The New Punk, (La)Horde Style: Working ‘for a Brighter Future’

They are three, but they create as one. They work in dance, music, cinema and fashion — worlds they enter in ways both playful and subversive, including choreographing a video for Burberry inspired by “Singin’ in the Rain,” in which blocks of ice crash down from the sky. It weighs in on climate change. Everyone is smiling, but it isn’t sweet.

They love how musicals can pivot from light to dark.

They have worked with Sam Smith (the videos “I’m Not Here to Make Friends” and “Unholy”); with Spike Jonze — a hero — who wrote “Ghosts,” a film they directed; and recently with Madonna, as artistic director of choreography for the Celebration Tour. Their own works are experimental and daring, filled with energy and a bright, churning spirit to carry and uplift dance, to blow on the embers of its flame, to give it a new future.

They may only be three but they are a horde. They are (La)Horde.

The founders of (La)Horde, center: Marine Brutti, Jonathan Debrouwer (seated) and Arthur Harel, with dancers from the Ballet National de Marseille, wearing Salomé Poloudenny’s costumes for “Room With a View.”Credit…Benjamin Malapris for The New York Times

Formed in 2013 by Marine Brutti, 38, Jonathan Debrouwer, 38, and Arthur Harel, 33, (La)Horde is a collective for which movement and the body are at the heart of myriad artistic pursuits. Since 2019, they have been the directors of the Ballet National de Marseille. And now, they are finallycoming to New York City.

This fall, the Ballet National de Marseille performs as part of Dance Reflections, an ambitious festival sponsored by Van Cleef & Arpels that will overtake the city, beginning on Oct. 19 with “Dance,” a 1979 collaboration by Lucinda Childs and Philip Glass performed by the Lyon Opera Ballet at New York City Center; and concluding with a performance of Pina Bausch’s “The Rite of Spring” at the Park Avenue Armory.

At a time when the performing arts are struggling in New York, the festival is fortuitous — and full of experimentation. It’s not only dance classics, but also newer productions from contemporary choreographers like Gisèle Vienne, Rachid Ouramdane, Boris Charmatz and (La)Horde, including its evening-length “Room With a View.”

Serge Laurent, the director of dance and culture programs for Van Cleef & Arpels, said he wanted to celebrate the richness and the creativity of dance by bookending the festival with classic works, but also to include the dances of today. These more contemporary artists, Laurent said, “are all inventing their own language, and it’s that diversity of language I really wanted to present.”

Nonoka Kato (standing) and Yoshiko Kinoshita of Ballet National de Marseille.Credit…Benjamin Malapris for The New York Times
Nina-Laura Auerbach.Credit…Benjamin Malapris for The New York Times

As the directors of the Ballet National de Marseille, a contemporary ballet company that is also a government-supported choreographic center in France, (La)Horde does both: They present new works by themselves and others, while looking to the past to build their company’s repertory. Diving into the company’s archives, they discovered Lucinda Childs’s “Tempo Vicino,” set to John Adams, and will show it as part of their season.

While Brutti generally does the talking for (La)Horde — Harel and Debrouwer understand English, but aren’t as comfortable communicating — they speak as one. (If they don’t agree with what Brutti is saying, they do interrupt — but that is rare.) About Childs, the postmodern formalist, the collective said: “Lucinda’s work is so timeless. It’s kind of a shame that there is a pursuit on creating more and more and more without having the ones that are amazing still.”

How did the threesome end up as artistic directors of Ballet National de Marseille? While they were visiting Los Angeles, Dimitri Chamblas — the contemporary choreographer and dean of dance at California Institute of the Arts — asked them if they had seen the open call for the position. They had, but didn’t think much of it. Chamblas, who is also presenting a work as part of Dance Reflections, told them that they had to try. “He was like, ‘You’re young, you’re hot at the moment — if not now, when?’” the group said.

It made them think — not about the job, but about how applying for it could serve (La)Horde, in a deeper way. They decided that they would create a manifesto about what contemporary dance could be today.

“We were talking about the mutable forms that dance could take,” the group said. “We were also trying to get rid of this snobbism of, OK, there is this dance and then there is that dance — these scales of values that are completely terrible.”

To (La)Horde, dance is nonbinary: “There is so much segregation. Classical dance is something. Contemporary dance is something. Modern is something, and street dances and then TikTok dances. You have urban dance. What does it mean? We want to get rid of that idea of class.”

Obviously, (La)Horde got the job in Marseille, where they have built a company of dancers from 16 countries. Many groups espouse a commitment to diversity, but (La)Horde means it: Just as its members come from an array of cultures, they also have a range of bodies, ages and training. Along with skill and passion, they look for dancers with curiosity.

“We are firm believers that dancers are thinkers of the body,” they said. “The moment of auditions is a moment when we meet new collaborators for the first time. Auditions can be violent in a dancer’s life. We wish to create an environment where we give as much as they do. So we built the auditions as a workshop. We then observe who clicks, whose character will bring something to the group.”

Their expansive vision — a worldly view of dancers and of what dance can be — reaches audiences, too. In July, 20,000 people attended a performance of “Room” in the Old Port of Marseille. On video, it looks like it could be a rock concert. And they have decided to stay awhile. After completing their first contract of four years, (La)Horde signed on for another three. (The maximum is 10. They joked that it’s like a presidency.)

What fuels them is desire, and they expect the same kind of artistic appetite in their collaborators. “We’re always saying: ‘You stay, you go. There are no hard feelings. We just want you to be there if you have the desire to be there.’”

