How does one stage a major work from the French Opera repertoire which has a libretto infused with a rather outdated exoticism? For his adaptation of Les Indes galantes, Clément Cogitore brings together urban dance and baroque music on the stage of the Opéra Bastille and in so doing reveals secret connections between seemingly incompatible art forms.
On a Saturday afternoon, the Opéra Bastille looks more like a ghost ship. In the labyrinth of endless corridors which have been plunged into a state of semi-darkness, not a living soul is to be found. The technical workshops radiate an orderly calm and the main auditorium patiently awaits its resurrection in silence. And yet, on the other side of the stage’s closed curtain, “young people are dancing on top of a volcano”. After the summer break, rehearsals for Les Indes galantes have just got underway. Orchestrated under the meticulous gaze of Clément Cogitore, they offer a total contast to the peace and quiet of the rest of the building: an inverted world in which the baroque conductor and opera singers share the stage with krump, vogue and ﬂex dancers, all of them interacting in what appears to be joyful yet studiously organised chaos. With this opera-ballet, composed by Rameau in the 18th century, the visual artist and filmmaker is directing his first opera. When we enter the auditorium, the final monologue from his first feature film, Neither Heaven nor Earth comes back to haunt us: “I await you behind a door. In a world within the world. A world beside the world. A world all around the world.”
Drive out the monsters
Clément Cogitore began to imagine that other world for the video he produced for the Paris Opera’s digital platform the 3e scène. “I already loved some pieces from Les Indes galantes. I told myself that the music could play host to different bodies, different energies, different choreographic languages and tensions than those usually portrayed on stage.” When he first conceived the project, he described the kind of movements he was imagining to his friends. They pointed him towards a dance he knew little about: krump. “I didn’t know anything about that style, but I immediately understood what it was communicating. I felt it. It had the same effect on me that I had when I first saw Pina Bausch’s Café Müller. Back then, I was 15 years old and it had quite an impact: I understood everything, even though I had no analytical tool to process contemporary dance”.
Born out of the riots that shook Los Angeles in 1992, following the police beating of an African American man, krump had all the elements of a cry of suppressed rage. It ended up migrating to France, where it would be popularised in 2005 by the David LaChapelle documentary Rize. Built around three structural movements—the percussion of a foot tapping the ground, a swelling of the chest and arm swings—its language is the basis of virtuoso improvisations in which each dancer conveys their own style, and each body its memory, its history, its injuries. As a preamble to his piece Éloge du puissant royaume (Praise the Mighty Kingdom), the choreographer Heddy Maalem offers a lucid deﬁnition: “It seems that the world gave rise to something there that no one expected: a dance from within, authentically spiritual, made to drive out the demons and utter those unexpressed words stuck in the throats of those who couldn’t even cry out anymore. (…) It is a dance from the beginning or the end of time which expresses the essence of what makes a man today. It is a secret for him as he stands tall in the darkest moments of his own night.”
Filmed in January 2017 on the cold, bare stage of the Opéra Bastille, Clément Cogitore’s short piece arrived like a bombshell. Set to the aria “Les Sauvages” from the final act of Les Indes galantes, some thirty dancers form a circle, scornfully eye one another and challenge each other. Even the camera seems to assume bodily form to participate in the battle.
“The last thing I wanted was for the performance to become a reboot of some of those projects from the 1990s and 2000s where they invite a few street dancers for three minor tours only to disappear afterwards.”
The hypnotic video was nominated in the Best Short Film category at the 2019 Césars. But above all, it appealed to Stéphane Lissner, the director of the Paris Opera who ultimately asked the filmmaker to stage and direct the work in its entirety.
