Giorgos Loukos breathes new life into French ballet

LYON – On the top level of the reconstructed Opera de Lyon, the dance studio’s window reaches out to the city below. This is where the dancers gather to sweat, usually, but not on this night. Tonight, they are hungrily gathering round the inviting country-style buffet set out for them and their guests. Amid the happy crowd celebrating the season’s opening gala, one man is working the room with his eyes. «I came to Lyon almost by accident,» says Giorgos Loukos, the Greek-born dance director of the Opera de Lyon, the following day, sipping a coffee during the warm afternoon. What he faced when he got there was a neglected company which performed little. Changes were swift: He fired half of the troupe and began inviting exciting choreographers – the first being Jiri Kylian, followed by Maguy Marin, who presented her take of «Cinderella» in 1985. Meanwhile, France was flourishing culturally as a whole, with Culture Minister Jacques Lang promoting a variety of projects, such as national choreographic centers. From Montpellier, to Grenoble and La Rochelle, the country was bursting with life. In Lyon, the idea quickly took shape: Instead of an in-house choreographer, Loukos sought guest professionals. «It was not easy in the beginning,» concedes Loukos. «The public was not pleased, they wanted to go the opera house to see ‘Swan Lake,’ and so on. They still do.» Yet the company’s hard work and its recognition abroad – in the USA, for instance, the company has made non-stop annual visits in the last 18 years – made the local population accept and support the troupe. In 1995, the Lyon Opera Ballet was renamed the Ballet de l’Opera National de Lyon, elevating the company to the same status as the three-century-old Opera National de Paris. «We didn’t set out on purpose, but by doing it and thinking about it, we developed a new kind of specialized troupe, with a contemporary repertoire, where young people turn up with new projects,» says Loukos. Today, 32 classically trained, open-minded dancers from 15 countries make up the troupe. Art and dance In this vibrant city, the geographical heart of France, and the first capital of the Gauls, the last few weeks have been dedicated to art and motion. The 2003 Lyon Biennale, «It Happened Tomorrow» (which runs to January 4, 2004), is scattered around the town, stretching from a former sugar factory to the city’s Contemporary Arts Museum and the central Fine Arts Museum. The link between the visual arts and dance is not a novel one, and in the last few weeks, this city has been living in a «Resonance» mode (a program where art shows and dance interact). At the Opera, for instance, dance aficionados feasted on two works by celebrated modernist William Forsythe and a technology-meets-art work by Mathilde Monnier. And then there was the appearance of two of modern dance’s giants: postmodernist Trisha Brown and improvisation master Steve Paxton. On stage the two dancers/choreographers, performed a moving piece of contact improvisation – a man and a woman coming closer and falling apart, offering to and retrieving from each other – just as in any relationship. What about Loukos’s own relationship with Greece? «In countries where dancing comes naturally, such as in Greece and in Spain, for instance, it is difficult to give it a structure,» says Loukos. «The greatest difficulty in Greece, for instance, is the lack of organization by the State.» In 2001, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked Loukos to set up a French dance festival in the USA. «France Moves» took place in 2001; rescheduled for 2004, it was canceled due to strained relations between the two countries. For 2005, the idea moved to London. «So far, the Cultural Olympiad has been far below expectations, nothing interesting,» says Loukos. «Grand productions by high-caliber Greek artists such as Theodorakis and Vangelis, but no one reads a single line about these in the foreign press. And I’m not being political here, I have been away from Greece since I was a child. There should have been a promotion of young artists, this geriatric element in Greece is too much,» says Loukos, who, nevertheless, served a stint at the Cultural Olympiad at the very beginning. «I became a member without being consulted, and I was removed without being consulted!» he says. Meanwhile, Loukos and the troupe are frequent guests of the Kalamata Festival and the Athens Concert Hall. «Events such as the Kalamata Festival should be given more state aid, while dancers should go on scholarships abroad,» says Loukos. «Geographically Greece belongs to the Balkans, but not intellectually. We are far more Westernized and we should have more contact with the West.»