A Transgender Director Who Defies Genres (to France’s Confusion)

PARIS — No one quite knows what to do with Phia Ménard’s work. Is it theater? Is it dance? The Avignon Festival lists her latest creation, “Saison Sèche” (“Dry Season”), which will have its premiere there, in another category altogether, the vague-sounding “Indiscipline.”

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A Transgender Director Who Defies Genres (to France’s Confusion)
Laura Cappelle
, New York Times

PARIS — No one quite knows what to do with Phia Ménard’s work. Is it theater? Is it dance? The Avignon Festival lists her latest creation, “Saison Sèche” (“Dry Season”), which will have its premiere there, in another category altogether, the vague-sounding “Indiscipline.”

“Since they didn’t know where to put me, I’m ‘undisciplined,'” she said in a recent interview, looking wearily amused. Ménard, 47, often perplexes programmers. Her stage productions feature almost no text and operate on an architectural scale, somewhere between choreography and art installation. Their slow-moving tableaux dwarf any human presence, leaving audiences with enigmatic, elemental images — a shadowy army of frozen figures melting before our eyes, say, or a lonely performer struggling in a vortex of fan-powered winds.

Ménard is one of few prominent transgender artists in France, a country where transgender issues have struggled to gain public traction. Gender is the dominant theme of this year’s Avignon Festival, a 19-day event that is the most important in the French theater calendar, and Ménard’s “Saison Sèche” is one of several works on the program that focus on transgender identity. Others are Didier Ruiz’s “TRANS (més enllà),” or “TRANS (Beyond),” and François Chaignaud and Nino Laisné's “Romances Inciertos, un Nouveau Orlando” (“Uncertain Romances, a New Orlando”). The festival opened Friday and runs through July 24.

For Ménard, the commission comes on the heels of a big season. In February, her first opera staging, of Rameau’s “Et in Arcadia Ego” came at the Opéra-Comique in Paris; in 2017, she unveiled “Les Os Noirs" (“Black Bones”), a dark, unsettling creation about suicide.

“Saison Sèche” deals with the violence women suffer in patriarchal societies. The cast will be trapped in a closed white space, under a ceiling that moves up and down without rhyme or reason. “It’s the glass ceiling, and more,” Ménard said. “That’s what it’s like to be permanently under surveillance, and reprimanded as soon as an action is deemed objectionable.”

In person, Ménard, who first made a name for herself as a virtuoso juggler in the 1990s, is thoughtful and patient; one senses that her even, articulate tone was honed over years of explaining herself. While the United States has prominent transgender performers, such as Laverne Cox and Trace Lysette, transgender identity is only just entering mainstream consciousness in France. For a long time, Ménard said, it remained tied to Parisian night life and a handful of cabaret performers who came of age in the 1960s, like Coccinelle, who died in 2006, and Bambi, 82, who will be in Avignon to introduce a documentary about her life.

There are signs of change: A well-known comedian, Océan, recently came out as a transgender man, and a transgender character was introduced in March on “Plus Belle la Vie,” one of France’s most popular TV soap operas. Still, Ménard said, French culture’s “macho” Latin roots led to societal resistance, and mainstream depictions of transgender identity can be problematic. Last year, the director Nadir Moknèche was criticized for casting the actress Fanny Ardant as a transgender woman in his film “Lola Pater.” In an interview with the magazine Télérama, Moknèche railed against his detractors, saying their argument implied “only a rapist could play a rapist.”

Ménard grew up in the Brittany region of northern France, where her mother was a seamstress and her father worked in the local shipyards. Her working-class environment in the 1970s and early ‘80s was left-wing and pro-union, but gender roles were strictly defined. “When you were discovered wearing your mother’s clothes, you were taken to a therapist,” Ménard said — speaking of herself, as she often did, in the second person. “All the way until my late 20s, I thought I was crazy.”

After high school, she moved to Nantes to study microtechnology, specializing in the working of microscopic surgical instruments. She never put her degree to use, however: Around the same time, she discovered juggling and trained with a master of the craft, Jérôme Thomas. “For the first time, I was able to do something that I liked with my body,” she said.

While being onstage gave her some of the freedom she craved, a chance encounter with a choreographer whose partner had transitioned brought about a personal reckoning. “She told me, ‘You’re not crazy, you’re just trans,'” Ménard said.

She had already started to lose interest in bravura juggling displays, and turned instead to using cactuses or heavy tires. “I knew that the audience spent most of their time waiting for the moment the balls would fall,” she said. “I didn’t want people to expect virtuosity, I wanted them to empathize with me.”

When she started her hormonal transition, in 2008, she crafted the first of her works exploring natural elements, “P.P.P.,” in which blocks of ice randomly fell from the ceiling onto the stage, where Menard stood, exposed. “It struck me: Ice is a material that you look at with desire, yet that you don’t want to touch. It’s the same position as a trans person: They provoke a kind of desire, and at the same time you’re afraid to sleep with them,” Ménard said. “P.P.P.” wasn’t an instant hit, despite critical praise. After some initial performances, Menard found it impossible to convince the programmers of festivals or cultural venues to take it on. With no more in sight after the first year, she went back to the Ministry of Culture, which had helped fund the work’s development: “Here is your public money back, it’s a failure,” she said she told them. But the ministry refused to take it and “P.P.P.” found its audience, later touring for a decade.

Ménard never holds auditions. Some performers get in touch by email; some come up to her after performances. Their training varies, from dance to theater and visual arts, but they all have one thing in common: “Only women come to me,” Ménard said.

In “Saison Sèche,” there will be seven of them. Ménard does not cast herself in her group works: “All the women are cisgender,” she said, using the term for those whose gender identity matches their gender assigned at birth. “Inevitably, if I were onstage, I know audience members would look at me,” she said. “The very issue around a body like mine is to know what it’s become, what it is. Automatically, there would be a comparison.”

Instead, the women of “Saison Sèche” slowly acquire masculine personas over the course of the performance — a reminder, Ménard said, that gendered behavior is socially constructed. Because of fear, “we keep building walls,” she added. “The cast shows that they can be crossed, that it’s just a movie set.” In her life, Ménard says she has felt like a “translator” for both men and women.

“I lived on the side of power for 30 years,” Ménard said. “I was invisible then: I could walk into any street at night, and the chances that something would happen to me were very slim. Now it’s absolutely impossible. I’ve lost the right to invisibility. It’s a reminder that suddenly, I no longer own space — I’m just a tenant.”

Regardless, her life has become “simpler” since her transition, she said, adding that she was at peace.

“On a hormonal level, I’m just a teenager,” Ménard said, with a faintly ironic smile. “Maybe that’s why I’m so uncontrollable.”

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