A few weeks before the premiere, Clément Cogitore is wary of reading over-elliptic reports in the press. “What risks annoying me the most is the idea of “disaffected suburbs at the Opera” which we’re bound to hear. The last thing I wanted was for the performance to become a reboot of some of those projects from the 1990s and 2000s where they invite a few street dancers for three minor tours only to disappear afterwards.” In its heyday under Louis XIV, the opera-ballet was viewed as the quintessential artistic manifestation of the grandeur of the monarchy and the splendour of court society. If you then lend baroque music certain powers that are almost magical, even curative, then dance assumes a role that is primarily illustrative or decorative. But it was out of the question for the director to relegate dance to a purely ornamental level, to use it as a mere embellishment in the narrative, or worse, to exploit it as a gimmick to make opera “cooler” or “younger”.
As a result, for the choreography, he reached out to Bintou Dembélé, with whom he had already worked on the making of his short film. “I was really enthusiastic”; she says with a slightly provocative smile. “Clément urged me to take a risk. It was a call to make a break with the past, to rethink what opera—and our dances—could be: how could the passion inside us take on another form?” The question was not a new one for her. A product of the “second generation” of urban dance, she choreographed her first solo piece in 2010 and entered the world of contemporary dance. “Having started out dancing on a box on my housing estate it was quite overwhelming to suddenly find myself in front of white folks on major stages around the country. So, I asked myself: who is my audience? Is my story, are our stories, something they could understand? I didn’t know. But I’d broken my body on the asphalt, so I had to find other ways to make my anger audible.” For Les Indes galantes, she worked on the movement as if it were a continuous dialogue with the music, playing on its dissonances, and accompanying or contrasting the constant mood changes of the melody. At times synchronised, at others highly improvised, almost freestyle, her choreography materialises in a contrasting range, but always on equal terms with the orchestra and the singers.
In a genre, which in her own words, “isn’t intended” for her, Bintou Dembelé rediscovers the preoccupations that stir her: the organic entanglement between dance, music and voice. She is not alone in detecting unexpected connections between urban dance and opera-ballet. “French baroque, it’s the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles! It’s truly an art of bedazzlement, the spectacular. In terms of details and ornamentation, it’s very precise, very affected. Except, that aspect is not written into the score, which leaves the musicians some degree of freedom to reveal all their virtuosity. And ta-da! You realise that dance culture also leaves a lot of room for improvisation”, conﬁrms the musicologist and dramaturg Katherina Lindekens with contagious joy.
Dialogue and misconceptions
If switching to the stage has made him change his language, with Les Indes galantes Clément Cogitore still finds himself grappling with the notion of the impossible dialogue that has haunted him from the very beginning. “I can’t film people who are like me. I need to go and find other communities, professions or groups that seem far removed from me, that don’t have the same history, the same vision of the world, the same beliefs or the same culture. And slowly but surely, I establish a connection and find the common denominator.” In his first full-length feature film, a group of French troops in Afghanistan are confronted by a series of disappearances which to them seem irrational; the documentary-installation Braguino homed in on the metaphysical combat between two feuding families in the heartlands of the Siberian Taiga. The narrative of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera-ballet reveals, in four scenes, the eternal misconceptions which exist between the Europeans who have set out to conquer the world and the people they encounter. On this particular day, the team are focused on the “second entrée”, the storyline of which has all the allure of bad made-for-TV movie: In Peru, an Incan princess who is about to marry a Spanish officer finds herself betrayed by the High Priest of the Sun who also happens to be madly in love with her. The project’s dramatist Simon Hatab says “the High Priest Huascar is melodrama villain. There is more psychology in the second part. One of the challenges for Clément is to communicate as much in the space that he has imagined and in a way that has nothing naturalistic about it.”
But how do you adapt a libretto written in a context where slavery was accepted by all, in which the first mirages of orientalism were emerging and which, with the passage of time, seems at best outmoded and at worst, blatantly racist? The director pondered his approach carefully.
“Finding the right relationship with a work that predates me and which has its own history, is like finding the right relationship to a situation or someone in a documentary: they exist, it’s a fact. It’s like having a romantic relationship: I go through several stages, from seduction to union, even if I don’t agree with them. That said, the one thing I will not allow myself to do is judge them. History will do its work; the stage is not a courtroom.”