Choreographic Symphony

Daphnis and Chloé: Benjamin Millepied and Daniel Buren in conversation with Maurice Ravel — By Philippe Noisette and Sylvie Blin

A composition of considerable breadth, Daphnis and Chloé has inspired generations of choreographers, from Michel Fokine, the first to bring it to the stage, to Frederick Ashton. Benjamin Millepied took up the challenge of Maurice Ravel’s score in 2014, imagining a choreography for the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet, enhanced by the presence of the artist Daniel Buren. Marrying light, colour and movement, the latter succeeded in giving birth to a singular work. A significant event elucidated by the choreographer and the artist for journalists Philippe Noisette and Sylvie Blin. Octave has transcribed their discussion.

What was your reaction when the Paris Opera invited you to choreograph and stage Daphnis and Chloé?

Benjamin Millepied: I went through several phases! When I accepted, I began to listen to Ravel’s piece differently. It takes time to perceive all its nuances, its complexity, as well as the different movements. At the beginning, I thought: here is the scenario. But why not stray from it a little, rethink the story of the shepherd and his beloved Chloé, abducted and then rescued by Pan, and stage three couples instead. I plunged into the scenario inspired by Longus’s romance again and again: everything in Ravel is very precise. Igor Stravinsky said he was the greatest Swiss clockmaker of them all! I realised that what one desired above all else was to plunge into this journey and identify with this couple from beginning to end. My idea as a choreographer was to use the libretto to continue the journey … whilst telling this story.

At the time, Ravel and Daphnis and Chloé was a complicated business… What interested you particularly about this project?

Yes, that’s what people say: it took him two or three years to complete it, he had problems with Diaghilev, who commissioned it. But there is also his presence: he didn’t live very far from the Opera. In a way, he’s come back today.

Benjamin Millepied lors d’une répétition de Daphnis et Chloé, 2014
Benjamin Millepied lors d’une répétition de Daphnis et Chloé, 2014 © Agathe Poupeney / OnP

Your starting point was the couple, Daphnis and Chloé, but the corps de ballet is also present on stage.

More than twenty-odd dancers are on stage, in effect. When you take on one of the great scores of the 20th century, you can afford to be ambitious. And try to rise to the occasion. Daphnis and Chloé is a ballet that isn’t often performed. I’ve watched Frederick Ashton’s version and found it rather accomplished. I in my turn intend to show the contrasts and nuances in which the music is so rich. Hence the necessity for a lot of work with the corps de ballet. The idea is to do a modern ballet on pointes. To tell a story without resorting to pantomime.

For this creation, you are on the bill with Daniel Buren. Could you tell us about your encounter with him?

Daniel is as serious and thoughtful as they come. He offered me eight different ideas for a project and every one of them was seductive and convincing. I chose the strongest of his ideas. There was this desire for moving shapes, forms that evolve gradually. Not graphic representation drawing on Greek mythology. This stage environment suits ballet. And the idea of working as a team appeals to me. At the time of the Ballets russes, all the talent was in the same town, Paris, or nearly so. It was easier. It’s much more difficult nowadays, we all travel around so much. Then the most complicated thing is to have an instinct for making the right contacts on the right projects.

What were your sources of inspiration for this ballet?

This piece will be anchored in a certain ballet tradition, from Marius Petipa to George Balanchine. There will however be sections, with the nymphs, danced in bare feet. Fokine had already considered this without doing it. There will be my gestures included in a form of dance seen as visual exploration.

Daphnis et Chloé, Opéra Bastille, 2014
Daphnis et Chloé, Opéra Bastille, 2014 © Agathe Poupeney / OnP

How did you come to be approached by the Paris Opera?

Daniel Buren: It was Brigitte Lefèvre, the Director of Dance at the Paris Opera, who approached me and extended the invitation. First we talked about the project together, then she told me she had chosen Benjamin Millepied to do the choreography. Much later, I met Benjamin. I think there’s scarcely anything to say about this type of meeting when it proceeds simply and harmoniously, each respecting the work of the others and submitting their propositions to them, which was the case here.

What did you find particularly interesting about this project?

The opening up, at the highest level, of a universe in which I had never worked before and moreover in one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world, with the extraordinary music of Maurice Ravel, and a choreography by Benjamin Millepied. Could one dream of a better way of entering the world of opera?

