The intimate Théatre de Grasse, a few miles inland from the Riviera coast, presents a lively mixed programme throughout the year, which always includes a number of dance performances. This season featured a visit by the Compagnie Philippe Genty, presently on tour in France with their production Ne M’Oublie Pas (Forget me not). Created for the Théatre de la Ville in Paris in 1992, presented at the Edinburgh Festival in 1999, and at the International Mime Festival in London this year, this work has proved to be one of the company’s most durable productions. Genty whose company has been active for 45 years, produces works which are a collaboration with the English-born choreographer, Mary Underwood. These are not purely dance performances, but an imaginative and original mixture of dance, mime, marionettes, illusion, music, light and sound effects. They can only be performed by trained dancers and the present revival is the result of a collaboration with students of a theatre and dance course at the University of North-Rondelag in Norway.
There are echoes of Norway in the set of snow-covered boulders and mini-glaciers and the cool, arctic-blue lighting of the opening scene. Unexpectedly an oversized chimpanzee appears, its hair in ringlets and wearing a purple floor-length dress. Its plaintive singing brings forth clouds of mist through which the rest of the cast enter slithering on their stomachs from one side of the stage, bottoms rising and falling to help propel themselves forward until they cover the stage like a large family group of seals. On standing, they prove to be eight men dressed uniformly in black suits and a dozen women in long white dresses. However, it gradually becomes apparent that only half of these are human, the others being life-sized puppets, expertly manipulated by their partners. The dancing is fluid, light-footed contemporary dance, during which the puppets are danced with, thrown around, rolled around with, often with much humour and affection, but sometimes with violence whereby one puppet is even dismembered.
In a following scene a young girl resembling a modern-day Alice in Wonderland discovers within the dismembered corpse a baby chimpanzee, which becomes an ideal playmate; another performs a Loïe Fuller-type dance swirling metres of cloth, revolving and dipping under multi-coloured lights, while being taunted by four bowler-hatted men. Another swoops and twists two huge white wings while dancing an enticing pas de deux. An unusually realistic, almost erotic love duet is played out among the glaciers surrounded by onlookers on skis, but which ends sadly when both protagonists appear to be frozen in ice. The final scene is almost the best with a procession resembling Victorian body-snatchers dragging a sled piled high with corpses (puppets) followed by the rest of the cast disappearing under a glacier. If some of the scenes do seem too long and the inclusion of several songs, in Norwegian, superfluous, the precision of the illusionary effects whereby dancers disappear and reappear as if by magic, the many beautiful images and the general feeling of ‘joie de vivre’ generated by the performers cannot but win over the audience. At the end of the performance in Grasse three elderly ladies seated near me were on their feet shouting and clapping like teenagers at a pop concert.