“Black & White” at The McCallum Theatre’s Choreography Festival — 5 Questions with Choreographer Manuel Vignoulle
PHOTO DISCLAIMER: Please note that this article has images that contain nudity. Dancers featured in these photographs appear topless, as it is integral to the presentation of the work’s choreographic vision.
The McCallum Theatre’s influential annual dance program, The Choreography Festival, will return for its twentieth edition this weekend, with the Palm Desert, California Festival’s Professional Program on Saturday, November 11 at 7pm and the Pre-professional program on Sunday, November 12 at 4pm. One of the performances on Saturday’s program is an intensely thoughtful duet choreographed by French choreographer Manuel Vignoulle. The work is entitled Black & White, and Vignoulle performs in the work alongside Rena Butler.
In Vignoulle’s case though, perspective is also a product of inner vision, and Black and White is a vivid demonstration of that.
If perspective is what you can see from looking at something from different places, it’s no wonder that Vignoulle’s choreography is so rich in it; he’s been a lot of different places. Since his training at the prestigious Conservatoire National Supérieur de Danse de Paris, through a successful performance career in Europe and North America, and into his impressive transition to independent choreographer, Vignoulle has seen a lot, and from a lot of different angles. In Vignoulle’s case though, perspective is also a product of inner vision, and Black and White is a vivid demonstration of that. DancerMusic asked Manuel to share with us some of the details about what the audience at The McCallum Theatre will see when he and Rena Butler perform there, and here’s what he told us —
Johnny Nevin: Can you tell us a little about how you developed Black & White? When did you first begin thinking about the ideas that led to Black & White, or did the idea develop more after you actually began on the work?
The idea of creating Black & White emerged from my many discussions with Rena. I just wanted to express my opinion and point of view without being political, always staying poetic on this crucial matter. I trust that what you can communicate through a dance is worth thousands of words.
Manuel Vignoulle: Being European myself, and also being in a relationship with an African American woman, Rena Butler, I have slowly developed a better understanding of American history, and in particular of slavery and its huge impact on current American society. As colonialism is a big part of European history, I can relate a bit to American history, but there is still such an important gap, and so much misunderstanding and mis-appreciation between black and white people, or people of different ethnic groups, in the States and in the world. The idea of creating Black & White emerged from my many discussions with Rena. I just wanted to express my opinion and point of view without being political, always staying poetic on this crucial matter. I trust that what you can communicate through a dance is worth thousands of words.
… we will gain more things, and will grow in wonderfully unexpected ways, adding more cultures to our own, more colors to our own …
I am a dreamer and I believe in humanity, and in equality between human beings, and between genders. I feel that in Black &White, we could be a kind of “Romeo & Juliet”, except that no one is going to be killed and no one will kill anyone. The idea is actually just the opposite of that — it’s that, through a deeper understanding, our differences won’t cause us to lose anything. On the contrary, we will gain more things, and will grow in wonderfully unexpected ways, adding more cultures to our own, more colors to our own. With Black & White, I would love to be able to open a window into people’s mind and allow them to see things from a different point of view, from a place of gaining something rather than losing anything, from a place of human growth.
Johnny: Sometimes you choreograph to more lyrical, melodic scores, but it seems that you often choose edgier, more electronic soundscape kinds of scores. What is the score for Black & White? Did you have that music before you began the piece, or did you find it after developing some of the movement?
The music always has such a huge influence and impact on my choreography — it often gives the temperature and the color of the work.
Manuel: I used some music from the Riceboy Sleeps album by Riceboy Sleeps. I loved the whole album and played it over and over during our rehearsal time. It really gave the right atmosphere, and the right spirit for the piece. The music always has such a huge influence and impact on my choreography — it often gives the temperature and the color of the work. I had “Boy 1904” in mind, an atmospheric track with angel voices, to give a spiritual direction to the work. I always think that mixing two different energies is something sacred, something to be honored and celebrated.
As far as developing the movement goes, I started the duet by creating a dance phrase, bowing to the Universe, recognizing that we are simply humans, powerful but also powerless. We start as mirror images, as we are a mirror to one another. Then we come closer to each other, facing the same “Higher Power”. Ultimately, we come together, mixing both of our energies and sharing our strength and vulnerability.
I wanted to break free from stereotypes about femininity and masculinity, break free from the any idea that the woman is supposed to be fragile, dependent, needy, or the man is supposed to be strong, the protector and always in charge. I wanted to find the right balance between giving and taking, a balance of receiving equally. That was why I asked Rena if she would agree to dance topless, as I was also topless — I wanted to show our differences in an equal manner, with no shame or judgment. There is meant to be an almost sculptural aspect to this.
