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2002 Avignon Festival: A Return to Innovation

By Andrew Jack

AVIGNON, 5 August 2002—When modern dance is at its best, full of innovation, experiment and energy, it is an all but unbeatable art form. Unfortunately, Sasha Waltz's noBody, on show at France's Avignon Festival this July, ended up being noThing like as good.

The German choreographer, based in Berlin, provides a moving account of the death of her mother in the festival programme. She also describes how her dancers simply stood in stunned silence for an hour in front of their audience on September 11, the day a prior version of their project was due to premier, in solidarity with the tragic events in New York.

But when it came to putting into practice noBody, the third in a trilogy to follow Korper in 2000 (relating to anatomy), and S (dealing with sensuality), the realisation has proved disappointing.

The problem, perhaps, is that death is precisely far more abstract, far less visual or concerned with motion, than either of these previous two themes. But, to this viewer, much more could have been made of the idea.

The majority of the performance was taken up with disjointed movements which had little to do with any form of coordination or, dare I say it, dance. Outlying dancers sometimes appeared more as though they had forgotten their steps (or been neglected by the choreographer) than that they were there serving a particular symbolic purpose.

Waltz herself wrote in the programme that she was asked to develop noBody specifically for the impressive setting of the Court of Honour at Avignon's Papal Palace. The scene, and the wind billowing the clothes of the dancers, certainly provided a striking foundation for creativity.

But, maybe in response to the scale of the task, she appears to have been somewhat overwhelmed. The choreography seemed often obsessed with the need to keep multiple dancers in perpetual motion across the large stage, rather than to provide a visually coherent or pleasing whole.

Sasha Waltz: noBody
Choreography: Sasha Waltz

In other respects, it did not seem as though there was much in noBody geared to the specific venue, with the exception of the uninspiring flashing on and off of lights in the Palace's windows which serve as a backdrop.

Hans Peter Kuhn's music also added little to the pleasure for spectators. For much of the performance, it sounded like a series of vacuum cleaners on speed, crescendoing to a near-deafening blast of aircraft engines. The primal screams of the dancers at one point seemed simply ridiculous, and should have been left in the rehearsal studio.

Things became more visually interesting for the final third of the show. I could not separate the different set pieces to identify which was which, but what might be called the "Dance of the Pepper Pots" was amusing, even if it was a theme that has been used by others in the past.

At times, the coordinated rolling of heads, and snatching of assorted dancers as they "died", was also impressive and evocative. But overall, noBody seems to prove the assertion that follow-ons and sequels rarely match up to originals. Particularly with such a difficult theme.

Waltz's show did at least provide justification to those who argued that the 2002 Avignon Festival represented a return to innovation for Bernard Faivre d'Arcier, its long-standing director, who has in the past been criticised for favouring conformism and commercial success.

A man who has long been subject to rumours of his replacement in the bitchy world of culture, Faivre d'Arcier does now seem certain to move on to other tasks next year. As such, the presence of so many creations and unusual performances in his penultimate festival is a sign of a healthy legacy (though swelling box offices, notably those of last year, are no bad thing either).

Even so, this reviewer's luck in choosing a limited number of performances (as most ordinary theatre-goers would - particularly given prices of Euros 20-30 apiece) was not always great in the current year.

Michel Bouquet, the veteran French actor, put on a powerful show as the protagonist in Thomas Bernhard's Minetti. The staging - especially the wild sea of Ostende, where the man comes to terms with his frustrated life as an actor - was equally impeccable. That is more than can be said for the cramped, over-heated Muncipal theatre, with its poor acoustics.


But, alas, this viewer found the dialogue itself left something to be desired. While powerful in parts, the play ended up leaving the spectator as the embarrassed witness more to the rantings of an old man, than the insights of self-analysis of a lifetime of acting.

The playwright Martin McDonagh's Lonely West, based in a depressed Irish village, was powerfully written, although somewhat unconvincing in its concluding reconciliation of two brothers, supposedly brought together after the alcoholic priest with whom they have built an uneasy relation commits suicide precisely because of his failure to influence his wayward parishioners.

It was well acted overall, though the numerous "fucks" left untranslated in the performance seemed as inappropriate in the French, and as awkward for its actors, as they would have been natural in the native tongue and context. It just ended up feeling a little inconsequential, though not disagreeable.

Lonely West
Lonely West

Overall, there also seemed a greater air of democracy at this year's Festival, with large public participation in a number of discussions and debates with directors, actors and artists during workshops in comfortable new surroundings in the St Louis Cloister.

It was only a shame that (ironically comparing climatic and medical conditions in Avignon and Prague in the post Cold War era), bad weather and ill health forced Vaclev Havel, the veteran Czech playwright and politician, to rush home, missing a speech he was due to give.

A final thought. Many of the descriptions in the programme for the Avignon Festival are as pretentious as they are uninformative. If the organisers want to fill box offices as well as appeal to a broader audience in future years, they might do well to hire some better writers from outside the usual milieu.

Photos courtesy of the Festival d'Avignon

Andrew Jack is a British journalist based in Moscow and the author of The French Exception (Profile Books, London). He is also a member of the editorial board of


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