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Serge Laurent, Reflecting on Dance

When a balletomane thinks of gemstones, the name George Balanchine immediately comes to mind, specifically his masterpiece, “Jewels.” Choreographed for Mr. B’s New York City Ballet and first performed in 1967, the abstract triptych was associated with both a gem and a composer: Fauré for “Emeralds;” Stravinsky for “Rubies;” and Tchaikovsky for “Diamonds.”

Peter Walker and Ashley Laracey in “Emeralds” from “Jewels” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

It is little known, however, that Claude Arpels, a nephew of Louis Arpels, co-founder of the luxury jewelry brand, Van Cleef & Arpels, which was established in 1906, met Balanchine in the 1950s. Their shared passion for precious stones blossomed into an artistic bond that yielded “Jewels.” Indeed, the Parisian house’s storied history with the art form goes back to the 1920s, when uncle Louis—an avid ballet-goer—reveled in taking Claude to the Opera Garnier.  

That the opera house was just a stone’s throw away from the boutique at 22 Place Vendôme, was synchronicity: In the 1940s, Louis Arpels and the Maison’s artisans designed its signature ballerina clip—a dancer adorned in pointe shoes sporting an intricate tutu of precious stones, including yellow gold, diamonds, and emeralds. The elegant pose seemed ready to spring to life in a classic brooch that became the first in a line of bejeweled ballerinas. 

Fast forward to the 2000s, and the company continued its relationship with dance, having had bonds with such renowned institutions as London’s Royal Opera House and the Australian Ballet. Indeed, in 2012, the brand began a collaboration with Benjamin Millepied and his L.A. Dance Project (also founded in 2012), which proved another serendipitous move, as Millepied, who danced with City Ballet, then created his own trilogy, “Gems” (“Reflections,” from 2013, “Hearts & Arrows,” 2014, and the 2016 work, “On the Other Side”). 

The Maison’s support for dance also includes its Fedora Prize, an annual award given to contemporary choreographers since 2015, and which has been given to, among others, Alexei Ratmansky for “The Sleeping Beauty” (2015), William Forsythe for “A Quiet Evening of Dance” (2018) and “Invisible Cities,” Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s 2019 choreography for the Rambert dance troupe.

Under its president and CEO, Nicolas Bos, and Serge Laurent, Director of Dance and Culture Programming, in 2020, the Maison conceptualized its most ambitious initiative yet: Dance Reflections, a program dedicated to dance, and whose main goal is supporting creative artists and institutions linked to the world of choreography. 

The annual festival is hosted in different cities internationally, but because of the pandemic, its first edition debuted in London in 2022. Currently on a roll, the festival took place in Hong Kong earlier this year, and, for its first US edition, Dance Reflections premieres in New York City from October 19-December 14. Featuring 12 programs by world-class choreographers, including Lucinda Childs, Boris Charmatz (the recently appointed artistic director of Tanztheater Wuppertal), and the late Pina Bausch, the festival promises to be a must-see for both fans and newbies alike.

Fjord Review had a chance to speak with Serge Laurent about his passion for dance, what he looks for in a choreographer or company, and what he wants audiences to take away with them from the festivals.

Serge Laurent, director of Van Cleef & Arpels' Dance Reflections. Photograph courtesy of Dance Reflections by Van Cleef & Arpels

The Ballerina Clip, danseuse espagnole, 1941. Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels

After twenty years spent at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, you’ve been in charge of the Dance and Culture Programme at Van Cleef & Arpels since 2019. What was the genesis of Dance Reflections?

In fact, Dance Reflections, the wish of our president, Nicolas Bos, is to continue writing a story. The Maison is very, very attached to stories with an art discipline. Dance became in the 40s a very strong source of inspiration with ballerinas, and still is a very important source of inspiration [for our ballerina clips]. Now, we are still creating this iconic image that’s also translated in our timepieces—watches—Lady Danse [and Lady Danse Duo, for example].

