Cultural Recovery: A conversation with François Chaignaud

French choreographer, dancer and singer François Chaignaud is renowned for weaving together high and low culture, as well as for his versatility in disciplines of dance spanning traditional ballet to hip hop and Jamaican dub. Living and working in Paris, he is a master of cross-dressing and has built himself a stage persona that defies genders and categorisations.

Chaignaud has previously taken part in Oslo Internasjonale Teaterfestival – and if it only weren’t for the coronavirus, he would have presented his piece Radio Vinci Park this year. Due to the circumstances, we instead had a talk over the phone about how the previous year has been for him.

Where were you at when the world closed down?

When the first lockdown started in France, I had the opportunity to move to the seaside, so that's what I did. Looking back, I see the first lockdown as some kind of heaven: two months where everything was so different and special, and so locked. it was somehow not very stressful, as neither I nor anyone in my family have been sick. I experienced this first time of pandemic as a much easier and more inspiring moment than now.

At first, we thought this would open a new world, a new hope. Now, we see that the world seems to remain the same. It is harder and harder to imagine a change coming out of this.

During the first lockdown, I was isolated, but I kept very strong routines. I was training every day, and working every day, in creation with Akaji Maro. I played two performances in October, just in between the two lockdowns. Until January, I felt that I was very lucky, still being able to keep some activities ongoing.

In December, I was touring in Japan. As for now, I have not been in the same position as many other artists who have been working and then prevented from premiering with their work.

Akaji Maro and I were supposed to tour in Europe this spring, but everything just got cancelled. Quarantines and lack of anticipation turn touring into a tour-de-force!

What has been the most challenging for you during this time of pandemic?

Luckily, it hasn't been my health! That’s a very good thing. This whole situation is hard to analyze. I guess on a very materialistic level, we – the artists – have lost all visibility. While constantly having to change plans, postpone projects and performances, we lose faith a bit of what will really happen. I was lucky to perform in Japan for full houses, but it was so weird and so unreal that it felt like I was in another world. We were quarantined when we first arrived in Japan, but at that time it was not strict – we had a very nice time there.

Yesterday I went to a theater in Paris to watch a performance. It was a closed viewing for professionals only, yet the venue was almost packed. I had the weirdest sensation. During the past year, we have acknowledged the fact that culture and art are not considered as essential. We have not demonstrated against this, and most of the cultural field simply accepted that their places, spaces and venues were locked. I watched this performance, with Egyptian performers, which was supposed to be political. They tried to make us understand that what they did was vital – it was a dance piece seeking to affirm that dance is about survival. It was very questioning to attend to such a performance!

How do you think this pandemic will impact the art field? What kind of changes will it produce?

There are already so many changes we can see. The network was already very competitive and closed. I think the pandemic increased this, and led to more hierarchy between the artists, increasing inequalities, making it harder for dancers to get a job. It has already impacted a lot. Yesterday, watching this performance, I felt that there are many skills that might have been weakened. The most obvious is the performative skill. It can get lost and be transformed. There is much less real-life exchange from other places. This will also impact the practices and the level of the artistic skills. Obviously, this comes in an environment where many artists already were concerned about the circulation: how to continue touring regarding global warming, should we travel the world every year or stop travelling. Now, with all the restrictions, I feel that this change accelerates. My intuition is that less artists will travel – this won't stop the circulation of the performances, but it will increase inequalities between artists who can and cannot travel – and also lead to new ways of sharing your work. I thought people would take the train to get around, but now there are even artists who want to tour walking. They have a new relation to space, and new practices.

What do you think the art field needs in order to be well taken care of?

I think we should take care of the big variety in the arts field. During the pandemic, the government has taken a higher control on society. This has led to art being represented by institutions, which make us blind of so many situations, makers and artists who neither have access to nor the visibility to institutions. I feel that those who work within institutions are already the ones most protected regarding their status, as well as the ones taking fewer personal risks by making art.

Yesterday I was discussing this with my colleagues in my office. We should take special care of the newcomers in the field, make companies or groups of young dancers that could be supported, collaborate as performers or choreographers. Find a way to make it possible for young dancers to have opportunities – actually, not only the young ones; this is not only about age, but about people not so well positioned. The pandemic has made people so much weaker. Of course, I know it is the bigger structure that will have the bigger support. This will lead to increased inequalities and reject a lot of people from the field. Those who, for many reasons, are weakly positioned in the field, have very little support. Think about these people who are so vital in the general level of activity in the field.

Read more conversations about cultural recovery by clicking here.