Alain Platel, outstanding Belgian director and choreographer, guest of this year’s edition of Dialog – Wrocław International Theatre Festival shares his thoughts with Tomasz Kireńczuk.
If I were asked to describe your theatre with one word, I would use the word “empathy”. Where does your profound interest in human beings, so characteristic of your work, come from?
I think I developed it, because I was forced to observe people very carefully. I’m not somebody who would like to tell people what to do. I prefer to rely on what they want to share with me. By watching them, I recognise myself. When I think about what I do, I come to the conclusion that it is not and, in fact, has never been a job, more a way of life. Not a way of living – more an essential part of myself, discovering life. I can bring people together, I can motivate them, I can capture themes or music, or things that can inspire a group of people and at the beginning of the process I’m like a concierge, making sure that the place is clean, that coffee is available, that people feel confident and feel they can really open up. So at the beginning I’m not really the director, but I’m well aware of the fact that there will be a moment in the process when I will become the director. And I can be quite demanding. Not in an authoritarian way; rather, I try to convince people about something. I’ll never ask them to do things that they personally and physically feel uncomfortable with. And this has become a way of living for me. I like to be with the company on tour, to discover how it changes, to discuss things with them, to meet people like you, members of the audience.
But empathy is also part of the creative process in your theatre. It is visible, for example, in the way your present the human body. In your productions every human body – young or old, healthy or ill – is just beautiful. You discover beauty in imperfections.
This also has to do with my past – with the fact that I was not formally educated as a dancer or choreographer. When I was working as a psychologist teacher with children with disabilities, I was fascinated by the way they physically looked and behaved. I remember sometimes being a bit embarrassed to say that I really liked watching them. I found it absolutely fascinating to see how some bodies moved and behaved and this experience caused that I begin to look at them in quite a positive way. And maybe this is why I have sensitivity to the variety of our bodies. When I work with people on a production, I always seek to make them really visible. Even when it is big group of people, I like them to be seen as individuals. In order to achieve that, you have to accentuate their beauty and their uniqueness.
In En avant, marche! the actors speak many languages. At some point during the performance I realise I stop listening to what the artists are saying to concentrate more on the gestures, bodies, sounds, which give real sense to the performance. Is the performance like that because you don’t believe in language? Do you think it is easier to communicate using bodies?
It has to do with the reality in which we live nowadays. For 25 years I’ve been working with people of different origins and we have had to mix languages all the time. I’m really annoyed about the fact that, especially in Europe, we constantly emphasise the fact that if somebody wants to integrate, they have to know the language. When working on En avant, marche! I wondered whether we would be able to get away from the primacy of language. Thus, on the one hand it is an experiment in communication and on the other an expression of my critical stance on how strongly we are attached to our own language, nationality or land.
When I was a small boy, my father took me to a theatre in Ghent which was showing experimental, avant-garde Polish theatre. In those days there were no subtitles. I remember that despite having a lot of text, the performance was based primarily on physicality, corporeality. And I found it absolutely fascinating. That I didn’t understand what the actors were saying didn’t matter at all, because communication was placed outside spoken language.
Would you agree that nicht schlafen is a continuation of En avant, marche!? I believe that En avant, marche! is a story about the beauty of a community and nicht schlafen is a warning against what will happen to us, if we destroy this community.
I really like the way in which you have described it, I would never have thought about it like that. When I’m working on another production, I don’t really think about a connection with the previous production or productions. I would say that the starting point is always difference. But if you watch the two productions with these themes in mind, I think that you’re right, when you say that both are about communities. One is about the power of support and how much we need it, and the other is about how dangerous its lack is.
En avant, marche! is filled with hope stemming from the belief in the power of a community. Nicht schlafen is more like a catastrophic vision of the world overflowing with suffering and death. What happened between the creation of these two productions that your mood changed so dramatically?
I think that what happens in the world influences me a lot. I realise that when we start working on a production, the outside world is very present. In that sense I think that there are productions I can place in a specific context. During the rehearsals for nicht schlafen we were very impressed by what was happening in the world – the extreme right movements, the troubles in Europe, Brexit, Trump, Erdogan in Turkey, the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels – these things were very much present in the creation process and influenced the material we were working with.
Nicht schlafen can be treated as a warning, but I hope that in the performances I am not suggesting that we are heading for another catastrophe. It might happen, but I think that in the last part of the performance we show primarily the beauty of being together.
The motto of this year’s Dialog Festival is “Onwards! But where?”. Could you answer the question in the motto?
I’m very positively surprised by the power of people working on the grassroots level, somewhere on the margins of big politics. At the same time I’m terrified by how much power is given to people like Trump, Erdogan, Putin and other emblematic figures from the extreme right all over Europe and the world. I don’t know if the power of the grassroots, civic movements will be big enough to oppose them, but I really hope it will. Are we heading for a catastrophe? I don’t know. Science suggests that the world will literally disappear at some point. The only thing remaining for us is to hope that before it happens, we will manage to do a few good things.
Interview: Tomasz Kireńczuk