by Joanna Spinks

This autumn marked the sixth edition of Crossing the Line, the annual festival initiated and produced by the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) in partnership with leading cultural institutions in New York City.  The festival, which ran from September 14-October 14, 2012, exhibited performances and interdisciplinary works from eighteen international artists.  Since the festival’s initiation in 2007, it has grown in popularity and scope as its focus remains on emerging art forms, multi-disciplinary forms and socially engaging works.  This year Gideon Lester, Director of Theater Programs at Bard College, joined Lili Chopra, FIAF’s Artistic Director, and Simon Dove as co-curator of the festival.  Chopra has co-curated the festival since its inception. Dove, former curator of the Netherlands’ Springdance Festival and now the director of the Herberger Institute School of Dance at Arizona State University, has served as a co-curator of the festival since its second year.  The three wanted this year’s festival to have virtually no themes.  They hope “the festival provides opportunities for New Yorkers to explore the dialogue between artist and participant, examine how artists help re-imagine the world, and engage in the vital role artists play as critical thinkers and catalysts for social evolution.”

In 1971, The French Institute and the Alliance Française de New York merged.  The former promoted French arts and the latter taught French.  Today The French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) is a non-profit organization whose mission is “to create and offer New Yorkers innovative and unique programs in education and the arts that explore the evolving diversity and richness of French cultures.”   It is one of the largest and most respected centers for French-American activities in the US, and with its Crossing the Line (CTL) festival, FIAF brings some of the most fascinating and challenging works to the US, even in the face of great adversity.

The mid 2000’s were not a popular time for international productions in New York.  As US border control sercurity hightened and financial backing for the arts decreased, Simone Dove felt it crucial that good ideas being generated by artists around the world have a platform in New York.  Since 2007, CTL has had great success and made FIAF’s presence increasingly felt in New York’s cultural landscape.  Today, curators stress that it is no longer so much about any specific discipline but about the intention or idea behind the work and it’s relationship to the landscape of New York City.  When the festival started in 2007, performances were broken up into categories: theater, dance, music, visual arts, and film.  But as the title “Crossing the Line” suggests, the festival was ahead of its time in blurring lines between artistic disciplines.

In fall 2007, the first edition of the festival promised a crossing of geographic and conceptual lines with daring works meant to challenge audiences to re-examine their expectations of French culture.  Partner organizations included the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Peter Norton Symphony Space, Performance Space 122, and Chez Bushwick.  Chez Bushwick screened contemporary video art from France.  FIAF’s Tinker Auditorium screened The Best of Hors Pistes, the Centre Pompidou’s selection of “the most interesting outsider works”: film and video which use new and experimental appraoches and defy conventional genres.  Joël Pommerat and his Compagnie Louis Brouillard made their much-anticipated New York premiere at FIAF’s 400-seat Florence Gould Hall with a stark retelling of Little Red Riding Hood.  Pommerat is currently in residence again in NYC and will present a new piece for CTL in 2014 – his first piece in English with American actors.

The following year, CTL 2008 was co-presented with Center for Performance Research, Dance Theater Workshop, Luxe Gallery, and Performance Space 122.  There was no longer any clear division into categories of theatre, dance, visual arts, cinema.  And for the first time in the festival’s history the idea of a lecture as performance was introduced.  Choreographer Jérôme Bel introduced the festival with “an intimate lecture/discussion, examining with profound insights and humor the very nature of performance.”  Referencing the evocative work of critics Roland Barthes and Peggy Phelan, Bel proposed that “every performance is a last performance, an ephemeral moment populated as much by the spectator’s ghostly projections as by the maker himself.”  At Florence Gould Hall, a set of short films by underground filmmaker Marie Losier was screened, including portraits of Richard Foreman, Guy Maddin, and Tony Conrad, with Tony Conrad in person for a Q & A.  The evening was called Marie Losier’s Film Portraits.

Food Futures at Le Skyroom invited culinary artists from both sides of the Atlantic to discuss what it means to be on the cutting-edge of cuisine.  Le Skyroom then got covered in grass for the US premiere of director Arthur Nauzcyciel’s production of The Image, Samuel Beckett’s radical investigation of the limits of communication.

