After working with Clément Cogitore on the much remarked upon short film Les Indes galantes for the 3rd Stage, the choreographer Bintou Dembélé is renewing her collaboration with that director, this time taking up Rameau’s opera-ballet in its entirety. A major exponent of Hip Hop in France, she has drawn on a huge range of sources including Krump, Voguing, Waacking, Popping and Electro, all languages that she delights in subverting. Here she explains how each of these dances has its own political history. Histories of emancipation through dance.
Can you retrace the journey that has led to your choreographing Rameau’s music today?
Bintou Dembélé: For me, dancing Rameau’s music is part of a progression that began in 2010: when I created my first solo, I needed to explore through dance other music besides Hip Hop. I became interested in repetitive, minimalist, cyclic music; in rhythmic polyphonies; in composers like Philip Glass, Robert Fripp, Doudou N’diaye Rose. I then collaborated with the musician Charles Amblard and the vocalist Charlène Andjembé for a new work – S/T/R/A/T/E/S-Quartet, which allied dance, music and voice live. We worked using a sound set-up piloted by the computer programme Live and a quadriphonic system. We wanted to create a circular space, both sonic and choreographic, and rethink the audience space. I was animated by the same thinking for Les Indes galantes: how could the ritualistic dimension of our dances be suffused into spaces seemingly remote from it? How to contaminate, reassemble and create a community which would englobe dancers, soloists, chorus, musicians and the audience all at the same time?
When you tackled Rameau’s opera ballet, you worked first of all from an instrumental version before returning to a version with voices. Can you describe the process of appropriating this work?
B.D.: When I tackled Les Indes galantes, I got myself a recording on iTunes of the work in an instrumental version: music without words. Initially, I wanted to distance myself from the colonial, slave-owning mind-set of the libretto. I also wanted to isolate the music from the voice, so that I could subsequently take up the latter in its physical dimension, like another instrument, a “flow”. When I worked on Clément’s short film for the 3rd Stage, there was this moment when the voice of the soloist seemed to emerge from the hand of a dancer, as if from a loud-hailer. It was traversed by the flow of energy that resounded with its internal tensions, before it was passed on to another dancer. The “flow” is that energy transmitted by the voice and vocal movements, like vibes in Rap or R’n’B. This power of the voice is also at the heart of the project.
For this project you have worked using a vast array of dances such as Krump, Voguing, Popping and Electro. What guided these choices?
B.D.: In the course of my discussions with Clément, I began to imagine movements on the music: movements from Krump, Voguing, Popping, Glyding, Waacking, Bboying and Electro. These dance forms – originally from the Underground, from competitions or from clubbing as well as from the performing arts – were all born out of different political, historical, cultural and social contexts. They all testify to historic, counter-cultural movements that re-emerge periodically, each decade. They aim for emancipation, empowerment, for the re-appropriation of public space. They are practised by dancers of various generations, who have constructed themselves differently against the background of globalisation and technological progress – according to whether they grew up in the era of television, of DVD, of Internet, Social Media, YouTube or Instagram.
You have refused to use the term “ballet corps” to qualify the ensemble formed by these twenty-nine dancers...
B.D.: Yes, we prefer to talk about Fame, House or Crew. When you want to invent new worlds, you have first of all to invent a new vocabulary. However, I never said to myself that our production would be a puzzle or a patchwork. What interested me was that the dancers should re-invest their own personal history, their own narrative through these dances and above all not remain entrenched in their style. This approach might at first have shaken them up, because dancers of Bboying are not in principle adapted for dancing Electro: their bodies are not fashioned in the same way, they do not have the same way of apprehending music and movement. We started out from these dances the better to subvert them.
You define yourself as a choreographer but, on several occasions, you have underlined the fact that this would describes your creative process and your relationship with dance rather badly. Why?
B.D.: I question the word “choreography” because it contains the idea of writing down the gesture. Now, in writing it down, in some way, one normalises it. Art is not separate from society: artistic forms are generated by History. As dancers, the same goes for our bodies, which are moulded in a multitude of ways by genre, class, nationality, “race” in Angela Davis’s definition of the term... As a creator, I seek to escape from these norms, to create a space in which the dancer can redefine her/his freedom. Because our bodies also recount an historical reality, the movement we transmit is not neutral. For example, it so happens that, in the course of my career, I injured my shoulder. If I show a movement to a dancer and ask her/him to reproduce it, I risk passing on my injury, my neurosis at the same time as the movement. So, since choreography is there to contort bodies, I want the dancer to contort the choreography for her/himself in order to conquer her/his own space for expression.
A lot of your work has been based on the notion of “marronnage” or slave resistance, also explored by writers like Dénétem Touam Bona and critics such as Sylvie Chalaye. Can you explain this notion and tell us why it inspires you?
B.D.: Historically, “marronnage” refers to the flight of enslaved Africans or Amerindians from the plantations in order to found new, free societies. Later, this notion was extended to the arts, notably by the authors you have cited: it is a matter of subverting a system of constraints in order to conquer a space of freedom. For me, subversion and subterfuge are the key words in Street Dance. How do you find freedom amid constraint? How do you find a way out from within contortion? One day, a very well-known dancer, Poe One, twisted his ankle in the middle of a performance. Instead of stopping, he decided to continue dancing. In an emergency, he succeeded in developing new gestures which, once his ankle had healed, enriched his choreographic vocabulary.
In our project, this marronnage is both visible and invisible. It is played out both on stage and behind the scenes. I wanted to slow down time; I wanted us to create a space for training, for raising awareness. I wanted us to be able to give certain dancers the opportunity to further our thinking alongside us. Our reflexions took us through an arc of 360° before we tackled the real business of the choreographic work, involving, for example, the participation of the historian Maboula Soumahoro, intellectuals Maxime Cervulle and Isabelle Launay as well as the choreographer Brigitte Massin, a specialist in Baroque dance.
How does this marronnage enrich your dialogue with the music of Rameau?
B.D.: I often say to dancers that we are not the servants of music and voice. We have to accommodate and dialogue with them as partners in creation. The forms and codes of Rameau’s music lend themselves to this dialogue, this search for freedom, this marronnage. Let’s take the example of the da capo form, which is omnipresent in Baroque music. It is a typical musical structure of the A-B-A type which exposes an initial idea, contrasts it with a second one before returning to the first, now modified by this progression. During one of the first rehearsals, I was working on a solo with one of the dancers. On the A motif, he was moving backwards and forwards in a form of spatial constraint: his trajectory was linear, guided by the music, following the lines of the voice and the flute like a shadow. The B motif allowed him to escape in a circular movement that was more engaged and extraverted. Finally, with the return of the A motif, the connection between the dancer, the music and the voice had changed. He had found his place. He was no longer constrained, he orchestrated it, he allowed himself to tell his story. Suddenly, it was as if it were he who was directing the voice and the flute, as if he had deviated from the path and found a way of crossing the boundaries that had limited his movement before. As if, through this corporeal memory, space had also become a place of freedom to be conquered.