One Song

Reviewer's rating

Few shows have ever sparked the audience of the Festival d’Avignon so passionately. Miet Warlop, a 44-year-old Belgian artist, and her troupe brought together, for one hour, the 800 spectators of the Saint Joseph high school courtyard, and offered them a musical, physical, and theatrical experience of outstanding vitality and audacity.

On the stage, musical instruments stand next to physical exercise machines in what looks like a sports club. A three-legged commentator describes and analyzes the performances with humor, even if what she says remains mostly unintelligible. A group of supporters, standing on a small platform, encourages the group of sportsmen-musicians who are starting out on the central part of the stage.

Five actors in sports gear warm up on one side in small strides, then move to their respective positions: a cellist performs gymnastics on a beam, a cheerleader runs around the stage while humming, and a third one jumps on a gymnastics board to reach his piano perched on top of a weighted ladder, another one does push-ups while playing the double bass, while the last one jumps between the different components of his drums and his cymbals.

Once started, the metronome will set the rhythm, or rather the tempo, for the band. Is it a rock concert? Is it a dance choreography? Or is it intensive sports training? One Song is a little of all of these, as indicated by its classification in the “indiscipline” section of the Avignon Festival, apart from the classic categories of “theater” and “dance”.

More than a simple repetition of the same song, One Song is a gigantic exposition, since the song is repeated several times under different variations and aspects. This figure of speech of the exposition enables to unfold all the formal potentialities and combinations of meaning. When the rhythm of the metronome increases, the movements of the group intensify to their physical limits. Similarly, when the speed of the metronome decelerates to the breaking point, time almost freezes and the music is played in spectacular slow motion.

The show is part of an anthological series of the Festival d’Avignon / NTGent, the “Histoire(s) du théâtre” (History/ies of theatre), already directed by Milo Rau, Faustin Linyekula and Angélica Liddell. It is both a carte blanche and an invitation to a historical and theoretical proposal, answering the same question, very personal for a creator: why do we make theater? How do we do it? For what purpose? What does theater mean to us? What is important?

“Run for your life / Till you die / Till I die / We all die”, intones the singer – and marathon runner – of the group on his treadmill on which he could run endlessly. Running until exhaustion, singing until exhaustion, playing until exhaustion, this is the program of One Song. When they collapse, the performers breathe so hard that their bodies still seem to be dancing on the floor. They struggle to catch their breath and continue to run, jump, stand on a beam, and play their respective instruments.

In reality, the group swaps places and instruments: the gymnast will end up playing the double bass on her beam and then improvising on the drums. The horizontality between the music group is a real political program on the unity of the collective and the organicity of society. Almost a hundred years after Chaplin’s Modern Times, the show even draws a burlesque vein in its concern for the rhythm of gestures and their great disturbance. Faced with the robotization of the world, what better way to test and see what happens to bodies subjected to their limits and therefore to their vulnerability.

The physical challenge is also a test for the audience in the context of the noise and overwhelming cacophony. Watching this performance, which takes place in several places on the stage, requires the audience to pay attention at all times. Our ears are put to the test, so much so that the tumult of sound coming out of the speakers transmits the vigor with which the actors give everything on stage. The strong, uniform, and static lighting, like a soccer stadium, illuminates as much as it tires the eyes. The hour and a quarter performance is as exhausting as a great rock concert.

One Song is first and foremost formal experimentation with a freedom that is salutary for this unique musical show. However, the artistic and avant-garde demands of Miet Warlop do not make it a work reserved for the initiated. During the last performance in Avignon, on July 14, the audience gave a standing ovation to the troupe, which returned to the stage six times. The renewed communion between actors and spectators, in an amazing collective momentum, is certainly Miet Warlop’s greatest achievement. After a cancellation in 2020 and a reduced edition in 2021, the Festival d’Avignon could not have dreamed of a better popular and devouring vision of theater for its great post-covid return.