The American ballerina, Rosella Hightower formed a Centre International de la Danse in Cannes in 1961 which soon became a mecca for professional dancers from all over the world. She then initiated the first dance festival in 1985, inviting Yorgos Loukis, to become director in 1992 when he successfully established the festival as a major dance event. He was succeeded in 2009 by Frédéric Flamand, at that time director of the Ballet National de Marseille, who brought about changes influenced by his very personal and stringently contemporary taste. Brigitte Lefèvre, former director of the Paris Opéra Ballet, has taken over the reins this year and her arrival was awaited with much anticipation.

Lefèvre chose twelve companies for this year’s festival – mainly French regional companies, including those from Toulouse, Lyon, Montpellier and Belfort, some smaller independent groups and international companies from Argentina, Korea and Spain. She also included master classes, workshops and discussions with visiting teachers, choreographers and company directors. Lefèvre’s aim was to show the full spectrum of today’s dance scene, but her selection provoked mixed reactions, a fact she mentioned in a pre-performance speech on the last evening. There was hardly a pointe shoe to be seen, but bare legs and a lot of naked flesh. There were some small scale events which included very little dance, and certainly not of a professional level. If a narrative theme was chosen, this was teased and twisted to remove any thread of a story as with the Toulouse production of The Beast and Beauty and Deborah Colker’s Tatyana inspired by Eugene Onegin..

Dance for dance’s sake was visible in the opening performance of the festival given by the National Dance Company of Korea. Vortex, choreographed by the Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen, consisted of scene after scene of attractive dancers in lines and circles, whirling and twisting, often reminiscent of Béjart. It was a ‘show’, well danced, accompanied by violent flashes of luridly colourful lights and an on-stage musical ensemble playing, what sounded to me, like Asian ‘easy listening’ music. Due to the tragic events in Paris just before the opening of the festival, the planned performance of the school of the Paris Opéra Ballet was cancelled, but all others events went ahead as scheduled.

The Ballet du Capitole de Toulouse is rarely seen away from Toulouse and their visit to Cannes offered the opportunity to see the company with a work by their director, Kader Belabi. A former danseur étoile with the Paris Opéra Ballet, Belarbi was appointed director in 2012, taking over from the American Nanette Glushak., who during her 18 years in Toulouse Glushak had worked hard to strengthen and upgrade the company. The title of his 2013 production The Beast and Beauty already tells us that this ballet has little to do with Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s 18th century fairy tale. The programme states that the choreographer’s intention is to follow Beauty’s development from childhood to a sensual, erotic woman, aided by the Beast to “free herself from sexual inhibitions, listening only to herself”. The ballet starts with Beauty as a child, playing with a pile of soft toys while a man enters from behind the flowery screen backdrop, indicating by animal-like movements that he is the Beast. Unfortunately, the very slim, tentative dancer, dressed in black trousers and a loose black jacket made little impact let alone suggesting any bestiality The stage then filled with an assortment of strange, surreal characters, some with huge distended stomachs, others with bulging backsides and long tails, one man with hugely elongated arms, and the men all wearing cod-pieces. A gaggle of girls, resembling flamingos, tumbled out of a cupboard and a man clad in an all-over white lycra and with a huge silver sequinned cod-piece came shooting down a yellow banana shaped object. A long, boring and extremely vulgar orgy scene followed, the choreography fussy and almost frenetic for the corps while Julie Loria, as Beauty, who coped courageously with her lengthy role, was constantly manhandled and mistreated.

The Ballet de l’Opéra de Lyon, directed by Yorgos Loukis, together with those in Toulouse, Bordeaux and Nice, are the only remaining provincial companies in France performing both classical and contemporary dance. The programme given in Nice was a triple Bill of works by Jiri Kylian and commenced with Bella Figura danced to music by Pergolesi, Vivaldi and others, a suite of duos and trios, all superbly crafted in a constant flow of movement. There are unexpected moments of humour and some bordering on the erotic, as well as a scene with nine men and women in full red skirts, and all topless. Heart’s Labyrinth is a much more serious work, created following the suicide of a company member, to music by Schoenberg, Dvořák and Webern. More in the style of Anthony Tudor or Martha Graham, these soft, lyrical scenes are full of suffering and grief. The final work, 27’52”, indicating its length, was created as a synthesis of the two previous works, something not at all obvious, full of twitches and contortions, rough and even violent, and danced to an electronic score. However, a successful evening which won a warm reception.

Brigitte Lefèvre kept the best performance for the last evening with the National Ballet Company of Spain in Johan Inger’s new production of Carmen. Inger brings a Scandinavian darkness and depth to the drama, as well as uninhibited eroticism to the work and is especially well served by his principals, the Belgian Daan Vervoort and the Icelandic Emilia Gisladdöttir. He follows the scenario of the opera and uses music from Bizet’s score as well that by Rodion Shechedrin’s, written for his wife Maya Plisestkaya. Played against a backdrop of screens which are moved around to form the wall of a prison, the room of the Toreador (here a glitzy popstar), a prison cell, the choreography is exceptionally strong and expressive. The attractive, multi-national company won a well-deserved ovation from the Cannes audience.

Brigitte Lefèvre is definitely to be congratulated on revitalising the festival and the energy and passion she showed during this year’s event augers well for future festivals.

Dancing Times