How Josephine Baker Went From Homeless Street Performer to International Superstar, French Resistance Fighter & Civil Rights Hero

There has maybe never been a better time to critically examine the granting of special privileges to people for their talent, personality, or wealth. Yet, for all the harm wrought by fame, there have always been celebrities who use the power for good. The twentieth century is full of such figures, men and women of conscience like Muhamad Ali, Nina Simone, and Paul Robeson—extraordinary people who lived extraordinary lives. Yet no celebrity activist, past or present, has lived a life as extraordinary as Josephine Baker’s.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906 to parents who worked as entertainers in St. Louis, Baker’s early years were marked by extreme poverty. “By the time young Freda was a teenager,” writes Joanne Griffith at the BBC, “she was living on the streets and surviving on food scraps from bins.” Like every rags-to-riches story, Baker’s turns on a chance discovery. While performing on the streets at 15, she attracted the attention of a touring St. Louis vaudeville company, and soon found enormous success in New York, in the chorus lines of a string of Broadway hits.




Baker became professionally known, her adopted son Jean-Claude Baker writes in his biography, as “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville.” A great achievement in and of itself, but then she was discovered again at age 19 by a Parisian recruiter who offered her a lucrative spot in a French all-black revue. “Baker headed to France and never looked back,” parlaying her nearly-nude danse sauvage into international fame and fortune. Topless, or nearly so, and wearing a skirt made from fake bananas, Baker used stereotypes to her advantage—by giving audiences what they wanted, she achieved what few other black women of the time ever could: personal autonomy and independent wealth, which she consistently used to aid and empower others.

Throughout the 20s, she remained an archetypal symbol of jazz-age art and entertainment for her Folies Bergère performances (see her dance the Charleston and make comic faces in 1926 in the looped video above). In 1934, Baker made her second film Zouzou (top), and became the first black woman to star in a major motion picture. But her sly performance of a very European idea of African-ness did not go over well in the U.S., and the country she had left to escape racial animus bared its teeth in hostile receptions and nasty reviews of her star Broadway performance in the 1936 Ziegfeld Follies (a critic at Time referred to her as a “Negro wench”). Baker turned away from America and became a French citizen in 1937.

American racism had no effect on Baker’s status as an international superstar—for a time perhaps the most famous woman of her age and “one of the most popular and highest-paid performers in Europe.” She inspired modern artists like Picasso, Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, and Alexander Calder (who sculpted her in wire). When the war broke out, she hastened to work for the Red Cross, entertaining troops in Africa and the Middle East and touring Europe and South America. During this time, she also worked as a spy for the French Resistance, transmitting messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music.

Her massive celebrity turned out to be the perfect cover, and she often “relayed information,” the Spy Museum writes, “that she gleaned from conversations she overheard between German officers attending her performances.” She became a lieutenant in the Free French Air Force and for her efforts was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of the Resistance by Charles De Gaulle and lauded by George S. Patton. Nonetheless, many in her home country continued to treat her with contempt. When she returned to the U.S. in 1951, she entertained huge crowds, and dealt with segregation “head –on,” writes Griffith, refusing “to perform in venues that would not allow a racially mixed audience, even in the deeply divided South." She became the first person to desegregate the Vegas casinos.

But she was also “refused admission to a number of hotels and restaurants.” In 1951, when employees at New York’s Stork Club refused to serve her, she charged the owner with discrimination. The Stork club incident won her the lifelong admiration and friendship of Grace Kelly, but the government decided to revoke her right to perform in the U.S., and she ended up on an FBI watch list as a suspected communist—a pejorative label applied, as you can see from this declassified 1960 FBI report, with extreme prejudice and the presumption that fighting racism was by default “un-American.” Baker returned to Europe, where she remained a superstar (see her perform a medley above in 1955).

She also began to assemble her infamous “Rainbow Tribe,” twelve children adopted from all over the world and raised in a 15th-century chateau in the South of France, an experiment to prove that racial harmony was possible. She charged tourists money to watch the children sing and play, a “little-known chapter in Baker’s life” that is also “an uncomfortable one,” Rebecca Onion notes at Slate. Her estate functioned as a “theme park,” writes scholar Matthew Pratt Guterl, a “Disneyland-in-the-Dordogne, with its castle in the center, its massive swimming pool built in the shape of a “J” for its owner, its bathrooms decorated like an Arpège perfume bottle, its hotels, its performances, and its pageantry.” These trappings, along with a menagerie of exotic pets, make us think of modern celebrity pageantry.

