Aix en Provence is home to one of the world's leading choreographers, Angelin Preljocaj, whose company, Ballet Preljocaj, is based in its own stunning, purpose-built premises, the Pavillon Noir.
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The name Pavillon Noir is carefully chosen. It indicates a continuity with classic Aix pavillions such as the 17th century Pavillon de Vendôme or the Pavillon de Lenfant. The newcomer's severe and angular black outline contrasts dramatically - though attractively - with the gentle curves and ochre colours of these historic pavilions and the surrounding cityscape.
Pavillon noir is also the French word for the pirate flag, the Jolly Roger or skull and crossbones, and hints at the desire to be a maverick and anarchic element in the heart of the city.
Preljocaj, it seems, saw it as a struggle to secure his own premises and celebrated his victory by, metaphorically, planting his pirate flag on the land.
Preljocaj and his wife, Valérie Müller, have co-directed a film called Polina. Based on a bande dessinée (graphic novel), it's about a young ballerina at the Bolshoi in the early 1990s who abandons the greyness of Moscow and the strict classical approach of the Russian company for the freer contemporary dance style and more seductive life style of Southern France.
It's partly set and shot in Aix en Provence and Didier Creste, the producer, describes it as about "creation, success and the forming of a personality through the rigours of learning dance: a feel-good movie."
Polina stars the young Russian ballerina Anastasia Shevtzoda, pictured, and the cast also includes the French dancers Niels Schneider and Jérémie Belingard. The Oscar-winning actress Juliette Binoche plays a retired prima ballerina turned dance teacher, a character based loosely on Preljocaj.
Poliina attracted mixed, but mostly positive reviews when it opened in France in November 2016 and there has been widespread praise for Shevtsova's luminous performance. It already has a number of international film festival dates, so may well surface at some point at a cinema near you.
THE PAVILLON NOIR
The Pavillon Noir, or Black Pavilion is designed by Rudy Ricciotti, the starchitect who is also behind Marseille's new MuCEM (Musée national des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée). Inaugurated in October 2006, the Pavillon Noir won France's prestigious Grand Prix national de l'Architecture that year.
It sits on a residential side-street not far from La Rotonde (the big fountain at the bottom of the Cours Mirabeau) in the exciting contemporary arts hub of Aix en Provence.
It's surrounded by the Grand Théâtre de Provence, Cité du Livre library and literary archive, the Conservatoire de Musique et de Danse, designed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and the new, art-themed five-star Hotel Renaissance.
Ricciotti was faced with quite a challenge with the Pavillon Noir. The site is a tiny plot of land, just 18 x 35 metres / 60 x 115 feet, in a hilly, seismic area exposed to the Mistral wind and the noise of a nearby railway line.
The architect's bold solution was a stark, black external iron and concrete skeleton which holds the whole glass inner structure in its embrace (there are no inner load-bearing walls). The Pavillon Noir looks especially spectacular, mysterious and inviting when lit up at night.
Inside, it's surprisingly light and spacious. The Pavillon Noir makes the most of its height, cramming four dance studios, large open plan offices, a ticket sales point and reception area and a 378 seat theatre into its four storeys and 3,000 square metres / 32,300 square feet of space.
The Ballet Preljocaj is proud of its stylish multi-purpose home base and the company offers free guided backstage tours of it about once a month. You need to enrol for these, as places are limited, and must also indicate in advance if you require an English translation.
The tours take about an hour and what you see depends on which rooms are being used at the time of your visit. The aim is to cause minimal disruption to the dancers and so, for example, we were unable to see the Pavillon Noir's theatre, where a rehearsal was being held while we went round.
However, we returned to see one of Prelocaj's free public rehearsals there at a later date and can report that it's a sleekly minimalist, very well-designed performance space in the bowels of the building, with a steep seating rake that offers excellent sightlines.
The Pavillon Noir is the nerve centre of the Ballet Preljocaj and the visit begins in the ground floor reception area and offices, dominated by a huge illuminated "score", pictured, recording the moves for a ballet (Preljocaj uses the Benesh system of dance notation invented in the late 1940s).
