Letter from the Montpellier Dance Festival
June 23-30, 2007

by Rita Felciano
copyright © 2007 by Rita Felciano    

Dance festivals can be both mind numbing and soul nourishing. They also demand a clockmaker’s precision for scheduling performances and an athlete’s stamina to switch mental and physical gears. At the very least, they’ll wipe your mind clean of whatever else goes on in the world and allow for an all-consuming focus on dance, rarely possible the rest of year. This year’s Montpellier Dance Festival offered all of the above. On paper attending fifteen performances in seven days sounded crazy; on the ground it was bliss.

Of the twenty-two companies on this year’s program, half of them were French. Only two American ones — Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet and Trisha Brown Dance Company — made it into the line-up. (Though nominally American, Mark Tompkins has lived and worked in France for a quarter of a century).

The first weekend opened with Angelin Preljocaj and one of my all-time favorite duets, “Annonciation,” the power of whose chthonic forces barely ripple the iconic imagery. Its counter-part, the turbulent “Centaures”, an explosive man/animal duet still works but its overt sensuality, which I thought fresh when I saw it before, has become a little jaded.

The new “Eldorado (Sonntags Abschied)” pitted a complex and at times mesmerizing, synthesized Stockhausen score—from last the section of his monumental opera cycle, “Licht,” against Preljocaj’s surprisingly dry choreography for a dozen dancers. They emerge one by one from a gorgeously shadowy existence in Nicole Tra Ba Vang’s luminous steles. Starting with one dancer and eventually involving the whole ensemble, they interlocked in highly formalized though emotionally neutral couplings that became more sexually explicit without becoming more personally engaged. “Eldorado” looked like a work about creation as a process, a kind of machine — intricate, inevitable but beyond human control. I admired its strange, cool and melancholic beauty.

The concept behind Mathilde Monnier’s “Tempo 76” proved more interesting than its realization for the stage. As she correctly reasoned, unisons — embraced by ballet, avoided by modern dance--have a strange pull on our sensibilities whether in the theater, in a parade or in half-time entertainments. Monnier worked out an elaborate scheme that subjected her rather diverse ensemble into a regimen of strictly controlled, down to the last breath, unison patterns. But complete synchronization is simply unachievable, as every ballet observer knows. Unless it was to point out that unisons bring out differences, the idea seemed self-defeating from the start. “Tempo” — to Ligeti’s “Poème Symphonique” (for 100 metronomes) — was performed on a sod-covered stage that functioned alternately as playground, sports field and ultimately as cemetery from which “ghosts” popped up.

Israel Galván, the edgy Flamenco choreographer, set an elaborate, multi-scene solo on his sister Pastora Galván, a highly gifted but until now very traditional Flamenco dancer. Much it was witty though some its humor was a little too broad-based for my taste. For Pastora to create these characters was a real stretch; she deported herself magnificently.    

“La Francesa” settles Galván’s accounts with the French — and by implication most everyone else — who over the years has absorbed, mutilated, distorted and loved her version of Flamenco. While the piece was somewhat episodic, in part due to the many and elaborate costume changes, each of the Galván’s portraits, was multi-hued and often evolved into surprising turns from within. In the first one, Pastora pushed the gestural vocabulary — undulating hips, hinged knees, snaking torso and finger snaps — into high drama. In another she wobbled on high heels and lycra tights with feeble kicks and tentative hops. To their creators’ credit, there was something touching even about this misguided would-be Flamenca. A pugilistic, head-butting and fierce Carmen — a tough working-class broad — emerged in the “Habanera.” An Apache dancer—beret, moustache and red scarf — could have stomped out of a bar in Marseille. A dominatrix — in black leather and BIG hair — showed her crotch and finally wrapped herself with the French flag. Throughout I kept wondering what Gautier would have thought.

