The Lyon Danse Biennale

Dance, Drink, Whatever…

Hofesh Shechter Company. Photo by Tom Medwell. Talk about tripping the light fantastic!

By Victoria Looseleaf

This gastronomic paradise – home to Paul Bocuse and potatoes Lyonnaise – also boasts one of the world’s epic dance festivals. Founded in 1984 by Guy Darmet, this 14th edition, which ran from September 9 to October 3 and was aptly called Encore! because it did deliver – more: With 740 artists coming from 17 countries to participate in 34 venues in and around Lyon, the festival offered 17 world premieres, as well as fistfuls of European and French premieres, and its always spectacular Defile (parade), where some 4500 fabulously garbed participants pranced down the enchanted central streets of Lyon.

The greatness commenced for me with Israeli-born Hofesh Shechter’s brilliant, 70-minute Political Mother. New to France, the work required the audience to wear earplugs, as the live, head-banging, metal-shrieking music, filled the house like so many amped-up molecules crashing around the universe. The militaryesque score proved the perfect soundscape to the tableaux of war, anger and rage-at-the-machine notions that continuously dissolved into smoky light, only to then be illuminated by harsh kliegs. Prisoners frolicked as monkeys, folk dancing bits sparkled like fireflies and drummers kept up their percussive blows. Assaulting with the force of a nuclear blast, one couldn’t look away, as the 10 dancers, between nihilistic flights of fancy, alternately took us to a place of love, hope and idealism, their hands saluting skyward, their bodies leaping in unfettered unison.

One can generally count on Maguy Marin for great theatricality. In the case of her world premiere, Salves (Bursts), a bit of ribald pie-throwing was thrown in for messy measure. Other vignettes featured schlepping planks of wood around (coffins?), the breaking of dishes, and dancers in black face and trench coats running amok. At one point, dry ice enveloped the area as chandeliers tinkled from above. Indeed, a haunted house mood crept in, after which we were awash in the sounds of rain – and even a Marx Brothers riff. With Marin taking her cues from philosopher Walter Benjamin, who once said, ‘Pessimism must be organized,’ sirens, tape hissing and a patina of chaos reigned. From this, Marin seemed to say, are moments that outlive oblivion, allowing her seven marvelous dancers to finally rise.

Another festival highlight: Tanztheater Wuppertal, founded by Pina Bausch in 1973, performing Bausch’s classic Nelken (Carnations), from 1982. Since her untimely death last year at age 68, the company carries on. What really astonished was seeing some of Nelken’s original dancers – Lutz Forster, Jean-Laurent Sasportes and Dominique Mercy. (I’d seen this piece in L.A. in 1996, and also had the honor of interviewing Bausch, the chain-smoking, notoriously soft-spoken genius nonpareil.)

Compagnie Maguy Marin. Photo by Christian Ganet. Anyone for dancing on the tabletop?

Mercy along with Robert Sturm, now direct the company, and to revisit this work was a gift, a glorious gift. Nelken features 12,000 carnations carpeting the floor, with dancers in gowns and heels (including men), often carrying chairs as they forge across the field. The musical pastiche offers stuff from Schubert and Gershwin, to Satchmo, Sophie Tucker and Lehar. This is dance-theater at its apotheosis, with the 21 performers screaming, talking, clutching vegetables and speaking directly to the audience. Four brutish looking men with German Shepherds also stopped in to patrol the field of flowers.

Surreal? Definitely, with dancers moving their chairs, sitting down and standing up again, in unison, in counterpoint. This is absolutely hypnotic, as Bausch’s performers, committed and precise, hurled themselves into scenes of ongoing humiliations. An onion-chopping bit is not likely to be forgotten, nor will Bausch. One of the towering geniuses of 20th century dance, it pains to say, “Pina is dead,” but for now, at least, with Tanztheater Wuppertal, Vive Pina.

