Vive Le Fringe!

Matthew Sharpe delves into the Institut Francais and speaks to Carré Blanc Cie of Chiffonade

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Chiffonnade @ Institut Français
Published 16 Aug 2016

Hold onto your berets; the French are coming. It's going to get artsy (and culturally engaging). Luckily I refer not to some sort of ominous stereotype-laden invasion, but to the Institut Francais's brilliant Vive Le Fringe! programme. 

The organisation itself is the Scottish wing of the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, which is responsible for cultural activity outside France. They're trying to promote French language and culture by providing French courses and organising events (including film screenings, talks, exhibitions, concerts). It's essentially a cross-cultural exchange, giving Scottish audiences a unique taster of the arts scene across the channel. In the wake of Brexit, it's something to be cherished.

Headlining all this is Vive Le Fringe!, a showcase which brings a plethora of shows that celebrate our shared heritage and bridge the cultural gaps. One of these is Chiffonnade, a surrealist dance piece (aimed primarily at children) produced by acclaimed French dance company Carré Blanc Cie. Its founder, artistic director, and choreographer of the show Michèle Dhallu has arrived in Edinburgh with it.

It's her first time in Edinburgh, but she's already using the city as an artistic muse.

"I love the strong solid atmosphere emanating from the old stones, contrasting with the random light seagulls’ song coming from the sea. Contrasts always create strong identity. And amazingly I feel home here."

Chiffonnade has toured all around Europe (with around 2000 performances racked up), but this year marks its debut both in Scotland and the UK. Beyond the backing she received as part of the Institut's scheme, she feels that bringing her show here holds a personal significance for her too.

"The Fringe is a very good place to start exploring this territory. I don’t really know Scottish Culture, apart from the clichés like bagpipes or kilts, but as I said, I feel like at home so I am curious to understand why.

Carré Blanc Cie celebrated its 30th birthday earlier in August, and the company has been her own creative outlet since then.

"I founded CBC because I was not happy just as a dancer/performer, something was missing. I think I am definitely an author in my mind. At the beginning, the company was not dedicated to young audience. But once I had the opportunity to choreograph for children, and I’ve never stopped since then.

"I am still fascinated by their furious curiosity, the way they are so open minded, how they are so demanding because of their impatience."

The show is technically aimed at children, but its visual intricacy and classical style means it has a much broader appeal in terms of age range. This, naturally, was her intention from the start.

"This is an essential aim in my work; if adults don’t share the same pleasure as children, why then perfom for children? The fact is we all go through childhood, but as adults we tend to think that it’s another time of life. But it’s not. It’s inside, just a little bit hidden. And this is my aim, make the audience—adults and children—feel like children again, without the performance to be childish."

It's a commendable mantra, and one that has surely contributed to the show's international popularity. There's more to it than pure entertainment, though, as Michèle sought to implement an educational element at its core. Education has been a key feature of Carré Blanc Cie's productions, as they attempt to bring their dance shows into the pedagogic realm.

"Education means you have to share your life experience to transmit it to children. So we transmit skills, rules, and so on. But the emotional education is really neglected. The arts talk to this emotional part of the human being. It also helps to grow up because it develops a child’s critical sense as an audience member.

"Babies, toddlers and young children talk with their emotional body. That’s why dance is so close to them."

The Chiffonade was first performed in 2003, and took around six months to develop. As important as choreography is to the piece, one of the main artistic struggles involved in its conception pertained to the costume.

"We had a long time of reflection with the costume designer to create this cocoon-balloon-dress that the dancer wears. The dance in the water took also a long time because it is another way of impulsing movements for a dancer.

"My real background is contemporary dance, the Cunningham technique, but I love performing arts in a global sense so I choreograph a theatrical dance, which very closely resembles visual theatre. My next show will be with circus performers."

The cultural exchange element of Vive Le Fringe! is what drives the demand, but it does present inherent difficulties in translating (sometimes literally) shows that have been a success in mainland Europe into something that UK audiences can warm to in equal measure. Has she adapted her piece for the Fringe?

"Not at all, because I don’t think there is any need for it. We’ve toured it a lot across Europe and we’ve seen it work on very different audiences. I think it’s a very universal piece.

"The most important part of this programme is diversity: we are supposed to live in a global world but at the same time we are so different and so similar. Cultural exchange is a way to appreciate our differences and to experience our similarities."

If the show itself sounds a little obscure, Michele is confident that its universal qualities will give it a broad appeal.

"Chiffonnade is a journey through childhood spirit, or towards it if you’re an adult. This metaphor of growing up is somewhere between dream and reality, full of emotions and as colourful as life maybe."

It's a small sample of the eclectic mix of culture with which the Institut Francais has gifted the Fringe this year, with Vive Le Fringe! acting as the perfect conduit into a world of shows we might never normally see.