I have wanted to write this post to publicly address a challenge which has been at the heart of the exploratory process whilst making The Monocle.
In a world where creativity, lived experience and belonging are expected to live side by side to develop authentic and genuine Art, I always wondered whether I was allowed to make a dance piece like The Monocle.
What inspired the Monocle?
Looking for a story/theme/concept to develop a production is not an easy task and we know about creators whose repertoire of cultural products can sometimes be spread over long periods of silence (American film director Terrence Malick. wouldn't return to direct a movie for 20 years after making Days of Heaven in 1978), I don’t believe that an artist can pick any concept and turn it into Art that easily. Some artists say the concept/story/theme picks you. And when it happens to you, you KNOW it, the making of the work becomes an urgency, this is what happened to me with the idea for The Monocle.
The making of this work was such a big process for the Rendez-Vous team and myself as it was informed by many factors (pieces of personal history, artistic interest, identification) that it's difficult to name a single source of inspiration.
I believe at this point it is important for me to share a little about my story.
As a gay boy growing up in the French countryside, my parents’ education values aligned with a hetero cis-normative Christian heritage. This was the way! I was always the strange boy, the one who kicks a football with pointed toes, the lonely boy who can’t connect with Middle School pupils, the “fag”. Nowhere felt safe, even worse, everywhere felt dangerous. I was admitted at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris in 2001. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of belonging: a space of safe exploration was opening in front of my eyes, and I could finally grow as the man I secretly aspired to become. All sorts of fascinating beings were invited to develop their identities at the Conservatoire, but outside of those safe walls, the world remained a place of vulnerability resulting in a muted version of my self-expression. Paris, territory of fear, extravagance, and adventures, I emancipated myself in Le Marais, LGBTQIA+ district quarter, constantly challenging a perception of a world in which I thought I was unfit to exist in freely and safely. In Le Marais, I would see men and women holding each other hands, drag artists walking freely in the streets and enjoy the freedom to navigate from bar-to-bar meeting different communities. I recall such an exciting and unsettling sensation to wander amongst those wonderful creatures.
I am passionate about LGBTQIA+ history and about my French Heritage, my curiosity is endless and translates into scavenging through the cracks of the history that we are being told. Sadly, I often find myself in a position to state that our common history resonates with our present. We can only avoid for history to repeat itself when memory is kept alive and who better than the Artist to hold this responsibility. When discovering about The Monocle and its mysterious closure in June 1941 with the Nazi Occupation of Paris, I couldn’t disconnect this story from the most recent dramatic events (Pulse’s shooting in Orlando in 2016, Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs, London Pub in Oslo in 2022 and the Two Brewers stabbings in London in 2023): The Monocle became then a necessary story to tell.
In an effort to submerge myself within the world of The Monocle, I found inspiration in important readings: Frede by Denis Cosnard, Natalie Clifford Barney’s New Thoughts of the Amazon, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, The Secret Paris of the 30’s by Brassai, A History of Homosexuality in Europe: Berlin, London, Paris 1919-1939 by Florence Tamagne, Suzy Solidor’s songs to name a few.
The journey I invite my team to delve in begins with the important gesture of surrendering and humbling down to the story, resist the editorial input, celebrate authenticity within our role as story tellers. It therefore felt essential to enrich our dialogue with the work through essential conversations with cherished guest consultants. The Monocle creation was supported by long term collaborator in their capacity as dramaturg Andrew Gardiner, but also through conversations with LGBTQIA+ connoisseur with lived experience Hedley Sugar Wells and Florence Tamagne, French historian specialized in LGBTQIA+ history in Western Europe in the early 20h century.
The two first questions we ask ourselves as a team when making a new work are the following; why is it important to us to make this performance? Why should the audience care about this story?
Beyond the personal curiosity, I truly believe that the story of The Monocle is an important testimony on what is a safe space and what it means to all of us. The Monocle allows us to reflect on our shared contemporary story and addresses our social construct with a universal resonance.
What worries you about being a cis-male choreographer who choreographed a piece about a lesbian bar?
