Classical Meets Radical

Lyon Opera Ballet’s Yorgos Loukos Pushes the Art Form to Extremes

by Elizabeth Schwyzer

Lyon_Opera_Ballet_-_credit_.jpgPlenty of Europe’s opera houses boast resident ballet companies, but few take risks like France’s Lyon Opera Ballet (LOB). When Lyon Opera Director Louis Erlo invited Françoise Adret to create a new ballet company for the opera back in 1984, her instructions were not to preserve the classical canon but instead to develop an adventurous repertoire of contemporary choreography. Upon Adret’s retirement in 1991, Yorgos Loukos took the helm as artistic director. Loukos had been a modern and neoclassical dancer before performing classical repertory with the Zürich Opera Ballet and the Ballet National de Marseille. His varied background as a performer gave him a broad view of the artistic avenues open to contemporary ballet companies and an affinity for experimental work that pushed the boundaries of dance.

One year after his promotion with LOB, Loukos was named artistic director of the Cannes International Dance Festival, where for 14 years he has created a wide-ranging program of cutting-edge, unconventional dance theater. “He programs,” Dance Magazine recently claimed, “as if the public were seasoned dance lovers of catholic tastes.” Festival audiences have grown steadily year to year, due in no small part to his discerning eye for compelling choreography.

Loukos is thus in a unique position to observe the full spectrum of contemporary ballet and modern dance coming out of America and Europe, and this puts him at an advantage when it comes to selecting work for the LOB. The company’s signature style sets avant-garde, postmodern work on exquisitely trained classical dancers.

While on tour with the company in New York last week, the enthusiastic director spoke to me in detail about LOB’s relationship with American artists and audiences and about the challenging program he’s bringing to UCSB’s Campbell Hall next Tuesday. His observations on the state of contemporary dance shed light on the American/European divide and on the fruitfulness of trans-Atlantic collaboration.

Historically you’ve had a strong relationship with U.S. choreographers and venues, and you’ve toured a lot in America. Why is that? Where has it led the company artistically? American modern dance has always influenced modern dance in Europe, especially in France. So, as the director of the company I’ve got dancers who are classically trained, and they want to get rid of that. Also, as director of the Cannes Festival I’m very aware that there are two main places in the world where new things happen in dance: Europe and the U.S. No other country has such a strong relationship with our company — 10 or 15 American choreographers have been to France to work with me at Cannes and with LOB; we’ve created strong relationships. We’ve been to the U.S. more than 20 times in as many years.

What do you see as the ongoing distinctions between contemporary European choreography and American work? In the ’80s, most young French dancers had to come to the U.S. to get into modern dance. In the ’60s it was [Martha] Graham, in the ’70s [José] Limón, in the ’80s Merce [Cunningham], and then it was release technique. Most release dancers trained here at first — the U.S. was the best place in the world to learn it — but now it’s everywhere.

What happened to allow that shift? Many of the dancers, technicians, and teachers have moved back to Europe. People have digested and learned these techniques. And of course, art is better supported [in Europe] than here in the States, so choreographers are happier. They get subsidized, they can work longer, and they don’t have to work odd jobs just to survive as artists. It doesn’t mean the work here in the U.S isn’t good anymore, but it’s harder to make good work. Successful artists here have a different approach — a different vision from European work.

In what sense is the American vision different? Europe has gone back to a certain form of theatricality which in some cases is extremely close to schools such as German Expressionism, as in the work of Pina Bausch or Maguy Marin, and in other cases is less direct, such as in Sasha Waltz’s work. The younger generation in Europe wants a more theatrical, dramaturgical form, with more elaboration, characters, and humor. The whole visual aspect of it is very theatrical, with sets and costumes. Here in the U.S. things are closer to the abstract. A simple way to put it would be that abstraction is stronger here in the U.S.

What do you think are the reasons behind that difference? Part of it is that in France, the box office is not so vital to our behavior. We can afford to try something new, and nobody will yell at us afterward. If you can’t take risks, you’ll never create something exciting. One should take risks — everything that everyone has ever done is because they took a risk. Some of the American choreographers I’ve invited to choreograph for me have never been invited by a U.S. company to create work. We can do that. I don’t know that they get that chance in the U.S. John Jasperse has done two works for us; we’ve worked with Stephen Petronio, Ralph Lemon, and many others. Contemporary American choreographers seem to have to set work either within their own small companies or abroad.

So essentially we have a gap here in the U.S. — there’s not a lot in the middle between very small companies and very large ones, not a lot between modern dance and classical ballet. That’s right. And smaller companies can’t travel and tour their work so easily. One of the main differences between your situation and ours is that Paris is a huge center, and so is Berlin, London … here in the U.S., New York is the main thing. We get to tour around the U.S. because of our name. Lyon Opera Ballet sounds very traditional, very classical. Some presenters know better. But they’re doing tough work. They also have to sell.

The program you’re bringing to Santa Barbara is very European and very far from classical ballet. Do you think American audiences get Maguy Marin’s social commentary or Sasha Waltz’s irony? Australian William Forsythe’s Steptext is probably a lot easier for most viewers over here. There is not one American audience. The audience in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the audience in Hell’s Kitchen have nothing in common. There’s not a European audience either. You’re right that Steptext is easier on audiences, generally. But when Marin does a really tough work, she does it in her own company. She’s more careful when someone commissions a work. Her Grosse Fugue did well in Japan, Korea, and France. The music is something that helps. In this case, the Beethoven is very accessible. Music can be a big problem sometimes.

If Forsythe’s work is abstract and postmodern, the other two choreographers in this program are really post-postmodern. How do you see the differences between the three works? Steptext is from 1985, so it’s older. It’s still technically classical and neoclassical variation with lots of technique. It’s definitely abstract; there’s no relationship between dancers, they’re just moving, sometimes together. In Grosse Fugue they dance nonstop, but in dresses, not leotards, so they’re now ladies, not dancers. They are four women in red. But choreographically, the approach is still abstract. The music starts and they dance until the end, but they’re not made up as ballerinas — they’re like a piece of life more than a piece of dance. [Waltz’s] Fantasie is more of a German work. It has situations of absurdity. People fall down. It’s not abstract like Steptext. A dancer searches in another person’s eyes. You don’t know why. The fact that you ask, “What are they doing now, why are they doing that?” means it’s definitely not as abstract.

How do you select the works for LOB’s repertory — is there anything you’re consistently looking for? Is there a key to what grabs your attention? I watch many, many, many shows, and sometimes I think it’s going to be something I don’t like, and then I see something that surprises me. The main thing is to be open-minded and ready to see new things, and to see things for what they are, regardless of what you already think about the choreographer. People develop sometimes. In Lyon and in Paris, there are 10 new shows every night. You need to get out and watch — see what people are doing. I like to give a chance to smaller groups by commissioning new work.

How many dancers are with the company now, and where are they from? We have 31 dancers in the company representing 16 nationalities: dancers from the U.S., China, Japan, Poland, Brazil, Cuba — though our Cuban dancer isn’t on this tour because he couldn’t get a U.S. visa.

What does the future hold? We’d like to develop ongoing relationships with American artists and have them return to France each year to work with us. The more we do exchanges with artists from different countries, the more we can do to help dance internationally.

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