“The Beautiful Dances” by Othoniel at Versailles (English version)


” I want to make the Sun King dance again”  JM Othoniel

"Les Belles Danses" 1er essais de mise en eau et dernières installations des sculptures fontaines ©EPV/ Th Garnier
“Les Belles Danses”
Installation of the last pieces of the Fountain Sculptures, Sept 2014  ©EPV/ Th Garnier

“The Beautiful Dances” by Othoniel represents the first requisition made for a permanent contemporary work of art at the Palace of Versailles.

Following Jean de Loisy (Director of the « Palais de Tokyo ») and Ralph Rugoff (Hayward Gallery / curator of la “Biennale de Lyon” 2015), Jean Michel Othoniel was invited, by Spirit Now!, to give a lecture in London. For our great pleasure, during this private conference, the artist commented on the details of his extra-ordinary adventure at Versailles. Othoniel was an exciting and ample speaker, occupied as much by his work as by this mythical place. Not a sound in the room, we listened, attentive, compelled into entering the intimacy of Othoniel’s artistic research, yet also made to travel to the time of Louis XIV.

The adventure began four years ago. Aillagon, then Director of the Palace of Versailles, began a rehabilitation project concerning the Water Theatre grove, in the Palace’s gardens. This grove, one of the most beautiful at Versailles created by André Le Nôtre, served as the background for theatrical and choreographical festivities that were so dear to the Sun King.

emplacement du bosquet du théatre d'eau
Location of the Water Theater Grove                   copyright:Jean François Péneau 2014

Listening to Othoniel’s story, I found myself imagining these magical scenes of firelight, jets of water seeming to touch the sky, Lully’s charming music, and elegant baroque dances. In this enchanting setting, the monarch reveled in the spectacle around him, full of beautiful women, excessively trimmed and sumptuously dressed, and noble courtiers with smarmy smiles seeking his favor. Louis XIV was in the center of his world, a fascinating object to all who saw him, loved, coveted, feared, and shining brightly in this Water Theatre grove.

Vue du Théatre d'Eau Jean Cotelle 1688

Destroyed by Louis XVI and ravaged by storms during the 1990s, there remained practically nothing of this symbol of yesteryears, a wasteland closed to the public. In light of a renovation project, a contest was organized bringing together no less than 40 candidates. Among them was Louis Benech, a renowned landscaper, who decided to collaborate with Othoniel for this remarkable project. In the footsteps of Le Nôtre and Lebrun, Benech and Othoniel were the only ones to present as a landscaper-artist duo and the project won the competition under the directorship of Catherine Pégard. The die is cast…and with only two years to accomplish everything!

Louis Benech’s main idea was to adhere to the spirit of the original site by giving it a new and resolutely contemporary appearance. The grove’s structure was conserved and a second pool of water took center stage. Above all, the site exudes a leisurely lifestyle, condoning relaxation and pleasure, a place that Louis XIV had made for him in affirmation of his grandeur and his splendor.

Capture d’écran 2015-04-28 à 10.33.17

With much modesty, Othoniel described to us his creative process and his search for a just language to properly evoke Louis XIV through present day writing. Throughout his research, the artist explored the history of Versailles’s gardens, and in doing so found the central idea, the key to his dialogue with the garden: Dance (“la Danse”).

Using the “la Danse,” as a major weapon of expressing his power,” the Sun King had numerous elegant pieces choreographed for himself. The dances were meticulously compiled into a collection called “L’art de décrire la danse” in 1701 by the king’s choreographer, Feuillet. In this collection appeared figures, designs, and interlacings representing the monarch’s rigaudons and minuets. The movements in this script strangely resonate with Othoniel’s own works

Entrée d'Apolon Ecriture chorégraphique pour Louis XIV inspirant les dessins des sculptures fontaines
Entrée d’Apolon – Apolon’s Entrance 
Dances’ calligraphy for Louis XIV inspired Othoniel’s Fountain- sculptures drawings.  ©Othoniel Studio

The artist took his inspiration from these dances and recreated, through his flowering fountain-sculptures, the dancing king’s own arabesques. Each of the three fountains embodies the movement of three of the king’s separate pieces, such as L’Entrée d’Apollon, Le rigaudon de la Paix and La Bourrée d’Achille.

