18 June – 7 July 2010





It is not often that a dance festival takes over an entire town, but for three weeks each summer Montpellier Danse does just this to the southern French city, with posters and banners adorning squares and avenues as well as garlanding the maze of alleyways of the medieval city centre. This year the festival celebrated its 30th anniversary with a particularly rich programme of national and international dance companies, films, conferences, debates and exhibitions. The city already boasts two first class opera houses, the 19th century Opéra Comédie, and the two thousand-seat Opéra Berlioz, built in 1990, which face each other down a long tree-lined esplanade. The festival’s opening performance inaugurated the new AGORA, Cité  International de la Danse where an 18thcentury convent has been converted to house the National Choreographic Centre based in Montpellier, and also to provide an open-air auditorium, a studio-theatre, rehearsal rooms, conference rooms and even accommodation for visiting dance companies invited to take up residence throughout the year.

For this anniversary year, director Jean-Paul Montanari wished to invite those companies  which have established a special relationship with Montpellier and its festival. The three major international dance companies taking part –  Merce Cunningham Dance Company,  Béjart Ballet Lausanne and Nederlands Dans Theater –  have all recently lost either their founder-directors, or in the case of NDT, its long term director-choreographer. From the performances I saw in Montpellier, I did feel that the mostly young performers in both the Cunningham and Béjart companies lacked the assurance and the charisma which more mature artists and long-term collaborators had always brought to these companies so strongly influenced by their director-creators. Merce Cunningham Dance Company has appeared in every possible venue in Montpellier since their first visit in 1985, and this year inaugurated the AGORA with the 1979 work Roaratorio to music by John Cage. This atypical work of Cunningham’s, of which the music is inspired by James Joyce’s book, Finnigan’s Wake, had been promised to the festival as a birthday present before Cunningham’s death, and was painstakingly reconstructed by company members.

Nederlands Dans Theater, now directed by former dancer, Jim Vincent, appeared in the Opéra Berlioz, performing three works by Jiri Kylian. The opening work, Whereabouts Unknown, has been inspired by Australian aborigines as well as the rituals of African civilizations. It is danced in an impressive stage set and to a compilation of music by different composers: the opening piece by Arvo Pärt did set the atmosphere, incorporating bird song and the clicking of wooden sticks; later a rumbustious section by Steve Reich gave the men of the company a chance to show their strengths with powerful and expressive bodies. However, apart from one man who spent most of the ballet drawing pictures in a pile of sand, ( as the Australian aborigines do ) there was little of the sense of ritual or traces of ancient civilizations in the almost chorus-line ensembles of dance, well-performed as they were. The centre piece of the programme was Kylian’s most recent, and his farewell ballet for NDT, Mémoires d’Oubliettes, danced to music by Dirk Haubrich and Charles Ives as well as to text by Samuel Beckett spoken by Kylian and Sabine Kupferberg. It is a very different kind of Kylian and makes use of his sarcastic humour and feeling for tragic-comedy:  it also introduces surrealist touches where during a lyrical pas de deux the couple are encircled by a man seriously sweeping up a pile of silver metal. Using just six dancers in imaginatively stylised costumes, including an all-male couple of  Pierrot and Columbine, it is an intriguing piece, leaving the audience unsure if the title should be translated as an underground dungeon, or simply as memory and forgetting. The programme was completed with one of his first works for NDT, the 1978 ballet Symphony of Psalms. 

Ballet Béjart Lausanne presented a programme of four short ballets from four very different periods of Béjart’s immense choreographic output, chosen to present works by contemporary composers. It was strange to re-visit the 1957 Sonate pour Trois, one of his earliest ballets, and based on the play Huis Clos by Jean-Paul Sartre. Possibly, it was the huge stage and auditorium which left the ballet without the all-important sense of claustrophia in which the three protagonists fight out their relationships, but the lack of choreographic invention – and there was a surfeit of conventional pirouettes and tours en l’air –  made the drama seem very melodramatic. The most interesting ballet was the most recent in the programme, Dialogue de l’Ombre double, created in 1998. A very slight work involving two acrobats in a deserted circus ring, it showed Béjart’s sense of theatre and was charmingly performed by Kateryna Shalkina and Oscar Chacon. Béjart’s pleasure in working with these young dancers, as he did in Lausanne, was all too obvious. The programme was completed with the 1966 Webern Opus V pas de deux and the curious, oriental-inspired, LeMarteau sans Maitre from 1973. The Alonso King Lines Ballet from San Francisco has been visiting France regularly over the past few years and visited Montpellier for the third time. The youthful company of eleven dancers are extremely lithe and supple, but I found the choreography fidgety and so over-complicated that it appeared to disregard the music. Both works, Refraction to a new score by Jason Moran and Dust and Light, to music by Poulenc and Corelli, are abstract and challenging works, but it was only during the final fifteen minutes that both choreographer and the dancers appeared to relax, their considerable abilities became apparent, strain and concentration giving away to some enjoyable dance.

Other visitors to the Festival included Akram Khan with his new programme Gnosis, Anne Teresa De Keersmaker’s company from Brussels, and from France, several companies and soloists including Régine Chopinot and Alain Buffard, as well as the resident company, directed by Mathilde Monnier, in a new work. During one of the regular debates by local and national critics, the expression ‘non-dance’ was used seriously, and this, or even ‘anti-dance’ seems to describe a lot of performances on show. Raimund Hoghe is highly thought of in France and has been creating theatre works since 1989, visiting Montpellier regularly. This year he was commissioned to create a work in homage to Dominique Bagouet, the first director of the Choreographic Centre and initiator of the festival, who tragically died from Aids in 1992. Hoghe was a writer and dramaturge for Pina Bausch, before deciding to become a choreographer, and without any training or experience in dance, a performer. Si je meurs, laissez le balcon ouvert (If I die leave the balcony open) left the seven performers mostly walking, very slowly, across the stage, up and down the stage and around the stage. At one point they all remained prostrate on the floor and seemed to have dropped off, raising hopes that we might be spared the three hours of tedious ‘non-dance’.

Otherwise, William Forsythe was present with his Installations in a Pavilion on the Esplanade, his City of Abstract in the Municipal Art Gallery and White Bouncy Castle in the foyer of the Opéra Berlioz. Trisha Brown exhibited her drawings in the AGORA and mini dance performances spread out into the squares and streets across the town. In this town full of dance, at eleven o’clock on any evening a dozen youths could be seen break-dancing on the square in front of the Opéra Comédie, and under the platane trees which shade the length of the esplanade, a score of mostly middle-aged locals displayed all the pleasures of dancing a tango.