Robyn Orlin’s “We must eat our suckers with the wrappers on. . .” had many virtues. Theatrical sophistication was not one of them; it felt out of place at the Festival. And yet despite its sometimes fusty educational tone, one couldn’t help but root for its fourteen dancers in frumpy house dresses — men as well as women — in a sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart-wrenching dance theater piece about the need for AIDS prevention. Chaotic and blunt,  “We must” didn’t pull punches in pushing urgency about looking at issues of sexual behavior. As Orlin says, “AIDS is not about morality but about mortality.” Though primarily designed for South African township audiences, its thunderous reception in Montpellier may have as much been an affirmation of solidarity as an approbation of  “We must eat’s” artistic quality.

As the audience filed in, dancers in the isles offered lollipops from red buckets that on stage became drums. The group’s indigenous dancing and choral — excellent — singing alternated with theatrical episodes: a woman writhing because of ineffective medicine; a widow readying herself to go out on town to “have a good time; “ a demonstration of condom use with the perennial banana; the plastering of the lollipops — the title’s suckers — all over one’s body parts and, the final image, blown up “balloons” as head dresses over traditional costumes. At that point I didn’t know whether to laugh or to wince.

An in-time videotape of body parts and tight facial close-ups, including those of audience members, no doubt was intended to introduce a note of intimacy and hyperrealism. I found the roving camera mostly distracting.

Personally, a major attraction of this year’s Festival was its homage to Dominique Bagouet, the festival’s co-founder who died of AIDS in 1992 at 41, just when his choreographic career had begun to blossom. In the intervening years, a note of Paradise Lost has wafted around his name. I had been wondering for sometime whether there was an artistic reason for this kind of nostalgia or was this a simple case of native pride of French Modern Dance, after having been dominated by non-French artists for so many years, of having finally produced — and now lost prematurely — one of its own?

Despite the hoopla surrounding this homage, only five works actually made it onto the Festival schedule. I saw three of them, each of them giving at least a glance of what indeed made Bagouet’s choreography special. I also spent many hours watching videotapes which were running practically non-stop at two Festival venues. What emerged was an impression of a choreographer who succeeded in incorporating — instead of rejecting — his ballet training into contemporary dance. This itself was a welcome surprise. Who else has done that? At every level this was a choreographer whose formal rigor, the elegance and an ease of deportment were deeply rooted in ballet.       

Technically, he retained the opposition between the upper and the lower body and developed an exceedingly elaborate and often reaching-across-the-body arm and finger vocabulary which rides above fast and precise footwork. His work, whether melancholic or comic, also has an esprit doux (sweetness of spirit) that to my eyes is very French. I also saw a “circusy” love of spectacle and theatricality and dance as a sense of adventure.

Bagouet’s musicality appears to have been unusually astute. His poignant and quicksilver “Danse Blanche Avec Eliane” had dancer Grégory Beaumont partner a live accordion player in a space skimming solo both exuberant and curiously reserved. The nightmarish “F. et Stein” was a hair-raising, Frankenstein-inspired solo of harrowing and grotesque transformations, induced by Sven Lava Pohlhammer’s screeching electric guitar.

But maybe most emblematic was Bagouet’s "La valse des fleurs.” On a lovely summer evening it sent a dozen crinolined, heavily bewigged and white-powdered young dancers — both male and female — in a glacially paced promenade through town, undeterred by crowds of camera-toting tourists. On a bucolic lawn, one of them stripped into gamine-like undergarments and broke into a series of athletic somersaults and high-flying leaps. Then she stepped back into her gown, and the dancers resume their stately procession, leaving rose petals in their wake.  

Photos (from top):
"Eldorado (Sonntags Abschied)" by Angelin Preljocaj. Photographer: J.C. Carbonne
"Tempo 76" by Mathilde Monnier. Photographer: Marc Coudrais
"La Francesa" by Israel Galván. Dancer: Pastora Galván. Photographer: Luis Castilla.
"We must eat our suckers with wrappers on..."by Robyn Orlin. Photographer: John Hogg
" Stein" by Dominque Bagouet. Dancer: Christian Bourigault. Photo: Jean Gros-Abadie.

Volume 5, No. 29
July 23, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Rita Felciano

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