Our guide explains that, in 1995, as part of France's push to make its culture less centred on the capital, many leading choreographers moved out of Paris. Preljocaj at first considered relocating to Toulon, but was put off by the rise of the ultra-right Front National party in that city and the likelihood of budget cuts and an unfriendly cultural climate.
Among the many invitations from other towns in the region, one unmissable opportunity stood out: Aix en Provence promised to construct a building especially for him, making Preljocaj one of a tiny handful of choreographers with his own purpose-built base.
Initially, while its own accommodation was being constructed, the Ballet Preljocaj's home in Aix was the Cité du Livre. It moved to the Pavillon Noir in 2006, where the company has been based ever since.
It consists of 26 permanent dancers and gives over 100 performances a year, both in Aix and on tour. The Ballet Preljocaj is part subsidised but also generates a substantial income itself from book and DVD sales (there's a little shop on the ground level of the Pavillon) as well as from an extensive touring programme.
Ascending the staircase to the rehearsal spaces on the first floor, you notice the names stencilled on the vertical risers of the steps. Any dancer who spends more than two years at the Ballet Preljocaj has his or her name recorded there.
The four rehearsal rooms are lit by lamps retrieved by the interior designer, Fred Rubin, from the Palace of the Republic in the former East Berlin; their spherical shape contrasts with the walls' sharp angles.
The largest rehearsal room, pictured, is on the third (top) floor and the glass windows on all sides allow the dancers inside to look out over Aix as they rehearse. And you, in turn, can watch them at work if you happen to be walking around the area.
As well as the guided tours, the Ballet Preljocaj has many other events, including regular open rehearsals, for which you can just turn up for without a ticket (entrance is free).
We went to one of these in 2012: it was a privileged peek at Preljocaj creating a new ballet, Les Nuits (The Nights) with six of his dancers. Slightly to our surprise, the session, in the Pavillon Noir's basement theatre, was jam-packed. So you're advised to turn up early if you want to get in.
There are many other events at the busy Pavillon Noir: sessions where you can observe Preljocaj, or one of his guest choreographers, at work in the studio creating a ballet, apéro-danses, at which you can have a drink and a chat with the dancers after the performance, dance classes and much more.
ANGELIN PRELJOCAJ: A THUMBAIL BIOGRAPHY
The son of a carpenter and a shepherdess who fled to France from Communist Albania, Angelin was born in 1957 in Sucy-en-Brie, just outside Paris, five days after his parents had arrived in the country.
The family spoke Albanian at home and Angelin now regards Balkan culture as a major influence.
As a child he loved judo and took lessons, but gradually became seduced by the rival attractions of dance and, like a real-life Billy Elliot, spent his judo money on secret ballet lessons instead.
In 1980 Preljocaj (pictured in a 2008 self-portrait) went to New York. There he spent two years studying at Merce Cunningham's school, then returned to France to work with Viola Farber. He started his own company in December 1984 and was very quickly noticed.
Today Preljocaj (his name is pronounced, roughly, prezh-oh-kahzh) has choreographed nearly 50 ballets in very many different styles, both classical and contemporary, but all intensely physical, instinctive and emotional.
They are very widely seen internationally as well as being performed regularly at the Pavillon Noir and the Avignon Festival.
His works include the controversial Annunciation (1992 and 2003), Helikopter (2001), utilising music by Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, a new version of The Rite of Spring (2001) and a flamboyant Snow White (2008), pictured.
Preljocaj's latest ballets are Ce que j'appelle oubli (2012), Les Nuits (2013), based on Scheherazade's One Thousand and One Nights, and the third installment of a trilogy called Empty Moves set to words and music by John Cage.
In 2015 Preljocaj created a new ballet, Retour à Berratham (Return to Berratham). It's a piece for nine dancers and three actors and mixes dance and spoken text: inspired by The Iliad, the subject is a man who returns from a war in search of his childhood sweetheart.
His new creation for 2016 is called La Fresque (The Fresco). It's based on a Chinese folk tale and designed for young audiences aged eight plus.