There were boos and whistles at this year’s Avignon Festival, not only for the director, Olivier Py’s opening production of King Lear, but also for Angelin Preljocaj’s newest production Return to Berrathem. Preljocaj celebrates this year the 30th anniversary of the formation of his company, Ballet Preljocaj, based in the southern French university city of Aix-en-Provence. Preljocaj is a prolific choreographer, constantly creating new works for the company of 24 dancers who perform both nationally and internationally while also mounting ballets for companies including Paris Opéra Ballet and New York City Ballet. Son of Albanian immigrants he has created several ballets dealing with social violence and displaced people such as the 1990 production of Romeo and Juliet, which was set in a concentration camp, the action surrounded by high walls, strafed by searchlights and patrolled by live Alsatians.

Return to Berrathem is also a dark work, dealing with war, destruction, death and loss and is a collaboration with the writer Laurent Mauvignier. It is the story of a young man who returns to his home town which he left before a war, hoping to find his family and the young woman he loved, only to discover the town in ruins and to be met with resentment at his absence. Mauvignier has written not just the scenario for a ballet, but a small book, the contents of which are narrated to the audience by three actors while the dancers perform at times purely as a background and sometimes as the centre of the action. Appearing in the Cour d’Honneur of the Palais des Papes in Avignon is always an honour and also a challenge. There are not only the 800 years of history of this Pope’s palace but also 70 years of festivals where this courtyard has been the stage for some of the most prestigious performances. Many theatre and dance directors incorporate the magnificent stone walls, which reach many stories high in their productions using imaginative lighting effects. However, following the traditional fanfare of trumpets to open the performance, the set slowly becomes visible, a wall of metal screens enclosing a stage which is littered with the wrecks of two cars and piles of black rubbish bags.

Three actors are seated on top of the wall while the dancers slowly crawl over it to fall to the stage floor where they commence movements in slow motion. Following some deafening electronic sounds, the actors commence a series of monologues speaking directly out to the audience while the dancers continue the slow motion ‘exercises’. One dancer takes on the role of the Young Man, another is Katya, the young woman, but as they continue to disappear in the “corps” the audience is left without any sense of continuity. Preljocaj is responsible not only for the choreography but also for the stage direction and this is sadly lacking. He seems unable to create believable characters or situations, or to recount what could be an interesting story into dance or drama.

A wedding scene is the first real dance episode where the dancers change from their loose shifts to what could be folk-dance costumes and the “bride” appears dressed in a huge black crinoline. This is painstakingly unwound by the cast and turns out to be a collection of black jackets donned by the dancers. The bride, Katya, is left centre stage, naked, and performs an impressive solo, very strong and athletic in the style of the Chosen One in Le Sacre du Printemps, but the need for nudity is unclear.

Scene follows scene, some lyrical, some violent and with multiple costume changes but the narratives become pretentious and boring, spoken or, more often, shouted out to the audience while the sound track includes everything from Handel to rock.

There were some effective visual moments- a short, beautiful scene with the tall mother-figure surrounded by the corps of women, circling and winding around her while the Mistral wind which was fanning the stage wafted their light dresses. In another scene the dancers climbed over and around the metal walls, tumbling and crawling, admirably acrobatic, if totally meaningless, but very controlled and sculptured-looking.

The strongest moment came towards the end when the Young Man pulls the body of Katya out of the carcass of a wrecked car and manipulates her up and over the car, caressing and carrying her body. But this is all too late, the audience becoming restless after nearly two hours and looking longingly towards the exits. The French national papers wrote of boos and hisses on the opening night and were uniformly unenthusiastic. The audience on the night I was there did clap somewhat dutifully and any success the performance did have was due to the company dancers, totally committed, strong and energetic and always controlled and precise.

Dancing Times – September 2015