Freud on stage

Impressions about “Nicht Schlafen” by Alain Platel

Opera Gent, 30-01-2018

Shalan Alhamwy

In the beginning, we see two dead horses on the stage, around them the dancers gather with absolutely no movement, no real announcement that the show begins, exactly like there is no real appointment to sleep. A very big blanket with big holes forms the décor.
Psychologists agree that the unconscious manifests itself mostly during sleep. But according to Jung, one can consciously monitor unconscious by analyzing the images it provokes, through what he called “active imagination”. He explained in details in his “red book” his experiments with his unconscious images, which are according to him directly connected to the collective unconscious.
Nevertheless, images that come before sleeping are just quite on the surface of the unconscious that it’s not a very difficult mission to extract them and contemplate about, unless you fall asleep of course, and I think this is why the performance is called “nicht schlafen”. Those images that come out of the unconscious just before sleep are too precious because they are too fragile and easy to dissolve into sleepiness: If you are interested in looking at your unconscious in the eye, then don’t sleep!

The big torn white blanket is metaphorically this fragile line between emerging of images and sleep, or maybe it refers to how absorbent and exposed our unconscious is to outer influences.

The two dead horses are the totems. There is one dancer who holds a big stick, he represents the morals and the society restrictions. And when in the beginning the dancers start to fight and to rip each other’s clothes (complexes, desires, motivations and instincts are fighting), this dancer stays apart without interfering, until in the end he gets into the fight. We come into another moment in the end of the fight where the ego (two dancers over each other) holds the stick establishing it’s dominance. Eventually, the fighting parties seem to reach a point of supporting and caring for each other again, but with a sudden hard slap: blame. Blame and guilt are expressed by a common dance where all dancers slap themselves repeatedly.

When dancers seem to sleep, two dancers keep moving and wiggling. Consciousness sleeps, but unconscious never does!

Again, the concept of Totem is undoubtedly referred to with what looks like a tribal ritual accompanied by music sung be the dancers themselves. Then again with dancers wearing ankle bells in their feet. At a certain point, we hear breathing and other sounds as if there is somebody experiencing a strange type of sleep.

Two dancers made declarations, and dictated what seemed to be ethical and moral commands. One of them was in Arabic, and it was about forbidding any connection with mother, sister or mother-in-law (Freud built his Totem theory upon specific tribes who forbidden in an extreme and non-tolerated way any sort of connection between males and their mothers, sisters or mothers-in-law, even being in the same room with them was unforgiven sin). This same actor is seen shortly afterwards practicing intimate connection with what seems to be family members. Forbidden incest, finds always its way to emerge in the unconscious.

At a certain point, all the dancers seem to pursue and torture an almost naked dancer until he is powerlessly faint. The taboo is being suppressed by ethics, society, religion, and collective unconscious, but just to rise up again, to have sex with the Totem (he literally performs sex with the dead horses)

At the end of the performance, the dancers leave the stage and dive in different directions into the public. As if to refer to the way the human collective unconscious is transferred. Ideas don’t have to be fair or logical to be a part of humans. But they derive their power precisely out of this fact. A very few people would have the courage to doubt the axioms.

For me, “Nicht Schlafen” is a very powerful philosophical-psychological performance. Super talented dancers, and they sing astonishingly very well, even while dancing. There are several fragments of choir, duets, solo, emphasizing a melody of the background music, and singing over ostinato made by the dancers themselves. I wonder if dancers had to do singing auditions too. Acoustic in the opera of Gent was amazing, I was not sure if the two white ropes dangling from the ceiling were tiny microphones (I knew later there were several microphones integrated above the podium).

I find that music of Mahler fits perfectly to the concept and the performance, especially symphonies no, 2 & 6. I’m not sure though that I liked how the Adagietto from the 5th symphony was used. I tend to think that they wanted somehow to involve one of Mahler’s most known pieces.

Cinography is outstanding, this one hour and forty minutes work should be so exhausting for the dancers, yet they manage to get the performance to perfection.



Photo credit: 2016 / Nicht Schlafen – Alain Platel / © Émile Zeizig –