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Flash Dispatch, 7-7: Genius Treaty
Danse a la Montpellier: Monnier Meets the Royal Swedes; Avant-Garde on the Outskirts: Burundi in Provence

By Shena Wilson
Copyright 2001 Shena Wilson

MONTPELLIER, France -- In its 21st year, the Montpellier Danse festival began with the June 28 premiere of "Natt and Rose" by resident choreographer Mathilde Monnier on the Royal Swedish Ballet. I also saw, on June 29, the Maitres Tambours of Burundi, dance and music of traditional Burundian drummers. Both performances were captivating and entirely different, and different again from "Plug & Pray," a new underground scene directed by Etienne Schwartz in a converted chapel near the projects on the outskirts of Montpellier, seen June 27. Remarkable and unexpected in all of this eclectic dance was the appearance of similar themes. The three performances had: live musicians on stage with the dancers; percussion by drums or feet and/or breath; and objects, especially small hooked sticks. Dance was offered as a discussion or celebration of life, of body, and of soul as opposed to being a vehicle for a story. And there were loud speaking or singing voices in all three. None contained: a storyline, emotions in developed relationships between performers or characters, long lyrical sections of group dance, canned music, or a turned-out third arabesque. A comment on our collective taste? Or maybe just proof of a trend, at the crack of the millennial dawn? This mix gave me a theme to consider: the soul of dance. My experience in Montpellier was warm, stimulating, and memorable. I've distilled my three days into what we'll call an Eau de vie of Dance and France.

Montpellier, eighth largest city in France, is in the Languedoc-Rousillon region, 20 minutes from the Mediterranean. Modern blue trams snake through this Haussman-looking city with southern charms that include street signs in la langue doc (language of Oc). Just over three hours by high-speed TGV train from Paris (just established to Montpellier last month), Montpellier is a city of arts, particularly dance and music, and it has a famed Faculty of Medicine, established in the twelfth century. Its Centre National Choreographique (there are many of these scattered in select regional capitols throughout France, funded by public monies) is in a former convent. Clean, 16th-century beige stone buildings form a large courtyard around which curve three floors of modern studios and, as of this year, the festival offices. An adjacent courtyard is an open-air performance space. A former prison, the building was occupied by the army from 1934 until 1988, when the city bought it. It is fabulous.

Mathilde Monnier: A Theme of no Theme

On nineteen of the strong and beautiful classical dancers of the Royal Swedish Ballet, Mathilde Monnier remade the first scene of her 1995 creation "Natt." In this incarnation, she wanted to show what was happening in the dark while the audience entered the theater, and to explore "the long immersion into night that occurs during the Swedish winter," according to program notes. And, this past year, she made a sister dance for "Natt" called "Rose." This is a study of the special nature of a corps de ballet. What does each dancer bring to a corps de ballet and how can she/he represent or even disappoint the corps? The use of light, shadow and reflection is key in the two pieces, as is the focus on singular parts of the body. I noticed throughout the particularly supple upper backs and the easy, open carriage of these dancers. A true pleasure to watch.

In "Natt" six dancers enter wearing simple black or beige lycra trousers and t-shirts or bras and small rectangular flashlights strapped to various parts of their bodies -- an inner thigh, forehead, or upper arm, for example. The stage is dark. They enter the stage each alone at various intervals. Sometimes they hold a light to highlight legs, feet, or the space around them. Two couples employ unusual hooked wooden sticks, about the length of a forearm, to prod and direct a partner. Other than a rectangle of light, and a section with three awkward mirrors moved by a dancer wearing an orange tutu, there were various uses of body shadows projected on the backdrop. Two grand pianos are involved, one on either side of the stage. One is tuned, and as Petter Jacobsson, the artistic director of the Swedish Ballet since 1999, explained to me, one is carefully "untuned" according to the design of composer John Cage. Lengthy silences interrupt alternately discordant and harmonious piano music. There is a beautiful, serious, quiet, intriguing, secretive, funny and crazy quality to the whole piece. Indeed, it is just as I imagine the winter nights of Sweden.

"Rose" was created this year. Beethoven's Piano Sonata Number 17 was beautifully played by Matti Hirvonen on a pink grand piano upstage center-right. "Rose" is 19 solos that flow into disjointed and harmonious sections where one dancer, or several, appear, not necessarily with the music, moving together, or even acknowledging each other. The stage is covered in pink flooring and interestingly, the backdrop and wings are stripped naked of any curtain or partition. We see the huge pink covered backstage space of the modern and very comfortable Corum theatre in the Berlioz Opera house in its entirety. The pink and open stage effect is liberating and frank. On curtain, the audience sighed aloud. As "Natt" prods us into the secrets of dark and of night, "Rose" reveals the performance space an audience does not normally see.

