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'In India I became in touch with the texture of life': French choreographer Gilles Chuyen

During his recent stay in Cairo, India-based French dancer and choreographer Gilles Chuyen spoke with Ahram Online about the Bollywood-style shows, Teamwork Arts, his own creative 'laboratory' In Step and passion for India

Ati Metwaly , Saturday 7 May 2016
Gilles Chuyen
Gilles Chuyen (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)
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The fourth edition of India by the Nile, a multidisciplinary arts festival, takes place between 23 April and 7 May, bringing a variety of Indian offerings to six cities: Cairo, Alexandria, Ismailia, Port Said, Sharm Al-Sheikh and Beni Sweif. The festival invites the audience to enjoy the many layers of India’s culture, this year presenting Odissi classical dance, an Indian Ocean fusion band as well as Indian cuisine and wellbeing exercises among many other elements.

But to many Egyptian followers of India’s films and TV series, the glimpse of Bollywood is the festival’s core attraction. Following its annual tradition, on 22 April, the Indian artists marked their arrival to Egypt with a Bollywood-style dance flash mob that took place at Cairo International Airport. The event was just a small teaser for the musical Bollywood Love Story, which was staged at the Cairo Opera House on 26-29 April and at the Alexandria Opera House on 3-4 May.

Produced and directed by Teamwork Arts (read the interview with the company’s head Sanjoy Roy here), the show is choreographed by the India-based French dancer Gilles Chuyen. It depicts two protagonists in love whose happiness is obstructed by a villain. As to be expected of a typical Bollywood-style fairy tale, love wins in the end, but on the way to the happy ending the spectator is offered a highly dynamic treat with rich costumes, sparkling colours and well-known songs from the Bollywood’s repertoire.

“We all know about the Bollywood film industry based in Mumbai (Bombay). As it developed over the past century, it also became a style of acting and dancing. However, the Teamwork Arts is based in Delhi. With musicals such as Love Story, we bring a sample of the Bollywood’s spirit to the stage. In those productions, we do not work with the film stars but rather we incorporate the well-known songs, dance and visuals into a storyline created by Sanjoy Roy himself,” choreographer Gilles Chuyen explains.

He adds that shows such as Love Story or the Bollywood Extravaganza (which was staged in Egypt last year) are the company’s “products for export. We do not really perform those musicals inside India, where people can see and experience Bollywood on a daily basis. Today, in India, people crave for other shows, those based on the contemporary dance for instance.”

Chuyen adds that Love Story too was performed in Egypt in 2014, during the second edition of India by the Nile. This year the storyline remains the same, but many of the songs, sets and costumes, as well as the cast including the narrator are new. Since 2008, the show has toured dozens of countries. Chuyen confirms that it is always received with great acclaim and enthusiasm regardless of the audience’s background. The same is true of Teamwork Arts’ newer production, the Bollywood Extravaganza musical.

Chuyen explains that “those shows allow people to dream again and get transformed, even if this takes place for a short while. You would notice how at the beginning of the show the audience is very calm and as the performance progresses, they stand up and even join in the dance. Shows like the Bollywood Love Story talk to their emotions and have a power to open up human expression. And the reason is very simple: in Bollywood, everything is bigger and louder than life and even if many of its elements might not make sense, it is exactly the kind of reverie that attracts the audience."

"If you decide to approach those shows with a very critical mind, reproving each element, maybe Bollywood is not the choice for you. They still speak to many people and cultures, help them open up and invite them to enjoy the experience, even if it is a short-lived one. On the other hand, those shows are simple celebrations of the India’s multilayered culture. Don’t forget that India is not an idea, it is an experience of the senses, from the smells to the colours, as well as the food, and much more. Bollywood and the shows we present find joy in that versatility; they celebrate this craziness of India.”

The more Chuyen talks of the Bollywood show, the more his eyes begin to shine with enthusiasm – for, to this French choreographer, these shows represent a part of his much more complex personality. The Bollywood-style dance is only a small fraction of his passion for movement as a liberating human expression. In our conversation, he soon reveals that dance represents one of the fundamental components of his wide creative, academic and spiritual journey. I discover that Chuyen’s life-story intertwines profound academia with a passion for life.

