A new dance festival bursting with French flavour
Cork is the venue for Fête de la Danse, which its organisers hope will become an annual event, writes Christine Madden
Mention France, and people think of wine, crusty bread, croissants and haute couture. Dance normally isn't top of the list. And yet, ballet originated in France in the late 18th century - all its terms are in French - and the contemporary dance scene there has provoked admiration since the 1970s.
For Mary Brady, director of the Institute for Choreography and Dance at the Firkin Crane, in Cork, this was one of many reasons for starting what she hopes will become an annual event: the Fête de la Danse. "I'm personally interested in French dance," she admits. Over her years as icd director, she has built up relationships with French centres of choreography and choreographers, promoting exchange between Ireland and France.
"There are extraordinary parallels between the Irish and French approach to creating dance," she says. "They also look to literature and thematic influence. But some of their dance is very non-theatrical. It doesn't follow a logical plan, but it does follow a kind of text." French dance looks to philosophy, text and cinema for inspiration; in Ireland, we bank heavily on our literature and its influence and, more recently, our burgeoning cinema sector.
However, unlike in Ireland, dance in France has enjoyed centuries of popularity as a mainstream performing art. "Russian ballet developed from French choreographers in the 18th and 19th centuries," explains Patrick Thomas, adviser for cultural co-operation and action at the French embassy in Dublin, which has assisted the icd in its contacts with French companies and choreographers and provided financial support.
"And in the last 20 years we have seen the blossoming of contemporary dance in France, for which there is quite an audience." The genre continues to develop, mixing classical, contemporary and hip-hop and is key to cultural integration in French society. "At the edge of contemporary dance, we are seeing hip-hop and ethnic styles because of immigration and integration. A lot of companies are being established by dancers born in France to immigrant parents.
Instead of terming the event a season of French dance, Brady deliberately gave it a French name - Fête de la Danse - to underscore her interest in looking at Francophone culture. "I want to observe how dance has developed and transformed in countries that share a common language," she explains. "Over the next three years, I'd like to bring in dance from other Francophone countries in the world, and look at how dance can transcend language."
She is planning the festival to run at least until 2005, the year in which Cork is Cultural Capital of Europe.
The much-acclaimed Paris Conservatory Classical Junior Ballet will give the opening performance of the festival. This excellent dance academy visited Ireland last year, and Northern Ireland this year, with the contemporary branch of its student company. This time, there is the opportunity to admire the classical half with a programme of ballet of a kind we rarely see in Ireland. Supposedly to bring in audiences and satisfy them, most ballet performances on this island consist of international touring companies with a showcase performance of a much-loved but over-performed Tchaikovsky favourite; facilities and financing seem to have precluded anything that strays beyond these.
The Junior Classical Ballet of the conservatory, however, is bringing a one-night treat of little-known 20th-century work by Nicolo Fonte, Davide Bombana, Robert North and George Balanchine. Given the conservatory's proven accomplishment and expertise, this is a rare opportunity to witness the kind of ballet you rarely get a chance to see here.
To provide the balance between classical and contemporary, the Company Pernette returns to Ireland with its rendition of Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). This will be the third performance of this work in Ireland in one year - following David Bolger's superb version and Jerôme Bel's controversial interpretation for last year's International Dance Festival Ireland. Stravinsky's music clearly provides endless fascination and irresistible inspiration to dancers; Nathalie Pernette choreographed her production to an interpretation of Stravinsky's score written as a duet on one piano. The two dancers give way to the music's rage, their movement punctuated with Nijinsky-esque details as they perform within a circle of grains of wheat.
Combining all three elements of philosophy, text and cinema, one of the dance events consists of an installation in the Crawford Gallery by French choreographer Hervé Robbe. One year after starting as director of the National Choreographic Centre of Le Havre in Normandy in 1999, he created Permis de Construire - Avis de Démolition (Building Permission - Demolition Notice). The installation converges on the theme of the house as its starting point, questioning its symbolism, mythology and materiality. Using opaque and translucent vertical lines, screens, two-way mirrors, a soundscape by Andrea Cera and videos filmed by Christian Boustani, the spectator explores what "house" means to him or her while bombarded with images, sounds and material things.
"If I always go where my desire takes me," Robbe told Le Monde, "I see to it that the end result may also be shared by spectators, who appropriate a work in one way or another. For me, it's not about producing objects that are consummate but objects comprehensible to oneself and the world."
Equally interested in spectators, Brady hopes the festival will develop the dance audience. "Cork audiences have been becoming more and more open over the past few years." The icd has concentrated on research and group work, bringing choreographers from Ireland and abroad to take part in residencies, workshops and performances. "I want to redress that now and focus on the other side of creation - which is the audience."
Thomas agrees: "It is a short season, but you have to put it in the bigger context. As with our involvement with the festival last year, we hope to develop this, until recently, neglected field in Ireland, to help companies with touring and co-operative work." The Fête de la Danse should provide the perfect medium for her aims. "I find the French dance very exciting, very satisfying. They look at the body in a non-literal, non-representative manner," says Brady.
"I'd like to introduce that type of work here, to give new dimensions to dance. John Scott [who frequently collaborates with international choreographers\] is also doing that kind of work. Their dance is about 'authorship': writing the space, writing the dancer into the space. Their work is very spectacular and would appeal to our audiences in different ways."
• Fête de la Danse starts on April 17th with the Paris Conservatory Classical Junior Ballet's Evening of Classical Dance at the Cork Opera House (booking at 021 4543210), and Hervé Robbe's audio-visual installation which runs until May 1st at the Crawford Gallery. Company Pernette presents Le Sacre du Printemps and Suites at the Firkin Crane on April 23rd and 24th (booking at 021 4507487).