The Nancy-based Ballet de Lorraine has had a somewhat erratic history, alternating between classical and contemporary directions since its inception in 1968. Now it wears both hats: though a ballet company, it is also a National Choreographic Centre, a status accorded to creators of contemporary dance. Fortunately the current director, Sweden’s Petter Jacobsson, has the experience to bridge the gap – a former ballet dancer, he turned to modern dance in the 1990s – and the company’s latest triple bill demonstrated his deft touch.
The programme opened with Corps de ballet, a creation from 26-year-old Noé Soulier, a trained ballet dancer who also holds a master’s degree in philosophy. At present, his talent lies more in concepts than choreography. Corps de ballet does what it says on the tin (or in this case, the programme notes): it dissects the classical vocabulary in three neat scenes. Steps are performed in alphabetical order, then taken apart to leave only the transitions between bigger moves; in the final scene, a lone, expressionless dancer goes through the pantomime gestures of traditional narrative ballet.
It’s a dry experiment, unconcerned with music or style, and while promising patterns emerge early on, Soulier fails to tell us anything of consequence about ballet. As they stop dead midway through phrases, his 17 performers look like manic cyphers, their limitations as classical dancers painfully exposed.
Merce Cunningham’s Sounddance, on the other hand, is an uproarious choreographic crescendo. It was Cunningham’s first work for his own company after his 1974 collaboration with the Paris Opera Ballet for Un jour ou deux, and it combines a tight structure with a giddy unpredictability. Its eight dancers emerge from gold drapes like a flock of birds on the first day of spring. Stretching as if in the sun, they skip, run and cartwheel to a riotous score by David Tudor, gathering momentum with thrilling freedom.
The evening concluded with a delightfully bizarre sighting: Jacobsson’s reconstruction of Relâche, the “ballet instantanéiste” that Francis Picabia and Erik Satie fashioned for the Ballets suédois in 1924. It’s not the first attempt to bring it back, but Jacobsson and Thomas Caley, both credited with the choreography, have achieved a convincing period feel, although the first cast is still grappling with the stylised humour.
Relâche is French for “no performance today”, and the entire ballet is a spoof, from the arch of lights blinding the audience in the first scene to bows taken to the sound of a honking car. A diva in a silver lamé dress leads the proceedings with men in top hats jumping in from the audience to provide a chorus line. They later strip to their pyjamas, while a dancer in catsuit and balaclava represents Jean Börlin, the original choreographer. Add to that the collages and riddles of Entr’acte, the film René Clair created for the “interval”, shown here in full, and you have a confection as zany as it is charming, a disarming blast from the heyday of surrealism.