Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui / Damien Jalet / Antony Gormley
A Sadler's Wells Co-Production; part of the Dash Arabic Series
The final instalment to a promised triptych, which opened with Foi (2003) and then Myth (2006), has been long awaited from dancer choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and it's been worth the wait. Babel (words) is remarkable.
The music is divine - Japanese taiko drums, bamboo flute, kokyu violin, Asian sounds and Renaissance songs - the musicians and singers exceptional, and the dance performers of every shape, size and technique have boundless energy and stamina, each playing to his or her individual strengths.
"Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui & Damien Jalet join forces with British visual artist Antony Gormley to create Babel (words), a dance performance that explores language and its relationship with nationhood, identity and religion." So says the promo literature, but it is so much more than that serious sum of its constituent parts.
Epic, warm, human, and humorous, it is sensational - verbal and visual, physical and metaphysical, profound and silly, down-to-earth and yet spiritual. Philosophy combined with breakneck movement. A shifting technical drawing blueprint and a non-stop 100 minutes of dynamic high-octane dance and performance from an international cast of thirteen dancer performers from all corners of the globe and five musicians from India, Japan and Italy. Music, movement and complex choreographic language speak for them all. The Tower of Babel is reversed.
In the beginning was the gesture. We copied the gesture, and we empathized. Then came the confusion, division and conflicts. But Cherkaoui and Jalet show with their distinctive and ever increasing movement vocabulary that we long to be united. Rhythm is universal - it is the uniting beat of humanity. We are the same beneath the skin and behind the language divide. Though, of course, the English language - there is a funny statistical riff on its global influence - is dominant…
Antony Gormley's five massive three-dimensional modular lightweight aluminium frames (his best collaborative contribution yet) define and redefine the architectural space and perspective in seemingly infinite geometric permutations. Giant complex transparent building blocks without side panels, their shadows on the walls tracing Corbusier architectural plans, stack, spin, intersect, confine some, whilst another man walks right through the imaginary walls. They frame kinetic tableaux and corral the performers. They are Tatlin's Tower… they are the Empire State Building... Adam Carrée's lighting is integral to the overall design.
They are building blocks that change with people's intent and experience. A passport control security tunnel provides comment and comedy when a robotic female controller - surely from Lang's Metropolis - programmed to speak every language - overheats and runs out of control. We recognize that well enough. They are what we make them. The dancers positively skip with them.
We recognize many situations. The rivalry and the togetherness, the group slo-mo fight (in a boxing ring) to religious song (Patrizia Bovi and Christine Leboutte), the Indian Kama Sutra love duets, the Godzilla creature made of six dancers that mows everything down in its path and then turns into a throne (American Imperialism).
The smooth-talking French guy who regresses into a grunting caveman when he sees the robot sex doll in black PVC trousers and thigh boots. Forward to the past, or back to the future? The shadows of our ancestors? Ulrika Kinn Svensson is in a league of her own as the replicant, the robot who signs beautifully. She opens proceedings, dominates, and ends them. The deus ex machina… Dramaturg Lou Cope must take some of the credit, too.
Transcending linguistic, cultural, political, physical divides and every -ism, the gentle Cherkaoui, with co-choreographer Damien Jalet and sculptor Antony Gormely, has created a masterpiece. Sadly, Babel is visiting Sadler's Wells for only two nights, then the tour continues in Europe till January of next year. I hope Sadler's Wells bring it back for a longer stay. By which time I'm sure it will have grown and evolved, maybe tightened up a little for greater impact.
What divides us can unite us. And the evening proves it. The audience is on its feet at the end. A stunning polemic of wit and wisdom - a mélange of serious content and daring stage pictures, modern technology, neuroscience and evolutionary debate. A positive collaboration in the best sense, and we feel all the better for being part of it.
Cherkaoui's eclectic movement vocabulary just grows and grows - his language of gesture is vast. A huge talent - half Moroccan, half Flemish - he gives dance theatre and multiculturalism a good name. And he gives us the liberating joy of dance and the solace of music, which transcend misunderstandings.
Jackie Fletcher reviewed this production at La Monnaie, Brussels