This production by the director Alain Platel and composer Fabrizio Cassol, who together made the outstanding vsprs (2006), is based on Bach’s Matthew Passion. This masterpiece transforms the story of Christ’s Passion into sublime music. This is music one cannot and must not really ever tinker with.
Cassol has not simply ‘adapted’ Bach’s music, but has written a new story. pitié ! does not slavishly follow
Matthew the evangelist’s tale, nor the poetic version by Bach’s own librettist. Cassol focuses on a mother’s pain (a non-existent part in the original Matthew Passion), regarding the inevitable sacrifice of her descendants. Here the part of Christ is adapted for two twin souls with a common destiny. This choice gives the composition meaning and direction.
This basis led Cassol to opt for three singers: a soprano for the mother and two voices very similar to each other (alto/mezzo and countertenor) as the children. The orchestra is based on the Aka Moon trio, with the addition of some colourful nomadic personalities such as Magic Malik (flute and vocals), Tcha Limberger (violin), Philippe Thuriot and Krassimir Sterev (accordion), and others.
Erbarme dich is one of the best-known arias in the Matthew Passion, and this is one of the foundations for the music and content of pitié ! Does our ability to sympathise extend beyond pity? Compassion is a tainted word and is often associated with condescension. But isn’t it something we intensely yearn for when we find life and death too onerous?
But the Matthew Passion is primarily about the individual’s ultimate sacrifice: himself. At the present time it seems absurd to ask for what or whom one would be prepared to sacrifice one’s life. But it is nevertheless the one Platel wants to ask the dancers with whom he intends to work on the ‘bastard’ dance form so much his own. Building on the experience gained from vsprs, this dance form seeks a physical translation of over-intense emotions and aspires to something that transcends the individual.
Hildegard De Vuyst
// Credits //
concept and direction: Alain Platel
danced and created by: Elie Tass, Emile Josse, Hyo Seung Ye, Juliana Neves, Lisi Estaras, Louis-Clément Da Costa, Mathieu, Desseigne Ravel, Quan Bui Ngoc, Romeu Runa, Rosalba Torres Guerrero
singing: Claron Mc Fadden / Laura Claycomb / Melissa Givens (soprano), Cristina Zavalloni / Maribeth Diggle / Monica Brett-Crowther (alto/mezzo), Serge Kakudji (counter tenor), Magic Malik (singing and flute)
music played by: Aka Moon: Fabrizio Cassol (saxofoon), Michel Hatzigeorgiou (fender bass, bouzouki), Stéphane Galland (drums, percussie), Airelle Besson/Sanne Van Hek (trompet), Krassimir Sterev/Philippe Thuriot (accordeon), Michael Moser/Lode Vercampt (cello), Tcha Limberger/Alexandre Cavalière (viool)
music: Fabrizio Cassol : based on the Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach
dramaturgy: Hildegard De Vuyst
musical dramaturgy: Kaat Dewindt
set design: Peter De Blieck
costume design: Claudine Grinwis Plaat Stultjes
light design: Carlo Bourguignon
sound: Michel Andina, Caroline Wagner
trainee set design: Mizue Hirayama
assistance costume: Eva Grinwis Plaat Stultjes
assistance light: Kurt Lefevre
assistance sound: Sam Serruys
stage manager: Moha Zami
responsible set: Wim Van de Cappelle
construction set: Koen Mortier, Kurt Lefevre, Wim Van de Cappelle, Luc Laroy, Yves Debleye, Annemie Podevyn, Heide Vanderieck
transport set: Luc Laroy
photography: Chris Van der Burght
production management: Sara Vanderieck
production management music: Maaike Wuyts (Aubergine Artist Management)
production: les ballets C de la B
coproduction: Théâtre de la Ville (Paris), Le Grand Théâtre de Luxembourg, TorinoDanza, Ruhr Triennale 2008, KVS (Brussel)
with the exceptional support of Kunstencentrum Vooruit (Gent), Holland Festival (Amsterdam), NTGent
supported by the Flemish authorities, City of Ghent, Province East Flanders
- les ballets C de la B
- Théâtre de la Ville (Paris)
- Le Grand Théâtre de Luxembourg
- Ruhr Triennale 2008
- KVS (Brussel)
// Interviews //
a n i n t e r v i e w w i t h A l a i n P l a t e l a b o u t p i t i é !
