Adultery Goes Avant-Garde In Brooklyn

Brooklyn Bridge Black Tie, Avantgardemusicnyc.

“It’s a dance performance based on the seventeenth century diary of a philanderer!” said Dr. Zhivago (Male Harem member pseudonym). “Right up The Sultanette’s alley!”

I may have philandered in an alley or three but I’m skeptical of multi-media performances. Avant-garde by nature is a contrivance. A cheeky departure from the expected. To be boldly contrived and remain artistically honest is a fine balance and I’d seen enough avant flops to prove it.

But 17c – the latest offering from Big Dance Theater at BAM’s (Brooklyn Academy of Music) Next Wave Festival had my attention. The company has been described as genre-defying (New Yorker) and genre-exploding (The New York Times). You have to love a company that creates a piece called This Page Left Intentionally Blank (2016).

Good afternoon, ladies!, Thomas Rowlandson.

Since 1991, founders Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar have been converging dance, music, text and visual design into provocative performance pieces infused with sources as varied as Mark Twain, Flaubert, and Euripides. Through all this they’ve managed to be married. For thirty years! Who better to contemplate philandering?

“I’m in!” I told Dr. Zhivago. I would join him and the divine Ms. Lara (to continue the theme) his recent bride. (The Sultanette loves to marry off her harem members to deserving women especially when champagne flows at the wedding.)

Pepys preps for BAM premiere?, John Hayls.

The author of the seventeenth century diary that inspires 17c is Samuel Pepys – famous for recording both the history of that raucous period and his impassioned dalliances. Big Dance’s performance sprinkles the narration of his diary entries with modern jargon – refreshing as a device to spike the mannerly prose though frustrating if you crave historical accuracy. “But this isn’t a history class, it’s art!” the avant-garde cop whispered in my ear. So I ignored the urge for authenticity and opened my mind to the play of past and present.

Case in point, Lazar’s riveting fireside reflections (the fireplace flickers from a video screen) on chasing down the hired (and soon fired) maid he has a hankering for. His full-fledged male-entitled justification to “The Dance Master “ – not dancing “but talking!”

Throughout the performance, the set pieces are dimensionalized by the company’s fine dancers with a smart fluid style that plays to the sophisticated wit of the narration. A dance interlude that moves languorously from bed to floor, simultaneously projected on a backdrop is especially enticing. Even the wigs and foofy embellishments befit a seventeenth century romp with a whiff of twenty-first century chic that could hold court in any downtown club scene.

Escaping 21c, 2007Terreform.

Not that our ménage would be clubbing later. Dr. Z had a film shoot early next morning, Lara an interview, and yours truly another day of flagellation – the writing variety – on a Sultanette diary of sorts that monopolizes my attention when I’m not on Brooklyn capers with the harem.

But we all agreed that this excellent escape to the seventeenth century was worth staying up past our bedtime, especially considering the state of the present century’s affairs. Anybody interested in time travel?

17c is performing at BAM from November 14 through 18. Ooops! You missed it! But the award-winning Big Dance Theater has performed from Belgium to Brazil and their next multi-fangled event is sure to tickle your avant-garde fantasy. Watch for them. And check out BAM’s Next Wave Festival until December 16.

Photo: TheSultanette

A Place Called Home: Is It Where You’re From Or Who You Are?

Photo: TheSultanette

The Cabinet of Curiosities, Steffen Dam, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison.

The Sultanette revisited this pesky question last week upon returning to her hometown, Madison, Wisconsin. You’re shocked that such a worldly dame hails from the land of curds and corn fields? Not only that, yours truly cut a swath from Our Lady Queen of Peace Elementary and Edgewood High School of the Sacred Heart to the godless University of Wisconsin before loading up the U-Haul and hitting the road. Chicago, New York, Paris. Any place but home.

So I was especially interested to read the Janan Ganesh Lunch with the FT interview with writer Edna O’Brien upon my return [FTWeekend 15 July/16July].

