Festival preview: Ballet Preljocaj: And then, one thousand years of peace

One of the striking images from And then, one thousand years of peace. 'Picture: JC Carbonne
One of the striking images from And then, one thousand years of peace. 'Picture: JC Carbonne
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FULFILLING a long-held ambition, Angelin Preljocaj has brought his ground-breaking contemporary dance company to Edinburgh. Kelly Apter hears how the founder turned heads at the Bolshoi Ballet and dared to interpret the music of Stockhausen

Look to your left, through the windows of Ballet Preljocaj’s headquarters in Aix en Provence, and you see the literary buildings known as the “city of books”. Look to your right, and you find the impressive architecture of the Grand Théâtre de Provence. While straight ahead lies a building site – the foundations of the new music and dance conservatory, scheduled to open in 2013.

Everywhere you turn, in this most cultural of cities, you find streets named after famous artists and writers, from Cezanne to Victor Hugo. It is in this environment that Angelin Preljocaj goes to work every day.

Built in 2006, the Pavilion Noir is home to France’s most revered modern dance company. As the name suggests, the outside is black, but the numerous large windows give a sense of openness. A deliberate tactic by Preljocaj to let the outside in.

“When we arrived in Aix, the mayor said he would find somewhere special for the company, and for dance in general,” recalls Preljocaj. “This building is the reality of that dream. We worked for ten years to make it happen, so I had time to reflect on exactly what I wanted. This had to be a building that everybody knew from the outside, a place of movement and art. Something transparent, so that people on the street could see the dancers training.”

On the day I visit the building, those looking in could see a rehearsal of Preljocaj’s epic work, And then, one thousand years of peace. Even without the benefit of costumes, lighting, set, props and livestock (more of that later) this is still a remarkable dance to watch. It’s one of two shows Preljocaj is bringing to this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, and to say the piece is full would be an understatement.

Petit, with a small grey beard, Preljocaj himself is also full – of ideas and plans. There’s also an air of kindness about the man. It’s obvious that Ballet Preljocaj is more than just a vehicle for his choreographic works, that the people in it are more than just machines to execute his steps. “For me, a company is like a family,” he says. And, of course, families come in all shapes and sizes.

“It’s like a bouquet of flowers,” says Preljocaj with a smile. “In some companies you’ll only find tulips, they might be yellow or red, but they’re still tulips, because the choreographer has an idea of what the bodies performing their work should look like. But my company is a bouquet of lots of things – tulips, roses, even thorns.

“Their bodies are very different, not just their personalities, there are tall girls, short girls, big boys, thin boys, and I like that.”

One thing they all have in common is ability. None of them has to wait years to rise through the ranks; plum roles are available from day one, if the part suits them. As Preljocaj says: “There are no soloists in my company – or more specifically, they are all soloists in my view.”

The different personalities Preljocaj speaks of come in handy during the creative process, where he draws upon ideas from all the dancers. Having trained in ballet, before moving into contemporary dance, as well as being a black belt in judo, he brings a huge amount of contrast to the table.

“When you’re choreographing a new piece, it’s not about the choices you make in one single moment, but the mixture of different things you have encountered in your life,” he says. “Which techniques, which art, which experiences. I think my style is really a complex mix of different bodies of work, like judo, ballet, modern dance, and I also studied Noh theatre in Japan.”

It would be hard to separate out those influences in And then, one thousand years of peace, but they’re all in there. Given how the work came together, it’s not surprising. Asked by the Bolshoi Ballet in 2010 to stage one of his existing works with their company, Preljocaj flew to Russia to look at the dancers.

Having seen them, he decided a whole new work would be more exciting. “I proposed to do a new piece, but in collaboration with my own company,” explains Preljocaj. “With ten dancers from the Bolshoi, and ten from mine. We would spend two months in Aix and two months in Moscow.”

Creating the work proved to be an eye-opener for all concerned. The Bolshoi dancers had only done what they were told before, so the concept of improvisation – Preljocaj’s preferred way of working – was completely alien to them. Preljocaj’s dancers, on the other hand, were so used to it they’d fallen into a bit of a rut.

Once the Russian dancers opened up to the idea of improvisation, their movement gave everyone a lift. “They went crazy!” says Preljocaj, “and did things very differently from the dancers in this part of Europe, who are used to improvising. This rubbed off on my dancers, and for me it was a lesson that we’re like computers, and sometimes we have to re-boot to do things in a
different way.”

In Edinburgh, we will only see Preljocaj’s dancers performing the work (although two of the Bolshoi women were so enriched by the experience, they left their homes in Russia to join Preljocaj in the south of France) but the impact of that creative collaboration is evident in the piece.

“We worked hard to make it possible,” says Preljocaj. “It was an extraordinary experience and I’m very proud of it, because it’s really a connection between two choreographic cultures.”

Set to a pulsating soundtrack by French DJ Laurent Garnier, the piece itself features a number of very striking images. Dancers moving inside plastic sheets, dancing with large chains, wrapped in flags of the world and even holding two small lambs at one point. What we make of it is up to us, but for Preljocaj, the starting point was St John’s Apocalypse from the New Testament’s Book of Revelation.

“There are a lot of apocalypses, it’s a style of writing,” explains Preljocaj. “It was a way to speak about the political problems of that period in history, but with images, and St John’s Apocalypse says that the Roman Empire has to fall. In 1789, the French people had a very violent and bloody revolution, and also the Russian people in 1917. So I thought since we were a group of French and Russian artists, it would be good to look at the idea of revolution.”

Don’t look to Preljocaj for a literal reading of the show, however – that’s our job. “There are a lot of metaphorical images in the original text,” he says, “and each reader has to try and understand it for themselves. It’s the same with this performance.”
Ever since he first thought of running his own company 30 years ago, it has been Preljocaj’s dream to play the Edinburgh International Festival. Now the invitation has
finally come, he is bringing not one but two shows. Helikopter and Eldorado form a diverse double bill set to the music of German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The first piece was created to an existing Stockhausen work, Helikopter Quartet. But having heard about Preljocaj’s piece, the composer contacted the choreographer in 2007 with a view to them working on something new together. “This was an incredible story for me,” says Preljocaj, clearly moved by the memory. “Stockhausen invited me to his home near Cologne, because he had something he wanted me to listen to. It was a new piece, and he asked me to make a dance to it, which I was very happy to do. But I had a lot of other projects to do first, so I said it wouldn’t happen for three or four years.

“Then I went home and listened to it again, and thought I have to do it now. So I pushed everything else away and we had a lot of meetings to talk about the music. He came to see the premier and was so happy, then a few months later, he died suddenly. I’m so glad I had that intuition to work on the piece then, because every encounter I had with him was like a diamond in my life.”

• Ballet Preljocaj: And then, one thousand years of peace, Playhouse, 17 – 19 August; Helikopter/Eldorado, Playhouse, 22 August.