Avignon Festival international and challenging in its 71st year

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'Standing in Time' directed by Samoan-New Zealand director Lemi Ponifasio in Avignon on 6 July, 2017
'Standing in Time' directed by Samoan-New Zealand director Lemi Ponifasio in Avignon on 6 July, 2017 Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP

The Avignon Festival, France's large yet discreet annual performing arts event, persists with its international scope as well as challenging theatrical subject matter and form. In 2017, more space than usual is reserved for artists from Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Festival capitalises on growing female exposure in the arts world.


The Avignon Festival's grande finale in the mediaeval Popes' Palace on 26th July puts women and Sub-Saharan African artists to the fore.

This year, the Festival has chosen to close in the open-air Courtyard of the Pope's Palace with Beninoise contemporary singer, Angélique Kidjo, a favourite in France and Ivorian actor Isaach de Bankolé (who performed in the Festival twice in the 1980s) accompanied by other artists including Manu Dibango.

Their stage tribute called Femme Noire (Black Woman) is to late Senegalese poet and politician, Leopold Senghor, and is based on Senghor's poem Elegy for the Queen of Saba of 1979.

In 2017, the programme includes several African choreographers' work in the Sujet à Vif section, but also in new forms of mixed stagecraft like Rwandan Dorothée Munyneza's Unwanted.

From Soweto, South Africa, Boyzie Cekwana serves up The Last King of Kakfontein (Shit Fountain) with dance, forgotten popular music of South Africa and video, as a critique of the type of politics "which have in the last decade given rise to populism in many countries. The populists strategy is to silence dissidents. In my view, it's no different from Germany in the 1930s," he told the Festival.

Vocals star Rokia Troaré from Mali presents Dream Mandé Djata as part of the Sub-Saharan focus from 21 to 24 July. She uses Mandingo traditional songs to tell the story of a 13th century West African emperor Soundiata Keita.

Kalakuta Republic unites former French-speaking and English-speaking Africa through the songs of the great Nigerian Beat artist Fela Kuti, which constitute the core of Burkina Faso's Serge Aimé Coulibaly for his dance piece. It's title is taken from the name Kuti gave to his home in a suburb of Lagos.

In 2013, the Avignon Festival programmed a special Africa focus which included Congolese writer, director, performer, Dieudonné Niagouna. And for five years, daytime readings of the works of African writers take place in one of the lovely gardens in the city, organised by RFI,called Ca va, ça va le Monde!.

They are in French and will be re-broadcast on RFI's French programmes once a week from the end of July through August.

The emphasis on the contribution of women artists both today and yesterday is evident. Another closing piece is called Vaille que Vivre (loosely translated it means 'live, no matter what').

It's dedicated to the great late popular French singer, Barbara (1930-1997), to celebrate her life and her passing 20 years ago. It stars Alexander's Tharaud's piano and actress Juliette Binoche's voice and person.

Binoche is one of France's best known actresses abroad, starring in several films in English, not least of all the nurse alongside Ralph Fiennes in Anthony Mingella's The English Patient adapted from Michael Ondatjee's novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, based on Milan Kundera's story where she and Daniel-Day Lewis are the leads and Abbas Kiarostami's, Certified Copy.

In the same way as Binoche, the Avignon Festival is nowadays marked by being both distinctly French and yet international.

In the same way as Binoche, it takes up challenges, theatrical ones, and shares them with eager and curious, and even culturally courageous audiences.

Perhaps the furthest flung artists from France, come from the antipodes and from Latin America. Samoan-New Zealander Lemi Ponifasio works with Maori aboriginal women from his country and Mapuche women from Chili.

Standing in Time, is performed in an old, and solidly built school courtyard in Avignon. The nine-women on stage perform a piece incorporating traditional chant and dance in a largely open space, with lighting that gradually takes the spectators' eyes upwards, to the sky and the stars.

Ponifasio makes the spectators part of their creation but we have to work for it.

"The most important thing is that I am reporting where I have come to in the world. I try to bring the audience to find the silence within themselves. It's not worth understanding because that is what already exists, the audience have to let go, to be part of the creation of something new."

Ponifasio's work is rooted in Maori or Mapuche culture where the women sing in their mother-tongue and use wrist-strenghtening poi balls so that it looks more like a juggling performance than a traditional practice. However it hits the broader spot when he and the magnificent poetesses on stage, allude to justice and harmony and make time stand still.

After the Avignon Festival the international work of the artists is not over. They go on tour with their plays or dance pieces often elsewhere in France, and on the Festival circuit as well as in their home countries.

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