“Do not go gentle into that good night,” urged Dylan Thomas and Alain Platel would surely agree.
The iconoclastic choreographer behind the Belgium company les ballets C de la B is bringing En avant, marche! the controversial dance/theatre/music piece he created with the NTGent, to electrify, entertain and engage the people of Toronto the way it has around the world, from Europe to Australia to South America since its triumphant Edinburgh Festival debut in 2015.
In a word, the show’s theme is mortality, but before you decide the show isn’t exactly your mug of Mort Subite (that killer Belgian beer whose name means “Sudden Death”) take a pause and learn what’s really inside this work The Guardian called “an exquisitely beautiful piece” with “a deep sense of fun”.
The wonderfully Falstaffian actor Wim Opbrouck shambles onto the stage clutching a set of cymbals. He was once a renowned trombonist but he is the final stages of throat cancer and is no longer able to play his instrument. So we see him waiting to crash his instruments together at a climactic moment of Elgar’s Enigma Variations – the last music he may ever get to play.
But wait, a lot more happens than that. A whole lot more. In fact, The Stage summed up the final result as “a highly theatrical production that draws on classical music, opera, clowning and ballet.”
When the orchestra finally appears (seven Belgian musicians augmented by Toronto’s Weston Silver Band), the pent-up conflicting emotions that Opbrouck is feeling suddenly burst out. He rages, he roars, he mocks his colleagues, he decries his fate. With a mixture of bravura energy, he combines mockery and melancholy in a way that threatens to break the theatre apart.
The tone is set by Griet Debacker and Chris Thys who portray two glitter-clad gold cheerleaders of a certain age and serve as the inspiration and objective correlative for the life force that Opbrouck wants to kindle just one more time.
Then, just when the tone starts to border on circus-style vulgarity, a slight young ballet dancer, Hendrik Lebon, appears to stir up memories in the dying man of how he might like to have remembered his youth. As they dance one of the most touching, yet bizarre, pas de deux ever performed, one is reminded of critic and novelist Cyril Connolly’s famous quote “Imprisoned in every fat man a thin one is wildly signalling to be let out.” Actors, musicians and dancers all mingle together and the lines between reality and artifice are crossed without a passport as Opbrouck asks members of the onstage ensemble to discuss their real offstage lives as well.
Yes the central piece of music might be Elgar, and some edifying Holst and Verdi, but there’s also Sister Sledge and ABBA.
Where did this all come from? The show’s co-creator and director, Frank Van Laecke, said that he and Platel observed that “(A brass) band is there at the most important times in life, at a funeral, at a wedding – it is very telling. At these key moments, they are there, and we stand still.” From this came their realization that those band members are also a part of the community they play for and they set out to find a way to unite all these elements. They ultimately decided that the approaching death of one of the band’s musicians would provide the catalyst they needed.
Yet their kinetic art didn’t want this to seem morose, so they flung it onto the stage in what Le Temps described poetically as a “Valse des coeurs somptueuse et en fanfare.” There’s always something to look at, savour, and contemplate until the end, which, as William Shakespeare told us long ago, always comes.
“Live how we can, yet die we must.” But along the way, thanks to En avant, marche! we’ve experienced what British reviewer Lyn Gardner called “A morality tale with a brimming heart and a glorious sense of chaos.”