In Paris, Using Dance to Uncover Hidden History

In Paris, Using Dance to Uncover Hidden History

Benjamin Millepied thinks big.

La Ville Dansée, a free festival of outdoor dance on Saturday, is the first large-scale initiative from Millepied’s Paris Dance Project. Starting at 11 in the morning and ending after midnight, it involves 12 choreographers and seven commissions; 10 neighborhoods in Paris and its outlying suburbs; podcasts, screenings and live streams.

The Paris Dance Project, which Millepied formed last year with Solenne du Haÿs Mascré, is not a dance company, but an organization that creates educational programs and accessible performances. La Ville Dansée (“the dancing city”), part of the Cultural Olympiad — a program of arts events around the Olympics — is its biggest splash yet, intended to show Paris and its environs not just as gorgeous settings for performance, but as places with hidden or forgotten histories.

Millepied returned to live in Paris last year after a decade spent mostly in Los Angeles. His last Parisian sojourn, 2014-2016, included a brief, contentious, term as the director of the Paris Opera Ballet, which he said provided some seeds for the idea of La Ville Dansée.

“I was running the best-funded institution in France, but only a fraction of society felt invited,” Millepied said in an interview in Paris in May. “It made me think about how much segregation there is, how people can have a very different experience in the same place. I decided we would commission works to tell the invisible stories of the city to gather people together who would never go to the theater, to build empathy and community.”

Millepied and du Haÿs Mascré gathered a small core team that included, unusually, a political theorist, Françoise Vergès, and a sociologist, Fabien Truong, as well as the dramaturg Christian Longchamp. Over months of weekly meetings, they discussed and identified sites for dance — some famous, like the Eiffel Tower and the Jardin du Luxembourg; others little known, like an abandoned supermarket in the town of Grigny and Saint-Bernard de la Chapelle, a church that was the site of a notable police raid on migrants in 1996.

Millepied researched and chose the diverse group of choreographers. Then came the logistics of raising money, getting permissions and coordinating technical teams across the city.

“I really wanted to invest in the city as a performance space,” Millepied said.

His first inspiration came from reading an article in The New York Times about the way Haitian debt had financed the Eiffel Tower, and he also knew he wanted to work in the suburbs that housed lower-income and migrant populations.

But “you can’t just show up and put on a show,” he said. “You have to come with some humility and respect, and knowledge.” He met Truong through his brother, a sociologist, and contacted Vergès after reading her book, “Decolonizing the Museum.” “I wouldn’t work without them if I were to venture anywhere with arts projects in spaces that are too far from my own experience of life,” Millepied said.

He picked choreographers he admired “and felt had a history with or relationship to each site,” like the Moroccan choreographer Mohamed Lamqayssi for Grigny, home to diverse immigrant populations; the Mozambican Idio Chivava for a work on the roof of the Philharmonie de Paris that focuses on sound; and the Haitian choreographer Kettly Noël, who will perform a duo with Thierno Thioune near the Eiffel Tower.

And he asked the American choreographer Madeline Hollander to make a film at the Stade de France, the huge sports stadium in St. Denis on the northern perimeter of Paris, because of “her curiosity and empathy.”

Sometimes, he said, “there is so much hidden violence in the things you walk past every day.”

“This is a form of writing through dance, through the body, making the body the pen,” said Vergès, a distinguished senior fellow at University College London.

To find the sites, each team member brought ideas and historical research to the weekly meetings. Vergès suggested the Presence Africaine bookstore, established in 1947 in the Fifth Arrondissement, “because it brought the African continent to Paris, saying, ‘We have a culture, we have a story.’” Sandra Sainte Rose Fanchine, from Guadeloupe, is presenting a work there based on New Orleans parades, featuring 30 women of color.

Vergès also proposed the Place Maubert, at one stage heavily populated by immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. “Ho Chi Minh settled in Paris around 1919, but this is almost forgotten” she said. Emmanuelle Huynh, a French choreographer of Vietnamese descent, will create a work there.

After the sites were chosen, Vergès said, the team condensed their ideas about the history of each site into one paragraph for each choreographer. “Then it was up to them how they wanted to bring that forth,” she said.

Putting the day together was “incredibly complicated,” said Du Haÿs Mascré, a former production director at La Seine Musicale in Paris. “It involved five different municipalities, several regional departments, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the city of Paris and numerous cultural institutions and private partners.” There was also, she added, the question of additional security amid preparations for the Olympics.

The $870,000 budget came in equal measures from the public and private sectors, she said.

“You are effectively producing a show in each of the 10 sites,” she said. “In each place we have a specific team who have worked with the community; you can’t just drop in, it has to be an ongoing dialogue.”

One chosen site, the Stade de France, was being renovated for the Olympics. But Millepied and Du Hays Mascré obtained access to the rooftop and asked Hollander to make a film there, since it was an impractical place for an audience. “Daunted and excited,” Hollander said, she began to think about the history of games at the stadium — “FIFA, two rugby world cups, the 2015 game when there were terrorist attacks” across Paris — and to create a timeline of sports photography from 1998 to the present, taken at matches there.

Five hundred images “of these very high energy moments” became the score for the choreography of her rooftop film. “I thought a lot about how imagery really does sculpt our memories and histories,” she said.

Other choreographers delved into the history of their sites. Lamqayssi, working in Grigny, was inspired when he learned that quarries there provided stone to build the Paris Metro. “Grigny is marginalized and poor, a hub for immigrants, but it contributed to building big, beautiful Paris,” he said.

The Haitian-born Noël, whose work will have the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop, said the duet she has created makes oblique references to Haiti’s stolen resources. But mostly, she said: “I hope meanings will emerge from our bodies.”

Public performance, she added “is a way to democratize dance, make it available. Lots of people think dance is only for an elite — even those who actually dance in real life.”

La Ville Dansée

Can be live-streamed on and on the Paris Dance Project’s TikTok and Instagram accounts.

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