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Flash Dispatch, 7-11: An American Dance Fan in France
In Montpellier, it's Back to the Future

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

MONTPELLIER, France -- So, dance insider, it's midnight Monday, and I'm strolling down the most dangerous street in what one French friend tells me is the most dangerous town in France, with the widest grin on my face. I'm smiling because ahead of me walk my protectors, the two most beautiful women in Montpellier this summer, swinging my DJ gear between them and leading our return expedition to La Chapelle. Marta y Marta -- two ladies from Spain -- caught my DJ act Sunday night. It was just a small part of the "happening" at La Chapelle's After-Shave salon, the unofficial after-party of the Montpellier Danse festival. The encounter was enough to remember each other when we met again Monday afternoon at the old Dominican Church off Espace Charles de Gaulle, where Compagnie MC2 Luc Maubon performed "Langages Oublies," also not an official part of the festival but a beneficiary of the "all-dance, all-the-time" spirit that intoxicates this Southern city every year. I asked my new friends to the performance of Catherine Diverres, one of seven formal or informal spectacles I saw this week. I also caught Emmanuelle Huynh's prop-impelled, land of the unrestrained duet-grapple dance, an all-Jiri Kylian evening from the Netherlands Dance Theater, and planned and impromptu dance and dance and music performances at La Chapelle that amplified the official events, as well as solidified for me that this town, at this time, is very much like what NYC must have been in the 1960s, when ballet boomed and Judson birthed.

Unfortunately, in both the ballet realm and a specific segment of the post-mod arema, NYC dance has in some respects fossilized. Instead of the Joffrey's "Astarte," we get David Parsons's "Pied Piper" -- which is not a knock on this ballet, but on what is today considered risk. And in the place of the disarming humanism of Jerome Robbins, we get the safe Robbins light of Christopher Wheeldon. While the French incorrectly dismiss American modern dance as stuck in the past and unevolving (the only American modern companies they seem to program here are White Oak, Merce, Trisha Brown, the Ailey, and Bill T. Jones), such a dismissal ignores all the dance-theater and dance-music-theater sub-genres which have moved in a totally different direction than Judson. They are perhaps correct that "new" dance created in the Judson vein hasn't really extended it but is content to aim to revive it. We get lots of earnest efforts whose ideal seems to be to recreate the technical level of Judson, but perhaps forgets that what made Judson Judson was the period context: by sending a bunch of pedestrians walking across the stage and calling it choreography, Steve Paxton was issuing a defiant "fuck you" to the uptown glam-fest: You dress it up, we strip it down. You neo-classicize it, we de-dance it. Ironically, dance created in this style today is not about fuck-you but fealty.

What the French seem to have done in this vein is extended the boundaries, specifically, to a land where there are no boundaries between the performers. A French friend explained to me this week, over steak Roquefort and some kind of fishy compote thing, in a cafe above the Montmartre Cemetery, that French people don't have that one-yard privacy zone around them that Americans and particularly New Yorkers do. (In Harlem once, my simply stepping ahead of someone elicited an ominous "Don't walk in front of me!" ; in Paris's Gare de Lyon train station Saturday, a woman practically shoved me aside to step ahead of me, and seemed to think nothing of it. Most of the sidewalks here are about as wide as the addition being added to my ol' 8th Street sidewalk this month.) In the grappling of Huynh's dancers, seen Sunday at Studio Bagouet, and in the work of Leonardo Montecchia and others seen several days running at After-Shave, it wasn't just that dancers wrestled with each other, but that they did it with such ease and seamlessness and casualness. A hurdle was not dramatically packed, it just happened, again and again. In a penultimate scene of Huynh's "Distribution en course," the deadpan Christian Rizzo steps and jumps all over and straddles various parts of Rachid Ouramdane. The only hint we get that this is particularly significant is not from any profound glances, but from the increased panting of the dancers. If these dancers had anything in common with their American post-mod counterparts, it was their joyless neutral expressions all the more noticeable since what they did for much of this ballet is play with hundreds of props gradually dismantled from a roving kiosk. In an exquisite pre-amble, the kiosk had dogged Huynh, suggesting in after-image, anyway that this mobile was full of objects which had haunted Huynh till she couldn't stand it and decided to ask her dancers to do something to them. Sometimes I liked this neutrality as when Julie Nioche yawningly opened a bag of walnuts and then dropped them en mass down her shirt, or when Rizzo blew a condom up and then put it over his head. Sometimes I wanted them to show some sign that they were enjoying this play.

