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Review: En avant, marche! celebrates art as a necessity of life

Globe and Mail Update

En avant, marche!
Directed by
Alain Platel and Frank Van Laecke
Wim Opbrouck, Chris Thys and Griet Debacker
St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts
Runs Until
Saturday, June 24, 2017

Everywhere it goes, the Belgian performance spectacle En avant, marche! teams up with a local brass band. Visiting Toronto for Luminato, it joins the Weston Silver Band at the St. Lawrence Centre, but it is not until the 20- or even 30-minute mark that the band actually plays. As it launched into some solemn Elgar at Wednesday's opening night, the poignancy of the belated music was spine-tingling; by this stage in this chaotic tragi-comedy, the point of making music has become painfully apparent. En avant, marche! is an existential clown show and its music, its dance and its theatre rage against the dying of the light.

The piece is created by two companies from Ghent, the dance troupe les ballets C de la B and the theatre NTGent; it's directed by C de la B's Alain Platel with the collaboration of Frank Van Laecke, and includes a score of familiar 19th and 20th-century compositions arranged by Steven Prengels.

At its centre is a stricken trombonist, reduced by some terminal condition to merely playing the cymbals. The actor Wim Opbrouck initially offers a heavy figure of breathless ill health who threatens to collapse at any moment before emerging as an anarchic sprite of boundless energy who throws himself into self-pitying speeches, grandiose goodbyes and final flings, performed with much physicality plus a smattering of English, French, Italian and German.

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Chris Thys and Griet Debacker play the women in his life, two baton-twirling drum majorettes, one an anxious nursemaid, the other a grief-stricken lover. The rest of the Belgium company, including a few dancers and more brass players, surround him with lots of loud and sometimes desperate dance and music – and a good deal of blank incomprehension. For the truth is, nobody really wishes to be reminded of death. Our trombonist himself is trapped in a painful Catch-22 in which his illness prevents him from making the music that would let him deny his approaching demise.

When the full band joins this troupe on stage, Opbrouck asks several of the local members their professions. There are a real estate agent, an anesthesiologist, a physiotherapist and a music teacher among the players. The point is that they are amateurs – not in achievement but in professional status: En avant, marche! positions music as a necessity rather than a job.

The band plays a funeral march and exits; the show devolves into more of its less-than-comprehensible love story and now begins to drag. Then Opbrouck suddenly rescues it with a convincing rendition of a duet from Verdi's Il Trovatore – again the music is startlingly touching – and the ensemble proceeds to a frenetic yet moving conclusion.

When we see a movie or play we don't appreciate, we sometimes say, "That was two hours of my life I won't get back." Rather brilliantly, the hour and 40 minutes of En avant, marche! reveals that wasting time is the point of great art, too. It's the kind of show that makes you feel much gratitude toward its artists: If the band is not playing, what is there but death?

En avant, marche! continues through Saturday at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. See for details.

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