Dov Rudnick explores the colorful seasonal festivals of Languedoc-Roussillon and finds a magical mosaic of history, culture and contemporary arts
Before we even touched ground in the south of France, as I peered out the window of our plane, I was struck by a sense of wonder and magic of the region. It was the sight of the famous Roman aqueduct, Pont du Gard, couched neatly in the rolling hills of the Languedoc-Roussillon province, that provided a sense of the wonders to come. The bridge appeared so stately and well-preserved that I doubted for a moment that it was in fact the famous ruin. A feeling of awe in the presence of historical monuments is, of course, a famous sensation for travelers to Europe. At once exhilarating and confounding, you find yourself asking “What is the significance of these relics of the past,” which of course both bear witness to history and also serve practical purposes in the everyday life of Europeans. The fact that people go on about their lives surrounded by so many old buildings and monuments is almost as amazing as the monuments themselves. You begin to wonder how locals here look at the world compared to those of us who don’t live among man-made reminders of the ancient past.
My wife and I were in France to experience some of the arts festivals in the Languedoc-Roussillon. During the summer months, performance festivals are ubiquitous in the region. It is as if every town and city is in competition with one another to exhibit the finest and most distinguished of cultural events. Our first stop was Montpellier Danse held in the capital city of the Languedoc-Roussillon. The festival is a dance lover’s dream. Last year alone, nearly 60 concerts of diverse genres were presented over 16 days. Most of the concerts were in walking distance of each other in the historic center of Montpellier, a web of medieval streets that is reserved for pedestrian traffic only. The loveliness of Montpellier’s Centre Historique is a big part of the festival’s allure.
The festival’s home base is the Cite’ de Agora, a converted 16th century monastery now dedicated exclusively to the art of dance. The center has five dance studios, three performance spaces and a large open courtyard that is used for social events as well as performances. The Agora’s very existence is a testament to the value placed on artistic expression in French culture. On a tour we learned that a section, which now holds an amphitheatre, once served as a women’s prison. Inmates were crowded into small, dark cells. To walk inside one gets an eerie sense of the suffering that the stone walls had seen.
Now past that dark chapter in its history, the Agora hosts choreographers-in-residence throughout the year. Examples include French-born Mourad Merzouki, of Algerian descent, who last year was in residence throughout the month of June and presented three full-length works for the festival. His work is worthy of note because he uses street dancers to make contemporary theatrical pieces. We caught the last of three works, “Boxe Boxe.” The piece used hip-hop dancers (B-boys, poppers and lockers) to riff on the theme of boxing. It was performed in the city’s 19th century grand Opéra Comédie. Live musicians accompanied the action with string instruments playing Ravel, Verdi and Schubert. The music brought out a different quality in a style of dance usually noted for its hard edges rather than lyrical flow. There was a sense of triumph when a standing ovation greeted the conclusion. Here was a dance style created by people from the lower classes being adored in a “palace of high culture.”
B-Boys and Ballet in the South of France
Wherever we went in the region there seemed to be a running theme of history and modernity in an ongoing conversation. In the city of Nimes, a thirty-minute drive from Montpellier, we attended France’s “Battle of the Year” competition. This is the qualifying match, which hosts the best B-boy dance crews in all of France who compete to represent the nation in the international “Battle of the Year.” The event was held in the most well-preserved Roman Arena in the world. The Nimes Arena looks like a smaller version of the Colosseum, only in better condition. B-boying has been practiced competitively since its beginnings in the streets of the South Bronx, so it seemed to be a perfect fit for this venue. As all arenas in ancient Rome, the one in Nimes was built for the purpose of entertaining the mob with gruesome competitions; gladiator vs. gladiator or against some poor wild beast. To walk through the halls and under the arcades, and to look out over the open space one can only imagine the horrific scenes the Arena had once known. But on this day the arena was filled with fun-loving French youth enthralled by dancing. Some dance critics might cite the competitive aspects of b-boying as detracting from its merits as serious art. But to stand in the Arena and reflect on the brutal past, I felt a certain pride in humanity that over time we might overcome the uglier parts of our nature to transform edifices meant for bloodshed into places for collective joy and inspiration.
