O mia patria si bella e perduta. Oh, my country, so lovely and lost. It’s an extract from “Va pensiero”, better known as the slave chorus from Verdi’sNabucco, probably one of the most popular opera themes ever. My father used to sing it on top of his lungs: “Überall auf der Welt scheint die Sonne”. In Nabucco it’s about the slaves mourning their lost homeland. Today, it’s the citizens who no longer feel that their country belongs to them and want to take it back. During a representation at the Rome opera on March 12, 2011, conductor Riccardo Muti performed a sublime act of cultural resistance by addressing the public, including PM Silvio Berlusconi from the orchestra pit, during the expected encore. Very calmly, Muti said that he, as an Italian who has travelled a lot around the globe, was ashamed of what was going on in Italy. “If I accede to your request for an encore, it’s not just a surge of patriotism, it’s because while I was listening to the choir, I was thinking that if we go on like this, we will destroy the culture Italy was built on. In this instance, our country is literally lovely but lost.” He also added that he had been silent for too long. Then he asked the choir to resume the song and he asked the public to sing along. It was one of the most powerful expressions of civil outrage, one of the many which surfaced before our eyes in 2011. The manifesto Indignez-vous, written by 93-year-old Stéphane Hessel, was published in October 2010; since then, indignation is in the air, from the Arab spring, to the Indignados, Occupy Wall Street and the street protests in Greece. This is the context in which C(H)OEURS saw the light.
The title C(H)OEURS refers to hearts and choirs. Alain Platel previously made two major event productions with choirs: the opening of the Roundhouse in London (2001) and the opening of the renovated theater of the Royal Flemish Theatre (KVS) in Brussels (2006). People sing together for very different reasons: because they live in the same street or they come from the same region, because they’re gay, because they’re fighting against injustice, because they’re Jewish or deaf. But they do that in their own little corner. By bringing together a very diverse choir, a city’s diversity becomes audible. You provide an important symbolic space to the community with the message: everyone is welcome here. These were highly-prized happenings by those who were lucky to be there, and which opened the way for Platel to work on a production in which the choir is central.
Besides the choir on stage, a group of ten dancers which Platel has brought together for C(H)OEURS with a narrow majority of old faithfuls. With them, Platel explored a whole range of spastic, cramped, impulsive, hysterical movements – Platel calls it the beauty of ugliness – which he wants to use as an actual movement language. In vsprs, it was the language of self-loss; in Out of Context - for Pina it was about self-fulfilment. Can you really say everything with this set of movements? Also outrage? Can you carry an uprising? Can you reinvent society? Can you generate a reversal? And what is it made of? Anyway, for Platel, it all begins in the rehearsal room. If you’re not able to provide a workable place for the “otherness” of each individual, then you should not be making a big fuss on the outside about change. Politics start in the intimacy of living together. In the living room. At the workplace.
The choir is the perfect musical constellation in which the individual voice must merge into a larger whole. Today, after the absolute reign of individualism, people are longing and pleading for a deeper bond. They no longer look for that bond in well-defined socio-economic groups, in women’s associations or trade unions. A neighbourhood, an amateur choir, a Facebook group or a casual group of volunteers meeting on Saturday morning, to work as stand-in for the choir of C(H)OEURS, these are the ties that people are now looking for, in which diversity and pluralism are central assets.
According to Marguerite Duras, it’s the big mistake of all ideologies, left or right: to think that one cleaning lady equals another; that one Flemish guy is like another one. She hated that simplistic generalization about people in all ideologies, that uniformization based on similar activities. C(H)OEURSis situated in this tension space: unique versus unisono, individual versus group.
In C(H)OEURS, choirs 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.
The symbol of C(H)OEURS is the open mouth. The vocal citizen? Or the silent cry? The silenced mouth? The fist in the mouth to silence oneself? Like Riccardo Muti, have we been silent for too long? The open mouth from which no language comes out, only sounds. Wanting, but not being able to articulate. Not being able to say it. Animal-like sounds or a siren. But also the inarticulate sound of the worldwide protest, the lack of a well-defined alternative. This open mouth also snaps and bites, looking for food. A fierce and instinctive bite, like a baby grabbing a nipple. Biting out of love, the counterpart of the romantic kiss. Tangling with each other, falling on each other. But also the open mouth of the singer.
“Are you sure that you’re really interested in the survival of the human race, when you and everyone you know is gone?”(Max Frisch, Lastige Vragen, 1966-1971).
In C(H)OEURS, questions are asked to the 84 performers and the answers appear in the form of a movement. This ‘social choreography’ was introduced by Christine De Smedt, another choreographer from les ballets C de la B, as a way of making large groups of non-professionals perform instant choreographies. It is a way of thinking that comes from the performance art. It breaks down the strict barrier that’s usually separating professionals from amateurs, between artists and activists, between private and public, between performers and spectators. Platel already flirted with these boundaries at the end of Out of Context - for Pina. One of the dancers expressly asked the public: who wants to dance with me? No matter the answer, this question reveals the entrenched relationships, dynamites uncompromising roles, and throws cultural agreements overboard. There are no longer passive spectators, only potentially active participants. Choreography as the aesthetics of change.
Is change really possible? The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek reflected on that issue on 9 October 2011 on Liberty Plaza New York in front of the Occupy protesters. Among other things, he said this: that today the possible and the impossible are distributed in a peculiar way. At the level of personal freedom and technical progress, everything is possible, any form of perverse sex, or travelling to the moon. We have dreams of immortality through the storage of our identity in a computer program. At the level of social and economic relations, nothing is possible; no industrial action or no preservation of the welfare state. Cults are presented as laws of nature. As if we couldn’t do anything else. Slavoj Žižek advocated the inversion of the coordinates of the possible and the impossible. Maybe not reach immortality, but rather promote solidarity and healthcare. The team of C(H)OEURS finds Slavoj Žižek inspirational, and certainly not because he delivers his ideas in lisping splashes, while spitting saliva and manically plucking his clothing, and in general does not deserve any price for eloquence.
Wagner and Verdi are not natural allies, but at least they shared one common ambition: contribute to the inversion of the coordinates. In their times, it was the reinforcement of national pride. We have difficulties imagining that. For us, a nation is a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours (courtesy of Karl Deutsch 1969). But at the time of Wagner and Verdi, Italy and Germany were born as bigger units for many separate little states, kingdoms, duchies and more. You would have to go as far as the European Union to find a revolution of this type.
This quest for a larger entity without losing individuality, for politics without losing intimacy, for eloquence with speech problems, it’s the quest that animates C(H)OEURS.