Sunday, May 06, 2007


Artist: Les Ballets C. de la B
Venue:The Tramway, Glasgow, Friday 4th May 2007

Each weekend in May, Glasgow’s Tramway are putting on a different event, the first of these is VSPRS put on the Belgian company Les Ballets C. de la B. The piece is put together by Alain Platel and Fabrizio Cassel, and takes the music of Claudio Monteverdi’s Maria Vespers as a starting point. The music is updated, given a more modern, jazzy feel, and performed live on stage by 9 musicians and a soprano singer. They perform on a platform which is built into the stage set - a colossal thing, a ragged white mountain, like a massive ice berg, the texture of which is made up of rags, which can be used as hand holds for scaling the face of this thing. Add to this we have 10 dancers, who go through physical extremes and contortions in a piece which is an exhausting hour and a half long.

As much as the music, the piece is inspired by films by psychiatrist Dr Arthur Van Gehuchten. So that VSPRS traces the lines between varying degrees of mania, from religious ecstasy through mental illness, with a dash of sexual frenzy. Going in, with only a brief description of what to expect, which didn’t really sum up what was about to happen, I didn’t know what I was seeing. A man destroys a loaf of bread in his eagerness to eat it, while a man in a suit contrasts this action with slapstick dancing, pulling funny faces, putting on a caricature of machismo. But while they do this, there are other people coming in late, taking seats in the audience - strange and intense people, with a funny look in their eyes. So that the undercurrents start to become clear from early on. The staring eyed woman sitting in front of me suddenly stands - “Batman!” she shouts, followed by a stream of heroes and monsters, charging on to the stage, glaring from beneath a furious mono brow. Another woman comes down from the top of the mountain while this happens, she points at members of the audience, beckoning them to the stage, picking out the plants.

From there we have a sense of constant motion. Ranging from two people on stage going through routines, up to all 10 dancers, or even points where the band comes into the same space and you have 20 people all doing things. At times there is a sense of someone going through a routine, of standard dance motions, transformed as the body twitches at inconvenient moments. Dancers stand around, bodies convulsing, heads lolling, eyes rolling. The cast is made up of Belgian, French, Korean, New Zealand and Scottish dancers - so we go from the New Zealander in the suit, through the Scottish woman singing “Donald Where’s Your Trousers?” while fighting against her own trousers and becoming increasingly distressed. In fact Iona seems to be something of the wild card of the group, almost always present, somewhere on the stage, while something else happens - people go through their personal motions, while she gathers rags at the back of the stage to form a nest, or hangs from the under hang of the mountain doing loops, or even getting to a point where she charges the audience - getting three or four rows deep, clambering across chairs, her feet on their backs, her hands finding shoulders to propel her forward.

VSPRS is an incredibly intense and physical performance. At first I was a little wary, since it was a “ballet” company, and my experience of ballet has been disappointing, this however was entirely something that was to my taste - something chaotic and busy, something where you never know what is going to happen next, where there is so much for the eye to keep track of, and so many people are just in such physical condition that they can achieve the things they need to do to bring this event to life. In the end as people are carried from the stage, there is something exhausting, something traumatic about VSPRS in it’s entirety.

On the way out we are handed a sheet of A4 paper, an invitation to come back the next day to see a film about VSPRS - “Show and Tell”, a documentary about the piece, filmed while it was performed in Avignon. A sunny Saturday afternoon, people wandering through the Tramway’s Hidden Garden’s, having lunch in the café - I got there early, to do exactly that. Strange to see one of the dancers sitting doing the same, as I sit, eat, read, drink coffee and have cake, other dancers and musicians filter in to the vast space that is the Tramway. Time comes round, and I filter into the same hall I had been in last night, the same hall only a week or so ago I had been in to see Neubauten. The number of punters is minimal, to think I wondered whether it would be too busy to get in. But the experience is instead made stranger - this is the incomplete film, none of the company have seen this either - so there are 20-30 people making up the rest of the audience who are actually from the company.

Watching Show And Tell, we get a greater insight into the performance. We see some clips from the films that inspired the work, some of the photographs. We see many of the dancers talking about the work, about how they felt about it, the director talking about what he puts them through. And afterwards there is a conversation about the film, about the production. Coupled with the program that was on sale for the performances, full of pictures and commentary on each person involved in the production provided by the producers , the whole VSPRS thing felt like an experience.

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