I've been waiting to see Les Ballets C de la B for the last ten years (give or take); I always managed to miss them by a narrow margin as I moved from city to city. Last night – finally! - the stars aligned and I saw the avant-garde Belgian company last night as part of Montréal's Festival TransAmerique. And despite my rather hefty expectations, I was not disappointed.

Les Ballets C de la B in TAUBERBACH © Chris Van der Burght
Les Ballets C de la B in TAUBERBACH
© Chris Van der Burght

The curtains opened to a stage stripped back to its bones; lighting rigs hung at half mast, the stage piled high with five tons of old clothes, microphones hanging directly down to the performers' head-height. We hear the incessant buzzing of fat blowflies circling lazily.

In the midst of this eerie dystopia, actor Elsie de Brauw launches into a monologue as she stomps through the piles of garments, picking up a jacket here, a hairbrush there, stashing things away in her pocket. As the monologue progresses, it builds a compelling picture of a dispossessed woman who oscillates wildly in her behaviour and attitude, between statements of rage ranging from “MY EAR IS NOT A TOILET!” and “I do not agree with life” through the more pacific, almost serene: “I was conceived like this. I was born like this. I'm perfect.” A pre-recorded voice answers, dishing out insults in a cool mechanical tone. Is it a voice inside her head? Is it God?

Les Ballets C de la B founder, choreographer and director Alain Platel came to choreography rather late, having started his career in the field of psychology and pedagogy working as a remedial teacher at a cerebral palsy centre for children. His interest in social issues and the people living on the fringes of the community remains, and infuses his work.

Tauberbach draws its primary inspiration from a Marcos Prado documentary, Estimera, a film about the life of a schizophrenic woman in Brazil who ekes out an existence in a garbage dump. However, rather than creating a strict adaptation, Tauberbach uses the story as a leaping off point, as a means of talking about more universal concerns. The music comes from Polish artist Arthur Zmijewski, who used a choir of deaf-mute children singing Bach to create a soundscape that was both discordent and ambiguous.

The dancers – Bérengère Bodin, Lisi Estaras, Ross McCormack, Romeu Runa and Elie Tass – explore their world with a childlike and childish inhibition; playing absurd dress-ups in the cast off clothes, imitating curious sexual acts and sometimes slipping into ad hoc violence. Their bodies distort and shake with palsied articulations, they hang precariously off the lighting rig and fall into pillowy mounds of clothing.

All six of the performers were committed, fearless and at the height of their powers. They embodied the incredible capacity of humans to survive under extreme conditions, and each managed to bring a certain individuality to the piece. Although all were excellent, three in particular stood out: Elsie de Brauw, Lisi Estaras and Ross McCormack.

The dutch actress de Brauw gave an immaculate performance, and it is almost impossible to imagine Tauberbach without her. The gravel-voiced redhead held a defiant air throughout, but the subtleties of her performance really gave life, definition, and of course a narrative arc to the world of Tauberbach.

My eye was often drawn to Lisi Estaras, who played ingenue, nymphomaniac, and lunatic with an equal sense of attack.

A touch of levity was provided by Ross McCormack, who mimes a scene employing a set of imaginary weapons – a machine gun, a knife, a grenade, a malfunctioning spear – and sets upon his mission of murdering his cohorts (and his audience) with alacrity. How is it that, in the world of C de la B, the most violent scenes are often the funniest? This paradox seems to be at the centre of the entire piece; a tenuous balancing act between the mundane, the tragic, the hilarious and the erotic.

At over 90 minutes long with no intermission and some heavy subjects to explore, Tauberbach is challenging for the audience – as it is for the dancers. But worth the effort if you have even a medium threshold for the avant-garde; Alain Platel's gift for finding the intrinsic beauty in a world of ugliness had me glued to my seat. A triumph.