Editors' pick

Soiree Carte Blanche

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Editorial Review

Parties With an International Vibe
By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 17, 2008

Over the years, I've feasted on conch in Barbados, danced the polka at Oktoberfest in Germany, done shots of vodka in Ukraine, attended an art opening in Mexico and listened to classical musicians perform in China.

And I've done it all without leaving the District.

There are many reasons I love Washington, and one of them is the easy access to international programs thrown by the embassies and cultural institutions that call the city home. But if you fall squarely into the 21-35 age group, you may notice that many of the embassy events are targeted to a slightly older demographic.

That's beginning to change, thanks to the French and Swedes in town. When Sylvain Cornevaux became the deputy director of the Alliance Francaise, a French language and cultural center, last year, he noticed a lack of young people at the Kalorama venue that serves as its headquarters. He came up with the idea for Soiree Carte Blanche, a happening that would involve happy hours, films, DJs, spoken-word poets, live music, dancers or magic shows.

"The idea is to reach out to a new audience," Cornevaux says, "and not just Francophiles but an international audience, to show them that French culture is still alive, and it's modern. It's not just [singer Edith] Piaf and Versailles."

On a recent weeknight, guests of the Alliance Francaise were arriving at Hillwood mansion in upper Northwest, where they could tour the museum, wander the grounds, dance to a DJ, watch short French films and, of course, mingle over wine ($6 a glass, champagne $8) and cheese.

The first of the Soirees Carte Blanche took place in the embassy's headquarters, but now include gatherings at the Phillips Collection and Hillwood. Constants have included DJ Herve, who spins everything from lounge music to Daft Punk, and an iPod DJ battle, where two participants try to wow the crowd with their own three-song playlists. The winner gets French lessons and other goodies.

Ignacio Mir, from Argentina, and his wife, Adriana Gonzalez, from Colombia, came because "it looked different from what would usually be associated with a cultural institution," Mir explained. The couple, both 32, enjoy the electronic dance music and the cocktail-party-like scene. "This is very cool," added Gonzalez, as a French clown in white pancake makeup wandered through the crowd.

A return to the Phillips is in the cards for Nov. 20, with tours of "Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Over the River, A Work in Progress" and some surprises, says Cornevaux. (In May, when a Soiree was held at the Phillips, it included a breakdance performance, so you never know what might happen.)