Bacchu-Ber: Friends, Dances and Bread

I could barely sleep that night, like a child the day before Christmas, and woke almost and early, at 6am. I double and triple checked all my batteries for recorders and the papers for translations. I had some breakfast and played peek-a-boo with the kids. My mind was already up the hill, so I left the house early and half-walked, half-ran up to the road, past the stage by the bridge and over the hill to the society. I knocked on the door and was greeted by a tall man with white hair and glasses, “Jeremy? Welcome to us!” The society was actually a giant communal oven that used to be used by the village every fall to make the winter’s supply of bread. Now, the Bacchu-Ber society only baked a few times each year, on their day of dance and a few other holidays. They had kept the fire burning for three days straight to get the oven to the right temperature. 

As I walked in, they were clearing out all of the firewood and ash from the giant stone dome. After using a shovel to get the larger pieces out, they took turns going outside to dip cloth tied to a stick into a water channel running through a grate by the house. They then took this inside to “mop” the remaining embers into a large metal basket, before carrying the cloth, steaming and sputtering, back out again. I met the president of the society, a tall, powerfully built man who spoke no english but referred to himself as Obama of Bacchu-Ber.

A model of the headquarters given to the old president

Luckily, The man who had written to me spoke pretty good english and was extremely helpful in answering all of my countless questions. He also helped translate my questions to others and has promise to send me more of the Society’s archives. We went around the house and I asked about each picture, item, and of course about the dance.

Unfortuantely, no one has any good idea about what anything means or comes from. I guess I sort of expected this, but part of me also wanted to find some new clue or someone with more insight. They were very up front about the fact that they didn’t understand the rituals, costumes, or symbolism in the dance. I was told that the red sashes symbolize blood and sacrifice and that the dancers are not supposed to show any emotion or look at anyone outside of the dance for the duration of the performance. Most of the rest I had already learned from articles and books I had read, but being in the building, seeing old pictures, bacchu-ber dolls and figurines and the old tools for making bread and harvesting wheat was amazing! In the recent history of the dance, Frederick Aramund had recently taken over from Bernard Faure-Brac, who had led the society for 50 years. The dance had nearly died out some 10 years ago because they couldn’t find enough people who were willing to dance. The village has around 200 people in it, not all of whom were born there (which disqualifies them from dancing). While family lines persist strongly, the dance is by volunteer basis and the younger generation “wanted to go out, drink the beer, go to club. Not do this dance ” It seems that recently a new wave of dancers has stepped up and the talk of the dance dying out has subsided. The dance is passed down orally amongst the current dancers, with some older members of the society (who do not dance) contributing advice. They generally only reverse a few times in the weeks leading up to the dance, and when they need to teach new dancers.  

We baked the bread, cutting the top of the dough with razors before quickly shuttling them into the oven. After two batches of 32 loaves the temperature had dropped, so a small fire was made again. When the oven was ready again the men quickly pulled out the burning wood into a large metal container. It was a bit to early and the room became thick with smoke. As I filmed, ash covered the lens of the camera and the building was obscured. Working nearly blind, the rest of the coals and ash was swept into the bin and taken quickly outside. The bread still needed to be baked, so with eyes watering and smoke heavy in our throats the next batch of bread was cut and slide into the oven on a metal platter.

300 loaves later and people poured through the entrance, wanting to buy the bread. It was being sold for 2.50 euros, a incredibly high price for bread. Everyone was willing to pay, this was real bread, made the way it should. Bits were burnt, some was misshapen, some had a layer of ash baked onto it, but all was quickly bought. They could have made much more and the village would have bought it, remembering the ways that bread used to be made. As a reminder of this, a wooden pitchfork, flail and thresher were mounted around the room, shown to me by an old woman who claimed they were her grandmother’s. All were made out of wood, an abundant resource in the valley. Though no longer used regularly, the idea of the communal oven producing bread that was inherently different from regular bread was strong. “This is the bread that is lasting all winter,” I was told, “bread now will go bad, but it was made then in stronger ways. There is no bread as this now.” The society was using these funds to build a fountain in the Place d’Eglice. It used to be that every village had a fountain in their main square, but times had progressed and the fountain was distoried. The society saw it as their responsibility to build a new one in its place. 

