The “Line” in FIAF’s (French Institute : Alliance Française) Crossing the Line Festival may, at first glance, be seen as the one between New York and French culture. FIAF’s mission is to connect New York and France in an international dialogue on the arts. Lili Chopra, FIAF’s Artistic Director and Co-Curator of the Festival since its founding in 2006, lives this mission. Drawing on her French upbringing, her international education, including in Columbia University’s Master’s program in arts administration, and her work in New York’s independent dance scene (notably New York Live Arts), Chopra marries the French tradition of unwavering support for the arts with New York’s ever-fertile vanguard. But dig into the Festival and you will see many more lines being crossed, some of them obliterated altogether.
The lines separating artist and audience, the lines dividing artistic disciplines, the lines defining genres, and the lines between art institution and street are all honored by the Festival, more so in the breach than in the observance. Gillian Jakab crossed the line between Brooklyn and Manhattan to sit down with Chopra for a discussion of the diverse perspectives of French and Francophone culture, cultural equity, and the works and artists of this year’s Crossing the Line Festival, including Faustin Linyekula, Alessandro Sciarroni, and Bouchra Ouizguen.
Gillian Jakab (Rail): This season of Crossing the Line marks your second decade of the festival, the eleventh edition. Can you tell me a bit about your original motivation for this interdisciplinary festival when you founded it, and how the vision has evolved through the years?
Lili Chopra: I became the artistic director of FIAF in ’06. When I took over, FIAF was really an exciting place for films, but I felt that for the performing arts it could really play an interesting role in the city, more than it had in the past. It could be more embedded within the cultural landscape of New York. […] The relationship between France and New York is particularly strong whether you are talking about Trisha Brown or Cunningham or so many artists who actually went to France, spent a lot time, got supported, commissioned works, and so forth. So my idea with Crossing the Line—since we are an institution that focuses on French and francophone culture—is to really take that DNA in the widest possible sense and to support artists from New York, and presenting from around the world, in conversation with French artists. At the beginning, it was mostly French and New York-based artists, and then it became more and more international in scope, even though it’s still very much rooted in this kind of dialogue between New York-based artists and French Artists.
At the time when we launched the festival, there was a lot of conversation around transdisciplinary work. A number of artists felt that they could not quite fit specific projects to the traditional season or institution that had in the past supported them. So Crossing the Line also became that festival where we could have conversations with the artists with the freedom of imagining the project to happen in the location that would be perfect for the project itself. And so the results: some projects have been presented in traditional contexts, but I think what has been most iconic over the years with Crossing the Line is all the projects that have actually been created for the space specifically with the vision of the artist in mind to develop something quite meaningful for the city. […]
We’ve never wanted to work around a specific theme, curatorialy, really, just because we felt that we needed to be as open as possible to the ways in which each artist was envisioning the project for the city, so we didn’t want to have it be too limited. However, for a number of editions we have focuses, whether it was one year on urban agriculture, or suddenly we realized that a number of works were dealing with notions of gender, or notions of quieting down the pace, so there would be some overarching theme that may have appeared based on the fact that artists have a finger on the pulse.
Rail: Yes, I wanted to ask a bit more about the breadth of sourcing. You were saying the origins of Crossing the Line, as a festival embedded in FIAF, a French institution, was the connection between New York and France. But now, rather than facilitating a simplistic bi-lateral exchange of cultural diplomacy between France and the US, the festival embraces the urban cultural diversity of New York and breadth of global francophone culture. Within your curatorial process, what are some factors that guide your choices and that of your co-curators, Simon Dove and Gideon Lester? What lines are you crossing?
Chopra: I have to say it’s a very organic process. We each have our—not so much our specificity in terms of discipline, but our sensibility—it’s very harmonized amongst the three of us in terms of each of us seeing different types of works or in different contexts, or traveling to different places. […] It’s really about the relevance of the work in today’s world. We’re all convinced of the fact that artists transform our vision of the world; they impact us in a way that no one else seems to be doing. And then there are artists that are also pushing the genre, the form. They’re creating contemporary vocabulary through new movement or language. […]
The fact that it is not discipline specific—that there’s also this possibility for us to continue to invite the voices that we find to be today the most relevant and the most exciting in contemporary performance—there’s definitely a sense of these artists leading independent research, and development, and new forms, [such as] Ryoji Ikeda who is opening the festival with his approach of sound connected to mathematics and connected to visuals … deep research for each of these modes.
