Avignon (Jan Fabre), Vaison la Romaine(Bejart), Chateauvallon (Ballets de Monte-Carlo) & Marseille – Summer 2005





Dancing Times September 2005


Festival fever hits the South of France in late June and carries on well into August. With 300 different Festivals just in the Provence/Cote-d’Azur region, one is easily overwhelmed by the variety and choice of music, opera, drama and dance on offer. After several seasons in the doldrums, dance is back again as a main event and several major Festivals, including Montpellier, Aix-en-Provence and Vaison-la-Romaine are dedicated exclusively to dance. It poses quite a problem juggling dates and attempting to catch world premieres, visits from major foreign companies, as well as innumerable performances by locally based companies, and others coming from far and wide, attracted by the exposure given to these summer performances.

Southern France is especially well suited to these mainly open-air events, where performances take place in ancient Roman arenas and amphitheatres, the courtyards of medieval palaces and cathedrals, or on stages where the Mediterranean forms a natural backdrop. Despite the discomfort of spending a couple of hours on stony, tiered seating and the vagaries of the weather, occasionally exploding with a summer thunderstorm, or whipping up the violent Mistral wind, one is easily overcome by the magic of it all. Natural stones and ancient ruins become part of the scenery, the star-filled sky adds another dimension to the stage picture and the enforced informality brings audience and performers together in a relaxed and enjoyable manner.

Avignon is the oldest and most prestigious of the French Festivals and for many years presented a high quality, international dance programme. This is no longer the case, with only four per cent of the performances now consecrated to dance. A new policy of inviting an associate artistic director responsible for programming has brought the Belgian, Jan Fabre, to Avignon this year with his own company, Troubleyn, fulfilling the main part of the dance programme. His performances, which have proved to be highly controversial, are perhaps better described as ‘Physical Theatre’, and with what could be attributed to excessive professional camaraderie, most of the other dance events at the festival are by Belgian dance groups of varying styles. The 2005 Festival opened with a new work by Jan Fabre, for which he is listed as being responsible for the libretto, choreography and scenery; it is the final part of a trilogy devoted to a study of the body’s fluids. Many strange things have taken place in the magnificent setting of the Courtyard of Honour of the Pope’s Palace in Avignon in the name of art, but this must be one of the strangest. L’Histoire des Larmes, is consecrated not only to tears, as suggested by the title, but includes other body fluids, and suffice it to say I was glad to have missed the following production which is dedicated to blood. There was a scene near the end of the two hour epic which almost saved an otherwise trying evening. The immense stage was filled with performers, gyrating and twitching, the huge drums which had banked the surrounds of the stage were rolled from side to side while beating out an incessant cacophony; a harp was played, a clarinet screeched, the performers who had spent the preceding scene reclining naked on a myriad of glass jars and vases which covered the stage (presumably collecting body fluids), screamed and cried, some naked, some half naked mounted huge ladders erected against the immense rear wall of the palace carefully attaching white handkerchiefs to the stones, spelling out a SOS in huge letters; strobe lights strafed the stage, the whole bringing to life a terrifying Hieronymus Bosch vision of hell. Jan Fabre, who is primarily a sculptor, creates some striking visual images but as he has never studied nor performed dance, I would suppose that the dancing element is the haphazard result of improvisation sessions. It has proved to be an eventful festival in Avignon this year; the premiere of L’Histoire des Larmes was held up for 20 minutes due to a boistrous demonstration, and by the second week the national press was speaking of protest and revolution among spectators claiming the whole festival to be ‘an artistic disaster of catastrophic proportions’. With the whole future of the festival in question, the Minister of Culture rushed down from Paris.

