In the late 1980s Dance Umbrella was host to a veritable wave of French companies, most previously unknown in the UK. This year’s Umbrella again featured a strong contingent of largely new French companies, and (as in the 80s) there were mutterings that financial support from French cultural organisations was behind their presence. Well, that may have been a factor, but I don’t think it was the motive – and besides, the important question is not who funded the performances, but whether they were worth seeing.
Back in the 1980s, the French were both loved and loathed – but they certainly made an impact with their fresh, ironic theatricality. This year’s Umbrella featured some established companies – Lyon Opera Ballet in a work by Umbrella favourite Philippe Decouflé, Paris Opera Ballet with Le Parc by Angelin Preljocaj (an Umbrella regular in the late 80s). But – with the exception of Maguy Marin’s bold, uncompromising Umwelt – it was the smaller companies that proved the freshest and most distinctive.
If the 1980s companies seemed distinctively ‘French’ (I remember the sudden appearance of chic dresses and high heels – very un-British), so too do the current crop, but in a very different way. How so? Two words (okay, three): semiotics and Jacques Tati.
with no performers on stage, it is a representation of a dance rather than a dance as such
Let’s start with the first. France is the country that gave us la sémiologie – the study of signs and representations. Take Christian Rizzo’s 15-minute installation 100% Polyester: with no performers on stage, it is a representation of a dance rather than a dance as such. Two diaphanous dresses, arms linked, are suspended from the ceiling in front of a row of electric fans. To a crackly soundtrack that gradually resolves into a beat, the ‘couple’ slowly drift across the stage. This ethereal waltz is actually rather beautiful, and the absence of real people is keenly felt and strangely haunting. And, unlike most art installations, it has the big advantage of a start and a finish – so you don’t have to worry about how long you should be lost in contemplation before leaving (though applauding the ‘performers’ at the end feels decidedly odd).
he doesn’t so much act out scenes of death as obliterate his physical presence with representations
Rachid Ouramdane’s Les Morts Pudiques also has the feel of an installation, and though it features a live performer, Ouramdane’s presence is curiously self-effacing. Which is apt for a performance about death. Ouramdane had searched the internet for connections between youth and death, and in Les Morts Pudiques he doesn’t so much act out scenes of death as obliterate his physical presence with representations. At the beginning he lets the image of his own face, projected onto panels and plastered with deathly white makeup, dominate our attention. Elsewhere, he frequently covers his own face, whether with a silvery mask, a swathe of bandages, or his own shirt. Donning a leather jacket, he brings out a tiny model of a motorbiker, an inanimate stand-in for his living self. He tries out poses – a soldier, a woman holding a handbag – but they too are simply representations with which he masks himself. Often, he simply lies on the floor, and lets the environment take over – a grille of transparent tubing that flows with red liquid like arteries; the slow wash of light that suggests the passing of days; the sounds of radio bulletins, gothic pop music, or isolated bedsit blues. In less skilful hands, Les Morts Pudiques could have deteriorated into generic adolescent angst; in Ouramdane’s, the angst is palpably, disquietingly real.
Josef Nadj’s Les Philosophes begins with an installation, moves on to a film, and ends with a performance. The installation is a circle of screens showing five middle-aged men in black suits and hats. Then there’s a film of the same men wandering through a forest, projected onto a trapezoid tent-like screen on stage, and finally the screen opens to release a trio of jazz musicians, and the five men themselves. It’s as if we’re being led from portrait, to moving image to actual physical subjects – from representation to reality. Except the reality is mighty weird, even surreal. One man makes a model boat from a folded napkin, and wears it for a hat. A group wriggle out of the hole in centre stage, their arms trussed into their suits so that their flapping hands make them look like beached seals. There’s a walking stick inscribed with arcane writing. There’s a strange ceremony around a white tablecloth which ends with drawing water from a stone. A conductor opens his music stand, and places a little model of a conductor onto his hat. It’s all delivered in a quirky, bemused but matter-of-fact style. Imagine a cross between Magritte and Jacques Tati and you get a flavour of this unique and captivating piece.
Tati’s straight-faced, understated clowning was a mix of light humour with serious pathos, of artfulness with gaucheness, and you can see that influence again in La Bonté Divine by Pascale Houbin and Dominique Boivin. This takes a serious theme – the tragic mediaeval love story of Abelard and Heloise – and treats it with a Gallic lightness of touch. Boivin’s courtship is gently slapstick, the consummation of their love is a pastoral picnic, surrounded by tiny model animals. When they separate to join the monastery and convent, there’s no big drama, just a resigned drawing apart, to prayer and to isolation. The set is splendidly low-tech – a screen onto which are projected shadows of figurines, toy trees and feathers from an overhead projector. Abelard’s correspondence is shown by a jumble of letters, their isolated souls by a live goldfish in a glass cage. The whole show, in fact, is stuffed with such poignant little symbols. With its delightfully anachronistic assortment of music (encompassing anything from Baroque church music to gravel-voiced Tom Waits), and its simple, low-key drama, La Bonté Divine is enchanting at the same time as being heartbreakingly sad – like a children’s story.
The passers-by in the film seem as bemused as we are. And then they just walk on by, getting on with their lives. I felt much the same.
A bras le corps by Boris Charmatz and Dimitri Chamblas is the least theatrical of all these works, concentrating on dance as movement. But they don’t play it straight. Their barefoot duet, in the round, is chock full of ironic stances – artfulness overlaid with clumsiness again – as if they were taking the piss out of postmodern minimalism. They flap and flounder through effortful lifts and rolls, and in the midst of it all they’ll whip off a casual pirouette or skilful somersault. It too is enchanting, but ultimately not very engaging: the deadpan irony keeps you at a distance. A film by Charmatz, Les Disparates, continues the theme, cutting between scenes of Charmatz’s awkward-elegant moves in various locations: city streets, docks, beach promenades. The passers-by in the film seem as bemused by Charmatz as we are. And then they just walk on by, getting on with their lives. I felt much the same.
And finally, there was Herman Diephuis’s D’après JC, in which Julien Gallé-Ferré plays Jesus and Claire Haenni the Virgin Mary, both dressed in tracksuits with the brand ‘Misercordia’ splashed across their backs. They take their poses from religious paintings – signs and representations, you see? – and animate them with a, yes, oddball mimic style. I was born an atheist (well, weren’t we all) and was neither offended nor engaged by the religious imagery. Mostly, it made me think about the physical effort that must have been involved in hoicking artists’ models into position for, say, a Pietà or a Passion of Christ. By far the best moment was when a sackful of bread rolls fell from the sky, closely followed by an enormous plastic fish – a sight-gag worthy of Monty Python, and somehow very British.