The new production of director Alain Platel uses the work of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler as its starting point, as proposed by Gerard Mortier. It wasn’t love at first sight for Platel, although he eventually became totally captivated by the music. Initially, he did feel a particular affinity with the era Mahler expresses in his work: an age of great acceleration and disruption leading up to the First World War. Together with composer Steven Prengels and musical dramaturgist Jan Vandenhouwe, Platel browsed his oeuvre, at first only picking the slow pieces, before finally changing tacks and opting for the nervous and high-contrast work. The final selection draws upon all of the symphonies, with the except of the 8th.
Composer Steven Prengels sporadically manipulates Mahler, adding contrast with the polyphonic chants of Boule Mpanya and Russell Tshiebua and herding in sounds of cowbells or sleeping animals - recordings Platel was given by K49814 (code name) who has made a life's work of the registration of sleeping animals (http://atmenohnepause.org).
Two songs complement the orchestral work: a text by Nietzsche in "Also sprach Zarathustra": "O Mensch," which Nietzsche himself labelled a dance song. The other song is from a choral work from the 2nd symphony and runs through the performance like a leitmotif: "Hör auf zu beben, Bereite dich zu leben". By way of contrast, a cantata by Bach can be heard briefly: "Den Tod nobody Zwingen kunnt". This sets the scene and the big themes: day and night, life and death, lust and suffering.
Platel shares his love for the big themes of suffering and death with visual artist Berlinde De Bruyckere. Their admiration is mutual and De Bruyckere agreed to design and realize the set for "nicht schlafen". The decor hones in on three dead horses-bodies, piled onto a pedestal, as a silent reminder of something. It's an almost obscene image of contorted, interlocking corpses, stifled in an eternal embrace. The corpses are riddled with holes, like the blanket which surrounds the scene. The blanket harks back to the security of childhood, but the mold and holes tell a different story. What catastrophe, what struggle of attrition has occurred here?
In between the many pictures on the wall of the rehearsal room – images meant to inspire costumes or improvisations – there was a photograph of the Dutch company Schwalbe: a player is lying on the floor, his clothes being ripped off by two other players, each pulling to one side. The fight inspired by the photograph, in all its performative power, constitutes the core content ànd the central touchstone for director Platel. It is the violence scraping off the thin veneer of civilization that holds together communities. How can we find an equally exciting way out, one that turns this sort of violence away? During a long improvisation at the end, set to music of the 2nd symphony (first part), the performance makes room for a quest for vitality and joie de vivre. The team of dancers with whom Platel tackles this quest consists of a mix of veterans and new arrivals. Among the veterans: Elie Tass (VSPRS, pitié!, Out of Context-for Pina, tauberbach), Ido Batash (C(H)ŒURS), Romain Guion (C(H)ŒURS) and Berengère Bodin (C(H)ŒURS, tauberbach). During the auditions Platel encountered Samir M'Kirech, Dario Rigaglia and David Le Borgne. The two Congolese performers Russell Tshiebua and Boule Mpanya are the same backing vocals whom Platel put into the limelight in "Coup Fatal". Sure, this team is full of contrasts: man/woman; black/white; Jew/Arab; dancer/singer. But Platel hardly plays on these individual differences, instead opting for the collective in this production. What happens with and to the collective eclipses individual differences.
Whereas "tauberbach" (Platel’s 2014 creation) outlined the existence of a human lost on the dump of civilization, and his potential for transformation, "nicht schlafen" draws the existence of man as a social animal, the group, the community. And yet, it also expresses the shaky hope that things will not end in large-scale destruction, again. Even though the music of Mahler sketches a fragmented world: just before the outbreak of the First World War when the world actually shattered. From "Coup Fatal" (creation with Congolese musicians from 2014) Platel learnt and remembered the incredible lust for life of people living in intolerable circumstances. That potential, that possibility for transformation, is what this group of dancers want to look for in every performance, without a safety net. A dance of life and death.
Hildegard De Vuyst, dramaturge