O mia patria si bella e perduta. Oh, my country, so lovely and lost. It’s an extract from “Va pensiero”, better known as the slave chorus from Verdi’s Nabucco, probably one of the most popular opera themes ever. My father used to sing it on top of his lungs: “Überall auf der Welt scheint die Sonne”. In Nabucco it’s about the slaves mourning their lost homeland. Today, it’s the citizens who no longer feel that their country belongs to them and want to take it back. During a representation at the Rome opera on March 12, 2011, conductor Riccardo Muti performed a sublime act of cultural resistance by addressing the public, including many dignitaries, from the orchestra pit, during the expected encore. Very calmly, Muti said that he, as an Italian who has travelled a lot around the globe, was ashamed of what was going on in Italy. “If I accede to your request for an encore, it’s not just a surge of patriotism, it’s because while I was listening to the choir, I was thinking that if we go on like this, we will destroy the culture Italy was built on. In this instance, our country is literally lovely but lost.” He also added that he had been silent for too long. Then he asked the choir to resume the song and he asked the public to sing along. It was one of the most powerful expressions of civil outrage, one of the many which surfaced before our eyes in 2011. The manifesto Indignez-vous, written by 93-year-old Stéphane Hessel, was published in October 2010; since then, indignation is in the air, from the Arab spring, to Occupy Wall Street and the street protests in Greece. This is the context in which C(H)OEURS in 2012 saw the light.
What is different today? Muti’s protest sounds as if it were imagined for Flanders, the springs have turned to bitter winters, only Tunisia is standing firm. Greece is a success only for those who bought government bonds. Meanwhile, the Sudan’s revolution has proved more or less successful and images of rebellion and rioting have relocated to Hong Kong, Algiers and Beirut. Yellow vests have taken the torch from Indignados. The biggest call for change is coming from the mouths of thousands of young people mounting worldwide climate protests. How do the individual and the masses relate to stormy times like these? That’s the question still at the root of this project, which matured ten years ago in conversations between the late Gerard Mortier, the then director of the Opera of Madrid, and director Alain Platel of les ballets C de la B.
It’s the very first time Platel tackles the revival of a production, with different bodies from those dancers or performers who helped create the original one. And they’re not just any other bodies, either: these are OBV ballet dancers. Usually, they are chosen for a project; this time Platel asked who wanted to join in. He brought two dancers from the original creation onto the scene: Bérengère Bodin, because she embodies Marguérite Duras in a unique way (but more on that later) and Quan Bui Ngoc because he was associated with the ballet world before he came to Belgium from Vietnam. Romain Guion, another ancien, painstakingly oversaw the rehearsals. Taking advantage of their collaboration, Platel decided to rework some of the group scenes which were quickly picked up by the OBV dancers. Then he created as much room as possible for individual input in the solo and duo sections and the search for a collective voice as a ballet corps.
For some time already Platel explores a whole range of spastic, cramped, impulsive, hysterical movements – Platel calls it the beauty of ugliness – which he wants to use as an actual movement language. In vsprs, it was the language of self-loss; in Out of Context - for Pina it was about self-fulfilment. Can you really say everything with this set of movements? Also outrage? Can you carry an uprising? Can you reinvent society? Can you generate a reversal? And what is it made of? Anyway, for Platel, it all begins in the rehearsal room. If you’re not able to provide a workable place for the “otherness” of each individual, then you should not be making a big fuss on the outside about change. Politics start in the intimacy of living together. In the living room. At the workplace.
The title C(H)ŒURS refers to hearts and choirs. Alain Platel previously made two major event productions with choirs: the opening of the Roundhouse in London (2001) and the opening of the renovated theatre of the Royal Flemish Theatre (KVS) in Brussels (2006). These were highly-prized happenings in which around fifteen different choirs celebrated the city’s superdiversity. These projects opened the way for Platel to work on a production in which the choir is central.