Johnny: You’ve choreographed a number of really engaging duets in addition to your larger ensemble works. Is Black & White different because you’re also dancing in it with Rena Butler?
Even though it was very important for me to write it choreographically myself, Rena definitely influenced the work by her presence, her person, her athletic physique, her fearlessness in trying things, her ability to lift me, but also by her sensuality and her hypnotic, watery quality.
Initially, we did a nine minute draft that we presented in a New York Dance Festival in May 2015. Even though the work could could have stood on its own this way, I really wanted to complete the whole vision that I had in mind. So in 2016, we went back in the studio to create a twenty-one minute work, adding a first and a third part to what already existed. I used other music tracks from the same album, so that I could keep a consistent, natural flow.
As far as the piece itself goes, the first part is raw, with both of us dancing only in underwear. I wanted us to be very vulnerable and true; each one being isolated in their own world, their own turmoil. The second part gets warmer — we put on pants and it’s clear that we start feeling less separated, less disconnected in our loneliness, and in this section, we end up reaching out and connecting with the other. Finally, in the third part, we dress up. Rena wears a long white dress, but with an open back that still reveals her black skin. I put on a black suit, although my chest, still bare, reveals my white skin. It could be seen as a wedding, where each takes the color of the other, while staying true to themselves.
Rena definitely influenced the work by her presence, her person, her athletic physique, her fearlessness in trying things, her ability to lift me but also her sensuality and hypnotic watery quality.
After having the wonderful opportunity, thanks to Babs Case, of a second residency in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, we performed the whole work for the first time there. in June 2016. It was a blast! This duet really became the story of us. Even though it is not totally literal, a lot of ideas emerged from our conversations, from the feelings we experienced while struggling to understand one another, from the harmony we were able to create by our true love for each other in real life and in our dancing.
Johnny: You’ve been in the United States for several years now, but your career began in France and then in Geneva. Are there cultural differences in the dance scenes that you notice between working in North America and working in Europe?
Yes, there are definitely cultural differences in the Europe and North American dance scenes. I’ve lived in New York for almost 9 years now, so I am not quite so connected to Europe anymore, although when I arrived I had a contract with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, and I was essentially working with European choreographers.
I would say that the American dance scene is changing with the influence of European choreographers, and with the emergence of the Internet where you can discover artists from all over the world. For a while, I thought that the American dance scene had a harder time moving forward as there is less money and fewer opportunities for research and exploration. Everything has to be done and developed so fast because of money issues so that, in the end, the final product often suffers. But nowEurope is also struggling moneywise, so I’m not sure what the future will bring.
In the history of Dance, American Modern Dance influenced Europe’s dance scene, and nowadays European dance influences the American dance scene. It’s all about getting inspired by one another, by different styles of dance and by different cultures. The best way is to just take what you like, find whatever fusion you you think works, add your personal touch and vision and hopefully, you will inspire someone else to do so too. I like to think that, stone by stone, we all participate in creating the huge edifice of Dance.
All these different projects allow me to develop myself more as an artist, choreographer, director, and dancer, and they allow me to connect with other inspiring artists in the world.
Before talking about specific projects, I’d like to start out by talking about a desire to keep on developing three aspects in dance: First, the physicality. I love to see unreal things, risks taken and unexpected physical movements. I am always excited when physical boundaries are pushed, as long as doing so brings meaning or emotion. Second — our humanity, which creates so many emotions, and all the simple things that make us so normal, so human, so vulnerable and authentic. Then third, our connectivity. We need each other to evolve. I trust that somehow we are all connected, and the success of one is the window that opens a possibility of success for all.
As far as specific projects, I’m now creating a work on twenty-eight dancers of The Joffrey Ballet School in New York, and on eleven dancers of Greenwich Academy. I’m also experimenting in the studio with four wonderful artists, and developing new ideas for a future project in 2018. I will soon assist Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, one of my favorite choreographers, for a few weeks, on the revival “of Loin” on Introdans (Nederland). (He created the piece for us and we performed it many times when I was dancing with the Geneva Ballet in Switzerland, twelve years ago.) I will also be working in Goteborg, Sweden in May 2018 where I’ll be creating a new work for Adelphi University. All these different projects allow me to develop myself more as an artist, choreographer, director, and dancer, and they allow me to connect with other inspiring artists in the world.
Manuel Vignoulle’s Black & White will be performed by Vignoulle and Rena Butler at The Choreography Festival at The McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert, CA 92260. Tickets are available from The McCallum Theatre Box Office at (760) 340.ARTS (2787) or Toll Free at 866) 889.ARTS (2787) and online here.