Guy Darmet founded the Lyon Dance Biennale in 1984. The first edition was held that year: no theme as yet, but it featured masters of the20th-century dance (Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Roland Petit, Reinhild Hoffmann). In 1986, the Biennale began a trilogy devoted to dance history, and surveying the major currents of Western dance.
In 1986, the centenary of Mary Wigman’s birth, the Biennale paid her an homage, focusing on German expressionism through figures such as Kurt Jooss, Suzanne Linke and Gerhard Bohner.
The 1988 edition, entitled “Four Hundred Years of Dance in France”, explored the key aspects of dance history in the country: the birth of ballet; the ballet at court; Louis XIV, the dancer king; and all the main stages from classical ballet through to contemporary dance, in full bloom since the ‘80s (Roland Petit, Maurice Béjart, Dominique Bagouet, Maguy Marin, Daniel Larrieu…).
The 1990 Biennale, devoted to modern American dance and entitled “A Century of Dance in America”, saw the event burst onto the international scene. Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times: “The [Lyon] Biennial is not the only dance festival in France, but … it is the one that really counts”. For the first time, a dance festival extended invitations to all the leading American creators, and showcased the main schools that have nourished dance in the 20th century.
From 1992 onwards, having explored time, and having taken the time to show audiences the major moments, movements and figures to have shaped contemporary dance, the Biennale changed course towards geographic and geopolitical subjects, with themes related to a country, a geographic entity, a continent… by addressing them through the prism of dance.
The 1992 edition, “Pasión de España”, imported to Lyon the festive flair that Spaniards possess so deeply. Numerous traditions continue to thrive alongside contemporary choreographies, and that of flamenco in particular. The purpose of this Biennale was to show how powerful traditions can be when they are alive and not consigned to folklore.
Taking a trailblazing interest in African artists, “Mama Africa”, the 1994 Biennale, examined black African sources of dance around the world. It showcased several artists from Africa, but chiefly reflected how the journeys of African slaves have spread black African culture – and dance especially – throughout the world. This Biennale’s high points were the première of Bill T Jones’ Still / Here, and Grupo Corpo’s first-ever performances in Europe.
A fresh and intense love for Brazil, and the considerable importance accorded to dance by this country, prompted Guy Darmet to stage an all-Brazilian edition in 1996. “Aquarela do Brasil” strongly defined the Biennale’s hallmark of festive and popular appeal, due notably to the Défilé, which stood out from its inaugural 1996 staging onwards as a unique event – a tribute to the Rio Carnival and to the work done by the samba schools. It has grown in stature ever since, becoming a cornerstone of the Biennale.
In 1998, the Biennale journeyed around the Mediterranean in “Mediterranea”. To conjure this diverse region, with its conflicts and tensions, the Biennale chose to speak of peace and showed that mentalities, and how the region’s people relate to the body, were changing. Israeli artists were among the highlights of this edition, which notably saw a triumph for Batsheva Dance Company with Anaphase, but also for Liat Ben Dror and Nir Ben Gal, while Barak Marshall and Inbal Pinto were revelations. This edition also sealed the reputation of two young Lyon choreographers, Abou Lagraa and Mourad Merzouki.
In 2000, “The Silk Roads” was an occasion to introduce the public to another relationship with dance, and to traditions, with an exploration of the Asian continent, where both traditional and contemporary dances have an intense bond with religion, spirituality and philosophy. This Biennale yielded powerful images such as those of Legend Lin Dance Theater and Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan; and brought the Japanese Kim Itoh, and Hong Sung Yop from Korea, to the notice of French audiences.
“Terra Latina”, in 2002, depicted a continent at a crossroads: become a North American colony or a necessary economic and cultural counterweight.
This especially festive edition was ahead of its time, featuring Latin dance companies which had yet to meet with the success they enjoy today. The outdoor dance classes on Place des Terreaux scored a big hit, and would be repeated at each subsequent Biennale.
After a period of distant journeys, the Biennale returned to Europe in 2004, affirming the existence of a common European culture. “Europa” presented artists from 21 countries in the expanded Europe. This edition also saw a sharp increase in new work, with more than 10 world premières. Wayne McGregor and Jan Fabre, in particular, caused a sensation.
