Montpellier Dance Festival

June 18, 2010

Montpellier Dance Festival
Montpellier, France

June 18–July 7, 2010

Reviewed by Victoria Looseleaf


Yutaka Takei and Astrid Bas in Raimund Hoghe’s
Si je meurs laissez le balcon ouvert. Photo by Rosa Frank, Courtesy Montpellier.

In the scheme of things, 30 years may not seem long. But in the world of contemporary dance festivals, three decades is a milestone. And so it was in Montpellier, when artistic director Jean-Paul Montanari pulled out all the stops in celebrating the moving body in all its glory (and in one case, its nakedness).

The roster included some of the world’s most prestigious companies (Merce Cunningham and Batsheva), as well as emerging troupes and festival stalwarts, making this heavenly hamlet in the South of France the place to be this summer. La Cour des Ursuline had been lovingly restored (to the tune of 9.5 million Euros), with its crown jewel, the 587-seat Agora outdoor amphitheater. Adjunct studios, including Salle Béjart and Studio Bagouet, were also wonderful for dance, be it on film (in the former) or live, the latter the scene of the infamous “dildo” piece.

But more on that later.

Indeed, Dominique Bagouet, who died of AIDS at 41 in 1992 and founded the festival (Montanari took the helm in 1983), would have been proud. On tap were 16 world and French premieres from 10 countries, 53 performances of 27 shows attended by nearly 50,000 people, as well as several William Forsythe installations, conferences, and numerous free events.

One highlight was Akram Khan, who performed his Gnosis (2010), a hybrid combining elements of Polaroid Feet and Tarana, at the Agora. Inspired by Gandhari, a character from the Hindu epic Mahabharata who blindfolds herself when she marries a blind king, Gnosis features Khan in a welcome return to his Khathak roots.

Oozing expression in his hands and swan-like arms, Khan created a percussive world with his ankle bell–clad feet. The equally mesmerizing dancer/singer/taiko drummer, Yoshie Sunahata (Gandhari), joined him in sizzling duets, her death by fire prompting Khan’s hopelessly twitchy soul to project agony and ecstasy in alternating jolts. During the journey Khan displayed fierce turns, crisp lunges, and machine-gun footwork—a veritable pipeline to the gods. Four additional musicians abetted the performance that seared onto memory.

Also inspiring: Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker dancing in the revival of her Rosas danst Rosas. The 1983 four-movement classic, a paean to minimalism, features a quartet of dancers in maximum-stamina mode. Dealing with breath, silence, chairs, industrial music, repetitive patterns, unisons, and, well, head-banging angst, the nearly two-hour work not only holds up, but seems almost prescient. With De Keersmaeker’s presence, issues of aging, mortality, and the unrelenting passage of time also rear their inescapable heads.

The humpbacked middle-aged German and festival darling Raimund Hoghe presented his world premiere Si je meurs laissez le balcon ouvert (If I die leave the balcony open). An homage to the dead, including Pina Bausch (for whom he was once a dramaturge), Michael Jackson, and Cunningham, the work was its own kind of jukebox musical. The pastiche of tunes—including Pärt, Bach, and Purcell, as well as Peggy Lee, Judy Garland, and Egyptian-born French crooner Dalida—proved an intriguing soundtrack.

Too long at three hours, Si featured seven dancers and Hoghe. While his trademark walking, bending, and slowing down of time à la Robert Wilson, is constrained by his body, he still figured prominently as de facto ringmaster. Moments of beauty were laced throughout: Emotional solos, a languid fox trot, and bits of tai chi pole balancing were counterparts to group moves featuring Nijinsky-esque faun hands, puffed-out cheeks, and serpentine line formations. 

Also new, but far from successful: Fabrice Ramalingom’s Pandora Box/Body; and Mathilde Monnier and Dominique Figarella’s Soapéra, both of which began promisingly but soon fizzled. Ramalingom, a Bagouet acolyte, and five others, made use of flimsy movable panels to literally construct and deconstruct the titular box. Chloé (Kill the DJ) provided onstage computer music, her presence distracting, the unsightly cords cluttering Agora’s moonlit stage.

Monnier, a festival regular, and artist Figarella created a giant white foamy bubble that was utterly compelling. With dancers concealed in this slow, shape-shifting blob, images of clouds, ice crystals, even Mt. Rushmore came to mind, while I-Fang Lin, a visible puppetmaster, was all limbs akimbo. Too bad, then, that the bubble was made to burst, leaving Lin and three other performers all dressed up (Hazmat suits, anyone?) with nowhere to go.

Also lacking: Rifle-toting veteran Régine Chopinot walked around a church in her misguided premiere Independance No. 1, while young hip-hop choreographer Kader Attou was out of his element as his troupe Accrorap attempted to meld contemporary and street dance. Moving to Górecki’s haunting masterpiece, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” the performers, alas, had no connection to the redemptive score, their flailing arms, head-spins, and blank looks arbitrary and aimless in this world premiere.

Fabulously danced works were offered by, among others, Béjart Ballet Lausanne (directed by Gil Roman), Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, and Netherlands Dance Theater. Now under Jim Vincent’s direction, NDT performed three Jirí Kylián works, including the stunning Mémoires d’Oubliettes, seen last fall by this reviewer in its premiere in Den Haag.

Finally, some musings on conceptualists Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud, a duo touted as the second coming by many French, as poseurs by others. Paquerette (2008), described as a dance for four—two performers and two dildos, which looked like candlesticks from Versailles—featured the couple disrobing, prancing around, and faux masturbating. Bengolea’s Brazilian bikini wax was more interesting than their mundane gambolings. One image, however, did smack of Duchamp: With Bengolea bent over, the dildo, pointing north, resembled a mini Eiffel Tower.

The so-called porno couple also premiered Castor & Pollux. Hanging from harnesses at the Opéra Comédie while the audience lay onstage looking up at their latex-covered bodies, the pair dangled and thrashed around by dint of singing pulley operators. Part Spiderman, part The Fly—and all hype—the piece was a terrific waste of space. With Sylphides (2009), the duo encased themselves in silver bags, a Nazi-like madam inflating/deflating the jumbo Shredded Wheat–type coverings until the pair broke free and cavorted to New Age schmaltz. New? Hah! John & Yoko created and performed “bagism” in the 60s.

Still, chapeaux off to Montanari for mounting an awesome array of talents, be they good, bad, or ugly (Chaignaud wore more make-up than Cher, Lady Gaga, and Liberace combined) and for putting Montpellier on the map as the definitive dance-lovers’ utopia.