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Paris Performance Calendar

Dancing history, art and color to another state of mind [By Tracy Danison]

1.PHOTO_AURELIE_GANDIT-203 - copieAurélie Gandit, “Visite dansée, retable d’Isenheim”, Musée d’Unterlinden. Photo © Cie Callicarpa


The retable d’Isenheim, the “Isenheim altarpiece”, is made up of three folded layers that open out to depict scenes of the passion, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, along with ordinary disease, suffering, anguish and death. Visually, the presence of Saint Anthony, a healer-hero in the Catholic-Christian pantheon and the symptoms of “Saint Anthony’s Fire” – ergot poisoning and plague: carbuncles, gangrenous swelling, madness, convulsed death – create a thematic unity.

In 1277, religious from the order of Saint Anthony set up an ergot poisoning and plague specialized hospital in “Isenheim” (nowadays written “Issenheim”). Isenheim was then, Issenheim is now, part of a string of upper-Rhine river towns, pretty much equidistant from Colmar to the north and Mulhouse to the south, all three anchored by Basel in Switzerland and Strasburg in Alsace.

Though a mere village, Issenheim retains some of its old-time shine: Prince Albert of Monaco is hereditary Lord there. Centrally located on trade routes, “Issenheim” is today in wine country but Isenheim was then in rye-growing land and, because ergot molds are especially common in rye and there was a great deal of human passage, Saint Anthony’s Fire was a big problem.  No surprise, the hospital did a booming business and came to hold many treasures, among them, the altarpiece. Painted for its chapel, the piece is a dramatically unique example of bright and colorful Renaissance painting: beautiful, visually ingenious, also shocking, revolting. New Science burgeons in the gorgeous horror, too. The lesions, carbuncles and convulsions featured are as medically realistic as disgusting.

Looted from the hospital during the French Revolution, the retable d’Isenheim is now dismounted as a separate exposition in the Musée d’Unterlinden in Colmar.

And that would be that –  place, time, a little O-wow-did-you-know?! commentary – if not for Aurelie Gandit’s dance performance, meant to “open the regard, make the eye listen”.

For me, it opened a portal on a state of mind that, unless, of course, I’m concealing a lately personally accepted obscure form of first-century CE judeo-gnosticism, has long since passed away.


2. PHOTO_AURELIE_GANDIT-96 - copieAurélie Gandit, “Visite dansée, retable d'Isenheim". Photo © Cie Callicarpa

The altarpiece’s Crucifying Jesus, Aurélie Gandit’s dance let me see, expertly anatomic, covered in scientifically accurate sores, is not a stern reminder of death from the unbending universal father. It is not either a commentary on the redemptive power of suffering. It is not either, as often explained today, a reminder of the universal god’s love.

Rather, that crucifying god, is a consolation by a brother, a fellow-sufferer, a sibling. Jesus is an agonizing inmate of Isenheim, just another sufferer in among the over-large family of a doting mother and a distant, if glorious, father.

Accepting pain, I realize, were no act of faith: plague-ridden Crucifying Jesus is a god like me. Anguished, we both face the gorgeously explicit horror of Saint Anthony’s Fire. Gods the Father might be out, but we little gods, Jesus and I and the other patients and the monks and the attendants are in it together, not alone.

Although Gandit’s performance notes say that she uses her body to project the strength of emotion in achieving her result, that is not my experience, or for that matter, my companion, Karine’s, either.

Though it has many figures, and notwithstanding sado-masochistic iconography, the experience of pain is just too personal to have an esthetic. Also, emotion may follow or precede pain but doesn’t seem to me (or us) to inhabit it – pain is deaf, dumb, dull, timeless, empty. I (or we) live inside pain.

To enable this other and more ancient state of mind in me, Gandit’s movement just tore a little hole in the fabric of routine.

Like an ordinary guide, she begins by describing the historic and symbolic and liturgical and esthetic ins and outs of the altarpiece. But there’s a flatness or lack of artifice to her. And her voice speeds up slightly. Her gesture becomes a little frenetic. She’s like a poor actor trying to play “hysteria”. She becomes absurd.

Then, all of a sudden, she falls to the ground.

And, when she falls to the ground, it’s a shock.

A little shock, but all shocks are a shock, are a breech in perceptual routine. And a little shock “open[ed my] regard, ma[de my] eye listen.”


For another view of the experience of Aurélie Gandit’s dance performance with hisotircal artwork, see “Conundrums and sweet embrace: Aurélie Gandit’s “Visite dansée” with La Dame à la licorne”, The Best American Poetry, July 2022.

May 17, 2024

May 10, 2024

May 03, 2024

April 19, 2024

April 05, 2024

March 29, 2024

March 22, 2024

March 15, 2024

March 07, 2024

March 01, 2024

February 23, 2024

February 16, 2024

February 09, 2024

January 26, 2024

January 04, 2024

December 15, 2023

November 10, 2023

November 03, 2023

October 26, 2023

October 20, 2023

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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