Riding the wave
At festivals and biennales across the globe, you find their names: Jan Fabre, Jan Lauwers, Guy Cassiers, Ivo van Hove, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Alain Platel. They are the children of "the Flemish Wave", and they have inspired a new generation which continues the innovation and eclecticism that has become characteristic of the Flemish performing arts.
We take it for granted, this avant-garde art, this strange and challenging work that infiltrates the theatres of Flanders. But it was not always so
The term Flemish Wave was coined during the 1980s to describe the work of this radical group of Belgian choreographers and theatre-makers, who began not just pushing, but eradicating, the boundaries of a moribund local tradition. They have now not only changed the face of the Flemish arts scene but influenced it the world over.
Rebellion first came, naturally enough, in the 1960s. And it came (ahem) from a Frenchman. The public response to companies visiting the Brussels World Exhibition in 1958 prompted a daring new development. The then-director of De Munt asked Maurice Béjart, a controversial French dancer/choreographer, to form a new company here in Brussels. In 1961, Ballet du XXe Siècle, or Ballet of the Twentieth Century, was born.
Béjart brought to the capital the scintillating eclecticism inherent in the culture of his native Marseille and an intellectual curiosity inherited from his philosopher father. In searching for dance that would express the zeitgeist, he liberated it from deadly traditions.
Béjart, who died in 2007, was interdisciplinary in his literary, musical and scenographic sources. He was also a visionary, who perhaps anticipated globalisation. Moreover, he set the tone for the liberation of the body and the mind and the independence of the creative imagination. This rich diversity remains characteristic of Flemish performing arts.
There was no turning back. By the 1970s, prospective theatre-makers rejected the conventional conservatoire training and opted for academies of fine arts. Jan Fabre, Jan Lauwers and Guy Cassiers created their first work in the margins - in the streets or in small theatres - integrating text with movement and making a strong visual impact. Meanwhile, Josse de Pauw (who recently finished a tour of his show De Versie Claus) brought Jacques Lecoq's style of physical theatre to Flanders.
In dance, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker formed Rosas, and Jan Lauwers gathered together a collective, first called Epigonontheater and later Needcompany. Both are now famous, at home and abroad.
Dance flourished largely in Brussels, where established theatres could provide the necessary stages. However, the existence of many small theatres throughout Flanders ensured fledgling theatre-makers the spaces and audiences necessary for on-going experimentation. The rapid growth of festivals and networks facilitated the cross-fertilisation of new work.
While home-grown talent was being nurtured, touring circuits and festivals were also bringing the international avant-garde to Belgian cities. Young dancers were influenced by the German neo-expressionists (such as Pina Bausch), American postmodern dance and Japanese butoh.
An army of one
Undoubtedly, Jan Fabre is the most controversial of the Flemish Wave. Multi-disciplinary is an understatement (let alone multi-talented); his art installations, theatre and dance (sometimes in combination) have been presented for the last 25 years at international festivals, including Documenta, Avignon and the Venice Biennale (where right now his monumental installation of a half-buried brain is turning heads).
Fabre is also the only contemporary artist in the world to have had a solo show among the permanent collection at the Louvre and was the Avignon Festival's Artistic Associate in 2005. His work elicits both booing and standing ovations; dubbed an enfant terrible, he was recently awarded an honorary doctorate by Antwerp University.
The 50-year-old began by performing his own pieces in his parents' home in a working-class neighbourhood of Antwerp. His performances are radical rejections of representational theatre, a non-narrative blend of movement, text and visually stunning scenography, striving to expose theatrical conventions and negate the illusion of reality.
He can seduce and enchant while provoking and repelling. Nudity and bodily fluids often shock, but, throughout his oeuvre, Fabre is concerned with exploring the vulnerability and discipline of the body. In his dance pieces, he expresses the disparity between the idealised, civilised and controlled body and, alternatively, the unstable, undisciplined body subsumed in desires.
Fabre's sculptures made from green incandescent exoskeletons of beetles reflect his preoccupation with human fragility. He famously covered a ceiling and chandelier of the Royal Palace in Brussels with the self-same organic material.
