Alain Platel founded his experimental dance company, Les Ballets C de la B (Les Ballets Contemporains de la Belgique), in 1984 in Belgium. The result of a dare, his dance theatre collective quickly gained attention and state funding, and has over the last three decades become influential internationally. Platel’s company, taking inspiration from the doyenne of European dance-theatre, Pina Bausch, allows room for the individuality of his dancers to inspire movement; an approach which allowed artists such as Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to blossom and create their own choreographic work.

Ballets C de la B in <i>Nicht Schlafen</i> © Chris van der Burght
Ballets C de la B in Nicht Schlafen
© Chris van der Burght

With an established reputation for tackling existential themes Les Ballets C de la B rarely shies away from the shocking or controversial. Surrealist movement and composition allow Platel to dance towards death and destruction and explore the outer fringes of the acceptable. The UK première of their new work Nicht Schlafen continues Platel’s distinctive drive to uncover the depths of the unconscious.

Inspired by Gustav Mahler’s music and European unrest in the early Twentieth Century, the new production also features another well-known Belgian artist, Berlinde De Bruyckere. Torn grey curtains surround Bruyckere’s central sculpture: the bodies of three dead horses. On a wooden plinth, they lie in a heap their limbs extended in rigor mortis. Under the factory pulleys dangling from the ceiling, their stillness is both frightening and graceful.

As the dancers fill the stage, they begin to hum quietly while tin bells jangle creating a nomadic atmosphere. It could be a refugee camp or a resting place for itinerant travellers, all male except for one woman. Immediately a fight erupts and the dancers viciously tear each other’s clothes off, tumbling across the stage as they rip the fabric to reveal bare flesh, clawing faces, shouting and scrabbling. Torn clothes are scattered across the stage as the dancers stomp and shout in an exaggerated display of bravado as though to warn off the next attacker. Mahler’s popular and romantic Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 interrupts this brutal confrontation. As the music swells the dancers stop fighting and begin to dance, softly floating across the stage.

Throughout Nicht Schlafen a particular soundscape is created, the result of Steven Prengel’s collage of Mahler’s symphonies with African chants, tin bells, a text by Nietzsche and the rhythmic sounds of sleeping animals. These musical contrasts are reflected choreographically: chaotic group movements are interlaced with balletic synchronicity. A marching Nazi salute morphs into a graphic masturbatory gesture. Satiric rippling arm movements mimicking those of the Swan Lake repertoire follow pulsating stamps characteristic of African dance.

Alain Platel’s dancers are electrifying. As emotions ripple through their bodies, they dance with such authenticity and conviction that performative contrivance seems to fall away. In particular, Bérengère Bodin’s role in an intimate trio creates a rare moment of touching lyricism. As she is manipulated and slowly rotated between two men the sense of soft sensuality is spell-binding. While David Le Borgne’s lithe contortions and Russell Tshiebua’s precision are wonderful to watch.

Platel’s choreography is ambitious; the execution flawless. Yet, there are too many sections which seem in need of fierce editing. Endless stage wandering and long pauses make this piece uneven and at points risk losing the audience’s interest.

While there are moments of beauty, it is Berlinde De Bruyckere’s unsettling sculpture that is the real star of Nicht Schlafen.