For a short version of this post, see my guest blog posts at Living magazine.
Let’s get this straight: I know nothing about dance. But I do know that I’m in for a treat with Cognac’s annual dance festival, organised by Avant Scène. It’s held in March and there are always a variety of styles. The quality is world class – the difficulty is knowing which shows will appeal to me most.
I usually wait until the last minute and then bug my French choreographer friend Marie Lenfant for advice. She knows I like to be shocked, delighted or made to think.
This year I was organised, for once. Rather than relying on Marie’s advice, I decided to be grown up and decide for myself. So off I went to the festival preview evening. This promised video clips and explanations to help uninitiated people (like me) understand what the shows are all about.
The preview was a show in itself. Held a month before the festival, in cabaret-style intimacy within the theatre viewing room, it finished with a shower of confetti, glasses of champagne and an invitation for the audience to dance and sing to David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’.
OK, I didn’t dance – but by the end I knew which shows I wanted to see. If you’re thinking of going to the festival next year, I’d definitely recommend the preview. The video teaser is another option, though you won’t get the confetti or the champagne.
Cognac’s theatre director, Stéphane Jouan, is mad about dance. And he’s relatively new. So he has decided to give the festival brand new names to reflect each year’s theme. Instead of the former ‘Danse et Vous’, he chose ‘Mars Planète Danse’ for the 2016 edition. Why? Apart from the (accidental?) David Bowie tribute, this title hints at the different worlds each show presents.
“The festival isn’t a catalogue of different styles,” he says. “Each show carries a world. The idea is to see how each show reflects the others.”
And, wow, there were indeed some different worlds!
What’s great about contemporary dance is that it’s not about dancing. It’s about dancers using their bodies to show you something, to make you feel a series of emotions. You don’t have to know anything about dancing to have an emotive response to what you see. And that’s what I like. I even had a lightbulb moment when I realised that it’s the equivalent of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ in literature.
Which brings us to the theme of the first show I watched: Kaori Ito‘s ‘Je danse parce que je me méfie des mots’ (I dance because I distrust words). I could write a whole blog post on the performance by the Japanese dancer and her sculptor father – but words wouldn’t do it justice. You’d do better to see it yourself. Also, there’s nothing more boring than reading someone’s interpretation of a show – apart from having to listen to the same thing, perhaps. Or holiday photos.
Words were an important part of the festival theme too. The festival opened with Kaori’s show, in which the dancers dance because they distrust words. And it finished with the show ‘Relative Collider’, in which words incite the performers to dance.
Perhaps it was the theme of words which led to another key feature of the dance festival: the opportunity to meet choreographers during the free ‘Instants Bavards’ (Chats).
The first one was with 36-year-old Kaori and her father, Hiroshi, in the intimacy of the Texte Libre bookshop (please, please buy your books here – they have English titles and not only are they independent, they’re also a non-profit association).
These Chats take place before the show itself, so you inevitably warm to the performers and understand better what they’re communicating when their (oh so toned) bodies weave their magic on stage. Kaori and Hiroshi’s father-daughter relationship, and the way Kaori questions her father incessantly, from child through to adult, mean that every spectator can identify with the issues she raises.
The second show of the evening, Badke, was to be performed by a band of 10 Palestinian dancers.
No way could I possibly enjoy it as much as Kaori’s work, I thought, during the interval, as I ordered my soup from the kitchen installed in the theatre reception for the evening and run by Le Plaisir des Mets. Soup was enough, as I’d already enjoyed cheese and wine just before the show at the festival inauguration.
Well, I was wrong. Clever Stéphane Jouan, to put two such different styles together in a single evening. They were completely incomparable. Badke was a burst of joyous energy – an hour-long explosion of lively music, accompanied by a choreography of break-dancing, somersaults and contemporary dance.
The dancers were a shoal of fish, they were a couple fighting for domination, they were a girl seducing another girl, they were festive, they were perplexed – and although they were a group, each dancer had his or her own character. I felt rejuvenated at the end, inspired to dance, to celebrate life through my body. It’s a shame I’m incapable of coordinating arms with legs.
Are you bored yet? Shall I show you my holiday photos now?
Dance buzzed around my head until the following Tuesday, the date with IT Dansa, a Barcelona dance company boasting 16 international young talents. Talent really was the key word to describe these performers, who began the trio of shows with the ballet ‘Un Ballo’ to music from Ravel. This soothing performance of classical ballet was beauty in movement, every little girl’s dream.
What a shock to see the same faces in the second, violent, part of the trio: Wad Ras. With their long hair loosened and their hands slamming rhythms on Cajon drums, the ballet dancers transformed into angry prisoners. The combination of lighting, the brutal whipping of their hair and the ferocity of their movements brought the piece to a heart-stopping climax.
Although IT Dansa and the Badke dancers were both big groups, their approach was completely different. IT Dansa were homogenous, synchronised and faceless, while Badke played on individual characters.
The third part of IT Dansa’s trio was different again: the playful Minus 16. Still synchronised, they danced with the instinctive movements you can see on any dance floor (the Gaga technique, according to the programme). Luckily, I wasn’t chosen from the public to dance on stage in the final part of the show, whose aim was to prove that dance is a universal language. Had I been dragged up there, I might have disproved the theory.
In the spirit of the festival, which brought performers close to their audiences, there was a possibility to meet the dancers at the end of the show. I have to admit that I went home to bed.
Three days later I was back in the theatre for the Chat with Baro d’Evel Cirk in the bar. There were only a few members of the public, so it was a perfect opportunity to ask questions. Halfway through our discussions, the performers Delgado Fuchs arrived. They dropped their bags and joined us for Cognac-Schweppes, nibbles and some interesting exchanges – including one about the pressure to produce a new show once you’ve had success with one. This, again, reminded me of the literary world, in which a bestselling debut novelist is under pressure to produce a new bestseller.
These two dance companies were on stage the following evening. Baro d’Evel Cirk kicked off with ‘Mazùt’ – a search for the performers’ animal interiors. Their circus background and use of props took the emphasis away from the world of dance, demonstrating Stéphane’s point that “dance is a language, and can be successfully combined with other languages.”
The dog (yes, a real, non-performing dog) brought an element of reality to the scene of everyday work in the Mazùt research laboratory – as did the clever use of rain leaks and tin cans. Baro d’Evel Cirk will be coming back to Cognac later this year, along with their circus tent and a different show (with horses, apparently).
The evening’s shock came with Delgado Fuchs. Their subtle humour and disregard for society’s dress code rules (yes, I’m talking about nudity here) led to a refreshing, amusing and clever performance. It made me think about the body as an instrument compared to the body as a person. There were no final bows here – just a polaroid camera, a stage set and an invitation to chat over drinks in the bar.
The festival continued (although I couldn’t) for another week. Betty Tchomanga, who was in residence at the theatre last October, presented ‘Madame’. The equilibrist Jordi Gali staged his wood, stone and tyre show at Hennessy’s Les Quais – he was also in Cognac last autumn at the Coup de Chauffe street theatre festival. And Vincent Dupont‘s ‘Stéréoscopia’ followed by Liz Santoro and Pierre Godard’s ‘Relative Collider‘ rounded off the festival, nearly three weeks after it began.
The great thing about this festival is the variety of styles, each of which is brilliantly performed. The shows are expensive (22€ for a whole evening), but there are also worthwhile reductions (10€ tickets for the unemployed and 14€ for a 3-evening pass). The festival ambience is heightened by the contact with the performers, and being able to discuss the shows with other theatre-goers at the bar. I’m already looking forward to next year’s edition.
Are you still here?
OK, here are some photos from my last holiday. Let me tell you about…