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Bénédicte Pesle, brought US artists to France

By Neil Genzlinger New York Times 

Bénédicte Pesle, a Frenchwoman who was so impressed with the stage performances she saw during visits to the United States that she devoted herself to bringing the adventurous works of Merce Cunningham, Robert Wilson and other American artists to European audiences, died on Jan. 17 in Paris. She was 90.

Her death was announced by the culture services division of the French Embassy in the United States.

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Ms. Pesle did her work behind the scenes, eschewing labels like “producer” and “presenter” while performing a wide array of functions — go-between, convincer, fund-raiser, and more — that might in fact have fallen under those job descriptions.

When pressed, she would use a humble term to characterize her role, said Denise Luccioni, who worked with her: “secrétaire d’artistes” — secretary of artists.

“She did whatever needed to be done,” Luccioni said by e-mail. “But before that, she had had the idea for it, the clear vision of how it should be done, and she had transmitted her passion and enthusiasm and convinced whoever needed to be convinced that that was the way to go. Then she did all the practical things, because nobody thought of all the things she thought of.”

Whatever the label, her work was not always easy. When she helped bring the Cunningham company to France in 1964 on its first world tour, the audience was decidedly unenthusiastic about the Cunningham-Cage approach, which radically reimagined the relationship between dance and music and jettisoned traditional narrative forms.

“People threw things at us — eggs and tomatoes,” Carolyn Brown, an original company member, once recalled. “During the interval, they went out to get more.”

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But Ms. Pesle had great faith in avant-garde and otherwise unfamiliar works and styles, and that faith was eventually rewarded. For some American artists, like the experimental director Robert Wilson, the French audiences to which she introduced them provided a decisive career boost.

“Without her, my work would not be what it is today,” Wilson said by e-mail.

Ms. Pesle was born on May 15, 1927, in Le Havre, in the Normandy region, to Robert Pesle and the former Marguerite de Menil. She received a degree from the Sorbonne University in 1950, then worked at a municipal library in Paris and at the bookstore La Hune, a famed gathering spot for the intellectuals of the day.

Ms. Pesle made her first visit to the United States in 1952, Luccioni said, and sampled the avant-garde arts scene, including the New York debut of a troupe formed by Cunningham, who was working with the composer John Cage and artists like Robert Rauschenberg.

“When I came back to France I wanted everyone to know them,” Ms. Pesle told The Christian Science Monitor in 1985.

“To see and convince people to see is what I like,” she added. “Also, to be in touch with what is new and real in our own time, so European culture does not just become a museum of classics.”

During the 1960s and into the ’70s she worked out of her office at the Iolas Gallery in Paris, where she was director, and dealt with artists like Max Ernst and René Magritte. Then, in 1971, she founded Artservice (later reconstituted as Artservice International), a nonprofit focused on promoting the work of American artists in France.

“She liked ‘service’ in the name,” Luccioni said, “because that’s what she meant: to be at the service of art and artists.”

The next year she helped Michel Guy, the future culture minister of France, found the Autumn Festival, devoted to contemporary arts of all sorts. The first festival introduced Wilson’s 24-hour “Opéra Comique.”

That was typical of the ambitious projects Ms. Pesle embraced. In a tribute posted on his website, Wilson recalled another.

“She went with me in 1973 to ask Michel Guy to commission Philip Glass and myself to create ‘Einstein on the Beach,’ a five-hour opera,” he wrote. The piece had its premiere in 1976 in Avignon, France.

“She was capable of envisioning large-scale works and thinking over long periods of time,” Wilson wrote. “She had the best critical eye I ever met.”

Other artists who benefited from her efforts included composer Meredith Monk, the playwright and director Richard Foreman and choreographers Trisha Brown, Douglas Dunn, and Viola Farber. Artists and productions she helped bring to France often went on to festivals elsewhere in Europe.

Ms. Pesle, who leaves no immediate survivors, once described her role when she found an artist whom she thought deserved European exposure.

“We’re the catalyst that starts the reaction,” she said. “We gather all the elements — producers, agents, theaters, managements. We try to convince them that this artist is the one they should bring.”