“My works are based on redrawing Feuillet’s striking calligraphy and featuring the dancing King’s body on water.” JM Othoniel

Jean-Michel Othoniel, Les Belles Danses, simulation, 2012 ©Othoniel Studio
Jean-Michel Othoniel, Les Belles Danses, simulation, 2012 ©Othoniel Studio

In order to accomplish these monumental works, 2000 Murano blown glass beads–emblematic elements of Othoniel’s works–had to be created and inlaid with gold. That is, the majestic gold of Versailles, central to the King, radiating power and domination. These beads were then attached to metallic tubes through which the fountain’s water will flow. The water jetting from these tubes (shooting up to 7 meters high), will ultimately continue the movements of the dances and bring music to this ballet.

In the same exact place where the four original fountains from the 17th century were situated, Othoniel placed an imposing, yet magnificent, 60 kg blue Murano glass bead. Othoniel’s choice to use Murano was unquestionably due to the mark’s unsurpassable quality of glass, yet also as a retaliation against history. As a matter of fact, the Sun King had wanted to get hold of the secret to making such valued glass in order to have it produced in France. However, his attempts proved unsuccessful, and Venice remained the only place privy to the secret.

Détail "Les Belles Danses" Othoniel ©Philippe Chancel
Détail “Les Belles Danses” Othoniel
©Philippe Chancel

The magic of “the Beautiful Dances” continues–animated, twirling, graceful, and light, they become part of the reinterpreted history of Versailles. The palace’s gardens, Othoniel’s sculpture, and the water all harmonize, constituting a magnificent homage to the Sun King’s dance.

Continuing with the dance theme, a choreographed piece celebrating Apolon and composed by Benjamin Millepied (Director of the Paris Opera Ballet) will inaugurate the opening of the grove on May 11th.

Starting on May 12th, the Water Theater Grove, adorned with its “Beautiful Dances,” will be open every day to the public.

What a wonderful invitation for us to partake in this dance as well!

Thank you to Spirit now! and its founders, Marie Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre and  Anne Pierre d’Albis-Ganem , for having organized this enthralling talk with Jean Michel Othoniel.

Caroline d’Esneval

Translated by Brianna Reed, Vassar College, ’16.

To learn more:

  • Jean Michel Othoniel is a leading French contemporary artist. Important events throughout his career are those such as his time spent as a resident in the villa Medicis in Rome where he hung giant, glass-beaded necklaces throughout the villa’s gardens (1996), being commissioned in 2000 to transform the entrance to the Parisian metro Palais Royal into the “ Kiosque des Noctambules” (nightowls’ kiosk). Furthermore, Othoniel was featured in various exhibitions at mythic places like the “Crystal Palace” at the Fondation Cartier in 2003, part of  “Contrepoint” at the Louvre in 2004, and in 2011 where he was featured in a retrospective exhibition called “My Way” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Lastly, in the month of May 2015, Jean Michel Othoniel’s “Les Belles Danses” at the Palace of Versailles will represent his most extra-ordinary masterpiece of his career thus far.
  •  http://www.othoniel.fr/


* – Spirit now!: Anne Pierre d’Albis and Marie Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre founded Spirit now! in London, to offer an agenda of conferences and private visits to a group of friends intrigued by art. Major figures from the international art scene (i.e. museum directors, renown curators, artists, philosophers, writers, etc.) are invited to give unformal lectures. To come:  Visit of  the German Artist Carsten Höller exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on June 23rd. This private visit will be presented by Ralph Rugoff -director of the gallery as well as curator of la “Biennale de Lyon” in 2015. For information about Spirit now!, please contact mldect@gmail.com or apdalbis@gmail.com.

Anne Pierre d'Albis-Ganem et Marie-Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre - fondatrices de Spirit now!
Anne Pierre d’Albis-Ganem et Marie-Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre – founders of Spirit now!
JM Othoniel en pleine discussion
JM Othoniel chatting  after the conference




membres Spirit now! au talk de JM Othoniel
members of Spirit now! at the lecture of  JM Othoniel

– The “Beautiful Dances” at Versailles: 


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