Nurture the audacity | Alain Platel

Wednesday morning March 11th 2020: my wife Isnelle has a severe epileptic seizure. It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed this, but what worries me is that this time she doesn’t get out so easily. What’s more, after the first one, a second seizure follows and a little later a third, a fourth… I call the emergency number and shortly after there are four masked nurses in our living room and she has to be taken to the emergency room. In a hurry, I call the director’s assistant of C(H)OEURS 2020, the opera production on which we have been working very intensively for several weeks now, to report that I may not be able to make it to rehearsals today.

That same evening, as I return home from the intensive care department where they are trying to get Isnelle out of the status epilepticus, I receive the report of the workday with the dancers and the choir in the opera. Everything went perfectly. A little later I get a phone call from Jan Vandenhouwe, the artistic director of Opera Ballet Vlaanderen: the executive committee had just decided to cancel all performances, and to stop the rehearsals of C(H)OEURS 2020 with immediate effect.

12 March 2020: the World Health Organisation officially announces the corona pandemic.
13 March 2020: in Belgium the restaurants and pubs close down and all lessons in schools are suspended, five days later the country goes into lockdown.

Faced with this situation, the question “why theatre?” seemed quite misplaced at first: at that moment we needed mouth masks – vaccines – support for all the people who continued to do the necessary work, and to share our concerns with each other, our fears and meagre words of comfort and encouragement… Not theatre.

It took weeks before I didn’t immediately get stuck when thinking about theatre and its future. Slowly I realised that from now on theatres were among the most vulnerable places because of that fundamentally human thing that was suddenly strictly forbidden: being together with other people… This thought paralysed me at times.

So I asked myself why I had made theatre until then?
At the start of each new project, I tell the cast that, before we work on a performance, we have the opportunity to create a temporary utopia. Temporary because I feel that a utopia is by definition temporary, which, by the way, is what makes it so attractive and powerful. Is it possible to work in harmony with a cast of about ten very different individuals and by extension about ten technicians, production managers, tour managers and office workers in function of a result that is completely unknown in advance? A permanent exercise in democracy.

During a creation we are confronted with almost all essential (life) questions: who am I – who is the other – who determines what – who has the power and when – what is the difference between men and women, between each individual – what influence does the place you come from have – what is good, clean, strong, authentic, meaningful, innovative – what is a concept, a content, a meaning, a metaphor – what is intuition, form, time, space and when is something virtuosic – what are ratio and sentiments – what is the relationship between the rehearsal studio and the outside world – what is poetry and when does it become economy – when is something religious or spiritual – what is universally human – what is that … being alive and/or dead…?

Over the past thirty years I have gradually come to understand that making a performance is the same as repeating the Great Life in miniature. With a specific group of people and at a certain point in time. From the beginning, no performance was ever a project and the boundary between work and leisure completely disappeared.

They became attempts to live this life – which none of us has chosen for. And after that, what happens once the theatre enters the auditorium? Then there are people who choose the adventure of stopping work earlier in the evening, in certain cases get dressed up, pay for a babysitter, arrange transport, buy an (expensive) ticket and, together with some (un) known people, sit on a chair, watch the lights turn off in the hall and see them light up on stage … to see, hear and at best also feel how someone or a group of people there on stage might succeed in showing how they are trying to live this life that no one has chosen to live.

It can happen in an old-fashioned theatre or opera house, a modern building, a church, factory, a garage or an attic. Inside or outside and on all hours of the day and the night. What they show can be serious, or to be laughed with, it can be shouting and ranting, or whispering, through music. They can be silent and let their bodies speak, because those start talking when we run out of words to express ourselves through language. It can aggravate us, disappoint us, bring us into ecstasy, rush us, leave us indifferent. We may have forgotten what we saw while drinking the first pint after a performance, or we carry images, sounds, smells with us for the rest of our lives. It even inspires some people to radically change their lives. And all this through one of the most ephemeral art forms, because a performance only exists when it is performed.

Recently, I have seen a documentary that has stuck with me: The Farthest… A documentary about the NASA project that catapulted a spacecraft – the Voyager – into the universe in the seventies of the previous century, to make images of some planets that are decades away from us.

It was very moving to hear some of the scientists, who were present at the birth, talking about what it takes to try to achieve something so ambitious forty years later: very simple… A childlike curiosity. It was also stunning to see the primitive means by which – at that time – the spacecrafts were crafted together. At a certain point, for example, scientists were looking for a solid way to connect a few wires and silver paper from the local grocery store was used for this… The most famous object in the Voyager is a kind of golden LP that stores information about the inhabitants of planet Earth and on which, in endless languages, “good day” is said to any ETs who would find this object…

The Voyager, that looked as if it had been crafted with sophisticated Meccano pieces, was then shot into space and then we had to wait, years, decades even, before the first pictures of the planets reached us, planets that we had only been able to see through large telescopes until then. And those images turned out to be razor-sharp and shockingly beautiful. The Voyager has now reached the limit of our solar system and, according to human calculations, will probably continue to fly endlessly. “In one billion years, when our sun is burned up entirely, the Voyager and its golden tales will still continue. Maybe it will be the only remaining evidence that mankind has ever existed,” I read somewhere.

All this was possible thanks to the audacity of a group of people. Audacity, in my opinion, is a beautiful and old-fashioned word. Bold and brave at the same time. It’s something I often think about when I see drama students in recent years, for example. Every year it moves me, again and again: to see 18-year-olds rush in with great flair, a degree of arrogance and in the full conviction that they will be able to add something to that immensely rich Human History of the Arts. Continuing to nurture that audacity, not only in the upcoming generation, but in all the following ones, and certainly even more the old dogs’ generation, will perhaps be the greatest challenge to come.

Alain Platel is trained as a remedial educationalist, and is an autodidact director. In 1984 he set up a small group with a number of friends and relatives to work collectively, which became the internationally renowned les ballets C de la B. His dance and theatre creations offer highly personal and moving experiences and have been awarded nationally as well as internationally.