En avant, marche! A conversation with co-director, Frank Van Laecke

Maggie Foyer

“In every city there is a new brass band waiting for us … and a question mark.” So says Frank Van Laecke, who together with Alain Platel and composer Steven Prengels, is bringing the show, En avant, marche! to Sadler’s Wells on June 16 and 17. Polished brass instruments and smart uniforms are not the usual stuff of contemporary dance theatre, but then neither are Van Laecke and Platel anything like ‘the usual stuff’. Their last joint venue, Gardenia, was for Van Laecke, “a marvellous experience.” It features retired drag artists and gained them an Olivier Award nomination.

Platel and Van Laecke found that they were soul mates while working on this show. “We felt that there were a lot of cross-overs between us; we can write the same email, with the same words, at the same moment!” This is just as well as they arrive in the rehearsal room with no more than a cast and an idea. “We start from scratch. Every day is a day of improvisation, creating characters … or not, but we always try to create something where the fantasy of the audience can also play an important role.”

Van Laecke, comes with a string of musical and opera directorial successes to his credit and is very much at home in the musical world but, “When there is no script and you have to write every day a little bit, you long for that moment when the pieces of the puzzle fit together. It’s always a miracle, and a big relief, when it does.”

En avant, marche!Photo Phile Deprez
En avant, marche!
Photo Phile Deprez

The idea of the brass bands was sparked by Stephan Vanfleteren’s evocative black and white photos of members of Flemish brass bands. In Britain brass bands had an affiliation with industry and working class men. Van Laecke says this also used to be the case in Flanders. “But now everybody is playing. It is not a question of belonging to the working class, it’s not a man, it’s not a woman, it is the doctor sitting next to the plumber and they are playing together to serve only one goal – to play good music.

“There is something so touching about the environment of a ‘fanfare’. It is a mix of very young people and old people. All generations are there and that creates not only a very special atmosphere, but a kind of a tension. We have the rules from the past and we always want to change those rules. There has to be evolution but sometimes it creates a tension between the older ones and the younger ones. So it’s kind of a mirror from the bigger society.”

The company consists of eleven people (four actors and seven musicians) and in each place there is a new brass band waiting. Van Laecke feels that it is very important for society today that we bring people together, people who would not necessarily come together. “Sometimes we have a very high quality orchestra and sometimes less so but always the same thing happens: you create a family. On the first day it’s learning to know each other, learning to know what the show is all about, but by the third day they realise they will never forget this for their whole lives.”

En avant, marche!Photo Phile Deprez
En avant, marche!
Photo Phile Deprez

Van Laecke speaks about the letters they received from the ad hoc bands after the shows, real letters, not just emails, and very moving. “They all say much the same thing – they hadn’t known what they were getting into and they couldn’t explain what it was but, they write, ‘En avant, marche! is something that will last forever’. And to be very honest, for Alain and for me, one of the most important things during the tour is that we can feel that kind of warmth.”

The play centres around a trombone player who has only months to live and has been reduced to the lowly position of cymbal player. This particular idea came from Luigi Pirandello’s play The Man with the Flower in His Mouth, where a man tells his story to a stranger. “I have a flower in my mouth,” he says, the flower being a metaphor for the cancer he has and that he knows will soon cause his death. Van Laecke feels that one of the reasons for using brass bands was that they were so often present at the important moments in life. “They are there to celebrate things, like a marriage or birth but they are also there, and playing, when one of the members dies. They celebrate and they mourn with us.

“You can look at the whole performance as a kind of farewell from one of the members to his group, or the group to one of their members – that is a possibility. You can also look at the performance as one big funeral or, equally, as one big celebration of life itself. There are so many possibilities.

“We should not forget that the main act in the piece is the music: the beautiful sounds of those brass bands who are not playing clichéd marching music … we are playing Mahler, we are playing Elgar, we are playing Verdi. And, of course, there are the drum majorettes walking out in front that we also try to integrate.

“We are really looking forward to see how it will be received in London because every city where we play has a different heartbeat.”

En avant, marche! is at Sadler’s Wells on June 16 & 17, 2016. For details and tickets visit www.sadlerswells.com or call the box office on 020 7863 8000.