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Les Ballets C de la B - 'Foi'

The culture of countertenors, viols, and boxing gloves

by Lyndsey Winship

June 11, 2004 -- Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

In 'Foi', the Belgian-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has created a huge piece of dance theatre with lofty ambitions, which delves into politics – both global and personal – religion, terror and despair over an intense 90 minutes.

Opening at what seems to be the aftermath of an explosion or disaster, with capsized chairs and bodies strewn across the floor, the dancers stir into life and begin trying to make sense of their situation. Survival is the theme, whether that be through religion (foi is French for belief), hope, denial, retreating into memories or physical pleasure, bullying or comic relief.

Two factors make ‘Foi’ a thrilling experience: the slick versatility of the performers and the accompaniment of 14th century Italian music, played live by medieval music consort Capilla Flamenca. Collected in a minstrels’ gallery or on stage among the dancers, viol, lute and recorder are joined by haunting voices, in particular Marnix De Cat’s heavenly countertenor. These sounds feel rooted in the earth, in the soul, in history and in a collective sharing of experience, and they lift the most pedestrian movements into another sphere.

Just as the musicians mingle with the dancers, the dancers all sing, deliver monologues, engage in impossible acrobatics and prove themselves to be supreme all-round performers. The dancing itself ranges from rough and tumble duets to elastic grace, with much manipulation and power-play. Boldly drawn characters share the stage with white-clad figures who mirror and manipulate their movements. These ‘angels’ can tease and obstruct the dancers as well as aid them, shaping their bodies and the world around them. From tiny twitches to the creation of an earthquake that seems to shake the whole stage, this is deftly orchestrated theatre.

There are references to current hostilities, cultural conflict, terrorism, torture and 9/11. The most obvious dig is when one dancer, with tape over her eyes, dons a pair of Stars and Stripes boxing gloves and begins blindly taking pot shots at anything in her way.

Physical theatre’s time-honoured ingredients are all here – plentiful nudity, shouting and shrieking and clever playing with props – but only one scene feels gratuitous. When one character, out of nowhere, announces himself to be gay and HIV positive, this smacks of ‘getting all the issues in’ and undermines Cherkaoui’s innovative direction so far.

Watching ‘Foi’ is exhilarating, exhausting, surprising and occasionally confusing. The early parts of the piece are filled with clever revelations, but an hour on, the ideas seem to have run their course and the final portion drags with despair. It’s only a structural glitch, but it’s a shame to undermine the impact of this incredibly strong piece of theatre.

Edited by Jeff.

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