Performance » Dance

The Life of Piaf



Dance Kaleidoscope artist director David Hochoy says he has always loved Edith Piaf's music because of how piercing the songs are and how much they resonate with him.

"They really have a wonderful kind of honesty to them," he says.

That's why he decided to stage Piaf Plus, a French revue featuring the songs of Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf. Hochoy said the performance will feature a dancer who looks like Piaf, and people will see her get thrown around a lot.

"Which is what happened with Édith Piaf," Hochoy says.

Jillian Godwin, 47, is that dancer.

"It's very kind of sad" to be playing the character of Édith Piaf, Godwin says, but being thrown around like a rag doll reflects how she lived.


Born on Dec 19, 1915 as Edith Giovanna Gassion, the woman we now remember as Edith Piaf started life rough. With a mother who had no interest in her child, and a father who was at war, she spent most of her life in a brothel with her grandmother, who was a prostitute. When her father returned, Edith traveled around, performing street acts for a living. She began her singer career as a teenager on the street corners of Paris.

As she grew older, she fell in and out of love with all the wrong men as she worked the streets, until she gave birth to her first and only child in 1933. She named her little girl Marcelle. But tragedy soon visited when the child died of meningitis at the age of two.

A month after the deathEdith met Louis Leplée, along the Champs-Elysées,  and he asked her to audition at his club, Gerny's. He loved her voice and changed her name to Edith Piaf, meaning little sparrow in English.

She wore a black, hand-knitted dress for her opening night, wowing what had been an initially cold and apathetic crowd.

As Piaf was beginning her rise to fame, Europe was beginning to descend into the Second World War. As German troops were advancing toward France, Piaf became a popular touring singer. She would even perform for Germans on occasion. Her songs were emotionally powerful for everyone who heard them.

Eventually, Piaf started touring in America and she was a shock for her audience. They expected a much more sophisticated artist and ended up with a tiny woman dressed in black, singing songs in another language.

But they loved her.

While in New York, things began to look brighter for Piaf when she became reacquainted with boxer Marcel Cerdan.

They began a scandalous romance, disapproved by many since Cerdan was married. However, Piaf adored him. She even bought a house just so they could spend more time together.

As good as things got for Piaf, tragedy always followed. In October 1949, Cerdan died in a plane crash on his way from Paris to join Piaf in New York. Piaf had other lovers before the end of her life, but she never truly got over Cerdan.

In 1951, Piaf broke several ribs and had a fracture in her left arm after a serious car accident and she was given morphine so she would still be able to sing.

This, unfortunately, contributed to a major drug and alcohol addiction. Piaf started to show up to her concerts so drunk she would be falling over and even had trouble going on stage.

In the end, Piaf died at the age of 47 after months of battling cancer. Supposedly her last words were "Every...fool thing you do in this life, you pay for."

Piaf was known for her small stature and her dark clothing and songs. Although she was often encouraged to get bright clothing and fancy fabric, she would always pick out what she liked: basic and black. Her true talent was her voice and her ability to put a haunting depth of sorrow into songs about love, loss and tragedy that can't help but enrapture the listener.

Dance Kaleidoscope's David Hochoy says Piaf's life is kind of like an open book told through her music, "and you'll certainly get a sense of her life with this show."

Piaf said and sang that she regretted nothing, and the DK show will end with a dance based around her signature song, "Non, Je Ne RegretteRien." Hochoy said it's a fantastic anthem to Piaf and her life, and the bold choices she made.

He said he wanted to end the piece with a dance that really spoke to and told the story of her life. He choreographed this last dance to show how moving and bold her life was, with each dancer moving in a way that reflected the way she lived. They will perform the same movements, he said, but at individual times.

The audience will see all the dancers start in a group as couples before splitting apart. Some will be performing moves that appear quite hopeful while other moves will be filled with angst.

"Each dancer will be reflecting his or herself and what the song means to them," Hochoy says. "It is actually very powerful."


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