What does it mean to be French? What does it mean to be an American, or a citizen of any ethnically and racially diverse nation in the 21st century?
French choreographer Pierre Rigal tackles this knotty theme in his latest work, “Standards.” Featuring eight hip-hop dancers, “Standards” will be performed one night only on Sunday, October 28, at the Rialto Center for the Arts as part of France-Atlanta 2012, a series of events promoting cooperation between France and the Southern United States.
“In this piece I try to show that defining a nationality is perhaps impossible to do,” Rigal said during a recent telephone interview from his home in Toulouse, France. “In France, the debate about national identity is becoming more and more important. It’s a difficult debate. I think the same is true in America. We try to avoid the differences, but also we like the differences. It’s something we cannot change; we have to learn to live together.”
The emergence of extreme right-wing groups in Europe and the United States, Rigal said, “also brings up questions of identity.” When his Compagnie Dernière Minute performs “Standards” in France, the sound montage includes an excerpt from a speech by former French President Charles de Gaulle. When they toured Germany, Rigal and his sound collaborator, Nihil Bordures, replaced de Gaulle with Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Here in Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech will be spliced into the soundtrack.
The use of the King speech “will make everybody think,” Rigal said in slightly halting, idiosyncratic English. “What is an American person? I like diversity of populations. It is complicated, fantastic, creates something very rich. But it is also very complex. I like to present the complexity of reality.”
Like many European choreographers, Rigal gives equal importance to theatrical elements in his work and likes to create a dialogue among sets, movement, light and sound.
The “Standards” set piece starts out as a simple dance floor. With creative high-tech lighting, it morphs into the blue, white and red stripes of the French flag and later becomes set drapery and even costumes. When it was suggested that Rigal replace the French flag with 13 stripes and 50 stars to make it more relevant for American audiences, he laughed. “The American flag,” he said, “is too complicated.”
Unlike many male dancers, Rigal didn’t start his career as the lone boy in his sister’s ballet class. He trained as an athlete in track and field, specializing in the 400-meter and 400-meter hurdles, and went on to study mathematics and economics in Barcelona, Spain. He graduated with a master’s degree in cinema and later made a living as a director of videos and documentaries. His transition to dance was influenced by several acclaimed European dance makers, and in 2002 he joined the troupe of Gilles Jobin, a cutting-edge, award-winning Swiss choreographer.
Rigal is now part of a robust dance scene, which is generously supported by the French government. His home base, Toulouse, is one of many French cities where contemporary modern dance attracts large audiences.
Compagnie Dernière Minute — “Last Minute Company,” so called because he decided on the name, well, at the last minute — has toured extensively in Europe and wowed audiences in Australia and Canada. It has made three previous stops in the United States: New York in 2007, Austin in 2009 and Atlanta in 2011, at the Rialto.
The night after this year’s Rialto performance, Rigal will move across town to the Goat Farm Arts Center to perform his signature solo, “The Standing Man.” He created the work in 2003 and has danced it 147 times since then, a good indication of its popularity.
In “Standing Man,” Rigal dances within a square of constantly pulsating colored light. Gradually he moves from supine to erect, from a floor dweller to homo erectus. In fact, the title of the work is usually “Érection,” with its multiple meanings, but it was changed for Atlanta.
(Because this performance too is part of France-Atlanta 2012, we asked the French Consulate why the title was changed. David Kibler, the consulate’s cultural attaché, said his predecessor proposed the change “to dissociate the title from any other meaning.” He added that “The Standing Man,” or “L’homme Debout,” has been used in the past as a subtitle.)
“This solo is primarily about the evolution of man,” Rigal explained. But, he added cheekily, “I am a boy, so the sexual element is there.”
“The Standing Man” will be presented in the Goat Farm’s Goodson Yard Performance Hall at 8:30 p.m. Monday, October 29. It’s the kickoff event of Tanz Farm, a performance series curated by gloATL founder and dance maker Lauri Stallings and Goat Farm impresario Anthony Harper.
“Standards” will be performed at the Rialto Center at 5 p.m. Sunday, October 28, followed by a public conversation with the artists. Tickets are available at www.rialtocenter.org or by calling 404-413-9849.
Compagnie Dernière Minute will take to the streets for a free performance in downtown Atlanta on Saturday, October 27, at 5 p.m. as part of the closing ceremony of Elevate Atlanta, a contemporary art series made possible by the Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs.