Les Ballets C de la B / Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
The barrier of time
by Ramsay Burt
October 2004 -- Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Because of Alain Platel's "Wolf", which I saw a few weeks ago at Sadlers' Wells, I went to see Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's "Tempus Fugit" with mixed feelings. I am ashamed to say that I had never seen the work of Les Ballets C de la B before, and someone whose judgment I greatly respect told me I must see Platel and Cherkaoui's work. I found "Wolf" overwhelming in its ambition - so many dancers, singers, musicians, the expensive two storey set depicting a down-at-heel shopping centre, the pyrotechnics, the dogs, and, of course, the length. I could see it had a formula that was indebted to Pina Bausch's polyglot, interdisciplinary tanztheater but with a cosmopolitan Belgian inflection and a debt to late 1980s Eurocrash.
I felt Platel wanted to contaminate an operatic theatricality that exploited the full technical resources of a large theatre by injecting them with an edgy sensibility that referred to the street life of an anarchic, marginalised underclass. Socially and politically it seemed to be coming from a place I respected, but the piece itself was tedious and parts of some individual's performances seemed self indulgent.
Clearly this was not Platel's best piece nor a good introduction to the company's work. Someone suggested that the problem lay in his collaborative working process: he was giving the dancers too much freedom and not really moulding the parts together. So coming to see "Tempus Fugit" I had my doubts. What I found was a very similar formula and scale of production , but somehow Cherkaoui had made it work for me in a way that Platel had failed to do. In my opinion this came down to three things: the music, the dancing, and the relation between individual detail and overall effect.
"Tempus Fugit" (Time Flies) was operatic. Almost all the dancers sung powerfully and beautifully - as in Akram Khan's 'Ma', they even did it upside down - and both Khan and Cherkaoui draw on Islamic and Indian traditions. When it works, dancing to live music and singing can be powerfully affective. It is a very sensual luxury, though an expensive one and thus precious. Most people nowadays have already become habituated to hearing recorded music before they encounter it played live. As a result it is less respected, less listened to than it was before the advent of the recording studio, and nowadays too often functions as mere background.
Dancing in silence can be hard to bear but sometimes gains an immediacy that is lacking when that silence is filled with music. If I have a criticism of "Tempus Fugit" it is that I felt Cherkaoui was afraid of silence. Though mostly the music was integral to the piece, occasionally it seemed to be just background.
But for dancers there is a world of difference between waiting tensely for a cue in pre-recorded music and dancing with live musicians who can lead but also follow. The musicians and the exceptional percussionist helped Cherkaoui and his dancers achieve levels of performance they couldn't have reached without them.
To my European ear, Najib Cheradi's music sounded predominantly Islamic - though in fact it was really a hybrid drawing on many traditions. It was played on a cello, a qanun (somewhat like a zither) and both western percussion and what were described as 'sound objects'. Much of the folk singing had a distinctly harsh, forced quality that I associate with Bulgarian and Balkan folk ensembles, but I read in the programme that the dancers had been fascinated by Corsican traditions. Mediterranean culture is of course a melting pot of classical and Islamic influences.
The music exemplifies the cultural space that I think "Tempus Fugi"' appropriates for itself: the sometimes uneasy, sometimes positive space in which citizens of former colonial powers gradually get used to the coexistence of European and immigrant cultural experiences. In "Wolf" I hadn't found the soprano dressed as a bag lady singing Mozart Arias made me feel any better about European high culture. "Tempus Fugit" seemed to be coming from a much more interesting and important place.
The picture at the top of this page exemplifies an appealing aspect of "Tempus Fugit" - the male dancers' seemingly irrepressible desire to do exciting, risky moves. The piece was co-commissioned by the Avignon Festival. Its substantial set includes two rows of upright scaffolding poles topped with stylized chromium foliage concealing a platform. They look like an alley of trees in a public park, an effect supported by videos of landscape imagery projected on a screen behind them. This may have been conceived with performance in an open-air gothic courtyard in Avignon in mind, but on the somewhat constrained stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall looked a little cluttered.
The way the men (but not the women) in the company shimmied up these poles, locked onto them with crossed ankles and then hung upside down recalled circus aerialists on soft ropes. The dancers clambered around the poles taking up wide, expansive poses that created striking geometric effects, and sometimes dropped perilously down them like extreme sports addicts. On pole or dance floor they moved in choreographed sequences that had an energetic, syncopated rhythm and sense of visual excitement that infused through the piece as a whole.
Sometimes the movement material was abstract - often virtuosic moves for their own sake; sometimes it developed out of narrative situations and after a while collapsed back into them, like the scene where the men accidentally on purpose kept pirouetting round with extended arms that slapped into an increasingly unnerved, persecuted young woman (shades of Eurocrash?). A few moments had an intriguing, ritualistic quality. At the start the dancers performed a complex, accumulative unison sequence accompanied by deep, gruff male singing. One by one they joined a snaking line who stepped slowly and rhythmically towards a pole, hung on by one hand to swing themselves round it (in a unison formation with the other dancers) before stepping slowly on. The overall effect recalled for me some of Gurdieff's ritual dances I once saw in Peter Brook's 1979 film of the book "Meetings with Remarkable Men".
The fact that Cherkaoui was himself dancing on stage suggests he used his own sense of the piece's energy to guide him in moulding the piece, almost like a player manager in a football team. There are lots of different ways in which a choreographer can work with dancers -- as someone who brings in steps and teaches them to a company, as someone who involves dancers in generating material that he or she then edits and sets, and as an outside eye who helps dancers generate and organise their own material. It is a question of power relations within structures that vary between tightly controlled hierarchy and open ended collaboration. At stake is how much and in what ways the dancers' creativity can be acknowledged and included.
In England at the moment, we are used to treating the choreographer as god and mostly see indigenous work based on fairly conservative ideas about choreographic form and narrative content that still have their roots in the type of American modern dance imported here in the 1970s.
I may be wrong, but compared with this, Ballet C de la B probably seems radical to many English viewers. Where British artists have adopted similar collaborative working processes and ideologies of performance they have never had access to the kinds of theatrical resources or the size of cast that Cherkaoui has at his disposal. But from a continental European point of view, Ballets C de la B are, I think, closer to the mainstream than the experimental cutting edge
This, I suggest, is because while their working processes are collaborative, they use conventional theatrical resources and conventions in a largely transparent and 'natural' way. Meanwhile other, more theoretically oriented choreographers, like Bel, Le Roy, or Leheman, have for almost a decade been going out of their way to problematize and subvert these kinds of resources and conventions in ways that are often playful and ironic but can be satisfyingly demanding and challenging.
London audiences applauded both "Wolf" and "Tempus Fugit" with equal enthusiasm. In a strange correlation with the prevalent Euroscepticism of much of the national press, are we getting so out of touch with European aesthetic sensibilities that we are losing our ability to make critical judgements?
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