Ballet National de Marseille

Review: The Ballet National de Marseille

Who: The Ballet National de Marseille

What: Body. Dance. Nation. City.

When: Friday 5th/ Saturday 6th August 2016

Where: The Royal Festival Hall in The Southbank Centre


Everyone had one of those teachers at school. The ones who had such a decisive and compelling presence that they could instantly silence even the rowdiest classroom without a single word.

Imagine the same, except instead of a classroom it’s a packed auditorium, approximately 2000 raucous audience members simultaneously falling silent at the presence of a single dancer onstage, putting his fingers to his lips and unequivocally demanding our attention.

No announcements, no dimming lights, no tidal wave of “shhh” throughout the audience – just immediate silence called upon by a single man, immediately underpinning the importance and power of the individual body – a recurring theme throughout the Ballet National de Marseille’s signature work: Body. Dance. Nation. City.

The Ballet National de Marseille
Photo Credits: A. Poiana

The design elements of the piece were stubbornly simple: a bare stage surrounded by three chained curtains, behind which the dancers could wait for their entrance, seen yet unseen, as if through a mirror. Every now and then, bright yellowish lights would create dark shadows behind the performers, enlarging their silhouettes to such gigantic proportions that they seemed inhuman.

Tight, flesh-coloured suits and masks added to this alien effect and created an anonymity amongst the group.

The overall effect was that the dancers took over the stage completely, as though they were hundreds and thousands of bodies, all moving as one, instead of just 17.

I am often sceptical of contemporary dance, having seen and studied a few too many performances in my time as a dance student that seemed to consist of meaningless running, grabbing the air and falling to the floor. But the focus and unanimity with which Le Corps du Ballet National de Marseille -not only danced but breathed- meant that I could cope with, and even enjoy the rare moments of pointless twisting to helicopter sounds- which turned out to build up to some incredible technique and effortlessly flawless classical movements.  

As a self-confessed ballet geek I was instantly delighted by the snippets of Giselle, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, which flashed on and off between blurs of rock, reggae and hip-hop like a temperamental radio being tuned. Meanwhile the dancers offered the precision and technique of classical ballet with the wild, raw energy of urban breakdancers.

The Ballet National de Marseille
Photo Credits: A. Poiana

Throughout the piece, there was an exciting discontent between the group and the individual, which was embodied by regimented bourrées and tendus, a nod to the foundations laid by classical dance, contrasting with huge jumps and turns of soloists that propelled them across the stage, as their movements became increasingly aggressive. It was a resonant visual representation of the body in revolt, a powerful battle between tradition and revolution.

I am ashamed to say that I don’t know about French history in quite enough detail to give a confident historical analysis of the piece, but when La Marseillaise was whistled halfway through the performance the haunting echoes felt much more like a spooky omen, than a patriotic call to arms.

Despite my own ignorance, however, with imagery that spoke of “bodies in revolt”, “the one versus the many” and “breaking away from tradition”, it is easy to see that Emio Greco and Pieter C. Scholten’s artistic vision has come – for the British as well as the French-  at a very appropriate point in time.

Ballet National de Marseille
Photo Credits: A. Poiana

Although I felt myself over-analysing Body. Dance. Nation. City. at several points when I should have just been enjoying the skill of clearly talented, hardworking artists, the 70 minute performance passed in a flash. I would gladly see more of their work in future.  

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