The "Rose" dancers and pianist wear dark pink jeans and matching t-shirts. The dancers' expressly wet hair gleams particularly noticeably and aesthetically when droplets of water spray in perfect crowns of water during the pirouettes. They move freely, alone, and in groups, ignoring each other, touching and occasionally balancing on each other. One lies down, legs straight up so another can balance on top, pelvis perched on the bottom of platform-like feet; another 'flies' and moves, gracefully, playfully. Recognizable are movements echoing the uses and abuses of classical ballet, outlining both the excellence and ridicule of this training. The Royal Swedish Ballet, established in 1773; is the fourth oldest ballet company in the world after the Paris, Danish, and Maryinsky companies. According to the Jacobsson, former principal with Sadlers Wells, the RSB carries a rich history that is now the collective knowledge of a company of 70 dancers, and this is both an advantage and an albatross.

The questionable place of classical ballet in our current world was a topic de rigueur during a media lunch at the Chat Perche (Perched Cat) with Ms. Monnier and Mr. Jacobsson. This is a duo keen to extend classical depth, to offer something very different, current, lively and real to the dancers and the audience. To my mind, this first effort is a success primarily because it is interesting and entertaining to watch. It confirms modern reasons to love dance on a terrestrial "real people" level, as opposed to being a navel-gazing thesis that is a bore. I note with glee that we are permitted here to marvel at the toned, fluid vocabulary of these dancers as it is alternatively employed in lush contemporary movement. This is accomplished especially through repetition. A dancer performs a brief series of movements, or a simple task, until we see the clear beauty and the physical skill of it. Second, "Natt & Rose" is interesting because it is a stretch into new-ish territory and a comment on the current art of dance, which, I agree, has become too focused on capacity to perform ten pirouettes and incredibly high extensions, no matter what the tone of the choreography.

What time is it please?: To illustrate this dance trend, Monnier demonstrated a classical standard penchee arabesque by using two "legs" of cutlery, held at a flat six o'clock penchee. All dimensions being suitable for ballet figures. Her point: this is no longer the arabesque of years ago, a graceful ten-to-six position. It is now regularly six o'clock, or will be dismissed as lousy. Where do we go from here?, she asks almost without irony. To ten-past-six? Jean-Paul Montanari, the choreographic centre's general director, offers a wry reply with a Gallic shrug: we go to the circus. And we're there already.

I wondered, as did apparently some of the dancers during rehearsals, about the place of emotion in all of this. My reservations with both pieces is the fray of emotional threads, a purposeful lack of cohesion. Not to say the dancers or the pieces are devoid of humanity. Au contraire. They are looking deeply into our human condition into night hat envelops, into the glory and failures of a corps de ballet but, besides expressions of frustration or surprise, the dancers are silos, they are all alone together and we watch them. Together. Alone. My cohort, the wonderful BT, said she felt nothing, just "flat." Age-old debate therefore: does emotional tone have to be integral to creation? Surely we can use it as a canvas to our own thoughts. Like Ms. Monnier, I am tired of the conventions of classical ballet on stage: strict movement, spoon-fed emotion et al. But I was faced with a creeping dissatisfaction. Communication through art still begs for emotion links. I understand Monnier's reticence to reduce the "flow" of the piece to fit pockets of explanation. Because, by yielding to a "you feel sad" we pop back to the old tradition. "Pas bon." Aren't we looking for the "real" soul the purity of "us," the place that doesn't need a prince or a mad scene to make sense? Some art just needs its own breathing space. It does not matter that this is unsettling for the performer and audience, because that, mes amis, is the point. You want plot, go back to the farm. Oh. No, that's not it either....

Exchange and desire: According to Monnier, the emergence of the solo is of absolute importance in contemporary dance. She rehearsed all sections separately and due to circumstances of rehearsals and various injuries, June 28 was the very first time she saw the various solos of "Rose" together and "full-out." A premiere indeed. Monnier, I feel, is one those too rare individuals who actually listen when others speak. She exudes generous and graceful simplicity. To her surprise and pleasure, some dancers came to work on and discuss the piece even when they were not scheduled. My guess is this is because she is an interesting and open-minded person with whom to work. Her request for improvisation was, understandably, a strain on those not yet ready or willing. However, many dancers thrived in this environment.

That the emotional theme was ephemeral did not exclude several fun bits in both pieces. My favorites were the parodies of ballet training. Just two examples: at the end of "Natt," a man rides a stationary bicycle to illuminate a man wearing a short-sleeved polyester green mini-dress. The rider shouts at the jumping man in the headlights. Thanks to often hearing a Swedish friend talk to her children (my vocabulary: look, T-shirt, be careful, pee-pee, sit here, etc....) I partially grasped the simple encouragement: Jump! Higher! Keep going! And, as a Swedish journalist told me afterwards, he was also told things like, avoid the 'side-lines.' Ms. Monnier requested this unscripted vocal encouragement. The result is impressive and funny. In "Rose," two men repeat a preparation for pirouette in fourth and second; arms in third. With the two not seeing each other, the preparations accelerate and become frenetic and ridiculous. One man falls to his knees and springs back up. Surprised at his body, he wobbles, begins again. An automate.