What was the main difficulty or constraint you encountered?

To strike the right chord, so to speak, and to try and remain quite free, in spite of everything, so as not to collapse under all the constraints I encountered, which are particularly numerous here. For example, any major error in the preparation of visual elements or sequences can waste hours of rehearsal time, adjusting the position of a screen here, or getting the right colour there, hours wasted that you can never recover. So a drastic need for precision over the models and other electronic preparations, even before being able to see the result in situ!

Working for the Paris Opera, was that something you’d been wanting to do for a while?

No, because I never think about things that seem inaccessible, or indeed very far from my preoccupations, that is, working within a major official structure. If the opportunity comes along, though, and I think I’m capable of meeting the challenge, then I don’t hesitate and I can adapt very quickly to circumstances. On the other hand, it is true to say that several times I have worked on ballets of sorts (in Paris and New York particularly), but in the street and without any outside help: that was in 1968, then several times during the seventies. By the way, the “idea” of choreography, in a way, is often to be found in my work, though not necessarily with dancers!

How did you approach the specific task of scenography?

As you doubtless know, all of my work, without exception, small or large, public or not, here or elsewhere, for nearly fifty years, has been founded on one single immutable principle which is that all visual work is conditioned by the place in which it is made, where it is seen, for which it is conceived, to such an extent that very often – though not systematically – it can only exist where it is shown. It is difficult to get such a position accepted in the domain of visual arts because it is in almost complete opposition to the vast majority of western artistic production which is based on the infinite manipulation of a multitude of objects. A work then, by that definition, should not have a precise location but, on the contrary, be potentially adaptable to anywhere, so as to circulate without difficulty wherever the merchandise is required. To achieve such a result, the work must be as malleable as possible and detached from any precise place. On the other hand, the importance of location, as an intrinsic part of a conceived piece, has been fundamentally linked to theatre since its origins. So, designing a scenography which, moreover, is determined by a particular stage – that of the Opéra Bastille – at a given time and with the constraints of a ballet created by someone else, is for me, on principle, a way of working that I certainly do not find alien and which governs all my other work. New conditions, on the other hand, and this is true each time, permit you to invent new forms, a new way of coordinating those forms and even to make them evolve and develop, specifically in relation to the numberless possibilities of the space in question. Paradoxically, I am in a completely new environment, but one to which my usual working methods can be instantly adapted, without any hiatus. This allows me to avoid the hazard of transplanting a work of art created in a studio to a new context, which happens too often with commissions for public spaces, and to work as I usually do with regard to the specific characteristics provided by the new environment.

Had you already worked for the stage?

I’ve often worked for the theatre, but rather sporadically. In the late seventies, early eighties I worked with an experimental theatre company in Italy called “La Zattera di Babele”. I also designed the sets for a production at the Opéra-Comique of Le Roi Pausole by Honegger which was directed by Mireille Laroche from Péniche-Opéra and, of course, for almost fifteen years, in a fairly consistent manner, I’ve been designing all the stage effects for the Cirque Etokan, baptised “Buren Cirque” (whenever my designs are used), directed by Dan Demuynck.

How did your collaboration with the set workshops of the Paris Opera go?

I really love working with them. They are true professionals capable of meeting any demand and always finding extremely ingenious solutions. I’ve appreciated this collaboration more than anything.

Are you a regular ballet or opera-goer?

Not especially. Let’s say that in both cases, I’m an unenlightened amateur! Having said that, I really love opera, I’m very sensitive to the human voice and I often listen to it. Otherwise, I have very often been in the audience, not only of Merce Cunningham’s performances from the late sixties onwards, but also for the first steps, at the same period or a little later, of such diverse artists as Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, Trisha Brown, Carolyn Carlson and Lucinda Childs. Pina Bausch, too, whom I saw at her debut in Wuppertal, or more recently performances by Odile Duboc, Angelin Preljocaj, Julie Nioche or Jérôme Bel for example. So it’s a domain that has long interested me and excited my curiosity and in which I am at last to participate directly.

Interviews réalisées pour le journal de l’Opéra « En scène ! » lors de la création de Daphnis et Chloé à l’Opéra Bastille en 2014.

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