Who wouldn’t want to support a film called Gallant Indies? Like a lot of what one sees in this arts documentary, there’s more to the title than what you first see. Philippe Béziat’s feature doc is an engrossing behind the scenes look at the creation of a streetwise adaptation of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s baroque opera ballet “Les indes galantes,” which was a huge hit during the reign of Louis XV in the 1730s. Rameau’s epic celebrated love throughout the world: in the Ottoman Empire, Peru, Persia and a forest in North America. After the French Revolution, Rameau’s astonishing body of work was buried until the mid-20th century, when it began to achieve a renewed popularity brought on by an upsurge of interest in baroque music.
Now, it’s been rethought in a completely new and highly political way, genuinely bringing Rameau’s conception up to date, with Béziat on hand to document a radical approach to an artistic masterpiece made during the Bourbon Empire. Choreographer Bintou Dembélé, conceptual master of “mise-en-scene” Clément Cogitore and musical director Leonardo Garcia Alarcon have transfigured the piece into a celebration, through staging and dance, of the diversity that is contemporary France—and most of the Western world.
Béziat’s film focuses on the dancers, whose families come mainly from former French colonies in Africa, Asia and the Americas, and have multiple generational histories to share with us. Like Bintou (as everyone calls her), they have been raised dancing first on hip hop, the moving on to krumping, locking, popping, and flexing. Bintou, who has been choreographing street dance on stage for decades, is given free-reign to get her performers to collaborate with the musicians, designers, costumers and theatre technicians to unleash powerful dance on stage. Much of the drama in this doc comes from the growing respect and even love that emerges through the commingling of classically trained players and brilliant street-smart talents .
While watching Gallant Indies, it becomes clear that much of the radical thinking behind the project is from Clément Cogitore. He’s the one who wants to address issues of colonialism, imperialism, racism and slavery. Cogitore turns “Les indes galantes” upside down by proposing that one doesn’t have to travel around the world to encounter different styles of love. The four corners of the world, he tells the dancers, are in Paris: it’s a thought that resonates with them and ultimately with all of the creative team behind the production.
Cogitore is all too aware of the period when Rameau composed and the Emperor Louis XV, while supporting the arts, ruled with an imperial hand over huge areas of the world. Slavery was an important economic factor during these times as was the death, or manipulation of the native populations in the Americas and elsewhere. The intent in this reconceptualization of Rameau’s work is to address how love existed in such a world.
Béziat’s film allows us to watch as Bintou, the dancers and Cogitore work to modernize Rameau without denying the terrible conditions that existed in the 18th century. Gallant Indies celebrates the creative process and what we see is a good-hearted spirit that has collaborators from different artistic disciplines transform the feeling of this baroque opera into a dance filled epic dedicated to the unifying nature of love.
It helps if you love Rameau’s music and appreciate the structure of an opera ballet. I do—and thoroughly enjoyed this political and artistic reclamation of a masterpiece. Gallant Indies shows that love and creativity are forces of incalculable value in our contemporary fight towards racial and economic equality.
Gallant Indies premiered at Hot Docs 2021.
Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.