When it comes to the biggest sports show on earth, many Parisians have reached the stage of begrudging acceptance. The level of disruption — and metro price hikes — to get the city ready for this summer’s Olympic Games hasn’t exactly endeared the event to locals, especially those who favor culture over sports.
“The Olympics are coming — whether we like it or not,” a curator from the Pompidou Center, Linus Gratte, said as he introduced a performance there this past weekend as part of the “Hors Pistes” festival. The audience chuckled.
“Hors Pistes” (meaning “Off-Piste”), a festival the Pompidou Center says is devoted to “moving images,” came with an Olympic-ready theme this year: “The Rules of Sport.” It is part of the Cultural Olympiad, the program of arts events that is now a part of the Olympic experience in every host city.
For the Paris Cultural Olympiad — spearheaded by Dominique Hervieu, an experienced performing arts curator — the city has opted to go big. Any cultural institution could apply for the “Olympiad” label, leading to a sprawling lineup of sports-related exhibitions and performances, which started back in 2022. This has led to a degree of confusion over what, exactly, the Olympiad stands for: Its official website currently lists no fewer than 984 upcoming events.
And quite a few of them end up exploring a paradox, because art and sports rarely mix in France. As a rule, the country’s artistic output leans toward intellectualism rather than the virtuosity embodied by high-level athletes. The Pompidou Center, a flagship venue for contemporary art, telegraphs as much in its “Hors Pistes” publicity material, which says the festival’s goal is “to question and subvert the rules of sport, and to imagine new interpretations of them.”
While the Pompidou is primarily an art museum, and “Hors Pistes” comes with a small exhibition, the festival features a significant number of performances, onstage in the center’s theater, or in its galleries. Some of these struggled to find coherent common ground with sports, however, like Anna Chirescu and Grégoire Schaller’s “Dirty Dancers,” an hourlong dance performance staged in the exhibition space, with sports-style bleachers for the audience.
“Dirty Dancers” seeks to bridge the gap between Yvonne Rainer’s 1966 piece “Trio A” (a landmark of postmodern dance) and the gymnastics routine that landed Nadia Comaneci the first perfect score at the 1976 Olympics. Oddly, it refers to the floor exercise throughout, even though the gymnast scored that groundbreaking “10” on the uneven bars. Chirescu, Schaller and a third performer attempt to contrast the extreme prowess of gymnastics with Rainer’s everyday movements and, more largely, artists’ quest for meaning and originality. Yet “Dirty Dancers” is too much of a mishmash — there are also goofy karaoke scenes thrown in — to represent that quest effectively.
Yaïr Barelli’s “Zaman Without You,” on the other hand, brought into sharp relief the impact of current events on athletes. A mix of dance and video, this hourlong show was initially conceived as “Zaman Against You,” with an unnamed Iranian visual artist. As Barelli, an Israeli-born performer, explains 25 minutes into the performance, the goal was to explore each other’s culture, in a context where Israel and Iran are bitterly at odds. But the Iranian artist was “forced to withdraw,” Barelli tells us, without going into details.
“Zaman Without You” leaves the space that Barelli’s Iranian collaborator was set to occupy conspicuously empty. A mic stands where she should have been, as shaky videos filmed in the artists’ home countries are shown side by side on a screen. Later, in a scene in which the duo was supposed to wrestle, Barelli grasps at the air, fighting with his counterpart’s absence instead.
The result was overlong, but it clearly makes the connection with a longstanding issue in sports: Since 2019, Iran has prohibited its athletes from competing against Israeli peers. Near the end of “Zaman Without You,” video footage of a young Iranian athlete brought to tears because he cannot compete plays on a loop, strikingly.
The surrounding “Hors Pistes” exhibition, staged over a handful of rooms in the basement of the sprawling Pompidou building, similarly toys with the Games’ sociopolitical history. One arresting film, “Sommerspiele,” looks back on the 1936 Summer Olympics, which took place in Germany under the Nazi regime: In it, the Hungarian artist Eszter Salamon delivers purposely grotesque vignettes, naked, around the empty venues of the Berlin Olympic Park. Maria Vedder’s “The Indian Olympics,” another video project, imagines what the Games might look like in India, where they’ve never been held.
The most scorching commentary on sport and its rules, however, came from the performer and director Rébecca Chaillon. At the start of her piece “Where the Goat is Tied, It Must Graze,” Chaillon sits leisurely on bleachers at the back of the stage. She drinks beer, munches on pizza from a stack of takeaway boxes and occasionally smokes a cigarette. Excerpts from a women’s soccer match play on a screen; she says nothing, her slouching body in silent contrast to the athletes’ lean physiques.
Eight amateur soccer players then join her onstage. As they run, chant and change in and out of workout clothes, Chaillon carries on eating. “I don’t like soccer. It’s not for me,” she says when she finally speaks. “I think it’s because I’m fat. Or Black. Or a girl who likes girls.”
“Where the Goat is Tied, It Must Graze” really hits its stride in its final hour, when Chaillon lets loose. The rest of the cast chat casually about their personal experiences of the empowering role soccer, and women’s teams, have played in their lives. Yet Chaillon, now naked, keeps questioning their assertions with unvarnished weariness: “Women’s soccer is fashionable. Is it feminist just because a woman is doing something?”
Near the end, she dons a helmet and stands like a goalkeeper, with her back to the others. They kick soccer balls at her, over and over, until she keels over. It’s a strange, fascinating act of masochism, as if to underline the pain sports can cause to those who struggle to relate to its ideals. As France — and the world — gears up to celebrate them, it’s worth pausing to consider this contrary viewpoint.