Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; April 9, 2014

Charlotte Kasner

les Ballets C de la B in Alain Platel's 'tauerbach'. Photo © Chris Van der Burght

les ballets C de la B in Alain Platel’s ‘tauerbach’.
Photo © Chris Van der Burght

Alain Platel’s “tauerbach” opens with the stage in darkness and the apron strewn with – well, aprons – and other assorted clothing. After the lights go up, we see a scene more reminiscent of a teenager’s bedroom. It’s a bit like the aftermath of a particularly lively rummage sale. Two lighting bars are flown in, also draped with clothing (I half expected a leftover dancer from James Thierrée’s recent “Tabac Rouge” to be asleep astride the bar, under the rags).

Like a teenager’s bedroom, it is uncertain, briefly, what will emerge from the piles of detritus. We hear the sound effect of a fly buzzing irritatingly and the scene transforms via this simple device into a pile of rags in the third world, castoffs from the first and second worlds, to be picked over by the less fortunate. “tauerbach” was inspired by the life of a woman with schizophrenia working at a landfill site in Rio de Janeiro, so perhaps that’s not so far from the truth.

Suddenly, a body bursts out and the scene is transformed again, this time sucking us into a milieu that would make Samuel Beckett feel very at home. Instead of Estragon and Vladimir, we see a middle aged woman, ranting in the now familiar, Tourette’s sort of way beloved of the Company. She is soon joined by a leaping pixie, a strapping siren and two extraordinary men. One, surely made of India rubber, is compact, with a fluidity of movement that defies belief. The other is like an exotic, fabulous bird, all legs and rib cage. He gets progressively adorned with ‘tattoos’ as he struts and bends his way across the stage. At one point, one of the dancers ‘pops’ hum back into shape, to the evident amusement of those watching. Clothes are swapped, donned, thrown into the audience and pulled into fantastic shapes.

les Ballets C de la B in 'tauerbach'.  Photo © Chris Van der Burght

les ballets C de la B in ‘tauerbach’.
Photo © Chris Van der Burght

Puppy-like, dancers lie quietly under and on the clothes then explode into movement, ‘stork-man’ flapping foolishly whilst wrapping himself in various bits of picked up clothing and exclaiming ‘butterfly’ for no apparent reason while he whizzes round the stage, and ‘pixie-girl’ dropping down from a one-armed suspension on the lighting bar to bounce of the hill of clothes underneath. Allegiances swirl and shift until the older woman is roundly set upon by the others, her hair pulled, her body dragged this way and that, draped across shoulders, thrown into a wheelbarrow and half suffocated under clothes, before being finally dumped unceremoniously onto a bar. She is relieved only when she finally cries for help.

Later, there’s a prolonged sexualised duet between the siren and the ‘stork man’ that is both rude and funny. They have been working up to this for a while, she peering into his shorts for prolonged periods, and he waving his goods at her as part of the general mayhem then occupying his companions.

This is a smaller C de la B than we have seen in previous productions. “tauerbach” is also a work that has more of a focus on dance and movement. However, that should not be to underestimate the vocal abilities of this gathering. This is no mere ‘let’s get the dancers speaking’ effort that usually results in under-powered, self-conscious renderings. The vocal gymnastics are every bit as impressive as the physicality, aided and abetted by the dangling microphones, which are sometimes batted and swiped for good effect. At one point, about three quarters of the way through, one of the men imitates the buzzing fly that comes and goes on the soundtrack, becoming more and more articulate until we realise that his babbling is in fact an auctioneer’s delivery. That got a well-earned round of spontaneous applause.

'tauerbach'.  Photo © Chris Van der Burght

‘tauerbach’.
Photo © Chris Van der Burght

This is also by far the best singing I have ever heard from a dance company. The sound effects are backed up by various pieces of well-known classical music, mostly Bach and Mozart, which trickle breaths of sanity into this mad, mad world. At times, the atmosphere is oppressive, but the sublime music bubbles through like water through a hookah to impinge on the bruised consciousness and dispel tranquillity. Some is recorded and some sung, in impressively intimate harmony. The voices are untrained and muted and it creates a wonderful feeling of shared intimacy, particularly at the end, with an aria from Mozart’s “Bastien and Bastienne” that provides a soothing, musical balm.

This arena more than resembles an asylum; so much so that my companion, a former medic, said that she just wanted to reach for the Largactil darts! The ending is silent and uncertain, performers standing and twitching quietly, lost in their private, irrepressible tics. There are many moments where this is uncomfortable and even a little boring but I suspect that it is carefully calculated. There is much to be gleaned about the human condition and a great deal of enjoyment to be had out of the movement