Gilles Chuyen
Gilles Chuyen in Bollywood Fusion, performance with the dancers from the Cairo Opera Ballet Company. 2013. (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

India’s adopted Frenchman

Born in France, Gilles Chuyen has many kinds of blood. With a grandfather from Vietnam – hence name Chuyen – he is “quarter French, quarter German, quarter Spanish and quarter Vietnamese”. He swiftly points to his family’s cultural background as the reason behind his fondness for Asia’s culture and history. Though he practises many aspects of creativity – painting and writing as well as dance – Chuyen stresses that he has always been particularly interested in dance.

“Since I was a small child, I danced in folkloric groups in the south of France where we lived. I would also try choreographing different tableaux with family and friends. I always enjoyed designing the dances and working with bigger groups.”

Though the dance played an important role in the young man’s life – he did ballet for more than ten years, explored other genres, touching on modern jazz, contemporary, etc – he cultivated this passion alongside his regular studies. For several years, he continued to divide his life between dance and the Institute of Political Studies at the Aix-Marseille III University. It was the latter faculty, he believed, that could help him understand the world. And though the academia provided knowledge, to Chuyen it also opened an even wider territory of questions about life and spirituality.

As Chuyen explains, those questions directed him to many readings and “once you explore life you will automatically find yourself in the literature of India. It is a country that gives you a wealth of knowledge and truth. I found that in India, there are many perspectives on life, each fascinating and deeply enriching.” Chuyen completed his university and MA in political science in France and received a scholarship to proceed with a PhD in India, where he wanted to do a field work.

“At this stage, I was already leaning towards a mix between political science and sort of political anthropology. My PhD thesis was titled Who is a Brahmin? The Politics of Identity in India and the book that I published afterwards revolved around the understanding of the connection between politics and religion in India, with the caste system being an essential part of my work focusing on Brahmins.”

Chuyen adds that the four years of his PhD studies allowed him to go deeper into the essence of India and its complex society. “It was a fascinating journey, one that cannot be achieved when you are a tourist. India offers many images but it needs time to decipher the messages hidden within them.”

Chuyen compares those “hidden messages” to the mudrahs (hand gestures) and abhinayas (face expressions) practiced in India’s classical dance forms. Both components have a charismatic appearance yet at the same time they are profound encodings of meanings and centuries of cultural philosophy. And it is in this context that Chuyen expresses how lucky he feels to have been able to develop knowledge of India first from an academic and intellectual point of view.

While completing his academic mission, Chuyen also came to the realisation that “my artistic and spiritual journey finally merged and dance became the core of that matter. I felt I finally found myself as I was ready to incorporate all those new experiences into a creative practice.” In an interview published a few years back Chuyen recalled those days expressing, “I got the courage to make the shift, from saying ‘I dance’ to saying ‘I am a dancer’. I was in my 30s and I’d had enough of reading and writing.”

As he indulged in the dance, he also understood that dance was not about the steps, but about the energy, the rasa (which in Indian aesthetics denotes a mental state). "It is when the dancer who enters a certain mood, connects to the emotions and his own energy. This notion of energy travels from the dancer to the audience and back to the performer. It is in fact one of the core elements of India’s classical dance theory.”

Chuyen further explains the concept pointing to a more obvious example in the energy created between the performers and the audience of the Bollywood show. It is this circulation of energy that transforms the whole experience, making it a journey. “Understanding this truth was revolutionary to me,” he stresses.

Today, as he looks back on over 20 years he has spent in India, Chuyen embraces many testimonies of his personal growth and transformation, on the artistic and spiritual levels. Apart from working in the Bollywood-dance for 14 years now, he also touches on many undertones of creative expression. He gives workshops, and works with dance and theatre troupes.

Gilles Chuyen
Gilles Chuyen in Bollywood Fusion, performance with the dancers from the Cairo Opera Ballet Company. 2013. (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

In 2007, he launched his dance company called In Step, which “is sort of a laboratory where I do research. I hold workshops, I create shows. It is in this company that I use whatever I have learnt through meditation, yoga and other experiences which allowed me to understand myself better.”

With In Step, Chuyen presented several shows in which he explores and puts in practice the creative and emotional triggers, abstract notions or emotions, he has collected over the years. On the technical level, Chuyen’s works fuse contemporary dance techniques with Indian classical dance elements, with the latter being obvious in the work of the hands.

This creative fusion is apparent in Prakriti (Nature, 2009), for instance, where the dancers, as the title indicates, walk the viewers through the elements of Mother Nature. On the stage we find a small group of the performers who depict the images and behaviours of wild flora and fauna. The soundtrack underlines the natural environment. At a certain moment, each dancer depicts a tree which transforms into a larger than life insect. In 2011, Chuyen also choreographed Bija which is the story of a flower and a butterfly. This show tackled topics of female and male energies.

