texts and interviews > 09.2004 véronique doisneau - paris national opera

How did this work at the Opéra come to be planned?


Brigitte Lefèvre came to see me at the Théâtre des Abbesses at the end of one of the performances of Last Performance and told me that even if there had been very little dancing in this piece, what happened in it was very important for dance. I was very surprised, especially coming from someone who, as the director of the Ballet of the Opéra de Paris, symbolised academic tradition so much. I called her a few weeks later to say that, contrary to what people might think, I was very interested in classical ballet too. We had a meeting and I suggested several ideas for a piece. We finally agreed on the idea of Véronique Doisneau.


Is this interest in classical dance something new?


No. What attracts me in dance is its “language”. I haven't got a fixed taste for contemporary, hip hop or classical dance. Each style has its codes, its own signs and rules which form a language. The question for me is to know what classical language is for and what it means, (the best reply no doubt being William Forsythe's fantastic work). Well, classical, as its name suggests, is the oldest form of language. It's also the most recognisable and the most codified. As such it works in the same way as grammar: you apply the rules and suddenly it makes sense! It's this language dimension of classical dance that interests me. I can in my turn use it to “express myself”.


How do you envisage expressing this classical “linguistics” with the reflections on language and its signs that Roland Barthes and Ferdinand de Saussure have inspired in you?


It's precisely because of the theories of Saussure and Barthes that I can work with dance in this way. Dance in itself doesn't interest me as much as all that. What I find interesting is what it manages to say. I don't want to redefine, as Forsythe does, for example, what you call the “linguistics” of classical dance; I just want to lay it bare, to present it, by showing its rules and especially, the effects of its rules.


How would you situate this new stage in your research in the development of your choreography?


I don't know yet, but it's exciting to work with the history of dance or, let's say, with what the Opéra de Paris has preserved of dance history. Working on the past of dance through performance - that's to say, working on living pieces that for centuries have been passed on by dancers, and not on the vestiges of dance that have been found in books - is practically impossible. Only the Opéra de Paris and, I believe, three or four companies in other parts of the world make it possible. I'm hoping as well to repeat this experiment in the fields of music and theatre.


Why did you choose the dancer Véronique Doisneau?


Véronique Doisneau corresponds perfectly to this type of project. She is a “Sujet” in the Ballet's hierarchy, and dances solo as much as in the Corps de ballet. She therefore has an overall view of what this company is. All by herself, she synthesises all the situations that the dancers of the Ballet have experienced. She has interpreted different roles in all the great ballets in their repertoire and has worked with some of the most remarkable dancers and choreographers of the twentieth century. All that is very valuable and of immense richness. The history of dance fascinates me, but Véronique Doisneau knows much more about it than I do! In this project, I'm “directing” her, but she is the one with the knowledge and experience.


Why did you choose to work with only one dancer?


I chose a solo format because I wanted to “contrast” Véronique Doisneau to the Corps de Ballet as a company and an institution. I wanted to hear what she herself thought about the Opéra, her career and dancing. Her view is very subjective, but I feel this singularity is important. That's why I gave the piece her name, Véronique Doisneau, so that there was no misunderstanding.


What would you like to investigate through what Véronique Doisneau reveals to you: the life of a big company? the running of a big institution? the imagination and thinking of a choreographic tradition? how the repertoire originates and is passed on? the performances by the “classical corps”? the memory of a generation? ballet's legends?


As I knew little about ballet and even less about the Opéra de Paris, I decided to be like an ethnologist. I wanted to try to understand what sort of practices this kind of art has, the types of structures needed by such an institution, and so on. So I asked Véronique Doisneau thousands of questions and spent most of our “rehearsal” time discussing her experience and this world with its extremely particular laws, which I gradually began to pin down in the course of our conversations. I didn't have any particular plan apart from conducting this enquiry. The issues raised in this piece are Véronique Doisneau's preoccupations. It's about suffering and physical violence, the institution, the people she has met, her own limits, what she wants, about herself.


Is this way of working similar to what you have done in your other pieces?


No, not at all. Each production requires its own particular way of doing things.


How do you intend to stage the results of your dialogue?


In the simplest way possible: in thirty minutes Véronique Doisneau “tells” the audience about her life as a dancer and “dances” it.


So together you have created a narrative about Véronique Doisneau's life at the heart of the Ballet? Have you decided to go more deeply into a few elements in your dialogue or, on the contrary, have you taken a more overall approach to it in all its diversity?


Sadly, we had to be selective, because the piece couldn't be more than thirty minutes long, whereas Véronique Doisneau's career would have made it possible to look at other subjects linked to other experiences. So we just looked at the main elements of her career and the main people who influenced it.


So, dancing will be present in this piece. This is new in your work which until now has been guided by “anti-dance” concepts. How did you come to this decision?


I categorically refuse to accept the qualifier “anti-dance”. It's totally absurd. It's something a lazy uncultured journalist has come up with. My work is not anti anything at all, or rather, it is. My work is anti-prostitution and anti-ideological! It simply proposes another way of looking at dance, but it's not against it. So there will indeed be a lot of dancing in this piece compared to my usual work because the subject is a dancer.


What will Véronique Doisneau be dancing?


