CANNES DANCE FESTIVAL- Ballet de Toulouse & Ballet de Lyon- November 2015

The American ballerina, Rosella Hightower, chose to settle in Cannes in 1961 where she was already well-known and much admired from her regular appearances with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas. Hightower opened a Centre International de la Danse which became a mecca for dancers from all over the world and a meeting place for international choreographers, teachers and dance company directors. It was her initiative to create a dance festival in Cannes and the first festival, a biennale, took place in 1985 of which she was named president. Yorgos Loukos, director of the Ballet of Lyon and the Athens Festival, took over as director in 1992 and during his sixteen years reign established the festival as an important international dance event, inviting leading dancers and companies from all over the world to take part. Following his departure in 2009 Frédéric Flamand, at that time director of the National Ballet of Marseille, introduced a much more personal and stringently contemporary programme. The arrival of Brigitte Lefèvre, former director of the Paris Opéra Ballet this year has been awaited with much anticipation.

Brigitte Lefèvre chose an eclectic mixture of popular and audacious programmes from twelve different companies – mainly regional French companies, such as those from Toulouse, Lyon, Montpellier, and Belfort, some smaller independent groups and international companies from Korea, Argentina and Spain. The standard of the national companies varied enormously from the excellent National Ballet of Spain and the Lyon Opera Ballet to others looking more like student groups and some with more pretentions than ability or talent. Contemporary dance rules in France today, and throughout the festival there was hardly a pointe shoe to be seen but lots of bare legs and near naked bodies. If a narrative theme is chosen this is inevitably teased and twisted to remove any thread of a story, only rarely with success, as was shown with Kader Belarbi’s The Beast and Beauty for the company from Toulouse.

Le Ballet du Capitole from Toulouse is one of the few remaining companies in France retaining a classical, or neo-classical, style. The Opera House, ‘Le Capitole’ has always played an important part in Toulouse and there has been a ballet company based at the Capitole for more than 300 years, notably successful in the 19th century performing the romantic ballets of the time. More recently, and like many of the opera-ballet companies in France, the Ballet du Capitole fell into a provincial slumber to be awakened, perhaps unexpectedly, by the arrival of the American, Nanette Glushak in 1994. A former dancer with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, Glushak had directed the ballet company in Dallas, Texas and, briefly, Scottish Ballet. During her 18 years in Toulouse, Glushak reinvented the company, making improvements in the working conditions, giving the company its own home, increasing the number of performances and strengthening the standard of the dancers and of the company. I saw an enjoyable production of Coppelia there a few years ago. In 2012 she was succeeded by Kader Belarbi, former danseur étoile with the Paris Opéra Ballet and an experienced choreographer. The 35 strong company continues to perform Coppelia and Giselle but Belarbi contributes new ballets each season as well as inviting leading contemporary choreographers. The company is rarely seen outside of Toulouse so their appearance in Cannes was welcomed.

The title, The Beast and the Beauty, already lets us know that this production has little to do with Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s 18th century fairy tale, or even with Jean Cocteau’s magical film, made in 1946. The programme notes tell us that the choreographer follows Beauty’s journey from childhood to a sensual, erotic woman, being aided by the Beast’s encouragement to “free herself from social inhibitions listening only to herself”. The ballet starts simply with a large flowery screen backdrop and a green cupboard, out of which Beauty tumbles with a pile of soft toys. She plays with these childishly while a man appears from behind the screen, and making suitably animal-like movements lets us know he is the Beast. However, dressed in tight black trousers and a loose black jacket, the very young, slim and tentative dancer seems lacking in power, let alone bestiality. The stage soon fills with an assortment of characters in surreal costumes, some with bulbous stomachs, others with distended backsides and long tails, one man with huge elongated arms, while all the men wear cod-pieces. These are the sort of costumes which look daring as designs on paper but which rarely work on dancers, especially if they are kept busy with complicated, fussy choreography. A gaggle of flamingo-girls, dressed in skimpy pink costumes, fall out of a cupboard and a man, called ‘The Toreador’, shoots onto the stage down a phallic-looking shoot, dressed in white lycra all-over tights and sporting a huge silver sequinned cod-piece. The very long scene which follows, a stage-orgy led by The Toreador and which is a kind of initiation ceremony for Beauty, is extremely vulgar, tasteless and boring. The second act becomes more and more confused, not helped by Ligeti’s music, which is atmospheric and mysterious, but totally unsuitable for the very long ensemble scenes filled with almost frenetic jumble of steps. There is one long solo for the Beast, Takafumi Watanabe, which is expressively danced and shows him to be an interesting dancer, if here sadly miscast. Beauty, Julie Loria, copes courageously with her lengthy role, for she is constantly onstage, but dressed in a skimpy shift and with her hair in a messy pony tail, being constantly manhandled and mistreated, it is difficult to sympathise with her as a heroine. In the final scene all the dancers strip down to flesh coloured undies, finally quieten down, and the ballet ends on a curiously passive note, but apparently with a happy ending.

The Ballet de l’Opéra de Lyon is another French ballet company with a long history, taking part in opera divertissements since the end of 17th century. The ballet company, as it now exists was formed in 1969 and the present director, Yorgos Loukos, took over in 1991 following an international career as a dancer and ballet master. Their repertoire includes works by many contemporary choreographers including William Forsythe, Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Sasha Waltz and the French choreographers Maguy Marin, Angelin Preljocaj and Mathilde Monnier. Jiri Kylian has worked with the company on several occasions and the programme presented in Cannes was a Triple Bill of some of his best known his works. The performance had already started as the audience entered with the dancers in track suits warming up and rehearsing on a bare stage. As the house lights dimmed, the dancers discretely exited and re-entered in costume, and the first of a suite of baroque music by Pergolesi, Vivaldi and others transported the audience into a dreamlike world of superbly crafted dance writing, with Bella Figura, created in 1995. The first scenes are duos and trios, a constant flow of movement, of meetings and partings. There are many unexpected moments, some amusing and some bordering on the erotic. The most unusual scene is a group scene of nine women and men dancers all dressed in full red skirts, the women bare-breasted, and this leads to a duet with two women discarding their skirts in a playful, and sexy scene. Kylian’s home company for so many years, Nederlands Dans Theater, has always been audacious and Hans Van Manen’s Mutations from 1970, danced entirely in the nude, brought the company international fame, or notoriety. Heart’s Labyrinth is a much more serious work created in 1984, to remember the suicide of a company member. Danced to music by Schoenberg, Webern and Dvořák, this ballet is also a series of duo’s and trios, almost in the style of Anthony Tudor or Martha Graham. However, although these encounters are all about sharing grief, it is noticeable that the dancers rarely face each other, rarely turn away from the audience, perhaps done deliberately in order to share the emotion with the audience. The final work in the programme, 27’52”, indicating its length, shows Kylian in a completely different mood, and much closer to today’s contemporary dance. It was created in 2002 as a synthesis of the two previous works, something not obvious in a work full of twitches and contortions. Danced to an electronic score, with the occasional voice-over, these emotions are much rougher, even violent, and the choreography closer to jazz or breakdance. The dancers from Lyon were excellent throughout, in fact I had to constantly remind myself that they were not NDT dancers. Scenery is at a minimum, the black stage curtains used effectively in Bella Figura and flaming torches for the final scene, a doorway lit with neon lights in Heart’s Labyrinth and the white dance floor, moved and shaken, becomes part of the scenery in 27’52”. I felt the performance suffered from very subdued lighting – quite different from the performances as given by NDT- and distortion from the over-amplified music, always a problem at the Palais des Festivals.