RIVIERA REPORT – What is happening, and where – March 2005

Spring usually comes early to the French Riviera, heralded in mid-February by a blaze of golden mimosa blossom which this year was left battling with a series of freak snow storms and zero temperatures. Despite the unseasonable weather the regular annual festivities took place; the Carnival of Nice, the Festival of the Lemon in Menton and innumerable Fetes de Mimosa up and down the Cote d’Azur. Once over, the many theatres which form a necklace of mixed jewels along the Mediterranean coast were publicising their Spring programmes which this year include a healthy amount of dance activities of all kinds.

Starting at the Italian border, Menton’s Palais de I’Europe contains a good sized theatre, large and well equipped enough to present the BALLET OF THE OPERA OF KIEV with performances of Giselle in February, and the Polish State Ballet in March. Touring dance companies are becoming more and more of rarity in France, a state of affairs partially rebalanced by the generous distribution of local regional companies. At Monte-Carlo the BALLETS DE MONTE-CARLO were until recently, based at the famous and historic Theatre du Casino Municipal, and included in its repertoire several ‘classics’ from the repertoire of those companies which occupied the theatre during the 20th Century, firstly the BALLETS RUSSES de Sergei Diaghilev followed by numerous versions of the BALLETS RUSSES DE MONTE CARLO. The Company visited Sadler’s Wells Theatre in the 1990’s with a programme including Scheherazade and the Polovstian Dances from Prince Igor. Today the bulk of repertoire is provided by the resident choreographer and director, Jean-Christophe Maillot, supplemented this season by a new work by up-and-coming choreographer, Sidi Larbu Cherkaoui, the winner of the Nijinsky award for the ’emerging choreographer’ at the 2003 Monaco Dance Forum. Works by William Fortsythe were included in the February tour of the United States and the Company’s repertoire also includes Balanchine, Kylian, Duato, Lucinda Childs and Twyla Tharp. The company is made up of 50 dancers coming from a variety of international backgrounds. A good looking ensemble,performing in a ‘contemporary classical’ style, the vigorous, youthful style was perhaps somewhat at odds with the lush over-ornate auditorium of the Opéra Gamier at the Casino, built by the same Charles Gamier responsible for the Palais Gamier, home of the Paris Opéra Ballet. In 1997 The BALLETS DE MONTE-CARLO moved into new, purpose built quarters at nearby Beausoleil. The Atelier, as it is known, comprises two huge rehearsal studios as well as the administrative offices, workshops and storage for costumes and scenery. In 2003 the Company could perform at the brand new Grimaldi Forum, and it is here that their next season, a revival of the 2001 work, a ‘thriller ballet’ Oeui pour Oeil, An Eye for an Eye, will be performed from 20 to 25 April. The company has already a busy international season behind them, performing in September in Spain and in Mexico, and then travelling to China in October to perform in Shanghai and Beijing. The tour of the United States included 16 performances, including Cleveland, where Maillot’s ballet ‘La Belle‘ received its American premiere. The company will be touring in France in May, and will then visit Italy between May 23 and June 5.

Monte-Carlo is also the home of the prestigious Academie de Danse de Princesse Grace, directed since 1964 by the former Russian Ballerina,. Marika Besobrasova. Former pupils from the Academy fill the company rosters in many companies in France as well as throughout Europe, and in particular those in southern France. The Academy, and the BALLETS DE MONTE CARLO, are principally funded by a foundation in memory of Princess Grace of Monaco, and Princess Caroline, now Princess of Hannover, is president of the Ballet de Monte-Carlo.

