Ah, France, where dancers box and chickens dance

Roosters seem a far cry from the world of dance, which is usually represented by majestic swans. Yet it was a flurry of the white barnyard birds (with red coxcombs and blue feet) that the southern French city of Lyon chose to advertise its Third Biennial Dance Festival, celebrating 400 years of French dance.

The ``chanticleer'' is typically French after all - star of fables and language lessons. It rose nobly to the occasion. A collage of roosters in various balletic poses - wings outstretched, feet tightly together, bodies taut - ascended and descended on black posters throughout the city, in attitudes reminiscent of many famous danseurs nobles.

This year's festival offered performances of dances from Renaissance beginnings up to the post-modern works of today. For three weeks, top French ballet and dance companies paid tribute to the many individuals instrumental in establishing their country's high position in the dance world. Different period-costumed balls encouraged public participation - the grandest being the ``Beauty and the Beast'' Ball in remembrance of Jean Cocteau, the writer and designer of the Diaghilev era. There were also daily film and video showings as well as exhibitions and lectures.

The festival budget was 12 million francs ($1.9 million), which was raised by box office receipts, the City of Lyon, the French government, and private sponsors.

Among those honored at the festival was the Marquis de Cuevas. Les Grands Ballets du Marquis de Cuevas did much to popularize ballet in the 1940s and '50s. The company, privately funded by the marquis and his wife, who was a Rockefeller heiress, toured constantly, bringing glamorous theatrical productions to the people. The festival paid homage to the marquis in a triple bill program by the Ballet du Nord, whose director, Alfonso Cata, once danced with the de Cuevas company.

For the occasion, American choreographer John Taras was invited to restage his ballet ``Pi`ege de Lumiere'' (``Trap of Light''), which he originally created for the de Cuevas company in 1952. The unusual scenario includes swamps, convicts, and exotic predatory insects. It proved a great success for the Ballet du Nord, which danced it with drama and clarity.

Other performances were more modern. ``I love [Dominique] Bagouet, he is so intellectual in his work,'' said a fellow passenger on a bus en route to an evening of works by this popular contemporary artist. Bagouet's choreography certainly gives audiences much food for thought. Building on an obvious classical base, his dancers perform intriguing geometric shapes and forms with their whole bodies, along with inventive individual movements.

In ``Les Petites Pi`eces de Berlin,'' set in a huge waiting room, one man kept hopping up from behind wooden benches like the Mad Hatter; two girls did a variation of an Irish jig without traditional erect backs; and others sat facing each other and just fidgeted. Yet the action always arrested attention since it was never predictable. Nor was the audio tape, which leaped from sounds of jet planes and water to church bells, traffic, South American rhythms, and scraping noises.

A demonstration of the exercises linking baroque with 19th-century ballet were done with refinement to the strains of a violin. A condensed Reader's Digest version of Act 2 of ``Giselle,'' France's romantic classical ballet first performed in 1841, was danced by Elisabeth Maurin and Eric Vu-An, whose Albrecht blasted through the 19th-century choreography with 20th-century pyrotechnics. Patrick Dupond and his Ballet Fran,cais de Nancy recalled Nijinsky in a piece that delved into his turbulent mind, while Michel Kelemenis, in pin-striped brown bodysuit, paid another tribute to the legendary dancer of the Ballets Russes in ``Faune Fomitch,'' a contemporary and angular solo version of ``L'Apres-midi d'un faune.''

I was impressed with the performance of ``Aunis,'' a lilting traditional dance for three young men. Dressed in shirtsleeves, they moved gracefully and lightly to accordion music, joyously capturing the essence of dance.

Film highlights showed the queen of Paris music halls, Josephine Baker, prancing in ostrich plumes, and the boxer Al Brown, a friend of Cocteau, doing a balletic warm-up in the ring. Regine Chopinot's company ``Kok'' followed this idea of boxing by putting dancers in psychedelic shorts and huge red gloves. She kept them bouncing in fake combat while soprano Marie Atger in evening dress sang from Verdi's ``La Forza del Destino.''

The neat, tidy city of Lyons has many tourist attractions. The dance festival was something fresh for the chanticleer to crow about.

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