It is not really permissible to meddle with Bach’s Matthew Passion. Nevertheless, this is precisely what I plan to do together with the composer Fabrizio Cassol. Since vsprs, we have collaborated even more closely. We talk a lot and, remarkably, never disagree. Fabrizio is committed to the production. His approach to the orchestra is the same as my approach to the dancers. He constantly searches for a way to get the very best out of the performers, to achieve a balance between the instruments and to give each person a chance.
He has taken the very essence of the music and strengthened it either by simplifying it or making it even more baroque. In Können Tränen for example, all the embellishments have been removed and the sound is like that of an open wound or an exposed nerve. Erbarme dich on the other hand has become more baroque, like a bucket that is overflowing. At the same time its ending takes us by surprise because the melody continues to linger without any final chords. And between these extremes there is an endless range of variations. Generally speaking, I think that the result is more powerful than the original, for the purposes we have in mind for it. To sum this up in one sentence, our aim is to show the inside of things. This is the essence. Emotion takes precedence over character portrayal. Unlike Bach, who idealises suffering, in his music Fabrizio exposes the innermost part, the ‘guts’.
Apart from whether it really happened or not, and you either believe it or you don’t, the essence of the story of Christ is the same as you find in many stories. ‘Love thy neighbour’. This is all that counts. It is so simple that it takes a whole lifetime to realise. Love others as you love yourself. This is more the essence of a morality than of a religion. And particularly in the story of Christ’s Passion, on which Bach’s Matthew Passion is based, we learn another essential fact of human existence, namely that we are here to die. In the various film versions we have watched with the dancers, the same options present themselves time and again, namely do you mask the facts or show them in all their cruelty? Mel Gibson or Pasolini? The raw version fits in better with my feeling that life is an incredible trap. It is beautiful, made interesting by culture and what people do with it, but you are allowed to taste it only very briefly before it is all over.
In the story of the Passion, the emphasis is on suffering. I believe that man suffers more than he enjoys. Seen from this perspective, the relationship with the mother as a giver of life regains its importance. Even though children are made with positive intentions, every birth is in fact a death sentence. The story of Jesus and Mary is a good metaphor for this. You have to see it as a metaphor because this mother does not sacrifice herself for her child. She does not carry his cross, but hangs around him like a wet cloth dripping with tears. A real mother would step in and take her child’s place.
The content is probably very confrontational for Fabrizio because he is involved in a parent-child relationship, and the child is at the difficult adolescent stage. I can say something like this because I am in the comfortable position of not having any children. However, I hasten to add that although the image of the mother murderess reflects my deepest convictions, there is no condemnation. Nevertheless, deep down I do find it difficult to accept the idea of ‘mortality’, even when things go wrong in life through sickness or accident.
In pitié! there are three central figures: the mother, the son and the sweetheart/sister. The mother is very static, while the other figures do show a little rebelliousness. The figure of Jesus is special. The countertenor Serge Kakudji is deeply religious. It is remarkable how Serge has now crossed our path, how at this point he has suddenly appeared out of the jungle of Kinshasa. The fact that this boy is playing the role is very exciting and confrontational. Although he is a serious believer he has never attempted to express his ‘opinion’ about what is happening to and around him. He does not find it difficult to give everything in the performance a place, or to interpret it. We, on the other hand, are only able to approach it with irony or cynicism. We are not familiar with it, like the dancer Quan who comes from communist Vietnam and has no affinity with anything ‘religious’. We have a preconceived resistance to ‘cheap’ religion. Serge doesn’t have this at all. He does not challenge anything that is happening in the performance around him. He never enters into discussion about things or says things like: ‘yes, but Jesus couldn’t do that in this way’. He is a very important presence in creating the bridge between different worlds. He gives it an extra dimension that wouldn’t be there without him: what if we took this story seriously?
Why is it important to show suffering? To intensify the commiseration and compassion. The word sometimes has a negative connotation because people interpret it as a passive feeling which does not directly lead to change. However, I believe compassion is the same as loving your fellow man. There is nothing more difficult than to try and consistently base your actions on it. It is precisely this feeling that Christian democracy locally and the Church globally no longer take seriously; all they are interested in is preserving their own narrow identity. This makes me defiant. If you try to live and act on the basis of ‘compassion’, change is possible. When you look at the world in the knowledge that we have one thing in common, namely that we are mortal, with everything that implies in terms of sickness and loss, if you realise that nobody is better off than you in this, then this can affect the way you think and act.