Nice is the largest city in the region, and boasts one of the loveliest Italianate opera houses in France, celebrating, this year, its 120th anniversary. The resident  BALLET DE L’OPERA DE NICE have a year-long season giving regular seasons at the opera house. The ballet company in Nice is one of the last remaining regional opera ballet companies which formerly were supported by every good sized city in France. Besides Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse, towns and cities as small as Metz, Dijon, Rouen and many, many more had until the 1980’s, permanent ballet companies performing in the opera, operettas, as well as giving their own ballet seasons. The major companies have now become independent of the opera houses, and often have their own performing venues, while funding problems and a change of theatre goers’, and directors’ tastes have brought about the demise of most of the opera-ballet companies. This season the BALLET DE L’OPERA DE NICE perform in Aida, Carmen, La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein, as well as producing their five different programmes at the opera house. The 30 strong company is directed by Marc Ribaud, a local of Nice, who has had an international career as a dancer and choreographer and who now provides the bulk of the repertoire. However, works by Forsythe, Kylian, Robert North, Mats Ek, Nils Christie, among others, are also in the repertoire. The company also give regular workshops and ‘animations’ in the suburbs of Nice, and perform in the summer in  open-air venues in the region. Their next performances at the Opéra de Nice are of Ribaud’s Romeo and Juliet from 22 to 26 April.

30 kilometres further west, Cannes has been a centre of dance, and in particular of ballet, for many years. A regular stopping place for touring companies, especially in the 1940’s and 1950’s by the Grand Ballets du Marquis de Cuevas. The American ballerina, Rosella Hightower, was the star of this ensemble for many years, and enjoyed huge popularity throughout France. When the company’s days came to an end, in 1961,Hightower founded a ‘Centre de Danse International’ in a new property development near the centre of Cannes. The ‘Centre’ was mainly a school for advanced students preparing for professional life, but was also a meeting place for professional dancers who would gather in their hundreds every summer to take classes with some of the best teachers in Europe, while also able to take advantage of the nearby beaches. It was a stimulating and exciting place, presided over by the gentle but commanding presence of Rosella Hightower, who gave regular classes, private coaching and special pointe classes for the girls, sharing some of ‘secrets’ of own formidable technique. She formed some of the outstanding dancers of that era, Marcia Haydee and Maina Gielgud among them. The Centre International has now moved to new, larger premises and become a national dance school, the ‘Ecole Superièure de Danse Cannes Rosella Hightower’, offering education to baccalaureate as well as dance studies. It is directed by the former Paris Opéra Danseuse Etoile, Monique Loudières, and the school produces a student group, Cannes Jeune Ballet, which perform regularly in the region. The Palais des Festivals in Cannes replaced the much loved ‘Pink Casino’ which was strategically placed half way along the Croisette. This large, well equipped theatre receives the larger touring companies, including those from Russia and Eastern Europe, but dance does only occasionally feature in the busy programme of concerts, drama, variety.and, of course, the annual film festival. There is an alternative venue in Cannes, the Theatre de La Licome in Cannes-La Bocca,where a ‘Made in Cannes’ Festival in February presented the BALLET D’EUROPE from Marseille, directed by Jean-Charles Gil, one of France’s leading male dancers and formerly of the Ballets de Marseille, Ballets Béjart and the Ballets de Monte-Carlo.

There are also a scattering of theatres just inland of the coast and the Theatre de Grasse has recently presented the American contemporary dancer, Carolyn Carlsson in her solo programme. Carlsson is something of a cult figure in France, once given ‘carte blanche’ to create her own contemporary company at the Paris Opéra, and despite her subsequent international career, remains highly popular in France. The Théatre de Grasse includes a number of dance performances in this spring’s season, mostly by smaller local companies.

The Théatre de Draguignan is another good sized theatre in what could be described as a cultural backwater. However, dance usually features in the annual programme, with a visit from the Moiseyev Ensemble this year. If we include cities further along the coast, there is an opera-ballet company in Toulon and, of course, a major ballet company in Marseille. The Ballet National de Marseille has a new director, Frederic Flamand, following in the footsteps of Roland’s Petit’s long reign in the city. One of the major contemporary dance companies, Ballet Prejocaj, is based at Aix-en- Provence and has a busy programme of international and national tours, as well as performances in the region and various educational activities.

All in all, not a bad selection for a stretch of coastline, hundreds of miles from Paris and I, for one, am looking forward to catching up with all these companies and their forthcoming performances.