Montpellier Dance Festival

July 14, 2011

Various Venues
Montpellier, France

June 22–July 7, 2011


The men of Batsheva Dance Company in Ohad Naharin’s
Project 5. Photo by Gadi Dagon, courtesy Montpellier Dance Festival.

If it’s June, dance lovers know to flock to the South of France, where one of Europe’s most illustrious contemporary dance festivals has taken over this town for more than three decades. Founded in 1980 by Dominique Bagouet, who died of AIDS in 1992, the festival has been directed with an eclectic hand by Jean-Paul Montanari since 1983.

Always surprising, occasionally outrageous and infinitely provocative, the festival’s offerings proved no different this year. On tap were 16 world and French premieres from nine countries, 50 performances of 30 shows attended by some 38,000 spectators, as well as numerous films, conferences, and free events, all set to the tune of a budget north of one million Euros.

For sheer inspiration, olé to Israel Galván. He can always be counted on to deliver virtuosic innovation, which he did in Flamencan spades in his 2005 masterpiece, La Edad de Oro (The Golden Age). Accompanied only by brothers David and Alfredo Lagos, ace singer and guitarist respectively, Galván’s minimalist approach yielded maximal thrills: Tossing off diagonal jumps that ended in frozen arabesques, he blazed through polyrhythmic footwork, while his dizzying turns, often ending in profile, recalled Nijinsky’s two-dimensional Faune.

Music was also key in Alban Richard’s new Pléiades. The six musicians of the famed Percussions of Strasbourg banged out Xenakis’ complex 1979 work of the same name, the sounds reverberating through the open-air Agora Amphitheatre like battle cries. Wheeling the instruments (marimbas, vibraphones, various drums), around the stage, the musicians were as visually captivating as the six dancers, who moved in precise unisons, their repetitive patterns akin to the inner-workings of a fine Swiss watch.

Another stellar showing: Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company’s Project 5, originally made for five women in 2008, then cast on men the following year. A French premiere, the piece featured both genders in the 2-plus-hour evening. Filled with voluptuous moves, cocky posings and explosive leaps, and set to a pastiche score—including Isao Tomita’s speeded-up synthesized version of Ravel’s “Bolero”—the work is typical Naharin, bristling with humor, fear, yearnings, and awe.

Speaking of “Bolero,” Didier Théron’s Shanghai Bolero, a world premiere that featured the Ravel warhorse—gulp—three times, had some folks scrambling for the door. Fourteen dancers rolled, slunk, and hopped aimlessly, occasionally moving in kick-line formations to the overly familiar tune, ending with the women topless. Not unlike Chinese water torture, Shanghai Bolero had viewers feeling they’d been, well, shanghaied.

It was easier to escape from Franko B’s French premiere, I’m Thinking of You, in which the Italian-born, London-based performance artist with the completely tattooed body swung naked on a swing, as onlookers moved around the small space in order to get, er, different views. Pianist Helen Ottaway plucked out New Agey sounds for about 10 minutes while the audience waited for something to happen. It never did. This reviewer left after 40 minutes, later learning that the “performance” was to continue until the last person exited. After 2 hours and 15 minutes, Franko, still swinging, told the lone remaining viewer, “C’est fini,” or something to that effect.

Audience members were also part of Deborah Hay’s and Laurent Pichaud’s world premiere, Indivisibilites, in which viewers were situated onstage as well as in theater seats. A 60s throwback where not much takes place, the piece featured the septuagenarian ambling on a catwalk, emitting occasional sounds—alien, Inuit-like, Hayan—before noodling down steps and continuing her investigation of the space. Pichaud, meanwhile, fiddled with a fire extinguisher, a follow-spot and a harmonica until the pair came together in a sweet, harmonican kiss, the instrument now lodged in Pichaud’s mouth. The end saw Pichaud tugging on a huge red drape, as well as wielding little plastic flags, the hour having vanished, as Hay, doing what she has for decades, expanded the possibilities of what constitutes dance.

Former Cirque du Soleil artist Angela Laurier attempted to broaden the dance horizon in three different shows (this reviewer saw only two), but mainly found cause to exhibit her elastic body. In Déversoir, the contortionist executed rubbery backbends while a video (in French) revealed her troubled family history, including having a schizophrenic brother who paints. With J’aimerais Pouvoir Rire (I Wish I Could Laugh), three live musicians energized the work with ear-splitting guitar riffs, but with Laurier still concentrating on her brother’s illness, the story remains too personal. Laurier has a beautiful body that moves in intriguing ways, but she needs a director, writer, and bigger palette.

Israelis Tamar Borer and Tamara Erde also made use of video imagery and a disability in their 2010 subtly political work, Ana, but to better effect. Borer, paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident 20 years ago, emerged from cocoon-like wrappings to crawl in butoh-esque fashion while Erde’s projections of desert scenes washed over her in this French premiere. A meditation on the landscape of the body as seen through the terrain of Israel and Palestine, the piece speaks to the perpetual conflict rendering these people alternately hopeless and hopeful.


Butoh, unfortunately, did not work for Bartabas in The Centaur and The Animal, which featured four horses from his Theatre Zingaro, the equine master himself, and butoh dancer Ko Murobushi. Misguided, the two-hour production, set to Jean Schwarz’s ambient sound collage and voiceover of Lautreámont poetry, was agonizing in its pacing. Murobushi slowly banged on a piano—with his feet—but failed to connect the spellbinding grotesquerie of butoh with the mystery of the steeds, here darkly lighted.

Thankfully, there were moments of beauty, with Bartabas, in hooded garb suggestive of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, perched atop his majestic charges that turned, pranced, and walked backward, while Murobushi, at several points, was showered with sand.

The festival also featured works by David Wampach, Raimund Hoghe, Ballet Flanders, Meryl Tankard, and others, as well as offerings from Israeli choreographers that included Emanuel Gat and Yuval Pick.

Montpellier: Come for the dance—but also enjoy the food, wine, and spectacular scenery. There’s nothing quite like it. Vraiment!