With Faustin Linyekula, we have decided to do a focus in terms of the ways in which he has connected his work with the Congolese context, the political context, but just universal questions that we all have today.
Rail: Yeah, I saw that Linyekula’s work is supported as part of your BRIDGING program with the Rothschild Foundation. You’ve begun describing the cultural and political valences of Linyekula’s work, but could you expand on the ways in which his upcoming performances and community projects for Crossing the Line reflect BRIDGING’s mission to “explore issues of cultural equity across cultures?”
Chopra: Yeah, so with Faustin, he’s an artist who is very engaged politically and socially. He’s from Congo, from Kisangani, which is the third largest city in Congo. He’s been very much supported by European institutions; he’s a major figure of dance in Europe. He’s known here from having presented a number of works in the past: there was More more more…future at the Kitchen in the context of Crossing the Line. And so he’s known here, but his commitment to Congo has always been very deep, and so even though the country is going through massive crisis at the moment—an entire generation has been sacrificed: kids don’t know how to read and write; the school system is a disaster; the infrastructure is as well—he continues to spend half of the year in Congo. He’s been developing projects, artistic projects there: creating recording studios and you know, trying to really give opportunities to the next generation of artists in Kisangani and youth in general and be this kind of positive model for the country. So his connection is very, very strong to his roots and origins and the political traumas that the Congo has gone through. […]
What’s true to Faustin, what’s true to many artists that we’ve been talking with recently, is that there is a desire to be spending more time, more in depth time in cities, and not so much being just touring works for one week here and one week there and not really having the opportunity to meet the audience, to make deeper and more meaningful connections. And he’s an incredible educator; he’s a storyteller. So we thought it’d be really great to offer to Faustin the opportunity to spend time. He’ll be here for an entire month and he’ll be working with a group of dancers from It’s Showtime NYC!—thirty five dancers from Brooklyn and the Bronx for two weeks and creating a new work for public space in the Bronx and in Brooklyn. The Met Museum was already in conversation with Faustin for him to create a new work around the collection of African Art at the Met, so we discussed with them to really put it in the BRIDGING project. And then we saw In Search of Dinozord in Paris. It’s one of the latest works that he’s done with his company and its totally sublime and stunning, like most of his work. So it’s a nice opportunity to see a new commission in the context of the museum, based on the Congolese culture through the objects that are part of the collection at the Met, working with these young dancers, and also presenting his company’s work.
With the Rothschild Foundation, the conversation was really interesting, and in some ways there is so much discussion around cultural equity in France—the representation of the various groups and diasporas and French people, how they are or are not represented on stage, or in cultural institutions, supported as artists, and so on and so forth. And as FIAF, representing French culture and francophone culture, what role do we play to bring the contemporary image of French culture when often there’s this kind of romantic idea that got stuck in New Wave, and the beret and the baguette—and its true: its still very much [the image of the] elegant, French, white woman. And this is not France today, and its great that the country has evolved; there are growing pains like in many different contexts around the world today. And so what role do we play in really bringing the diverse voices of France right now through FIAF through all our different programs? That was really the impetus of BRIDGING.
Another partner that is really important to us has been the Hermes foundation […] This year they supported Annie Dorsen and also Alessandro Sciarroni. Did you see Folk-s two years ago?
Rail: No, unfortunately.
