There was no shortage of themes in the strange confection that is En Avant Marche!, and no shortage of talent on display. However, unfortunately the lack of a shaping dramaturgy removed any real focus to the whole.
Brass bands always command affection as emblems both of community solidarity and musical memory. Miners’ galas, military march-pasts, Remembrance Sundays, long summer afternoons with bandstands in the park, even the Salvation Army at Christmas (Guys and Dolls, anybody?).
All these are triggers of shared rites of passage where a mutual sense of occasion for the audience meets the solidarity of collective music-making. To have a real brass band on stage, in this case the London-based Heroes band, together with eleven actors, dancers and players promised much, but unfortunately the final result, music apart, failed to deliver.
This show, from the Belgian team of Alain Platel and Frank Van Laecke and their company Les Ballets Contemporains de la Belgique, was first produced at the Edinburgh Festival last year. One can see why it did well there: it is quirky, mixing dance and music and bizarre rhythmic experiments in a surrealistic jumble. There are the outlines of a poignant story, and plenty of talented performers, a cocktail that in a high-octane festival milieu is likely to win ready plaudits. However, in the grey, damp light of June in EC1 it does not pass muster.
The set is a bare orchestral rehearsal hall which is gradually laid out with folding chairs. At the back is a wall with various cut-away sections which are populated by players and performers at different points. The work runs without an interval for an hour and forty minutes. Most of the action takes place among the four performers and seven musicians that form a ‘core’ band, which is then joined at points by the larger professional band.
The story, such as it is, revolves around an aging trombone player (Wim Opbrouck) who because of cancer can no longer play his instrument. In fact we see him initially demoted to a new role as cymbal player seeking to time his one intervention in a Wagner prelude. Increasingly fraught interactions in rehearsal format follow as all the characters introduce themselves.
However, the central story is never developed in a coherent way, any more than is the case with any of the case studies of the other characters. Fragments of verbal, visual, musical and choreographed material are presented for all them, but no coherent pattern of relationships emerges. It is almost as though we are watching a workshop in improvisation which has been allowed to spool on and on without directorial intervention. There is a lot of energy and a lot of skilful rhythmic experimentation riffing on rhythms set going in the music, but it leads nowhere of interest ultimately.
It is a relief therefore to turn to the music where the skill of director and arranger Steven Prengels was very much in evidence. Deft arrangements of familiar numbers by Strauss and Verdi went along with a gorgeous unpicking and reworking of a famous section from a Mahler symphony. Also those stalwarts of the brass band repertory, Holst’s Jupiter theme and Elgar’s Nimrod were given full weight by the full band and received in resonant respectful silence by the audience.
Churchill is supposed to have turned away a dessert with the terse dismissal: ‘Take this pudding away: it has no theme.’ There was no shortage of themes in this strange confection, and no shortage of talent on display. However, unfortunately the lack of a shaping dramaturgy removed any real focus or governing flavour from the whole. You could more-or-less see where the creative team wanted to take the piece – in the direction of evoking sympathy and respect for those whose case seems helpless and hopeless, and celebrating this fact of human resilience through music and dance media. Worthy goals all. However, when the audience has to do the main work of joining up the dots then one cannot consider the production a success. This is a pity because the raw materials and the quality of the performers promised much of interest.