Véronique Doisneau doesn't consider herself to be a contemporary dancer. Where she feels at her best is on her points. She's going to interpret an extract of a piece by Merce Cunningham who she enjoyed working with immensely. But her other choices are mainly classical ones: among others, there's a variation from La Bayadère , and some extracts from Swan Lake and Giselle.


Your stagecraft brings to the fore a principle of “non performance” and “non volition” in the actor's performance, a principle which makes it possible to keep any showy or spectacular aspects at a distance. In what way do you intend to associate this with the sort of interpretation required by these extracts?


The “non performance” principle doesn't systematically apply to all my ideas. Here it's not possible, obviously, since classical dance requires great virtuosity and extraordinary commitment from the performers. However, the dancing will be done without any of the elements that usually surround it: music, costumes, lighting, partners and scenery. This type of presentation will, I hope, conserve the reflective distance which, it is true, is the main interest of my work so far.


How will you approach that showplace par excellence, the Palais Garnier?


‘Showiness' is not the exclusive reserve of the Palais Garnier! Personally I'm not really interested in it and if sometimes I give way to it, it's often so as all the better to criticise it.


Your “minimalist” pieces, which - not without humour or irony - seek to reach a “zero point” of choreography, are for you a means to question the function of art beyond labels and definitions. How do you envisage this deconstruction work in Véronique Doisneau?


My work is to look at different issues concerning the Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris and not to pass judgement. I present on stage the life of one of the dancers in the company, and I show that this life - like all other lives, for that matter - has encountered joy, disillusion or indifference. This person is part of a structure which allows her to practise her art, but which also alienates her. I'm not an idealist and I know that there is a price to pay for everything. But the question is precisely to know what that price is. What is the “necessary evil” in this operation?


How do you show these issues on stage?


What Véronique Doisneau says is explicit and it is confirmed by the structures of the ballets that she dances.


What have you discovered on this “ethnological” journey to the centre of the Ballet de l'Opéra?


I've discovered how the very structure of the ballets accounts totally for the social organisation perpetuated by the Opéra de Paris. The Ballet de l'Opéra maintains a repertoire that covers several centuries. It's exciting to understand that the way society is represented can be seen in the repertoire's works of each period in which they came into being...


How do you link the repertoire's social and political history with the way you yourself see the dancing of today? What you say seems to turn more specifically here on the relationship between the individual and structure and on how aesthetics permeates the perception of the social and vice versa.


Yes, because what I'm interested in is how the individual relates to the social structure he belongs to and how the performer does to choreographic structure. I repeat, it's the relation between politics and art, between real life and performance. How these two entities interplay, how art reflects society or how art produces tools, if not to make society develop, at any rate to make it think.


Your work is to a certain extent at the crossroads between “poor art” and “artist's theatre”. In this there is something akin to a search for another sort of theatre - in this case, another sort of choreographic practice - which is capable of drawing up a new “social contract” with the public.


The public is what I call the “third unknown”, the first being the author, and the second the performer or performers. Well; before the 22 nd September, the date of the first performance, I have no idea what it's reactions will be, because it's the first time I've worked in this theatre. The public, obviously, is very important for me. I try to be an artist in touch with society and the idea of the artist in his ivory tower is a romantic stereotype which is no longer defensible nowadays. That's why I really try to push the people watching my pieces to think for themselves. I'm not trying to appeal to or fascinate them, even less to dominate them by manipulating them, as most of my colleagues do.


This thinking for oneself, which you mention, brings the audience's capacity for criticism of culture and its practices to the fore. Do you think that the Opéra public, who is often fond of and loyal to the artists of the Ballet and the works they perform, will accept the tension arising from the distance that you introduce into theatre conventions between the performance and the audience, or the artists and their admirers? The experimental and subjective approach to the stage that you suggest seems to be a bit of a gamble at the Palais Garnier.


I don't know. It's the first time I've done a piece for the Opéra de Paris. But I trust the director of the Ballet who invited me to come and work there. She must consider that my work would be acceptable to this public which, in actual fact, I don't know.


For the second time now, one of your pieces is going to become part of a theatre's repertoire. How do you see its future?


One of my pieces, The Show Must Go On , has been on the repertoire of the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg for four years. It's difficult for me to take responsibility for it because, as I can't be in Hamburg for all the performances, the piece is not on its best form...The fact that I live in Paris means that I will able to be there more often for Véronique Doisneau. However, as its name shows, no one else will be able to alter this piece because it's made to measure for one dancer in particular. It's haute couture. It's true, even so, that from now on there is a set-up which could be used again -and why not? -for another dancer who would give their name to the piece and which would also be a personal view of their career and dance: it would thus be a completely new piece.


This piece, which examines the history and memory of the Ballet, could thus become, in the chain of secular transmission, a sort of stimulus, an invitation to dancers to look with new eyes at the role their art plays today in live performance?


I hadn't thought of that at all… Yes, obviously it would be wonderful if the piece could become a tool for them to think about their art, which would be activated subjectively each time by a new interpreter.


In your pieces you enhance the uniqueness of the person while at the same time having recourse to an aesthetic without any contrivances. This is also the case for Véronique Doisneau. Do you give a poetic dimension to this process?


I hope so! The dancer baring her soul cannot leave anyone feeling indifferent.