The crowd had gathered outside, eating snacks and chatting. The village was a small one and everyone knew each other. I was asked the following questions by nearly every person I talked to: How did you find Bacchu-ber? Why do you come here? (On the internet, I am studying different forms of sword dance around Europe) Who are you staying with? (A doctor, he works in the Respatory clinic, you don’t know him, oh well) How old are you? (22)  They would then tell me one of two things: “I’ve lived her for 20 years and I’m still not on the inside of this village, my wife is from here but I wouldn’t be allowed to do Bacchu-Ber” or “I think that French people aren’t friendly enough to tourists” The first one was very interesting, but the second one I had to disagree with. Since everyone I had met had been very friendly, and nearly everyone drew my attention to the fact that they didn’t think other French people were friendly enough, I started pointing this out, which drew lots of laughter!

While taking pictures of an young alp horn player practicing nearby, I met another man taking photos. His name was Nicolas and spoke pretty good english and five minutes later we were back at his house talking about how the words hitchhike and hijack sound to french speakers over a cup of mint tea made with mint out of his garden. He is a ski guide and photographer and we talked for an hour or so about CSAs (AMAPs) and traveling before I went back up to the oven. 

Word had spread about my visit and studies and when I arrived I was quickly surrounded by people asking questions. I pulled out my computer and showed the video I had put together for my Watson application with a variety of sword dancing.

This made people even more interested and started a conversation of speculation as to how Bacchu-Ber fit in with the other dances. It also made people more interested in me with one very nice women offering me a place to stay after I left GuyRo’s house, and another inviting me over for lunch. I accepted both offers and had a lovely meal with Florence and Emmanuel Croux and their awesome children.

Recognize this game?

They lived in a very narrow five story house (typical of this village, no space so everything just goes up) that used to be a school for the area. When they bought it, it had been a barn, with animals on the lower parts and grain storage on the top. After we ate they taught me a traditional french game called Carrom. It is played with round wooden disks on a square board with holes in each corner. It is like pool, with one disk that is used to hit your respective colored disks into the holes. I played on a team with the younger son and we would have been severely trounced if i had not had to leave to go see the dancing!

Fifteen minutes before the dancing was due to start the square bustled with activity. The flowered wreath was hung above the stage and the elders in the village were helped into chairs erected by the stage, pieces of wood that had been laid out in front of the church. Wine had been passed out and everyone chatted and waited expectantly. Through all of this hustle and bustle four backpackers walked. Passing within a a few feet of where the garland hung, they gave but a second glance to the crowd all looking expectantly at a wooden stage. I couldn’t believe it; yes, i’m a total dork and sword dancing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but one would think that this strange scene would make almost anyone want to stick around to see what was going to happen. A little bit of curiosity goes a long way!

I staked out a spot standing on a wooden planter next to the church. A few more minutes and people began to point. A procession was coming up the street from the lower part of town where they had been waiting in the house of a dancer.

First came the children, in size order, small to large. Dressed in traditional outfits they made their way onto the stage, curving around in a circular procession. They were followed by the women, in similar traditional outfits. Next came the flag-bearer and the dancers, dressed all in white, with thick red sashes around their middles and black cravats on their necks. They were all in their 20s and 30s and were smiling and looking around as they made their way in the same circular pattern around the stage. One even wore sun glasses! The children had by this point left the floor and the women filed onto a bench as the crowd hushed. The men stiffened slightly as the women began to sing a repetitive, slightly discordant sounding melody that was called “La Dratanla.” The words are next to meaningless and when I asked the singers later, they informed me that “even grandmothers do not know…but it is very important for the dancing. You cannot dance without this music.” Indeed, every picture of rehearsal of the dance, and even one wood carving, showed the women present and singing. 

