Three men in bright yellow unitards dappled with green, orange and blue, all looking to the left and bent into a wide demi-plié, against a dark purple background. The man in front is in sharp focus with a somewhat alarmed expression, the two behind are blurred.

review, article

a day at Les Hivernales’ On (y) danse aussi l’été !

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Simple, by Ayelen Parolin. Photo © François Declercq
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Avignon’s national choreographic development centre distils styles and ambiences in its summer programme - on a daily basis

If in summer most people (myself included)– come to Avignon, the French ‘city of popes’, for its world-renowned theatre festival, Les Hivernales – CDCN d’Avignon [National Choreographic Development Centre of Avignon] gives prominence to contemporary dance in On (y) danse aussi l’été ! The venue is named after French dancer and choreographer Amélie Grand’s week-long winter (hivernale) festival founded in 1979. Twelve years later, Les Hivernales doubled up as a summer event welcoming eight up-and-coming artists and companies from all over Europe in an eclectic and challenging ten-day programme. Seven out of the eight works are presented in the same venue each day, in sequence, so that one can attend all seven in one go. This way, the festival serves a double purpose: not only does it allow curators and journalists to see a lot of shows in a short time, but it also enables the artists to be highly visible to a broad public. My schedule was already busy with plays, but I managed to make room for this. Taking the plunge into a packed dance day was one opportunity I just couldn’t miss – or rather, resist.

10:00am: Catol Teixeira, Clashes Licking (CH)

The wuthering sound of panpipes falls into silence when two upright neon lights breach the pitch-black stage, revealing Catol Teixeira’s inert body hanging by a cable. Swinging from side to side in mid-air, wearing a yellowish transparent latex outfit, their short haircut and slim muscular figure reminds you of Nijinsky’s faun. But when they return to dry land, Teixeira take gender and dance codes to another subversive path by covering their whole face with a long blueish wig and putting on worn-out pointe shoes.

Tiptoeing backwards with both hands on the ground, Teixeira expose their shape-shifting body, first sculpted by ballet technique, then by contemporary dance. Zigzagging onstage between flashes of light and pulsing beats, they contort themselves in tortuous labile poses. Both angular and flexible, their gestures feel as uncanny as they look impressive. For a moment, they stop centre-stage and uncover their face to gaze at the audience, gratifying some of us with a cheeky smile. As frenetic shivers progressively seize their body, Teixeira subsumes clashes of centuries of gender representations, blowing your certitudes – and your mind – away.

11:40am: Yvann Alexandre, Infinité (FR)

French choreographer Yvann Alexandre designed a duet with four performers, only two of whom he picks to go onstage right before the show begins, so that the work does not “belong” to any of them. Today, it is Louis Nam Le Van Ho and Denis Terrasse, dressed in dark casual outfits, who dive into the dim lit empty space, to the sound of a howling wind or a music hall song. Jumping and spiralling gracefully, they keep crossing paths. At first, they barely touch, slightly brushing their bodies in a smooth delicate gesture. This timid, sensual courting transforms into a fierce head-to-head as they race towards one another like in a bullfight.

Exploring the dynamics of attraction and repulsion, Alexandre’s work immerses the stage in a tense atmosphere with a loud beating soundscape. As the dancing couple breaks apart, the stage is left to Terrasse’s melancholic solo before Nam Le Van Ho re-emerges from behind the rows of seats. Eventually reunited, their final baroque duo looks nice, but remains quite linear. Maybe the chosen pair of dancers wasn’t a match. Or perhaps shooting for infinity was just too ambitious. Lacking emotion and choreographic depth, Infinité simply stays on the surface.

1:15pm: Marina Gomes, ‘Asmanti [Midi-Minuit] (FR)

French choreographer Marina Gomes’s ‘Asmanti immerses in the daily life of a teenage gang from the suburbs. Carelessly slouched on a bench and a camping chair, three boys and one girl dressed in sportswear rise one by one and start a football game mixed with hip-hop improv. From midday till midnight (half an hour in stage time), the young performers pace up and down with joyful and bold street dance set to oriental music.

Navigating the sense of community and exclusion, Gomes’s first work is as much a playground as it is a prison. When the stage goes pitch-black and the dancers come back in dark hoodies, the tense atmosphere seem to overwhelm the tight-knit crew and its so-far delightful energy. This piece may not be revolutionary, but the night is young, and the company is full of promises.

3:10pm: Hamid Ben Mahi / Compagnie Hors Série, Royaume (FR)

Six women in loose tops and trousers all jumping slightly off the floor, washed with deep red lighting against a background of red and bright green
Compagnie Hors Série in Hamid Ben Mahi’s Royaume. Photo © Pierre Planchenault

There may not be a feminine equivalent for ‘realm’ in French, but Hamid Ben Mahi’s Royaume is definitely a queendom. In this piece, six women in their 30s and 40s take over the stage to raise their voice and dance their soul. Gathering like meerkats in terracotta outfits, they spread ochre pebbles all over the floor, creating mesmerising patterns along their way. Sometimes muses, waving their lined-up bodies behind a large transparent veil, sometimes warriors, hammering the ground with their feet while galvanising the others with rallying cries, they form a joyful and lively sisterhood.

