tue 23/07/2024

BABEL (words), Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui & Antony Gormley, Sadler's Wells | reviews, news & interviews

BABEL (words), Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui & Antony Gormley, Sadler's Wells

BABEL (words), Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui & Antony Gormley, Sadler's Wells

The Turkish music is great, so is the Amy Winehouse girl in PVC trousers

'BABEL (words)': Gormley's aluminium box-frames need to be given something to doKoen Broos

Collaborations for dance, theatre and other things are coming thick and fast at Sadler’s Wells nowadays - these are not halcyon days for pure choreography.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has become a regular at Rosebery Avenue with his mixed-theatre works FOI, Myth, Zero Degrees and Sutra, with Antony Gormley, Akram Khan and the Shaolin Monks, and now here's his fifth, BABEL (words). This is definitely wordy, and certainly a Babel of languages, Japanese, French, Italian, Turkish, Dutch, German, daffy in places, an aimless drag in others, and a mystifying 100 minutes long (yet certainly no less diverting than the 100 minutes of the frightful new film StreetDance, of which more on Thursday).

The piece, with Belgian thoroughness, has been choreographed by Cherkaoui and his frequent partner Damien Jalet, assistant-choreographed by an assistant, and then created and interpreted by 13 others, which I guess makes 16 choreographers, plus the dramaturg, all of which probably accounts for the extreme bagginess of the evening, which could easily lose 40 minutes and become a nice absurdist divertissement. But maybe that wouldn't be Belgian and serious enough for all its army of co-producers.

BABEL (words) begins promisingly with a tall, very skinny Swedish dollface in black PVC trousers and big hair (Ulrika Kinn Svensson) giving us a po-faced lecture about the potential for eloquence and delicacy of hand gestures, and how they can say much more than words can - all the while fluttering a tiny, butterfly-delicate ballet of her hands. She complains, hands continuing to dance, that this wondrous filigree language was overtaken when the hand became a weapon - cue the other 12 dancers who have been lining quietly up behind her to break into a harsh, heavy martial arts routine to the beat of two kodo drums high up on a ledge behind.

This is the first of two parallel themes, the other being Babel, the tower of multiple languages and (of course) of cross-cultural misunderstanding. The tower of Babel is symbolically re-imagined in Antony Gormley's five skeletal aluminium box frames, which the performers do a great deal of shuffling and erecting and re-erecting and generally pushing around, often to not much visible purpose than to give the scenery something to do. The fact that Cherkaoui’s dancers are multinational (he himself is Flemish-Moroccan) allows for some amiable linguistic games, including a very long disquisition on the superiority of English over all other languages (presumably rephrased in each country that this huge co-production with French, British, Dutch, German, Italian and Arabic backers must visit?). The essential phrase nobody seems to know in any language is, "Shall we all go home now?"

Various characters stand out - a thickset middle-aged woman with a baritone singing voice, generally to be found scrubbing or sweeping up (at one point she’s sweeping up sleeping bodies, which roll aside obediently); a skinny camp black American in a sharp suit (Darryl E Woods) who gives us real-estate spiel or a breakdancing parody of an African emperor; a spivvy young French guy with Ginola hair who talks much about lerve and amour. Above all there's the rather magical, rickety-legged presence of PVC Dollgirl, who staggers about the stage apparently in an Amy Winehouse state, toppling off her spindly platform boots into useless heaps. At one point two chattering Japanese chaps find her slumped, identify her as “Ikea” and start, as it were, assembling her - all the while Svensson inventively obeys all instructions, arms and legs as weirdly illogical as an Ikea wardrobe. One of the Japanese “inflates” her by blowing on her finger, and her cheeks puff up, her arms seem to bulge, she miraculously appears to rise from the floor fit to burst.

The choreography itself is sparse and far less intriguing than the body languages, but there is a reasonably well-worked grappling duet for a topless couple, while PVC Dollgirl dangles upside-down behind them from one of the metal frames, dead to the world.

Apart from her, and the show's slightly shambling wish to please, the great redeeming feature of BABEL (words) is its fascinating music. This, performed by five musicians on that top back ledge, is largely medieval and Turkish-derived, and majors on long haunting songs delivered by the honey-coloured voice of Patrizia Bovi from Assisi and Mahabub Khan, an Indian of powerful traditional voice. Accompanied by Japanese and Italian percussionists, with zithers, harps, bells and drums, this too is a musical Babel, both roughly medieval in sound and contemporary in eclecticism, but a Babel that actually comes strikingly together in a constantly absorbing and fresh way.

Should you catch it tonight? For the music, I would. And for PVC Dollgirl. But sup the philosophical essays in the programme book with a long spoon.

The essential phrase nobody seems to know in any language is, "Shall we all go home now?"

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