Torn clothes and shattered hopes: ‘Nicht Schlafen’ by Alain Platel & Les Ballets C de la B

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The piece reached its low point somewhere near the end, when one of the dancers pulled his briefs down and started fucking the dead horse that had been lying there all the time, legs wide open. It was not a scene depicting utter hopelessness or despair, it was a scene that stood for the lack of directorial vision I had been feeling for quite a while, watching Nicht Schlafen; at that point a piece that seemed not to know where to go anymore. Just do something, and it will be okay. Even fucking a horse.

Nicht Schlafen was conceived for the German Ruhrtriennale, and it finally brought two of Belgium’s great artists together. A choreographer and a visual artist who have been admiring each other’s work for quite some time: Alain Platel and Berlinde De Bruyckere. On stage you’ll see a sculpture by De Bruyckere: a couple of dead horses on a small wooden structure. Behind it: torn, rugged grey curtains creating a war zone atmosphere.

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It is a piece set to music by Gustav Mahler; fragments chosen by musical advisor and composer Steven Prengels, who also added soundscape-like fragments of breathing animals. Mahler was brought to Platels attention by the late Flemish opera director Gerard Mortier. At first Platel felt no affinities with the work of the Austrian composer, but he became hooked after he had read Philip Blomm’s The Vertigo Years – Europe 1900-1914. Platel was struck by the parallels between the period in which Mahler lived and ours.

A refugee camp. That’s the association that immediately springs to mind, as the piece starts. A thought that is also triggered by the fact that the group of dancers (all men, just one woman) consists of a wide variety of nationalities, and by the way they are dressed. Rather disappointingly Platel and Prengels immediately go for the sure Mahler-hit, the emotional crowd pleaser: that well-known Adagietto from Symphony N° 5.

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The choreography seemed to be going for the obvious too, by letting a fight erupt in the camp. But Platel manages to cleverly tweak it, by letting the dancers tear each others clothes apart and stretching the scene until there are almost no more clothes left to be torn. Beautiful as well: the way in which he makes the dancers simultaneously step in and out of a striking group choreography.

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As I was wondering curiously how he would take this piece further, and develop his ideas, Platel seemed to lose his grip. It felt as if just some coins were dropped in the Mahler-jukebox, and more than often the dancers just seemed to run around and do something, to fill up space and time. Often it looked as if scenes were merely a rearrangement of elements they had brought to the rehearsal process, thus building scenes on their skills, without lifting them to a next level. Surely, the shivering and shaking and madman’s voguing has become Platel’s trademark, but you can’t expect that to be the sole means to make an impression? Of course, two of the African dancers, who previously worked with Platel in Coup Fatal, got their solo spot, singing and dancing. And thus a touch of Africa was also mixed into Mahler.

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A scene with two dancers imitating some sort of horse fight seemed to go on and on. And it was obvious that sooner or later the body of one of the dancers would end up on top of the horses. But the fucking? By then Nicht Schlafen was hopelessly turning in circles, going nowhere at all. Many people were moved by this piece, some of the reviews told me afterwards. But Nicht Schlafen mostly made me sad and strangely enough even a bit angry: all the possibilities, all these talented people coming together, and then this? One thing though: if I was disappointed by Nicht Schlafen, it had nothing to do with the dancers. You have to admire them, for relentlessly giving it all they’ve got.

Short video trailer here. Tour schedule here.

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