In any case it affects the way I work. I trust that everyone will find their own solutions. And so I have learned to wait. Which in turn gives people the confidence to participate in the creative process. And this autonomy and self-confidence gives you room to question yourself, or the possibility of physically interacting with one another in a very intimate way. I know this sounds very woolly. But if you truly practise compassion you can no longer think like a member of the NVA (Flemish Nationalist Party), you can no longer think so condescendingly about the ‘other’. I do not foster any illusions that the changes you can bring about in a rehearsal process are permanent. It is so easy to suffer a relapse. Every now and then I have to vent my gall on something else. But once you have tasted it you want more. And so I think that you start an irreversible process.
I hope that the audience is affected in some way, and that a sort of solidarity is initiated based on the realisation that we are all equal; We are all going to die, and in that respect no one is better off than anyone else; and perhaps from this arises a certain compassion.A single performance or image will not bring this about, but the way in which you personally deal with it, will. I can only say that my compassion for humanity has only increased through working together with people on a performance.
In pitié I had very intuitively opted for an image, of men defecating on either side of a road, that I saw in an old photo my wife Isnel had sent me from France. As several theatres found it difficult to publish the photo I was forced to explain my intuition. Relieving yourself is usually a very private, intimate activity. I also regard religious feeling as a very private matter. Sharing this extreme intimacy is known as communion. Which is why, in my view, the photo of the men defecating reflects a sort of communion.
I am always afraid that with this sort of twaddle one will end talking intolerantly. Nevertheless, I am convinced that I have always referred to this type of thing in my productions. This is not just some change that has taken place in the last few years. In the past I had done it by placing people in their social and political context and creating characters who could easily have been ‘picked up off the street’. Now I do it by turning people inside out. Talking about these existential motives is as political as shouting out slogans in Iets op Bach. I haven’t decided whether the image in the photo will appear quite so nakedly in the performance. In the show it occurs at the very moment that Holy Communion is being taken at Mass: Christ embraces his cross (O süsses Kreuz) and relinquishes his body. Previously we have had a lot of skin and flesh in the performance, but always presented demurely. My basic assumption has always been that by not showing nudity you strengthen the feeling you are trying to convey. However maybe this time I will make an exception for this particular moment.
The presence of skin and flesh reveals the incredible need to feel ‘the other’. It is part of the passionate side of life, of sexuality and reproduction. The encounter of skin and flesh produces children. The mother says ‘flesh of my flesh’ when talking about her son. I believe this is what it is all about.
In recent years virtuosity has become undervalued. Nevertheless, I think things are changing. There was a time when dilettantism and amateurism were highly valued in Flanders as a new impulse that would break things open in the performing arts. I myself contributed to this. But initially amateurs and non-professionals were the only people I was able to work with as the rest were not interested in working with me. This has changed in recent years and I have been increasingly approached by talented professionals. But this then gives rise to comments suggesting that I only work with people who are able to tie themselves into a double knot. I have discovered that the ‘virtuoso’ has more expressive talent than other people. He can help to invent a sort of idiom that makes it possible to reach greater depths below the surface (of emotions). Not only is this meaningful, it is also necessary. I was extremely impressed with the ballet lessons all the dancers were given during rehearsals. You see what wonderful dancers they are and the pleasure this gives them. Unfortunately you often only see this in a setting where all that remains is its value as a spectacular, where it serves no other form of expression. It has reached the point where I have to really encourage the dancers to use their virtuosity as dancers, because apparently when they do this elsewhere they are usually reprimanded to such an extent that they refrain from using their potential. Or they censor themselves: ‘I am not allowed to do a grand écart because I am performing in a contemporary shiver and shake dance’. I see that within dance there is still a great deal of potential that I can tap into.
The idiom that master dancers are able to create has to do with translating and transposing emotions into language. In fact it always boils down to the same important themes: love, death, and giving and taking. I do not see many new themes. However, we always have to repeat the same themes, but place them in a contemporary context. In the performing arts you only make performances for people living in the here and now. As far as I am concerned, the main challenge in the performing arts is how to touch people and how to make as many people as possible experience the same feeling. It is easier to do this with music. Concerts give this sort of emotional satisfaction far more easily, but it is far more difficult to try and transform this into a ‘language’ and into images. Which is precisely where I think virtuoso dancers can play a role. Generally speaking I find hybrid dance an inexhaustible source of inspiration: passing on movement material until it becomes distorted and changed so that it no longer expresses the particular identity of one thing or another. This is not my invention. In fact I see it more as finding myself in a trend that offers new possibilities. Just as people are different, so two people’s movement material can never be identical. This constant remixing and going through the wringer of other bodies and personalities is like making children; it resembles it but it is never identical.
