On Monday, November 23, 2015, Cultural Counselor Bénédicte de Montlaur honored dance presenter Carla Peterson and writer/translator Charles Ruas with the insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. The awards were presented during a ceremony held at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York.
As Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy, it is my great honor to welcome you all here tonight as we confer the Insignia of the Chevalier of Arts and Letters to our exceptional honorees, Carla Peterson and Charles Ruas.
The Order of Arts and Letters was established by the French government in 1957 to recognize people who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world. The Order of Arts and Letters is given out three times annually under the jurisdiction of the Minister of Culture and Communication.
Over decades of evolution and flux in the arts, our honorees tonight have both been at the center of the action. Carla and Charles have aligned themselves perfectly with the dynamic spirit of the arts, building communities of creative exchange and support. Thanks to their rich experiences, they are perennial sources of insight; Carla is a devoted expert on dance, and Charles has many fields of expertise, as we will see later! The influence of their work is felt in France and beyond, reflecting global engagement and universal passion.
Let’s begin with Carla Peterson, who has long been at the forefront of some of the most exciting revolutions in the world of dance. Carla, your decades of experience in dance reflect your profound love for the art. You are much more than a dance enthusiast, however; you are a cultural activist. For you, the value of the performing arts is uncontestable. As the leader of major dance organizations, you have passionately advocated dance, and all that comes along with it: funding, space, and talented performers. Currently the Director of the Maggie Allesee Center for Choreography, you bring your dedication to the only national center for choreography in the US.
The MACC position has brought you to Florida, and we hope you’re enjoying your time away from the New York chaos. But it’s very fitting to have this ceremony in New York, because New York was truly where you built your respect and renown in the dance community. In the city that never sleeps, you brought endless energy to your career, with lasting impact on the contemporary dance scene.
As a champion of innovative and experimental dance, you have long challenged the public to understand dance in new ways. Indeed, you’re part of a rebellious generation, one that gave rise to conceptual and cutting-edge dance movements. You actually began your arts concentration in studio art, but you were so moved by the power of radical dance style in the 1980s that you embraced dance wholeheartedly! You developed a keen eye for innovation, and since then, you’ve discovered a range of dynamic talents, from Kimberly Bartosik to Maud le Pladec These are daring and unconventional performers, but you placed them in the spotlight.
Under your leadership, dance institutions are nurturing environments, fostering the careers of iconic dancers. At Movement Research, Dance Theatre Workshop and New York Live Arts, you encouraged dancers to cultivate their personal styles. You also understand that dancers cannot get by on talent alone; they require the proper resources to support their work. These resources can be hard to find, especially when there are limited public funds for the arts, but you’re committed to your cause, and resourceful in your efforts. Whether it meant applying for a National Endowment for the Arts grant, seeking a charitable contribution, or forging a partnership with an institution like Cultural Services, you fought every day to bring quality dance to the stage. Your efforts have been well-noted: in 2005, you won a Bessie Award for your direction of Movement Research, and to your greater service to the cause of dance.
Your efforts are not limited to your own organizations, however; you extend your support to the greater arts community. You’ve served as a board member for numerous arts organizations, which currently include Movement Research and Mount Tremper Arts. You also share your expertise on dance, choreography and fundraising as a panelist for diverse institutions, ranging from Pew Fellowships to the Princess Grace Foundation. A freelance art consultant, you have been a crucial asset to prominent associations and individual artists alike. For someone who has taken on such demanding leadership roles, you are quick to extend a helping hand to benefit the arts.
And your engagement with the arts also goes well beyond the United States. At Dance Theatre Workshop and New York Live Arts, you played an integral role in opening up the New York dance scene to the rest of the world. You particularly welcomed a new wave of French dancers, and showcased their talents on an international stage. French dancers such as Jerome Bel, Giselle Vienne and Alain Buffard, and Francophones such as Bouchra Ouizguen from Morocco and Natdia Beugre from Cote d’Ivoire…these are just a few of the many talents you’ve added to your community. And American audiences are indebted to you as well. Whether it was Maud le Pladec’s electrifying performance of “Democracy,” or Rachid Ouramdane’s passionate “Ordinary Witness,” you gave American critics and dance lovers new experiences from across the Atlantic.
You’re a bridge-builder to French cultural institutions as well, such as Theatre de la Cite Internationale in Paris, and Les Subsistances in Lyon. Abroad, you are admired for your pluck, your professionalism, and your vision. We hear that, while attending a performance at Biennale de la Danse in Lyon, France, you sent a series of enthusiastic texts to your colleagues in the US saying that you had to bring the group over…and you did! You host French performers and collectives in conjunction with New York-based institutions, creating a dense network of mutual opportunities.
