Letter from Lyon

September 25, 2012

While foiemaggedon is currently roiling California foodies (the law banning the delicacy officially took effect July 1), and I can get all the fatted goose liver dishes my little heart desires here, my main reason for coming to France’s second largest metropolitan city is its famed Lyon Dance Biennale. Founded in 1984 by the formidable Guy Darmet, this 15th edition has a new artistic director, Dominique Hervieu. A choreographer who also ran Paris’ National Theater of Chaillot, the 49-year old Hervieu was hand-picked by Darmet, who, by the way, can be spotted around town sporting bright orange (including matching shirt and shoes), and whose love for the art form remains fierce.

As for filling Darmet’s shoes, a difficult task no matter the color, Hervieu is still keeping a laser focus on contemporary dance, with this untitled edition offering 19 new works, including 15 world premieres during 35 performances at an array of venues. At 18 days (September 13–30), the festival, in a departure from Darmet’s scheduling, presented its glorious Défilé (parade), four days prior to the first concert, meaning your scribe wasn’t among the 300,000 spectators packing Lyon’s Rue de Republique ogling some 4,500 decked-out boogying participants.


But I did arrive in the town famous for its three Michelin-starred Paul Bocuse restaurant in time to catch Israel Galván’s final Biennale performance, La Curva (not to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s latest film and post–empty chair fiasco, Trouble With the Curve). I’m a huge Galván fan (and once waited until 1 in the morning to snag an in-person interview, through a translator, no less, with the dancer dubbed the “Nijinsky of Flamenco”). Needless to say, I was not disappointed in the 2010 work that also featured pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, who may have been channeling John Cage in this, his centenary year, in some of her string-plucking, elbow-jamming keyboard-playing. Also abetting Galván: singer Ines Bacan, rhythmic clapper Bobote, Txiki Berraondo’s tall cubistic chair sculptures, and a lot of chalk dust.



Israel Galvan in his
La Curva.

© Felix Vazquez, couresty Lyon Biennale.


Then there’s Galván, himself. His extraordinary leaps and landings, positively feral, his brilliant spins and his full-body-slapping/finger-flicking countenance once again mesmerized. And ya gotta love the flamenco dancer who flaunts it all in a gold leather waistcoat—especially when he takes it off and wields it like a matador confronting a snorting torero, before daintily hanging it up as prelude to a slithering, stomping shoe serenade—l’homme fatale.

As for une femme fatale, Maguy Marin, a festival darling for years with her daring, thoughtful works, albeit ones that have recently become more text-dependent and less dancerly, gave darkness a dull patina in her world premiere, Nocturnes. Marin’s latest work since leaving the national choreographic center in Rillieux-le-Pape after 12 years, seems, alas, to have arrived stillborn. Created with Denis Mariotte, the hour-long piece is about memory, history, and what passes from generation to generation. Featuring six dancers amid a series of black-outs, an ominous electronic soundtrack, and sequences of drab, fleeting tableaux (but not the vivant type), the work’s discernible movement vocabulary—let’s just call it minimalist to the max—left me longing for partnering beyond a bromantic hug or stance other than the crouched knees-to-chest variety. Spoken phrases such as “I am Tunisian” and “I am Greek” evoked questions of home, exile, and loss, with the rear of the stage serving as a kind of wailing wall flanked by monolithic panels. Depressing, mystifying, and, yes, stultifying, Nocturnes, the nadir of warm and fuzzy, bears no resemblance to another French work, also titled, Nocturnes—Claude Debussy’s impressionistic orchestral tone poem. 



Ballet Preljocaj in
Ce que j’appelle oubli
Photo by JC Carbonne, courtesy Lyon Biennale.

And talk about bleak impressions, there was Angelin Preljocaj’s world premiere, Ce que j’appelle oubli (That which I call forgetting), based on Laurent Mauvignier’s novella of the same name. The fictionalized account of a young Lyonnaise man who was savagely beaten to death by security guards after being arrested for drinking a can of beer in a supermarket, the 90-minute opus suffered on several counts: The verbose text (recited onstage by actor Laurent Cazanave), no matter how poetic, was rendered in extremely long and hard-to-read English supertitles projected high above the stage of the lovely Célestins Theater. But it was the literalization of this dismal story that proved Preljocaj’s undoing. Did we really need to see six stunning male dancers from Ballet Preljocaj simulating acts of violence, including choreographed rape and body blows, narrated in all too graphic detail by Cazanave? Reality is harsh enough, and having been an admirer of Preljocaj’s past works (even his 2008 Snow White moved beyond mere narrative), this tragedy gave no insight into that which wordless dance can and does do so beautifully.


Rachid Ouramdane’s latest work, Sfumato, was yet another exercise in darkness, though in this case it was more about greys, and I don’t mean 50 shades, but the doom and gloom of tsunamis, hurricanes, and other natural catastrophes. Sylvain Giraudeau’s décor, Jacques Hoepffner’s video and Sonia Chiambretto’s libretto helped set the tone for Sfumato. Four dancers, a singer, and even a contortionist (elasticity is a good thing when fleeing disasters) created languid imagery.



Rachide Ouramdane’s

Photo by Michel Cavalca, courtesy Lyon Biennale.

But it was a polished cool that resulted—too cool, actually—that made it hard to establish an emotional connection, although the onstage rain did make me feel something for the wet dancers: Oui, I was hoping they wouldn’t catch cold. Ouramdane’s work, sometimes termed “docu-fiction dance” and inspired by testimonials of people confronted with exile, may be lovely to look at, but, like so much morning fog, dissipates too quickly.

Taking nature beyond the metaphorical is Luc Petton’s ornithologically bent troupe, Cie Le Guetteur (The Watcher). His 2008 La Confidence des oiseaux (The Birds’ Confession), may have nothing to do with Hitchcock’s classic, The Birds, in which icy blonde Tippi Hedren fights off flying predators, but it does feature four dancers and 30 birds in a gentle, surreal meditation on terpsichorean/avian bonding. Set to Xavier Rosselle’s elegiac score, performed live by the composer on soprano saxophone and computer, La Confidence seamlessly combines a basic movement vocabulary (arabesques, balancing poses, and yoga-like postures), with the dancers’ bodies often becoming intriguing perches for their fine feathered friends. While ornithology and dance may not be new (think Firebird and Swan Lake), this work soared nonetheless.

Speaking of swans, in my next epistle, I’ll be covering Dada Masilo’s all-black, barefoot Swan Lake, as well as a new work by her fellow South African, Robyn Orlin. And, not to worry, there’s also a new offering by Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud, France’s red hot duo famous for their, er, penetrating, Paquerette, aka (by this reviewer), dances with dildos. J’aime la France!