Photo: TheSultanette

University of Wisconsin, Madison.

O’Brien fled craggy County Clare in the west of Ireland where she was taught by the Sisters of Mercy and raised by parents who banned the study of literature so she could concentrate on becoming a pharmacist. In response, she married a novelist, moved to London and became a writer. The closest she came to pharmaceuticals was dabbling in LSD.

Ganesh notes that her novel The Country Girls shocked the decorous fifties with its “scandalous insinuation that women quite like sex.” It concerns girls who escape a rural convent school for “a life of swish new clothes and romantic escapades in Dublin.”

Photo: TheSultanette

Bucky watches over Bascom Hill, UW Madison.

Not every country girl (or boy) who abandons the urge to stay mired in the expectations of others needs to escape to the big city. But geographical distance can help pave the way to self-discovery. Then again, you can blame home for not becoming who you are – wherever you are.

Referring to O’Brien’s 2012 memoir, Country Girl, Ganesh wonders if “pride in her defiance of those who sought to contain her – parents, church, spouse – vies with regret at her slowness to act.” She might have stood up a bit more in her early life, O’Brien responds, “but all things considered I was pretty brave … I would say, as regards my inner self, I am happier than I ever was … I am full of darkness, but I am also full of light.”

Photo: TheSultanette

State Street, Madison, Wisconsin.

Which brings me back to the Madison walkabout. It was the kind of peacock-blue, cloudless-sky summer day that Wisconsin flaunts just to prove it isn’t all about twenty-inch snow drifts. My mission was State Street, that great street of boozing and schmoozing – main artery between the Wisconsin State Capitol where governing actually gets done, and the Library Mall where student protestors in the sixties did their best to undo it.

My excuse for returning was a high school reunion. The real reason was to crawl into the attic of my past and blow dust off the photo albums of my mind – research for a forthcoming book that weaves my life with a French woman writer who kept appearing in it. (If you’re patient and behave, you’ll all get autographed copies.)

Photo: TheSultanette

Eau de Rotunda, State Capitol, Madison, Wisconsin.

Since my hotel was closer to The Square I ducked inside the capitol first, my nostrils hit with the pungent aroma of the rotunda. Whatever that fragrance is – a mélange of musty 1917 state ledgers, floor polish, and aging cheese – it has been a sensual sensation since I was knee-high to a Badger. But enough childhood nostalgia. Time to trace the path to losing my virginity – or innocence anyway – when you’re raised Catholic, the hymen is last to go.

The nucleus for the 40,000-plus students at the University of Wisconsin campus is Bascom Hill, credited for giving every Wisconsin co-ed well-developed calf muscles. Since the beer and boys were at the bottom and classes were at the top, scaling it was a dally prereq. It was steeper yet shorter than I remembered, but memories of ascending it with a hangover in minus-twenty degrees worked up a hunger, so my next stop was State Street Brats.

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Condiments galore at State Street Brat, Madison, Wisconsin.

Curd basket anyone? Or the famous SmokeHaus BBQ Red Brat? Predictably, I chose the Ribeye Steak Sandwich “char-grilled to perfection” and delivered open-faced in case you doubted that it was extravagantly marbled with veins of fat guaranteed to slick the fingers with a coating of grease.

With blood coagulating in my veins, I headed back out to join the strollers and street musicians. In the 0.5-mile length of State Street I came upon a girl fiddling at “Madison’s Happiest Corner,” a guy strumming a guitar, a white-bearded unrecovered hippie playing the flute, and a bare-chested kid in shorts and shades playing a ukulele like it was 1999. Does Madison know the world has moved on from hippies and jamming on the street? Or does it choose to retain the endearing quality of living big and staying small?

Photo: TheSultanette

Optic Twist Screen #2, Andy Paiko, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison.

