A year ago, the artist known only as "JR” had never even been to a ballet. As part of a Met-sponsored artist series, he has now built monumental set pieces as well as choreographed and staged his very own “Pièce d'Occasion." How did a graffiti artist turned photographer, famous for illegally flypasting in the world’s poorest neighborhoods, fare at Lincoln Center? Standard Culture inquires.
Standard Culture: Is it true you had never been to a ballet before you started this collaboration?
JR: It’s true. The first ballet I went to see was the New York City Ballet when they invited me to come check it out, maybe one year ago.
Were you intimidated to stage one of your own?
It was a crazy challenge. I had no idea if I could succeed in a world that I didn’t know. That’s always the type of challenge that I have loved. It was crazy that they let someone who had never done a ballet before do this. But they made me feel really comfortable. Weirdly, it’s where I feel comfortable. It was other people around me who told me how crazy this idea was.
How does something like this all come together?
I met Lil’ Buck about two years ago and I thought maybe one day we would do something together. So when the ballet came, I went to the director and said I’d like to suggest this one dancer from outside the company. I was so scared to say the name because I had no idea how they would react, and I really didn’t want to make a bad first step. They said, “Of course, we love Lil’ Buck!” So then, the first step was to write the story of the ballet. And then you find a composer and they write the music and when the music is complete then they start the rehearsal. I was a little bit shy to ask Woodkid because he is so busy, but luckily he was like, “I’ve been waiting for you to ask me to do something.” He wrote an incredible piece for 80 musicians. The music really moves me and I think that he translated my vision beautifully.
JR rehearsing NYCB dancers in "Les Bosquets"
Lil' Buck poses for a quick "us-y" with fans in the lobby
What is the story of the ballet?
The story is basically the riots of 2005 in France. Actually, in the summer of 2004 I did my first pasting but the city sued me and I had to leave the country for a year. When I came back, the riots actually exploded right in front of my photo. A year later, I was on the news around the world and my photo was part of the background of the largest riot since the French Revolution. For me, it's really a turning point in my career. I wanted to continue what I started with the kids there and that’s why I started the portrait series.
You’ve collaborated in the past with José Parlá for the Wrinkles of the City project. The ballet is a massive collaboration. When creative people come together on a project, it can get very delicate, very quickly. How do you avoid hurt feelings?
I think its one of the hardest things to work in collaboration with other artists. It’s much harder than working alone because you have to listen to other points of view. But I have learned so much from that process. It’s not easy with every artist but José Parlá, and with the New York City Ballet, it’s been really smooth. I just have to trust my instincts.
Have you learned a lot about ballet. Do you have a favorite?
Yeah, I’ve been going a lot. I’ve discovered Balachine. I love discovering young choreographers like Justin Peck who is the youngest choreographer at the New York City Ballet. I’m learning everyday, but I still have a long way to go.
Why do you still protect your anonymity?
It started at the beginning because graffiti is illegal. Pasting is also illegal in a lot of places. I’m in this position where in some countries I’m invited and given great freedom and I’m arrested for the same thing on the other side of the world. It makes it easier for me to travel in some countries. I went to North Korea last year and I was totally anonymous so if I can try and keep that a bit longer I think I will.
JR in New York City Ballet's rehearsal studios.
We are doing a short film taking the dancers from the Ballet and having them dance in the projects in France where the riots took place. We’re filming them first in New York and then in Paris. Woodkid is doing the music and it should be ready this summer I think.
THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT JR:
• TED Prize winner in 2011
• Flypasting is the act of adhering paper to walls, “on the fly.” The paste is a gel or liquid adhesive made from wheat flour or starch and water. It has been used since antiquity for various arts and crafts and more recently for “guerrilla” marketing.
• Iconic Projects are: Inside Out and Wrinkles of the City
• Standard Press published a book in 2012 about his collaboration with painter José Parlá in Havana, Cuba.
Les Bosquets runs through May 5. Possibly, tickets can be found here.
Photos courtesy JR & the New York City Ballet Art Series 2014
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, NY, USA
21 January - 2 March 2014