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Apocrifu

Choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Eastman – Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre

Apocrifu Credit: Koen Broos
Apocrifu Credit: Koen Broos
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Dimitri Jourde and Yasuyuki Shuto in Apocrifu Credit: Koen Broos
Dimitri Jourde and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in Apocrifu Credit: Koen Broos
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Dimitri Jourde in Apocrifu Credit: Koen Broos
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Yasuyuki Shuto in Apocrifu Credit: Koen Broos

Apocrifu, choreographed in 2007, was a big hit in 2011 at the Brighton Festival, where it played all too briefly. It is back again in the UK for only two performances, and I cannot recommend it highly enough, not least for the Corsican vocal ensemble, A Filetta, that is an integral part of the production.

Books piled and scattered everywhere, a staircase to heaven, a two-tiered stable, and angelic singing. Seven burly men with the sweetest of voices are the entire sound orchestra.

Arranged on the staircase, above and below the dancers, or on the stable top tier looking down, they sustain and participate with their singing of sacred texts in polyphonic harmonies, elders watching the young flail.

The intellectual and the physical conjoin in an intense seventy-five minutes, the word writ large on and in the body. In the beginning was the word, but where did it come from? The same stories figure in holy books of all the major religions. Why is that? Why are some considered apocryphal and some set in stone?

The stimulating joy of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Apocrifu is in his making manifest, in physical dance and vivid imagery, this cerebral inquiry. Three men (the acrobat, the puppet and the scribe?), three holy books, three swords, a trinity in every sense, interact, intertwine, become a three-headed Hydra.

There are lots of visual metaphors. Biblical image after image: Jacob wrestling with an angel, and Cain and Abel fighting. But could these two be a Platonic idea? It depends on what you know and prefer. Script is painted on the body and transferred to the floor in writhing imprint. A man is held in pietà pose.

Yasuyuki Shuto descends the staircase, hands fluttering and twisting in ritual cleansing, arms fluid like water, as Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui lays a pathway of books, stepping stones—the way of the Lord? Dimitri Jourde with Kathak bells on ankles tumbles in.

Three dance languages—Shuto is a classical dancer, Cherkaoui and Jourde differing contemporary dancers with circus acrobatic skills—meld and divide, inseparable and independent.

Can the other be beaten into a way of seeing, or is he blinded by the book? Bending over backwards to read the book, silencing the book, covering eyes with the book, hitting the other with the book.

But these books are variations of variations. Written by men. Feet stamp to the same rhythm, then the bells are removed—a schism? And a grey-suited puppet is handed from man to man—is he the unreal master, the wizard behind the screen?

The word is brought down from the mountain. A lyre is plucked. A Japanese poem (Blind Autumn by Chuya Nakahara) is spoken—‘you can love a person naturally’, without clerical compulsion.

Three men take up the sword and skewer three books—holy soldiers of God or a denial of the word? A sword, mightier than the pen, slices a loving duet apart, and the puppet is run through.

But is Cherkaoui manipulating the puppet or is it playing him? Cherkaoui’s amazing final solo, a rag doll turning itself inside out to conform, splitting in two, tying itself in knots, till his Petroushka can take it no more, says it all.

Yukio Mishima who famously committed seppuku is quoted in the programme notes—could just as well have been Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. The need for a creed…

Classical mythology, political ideologies and world religions, why do we need them, why prostrate and contort ourselves before them? If Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s overall opus has any message it is the universality of things and the equality of all cultures. A typical child of mixed heritage, he wants to bring peoples together. His ethos is on display in every work he produces.

The only absolute in Apocrifu is talent and a desire to transcend boundaries. Herman Sorgeloos' wooden staircase may lead to some celestial realm, but it is down here on the stage, embodied in man’s creativity.

Reviewer: Vera Liber