in that it was a relatively large group who all had to work together and then keep a secret for a very long time. Back then this type of collective political action was less unusual. Most often people who are leaking information work alone, precisely to minimize the risk to others. I’m not sure a group of people would do it today. Then it was very easy to feel very directly affected by the Vietnam War, for example, because of the draft. You wondered whether the person next to you was an informant. Today, there’s no draft and although in this Digital Age the surveillance capabilities are much more vast they are also more ephemeral. It’s much more difficult for the general public to feel directly affected by surveillance. It’s more personally invasive today, but you don’t necessarily feel it.
How did this film evolve? Where did you receive the impulse to dig deep to find the people and recreate the events?
I consider myself very fortunate to have known Betty Medsger, the journalist at the Washington Post, to whom they leaked the documents in 1971 and who wrote the first stories. She and I have been friends for a long time, long before this professional collaboration. She was writing and researching her book that is now The Burglary: the Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
(In her Director’s Statement, Hamilton says, “…we agreed to share all our primary research materials. I benefited enormously from her many years of research, including access to the 34,000 pages of the FBI investigation.)
I implored her to let me know when she was ready to make the film! Several years went by and one day she asked me if I was serious, whereupon she helped arrange a meeting with several of the members of the Citizens’ Commission and their lawyer David Kairys. We met and a couple of days later they let me know that were ready to go on camera. In terms of the recreations, I immediately thought to recreate the events of that night. Cinema is an immersive experience and I wanted people to be able to put themselves in their shoes. Plus, they left nothing from that night, no notes, no photos, nothing, just memories. I loved the sense of being able to create a nonfiction heist movie or film noir. Without them, it might have been a short film.
In what way did making this film impact you? What did you learn?
I learned a lot about civic courage. And I learned an enormous amount of the inner workings of both the protest movement in the late 60s and early 70s as well as the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover.
Laura Poitras is a co-producer of the film. In what way did the making of this film have an impact on her making CitizenFour? The two films have similar concepts. In what way are they very different? What would you like audiences to see and understand about that time (1971) and our time now?
Laura is a Co-Executive Producer on the film. She and I have been friends and colleagues for a long time. She was one of the very first advisers on the film. She was already making a film about contemporary surveillance when I started working on 1971. So my film did not influence her, but she did know the story. Then in March 2013, she sent me an email asking me how I was doing on the film and reiterated her willingness to help. I found out about Edward Snowden with the rest of the world in June of that year. She was already in touch with Ed when she sent me that email in March; clearly she was drawing the analogy between the two stories and the two eras. Our films are similar in that they deal with people who have taken a stand at great risk to themselves by leaking information (in analogue and digital ways), but that ended up benefiting democracy. They both have a thriller element. But they could not be more different in that CitizenFour unfolds in real time; much of it is cinema verite. 1971, a story in the past, had to be reenacted in order to bring it to life.
In her director’s statement, Hamilton solidifies the wide ranging nature of what The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI accomplished for the country.
“The break-in is a little-known but seminal event in contemporary American history. The decision by the Washington Post to publish the documents was a defining moment for investigative journalism. We know about COINTELPRO, and the FBI’s dirty tricks targeting Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers, and many others, but we only know about them because of the stolen documents and the actions of The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, as the burglars called themselves. They didn’t look for the spotlight. Their mission a success, they returned to their normal lives.”
It also may have indirectly eased the way for the Washington Post to adopt a prominent investigative role during the Watergate scandal which too, began with a break-in, and ended with the resignation of a President.
This interview first appeared on Blogcritics.