What I found exciting when I joined the Maison was that it was linked to the field of dance. For the 50th anniversary [in 2017] for Balanchine’s “Jewels,” the Maison decided to support the Royal Ballet. It was the first time the Maison supported an institution to present a dance piece; it was the beginning of the Maison’s sponsorship approach. 

Nicolas [also] met with Benjamin Millepied and L.A. Dance Project. It’s very consistent; the idea to support Benjamin didn’t come from nowhere. He was a former New York City Ballet dancer. After that we decided to support a dance prize, the Fedora prize. After this step, we decided to emphasize our commitment to the field of dance, and I was approached to create a program we called Dance Reflections by Van Cleef & Arpels. That’s the entire story—a continuation of step by step relations between this Maison with an art discipline, and by that, I mean dance.

After a long career in the visual arts would you say that you’re now equally passionate about dance?

I’m passionate by dance. The main thing for me is creation. I’m passionate by creation art. When I started my career as associate curator, at the same time, I was very curious about other disciplines, and I proposed to the Cartier Foundation to open the program to other disciplines. It’s the way I met with dance, music, theater, fashion, performance. 

But I focused on dance for one simple reason. When I discovered that dance is an art form which can exist in itself, with nothing—just movement and space—it’s also a place where you can put together all the other disciplines. I found that being involved with dance was a way to combine the other disciplines. On stage, you can put together every kind of art—visual, music, text, costumes, fashion, lights, even jewelry. I found that really exciting, and wanted to know more and focus on the discipline.

I really love the pure movement. I think it’s magic. There [could be] no music, no stage—just the space around. At the same time, you can have all these collaborations. The history of dance shows us how dance collaborates with the other disciplines—also in the museum context. In the States, a lot of dance performances are in galleries and museums. For me it was very natural, very organic, coming from the museum field to be connected with dance.

Lucinda Childs’ iconic 1979 work, “Dance” opens the Dance Reflections festival at City Center, New York. Photograph by Sally Cohn

What do you look for when booking a dance company or choreographer?

What is interesting for me in terms of programming—from my background, I was trained in art history, and history for me is very, very important. When you look at history, you follow the path, you are connected with contemporary art. It’s very exciting to have a very deep look on the history of dance, and at the same time, watching the evolution of dance, and see what are the new languages in dance in the current time. 

What I do, I try to select choreographers who are contributing to the evolution of the dance writing and vocabulary. The reason I put together this festival is to experience various choreographers inventing languages—art is language. I’m interested in the evolution of this language. It’s also the reason why I wanted the festival to combine existing works with new ones. We give the audience the opportunity to make its own journey. 

In New York, Lucinda Childs’ iconic 1979 work, “Dance,” set to the music of Philip Glass, opens the festival at City Center. It’s followed by “Room With A View,” by (La) Horde and Rone, performed by Ballet National de Marseille. 

I heard at this time—at the end of the 70s—that Lucinda Childs’ “Dance” was something really new. Now it’s presented regularly here and there. The day after is Ballet National de Marseille at the Skirball. The three directors [Marine Brutti, Jonathan Debrouwer and Arthur Harel] of Ballet Marseille—(La) Horde—are young. It’s very interesting to put recent works with important works with the short history of contemporary dance. 

You see a brand-new piece with a contemporary vocabulary, and you wonder where the artist wants to go. It’s important to put these works in perspective with previous ones—at each time in any period, artists are inventing. I think it’s so important to contribute [and] to witness the richness of contemporary creation. 

Rachid Ouramdane's “Corps extremes” comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of Dance Reflections. Photograph by Pascale Cholette

Speaking of creation, can you speak to the three pillars of Dance Reflections—creation, transmission and education?

When you do a new initiative, there are two key words: consistency and relevance. I said to myself, “Okay, we start with the story of the Maison Van Cleef,” and I discovered that this Maison has strong values. Among them, there is creation, transmission and education. Creation is obvious, because we’re talking about art. 