For all of your coordinating and strategizing, you never lose sight of the heart of your work: the dancers. While you’re always on the lookout for new talents, you’re loyal to your established relationships. Dancers who have worked with you speak of your compassion and humility, as well as your advocacy and defense of their work. I think one of the most beautiful examples of your loyalty was the passing of the beloved French dancer Alain Buffard in 2014. When you heard about Buffard’s death, you rearranged your schedule to attend the memorial in France. You then organized a video installation of Buffard’s “Baron Samedi” performance in the French Embassy lobby, as a way for dance lovers to come together to celebrate his life and work. Carla, in the dance world, you don’t just foster talent; you foster community. The fact that so much of that community is here with you tonight speaks volumes – and I hear they are even throwing an after party for you downtown!
For three decades, you have promoted the cause of the arts, and you have touched the lives of many. In an atmosphere of respect and trust, you’ve supported some of the most innovative dancers worldwide, with many French dancers among them. It is my honor to present you with this award.
Chere Carla Peterson, au nom du gouvernement francais, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Next we turn to Charles Ruas, a dear friend to the arts—and quite literally! Your guests for this ceremony include novelists, editors, gallerists, opera singers, and more. And they will not hesitate to sing your praises!
But you’re also a friend to the arts as a contributor in your own right. Over the years, you’ve been an editor for Albert Knopf, a translator for PEN and Pierre Assouline, an art and literary critic, a radio host, a television producer, and a teacher. Graced with many talents, you approach nearly any subject with erudition and zeal. You question, you reflect, and you analyze, always taking the conversation on arts and literature to new heights.
Charles, your achievements are diverse, but they all spring from your unique intellectual traits. On one hand, you possess vast reserves of knowledge, thanks to a rigorous, classical education. You studied French and English literature at Princeton University, where you received bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees, and you were also a Fulbright fellow at the Sorbonne in Paris. On the other hand, you are blessed with an open mind, always receptive to new ideas and new people. Your academic background provides refined commentary and insights, while your modern character links you perfectly to the spirit of the times.
Your worldliness harkens back to a diverse heritage and upbringing. You were born in China to a French father and a half-German half-Manchu mother. Following World War Two, you moved to France with your mother, but she was quickly offered a job translating for the United Nations. So you grew up in original UN community in Queens, New York, at the intersection of different cultures and perspectives.
Imbued with your international legacy, your academic career has spanned multiple continents and fields of study. You’ve taught French literature in America, at NYU and Columbia University, and you’ve taught American literature in France, at Universite Stendhal-Grenoble III. In 1992, you returned to your birthplace of Tianjin, China, as a visiting professor of American literature and civilization. As a teacher, you were able to explore your roots, but you also furthered a transnational dialogue on literature and culture.
You did not settle down with academia, however. You sought other work that engaged your many talents. Your love of literature segmented neatly into elegant book translations from French into English. Thanks to you, biographies on Cubist art dealer D.H. Kahnweiler and Tintin creator Hergé have made their way to the English-speaking world. You also edited Marguerite Young’s biography of Eugene Debs, proving that there have been Socialist leaders in America after all! Beyond your work in publishing, you have lots to say yourself, as seen by your prolific writings for ArtNews and Art in America. You can discuss French sculpture or Japanese avant-garde with the same level of poignant analysis.
A gifted conversationalist, you are also a natural interviewer, and you have conversed with many icons of the past century. Your roster of interviewees includes Toni Morrison, Meredith Monk, Truman Capote, Susan Sontag, just to name a few. Face-to-face with these challenging, brilliant, and sometimes eccentric figures, you held your own, and you never shied away from controversial and taboo subjects of the time. You discussed homophobia with Gore Vidal, and second-wave feminism with Joan Didion and Dory Previn. I think your easy charisma allows people to open up to you. Marguerite Young even told you about her hallucinations, in which Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Wolfe would come to visit her!
It takes a strong intellectual backing to have a conversation with Michel Foucault. But it also takes a lot of audacity, and wit. In 1985, the esteemed philosopher gave you the last interview of his life. The discussion revolved around Foucault’s 1963 work, Raymond Roussel, which Foucault called “by far the book I wrote most easily and with the greatest pleasure.” The outcome was one of Foucault’s seminal interviews, often cited today as one of the most valuable insights into Foucault’s evolution of thought. Whether it was experimental dance or postructuralist thought, you seemed to always be on the pulse of the great transformations of art and literature in the late 20th Century.
You don’t just interview artistic icons; you form deep, lasting friendships. All we need to do is take a look at this audience. When asked, your guests speak of you with the greatest affection. They reminisce over their friendships with you, honed over many years of long conversations, lively dinners, and shared travels. Their stories convey your magnetic personality, a natural charm that has led you to many artistic and intellectual circles. Like a modern-day Comte Robert de Montesquiou, you’ve maintained close ties with some of the most creative figures of your time.
Michel Foucault once said, “What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life…But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art?” I do wonder if, throughout your long career, you’ve unlocked a certain art of living: an art of exploring many passions. Thanks to this, you possess a rare, holistic perspective on the arts, and I hope you will continue to share your talents with us in the years to come.
A master of French language and literature, an international supporter of the arts, you are a true polymath. You have embraced the cultural zeitgeist with your entire being, and for that reason, it has embraced you back. I am honored to present you with this award.
Cher Charles Ruas, au nom du gouvernement francais, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des lettres.