Chopra: I think you should see Untitled. Alessandro, he’s special. He’s very special. He comes more from the visual arts and then decided to work on the trilogy and the first one being Folk-s, which we presented at New York Live Arts two years ago; it was on Tyrolean dances—very traditional Tyrolean dances and learned the exact precise movements of Tyrolean dances from Italy. Initially, the traditional group would not want to teach them and so they taught it to themselves, and then emailed back, “we really want you [to teach us].” So then it’s like pure form but presented in a completely different context in terms of women performing a dance traditionally for Tyrolean males. Anyway, that was Folk-s and the second part is Untitled. Alessandro scouted all around Europe for jugglers to create that piece, so its about the art of juggling, but what it is really our sense of time—it’s a very meditative piece; it’s also a piece where you deal with mistakes…
Rail: Dealing with elements of chance.
Chopra: Yes, it’s a very poetic and beautiful piece of work. And then there’s Bouchra Ouizguen. We’ve invited her a few times; she’s really one of the leading choreographers from North Africa, from Morocco. She created work with this group of female performers, performers called aïtas. In Morocco, what’s interesting is the contemporary culture of the performing arts is really rooted in the traditional culture of Morocco. Often, in that part of the world, choreographers will go to P.A.R.T.S., will go to France to get their training and then come back to their original country, then have a movement vocabulary that is much more European-based or American-based.
Rail: Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of hip-hop and street dance styles come out of North Africa.
Chopra: Exactly. But in Morocco, it’s really interesting how that has not happened as much, and contemporary performing artists are really much more rooting their practice within the culture of Morroco. Bouchra is creating for us the version of Corbeaux (Crows). Initially, she was just going to do it for the Marrakech Biennale, but she presented it and it was loved so much, and it became this kind of thing now touring around the world, with ten of her Moroccan performers and an additional cast of twenty to thirty local performers; it’s a large cast of female performers.
Rail: And that’s at the Brooklyn Museum?
Chopra: That will be at the Brooklyn Museum. Yeah, she’s someone. You’d love to meet her. She’s super bright. She doesn’t want to be cast in this—it’s so easy, especially in this country right now: “female choreographer, from Muslim country, etc.”—of course its all that and it’s much more.
I would say overall, what is interesting about Crossing the Line, one of the joys of producing this festival, is the artistic quality of the artists that we work with, but also the immensely beautiful personalities they all have. Each edition, it’s such a joyous adventure because of the human qualities of the artists that we have the chance to present within Crossing the Line.
Rail: It seems like there’s a really palpable, good energy. When you mentioned the limitations of cultural labels or identities for an artist, I thought of last year’s talk hosted by BRIDGING on diversity and inclusion in the arts. Zeyba Rahman was one of the panelists, and she heads the Building Bridges program at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which funds cultural programs in the U.S. engaging Muslim and non-Muslim communities. I was wondering—because, the category of religion wouldn’t necessarily be used in programming/funding guidelines within France due to the policy of laïcité—how, as a festival produced by a French cultural institute in New York, do you negotiate these sorts of cultural differences? For example, in the context of this year’s theatrical piece, Adelheid Roosen and Nazmiye Oral’s No Longer Without You, about a traditional Muslim mother and her Westernized daughter?
Chopra: Well right now everything is so heightened; everything is so sensitive. I think that as curators, we are so much more aware of the complexity of these questions than we were even a few years ago. Notions of cultural appropriation … It’s incredibly complex, and at the same time, essential to be dealing with it, because we could easily say, “well let’s not touch it; it’s too sensitive right now.” But that would not be true to what it is that we’re doing—at all. So I think that the ways in which we are approaching it is that there is this softness, this gentleness; it’s not coming out of a place of—pushing in a radical and provocative way right now. It’s really about the creating the platform, I hope, the context that is one in which the voice can be heard and presenting it in the most mindful way.
And so, for example, it was very important for us that this project be co-credited: Adelheid and Nazmiye’s project. That it’s really them together presenting it. It is important that this project exists in connection with the Turkish community of New York; so there’s someone who’s specifically dedicated at the moment to connecting with the New York Turkish community around the project—to have them come and be part of the discussion afterwards. […]
Rail: And do you think that there’s difference in being New York and doing this versus being in France?
