Letter From Lyon, Part Deux

October 3, 2012

Attending 13 dance concerts in seven days must be some kind of a record—and this on top of my L.A.-to-Lyon jet lag. But who’s counting when I’m in the city famous for the birth of film and where an enterprising young dance aficionado named Guy Darmet helped put Lyon on the terpsichorean map.

Allow me to explain: It was 1895 when those fabulous Lumière brothers, Lyon’s Auguste and Louis, after seeing Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope in Paris, took it upon themselves to design a motion-picture camera of their own and—voilà—the first film of an approaching train that looked as if it were about to burst from the screen was shown in December of that year. It’s fitting, then, that film should play a role in the Lyon Danse Biennale, founded by Darmet in 1984 and now directed by Dominique Hervieu. At the brilliant Café Danse, where Emmanuel Cedat presides over the kitchen and where we like-minded dance-lovers schmooze, a selection of dance films was screened daily. So, in between visits to Les Halles Bocuse (where all things gastronomic teeter between delicious and decadent), trekking to the gloriously white Notre Dame Basilica to pray for the strength to attend yet another performance, and catching Perugino’s Ascension of Christ at Lyon’s Beaux-Arts Museum, this scribe was moving like the TGV, France’s famed Train à Grande Vitesse (literally, high speed).

Of the festival’s 15 world premieres, I managed to catch four, as well as other new works created earlier this year. Two performances, held back to back, began with the 15-minute Ellipses, from the French company CIE 14:20, with Aragorn Boulanger moving butoh-like to Matthieu Saglio’s elegiac cello playing as choreographed by company directors Clément Debailleul and Raphaël Navarro. Easy on the eyes and ears, this mood was immediately shattered by provocateurs Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud, whose new work, Altered Natives Say Yes To Another Excess—Twerk, was both maddening and astonishing.

Taking cues from the London and New York club scenes, the duo famous for their surprising use of props (check out my 2010 Montpellier Dance Festival coverage) here concerned themselves with pure dance. Abetted by DJs Elijah and Skilliam, who blasted out sounds ranging from Reggae to dubstep (ear plugs were given to audience members), the pair was joined by three other dancers—Élisa Yvelin, Ana Pi, and Alex Mugler—in this high-octane but empty-headed frolic.

As Diaghilev once said, “Astonish me.” Bengolea and Chaignaud managed to do precisely that but only in the first 15 minutes of their homage to disco and beyond: Like the Sufi Whirling Dervishes, the quintet spun non-stop in tour-de-force hyper-pirouette mode, Chaignaud sporting an outrageous Louis XIV wig. (Not surprising, as I believe he believes that he is some kind of regal incarnation, decidedly an étoile, if not always in this critic’s mind, at least in his own.)

These whirling, er, squirmishes were jaw-dropping extremism personified, their determined frenzy laudable. But when the dancers reverted to other moves, from house and krumping to neo-balletic lunacy, the next 75 minutes turned shock and awe into schlock and flaw. Sometimes less is more, but never with Bengolea and Chaignaud, who, when I later asked him if he’d taken any prompts from New York’s iconic but bygone nightspot, Studio 54—where Jagger, Warhol, Halston, et al held court—he told me he hadn’t heard of it. But, of course, the 27-year old hadn’t been born yet. And precisely because Chaignaud is so outré, or in spite of it (and the Argentine Bengolea is a beauty), I can’t help but look forward to the next number in their oeuvre.



Robyn Orlin’s
Beauty Remained for Just a Moment Then Returned to Her Starting Position.
© John Hogg, courtesy Lyon Biennale


On the subject of beauty, Robyn Orlin’s world premiere, Beauty Remained for Just a Moment Then Returned Gently to Her Starting Position (what’s with these unwieldy titles?), featured her South African troupe, Moving Into Dance Mophatong, interacting with the audience for much of its 60 minutes, with beauty only intermittently visible. Of the seven dancers (who didn’t actually dance much), Julia Burnham, clad in a ball gown made out of plastic bags (costumes by Marianne Fassler), was a kind of ringleader: She demanded (harangued would be more accurate) that we drink from water bottles we’d been given, do a group gargle, then hurl the empties onto the stage (I got bonked with one). She stripped t-shirts off of various men in the audience, which led to a long, uneventful dénouement whereby Burnham then made a T-shirt tutu. This was all interspersed with Philippe Lainé’s video that featured piles of garbage, chickens clucking, lions lazing, and the South African sun, rising and setting. The recycling message, unmistakably tilting towards anti-beauty, gave Orlin’s work a stale whiff, although the performers’ collective energy was quite commendable.

Beauty prevailed on all counts in JiÅ™í Kylián’s 1998 masterpiece, One of a Kind. Performed exquisitely by Lyon Opéra Ballet’s 18 dancers, the three-act abstract dance featured rapid-fire weight shifts, sliding and dipping moves, as well as sumptuous partnering. Coralie Leviuex and Julian Nicosia became a tangled web, all limbs and lushness, while architect Atsushi Kitagawara’s fluid sets (different in each act: a square and a cone, black staircases—shades of Apollo—and gold beaded curtains) made for compelling viewing. Brett Dean’s score, taped snippets of Britten, Cage, and others, was enhanced by cellist Matthew Barley’s onstage performance, another formidable component making this a foray into a magical, mystical realm.



Philippe Decouflé’s 2012 work, Panorama, was a dance of a different color, with little dance but plenty of schtick. Having become commercially successful with shows for Cirque du Soleil and Paris’ famed Le Crazy Horse revue, Decouflé put together his own 90-minute retrospective. Making use of baton-twirling majorettes, an aerial duet, mirrors, videos, shadow puppetry, and a phalanx of flipper-wearing aliens, Decouflé appealed more to children, but this unfunny and messy Panorama needs focus, not a wide-angle, all-over-the-place approach.



Dada Masilo’s
Swan Lake.

Photo © John Hogg, courtesy Lyon Biennale.


Perhaps I’m swanned out, but I was still looking forward to Dada Masilo’s one-hour deconstruction of Swan Lake, a work the South African made in 2010 for 12 dancers, including herself as Odette. To a mash-up of Tchaikovsky’s brilliant score with snippets of, among others, Arvo Pärt’s overexposed Spiegel im Spiegel and Saint-Saëns’ Dying Swan, Masilo, a beautiful dancer, goes for broke. She plays with gender (Craig Arnolds is Odile, with most of the other guys also sporting unflattering tutu skirts). She casts Siegfried (Songezo Mcilizeli) as gay— still taboo in many parts of Africa. And she sends up most of the ballet’s already ripe-for-parodying scenes.

That there are few Swan Lakes of color is a fact, and that this hour-long opus is entertaining also cannot be denied, but the fusion of barefoot ballet with African dance, coupled with Bailey Snyman’s frenetic, ADD-like emcee, did not quite work for me. Already a hit and scheduled for a European tour, Swan Lake, as rendered by Masilo, feels more like an extended So You Think You Can Dance routine. I do believe, however, that the 27-year-old who has already tackled Romeo and Juliet and Carmen, is gifted—and brave—but I would have liked more depth and less Keystone Kop-like antics.

The Lyon Biennale, with its good, bad and, well, ugly, is still the gold standard of festivals. Alors, merci beaucoup, Dominique Hervieu, and long may you bring tout le monde—all the world—together through la danse! —Victoria Looseleaf