In 2006, “Dancing the City” took the Biennale away from its regional approach to the world, and embraced every continent through the prism of the city. In a world where more than half of people are urban-dwellers, and where the city is the backdrop for all kinds of boldness, experiments and decisions, but also a place of conflict, protest and violence, the Lyon Biennale presented projects from 29 cities worldwide, around four themes: urban dances, cities with dance at their heart, the relationship between choreography and architecture, and dance in public space.
For its 25th anniversary, in 2008, the Biennale stepped back from its geographic perspectives and explored essential matters of the contemporary repertoire, transmission and exemplarity, in an edition entitled “Past Forward”. There were reunions with choreographers who had marked the Biennale (Suzanne Linke, Montalvo-Hervieu); recreations (the mythical solo Blue Lady, transmitted by Carolyn Carson to Tero Saarinen; Les Petites Pièces de Berlin by Dominique Bagouet, revived by the Ballet National de Lorraine); and artists working on notions of history and of constantly evolving traditions (Olga de Soto, Wen Hui, Matteo Levaggi), on history versus oblivion (Ong Ken Sen), and on the material of fairy tales (Preljocaj reinventing Snow White in Blanche Neige). The 2008 edition also marked an important Biennale milestone: through its launch of Focus Danse and a step change in the number of new pieces (16 for this edition), the event deliberately reached out to an audience of professionals, who attended in large numbers.
In 2010, Guy Darmet signed off with “Encore !" after a spell of 14 editions as artistic director. Intentionally themeless, his final Biennale gave free rein to its creator – with Darmet’s special favourites, fancies, and passions. It saw the return of Alvin Ailey with a company of young dancers, Ailey II; and of Angelin Preljocaj, Balé de Rua, and Deborah Colker. There was the shock of Salves, Maguy Marin’s new work, and of Political Mother, by Israeli Hofesh Shechter. There was a proliferation of new pieces, in particular by young French choreographers Nasser Martin-Gousset, Olivier Dubois and Denis Plassard. There were crowning moments for Abou Lagraa, who introduced the brand-new contemporary unit of the Ballet Algérien, and above all for Mourad Merzouki, whose new work Boxe Boxe triumphed. The 2010 edition also confirmed the Biennale’s premier-event status among dance professionals, with a highly successful second edition of Focus Dance and a record number of new pieces (17).
In 2012, Dominique Hervieu’s first edition as artistic director underscored new work, playing host to 19 global and French premières and to eight companies in residence in Lyon. This 15th edition was a huge success, with 94% seat occupancy; and saw the emergence of the “Amateur Studio”, the Biennale’s amateur dance lab, as well as the “Studio of Perspectives”, where spectators are given a central role.
The 2014 Biennale consisted of two trails: the circus, with three of the world’s most talented crews making new work; and performance, in an echo of what was currently happening on stage, with artists revisiting, reactivating and reworking powerful statements from dance history. An opportunity to reconnect with the immense Jan Fabre, who revived his seminal piece C'est du théâtre comme c'était à espérer et à prévoir in a staggering eight-hour performance; William Forsythe and his Study#3; La Compagnie XY, a jaw-dropping collective of acrobats; Yoann Bourgeois, who world premièred his latest piece Celui qui tombe; James Thierrée and his wildly surreal world... This 16th edition scored a resounding success, with about 100,400 spectators, and 16,000 people gathering in Place Bellecour after the Défilé to dance the Tarentella Samba!
In 2016, the Dance Biennale delivered a popular vibe but also an experimental edge, with 43 productions including 23 new works. There was dance in all of its forms: neo-classical, with La Belle et la Bête by Thierry Malandain; glamorous, with the musical by Jean-Claude Gallotta and Olivia Ruiz; and minimalist, with Vincent Dupont’s Stéréoscopia. There was also a chance to discover standout performers such as Cristiana Morganti, Louise Lecavalier, Jonah Bokaer and Olivia Grandville. The 17th Biennale was hugely successful, drawing nearly 115,000 spectators.