From Louis XIV to Le Hip-Hop

French Choreographers Transform American Moves

"To dedicate your life to dance is a political act," says French Albanian choreographer Angelin Preljocaj. "Not to put politics into the dance. But that to dance, instead of producing popcorn, is political." Preljocaj is one of the headliners at "France Moves," an ambitious festival of contemporary dance opening Monday. Ten companies performing 10 premieres—as well as a photo exhibit, films, and symposia—fill New York venues through May 6. Offerings, artistically and logistically dizzying, range from multimedia troupes like Philippe Decouflé's Compagnie DCA at BAM to pleather-clad flamenco diva Blanca Li at the Kitchen.

Yorgos Loukos, who also runs the Lyon Opera Ballet and the Cannes Dance Festival, directs "France Moves," a shining example of the level of support for French dance. France's ministries of foreign affairs and of culture and communication, the French Embassy, and French foundations and corporations have contributed substantially, along with a few American foundations. Small wonder, with such hefty subsidy, that French dance is so vital.

"These companies exist for two reasons," says Loukos. "American choreographers impressed young French dancers who became choreographers. Then, all that creativity in the late '70s and '80s was absolutely supported by the government." Many of the artists studied in the United States and credit American innovators with shaping their aesthetic. Now the students outpace the teachers: As American dance scrambles for funding and space, the French take this indigenous American art to new heights.

Mover and movie: Philippe Decouflé’s Compagnie DCA
photo: Q. Berthoux/Enquerand
Mover and movie: Philippe Decouflé’s Compagnie DCA

"American dance profoundly changed the form," says Preljocaj, choreographer of Paysage après la bataille(Landscape After the Battle), which opens at the Joyce May 1."Contemporary French dance is very interesting. But I don't think we are changing things fundamentally." Preljocaj, who studied at the Cunningham school and with Viola Farber, believes "the doors had already been opened . . . by the Judson movement, Cunningham, Graham, Limón—history, in fact. These people changed perceptions of what is dance."

History is the subject of Dominique Boivin's La danse, une histoire à ma façon(Dance History My Style), coming to Florence Gould Hall May 4. Boivin, who studied with Alwin Nikolaïs and American expat Carolyn Carlson at the National Center of Contemporary Dance in Angers, crafted his effervescent one-man show as a sort of "greatest hits"—"I decided to recount the history of dance a bit like a family album, where one remembers one's aunt and grandfather."

All-male Compagnie Azanie, whose members hail from Guadeloupe, Cuba, and Brazil, is directed by choreographer Fred Bendongué and composer Areski Hamitouche; it celebrates dance of the African diaspora. A female singer fronts a band that swings from classical repertory to traditional songs, sacred chants, and jazzy rhythms. Mixing street styles with modern dance, Azanie's D'une riveà l'autre (From One Shore to the Other) also incorporates capoeira.

Loukos, who still uses his Greek passport, wants the festival to depict a cosmopolitan France. "The cultural profile is changing; France has digested immigrant influences. Americans know this better than anyone else: All these different people bring something valuable." Preljocaj and Josef Nadj are both of Central European descent, and Bendongué's father is from Cameroon. The parents of festival participants Maguy Marin and José Montalvo escaped Franco's Spain, notes Loukos, "so the political thing is already there." He sees integrated France as a cultural antidote to the ultra-right, anti-immigrant National Front party. "Diversity can only enrich the mélange."

A defining element of French contemporary dance is its commitment to ideas, literary tradition, and social awareness. Some driving intellectual or conceptual force—often rooted in literature, graphic design, or theater—informs the work. It is rarely pure dance, though often quite "dancey."

"The French take a certain pleasure in thinking," says Preljocaj, who can spend up to a year exploring the concept for a dance. But once he gets into the studio, "only the form interests me—energy, space, weight—almost the laws of physics. In that I am very postmodern. If it were only concept, I would make a conference, not a dance."

Nadj put ideas from Kafka into his dreamlike Les Veilleurs (The Watchers), which opens Tuesday at the Joyce. The aching sound of a bandoneon, usually associated with tango, infiltrates the stage where three women and nine men "use Kafka like a mirror," says Nadj, "to create our own view of the world." The darkly ironic work reveals his early training in theater and the visual arts.

Maguy Marin, at 49 the oldest of this group (and one of only three female choreographers in the festival), makes ballets simmering with questions of conscience, philosophy, and emotion. Her movement language is at once accessible and virtuosic. Her troupe has performed here since 1983; each new piece unveils a different aspect of human experience. She describes her Pour ainsi dire (So to Speak) as "a play on voices, languages, and movements in which three people continuously assert their identities."

Boris Charmatz, the youngest at 28, explores the human condition in Herses—une lente introduction (Harrows—A Slow Introduction), performed by two nude couples. Compagnie Lionel Hoche delves into night's illusions in Mirabilis, the companion piece to the Hoche's daylit Volubilis.

Countering all this cogitation is the highly visual work of Montalvo-Hervieu, a company known for exuberant projected images and eclectic dancing that flaunts diverse roots. Philippe Decouflé, who staged the dazzling opening and closing ceremonies of the 1992 Albertville Olympics, also mixes video images with powerful live movement. His Compagnie DCA creates fantastical spectacles. Decouflé, who performed with Nikolaïs and Karole Armitage, is the most popular contemporary choreographer in France.

Blanca Li—friend to filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, ex-bar owner, and student of Graham technique—is a powerhouse of self-determination. She rented space in Pigalle, Paris's red light district, and mounted quirky cabarets and funky flamenco to fund her modern dance vision. Li brings her many personae to her one-woman Zap! Zap! Zap!

"Some of these choreographers have a classical base, some show postmodern influences from the States, and some reflect theatricality from German Expressionism and their own personal backgrounds," Loukos notes. "But there's a strong Latin flavor in all of them that is clearly French." He lauds the government for helping modern dance build loyal audiences in the provinces as well as in Paris. "It's amazing that in France, where the classical tradition is so strong, a modern style could develop, flourish, and find acceptance so quickly." Vive la difference.


Find complete program details at "France Moves" and the dance listings in Voice Choices.

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