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Letter from Montpellier.

MONTPELLIER, France--This city in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, situated between the Spanish border and the broad plains of the Camargue, is in many ways a typical southern European town. It has an enchanting historic quarter, crammed with narrow, cobbled streets, beautiful stone edifices that date from medieval times, and public squares and marketplaces where shoppers, idlers, and students of human nature can linger over coffee and pastis. This idyllic setting provides the context for the annual Montpellier Danse festival, the undisputed major player amidst the many excellent dance festivals scattered over the country every summer.

An indication of how Montpellier Danse has achieved its international reputation comes from the colorful personality of Mayor Georges Freche, who founded the festival in 1981 and who has ambitions for the town that go beyond simple tourism. Under Freche, Montpellier is also a city of high-rises built outside the old town, home to Barcelona architect Ricardo Bofil's "Anti gone" (a residential/business sector of endless white concrete and neoclassical proportions that have to be seen to be believed) and to IBM's biggest European site.

Not content with promoting urban and technological capital, Freche turned his attention to Montpellier's cultural stature. Why a dance festival? "Because he met Dominique Bagouet," says Jean-Paul Montenari, who was part of Bagouet's administrative team before Freche asked him to take over Montpellier Danse in 1983. One of the brightest choreographic stars of France's 1980s dance boom, Bagouet (who died of AIDS in 1992) was largely unknown when he met Freche. Living in Montpellier and starting to make dances marked by his distinctive detailed style, he won the mayor's admiration. "Freche recognized Dominique's talent," recalls Montenari, "and he realized that dance was the one area in which Montpellier could stand out from all the music festivals in the region and establish its own identity." With a little help from public monies--the local, regional, and national governments fund the festival, contributing $2.4 million this year--Freche has achieved this end.

Montenari is a slim, dark-eyed man who keeps a low but ubiquitous profile during the festival. It is undoubtedly his instincts about new talent, and his skill at composing a program that appears both accessible and intriguing, that account for the festival's success. This year alone, 23,000 spectators watched thirty-six performances, and 7,000 attended the thirty-seven free events. Audiences were able to see internationally and nationally famous names alongside complete unknowns and had their attention subtly nudged--by means of conferences, films and debates--in the directions of various themes (usually about the relationships between different cultures) that Montenari layers onto the program. "I think of the way that I put together the festival as being like making an artwork," he explains. "I look at linkages, colors, contrasts. It's not entirely logical: Often I go by instinct, without being able to explain exactly why I'm making certain choices. And whatever serious concerns I might try to integrate, l bear in mind that it's a dance festival, not a work of philosophy!"

Montenari sees the festival as a purveyor of modernity, wholly concerned with the realities of contemporary life. As in much of Europe, unemployment, clandestine immigration, and racial tensions are serious issues in France--and even more particularly in the south--in the face of a steady erosion of traditions and certainties in many areas of life. This year, the festival's themes were diverse, yet remarkably intertwined, testifying both to Montenari's social preoccupations and instincts about festival-making. Focus on the female voice, in both its literal and figurative sense, partly concentrated (over a lengthy conference) on women and AIDS, which tied in to a two-day seminar about Bagouet's heritage and the problems of reconstitution. This event was in turn linked to the revivals of seminal works of postmodern dance that constituted one of the festival's principal themes.

The revivals, of works by Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton, were mounted by the French group Quatuor Albrecht Knust, which has tackled dances by Humphrey and Jooss in its endeavors to bring lesser-known twentieth-century repertoire to light. Rainer and Paxton, part of the late-sixties Judson Church group, helped change dance by challenging conventions like steps, logic, sequence, technique and time frame. They were here for reconstructions of Rainer's Continuous Project-Altered Daily, and Paxton's Satisfyin' Lover, and it was extraordinary to hear them talk about their work twenty years later.

Both seemed bewildered by the fuss ("I haven't been to a dance festival since the early 70s," Rainer remarked. "Are they all like this?"). They were pleased by the Quatuor Knust's earnest attempts to capture the spirit of the times. As was 1. Sitting in one of the open-air courtyards employed for performances, while twelve Knust dancers carefully went through the paces of Continuous Project (learned from video and Rainer's notes) was to experience the paradox of seeing what was constituted to defy theatrical context as a piece of carefully reconstituted dance history.

While dance writer Laurence Louppe read extracts from diverse writers, the dancers played games with weight, balance, and timing, launching themselves at pillows held out before them, accelerating and slowing, rolling across the stage in entangled formations, and attempting to balance someone on their heads without using hands. Seeing the dancers struggle with this latter task, Rainer couldn't contain herself, and walked onto the stage to help. Not quite working it out, she turned to Paxton: "Steve, can you remember this?" They balanced the dancer, but the biggest thrill was seeing them lose ironic nineties self-conciousness as they momentarily relived the past.

I did wonder how I would feel about the piece if I were not a dance writer thrilled to come face to face with people and dances I had only read about. The festival's emphasis on reconstitution and preservation certainly didn't go uncontested; Le Monde dance critic Dominique Fretard, for one, deplored a current tendency in French dance to look backward rather than forward.

Unfortunately, no French creation at the festival provided an incentive to look to the future. The big premiere, Catherine Diverres's fruits, was the usual mish mash of rehearsal workshop material and unreconciled staging ideas: fire, flowers, buckets of water, a chicken, women walking like somnambulists with their arms outstretched, sudden convulsions, long pauses, much falling to the floor. Actually, I've just described numerous French contemporary dances.

Like Karine Saporta, whose tasteless and sheerly bad piece about the Holocaust, L'lmpur, and merely indifferent work about romantic ballet, (Le Spectre) ou les Maneges du Ciel, had both been seen during the first week, Diverres heads one of the national Centres Choregraphiques. Established by the Ministry of Culture during the eighties, they provide homes, year-round funding and administrative support to sixteen contemporary dance companies. Clearly, propitious working conditions are not here the source of any creative direction or purpose.

Luckily, an antidote was at hand in the form of the Israeli company Liat Dror, Nir Ben-Gal, which showed that you don't need lots of money or sociopolitical cohesion to make good work. In Anta Oumri, a tightly structured, emotionally explosive piece about (I thought) dependence in relationships (particularly the parent-child dynamics that haunt adult life--a remarkably underexplored topic in dance), Dror and Ben Gal use music by the Egyptian singer Oum Kalsoum. This was clearly a controversial choice: the song "Ante Oumri" became a rallying cry during the six-day war between Israel and the Arabs.

Watching the piece, I was less struck by its political resonance than by Kalsoum's hypnotic voice, the rhythmic drive of the music, the choreographic focus, and the electrifying performances. Particularly striking were Dror, in a rooted, sensual belly dance, and Ben Gal, as a kind of demonic, overgrown child. Anta Oumri was a high point of the festival, opening up a wider musical and emotional universe. It was a welcome reminder of what Montpellier Danse is all about.
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Title Annotation:France: Montpellier Danse Festival
Author:Sulcas, Roslyn
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 1996
Previous Article:Presentation.
Next Article:How's your physical timing.

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