But for all its strange excesses, Guturl maintains, her “idiosyncratic project was in lockstep with the mainstream Civil Rights Movement." She wouldn’t return to the States until 1963, with the help of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and when she did, it was as a guest of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the organizers of the March on Washington, where, in her Free French Air Force uniform, she became the only woman to address the crowd. The visual recounting of that moment above comes from a new 600-page graphic biography that follows Baker's “trajectory from child servant in St. Louis,” PRI writes, “to her days as a vaudeville performer, a major star in France, and later, a member of the French Resistance and an American civil rights activist.”

In her speech, she directly confronted the government who had turned her into an enemy:

They thought they could smear me, and the best way to do that was to call me a communist.  And you know, too, what that meant.  Those were dreaded words in those days, and I want to tell you also that I was hounded by the government agencies in America, and there was never one ounce of proof that I was a communist.  But they were mad.  They were mad because I told the truth.  And the truth was that all I wanted was a cup of coffee.  But I wanted that cup of coffee where I wanted to drink it, and I had the money to pay for it, so why shouldn’t I have it where I wanted it?

Baker made no apologies for her wealth and fame, but she also took every opportunity, even if misguided at times, to use her social and financial capital to better the lives of others. Her plain-speaking demands opened doors not only for performers, but for ordinary people who could look to her as an example of courage and grace under pressure into the 1970s. She continued to perform until her death in 1975. Just below, you can see rehearsal footage and interviews from her final performance, a sold-out retrospective.

The opening night audience included Sophia Lauren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minelli. Four days after the show closed, Baker was found dead in her bed at age 68, surrounded by rave reviews of her performance. Her own assessment of her five-decade career was distinctly modest. Earlier that year, Baker told Ebony magazine, “I have never really been a great artist. I have been a human being that has loved art, which is not the same thing. But I have loved and believed in art and the idea of universal brotherhood so much, that I have put everything I have into them, and I have been blessed.” We might not agree with her critical self-evaluation, but her life bears out the strength and authenticity of her convictions.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch a Step-by-Step Breakdown of La La Land‘s Incredibly Complex, Off Ramp Opening Number

La La Land, writer and director Damien Chazelle’s award-winning Valentine to Hollywood musicals, attracted legions of fans upon its release last December.

Their ardor is bookended by the enmity of Broadway diehards underwhelmed by the stars’ singing and dancing chops and those who detest musicals on principle.

The above video may not lead the detractors to swallow Chazelle’s Kool-Aid colored vision, but listening to choreographer Mandy Moore’s behind-the-scenes blow-by-blow of the complicated opening number, “Another Day of Sun,” should inspire respect for the massive feat of cinematic coordination below.

This may be the first time in history that a choreographer has singled out the Transport Department for public praise.

Remember how your folks used to freak out about you denting the hood when you capered atop the family Country Squire? Turns out they were right.

One of the Transpo' crew's crucial assignments was placing vehicles with specially reinforced hoods and roofs in the spots where dancers had been choreographed to bound on top of them. Getting it wrong early on would have wasted valuable time on a two day shoot that shut down an exit ramp connecting the 110 and 105 freeways.

The real La La Land conjures fantasies of Angelyne clad in head-to-toe pink behind the wheel of her matching pink Corvette, but for this number, the Costume Department collaborated with the Transport Department to diversify the palette.

In other words, the red-gowned flamenco dancer could emerge from a yellow car, and the yellow-shirted krumper could emerge from a red car, but not vice versa.

Mercifully, the art department refrained from a total color-coordination blackout. That moment when a gust of wind catches the skirts of the blonde conductor’s yellow dress plays like an intentional tribute to Marilyn Monroe, when in fact it was a lucky accident made all the more glorious by the sunny drawers she was sporting underneath.

Other day-of accidents required on-the-fly ingenuity, such as enlisting three burly crew members to provide off screen help to a performer struggling with a malfunctioning door to the truck concealing a Latin band within. (With temperatures soaring to 104°, they were hot in more ways than one.)