Chopra: It’s interesting thinking about BRIDGING and the question of cultural equity, sometime we had to write in French—we don’t even have the vocabulary. I think that here in the U.S. we’re so much more advanced around language, concept, than we are in France, quite honestly. It’s much newer there… [Perceptions] of cultural appropriation exist but maybe not in such a clear way, maybe again because there’s not so much of a history in France of the groups coming together and almost academically thinking through these issues of race and gender the ways in which it has been done in the U.S.
Rail: Thank you for this thoughtful reflection. I wanted to go back to what you touched upon regarding the range of spaces in both visual and performing cultural institutions through the city, from the Met to Movement Research. How do you think this variety in venue adds to the offerings of, and conversations surrounding, the festival?
Chopra: I think it’s essential. Ryoji one year was at the Met, was in Times Square, and was in a smaller commercial gallery. [We are] seeing now Faustin at the Met, and the Bronx and Brooklyn, at NYU Skirball. I think that we often identify an artist, and especially independent, contemporary performing artists, with specific venues and sizes, and [determine] that’s the audience for them. So I think its really important for an artist, when possible, to be in the context of a very large, established institution while simultaneously creating connections with the downtown art scene and being in communities such as the South Bronx—I think it breaks a little bit the model of contemporary, independent art to be seen in this very small, defined-audience context and to be able to have a much more broad experience of the work, because context matters so much in experiencing the work: who you’re surrounded by, what the space looks like, the price of it.
Rail: It completely changes the experience.
Earlier you were discussing the gradual acceptance of transdisciplinary work. In additions to some of the incredible choreographers we’ve discussed, this year’s festival will present performance elements from a range of artistic backgrounds, including conceptual artist Sophie Calle, writer and director Annie Dorsen, and Drag performance artist Dickie Beau, among others. Do you continue see that artists are offering new definitions, or ways of seeing, in terms of the disciplinary lines they cross?
Chopra: Yes, I think by nature they are. It’s more how institutions are built to support this. So, my sense is its always been the case, but then depending on what the end product may be, a traditional performing arts venue can continue supporting the work, or may not, depending if it doesn’t fit their season anymore—you know it becomes something totally other. Like Nature Theater of Oklahoma deciding to do films, or Trajal [Harrell] deciding to do a book for the last part of Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning. Who will finance that? Right? Like who is financing that magazine? Probably no one—because no one is built to do that. In terms of in the performing arts realm, whether it’s music, or theater, or dance, etc. Institutions have now opened up much more to presenting a wider range of practices on their stage than it used to be.
Rail: That makes sense.
And as the editor of the dance section of the Rail, and considering your background studying performance history and working in New York’s independent dance world, I want to emphasize the gathering of some brilliant choreographers in this year’s festival: Nora Chipaumire, Faustin Linyekula, Alessandro Sciarroni. What role do you feel Crossing the Line plays in the city’s dance scene?
Chopra: Oh no… [laughter] I think we’ve carved out our little space. Because, like you were saying, it’s international, but it also has to do with the sensibility that we have three European curators at the French Institute—obviously there’s going to be a European take. And when you go to festivals in France they look very different than the ones you will find here in New York, so in a sense Crossing the Line is this little curatorial window of this very European take on what a festival is. And so it’s a pretty wide range of practices between Faustin, Bouchra, Nora, Alessandro, if you’re just looking at dance, but at the same time it’s a great collection of work, both new work and touring works, and definitely for me some of the most exciting artists creating work today in the world. They really are; they just are. And really kind of pushing their thinking aesthetically, conceptually, in terms of the form, and engaging—it’s very universal.
I think sometimes we’re looking at dance, contemporary dance, there’s still a little bit of the sense of it as this obscure form; it’s hard to bring words to it; it’s just for a few people who really get it or want to be part of it, like it’s still very insider-ish. And my hope is that by bringing these works into various contexts that we’re doing them in, there’s a sense of an encounter that can happen that speaks from bodies to bodies, not necessarily through the mind, the way that dance does. And the impact that Faustin can have on the twenty-five or thirty dancers that he’ll be working with in a few weeks, or that Bouchra can have with the twenty dancers she’ll be working with—the impact that these works can have with their various audiences in one encounter in the course of the festival is what we’re really excited about.