France Moves

April 23, 2001

Jöelle Bouvier and Régis Obadia’s psychological drama La Chambre screened in conjunction with France Moves.
Photo courtesy Ellen Jacobs

France Moves/Cinémathèque de la Danse à la Cinémathèque Française

Various locations
New York, New York

April 23?May 6, 2001

Reviewed by Albert Lee

Few Americans get the chance to see the Paris or Lyon Opéra Ballets live, so it’s not surprising that even fewer experience the work of a French experimentalist like Angelin Preljocaj, let alone minor choreographers like Lionel Hoche, Daniel Larrieu, Joëlle Bouvier, or Régis Obadia. Of course, it’s cheaper to ship a film reel across the Atlantic than tour a dance company, which is why the Paris-based Cinémathèque de la Danse is such a treasure. Founded and still curated by Patrick Bensard, the actively touring archive of more than 500 films and 4,000 videos operates under the auspices of the prestigious Cinémathèque Française, long associated with the French New Wave directors of the 1950s and ’60s.

During France Moves, a festival of French modern dance, Preljocaj was among the many choreographers presenting both live and filmed work. He directed three of four shorts that demonstrated an embrace of dance filmmaking as an art unto itself. Noces unfolds in a giant warehouse, where five ushers and five bridesmaids enact a courting ritual fraught with both eros and agon. At first deliberate and lyrical, the movement becomes increasingly punctuated with wild, impulsive gestures. The men race about. The women jump off benches and collapse. Life-size rag dolls in bridal gowns are cast violently into the air?and often Preljocaj sends the camera into this fray. Un trait d’union, by contrast, is as much an exercise in cinematography as in kinetics. Preljocaj’s pensive shots of a barely furnished room?grass-green walls, billowing white curtains, oranges spilled across the floor?help build the formalist mood as much as the choreography, in which two men grapple around a leather chair.

A more playful spirit popped up in the work of Philippe Decouflé. No stranger to the camera, Decouflé created the memorable Chanel perfume ad in which women threw open shutters and cried, “Egoïste!” (He also directed ads for Christian Dior and Polaroid; Shazam!, performed by his Compagnie DCA during France Moves, incorporates film and live video.) Decouflé’s creations burst with color and theatrical wit, in keeping with his early training at a circus school and with Alwin Nikolais, the mixed-media dance pioneer. In Caramba, a woman vibrates happily atop a washing machine, and in Codex, a man in water-logged trousers flounces about with a piece of the floor stuck to his foot. Often, his dancers are like vaudevillians or clowns; soundtracks contain accordions, tubas, and the occasional “Wheee!” But it isn’t all fluff. Abracadabra is an austere and beautiful film, with several dancers performing in a warehouse to a Bach concerto and in silence. It’s full of the remarkably poetic, clean fluidity often seen in Decouflé’s work but is sometimes obscured by the whiz-bang theatrics.

Other noteworthy films included Daniel Larrieu’s Waterproof, a balletic reverie performed and filmed mostly underwater in a swimming pool. Dancers of Larrieu’s Astrakan Company, apparently strapped with weights, creep along the floor, vault across the walls like the fighters in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, leap over other dancers, occasionally zooming up for air and splashing about. Even on poor-quality video, it’s still a marvel.

Higher production values marked the work of Joëlle Bouvier and Régis Obadia, whose La Chambre was a polished psychological drama; however, La Lampe, intended as a Hitchcockian study of dread, came off instead as a campy if well-lit melodrama about a man in a glittery cape chasing a hysterical woman.

Lionel Hoche’s Erè mèla mèla used stop animation in a witty piece about two roommates whose socks and shirts insist on snaking from one body to another. (Hoche’s Compagnie MéMé BaNjo made its U.S. debut during the festival.)

The program also included two documentaries, Bensard’s own Le Mystère Babilée about the dancer Jean Babilée, and François Verret’s unfortunately unenlightening fifty-minute Rosella Hightower, about the Native American ballerina who began her career with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) and later founded a notable ballet academy in Cannes.

If these films show anything, it is that dance culture encompasses more than simply live performances, and film is not just a tool for documentation. Though they may not be strict transcriptions of (and in some cases lack) stage equivalents, they still enable the sharing of a foreign dance culture to an audience that would otherwise have little to no access to it. Cinémathèque de la Danse organizers indicated the films are likely to tour.