Feature: Montpellier Danse Festival 2008

Thursday 31 July 2008

Akram Khan and the National Ballet of China 'bahok' Dancer: Sun Chia-Ying. Photo: Liu Chen-Hsiang *The annual two week Montpellier Danse Festival has become a key part of the European
dance scene since its first season in 1981. Over the years it has hosted a diverse
array of artists and this year was no exception – including performances from
The Forsythe Company, flamenco artist Sara Baras and Saburo Teshigawara amongst
many others.*

*Mary Kate Connolly was there and reports on Akram Khan’s Bahok on tour and Long River High Sky, a collaboration between American choreographer Alonzo King’s Line Ballet and
the Shaolin monks. She also caught the world premiere of Silent Ballet – a new work by Emmanuel Gat, which comes to* Sadler’s Wells this year (19 & 20 September).*

Akram Khan’s bahok, featuring artists from the National Ballet of China, seemed particularly fitting in this international context, performing to a
crammed Opéra Comédie in Montpellier’s central plaza. Bahok had got a warm London reception at Sadler’s Wells two weeks previously, and
judging by the encores, the Montpellier theatre goers were not disappointed. The
work’s core themes of home and identity, explored in the sterile setting of an
airport lounge, resounded eloquently in a festival which draws so many centrifugally
to the south of France once a year, and equally prompts a mass exodus to airports
and station concourses at the end of its two-week run. Both the tender and the
slapstick moments of Khan’s intelligent work were well received, and the aged
glamour of the grandiose Opéra infused the modernist bare stage with welcome warmth.

Emmanuel Gat Dance 'Silent Ballet'Photo: Agnes Mellon Also performing to an enthused audience was Israel’s Emmanuel Gat Dance Company in the world premiere of a new work, Silent Ballet (which arrives at Sadler’s Wells in September) and Sixty Four.

Silent Ballet saw nine dancers dressed in nude tones of grey and beige execute choreography
which oscillated between ferocity, speed and steely poise. Much of the movement
radiated from the torso, a taut powerhouse in Gat’s work – bodies arched, forceful,
and at once fluid and articulated.

Dance without music can sometimes appear bland and unpunctuated – not so in Silent Ballet. Firstly, the dancers were not entirely silent; the soundscape of their labours
filled the auditorium with a percussion of inhalation and exhalation, the whoosh
of fabric speeding along the floor and the strikes of feet rebounding between
jumps. These strains, often hidden by dancers in performance, allowed the audience
to feel the motor, drive and sheer force behind the movement. Groups formed and
separated, squared up to one another and exchanged weight in close knit duets.
There was a combative quality in much of the work, reminiscent of the Brazilian
martial art dance Capoeira, and at all times dancers presented themselves with
an inner focus. This resolve manifested itself not in showy extroversion and toothy
grins, but in a unified immersion in the movement.

Sixty Four utilised J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue to engender a ‘conversation’ between choreography and music. The space, divided
by a row of glowing yellow lights centre-stage, was inhabited on one side by a
woman, and on the other side by four men. Again the costumes were minimalist and
chic, this time with formal tailoring; woman in blouse and trousers, men in dinner
suits with red silk lining. This rigour and formality was ruptured nicely by some
slightly more unruly elements: the woman’s flowing hair which whirled about obscuring
her face, and a passage in which the men hurled themselves through the space with
the abandon of circus tumblers. The piece was filled with codified gestures and
symbols. Hands cupped together in exaltation or fingers placed to temples, it
seemed to surf almost on the serpentine melodies of Bach. With the movement weaving
between phrases, one got the sense that Gat delighted in toying choreographically
with the rich score. Also pleasing about the piece was the way in which gender
roles were presented, or rather were in fact invisible. At no time were roles
characterised or defined – instead both woman and men equally radiated strength
and vitality.

Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet and the Shaolin Monks presented Long River High Sky – the fruit of an encounter between ballet and martial art. Conceptually thrilling
and visually stunning, Long River’s opening image of monk and male dancer in characteristic poses was sublimely
dramatic and potent with possibility. From this remarkable starting point however,
the work didn’t seem to progress to its full potential. Whilst both monks and
dancers demonstrated astounding technique in their own disciplines; monks swift
and explosive, dancers languorous and extended, an integration or fusion of the
two was never realised. The monks performed, then the dancers – rarely was there
any real exchange between them. When both performed together it felt somewhat
contrived – a monk supporting a dancer in arabesque, or male dancers in pseudo
combat with monks.

There were moments where a glimpse of the inherent promise of this coupling flashed;
for example in a sequence of ballet in which the arrest and poise of the monks,
alongside encoded gestures of prayer, invaded the classical dance vocabulary.
For the most part however, the two groups remained divided. The music was electronic – often a throbbing beat with Asian influences layered on top, and there seemed
in the two-hour piece; little variance in musical pace or dynamics. This did not
aid the choreography – one particularly striking ballet duet, reminiscent of Balanchine’s Agon, seemed somewhat marred by the relentless score. Given the incredible ingredients
in Long River High Sky, the final result, whilst entertaining and exciting, perhaps fell a little short
of its groundbreaking potential. (_In contrast with Sutra, the recent collaboration between choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, artist Antony Gormley and monks of the Shaolin Temple, seen in London earlier this year and now touring

Of course there were numerous other works in the festival. Mathilde Monnier and La Ribot’s creation Gustavia proved a sharp, witty exploration of women and the pitfalls of body image and
sexuality. Sometimes moving and often hysterically funny, Gustavia took no prisoners in its depiction of vanity, eccentricity and insecurity.

Raimund Hoghe presented two offerings. Boléro Variations, performed by Hoghe with five others in a magnificent outdoor venue, had Hoghe’s
signature minimalist theatricality, and a touch of Spanish flair in music and
gesture. L’Après Midi in contrast, was a new dreamlike light-bathed solo for Emmanuel Eggermont . Filled with understated movement evocative of yet not imitative of Nijinsky’s iconic faun, it floated contemplatively on the music of Debussy and the haunting Lieder of Gustav Mahler.

Considering the range of dance on offer at Montpellier Danse 2008, its difficult
to find words to characterise the festival as a whole. There were spectacles performed
on vast opera stages and small feisty pieces played to intimate groups. Despite
their differences however, there were some elements that threaded through all
the work in those sunny two weeks – a certain vitality perhaps and strength of
purpose. With grace and continental flair Montpellier held its rightful place
on the dance map.


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