VAISON (Bianca Li) AVIGNON(Sasha Waltz) LES BAUX(Ballets de Biarritz) CANNES(Ballet of Kremlin) – Summer 2007

During the relentlessly hot and sunny summer of 2007, the PROVENCE-ALPS-COTE D’AZUR region of South-East France boasted no less than 304 Festivals in 329 different towns and villages. In Montpellier, dance companies included the Ballet of Geneva, the Ballet of Lorraine (from Nancy ), the Trisha Brown Company and the Ballet Preljocaj from nearby Aix-en-Provence. At Marseille, the dance part of the Festival continues to expand, as in Montpellier, with discussions, films, exhibitions and workshops and companies included Nederlands Dans Theater, the Michael Clark Company with his Stravinsky Project, Part 2 and the Daniel Larrieu  Company performing Waterproof in a swimming pool. 

The most eclectic of the dance festivals is VAISON DANSES with performances given in the Roman amphitheatre of the small town of Vaison-la-Romaine. The season opened with the National Ballet Cuba winning an ovation with their acclaimed production of Giselle, followed  by two French companies, those of Bianca Li and Angelin Preljocaj. The Israeli company, the  Aluminium Show, a mixture of dance, acrobatics and multiple special effects gave its first performance in France; the Antonio Gades Company performed Blood Wedding and  the Merce Cunningham Dance Company appeared in his special MinEvent, created ‘live’ for the performance and the 1993 work CRWDSPCR. Bianca Li, a multi-talented dancer, choreographer, director and producer of stage and film, seems to be everywhere in France. Spanish born, she settled in Paris, forming her own company in 1993. She has mounted works for the Paris Opera and Ballet companies, was briefly director of the Komische Oper Ballet in Berlin, has picked up a number of national awards in France and in Spain, and has now been appointed Director of the Andalucian Dance Centre. Her performance in Vaison, Corazon Loco, opens with a half-circle of formally dressed choral singers chanting a kind of plainsong. But something is obviously different about this choir as several members startle with an unexpected whirl of a porte de bras or the spiral of a flexible torso and then out of the group appears the unmistakable silhouette of English dancer, Matthew Hawkins, easily recognizable by his shaven head and loose-limbed technique. This opening is interesting and promising as is the amusing chase of the eight singers of the group, with their music stands, by the six dancing members. These then continue with sexy Latin-dance sequences, cross-crossing the stage with man-chases-woman, woman-teases-man and Bianca Li soon emerges as the most polished dancer of the group. Solos follow pas de deux, but repetition seeps in and in spite of the interest of the score of unaccompanied voices and the numerous film projections, the works loses impetus and appears overlong.

Sasha Waltz is another young woman who is an emerging ‘star’ choreographer in Europe at the moment. Based in Berlin, the dance company is part of a European International Theatre Organisation, run by Waltz and her husband. Sasha Waltz & Guests was the main dance event at this year’s Avignon Festival where they performed in a huge exhibition hall on the outskirts of the city. Entering the hall, in almost total obscurity, one gradually discerns dimly lit rooms and spaces, boxes and containers, some at ground level and some mounted on platforms high above the audience’s heads. Peering through doors and windows a dancer is visible crouching in a corner, another curled up to fit inside a packing case or another solemnly pouring sand down her bodystocking. A group of musicians commenced the performance; the pianist whacking the keys and strings of his grand piano and a trumpeter wailing through the heights of the hall. It is all intriguing and imaginative but after about 15 minutes of promenading throughout the vast spaces, a sort of urgency builds among the spectators anxious to find something actually ‘happening’. Finally two men commence a slow duet of lifts and rolls and an Asian couple, in formal dress, execute a tango-like pas de deux in different settings around the hall. Some of the company embark on long monologues, discussing their childhood and their families, some almost inaudibly and others shouting and raging. Sasha Waltz is quoted as saying the audience should create their own understanding of the piece which leaves one with the dilemma already raised in Sanjoy Roy’s review ( May 2007 issue ) of her production of Dido and Aeneas i.e that the onus is left on the audience to make sense of a string of unrelated scenes. This ‘take it or leave it’  attitude may be more strenuously tested this autumn when Sasha Waltz directs and choreographs a new production of Medea for the Berlin State Opera and will mount her own version of Romeo and Juliet, to the Berlioz score, for the Paris Opera Ballet. If the quality and quantity of dance performances at the Avignon Festival is ever diminishing, the locally based dance organisation LES HIVERNALES has extended is usual winter activities to present a lively programme to complement the major festival. Presenting about twelve different small-scale performances daily in the new Theatre des Hivernales as well as in their studio buildings, the major event was the American choreographer, Andy de Groat’s production Swan Lac with three actors, the ballet of the Avignon Opera and three ducks.

At the ruined medieval village of Les Baux en Provence, the Ballets de Biarrtiz performed in the immense vaulted entrance of an old stone quarry, surely the most unusual of this year’s venues. They performed three ballets by director, Thierry de Malandain: two abstract, contemporary dance pieces to music by Mozart and a version of Saint-Saen’s  The Swan, played and performed here four times. Repetition appears to be a hall-mark of Malandain’s choreography where each sequence is repeated as relentlessly as a Petipa variation. I look forward to seeing the company, which is an attractive one, in different surroundings at the Cannes Dance Festival in November. This August in Cannes  the Maris Liepa Foundation, directed by his children, Andris and Ilse Liepa, presented  two performances of their reconstructions of ballets from the early Diaghilev seasons. The Firebird and Scheherazade are similar to those versions we are already familiar with in Britain, but the young company, The Ballet of Kremlin, needs much more coaching and guidance to bring the works to life. The principal roles were taken by Ilse Liepa and Nicolai Tsiskaridze from the Bolshoi Ballet. To remount Le Dieu Bleu, Diaghilev’s unsuccessful attempt to recreate the success of Scheherazade with a similarly exotic and oriental theme was always going to be a risk. Despite the presence of Nijinsky and Karsavina. the 1912 work was a ‘flop’ and soon disappeared from the repertoire. Interesting as it is to see Bakst’s extraordinary set and costumes brought back to life, the ballet is weighed down by a convoluted libretto by Jean Cocteau and the stage packed with jungle plants, temples, gods and goddesses, priests and a multitude of colourful characters. There is even a monster which rises to the full height of the stage flashing technicolour eyes making the whole dangerously resemble a Las Vegas revue. Fokine’s original choreography having been lost, Wayne Eagling is credited with the new choreography.

Of the locally based companies, those of the Opera Houses of Nice and Toulon collaborated to present a new production of  Zorba, the Greek, by the English choreographer, Barry Collins, and the Ballets de Monte-Carlo, fresh from a successful season in Paris, gave a series of performances of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s The Dream. High in the hills above Toulon, with a distant view of the Mediterranean, Chateauvallon presented one of the most consistently enjoyable festivals with a varied and high quality selection of national and international companies.