Moore was also off-camera, hiding under a chassis to cue the skateboarder, who was unfamiliar with the 8-count the 30 main dancers were trained to respond to.

Other “special skills” performers include a BMX biker, a Parkour traceur, the director’s hula hooping sister, and a stunt woman whose ability to backflip into the narrow channel between two parked cars  landed her the part… and kept her injury-free for over 40 takes.

Half of the finished film’s gridlocked celebrants are CGI generated, but the live performers had to remain in synch with the pre-recorded song by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, a particular challenge given the size of the outdoor filming area. Executive music producer Marius de Vries and engineer Nicholai Baxter solved that one by looping the track into each car’s radio, plus a number of hidden speakers and two more on a moving rig.

Moore was determined to keep her carefully plotted moves from feeling too dance-y—the only time the dancers perform in unison is at the very end, right before they hop back down, reenter their vehicles, and slam their doors shut as one.

For a more naturalistic vision, watch director Chazelle’s iPhone footage of the main dancers rehearsing in a parking lot, prior to the shoot.

Funny how, left to their own devices, these Angelenos seem to wear almost as much black and grey as their counterparts on the east coast….

The exuberance of the original has given rise to numerous community-based tributes and parodies, with stand-outs coming from the Xiamen Foreign Language School in China, North Carolina’s Camp Merrie-Woode, Notre Dame High School in Chazelle’s home state of New Jersey, and a 17-year-old Arizona boy making a promposal to leading lady Emma Stone.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She is currently directing Theater of the Apes Sub-Adult Division in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, opening next week in New York City.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Brooklyn Academy of Music Puts Online 70,000 Objects Documenting the History of the Performing Arts: Download Playbills, Posters & More

Yesterday the sad news broke that The Village Voice will discontinue its print edition. Co-founded by Norman Mailer in 1955 and providing New Yorkers with savvy music writing, raunchy advice columns, juicy exposés, reviews, entertainment listings, apartments, jobs, band members, terrible roommates, and pretty much anything else one might desire every week for over half a century, the paper will be missed. Though it won’t disappear online, the loss of the street-level copy in its comfortingly familiar red plastic box marks the abrupt end of an era. Those of us inclined to mourn its passing can take some solace in the fact that so many of the city’s key cultural institutions still persist.

Prominent among them, Brooklyn’s Academy of Music, or BAM, has been at it since 1861, when it began as the home of the Philharmonic Society of Brooklyn. It has inhabited its present Beaux Arts building in Fort Greene since 1908. In its 150 years as a performance space for opera, classical, avant-garde theater, dance, and music, and film, BAM has amassed quite a collection of memorabilia. This year, on its century-and-a-half anniversary, it has made 70,000 of those artifacts available to the public in its Leon Levy Digital Archive. Like future issues of the Voice, you cannot hold these in your hand, unless you happen to be one of the museum’s curators. But “researchers—or anyone else interested,” writes The New York Times, “can create personalized collections based on specific artists, companies or eras.”

The history represented here is vast and deep, by a young country’s standards. “Every presidential candidate made campaign stops there before there was television,” says former BAM president Karen Brooks Hopkins. “Mary Todd Lincoln was in the audience during the opening week of festivities. Then you have [Rudolph] Nuryev making his first performance in the West just after he defects, [Martha] Graham performing her last performance on stage….” These landmark moments notwithstanding, BAM has earned a reputation as a home for avant-garde performance art, and the collection certainly reflects that dimension among the 40,000 artists represented.

We have further up the postcard Keith Haring designed for a 1984 Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane piece called Secret Pastures (Haring also designed the sets). We have the poster above for a 1981 performance of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha, his opera based on the life of Gandhi. And below, a poster for the 1983 world premier of Laurie Anderson’s United States: Parts I-IV. These objects come from BAM’s Next Wave Festival collection, which contains many thousands of photographs, playbills, and posters from the space’s more experimental side, many, though not all of them, downloadable.

