Les Indes galantes

Dancing above a volcano

Interview with Clément Cogitore

By Simon Hatab 27 September 2019


© Little Shao / OnP

Dancing above a volcano

Les Indes galantes is on the bill at the Opéra Bastille in a new production staged by Clément Cogitore and choreographed by Bintou Dembélé. After directing a short film for the 3e Scène, whose impact went far beyond the circle of the opera lovers, the artist, much in vogue on the international scene and whose work embraces contemporary art and cinema, this time tackles the complete version of Rameau's opera-ballet. In this interview, he presents his explosive vision of the work, including twenty-nine Street Dance artists.

When did you first encounter Les Indes Galantes? How did you come to be interested in this opera-ballet by Rameau?

Clément Cogitore : I initially discovered the work through its most famous arias: “Forêts paisibles”, “Bannissons les tristes alarmes” and “Traversez les plus vastes mers”... Difficult to remain insensible to their beauty and power. The choruses, in particular, interested me: I was intoxicated by the incantatory dimension that Rameau gave them. It was only later that I began to take an interest in the work as a whole. Those sentimental intrigues set in faraway, exotic lands, whose “indigence” or “lack of realism” has been derided ever since the first performance, seemed to me to be a strange series of amorous and political mix-ups, on a conscious level – the simple quid pro quo – or a subconscious one, but which today take on a whole new meaning. I had the feeling that Les Indes galantes was telling the story of young people dancing above a volcano. A volcano which, in the 18th century was inoffensive – the volcano of theatre and artifice from the Entrée of “The Incas” – but which, in the 21st century, has become very real, on the brink of eruption.

Before staging the work in its entirety, you made a short film for la 3e Scène using an aria from the fourth Entrée (“Forêts paisibles”). This film, for which you worked with the choreographer Bintou Dembélé, met with a success that far exceeded the narrow circle of opera lovers. Looking back, where would you situate this film within the creative process that has resulted in the production we are going to see?

The film was sparked by an intuition: that this music could accommodate other bodies, other energies and other tensions than those usually summoned onto the operatic stage. The production was written as a continuation of this intuition, pursuing this questioning of the notion of “otherness” and the urban space as a geopolitical space.

How does the issue of “otherness” resonate in Les Indes galantes?

Rameau’s opera-ballet summons the world to the stage, ceaselessly confronting characters perceived as “westerners” with characters who are not. At this moment in history, people living in remote countries, colonised or massacred by European powers, were the object of close interest. However, beneath the apparent humanism, the Enlightenment was in the process of going from one stereotype to another – from the bloody-thirsty savage to Rousseau’s “noble savage”. This indigenous “other” becomes a pure and innocent being but is left by wayside of History. On our globalized planet, which today seems to me to be everywhere traversed by the same upheavals and ideologies, otherness is more and more difficult to encounter. When I take a plane to display my work on the other side of the planet, I often have the impression of going from one end to the other of the western world and meeting the same social codes, opinions and beliefs. And yet, otherness is situated as much across the seas as at a few streets away, because our mega-cities have become urban worlds, moulded by migratory movements, sometimes very ancient in which each community has inherited its own territory, which it inhabits with its own history and culture. It was thus that, little by little, we constructed our project for this production: to recount the world through the city, with its frontiers, its tensions and its misunderstandings.

How did you come to collaborate with the choreographer Bintou Dembélé?

Bintou is a pioneer of Hip Hop in France. Her way of exploring physical, emotional and political tensions through dance, her manner of questioning historically the theatrical representation of what she calls “racialized” bodies – that is to say perceived in the margins of an ostensibly “white” norm – mean that she seemed to me to be the ideal choreographer for such a project. Besides, Bintou conceives of dance as a long flow of tensions and resistance, which to me seemed rich with possibilities for dialogue – and for contradictions – with the music of Rameau which is constructed in short sequences like so many injunctions aimed at the dancers’ bodies. The question that constantly guided us was: how can this music set bodies from another era, sculpted by other histories, in motion?

As an artist, you work on the potential of images to seize the spectator, on the space they accord him/her. The 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment. Now, light can have a certain ambivalence: it can illuminate, elucidate and reveal. But it can also dazzle, blind or direct our gaze away from areas of shadow...

Yes, I work a lot on the potential of a work to stun, its capacity to dazzle, to lay siege to the senses. This is what is so ambiguous about the Enlightenment which, freed by rationalism from the superstitions and dogmas of religious obscurantism, no longer believed in magic yet ardently desired to be told stories, to be enchanted. In that sense, this moment in history marks the end of childhood for Western Mankind. The spectator of Les Indes galantes knows that everything he sees is false but accepts nevertheless, for a few hours, to take leave of the world and let himself be dazzled. I had a desire to take on this objective of opera-ballet whilst, at the same time, questioning it, asking myself what it is that the light eclipses, what remains in shadow...

One of the questions your work seems to pose most forcefully is the possibility – or not – of telling a story. During a lecture, you once said that communities were born from the moment people started telling stories. In Les Indes galantes, the notion of narrative is central: the work represents different communities, often in conflict, which do not have the same narratives...

In a certain manner, the misunderstandings in Les Indes galantes reveal the impossibility for different communities to agree on a common narrative. Thus, in the so-called “Savages” act, the libretto confuses the words “Peace” and “Victory”? Clearly, only the victor can confuse the two words.

It seems to me that some of your films, which flirt with the documentary genre, undermine the notion of “character”: the camera circles round the characters without our knowing whether we are still in reality or already on the threshold of fiction. In Les Indes galantes, we are, to quote the words of Ali in the third entrée, in a world “that Europe imagines”, and as such often confronted with clichés, stereotypes... How do you find the life within the stereotype?

Yes, with the exception of Phani and Huascar in the Incas act - who seem to experience contradictions and ambiguities, most of the characters in the libretto are presented as stereotypes: each is defined by his or her membership of a community. But the poor characterisation in Fuzelier’s libretto contrasts with Rameau’s musical treatment: rich, complex, striking, the score displays an infinity of nuances. The music then becomes a precious ally in the quest to encounter the character. In writing and staging – whether of fiction or documentaries – I tend to believe that one should never try to avoid stereotypes but rather attempt to work through them. I tell myself that a stereotype is a character who has not been heard, with whom I have not spent enough time, who has not yet told me his story. It is through this encounter, in this imaginary dialogue with him, that my work truly begins.

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