LAST EDITED ON 27-Feb-00 AT 10:14 AM (GMT)
Les Ballets C de la B (formerly called Les Ballets Contemporains de la Belgique) is a modern dance company despite its name. This Belgian company won a London "Time Out" Live Award in 1998 for its 95-minute long work "Iets op Bach" (A Little Something set to Bach), which it performed again at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last December. So I had been looking forward to seeing this company which performed the same Bach piece at the APA Lyric Theatre in Hong Kong this week.
Les Ballets C de la B is the second major dance company to appear in this year's month-long Hong Kong Arts Festival (modelled on the Edinburgh International Festival) which commenced on 11 February. Last week Taiwan's Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, whose season at the Sadler's Wells Theatre last April was critically acclaimed by some London critics, performed a new work inspired by Tibetan culture that was only premiered in Taipei on 31 December 1999. And the highlight this year is the Birmingham Royal Ballet which is going to give five performances of David Bintley's "Edward II" from 9 March.
"Iets op Bach" was choreographed by the Belgian choreographer Alain Platel. Excerpts from a variety of J.S. Bach's works was performed on stage by the 11-strong Belgian chamber music group Ensemble Explorations. However after the performance, I began to wonder what Bach's reaction would have been, if he had watched this performance from heaven, and seen his music being treated merely as incidental background music to accompany choreography that made no attempt whatsoever to construct any visual images to enhance the sublime music. Of course I didn't expect the Belgian choreographer Alain Platel to create a work to equal George Balanchine's famous Bach ballet "Concerto Barocco" which is one of the masterpieces of 20th century dance. But after reading the publicity material listing this work's success in Europe, I had expected more than what was actually delivered in the performance.
Balanchine once said in his lifetime that in any dance performance one can at least close one's eyes and just listen to the music. This is no bad advice about this piece! Bach's music was quite well performed by the Ensemble Explorations and the soloist singers, especially the alto Steve Dugardin. The music was certainly the best part of the evening. The musicians were placed inside a hut-like structure raised on a platform on the stage, which had aerials and satellite dishes on its roof. The musicians were all attired in casual wear; the soprano singer wore jeans for instance.
Alain Platel's choreography was no doubt influenced by the angst-ridden style of the dance theatre of the influential German modern dance choreographer Pina Bausch. Furthermore, movements were also deliberately designed to look easy and natural that can be executed by an ordinary person. As in Bausch's works, spoken dialogue was also required from the dancers who in this performance spoke at least three languages (English, Spanish, Flemish), as well as some acrobatic skills. There was an episode when a dancer was swearing loudly on stage. Such an act of provocation of the audience is typical of Pina Bausch, and Alain Platel's fascination with chaos and violence is however nothing new in modern dance.
At curtain rise we saw a man with half his face and his white shirt drenched in blood. The cast impersonated a disorderly community. There were wrestlers, a small girl who was constantly coughing throughout the evening (as part of the choreography no doubt), female demonstrators shouting political slogans against oppression, acrobats, a black transvestite, a man with paedophile tendencies who made repeated advances to a girl by fidgeting her skirt. We saw two men fighting with each other over the beautiful character called Gabriella. Among the stage props were a wheelchair and a wading pool.
The best dancing in the performance came from a bare-chested male dancer whose hair was so long that it covered his eyes. He performed vivaciously an energetic earth-bound solo in the style of Maurice Bejart. The steps for the ensemble however tended to consist of nothing more than arm movements circling the head.
After the first hour, the momentum sagged noticeably and the work suffered from longueurs. The material wasn't developed to sustain the audience's interest, and became repetitive. At one point, I saw a man downing a number of bottles of beer quickly. I wouldn't have minded a bottle myself to relieve my boredom! At the end, a male dancer showed off his acrobatic skills by balancing a wooden beam on his mouth and later holding it on one finger, before the curtain fell. It was a rather abrupt and inconclusive ending.
Overall, this was uneven work. There could have been more diversity in dancing, a better editing and linking of the disjointed material, more coherence, and a better sense of timing in presenting some of the shocking routines. And I wish Alain Platel could have treated Bach's music with more reverence in his choreography.