Between the Civil War memorabilia and modernist documents, you’ll find all sorts of fascinating ephemera: photos of a very young Meryl Streep and Christopher Lloyd in a 1977 production of Happy End at the Chelsea Theater during a BAM Spring Series, or of an older Patrick Stewart in a 2008 Macbeth. Just below, we have a charming playing card featuring the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Peter Jay Sharp building in 1909, the year after it was built. It’s an imposing structure that seems like it might last forever, though much of the vibrant creative work featured year after year at BAM may someday also move entirely into digital spaces. Enter the complete BAM digital archive here.

via The New York Times/Hyperallergic

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch the 1917 Ballet “Parade”: Created by Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso & Jean Cocteau, It Provoked a Riot and Inspired the Word “Surrealism”

In 1917, a handful of Europe’s leading avant-garde artists collaborated on a project that it’s hard to believe actually exists. Conceived “in the fertile, creative mind of Jean Cocteau,” writes Museworthy, the ballet Parade combined the talents of Cocteau, Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso, and Sergei Diaghilev’s dance company the Ballets Russes in a cubist slice of dreamlike life. Its brings popular entertainments into the high art of ballet, something simply not done at the time, and features a very early use of sound effects in the score, added by Cocteau, to Satie’s annoyance. Parade was Satie’s first ballet and the first (but not the only) time he would work with Picasso.

Cocteau's short, one-act scenario presents us with a troupe of carnival performers trying to entice passersby into their shows. They are unsuccessful, this troupe, consisting of a Chinese magician,  young American girl, a pair of acrobats, a horse, and several dancers in huge cardboard cubist costumes so heavy and awkward they can hardly move. But "if anyone found Picasso’s costume designs a bit wacky, they’d sure be pleased with his gorgeous set designs,” Museworthy notes, pointing out the backdrop above. Indeed it was hardly unusual for an avant-garde modernist painter to design for the ballet; “Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, Andre Derain, Joan Miro, and Léon Bakst all worked on costumes and scenery, much of it for the Ballets Russes.”

But there was something especially infuriating about this piece for audiences. (You can see an excerpt from a recent production at the top, and a low quality video of a longer performance above.) The premiere provoked an even bigger riot than Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring had four years earlier. It’s said that Erik Satie was slapped in the face by an angry attendee. “Critics weren’t much kinder than the masses,” Museworthy adds. After one scathing review, Satie sent the critic angry postcards calling him a “blockhead,” “cretin,” and an “arse.” He was convicted of libel but managed to evade a prison sentence.

Picasso, on the other hand, “came out of the Parade debacle quite well” and would marry one of the dancers, Olga Khokhlova the following year. His highly-regarded design and costuming partly inspired the poet Guillaume Apollinaire to coin in his program notes the word “surrealism” before Surrealism became an artistic phenomenon in Paris. As such, Parade should maybe be required viewing for every student of Surrealist art, dance, film, etc. from Dali to David Lynch.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch Marcel Marceau Mime The Mask Maker, a Story Created for Him by Alejandro Jodorowsky (1959)

Alejandro Jodorowsky, as anyone who's witnessed a movie of his play out onscreen might guess, has steeped himself in the mystical arts, but it would take an astute viewer to guess that he received some of his earliest training in the field of mime. During his time in Paris in the 1950s, the Chilean-born filmmaker, yet to shoot a single frame but having already run his own performance troupe back in Santiago, began studying under Étienne Decroux, not only a master of mime but a master teacher of mime. Jodorowsky then joined and went on a world tour with a mime group led by one of Decroux's especially promising students, one Marcel Marceau.

Few today could think of mime without Marceau's name coming to mind, and none could think of Marceau without having at least a sense that the man redefined the art. Performers had, of course, used their bodies to wordlessly evoke different elements of the human experience since antiquity, but Marceau — who could take his viewers through an entire human life in four minutes — brought it to another level entirely.




Some of Jodorowsky's fans might say the same about the director, and in the video above they can witness perhaps the two men's only surviving creation: Marceau's 1959 performance of The Mask Maker, a piece Jodorowsky thought up for him.

"Jodorowsky would say, 'Marcel, will you accept if I give you an idea for a story?'" remembered Marceau in a late interview. "I replied, 'Of course, if the idea is good.' Jodorowsky said, 'What do you think of a man who tries on different masks showing a variety of emotions? He puts on a laughing mask that gets stuck on his face; he tries desperately but it will not come off. He has to blind himself to take it off his face.' I did the choreography myself, and then we shared the rights for this pantomime." Two other Marceau-Jodorowsky works in mime followed, The Saber of the Samurai and "another cruel tale" called The Eater of Hearts.

