Avignon on the French National Day: It’s raining ash and soot. A plume of smoke from a forest fire south of the festival city casts an orange-brown veil over the hot afternoon sun, which now looks like a sick planet. People take photos, brush the ashes off their clothes and hair after outdoor performances, and from now on look at theater, dance, and performance differently.
The most beautiful of the program was the language-free installation “Anima” of the first days of the festival, whose message had now proven to be prophetic: A jungle triptych of video projections, the images of which caught fire, charred and disappeared. It’s not the Amazon that’s burning, it’s our image of the world.
Such beautiful ambiguities were scarce, because the program preferences under Olivier Py’s direction also aimed at text-heavy world explorations in clear enemy-friend schemes in the last festival year for which you were responsible. First of all, there is digital technology that prevents people from finding themselves and their happiness in life. The performances “Una Imagen Interior” and the Belgian guest performance “Flesh” bear witness to this.
That was cultural pessimism and criticism of civilization of the simplest kind. Or it is the institutions of church and state that are shaken up by a contemporary Arlequin in Olivier Py’s ten-hour farewell spectacle “Ma Jeunesse Exaltée”. Avignon’s outgoing festival director firmly believes in poets, jugglers and theater people saving the world.
Avignon is a gathering of the spirit and of all those who think differently about the world. That’s what the festival director said at the beginning and at the end. But that was always the brand core of a culture show that considers itself the leading repair shop for tired democracies. Rightly so, because Avignon inspires and inspires even in weaker years.
After a promising start and a weak second festival week, one could at least be happy about a cheeky, macabre spectacle of the undead that Patrick Kermann set up in the grassy inner courtyard of the Carthusian monastery on the other side of the Rhone.
There are nothing but corpses lying in open, dimly lit boxes, grumbling little memories to themselves. The audience listens here and there, lingers for a moment on small portable camping stools and explores the dark realm of the dead as wanderers between the worlds of memory. “La Mastication des Morts” leads from the anecdotal and individual of this village cemetery to the collective memory and the dark passages of the 20th century.
Since it is these eclipses that are once again haunting contemporary Europe, the outgoing festival director Olivier Py said goodbye on the last day with a very appropriate final image: alongside the Beninese singer and, above all, the Dakh Daughters from Kyiv, who have been performing since March in the French exile found job opportunities and only recently presented a “Danse Macabre” in Paris. “Together we must win”, proclaims an inscription on the Ukrainian flag, with standing ovations after the furious performance of “Miss Knife et ses Sœurs”.
Olivier Py, the openly gay Catholic and poet, had started the travesty show as “Miss Knife” in lush clothes and a few chansons of his own production: bittersweet life pain with an amazingly trained voice, love sorrow and of course: splendor and misery of the artist’s life. Together with Angélique Kidjo he smashed Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” into the hall.
However, the bizarre cabaret performance of the Kiev Dakh Daughters triggered a real storm of enthusiasm. “Why all the misery?” asks the freak cabaret with powerful sound support from the Orchester National Avignon-Provence.
At the end of the festival, the show “Miss Knife et ses Sœurs” brings together some elements that belonged to the brand core of the theater show under Olivier Py: A queer artistic director with a penchant for simple political messages and a firm belief in poets improving the world and artists.
This was the guiding principle during the nine-year tenure of the self-centered multi-talent Olivier Py. The post-dramatic, documentary-theatrical and performative formats that his predecessors Vincent Baudriller and Hortense Archambault had brought to the summer theater show gave way to classical actor’s theater under Olivier Py’s direction. Instead of the video screens, the installations and immersions, the creaky podium stage, demonstrative play and a poetic naivety appeared again. Language once again became the undisputed key medium of theatrical experience.
The founding impulse of the festival in Avignon in 1947 was the overcoming of the national soul, corrupted by European fascism, through theatrical art. Today, the festival still sees itself as the European repair shop for democratic defects. No one has discursively marketed this Avignon myth better than Olivier Py. But he made it too easy for himself and the audience. Avignon has clearly declined in recent years as an authority to criticize wrong turns in the history of civilisation.
Py’s saving the world through poetry is a naive formula, but it picked up parts of the audience where they had stopped decades ago: in the wistful memory of the myth Jean Vilar, who founded the festival. Despite all the impulses brought in by program curator Agnès Troly, under Py’s leadership Avignon was restorative in terms of content and aesthetics. On the other hand, he has anchored a festival that threatened to become a simple venue for international co-productions more firmly in Avignon.
The new director Tiago Rodrigues comes from Portugal and was only present as a playwright this year. But his treatment of Iphigenia had exactly the clever complexity that Avignon needs to overcome a simple thought pattern: the regulatory power of literature and its poets and playwrights are not per se a life raft for humanity shattered by plagues, crises and wars. There is no perfect art in a broken world.