Maitre Tambours of Burandi

Here's a tip: when the man in the center of the semi-circle of drummers, whom I'll name the 'caller,' sings out words of about four syllables in a crescendo-like an invitation, shout back: "yeaaa." To the delight of the Burandian caller, the Montpellier audience, a quick study to be sure, spontaneously answered the third or fourth call with a 'yeaaa!'

The twelve dancers/musicians who are the Drum Masters of Burandi brim with joy and sincerity. They offer considerable energy. As Mr. Jacobsson and Ms. Monnier pointed out, we are interested in roots, in the reasons for dance, minus circus tricks. We now seek soul, the anima. And, without reducing the very traditional performance of the Burandian drummers to a simple 'yahoo' for dance soul, this is a prime example of how a total absence of western classical dance is scrumptious. Under a sweet summer night sky in Provence, strong Burandi men drum, jump, and sing during two high-voltage sections of about half an hour each. Dressed in toga-like robes of three pieces of cloth -- green, white and red, the colors of Burandi -- they are muscular, barefoot. The performers range from about 20 to 60. This dance and music is sacred, mythical and ancient. It is about rhythm and joie-de-vivre.

The dancers enter carrying and drumming the ten large cylinderic wood drums placed horizontally on padded cloth rings on the crown of their heads. They form a wide semi-circle of nine standing drums behind a decorated red, white and green drum. This drum is used by the caller, a role eventually occupied by every performer. The rhythm and organization of the dance is consistent and repetitive. The performers stand behind nearly waist-heavy wooden drums and play them with two hooked sticks, quite similar in color and size to those used in Monnier's "Natt." Successively they move amongst themselves, in no particular pattern, to relay each other from the exhausting drumming. The repetitive nature of the dances brings a trance-like pleasure, especially once I eased into it -- when I realized "this is it." I don't mean this is simple, but it is unusually repetitive. It takes a moment to absorb. In the second section's variation the performers sing in addition to drumming and jumping incredibly high into a pike position. And they continue to move one at a time or two by two into the centre of the arc to pirouette, cartwheel and jump. The audience stamps its feet for more. The performers offer two more sections of music and jumps and then replace the drums on their heads, and continuing to drum they walk off stage in a majestic rhythmic procession.

A Church of the Arts in a Sea of Gypsies

La Chapelle stands as an artist's oasis in a gypsy sea. A former church, the building is in the modern-style, round, open concept. We are thus parachuted away from the elegant historical Montpellier to non-threatening but noisy outskirts that we can safely call the "projects." We walked through an area where North African men (only) play cards, smoke and talk in outdoor cafes. The area around the "Chapel" is where grandmothers bring lawn chairs to sit under trees and children and a remarkable number of unique, funny mutts frolic. Mopeds hum, small cars are filled to the brim with people. Women with big hair, high shoes. Swarthy men with tank shirts and sandals. This is an area of HLM (Hebergement a loyer modere) or low-rent housing, most often occupied by recent immigrants. The physical situation is important in the life of this artist community, created and lovingly propelled by established composer Etienne Schwartz.

Chaos of freedom: About six gypsy boys aged eleven or twelve come into the church to see the performance. One walked to the piano, pounded around, and was asked not to. They continued calling out, burping, laughing, moving, stomping. They were very noisy during the first half-hour of the performance. We tried to ignore them. Somehow I felt sorry they were unaware of how to behave and I decided this act was a serious cry for attention. Furthermore, the poor luvs, they wanted to see Art. Never you mind. I yearned to give them with a quick smack until I remembered our venue of peace, love and sharing. As was later confirmed by Mr. Schwartz, we are invading their space, their community, their world. This must be respected. The dozen performers -- dancers, musicians, singers, multi-media operators -- ignored them with super-human powers of concentration for a long, long time. Eventually, the boys left.

Etienne Schwartz explained that this was an immense improvement from how the boys used to be during shows. He is pleased with the evolution of the Chapelle's relationship with the community. They were so disruptive, and the performance so eclectic, crazy, layered and full, that we began to believe that the boys were part of the piece. This, I mused, is a genius treaty, a commentary through multi-media, dance, music and real live brats on the perils of today's society. I thought of Materialism, ruthless cities, a lack of social programs and our hideous ignorance of each other as a screen above showing ants scurrying, doing the same things. But this, folks, was pure unadulterated coincidence of screens, brats etcetera and my silly mind at work. Nothing of the sort was planned, as I confirmed afterwards with Mr. Schwartz. It worked nevertheless!

