Biarritz festival draws together Basque and Caribbean dance

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Festivals love to tout their world premieres, but the best of them also know how to channel their local roots. Le Temps d’Aimer la Danse (Time to Love Dance), a yearly event in the French resort of Biarritz, has plenty to work with in that regard.

The Basque country, which extends on both sides of the French-Spanish border, has long had a lively social dance culture, and its fleet-footed, high-kicking steps are taught in many schools. This year, Le Temps d’Aimer, led by the company Malandain Ballet Barritz, attempted an intriguing rapprochement with the traditions of another fiercely independent French region: the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Over the opening weekend, in a series of public panels, Basque and Caribbean artists compared notes about everything from protecting their choreographic identity from — or with — the French state to the health of the quadrille. This form of square dance, popular in the 18th and 19th centuries in France, has survived only in a handful of regions, and in the Caribbean, thanks to the black population’s reinvention of it.

Martin Harriague recreates Michael Jackson’s moonwalk © Olivier Houeix

It was an absorbing introduction to the productions on offer in Biarritz. Chantal Loïal, a choreographer from Guadeloupe, brought her smart 21st-century spin on the quadrille — shown onstage by older couples — in Cercle égal demi-cercle au carré. In it, younger dancers reprise its steps and patterns while throwing hip-hop, vogueing and contemporary dance into the mix.

It was performed at Biarritz’s casino, and when audience members re-emerged from the theatre inside, they were greeted by a small army of Basque dancers from a group named Oinak Arin. As they moved from numbers featuring batons to large circle dances, some locals joined in and whirled along cheerfully — before the Caribbean dancers returned to teach some of their own dances.

Basque choreographers also threw their hats into the ring. Martin Harriague, a local favourite, faltered with his attempt at dance autobiography, Starlight. Born in 1986 he, like many dancers, grew up an avid fan of Michael Jackson. While Harriague can moonwalk with the best of them, more dramaturgical introspection would be needed for Starlight’s moments of brilliance to cohere into a whole.

‘Eta orain zer?’ wove its way around and among the audience © Stephane Bellocq

On the other hand, Jon Maya, who took over from Harriague as Malandain Ballet Biarritz’s associate artist, stunned with Eta orain zer? (Basque for “And now?”). There were no seats in the concert-like venue, Atabal. Instead, the 10 dancers and a small group of musicians deftly wove their way into and around the standing crowd — and physically nudged people to create audience formations, too.

At one point, a group of onlookers even found themselves gently trapped in a blue laser tunnel, with disquieting choreography to match on both sides. The second half of Eta orain zer?, which cleared a central space for more traditional, Basque-influenced group dances, didn’t quite build on the tension Maya had carefully engineered. Yet his company, Kukai Dantza, overshadowed bigger productions from the likes of Angelin Preljocaj (also in town with the uneven Mythologies) and clearly has much to give outside the Basque country.

To September 18, letempsdaimer.com

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