A vast variety of French contemporary dance
An old friend texted me last month asking for a recommendation for a performance to watch in the ongoing Bangkok's 24th International Festival of Dance and Music, quite possibly an international performing arts festival with the highest number of "Swan Lake" presented.
Without any hesitance, and knowing that she had watched a few versions of "Swan Lake", I suggested Ballet Preljocaj's new version of it. Records have shown that contemporary French choreographers have so much fun with the classics, she agreed and booked her ticket.
Unlike in Thailand where the definition of contemporary dance is often limited to reinterpretation of classical narratives or styles, French choreographers have a much broader spectrum to work it. Recently, I returned to Festival Montpellier Danse in southern, and sunny, France and enjoyed this variety.
For Compagnie Nacera Belaza’s new work “L’Envol”, veteran French-Algerian choreographer Belaza was inspired by the harrowing image of the man falling from the Twin Towers on 9/11.
With the entire Studio Bagouet at the Agora almost always dark and accompanied by vexing soundscape, she created tormenting images of him with her dancers’ movements without any help of other staging techniques. The stark contrast between that sunny afternoon outside and the darkness inside also created anxiety, if not fright, among the audience. Losing both balance and control, the falling man in his life’s last moment seemed to exude calm and graciousness out of his freedom to take control of his life until its very end.
A few days later, the audience also had a chance to watch the company’s previous works as the double-bill comprising “L’Onde” and “Le Cercle” was presented at the same venue. Traits of traditional northern African dances were evident in both, so did Belaza’s meticulous control of lighting and sound which again captivated her audience’s perception of the works. In the latter, the two Belaza sisters Nazera and Dalila were almost always synchronized in their repetitive movements that organically responded to the changing beats of the music. In the former, a piece for five dancers whose movements subtly changed, the connection with the audience was stronger. As the choreographer explained that she wanted to “bring the spectator into a state of contemplation, as if in front of the ocean”, the work proved that she indeed walked the talk. No surprise it was honored with Prix de la révélation chorégraphique in 2008.
In traditional European theatres, opera, ballet and orchestra companies shared the same stage and classical ballet performances were accompanied by live performance of the in-house orchestra. The same cannot be said for contemporary dance companies who break free of this structure and so a contemporary dance performance with live music is a special treat.
In a live art and dance company PLAY’s new work “Empire of Flora” presented at Théâtre la Vignette on the campus of Université Paul Valéry 3, director Michèle Murray put DJ Lolita Montana on downstage left. In creating what she referred to as "a springtime of bodies", she was inspired by 17th century painter Nicolas Poussin’s illustration of mythological characters’ metamorphoses into flowers. In fact, Montana’s music was not merely accompanying the four male dancers’ vibrant movements, it was interacting or communicating with them, and us the audience, throughout the performance and her strong presence were like the fifth dancer’s. The experience was uniquely spontaneous and unpredictable.
At the Hangar Theatre, a black box studio in arena-stage configuration, the audience watched the movements of five fully naked dancers who never stood up yet formed many shapes as they interacted with one another as well as the soundscape, including a few spoken texts. Monochromic yet never monotonous, Eszter Salomon’s “Monument 0.9: Replay” also featured Garth Robert’s set design with mirrored panels above the performance area providing different perspectives of the physical compositions.
At the same venue in end-stage configuration a few days prior, 69-year-old artist Muriel Boulay’s “Danseuse” was a dance monologue in which she recounted in words, movements and images, at a leisurely pace, her professional life which we, dancers or not, all could learn from. Upstage was a bar and downstage a chair and a table with a lamp and a box of her precious keepsakes like pointe shoes, real props which helped illuminating her intriguing life starting from her rhythmic gymnastics training at a very young age, then her admission to the Paris Opera Ballet School when she’s 12 and difficulties for her career such as the fact that she’s 1.74 metres when she’s 16 and considered too tall. Interestingly, Boulay got married, had a child and took classes in Bharatanatyam among others before she became a star performer at the Lyon Opera Ballet, had a spinal cord operation and later joined Jean-Claude Gallotta’s Émile Dubois Group.
In the end, the audience realised that “Danseuse” was not only a French dancer’s touching personal account sincerely delivered but an insightful peek into the development of French contemporary dance.
The festival concluded on a, fittingly, celebratory mood as the Choreographic Ensemble of the National Superior Conservatory of Music and Dance of Paris performed the late Dominique Bagouet’s last work “Necesito, pièce pour Grenade” at the open-air Agora Theatre. Bagouet was the founder of Festival Montpellier Danse which, notably, has received strong support from the city from the beginning. The young ensemble matched the piece’s bright and sunny tone with sheer vivacity and could effortlessly handle a variety of dance styles from different cultures. It's a reminder that amalgamation of arts disciplines has contributed to the development of contemporary dance as well as a sign for its future in this European country marked by freedom of expression.
The 43rd annual edition of Festival Montpellier Danse will return next June. For more details, check out www.montpellierdanse.com. To learn more about the above companies, cie-nacerabelaza.com/en/, www.play-michele-murray.com/ and esztersalamon.net/
By Pawit Mahasarinand
The writer’s trip would not be possible without kind support of Montpellier Danse’s Maiwenn Rebours and Ambre Martin as well as the French Embassy in Thailand.
Photo: “L’Envol” by Laurent Philippe; “Empire of Flora” by Ronan Muller; “Monument 0.9: Replay” by Amelie Rosier; “Danseuse” by Hugo Mozet; “Necesito” by Ferrante Ferranti