MONTPELLIER DANSE – (Ballet de Lorraine & Mark Morris) CHATEAUVALLON – (Aterballetto) AVIGNON – (Jan Fabre,Maguy Marin) VAISON – (Ballet Preljocaj)BALLETS DE MONTE CARLO – Summer 2009

Ballet de Lorraine, Mark Morris Dance Group-MONTPELLIER June-July 2009

Aterballetto- CHATEAUVALLON-July 2009;

Maguy Marin, Jan Fabre, Avignon – Maguy Marin, Jan Fabre – AVIGNON – July 2009; 

Ballet Preljocaj – VAISON-LA-ROMAINE- July 2009

Ballets de Monte-Carlo- MONTE-CARLO – July 2009

The summer festivals of dance, music and theatre in Southern France keep getting bigger and bigger, with more performances in an ever expanding number of venues, ranging from theatres to school halls, and bringing visitors down the winding alleyways of the medieval city centres, courtyards, cloisters and chapels. The Marseille Festival of Dance was hastily rescheduled in venues all over Marseille when a last minute dispute between the port workers and festival organisers meant the principal performing venue in the heart of the docklands would not be available.

Now in its 29th year, the Montpellier Dance festival is indisputably the most important of the French dance festivals. This year it presented twenty-five companies from ten different countries, and included no fewer than seventeen world premieres. In line with Montpellier’s interest in becoming a cultural hub for countries of the Mediterranean basin, companies were invited from Spain and Northern Africa, Israel and Turkey. When interviewed recently for the magazine Danser, festival director, Jean-Paul Montarani was asked for his reasons for including two “neo-classical” choreographers, Mark Morris and Stephen Petronio, in an otherwise resolutely avant-garde programme. He replied that he found it necessary to remind choreographers, and presumably audiences, of the excitement and vitality of dance, as well as the importance of choreography as a means of expression, opposing the present trend where dance and even movement appear to be of less and less interest to dance makers. He warned that this was leading to a cul de sac, a dead-end, where other art forms have often lost their way, and there were performances to be seen this summer where this was all too obvious. Montpellier boasts two opera houses, a beautiful 19th century building and a huge modern concrete Opera Berlioz, where the main dance performances took place and where Stephen Petronio’s full-length Tragic/Love was premiered by the Ballet de Lorraine. To a commissioned score by Ryan Lott, the company were kept almost frantically busy in a relentless and repetitive series of entrances and exits, acrobatic pas de deux, loose jointed writhing, grappling and jostling. The dancers were mostly bare-foot, with pointe shoes making an appearance in a long final scene where, incongruously, the tallest of the men joined in dancing a pas de deux on pointe. The theme of the work, ‘Letters to Juliet’, an apparently genuine source of letters by lovelorn would-be suitors written to the Juliet Foundation, meant that several of these were read from the stage while projections on the backdrop varied from the activities on the deck of an air-craft carrier, a huge close-up of a couple kissing intimately and Buzz Aldrin’s footprint on the moon. Despite all the activity, the work appeared tedious and contrived. Also in Montpellier, the Mark Morris Dance Group was one of the few international dance companies to be seen in France this year. Mozart Dances was a timely reminder of how refreshing it is to see dancers “dance” and not only “move”. Against Howard Hodgkin’s huge, smudgy, black and white backdrops, the company performed Eleven and Double and Grand Duo (to music by Lou Harrison), all accompanied by an excellent chamber music ensemble. Laura Grant’s performance in Eleven was a treat, with her strength and finesse overshadowing the other women. The men dominate Double, teasing with rococo-style mannerisms and then breaking into an exhilarating, rollicking finale. There are echoes of Balanchine everywhere; the unexpected fall, the dancers circling and interweaving, and also the small gestures which bring emotion, humour and even drama to an otherwise simple visual interpretation of the music.

Another choreographer inspired by Mozart is Mauro Bigonzetti, former director and now principal choreographer of Aterballetto. The Italian company appeared in the open-air theatre at Chateauvallon with a panoramic backdrop of the Mediterranean. WAM, a homage to Mozart and to the inspiring quality of his music, was performed to a mixture of live piano and recorded orchestral music. In a series of scenes of varying moods, the dancers show a homogeneity possible only in a company with a permanent resident choreographer. They are a classy troupe, with powerful, muscular men and a bevy of beautiful women, and they attack the choreography, which is extremely physical and challenging, with admirable zeal. However, the acrobatic solos, duos, trios, all beautifully executed, soon become repetitive, and the almost erotic contortions seem more suited to variety or Cirque du Soleil. The second work, Cantata, danced to an arrangement of Neapolitan and other traditional Italian music begins promisingly with tensions between the macho Italian men and the subordinate women, but soon degenerates into a more inconsequential and gimmicky piece. There are scenes where the music dominates and little seems to happen on stage, but things pick up for the finale and the general air of fun was well suited to a summer holiday audience who gave the performance a rousing reception.

Dance was once a major part of the Avignon Festival, when major companies would fill the vast spaces of the magnificent open air courtyard of the former Palace of the Popes, but now companies offering what can at best be classed as ‘Physical Theatre’, appear in school halls or back street courtyards. This year’s premiere by the Maguy Marin company, The Description of a Battle, was a tediously boring affair where performers wandered around in almost total obscurity, quoting from Homer, Cicero or even Elizabeth I, while picking up pieces of material to display a battlefield of crumpled material and scattered corpses. Jan Fabre’s company performed Orgy of Tolerance, where any moral message about the evils of consumerism, commercialism, war and torture, was lost in a morass of obscenity. Nothing could be more different than Snow White, performed by Ballet Preljocaj, at the open-air Roman amphitheatre at Vaison-la-Romaine. A conventional and even naïve re-telling of the Grimm fairy tale, Preljocaj’s choreographic style is fluidly inventive and the work has enjoyed success throughout France since its 2008 premiere. Following his 1990 production of Romeo and Juliette, this is only Preljocaj’s second attempt at a narrative work, and he seems yet to lack the skills to tell a story through movement, resulting in scene following scene with little reason. However, it is an enjoyable performance, marred only by Jean Paul Gaultier’s unflattering costumes, with the notable exception of a magnificently evil but beautiful step-mother.

The final performances of this summer were Les Nuits de la Danse, given by the Ballets de Monte-Carlo on the terraces of the Monaco Casino. The company gave two programmes, including premieres by choreographers Nicolo Fonte, Marco Goecke, Matjash Mrozeewski and company director Jean-Christophe Maillot, but on a balmy summer night one would have wished for a less arid, uncompromising programme. Finely stretched legs and feet and beautiful fluid movement were seen in work after work, mostly “costumed” in what appeared to be black underwear, but with only seven or eight dancers on stage the company had to work hard to inject some excitement into the performance. Lisa Jones, Noelani Pantastico, Asier Uriagereka and Jeroen Verbruggen all succeeded impressively. There will be a bumper year ahead, however, when the Ballets de Monte-Carlo, together with the Monaco Dance Forum,  present a year-long tribute to Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, which, of course, had such long and rich connections with Monte-Carlo.

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