Saturday, July 22, 2006


Oriza Hirata
Lycée Mistral
Friday, July 21, 6pm

The production of GENS DE SEOUL, a Japanese play by contemporary author Oriza Hirata, was highly anticipated in Avignon because it was staged by Frédéric Fisbach, who will be the Festival's Featured Artist next summer. But a steady stream of audience members left during the play, the applauding at the end of the show was less than enthusiastic, and by the director did not join the actors to take a bow though it was the premiere...
There is nothing wrong with Hirata's work, if you like Chekhovian atmospheres and plots - much as in Chekhov's plays, it's all about suppressed words, hidden wounds, and complex family relationships. Not much happens, really, and there are neither climax nor denouement, which is fine by me at least. The characters are chatty yet they say very little of what really matters to their lives or to the political situation that's hinted at, namely Japan's occupation of Korea in the early 20th century. I found it fascinating, as it reminded me of Tanizaki's sublime "Makioka sisters", another work that focuses both on tried family ties and a tense political situation that everyone wants to ignore.
There's a lot wrong, on the other hand, with Fisbach's staging of the play. It's as if he had tried very hard to show how smart and intelligent he is. The play is performed in Japanese, and it's difficult enough to focus both on what's going on onstage and on the tiny subtitles, but to make things more frustrating, Fisbach added screens on both sides of the stage, with words and images flashing on them, while characters come and go, in seemingly random bursts of activity. It's highly confusing. Fisbach's heavy hand also litters the play with symbols - the stage is split in two, characters are brought to the stage on little carts by a masked man... The whole thing is so laden with meaning that it strips Hirata's play of its subtlety. Obviously, Fisbach has not yet digested his Beckett, his "nouveau roman", his structuralism, the 1970's theorists. Fear the worst for the 2007 edition of the festival.


Thierry Baë
Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs
Thursday July 20, 3pm

You're a 45-year-old choreographer and dancer with a body that's beginning to fail; festival artistic directors are reluctant to schedule your work because you're no A-lister. What to do? You could lie. For instance, tell an artistic director that you're working on a solo that will be performed by you and then by a famous dancer. And once he enthusiastically buys it, all you have to do is to choreograph the solo and find a prominent performer who'll team up with you.
Thierry Baë's JOURNAL D'INQUIETUDE ("Worry Diary" could be a rough translation) is based on such a premise. A video diary hilariously chronicles his mishaps has one dancer after another (Mathilde Monnier, Josef Nadj, Mark Tompkins...) declines to perform his solo - but after the video, when the lights are turned back on, we realize that one of the performers featured in the video is sitting next to Baë, and he/she proceeds to dance the solo under Baë's guidance. It was a different dancer every time, and on the afternoon I attended, it was the angular, Beckettian Mark Tompkins.
Baë's voice is central to the show not only during the video but also during the solo, which is performed twice - once by himself, before the video, and once afterwards, by the guest dancer. Often sarcastic, cryptic at times, always exacting, it is the inner voice of the dancer, one that all dancers are familiar with, that reproachful voice that expresses the frustrations with our bodies' limitations, our very earthliness. The venue gave these themes more intensity; indeed, it was a chapel honoring the penitents and the light that fell on the dancer's struggling body was somewhat reminiscent of a Caravaggio.

Friday, July 21, 2006


18 rue des Teinturiers
Phone: 04 90 14 98 44

I had vowed to never ever write restaurant reviews, because there is something in the self-satisfied description of a meal's textures and aromas that irks me and because the only acceptable and worship-worthy food writer is Jeffrey Steingarten; Steingarten is VOGUE's food writer and he rules. (However, I suspect I would enjoy his witty writing regardless of the subject matter.)
So I should make things clear right away: this is not a restaurant review, but rather a mere recommendation. When festival goers take over Avignon in the summer, portable fare enjoys a popularity surge (suspiciously-hued sandwiches, greasy kebabs, anyone?), while salads, with their wilted lettuce and under-ripe tomatoes, are an offense to Provence's bounty. LA TARASQUE, on the picturesque Rue des Teinturiers, is an exquisite alternative.
Everything is home made, everything is fresh from the market, everything is delicious: ratatouille tarts, lots of greens, goat cheese, gazpacho, zucchini crumble, an outrageous chocolate cake... Vegetarians will find a wide range of options, which is unusual in French eateries, while meat eaters will also be satisfied.
For dinner or lunch, the gazpacho + salad + ratatouille tart set menu (priced €13), is as tasty and fresh a Mediterranean meal as you'll find in the city.
Don't miss LA TARASQUE's back yard, a genuine haven in this buzzing neighborhood.