As in all of the dance theater seen this week, lighting was anything but generalized in patches; the whole concept seemed to change for every scene. We started with a disk, with a whole, shifting mobile in the sky, the way the sun (or perhaps an electric light) shone through it, the angles, altering the shadows and thus the mood and what we saw. later a panel of more than 20 search lights on the side was all that illumined a breakneck sequence where five dancers find various ways to pile on each other. They no sooner started then it was time to start again (imagine a musical chairs inspiration, only where they object is not to land on a chair but to land on each other, in different ways.) These groupings strive to be different and distinct each time. At the conclusion of one tableau, Rizzo, his head and a hand popping out from under, reaches across, Twister-like, to grab a foot, as if it is this which will finally hold the assemblage together.

All the while the lights are diminishing in number, 'til suddenly, without us realizing how it happened, only two on the vast panel at the side are illumine the action, which finally, after a centipedral formulation stretching from the front to the back of the stage, shows signs of slowing down. One man carries another off.... We even hear a door close offstage as if they've left the building. The lights slowly dim until Elise Olhandeguy quietly leaves.

The lighting played rather a breathtaking role, too, in the outdoor, late-night concert of Catherine Diverres at Cour Des Ursulines, in the cloister and we do mean cloister, as in right out the middle ages of the Ursulines. This complex is where Mathilde Monnier has her Centre Choreographique National of Montpellier. Diverres heads the centre of Rennes and Bretagne. (Hmm...are you getting a leitmotif here, dance insiders? Despite what the testosterone-heavy recent NYC France Moves festival might have you believe, there ARE talented, original, international caliber women choreographers in France too, mon ami!) Diverres work is distinct from that of her modern colleagues, marked by an almost painfully (that's a compliment) angelic lyricism. We saw this in the sweeping legs and gentle shoulder inclines of Isabelle Kurzi, who alternated solos with the more brittle Carole Gomes. Then came the piece de resistance.

A somewhat frail-built woman in elegant black gown Diverres herself appears in this piece to be tangling with ghosts of others in her past, and also internal ones. She rushes forward to meet them, arms imploring, even as her body quivers. A French dance teacher friend found this solo, "Stance II," too Grahamian for her tastes, by which I think she meant melodramatic. But I found it heartbreaking, conjuring, as I think Graham at its best does, one's own demons, even ones I was tangling with that very moment. Such as: How do you respond in the present, without the interference of past experience? Do you maybe, as Diverres finally seemed to do, come to an accommodation, an understanding, recognizing that these demons are part of you, but that you will go forward anyway?

Speaking of the dark side, on my first night at the festival, I was wondering whether a whole evening of Jiri Kylian could engage me. In the U.S.A., our exposure to the work of Kylian is more or less limited to "Petite Mort." Indeed, even as they boast about the acquisition of a Kylian ballet as proof that they dare to dare, U.S. ballet companies proscribe our viewing of Kylian's work to the somber side. Well, after seeing the Nederlands Dans Theater's all-Kylian "Colorful Black and White" program Saturday at the Opera Berlioz le Corum, I'm here to tell you that Mr. K. also has a wacky side, a Pilobolan side, even a Forsythian abrasive side.

The evening began conservatively enough with the straightforward "No More Play" and the requisite "Petite Mort" (you know, the one with the ballooning skirts on poles and the swordplay at the beginning.)

But the anti was quickly upped in part two, with "Sarabande," in which about six men cavorted like angels sent to earth, the sound of their movement and their speech amplified. (Think "Dogma," where God speaks so loud She tries not to speak because you couldn't survive it.) By the end they are simply playing. Paired with this ballet was "Falling Angels," in which about the equal number of women breakdown one of Steve Reich's drumming compositions, played at an increasing pitch by Arthur Cune, Peter De Vries, Hanz Sonderop, and Jacob Good.

