Dramatic, Unsettling Performance from Les Ballets C de la B

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bach, Zmijewsky, Maklakievitsh, Vivaldi, Mozart, Alain Platel’s tauberbach:  Les ballets C de la B, Sadler’s Wells, London, 9.4.2014 (J.O’D)

Concept & Direction: Alain Platel
Created & Performed by: Bérengère Bodin, Elie Tass, Elsie de Brauw, Lisi Estaras, Romeu Runa, Ross McCormack
Dramaturgy: Koen Tachelet, Hildegard De Vuyst
Musical Direction, Soundscapes & Additional Music: Steven Prengels
Lighting Design: Bartold Uyttersprot
Set Design: Alain Platel, les ballets C de la B
Costume Design:Teresa Vergho


There was stunned silence in the Sadler’s Wells auditorium when the lights came up on Alain Platel’s tauberbach. The six dancer-actors in this physical theatre work stared out from different parts of the stage, ankle-deep in pieces of clothing that covered every inch of the space around them (and some of the space above them, too). It was bewildering, also claustrophobic, to see a dance stage in this state of chaos and disarray. The sound of a fly buzzing on soundtrack added to the sense of ruin and decay. (Some comfort was to be found in the realization, seconds later, that the various garments, though crumpled, were brightly-coloured and clean.) In a way, the piece begins with its own climax. From a dramatic point of view nothing else (though the ending comes close) has quite the same power.

After immediately flouting the conventions of dance again by falling to the floor, the six performers begin to extend their arms and legs as if they were plants emerging from soil. The body, and the way it moves, can not be taken for granted. It is two of the men, in particular, who are made most strange. One bends and arches his torso as if there were no spine to support it. (Alain Platel, the programme tells us, worked for five years in a cerebral palsy centre.) Another picks his way among the clothing like an animated bird, moving his head as if it were on a stalk rather than a neck. While they do this, an older woman who could be their mother speaks: ‘I didn’t shit this house. I had to work for it.’ Sometimes she is answered by a distorted, disembodied voice. It could be the voice of God. The music of J.S. Bach, which replaces the buzzing of the fly, suggests the religious, and a sense of order that is in sharp contrast to the world depicted on the stage (‘tauberbach’ means ‘deaf Bach’). ‘My ear is not a toilet, sucker!’ the woman says to the voice at some point later on. She, at least, sees it as fallible.

The work is divided into sections that are separated by fades to black. The tone darkens as the performers appear in fewer and fewer items of clothing, or no clothing at all. It is not the nudity that the show ‘contains’ which disturbs; it is what the performers do when they are nude. It is definitely not, here, a question of uttering a half-ironic ‘Oh, my word!’, as the woman sitting next to me did during Boston Ballet’s matinée performance of Jiří Kylián’s ‘Bella Figura’ at the London Coliseum last summer. This nudity (and it is only the men who are ever completely nude) is a more serious affair – of flesh rather than skin.

As the work progresses some sequences, however impressive, seem overextended. I began to feel that the dancer-actors of the self-mockingly titled les ballets c de la b were doing something, at length, simply because it was what they happened to do best. (I felt this most strongly when, after one such sequence, the audience erupted into cheers and laughter, as at a ‘turn’.) The piece could be tightened up, or shortened. Despite this, in the final moments the six performers regain a sense of the dramatic and the unsettling.

John O’Dwyer

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