Surrealism, social psychology, slapstick and semiotics … Pitié! (2008)
Founded on a dare and a joke, Les ballets C de la B is a cacophonous, many-headed dance-theatre collective whose performances careen between surrealism, social psychology, slapstick and semiotics. Coherence, needless to say, is not a priority – but that’s the world we live in.
It’s 1984, and Alain Platel, a 28-year-old Belgian educationalist working with disabled children, has been urged by an old teacher to go and see a ballet by Maurice Béjart. He does so, and thinks it’s terrible. They argue about it until the teacher throws a taunt to Platel: well I’d like to see you do better. Platel, whose theatre experience amounts to some amateur drama and dance he had done as a child, picks up the gauntlet and gives it a go.
Thus began Les Ballets C de la B, now one of the most influential dance theatre companies in the world. Platel got together with his sister and a friend – sniggeringly, they gave themselves the grandiloquent title of “Les Ballets Contemporains de la Belgique” – and produced a little performance in his loft in Ghent. An audience member happened to be from a new theatre festival; he invited the group to perform there, and they walked off with a special prize. Flush with success, they continued to create small-scale works on an ad hoc basis, with modest success. Then in 1993, a group of 30 international theatre programmers who were attending a festival in Amsterdam went by chance to see Platel’s piece Bonjour Madame. They loved it, and Les Ballets C de la B was catapulted to a new level, beginning to receive big tour bookings and to attract state funding (which was doubled in 1997).
Since then, the company has become a major international player. It is run as a collective, which encourages its performers to develop their own choreography, and several important artists have emerged from its stable, notably Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Its performers are diverse in age, nationality and training, and outside performers join in for particular projects – most unusually, the 65 babies for Christine de Smedt’s 9×9 in Rotterdam (the piece was performed with completely different casts in different cities between 2000 and 2005), even 14 dogs for Platel’s Wolf (2003).
Watching Les Ballets C de la B
An influential source of inspiration for Platel is German dance theatre icon Pina Bausch. Like her, he is interested in the performers as people. Like Bausch, too, his pieces are created collaboratively with a diverse set of performers (they draw on their personal experiences and skills to make the material), and are typically montages of different scenes loosely linked by a theme. There’s a lot of talking, but Platel pays notably more attention to music than Bausch, and frequently incorporates musicians (often singers) into his performances, as well as using classical scores including Bach, Mozart, and Monteverdi. The characters in Platel’s work are often outsiders and, like Belgian artist René Magritte, he can also make the normal surreal.
The characters in Platel’s work are often outsiders … Vsprs (2006)
This approach has become something of a house style: the choreographers nurtured within the collective, such as Cherkaoui, Koen Augustijnen and Lisi Estaras, have the same hallmarks, using similar means even though their ends may vary.
Expect diversity at a C de la B performance: you might see an aerialist, a ballerina, a contortionist and a countertenor all choreographed together; or themes that interweave war with shopping, or religious iconography with domestic life; or scenes that veer between violence, comedy and compassion. It’s a tricky balance to pull off, and sometimes the pieces can dissipate their own energy. But at its best, this multiplicity of means and media can give flashes of insight into our own selves and panoramic views of the spectacle of our lives.
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, now an independent performer and choreographer, trained with C de la B … Foi (2003)
Other than Platel, C de la B’s main choreographers have included Cherakoui and Hans van den Broeck (both now independent), and current company members Augustijnen, De Smedt and Estaras. Guy Cools and Hildegard De Vuyst have often worked as dramaturges with the collective.
Pumba, a tiny papillon dog who featured in Platel’s Wolf, was famous for shamelessly diva-ish behaviour at curtain calls. The little pooch would stand in front of the dancers and milk the applause, and would exit slowly with a mock-modest backwards glance, as if reluctant to abandon his adoring public. It was such a performance that the audience would often burst into more applause, and Pumba would return, graciously, for a another bow.
In their own words
“You can only go forward, make something new, by trying out fusions and letting things evolve. That is the way dance can speak.” – Alain Platel, interview with Sarah Frater, Evening Standard, 2004
“I seek everything that unites people rather than what divides them, even if I insist that everyone keeps his own personality.” – Platel, L’Humanité, 2006
“If some people are upset, well, it is not my intention. Maybe when you’re younger you’re into provocation; now, no, not really. It doesn’t mean you should be bland.” – Platel, interview with Jim White, Telegraph, 2006
In other words
“One of the hallmarks of C de la B productions has been the way they take tough subjects and imbue them with wit and life-affirmation.” – Luke Jennings, Observer, 2007
“Platel often sets his works to noble music – Purcell or Bach – and this has the unexpected effect of giving his characters lyric flight without sentimentalising them.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 1999
“The key to its success is Platel’s flair for picking performers who can bring vulnerable nutters to life in a series of heartbreaking and hilarious vignettes, and to create a dramatic progression that seems to exist independent of narrative.” – Louise Levene, Independent, 1998
“I could do better than that.”
(It worked for Platel; why shouldn’t it work for you?)
“Performing dogs? Like Britain’s Got Talent?”
Pina Bausch was one of Platel’s first inspirations. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Wim Vandekeybus are often cited with Platel as the foremost of a wave of influential choreographers who emerged from Belgium in the 1980s. Cherkoui, Ted Stoffer and Van den Broeck are established choreographers who were nurtured by Les Ballets C de la B.
Now watch this
Platel’s Wolf (2003). Pumba (see Fact, above) appears at about 1 min 15, snuggling in the cleavage of dancer Raphaelle Delaunay
Foi (2003) by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Film-maker Sophie Fiennes talks about Platel, with clips from his piece Vsprs (2006)
Patchagonia (2007) by Lisi Estaras
Ted Stoffer’s Aphasiadisiac (2008)
Where to see them next
See the Ballets C de la B website for performance dates.