Thursday, July 20, 2006



Considering the press coverage the Tour de France is getting , you'd be forgiven for thinking nothing else is going on in France right now, or Europe, for that matter. Yet in Avignon, a small city in Provence, almost 900 live shows are scheduled this month, to say nothing of the many lectures, workshops and debates that also take place...
Indeed, the city that was once home to the Roman Catholic Popes, in medieval times when Rome was unsafe, hosts a Summer Theater Festival, now in its 60th year. And in addition to the official, prestigious festival, an ever-growing number of theater and dance companies as well as musicians, vie for the attention of the audience, many of them performing every single day at makeshift venues. Locals take advantage of the high demand for roomy spaces to charge unseemly rents, thus leading budding performers to take considerable risks in order to produce a show during the festival; the marketing strategies of some companies seem flat out desperate and embarrassing. If the survival of the fittest ever was a relevant concept in art, you can see it at work in Avignon.
The festival, moreover, allows for all of European contemporary performing arts pickles to be played out. For instance, the official festival has long ago jettisoned its original mission of bringing the classics to the people, in a kind of indiscriminate pledge to promote contemporary theater and dance. I say "indiscriminate" because it sometimes feels as though the artistic directors consider that producing any classic play despicable, no less, and as if any contemporary show were admirable as long as it were shocking - last year, for instance, the Featured Artist was Jan Fabre, of, among other feats, onstage-peeing-dancers fame (yes, really).
This makes for a strange situation. On the one hand, you have the heavily subsidized official festival, with its exclusive performances, its venues that are mostly breathtaking architectural landmarks, and its shows that cater only to the tastes of a jaded audience - I saw a three-hour performance of Homer's Illiad in the guise of a dead-serious kung fu musical in Russian and it was a lot worse than anything you can imagine ( On the other hand, you have young companies scrambling to survive, many appealing to the lowest common denominator - think lewd humor, complete with racist jokes and picking on unattractive members in the audience (
In more ways than one, this is very symptomatic of what is wrong with performing arts in Europe, namely heavily subsidies poured into productions that are just trying too hard to be original, but it also possibly reflects what is wrong with Europe more generally. Case in point, the ongoing conflict between the French government and the so-called "intermittents", viz the free-lance performing arts workers, over the unemployment benefits of the latter. I don't want to go into the technicalities of the issue, but the bottom line is that the French workers will go to any lengths (and indeed, a few years ago, the "intermittents" went on strike, which lead to the cancellation of the festival) to prevent the welfare state from evolving into any market-realistic form; just remember how rocky WTO negotiations have become of late and you'll understand what we are dealing with here. Politics may also be seen as echoing Avignon's dichotomy, as Europeans in recent elections, given the choice between out-of-touch, untrustworthy elites and vile demagogues have ushered in far-right and far-left parties.
And frankly, it's a pity that Avignon is such a mess. Despite an overwhelming number of unmemorable or wish-I-could-forget-that-one shows, some still emerge as powerful, moving works. This year, Peter Brook's superb staging of the South African play "Sizwe Banzi is dead", Pippo Delbono's meandering in personal memories and dancer Thierry Bae's hilarious monologues are well worth the trip to a city that, when it surrenders itself to theater, also reveals Europe's contemporary agonies.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Pippo Delbono
Musée Calvet
Tuesday July 18, 6pm

Actor and director Pippo Delbono is a favorite with Avignon festival goers and considering his latest performance, you would be forgiven for suspecting that anything he comes up with will bet met with a standing ovation.
In a highly unusual setup, the so-called "lecture-performance", Delbono takes the stage all by himself, sits at a table, and proceeds to ham about, blending personal memories and monologues from his previous shows, including beautiful passages by Pier Paolo Pasolini or Shakespeare. At the very end of the performance, Delbono asks the audience, for the sake of his mother, not to write anything about what he has said and thus I comply.
This makes for a very theatrical performance: if it cannot be recorded in any way, the only way to know what it is all about is to actually sit in the audience and listen to Delbono. One walks away with a unique gift of confidence, one bestowed on us live, free of any mediation, by the artist, in the flesh.
At the same time, I couldn't help but feel frustrated when considering what I might call Delbono's sloppiness. For instance, he read the monologues from print-outs, having apparently not deemed it necessary to memorize them. Moreover, this was my first Delbono performance, so it was all new to me, but I thought those who had already attended such shows as "Rabbia" or "Henry V", excerpts of which Delbono read, were most likely disappointed to sit through reruns.
Delbono is a mesmerizing, moving performer, and the French just love his Italian-ness, but if another artist had thus taken the stage and come up with such a loose construction of an act, he would have been called a dilettante.

