As one of the foremost artists to emerge from the Flemish new wave era of the 1980s, choreographer Alain Platel continues to attract critical acclaim with Ghent-based platform les ballets C de la B. Originally set up as a non-professional collective with friends 30 years ago, the company continues to take a collaborative approach – despite Platel being its only artist-in-residence. Given the range of co-producers and performers it has nurtured, the company’s work defies categorisation in both style and form. Claire Ramtuhul chats to Platel to learn more about his creative approach.
How many dancers are in the company?
There’s no fixed number: we invite dancers to participate in projects on a freelance basis. In some cases one or two years go by before we can engage them in performances again. It just depends on how many opportunities there are in a particular year.
How do you go about recruiting new dancers and spotting new talent?
I used to organise auditions, but it’s something I find quite frightening – not only for the people who come, but also for me. You have to make decisions in a very short space of time. In the past I’ve tried to make auditions as pleasant as possible so dancers went away feeling that they’d had a good experience with us. Nowadays I learn about new dancers through people I know – I avoid auditions and instead meet up with them in a more personal context. Then we decide during the conversation whether or not we want to work together.
How do you collaborate with dancers when creating a new piece?
It depends on the project as I usually work with the dancers to create something from scratch. Generally, in the first two months we improvise a lot in the studio, afterwhich, little by little, we begin to see what the themes of the project are and how they will develop in the piece. At first there is no clear idea of where we want to go; all the material that is visible in the final performance comes from the dancers – they are the creators.
Over the last 10 or so years, I’ve learned that every project is in the first instance an encounter, an exchange with people I want to work with and want to meet. Their personalities, their histories, the way they move, it’s all crucial to nourishing the project.
Les ballets C de la B collaborated with the Teatro Real choir in 2011 on C(H)OEURS – how was that experience?
I was asked by [former artistic director] Gerard Mortier to produce a work inspired by the music of Verdi. The subject matter was something I would never have chosen myself, but Gerard is a very good artistic director – I like him very much – and I was curious to see how it would work.
The whole project, including the preparation period, lasted five years. After listening to Verdi’s music, I told Gerard that I wanted to work with a choir, and that it would be the main character in this new opera piece. Since we had very little time to work with the young group of singers that Gerard had put together, we prepared the whole process in Ghent, so that when we arrived in Madrid we were ready to teach them the choreography. We only had around nine days of rehearsal before the performance, which I’m not used to at all, but in the end it was fantastic. It was definitely one of the best experiences of my life.
How did your dancers interact with the choir?
The dancers all have very strong personalities: after I prepared the material with them, they were the ones who taught the choir how to dance. For the choir it was a very new experience to be involved in that kind of performance, but they loved it. Both the choir and the dancers really believed in the project (two of the performers even fell in love with each other).
How did the performance work on stage?
You almost had to see it to believe it: the choir and dancers interact continuously throughout the piece. I think the major surprise for many people was how marvellously the singers could dance.
What’s coming up this year for the company?
My piece tauberbach premiered in January, and will go on tour until the end of the year [including dates in Amsterdam, Munich, Brussels and Oslo]. The work is inspired by the life of Estamira, a woman with schizophrenia working at a landfill site in Rio de Janeiro. Then in May I’m going to be working on a musical project with the Belgian composer Fabrizio Cassol. We are exploring how European baroque music can meet Congolese popular music. They’ve asked for my support to make the project a bit more theatrical.