Interview with Stéphane Boitel, Co-Director, Artistic Programming at Théâtre Garonne, Toulouse

January 28, 2016 | By Nicole Birmann

Since 2004, Stéphane Boitel, Co-Director, Artistic Programming at Théâtre Garonne, Toulouse, has been traveling frequently to New York to discover new talents. His work has resulted in the presentation of many American performing artists making headlines in the United States, for example, during the series called New York Express in 2013 and in 2015. Soon, in April, a condensed version of the adventurous American Realness, curated by Ben Pryor, will be at Theatre Garonne, part of dance2016, and in partnership with leading institutions in France.

Coming back from New York Stéphane shares with us his views:


Nicole Birmann Bloom (N.B.B.): You just spent some days in New York when festivals, showcases, in connection with the APAP conference were in full swing. What did you see and notice? What is different from one year to the other?

Stéphane Boitel (S.B.): As usual at this time of the year, I saw many things and met many people... Which is exactly the reason why I keep coming here over and over!

I am more interested in scouting and discovering emerging talents, and from that perspective things have changed a lot in the last few years. I remember 10 years ago, a time when UTR (Under The Radar) was THE festival, and APAP the place to meet people... Things are totally different today aren't they? As a result, I have the feeling that NY became a much more attractive place for many presenters around the world, who can of course see (and hopefully buy) much more shows and also easily meet their American colleagues there. And from my point of view, all those new festivals are a good thing for the American-European relationships, but also for the U.S. market and artistic life in the country. Even though, ok, January in New York tends to become too much of a craze now, so maybe the different curators should put in sync a bit more?

N.B.B.: What is New York Express? How is the series curated and organized and who are the artists. How did the French audience react to the performances?  In 2015, were there some expectations from the audience following the success of the 2013 series?

S.B.: New York Express is a platform of American shows touring across France (Thêâtre de Gennevilliers near Paris, Thêâtre Le Maillon in Strasbourg, Théâtre Garonne in Toulouse and le Tandem up in Douai/Arras). Devised collectively by the French Partners and the PS 122, as it's part of the PS122 Global Program. In 2014 Okwui Okpokwasili, Richard Maxwell and Tina Satter were part of the "caravan". In 2015 joined Faye Driscoll, Annie Dorsen and Andrew Schneider. The idea is to introduce emerging artists to a French audience, to offer them extensive visibility on a national scale and, ideally, to initiate long-term relationships with these artists. And also, from a more political standpoint, we would like to show how diverse the performing arts field can be in the U.S. As opposed to a number of clichés that are still vivid in France... Obviously the audiences were happily surprised, and pleased to know more about the American context. Hijacking the audience expectations (for the best!) is also part of our job...

N.B.B.: This April, a version of American Realness, as part of dance2016, will tour France and will stop at the city Garonne, could you tell us more about it?  What does American Realness mean?

S.B.: American Realness in France is indeed a condensed version of the festival in New York. And of course, content wise, it is a different take on things. The very meaning of the name changes as soon as it pronounced in France: historically and aesthetically, "realness" as used by Ben Pryor refers to quite a specific American context. So in a way it must be understood here literally: what does "real America" look like today, in the field of contemporary dance (but not only)? Of course the answer is pretty complex, but the ambition of Ben and the French partners (i.e. Théâtre Garonne, Les Subsistances in Lyon and the Centre National de la Danse in Pantin) is to offer an insight on that question. In 2016, under the umbrella of American Realness, Garonne will thus present Dana Michel, Ligia Lewis, Trajal Harrell and the trio Simone Auhterlony / Antonija Livingstone / Hahn Rowe. Gender, racial and cultural issues: once again, diversity is at the heart of the curatorial line.

N.B.B.: These projects benefited from grants from the FACE foundation (Contemporay Theater and FUSED programs). Were these grants instrumental for large projects like New York Express and American Realness ?

S.B.: No doubt that these grants are not only a great help but just allow us to make these projects happen. And no doubt that this kind of support should take a significant place in the funding of the arts, in the next few years. There's a new phenomenon happening all over Europe these days, and now hitting France: it's called budget cuts, and that's a major shift in the way I'm doing my job. Until recent times, organizations like theatre Garonne tended to take public subsidies for granted. These days are over. We must find new models. Something between private and public funding. On that regard, FACE is an interesting mixed model. That being said, I do believe that French-American Cultural Exchanges are not all about money...

N.B.B.: What do you think should be implemented, or improved to encourage and strengthen more exchange and more support towards productions between France and the U.S., and in general at an international level.

S.B.: International cooperation in the arts is at the heart of everything. At a time when people from all around the world are interconnected, this kind of very local archaic media which we call "live arts" must adapt. And must prevail. So how do we do that? The word "exchange" (the "E" in the FACE acronym) means "being transformed by exiting" in Latin. Which, to me, sounds like a definition of "how to collaborate". Exiting your comfort zone, stepping out of your own culture and habits, and let the other one fill away. That's the way we do it at Garonne. Over the past 26 years, we have been alienating our audience with cutting-edge "risky" works from every possible place on earth. Garonne is really a "no-comfort zone", for the best I hope. And guess what? The spectators are more and more eager to discover even more cutting-edge risky works. And it is going all the same with the artists, with our partners, etc. So, back to your question: more French-American exchange should mean more risks taken by both sides. Similar to what we are doing within our "House on Fire" network: we are the co-founders of that European network, ten venues and festivals trusting each other in order to co-produce and present mostly emerging artists dealing with burning political issues. We could imagine such a European-American network, and allow ourselves to take risks on both side of the ocean. Meaning: to trust each others. Like when we co-produced Bronx Gothic by Okwui Okpokwasili, just because she was warmly recommended by Vallejo Gantner (head of PS 122). And we didn't regret it. This Afro-American girl talking about the Bronx was the big hit last year in Toulouse!

N.B.B.: As curator, you are in constant dialogue with other presenters. Who are the emerging artists in France these days that seem relevant to you?

S.B.: I was pleased to see some of them this year in New York: Dorothee Munyaneza, Jonathan Capdevielle, L'Amicale de production... We have invited and/or co-produced them all... They are so different in terms of aesthetics and background, but I think they do have a common ground: their work is rooted in their own personal context and history, and their vocabulary and concerns can be shared internationally. That's the (new?) nice thing with a number of emerging young artists in France: they are keen on establishing a dialogue with an international audience, and know how to do it. That's also what make their work "relevant", as you put it.

N.B.B.: What are you dreaming to bring to Théâtre Garonne from the United States? What motivates you in the dialogue between the United States and France?

S.B.: Actually we had this dream of inviting Robert Wilson. Like for ages, we have been talking of bringing him over. Dream came true last year when we presented Krapp's Last Tape. It was - of course - an amazing success. So in a way, we now have to find brand new impossible dreams... But in fact our dream, or say the endeavor we are carrying out at Garonne, is much more the dialogue itself: an ongoing dialogue that we can pursue by inviting American artists on a regular basis, and most of all by strengthening our relationships with each one of them. Like with Richard Maxwell - we have already presented Good Samaritans, Neutral Hero, Ads, and we will present The Evening next Fall. And we are currently trying to make him tour in many French and European places. That's the way we "curate", "program" or whatever you call it. A long-term relationship rather than a spectacular one-shot. Or a fulfilling love story rather than a disappointing one-night stand. Is that only a cheesy metaphor? Maybe, but that's ultimately - to get right back where we came from - what I would call French-American "realness"...

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