With six good sized national and regional dance companies based in the region straddling the coast from Marseille to Monte-Carlo, as well as regular visits from international companies and seasonal dance festivals, it is easy to forget the many smaller dance groups who are also active in the region. One of these is Compagnie Systeme Castafiore which is based in Grasse, the ‘world capital of perfume’, nestling in the hills just inland from Cannes. Everything is a little curious about this company: firstly the name, which presumably comes from that of a much-loved character, the comic opera diva Bianca Castafiore, ‘The Milanese Nightingale’, who features in the comic series ‘The Adventures of Tintin’. Systeme Castafiore is directed by the theatre director and musician, Karl Biscuit, and the Brazilian dancer and choreographer, Marcia Barcellos, both of whom, having worked with Alwin Nikolais, remain followers of his style of total dance-theatre, in which dance is just one element in an integrated performance including sound, light and theatrical effects. Previous performances which I attended were packed with these effects, often visually overpowering, full of images both disturbing and comical and always imaginatively surreal.
The recent programme in Grasse was a revival of two very early works from the company’s beginnings, Aktualismus from 1989 and 4Log Volapűk from 1992. If the titles have any significance, it escaped me and they are presumably meant to puzzle the audience. However, both works show their age and are obviously the directors’ first attempts at ‘total theatre’, possibly produced with limited means. Aktualismus is a series of sketches, two of which are more successful while the others just play with movement, much of it robotic and mechanical, with the dancers miming speech to a sound-track of repetitive text. It is mostly good-humoured and quite effective but the repetition becomes tiresome. One scene featuring an ancient, oversized computer and two men resembling some sort of extraterrestrial soldiers, was well done with energetic and powerfully executed choreography, again with a spoken text of jumbled words and exclamations. The best scene was one with three businessmen holding a meeting, obviously wheeling and dealing, much in the manner of Kurt Jooss’s 1932 work, The Green Table. These scenes were both humorous, full of social comment and well performed.
The second part of the performance, 4Log Volapűk, subtitled ‘ballet en relief’, the meaning of which is also incomprehensible to me, is a short danced play in the style of the 17th century playwright, Jean Racine. The characters are a Tyrant, his Mistress, his Wife, the Lover and the Evil Counsellor. We were issued with 3-D glasses to appreciate the three-dimensional effects of the projected backgrounds, painted scenes of ancient Greece and more modern skyscrapers. The resulting dance-drama is a highly melodramatic ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, in which the Husband is murdered by the Lover, egged on by the Wife, in the best traditions of love, passion and unrequited love. The dancing of the company of five was of a good standard with several of the dancers coming from the Rosella Hightower Ecole Supérieure in Cannes before dancing in some of the many contemporary dance companies in France. The Finnish dancer, Thomas Lahti, was outstanding. The company has a loyal following in Grasse but will also perform throughout France during the current season.