Interview: Alain Platel discusses the challenges of grappling with Mahler

Tuesday 27 June 2017

Tejas Rawal talks to Alain Platel, director of the trailblazing Les Ballet C de la B, about his new production, Nicht Schlafen.

Inspired by the compositions and life of Gustav Mahler and the troubled early 20th century Europe in which he worked, Nicht Schlafen explores a pertinently contemporary sense of a world in flux. Platel discusses the challenges of grappling with the eclectic compositions of Mahler, his open and collaborative rehearsal process and his admiration of the Godmother of European contemporary dance, Pina Bausch.

Alain, what drew you to Mahler as a point of departure?

‘Well I wasn’t to be honest. It was one of those suggestions made by the theatre and opera director, Gerard Mortier. He pushed me along the way to listen to music other than Bach; he introduced me to Mozart which I used in Wolf (2003), Verdi and Wagner which turned into C(h)oeurs (2012) and then he said, ‘now it’s time to listen to Mahler,’ and that was really a challenge because it wasn’t really the sort of music I was interested in.’

‘Mortier died in 2014 and this question was staying in my mind. I was thinking, why not try to understand Mahler’s music, listen to it more carefully? At the time, I was well surrounded by people like Stephen Prengels, who I’ve worked with for a long time now and who is an absolute Mahler fan, Stephen was very patient with me and so this helped. I also started to read about Mahler and the period he lived in and this became a very interesting subject.’

You’ve previously mused on the ‘very contemporary sense of confusion’, in Mahler’s compositions, how did this challenge affect your rehearsal process?

‘When I listened carefully to the music of Mahler, it felt that he was some sort of a sampler, he was bringing in different kinds of music and that was what bothered me when I listened to the symphonies, it was very eclectic. In Mahler’s music there were many influences that you could hear and it would jump from one atmosphere to another and it was while working on that, that I realised, that in fact I’m doing something similar in my work for a long time. There’s not a dramaturgical linear line in my work, I’m jumping from one atmosphere to another, so in fact I realised that we are very similar.’

Your collaborator, Stephen Prengels, has noted that, like Mahler, you seek out suffering in your work.

‘(laughs) In some ways I resemble Mahler, he was someone who thought he was carrying all the suffering of the world. I was very surprised when Stephen told me and we laughed a lot about that but I think I’m another character. When I read about Mahler I discovered a very angry and disappointed man and this, I am not.’

What prompted your use of African chants, cowbells and the sounds of sleeping animals as a counterpoint to Mahler’s compositions?

‘Normally we start in a way in which everything is allowed to enter the studio and sometimes you can be surprised by the things that are suggested. In this case I absolutely wanted to invite two performers, Boule Mpanya and Russell Tshiebua, who I worked with on Coup Fatal (2015), which was a project with Congolese musicians who interpreted European Baroque music. I wanted to invite them to this European contemporary performance and see if they could nourish us and we could nourish them.

‘I felt like it could be possible to bring in the sound of some Pygmy songs in the performance and they would counterbalance very well with some of the adagios in the music of Mahler. It was with risk and I wasn’t sure and only by working together during the whole process that we discovered that there was indeed something that would not contradict the music of Mahler since he was this composer that tried to bring in the outside world into his music. In Mahler’s time it was mainly the whole atmosphere in Europe, I thought we could broaden it out and bring in African influences.’

*Your use of African influences strikes me as bearing affinities with the eclectic musical influences of Pina Bausch in productions such as Masurca Fogo. Indeed as Bausch’s work exists in the shadow of the violence of the Second World War, Nicht Schlafen exists in the shadow of Mahler’s tumultuous 20th century Europe. Can our audiences expect a Bauschian production?

*Well I feel a child of Bausch. All the contemporary creators of dance, theatre and even the visual arts have been influenced by her and me certainly. Not only because I’m a great admirer of her work but we also met and you know it’s something I will never deny. I could hear from some people that consider Nicht Schlafen as my personal Rite of Spring so in that sense I do recognise this. When I work I’m sure all this has influenced my way of looking at things but it’s not something I’m conscious about.’

Alain Platel and Les Ballets C de la B will bring their eclectic Nicht Schlafen to Sadler’s Wells on Friday the 30th of June for two nights.

Tejas Rawal is a Theatre Studies student currently based at Brunel University London with particular interests in intercultural performance and postmodern theory. You can find him on Twitter @TejRawal

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