In 2019, French hip-hop pioneer Bintou Dembele became the first black female choreographer hired by the Paris Opera. Two years later, during her sojourn in Chicago, she discovered the English word “tokenism”, which has no French equivalent.
In an interview in the Bagnolet suburb of Paris, she said it helped clarify “something I felt but didn’t yet understand.” On the surface, everything was going well for her during and after her work on Zand Gallant at the Paris Opera. Her fierce troupe of dancers became, in essence, a symbol of diversity, showcasing a variety of street and club styles such as crump, electro and voguing. A historic opera house.
Dembele’s popularity has also increased. Invitations to participate in film and stage projects flooded in, and this week, She graced the opening of the dance section of the Avignon Festivalthe most prestigious event on the French theatrical calendar, where her latest work, GROOVE, will be performed.
But behind the scenes, her experience at the Paris Opera was bittersweet. Dembele, 48, and her team “fought to make enough money to take care of the dancers,” she said. She also landed a contract for a documentary filmed during rehearsals, working to portray them accurately. Worse, there was no ripple effect. The Paris Opera has not hired a single black choreographer for an opera or ballet production since ‘Zand Gallant’, despite the recommendations of the groundbreaking diversity report commissioned by the Paris Opera in 2021. not.
“It’s exhausting to fight on so many fronts,” said Dembele. French director and friend Alice Diop, who rose to international fame last year with Saint-Omer, said in a telephone interview that Dembélé is deeply interested in building a “fair ecosystem”. called Dembele “one of the most ethical people I know.”
In a sense, Dembele’s answer to the mere existence of the three-hour mega-show GROOVE, which premiered at the Lille Opera in March. A rousing excerpt from “Zande Gallant” culminates in a series of slow-moving outdoor, then indoor scenes that feel like a meditation on liberation. Continue.
Avignon’s ‘GROOVE’ begins in an iconic location in front of the city centre. papal palace, an impressive place that most symbolizes this event. An usher then leads the audience to the nearby Avignon Opera House, where he is formed into three groups. At different parts of the building, each group will watch a dance film inspired by the history of street style. A ceremonial scene in which a corpse is hoisted with ropes and floats above a campfire. and an intimate song-and-dance number led by singer Celia Kameni.
“Through us, the street enters the Opera House and destroys it,” Dembele said. Avignon Festival’s new director, Tiago Rodríguez, said that’s why he chose Dembélé to open this year, saying: “It shows the spirit of openness and diversity we want for the festival.” .
Dembélé said that producing independent works like “GROOVE” is also “a way of resisting” the perfunctory attempts to be accepted into French educational institutions. Race and racism have long been taboo topics in France, and in recent years the debate over discrimination has sparked a culture war. Just last week, police shot dead teenager Neher M., sparking riots over abuses of minorities in France.
The history of hip-hop in France reflects the country’s anxieties over race. Since its rapid rise in the 1980s, hip-hop has benefited from France’s state funding of the arts and has absorbed lessons from the loftier contemporary dance world, from training techniques to expectations for dramaturgy. . But Dembele said hip-hop “remains disconnected from ‘modern’ creations in people’s minds.” Instead, it fell into the category of “urban dance,” a category many consider reductive.
“There is a lot to be said about inclusion, but there are still invisible walls,” dance historian Isabelle Launay, who worked with Dembele, said in an interview. Launay added that the experience of second-generation immigrant artists like Dembélé “reflects the way the republic treats the children of immigrant communities in France”, with the death of Nehel M. mentioned.
In a show of unity, Dembele changed the introduction of “GROOVE” in Avignon, with a group of artists including Diop paying tribute to Nehel M. “Anger is nothing new,” said one of them. “These tears are nothing new. Police violence is nothing new.”
Dembele was struck by the differences between France and America during a three-month stay in Chicago in 2021 as part of a residency organized by French cultural program Villa Albertine. She said it seemed more acceptable in America to celebrate the identity of black artists, despite America’s deep history of racism. “There was so much respect and care,” Dembele said. “I was immediately invited to the University of Chicago, but for a long time in France we were perceived as a subculture.”
Dembele’s parents hail from the Soninke community in Senegal, where they worked as peanut farmers. After moving to France, Dembélé was born in Brittigny-sur-Orge, a small town 30 miles from Paris. Although she grew up “listening to reggae,” dance entered her life through the small screen. Like many early hip-hop artists, she was instantly captivated by her moves on the up-and-coming hip-hop show HIPHOP in 1984. Style — and the first French TV show to feature a black host known as Sidney.
She was just nine years old at the time, and by her late teens, she was making regular appearances with landmark French hip-hop crews like Actuel Force. In the 1990s, Dembele went wherever there was hip-hop. In addition to battles and festivals, she has also performed in nightclubs, television, commercials her music her videos. Ultimately, her injury prompted her to reassess her art and create her own work.
“We had an urgent need to unite and there was a lot of self-sabotage,” she said of hip-hop’s early days. “It’s beautiful to see someone flip over, but it’s a very aggressive relationship to the floor.”
Dembélé, who founded the collective “Ruarite” in 2002, has engaged in the study of colonial history and what she calls “maroon thinking.” Historically, maroons were enslaved peoples of African origin who fled plantations and formed their own communities. Dembélé says that black artists who break free from existing hierarchies and stereotypes to create freely convey that spirit. “You have to find tricks and tricks.”
Community development was a central part of that process. To prepare her 19 dancers of “Zand Gallant” for their professional careers, Dembélé, in parallel with the rehearsals for the performances, gave them a year of training in his program “Detel”. ” was planned. Her collective is based in the low-income suburb of Bagnolet, which offers workshops ranging from clamps to music to English lessons.
Back in Avignon, GROOVE is pushing the idea with strong festival backing – and this time on Dembele terms. “We are not contemporary dance,” she said. “It’s not our history. We have to allow ourselves to move back and forth between elite culture and popular culture.”