I’ll hold my hands up and admit it: I am really not up on my Belgian culture. I’ve watched a few episodes of the (bloody brilliant) Cordon and I am partial to a bit of Jacques Brel, but I come up empty when it comes to Flemish live art, theatre, and performance. As such, I have absolutely no presuppositions when I delve in to the curious world of Les Ballets C de la B, and En Avant, Marche! director Frank van Laecke.
Reading through Frank’s biography makes me a bit nervous. It’s difficult to know what type of work to expect from a man who has directed across seemingly every art form, large scale and small, locally and internationally. Similarly, Les Ballets C de la B have an extraordinary track record in making form-breaking work, collaborating with artists of every colour, creed, and even species. When I ask Frank what we can expect from En Avant, Marche!, he refuses to pigeon-hole the work: ‘I carry all of my experiences with me, and take every opportunity to learn. I think it’s a mix of everything, of theatre, dance, and music. The main actor in the piece is music, and what it can do in our lives.’ He goes on to give me something more concrete: the central arc of the play is a brass band dealing with the serious illness of one of its members; the man is saying farewell to the group, and they are saying farewell to him. A simple conceit, perhaps, but one that holds a reflective mirror up to society. ‘If you read En Avant, Marche! as a funeral march,’ Frank poses, ‘it is not all about sadness. It can also be about celebrating the end of something. It’s a consolation.’
Frank is curious in this punctuating role that the brass band often seems to play in life: ‘The fact that the 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.’ He beautifully recalls the moment when he, co-director and founder of Les Ballets C de la B Alain Platel, and composer Steven Prengels first visited a brass band rehearsal: ‘We were moved by the mix of people – there was a baker, a doctor, so many different people, and they all came together one evening to do one thing, to create music together. All of the private storylines disappear, all of the private sorrows. The songs that came out of the brass band in that moment were so beautiful, so inspiring, so touching. We understood we have to make something about that feeling, that collectivity. The world was standing still, whilst they were all there to create something together as a group.’ He is interested in these rare moments of collective placidity. ‘In a world that moves ever faster, sometimes you have to stop in order to continue. This is the balance we try to reach. Trying to find our place in the community. Thinking about what it means for you and your group when you have to leave.’
And so, I begin to better understand what is at the core of En Avant, Marche!: community and stillness. Community not just as the heart of the piece, but also a lived reality for those involved with the performance. Frank describes the chemistry shared between the creative team and performers as ‘what life should be about’. As with Gardenia, his previous collaboration with Les Ballets C de la B, En Avant, Marche! is devised entirely from scratch. Long days and weeks were spent in the rehearsal room, sharing ideas, forging the beating heart of the piece. ‘It’s a very heavy way of working. You are falling on nothing but each other. You are full of doubts, but doubt is so important: it is the understanding that nothing comes easily.’ At every stop of the tour, they will work with a different native brass band, with each member bringing their own stories and experiences, creating what he describes as ‘a living performance’. It is an enormous challenge, but one that he seems very excited by; ‘It’s fantastic that it is so alive, but this also makes it vulnerable. Sometimes it could go wrong!’ But I can’t help but feel that it is this vulnerability that makes the piece so human, and so accessible.
And so I still don’t really know what to expect, in terms of mechanics and words and visuals and plot. But I know that the team behind En Avant, Marche! are setting out to move us, to disturb us, to make us doubt ourselves. It’s that moment that is so special in theatre, the phenomenological experience of an audience coming together innocently and optimistically to share something. As Frank says so beautifully, ‘In the end, we all do the same things: we ask people to love us, and our work. I will continue to try to understand and love what I make. It’s the bottom line of what we are doing.’
And I buy in to that one hundred percent.