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Brassed On. Donald Hutera interviews Alain Platel, the artistic director of les ballets C de la B, about En avant, marche!

Featuring a large cast of musicians, a few actors and one dancer, En avant, marche! is somewhat hard to classify. When I saw this Belgian production in last year’s Edinburgh International Festival, the designation the EIF used for this collaboration between les ballets C de la B and Ghent’s civic theatre NTGent was music theatre. That works for me. As did the show itself, although it was really several shows in one and, as such, kind of all over the place.
The places it goes to, however, are worth going. Co-directed by Frank Van Laecke and Alain Platel, who founded les ballets C de la B in 1984, En avant, marche! arrives in London June 16 and 17 under the auspices of LIFT. It’s highly agreeable entertainment, with a wacky sense of humour leavened by slightly sobering grace notes. The nominal setting is the rehearsal room of a music club, a space dominated by Wim Opbrouk. A hefty, middle-aged man with a big, anchoring presence, this prominent Flemish actor plays – but also plays with – the loosely-drawn role of a trombonist with a terminal illness. Opbrouk is actually quite a life force, sending himself up without losing gravitas. What’s more, despite his bulk he’s unexpectedly neat on his feet, especially in a duet with the nimble Hendrik Lebon. Chris Thys and Greit Debacker, meanwhile, make a good double-act as mature yet spirited women in identical drum majorette outfits of sparkling gold. They have a ball as Opbrouk’s sidekicks.
Peppered with rude sex jokes, alongside fleeting reminders of mortality, En avant, marche! never takes itself too seriously. And, as indicated above, it’s loaded with music played by seven professionals plus a bona fide brass band. This collective role is embodied anew by a local band in every venue in which the show is presented. In London it’s members of The Heroes Band who’ll be taking to the Sadler’s Wells stage.
Britain, of course, has a long, proud tradition of brass bands. En avant, marche! uses the idea of a Belgian counterpart as the springboard for a blend of mainly comic text, spots of synchronised movement and a generous heap of live and recorded music ranging from Elgar, Holst and Mahler to Schubert and Verdi. Hats off to the show’s music director, Steven Prengels, whose previous work with Platel, Van Laecke and les ballets C de la B includes the gorgeously florid, Olivier Award-nominated Gardenia.
Platel is one of the more influential performance-makers not only in Belgium but all of Europe, and even the world. He thinks outside the box, as anyone who’s seen C de la B’s previous, sometimes collaborative productions – titles include Iets op Bach, Wolf, VSPRS, tauberach and Coup Fatal – might well attest. I enjoyed a brief, relaxed conversation with him via the phone in late May. Here are the results….
Donald Hutera: I can’t recall just now where I either read or heard this, but somebody compared En avant, marche! to Flanders, or maybe all of Belgium. According to this person both the show and the nation are fun, sad, deep and light. Is that, from your perspective, an accurate assessment?
Alain Platel: I think so.
DH: It sounds like life.
AP: Maybe life is like Belgium! Or Belgium is like life.
DH: The show is set in the microcosmic orbit of a music club – a very specific location. Before I ask about that, I’d like to know from a practical standpoint how you work with the local band in each place you bring the show.
AP: They receive the music in advance, and images from the performance, so they know how it looks and sounds. They learn four pieces of music in advance. We reduce their appearance onstage to what we need. There are two days of rehearsals with them and us, including the day of the show: one with the conductor, and on the next day a general rehearsal. Most of the bands we’re working with are not professionals. That’s become part of the performance too. In the first moment some of the players are asked, What do you do in real life? Their answers are very beautiful to see and hear.
DH: What were your working methods with the professionals in the show?
AP: That’s very easy. I’m not a choreographer, meaning I’m not one to invent or teach movements. So it’s the same process for actors and dancers: me asking questions or proposing ideas, and the people in the performance making material. I see it and give my comments, as do others. It’s then growing little by little.
DH: It’s my understanding that, apart from the music, a central source of inspiration for En avant, marche! was a play by Pirandello [The Man With a Flower in His Mouth, a 1922 one-act about a terminally ill man that juxtaposes mortality and everyday banality]. Can you say a bit about that choice?
AP: It was not so easy to find a story. We used this one as a trigger for everybody to develop characters around. For Wim Opbrouck it was very clear that once we had the story he could interpret the main character.
DH: Wim has a magnetic presence.
AP: That’s the least you can say!
DH: In Edinburgh last summer he gargled his way through God Save the Queen. Is that something you do every place you take En avant, marche! – make some sort of allusion to the country you’re in?
AP: It’s the choice of Wim to work with references to whatever place we are performing. He has a little bit of freedom, but not too much. He enjoys so much to improvise and connect with the audience. It’s sometimes very funny, but also sometimes wrong.
DH: How do you control him?
AP: You can’t. He just does it. If I don’t like it I tell him, and he will change.
DH: Much of the over-all action in En avant, marche! arises out of some richly varied music.
AP: It’s an idea of Steven Prengels. The music associated with brass bands is usually very popular – marching music. He wanted to challenge the bands in the show with other pieces.
DH: On the theory that every artist discovers things while they’re creating a new piece of work, I’d like to know what sorts of discoveries you made during the making of En avant, marche!
AP: I wasn’t familiar with the number of people who join brass bands. There are many in Belgium, but it was a world I absolutely didn’t know. Steven knows them. He played in a brass band when he was a young guy. So I discovered this world. The first time I visited a brass band I was confronted with something very strong. Even in small villages people who are in the day doing something different – they’re butchers, or have some other employment – get together once or twice a week. For them it has therapeutic and social value, and that’s more important than making music. These people are not professionals, but they’re making beautiful music without any artistic ambition. I loved watching – and listening to – them. It reinforced my feelings about people who come together out of a pure desire.
DH: I know you need to go, but I’d love to know just what it is that you’re working on now. What’s next for you and C de la B?
AP: It’s a new piece with the working title The Mahler Project that premieres in Germany at the end of the summer. I was so much into this new production that I had to concentrate this morning, knowing I was going to talk to you about En avant, marche! But you’ve asked questions that bring to me many vivid images that I collected while we were making it.

Alain Platel, Frank Van Laecke and Steven Prengels
En avant, marche!
Thursday 16 & Friday 17 June at Sadler's Wells
Part of The LIFT Festival 2016
More info and tickets:

Donald Hutera writes about dance, theatre and live performance for The Times and many other publications and websites, and is also a curator, dramaturg and performance-maker for GOlive, Chelsea Arts Collective and more. @DonaldHutera