Art of living
‘Killroy was here’. In the past you always saw this written on toilet walls in cafés. But nobody knows who Killroy is. It says something about the need to prove that you exist and that life only has meaning if you can leave some trace of yourself behind. I recognise this need to write your signature. In the meantime, however, I have learned to put things into perspective. I no longer need to do something special or to receive public recognition. It can be something very simple as long as you feel you have given it intensity. In the past it seemed as if working hours were the most important time there was. What I used to regard as lost time, periods that had to be filled in, I now try to give the same ‘weight’, the same importance.
This is what I also tell the dancers: don’t forget to live; weigh up the importance of what you are doing; bring things into focus, even in a negative way if you have to, so that you don’t live a blurred life. This is probably something I have learned as I get older, a sort of art of living.
Hildegard De Vuyst
a n i n t e r v i e w w i t h F a b r i z i o C a s s o l a b o u t p i t i é !
The score for pitié! took shape in close consultation with Alain Platel. Our previous collective projects had already strengthened our mutual understanding and trust, which enabled me to anticipate what he would do. This was not the case in vsprs, where the music was created in parallel with the dance. I was already hard at work on pitié! while on tour with vsprs in Africa, India and China. It is important to me that this music does not sound entirely Western or – as far as Bach is concerned – not exclusively Protestant. In this context it has to be more universal. My long conversations with Alain were about every detail one could imagine, but always with the intention of giving emotion free rein. In this respect I hugely appreciate his instinctive understanding of what one or other sound expresses. He often provided me with instinctive keys to the music. To give one example, the overture to the Matthew Passion was something I dared not tamper with, but thanks to him I found a reason to do it after all. Or to use O Mensch!, although I myself had not paid much attention to its importance in the dramatic development. You might say that his intuitions are expressed through this adaptation, and that in a certain sense this music is his. The essence of the production is founded on Alain’s powerful humanism; he has a great capacity for compassion. So I was curious from the very beginning to see how he would approach this sort of subject.
When you tackle the Matthew Passion, one of the first questions you ask yourself is whether to deal with the narrative or not. In this case it was immediately clear that Alain wanted to preserve the story in some way. The next question is what do we do with Christ? And who is to play the part? A possibility presented itself to me when Jan Goossens, the artistic director of the KVS, and the soprano Laura Claycomb introduced me to Serge Kakudji in Kinshasa. They had met Serge through Dinozord, a production by the Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula. At the time he was 17 years old and self-taught. Laura saw his potential and sought confirmation in various ways. It was also through her that Serge started training in Belgium. I had to solemnly promise her that I would not write one note too many so as not to compromise his development as a singer in any way. Serge was balanced between his African culture and that of the West which he had appropriated. It was precisely this in-between state that attracted Alain’s interest. To make his role of ‘Christ’ easier, I duplicated it. In so doing I used a certain esoteric vision which states that Christ has two souls: a male and a female soul. Opposite Christ I placed a mother figure. I’m not really sure where this came from. The mother does not appear in Bach’s Passion. I see two starting points for this triangle. One of them is rather anecdotal. On tour with vsprs I happened to see a film in a hotel room, one I definitely never intended to see: Mel Gibson’s The Passion. In the crucifixion scene Mary and Mary Magdalene are dominant figures. This is probably something I remembered. Another point is the triangle in vsprs, between the soprano and two dancers in the Nigra Sum. I always saw it as a mother with two children, sister souls.
My starting point therefore was creating a plan that left me with three figures, obviously in dialogue with Alain. The sister souls gradually developed into a ‘Jesus’ and a ‘Mary Magdalene’. But the one does not exclude the other; in love too you are blessed if you find a sister soul.
The moment the triangle of singing roles was in the pipeline I was able to start work. This was definitely something I needed to do in order not to lose myself in the thousands of possibilities and choices that present themselves. The initial construction allowed me to progress without pinning down Alain too much. In vsprs the adaptation of Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin Mary took place during the dance rehearsals; music and dance developed simultaneously. This was not possible here. The elements were of such a complex nature that Alain needed the musical proposals at the start of the rehearsals with the dancers. In any case, Monteverdi’s music allows you greater freedom; for example you can easily change the sequence. Bach requires a more delicate approach because he is emotionally more precise. To make it workable I made recordings for Alain and the dancers that were not a reaction to combined action or combined singing – we were simply not ready for this. The recordings were forged together from recordings of separate instruments and voices. Each time this took hours and hours of puzzling in the studio. But it gave one an idea of what it could become live.
