To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, Theodor Adorno once famously said, and everyone found it on Wikiquotes and went on to wilfully misunderstand it. It’s not so much the act of writing poetry that’s barbaric, but to write, inescapably, within the same systems and cultures that produced Auschwitz, is a form of participation in those systems. Poetry will always fail in the face of such unspeakable, inarticulable horrors; its barbarism is its complicity, even when trying to escape or interrogate that complicity. I think, anyway. It’s been a long time since my last critical theory class.
The same possibility for total confusion about intention abounds in les ballets C de la B’s nicht schlafen, which draws its inspiration from the desolation and death of the early twentieth century, leading up to the First World War, and the works of Gustav Mahler which expressed some preoccupation with these years. nicht schlafen, then, deals with disruption of form, of foundations crumbling and massed bodies turning violent. Certainly, some of these ideas surface in the piece.
I think, anyway. I mean, there are a pile of larger-than-life dead horses in the middle of the stage, it opens with the nine performers (eight men and one woman) literally tearing the clothes off one another while shrieking and grunting, and at one point everyone turns towards the audience and starts burping. Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor, epic and familiar, is disrupted by an aural overlay of cowbells and lowing animals. nicht schlafen certainly evokes chaos and uncertainty. But is it doing it deliberately, or is it just fucking about?
Does nicht schlafen, like all poetry, ultimately fail, unable as it is to express in loaded language the essence of the unsignifiable? From a purely artistic rather than philosophical point of view, it definitely loses momentum about two thirds of the way through. But, before it starts to pall (the piece is an hour and forty minutes without an interval), the irrepressibly avant garde Alain Platel is clever, flexible and funny in the way he tackles his themes.
The nine dancers come from a broad range of disciplines, and they react to the choreography in different ways. After beginning by tearing one another’s clothes off and dressing themselves like punk rock Lost Boys in the shredded remnants, Platel has the dancers perform together like a post-apocalyptic corps de ballet. The ragged corps all embody a similar antediluvian yearning – trembling balletic extensions, soft unisons – but, as some of them literally wrench their legs, with their hands, into high développés or arabesques, and others fall loosely out, it is clear that all is not unified, much less reliant on the language of traditional dance.
The relationships evoked by the dancers are changeable, mutating from scene to scene, sometimes aggressive, sometimes flirtatious, sometimes comforting. A particularly brilliant choice is to partner the compelling, witty and physically articulate Elie Tass with the stoic and fluid Boule Mpanya. Tass winds himself about Mpanya, climbing over his limbs, standing on his shoulders, hanging off his body and licking his hand, in a hilarious duet of dependency. In the background, a lyrical duet between David Le Borgne and Romain Guion expresses a similar winding symbiosis – but they aren’t spotlighted, and you have to tear your eyes away from Tass’s wicked, self-deprecating gurns to spot them. Platel makes his audience work for the quieter revelations.
The triumphant centrepiece, apart from the horse corpse mountain, is Boule Mpanya and Russell Tshiebua’s gorgeous sung duet, which is punctuated by ankle bells and rhythmic stamping from the rest of the ragtag corps. What’s it doing there? Why include two singers/musicians in a dance theatre piece? It might be because, hailing from Kinshasa in the DRC, Mpanya and Tshiebua bring with them the provocation necessary for a predominantly white audience in a country where there have been no major land wars in decades to reflect, forcing them to consider a late twentieth century conflict just as devastating and morally nonsensical as the First World War. Or it might be because Platel does whatever he wants in his pieces and he wanted some singing. The jury is out.
Philosophically, does nicht schlafen fail? I have fortunately written enough of a critical review that I no longer have the word count for a philosophical essay. It’s a discomfiting pleasure to watch, even if it does tend to leave the audience more amused than strictly engaged. It is bizarre, and there’s no escaping that. But art about devastation must sometimes confront the bizarreness inherent in survival: we couldn’t, we surely couldn’t, and yet, in our myriad forms, we do.
les ballets C de la B were performing at Sadler’s Wells. Click here for more details.