Letter from Paris.
"It's true the current variety is outstanding, given the financial climate, the cutbacks, but it's the result of a phenomenon that did not happen overnight," says press agent Francois Boudreau, whose Paris agency, Opus, enjoys a full roster of festival clients. Among them is Saint-florent-le-Veil, named for a tiny village on the Loire River that has become the focal point of a once culturally Spartan region between Nantes and Anger. "What you have today is the fruition of a cultural politics initiated years ago," explains Boudreau.
"This year we got Bejart -- the Berlin Opera Ballet's first presentation of Scheherazade in France," he adds. For, despite modest location and monstrous competition, Saint-florent-le-Veil has, via the caliber of guests, staked its claim on a cultural map long circumscribed by Paris.
With the exception of perhaps Louis XV, whose sense of survival eclipsed that of public service in his alleged statement "Apres moi le deluge" ("After me, the flood"), French monarchs and their modern-day successors, the presidents, have been concerned with posterity. In a country where history is perennially invoked to evaluate the present, leaders act today to be remembered tomorrow. A deft politician, Francois Mitterrand was no stranger to such preoccupation and ensured that not only the bureaucracy, but the very buildings of France bear witness to his fourteen-year reign. In Paris he commissioned a series of strident cultural monuments that permanently altered the old Haussmann horizon, while his policy of decentralization nurtured projects in the provinces, so that his most farflung constituents found among the unlikely settings of their tumble-down chateaux or ancient abbeys, their crumbling convents, amphitheaters, and even windmills and warehouses, the makings of a local art center.
While all the arts benefited, dance may have flourished most fully in landscapes that traditionally paled against that of Paris. Where once an aficionado's agenda included the pilgrimage to the Palais Garnier for a classical offering, or loitering in the smoky lobby of the Theatre de la Ville between doses of international avant-garde, today his dance program is crowded with train schedules or road maps to the far corners of France for no less important performances.
Early on, the only alternative destination was Lyons; eager to shed its staid mercantile image, this former outpost of the silk and sausage trades inaugurated France's first Maison de la Danse in 1980. (Paris is just now building its own.) Within a decade, Lyons's maison had graduated from a makeshift theater to an 1,100-seat auditorium, accommodating works by more than 150 French and foreign choreographers. Home to the prestigious Biennale de la Danse and Lyon Opera Ballet, Lyons became anointed the Paris of the South.
Without resources to support a resident company or year-round program, many smaller sites opt for the finite, intimate, but logistically exacting event of the festival. Spawned as a preseason testing ground for native choreographers, France's festivals have multiplied exponentially, while evolving into sophisticated international forums for dance and its tangential activities. Today their names are synonymous with their sites -- Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Chateauvallon, Montpellier, even Cannes, whose empty hotels and endless seaside brasseries appreciate the dance crowd descending in March, months before the lucrative film festival.
Nor is it enough, with so many vying for visitors' mostly modest leisure budgets, to offer just dance. Aix, whose heterogeneous program paired Ballet du Rhin with Momix, dedicated two days to the topic of AIDS, with documentaries and debates. And Montpellier summoned a veritable United Nations of dancers, appearing in premieres by Mathilde Monnier, Trisha Brown, and Merce Cunningham, as well as the slightly older but no less current Still/Here of Bill T. Jones.
This year's fresh crop of festival hosts included the northern city of Douai. Staged on a former race course, Douai's debut program featured Ea Sola, a French choreographer who recalls her Vietnamese heritage in traditional dance and music played by elders from her homeland and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's jubilant Toccata to Bach. Closer to Paris, a new festival at Le Creusot combined rap, tap, and photography!
Dancers, meanwhile, go where the contracts are. The convivial ambiance of festivals, often staged outdoors during the warm months, offers a merciful respite from urban theater. There are no taxis idling outside, no sirens or subway rumbles. The nights are long. The moon is high. Ocean waves, even owls echo seductively beyond the soundtrack.
Yet, beyond the picturesque, there is serious purpose. Likening the festival to "this cactus flower that blooms but once a year," Lyon Opera Ballet director Yorgos Loukos, who directs the Cannes Festival, says that such events are increasingly crucial in keeping certain companies afloat. Now, however, with the abdication of Mitterand's culturally ambitious administration, they may not be enough. Says Loukos, "The festival can be a motor, so that the dynamic created does not die as soon as the show's over." Other producing organizations, he maintains, could then create more lasting performing opportunities, in winter as well as in summer. In the end, though, it is up to a more quixotic element -- the public -- to sustain so much dance. For the sweetest blossom of all is applause.