One big beating heart: singers and dancers, Verdi and Wagner, in ‘C(h)oeurs’ by Alain Platel
Funny how you have no power over the images your eyes have handed your mind. As I was watching the closing scene of C(h)oeurs – a huge group of people, seated at the back of the stage, opening and closing their hands, painted red, as one big beating heart – it seemed rather silly to me. Now, some days later, it’s the image that keeps on popping up in my mind. C(h)oeurs, by Alain Platel (Les Ballets C de la B) premiered in Madrid last year, and was presented as the opening of the new season at opera house La Monnaie/De Munt, Brussels. For those who have missed it: De Munt is streaming it on its website until September 30, here.
Looking straight at a tight butt, at two clenched buttocks. Call me old-fashioned, but the opening scene of C(h)oeurs made me sigh. Here we go again. Especially as I was seated at row three and I had no other option than to look straight at this guy’s back and butt, while he was slowly pulling a dress over his head. A sculpture of Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere. There was no denying whose work had inspired this image.
What followed got on my nerves too. Platel’s ten dancers – in red and white – had walked on stage with a piece of cloth in their mouths. After they had dropped it, it turned out to be underwear. Soon the dancers started shivering and shaking – in that well-known Platel style – and all too slowly tried to put those slips and briefs on. Get it over with, I wanted to shout, and move on to the next scene, please.
All this to make it clear that I’m not a die-hard fan of the Belgian choreographer’s style so many theatregoers absolutely adore. At several moments during C(h)oeurs Platel had me rolling my eyes. But on the other hand, you have to admit there is a gifted choreographer/director at work here, able to create impressive scenes with a large choir (72 members) and ten dancers. C(h)oeurs – meaning: choirs and hearts – was created at the request of Belgian opera boss Gerard Mortier, for Teatro Real in Madrid, in 2012. It combines the music of Verdi and Wagner.
The piece plays with ideas such as ‘group versus individual’, and mixes in images we see on the evening news every day. Shoes are being thrown, protesters show their placards, dead children are carried by a group of mourners; all that while two big speakers, the ones you imagine hanging in shelters, are ready to start the siren every moment. Most of the time the members of the choir walk around with a large big red dot on their chest, at the spot where their heart is. It accentuates that heart, but at the same time, it looks like a target: what to aim for in the first place.
‘In C(h)oeurs’, explains Platel, ‘Choir and dancers are the two sides of the same coin. The choir is voice, word, discourse, people, public, outside world. Dancers are body and pain, cry, big bang, animalism, unconsciousness, intimacy, prologue. They long for the same thing, but they try to reach it in different ways, through other channels. In this context, choir and dancers come together, they challenge each other, they contaminate each other.’
Some of the scenes were really too obvious (a dancer asking all people on stage to form groups, each time as an answer to a question, such as: ‘Those who are in love, form a group’), some of them annoying (a dancer walking and talking and throwing some philosophical thoughts at the audience: ‘If the feeling of hunger could be equally distributed over all the people on earth, wouldn’t that be a new beginning?‘) Some of them were more surprising. Such as the scene in which a dancer asked the members of the choir to look for the person which resembled them the most, and each duo (suddenly looking eerily similar) walked towards the audience.
As I left the opera house, I walked past a bunch of homeless people, seeking warmth underneath cardboard boxes, and I felt that strange contradiction of the safe indignation aroused by art, and the uneasiness provoked by real images, and I thought to myself: yes, I had spent a wonderful evening, but had C(h)oeurs really moved me? No. Is that a negative comment? No. By now I know that it has to do with aesthetics as well, and the way a thought is put into an image, and the way each individual perceives it differently. And I remembered reading that in Madrid, at the première, the audience reacted shocked to the way reality was brought into the safe place of an opera house.