When I moved on to the Chazen Museum of Art, I learned it contains 20,000 works that include “a diversity of world cultures and representative examples of the entire spectrum of art history.” There within its cool, clean galleries with floor-to-celling glass walls I came upon Andy Paiko’s blown glass installation, “Optic Twist Screen.” Its natural backdrop was created by the blue wash of distant Lake Mendota, one of five miniature lakes that make up the city’s character. I had experienced those lakes as a little girl with sand bucket at the local beach, and canoeing off the University pier, high on local pot with college mates.

What was happening to me? This place I couldn’t leave behind fast enough was provoking feelings bordering on sentimentality! Evoking an appreciation of a canny Madison modus operandi that appears to have weathered a world gone cynical and narcissistic. Did I pack some of that in the U-Haul when I fled?

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Madison’s Happiest Corner.

My final stop was the southern tip of State Street at the Library Mall – that campus landmark where the National Guard once fired tear gas on kids protesting war, civil rights, chemical companies, a country that could no longer believe in itself. I climbed onto the cement ledge in front of the Memorial Library (4,000,000 visitors every year) and watched students drift by on their way to summer classes.

A girl approached in T-shirt, cut-offs, flip-flops. The T-shirt read, “If it feels good …”. I waited for her to walk by, eager to see what clever punch line would greet me on the back. What aphorism I could take with me to New York. But there was nothing on the other side. I would have to find the answer myself. I sat on my ledge and soaked in the sun. Full of darkness. But also full of light.


The Sultanette chases down France’s ‘enfant terrible’. Houellebecq who?


The Sultanette takes Michel & Teddy to bed.

Clearly stated in The Male Harem bylaws: “All flattery welcome. False praise included. If you’re a liar just be a good one.” Who doesn’t love to be praised? Michel Houellebecq, it seems.

France’s persistent enfant terrible was recently described by Alexandra Wolfe in the Wall Street Journal as being “accused of misogyny, anti-Muslim bigotry and (more generally) nihilism, based in large part on the vulgar, resentful, unhappy characters in his novels.” At a surly sixty-one, he has done nothing to discourage that sentiment.

PHOTO:The Sultanette

Houellebecq photo at Venus.

Houellebecq writes about cheery subjects like dystopian societies and sexual obsession. Over the years he has been taken to court for inciting hatred, awarded France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt, and cultivated a reputation as “one of Europe’s most controversial cultural figures.”

He even has a healthy Twitter following. (There are several Houellebecq handles including a “fake” one which is probably the real one.) Not that he’s a social media geek. In a culture where intellectual is still a noun, Houellebecq is a real writer of real books that examine, for better and mostly worse, human nature.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

Groaning board of author’s books at Albertine.

Sex scenes can be the hardest to write, he tells Wolfe, because of the nature of sensuality. “Language isn’t really made for descriptions of sensual physical experiences. … There’s a dissolution of perceptions in sex which makes everything kind of blurry.” A brash contrarian who concedes to the je ne sais quoi of sex? The Sultanette needed a closer look at this specimen.

So when I learned that he was scheduled to appear at noon at New York’s premier cultural haunt, the Albertine Library of the French Consulate, I was there at 11:00 o’clock on the dot. For the next two hours I enjoyed VIP status behind the press section’s velvet rope.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

Awaiting Houellebecq at Albertine.

At noon it was announced that the author was running late. Soon the beau monde became bored with air-kissing and started squirming in their seats. Things didn’t look good. (Lauren Collins in The New Yorker describes the time Houellebecq missed the opening of the Channel Tunnel “because he wasn’t getting along with an official from the Culture Ministry.”) At 1:00pm, the apologetic announcement. Regrettably, Monsieur Houellebecq was under the weather.

I dragged myself out to the reception area and the table loaded down with the his books. Did the no-show deserve my investment? A New York Times Book Review blurb on Platform (2004, Vintage/Random House) said: “A terrific writer, funny and prophetic … feverishly alive to the world around him.” I bought the paperback and fled to lunch.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

Those who live in glass houses … ?

