laudation for alain platel

by Hildegard De Vuyst - 4 November 2022

Alain Platel's work was inclusive even before this became the order of the day within the arts, it was diverse before diversity as a condition made its appearance, it was queer before there was talk of non-binary, and it always radically placed decolonisation in a context of collaboration and exchange based on equality.

At the same time, as an artist, he always claimed free space for the arts, a freedom that was not necessarily absolute, but always to be acquired anew and differently, always to be fought for anew. His work was never politically correct and always uncomfortable, which - despite its appeal to a wide audience - also kept it always chafing and wriggling. Even more so: looking back, a lot of things stand out that wouldn't be possible now. The question then is whether this says much about him. Perhaps it says more about us and our times?

In "Bonjour Madame" from 1993, there was a duet between two smoking dancers. Everyone in that production smoked, there are even some smoking photos of Platel. Now, if you smoke on stage, you have to put at least a warning at every audience entrance, and even then you risk people walking out. I think that's what he admired so much about the free-spirited Frie Leysen. To the last, she kept smoking wherever she wanted, cafes, restaurants, theatres, smoking ban or no smoking ban.

In "La Tristeza Complice", Koen Augustijnen had dressed up as a woman, disconcertingly playing a transvestite, a wonderful character played by a cisgender man, even though we didn't know the word 'cisgender' then. It was 1995. Today, this would be viewed as an appropriation of trans culture by non-trans people.

Before "Gardenia" - a production made together with Frank Van Laecke and Steven Prengels about, by and with ageing transgenders and transvestites - could leave for London, a whole list of questions had to be completed. Not wanting to run any risk of being attacked by trans activists in 2021, the theatre stated: “we are being much clearer in terms of messages regarding content within productions, alerting audiences to potential triggers concerning certain subject matter. Venues in the UK are now expected to do this … For example we would add a warning on trans discrimination, if necessary.”
A warning about trans discrimination in a show featuring trans pioneers who have the resilience to laugh at themselves in the form of bad jokes like "how do you put four gay men on a chair, you turn the chair over .....”

Also, in "Iets op Bach” in 1998, Sam Louwyck's character looked under the skirt of a teenage girl with an eye patch and national health spectacles. Laura Neyskens, once one of those teenage girls, told a wonderful anecdote about it.
Laura did not notice him looking under her skirt until she saw the performance once with one of the other girls - alternating was necessary because of the child labour law. She nudged her mother; "look mummy what is he doing now"? To which her mother said: "he does the same to you". She had not realised anything the whole time because in that scene she had her back to the audience and was participating in the hand choreography Larbi Cherkaoui had made.
At that moment, Louwyck grabbed a chair and sat down behind her, slanted towards the audience, with a lollypop in his mouth. The image of the child molester.
After Dutroux and the many other child abuse scandals, this became a painful image you preferred to zap away from. Platel forced us to face it.
In France, an alert president of a child protection association sat in the theatre and promptly lodged a complaint. Interrogations followed. Whether the children ever saw naked dancers walking around the dressing rooms? Whether they had separate bedrooms? The case was eventually dropped. Meanwhile, in France, children have to be personally examined by a doctor before being allowed on stage. Protection has turned into a straitjacket of regulations that makes intergenerational work de facto impossible.

In 2003, "Wolf" contained a flag scene, linking flag, anthem and national clichés, to challenge the idea of the nation-state. The dogs from "Wolf" were in the habit of doing their business on the flags lying around. Reactions sometimes dismissed that scene as a rearguard action; the nationalism denounced would no longer be a relevant issue. Today, with concepts like the Flemish Museum of Culture and History or the Flemish Canon, we are once again caught in the grip of politics that is so keen to instrumentalise culture and control art for political purposes.

In that context, a look-alike Israeli flag was burned - next to a look-alike American one. We had seen the image countless times on TV, after the US invasion of Iraq. The play premiered at the Ruhrtriennale under Gerard Mortier, who fiercely defended artistic freedom. He may not have thought it was the most subtle scene, but he would rather have dropped dead than have it censored.
From Avignon, that other colossus, artistic director Bernard Faivre d'Arcier, informed that this scene could fuel the anti-Semitism growing in France. It would harm the festival. From then on, the Israeli flag was replaced by a white flag. But the harm was done, the genie was out of the bottle: in Ghent, Platel received threats and extra police surveillance.

In "Nine Finger" with Benjamin Verdonck and Fumiyo Ikeda, he had Benjamin play a black child soldier, with black paint. That was 2007. Today, blackface is a taboo. It has become symbolic in the fight for decolonisation, in moral high ground discussions about privilege and power relations and the very legitimate fight for equal access and against demeaning clichés. But is the theatre not pre-eminently the place where even these noble struggles are allowed to be questioned and symbolically scrutinised? Shouldn't we defend the theatre as a sacred place where everything can be desacralised?