Germaine Acogny’s world premiere, Songook Yaakaar, proved a disappointment because of the dancing, or lack thereof. Instead, this 66-year old Franco-Senegalese beauty and self-proclaimed voodoo priestess, chose to insert pop politics and culture, as well as singing into her solo. Fred Koenig’s video also distracted, while Acogny could benefit from a director. She should stick to her gorgeous movement vocabulary (not for nothing does she have a wonderful dance school in Dakar). The audience, on the other hand, rose as one to shake their hips, clap their hands and groove with Acogny at the show’s end, which then had more false endings than a Beethoven symphony.

Trisha Brown, hailed as the queen of postmodernism, is one of the founding members of the Judson School. Peeps across the pond (and in New York), can’t get enough of her. In Lyon, Trisha Brown Dance Company (looking positively ravishing), performed four works in a mini-retrospective. You Can See Us (1995), a duet once danced by Baryshnikov, was performed in silence but hardly felt radical. Her loose style, though, accenting natural movements, can be addictive. But less is more and both Foray Foret, from 1991 and Opal Loop Cloud Installation (a French premiere), from 1980, seemed like variations on the same theme, with the former making use of dry ice, the latter an offstage brass band. While Brown herself does not seem to be aging well at nearly 74, her latest work, L’Amour au theatre (2009), revealed complex moves that were smooth as Hermes silk, while slyly winking at Rameau’s early Baroque opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, heard on tape.

Two-time Tony award-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones, said he was concerned the French wouldn’t “get” his latest work, Fondly We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray (a premiere in France), performed by Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. He was wrong, as the response was overwhelmingly positive, this reviewer’s included.

Dealing with the legacy of Abraham Lincoln (the title comes from Lincoln’s second inaugural address), the 80-minute dance-theater work is part history lesson, part screed and all terpsichorean beauty. Accompanied by powerful music, performed live, the piece begins with an exquisite solo for Shayla-Vie Jenkins to The Song of Solomon. We also see other characters and situations: Mary Todd, a former soldier born in 1975, and a slave auction. Personal histories are recited, including Lincoln’s and what could also be Jones’s. (“He is surprised that he never stops believing in great men, though he keeps it to himself.”)

The notion of liberty is probed, as well as scenes seemed ripped from today’s headlines – current issues like immigration and gay rights. What one is left with, finally, are ideas to ponder, but mostly, the memory of astonishingly, heartbreakingly luscious dance.

On the head-scratching side: Tania Oak Tree’s duet, Falling Eyes, a world premiere created by Portuguese choreographer Tania Carvalho (she also performed), that displayed robot moves. All eyes were, however, trained on Carvalho’s partner, Luis Guerra, who was sporting a sensuous unitard and Louise Brooks wig. With feet rooted to the ground, Guerra’s long windmill arms whooshed around aimlessly, until he began doing neo-push ups and strangely contorted things with his, yes, spectacularly muscled body. Also sub-par: Compania Angeles Gabaldon’s French premiere Del Quivir, a reference to a river. And there was water aplenty onstage when we longed, instead, for real Flamenco dance, not merely shawl swirlings, train flouncings and rolling on the floor. Oy! There was also a nod to Arabic music, but where was the snake charmer? Gabaldon went through more costume changes than Lady Gaga (one looked like a souk, another a brightly colored beach umbrella). But I hadn’t traveled 6,000 miles to see a bizarre wardrobe, I came for the dance, which is what was sorely lacking here.

The youthful Alvin Ailey II, on the other hand, offered exuberance, technique and an astonishing grasp of the Ailey legacy in two programs that included the beloved finale, Revelations, which is now 50, count’em, 50 years old.

The Defile. Photo by Stephane Rambaud. Street moves at their best!

I love Lyon and j’aime Guy Darmet for making this festival important, relevant and eternally fascinating. It may be his last as artistic director, but the Darmet spirit is one that should – and hopefully – will never die.