I needed to fuel up for the next venue the author was alleged to appear at – a presentation of his photography titled “French Bashing” now showing at the Venus gallery on Madison Avenue. Houellebecq has been taking pictures for decades but has only begun to show them and this was his New York premiere. Primed for more abuse, I was eager to see what the Journal had described as the medium “in which he has expressed his relentless dark view of modern France: Photography.”

As threatened, the first room of the show is nearly pitch black – better to enhance the bleak images described in the press release as “a continent on the verge of decomposition.” Quotes from the author’s book like, “I had no more reason to kill myself than most of these people did” add to the mood.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

France at your feet: Houellebecq at Venus.

Then just as you’re convinced that Houellebecq would be a lousy representative for the French chamber of commerce, you part back a heavy velvet curtain and are assaulted by blinding light and saturated color. In this second room the floor is paved in laminated travel posters, emphasizing kitschy “visions of tourism” framed against a white wall under fluorescent lighting. All this stimulation and still no Houellebecq. I’d had my fill of dystopia and was ready for a dry martini.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

In the shadows of Michel.

And lo! As I headed for the elevator, the doors opened to disgorge what had to be the man. The sullen presence, the protective entourage. I followed the group back into the gallery and circled him warily considering an approach strategy. No, the thought of extracting a conversation out of him was slightly less appealing than chatting-up Ted Bundy. Satisfied with the sighting, I escaped to the gilded glow of the Mark Hotel lounge.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

Houellebecq photo at Venus.

Later that night I crawled into bed with the novel that I’d picked up at Albertine. Platform might be raw in parts, I reasoned, but The Times blurb did say Houellebecq was “feverishly alive to the world around him.” With feverish anticipation, I opened the book. It began, “Father died last year.”

You might not want to take Houellebecq to bed with you but in a world where the conversation appears increasingly ordered around choosing sides, it may be healthy to dwell occasionally in the dark. When asked by Wolfe what he plans to do next, Houellebecq replied, “I don’t know. I never know.”

Michel Houellebecq: French Bashing is showing at Venus, 980 Madison Avenue until August 4.


Hush, Hush, Sweet Scarlett! Hollywood Dominatrix Tells All!

Bazarre Honeymoon, Gregor, c1950.

A sex dungeon in Los Angeles! The aphrodisiac effect of licking a broom! A client who begs his mistress to ride a bicycle. Into him! Before you naughty people jump to the conclusion that The Sultanette engages in such behavior, blame it on Miss Scarlett.

I plead guilty only for reviewing her memoir, The Scarlett Letters (St. Martin’s Press) as reported in the revered British weekly, New Statesman, which boasts “enlightened thinking in dark times” since 1913. In fact I should be canonized for struggling through the shocking read solely for your education, dear followers. So let the enlightenment begin:

Faun & Nymph, Franz Stuck c.1904.

Over tea at a King’s Cross café, New Statesman Arts Editor Kate Mossman spoke with author Jenny Nordbak’s (aka Mistress Scarlet) about her two-year stint as an elite professional dominatrix, servicing the biggest swinging dicks in Hollywood’s entertainment world.

Nordbak’s book on the adventure, says Amazon, “explores the spectacularly diverse array of human sexuality and the fascinating cast of characters that the author encountered along the way.”

Temptation of St Anthony, Hieronymus Bosch c1500.

Take the powerful entertainment lawyer who liked to wear stockings under his suit to the office. His frustrated wife (maybe because he was putting runs in all of her pantyhose) sent him to the dungeon for a romp in stilettos to get it out of his system. Welcome to the tangled underbrush of the sexual jungle. Kinky fantasy, anyone? Guilt-ridden longing? Hideous secret?