Much of director Alain Platel's artistic inspiration comes from his past as a remedial educationalist. It helped ensure that children were always present, albeit often on the sidelines, in his work, and that dystonia (inappropriate muscle tension as in spasms, tics, convulsions, etc.) has always been part of his movement arsenal. But preferably performed synchronously by virtuoso dancers. It touches on Staf Vos' question about the underwear scene in the opera “C(H)ŒURS”, recently revived in Opera Ballet Vlaanderen. For minutes, the dancers try to put on underwear hampered by their trembling, spastic bodies. In the CRIP issue of Rekto:Verso, Staf Vos refers to this scene. Why was he and his uncontrollably spastic body not standing there shaking and trembling instead of these wonderful dancers?

In “Allemaal Indiaan”, young actor Arend Pinoy transforms into the severely disabled son of Tosca, performed by Vanessa Van Durme, one of the first Flemish transgenders who later also inspired "Gardenia". The role model for Arend was the equally unlimited of the very little disabled Leonardo diCaprio in the film "What's Eating Gilbert Grape". Today, that has become impossible in the Anglo-Saxon world. Vanessa, who until then had mostly played the role of prostitute or transvestite, gloried in the role of Tosca, primordial mother of four. No mother of four complained about it - but that’s another story.

In "Coup Fatal", Platel, as a white director, allowed a black dancer from Congo to move around on stage using monkey gestures. This referred for the dancer to a traditional children's song depicting a monkey. In Congo, where a director is seen as a power figure, people wondered whether Platel had imposed this on the dancer. In Europe, black choreographers were furious at the clichéd gestures, whether they were imposed or not.
In this, Platel protects the autonomy of the performer: each time he asks: 'Are you sure you want to do this, in this way?' This playing with clichés is also negotiated, but he creates the space for it. Is it allowed: laughing at yourself? Embracing the clichés others tell about you, and throwing them back in their faces? What are words like 'queer' or 'crip' other than a recurring boomerang from those against whom they are used? Can a black dancer then reclaim the ape image? Or should the white director forbid him to do so, a matter of not being called on it himself? And what then is morally superior: using your powers to secure yourself or using them to give others the space to regain their autonomy, at the expense of your own right-thinking position if necessary?

For me personally, surely his most punishing punch was filming a dying woman. Alain then accompanied bosom friend and doctor Marc Cosyns as he performed euthanasia. That you would go so far for an artistic idea, I found incredible. To face death, all the way to the banks of the Styx. That you could show images of a dying person was un-thinkable for many spectators, literally, they couldn't imagine it.
In Berlin, after the premiere, they even thought I had played the role of a dying person - I had come to greet them as a dramaturge and also had the same blonde curls as the dying L. in the film footage at the time. In places where euthanasia is forbidden by law, like France, the film could only have been staged.
Moreover, showing death is perceived as bordering on the presentable. As something voyeuristic, pornographic almost, a transgression of the physical, intimate integrity of the person. But L. had agreed to it. L. knew Platel's work, she was a big fan of "Coup Fatal" which she had seen several times. And she had dressed up: with her nicest bra and a line of kohl under the eyes.
L. was acting like the performer of her own death, which she was at the time. "Requiem pour L." became a global tribute to this brave performer.

Brave, that is the word for Platel. A brave artist and a brave human being. Because you have to be able to endure a lot when you also sign the BDS, Boycott Divestment & Sanctions, say: the boycott against the state of Israel. After his first visits to the Occupied Territories, Platel always showed himself an unshakeable supporter of this non-violent opposition to the colonisation of Palestine.
We have paid a price for it. In some places - including Germany - his work is no longer played because it equates BDS with anti-Semitism. The Ruhrtriennale, where artistic freedom was once paramount, no longer programmes artists adhering to BDS, but does speak out when it comes to decolonisation.
To that, Platels consistent stance is that no decolonial struggle will ever be credible if it does not include Palestine as the last colony. Besides, it never stopped him from working with Israeli dancers. It was one of those dancers who once wanted to set the Israeli flag on fire.

Polarisation has grown enormously in these identitarian times, reinforced by a pandemic and forced isolation. With our work, we hope to create temporary spaces where we can bridge the difference again. Because, in the words of Alain, we are all perverse, fragile and sinful! We need more brave spaces instead of safe spaces.
Therefore: keep creating, Alain, until you drop dead, with all the guts and love with which you relate to the world. Make good and evil falter. And show us the poetry and the possibilities of transformation, for everyone, in whatever skin or hole we are born. Keep creating.


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