There is a great danger in division. As an openly gay man I consider myself part of a wider community which can only celebrate itself for its diversity and inclusivity values. I am proud to belong to this community only because it defines itself by the combination of its many colors and I believe that tightening up its diverse communities into isolated groups demolishes the founding values of our need to walk together. Despite differences in experiences, it's important to stand united as a queer community and remind ourselves that our identities intersect and overlap, creating a diverse tapestry of experiences. Embracing and celebrating this diversity strengthens our collective power and deepens our understanding of each other.
My greatest fear about being a white gay man telling this particular story was that someday, someone would decide to attend a performance of The Monocle because they saw themselves in it, and would feel some sense of visibility, belonging, representation...and then, when comes the end of the performance and I join the team on stage for our final bow, they would discover my background and would feel disappointed, maybe even betrayed by a white gay man person presenting a story that doesn't belong to them. Or that, the piece would then land in the world of cultural appropriation as I would impose the “male gaze” on a female story and include harmful representation choices that I wouldn't catch, because to me they'd be impossible to understand or acknowledge.
I have been obsessed with this worry. Do I have the right to tell this story? Is this cultural theft? Will I be doing more harm than good? Am I taking some other maker’s spot?
In reality, none of those questions can be answered easily or by myself alone. What is easy to say right now is that I decided to make the performance, rather than not make it. I think my decision to engage with the creation of the work came down to this: while the characters' backgrounds are different from my own, the essence of the story I was trying to tell is about the cultural and social construct of our space. And that is something I do know, experience every day and want to talk about.
After sharing the concept and the story with dramaturg Andrew Gardiner, we knew immediately that as storyteller, I came with limitations to my experience (the white cis-gay man assuming a privileged position within the LGBTQIA+ spectrum) and it was my responsibility to be as respectful, rigorous and thorough as we could in approaching the story of The Monocle. Somehow, I became the keys holder of this precious place and would approach the work as if I was entering a museum or a sacred site, with great care, respect and dignity. I had to protect the Monocle from my own limitations.
The making of The Monocle required for us as a team to gather a detailed understanding of the historical and social context of Paris in between the two wars, feeding our research with as much information as possible in books but also in conversations with collaborators with lived experience so that The Monocle's story could be told as holistically as possible. We've never cared so deeply about getting something right as we did this story. We questioned our choices again and again, invited different people to our process sharing, gathering important feedback to steer our creative direction towards an always more accurate and inclusive depiction of life.
I believe the worry I have also addresses the role, responsibilities and the craft of the artist in 2023. Before creating Rendez-Vous, I was a dancer for 15 years. I have worked across Europe as part of established companies and independent projects. As a dancer I was trained to find a sense of presence where my whole self could truthfully contribute to the “physicalisation” of a choreographer’s vision. My craft as an artist was to deliver an honest version of my intention so the dance could manifest with authenticity whether I could personally identify with the depicted narrative or not. The number of times I was asked to portray heteronormative love within binary narrative dynamics for the purpose of a production were countless, but this is where the work always fascinated me as an artist: I had to find a sense of truth.
This is the only way I can consider my happiness within my research as a maker. I don’t consider the maker’s creative gesture to have to systematically be autobiographical to be right. I actually think that I could comfortably position myself at the extreme opposite side of the spectrum regarding this statement. When making work, all I care about is erasing my ego: I moved away from the stage because the light had to be shined differently. I think the frame within which artists can explore is as wide as they want it to be. What matters to me is the process which must involve an act of surrender, grace and respect.
By making The Monocle my intention has always been to celebrate and give visibility. I now feel a better man because I educated myself about lesbian history, listened to their stories, and engaged in conversations to create in depth understanding. By doing so, I have wanted to contribute to the broader movement for LGBTQIA+ equity and right of representation and visibility. The Monocle was a unique opportunity to foster an environment where love transcends differences, creating a space where everyone feels seen, valued, and embraced. Love becomes a powerful catalyst for positive change and a testament to the strength that comes from unity within the LGBTQIA+ community. To bring my reflective thoughts to a close for now, I will share that I may never know if I got it all right or wrong but I know I brought the best of myself to the effort