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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Dream Deferred

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne 
Documentary film by Kirk Marcolina and Matthew Pond  

What happens to a dream deferred? asked the poet Langston Hughes.  Ask Doris Payne.

When Payne was a little girl, in the coal country of West Virginia, she wanted to be a ballerina, but someone told her she couldn’t, because “they don’t have black ballerinas.”  All right, she says she thought, if I can’t be what I want to be, I will be something else.

So instead of a dancer or an actress, which this strikingly beautiful, poised and intelligent girl surely could have been, she became an impersonator of beautiful, poised, intelligent women, and used her talent to steal millions of dollars worth of jewelry from high-end shops all over the world.   Her greatest heist was at Cartier’s in Monte Carlo, where she pretended to be the wife of Otto Preminger, and made off with a diamond worth a million dollars.  She then sewed it into her girdle as she escaped from custody in Monaco, flew back to the U-S and fenced it on 47th Street in New York, for $148,000. 

Ms. Payne, now an octogenarian, multiple repeat offender, tells her story in this alternately charming and chilling documentary.  She repeatedly breaks into laughter while telling of her thefts and her jailbreaks – confessing that part of her motive was surely to punish and poke fun at the society that put her on the margins.   

In the end, though, it’s not a funny story.  At 83, we see Payne arrested yet again, her career failing largely because of new surveillance technology that makes it so much harder for jewel thieves to go undetected.  She seems resigned to a life bouncing in and out of prison and halfway houses, always plotting, always lying, usually broke and homeless. 

An overheated witness at her trial describes her as a psychopath, but she’s clearly not.  To her best friend she’s an honest woman, to her children a loving mother, and to the viewer, a sympathetic character.  She makes her way by ripping off a well-insured business that makes its own way by exploiting poor miners, and ripping off wealthy consumers.   Asked why she hasn't apologized for her crimes, she says no one has showed up to apologize to.  How about the saleslady who called her a psychopath?  Well, it wasn't her jewelry.  She was just the saleslady, says Payne.  

Film review:  this is not a great documentary.  Doris Payne seems much smarter than the film-makers, whom she uses and manipulates as she would anyone else.   Still, they let her tell her own story in her own words, and it's a gem.      

-- Copyright 2014 by Tom Phillips 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Serenade at Eighty

-- By Tom Phillips

Eighty years ago this week, a new art form was brought forth on this continent.   On June 10, 1934, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein’s fledgling School of American Ballet performed the first ballet choreographed on and for American dancers – Balanchine’s Serenade.  It was the beginning of a revolution, but not the kind that anyone expected.  
When Balanchine arrived in America in 1933, a refugee from imperial Russia, no one was clamoring for a new classical ballet with music by Tchaikovsky.  These were the depths of the Great Depression, the heyday of John Steinbeck in America, and Socialist Realism in Russia.  The arts were expected to reflect the social and political struggles of humanity.  Modern dance seemed much closer to the spirit of the time.  And the main figure in modern dance was Martha Graham, whose whole career had been a revolt against the ballet tradition.

Serenade starts with a tableau that could have been created by Graham.  Seventeen girls stand in blue light, their feet straight ahead.  One arm is raised, the hand flexed toward the vertical. Balanchine reportedly told them they were “blocking the moonlight.” The position is un-balletic, the expression anti-romantic; but suddenly it begins to transform.  The wrist curves and circles overhead, then diagonally across the center line of the body, followed by the gaze; the arms form a ballet position at the hips. Then, without warning or preparation, seventeen pairs of feet suddenly turn out from parallel to first position. The floor squeaks in protest. The movement is abrupt, almost violent -- not an impulse from within, but a discipline imposed from outside. Graham herself said the first time she saw it, tears sprang to her eyes. “It was simplicity itself,” she said, “but the simplicity of a very great master.”

Next the heads lift, the arms rise and spread out, and the torso lifts as the right foot points to the side.  The dancers breathe and expand, no longer blocking the moonlight, but open to the world in front of them.  The sequence could end here, but it doesn’t. Balanchine – who talked of “forcing” beauty out of human material — closes the feet, crossing the ankles to the fifth position. The arms again rise and spread, but this time the bodies reach beyond the vertical, looking to the sky. “Blocking the moonlight” has been transformed, step by step, into ballet, into an opening toward the heavens.  Balanchine’s young ballerinas have yet to move from their places, or even bend their knees, but they have already foreshadowed the drama to come: the transcendence of modernism by classicism.