Clockwise from top left: Nathan Gombert, Amy Lim, Antoine Vander Linden and Aya Sato. The company’s dancers are diverse in terms of age, background and training. Credit…Benjamin Malapris for The New York Times

“Room With a View” is one such collaboration. Created with the French electronic composer and artist Rone, it transports 18 dancers to an onstage marble quarry. There is struggle and catharsis as violence seeps in and out of the movement — urgent, stark and all consuming. Internal rhythms gradually lead bodies to shudder and sway in even-growing unison to Rone’s gripping score. Rone, performing live, is onstage with the dancers, who ultimately find a sense of peace. It’s a wild ride.

The look of “Room” is powerful, too. Along with Salomé Poloudenny’s costumes, the set has much in common with the company’s headquarters, which (La)Horde referred to as “a concrete bunker.” The structure reflected how they felt as young artists — the directors of the second largest dance institution in France — entering a fortress of sorts where they remade the ballet company on their terms: Bringing together a group of diverse dancers, all of the same rank, to focus on exploring humanistic topics.

“We do believe that the whole process of us creating this group and a show at the same time,” the collective said, “was very entangled.”

For “Room,” they wanted to explore ideas around climate change, but struggled with nuance: “How do we talk about the world without being preachers or giving too many lessons or being into a form of accusation or guilt?” the group said. “Or even in kind of a performative activism?”

(La)Horde began to focus on the notion of collapse, which they said, “is sometimes for the worst, like when we’re talking about ecology, about human rights, about the killing of women.” But what if bad things collapsed too? “Like the fall of patriarchy or police brutality.”

In other words, what if the chaos of collapsing structures could create openings? In “Room,” relationships get blurry; there are states of submission and power, but as it progresses, dynamics change. Club dancing shifts into scenes featuring the performers paired up — their bodies tangled and twisted in rage and despair — which eventually leads into emphatic, unison choreography. (La)Horde said they owed much to Rone, or Erwan Castex, for helping to guide the work’s development. He felt strongly, they said, that “Room” end not on a sad note, but with the possibility for hope.

“This idea of having hope is starting to be very criticized — like, oh, you’re delusional, you’re naïve, the world is going to flames and there’s nothing you can do about it,” the group said. But now, that idea of hope is at the core of (La)Horde’s work. “We’re keeping it forever,” they said. “The way to be punk today might be to work for a brighter future.”

For that new direction, they revisited classic musicals, which they see as political vehicles — unlikely places to talk about weighty issues like race and immigration. That influence can be seen at the end of “Room,” as well as in the “Age of Content,” whose finale will be shown in New York. It features “viral gestures you can see on TikTok and Instagram,” they said. “But we’re creating formations that are sometimes like Lucinda’s — super geometrical. It’s nuts! We were so excited by this whole mix of us referencing someone we love so much, but still staying in tune with our times.”

(La)Horde views social media as a huge musical, where people dance, sing and reproduce movements. What they detest is a hierarchy among dance forms. On their second Dance Reflections program, the Ballet National will perform works by Childs, the Guyanese, Paris-based vogue artist Lasseindra Ninja and (La)Horde.

“Lucinda is kind of like a blue chip,” the group said. “She’s a validation of something. When you share the poster with such a name, it gives you the same kind of status. Lasseindra is immediately on the same level.”

Left, Amy Lin (pink tank top) and Izzac Carroll.Credit…Benjamin Malapris for The New York Times
“We are firm believers that dancers are thinkers of the body,” (La)Horde saidCredit…Benjamin Malapris for The New York Times

Brutti, Debrouwer and Harel met in Paris as young artists with no clue about how to make their ideas happen. They were frequently together in queer spaces — bars, clubs, parties — and found themselves assisting one another on small projects. “It was always like, Oh, I’ve got this tiny project, please, can you help me out?” the group said. “And it was always the three of us.”

After a couple of years, they decided to think about their collaboration as a structure, as a house. They would “go and hunt for projects and bring them home, and, like, share the beef,” they said. “Because of this idea of hunters and shelter and protection we decided to call each other (La)Horde. The horde. There was something enticing — a movement that would go forward. A chasing of something. Something quite aggressive, not in an aggressive way, but in the way of the dynamic of it all.”

And then there is Madonna. While they cannot reveal aspects of her coming tour, they can talk about how her vision for dance is meaningful to them, along with the way she has always been inclusive — breaking hierarchy of forms and incorporating a humanist’s vision into her work. “The visual aspect of dance and presenting a concert as a pop show, which is not a cabaret, which is not a musical, but is really the invention of a new genre that is actually very close to contemporary dance,” the group said. “With singing.”

(La)Horde said they click with her on many levels. “The first message she wrote to us was like, ‘Want to collaborate?’” they said. “She never said, ‘Do want to work for me?’ She really has this excitement of meeting artists, meeting different perspectives on art that she knows so well and she’s so cultured about and collaboration — broadening her vision.”

The same is true of (La)Horde. They are interested not in how people move, but in what moves them, they say, quoting Pina Bausch. “Within movement, everything can be said about your humanity,” they said. “How do you behave when you’re in a train station? How do you behave when you’re in your bedroom? How do you behave when you are in a club?”

The body is at the heart of everything they do, and their definition of being artists is to look at the world to see what they can say, what they can question.

“Even if we’re saying something sad or something violent or something beautiful — whatever form it takes, in the end the primary form is a celebration of our human nature,” they said, adding that it might sound stupid, but “maybe dance can change the world.”

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