Ahead of her performance on Friday, Leah Caldeira and Jessica Walker interviewed Catherine Dénécy about the inspiration and processes behind her new work.
How do you feel about returning to LDIF and what is your perspective on the content of the programme? Are you excited? I am really happy and honoured to be back. I had been thrilled to present my very first work at LDIF 2013, and now, being invited again to present my newest (and second) work is so rewarding! I feel like this festival is really supporting my vision and allowing its expression. I am really thankful to Pawlet for that. Excited is an understatement! It means so much to me. I take it as a great responsibility to be the one jump-starting the adventure. This year’s festival is going to rock! So many amazing companies and artists celebrating dance together. I feel humbled to be the one welcoming the audience, and I will give my very best to lead the way to the others.
Could you give some background information on the concept of your performance, what it portrays? Mi-Chaud, Mi-Froid is inspired by the life and work of a Guadeloupean political leader Lucette Michaux-Chevry. It is the portrait of a Black woman who gave her life to allow Guadeloupean consciousness to access a state of majority and pride. She started her work at a time were the political status of Guadeloupe (department of France) and its lack of independence were weighting down on the whole population. She was also the first woman in Politics in France! She also was a woman who rose a lot of controversy on a social and cultural point of view, you either loved her or hated her, that was no middle ground possible with her. So this political figure inspired me in creating a fiction around the myth of a Black woman, her interaction with power, fame, responsibility and loneliness. I chose to use music and dance as a metaphor for politics, and surrounded myself with three amazing musicians (a bassist, a drummer and a DJ). In this performance I explore performing in all its beauty and challenges…. it really comes to my own fight, my own struggles and successes. At the end, music and dance is my politic.
As you are also speaking at the conference, what is your perspective on the challenges faced by Black women in dance in your nations France and Guadeloupe? Have you personally faced any challenges?
I am really happy to have been invited to speak at the conference and to share my point of view on my reality as a black woman in dance…today. As a French Guadeloupean, I face challenges in terms of access and legitimacy. Access, because Guadeloupe is France, but France is not Guadeloupe, so when a piece is created in Guadeloupe, like the one you will see, it is not automatic for it to have access to the stages in France. It should be, as French art should include Guadeloupean art! We are not an independent nation and sharing the cultural grounds with our “mother” nation should be done in an equal basis in terms of the value of the art…but it’s not. As of today, art products from Guadeloupe are still seen in France as “second-hand”, “less good”, “less professional”…etc.
It is a struggle I am facing every day and even with this project and the coming ones…
Then comes the struggle of the content…as guadeloupeans, we are creole, we live in the American continent, we are Europeans, we are French speakers and thinkers, we are, we are…so many things, but our political container (French department, dependency..) is too small for all of that! So we end up always having to break down our cultural identity, always having to fight for it, to try to get in the arts the legitimacy politics kept from us…. we try, we try, sometimes we succeed…but this limits our ability to have a broader perspective and ability to express our artistry. To know where you go you have to know where you are from…but we keep having to discuss on the later matter so it brings conflicts in the reception of our art in France and therefore in the world.
Where there any inspirations behind the piece you are performing?
Oh yes!! As I said before, I knew I wanted to talk about this woman, this “Dame de Fer “(woman of steel) of the Caribbean’s as she was called. But I knew I didn’t want to enter a political debate. It’s the power, struggles and the emotions behind what is takes to be that type of woman that interested me. So I went ahead and looked for other women like her to guide my creation. I found Tina Turner and Nina Simone. There were for me the black women in the arts and show business that were politically charging their work permanently. I used their materials to inspire the musical composition and the text that comes in the piece. They helped my bring universality to the conversation about strong black women no longer being prisoner and limited to the title of “angry Black women”.
Can you describe the music to us and how it relates to your dance? Where there any influences behind the choice of music?
The music is the Politic; there was something very political about the way we created it. With the bassist and drummer, it had to be a live exploration in order to show the power game that represent dancing on live music. Who is leading? Who is following? The choreographic writing was based on the bodies playing music facing the body dancing. But it also called for the important role of improvisation when portraying the relationships between music and dance from the perspective of the African diaspora. In that whelm, the story telling of dance and music comes from improvisation and I wanted to stay true to this. So I wrote the choreographic relationships between the musicians and me, but I also allowed the moments of spontaneity that music needs to be whole. The recorded music is also given its freedom as it is guided by a DJ, electronic musician who is present on stage, therefore the story telling that is written inside the musical score can also follow the reality of each performance. In a way, I consider it to be live music too.
For the choice of music, there was what we composed with the musicians that followed our immediate needs and inspirations, and also the influences of the black story tellers I chose to inspire the journey: Tina Turner, Nina Simone, Grand Master Flash…
I also chose to explore very different music genders, from jazz to pop, from hip-hop to trap music, from Afro-beat to Afro Caribbean…etc. I love the score of this piece; I am having so much fun discovering it over and over, can’t wait to share it with the English audience!
What were your biggest influences growing up whilst wanting to become a professional dancer?
Growing up and learning dance, my biggest influence was the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and its dancers. I owe my choice of becoming a professional dancer to that company and how it allowed me to imagine myself as a black woman in dance. The French companies were not inspiring me to this career as I was not seeing the black body celebrated, I was not seeing myself welcomed in the studio and on the stage. But the only existence of companies like Alvin Ailey changed my perspective and gave me the courage to go for the unknown. There would be plenty of other companies, that I would discover later on, that would support my resilience in working towards finding MY voice and my spot in the field. But I am glad that Ailey for known in Guadeloupe, and that the poster of a glorious black woman on stage doing “Cry” was welcoming me every day to class in the little dance studio I studied in as a child and teenager.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to become a professional dancer like yourself?
Love dance, do not fear pain, do not fear yourself, accept your body, understand who you are and were you are from. Find your god or its equivalent before going on stage, so you can grasp that the beauty of performing in bigger than you.
What’s next after LDIF? Any projects?
The piece will continue its touring next season, with shows in France and in the Caribbean’s.
I am part of another choreographic project as a performer, for Salia Sanou a burkinabese choreographer. The piece “Du Désir d’Horizons” will premiere in June in Paris, at Théatre de Chaillot, and will go on tour in Europe and Africa in the fall 2016 and winter 2017.
I am prepping for 2017 to start a collaboration with longtime friend and mentor Nora Chipaumire…but that’s another story to be continued …
I am also an actress, the second short film featuring my work will come out this June. Project for a TV series and a movie are on the way.