Francois Chaignaud, dancer and singer, Sasha J. Blondeau, composer, and Hélène Giannecchini, author, form a golden triangle at the heart of the performance Cortèges. With the theme of uprisings, combining symphonic and electronic music, in an immersive setting set off and transformed live by Chaignaud, this intense opus brings a sumptuously mutant world to life.
From left to right: Sasha J. Blondeau ,François Chaignaud (© Laurent Poleo Garnier), Hélène Giannecchini
How did you meet
Sasha: We met at the ICE festival in Saint-Jean-du-Doigt, Brittany, in 2020. Hélène and I presented a reading of her novel Voir de ses propres yeux, set to music I had composed especially for this performance. Meanwhile, François, who I had never met before, was performing Symphonia Harmoniæ Cælestium Revelationum based on Hildegarde von Bingen's repertoire with Marie-Pierre Brébant. I was struck by his performance and in particular by the singularity of this dancing voice. We started talking and my interest in working with him quickly grew. The three of us had a lot of common experiences, both from an artistic point of view and from our personal and political lives.
François: This event, created by Patricia Allio, was a sort of magical place for our meeting. This small festival on the Breton coast gathers a community of artists who share a common commitment to experimental processes and live atypical lives. Adelphity is a prerequisite. Hélène, Sasha, and I talked to each other early on about our projects, our relationships with institutions, the ways in which we work, write, and rehearse, and the way in which our personal identities create a specific relationship with art, without necessarily defining it.
Hélène: We quickly established not only a professional relationship, but also a friendship. During the ICE festival, which also focuses on queer identities, we were able to talk openly and directly, cutting to the chase. One of the things we have in common is that we sometimes try to shift our practices. Collaborating with Sasha and François, for example, has transformed my way of writing.
What do you mean by "shift your practices"?
Sasha: I think it's about being displaced from our respective artistic subjects so that we can look at them—and therefore practice them—from a different place; from an outsider's perspective. The very act of integrating highly personal issues, without them being seen or heard in a literal way, with the necessity of not sticking to "institutional expectations", required this kind of shift.
François: I always work in collaboration with artists from dance or other disciplines, however I feel especially challenged in this project. I have already danced at the Philharmonie (Boléro with Les Siècles, co-choreographed by Dominique Brun), but then I was "only" a dancer, no sound came out of my mouth, and the dance-music relationship was therefore far more conventional. Here, speaking and singing, with and in front of the orchestra, is a new experience for me. This experience echoes years of hybrid practices between dance and singing, but which takes on a particular dimension, and which implies moving - professionally, and intimately.
What was your work method?
Sasha: We shared a number of artistic residencies together, notably at the Royaumont Foundation and in San Francisco, where we began imagining the project. We all have different time schedules. I work alone like Hélène, while François collaborates regularly with several people and develops his shows on stage. To create Cortèges, we agreed to deviate a little from our respective methodologies. And it is certainly this which makes the project so unique.
Hélène: I knew that uprisings, or processions, are a major issue in Sasha's work and meeting François was for me an obvious choice. I had these two elements in mind and I continued with my own method of working, namely writing with and from images. During our residency at the Villa Albertine in San Francisco, I had access to the extraordinary photographs of the GLBT Historical Society: photographs of parades, Pride, struggles, images of AIDS activists, snapshots of riots like the White Night in 1979. I then proposed a narrative arc centered on processions, on the multiple ways in which an individual can exist in a crowd. Then the text was constantly modified to fit our vision.
François: What strikes me is the coexistence of different temporalities in this work. While Sasha composed the entire orchestral and electronic score in the solitude of their studio, it was obvious that the work on my vocal and choreographic score could only be done in the studio as a team. I am not a trained singer, my relationship to the voice is empirical. So, in mid-April, we will start intensive work sessions to sculpt the parameters of my vocal score. We are working with a simulation recorded by the orchestra which will help me find physical reference points in the sound, and with which we will define the parameters and goals of my voice and my presence.
