Les ballets C de la B started out with a story that sounds like the premise of a Coen brothers movie. In 1984, Belgian educator Alain Platel saw a ballet choreographed by the notoriously melodramatic Maurice Béjart. Platel thought the work was so bad that, despite having next to no dance training, he was convinced he could do better.
Turns out he was right. Within a decade, his company had become one of the most influential in the country, and Platel's name among the group of choreographers (Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Jan Fabre, Wim Vandekeybus) who spearheaded Belgium's surging contemporary-dance movement.
Les ballets C de la B's irreverent origins speak volumes about the company's spirit – a spirit that felt inexhaustible on Wednesday night in Badke at the Harbourfront World Stage Festival in Toronto. A co-production between ballets C de la B, KVS (Royal Flemish Theatre) and the Palestinian A.M. Qattan Foundation, Badke is a 10-dancer piece inspired by dabke, an Arab folk dance from the Levant. Choreographed and directed by Koen Augustijnen, Rosalba Torres Guerrero and Hildegard De Vuyst, the work infuses a traditional line dance with acrobatic tumbling, hip hop, ballet and other Arab techniques like belly dancing.
Sixty-minutes long, Badke is an ebullient display of verve and stamina – qualities that make good symbolic shorthand for what's needed to survive and resist occupation. Using formations that shift between solos, duets and unified ensemble work, the piece has a delightfully charming messiness, as though we've stumbled across a lively wedding party packed with charismatic guests set on having a good time (traditionally, the dabke was danced at weddings).
This feeling of improvisation is enhanced by the ensemble's natural warmth as performers. Wearing short, stylish dresses and blazers or collared shirts, the youthful cast have an exuberant presence, smiling and winking at lucky people in the front row. The rapport establishes a bond between audience and dancer that is skillfully exploited later on, when the dancers stagger backwards, away from an encroaching threat. Smiles have vanished and, in their stead, we feel the acuteness of our "friends'" fear.
Structurally, the party atmosphere is interrupted by a recurring narrative refrain – one (or two) dancers will find themselves stuck outside the festivities in a constrained place where time is slowed. Beginning with an impulse in the shoulders or head, the dancer builds to thrashing, spasmodic movement, as though confronting the madness of her displacement. A second refrain shows the "re-teaching" of dance, with one dancer pushing the other's head into a forward-bearing undulation. The lesson continues until the pupil has rediscovered the necessary momentum to rejoin the collective. These sequences make for some of the most interesting choreography – there's a beautiful duet in which two men, building on a head isolation, curl around each other's bodies like stacked spoons. And the thematic suggestions are unnerving: Does dancing express freedom or resistance? If it's the latter, can the dancers ever stop?
Badke's energy is relentless, and the infectious Arab music makes it hard to sit still, though detail and variety are sometimes compromised to realize the sweep of non-stop motion. It's invigorating, but it gets a bit repetitive. The dancers come from a variety of technical backgrounds and one dancer's sudden foray into grand jetés en tournant and swan-like bourrées feels oddly matched with the sweep of circus-like tumbling, and the more interesting choreography that melds Arab shimmies and shivers with percussive stomping and contemporary floorwork. But Badke mostly rises above any aesthetic or conceptual quibbles. It's an invigorating display of character, joy, community and frustration that subtly creates its own fierce political edge.
Badke continues until Feb. 20 at the Fleck Dance Theatre in Toronto (harbourfrontcentre.com).