I experienced a similar sensation in the Cité de Carcassonne, the massive medieval rampart built on a hilltop of the city of the same name. From afar the rampart looks like something out of the imagination of Walt Disney with its 52 rounded towers and spherical roofs bedecked with flags. It was built by the Cathars, a heretical Christian sect, who in rejecting Roman Catholicism made themselves enemies of the Church and became the first victims of the Inquisition. The city on the hill has historical importance for the brutal wars and inquisition trials held there. In one corner of the rampart a large outdoor amphitheatre seats over 800 people. It was here that we saw the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet perform as part of the Festival de Carcassonne. Of three works the company presented, choreographer Jo Stromgen’s “Necessity, Again” stood out from the rest for its wild abandon. A true crowd-pleaser, it made a mess of the stage and the performers as they threw themselves around in an orgy of silliness. Reflecting on the history of Carcassonne and the dark forces of the past, it felt right to fill the night with laughter and celebrate life freely.
The Languedociens, like other Mediterranean peoples, are renowned for their ability to enjoy life. It is a region of bountiful pleasures, of famed wine, beautiful beaches and countryside. I wondered if living among the remains of history gave life here a constant reminder of its transience. The people see no reason to put off the daily celebration of life. So it was in the little city of Uzès where the “Nuits de Musique” festival was in full swing when we arrived. So it was in the town of Pézenas, where we dined with artists and musicians and the “Mirondela Dels Arts” festival was featuring expositions of art, theatre and music. So it was even under the Pont du Gard aqueduct that we wiled away a warm afternoon while workers set up a performance stage for a three-day music festival in the shadow of the grand old bridge.
The queen of all festivals, however, must be Festival d’Avignon with its 40 officially sponsored productions, 300 performances and countless unofficial spectacles of theatre and dance groups performing on the streets and private venues. We passed an afternoon dazzled by the mobs that fill the streets of the historic center. Around every corner, troupes of actors put on little vignettes to promote their shows. If we had the time I would have loved to see them all, to ponder the significance of each performance over a bottle of wine in some outdoor cafe. But we were passing through, only able to absorb the enthusiasm of the many performers. This was enough. For of all the riches the region provides in the summer months, the greatest is simply the reminder that we are blessed to be alive.
While the summer season is the prime time for festivals (and it is never too early to plan ahead), the party continues throughout the year. The following is a list of major upcoming festivals.
Festival d’Avignon, July 5 through July 26: Celebrated as one of the most important contemporary performing arts festivals in the world, Festival d’Avignon takes place in the historic walled city of Avignon, sponsors up to 40 productions and 300 performances in 20 different venues. During the 14th century Avignon was the capital of the Catholic Church, resulting in an abundance of grand buildings. Larger stage productions take place in the Core d’Honneur, a massive palace once home to the popes during the Avignon papacy.
For next summer, note that during the month of June, the city of Montpellier hosts Printemps des Comediens, which features nearly 30 theatre productions, ranging from physical theatre to drama. The festival precedes Montpellier Danse. In July, just following the Danse festival, Radio France begins, a music festival that presents dozens of world-class concerts through the city.
“Battle of the Year,” November 11-16: a series of workshops, lectures, parties and battles lead up to the grand event at the newly built 14,000 capacity Arena in Montpellier. B-boy/b-girls come from all over the globe to compete for the top prize. Since the cash reward is usually less than 4,000 Euros to be divided by members of the winning crew, the real reward is bragging rights.
The Limoux festival, January through March: Billed as the longest Carnaval in the world, the festivities take place on the weekends for ten straight weeks from January to Easter. The festival celebrates Occitan culture with traditional music, dance and poems recited in the Occitan language. The festival is famous for its three-times daily parades and colorful masks and costumes. On the last day of the festival a mock trial is performed, which condemns the king of the Carnaval. An effigy of the king in the form a straw man is subsequently burned in the town square and participants dance around the flames. This 400- year-old tradition has its roots in pagan cultures, and one wonders if it is the inspiration for America’s “Burning Man.”