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Alain Platel / les ballets C de la B

When Alain Platel founded his ‘les ballets C de la B’, the organisation was something of a phenomenon in the dance landscape of the time. This was due to its eclectic, often popular as well as surrealist mix of contemporary dance, theatre and music. The company's name alone, which openly pokes fun at Maurice Béjart’s then leading, slightly pompous ‘Ballet van de XXe eeuw’, indicates that Platel and his company were not so keen on overly pretentious art. Indeed, Platel often works with amateurs to create pieces through improvisation, which offer a glimpse into the world and feelings of 'ordinary', 'real' people. In doing so he displays a preference for the weaker fellow man, for all those who have to fight to make ends meet or are already emotionally overburdened. The resulting work bears as much resemblance to mime as it does to dance theatre. Platel wants his work to appeal to a wide audience, not just the happy few, and therefore often opts for direct visual language, with words and gestures that seem to have been plucked right off the street. It has earned him many loyal followers.

This 'democratic' approach also emerges in his organisation. Platel still surrounds himself with other makers, who are given the opportunity to create their own work at les ballets. Les ballets C de la B was the home base of - among others - Christine De Smedt, Hans Van den Broeck, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Koen Augustijnen for varying periods of time. Unlike virtually all other dance companies, les ballets was more of a collective work platform than an organisation built around a single choreographer, even if Platel remains the leading figure.

Platel wants his work to appeal to a wide audience, not just the happy few, and therefore often opts for direct visual language, with words and gestures that seem to have been plucked right off the street.

Throughout his career, Platel remained faithful to his basic approach, but his idiom and the means he employed were to change considerably.  

A piece such as Emma (1988) reveals the 'early' Platel. This work tells the story of Emma, a writer who suddenly achieves success but then becomes totally hysterical when she discovers that she will never be able to live the lives of her characters. The piece tells the story in an associative manner, with many surrealistic, often comic notes. The fact that the performers are semi-professional is barely concealed, and is used as an asset, making the story extremely easy to identify with.

In 1993, the oeuvre acquired a more contemplative and more serious tone with Bonjour Madame, even though Platel applied the same working procedures. The piece demonstrates, in lots of short scenes, the suffering that can lurk behind the most ordinary of acts, such as a simple greeting. La Tristeza Complice (1995) also marks a turning point. He depicts ordinary people in this piece too, with all their misery, hope and abandoned fantasies. In contrast with the incredibly chaotic, but consequently true-to-life events on stage, he positions the live performance of music by Purcell as a moment of comfort, a refuge for wounded souls. The piece was an immediate international hit and led to a whole series of works in which Platel combined images of poor wretches taken from reality with solemn, classical music. In this endeavour he increasingly called on trained dancers. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, still very young at the time, but nevertheless extremely talented, appeared in Iets op Bach (1998), Platel's masterpiece of the 1990s. Herein Platel succeeded in convincingly representing the urban reality on stage. He depicted the anarchy of the street, with its web of relationships, emotions and affairs in a seemingly unfiltered fashion. Not a particularly uplifting portrayal, until Bach's unctuous notes begin to resonate.

In contrast with the incredibly chaotic, but consequently true-to-life events on stage, he positions the live performance of music by Purcell as a moment of comfort, a refuge for wounded souls.

During the same period he also worked on a triptych with Arne Sierens that convincingly portrayed the seamy side of life. Moeder en kind (1995), Bernadetje (1996) and Allemaal Indiaan (1999) are unparalleled slices of life. Meanwhile Platel had left the simplicity of his first works far behind with regard to the sets: a production like Bernadetje took place in a replica of a fairground stall. Touring with this kind of production involves highly complex logistics. In spite of all the success, or perhaps precisely because of it, after Allemaal Indiaan Platel announced that he would stop creating for an undefined period. In his own words, for the time being he had no stories left to tell. He travelled to Palestine where he not only found inspiration for many of his later socially committed performances, but also concluded partnerships and exchange projects with Palestinian artists and theatres.

Wolf also marked the point at which Platel definitively surrounded himself with an absolute first-rate cast, which were able to bring his wildest fantasies to life.

In 2003, none other than Gerard Mortier was able to convince Platel to create a new production for ‘his’ Ruhrtriennale. It was Wolf (2003). No expense was spared for this production. However, Platel did return to his trusted themes and locations. Bert Neumann's set decor fittingly evoked, for example, a miserable city landscape, which was suspiciously similar to the Brussels Ravenstein Gallery, though with a karaoke bar. This time Platel turned to Mozart for music, but blended it with contemporary pop songs and tear-jerkers. Together with Sylvain Cambreling, Klangforum Wien and three female singers, he made a valiant attempt to allow the audience to hear, see and especially feel that the emotional imagery of Mozart is still meaningful. Wolf also marked the point at which Platel definitively surrounded himself with an absolute first-rate cast, which were able to bring his wildest fantasies to life.

After Wolf, Platel steadily continued to create new, grand productions in an international context, focusing on these same themes. Each time music, and classical music in particular, played a major role. Examples include vsprs (2006) and pitié! (2008), both created in association with the conductor-composer-musician Fabrizio Cassol, or the more recent C(H)OEURS (2012), to the music of Wagner and Verdi. This work is not so much dance theatre as an exploration of the emotionally liberating power of collective singing.

However, Platel still enjoys collaborating with other artists. He developed a bond with the musical director Frank van Laecke that was almost as close as the one he previously enjoyed with Arne Sierens. Together they created Gardenia (2010), a musical about aging transvestite artists. He toured for years with incredible success. More recently there followed En avant, marche! (2015) at NTGent, a captivating portrait of life in and around a Flemish brass band.

However, Platel delivered perhaps his greatest work after the turn of the century in a far more modest context. In Nine finger (2007) he directed Fumiyo Ikeda and Benjamin Verdonck in an extremely suggestive, but never demonstrative adaptation of the book ‘Beasts of No Nation’ by the former African child soldier, Uzondinma Iweala. Out of context - for Pina (2010) was even more powerful. For the first time in years, Platel set to work as a pure choreographer. His dance conjures up the loneliness and despair of people that lose themselves in a society whose only value is glamour. The choreographer achieves this without too many references to specific situations, unlike in his major productions. He lets line dancing spill over into pure desperation and vice versa. With his distinctive style this had an alarmingly significant emotional impact.

Author:
Pieter T’Jonck

Pieter T’Jonck is a civil engineer-architect and publicist for De Morgen newspaper and diverse publications at home and abroad. He writes about dance, theatre, visual art and architecture. T’Jonck is also an adviser to DasArts in Amsterdam.