This is a city that sighs and shrugs with relief. This is a city where your spirit flies even if you have no spirit left. This is a city that can break into pieces if not respected and cherished. This is a city that has felt the global sickness spread from neighborhood to riverbank. This is a city of light even if darkness lies upon it.

In the first days of the pandemic, where restrictions in France were as severe as its Alpine neighbor, compulsory authorization forms had to be filled out just to leave one’s home whether for business, exercise, or grocery shopping. There were even restrictions on how far you could go. In Paris, the quays along the Seine were empty. Schools and universities were closed. The boutiques from the Marais to the department stores behind Opera Garnier were shuttered. Silence reigned, and you were simply told to stay home at least until the first 6 pm curfew was put in place, then the next, and the one after, and so on. The French government took such rigorous measures to limit the spread of the virus that a 4-stage lockdown plan was implemented.

The city was being fueled by the shadow of its former self, and each time I climbed down from my garret flat (4 chambres de bonne fashioned into one), I felt something besides darkness in my heart that was more akin to fear. Tracing and retracing my steps from Ile Saint Louis to Notre Dame, sitting in an empty Place Dauphine, where someone once told me witches were burned, I thought desperately that I am running out of time.

Le Lac des cygnes - Ballet Preljocaj. Photo, Jean-Claude Carbonne

I got up and made my way to the statue of Henry IV on horseback. Years ago when it was being restored, it was speculated that there might be something hidden within the body of the horse. Imagine a treasure or some secret that the assassinated founder of the Bourbon dynasty kept from his subjects. In the end, it was empty except for some coins and anti-Royalist pamphlets. Expectation diverted even then.

I looked up at the Parisian sky stretching lowly in a configuration of bluish-grey above limestone. Everything is terribly composed, like how I might imagine death could be, later for some, better for few, and yet still serene within a state of edged contagion.

Italo Calvino once wrote that Paris was the perfect place to be an ‘étranger’. What I think he meant by that was the contamination that comes from being both an outsider and a foreigner at the same time. The simple thought that you will never fit into this city where you live translates to the wonderful realization that Paris just might be a place where you don’t need to.

She is a city of ‘la chance’ and ‘la lumière’. She is a city that directs simultaneously the mind and the heart (and lets the body do what it must). She is steadfast, and even when you leave waits resolutely and unchanging for your return, a lover of delayed gratification, she will not stand for your boredom or impatience.

One national lockdown after another and she arches her eyebrow and breathes meditatively. This shall not last. Meanwhile the air has become noticeably fresher, and the water of the Seine is flowing clearly along the Left and Right Banks. Is that really flora and fauna visible on the surface (something I have never seen in 25 years)? Even the ducks wander off the banks and perch on the tops of the boarded up bouquinistes lining each side of the river. And with this pause, this tranquility, all that has been delayed further blurs our vision of all that has been put on hold.

My first outing after the June 9th reopening of cultural institutions was random at its most lazily Parisian and Baudelairian best. I met a friend for an early impromptu Sunday morning coffee and suggested that we check out an exhibition. Phone in hand I was able to reserve two spots. About an hour later we sauntered into the halls of the refurbished Museum of Modern Art (MAM) with tickets to see the Sarah Moon exhibition, ‘PasséPrésent’.

Sarah Moon, Anatomie, 1997 © Sarah Moon

Born in France in 1941, Sarah Moon modeled in London in the 1960s before picking up the camera to photograph friends and colleagues. She has said of her own practice that, “It is both to get close to and to escape reality that I instinctively look through the lens of a camera.”

I had never come across her work before while my friend explained a bit about her background and her groundbreaking work for Cacharel in the 1970s. The show was put together as a kind of photographic dialogue between each era, punctuated with literary and cinematographic references. The relationship between shadow, narrative and time was exemplified by different techniques from Polaroid negatives to short films, embracing a corporeal mystique (that yes could be a storyboard for second-wave feminism), which captivates the imagination, drawing the visitor into a world that breaks apart the casual and caustic sexism embodied by any gaze: male or female.

As my own regard fell from the corseted female form to Polaroids of peonies, I was inclined to think about the beauty of the whole exhibition and something inextricably linked to the highest purpose of the artist herself, and for that fact any artist: technical execution aligned with a singular vision and the requisite self-knowledge that such a practice would demand.

Two weeks later I returned to the same neighborhood, but a few blocks down at Trocadero. For a Thursday evening there was a tolerable level of traffic and only a barely perceptible number of tourists, mostly French. The still-closed Eiffel Tower seemed to bend in the distance, as I circled around to the Theatre Chaillot to see a historical piece which was postponed from December of last year until now: ‘Swan Lake’.

French dancer and choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, who trained with Zena Rommett and Merce Cunningham, is not unfamiliar with the representation of large narrative ballets as he has already reinterpreted ‘Snow White’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

Le Lac des cygnes - Ballet Preljocaj - Répétitions publiques - Juillet 2020. Photo, Jean-Claude Carbonne

As the music of Tchaikovsky filled the stage, I sat with my lips pursed tightly in anticipation behind my now humid mask as the theatre darkened and the dancers began their delayed performance. Now, okay, it’s Swan Lake, we think we know the story, we definitely know the soundtrack, but what Preljocaj has done through the signature lighting of Eric Soyer and a video installation created by the young cinematographer Boris Labbé (1987) is find a seamless combination that subverts all viewer expectation through a holistic immersion of light, sound, image and, of course, movement.  Hell, just experiencing 26 human beings on stage, including a 7-month pregnant dancer, was just about enough. They were obviously so happy to perform. It was palpable. The generosity of their gestures was accompanied by an annexation of the original with contemporary musical additions to the score. The technical prowess of the neo-classical and the 21st century are alive and well, cohabiting and contaminating each other, which is unique to the work of Preljocaj.

Exceptionally poetic execution of the choreography was a counterpoint to my present perfect state of attention that no virus could ever take away. I turned to look at my fellow spectators. Strains of light and shadow skipped across their masks as something stripped away our collective loneliness, then I closed my eyes as the thunderous applause obliterated any final fragments of delay.