Sweeping, swelling dance: les ballets C de la B in Nicht Schlafen

Sadler’s Wells, London
June 30, 2017

Charlotte Kasner

There’s no desire to take forty winks in this offering. Alain Platel has dispensed with the actors and singers and focused much more on dance. That is not to say that his performers are not, for the most part, powerful actors and competent singers, but it is their eclectic dance technique that impresses.

The cast inhabit a damaged world. A backcloth covers the rear and part of the a wing. It is dirty, sagging and rent. Everything else is been stripped bare. A tumbril is piled with equine carcasses, bloated with putrefaction. There are obvious references to the First World War, with Mahler and Richard Strauss blasted from speakers, then pin-dropping silence as if the guns are at rest momentarily. If this had been matched with the costumes, it would have had a much more definite impact rather than just being background to the abstract dance.

Nicht Schlafen opens with a lithe man, jumping cat-like amongst still performers, then explodes into agonistic, animalistic conflict. The performers launch themselves at each other, tearing at clothes and flinging them hither and thither, roaring and growling. For rather too long, this plays itself into exhaustion and co-operation drifts in. Near-naked bodies form dyads and make sculptural shapes, heads down, feet up, limbs linked, weight counterbalanced. Clothes are re-donned.

Nicht SchlafenPhoto Chris Van der Burght
Nicht Schlafen
Photo Chris Van der Burght

African rhythms and songs are introduced. There’s no particular logic to it, but it works. Text is in Hebrew, Arabic and German, just because it is. The dance vocabulary is just as cross-cultural. The ballet is strong; landings light and extensions solid, feet flexible. Ports de bras are supple and fluid.

The movement extends into the audience and back again, filling the stage so that a handful of dancers seem like a full corps. The music swells and does the same, just the right side of loud to slightly overwhelm without distorting.  During the long silences, the audience are focused as one, ears pricked, eyes peeled: alert to what will happen next, where and why.

It is exhausting watching les ballets C de la B work. Relationships flit back and forth like summer lightning on a dry night crackling with tension. It is slightly too long to sustain the interest, with some sections in need of a bit of a trim, for no one can fault them on the pace or contrast.

Good to see them back. Just a pity that the run is so short.