The evening ends merrily, with "Sweet Dreams," in which to Kylian's innovative combinations the challenge of doing them with a tennis ball in one's mouth is now added, and "Sechs Tanze," in which a succession of swains try to tame a battery of shrews. Everyone is powdered up, so that anytime one dancer smacks another on the butt, a cloud of smoke puffs out. The big looped dresses on poles with wheels are brought back, driven by a man who cuts off the head of another; or, in an echo of Pilobolus's Tall Women Duet, a very tall man whose dress conceals that he's standing on another's shoulders.

When the show ended, my French dance insider companion remarked that what we'd seen was very academic, by which I think she meant strictly classical. (It was not a dis -- she enjoyed the program.) It struck me then that the ballets of Kylian, which U.S. ballet companies use to give their repertoire modern street cred -- "See, we ARE living in the 21st century! " -- is the most conservative end of the ballet spectrum in France. I came to the right place!

On the more radical end, we have what I hied to after the NDT performance -- the happening at La Chapelle. What Etienne Schwarcz, assisted by Francois Ceccaldi, has created in this vast chapel is an ongoing happening. Some performances he knows about in advance -- a choreographer or a chamber group will call and announce it is coming by tonight -- while some just happen on the spot. When no guests are performing, Schwarcz, an accomplished musician and composer, and Ceccaldi hold forth in the booth with state of the art equipment, creating one of the most avant-garde ambiances to be found not just in Montpellier, but anywhere in the world. An African musician performed one afternoon; by the evening they had remixed him.

On Saturday at La Chapelle, I saw a grappling duet between Leonardo Montecchia, an Argentinean export, and Corinne Duval, who bumped up against each other torso to torso, giggling, and climbed about each other. Earlier, Julien Gallie-Ferry sermonized from a pulpit in an alcove high above the floor, turning his hands into arguing puppets and plopping a vase over his head to mute his raving gibberish, while Clemence Galliard fled around the whole space. On Monday, Montecchia pushed and pulled with Eva Jouret, who on Sunday gave a simply elegant modern vignette of a performance, to trancey music mixed by Ceccaldi. Montecchia meanwhile slithered under the chair of a the violinist of a chamber trio; suddenly the other violinist started singing in a haunting, mystic alto. Monday Montecchia grappled, easily, with another male dancer, then tangled more lightly with Eva Jouret, this time to a larger musical ensemble that swung from Bulgarian to gypsy music to flamenco.

I don't quite know the term for the type of dance I saw at La Chapelle, but it is a distinct style -- perhaps a more intimate practice of Contact Improv. Here, when two bodies touch, it is not imbued with Extra Significance and exclamation marks -- it is just natural, more simple. From a dance perspective, what struck me most about Montpellier -- from the "academic" art of Kylian in the vast Corum to the black box prop and lighting experiments of Huynh's Compagnie Mua, to Diverres's outdoor dreamscape, to the Caegian/Cunninghamian music-dance collaborationists of Luc Maubon's church performance, to the happening frolics of La Chapelle -- is the simplicity of it all.

I feel like one must have felt being in NYC in the 1960s, present at the birth.

P.S. An exception to the simplicity was a class given by Rita Quaglia of Lluis Ayet's company to 20 students selected from around the world for Atelier du Monde, new at this year's festival and co-sponsored by public monies under the auspices of AAFA, kind of France's National Endowment for the Arts, except with a more international mission and perspective. What started as deceptively simple -- Quaglia had the dancers lying on their backs, stretching arms and legs up -- turned into a rising, turning, falling, and rising again drill that makes David Grenke look like a pansy! Quaglia's approach is in itself a performance. After starting with a light and kindly manner, her own physical urgency increased as she rushed around the room to give corrections, even as dancers were falling out right and left.

P.P.S. This just in: Etienne Schwarcz reports that last night's closing "after-shave" after party "was a marvelous evening. very many people, things happening the whole time, much artistic 'coming together,' a big, warm, 'happening,' with the end of the evening smooth Indian sort of sitar music, after a huge percussion session, electronic wild music, and many dance performers. It was a sort of gathering from all the little things of the 10 days coming together, and swelling up to the last night's celebration. It was quite incredible to see so many people floating!"

Editor's Notes: PBI's travel to and lodging in Montpellier was paid for by the Montpellier Danse festival. To read more about La Chapelle and the festival, by Shena Wilson, click here.

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