Bal Moderne mixes dance, period dress and audience participation at 2014 Edinburgh International Festival

This article is from 2014

Bal Moderne mix dance, period dress and audience participation at 2014 Edinburgh International Festival

credit: NT London

Audience members learn to dance short choreographies during show inspired by the songs and dances of wartime Europe

Bal Moderne has helped untrained dancers move around for over 20 years. Lucy Ribchester hears how this project convinced renowned choreographers to get with the programme

The words ‘audience’ and ‘participation’ can still strike terror into the spines of punters and critics alike. If you add the word ‘dance’ into the equation, then that fear is simply heightened. But in recent years, dance shows that blur and break the boundaries between spectator and performer have grown in popularity.

In 2011, the 1930s-themed Dance Marathon had Fringe-goers sweating into their numbered bibs, and last year’s International Festival Dance Odysseys programme included Scottish Dance Theatre’s interactive neon-lit SisGo. Emboldened by this enthusiasm for getting stuck in, the EIF has gone one step further to host Bal Moderne, a project which relies entirely on audiences learning and executing a series of short choreographies. A risky formula, perhaps, but clearly one that works given that it’s been charming participants across Europe since 1993.

The idea was originally conceived in Paris by Michel Reilhac, and while it has gone through various incarnations over the years, the classic format remains the same. Participants are taught a three to four-minute choreography for around 45 minutes, before dancing the piece together as an ensemble. Usually a couple of choreographies will be taught over the course of one ‘Bal’. Sound like a tricky feat? Artistic director Oonagh Duckworth, who took over exclusive running of Bal Moderne in 2000, insists otherwise.

‘So far the project always seems to bring out the best in people,’ she says. ‘First, audiences have to participate, not watch; then they have the impression that they are doing something new, and surprising themselves by their own ability whilst having a lot of fun. And of course we hope that the experience will give them a particular perspective of the International Festival’s theme.’

This year that theme is ‘Escaping War’, with both a partner-dance and a collective choreography planned. ‘It was at the suggestion of the EIF that the wartime connection came about,’ says Duckworth. ‘Dancing and balls provided a much-needed release from the tension of war, and the dances that emerged in that period were astoundingly daring and innovative.’

The 1940s French Vichy government considered the form to be so subversive that popular dances were banned. It didn’t work, however, and clandestine balls soon began appearing all over Paris. ‘We won’t be replicating them,’ says Duckworth, ‘but evoking their moods.’ In the past, she has admitted to finding choreographers cautious about taking part, believing that it might be degrading to see their work danced by non-trained performers. But those fears were always put to rest when they saw 300 people dancing their moves.

It’s certainly a sight that has brought choreographer Laurence Giraud, who has created work for the company in the past, back for ‘Escaping War’. Giraud believes it’s the method of teaching the dances that stops them from being either overly complicated or patronisingly simple.

‘We deliberately set up a challenge for the audience, who generally surprise themselves by doing the proposed dance. Certain dances create pictures in the space, which makes them beautiful to look at. Learning them requires concentration and effort, but we’re mindful that everything should always take place with good humour and pleasure.’ And that seems about as good a reason as any to get your dancing shoes on.

Bal Moderne, The Hub, Castlehill, 0131 473 2000, 15–17 Aug, 2.30pm, £12.

Bal Moderne XX Anniversary Archive compilation - trailer

Bal Moderne

  • 3 stars

A dance film event with archival footage and live music inspired by the songs and dances of wartime Europe. The audience is invited to dress up in period clothes and join in the dancing (no experience of rhythm necessary).

Elsewhere on the web