Montpellier Dance Festival
Angelin Preljocaj's “Winterreise.” Photograph by J.C. Carbonne

States of Flux

Montpellier Dance Festival, June 22 - July 6, 2019

While the global village keeps getting smaller, thanks to Google, YouTube, Instagram and the like, the real world of dance, happily, is growing larger. At least that’s the way it seemed during the 39th edition of the Montpellier Dance Festival. Founded in 1980 by dancer-choreographer Dominique Bagouet, who died of AIDS at age 41 in 1992, this annual celebration in the glorious south of France has been directed by Jean-Paul Montanari since 1983.

Always surprising, occasionally outrageous and infinitely provocative, this year’s offerings proved no different. With 24 works performed at various venues—including 13 world and French premieres representing nine countries with 200 artists participating—the audience numbered some 35,000. Also on tap were dance films, conferences, workshops and free events, with a number of students from the States, Australia and Ukraine in attendance, as well.

With a budget north of 3 million Euros, Montanari, presiding over the festival like an obsessed potentate—that’s a good thing—was able to present some of choreography’s biggest guns. Included were William Forsythe, Angelin Preljocaj and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, the latter two also making use of live music. And while the heat may have been a factor (temperatures hovered in the mid-90s throughout and most venues are not air-conditioned), nothing could stop dance aficionados from showing up to support one of Europe’s most prestigious festivals.

This reviewer was fortunate to have seen seven works over five nights, the first being Preljocaj’s “Winterreise” (“Winter Journey”), the title of one of Schubert’s major works, a song-cycle of 24 Lieder for voice and piano set to a poem by 19th century German writer Wilhelm Müller. The outstanding bass-baritone Thomas Tatzl was accompanied by pianist James Vaughan in the opus that Preljocaj originally made for La Scala Theatre Ballet that premiered in January, but was the first performance for his troupe, Ballet Preljocaj, in Montpellier.

Angelin Preljocaj’s “Winterreise.” Photograph by J.C. Carbonne

With a gorgeous set design by Constance Guisset—snow, ashes, twinkling stars and stark panels—sumptuous lighting by Éric Soyer and simple but smashing costumes by the choreographer (realized by Eleonora Peronetti), the 80-minute piece was a meditation on spirituality, melancholia and well, suffering, but never literalized the lyrics of betrayal, lost love and the frigidity of despair.

Twelve stunning dancers, often seen in pairs, including same-sex coupling, as well as trios and ensembles, offered athletic balancing poses, neo-tarantellas, arched backs and Cunningham-esque jumps. Crab-walking and unisons featuring Nijinsky-like flat hands added a certain mystique to the work, where a sense of wonderment and an ultimate tranquility prevailed. This was dance at its finest, the unadulterated beauty of the ethereal art form triumphant.

Also in fine fettle was Rosas, the troupe founded in 1983 by De Keersmaeker, whose work has been “appropriated” by, of all people, Beyoncé, and who is currently choreographing the Ivo van Hove revival of “West Side Story” (slated to open on Broadway next February). Tackling one of Bach’s epic works (her sixth by that composer), De Keersmaeker parlayed “Six Brandenburg Concertos” (from 2018), into a festive two-hour evening. Accompanied by the Belgian period instrument group, B’Rock Orchestra—all facing the dancers and under the stellar conducting of violinist Amandine Beyer—this was a monumental work punctuated by straightforward simplicity.

Dressed in An D’Huys’ black street clothes, 16 dancers (12 men; 4 women) deployed numerous pedestrian moves—walking, running, jumping, bending, skipping and whirling—with each concerto featuring slightly different configurations and patterns. The first also featured a leashed black dog who joined the ensemble during the horn section, and though the canine was decidedly not up to fox-hunting snuff, its stage presence was an unexpected delight.

Rosas in Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s “Six Brandenburg Concertos.” Photograph by Anne Van Aerschot

With each concerto whimsically announced by a man crossing the stage and brandishing a sign, the music buoyed De Keersmaeker’s formalist vocabulary. Whether the dancers created curvy paths as they moved across the stage in circles, lines or spirals, swinging their arms and even tossing off a handstand or leap, this defined ebullience and, at times, was reminiscent of Paul Taylor’s 1975 classic, “Esplanade” (also set to Bach).

Rhythmic patterns and canonic motifs abounded, and the occasional solo, one set to a recorder, proved charming, while the harpsichordist on an arpeggio jag was complemented by a dancer contemplating his feet. The choreographer’s longtime investigation into the genius that was Bach, provided her with footwork aplenty, both plain and fancy in numerous combinations that made for high-caliber dance.

In William Forsythe, the third choreographic master who has been a presence at the festival 10 times since 1988, there was much to ponder in “A Quiet Evening of Dance.” This 2018, two-act work was a French premiere and lived up to its title, with a first act score set to silence (hello, John Cage!), Morton Feldman’s “Nature Pieces from Piano No. 1” and the sounds of birds intermittently chirping, while the second act harkened back to the Renaissance with works by Rameau, although the terpsichorean flourishes were far from French court dance.

