Review: Alain Platel, Fabrizio Cassol, Rodriguez Vangama & Serge Kakudji - Coup Fatal - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 4 - 6 June 2015
Reviewed by Josephine Leask - Friday 5 June 2015

'Coup Fatal' Photo: Chris Van der Burght

The Congolese orchestra of Coup Fatal assemble gradually, casually. First, two musicians playing the likembes (thumb pianos) display their dexterity, and create sweet sounds that might come from miniature harps. They are joined by the quietly charismatic conductor, electric guitarist, Rodriquez Vangama and the rest of the group, percussionists, guitarists, singers and dancers – a multi-skilled line- up wearing camp, blue uniforms.

In an explosion of Congolese music and movement infused with opera, jazz and rock, we meet the colourful characters who will entertain us for the next few hours, each one of them performing with a vibrancy that is unbelievable. Musical director, Fabrizio Cassol takes credit for discovering and exposing these talented men. They grab blue plastic chairs, (a ubiquitous object in the Democratic Republic of Congo) and arrange themselves on the stage, framed by the gold shimmering ‘bead’ curtains, which are actually made of bullets, designed by sculptor Freddy Tsimba.

The presence of artistic director Alain Platel is subtle but strong in the choreographed chaos, the unpredictability and the anarchy of Coup Fatal’s staging. One of the most extraordinary moments is when the counter-tenor, Serge Kakudji starts singing. From dancing with repeated side-steps, undulating body and low centre of gravity – Congolese style, his voice throws out Baroque, operatic arias. It’s a fantastically exciting juxtaposition: the trained and controlled harmonic singing associated with the white European establishment emerging from improvised, Congolese polyrhythmic beats and melodies. Throughout the show Kakudji is a remarkable figure, a hybrid of stylised, operatic conventions and spontaneous, fluid African dance; a high-voiced counter-tenor who performs both femininity and masculinity. A master of versatility.

In the absence of women, a sad reminder of their poor status in DRC, the men play out sexual tension through grabbing each other’s groins, rubbing, squeezing and twerking in continuous homage to the phallus. It’s amusing at first but wears a little thin. Much more impressive is the sensuous and uninhibited movement quality that every member embodies, which always flows from the music that they play or sing. There’s no division between dancers and musicians, and Platel seems to have drawn on this natural symbiotic relationship rather than imposing his own choreography. The men’s enthusiasm and humour spill out into the auditorium and cannot be contained, although I’m not sure that a big, formal theatre is the best setting for them.

Towards the end, there is another surprise. Each performer leaves the stage, only to reappear in flamboyant, dandy outfits as the renowned ‘Congolese Sapeurs’. This is a reference to colonial Congo, where poor, subjugated Congolese men, would spend any wages they had on sharp, stylish suits to mock their Belgium masters and Kinshasa’s upper- class colonial society. As a reclamation of the dignity and flair that was stripped from them by slavery, colonisation and more recently by horrific civil war it’s now a fashion, theatrical and political statement.

While they parade their costumes in the style of a Pina Bausch chorus-line, the music and operatic interventions continue and I begin to wonder whether their appropriation of opera is gently mocking too. If it is, it is enacted in the best humour and with respect to their Belgium directors.

Continues until Saturday 6 June

Josephine Leask is a lecturer in Cultural Studies on the BA (Hons) degree course at the London Studio Centre and London correspondent for The Dance Insider.

Photos: Chris Van der Burght

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