Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud on the intriguing harmonies of dancehall and polyphonic singing in DFS

DFS Centre Pompidou 2016 © Hervé Véronèse

Choreographers Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud have been collaborating for 13 years, creating experimental and innovative dance pieces whose variety and richness make them hard to classify.

The creative duo are presenting their UK premiere of DFS at Sadler’s Wells. For the piece, Cecilia travelled to Jamaica to learn from its culture and dance scene, while François studied the medieval vocal polyphonies.

From this unusual combination of different styles emerge a vibrant and unique clash of cultures, dance and rhythms. We asked Cecilia and François about their collaboration:

For DFS, you have been exploring Jamaican dancehall and traditional medieval chants. How did you come up with the idea of combining such different styles in one show?

Cecilia Bengolea (CB): Both dancehall and medieval polyphonies aspire to create unity through rhythm and harmonies. We feel that these practises have the ability to elevate our spirit.

François Chaignaud (FC): This combination doesn’t originate from a concept, what we share in DFS is a practice of very specific artistic expressions. They seem to have nothing in common, but in a way they do, since they both reflect different geographic, cultural and historical realities. Further in the process, we realised that dancehall and polyphonic singing are collective systems that aim to create magic vibrations and harmonies.

We sing polyphonic works from Guillaume de Machaut, a French composer from the 14th century. Those songs aren’t made for concerts in the western modern meaning – they are set up to share a poetic, musical and extra-terrestrial experience between the singers. I find interesting to compare them with the dancehall, which is also an art form that isn’t structured for a typical theatre setting.

I also find ironically intriguing to sing this repertory which is known to be one of the first musical and poetic expressions of courtly love. In other words, Machaut opened the way to centuries of artistic expressions obsessed with the theme of love between a man and a woman. At the same time, dancehall is also a gendered art form that often explores the dynamics between men and women on a sexual, sentimental, and economic level. Dancehall is sometimes criticised and perceived as a way to promote gender stereotypes or homophobic behaviours. It’s very fascinating to realise that artistic representations of straight love started with courtly love literature and music in the 14th century Europe.

DFS Centre Pompidou 2016 © Hervé Véronèse
DFS Centre Pompidou 2016 © Hervé Véronèse

Can you tell us a bit more about how this research has been developed?

CB: I have been travelling to Jamaica for the past 5 years to learn from its culture, as well as inviting dancers and artists from Jamaica to collaborate on various projects for theatres, galleries and videos. I consider dancehall as a magic dance style, able to heal the discontinuity of our experience of time.

FC: DFS is a practice piece. Most of us didn’t have much expertise in any of those styles, therefore most of the time has been spent by training in singing and dancing. The show reflects the whole process of transforming ourselves and learning something new.

You have been collaborating together since 2005 – what brought you together and what makes this bond so special?

CB: François and I met in a special moment of our lives, when both of us were discovering sex and work. Back then I was working as a stripper and I felt empathy with prostitutes who claimed for social rights. We met in Paris in 2004 at a manifestation for sex workers. Dancers and sex workers have things in common – they each work with pleasure, pain, body fluids, limits of the body – and we share so much dialogue and respect for each other’s views.

FC: Our connection started with a shared interest in the relation between sex work and dance. We examined how dance institutions are actually contributing to the discrimination of certain mindsets and practices, and how we can let our bodies overpass those boundaries to welcome different skills, gestures and expressions, while growing together and individually. I’m very thankful to my artistic and human relation with Cecilia, which allows me to be part of projects whose dimensions, textures and contents would be much smaller without it.

How has your style changed over the years?

FC: I come from an academic background, so both my technique and style have been continuously evolving over the time – by experimenting with new pieces and modern repertory, and by collaborating with voguing artists, musicians and visual designers. More recently, I have been interested in combining singing and dancing to develop a new musical expression. My last project with Nino Laisné led me to approach flamenco and some Spanish dance forms that radically changed my understanding of rhythm and musicality in dance. The same challenge reflects in DFS, where Damion BG Dancerz and Craig Black Eagle are also rhythmic virtuosos, but in a very different way.

DFS Centre Pompidou 2016 © Hervé Véronèse
DFS Centre Pompidou 2016 © Hervé Véronèse

You were commissioned by the Lyon Opera Ballet, Ballet de Lorraine and Pina Bausch’s TanzTheater Wuppertal. Tell us about your experiences of choreographing for such renowned dance companies?

FC: I cherish those big repertoire companies. I believe they have a very important role in the dance world. When you build a production as a freelance it is usually very hard to gather so many dancers with such a shared physicality and training. Those commissions are great opportunities for “fundamental” research. The piece for TanzTheater Wuppertal somehow opened the way for DFS as dance movements, expressions and vocals are combined and executed by all performers. I am now in the process of creating a performance for the 14 dancers of Carte Blanche, the Norwegian national company. It’s an amazing opportunity for me to explore the relation with medieval history, and to reach a more intimate connection between singing and dancing, since the soundscape is set to rhythms created by dancers’ vocals and stamping.

What is your vision for the future?

CB: I would like to produce more dancehall pieces directed by Jamaican choreographers, and continue to make videos and street performances.

FC: My dream is to feel free to create what I want to create, without being stuck into given categories and networks. I’m interested in cabaret as much as in major venues, I dream of creating dance for big ensembles, as much as performing alone.

DFS is at Sadler’s Wells on 23 & 24 April