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Mixed bill "Ghosts of Europe", Ballet de l’Opéra national du Rhin


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Bruno Bouché, Sujet with Paris Opera Ballet until the end of the 2016/17 season and choreographer, has been AD of the Ballet de l’Opéra du Rhin since the start of the 2017/18 season. I was lucky to catch the final performance of “Ghosts of Europe” in Strasbourg on Sunday afternoon, a mixed bill consisting of a prologue, a piece made by Bouché himself (Fireflies) and the seminal The Green Table by Kurt Jooss.

 

The programme notes are full of references to statements by Pier Paolo Pasolini (a decrease in the number of fireflies as metaphor of the loss of popular culture) and other writers (the dance of the fireflies as symbol of resistance) about said insects. In fact, not only Bouché’s work dealt with fireflies but also the prologue.

The prologue took place while audience members were still entering the opera house. It consisted of 5 performers in black trouser suits who strolled through the entrance foyer of the building, taking it in turns to talk about fireflies. The sentence that has stayed with me referred to their decreasing numbers, a development that has caught a lot of media attention recently with regards to the consequences for societies and livelihoods.

Bouche’s work is for a lead quintet and a large corps, all clad in shiny grey with white shirts for the men. It started with a member of the lead quintet slowly walking across the stage as if searching for something, pausing at the front of the stage and looking down (I thought, this resembles looking into an abyss, but actually, an online review that I read following the performance mentioned that the front of the stage was shiny as if it was a reflection of the world, something that I wasn’t able to see from where I was sitting). One dancer then wraps another dancer into a large blanket. Another dancer carries a large flower across stage in a nod to Pasolini. The quintet dances in slow movements. Some more standing at the front of the stage, looking into the orchestra pit. All this happens in complete silence. The music kicks in and the corps appears. What now follows is a series of solos/ duos/ trios etc., alternating with larger groups. Movements are smooth, dreamy, in loose canon (e.g., a movement is repeated by other dancers, each facing a slightly different direction on stage and/or with a slightly different line of the body) and in a variety of geometric forms (e.g., dancers in the centre surrounded by a moving large circle of other dancers). The classical training becomes evident with clearly delineated steps such as e.g., pas de bourree, pas de chat, sissones, and with women on pointe. Dancers wave tiny lightbulbs in the dark, illustrating the movements of fireflies. Some running on stage, too – in this case, perfectly matching the activities of flying insects. It was these group movements that I enjoyed most.

In addition to the references to fireflies and them being a symbol of resistance in the programme book, Bouché explains in an interview on the company’s web site that the work questions whether the artists can be this area of resistance. With so much background research, processing and thinking that went into this piece, if I have one regret, it is that I didn’t have sufficient time to read and digest the complete programme notes before I saw the work on Sunday as surely my viewing would have benefitted from it.

 

On to Jooss’ The Green Table after the interval, and my main reason for attending this performance. Hugely memorable, timeless and timely at the same time. A captivating series of negotiation postures (sitting straight and looking at each other, pausing to think, leaning forward, banging on the table, clenching fists, fencing, etc.) that made me think that negotiation tactics can be akin to a dance. Death is always prevailing. Each and every one who is not at the negotiation table will, sooner or later, succumb to death, including the figure who initially benefits from the others' fate. Fittingly, the programme notes include pictures of a couple of recent international negotiations that depict some of the negotiating stances that can be seen in the piece. I was sitting there thinking, well, if there are lists of “places to see”/ “things to do”/ etc. during one’s lifetime, then The Green Table should be on the list of “ballet/dance works to see”.

 

While I sense that some of Bouche’s programming may be slightly too contemporary for me, I find his approach refreshing and inspiring – e.g., evenings that centre on a composer (Bach last season, Mahler this season), a country (Japan last season, Argentine this season, both as part of a multi-disciplinary festival at the Opera du Rhin), equally Bouche’s thought process and research that went into Fireflies. Ghosts of Europe had been the only programme at the Opéra national du Rhin this season that found its way into my shortlist of cultural events. Based on what I saw on Sunday, I think I’ll have another look.

Pictures of both Fireflies and The Green Table on the French site Danses avec la plume https://www.dansesaveclaplume.com/en-photos/1043617-photos-spectres-deurope-par-le-ballet-du-rhin/

 

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Northern ballet theatre performed Green Table in the mid 1970s. I had a friend in the company and went to stay with her, so was fortunate to watch a rehearsal as well as a performance. What other UK companies have done it? I am sure it would be well received if some one mounted it, it is still relevant today.

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