What inspired Nordbak, a USC graduate with a day job in healthcare construction, to get into the profession? She tells Mossman she had become “tired of bad sex and of the sexual politics women often live by.” She doesn’t exactly explain how mastering the head-scissors (chocking with thighs) solved that dilemma but don’t dismiss The Scarlett Letters as another sensational tell-all. Turns out, sex between humans in dungeons calls forth truisms that you thought you could only acquire on a therapist’s couch.

Vision of St. Jerome, Bernardino Mei, c1660.

Truism #1: “The more powerful [her clients] were in life,” reports Nordbak, “the more demeaning their fantasies.” Surprised? Consider our honorable lawmakers on the Hill. One squeaky clean congressman gets caught with his pants down and the rest form a chorus of shock and horror – until the loudest protestor is discovered with a DC Madame wearing diapers.

Truism #2: “Submission is misunderstood.” Nordbak posits that “It is powerful to be submissive” because a dominatrix is “submitting to a submissive’s desire.” (Sounds like most marriages.)

Marriage, Gari Melchers,1893.

Nordbak adds that Fifty Shades of Grey got it all wrong by portraying the “desire to dominate … as some kind of affliction, something you do if you’re broken somehow.” There is great trust and great communication built between a dungeon pair, she says.

Trust and communication, what a concept. How many relationships are doomed to loveless dungeons where built-up resentments have a choke-hold on emotional freedom and monogamy is a form of bondage not a matter of choice?

English Magic Poster, Library of Congress.

Nordbak felt it was time to hang up her whips and brooms when she found herself thinking about what to have for dinner while treating a client to a beating. Now twenty-nine with a husband and baby, she credits her experience as a pro-domme for teaching her how to be assertive. “How does someone know what you want, in any area of life,” she says, “if you don’t tell them?”

Truism #3: “Another person is never going to read your mind.” Short of becoming mind-readers, perhaps we could all take some tips from the dominatrix: How to ask and acquiesce, take and let go, surrender and stay true.

Snow in Hyrynsalmi by Barasoaindarra.

Christopher Ryan, New York Times Bestselling author of Sex at Dawn: How We Mate Why We Stray and What It Means describes The Scarlett Letters as “the central story of a young woman in search of her own truth.”

Our sexuality is as individual as snowflakes. What other sensation so deeply stirs our most intimate responses to pleasure and shame, power and longing, humility and vulnerability? Even our ability to love gets caught up in its tentacles. We deny the urge at the risk of denying our ineffable selves.


A Venice Valentine

Reflections on Venice, Dream of Venice Architecture

Roses ordered? Champaign chilling? Massage oil heating up to caress your favorite kumquat? Valentine’s Day is around the corner, intrepid paramours! If you can’t get hashtag-laid on this day of hashtag-romance you’d better reread the Kama Sutra. Or better yet, Dream of Venice Architecture, the latest dreamy installment from Venice cognoscente, JoAnn Locktov.

This bouquet of meditations on the world’s most seductive city might be all the company you need this Valentine’s Day. (And a bargain compared to the jacked-up prices you’d pay for the Lover’s Menu at your local boite.) Add to that, The Sultanette’s exclusive report on last week’s Metropolitan Museum of Art lecture, “The Brothel House of Europe: Venice on the Grand Tour” and your adult entertainment is complete.

Meandering Venice, Dream of Venice Architecture

But before we get to the brothels, some tantalizing foreplay. “What can we learn from a city that is over 1,500 years old?” poses Locktov in the opening of Dream of Venice. Her answer is an invitation to meander among its piazzas and secluded squares, passageways and bridges, accompanied by award-winning architects and designers.

No tired travel guide clichés here. Reflecting on how Venice has “inspired their work and lives, these aficionados of form and function explore the essence of a city “built where no land ever existed.” Their intimate musings tease out its timeless allure persuading us that, above all, Venice beckons.

