The New York Times

An African ‘Antigone,’ By Way of France

The French choreographer Mathilde Monnier thrives on the unexpected. Her version of the Greek tragedy “Antigone,” for example, unfolds on a minimalist African landscape with a car seat and corrugated-tin siding as décor.

“Entertainment bores me,” Ms. Monnier said in an interview between trains at Les Deux Magots here. “I like what troubles and challenges; when you feel that someone has tried something new, not just a pretty picture.”

“Pour Antigone,” which Ms. Monnier, who is 41, created seven years ago (and which she is presenting at the Lincoln Center Festival on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday), marks a turning point in her career, the first time she cast away her aesthetic preconceptions and plunged into the unknown.

She started studying dance late, in her midteens, but by 19 was dancing professionally. She worked with the American choreographer Viola Farber in France, then left for the United States to study with Merce Cunningham. It was in New York that she first tried her hand at choreography, and she continued, to positive reviews, on her return to France.

But Ms. Monnier was frustrated. “I was looking for a style without a purpose in mind,” she said. “My work was a bad copy. I hadn’t taken any risks.”

She decided to create a piece around Sophocles’ play, in which a young woman risks her life to bury her dead brother against the wishes of her uncle.

“One day I reread the story and it knocked me off my feet,” Ms. Monnier said. “Maybe I identified with this young woman. And this very physical act of burying someone, that pleased me. I liked that the tragedy was spurred by a gesture — covering the body.”

She went for inspiration to the last place one might associate with Greek mythology, Africa. The continent’s dance was still relatively unexplored in the West, and this intrigued her, too. She held auditions and hired one dancer from Mali and four from Burkina Faso, including a 12-year-old girl. She also hired a percussionist who came from a famous family of griots, or musician-storytellers, in Mali.

Ms. Monnier did not expect the Africans to know the story of Antigone, but she was wrong: in Burkina Faso, not only did they know it, they had lived it. In 1987 the country’s young president, Thomas Sankara, was assassinated and his body secretly disposed of without the burial rites normally accorded a head of state. Soon after, a theater company tried to stage “Antigone,” but it was forbidden.

“In our culture, those who die must have a good place to lie in the earth,” explained Salia Sanou, one of the Burkina Faso dancers chosen by Ms. Monnier. “The dead live among the living.”

But while the Africans could relate to the tragedy of Antigone, in the early 1990’s they knew practically nothing about contemporary dance. Mr. Sanou was studying law in Ouagadougou, the country’s capital, and dancing in a traditional company for fun. He auditioned for Ms. Monnier out of curiosity and suddenly he found himself packing for Brittany, where her company was based.

“When I came to France I didn’t dare tell my family what I was doing,” Mr. Sanou said. “Africans go to France to become lawyers, diplomats — but to dance! — they would have laughed. Six months later I started telling the truth, though I said I was doing choreography. They weren’t sure what that meant, so it went over better.”

Ms. Monnier created her “Antigone” using the African dancers and those in her own company, but she kept the two groups separate for most of the rehearsal period so that each person would “dance his own language.” The culture shock was tremendous on both sides.

She pushed the Africans to improvise from their ritualized steps, often in silence. She laughs as she recalls: “One dancer said: ‘I can’t work like this. There’s no music. I can’t dance.’ I said, ‘Try.’ After a moment I heard this strange noise; they were making sound for themselves. So I kept it.”

The Africans, used to expressing their grief physically, toss their heads and thrust their torsos, dancing with a loose-limbed, unbridled vitality that contrasts with the clean, controlled gestures and the restrained pain of the Westerners. The company does not offer a classic telling of the Antigone tale but a feeling of tension and gravity, folly and bereavement.

The experience changed several of its collaborators’ lives. Mr. Sanou and another African dancer stayed in France to continue working with Ms. Monnier and have since formed their own contemporary dance company, based in Montpellier, France, and in Burkina Faso.

Soon after the debut of “Pour Antigone,” Ms. Monnier was invited to head the Centre Chorégraphique National de Montpellier, a government-financed center for dance situated in a beautifully renovated, sun-filled, 16th- and 17th-century convent with thick limestone walls and vaulted arches.

She does not, however, allow the sunny ambience to affect the troubled quality of her creations. Since her arrival in Montpellier she has continued to explore the themes of isolation and relationships and has worked extensively with autistic patients, observing their unconventional body language to help her “deconstruct the movements of contemporary dance.” These lessons are applied to her latest piece, “Les Lieux de Là,” which, with its writhing heap of bodies on the ground, was compared by one critic to “a worm cut in pieces.”

As hard as Ms. Monnier strives to put hurdles in her own career path, she has succeeded in becoming one of France’s major dance figures. “I’m working in one of the most beautiful places in Europe, I have money, I do what I want,” she said. In two years, when her contract with Montpellier runs out, she says she will probably move on, just to avoid getting too comfortable.

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