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France Dancing

Date: Jun 02, 2008


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New Yorkers with a taste for French music and contemporary dance will be in heaven in June. From June 3 to 7, Rioult (formerly The Pascal Rioult Dance Theatre) will present two pieces in repertory at NYU Skirball, with an emphasis on the music of Ravel. And from June 10-28, the Joyce will host three major dance companies from France under the rubric "The French Collection": Compagnie Heddy Maalem, with an aggressive new interpretation of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring; Compagnie Maguy Marin, with the Beckett-inspired Umwelt, and Ballet Biarritz, with pieces choreographed to music by de Falla and Ravel.

While all of these troupes find inspiration at least in part in 20th-century modernism--Beckett, Stravinsky, Ravel--the New York-based Rioult invokes the baroque with a new piece choreographed to Bach's Art of Fugue. And Ballet Biarritz, a company led by choreographer Thierry Malandain, is mining not only Ravel and de Falla's music for its pieces Le Portrait de l'Infante and L'Amour Sorcier, but also the paintings of 17th century Spanish court artist Diego Velazquez.

"The three companies which will perform at the Joyce are very different, just like the diversity of dance in France," Malandain says. "Ballet Biarritz will be the most classical of them, in the sense that my world is the ballet but in a contemporary way."

Not just contemporary but idiosyncratic: When asked what elements of Velazquez's art his work is inspired by, Malandain replies, "I use many elements from his paintings, such as dogs, hair and dwarvess. I also refer to his picture Les Fileuses, which tells of a rivalry between Athena and a mortal who will be changed into spider."

There's also a touch of Oscar Wilde, specifically his story The Birthday of the Infanta. Again with the little people: "It's the story of a dwarf who thought that he was a gentleman, and who died when a mirror revealed him how he was hideous," Malandain explains.

There's another throughline that distinguishes Ballet Biarritz: The company is based in the Basque part of France, a region from which Ravel also hailed, and as such has focused its work around Spanish-style music, of which Ravel wrote a goodly amount. Though its authentic Spanishness has been duly challenged over the years, Ravel's Spanish contemporary, Manuel de Falla, was a fan, even as he wrote his own, presumably more truly Spanish music.

Rioult will be dancing to some of the same Ravel pieces as will Biarritz--Alborado del Gracioso, Rapsodie Espagnole--as well as the composer's most popular Spanish-inspired piece, Bolero.

There's another fortuitous link between these various companies: Pascal Rioult started out as a French track and field star before coming to the U.S. on a French Ministry of Culture fellowship to study dance, and going on to become a star principal with May O'Donnell, Paul Sanasardo and Martha Graham, and then forming his own acclaimed company in 1994. The French/Algerian choreographer Heddy Maalem comes from the athletic world, also: He was a boxer and martial artist before he discovered dance, and his background in those aggressive sports shows in his work. Maalem's take on Stravinsky's Rite of Spring throws 14 African dancers from Mali, Benin, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo and Mozambique into a plain white cube for a furious movement piece.

Stravinsky's groundbreaking piece so scandalized its original 1913 Paris audience that it led to a riot in the theatre. Apparently today's seen-it-all audiences can still be roused to such reactions: Compagnie Maguy Marin's Umwelt reportedly led to "reactionary riots" at its Lyon premiere in 2004. Maybe that's because Marin is known for a kind anti-dance choreography based on simple human acts, from biting an apple to washing a floor, rocking a baby or pointing a gun. In this piece, Marin takes conscious inspiration from Samuel Beckett to create a repetitious, hypnotic work about the world's resistance to change.

And if anyone knows resistance, it is the French, no? Plus ca change, indeed.

Click here for information about Rioult at NYU Skirball, June 3-7.
Click here for information about "The French Collection" at the Joyce Theatre, June 10-28.