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In Avignon, Snatching Theater From the Jaws of New Lockdowns

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AVIGNON, France — Festivalgoers who cross the medieval ramparts of Avignon are used to being greeted with a riot of exercise. Each July, 1000’s of posters cowl town’s partitions to promote stage productions because the official Avignon Festival and its Fringe compete for consideration. Seemingly each road nook brings hopeful performers able to pitch their work to passers-by, day and night time.

Not this yr. Like so many different occasions, France’s largest theater celebration was canceled due to the pandemic, leaving town and native companies with a significant income shortfall. As some comfort, the director of the pageant, Olivier Py, rescheduled seven of the productions initially deliberate for the 2020 version over per week in late October.

The title he picked for this surrogate pageant had historic resonance: “A Week of Artwork in Avignon” was the occasion’s authentic moniker upon its inception in 1947. On the time, its founder, Jean Vilar, staged simply three productions across the metropolis. Whereas lots of this yr’s attendees could possibly be heard complaining concerning the dullness of Avignon within the fall, the low-key ambiance was definitely a lot nearer to Vilar’s imaginative and prescient than the juggernaut — over 1,500 Fringe productions had been introduced final yr — that often overwhelms locals.

Nonetheless, trying again, Py and his crew are prone to curse their timing. With confirmed Covid-19 instances surging once more in France, a 9 p.m. to six a.m. curfew was announced in the region of Avignon the day earlier than the Week of Artwork was to begin. Like most theaters in Paris and different main cities, the pageant opted to work across the rules. All begin instances had been merely moved ahead by three hours, to permit viewers members time to get residence earlier than curfew began.

It wasn’t sufficient for some exhibits. First, one manufacturing, Yngvild Aspeli’s “Moby Dick,” was canceled when a case of coronavirus was confirmed within the inventive crew. Then, halfway by the week, the French authorities introduced a brand new nationwide lockdown, which means that the pageant was reduce brief.

But some reside exhibits did occur, throughout a number of venues in Avignon. Maybe any overview ought to embody a point out of the herculean quantity of planning, precautions and uncertainty that attending to the stage presently includes. Critics could be remiss to disregard the broader theater panorama: When an business is preventing for survival, the aesthetic shortcomings of a lighting alternative begin to appear much less consequential.

The perfect works, however, felt like underdog victories, gratifyingly snatched from the jaws of latest restrictions and shutdowns. Over the primary few days of the Week of Artwork, dance got here out on prime, with scintillating performances from the dancers and choreographers Israel Galván and Kaori Ito.

Galván, 47, is one in all a era of flamenco stars who’ve pushed the style into up to date territory. He has included such unlikely parts as Indian kathak, feline co-stars and robots into his work over time, at instances with unwieldy outcomes. Fortunately, he went again to fundamentals in “Mellizo Doble” (which interprets as “Twin Double”), with 80 minutes of dance, music and little else.

The “twin” of the title was the singer Niño De Elche, who brings the identical spirit of experimentation to flamenco music that Galván does to choreography. Watching them was akin to eavesdropping on a dialogue so intricate and fast-paced that particulars whizzed previous the attention and the ear. Whereas De Elche put whimsical or trendy twists on standard flamenco songs, Galván stomped barefoot and in gravel, alternately muffling and amplifying the acquainted sound of his footwork.

The flamenco star’s mastery of strains and angles was on full show in “Twin Double,” with sharp upper-body work often paying homage to vogueing. His humorousness additionally peeked by: One percussion scene, by which he and De Elche harmonized utilizing enamel chattering and breast-beating, earned an enthusiastic encore in the course of the curtain calls.

Ito’s “The Damask Drum. A Modern Noh” (“Le Tambour de Soie. Un Nô Moderne”) didn’t fairly attain the identical heights, however its two major performers proved an enchanting pairing. The Japanese-born Ito has develop into a flexible headliner inside France’s up to date dance scene, and he or she teamed up right here with the 87-year-old Yoshi Oida, a educated actor identified for his collaborations with the director Peter Brook.

Impressed by the Fifteenth-century Noh play “Aya no Tsuzumi,” “The Damask Drum” portrays a merciless younger dancer making a idiot of an older janitor. Components of conventional Japanese theater are mixed with grounded flooring choreography, in Ito’s case, and with Oida’s tongue-in-cheek bodily precision. Whereas the story was underdeveloped by the top, their intergenerational dynamic was uncommon sufficient to maintain the hourlong present.

The theater lineup lacked the dance productions’ readability of function. Jean Bellorini’s “A Game of Shadows” (“Le Jeu des Ombres”) and Gwenaël Morin’s “Endless Andromaque” (“Andromaque à l’Infini”) had been evidently deliberate below solely completely different circumstances, and encumbered by inventive constraints.

“A Recreation of Shadows” got here courtesy of the wordiest playwright working within the French language, Valère Novarina, who has elevated non sequiturs and neologisms into an artwork type. His lengthy lists of imaginary colours and birds have their aficionados, as does Morin’s slant on basic performs.

For “Infinite Andromaque,” Morin required 4 actors to be taught Racine’s Seventeenth-century tragedy “Andromaque” in full, toss a coin to find out the roles they might tackle each day, after which race by the play as quick as they may utter classical alexandrines. For a lot of French audio system, Racine’s verse isn’t simple to know at the perfect of instances, so this was something however an inclusive alternative.

There have been performances to treasure nonetheless. Since “The Recreation of Shadows” was partly impressed by the parable of Orpheus and Eurydice, Bellorini wove prolonged excerpts from Monteverdi’s opera “L’Orfeo” into the textual content. One 18-year-old singer, Ulrich Verdoni, took my breath away with the distinct, unalloyed texture of his voice within the aria “Tu se’ morta.” In “Infinite Andromaque,” Sonia Hardoub tailored to Morin’s brisk tempo like a seasoned star, even switching forwards and backwards between the roles of Andromaque and Orestes.

And there was one present I’ll bear in mind gratefully within the coming weeks of lockdown. In “Traces. A Speech to African Nations” (“Traces. Discours aux Nations Africaines”), by the Senegalese author and scholar Felwine Sarr, a person stands alone at a lectern, addressing the viewers — and, by implication, the African continent — very similar to a diplomat.

Within the function, the Burkinabe actor and director Étienne Minoungou joked with the viewers about masks and the curfew, smiled warmly — and proceeded to ship a shocking retelling of African colonial oppression. It was capped with a name to not arms, however to rebirth and hope.

Anger would have been justified, however as an alternative Sarr and Minoungou opted for the communality of poetry. “Life passes, however we’re right here to extend its radiant grace,” Minoungou stated as “Traces” drew to an in depth. Fleetingly, my very own pent-up frustration eased; fleetingly, Avignon labored its magic once more.