Sunday, July 16, 2006


Carriere de Boulbon
Sunday July 16, 10pm

Was it a naughty Boulgakov or Gogol who had taken over the Avignon Festival direction? Considering the abundant absurdity of this production, the question may be relevant; this is how the conversation between the artistic directors went...
"- Why don't we do Homer's ILLIAD?
- Hmm... A bit mainstream, don't you think?
- We'll make it a musical, then!
- It's been done before...
- But not... in Russian!
- Now you're talking! And why don't we jump on the kung fu bandwagon?
- Hell why not - Hollywood did it!
- Yeah, I really liked "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"...
- Over 2 hours long and not a bit boring, as I recall. Get my drift?
- OK, so it's settled... [scribbling down] Homer's ILLIAD: A 3-Hour Kung Fu Musical In Russian."
And they went ahead with it.


Athol Fugard, John Kani, Winston Ntshona
Ecole de la Trillade
Friday July 14, 11pm

If you believe that theater should make you laugh and stir your emotions, question your outlook on the world and introduce you to unforgettable characters, if you believe that theater is performing and partaking, this is a play for you.
One may be tempted to laud stage director Peter Brook at length, and to hail the two actors, Habib Dembélé and Pitcho Womba Konga as genuinely outstanding performers. The technique is supremely skillful indeed. Brook uses props sparingly but poignantly, for instance when an old shoe represents a dead man, and the musical choices are just superb, uplifting and jazzy, without ever falling into cheap exoticism, as is the risk when dealing with little known African works. The actors too master their craft with ease - the colossus-like Pitcho Womba Konga is heartbreaking as the naive Swize Banzi, while Habib Dembélé incarnates a dazzling range of characters, from the witty Styles to a little girl, an elderly patriarch, and many more.
But there's more to this show than a mere technical performance, impeccable as it may be.
The play is a collaborative effort by three South African authors in the 1970's and tells the story of Swize Banzi, an illiterate man who has left his family to come to the city and find some work; unfortunately, he is without the visa-like stamp that is required to work legally in town and when he finds a corpse on the street, one with the necessary and allusive visa, he faces a dilemma: to relinquish his name and work in the city or to stick to his identity and face a future of poverty.
Dilemmas of course are the stuff of drama, and with the issue of illegal immigration raging in Europe and the United States, this one echoes with forceful relevance. Regardless of the topicality of the theme, the emotional impact of the play is extraordinary. The helplessness of Swize Banzi, who is so tall and broad yet all but bashful, is deeply moving, while the antics of his many-faced partner just make you laugh and laugh; but of course, we should not forget the third character in the play, the unseen yet ever present white man, the whimsical and merciless oppressor.
The show tours the world in the months to come - see it.


Le Capitole
Saturday July 15, 5pm

Every summer, in addition to Avignon's official Theater Festival, a great number of shows crop up, with budding actors and playwrights hoping this may be their big break; this year, almost 900 shows are performed, most of them daily.
Le Capitole brags some very successful shows, mostly in the unpretentious comedy strain. FABRICE ET FABRICE, a two-comedian act, may well be successful but it seemed to me the pinnacle of vulgar and unoriginal humor, complete with an anti-Semitic joke and picking on unattractive members of the audience.
Avoid at all costs.

Friday, July 14, 2006


Edward Bond
Cour du Lycée Saint-Joseph
Tuesday July 11, 10pm

Outdoors performances can be highly poetic, emotional events, especially in Provence, where the balmy breeze and the starry skies often grace us with guest-star appearances. Thunder and lightning however, while adding to the drama of some shows, are rather unwelcome. Indeed, as we were watching the first scenes of Edward Bond's NAITRE (in French), a highly controversial production here in Avignon, the pouring rain somewhat kept me from focusing on what was going on onstage.
The performance was canceled after only a couple of scenes.


Josef Nadj
Cour d'Honneur du Palais des Papes
Tuesday July 11, 10pm

It is not very often, in contemporary dance performances, that one is treated to live music; on the stage of the Cour d'Honneur du Palais des Papes, choreographer Josef Nadj placed a jazz quartet, featuring no less than two double basses and an elaborate set of xylophones and bells, to perform a score by Akosh Szelevenyi and Szilárd Mezeï, running an emotional and stylistic gamut from high-on-acid free jazz to exquisite and dreamlike chimes.
The music and the dancing very much spring from each other, as is always the case with the works of great choreographers. That is not to say that I found Nadj's latest opus to be a masterpiece, but it certainly displayed substance, density and occasional moments of genuine grace.

