Classical Meets Radical

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

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

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

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

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?
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

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

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
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
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


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