The 2007 Cannes Dance Festival, directed by Yorgos Loukos, was a good representation of contemporary dance in France today, the only foreign companies to appear being the Spanish Flamenco Company of Israel Galvan, Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant performing their successful programme PUSH and the company of Sidi Larbu Cherkaoui who, although based in Belgium, is a major figure on the French dance scene. The Ballet Biarritz Thierry Malandain is an attractive company of 15 dancers based in the Atlantic sea-side town with a busy touring schedule taking them this year throughout France and to Russia, Spain, Italy, Luxembourg, Germany as well as to New York’s Joyce Theatre.

In Cannes they performed the 2003 production The Creatures to Beethoven’s score, The Creatures of Prometheus, originally commissioned by the Viennese ballet master, Salvatore Vigano in 1801. It is an invitingly danceable score challenging the highly proficient dancers with energetic ensemble scenes and inventive pas de deux pushing to the limits their remarkably strong but flexible bodies. Malandain has transposed the original mythical libretto to portray the creation of dancer, an Adam figure, joined by an Eve-partner and then by more dancers to recount the creation of dance, from court dancing, to the Romantic Ballet, Classical Ballet, bringing in Loie Fuller and even Isadora Duncan. The wisdom of putting the full cast, including the beefy men, in long and short tutus in disputable and the complications of explaining Adam’s fall from grace as well as the story of Cain and Abel are considerable. However, it was an enjoyable performance, well danced and handsomely presented.

Attending the world premiere of Maguy Marin’s work Turba , commissioned by the festival, I found myself unwittingly recalling President Sarkosy’s recent recommendations to his new Minister of Culture – that subsidy to the arts should take into account the public’s taste. This obviously brought about an outcry from the French arts world and restrictive as this policy could be, I was left wondering who could possibly enjoy this endlessly slow, painfully inept, self-indulgent spectacle. Maguy Marin is the doyenne of France’s choreographers, a leading spirit in France’s new wave of contemporary dance since the 1970’s, and has enjoyed international acclaim especially for her updated versions of Coppelia and Cinderella.  She presently directs one of the generously subsidised National Choreographic Centres, at Rillieux-La-Pape outside Lyon. However Turba is performed not by dancers, but by a group of actors who harangue the audience in Latin, Italian, Spanish, German and French while painstakingly dressing up with rubber noses, fake moustaches, funny hats and wigs and an assortment of costumes only to remove them again. More costumes and props are solemnly moved from the back of the stage to the front where the stage is separated from the auditorium by a small waterfall. There are some attractive visual images but many in almost total obscurity and some excruciatingly loud sound effects. Why this performance was included in a dance festival is a mystery and the performance was given a muted and ‘mixed’ reception.

Jean Albert Cartier has been a major figure in French dance since the 1960’s when he founded and directed the Ballet-Théatre Contemporain. He was also briefly co-director of the Paris Opera Ballet (with Nureyev) and the Ballet of the Opera of Nice. In 1999, wishing to emulate the European Youth Orchestra, he founded Europa Danse, a company of graduate students, offering them a season of performing works by leading choreographers as an entry to professional life. For the current season, with dancers from France, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Finland, Cartier fulfills a long-held ambition, to mount a programme of ballets designed by Picasso. The programme in Cannes opened with a reconstruction of the Picasso-Massine-Cocteau-Satie collaboration, Parade, created for the Diaghliev Ballet in 1917. Extolled as a work of unequalled theatrical innovation at the time, and joyously claimed by Jean Cocteau, the librettist, to have caused a scandal as great as that as Nijinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, the work has been virtually neglected since that time with only a couple of revivals, including one by London’s Festival Ballet in 1974. Unfortunately, the Europa Danse version, although supervised by Lorca Massine, contains little of the original libretto whereby a group of music hall artists are bullied and overworked by their monstrous managers. Despite the pleasure of seeing Picasso’s designs on stage, the production of Pulcinella, also originally choreographed by Massine to the Stravinsky/Pergolesi score was even more disappointing. Although the original scenario was included in the evening programme, the work, choreographed by the Argentinean Ana Maria Stekelman was, like Parade, given as a simple suite of dances and performed adequately by the youthful company. Completing the programme was the curiosity Mercure, originally another Massine-Satie-Picasso collaboration, given here a ‘make-over’ by Thierry Malandain, and a suit of traditional Flamenco dances given in front of a Picasso backdrop.

Along with Maguy Marin’s company, the most eagerly awaited event at Cannes was the performance given by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, considered to be a major new figure on the dance scene in France and he presented his newest work, commissioned by the Opera de la Monnaie in Brussels, Apocrifu. Cherkaoui is obviously formed by his early work in hip-hop and jazz dance and has an extraordinarily flexible, even contortionist dance technique which, for me, limits its impact, revealing a chaotic mess of movement without form or structure. The theme of the work is the power of the written work and he quotes sources from the Bible to Marx but the outpourings of emotion would be better served by a less limited dance vocabulary and a sounder sense of stagecraft. He is gallantly supported by the excellent Corsican male voice choir, ‘A Filetta’, a group of seven singers, but their traditional, plaintive singing had little relationship to the choreography. Despite my reservations the performance was received with adulation.

Besides the major companies appearing on each of the eight evenings, there were smaller French-based groups giving early evening performances. The proliferation of such small groups, and there must hundreds of them, is thanks to the very generous support and ‘carte blanche’ policy given by the national and regional organisations. However, I am not convinced that either dance in general or audiences in particular are benefiting from this benevolence. Most of the directors although young, have come to dance at a late age, and most have little formal dance training and  no period of apprenticeship working with established dancers, choreographers and directors before forming their own groups. Intellectual and philosophical programme notes are rarely matched by good choreography and skilled dancing.

The festival also presented Workshops, Master Classes, conferences and talks and  ended with a Gala des Etoiles organised by the French/Italian magazine Ballet 2000. A lifetime achievement prize was awarded to the much loved French ballerina, Violette Verdy  besides the gala performance which included the young virtuoso dancers, Daniil Simkin from Vienna dancing with Cuba Venus Villa, the American Joseph Phillips soon to join American Ballet Theatre, and dancers from The Paris Opera, Royal Ballet of Flanders, Ballet of La Scala and the Martha  Graham Dance Company.