11/18/17

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.

08/21/17
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The Art of Intimacy: The Sultanette Does Dallas

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The Kiss, Brancusi, c1908, Nasher Sculpture Ctr.

Can The Sultanette be a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader when she grows up? Wearing barely more than white boots and a smile as big as Texas they’re worth the price of admission to AT&T Stadium. (BTW there’s a football game there, too.) But news flash!

Next time you’re in Dallas, before you join that 100,000-plus crowd to watch those buxom babes on the biggest Jumbotron in the NFL, you might take a detour to the Nasher Sculpture Center. As The Sultanette learned on a recent trip, this temple of tranquility containing one of the finest collections of twentieth century sculpture in the world, offers food for the heart, soul and libido.

Do the names Picasso, Giacometti, Matisse, Henry Moore and Miro ring a bell? To this permanent collection, the Nasher adds featured shows. I was treated to an exhibition of works in glass by Roni Horn of Iceland and New York City – pastel pods weighing 10,000 pounds a piece that look like giant sorbet molds glowing from within.

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Glass forms, Roni Horn, Nasher Sculpture Ctr.

Horn ascribes offbeat quotes rather than titles to the fluid forms to give the viewer room for individual interpretation. “I don’t like titles that – if you don’t read them, you don’t get the piece,” she says. “I want a title that can be an entrance to something but never an explanation.”

Gazing into one of the pods as if it were a crystal ball, I considered our obsession for full disclosure in the pursuit of intimacy. Might our authentic (to use the tired term) selves be more fully revealed through exploration rather than explanation? If so, you might look at editing those Match profiles.

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Large Seated Nude, Matisse, 1952, Nasher Sculpture Ctr.

While we’re on the subject of full disclosure, Matisse’s bronze “Large Seated Nude,” was next on my Nasher tour. All sensuality in bronze, she conveys both gravitas and insouciance. The visitor learns here that Matisse read poetry every morning for inspiration. It was oxygen for his art, he said, “just as when you leap out of bed [and] you fill your lungs with fresh air.”

Thoroughly oxygenated now, I leapt to Anish Kapoor’s “In Search of the Mountain 1” a jewel-toned funnel, richly saturated in sapphire-blue pigment. Kapoor‘s work is informed by his approach to myth. “What is important is not looking at and reading myths as an observer,” he says, “but living them.”

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In Search of the Mountain 1, Anish Kapoor, 1984, Nasher Sculpture Ctr.

I peered down the center of the funnel. What mythical magical mountain would be revealed at the other end? Even better, the sight line narrows to a distant, pinprick of light beckoning possibility.

Intimacy, tranquility, possibility. As I strolled among the galleries, bathed in the delicate light created by Renzo Piano’s glass walls and vaulted glass ceiling, I wondered if this might be the Nasher’s most precious offering. The impulse to slow down, reflect, have a conversation with these still, silent forms.

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Hostess, de Kooning, 1973, Nasher Sculpture Center

Can the impressive Dallas Museum of Art down the street or the dozen other major American art museums offer this? When we join the throngs at blockbuster exhibitions do we lose the awareness that our relationship with a work of art is singular and intimate? Might we better reserve our crowd time for football stadiums?

The secret to Nasher’s magic is surely in its founders. Raymond and Patsy Nasher were not interested in collecting trophies to demonstrate their wealth. They explored the medium, engaged with the artists, embraced a vision to share art with the pubic.

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Squares With Two Circles, 1963, Nasher Sculpture Ctr.

That passion reflected their partnership. A film at the museum sums up Raymond’s enduring love for his wife after she died. Taking the podium at an outside museum event, he begins by telling the assembled that he had put Patsy in charge of the weather for that day. Then looking up he adds, “And as you notice, there is not a cloud in the sky.”

Perfect segue to the sculpture garden designed by landscape architect Peter Walker. There, perched at the edge of a pool dotted with fountains, I came upon Barbara Hepworth’s dual bronze blocks titled “Squares with Two Circles.” Each circle presented two discreet portraits of the garden behind it. One was earthbound, framing a bed of flowers below weeping willow fronds. The other soared with leafy trees and sky.

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Glass form, Roni Horn, Nasher Sculpture Ctr.

I walked from left to right and around to the other side. Wherever I stopped, I was treated to a fresh perspective of the world behind the circles – reminded with each new set of portraits that the way I look at the world depends upon the place I choose to stand. Then I looked up, beyond the bronze slabs to the blue above. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

Eventually you have to abandon the Nasher for the crowded world outside. But is it entirely the one you left behind? And isn’t that why we escape to art? To leave our square lives and play in someone else’s circle for awhile … the painter, poet, sculptor, curator who gives us another way to look at the world besides our own? Makes you want to put on a pair of white boots and a smile.

07/21/17
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A Place Called Home: Is It Where You’re From Or Who You Are?

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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].

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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.”

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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.”

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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.)

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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?

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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.

06/25/17

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

06/9/17

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.