Thursday, 15 October 2009


26/9/09, KVS (Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg/Royal Flemish Theatre), Brussels

We decided on a trip to the opera in Brussels (readily manageable with Eurostar, but ruinously expensive thanks to the exchange rate) and saw this as well the evening before.

They called it nieuwZwart; my Flemish isn't good enough to know what that means.

The theatre was a great barn of a place, 1870s I'd guess, occupying an entire block, with a portico out front and three floors of fine flying balconies with iron railings all round each side, getting narrower with each storey. The inside had been gutted, the original auditorium replaced with a concrete near-sphere reminiscent of the Hampstead Theatre, squatting in the space with wire sculptures of naked dancers hanging in the void around it.

Inside there were three curved narrow balconies (we were in the centre of the middle level) each with three rows of seats and a large stalls area and a surprisingly big stage: a pleasing combination of the intimate and the spectacular.

The best bit of the building was the old bar-cum-withdrawing roomn above the foyer, which retained some of the original Flemish decor, with elaborately-painted walls in which dark red seemed to predominate, and a spectacular coffered ceiling, held up by two great black riveted cast iron girders, and at either end a bar with a Flemish tiled backing and canopy. It had obviously been in a poor state before renovation and rebuilding; in places the decoration had been replaced by red wash, and elsewhere the painted plaster had been taken back to reveal patches of bare brick. We were most impressed.

As to the show itself...

There were seven dancers (four men, three women), three musicians (percussion and two guitars), a narrator with a headset and an Australian accent. The text was in English, verse, impenetrable and not apparently related to the movement.

It opened with a very dimly lit stage behind a gauze, with the narrator out front looking back and naked figures vaguely visible. One moves, and there is a noise of... what? Dried leaves? Scrunched-up newspaper? Crumpled polythene? Others move too. Slo-o-o-wly. One or two emerge from whatever it is covering the floor, to the accompaniment of amplified FX.
The narrator produces something from his pocket, and unfolds it. It's one of those gold survival blankets they issue to walkers and military pilots. He holds it in front of him and it acquires a life of its own, hovering away with an invisible dancer beneath it.

The gauze falls, the lights go up and the floor is seen to be a great sheet of the golden stuff. The dancers are now underneath it, making it billow and scrunch. The sheet is pulled to the back of the stage, revealing the dancers lying naked on the floor. They twitch and writhe and kick like maggots, or creatures disturbed when you dislodge a stone.

Three men in uniform come on with lamps and microphones. They treat the dancers' bodies like musical instruments, beating a highly-amplified tattoo on their cheeks oir shins. One woman is made to convulse as one of the unifomed types seems to pick her up, arching her back, her feet and shoulders on the floor, head back, mouth open staring at the audience.

The dancers wriggle to the back of the stage where there is a heap of clothes. At some point in the gloom (I missed it) the three men in uniform clamber aboard a gantry suspended over the stage and mutate into the band, accompanying the rest of the evening with noisy rock music.

And we're still only ten minutes in...

During the rest of the evening our narrator wanders on and off the stage, at one point climbing a structure at one side of the stage from which hand six great metal sheets which serve as both the wings and as occasional percussion (shake them and they vibrate very noisily).

The dancers perform a succession of set pieces with no obvious links. One man mimes aggression. One pantomimes an ape, fascinated by a sleeping girl, whith whom he eventually seems to mate. The same girl slides over a recumbent dancer; he slides through her legs; another is manhandled into position behind him and she passes over him as well; and so on until all six dancers are leying in a ragged row stretching upstage; she dances around and over the row; at one point she rushes it and it moves away from her, as a single organism; then she dives into the row and another dancer takes over where she left off; and so on until they've all had a go.

In another scene towards the end they all come on under gold blankets, eventually standing up and running about the stage with the blankets sticking to their faces and bodies, blinding them, flapping. They pair up, face-to-face, boy-girl, with the thin, feather-light blankets keeping them apart. The narrator comes and drags the blankets away. The dancers do not move.

At one point one of the girls mimes throwing up. A woman in the audience laughs.

At another point the band stops. There are two dancers on stage, a man adn a woman. I can't remember what they're doing but there is a sense of great stillness and concentration. And then someone's mobile goes off.

There are a few costume changes, apparently arbitrary. They first donned dun-coloured clothes. One of the girls wore a hoodie: she bent over on all fours and it slipped over her head, making her look like some eyeless animal. Then the dun-colour was replaced with sexy red and blue and black for the girls, and for the men black or in one case a red and turquoise boiler suit.
D (who liked it more than me) remembered the percussion, including some sort of wooden box like a bent tube, and a thing like an upright piano back with a big reverb.

One woman was athletic enough to lift the men.

The best bits involved running and leaping and throwing themselves into one another's arms: a familiar modern dance trope but still breathtaking.

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