The Hills Are Still Alive: Dance at a Swiss Arts Festivals Is Not All Cheese and Chocolate

Article excerpt

Two weeks with a distinguished choreographer or teacher in a small village in the Swiss Alps in mid--July-is there more? Yes, there's free housing in a charming chateau, crystal clean air, great concerts, and family-run bakeries that are renowned for their delicious pastries. It's all possible at the prestigious Verbier Festival and Academy, one of Europe's premier summer music festivals that's been holding dance workshops since 1997.

That's when the festival's founder, Martin Engstroem, asked Noemi Lapzeson to organize the dance program. Once a principal with the Martha Graham Dance Company and the London Contemporary Dance Theatre, and founder of Vertical Danse in Geneva, Lapzeson knew dance would add immeasurably to the ambiance here. Workshops are given equal emphasis with the famous concerts by world-renowned performers, and the goal has always been to create an environment where artists can perform, teach, learn, and experiment. Conductors such as James Levine and Zubin Mehta lead the Verbier Academy's Youth Orchestra, and acclaimed musicians such as violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Gary Graffman hold master classes. With the music workshops firmly established, Engstroem could give dance and theater the same importance as music. "It's always been my idea to host all the performing arts," he says.

There is one simple dance demonstration for the public at the end of the festival, otherwise there's no pressure. Evenings are free to attend concerts or wander the picturesque village. Last year several dancers brought their husbands and children and made the stay a family vacation.

Driving down a steep mountain road to the workshop on a brilliant July day, Lapzeson talks enthusiastically about the dance program. Sylphlike in slim black pants and a loose-fitting jacket, she looks every inch a dancer, an appearance she maintains by doing yoga every day. "I knew this would be an ideal situation for dancers," she says. "They long for this kind of freedom. Usually they're so tied to schedules, whereas here they get carte blanche to work undisturbed, all the while being exposed to new ideas."

Cresting a hill not far from Verbier's ski lifts, we see cows grazing near the gymnasium where the workshop is held. "I've tried to get a variety of choreographers and teachers from different companies here," Lapzeson says. "I don't prefer a particular technique; I just like innovators."

Innovators who have run workshops certainly fit her criteria: Jean-Laurent Sasportes from Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal; Miriam Berns, a former dancer with Merce Cunningham Dance Company; Vicky Shick, who danced with the Trisha Brown Dance Company; Daniel Lepkoff, a leader in contact improvisation; and Foofwa d'Imobilite, also from Cunningham. Last summer, Lapzeson picked Dominique Duszynski, a former dancer with Pina Bausch who now is working on theatrical productions and teaching at AnneTeresa De Keersmaeker's Performing Arts Research and Training Studios in Brussels. …