AVIGNON, France – Festival goers traversing Avignon’s medieval city walls are used to being greeted with a riot of activity. Every July, thousands of posters cover the city walls to promote stage productions as the official Avignon Festival and its fringes compete for attention. It seems that every street corner brings hopeful actors ready to introduce their work to passers-by day and night.
Not this year. Like so many other events, France’s largest theater party was canceled due to the pandemic, leaving the city and local businesses with a significant drop in sales. As a consolation, the director of the festival, Olivier Py, postponed seven of the productions originally planned for the 2020 edition over a week at the end of October.
The name he chose for this replacement festival had historical resonance: “A Week of Art in Avignon” was the original nickname of the event when it was founded in 1947. At that time, its founder Jean Vilar was staging only three productions across the city . While many of this year’s contestants could complain of Avignon’s boredom in the fall, the low key atmosphere Viar’s vision was certainly much closer than the Moloch – over 1,500 fringe productions were presented last year – that usually overwhelms locals.
Looking back, Py and his team are likely to curse their timing. As the confirmed Covid-19 cases in France increased again, a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. was announced the day before the start of the art week in the Avignon region. Like most theaters in Paris and other major cities, the festival chose to bypass the regulations. All start times were only postponed by three hours to give viewers time to get home before the curfew began.
For some shows it wasn’t enough. First, a production, Yngvild Aspeli’s “Moby Dick”, was canceled when a case of coronavirus was confirmed in the creative team. Then, mid-week, the French government announced a new nationwide lockdown, which meant the festival was canceled.
However, there were some live shows going on in multiple locations around Avignon. Perhaps any review should include a mention of the Herculean amount of planning, precautions, and uncertainties involved in reaching the stage right now. Critics wouldn’t ignore the broader theatrical landscape: when an industry is struggling to survive, the aesthetic flaws of a lighting choice seem to be less momentous.
The best works, on the other hand, felt like outsider victories, happily torn from the jaws of new restrictions and shutdowns. In the first days of Art Week, dance prevailed with dazzling performances by dancers and choreographers Israel Galván and Kaori Ito.
47-year-old Galván belongs to a generation of flamenco stars who brought the genre into contemporary territory. He has incorporated elements as unlikely as Indian kathak, feline co-stars and robots into his work over the years, sometimes with unwieldy results. Fortunately, he returned to the basics of “Mellizo Doble” (translated “Twin Double”), with 80 minutes of dancing, singing and little else.
The “twin” of the title was the singer Niño De Elche, who gives flamenco music the same spirit of experimentation as Galván gives to choreography. Watching them was like listening to a dialogue so complex and fast that details flashed over the eyes and ears. While De Elche gave popular flamenco songs bizarre or modern twists, Galván stamped barefoot and in the gravel, alternately muffling and amplifying the familiar sound of his footwork.
The flamenco star’s mastery of lines and angles was seen in “Twin Double”, with sharp upper body work occasionally reminiscent of fashion. His sense of humor also peeked through: a percussion scene in which he and De Elche harmonized with chattering teeth and pounding chest received an enthusiastic encore during the curtain calls.
Itos “The damask drum. A modern noh ”(“ Le Tambour de Soie. Un Nô Moderne ”) didn’t quite reach the same heights, but its two main characters turned out to be a fascinating pairing. Born in Japan, Ito has become an eclectic headliner in the French contemporary dance scene, partnering with 87-year-old Yoshi Oida, a trained actor known for his collaboration with director Peter Brook.
Inspired by the 15th century Noh piece “Aya no Tsuzumi”, “The Damask Drum” portrays a cruel young dancer who makes a fool of an older caretaker. In Ito’s case, elements of traditional Japanese theater are combined with choreography on the floor and with Oida’s ironic physical precision. While the story ended up being underdeveloped, its cross-generational dynamic was unusual enough to keep the hour-long show going.
The theater cast lacked the clarity of the purpose of the dance productions. Jean Bellorini’s “A Game of Shadows” (“Le Jeu des Ombres”) and Gwenaël Morin’s “Endless Andromaque” (“Andromaque à l’Infini”) were obviously planned under completely different circumstances and were burdened with creative limitations.
“A Game of Shadows” was published with the kind permission of the most eloquent playwright in the French language, Valère Novarina, who has made non-sequencing and neologism an art form. His long lists of imaginary colors and birds have their lovers, as does Morin’s penchant for classical pieces.
For “Endless Andromaque,” Morin challenged four actors to fully study Racine’s 17th-century tragedy, “Andromaque,” to flip a coin to determine the roles they would take on each day, and then through as soon as possible the piece to run alexandrines. For many French speakers, Racine’s verse is not easy to understand at best, so this was far from a comprehensive decision.
Even so, there were performances to be appreciated. Since “The Game of Shadows” was partly inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Bellorini has included extended excerpts from Monteverdi’s opera “L’Orfeo” in the text. An 18-year-old singer, Ulrich Verdoni, took my breath away with the clear, unalloyed texture of his voice in the aria “Tu se ‘morta”. In “Endless Andromaque,” Sonia Hardoub adapted to Morin’s lively pace like a seasoned star, even switching back and forth between the roles of Andromaque and Orestes.
And there was a show that I will remember gratefully for the coming weeks of the lockdown. In “tracks. A speech to African nations ”(“ Traces. Discours aux Nations Africaines ”) by the Senegalese writer and scholar Felwine Sarr. A man stands alone at a lectern and speaks to the audience – and thus also the African continent – to diplomats.
In the role, the Burkinabe actor and director Étienne Minoungou joked with the audience about masks and the curfew, smiled warmly – and delivered a breathtaking retelling of African colonial oppression. It was crowned with a call not to arms but to rebirth and hope.
Anger would have been justified, but Sarr and Minoungou opted for the community of poetry instead. “Life goes by, but we are here to extend His shining grace,” said Minoungou when “Traces” came to an end. My pent-up frustration quickly subsided; Avignon was briefly working on its magic again.