Theatre meets performance art
Pioneer status is also easily applied to Jan Lauwers, whose work ranges from political street theatre through to Shakespeare adaptations. Like Fabre, he does it all: performance, choreography, writing, film, installations. He has exhibited at Bozar and worked closely with Brussels' excellent Kaaitheater. In 1999, he created the Needlab to present work-in-progress. Members of the collective, in particular Ellen Grace Barkin and Vivianne de Muynck, create independent work of a staggering versatility. Their award-winning trilogy Sad Face/Happy Face will be featured at the Avignon Festival this month. (See story, page 6)
Last year at the Festival d'Automne in Paris, I experienced one of the most frightening moments in the theatre in my 40-year career. In a new piece called Mephisto For Ever, the character of Heinrich Himmler was delivering a speech, spitting outraged into a microphone. Behind him, on a huge screen, his face was projected in Warholesque fashion - first one face, then two, four; the image replicated rapidly, and the rancorous little dictators proliferated until I squirmed, as if they would overwhelm me, the theatre, society, the world. At the same time, a shrill, electronic humming grew in intensity as the man screeched even louder. Director Guy Cassiers had captured our fears in a nutshell.
A graduate of Antwerp's Academy of Fine Arts, Cassiers' powerful blend of direction and visual technology seeks to give audiences a profound and sensual experience. A lover of literature, his stage adaptations include Hiroshima Mon Amour, Anna Karenina and a Proust cycle.
Cassiers, 48, is one of the most exciting directors working in Europe at the moment. His new opera, House of the Sleeping Beauties, based on the novel by Nobel-Prize-winning author Yasanuri Kawabata, recently premiered in De Munt in Brussels before embarking on a world tour. He will soon be directing Wagner's Ring der Niberlungen in Milan's La Scala and in Berlin.
Appointed artistic director of the Ro Theatre in Rotterdam in 1999, Cassiers returned to his native Antwerp three years ago as artistic director of Toneelhuis. Immediately, he dispensed with the usual format for municipal theatres and invited six performing artists, including Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Wayn Traub and Benjamin Verdonck, to join him as the core creative team, thus securing support for their projects.
Cassiers takes advantage of his role as the director of one of Flanders' most important theatres for new work both to stimulate talent and reflect the social, cultural and political preoccupations of his community.
The next wave
Toneelhuis' Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui embodies the characteristics of the new Flemish Wave of choreographers, while retaining a unique vision and a very individual approach to the body. Like his colleagues, he has embarked on a continuous quest for new formal languages, interdisciplinary approaches and multicultural sources.
A Moroccan-Flemish mix, Cherkaoui is comfortable with difference and new quests. Trained at De Keersmaekers' school PARTS, he later choreographed for Alain Platel's Les Ballets C de la B. Cherkaoui is a wanderer, happy producing work in Monte Carlo, Geneva or London and entering into collaborations with performers and artists such as Britain's Akram Khan and Anthony Gormley. His six-month collaboration with Chinese Shaolin monks led last year to the award-winning Sutra, which is indicative of his quest for a personal and theatrical exploration of identity through a unity of mind and body.
And then there's Wim Vandekeybus. His vision, translated into risky performances, is based on those animal instincts our bodies have forgotten through secure daily routines. His dancers push themselves quite literally to the brink of danger; the threat to the body is averted when the imagination is liberated and trust in the group is re-established. Vandekeybus' work is invigorating in its acrobatic virtuosity and spectacular physical energy, not to mention the sense of risk.
Last, but not least, Alain Platel has played a major role in stimulating interdisciplinary performance in Belgium. He founded the socially-committed Les Ballets C de la B in 1984, allowing young choreographers to explore new movement-based languages. Watching Platel's magnificent Pietà was like seeing a canvas by Hieronymus Bosch come to life.
The success of the Flemish Wave is due to talent, vision and Belgian's visual arts culture, not to mention its surreal humour. But, equally, it owes its existence to the growth of a Flemish Wave of alternative management and production. A supportive infrastructure facilitated marginal works, while decentralisation of theatre spaces enhanced touring, dissemination and collaboration.
photo: Wim Vandekeybus' brilliant theatre/dance fusion Menske took a post-apocalyptic trip through underground Brussels