In Marseille, another premiere, and another Belgian director with unusual credentials as the director of a dance company; in this case the 50 strong Ballet National de Marseille. This was Frederic Flamand’s first new work for the BNM which he took over earlier in the season, when the former director, ex-Paris opera principal, Marie-Claude Petriagalla, was unceremoniously sacked by company demand. The company, which for many years was directed by Roland Petit, has always been essentially a classical one, and this season has been performing Giselle as well as a mixed programme devised by the Associate Artistic Director, Eric Vu An, (ex-Paris Opera Principal Dancer). This was made up of ballets by Bournonville, Nijinsky, Balanchine and Jose Limon. Frederic Flamand will be remembered as the director of Charleroi/Danses a company he formed in the early 1990′ s after taking over and disbanding the Ballet Royal de Wallonie in Charleroi. As with Jan Fabre, Flamand has a history in different artistic activities, without any background in dance and his stage works are concerned with the relationship between dance and architecture. He remounted an earlier work, Silent Collisions, for the BNM in June, and the new work, created for the Festival of Marseille is La Cité Radieuse, named after the famous building conceived by the revolutionary architect, Le Corbusier in Marseille in the 1950’s. As with the earlier work, Flamand has used just 15 members of the company who are kept busy pushing and rotating the immense latticework metal screens which fill the stage with glistening silver forms. These form corridors and courtyards, rooms and enclosed spaces which are then used by the dancers. Often, they rush past each other, involved in their own activities and sometimes left alone or in pairs, expessing the isolation of big-city living. However, memories of similar themes by Anna Sokolov and Alvin Ailey spring to mind, and the comparisons do not favour Flamand whose work is devoid of any emotion. He has also lost an opportunity to bring something of Marseille itself into this work. A cultural melting pot for some two and half thousand years, it is a city full of diversity and colour, where danger lies close to the surface but where southern warmth and vitality dominate. La Cité Radieuse relies heavily on technical effects, and as in Avignon, the lighting and sound were excellent. Again, dependent upon his performers, the ‘choreography’ is a collective effort in improvisation, the ubiquitous loose jointed/ post modern/release technique style interspersed with passages of break dance and hip-hop. It will be interesting to see how Marseille, birthplace of both Marius Petipa and Maurice Bejart, and with a long tradition in ballet and dance, responds to these new initiatives. Other summer visitors to the Marseille Festival were Nederlands Dans Theatre, the company of Anne Teresa de Keersmaker from Brussels and other, mostly Dutch and Belgian groups.

With a sense of relief to Vaison-la-Romaine and the Béjart Ballet de Lausanne. Vaison is a fascinating small town, a mini-Pompei full of Roman treasures, but with a major dance festival, presenting an interesting and well-balanced programme. The Théatre Romain is also one of the most attractive venues of all, set in a park full of Roman relics and with a fascinating collection of ruins forming a natural backdrop. Maurice Béjart is celebrating his 50 years as a ballet company director this year, and is giving a number of retrospective programmes throughout Europe. A last minute change of programme, as Béjart decided that the programme needed ‘lightening up’ for a holiday audience, meant that his latest work was included as well as the early Bhakti, a creation for the 1968 Avignon Festival. If today’s dancers cannot efface the memory of that especially exotic original cast, the opening pas de deux was exquisitely danced by the diminutive Lucianna Croatto with a young Jorge Donn look-alike, Julien Favreau, and the third pas de deux originally for Maina Gielgud and Daniel Lommel, was excitingly performed by Catherine Zuasnabar and Octavio Stanley revelling in the intricacies of the choreography. The very young company appeared to have difficulties with this early Béjart, and were obviously happy to be given his newest work, jokingly entitled, The Art of being a Grandfather,  reflecting Béjart’s relationship to his company today. Seeing the results of a ‘real’ choreographer at work was interesting after the performances in Avignon and Marseille, where ‘choreography’ was the result of chance and improvisation. The Béjart company showed itself   to be equally at home with classical and contemporary techniques, and showed a high level of

virtuosity in this very lightweight, but enjoyable ballet. The evening closed with the 1982 work, Wien, Wien, nur Du Allein. Again the dancers appeared to revel in the kitsch of the Strauss waltzes and satin evening gowns, and if this work somehow does not live up to the promising programme notes, everyone is left glowing with happiness, and Béjart, taking a curtain call on stage, was crowned with adulation. At a press conference earlier in the day, on the steps of the nearby Chateau de Taulignan, Béjart told me that he was hoping to bring the company back to London, in the near future, and to a major venue, possibly in the round?? Other visitors to the Festival at Vaison included the newly-reformed Martha Graham Dance Company, Pilobolus and Ballet Preljocaj.

Chateauvallon is a so-called ‘national cultural centre’ perched high on the craggy rocks above Toulon. The centre supports a lively programme of performances, seminars and residencies of dance, music, drama and even circus arts throughout the year and during the summer months organizes an important festival with an attractive open-air theatre from where one can look down to the Mediterranean. The Ballets de Monte-Carlo, Ballet Preljocaj and Sylvie Guillem with the Ballet Boyz were among the dance offerings, with the first named company presenting their version of Cinderella with choreography by director-choreographer, Jean-Christoph Maillot. As with all of Maillot’s works, the scenery is simple and effective and the story is told with originality. The principals were all impressive with a particularly scintillating Good Fairy danced by April Ball.

Montpellier presented its 25th Dance Festival with world premieres from local companies directed by Mathilde Monnier from Montpellier and Angelin Preljocaj from Aix-en-Provence. Foreign visitors included Nederiands Dans Theater, Merce Cunningham Dance Company and The Forsythe Company, while in Aix-en-Provence there were no less than 17 companies in the official programme, of which the most important was the Geneva Ballet performing works by Carolyn Carlson and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Following Festival Fever there comes Festival Fatigue, but there can’t be a better way to spend the summer.