Truth's Colors

But there is also another layer in Chuyen’s creative mind: colour. Whether in the process of work, choreography or while he paints, colour is not limited to a shade or a tone perceived by the eyes. Chuyen finds in a given colour a particular energy and sees it in music.

“I remember, as a small child I would imagine that even words have distinctive colours and shades. Equally, the music carries different colours,” he clarifies, explaining how his creative process is embedded in this belief. “In all my work with Teamwork Arts, the director Sanjoy Roy works on a storyline and the mise-en-scène. Then we choose music. As I listen to the final selection, I close my eyes and feel the colours. This directs me to movement, as well as the concrete colours that should characterise each character.” He adds that he also makes many decisions regarding the costumes and their colours.

In fact, the very first performance that the In Step company staged was titled Colors (2007). “For two or three months we worked on different vibrations of the colours: red, purple, orange, yellow, blue, etc. Each of them was represented by one dancer. While imagining those colours, the dancers captured each colour’s unique energies which in return triggered their emotions. Then they translated this charge into movement.” Following individual experimentation with a given colour, Chuyen would join the dancers in pairs. He explains that some of those colours fit together perfectly, while others did not match. He also believes that the whole experience allowed the dancers to discover themselves as human beings and touch on many elements of their personalities, breaking their emotional blocks and as such becoming a healing experience.

One of Chuyen’s recent performances, titled The Color White, is a solo contemporary dance show which he created in collaboration with an India-based Iranian musician, Fakhroddin Ghaffari. As Chuyen dresses in a white gown and whirls, reminding us of the Mevlevi tradition, he finds in white purification, innocence as well as other concepts such as a white clown. Last March, The Color White was performed within the first round of Expressions – International Contemporary Dance Festival, a three-day annual event launched by the Teamwork Arts which showcases contemporary dance from India and the West.

As he dances, exploring concepts and colours, Chuyen continues to ask questions. One such poignant inquiry came in the course of a performance entitled What Is Dance, a contemporary dance show he choreographed in 2014 with In Step. The performance is linked to a book of the same title which Chuyen is in process of writing. The performance represents his reflections on the creative journey and his attempt to answer questions related to dance as one of the fundamental forms of expression. On Facebook, he accompanies the performance’s inquisitive title with a few simple words aimed at providing a concise definition: “form, rhythm, concept, color, emotion, memory and energy”.

He explains it further in our conversation: “In my workshops, I often tell the participants that dance is like cooking. The more ingredients you have, the richer the recipe becomes. Our bodies consist of all those ingredients.” Chuyen speaks about two components which are dominant in many Western dance traditions: form (created through body) and rhythm. “Form is related to space, rhythm to time. It is perfectly alright to build dance on those concepts only, yet there are many more layers to dance. We also have breath, emotions, memories, we can feel colours. I explore all those components with dancers but also with the audience.”

It is in dance that Chuyen’s research, intellectual, artistic and spiritual developments ultimately meet since to him answering the question of what dance is also an answer to “who am I?” Chuyen captured the same thought in an online video interview which followed his performance during the Expressions festival: “Dance is not about technique, dance is using technique to express.” In another post on the In Step Facebook page, he adds that “dance for me is like a magic wand reenergizing the connection to my Self, with creativity guiding me into the mysteries of Creation.”

Touring the world, working with the Teamworks Arts’ and in his “laboratory”, Chuyen seems to have his hands full. While he moves on his creative journey of self-discovery, each time he finds an answer to one question, he ends up asking more questions. Yet to Chuyen this is the natural process of growth and development. As an artist, he keeps dancing, directs and choreographs, paints and writes. He works with theatre troupes and gives workshops. Having lived in India for over 20 years Chuyen does not plan to leave any time soon. It is in India that he has found himself:

“When I first came to India I felt my mind consisted of boxes. India is about breaking all those boxes and preconceptions. India offers such a wide range of experiences and truths. Even in Hinduism alone, there are so many sects and subgroups, different ways of dressing and different customs. In India you find so many rituals, an endless variety of food. It’s like a mini universe where everything is available and you are free to choose from it. At the same time people are very warm and caring. They love to connect to one another. I think that India helped me connect to the human experience. I became in touch with the texture of life.” 

Gilles Chuyen
Gilles Chuyen's work with In Step. (Photos: courtesy of Gilles Chuyen)

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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