Belgium Brings the Avant-Garde, Probably No Waffles

Sometimes it seems like the avant-garde moved to Flanders and set up an official world headquarters—at least for experimental performance. That region of Belgium hosts dynamic international dance-theater companies like Damaged Goods (led by American expat Meg Stuart) and the Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui collective, among others who are pushing the frontiers of ensemble creation and physical performance. In Antwerp and Brussels, creative ferment and congenial subsidies attract artists from around the globe to pursue long-term, large-scale collaborations.

New York audiences can catch rare glimpses of the action in October, when two top Flemish ensembles visit. Needcompany, originally formed in Brussels in 1985, will present its newest work, The Deer House, at BAM October 5 and 7 to 9. Under director Jan Lauwers, the troupe has always made deeply personal work: Isabella’s Room, which played at BAM in 2004, was a fiction inspired by thousands of archaeological objects left by Lauwers’s father.

With The Deer House, however, Needcompany delves even more deeply into emotional autobiography, reflecting on the company members’ grief at the 1999 death of war journalist Kerem Lawton, whose sister, Tijen, is a longtime company member. The company was on tour in France when they heard the news—a scene re-created in the production’s first scene. “Her cell phone rang,” says Lauwers, speaking by phone from Belgium, “and all of a sudden the war in Kosovo came into our dressing room.”

Searching for a form to express the human cruelties of the Balkan wars, Lauwers turned to fairy tales, where, he notes, cruel deeds routinely transpire. The director devised a fantasy scenario to play off the realism of the group’s backstage trauma, riffing on a film he had seen about deer farmers in Mongolia. “Once a year, they ride through the forest on horses and gather all the deer together in a corral,” he says. “They cut off the antlers and let the deer with their bleeding heads back into the forest, into the wild.” Lauwers made this haunting image of the wounded herd a central motif for his text and choreography.

After performing in The Deer House for about six months, Tijen Lawton found it too wrenching and dropped out. At BAM, her role will be performed by a replacement. “It’s almost perverse to play your own grief onstage,” says Lauwers. “It’s good that somebody else performs it.”

Les Ballets C de la B, a renowned collective still largely unfamiliar in America, arrives at the Joyce Theater (October 19–24) to perform Out of Context—For Pina, a work for eight performers by the group’s founder, Alain Platel. The title refers to the late Pina Bausch, the 1980s pioneer of tanztheater in Germany—and, perhaps in homage, the piece promises to experiment with orderly movement.

Platel, formerly a teacher for the physically disabled, founded the ensemble with friends in 1984 to explore social questions in relation to individual experience. Out of Context, he says, investigates expressions of uncontrolled movement, hysteria, and unrestrained consciousness in relation to formal choreography.

“In our two previous performances, the music was a starting point,” Platel tells the Voice. “In VSPRS, it was the music of Monteverdi. In Pitié!, the music of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion was used. For this performance, I just wanted to continue the physical work I was doing with these dancers, but without a context that would guide us too much.”

From both companies, adventurous audiences can expect thought-provoking abstraction, social subtexts, a lot of bare flesh, and more than a little wildness—a good introduction, all in all, to these new Flemish masters.

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