In 2009 FIAF stated: “Crossing the Line works with artists who, perhaps, have their origins in more traditional or specific disciplinary practices like dance, music, film, visual arts, and cuisine; but who, by re-inventing their relationships to those practices, are completely transforming the practices themselves.”  The festival, still co-curated by Chopra and Dove, was voted “Best of 2009” by The New York Times, Time Out New York, and the Wall Street Journal.  Works of note that year included Metamkine at Florence Gould Hall, co-presented with Anthology Film Archives.  Metamkine is a group of three artists – one musician and two filmmakers – who construct live “musico-cinematic” creations through the use of mirrors, projectors, and audio tape fragments, simultaneously creating a live performance and its document.  Also that year,  Five Fucking Dinners invited New Yorkers to make reservations at all three Momofuku restaurant locations in the East Village to sample “the ultimate cooking happening” by French and New York chefs.  Maria Hassabi’s dance piece, Solo, commissioned by CTL, Performance Space 122, and PERFORMA, deals with representations of the female body as they appear in popular culture and fine art.

In 2010 the festival ran from September 10-27.  Again it was voted “Best of 2010” by The New York Times, Time Out New York, and the Wall Street Journal.  That year, Conversation on Contemplation and Creativity took place between French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard and composer Philip Glass.  Moderated by Dr. Mark Epstein of Harvard Medical School, the conversation’s topic focused on current scientific research on the effects of meditation on the brain.  Jérôme Bel returned to CTL with a dance performance at The Joyce Theater, and dancers Raimund Hoghe and Faustin Linyekula performed at Dance Theater Workshop.  Linyekula also participated in a panel discussion, ECOGRAM: Africa (Cultural Ecology), at Columbia University as part of their ECOGRAM series exploring questions of sustainability and the role artists play in driving social change.

The 2011 festival brochure stated that Crossing the Line was “curated around three principal program perspectives: Fiction & Non-Fiction; Lecture/Performance series; and Endurance/Resistance/Inspiration.”  Gérald Kurdian’s 1999 belonged to the Lecture/Performance series.  It was a a lo-fi performance on space operas that invited the audience to reconsider their undertanding of the musical spectacle.  Congolese contemporary choreographer Faustin Linyekula returned with his Studios Kabako dance company to present more more more…future at The Kitchen.  The piece was an exploration of the history and modern-day struggles of Linyekula’s home, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and was the New York Times and Time Out New York’s Critics’ Pick.

This year, FIAF artistic director Lili Chopra and her co-curators Simon Dove and Gideon Lester invited both Kurdian and Linyekula back.  Linyekula presented his first solo dance piece Le Cargo after a compelling dialogue with director Peter Sellars as part of the Lecture/Performance series which has proven to be a strong curatorial (vehicle?).  Acclaimed French director Pascal Rambert premiered his English-language version of Love’s End (Clôture de l’amour) starring and translated by Kate Moran and Jim Fletcher.  The three artists participated in a post-performance talkback entitled Translating for the Theater: How to Trans-late a French Play to the American Stage?

The New York Times has said, “The French Institute Alliance Française’s annual Crossing the Line has carved out a particular identity as an invigorating, unpredictable, occasionally provocative mix of genres and disciplines.”  Indeed, as the festival has progressed over it’s six-year history, it has reflected the global phenomenon of the breakdown of boundaries separating artistic forms.  In a 2012 interview with Culturebot,  Simon Dove stated: “looking at work as discipline-specific is no longer a valid way of engaging with an artist’s practice.”  The festival has provided a platform for New Yorkers to engage with some of the most important artistic ideas being generated both in France and worldwide that they would not likely have otherwise had the opportunity to see.  Crossing the Line is a bold festival that has directly and successfully deepened the connection and cultural exchange between France and the US.  When asked by the Huffington Post about the difficulties of curating such a festival, Lester replies:  “We’ve already started planning next year and the year after, and none of us has had enough time to really explore what’s out there.”   Let’s hope they get out there and start exploring soon; so far they have certainly delivered.

Joanna Spinks is a Masters of Arts student in French at Brooklyn College writing her thesis on Artaud, Foucault and Lotringer.  She is translating Sylvère Lotringer’s Fous D’Artaud for Univocal Publishing and curates the series TROPISMES at JACK, in Brooklyn.  As well, she will be performing in Pascal Rambert’s Micro Histoire and assisting Fanny de Chaillé on her production of La Bibliothèque: both events will be presented as part of the Crossing the Line Festival 2013.

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