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An Interview With Festival Director Valéry Colin


By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 17 July 2006— Come July, many theatres in Paris slowly grind to a halt, a fact which gave Valéry Colin, ex-dancer with the Paris Opéra Ballet, the incentive to create a new summer festival in the French capital, a project he cherished for several years which has now become a reality.

"I spent 16 years with the company, beginning when Rudolf Nureyev was director there", Colin told me when we met in his office not far from the Elysées Palace. "Not only did I meet the greatest dancers and choreographers, but I also used to organise galas for groups of friends in such places as Vietnam, Mexico, Azerbaijan and Brazil, which I enjoyed immensely. So when I was more or less obliged to give up dancing at 37 because of a foot injury, it seemed logical to take a course in cultural management.

"Now, one of the conditions of entry to the school was to present a cultural project which was, in my case, the re-creation of a summer dance festival here inspired by the memory of Nureyev himself appearing with the Paris Opéra in the Cour Carrée of the Louvre."

"With my background, it was evident that I'd choose dance", he continued, "and moreover, France possesses one of the most beautiful companies in the world, with a tradition that goes back to the times of Louis XIV. I began to investigate several places, all magical in their own way together with the help of Claude Bessy, who had encouraged me with this project from the beginning, Marina de Brantes, who agreed to become the President, and with a close friend, Annie Delaye."

Although several sites were considered, including the esplanade of the Trocadero and Les Invalides, an overriding factor was that the Festival needed the grounds for at least six weeks, not only for the three weeks of programmes but also for the lengthy preparation of setting up the provisional covered stage, lighting, seating for 2000 and this year, the immense, transparent crystal roof in case of bad weather. The possibility of staging this at the Louvre, with its hordes of visitors, had to be discarded from the start. And then Colin had already seen a programme of young musicians in the courtyard of the buildings of the National Archives and remembered that the setting was ideal. The whole area of the Marais district of Paris with its beautiful architecture is magnificent.

The Festival, called Les Etés de la Danse, is actually held in the gardens of the Hotel de Rohan and the Hotel de Soubise, ancient palaces which now house all the French national archives, the oldest of which date back to the VIIth century and subsequently retrace all the history of France.

The fortified entrance to the building with its two round towers is all that remains from the original palace constructed in 1375 as the chapel and ancient guards room were added around 1553. And when Francis de Rohan-Soubise bought the buildings in 1700, he added the splendid courtyard with its crescent shaped entrance, now being used for an exhibition of photographs.

"People coming here for the first time have trouble finding the theatre", Colin added, "as you must cross the grand entrance with its marble pillars to get to the gardens beyond where we had to dig up the roses while the construction work was going on. They'll be replanted later. But we left the existing trees and shrubs which form a natural boundary around the tiered seating and serve the double purpose of sheltering the open-air theatre in times of bad weather and offering coolness and shade in hot!"

The idea behind the Festival is to build a programme around a troupe or a personality; it was the director of San Francisco Ballet, Helgi Tomasson, who had himself danced in the gardens of the National Archives years before with the Harkness Ballet, who replied the first to Colin's invitation to open the Festival last year. And a huge success it was.

Alvin Ailey: Revelations
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Company Members
Photo: Andrew Eccles

This year events are dedicated to Alvin Ailey*, the big, graceful, black American dancer who formed the ever-popular Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, no newcomer to the French scene. The opening charity gala had the packed audience roaring and stamping its feet to see such favourites as Cry, powerfully interpreted by Dwana Adiaha Smallwood and Revelations, the company's best-known piece dating back to 1960. Both got standing ovations; both works were as fresh and exciting as when they were created because of the energy and enthusiasm of the dancers, each of whom has a highly individual personality. The company has long had a special place in Parisians' hearts, even if a more flamboyant theatricality and a certain slickness are slipping into the repertory. The anger and pain associated with blues music is more showy these days, but the sensuality and vitality remain intact.

Alvin Ailey: Cry
Dwana Adiaha Smallwood

Photo: Andrew Eccles

All four programmes presented, from the fun-loving, zappy Autour du Jazz, their "Best-of", (but isn't everything their best-of?), which included a wider, more recent range of works, to their last programme, Hommage à Alvin Ailey were a joy to see.  And the sun shone on them almost every day. Come back soon!

Alvin Ailey: Night Creature
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Photo: Andrew Eccles

But before then, a whole host of interesting international companies have already been contacted. There's every hope that the National Ballet of Cuba will be here next year, and plans are afoot to bring John Neumeier and his Hamburg Company, with the emphasis on his own works, in 2008. Colin is also in close contact with the Australian Ballet and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, companies which have not been seen here for some time. Of particular interest too, is the Stuttgart Ballet who possesses, amongst other works, a unique John Cranko repertoire. Les Etés de la Danse  have a fine career in prospective.

*Alvin Ailey died in 1989

Alvin Ailey
Photo: Eric N. Hong

"Les étés de la danse"   Alvin Ailey   American Dance Theatre
3 - 23 July 2006

Gardens of the French National Archives
60, rue des Francs-Bourgeois
Tel: (33) 0892 687 100

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe and is the dance editor for

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