Culture in France

Orphée, shak’n up by Africa, hip hop & baroque

Audio 04:36
Laurent Philippe

For over 2,000 years, the myth of Orpheus has been a source of inspiration for many: writers, painters, composers, directors … The latest known to date are choreographers José Montalvo and Dominique Hervieu. They recently presented their very own modern vision of Orpheus in an exuberant display mixing song, dance; acrobatics, video projections overlapping continents and centuries.


It’s a flamboyant affair this Orpheus shown at the Chaillot theatre in Paris. It took Montalvo and Hervieu around five months to put this complex show up. Their Orphée harmoniously mix Monteverdi’s baroque music with African dance and sounds.

Zeenat Hansrod

The 18th century composer Gluck is not too far away as is 20th century American composer Philip Glass and woven in is the very contemporary beat box/rap French trio, La Secte Phonétik. The video projections are seamlessly incorporated in the story told by singers and dancers: an acrobat on stilts moves gracefully alongside a ballerina while a one legged hip hop dancer whirls around deliriously.

One very modern aspect of this Orphée resides in its astute way of introducing and mixing African sounds and ballet with Western dance forms and classical musical genre. This is illustrated in a scene where an African artist, Merlin Nyakam sings a lullaby from his native Cameroon accompanied by a theorbo, a 16th century string instrument from Italy.

“I bring my ‘Africaness’ to the play, modern and classical," says Merlin Nyakam who is a former lead dancer of the Ballet National du Cameroun; he has been working with José Montalvo and Dominique Hervieu since 1997. He’s known fellow dancer/singer Sabine Novel for that long. Together they share a close relationship on stage. Merlin Nyakam says of Sabine Novel that “she is very African in the way she expresses herself while dancing”.

French artist Sabine Novel agrees: “There’s an energy in [African] dance and music that makes me feel rooted, like I belong to the earth.”

While carrying out a fusion working session with the classical Western singers of the group, Merlin Nyakam found that they couldn’t easily improvise on African music.

“At first, it was hard for them to move over to a tempo and sounds they are not used to but then it became a game," says Nyakam. Both Novel and Nyakam share the idea that tradition constitutes solid roots for you to reach out and explore new horizons. “My tradition is what my ancestors transmitted to me and ancestors are important because if it were not for them, I wouldn’t exist. However, I live in the modern world and there is this space between tradition and modernity which is the space for artistic creation,” says Merlin Nyakam. And Sabine Novel to conclude: “We are the bridge between tradition and modernity”.

Merlin Nyakam created his own company La Calebasse in 2001. Sabine Nauvel set up hers in 2003, it’s called Le miroir des songes. They intend to work on a common project soon.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning