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Monaco Dance Forum 2011: something for everyone

Posted on January 6, 2012

Surrounded by vertiginous rock-faces in the southeast corner of southern France, Monaco is where, at this time of the year, snow-capped Alps tumble into the Mediterranean. Like other city-states, the Principality survives by reaching out to the rest of the world, which its biennial dance event, Monaco Dance Forum, has been doing enthusiastically for the last decade.

During that time, dance companies from around the globe, from Australia, the US and from throughout Europe, have appeared here. Few have come from the UK – New York is clearly nearer than London. Akram Khan performances in 2006 were a notable exception, while in 2010 Sadler’s Wells’s co-production, the Spirit of Diaghilev featured in MDF’s centenary celebrations of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  Apart from that, the UK contribution has been minimal.

Ambitious early Forums have given way to more modest and sustainable events as budgets tighten – even in Monte Carlo. The Nijinsky Awards, Monaco’s decent attempt at the Oscars for dance, have been quietly shelved. But during that time, too, the Salon de Garnier – Charles Garnier’s miraculous little theatre – has been restored to its former glory and is now contributing regularly to the presentation of dance in Monte Carlo. It is a glittering confection, well worth visiting for its own sake. Going forward, dance in Monaco has been recently re-organised: the company, the new academy and the Forum are now under one management structure. The end of term performance by the students at the academy, which is just two years old, showed considerable promise. The school has clearly been able to recruit gifted young dancers whose talents are being carefully and intelligently developed.

In 2011, the Forum was bookended by classical ballet. It began with an hommage to Jerome Robbins – Glass Pieces, In the Night, and The Concert – presented by the Vienna State Ballet, now directed by Manuel Legris. It concluded with the world premiere of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s adaption of Swan Lake, which, for the purposes of the gala, was interleaved with the Bolshoi Ballet in their production of the Petipa/Ivanov Swan Lake Act II and the grand pas de deux from Act III.

In common with so many of his peers, Maillot is gradually working his way through the classical canon, re-inventing it according to the insights offered by contemporary social and sexual politics and a postmodern ideology – a pity, because the dance suffers. In smaller, more abstract works, Maillot demonstrates a capacity for creatively using the classical vocabulary and the classically trained dancers that he has carefully nurtured during his tenure as the director of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. In his reconstruction of the canon his choreography often gets lost among the signage.

In between the two classical programmes, there were a host of innovative and challenging contemporary dance performances. Malou Airaudo’s company effectively fused hip hop and contemporary dance. Crystal Pite’s Kidd Pivott dance company, from Canada, presented Création, a work perceptively informed by Pite’s interest in scenography and film. Inspired by Sara Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus” who was “exhibited all over colonial Europe” as an example of African womanhood, South Africa’s Robin Orlin created …Have You Hugged, Kissed and Respected Your Brown Venus Today?

Venus of another kind was present in Virgillio Sieni’s La Natura Delle Cose. The Italian choreographer’s study was based on Lucretius’ Epicurean poem De rerum natura, in which the poet struggles to reconcile beauty with change and death. Venus appears as a two year old, at 11 and finally at 80. Her vulnerability is underscored by the care lavished on her by four male acolytes, who attend to her every need: gravity has to be defied if Venus is to survive, it seems. The work appears to be an essay in uncertainty – more philosophy than dance.

In contrast, the conviction of the youth dance troupe, Groupe Grenade from Marseille, endeared it immediately to the audience at the Grimaldi Forum. Their subject, the English world of 19th-century child abuse, is based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, choreographed by Josette Baïz. Baïz was dancing for Jean-Claude Galotta when she started winning choreographic prizes. A one-year residency to work with children and adolescents in a difficult neighbourhood in Marseille changed her priorities, leading her to establish Groupe Grenade. Child abuse – English or any other kind – is a difficult subject for dance, but its presentation on this occasion was gripping. The children’s conviction, their commitment to performance, and their confident presentation of Baïz’s carefully constructed narrative and movement material was one of the week’s highlights. Inspired by Dickens (and possibly Bugsy Malone) hope trumps despair; it left the audience cheering, partly because of the children’s own sense of achievement.

Throughout the week, primary school children from Monaco had a chance to enjoy dance and movement education inspired by Émile Jaques-Dalcroze’s theories and practice. The director of studies at the Haute École de Musique de Genève, Jean-Marc Aeschimann, and his team of post-graduate students skillfully led classes based on Jaques-Dalcroze’s pedagogy. It was instructive to see his theories brought to life in a contemporary setting. The children responded with innocent delight. Their joy in the rhythmic interpretations of the music was obvious, as they ran, skipped, tapped and sang their way to an understanding dance movement and rhythm. There was no reliance on electronic wizardry, just the teachers and children, a piano and coloured hoops, but the learning process was evident and heartening to see.

Professional dance students from throughout the region fared just as well as the children. There were daily workshops given by the contemporary dance companies visiting Monaco. Annabelle Bonnery, the rehearsal director for Carte Blanche, Norway’s leading contemporary company, coached local students from Nice in excerpts from the company’s recent repertoire, exploring passages in fine detail in a way that provided the students with an insight into the movement qualities required by contemporary choreographers today. The professional challenge and benefit to the students was obvious. The Forum may have a global reach, but it clearly has a commitment to the local dance community. MDF has matured, and as it has done so it has put down local roots and added value in a way that will help it survive.

During the course of the week, the Dancing Machine took over the main atrium of the Grimaldi Forum. It consisted of 14 interactive installations, ranging from an igloo constructed of discarded speakers to a circle of eight tap-shoes attached to hydraulic equipment that obligingly performed a tap routine, followed by a similar number of umbrellas that opened and closed in time to Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain”. The most intriguing contribution was from Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Thierry de Mey: a top projection onto white sand of an early solo to Steve Reich in which she patiently traces a mandala-like structure. This exhibit was largely ignored by the kids who swarmed over the mobile disco, the Moshpit Amp and the Dance Box to record their own performance. At the Forum there was something for everyone, and the kids got the gizmos.

At the Salle Garnier, the performance of Ina Christel Johannessen’s 3 O’Clock In The Afternoon by Carte Blanche was one of the highlights on the MDF programme. Based in Bergen, the company is now touring widely in Europe and the US, but not the UK – another case of the “Continent cut off because of fog in the English Channel”. The dozen or so dancers – from Norway and five or six other countries – are a fearsomely talented collective, and they made a profound impression on the audience in Monaco. Johannesson’s work is about boundaries and human conflict.  Think of the recent history of the Balkans, the Berlin Wall or the Palestinian conflict and you are in right location. But it is multi-layered: the politics are personal, national and racial; indeed, all the dividing lines are present on stage.

The opening solo, danced by Matthias Stoltenberg, sets a tone of savage despair. He is joined, first by Edhem Jesenkovic whose energy and physicality are far more contained than his own, offering a significant counterpoint, and then by Caroline Eckly, whose commanding presence overwhelms both them. The entire company emerges, one at a time, through the back wall of what appears to be skin stretched and stitched together, intersected by doors to a different, more luminous world, in stark contrast to the bleak circumstances in which most the action occurs.

Male aggression is matched step for step by powerful women, aided and abetted by high heels – even in a war zone – who find greater cohesion on stage. In contrast, the men are wrapped in their own worlds: these are the men who form the militias who cross or police our borders. The male threat is palpable, a disturbing presence on stage in its subdued and controlling rage.

To single out individuals in what was supremely the achievement of the entire company seems invidious. Nevertheless, Camilla Spidsøe Cohen danced the leading female role to extraordinary effect; she was five months pregnant at the time and this was her final show, at least for the moment. Although some of the lifts had been adjusted, it was an indomitable and fearless performance. Pregnancy added poignancy to what was happening in stage. Spidøe’s repeated and frustrated attempts to cross a border, to reach her lover, followed by her resignation as she is defeated again and again and then finally humiliated, had echoes of the use of rape in the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and of the many women who are now mothers to teenage children conceived in such circumstances. It was painful and compelling theatre, but a triumphant conclusion to Spidøe’s career to date.

If I have one reservation it is this: there are moments when metaphoric distance is reduced to reportage. Do we need a map of Bosnia Herzegovina on the back of the door, or stitches literally on the “skin” of the back wall? Some of the scenic effects could be achieved more subtly. That apart, 3 O’Clock In The Afternoon is a masterpiece of contemporary dance in its embodiment of conflict and alienation, one related to Pina Bausch’s dance theatre in spirit and achievement. Catch it if you can.

The final image of Forum in 2011 was the curtain closing on three Odette/Odiles held aloft by their respective Prince Siegfrieds, surrounded by dancers from the Bolshoi and the Ballets de Monte-Carlo. This curious trinity was devised by Jean-Christophe Maillot, who has specialised in manipulating the traditional iconography of the classical academic dance during his directorship of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. What preceded it needs some explanation.

For the closing gala Maillot ignored the traditional formula of solos and pas de deux, piled insecurely one on top of the other, and chose instead to reconstruct the first act of Swan Lake in accordance with his own image of a dysfunctional family (monarchy?). After Maillot’s Act I, and an interval, the stage was re-set and the Bolshoi Ballet took to a bare stage and by the sheer force of its own artistic personality danced Act II and the Black Swan pas de deux to perfection, the music, the dance and mime making powerful theatrical sense. It brought the week to a glorious close.

Monaco Dance Forum is to be congratulated on providing a diverse and interesting programme, the management of which must have been extraordinarily demanding, and yet it all seemed to run very smoothly indeed. Salut!

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