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Flash Journal, 8-11: The Spectators Strike Back
In Avignon, the Audience Walks

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- For three years, I have been bemoaning the nihilism, non-dancey dance, and more often than not gratuitous nudity in much of the dance we see here. Often finding myself alone in exiting the theater early or folding my hands on my lap while the rest of the audience applauds, I would occasionally wonder if it was just me. Was I giving you, my reader, an inaccurate impression of European dance based more on the peculiarities of my own personal taste than a fair standard of good art? Was I off-base, or was everybody else crazy?

Well, I now have the answer. This summer in Avignon, the city in southern France which hosts one of the most important theater and dance festivals in the world, the so-called provincial audience gave this aimless suffering masquerading as art what it has had coming to it: They walked. Unwilling to sit silent like the Paris sophisticates afraid to reveal themselves as 'uncool' should they doubt the emperor's dazzling outfit, they complained. They asked "WHY?" Or, as one spectator put it to France Soir's Ariane Dollfus (my source for all the quotes in this article), "But why do they make us suffer like this?" "Puerile," "Indecent," and "Appalling" were other words they used to describe the programming by newish festival directors Hortense Archambault and Vincent Baudriller, aided and abetted in their curating by the Belgian brutalizer himself, Jan Fabre. (I have nothing against Belgian dancemakers; oh that Avignon had invited Fabre's compatriot Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker to set the programming!)

For Jacques Delvuvellerie's "Anathame," which evoked the mass graves of the Nazi concentration camps by parading freezing performers around in the nude, half the audience walked out every night, Dollfus noted.

Rather than address the spectators' revolt at the simply revolting honestly, Archambault haughtily told France Soir, "Debate is part of the history of the festival." I'm all for debate, but there's a difference between rigorous provocation and just grossing people out by indulging your fantasies. Or, as Dollfus (roughly translated by me) put it: "The real question this year was rather that of a violence, even of a masochism too often complacent, which rendered the public complicit in an obvious voyeurism. Admittedly, artists also reveal the world which surrounds us. Still, they must have a distance with this daily violence they should be denouncing, but in which they were too often sprawled, without perspective or analysis."

An Archambault apologist, Jacques Blanc of the Quartz Festival, while agreeing the violence in Avignon reached the saturation level, insisted that "you can also find it in Shakespeare." I think Blanc needs to go back to the Bard. Shakespeare's violence, like that of the Greeks who preceded him, is always in the service of tragedy. Romeo and Juliet die to inform our living. But there's a difference between spiritual catharsis that purges our souls and physical catharsis that just turns our stomachs.

Frankly, I doubt that the presenter and manager cabal which controls much of what French audiences see is listening to the audience. (This fall, the Paris Opera Ballet presents a new evening-length "Caligula." The nihilism marches on.) But I find my hope in knowing that it's not the tastes of the broader French public I'm in disaccord with, but, rather, we're united in a distaste for the mindless, hopeless drivel presenters are bludgeoning us with. And G-d knows, this country has always been fertile ground for revolution.

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