Three dances, three venues, three days; one city – Paris. It was meant to be a non-dance break but I was not going to miss Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s prodigiously inventive Foi (2003), presented as part of the Belgian choreographer’s ambitious trilogy (including Myth, from 2008, and Babel, 2010) at the Parc de la Villette, in the north-east of Paris. Way off the tourist trail, La Villette is well worth a visit in itself, a former abattoir and meat market that’s been transformed into an urban culture park, its striking modern architecture designed with modular units that can be adapted and arranged to suit the event. The post-industrial feel suits Foi perfectly, which begins as if in the aftermath of an apocalyptic explosion: upturned furniture, bodies strewn across the stage. From the debris, various characters come to life, including a wandering woman who’s lost her son and a Jesus-loves-you housewife (played in drag). They seem unaware of the dancers who swirl among them like spirits, or angels. But these angels can be manipulative, even cowardly. In one revelatory scene, two of them compete to torment a woman who, oblivious to this game in which she’s the merely the pawn, believes this to be just punishment for some internal guilt. Foi is full of moments that showing unseen forces at work, hidden motives, unintended consequences. A weather forecaster gives a rundown of the political climate in Iraq, Ireland, Israel, each explanatory gesture inadvertently boxing people in the face. The onstage choral singing by early music group Capilla Flamenca lend the action a spiritual air; when the dancers spiral momentarily upwards from twisting and thrashing on the floor, they seem to be reaching instinctively but vainly towards heaven. Foi is almost too profligate with its invention, but it is a visionary piece, evoking the great themes of religion (or at least, of Catholicism) – passion, pity, suffering, revelation – and showing them as part of our profane, earthbound human condition.
I – along with, it seemed, le tout Paris – was also not going to miss the chance to see the legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov (now 62) at Théâtre de la Ville in the city centre, in a programme also featuring 54-year-old Ana Laguna (formerly with the Cullberg Ballet). The evening is called “Three Solos and a Duet”, but actually even the solos are duets of sorts. In Alexei Ratmansky’s Valse-Fantaisie (named after its Glinka score), Baryshnikov may be alone on stage, but this little gem of dance-drama features two characters; Baryshnikov simply reacts to an invisible partner. The slender story is a of a raffish man courting a lady-love, who turns out to be married to another. Baryshnikov is both charming and cheeky (there are delightful in-jokes to ballet mime), and his dancing is, honestly, divine. Sure, there are no big jumps or flashy kicks (though he’s remarkably springy), but his performance is centred, musical and precise at the same time carefree – all of which makes him as debonair as Fred Astaire.
Then comes Ana Laguna in Mats Ek’s Solo for Two (adapted from Smoke, originally made for Sylvie Guillem in 1996). Laguna plays a solitary woman whose everyday chores (washing, sweeping) are laced with memories of an absent lover, triggered by the sight of a man’s shoe. She’s a game old bird, for sure, with her funny walks and her deep sorrow; but the piece is close to mawkish. It’s redeemed at the end when Baryshnikov appears and the shoe doesn’t fit: her Cinderfella was never really him, but a fantasy. Benjamin Millepied’s Years Later is a duet for Baryshnikov – and Baryshnikov. One of them is live on stage, the other is his ballet-student self, on film. They mirror each other in classroom combinations. Old Baryshnikov is clearly not his former self, and he gives up the ghost when his young self starts pirouetting endlessly (thanks to film trickery). Though not as effortlessly witty as Ratmansky’s piece, Millepied’s piece also lets Baryshnikov shine in a role in which he is both show-off and self-deprecating.
Imaginary partners haunt each of these “solos”; that’s what makes them work. The duet that closes the evening – Ek’s Place – is, however, all too literal. Baryshnikov and Laguna act out the complexities of a long-term relationship; they lean on each other, push each other away, seek out their own space. And so on. There are comic moments (Baryshnikov dad-dancing) and poignant ones, but overall the piece relies more on the default depth of character that the performers carry simply by virtue of their age than on the humdrum choreography. Still, le tout Paris stood up and applauded as one.
Actually, not quite le tout Paris. In the suburb of Créteil the following day I saw a different side of Paris: marginalised, multi-ethnic, poorer. But this too is Paris, as the finale of a street arts festival made clear. Directed by hip-hop choreographer Mourad Merzouki of Compagnie Käfig, the festival close was a community parade in which groups of people – the manifold, many-faced, any-old people who make up the lifeblood of a city – danced in carnival costumes based on characters from Charlie Chaplin’s film City Lights. It was ragtag and sprawling and celebratory. Passing dance stars may illuminate the hallowed spaces of theatre or concert hall, but these unsung residents are the real lights of the city; and it’s worth not missing that too.