With a name like Ballet National de Marseille, one could be forgiven for expecting a more traditional repertoire from the French dance company. Don't be fooled.

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Picture: Pino Pipitone

The Truth 25 Times A Second
February 8-11
Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre
$25-$76.50

With a name like Ballet National de Marseille, one could be forgiven for expecting a more traditional repertoire from the French dance company. Don't be fooled.

For Ballet National de Marseille artistic director Frederic Flamand, it's all about mixing it up. Interdisciplinary art is his focus - the blending of dance with other art forms. "I am not a purist," he laughs. "I think it is important that dance reflects the world in which we live."

That world, the Belgian choreographer says, is one in which images are often more important than reality. "We see that on TV every day, the success of the cinema, of video games," he explains. This proliferation of images, of different perspectives, fascinates Flamand. "That is why I like so much to work with artists from other disciplines - so that there are other points of view in the work," he says.

Flamand's desire to make interdisciplinary work dates back to when he established his first company, Plan K, in 1973, and began exploring the concept of integrating dance, visual arts and audiovisual technology. A trip to America played a crucial role in shaping the direction of his work.

"I stayed six months in New York and discovered a lot of new techniques and different avant-garde artists working together . . . Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, the Judson Group . . . a whole generation of people who were so open to possibilities.

"So I came back to Belgium and was influenced by what I had seen in New York. I found a big factory, with 24 rooms, and established the first interdisciplinary centre in Belgium. There I had my company of four dancers. I invited a lot of other artists from other disciplines to work with my company . . . video artists such as Bob Wilson, musicians like Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen. After about four years we began to be invited to theatres, festivals and so on."

With success came new challenges, says Flamand, because the works had been created in such an unconventional setting. "Of course we were not being invited to perform in factories, but in theatres," he says. "It was very difficult to go back to traditional spaces. I was thinking 'How can we open a classical space to new perceptions?' It was then that I began to work with architects."

Since his first collaboration with New York architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, Flamand has become renowned for such partnerships. It's no surprise, then, that The Truth 25 Times A Second, which the company will perform at the Festival, has been created by Flamand in collaboration with acclaimed Chinese architect and visual artist Ai Weiwei.

Ai has transformed the performance space with ladders, taking the idea from Italo Calvino's novel The Baron in the Trees. Set in 18th century Italy, the book is the whimsical tale of a baron who, at age 12, takes to the trees in a fit of pique and lives there for the rest of his life, never touching the ground again. "Ai Weiwei wanted to use the idea of a forest because the baron lives in a forest . . . so he decided to make a big scaffold," Flamand says.

The scaffold of ladders is like a forest canopy. It is, however, up to the audience to interpret what the ladder/scaffold/forest represents, he says. "It can be a prison, a design of the artist Escher, it can be a giant skeleton of a big animal . . . and so on."

Flamand is keen to emphasise that the show is not based on The Baron in the Trees. It is, simply, a source from which he has drawn inspiration. "The fable interests me, the idea that a man can climb the trees and never come down, the idea of escape," he says.

Flamand suggests his move from Belgium to Marseille, in southern France, to become artistic director of Ballet National de Marseille in 2004 might have been influenced by that fascination with escape. Artists from northern Europe were often drawn to the warm light of the south, he says.

Flamand was also drawn to the idea of change. "I had come from a big company in Belgium called Ballet Royal de Wallonie that I had transformed into a contemporary company. It's good to have change in your life, to have another point of view. So it was good to work with a French, neoclassical company."

Flamand's approach seems to be influenced by that belief not only of the importance of change, but of responding to change. "Contemporary art is not a form, but a philosophy of the society," he says. "We live in a world that is bombarded with constantly changing images. Where is the place for dance? For living art? In the 21st century everything is going quicker and quicker, accelerating.

"Where is the place for the body in that environment? These concepts are important to me."