Lausanne’s free festival with priceless performances

Lausanne has been the official Olympic capital for 30 years, but for longer than that, the hilly Swiss city has been staging a summer spectacle with a dizzying array of artistic, rather than athletic, disciplines. This year’s line-up for the Festival de la Cité – the 52nd edition – features more than 80 shows over six days, ranging from wildly contrasting styles of circus, dance and theatre to a participatory street parade and a music programme that includes choirs, screamo, reggaeton, jazz, post-punk and gabber. And that’s without even mentioning Swiss-American yodeler Erika Stucky, who will perform in the city’s 13th-century cathedral with Johannes Keller on organ.

Audiences are pushed out of their comfort zones as each show is free on these predominantly open-air stages that converge on the historic old town. Each performance is a gateway to another, hopes Martine Chalverat, who became artistic director in 2022 and previously ran the Visions du Réel documentary film festival in nearby Nyon.

Theatregoers might come to the Festival de la Cité for a particular show or to see a big-name artist, she explains, but then stay for something “a little bit edgier.” You might come for the anarchic street theatre show Splatsch! and stay for Swiss trap musician Fuji, Irish electronica band Yard or end the night by seeing the amazing Afrorave star Toya Delazy. The programme features emerging and established acts alike. “A lot of artists are coming back with a new project,” says Chalverat. Brazilian choreographer Alice Ripoll, whose favela dance party Zona Franca is on Saturday, has been coming since she was a rising star. “It’s nice for us and for our audiences to have these relationships with the artists,” says Chalverat. The fact that every show is free is a nice equalizer for the acts, and a great deal for the audience too: when Zona Franca was at London’s Southbank Centre last year, tickets started at £20.

The key to programming performing arts events, says Chalverat, is an understanding of the places where they are presented. This year’s stages have appeared in the shadow of the imposing, turreted Château Saint-Maire; on the Bessières Bridge, with the city as a backdrop; and in the open spaces of the landscaped Hermitage Park. Some shows in these cluttered locations fill up quickly on a first-come, first-served basis, but there are several viewpoints nearby — and if you arrive too late to see the dreaded completely sign, many productions have more than one performance.

“The intersection between the artwork, the audience and the architecture of the place is very important,” says Chalverat. “We always think, where can we imagine this work in Lausanne?” It requires some out-of-the-box thinking in the programming. On Friday and Saturday, the festival presents Florencia Demestri and Samuel Lefeuvre’s Troisième Nature, which was performed last year at the Charleroi Dance Biennale and is performed primarily with the couple wrapped in a huge, shiny cloth that changes shape in whimsical ways. It’s one of the most moving duets I’ve ever seen. In Charleroi, where both Chalverat and I saw it, the show was performed indoors under artificial lights. In Lausanne, it’s being performed outdoors in two different locations.

About 80% of the festival’s shows were originally made for a black box theater with lighting. “Here we don’t have a black box and for [some shows] it’s daytime.” The fast turnaround time required for the main stages also determines the programming. The walk-in for each show has to be fast, so that there are no overly complicated sets. Chalverat learned a lot from the technicians in her first year about what works well.

Then there’s the weather to contend with. On the night I’m there, a persistent downpour means the best show I see, Vilain Chien by the French company La Generale Posthume, is postponed. That means there’s a kind of preparatory performance as the team happily mop and dry the stage. This is a new company, but their camaraderie is quickly established in a show whose jovial choreography is built around hugs and clasped hands, with the dancers also taking turns playing music. There’s a brilliantly surreal scene in which a performer – holding pom-poms and wearing a coat with a smiling Keeshond portrait – mimics the gyrations of an inflatable sky dancer.

With an accompanying narration from a host, the show focuses on two concerns: our domestication of dogs and expectations of circus. In other words, not just how humans tame their animals, but how we want our fellow humans to look, behave, and perform onstage. It turns those expectations on their head, finding amusing parallels, including between a dog’s “playing dead” trick and an actor’s grandiose death scene. When I later run into the company, I see that they have their own dog, a cute, wiry little thing whose breed they haven’t yet determined. The show itself defies categorization. By the end, that stage—now covered in confetti, crumbs, and burst balloons—needs to be cleaned one more time.

There’s a similarly irreverent and jubilant vibe to Baoum!, created by Coline Garcia for French company SCoM. It’s performed by acrobat Viviane Miehe and beatboxer Thibaut Derathé, aka Oxyjinn, both barefoot and dressed in shades of pink and purple. Miehe arrives and climbs through the audience to do a headstand in the front row; Derathé looks on with a sound console strapped to his chest. Balloons are given to the young audience and are used throughout the act, with both Miehe’s movements and Derathé’s sounds alternating between inflated and deflated states. Whether it’s Derathé beatboxing, Miehe spinning her legs in the air like the hands of a clock, or the two of them moving across the stage with a balloon between their foreheads, there’s plenty here for young audiences to try at home.

Many locals have a long-standing relationship with the festival – some who attended in their youth now bring their own children. For its 50th edition, the festival asked the public about their memories and found out how many couples had met there. The programming starts at 5pm each day, with the first shows often packed with children who have just split up for the school holidays, staying up late with parents who might not have as much to worry about with the morning routine.

How does Chalverat decipher what her audience wants? Through surveys, social media and, she stresses, by having members of the team present at every performance to gauge reactions, including whether it was a good fit for that particular stage and time slot. She’s used to fielding responses from seasoned festivalgoers asking, for example, when New Orleans jazz will be performed again or if stand-up acts will be back.

As an outdoor event, the weather is of great importance, as rain can also damage the bar revenue, which accounts for almost a third of the income. The festival is a private foundation and receives public funding from the city of Lausanne and the canton of Vaud, committed to three-year periods. The energy crisis, inflation and the rising cost of touring have all had an impact recently. “All the costs go up, but we have no additional income because we don’t have ticket prices [to increase].”

The contracts also required costly, essential sustainability and access improvements for the festival. Chalverat highlights the challenges of presenting work in public spaces. She has just learned that a street in the area will be closed next year while the cathedral is in a state of ongoing renovation: “so we can’t plan more than a year ahead.”

In the cathedral, Femke Gyselinck’s Belgian show Change of Plans is performed to a jazz saxophone score at sunset, composed and played by Adia Vanheerentals and keys played and composed by Hendrik Lasure. Gyselinck dances with Zanne Boon and Oskar Stalpaert in a piece co-produced by Ghent-based disability arts organization Platform-K. Stained glass windows complement the splashes of color in some of the trio’s costumes, which hang from a rail and are occasionally tried on and taken back, as the dancers tackle a handful of strikingly different routines. It could be a metaphor for the festival, where audiences come and go, re-watching each piece. Fomo is big with overlapping shows on the program, and because everything is free, there may be less obligation to stay for the whole show.

Lausanne’s grand theatres lie on the other side of the city and are not used by the festival. But even the bridge that separates them has a performance, with an audience watching from a sloping triangular platform. Précieuses has the odd French quartet La Bête à Quatre performing their own technical feats, building human towers to an opera recording and trying to outdo each other on a seesaw. They have hay strewn across their temporary stage, but the sky is the main backdrop, as in so many shows here. In this striking setting, the acrobats really do have their heads in the clouds as they achieve the improbable.

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