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How to Heal a Sad Body? Dancing Never Hurts


It came to Héloïse Letissier, who records under the name Christine and the Queens, like a fever. “I want to use the postcard of Paris, and I want to be a broken clown inside of it,” she said in a phone interview, recalling a conversation with the director Colin Solal Cardo. “And then a faun will haunt me.”

The resulting E.P. and short film, “La Vita Nuova,” takes place in various locations at the opulent opera house Palais Garnier, starting with its rooftop. This is more than just another video from a musician who thought it might be fun to hire a choreographer and dance around.

“La Vita Nuova” is a choreographic feat that proves how much of a dancer this French singer-songwriter has become. Ms. Letissier finds solace and inspiration in movement: For her, dancing is not casual or a passing whimsy, but an increasingly important part of her development as an artist. Her path has been drawn, not just through music but through her body.

In the past, her movement and tone could be compared with dancer-singers like Michael Jackson and Madonna, who were influences for her videos “Tilted,” from “Chaleur Humaine” (2014); and “Girlfriend,” from “Chris” (2018). But here, working with the choreographer Ryan Heffington — he has collaborated extensively with the pop artist Sia — Ms. Letissier seems to be more herself than ever.

It helps that the references in “La Vita Nuova,” directed by Mr. Solal Cardo, have less to do with dance than with movies like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (there is a vampire twist), Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” and David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.”

And as dance becomes more knitted into Ms. Letissier’s artistic practice, you might get the feeling that one day her videos and dancing will be referenced by a younger generation. As with Kate Bush — with whom she seems to share an artistic bond — her dancing gives her music another layer of emotion.

In “La Vita Nuova” — where, yes, she is a broken clown that comes into contact with a faun (Félix Maritaud) — she’s odd, enchanting and a little dangerous. Also more daring than ever. You see it in the lushness of her physicality. With the help of Mr. Heffington, who manages to strip away artifice in everything he touches, Ms. Letissier has expanded the breadth of her ability to move through space and time.

Now as she creates a distinct artistic lane as a musician-dancer, Ms. Letissier has taken ownership of her body in both its sadness and its sexuality — especially in the final dance to the title track, with the elegant American singer-songwriter Caroline Polachek, a Bob Fosse dancer if ever there was one. If this song doesn’t make you want to move, nothing will.

What follows are edited excerpts from a recent conversation with Ms. Letissier.

How did this come to you?

It all started with “People, I’ve Been Sad,” which is the first track that opens the movie. It triggered something really urgent and cathartic. I had been experiencing a really rough year personally. I think it bled through the songwriting at that point, and I was like, “Oh, I really need to address that pain and that experience of loss and mourning. Because if I don’t do it, it will cripple me.”

The best way to talk to people about the pain was to make it visible. I think that with cinema and with dance and with a new incarnation of Christine, I’ll be able to tell the story.

You start out on the roof of the Palais Garnier, where you meet the faun. Were you thinking of Nijinsky’s “Afternoon of Faun”?

Not really. I think the faun was supposed to be this mysterious incarnation that would prevent me from dancing every time. In the movie, the threatening thing about him is that he stops the dancing. He bites me during the dancing. He prevents me from properly performing.

How did you end up working with Ryan Heffington?

I’ve been a fan of his for a super long time. I think his choreography really infected the whole pop landscape. Ryan has a really cathartic quality in the dancing. I was really scared to work with him in a big way.


You can’t really perform it. You have to feel it. It sounds really cheesy when you say it, but it’s actually super intense. So all my reflexes of being pretty and moving in the right way — it’s not the right way. And it’s really dangerous because then emotions really surface too easily and you’re overwhelmed.

How did he teach you the choreography?

He performed it for me. Then the whole thing is that you make it personal after that. He’s doing it in a way that suits him and then you have to find a way that suits you. The faces he made at first were really sticking his tongue out like ahhh. I was like, “I don’t know how to do that.” He was like, “You’ll find the right facial expression doing it.” In the movie, I look like a lunatic just smiling in the sky, but for some reason, it was something that came. I felt like I was working with a master.

Kate Bush kept coming to mind as I watched this. Does she influence you?

It’s weird. I never really talk about her as an influence, but I think she was actually relevant — she was really using dance as a way to express something that was not smoothed out. The comparison flatters me a lot because she’s been doing her own thing so precisely.

But we didn’t have many dance references because Ryan built a vocabulary that we knew would be hard to identify in a good way. For once, I didn’t work with strong references in terms of dancing so I was really trusting blindly in someone, which was kind of scary and cool at the same time. I like it when it gets dangerous and it pushes me further.

Do you have a dance practice yourself?

Yeah. At first, I was really wary of doing it because it’s the whole thing of allowing yourself to think of yourself as a dancer: I was like, “I’m not a professional dancer so it doesn’t make any sense.” Then, like everything, the more you practice, the more you become both humbled and disciplined. I can’t stop now.

What do you do?

Sometimes I’m lucky enough to train with dancers I know; sometimes it’s a choreographer that makes me progress; sometimes it’s just me improvising for hours.

Dancing has always been deep for me. It’s always been about empowering vulnerability. With Ryan, the body is unleashing energy and emotion in a very free way, and you kind of lose the concept of being pretty to the eye. I think it’s really liberating. We should all get to that point.


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