Fans of Henri Michaux, I suspect, may be disappointed. A traveler and a poet, Michaux chronicled his impressions as he discovered Latin America and Asia with great conciseness, while in volumes such as Plume, he was jocular in depictions of absurd little scenes featuring a hapless and clueless character who is, for instance, removed from a restaurant and taken into custody by the police for ordering a dish that is not on the menu.
There is none of that in Nadj's ASOBU. Rather than the poet's humor and incisiveness, Nadj apes his boldness in reaching out for another's culture; from his traveling in Japan, he has brought back the stripped stage of Noh theater, a costume designer and several dancers, including four male butoh performers. The latter go through ritual-like motions that leave us as puzzled as Michaux and Nadj, no doubt, before the aliens' codes. Are we witnessing the staging of cliches, or is it a parody of cliches, when they don high hats and sit cross-legged with facial expressions that would definitely befit the actors of a Japanese soap opera - rolling eyes, lips puckered into an O.
Personally, those sections of the show left me uncomfortable. And as far as literature is concerned, I think that I am not alone in glimpsing at Kafka lurking in the wings rather than, or in addition to Michaux. The drab suits and dresses worn by the dancers could be a nod to Japan's aesthetics, from zen to Yohji Yamamoto, but could also be seen as the former Eastern European garments. Moreover, the anguish and insect-like quality of the movements was very reminiscent of Kafka's universe.

As in Kafka's works, moments of grace and humor emerged from long (repetitive?) sequences that forced the dancers into jumpy, almost epileptic movements keeping their limbs bent at all times. The moments of pure, intense poetry come from instance at the very beginning, when one of the Japanese female dancers just walks around the stage, alone, in slow motion and to the sound of exquisite, delicate chimes. There is none of the butoh's dislocation in her steps; she seems to be walking in the morning dew, as if she wanted to take delight in the dew under her bare feet and at the same time didn't want to crush the minute drops.
Also, thanks to the use of a large white screen, a shadow theater appears, behind which the dancers walked, their bodies oddly contorted, and thus projecting images that are uncannily insect-like. That sequence stands out because then, the use of the body and the dancers' skills, the impressionistic transformation of human beings into crawling cockroaches, was taken to a higher level, where one could revel in the black-and-gold enchantment that shadow theaters cannot fail to arouse.
Other moments of emotion were provided in the video projection onto the medieval walls of the Palais des Papes. The image of a horse, lying on its back and seemingly unable to get back up, would be just plain cruel if presented bluntly. But the music and the ancient, silvery quality of the photography gave it a space of its own, where it could be intriguing and take new meanings, new harmonics.
Finally, the "portés", as they're called in ballet, synthesized the themes and patterns of this work. Indeed, many of them, performed with bended knees and tense arms, very much feature the insect-like quality that I have repeatedly mentioned; Nadj may cringe at the idea that anything in his work is reminiscent of ballet,
but I could not help but think of Balanchine's repulsive, bald, all but naked men in "Prodigal Son", walking around in plié... In those portés, the dancer being carried seemed to be a burden or a prey. Yet some pas de deux were genuinely moving and inspiring, as when a dancer with Princess Leia like buns and the face of an ingenue, cuddled up atop her partner's shoulder, released strips of silver paper that were carried away by the Provence breeze.


Bernard-Marie Koltes
Gymnase du Lycée Aubanel
Monday July 10, 6pm

Avignon can be a confusing place, as far as languages go - back in 1999, I saw a play by Shakespeare in French, I am soon to attend a performance of Homer's Illiad in Russian and on Monday, I saw Bernard-Marie Koltes's COMBAT DE NEGRE ET DE CHIENS in English, under the moniker BLACK BATTLES WITH DOGS. In the French press, some critics, eager as ever to take arms when they consider France's language and culture jeopardized by barbaric Americans, have said that translating the play into English displaced the issues at stake, but as recent World Cup events prove, racial tensions are a universal given. And the play is so superbly performed, the emotion so raw and intense, that it is really out of place to sneer at the production.
The theater of Koltes is disturbing and heart-wrenching, with complex characters that inspire both pity and disgust. Rather than go with the Theater of the Absurd's quirks, it proves eloquently that even in our times, the theater is an adequate space to address the violent issues that drive our lives and tear our hearts. It is thus a very satisfying theatrical experience, when performed right - some feat.
Janice Akers, Isma’il Ibn Conner, Tim McDonough and Daniel Pettrow are all outstanding and moving. As Léone, Akers is a ditsy blonde one moment, a hopeful child the next, and finally a heroine straight out of the greatest classical Greek tragedies.
Stage director Arthur Nauzyciel has intelligently incorporated snippets of baroque music into the play, which gives the highly dramatic dialogue occasional breathers for the emotion to sink in. Less convincing, in my opinion, where slow-motion sequences; these sudden additional requirements of suspension of disbelief, when the spectator has already settled into a precise set of conventions, took me out of the play, as I found myself wondering 'What the hell are they doing?" when the second before I was very much engrossed in the scene. Similarly, I failed to understand the intrusion of a shower, where a stark naked Cal lathers up while carrying on a conversation with Léone in the middle of the dining room. Was it a clumsy attempt to make us understand that Cal needs to cleanse himself from his crime, or to remind us that he finds Africa filthy and is afraid of germs? Either way, it seemed unnecessary.
But the play is gripping and the cast extraordinary, as the enthusiastic curtain calls proved.