French Choreographer Bintou Dembélé Opens the Avignon Festival

In 2019, Bintou Dembélé, a hip-hop pioneer in France, became the first Black female choreographer to be hired by the Paris Opera. Two years later, during a residency in Chicago, she discovered an English word that has no equivalent in French: “tokenism.”

It helped her articulate what she “sensed but couldn’t yet grasp,” she said in an interview in Bagnolet, a suburb of Paris. Outwardly, all was well during and after her work at the Paris Opera on “Les Indes Galantes”: Her group of fierce dancers, performing a range of street and club styles like krump, electro and voguing, became a symbol of diversity at the heart of a venerable opera house.

Dembélé’s profile rose too. Invitations to contribute to screen and stage projects poured in, and this week, she opened the dance portion of the Avignon Festival, the most prestigious event on the French theater calendar, with her latest production, “G.R.O.O.V.E.”

Behind the scenes, though, her experience with the Paris Opera was bittersweet. Dembélé, 48, and her team “fought to get enough money to take care of the dancers,” she said. She also pushed to get them contracts for a documentary that was filmed during rehearsals and for them to be portrayed accurately. Worse, there was no ripple effect: Despite the recommendations of a landmark diversity report the Paris Opera commissioned in 2021, the institution hasn’t hired a single Black choreographer for an opera or ballet production since “Les Indes Galantes.”

“It’s a battle on so many fronts, it’s exhausting,” Dembélé said. In a phone interview, her friend Alice Diop, a French filmmaker who rose to international fame last year with “Saint Omer,” said Dembélé cares deeply about creating “a fair ecosystem,” and called her “one of the most ethical people I know.”

In some ways, “G.R.O.O.V.E,” a sprawling three-hour show that premiered in March at the Lille Opera, has been Dembélé’s answer to tokenism. It culminates in rousing excerpts from “Les Indes Galantes,” but prefaces them with a string of slow-moving scenes, outdoors then inside, that feel like a meditation on emancipation.

In Avignon, “G.R.O.O.V.E.” starts at a symbolic spot: in front of the city’s Papal Palace, the imposing site most identified with the event. Ushers then lead the audience to the nearby Avignon Opera, where three groups are formed. In different parts of the building, each group sees dance films inspired by the history of street styles; a ritualistic scene in which a dead body is hoisted aloft by a rope, and hovers above a campfire; and an intimate song-and-dance number led by the singer Célia Kameni.

“Through us,” Dembélé said, “the street moves into the opera house and subverts it.” Tiago Rodrigues, the new director of the Avignon Festival, said that was the reason he chose Dembélé to open this year’s edition: “It’s a show of the openness and spirit of diversity we want for the festival.”

Producing independent work like “G.R.O.O.V.E.,” Dembélé said, is also “a way of resisting” perfunctory attempts at inclusion in French institutions. Race and racism have long been taboo topics in France, with discussions of discrimination igniting culture wars in recent years. Just last week, the police shooting of a teenager, Nahel M., led to riots over the mistreatment of French minorities.

The history of French hip-hop mirrors the country’s unease around race. Since its quick rise in the 1980s, hip-hop has benefited from France’s state funding system for the arts and absorbed lessons from the more highbrow world of contemporary dance, from training techniques to expectations about dramaturgy. Yet hip-hop, Dembélé said, “has remained separate, in people’s minds, from ‘contemporary’ creation.” Instead, it fell under the umbrella of “urban dances,” a category that many consider reductive.

“There is a lot of talk about inclusion, yet an invisible wall remains,” Isabelle Launay, a dance historian who has collaborated with Dembélé, said in an interview. The experience of artists who are second-generation immigrants like Dembélé, Launay added, “reflects the way the republic treats children of immigrant communities in France,” pointing to the death of Nahel M. as an example of the consequences.

As a show of solidarity, Dembélé altered the introduction of “G.R.O.O.V.E.” in Avignon, with a group of artists, including Diop, paying tribute to Nahel M. “The anger isn’t new,” one of them said. “The tears aren’t new. The police violence isn’t new.”

Dembélé was struck by the differences between France and the United States during her three-month stay in Chicago in 2021, as part of a residency arranged by the French cultural program Villa Albertine. Despite America’s deep history of racial discrimination, celebrating Black artists’ identity seemed more acceptable there, she said. “There was so much respect and consideration,” Dembélé said. “I was immediately invited to the University of Chicago, whereas in France, we were perceived as a subculture for the longest time.”

Dembélé’s parents came from the Soninke community in Senegal, where they worked in peanut farming. After they immigrated to France, Dembélé was born in Brétigny-sur- Orge, a small town 19 miles from Paris. She grew up “listening to reggae,” she said, but dance came into her life through the small screen: Like many early hip-hop artists, she was instantly drawn to the moves shown in “H.I.P. H.O.P.,” a 1984 program about the budding style — and the first show on French television to have a Black host, known as Sidney.

She was just 9 then, and by her late teen years, she was making regular appearances with landmark French hip-hop crews like Aktuel Force. In the 1990s, Dembélé went everywhere hip-hop was: In addition to battles and festivals, she performed at nightclubs, on television and in commercial music videos. Eventually, injuries led her to re-evaluate her art and create productions of her own.

“There was an urgency to our need to come together, and a lot of self-destruction,” she said of hip-hop’s early days. “It’s beautiful to see someone turn on their head, but it is a very aggressive relationship to the floor.”

Dembélé, who created a collective, Rualité, in 2002, took to researching colonial history and what she calls “maroon thinking.” Historically, maroons were enslaved people of African origin who escaped from plantations and formed their own communities. Black artists who subvert existing hierarchies and tokenism to create freely are channeling that spirit, Dembélé said: “You have to find tricks, stratagems.”

Fostering community has been a central part of that process. To set up the 19 dancers from “Les Indes Galantes” for professional careers, Dembélé designed a one-year training program for them, Déter, alongside rehearsals for the production. In the low-income suburban neighborhood of Bagnolet where her collective is based, she offers a range of workshops, from krump to music and English lessons.

Back in Avignon, “G.R.O.O.V.E” is pushing that thinking with the backing of a powerful festival — and this time, on Dembélé’s terms. “We’re not contemporary dance,” she said. “That’s not our history. We have to allow ourselves to go back and forth between elite and popular culture.”


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