Venice beckons, Dream of Venice Architecture

As New York-based architect, Louise Braverman describes it “at any moment, something mysteriously intriguing may happen.” Her contemplation is paired with a graceful colonnade that exists midbreath, both exposed and enclosed. Its arched ceiling offers elegant shelter from the grey mist that threatens to encroach on either side while globes of light entice the visitor to a distant encounter … with what? Whom? Be tempted at your own risk.

Venice is “tricky” offers New York architect Annabelle Selldorf next to an image of a secluded canal. Nothing is “innocent or forthright” in this city where the only thing forbidden is your inhibitions. “Deception is everywhere, perhaps with the intention of protecting a precarious paradise.” Here, as throughout the book, the stunning photography of Riccardo De Cal, an award-winning documentarian for his films on Italy’s grand artistes, evokes a delicate, ethereal power.

Knock, Knock … Dream of Venice Architecture

Constantin Boym, Chair of Industrial Design at New York’s Pratt Institute, brilliantly describes the city’s mercurial allure through its doorways, held together “only by a miracle” – each portal with “its own unique face and expression.” The accompanying image is a peacock blue door that calls to us at the end of a timeworn stone walkway like a proud, aging courtesan.

Did I say courtesan? Time for the promised report (as if you forgot) on “The Brothel House of Europe: Venice on the Grand Tour” at the Metropolitan Museum. “Don’t say the Met never offers something scandalous,” Kevin Salatino, director of Art Collections at The Huntington Library and expert on Venice licentia began this fascinating lecture. And after he warned the audience of upper eastside ladies-who-lunch that it contained licentious language, The Sultanette was all ears.

In the eighteenth century, British aristocrats-in-training were sent on a pilgrimage to the continent, a “Grand Tour” designed to transform the future Earl of Beef Wellington from provincial twit to worldly twit. And while Rome was the main event, Venice was the requisite detour.

Venice adorned, Dream of Venice Architecture

It boasted more theaters than any city in Europe and its fading republic was an inspired example to aspiring custodians of the empire. But most likely its popularity was based on the famous description of parliamentarian George Selwyn: “Venice is an exquisite courtesan.” Or reports like the gentleman visitor who warned that “the wickedness of that place is beyond all imagination.” Most alarming was the unsettling habit of Venetian society to wear masks, not just during the depraved month of Carnival but a full five months preceding it!

No wonder it was a favorite hangout of Casanova and de Sade. And a refuge for woman like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who escaped her husband to live with a lover half her age. Venice is the place to be, she advised a friend, “if a woman has any mind to be wicked.” Lady Wortley even promoted the mask as an anti-aging device – the perfect camouflage for a ripening coquette’s wrinkles.

Venice socialites, Dream of Venice Architecture

Venice was the place to let your hair down and everybody got into the act. Along with its fabled courtesans and prostitutes, nuns were known to entertain in the cloister. There was a rare tolerance of homosexuality, cross-dressing was a sport, a unisex mask costume made gender-bending de rigueur, and the castrati, according to Salatino, were the rock stars of the day. Simply breathing the air of Venice was a threat to your moral turpitude.

But more than its lusty charms – beyond its escape from suffocating propriety and society’s expectations – what Venice really offered was an invitation to follow the distant globe of light, open the unfamiliar doorway, pursue the precarious paradise. The invitation lives on, perfectly expressed in its network of hidden passages, the sotoporteghi.

Precarious Paradise, Dream of Venice Architecture

Dream of Venice Architecture contributor, and publisher of Renaissance Rules.com Randy Bosch takes us down these “narrow, twisting, dark and mysterious tunnels bored through ancient existing buildings.” Like a subterranean force field, “they conspire with crooked bridges and offset streets to link islands never intended to join.” To follow them is to risk the unknown, says Bosch, but the reward is “wonders reached only through them.”

Let those in need of predictable romance have their wilting roses. If you’re looking for a romance with life this Valentine’s Day, The Sultanette recommends taking a dive between the covers of this voluptuous guide to the heart of Venice.