Review: Les Ballets C. de la B. in 'vsprs' at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 17-20 May
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 19 May 2006

The dance theatre of Alain Platel and his collaborators in Les Ballets C de la B is certain to rouse a passionate response. People jeer, or laugh inappropriately, here someone snored loudly during a rare, quiet moment and some walked out before the end.

Others – and I happily count myself amongst them – love the roller-coaster ride of emotion and surprise that assaults our senses. In *‘vsprs’* this is an uninterrupted journey of 100 minutes in which travelling safely is never an option. There were perhaps a handful of moments when I felt the energy decelerate to allow the temporary awareness of externalities; but these brief lulls were essential periods of renewal, prefacing the next bout of intensity.

Peter De Bliek’s set design mixes fascinating shapes and texture; two mountainous structures overlap upstage, with one half looking like the carbuncled prow of an icebound ship, both covered in strips of material spilling out and around the stage. Nine musicians – amalgamating exponents of three distinct musical styles (baroque, gypsy and jazz) – and a willowy soprano perform the score live onstage: although based on Monteverdi’s 400 year-old ‘Vespers of The Blessed Virgin’, this is essentially a new work by Fabrizio Cassol, aided by Wim Becu and Tcha Limberger, which has evolved out of the collaborative creative process of making ‘vsprs’ Anyone coming to hear Monteverdi’s ‘Vespers’ will be sorely disappointed, if not offended!

Platel has compiled a group of extraordinary dancers: just as the music has been arranged to expose the individuality of each artist; so the dancers create and build characters of particular depth. In the early stages of the work, the eye is drawn to the shuddering vibrations and intense energy of Ross McCormack and the fluid contortions of Iona Kewney’s irrepressible feral child; gradually one becomes aware of the other dancers, each of whom creates a lasting impression through a temporary domination of the stage. Classical dance merges with street; rhythmic gymnastics morph into acrobatic tricks; there is intentional humour (a briefly recited poem about ‘poo’ – “I know you well, I make you every day”) but – above all else – dancers developed their own variation on the theme of mental illness: from Tourette’s Syndrome to Narcolepsy; from autism to Obsessive Compulsive Disorders.

There is certainly some uncomfortable imagery but mental illness is a challenging subject and its physical outcomes are difficult to portray without creating unintended parody. I found the last 15 minutes to be especially moving as crushed and exhausted bodies were dragged from the stage and McCormack’s ritually obsessed character stammered out assertions that “these feelings are good” and “the situation is under control” followed by a heartfelt request to be loved.

This articulation of an inner voice which is locked away in the prison of compulsive, obsessions was the heart of the work as these impressively accurate portrayals of tortured souls contrasted with the devotional certainty of Monteverdi. This work deserves to be approached with an open and uncluttered mind: love it or hate it; you will not find it dull.

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