At Artist Space at La Chapelle (Cite Gely, rue Joachim du Bellay 04 67 42 08 95 or 06 62 16 29 30) Mr. Schwartz aims for open everything -- freedom of all arts -- and states his ultimate boredom was when he used to go to traditional theatre. Against this disease of humdrum, he assembled the group who performed Plug and Pray. They strive for: no story, no form, no trace of structure and a continuous search for purity of emotion that is the base of all stories while encouraging energies to blend in the same breath.

Every night from ten o'clock to the wee hours of the morn, the Chapelle is transformed into "AfterShave," an open workshop space where about 15 resident artists will come to jam, sing, create, talk, play, and improvise. Everyone else interested is absolutely welcome to join in. I applaud and admire the initiative. Standing in a circle hug and sharing energy, finding someone to sing with. Beautiful. It will be a good time for all who venture and thanks to Mr. Schwartz et al the atmosphere is safe, fun, open. I say this gladly and despite my own neuroses. This type of creative exchange usually gives me an uncontrollable tic or a rash. I have ever liked "group" anything. This workshop, I suppose, also assumes sharing and/or encouraging someone else to share and create. (Yikes!)

Pray it loud: In one space, at once: a cacophony of instruments, televisions, bongos, metal scraps, seashells, an artful video of people in the street, computers, wires, violins, mikes, voices, a camera filming the action which appears on a screen nearby, an imaginary language that resembles Corsican songs in tone, dancers, a flow of many people. A man shouts frenetically 'I want to know what you want to see' (if my Spanish is okay), a couple writhes blindly around each other, a rusted metal drum, a cello. The performers, ranging in age from about 20 to 60, all have certain talent, more or less formalized and confirmed by CD sales and such. In the middle of "the how," Mr. Schwartz suddenly stops and announces: "Vous n'y croyez pas vraiment. Nous non plus. On recommence." (You don't believe in this. We don't either. We'll start again." Mr. Schwartz does not want to use the word "improvisation." That is exactly what this is. Pure, uncensored, off the cuff.

I remain unconvinced of the absolute merits of exploding format to focus on content, just because ya can. Its a tricky biz. (Question: what is the last post-modern novel you read, to the end?) Improv can be interesting if driven by a common thought, but then it is no longer improv. This is infinitely more gratifying for the participants than for the audience. Unless you are madly in love with one of the performers and blinded by passion at the vision of their genius on stage, I doubt that you can find great satisfaction watching this. I was amazed, uneasy, and over-stimulated. The performers, who to their great credit do not ever betray the craziness by looking lost on stage, have found each other and a vehicle for their respective arts, but frankly Scarlet "C'est le bordel." "It's a mess" or directly translated It's a brothel. (And I daresay such an establishment is more focused in form, and in content.)

Moi and France: I lived in France for nearly four years, to study literature, to work. I am for now a visitor from Toronto, back after an unusually long three-year hiatus. I anticipated that funny dream-like trance of arriving in a foreign land. But instead, I feel comfort, warm nostalgia and a dash of utilitarian 'ho-hum' that comes with knowing the underbelly of a place. I still adore the song of the language, the food, the wine, the people, a generally sweet quality of life. I am amused, and occasionally outraged too, by the traditions of striking, complaining and ignoring signage. And there are the never-ending Gaullic surprise du jour such as a habitation tax calculated on the size of apartment, the beauty of the view and the size of windows. This was decreed by Napoleon in about 1813. . . and it's not been revised since. France, nevertheless, is always hungry for artistic innovation, a perfect cradle for the next stage in any creativity.

Salutations: 70 percent of the festival is financed by the city and district of Montpellier. The city's deputy mayor Georges Freche held a dinner after the performance of "Natt and Rose" for about a hundred and fifty guests in honor of the performance, the festival and to welcome his socialist federal cohort Madame la Ministre, Catherine Tasca. It was a delicious evening at the classy Maison des Relations Internationales with swift waiters, white linens, place cards and short speeches filled with that congratulatory political pomp of which the French are grand masters. Madame Tasca spoke, without notes, about dance, about how happy she was to be at the festival and the vitality of dance in France, citing the recent France Moves New York festival as an example of its success. I was quite happy, merci, under a navy starry sky, in a still and warm evening of champagne, foods, wine and poly-lingual conversation. At the end of the evening, Minister Tasca prepared to leave. And, with truly impressive unison, the entire thirty or so members of her entourage stood at once to leave the grounds. Now we know where Ms. Monnier sent the "unison vibe" that the "corps de ballet" doesn't need for now. (House lights please.)


Editor's Notes: The Montpellier Danse festival continues through July 9. For more information, please visit the festival website. The festival is providing transportation from Paris and lodging in Montpellier for The Dance Insider's reviewers.

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