Generally speaking, there are three ways to approach Bach’s music. One can create a new baroque version of it. To do this you need to be someone like Nicolas Harnoncourt, but this is out of the question as far as I am concerned. Or you emphasise the ‘rational’ side of the music and extend the cerebral line to contemporary music. Or you add something to it: a range of African instruments for example. However Alain and I were interested in doing something else. We wanted to create a contemporary musical context within which Bach’s music can be placed, just as the word of Christ once arrived in a context in which it was strange, in which it sounded ‘new’. I first adapted Erbarme dich. It perfectly represents the mystery of the Passion and, besides, Alain had already used it at the end of Iets op Bach. If I could produce a satisfying result with Erbarme dich then the rest would work out well too. I did change some melodies, but I could not do this with Erbarme dich. My basic idea was that each of the three roles had to ask for pity and that it had to be for three voices. Apart from this I created an African context with influences from Mali and other musical traditions which had played a decisive role in my musical approach. By ‘another context’ I mean first and foremost a cultural context that is different from the Christian Protestant background that produced Bach. Rather than from starting out from Bach, I wanted us to end up with him. That he enters at some point. And that this would also happen at the end. Which of course meant that we would be playing Bach, but in an arrangement in which we transposed the original polyphony to our seven melodic instruments. The choices for certain excerpts from the Passion are based on the words. With three roles at the back of my mind we looked for a way to encompass the story within them. I started working with the texts without paying any attention to who said what in the original libretto. But also without clinging too much to which words could be spoken by which character; I didn’t want to make the characters too rigid. This gave me fourteen scenes which on the one hand supported the story and on the other were both sufficiently poetic and free. Of the fourteen only one was not used, namely that of the Last Supper, a perfect example of anti-dance. However, the Last Supper is present in other ways in the performance: in the table, or in the form of the last words of those condemned to death, which the dancers whisper into the microphones. As far as I was concerned the key to the whole adaptation was connecting Alain and Bach.
Song and singers
The cast, with Serge Kakudji and three voices for two female roles, comprises a wide range of styles and traditions. I did not want a homogenous cast of baroque voices for the vocal ensemble. I wanted voices that could vibrate, which is not in the baroque tradition. I wanted various qualities which could be mixed: opera, baroque, African and contemporary. Which means that the singers are very different from one another, and that although they are all ‘characters’ they allow themselves to be mixed. Alain is also sensitive to this, even though he cannot immediately describe it in musical terms. Nor should one forget the singer Magik Malik. He is truly a modern spirit in whom everything is united: written music and unwritten traditions, both Western and African, mysterious and natural. He is able to approach things from different angles and yet make it a whole. I see the singing of the dancers and the orchestra, as in the chorale O haupt or the gospel in O süsses Kreuz, as the intervening voices of the common people. This is linked to the celebration of mass, which of course is what the Passion is. Which places it just one step away from collective singing.
Aka Moon and Magik Malik and Serge Kakudji are the fixed components of the orchestra – and this creates stability. The rest revolves. They too have various colours, such as a female trumpet, which in my view represents ‘intuition’. All the musicians are experienced in improvisation. Even though there is little improvisation, its relationship with written music is different. Here too the characters are important. You see this in the solos. Erbarme dich, which feels like a sort of fulfilment, cannot be followed by the sound of a full orchestra. You need emptiness. But the solo here does not indicate loneliness, it is as rich as a full orchestra.
I find recitatives quite fascinating. The way Bach deals with the announcements in them is incredible. In the beginning Alain had little affinity with this – he preferred the big arias. Which is understandable because in the arias you find yourself in a state of ecstasy. In the recitatives you are engaged in a discourse. But I made a few simple suggestions. Sometimes I approached a recitative as a song. Here and there I took bits of text from various recitatives and put them together without their necessarily responding to one another. But I did this because I needed it for the narrative, even if it was sometimes just one sentence. From Erbarme dich onwards, Bach’s musical world is left further and further behind but we could not do this with the words. One way or another, these recitatives, and especially in a dance performance, force you to think about language.
I see pitié! as a version of the Passion. Even if you were to take the music away, it remains a version of the Passion. The dance tells the story on its own.
The singers are on stage throughout the performance, together with the dancers. We come very close to opera. Which for Alain makes it far more complex than vsprs. It is an amazing challenge.
Hildegard De Vuyst