This is a totally new adventure for me. Until now, as a dancer and choreographer, I have always invited music for its historical or cultural dimension, as a way of letting ghosts inhabit our bodies. Here everything is alive in my dialogue with Sasha and Hélène. It is about our lives, our sweat, our stress, our present. It is overwhelming to achieve this synchronicity.
How do text, music, voice, and dance intertwine?
Sasha: There was a great deal of formal development work that started with discussions with Hélène and François, and then changed as Hélène wrote and as the transformations became necessary during our various residencies. Everything became intertwined over time. As this is a work for a large orchestra, I had to fix the time period when I wrote the score, but the vocal dimension is not yet totally fixed. We will have this freedom, new for me, to build a part of Cortèges on the stage, from the music already written but which still leaves a lot of room for voice and dance to find their place.
François: I have a great experience in dance but I have no academic musical training. It is with time, practice, and performances that I have improved my vocal technique in my own way through immersion. Sasha has developed a whole series of exercises or practices to undo my reflexes related to the wild practice of early music. It is like a kind of inception: Sasha programs my perception so that it can then guide my expression in the direction induced by the aesthetic and musical environment of the score. In this project, I see song and dance as powers that gradually build on Hélène's text and the orchestral situation. The possibility of pitch, rhythm, melody, and then gesture is like a conquest that provide rhythm to the progress of our processions!
What is the importance of the orchestra’s presence scattered throughout the space in which François will move?
Sasha: Of course, the particular arrangement of the orchestra serves both to echo the text, but also to displace, once again, this classical and familiar formation of the symphony orchestra to a place different from that which it most often inhabits. It is no longer quite an orchestra, already because the usual hierarchies are not respected, but especially to the extent that its fusion with electronics tends to create a hybrid form that is rooted in the multiple forms of the procession. François will penetrate it, and is the person who will traverse several states, as the procession and the orchestra are transformed.
The term "queer" is used like a label in this commission. Does it correspond to your approach and your objective?
François: There is a great temptation for institutions to use this term as a label, both frivolous and limiting. It's not really a word I use. What counts for me in this friendly and artistic alliance with Hélène and Sasha is staking our claim to the space in the Philharmonie through our intimate, identity-based—and therefore in a way political—stories. Music is often seen as a universal language and an easy way to repeat the same stories over and over again. Here, it is a question of connecting to the immense and magnificent power of the orchestra, the space of the Philharmonie, and the technologies of IRCAM in order to amplify the most personal movements of our lives: as if we were becoming aware of the power that this infrastructure represents, and of the possibility of connecting to it, of surfing on its flows. There is a kind of desire to appropriate this power in order to put it at the service of narratives, aspirations, textures and experiences that merge into our intimacy.
Hélène: The term "queer" is important, it has a history in which we recognize ourselves. But today it is often used without its political and subversive impact. In French, we sometimes use the term transpédégouine (lit. trans/fag/dyke) which is more direct and really describes what we want to designate. While our processions are proudly rooted in this power, they also call upon the memory of other struggles; we do not want to be restricted to one point.
How do the symphonic music and electronics interact?
Sasha: Orchestra and electronics are perfectly connected even though the sounds they produce are of radically different natures (acoustic instrumental sounds for the orchestra and synthetic sounds for the electronic part). By having part of the orchestra spatialized in the hall, in the same way that the loudspeakers are arranged around the audience, it is possible to write a piece that encompasses and merges the orchestra and the electronics so that you sometimes no longer know the difference between them. There are shifts in perspective, a bit like in a film, where you can see/hear these processions from different points of view. I tried to avoid being too demonstrative and make the technological aspect not just a novelty, a fashion to be promoted, but a way to blend the very way we think about the orchestra. One of the main issues of the piece also lies in the way in which the orchestra, the spoken voice, the song, and the dance come together. I didn't want to write a piece for orchestra and electronics, I wanted to write for something else, which is more than just adding them together and which experiments with François their mutual transmutations.
Interview with Rosita Boisseau, journalist
Photo : Cortèges © Audoin Desforges