One of the highlights of this year’s Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF, 1-22 October), Memories of a Lord was a performance created and choreographed by the renowned French artist Olivier Dubois. Staged at the Falaki Theatre, the performance has been developed in a five-day workshop in which Dubois worked with an all-male cast of amateur Egyptian dancer-actors.
For those artists, taking part in Dubois’s work is probably one of the high points of their development. Dubois, who launched his professional dance career at the age of 23. Prior to choreography, as early as 2003 he worked in Las Vegas with Céline Dion and the Cirque du Soleil, and with the choreographers Karine Saporta, Angelin Preljocaj, Jan Fabre and Sasha Waltz. In 2006, he made his solo show Pour tout l’or du monde, whose unprecedented success prompted him to launch his own Compagnie Olivier Dubois in 2007 to pursue adventures in choreography. Throughout his career he created numerous performances that toured extensively to raving reviews.
Memories of a Lord is one of Dubois’s best-selling projects; it combines masterful choreography and a strong humane topic with his passion for working with amateur dancers. He had staged it dozens of times across the world, and now came to Egypt to recreate his masterpiece with local dancers. This was not his first visit to Egypt; Dubois has created a number of other performances here and calls Cairo his second home.
“Memories of a Lord is a three-part tale, an ode to the prowess and solitude of history’s great figures. Each of the performance’s three acts shows a different facet of the archetypal leader: first hailed as a saviour, then loathed as a despot, before finally becoming nothing more than a shell of himself – the spectrum of power and alienation,” reads the performance’s synopsis published by D-CAF.
Memories of a Lord can be interpreted as a concise history of civilisation in which the protagonist fights with the voices in his head, which become physical powers as he tries to overcome them. The classical scenario of human history is seen through the element of tyranny as a perpetual component of the dynamics of life. At a same time Memories of a Lord is a picture of extreme power set against extreme vulnerability. The main character is the Lord, who is like a king or god. However, while he has absolute authority, he is also a Don Quixote who can’t even fight and struggles with the masses and his own weaknesses. He celebrates his superlative power, is victorious; yet he is also lost in the struggle, and as a result he loses himself and his existence. Surrounded by dozens of people, he stands alone and feels lonely. It is here that Dubois plays on our emotions and we can’t avoid falling into the trap of pitying and somehow sympathising with the tyrant. In the Egyptian take on Memories of a Lord, the protagonist was performed by Remi Richaud, one of Olivier Dubois Company’s dancers and who is participating in this play for the first time.
Memories of a Lord relies on choreography or rather physical expression, though Dubois does not like to compartmentalise or over-define to his artistic vocabulary. The performance is built around one character, the Lord, whose memories or dreams are represented at the background of one fabric composed of human bodies: 36 men surround the Lord and with their bodies, forming images that depict strengths and weaknesses, authority and submission, using their movement to describe waves, winds, fire, a mountain or flowers. The choreographer capitalises on this bulk image, never highlighting the individuals.
The minimal scenography, lighting and music by Francois Caffenne all play a part in the performance, shaping the background to the story unfolding on stage. A table is the main component of the set: it serves as a podium for the tyrant to stand on and a shelter for him to hide his weakness that hides, and on its side it turns into a wall protecting him from his enemies. Its functions are as expansive as our imagination and understanding of the play.
Hundreds of amateurs have been performing the play across the world since 2015, and it’s clear that its core idea and the structure of the performance has the power to touch everyone. Speaking of core human values and struggles between extremes, Memories of a Lord is accessible across cultures and generations.
“We performed Memories of a Lord in Brazil, Colombia, Italy, Germany, among other countries. It is always created in a very short time, usually four or five days of rehearsals, with local amateur performers. Every time I work on it, it is an amazing human adventure,” Dubois reveals.
Dubois accepted everyone who, following the call released by D-CAF, showed up at the theatre. “There were 36. In Memories of a Lord, I usually work with a minimum of 25, the least that can create impactful images. But in Brazil, for instance, I worked with 65 men. That was crazy,” he laughs, adding that though the huge stage accommodated the performers well, their large number was yet another challenge.
In Memories of a Lord, the participants go on a profound journey that alters their minds and perception of theatre and movement, and of their own bodies. Dubois works with the whole group throughout the whole process, as he believes dividing work into groups would deprive the participants of seeing the whole composition.
“One rewarding component of this performance, and that applies to the rehearsals, is that all of the participants have a great desire to be there. I do not make selections; that’s impossible. When they show up to the project, I cannot judge them on abilities that they are not supposed to have. Equally age doesn’t matter. Once I had a performer who was over 70, and it was great,” Dubois explains. In his approach, even if some performers might have more malleable bodies than others, everyone becomes part of a bigger image and everyone supports and completes everyone else. Only the main character, the Lord, is performed by a professional dancer.
“It is important for the participants to have a deep understanding of what they are doing, what images they’re creating and why they are on the stage. Putting people on stage is a responsibility. I have to make sure they look good as anything less than that is not respectful to them or to our work.”
The stage work actually begins before the participants enter the stage itself. “They need to know why they enter the stage. As spectators, we don’t need to know what is on the actor’s mind, but we have to be convinced that there is a charge, that he is coming with something. So the whole thought process prior to going on stage plays an important role in the actual movement we watch.”
Working with amateurs can be a challenge too. Among the common pitfalls of the non-professional actors is their tendency to exaggerate different forms of expression including movement. In Memories of a Lord, Dubois manages to contain and direct the performers. “I always tell them that in order to feel realised, one needs to stick to the choreography; one has to focus. Otherwise they will look stupid. Of course I allow the performers to have their own interpretation; however their thoughts always need to be justified and clear to the viewer. It all goes back to the ‘why’. ‘Why do you run that fast? Why do you slow down? Why do you repeat this action?’ I’ll ask them. This is an important mental process that happens throughout the rehearsals and the performance.”
In the span of a few days, Dubois shares with the participants the experience of a lifetime. As he moves across cities, countries and continents, the workshop is a gift he gives to the hundreds of amateur actors. “It is a one-time experience. I do not recast the same actors,” he explains.
Those few days and the performance that follows give the young actors a unique taste of theatre and choreography as understood by one of the best known French artists. Interestingly, the choreographer has a special feeling for Egypt and its creative culture. “I live between France and Egypt. I really wanted to make Memories of a Lord here, so that the actors as well as the audience could touch a form of art that is not their daily bread, that is possibly even nonexistent in Egypt. I made the general rehearsal open, and it could be attended by the performers’ family and friends. It also allowed a larger number of people to see the performance. Remember that seats were limited due to Covid-19 restrictions.”
Egypt remains strongly ingrained in Dubois’s creative endeavours. He is currently performing Itmahrag in RomaEuropa Festival in Rome. The play as an Egyptian-French production where Dubois “formulates for the first time a singular vision of today’s Egypt,” as we read in its description. Dubois also said he would be coming back to Egypt soon with yet another project, but the details are yet to be revealed.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.