Couples lindy-hopped at midnight on a public square. Students applauded a jookin-influenced duo in a university courtyard. Teenagers tried out hip-hop, Thai boxing and hula hooping at public classes in a shopping center. Thousands attended a vogueing master class and ball. And all over town, people streamed in and out of theaters offering work by some of contemporary dance’s biggest names.
It was the 20th edition of the Lyon Dance Biennial, which opened on Sept. 9 and runs through Sept. 30. One of the world’s largest and most important dance festivals, the Biennial was back to its frantic self after a slowed-down Covid edition in 2021. Journalists sped between shows, packing in as many performances as possible. Dance-world figures sipped post-show wine, gossiped and analyzed shows (“Gloriously dull,” “Thank god it won’t fit in my space”). And dance lovers, with a notably younger-skewed demographic, filled theaters all over the city.
Since its inception in 1984, the Biennial has espoused a democratic, participatory approach. Each edition opens with a huge parade, which this year involved 3,500 participants and was watched by a crowd of 150,000 people.
But this edition, led by a new director, Tiago Guedes, seemed even more focused on outreach, diversity and participation. “It’s important to open the doors over these three weeks,” Guedes said over a coffee last week. “To break the idea that dance is an elitist discipline.”
This mission has a lot of currency in French dance right now. You might call it the “La Horde effect” — the desire to emulate the pop-culture friendly collective that runs the Ballet de Marseille, and who draw huge crowds of young people to their performances through a combination of diverse dancers, work with pop stars and an inclusive, social media-savvy approach.
Along with figures like Mehdi Kerkouche, who runs the National Choreographic Center in Créteil, just outside Paris, La Horde exemplifies a new generation of choreographers who embrace social objectives and elide the differences between commercial and concert dance. (Kerkouche has danced with the singer Christine and the Queens, whose choreographer Marion Motin has just created a work for the Paris Opera Ballet.)
About half of this edition’s programming had already been done by Guedes’s predecessor, Dominique Hervieu, when Guedes first arrived, and his priority in rounding the program out, he said, was to establish parity between male and female choreographers. “It’s very important that these big events care about showing this,” he added.
The final lineup is ambitious and wide-ranging, with 48 productions from 14 countries, including a four-day platform of short pieces, watched by around 1,000 programmers and administrators, who came from 49 countries. And however inclusive Guedes’s approach, big-name — and mostly male — choreographers still abound, including Boris Charmatz, Dimitris Papaioannou, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, among others.
My favorite piece, seen over a crammed few days last week, was a work by a choreographer who is still largely unknown outside France: Phia Ménard’s “Art. 13” was a jolt to the senses, a rite of joyous destruction, an electric shock of the new.
At the start, the stage of the 19th-century Theatre des Celestins shows us a manicured French garden: cropped grass, gravel paths, hedges, with a Grecian statue of a naked man, holding an ax, in the center. Out of the earth emerges an androgynous creature (a superb Marion Blondeau) in shorts and T-shirt, wearing a strange animallike headpiece.
First crawling, then climbing and humping the side of the pedestal, she gradually stands erect, lolloping gawkily around the stage with bent-legged, turned-out staggers and lurches. Harsh, very loud electronic sound dominates, switching to a waltz when Blondeau gets hold of the ax, and begins to chop at the base.
Eventually the statue falls; later — after an amusing interlude involving two white-suited men who clear the debris — a much larger statue descends, so large, we can only see its feet on a monumental base. Undaunted, our heroine begins to take that one down. too. At the end, she is enveloped in glittering blue lights as Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” plays.
The work’s title turns out to reference Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence.” Poetic, witty, funny, full of fascinating movement and packed with the irrational yet imaginative associations, “Art. 13” takes on patriarchy, the rule of law, the foundations of society. As the lyrics of “White Rabbit” put it: “When logic and proportion/Have fallen sloppy dead … Feed your head.” Ménard sure does.
Another highlight was De Keersmaeker’s “Exit Above: After The Tempest,” a big hit at the Avignon Festival this summer, and a change of spirit for this often-austere, cerebral choreographer. “Exit Above” features the gorgeously crystalline-voiced Flemish singer Meskerem Mees who, with Jean-Marie Aerts and the guitarist Carlos Garbin, composed a score based on the songs of the blues artist Robert Johnson.
Although there is little direct reference to Shakespeare’s play, the curly-haired Solal Mariotte, whose spectacular breaking-influenced solo opens the work, is perhaps an Ariel figure, and a huge swirling cloud of white fabric, blown into endlessly forming shapes above the stage, is a beautiful storm.
Using 12 mostly young dancers and Mees (who dances too), De Keersmaeker uses an eclectic mash-up of dance styles that disrupt her more patterned, formal choreography, and the dancers whip up an exhilarating storm of movement. If climate change is evoked, so is resilience, hope and sheer energy. By the end, the normally staid audience at the Lyon Opera house was on its feet, cheering.
I also saw Cherkaoui’s visually beautiful but rather dull “Ukiyo-e,” danced impeccably by the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève; an inventive, athletic duo, “Fantasie Minor,” from Marco da Silva; and a few Platform pieces, notably Diana Niepce’s “Anda, Diana,” a harrowing, if overlong, trio that had two large men manipulate the tiny, fragile Niepce, who is unable to walk.
Where will Guedes, the new director, take the Biennial next? His aim, he said “is to show how diverse dance is nowadays, from abstract, formally constructed work to pieces that are closer to dance or visual arts.” Its mission, he added, isn’t changing. “But we must think about how we approach it and who we address.”