At once shocked and moved, according to Projected Figures' "Brief Guide to Alejandro Jodorowsky," by the "excess of violence" in these mime routines, Marceau nevertheless performed them with what looks like the fullest commitment to the concept. Jodorowsky in turn made use of what he'd learned from Marceau even as he switched arts and began making films. The influence shows in his very first short film, 1957's La Cravate, a wordless physical performance for the camera. History hasn't recorded whether Marceau ever watched it, but he'd surely recognize his former collaborator's sensibility in the content: it also goes by the English title The Severed Heads.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch FLAMENCO AT 5:15, a Life-Affirming, Oscar-Winning Documentary About a Flamenco Dance Class

FLAMENCO AT 5:15, the Academy Award-winning short documentary, above, is a welcome antidote to the depressing specter of youthful bodies in a chronic state of computer-related postural collapse.

Director Cynthia Scott’s thirty-minute vignette cannot help but show off the beautiful, highly trained physiques of the young dancers delving into the art of flamenco at Canada's National Ballet School.

She also captures the lasting beauty of their instructor, Susana Audeoud, then in her late 60s. Her posture erect, her eyes shining brightly in a face weathered by experience and time, Audeleoud shares one of flamenco’s great secrets---that its practioners, unlike their counterparts in the ballet, can continue dancing until they die. (Audleoud herself passed away on the first day of 2010, at the age of 93.)




Flamenco is an incredibly exacting art, but Audeloud and her husband, composer Antonio Robledo, showed themselves to be warm and good humored teachers.

All of us could benefit from following Audeloud's instructions to her barefoot pupils at the 1:10 mark. Forgo your meditation app for a day and give it a try.

Or join the students in Robledo’s joyful group clapping exercise at the 8:00 mark.

According to Audeloud, flamenco dancers only dance when it’s necessary…

I know that most of us are utterly without training, but it appears that we have entered a period of extreme necessity.

So put on your shoes, stomp your feet, and clap as if no one is watching.

You can find FLAMENCO AT 5:15 listed in our collection of Free Documentaries, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

via Aeon

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker whose new play. Zamboni Godot, is now playing in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch the Celebrated Ballerina Anna Pavlova Perform “The Dying Swan” (1925)

Prepare my swan costume.

--- alleged last words of ballerina Anna Pavlova, as reported by her husband

The Internet suggests that swans are fairly tough specimens, quick to hiss and flap at any YouTuber unwise enough to violate their personal space with a video camera.

The celebrated ballerina Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) paints a different picture in her signature piece, The Dying Swan.

Choreographer Mikhail Fokine created the four minute solo in 1905 at Pavlova’s request, drawing on her admiration for some resident swans in a Leningrad public park and Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "The Dying Swan.”

It was perhaps a happy accident that he had just learned how to play Camille Saint-Saëns' Le Cygne from Le Carnaval des Animaux on his mandolin. Performed on cello, as originally intended, it supplies a mood of gorgeous melancholy with which to observe the titular character's en pointe death throes.

Fokine’s description of the work’s creation in Dance Magazine’s August 1931 issue speaks to the rigor of these practitioners and their art form:

It was almost an improvisation. I danced in front of her [Pavlova], she directly behind me. Then she danced and I walked alongside her, curving her arms and correcting details of poses. Prior to this composition, I was accused of barefooted tendencies and of rejecting toe dancing in general. The Dying Swan was my answer to such criticism...The dance is technically more difficult than it may appear. The dancer moves constantly using  different bourrees. The feet must be beautiful, expressing a trembling. All pauses in sus-sous must show legs brought to one point. The arms and the back work independently of the feet which continue to move regularly.

The archival footage from 1925, above, conveys what Fokine's words cannot---the deep emotion for which this particular interpreter was known. It’s a visceral experience to watch this broken animal fighting for its survival, quivering and heaving, before crumpling at last. (A pity that this version cuts off so abruptly... that final note should linger.)

Pavlova performed The Dying Swan around 4000 times over the course of her career, never sickening of it, or of the beasts who inspired it. Swans populated a small pond at her English country home. You can witness her fondness for them, below.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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