The nine dancers circled around with thick stomps, one-two-thre, one-two-three.  Upon completing the full circle, they faced each other and lowered their sword points to the ground. Suddenly, and in time with the music, the points of the swords were thrust into the middle and laid on the ground in a star shaped pile. The song repeated itself and one by one the dancers leaned down, drew their own sword from the cluster, and grabbed the point of their neighbors. They circled around and started to perform the figures of the dance, which in the first section mostly involved turning under a sword to form lines of dancers and eventually leading to all dancers having twisted swords.Unlike in longsword or rapper, with each person’s movements coming directly after the proceeding one, each dancer took an entire repetition of the dratanla before the next began. The flag-bearer stood by the women’s left the whole time. The crowd had very little reaction to the dance (I think I would be more correct to say that the reaction was silence) until a figure about half way through. Called the leve, a figure similar to a sword lock, familiar to longsword or rapper dancers, was made and in one motion a single man stepped into the middle, his neck surrounded by swords.  It was, however, constructed in a different way and only resembles the sword lock.

The dancers knelt with their left foot forward, dropping quickly down and standing back up several times, while the man in the middle stayed level with their motions. As soon as the lock was made around the man’s neck, the crowd (started by the older members) started cheering and clapping until it was completed. Upon completion, the dancers “broke character” for the first time, dropping swords looking around and talking. The music started up again and they were quickly back with unsmiling faces, stepping in the circle.  Actually, they ware unsmiling except for the fellow with sunglasses, who rather often wore a grin as they showed of the figures 🙂 They performed several more figures in the same manner as the first half, this time forming geometric patterns: two squares, three triangles, a triangle and a star, and a star and a square.

Each of these was turned in a circle one time and then unwound to a ring again. Each of the “show” figures brought applause, but it only matched the level of the lleve for the star and square. This seems to be one of the symbols of the dance, appearing in drawings, photos, and even sculptures a disproportionate amount and is considered to be “the hardest of the figures.”

The final figure unwound and the dancers formed a ring a final time. Their leader broke off and lead towards the crowd and again, the breaking of character was instant. The first dancer had just started to leave the stage when all of them relaxed and started milling about in the crowd. There was a brief pause with wine and conversation before the performers all reconstructed the procession from before, this time leading down the hill and to the larger stage. I had been told that the first performance was for “the village” and the second was for “tourists” but it became clear that this was a bit of exaggeration. The second venue was better attended, but it was also obvious that almost everyone was from the immediately surrounding area, and that the word tourist might just be used for people from a few hundred meters away.

The dance was performed again with similar audience response (although a bit more cheering throughout) I asked why these figures were cheered at, and got the simple answer “they are the best ones.” Fair enough. The dance is slow and fairly repetitive, so the lleve certainly stands out, and the shapes are rather exciting to see displayed. I really want to figure out why the star and square are so important though! Any thoughts?

After this second performance the children took the stage. Performing to recorded music, they danced with big smiles on their faces. The recording called out the names of the figures and then started the music. It ended with a long winding chain, with a few little girls joining in from the crowd! There was a group picture and then the performance was done, time for the sangria party!

Sangria was served while a DJ played music for various folk dances. Mostly the older people danced, but some young ones joined in too, coaxed by mothers, grandmothers, or adventuresome friends. The evening then turned to disco (yes, disco) and the younger generation had their turn. The grandmothers did not leave, but got down with their kids and grandkids. Awesome! I was told as the evening drew to a close that this was a good party, because it had not ended with a fight, as was usual. Most people attributed this to the two black security guards that had been hired for this purpose.

Later there were fireworks, which I watched from home with GuyRo’s kids. We also watched Yes Man, and I reaffirmed my belief that saying yes leads to good things. And wow, what good things they are!

Bon nuit,

Jeremy

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About Jeremy Carter-Gordon

My blog of a year studying point-and-hilt sword dancing on a Watson Fellowship. Enjoy reading, tell me your thoughts and leave me a comment, or visit my website at JeremyCarterGordon.com
This entry was posted in France, Sword Dance. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Bacchu-Ber: Friends, Dances and Bread

  1. gorlitski says:

    “The answer to how, is yes!” Peter Block

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