Tabac Rouge – Exposition dans le hall du Theatre Vidy-Lausanne

I was totally speechless when I came out of the theatre. I found it very difficult to talk to my friends who were with me then. Once I regained some kind of power of speech, which took a while and seemed to invoke quite a bit of worrying on my friends’ side, they asked me whether I liked it. I said yes, but immediately started wondering whether that was the right word to describe it. Would I say I liked an experience that felt like being grabbed by my shirt front and shaken around before having my face slapped? But did I dislike it? No, that was not the right word either. There were many moments that made me uncomfortable and yet it did not make me want to get up or not want to watch it again.

I had been spending the weekend in Lausanne watching the semi-final and final of the prestigious ballet competition for young dancers. The night before we left, a friend of mine who was putting me up took me and another friend to see a sort of physical theatre. It was choreographed by James Thiérrée who happens to be Charlie Chaplin’s grandson. Apparently he grew up in a circus and his choreography is full of acrobatic moves.

When the audience was admitted to the auditorium, the stage looked as though it had not been set properly. At the back of the stage was a large structure of what looked like pipes running both horizontally and vertically with mirrors behind. This structure, which I took to be a back drop, was actually on a very strong set of casters and could glide around the stage and the whole panel itself  could revolve about its horizontal axis. There were no wings and the lighting rig was hanging down low. I had been wondering what would then happen, when a young man came onto the stage and from that moment on I was mesmerised.

On the little programme they gave out, there was no synopsis. New as I was to this kind of theatre, I was made slightly uneasy by not knowing what the plot was supposed to be. This, apparently, was the intention of Thiérrée. I was given a rare chance to meet one of the cast members, Noémie Ettlin, after the performance and the first thing I asked about was the plot. To this question she replied, “I can tell you the specific story that the choreographer told us (performers), but he doesn’t want the audience to know precisely what it is. He wants them to interpret it themselves”.  This was a new idea for me. And what an idea it was! Thiérrée wants the audience members to dig into their own hearts and find out their own answers. This is probably why it touched me so deeply.

Noémie told us a few things, nevertheless. The old man who was the centre of the piece was a tyrant and the rest of the cast (two men and seven girls) were a small society that represents his inner self. And this unit is rebelling against his system. The scaffolding with the mirror at the back represents the master of the old man, i.e. not the reality but the images. At the end the girls gradually dismantle the scaffolding and the mirrors and the whole frame detaches itself from the base and lifts off.

All the way through the piece, which was just over an hour long, the scaffolding was used as a part of the performance. It felt as though it was a part of the cast. It glided along and span around, the whole of the panel swung like that of the mirror of a dresser. On the one side, the mirror was covered by what looked like pipes but on the other side was just mirror that looked slightly tarnished. This panel would then tilt and sometimes it adopted such an angle that the performers were reflected so the audience could see two sides of them. At one point it was even set at an angle so that the audience itself was reflected, drawing us into the whole drama, as though to ask us to look into our own heart. It also felt like the side that was covered by the pipes was the caged feeling of the man, whereas the mirror only side was representing freedom from all his agony. However, the mirror was still tarnished (“it was difficult for the set designer to make it look old and used”, said Noémie).

Photo: Mario Del Curto

Photo: Mario Del Curto

Most, if not all, of the props they used were on casters. Chairs, sewing machine, a large desk, armchair (which seemed to be the comfort zone for the man)… there was even a large structure full of cables that trapped some of the girls. This piece was full of the imagery of being trapped and trying to escape from it. When the mirrors were finally dismantled and lifted off, it felt as though the man was finally free of his inner struggle and had come to terms with himself;  a kind of enlightenment in which he had learned to like himself, or at least accept himself as he was, at long last.

Another aspect that struck me was the sound effects. First I thought it was a little on the loud side, but later decided that I had found it a little much as I already had the beginnings of a headache when I arrived at the theatre. They used music, but also a lot of sound effects including shuffling of paper and heartbeats, all very loud. I forgot my headache very soon. Some of the sound effects were a little uncomfortably loud; but with hindsight, it would not have had the same effect had it been quieter, especially for sounds such as the heartbeat. When the heartbeat was so loud, it stopped me thinking and trying to analyse what it all meant. Then I felt the discomfort of the man being trapped. As the heartbeat subsided, I could breathe normally again and so could the man. It brought me and the man together and I felt as though I was not just watching the performance but was forced to look deep into my own heart.

Aside from all this, there was a somewhat cooler part of me as a dancer watching and admiring the level of control that all the performers had over their own bodies. One was a contortionist who could do things such as run while she was in a bridge position, and another a man who was both extremely agile and strong. But what amazed me more than anything was just how much energy every one of them was putting into the performance. They were doing sixteen performances over a three week period and we watched the thirteenth performance. How do they keep up that much energy? Every single movement that was made looked as though it was coming from the deepest part of their inner selves. Without such energy, this piece would never work. It would end up looking like a pretentious arty thing that no-one understands.

I could carry on trying to describe more about this, but this is a piece to be watched; not to be analysed or recounted. If you ever have a chance to see it, don’t miss it. I cannot promise you a warm fuzzy feeling afterwards, but this is guaranteed to touch you. Whether you like it or not is a different matter. Neither can I guarantee that you will understand what is going on. As Noémie so aptly said, “he (Thiérrée) likes mystery”. And I am happy for it to stay that way. Maybe it is the Japanese in me, but I am happy for the mystery to stay a mystery in some cases and this is definitely one of them.


Prix de Lausanne 2013

On 1st and 2nd February 2013, I managed to realise one of my old dreams.