All of the Maison is based on savoir faire—and the notion of transmission is essential. Transmission for dance is also essential. If you don’t pass a piece from generation to another generation, works can disappear. I said, “It’s great, we already have two values in common between dance and Van Cleef.” After that, for any kind of art, education is essential, also. I decided that whatever we do through Dance Reflections, it’s exponential to one of these three values. 

The reasons why we present new works, but also support dance companies and institutions to support important and existing works, is the only way to preserve repertory. The second thing—education—is the reason why Dance Reflections, when we can, we organize workshops for professional choreographers or amateurs, to understand dance. The best way is to practice it, even on an amateur level. 

We also support institutions to develop an awareness about dance, especially in France, [where] we really want to develop our support to dance schools. Now we are supporting a few conservatories in England, schools for music, dance, theater academies. We are even supporting a dance school in Dakar.

That would be École des Sables, founded by the brilliant Germaine Acogny and her husband Helmut Vogt. You also programmed the U.S. premiere of Bausch’s “The Rite of Spring,” which is paired with “common ground[s],” by Acogny and Malou Airaudo—a former soloist with Bausch.

Yes. And Germaine and Malou do a duet together as a first part, and after, you have the big group of all these young dancers [from Africa, many trained at the school], performing “Le Sacre.” This version is wow, and, I’m so happy we can close the festival at the Park Avenue Armory with that.

Dance Reflections presents the US premiere of Pina Bausch’s “The Rite of Spring,” paired with “common ground[s],” by Acogny and Malou Airaudo. Photograph by Maarten Vanden Abeele

What have some of the highlights of Dance Reflections been for you?

Highlights? I like all of them. I’m very interested in new ways of writing movement. Dance is the art of movement. I’m interested in discovering in a dance piece, how the body, the vocabulary, surprises me. Artists, for me, are researchers; we are making research and they have a big background. They know their history. Some of them are inventing and risking; it’s what I like. One of the highlights of this festival will be Rachid Ouramdane. The combination of his background as a dancer with acrobats makes a vocabulary very interesting and specific. This is something I like. 

If I speak about Gisèle Vienne and “L’Étang,” also at [New York’s] Dance Reflections, she experiences theater and body movement in a specific way. If we mix together the heritage with Lucinda mixed with some krump movement, I love this. It’s a mix of different vocabularies. This is a small selection—only 12 shows—but all of them are contributing to this evolution and research about body and movement. 

Twelve shows of this caliber sound like a dance lover’s paradise. What do you want audiences to take away with them?

For me, what I want is to invite people to discover a selection of new ways to approach choreography. I want them to come with curiosity and be surprised by what they will see. I’m a kind of go-between audiences and the artist, and what I want is people to realize how dance is creative, how it is rich, and after that, I leave them to their judgments. 

“Room With A View,” by (La) Horde and Rone, performed by Ballet National de Marseille. Photograph by Cyril Moreau 

Some people have an inherent fear of contemporary dance—that they won’t understand it. What do you say to them, and have you seen the dance audience expanding because of the festival?

Our duty is to make it approachable. We are in a culture where you have to understand everything, otherwise you are silly. When someone tells me, “I saw this piece, I didn’t understand it.” I say, “Don’t worry, it’s normal, because it’s a new language. Just listen to what you feel.”

Even myself, I see many contemporary art works, [but] if my goal was to understand everything, it would be impossible, even boring, unsatisfying. The idea is not to understand, the idea is to feel. It’s enough as a first step if you tell people, “Don’t worry about that; just feel.” When you go to see a dance piece, are you wondering about the meaning of everything? 

Does the festival expand the audience? I think it’s what I like with the festival. You celebrate something. I hope with the dynamic with the festival, people are more prepared to discover things. It’s a way to create a dynamic, and I hope that it helps to increase audiences. 

[Above all], just come to experience something. That’s it. Art is a matter of experiencing something. Dance is maybe intimidating, but our duty as curators is to explain to people that it’s open, approachable by everybody, because you have to go with a free mind. 

Victoria Looseleaf

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.



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