The choir is the perfect musical constellation in which the individual voice must merge into a larger whole. Today, after the absolute reign of individualism, people are longing and pleading for a deeper bond. They no longer look for that bond in well-defined socio-economic groups, in women’s associations or trade unions. A neighbourhood, an amateur choir, a Facebook group or a casual group of volunteers meeting on Saturday morning, to work as stand-in for the choir of C(H)ŒURS, these are the ties that people are now looking for, in which diversity and pluralism are central assets.
According to Marguerite Duras, whose words from her Autoportrait Platel quotes, it’s the big mistake of all ideologies, left or right: to think that one cleaning lady equals another; that one Flemish guy is like another one. She hated that simplistic generalization about people in all ideologies, that uniformization based on similar activities. C(H)ŒURS is situated in this tension space: unique versus unisono, individual versus group.
In C(H)ŒURS, choirs and dancers are the two sides of the same coin. The choir is voice, word, discourse, people, public, outside world. Dancers are body and pain, cry, big bang, animalism, unconsciousness, intimacy, prologue. They long for the same thing, but they try to reach it in different ways, through other channels. In this context, choir and dancers come together, they challenge each other, they contaminate each other.
The symbol of C(H)ŒURS is the open mouth. The vocal citizen? Or the silent cry? The silenced mouth? The fist in the mouth to silence oneself? Like Riccardo Muti, have we been silent for too long? The open mouth from which no language comes out, only sounds. Wanting, but not being able to articulate. Not being able to say it. Animal-like sounds or a siren. An archaic roar or a terrified warning? But also the inarticulate sound of the worldwide protest. This open mouth also snaps and bites, looking for food. A fierce and instinctive bite, like a baby grabbing a nipple. Biting out of love, the counterpart of the romantic kiss. Tangling with each other, falling on each other. But also the open mouth of the singer.
In C(H)ŒURS, questions are asked to the 70 performers and the answers appear in the form of a movement. This ‘social choreography’ is a way of making large groups of non-professionals perform instant choreographies. It is a way of thinking that comes from the performance art. It breaks down the strict barrier that’s usually separating professionals from amateurs, between artists and activists, between private and public, between performers and spectators. Platel already flirted with these boundaries at the end of Out of Context - for Pina. One of the dancers expressly asked the public: who wants to dance with me? No matter the answer, this question reveals the entrenched relationships, dynamites uncompromising roles, and throws cultural agreements overboard. There are no longer passive spectators, only potentially active participants. Choreography as the aesthetics of change.
Is change really possible? The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek reflected on that issue on 9 October 2011 on Liberty Plaza New York in front of the Occupy protesters. Among other things, he said this: that today the possible and the impossible are distributed in a peculiar way. At the level of personal freedom and technical progress, everything is possible, any form of perverse sex, or travelling to the moon. We have dreams of immortality through the storage of our identity in a computer program. At the level of social and economic relations, nothing is possible; no industrial action or no preservation of the welfare state. Cuts are presented as laws of nature. As if we couldn’t do anything else. Slavoj Žižek advocated the inversion of the coordinates of the possible and the impossible. Maybe not reach immortality, but rather promote solidarity and healthcare. The team of C(H)ŒURS finds Slavoj Žižek inspirational, and certainly not because he delivers his ideas in lisping splashes, while spitting saliva and manically plucking his clothing, and in general does not deserve any price for eloquence.
Wagner and Verdi, the two composers who provided the choir pieces for C(H)ŒURS, are not natural allies, but at least they shared one common ambition: contribute to the inversion of the coordinates. In their times, it was the reinforcement of national pride. We have difficulties imagining that. To the heirs of May ‘68, a nation is a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours (courtesy of Karl Deutsch 1969).
But at the time of Wagner and Verdi, Italy and Germany were born as bigger units for many separate little states, kingdoms, duchies and more. You would have to go as far as the European Union to find a revolution of this type.
This quest for a larger entity without losing individuality, for politics without losing intimacy, for eloquence with speech problems, it’s the quest that animates C(H)ŒURS.
dramatist Hildegard De Vuyst, February 2020