Cantus Firmus / Mea Culpa

Jeanne Brabant and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Ballet Vlaanderen
Opera Vlaanderen, Antwerp

Cantus Firmus / Mea Culpa

In Ballet Vlaanderen’s 50th anniversary year, they celebrate their founder and choreographic legend Jeanne Brabant with her 1969 abstract dance piece Cantus Firmus. This is paired with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s work Mea Culpa, a far more provocative conceptual ballet.

Brabants not only founded Ballet Vlaanderen but also led the company for 15 years, producing a wealth of choreographic works. Cantus Firmus was created in the year of the company's birth.

Accompanied by the B’Rock baroque orchestra on period instruments, Cantus Firmus is danced to a selection of Bach cantatas. B’Rock describes its work as "theatrical expression in sound" and lives up to its aims in this performance, beautifully spinning out Bach’s melodies.

Brabant’s choreography is inspired by the musical technique of the Cantus Firmus, a drawn-out melody which forms the basis of a polyphonic composition. The dance is polyphonic at times, with the red-clad corps de ballet's juxtaposition with four dancers in white. The ensemble deserve credit for their beautiful unison, creating perfect pictures as Brabant explores large physical forms and spacious arm gestures.

In this work, the themes of consolation and reconciliation play a central role, particularly apparent in the pas de deux, danced by Nancy Osbaldeston and Viktor Banka. Banka performs the steps with dexterity but it is Osbaldesrton who stands out more than anyone in this piece. She has a great ownership of all the work she performs, infusing her duet with Bach’s joyous music.

Overall, this work soothes the soul and I felt refreshed heading into the interval. In complete contrast, Mea Culpa induces feelings of guilt as it tackles the idea of privilege.

Cherkaoui was inspired by Heinrich Schütz’s Die Sieben Worte Jesu Christi am Kreuz, which has similar conciliatory themes to the Bach cantatas. The music advocates reconciliation and forms the linchpin of the score, around which comes African music by Diomedes Cato, Tister Ikomo, Biagio Marini and Kaspy N’dia.

This piece explores a shared sense of guilt that is passed on from generation to generation. It asks the question: at what price comes our everyday comfort, handed down to us from our grandparents?

Cherkaoui explains that he started from ideas of hierarchy, conquest, colonisation, thraldom of man by man, slavery and pollution. Though this is quite a long list, all of these ideas are clearly present onstage without the work becoming too cluttered.

Instead, like a detailed painting, this is a ballet which you want to see time and time again to catch all of the nuances.

On a debris-strewn stage, the piece opens with Matt Foley, stripped, performing angular rigid movements which leave him disabled. Though he contorts his body into what should be impossible poses, he moves only with locked limbs, dropping into splits and falling time and again. Foley has a magnetism; although the rest of the company dress the set, my eyes never stray from his actions.

Half of the cast mill with champagne glasses held high, dripping in jewels and black finery. The rest are waiters or maids and there is a beautifully choreographed cleaning number in which a rag serves as a well-wielded prop in an ensemble with takes place mostly on the floor.

Another highlight is the pas de deux between Nicolas Coutsier and Morgana Cappellari. Cappellari never holds her own weight; she is constantly falling, twisting towards the ground but held up by Coutsier in their bewitching duet.

Characteristic of many of Cherkaoui’s works, the piece includes spoken English text. First declaimed alone by Cappellari, it develops into recitation by a larger chorus, the pauses and word stresses precisely engineered. There are also video projections across the pack of the stage, to add another dimension to this many layered work.

This piece explores power and dominance and this is explored through a reconciliation of the physical form. Much is made of weight bearing, of physical control. Capelleri stands on the waiting staff, clearly in control but later her weightlessness means she relinquishes power as she is manhandled around the stage. This is a thought-provoking piece, yet not without levity—a very funny drunken solo appears midway. Amongst this guilt-laden piece is so much beauty in the choreography, captivating the audience and making them want to watch this conscience-dredging performance.

Mea Culpa and Cantus Firmus are a strong pairing of works. Bach’s music has clear link to Schütz and, though extremely different in choreographic style, both explore reconciliation and forgiveness. An exciting double bill to mark Ballet Vlaanderen’s celebratory year.

Reviewer: Louise Lewis