Courtney Harris (right, with bow tie) of VCU’s dance department takes part in a preview of 20 Rue Jacob, inspired by early 20th-century artist Romaine Brooks
The exotic onion-domed Hofheimer/Adams Camera building at 2816 W. Broad St. is an appropriate setting for an ambitious, immersive theater production/dance performance/film presentation/party planned for May 22 and 23. Called 20 Rue Jacob, it’s inspired by salon events organized in Paris by early 20th-century artist and designer Romaine Goddard Brooks.
Courtney Harris, an assistant professor with Virginia Commonwealth University’s Dance department, in collaboration with multimedia artist Charli Brissey, a VCU master of fine arts 2014 graduate, is bringing to light a particular phase of Brooks’ life.
Brissey says that the inspiration came from a random Google search. “We started looking at her paintings and learning more about her circle, and the story demanded we make something.”
By the mid-1920s, in which this evening is generally set, Brooks had lived through parental abandonment and neglect, possible molestation by her mentally ill brother and a marriage of convenience with a gay man. She had also begun her enduring friendship with Italian poet and nationalist Gabriele D’Annunzio and engaged in the whirl of Parisian alternative culture before and after World War I — during which she and her lover, Russian ballerina Ida Rubinstein, drove trucks for the Red Cross. Brooks painted in a palette of grays, and her subjects were usually the vivid multinational coterie of artists and misfits. She depicted herself wearing an oversize top hat and riding attire, or a monocle and a dandified suit. She engaged in a complex, decades-long, triangular relationship with writer Natalie Clifford Barney and socialite Elisabeth de Gramont (duchess of Clermont-Tonnerre), with an assortment of other lovers making appearances. This is a bohemian lifestyle that Midnight in Paris and Downton Abbey only dared glimpse.
The production is named for the address of Barney’s Paris salon. The evening’s components include showing portions of a film in post-production by Brissey, Left of Canvas, along with dance performance, small scenes and living re-creations of Brooks’ paintings. Those include a portrait of Barney sitting at 20, Rue Jacob before a manuscript on which rests the figure of a horse, referring to her enjoyment of riding, and her nickname, “Amazon.”
Harris encourages participants to dress in period costume. The cast of 13, with Brooks portrayed by Catherine Faszewski, will convey the intertwining stories across the dance floor and a number of smaller rooms. “But we’ll make no announcements,” Harris says. “You won’t get handed a program. You follow along as you wish. We hope people will have fun and just hang out.” After this Richmond premiere, the group intends to transport the production to other cities. Performances start at 7:30 p.m. both nights. Tickets are $10 ($5 for students and those 55 and older), sold through Brown Paper Tickets or at the door (cash only).