Festival Montpellier Danse

June 26, 2004

Festival Montpellier Danse
Various venues

Montpellier, France

June 26–July 6, 2004

Reviewed by Karyn Bauer-Prévost


Plight and suffering were recurrent themes in this year’s edition of the Festival Montpellier Danse, whose often aggressive shows dealt with such issues as war, violence, survival, and identity. The program, which featured new works by French choreographers Angelin Preljocaj, Mathilde Monnier, and Franck II Louise, German choreographer Raimund Hoghe, and Swiss Gilles Jobin, as well as a diverse selection of break-dance performances, attracted more than 30,000 spectators to the 49 shows and generated approximately 270,000 euros ($325,000) in ticket sales. From late afternoon to mid-week midnight venues, standing-room-only crowds were commonplace, turning this year’s reborn festival into an unexpected success.

Although a last-minute truce between entertainment professionals and festival director Jean-Paul Montanari kept an unprecedented number of dance-goers satisfied throughout 10 days of eclectic programming, the social uproar that led to the cancellation of last year’s shows had left its scars. Performances were twice interrupted by the Droit au Logement (Right to Housing) movement, which used the festival venue to voice their discontent about a recent fire in the dilapidated Petit-Bard low-income housing project on the outskirts of Montpellier, killing one person and rendering 18 families homeless. The interruption nearly led to the cancellation of Gilles Jobin’s sultry Under Construction at the suburban Grammont Theater when choreographer/dancer Jobin engaged in a short-lived onstage fistfight with the perpetrators. After this brief interruption, the dancers resumed their show, performing this unusual exploration of personal space and human contact with unprecedented intensity.

Mathilde Monnier’s latest production, Public, performed to a booked-out midnight crowd in the courtyard of a 17th-century Ursulines convent, was a smashing exploration of feminine identity and individualism. To the hard-rock beat of PJ Harvey, the dancers, lost in the music while externalizing their wildly intimate movements, exchanged clothing and wigs, confusing identities and thereby accentuating and antagonizing the relationship between dancer and spectator.

That relationship was once again examined when Raimund Hoghe revealed his Sacre, set to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This duo, performed by the middle-aged, hunchbacked Hoghe (a former dramaturge for Pina Bausch) and his 21-year-old partner, Lorenzo de Brabandere, was at once disturbing and uplifting. Although it was unsettling to watch as Hoghe explored a series of floor movements on his deformed back, their duet was a poetic and forceful ode to the fight for survival.

After a year of preparations, Angelin Preljocaj unveiled his latest piece, N (titled 8, or (h)ate in the U.S.), a vast, timely fresco about war. In association with German experimental media artists Granular Synthesis, whose work fuses video and sound in a revolutionary new way, Preljocaj brought his dancers to another dimension. A precise series of combat movements characterized this full-length exploration of war and its horrors, which included a chilling reference to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, complete with blindfolded dancers obeying their vicious keepers. A groaning soundtrack with echoes of distant war machines and muffled heartbeats brought the dancers to their final act of disintegration as they disappeared under an unending series of powerful strobes that warped the spectators’ vision.

Hip hop has long been a passion of Montanari’s; he has followed its evolution closely since it arrived in France some 20 years ago. He says he now feels that this popular dance movement, reminiscent of the arrival of tango in Buenos Aires during the late 19th century, has matured.

Among the break-dancers featured was Mayada, a new group of five former dancers from the highly successful French Compagnie Käfig. Despite their minimal fiscal means, this all-male group’s Versus, an intimate exploration of the human psyche, was a pleasant surprise. Their performance, guided by dancer-choreographer Najib Guerfi, was enhanced by a delightful new talent, Thierry Chandler, the group’s youngest member, whose self-taught technique and million-dollar smile were noteworthy.

The festival ended with what Montanari considered this year’s biggest risk: bringing hip hop onto one of the world’s most beautiful stages, the Opéra Berlioz in the heart of Montpellier. That risk paid off when the public hailed Franck II Louise’s staging of “Hip-Hop Sampling,” an evening-length program featuring some of France’s most remarkable artists, with a wild standing ovation, bringing this reborn festival to a dynamic close.

For more information: www.montpellierdanse.com/agora