La danse de l’Air by Emmanuelle Rigaud – Fleury Merogis Women’s Detention Centre

The Fondation Villa Seurat pour l’art contemporain, under the aegis of the Fondation de France, gives financial support to socially-engaged art projects with the aim of extending the possibilities for artistic creation to people in vulnerable situations. These individuals benefit from the transmission of artistic knowledge underlying the projects chosen by the Fondation, and make it their own.

Les alouettes naïves, the winning company in the call for projects by the Fondation Villa Seurat, in partnership with the rehabilitation and probation service (SPIP) of Essonne (near Paris), performed its show La danse de l’Air at the Fleury-Merogis Women’s Detention Centre in early spring 2019.

The performance was designed and choreographed, and the sets built, by the detainees, with guidance and support from choreographer Emmanuelle Rigaud and visual artist Catherine Aznar. A number of detainees and their guards attended the performance, along with representatives of the SPIP, and people from outside who had been granted permission by the detention centre authorities.

As soon as the lights were dimmed and the curtain rose, garlands appeared, suspended in the centre of the room and festooned with coloured geometric patterns through which the stage could be seen. The themed décor continued on both sides of the stage, this time resembling subtly floating screens. Then, to the strains of languid Oriental music that grew ever more seductive, first one, then two, then three dancers appeared, and finally the whole company of detainees, lamé scarves draped across their hips, midriffs bare and faces beautifully made up, their radiant feminine silhouettes moving in time with the music against the lights and the shimmering décor. The audience greeted them with ecstatic chanting, thunderous applause and admiring whistles. There were other moments when silence fell, when the emotion became almost too much for the detainees and public witnessing this ballet, so unexpected but so perfect in its understated symbolism.

Dancers of the air, daughters of the air longing for the distant Orient – these women in their semi-nudity, swaying voluptuously to the bright, luminous notes, embodied the dream of freedom. The curtains, screens and transparent fabrics, the air dance and belly dancing all evoked the closed spaces and confinement that can be the woman’s lot.
With music and choreography so familiar to all, every detainee could see herself as a creator, dancer or spectator In this performance. Together, they shared a moment of real admiration and recognition.

As if unwilling to break the spell cast by the performance, the dancers, choreographer, visual artist, members of the public and detention centre staff lingered to talk long after the curtain had fallen, another precious chance for everyone to learn about the world of prison they had just glimpsed. The corps de ballet of detainees were eager to get back on stage, and their friends to applaud them again. The guards welcomed the experience, while admitting that it would not find favour with those who believe punishment should always be harsh. The Fondation Villa Seurat pour l’art contemporain sees its work differently: giving these young detainees access to artistic expression should go some, albeit small, way to preparing them for life after release.