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Dance Review

A Daring Leap to the Unexpected

With trouble threatening, the Biennale de la Danse makes a spectacular departure from its contemporary agenda.


LYON, France--Contemporary dance launched the 10th Biennale de la Danse with high achievement on Tuesday but threatened to bottom out by the end of the week. With a dancer's injury causing the postponement of a world premiere by French choreographer Maguy Marin, and companies from Chile, Brazil and Argentina introducing problematic modernism, the Biennale's 20-day "Terra Latina" festival needed a whole different kind of buzz to restore its luster.

Happily, Biennale artistic director Guy Darmet found it in an elaborate--and risky--program of antique celebration rituals from Bolivia and Colombia. Performed Thursday in the 3,000-seat ancient Roman amphitheater of Fourviere, his "Latino Carnivals" turned out to be an unforgettable statement of splendor and spirituality.

Instead of importing a single professional folklorico company, Darmet had sought out native groups that normally perform in annual feast-day processions: 61 dancers and musicians from the Bolivian mining town of Oruro, for instance, who brought their spectacular "La Diablada" traditions to Lyon.

Pitting all manner of devils and demons against the archangel Gabriel, this parade of elaborately costumed and masked performers capped a four-part evening staged by Walson Botelho that began with two groups presenting portions of the carnival from Barranquilla in northeast Colombia. First a 40-member university troupe, Garabato Unilibre, offered a series of vibrant, stamina-testing dances interrupted by the figure of Death, swinging his scythe and causing mass consternation.

Next came the 40-member La Sabrosa contingent in red-and-white, 18th century attire, giving great warmth and elegance to the Caribbean "Cumbiamba" while representing an entire native community--teenagers, geezers, the svelte and the zaftig--rather than the uniformly gorgeous 18-to-24-year-old "folk" on view in most touring world dance ensembles.

Best of all, perhaps, were the virtuosic, 33-member Bloque Illimani dancers in "Sambos Caporales," a joyous, high-stepping, arm-swinging tribute to the fortitude of black slaves forced to work in the Bolivian mines.

Good versus evil, life shadowed by death, indomitable human endurance: These themes grounded the event, and when members of the audience joined all four companies on the forestage at the end, you could see not merely the desire to boogie but deeper issues. For instance, two handsome, limber young Lyonnaise kept teasing the figure of Death, but always carefully danced out of his way when that scythe swung in their direction. No use tempting fate--or Guy Darmet.

Meanwhile, small and mid-size theaters throughout the Lyon area programmed strongly executed contemporary works of limited choreographic distinction--many of them European premieres. Offering a view of the Argentine middle class as virtually paralyzed--able to feel nothing but the pain it can inflict on itself and others--"Secreto y Malibu" suffered from too many obvious borrowings from German dance theater.

However, the unsparing athleticism of Ines Rampoldi and Leticia Mazur, who created it with company artistic director Dana Szeinblum, kept it watchable at the Theatre du Point du Jour on Thursday.

Similarly, the physical daring of Chile's Compania Pe Mellado Danza freshened the directionless cycle of female victimization in Paulina Mellado S.'s "Place of Desire" at the intimate Salle Gerard Phillipe the following night. Another Chilean exercise in exhausting a concept without ever giving it a dramatic shape, Marcela Escobar's solo "The Sack" completed the program.

The Franco-Brazilian "Transatlantic" project by the Attacca and Gondwana ensembles at the Theatre des Jeunes Annees on Thursday offered fine solos by Luciano Souza. But this survey of the cultural influences shaping Brazil spent less time on dance than talk, songs and puppet shows.

Talk and songs also dominated Henrique Rodovalho's plotless "Choreography to Listen To" at the Theatre de la Croix-Russe on Saturday. Indeed, the close relationship between the choreography and the accompaniment (lifted from Brazilian TV, complete with interviews in Portuguese) made it a puzzling choice for export.

Rodovalho, however, fused muscular isolations, gymnastics, Brazilian pop dancing and moves derived from contact improvisation into perhaps the most distinctive personal style since early Twyla Tharp.

That style required the members of his Quasar company to lie on the floor and twitch their way from place to place, to venture asymmetrical unison flips not only easily but playfully and to roll off one another's backs, or up into lifts, at any speed in any direction.

Whether Rodovalho has anything significant to say, the Quasar dancers have something unique to show--and the savvy Biennale audience couldn't get enough of them.

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