Ballet companies of Nice, Toulon, Mulhouse & Nancy – December 2005

As the House Lights of the Nice Opera House dimmed promptly at 8 pm I couldn’t help thinking how much things have changed since I first came to France some decades ago. Performances scheduled for 9 pm rarely began less than 20 minutes late, and in the south of France a 30 or even 45 minutes delay was usual, leaving the dancers backstage to pile on leg warmers and start yet another warm-up. Obviously, theatre-goers expected to have a good dinner before the performance and the advertised starting time seemed to be more of a guideline than a reality. The first thirty minutes of the performance would then be disturbed by late-comers being shown to their seats with the accompanying hoarse whispers of the usherettes, the jangle of coins for the obligatory ‘pourboire’, and the shuffle along the rows of seats of fur coats enveloped in a cloud of red wine, garlic and Chanel No 5.

When Rolf Liebermann came from Hamburg to take over the direction of the Paris Opera in 1973 one of the first things he did was to change performance times to a punctual 7.30pm. Naturally, this brought about vehement protest from the Parisians, but earlier starting times did catch on and the new arrangement was soon taken over by all the national theatres, notably by the string of Maisons de la Culture scattered across the country winning new and younger audiences. The provincial opera houses, often privately run, were slower to change their habits to an earlier starting time, and to punctuality, and it is only now that 7.30pm or 8 pm is usual.

I had come to Nice’s Opera House, an almost identical replica of the Teatro Fenice in Venice, to see the opening programme of the new season of the Ballet de I’Opera de Nice. The Argentinean choreographer, Mauricio Wainrot, was invited to mount his version of Haendel’s Messiah, originally created for the Royal Ballet of Flanders. The Company danced the fussy and pretentiously overcomplicated choreography with impressive commitment, but the endless, and seemingly pointless, movements had little relation to the music or to the theme. The company was shown to much better advantage in the company director, Marc Ribaud’s version of Cinderella, given just before Christmas.

Earlier in the season the Ballet de I’Opéra de Toulon presented an ambitious all-Stravinsky evening made up of The Symphony of Psalms and Apollon Musagète, choreographed by company director, Erick Margouet and Petroushka, in a version by Patrick Saillot, director of the Metz Opera Ballet. However, the major event of the season so far was the Cannes Festival of Dance, a bi-annual event which ran for eight days in November with seventeen companies performing in three different theatres, as well as workshops, master classes and an exhibition of dance photos by the celebrated American dance photographer, Lois Greenfield. With the accent firmly on new work, no less than six world premieres were included in the highly successful festival which is directed by Yourgos Loukos, fresh from his involvement with the 2005 Dance Umbrella in London. Loukos must be one of the busiest dance directors in Europe, now appointed director of the 2006 Athens Festival besides his ‘day job’ as director of the Lyon Opera Ballet.

One of France’s major National Choreographic Centres, the Ballet de I’Opera du Rhin, based in Mulhouse, presented a programme made up of two contrasting works by the American choreographer, Lucinda Childs, opening with her 1979 work Dance. Those with long enough memories saw this and enjoyed it as a sentimental look back to those good old/bad old days when New York led the dance world in innovation. Childs was at the forefront of the minimalist movement, both as a performer and a choreographer as was her collaborator, the composer, Philip Glass. Others found the relentless repetition in Glass’s contribution, matched by the deliberately limited structure of Child’s choreography stretched the audience’s endurance to its limits. The Company’s efforts to inject some excitement into the repetitive variations were thwarted by a superimposed film covering the entire stage with a simultaneous performance of the original cast and where over earnest expressions and under trained bodies proved to be an unwanted distraction. Filling fifty-seven minutes with a perpetuum mobile of jetés and temps levés must constitute some sort of record, and many in the audience in Cannes expressed their disapproval with raucous boos and whistles. The second work in the programme was her 1994 ballet Chamber Symphony, a Balanchinesque work full of movement and fluidity, which was danced stylishly by the attractive Company.

Repetition was also the keynote of Russell Maliphant’s newest work, Transmission, which was commissioned by the festival and which had been awaited with great expectation. The work opens with crackling, spluttering, Morse code-like sounds, and the blackness of the stage is pierced by tiny shafts of light pinpointing dancers writhing and undulating with impressive control and flexibility. The mysteriously atmospheric work is performed by the 4 female members of the Company, dressed in the baggy white chinos which appear to be de rigeur this season. The second work in the programme was the pas de deux Push, recently performed in London by Maliphant and Sylvie Guillem and in Cannes by company members, Julie Guibert and Alexander Varona winning an ovation from the many dance students and festival aficionados in the audience.

Another of France’s National Choreographic Centre’s is the Ballet de Lorraine, based in Nancy. The Company, formerly directed by Pierre Lacotte was once a major classical company, but with the arrival of Didier Deschamps in 2000 is now a resolutely contemporary one. Their opening work in Cannes was Karole Armitage’s Ligeti Essais, a series of short pieces for seven dancers which was enjoyable and original, and performed with the engaging energy for which her work is noted. The novelty of the evening was Martha Graham’s 1936 work entitled here Steps in the Street but which is really an eight minute excerpt from Chronicle. It is an evocation of war, of grief and mourning and was Graham’s deeply felt reaction to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the threats of another war in Europe. Impressively danced by the all-female cast, this early Graham work shows the influences of the Central European dancers of the time, especially Mary Wigman and Harald Kreutzberg. Unfortunately, the Festival’s skimpy programme notes gave no information about the work which left the audience more bewildered than appreciative of a vital piece of dance history. A further complaint should be made about the programmes which with the exception of the Russell Maliphant Company, provided no cast lists at all and left the dancers totally anonymous. A pity, as there were many good dancers to be seen and they deserved some recognition. The final work, Existe, Ex/ste by Hamid Ben Mahi, was an inconsequential piece about becoming a dancer and which will, no doubt, find a more suitable place in the company’s busy programme of educational work.

Other visitors to Cannes for the festival included the Companies of Herman Diephuis, Christian Rizzo, Christiane Blaise, and the CCN from Belfort, some of which were seen recently in London in the ‘France Moves’ season. The only classical contribution came from the Kirov Ballet performing Swan Lake.

The Ballets de Monte Carlo already had a busy schedule of international tours behind them when they opened their first season in Monte Carlo this season just after Christmas giving the premiere of director, Jean-Christophe Maillot’s The Dream. I intend to report on this new work as part of a profile of the company which is celebrating its 20th anniversary season in a future issue. There are many events to look forward to in the New Year, including premieres in Monte Carlo, Nice and Marseille, a visit from the mime-artist, Nola Rae, to Grasse and the ‘Best of Maurice Béjart’ tour which hits Nice in the cavernous Palais Nikaia at the end of February.