Ever since I became serious about ballet, I dreamed of going to Lausanne to take part in this prestigious competition. As you can imagine, this did not come true as I was neither a genius nor born into a very rich family. So my dream of “going to take part in Prix de Lausanne” changed into “going to see Prix de Lausanne” fairly early on.

This year, one of my dancers who is from Lausanne offered me accommodation during the weekend of Prix de Lausanne finals!

The Prix de Lausanne started back in 1973 and is a competition giving young non-professional dancers, aged between fifteen and eighteen years, the chance to win a scholarship to study at any ballet school they choose for a year. For those young dancers whose country does not have a state ballet school, this is a fantastic opportunity. There have been many wonderful dancers who won scholarships in this competition and went on to become world- leading principal dancers: Miyako Yoshida, Tetsuya Kumakawa, Carlos Acosta, Darcey Bussell, Alina Cojocaru and many more.

The competition takes place over six days at the Théâtre de Beaulieu and during the first four days the candidates are given opportunities to take classes by world- renowned teachers and receive coaching from leading coaches. The jury observe the course of classes and it counts towards their final scores.

These days candidates are to apply by submitting an audition DVD. Around 80 of the applicants are invited to take part in this week long event and of those approximately 20 dancers will be chosen to participate in the final.

Candidates are to dance a solo from the classical repertoire and a contemporary solo (they have to choose one each from lists of choices).

This year, there were seventy-five semi-finalists all together: thirty-five 15-16 year-olds and forty 17-18 year-olds. Out of the seventy-five, twenty made it to the final.

Prix de Lausanne

Adhonay Silva
Prix de Lausanne

There were sixteen boys and four girls, which is quite an unusual ratio. It is good to see so many strong boys. The first prize went to a boy named Adhonay Silva from Brazil. He is only fifteen years old and yet his technique is already very well established and secure. And yet I could see that he made an improvement since the semi final. He was very charming and brought smiles to my face. He also had the rare quality to make what he did look easy. He was a worthy winner and I do hope to see him one day on a world stage. He also won the audience prize. Audience members are given a ballot paper and were asked to vote whom they liked best.  I am not at all surprised he won this prize as well.

In total eight scholarship prizes were given and although all eight winners are given equally full scholarship to a ballet school or company of their choice, they are given in reverse order and the last one, the one to win the first scholarship prize is considered to be the best one in the competition.

Aside from Adhonay Silva, there were a few that made an impression on me.

Prix de Lausanne

Li Wentao
Prix de Lausanne

Li Wentao, a seventeen-year-old from China who won the second prize, danced the Prince’s solo from the Sleeping Beauty and I was very impressed by his musicality. It is a very musically difficult solo but he performed it very confidently and smoothly.

Prix de Lausanne

Masaya Yamamoto
Prix de Lausanne

The eighteen-year-old Masaya Yamamoto (third place) was a very light and precise dancer. His contemporary was also excellent.  I could watch him knowing that he wasn’t going to fall over.

Prix de Lausanne

Gong Zunyuan
Prix de Lausanne

Gong Zunyuan, seventeen, who did not manage to get a scholarship was very light and his fantastic jumps excited the audience. His pirouettes needed a little more control, but it would be interesting to see how he does from here. His contemporary was also very good.

Prix de Lausanne

Kaho Yanagisawa
Prix de Lausanne

One disappointment was the fact that Kaho Yanagisawa, fifteen, did not get a scholarship. She had such strong technique that she danced so effortlessly. She also had lovely presence on stage. She made an impressively huge improvement in her contemporary between the semi-final and the final. I was convinced that she would at least receive the Prix Niveau Professionnel, but I had not realised that it was abolished in 1998. This was a cash prize which used to go to the candidates who were considered to have reached the level of professional dancers. I really hope that some great opportunity will open up for her in the near future.

There are several prizes the Prix de Lausanne committee abolished over the years. The aforementioned Prix Niveau Professionnel is one. The Médaille d’Or was last awarded in 1995 and was abolished in 2001. This was a very special prize that was not given out every year and was only awarded to exceptional talent: Tetsuya Kumakawa and Carlos Acosta are both past winners. The Prix Espèces was a cash prize which used to be given if a student of a state ballet school won the competition. The Prix Espoir was the scholarship prize for under fifteens but was abolished in 2002. The Prix de la meilleure chorégraphie personnel (changed to Prix d’encouragement à la chorégraphi in 1983) was given to those who choreographed their own free variation (this was abolished in 2005 to enable the judges to assess the dancers’ abilities without being confused by various choreography).

I usually do not like competitions for ballet. I feel that ballet is an art form and yet competitions make dancers want to jump higher, lift their legs higher, and turn more times. Although I love seeing people with strong technique, I feel very strongly that in ballet technique should never be the aim of the performance. Truly wonderful dancers do use their strong technique, but make it look effortless and use it to express something more. At the Prix de Lausanne, the judges look for potential. In addition to the competitive performances, they watch classes over the first few days and  take what they see there into account. Also, for those who did not make it through to the final round, there is a chance to have a special class and talk to the directors of various companies and schools and they may be fortunate enough to be offered more chances. Most of the candidates say that they have learned so much through the course of a week and they all seem to enjoy themselves and make friends with young dancers from other countries. I admire all the people who make this event happen and hope it will remain the inspiration to young generations of dancers for a long time to come.

I have encountered one big problem after having been to see the semi-final and final of the Prix de Lausanne. Now that one dream has come true, a new one has emerged… I would so much love to go and see the course of the entire week!