Having deconstructed ballet in countless—and fractious—ways throughout his career, Forsythe returned to his roots with the four sections of Act I not only celebrating tiny balletic details of the moving body—coiled torsos, outward-rotating legs and arabesques—but also incorporating the language of hip-hop dancer Rauf “RubberLegz” Yasit, with whom the choreographer has worked since 2017.

William Forsythe’s “A Quiet Evening of Dance.” Photograph by Bill Cooper

When Yasit performed the same steps as four other dancers in the “Epilogue” portion, he brought with it a freedom that allowed him to pretzelize his limbs with astonishing speed and agility. In Act II’s final dance, “Seventeen/Twenty-One,” all seven performers executed steps that had been danced in the first half of the program, giving the work, which could only be branded Forsythean, a theatrical flair that offered humor, satisfaction and unbridled joy. The sweltering temperature at the Opéra Comédie, however, made this writer want to re-title the work, “A Quiet [If Exceedingly Hot] Evening of Dance,” with the heat, undoubtedly, taking a toll on the performers, as well.

Another festival regular is Boris Charmatz, who presented, “infini,” at the outdoor garden of the Agora. Based on the premise that everyone, especially dancers, are always counting beats, the 60-minute world premiere made in collaboration with the performers, is according to Charmatz, his ode to infinity, in which “numbers have become codes and data to be collected, mined, stored, sold.”

And so it was that his six indefatigable dancers clad in Jean-Paul Lespagnard’s glitzy and somewhat bizarre costumes (Judy Garland-type ruby slippers, Harlequinesque attire and a wig à la Louis XIV), moved feverishly around a circular stage accentuated by floor-mounted flashing lights/cum sirens, while endlessly reciting numbers—noisily—in French.

A taped music track featured blips of pieces that also made use of numbers (Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and, inexplicably, something with bagpipes), with the work having the dancers executing push-ups, fouettés, bow and tree poses (when in doubt, throw in some yoga), faux sex and turning themselves into circus-y human pyramids. A huge strobe/siren finale ensued—though there were more false endings than heard in a Beethoven symphony—and knowing that this is precisely the kind of conceptual work that the French love, this reviewer refrained from, well, counting sheep and, instead, quasi-relaxed into the sheer spectacle of it all.

Former Merce Cunningham dancer, Ashley Chen, who was also a member of Ballet Opéra Lyon, choreographs as well, and his site-specific work, “C, S & T Xtended” (a chance-based piece inspired by Cunningham), unfolded on the front grounds of the Museé Fabre—with amateurs. A 40-minute romp to lots of American oldies, including “Gimme Shelter” and Mama Cass’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” the work was the epitome of the democratization of dance.

Here were all body types and all ages awkwardly executing quasi-arabesques, walking with determination and showing off their best post-post hippie moves. It was especially cool to see oodles of toddlers in the crowd imitating the performers, proving that dance is not only natural, but something wonderful that can actually unite us.   

It was especially cool to see oodles of toddlers in the crowd imitating the performers, proving that dance is not only natural, but something wonderful that can actually unite us.   

Back indoors in the stifling Studio Bagouet at the Agora, the black Canadian performance artist Dana Michel offered the French premiere of her “Cutlass Spring.” In the press notes she wrote that the work, “is at once, a manifesto and a heated reflection, an ethnography of sexual understanding and an archaeology of desire.” Creating a narrative through a series of small and ostensibly unimportant maneuvers, Michel is fearless, has no shame and is blissfully unaware of her surroundings (or is she?), although this writer didn’t exactly buy into Michel’s written thesis.

Over the course of an hour, the piece saw her wearing a wool coat and spar with nine plastic chairs, as well as fool around with a microphone. At some point she sported white leather shorts and wrangled with a fork and a pot, occasionally resembling a homeless woman fiddling with her possessions.

Finally appearing topless, save for a gold chain, she stomped to click track and diddled around with a bag of ice, a hot plate, and a push button phone. Michel, who was awarded Vienna’s ImPulsTanz Award for outstanding artistic accomplishments in 2014 and was given the Silver Lion for Innovation in Dance at the Venice Biennale in 2017, has something to say, but it was difficult deciphering the piece because of the heat and uncomfortable seating arrangement (floor pillows with no back supports). Still, Michel, who appears to have an active, albeit, eccentric inner life, is an intriguing performer worth following.

Mithkal Alzghair’s “We are not going back.” Photograph by Cécile Mella

Less successful was Mithkal Alzghair’s hour-plus premiere, “We are not going back.” Performed in a black box space and featuring five dancers in ’70s mode moving to an electronic score by Shadi Khries, the work had a kind of Judson School vocabulary, with the performers, however, looking disconnected as they traipsed about the stage in what seemed like an incessant parade of low-energy movements.

Earlier festival offerings included Ballet Opéra Lyon and Peeping Tom, Christian Rizzo, Miguel Gutierrez, Trevor Carlson and Ferran Carvajal, Stephen Petronio, Eszter Salamon, and Anne Collod. And while it’s not humanly possible to see everything that this dance lover’s paradise has to offer—and not every dancemaker or dance has the power to surprise, inspire and/or pique—Montanari’s global curatorial efforts must certainly be applauded. Indeed, with the world in a constant state of flux, it’s great to know that as far as dance goes, we’ll always have Montpellier.

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