At Lyon Biennial, Europe’s Largest Dance Festival, a Dizzying Array of Offerings

LYON, France — Shows succeed one another with dizzying rapidity at festivals. One moment you’re watching five dancers gesture wildly in outlandish outfits, the next a calmly ordered, tastefully garbed ensemble is circling to Ravel’s “Bolero.” And then you’re in a museum, watching a man in evening dress, with a stocking over his face, sway slowly with an identically dressed mannequin, before hurtling in a taxi to an out-of-town spot where two women sob for an hour in a parable about nationalism.

At least that’s how it feels in retrospect, after a three-day stint last week at the Lyon Dance Biennial, Europe’s largest dance festival, and one of its most important in terms of scope and presentation of new works. This edition, the 18th, began on Sept. 11 and runs through the 30th. It includes 42 shows, as well as talks, public performances and films in theaters, museums, churches and public spaces all over the city and the surrounding region, attracting some 100,000 audience members to theaters and many more to the free public events, according to the festival.

But festivals are more than numbers; they are living, evolving entities with their own atmospheres. Dominique Hervieu, who succeeded the founding director of the festival, Guy Darmet, in 2012, described this edition in press materials as “European, technological, popular, experimental.”

It’s certainly popular. Ms. Hervieu, from the start of her tenure, has emphasized the importance of involving the public and presenting free performances. The défilé — the huge street parade that traditionally opens the festival — was called “A March for Peace” this year and was its largest yet, with 4,500 performers and 250,000 spectators singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” at the end. Open-air performances have drawn thousands, and long lines have formed on Wednesdays and Saturdays during the Biennial for free dance classes in a central shopping mall.

It’s certainly technologically focused, and in that sense experimental. There are several digital projects, but the standouts are two innovative virtual-reality works, commissioned from the choreographers Yoann Bourgeois and Gilles Jobin, which have been wildly popular, with long waiting lists for tickets.

European? A bit. There was certainly a three-day “European Platform” showing works by nine emerging choreographers from Belgium, France, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Spain, intended mostly for the 375 programmers from 35 countries who had come to Lyon to shop for shows. Dance festivals, like other arts festivals, are professional markets, too.

But despite that nod to the rest of Europe, of the 12 premieres on this year’s program, nine are by French choreographers and one is by Josef Nadj, who has lived in France since 1980, resulting in a more insular feel than previous festivals. The mood of many of these was somber, and several offered overtly sociopolitical themes. I missed Maguy Marin’s “Ligne de Crête” (“Ridge Line”), which focused on consumerism, but caught Rachid Ouramdane’s “Franchir la Nuit” (“Breaking Through the Night”), a work for five dancers and 30 children and adolescents, some of whom are refugees in France.

Mr. Ouramdane, who is French of Algerian parentage, has been an important voice in contemporary dance for the last decade, creating works that reflect on torture, war and genocide. In “Franchir la Nuit,” he takes on children’s experience of migration, a tough subject that he treats with delicacy and a surprising amount of caution.

The production, at the glossy, Jean Nouvel-designed Lyon Opera house, is beautiful, mixing huge, high-definition projected images and performers walking, running, rolling and jumping in the ankle-deep water that keeps washing tiny wavelets across the stage. Music, mostly a plaintive piano score played live by Deborah Lennie-Bisson, is overlaid with lyrics from David Bowie’s “Heroes” and children’s voices: Like the movement onstage, it is gentle and allusive.

There are some powerful moments in “Franchir la Nuit”: a sequence in which a man frantically rolls bodies back into the water as they relentlessly surge to the edges; another in which the apparently lifeless bodies of children are carried slowly in a sepulchral light. But Mr. Ouramdane mostly steers clear of the potential shock value and emotion of his subject, which remains secondary to the aesthetic pleasures — the water, the moody lighting and video effects — of the work. The brilliance with which Mr. Ouramdane can evoke psychic states through movement feels absent here, at least on a first viewing.

Also overtly political was “Mothers of Steel,” a duo created and performed by Madalina Dan and Agata Siniarska in the “European Platform” series. The two women sob hysterically and theatrically (heaving chests, gasping for breath) while showing patriotic videos (sporting victories, presidential speeches, marches and anthems) about their countries, Romania and Poland. Later, still crying, they pin up and move around sheets of paper bearing words like “Empire,” “Colonialism” and “Slavery,” and they tell bad jokes. (“Do you know why Jesus couldn’t be born in our country? Because they couldn’t find three wise men and one virgin.”)

It’s not exactly a dance piece, although the women’s body language while crying is at times choreographed and specific. But it’s tragic, hilarious, thought-provoking and economical in both means and message at once, so who cares?

On the other end of the spectrum were Angelin Preljocaj’s “Gravité” and Mourad Merzouki’s “Vertikal,” both pure dance works that demanded extreme technical precision and virtuosity of different kinds. Mr. Preljocaj is a major and prolific choreographer who is often ambitiously experimental, but in “Gravité,” he produces an accomplished and attractive ensemble piece that does little to extend his previous work. Set to a mishmash of music, including Bach, Iannis Xenakis, Philip Glass and Ravel, the dance is balletic enough to be performed by any classical troupe, and Mr. Preljocaj’s 13 dancers (including the visibly pregnant Clara Freschel) are superbly rigorous in its execution.

It’s odd, though, these days, to see a contemporary dance work in which exclusively heterosexual duets are the norm; it gives “Gravité” a strangely old-fashioned feeling. That’s not the case for Mr. Merzouki’s “Vertikal,” a brilliantly inventive deployment of hip-hop technique removed from its usual contexts. Through the use of harnesses and ropes, the 10 dancers float above the ground, extend horizontally from sliding walls, and offer breathtaking athleticism in a dancer’s dream of gravity-free space.

There was plenty more, too: Mr. Nadj’s compellingly odd performance piece, “Mnemosyne,” at the Musée des Beaux-Arts; an unfortunately incoherent take on jumpstyle, a dance form born in the 1990s, by the French collective (LA) Horde; a performance piece and films by Jérôme Bel; a the Japanese choreographer Saburo Teshigawara and his collaborator Rihoko Sato in an Isadora Duncan-esque interpretive dance outing in front of the National Orchestra of Lyon playing Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.”

Why would Mr. Teshigawara want to do that? There was no time to reflect; another show was about to begin.

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