This article is from 2007.
Merging choreography and video imagery does not always make for hugely successful dance productions. Kelly Apter finds French duo Montalvo and Hervieu showing the rest how it should really be done
Dance at the International Festival can bring many things, but statues with inflatable bums isn’t usually one of them. Easily one of the most accessible and fun dance shows to play the Festival in recent years, On Danse is filled with unexpected images, the result of some rather hefty research carried out by French choreography double act, José Montalvo and Dominique Hervieu.
The duo spent a year studying the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau, the work of French writer Jean de la Fontaine and the history of their native land. Then, armed with a truck load of 18th century concepts, references, images and music, they proceeded to create On Danse. The show itself took three months to make, with Montalvo working mainly on the video while Hervieu choreographed the dancers. Once the video images and movement was in place, the natural next step was to fuse the two disciplines together.
‘One month before opening night we asked all the dancers to improvise with the video images,’ explains Hervieu. ‘And then we put it all together like a collage.’ The end result is a truly incredible 90 minutes of visual trickery and diverse dance. Up on stage, the 17 dancers perform everything from classical ballet to breakdance, and round the houses again to touch on contemporary and African movement. Meanwhile, on the giant video screen, elephants, lions, monkeys and countless other creatures interact with the dancers, both onscreen and onstage.
So, what’s with all the animals? ‘In the 18th century there were many fantasies in French opera, with animals, nature, transformations and masks and so on,’ explains Hervieu. ‘The spirit of those operas was very inspiring for us.’ Prior to creating On Danse, Montalvo and Hervieu staged Rameau’s comic opera, Les Paladins, during which time Hervieu discovered that ‘the pleasure of dance’ is inherent in Rameau’s music. Hence the desire to choreograph an entire dance show to it. As for the video element, that’s been a trademark of Compagnie Montalvo-Hervieu for some time.
‘What we’ve done for the past 15 years is try to work on borderlines between dance and video, and also borderlines between different cultures,’ says Hervieu. ‘So in our company there are African dancers, hip hop, contemporary, classical and so on. We always try to work on the possibility of mixing different languages.’
What impresses most about On Danse is its accessibility. To take 18th century opera, the French Revolution and the concept of Libertinage, and turn it into a show that even a small child can enjoy, is no mean feat. The constant stream of animals, and innovative use of helium balloons and trampolines certainly helps. But for Hervieu, it’s the performers who ensure the cross-generational appeal. ‘The dancers really communicate with the audience. I encourage them to have their own language – as hip hop dancers or African dancers – but we always try to go higher and deeper. I think everyone from little children to older people can feel that kind of virtuosity in the dancers.’
In recent years, film and video has become prevalent in the dance world, sometimes to the detriment of the choreography. Torn between filmic images and onstage action, an audience can quickly become frustrated. Not so with On Danse, where the two blend together so seamlessly, at times it’s hard to spot the join. ‘We try to choreograph the images as well as the dance, so there are not two separate languages,’ says Hervieu. ‘So when it all comes together – music, text, video and dance – we have a fluidity between all these different elements. And I think that’s why the show doesn’t give the impression of being part video image, part dance.’
As if elephants on tightropes and inflatable bums weren’t enough to elicit chuckles from the audience, the show is also peppered with comic monologues. As a complete package, On Danse ticks all the right boxes; no wonder new Festival director Jonathan Mills was keen to bring the show to Edinburgh. ‘It’s just life-affirming,’ says Mills. ‘If you like classical ballet you’ll like it, if you like theatre you’ll like it, if you like baroque opera you’ll like it. It’s just whimsical and funny, and there’s something utterly charming about it.’
On Danse, Edinburgh Playhouse, Greenside Place, 0131 473 2000, 11–13 Aug, 8pm, £8–£28.