Stepping up in turn to a standing microphone, each woman shares fun facts about her childhood and grown-up life, but also her struggles facing gender prejudices or sexual harassment. These genuine – if sometimes a tad clumsy – confessions lead them all to exorcise their rage and fear in an intimate hip-hop solo, enhanced by screenings of a blazing starry sky. Through this poetic show of strengths and weaknesses, each personality conveys a special sense of resilience that deepens the communion of the group. Proudly feminist, Compagnie Hors Série’s cheering and moving hymn to womanhood totally rocks.

5:20pm: Mathieu Desseigne-Ravel and Michel Schweizer / Naïf Production and La Coma, Nice trip (FR)

A man walking in a green hoodie, with the hood stretched high up over a hidden block balanced on his head. From Nice Trip, by Mathieu Desseigne-Ravel and Michel Schweizer.
Nice Trip, by Mathieu Desseigne-Ravel and Michel Schweizer. Photo © Frédéric Desmesure

Mathieu Desseigne-Ravel and Michel Schweizer take us on a Nice Trip through material and conceptual frontiers. While the latter – whose dark jacket reads ‘OBSOLETE’ on the back – gets going on a convoluted deadpan speech about the history of barbed wire, the former sweeps on the floor behind four display boards showing different types of spiked fences – including one designed by an AI… made of soft white down. Contorting his body in various uncanny ways, Desseigne-Ravel starts walking slowly on his hands while resting his feet on the back of his arms.

The unexpected twist comes when both performers strike up a critical conversation with the audience and fourteen-year-old dancer Abel Secco-Lumbroso leaves his third-row seat to climb onstage. Trying out clumsy walking on the edge of his feet, he joins hands with Desseigne-Ravel to form an acrobatic duet. Lying down, the man invites the child to carefully step on his arms, torso and legs, eventually lifting Secco-Lumbroso’s standing body with the force of his own arms. Fundamentally unconventional, the piece explores all sorts of borders, those designed by the laws of physics, and those men set up on ecological, technical and artistic issues. Despite its obscure and absurd hints, this bad-trip-like performance unfolds pretty nicely.

7:30pm: Ayelen Parolin, Simple (BE)

Ayelen Parolin’s trio of slender dancers in skin-tight beige suits striped with colourful brushstrokes is quite obviously a nod to Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace. Appearing from behind a garish multicoloured scenery, three performers jump, skip and wiggle across the stage while staring at the audience with a dumbfounded expression. Apparently nonsensical, their parodying moves follow precise combinations of steps, ranging from ninja combat posture to horse gallop and ballerina on pointe – all without music.

Turning her back on ballet and contemporary dance, the Belgian-Argentinian choreographer makes her own rules. As the dancers play Grandma’s Footsteps or line up in a horny shaking position with the same embarrassed look, the piece already looks madcap. But when the three troubadours start singing Luis Miguel’s Bésame Mucho, The Cranberries’ Zombie and Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive while breaking coloured planks and hammering on the ground with sticks, the performance goes completely nuts. Like a Chaplinesque running gag, their clowneries and gesticulations might feel redundant in the long run – but Simple is a funny piece indeed.

9:15pm: Elisabeth Schilling, HEAR EYES MOVE – Dances with Ligeti (LU)

To take on Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s eighteen Piano Etudes was Luxembourg choreographer Elisabeth Schilling’s long dreamed challenge. In this complex twiddly score, she found a choice playground to develop a synaesthetic choreography for five performers. Dressed in dark outfits, they look like the black tiles of a keyboard on the dim lit all-white stage, extended to the ceiling by a large stripe of fabric. Gazing into the distance, the dancers try to follow the polyrhythmic piano etudes with neoclassical movements and sculptural pauses.

Gestures are chiselled and meticulously intertwined. Sadly, the performance runs without relief. Just as the dancers rise and fall on the ground, the performance goes through ups and downs. There are moments of grace, like Elisabeth Christine Holth and Brian Ca’s intense and spiralling solos. But in the process of developing a dialogue between dance and music, Schilling may just have got lost in translation.

10:30pm: a nice, cosy bar in Avignon (FR)

If this piece left me with a sour taste, the overall day had a fair share of highlights that I definitely enjoyed. Out of the eight works, I regret not having seen Corps Sonores by Massimo Fusco, a visual and physical immersive performance which was presented in another venue and sounded intriguing. But for most people, whether professionals or amateurs, going through this packed dance summer programme already feels like running an emotional marathon, filled with marvel, laughter, bewilderment, and fatigue. Les Hivernales might be a small island in the archipelago of Avignon Festival’s venues, but the day I spent at On (y) danse aussi l’été ! was a challenging, unique experience – and one of my favourites – of France’s biggest performing arts event. 

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