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Akram Khan / Antony Gormley / Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui / Nitin Sawhney
'zero degrees'

by Lindsey Clarke

March 10, 2006 -- Sadler's Wells, London

Spellbinding.  At Sadler’s Wells, Akram Khan, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Antony Gormley and Nitin Sawhney brought a major artistic collaboration to the stage -- a beautiful, original, resonant creation that enraptured for 75 minutes.

Cherkaoui's body may well be made of the same foam rubber as Gormley's body cast mannequins, created for this piece; he is incredibly fluid and floppy yet awesomely strong, controlled and poised. In contrast, Akram Khan looks compact, rippling with strength and inner dynamism.  Yet the partnership between the two men is physically complementary and their intimacy, with each other and the audience, is natural and compelling to witness. The intricate combining and brushing of forearms in the opening sequence was beautiful.

The set is stunning: a huge arctic-lit box in which the glare is warm, not alienating. It seems to emphasise the smallness of the bodies within it, yet they dominate the space too. Gormley’s sculpted, life-sized bodies flank the stage, get sat on and dragged about. One of them is eerily freestanding. A white line divides the stage from back to front, making manifest “zero degrees” -- the prime meridian, the borderline. Khan and Cherkaoui dance on either side of it, cross it, disregard it. It is unobtrusive, yet persistently there.

The piece is framed by a story about a journey from Bangladesh to Calcutta narrated by the two performers in perfect unison, with well-synchronised gestures.  Spliced between the dance segments, the text is realistic, unpretentious, amusing, raises issues of identity and considers death, which the choreography goes on to explore.

Khan and Cherkaoui are on stage for the entire piece, save the last few moments. The choreography is incredibly simple in places -- a sequence of energising, stage traversing turns and steps, rolling around on the floor, bouncing off the walls, exploring the space -- and impossibly complex and physically demanding in others. Cherkaoui's contortionistic solo section left him lying down at times, a lifeless body twisted the wrong way, yet reviving and filling with life again and defying his own bones, while Khan's gliding, fitting, juddering, jerking finale, escalated out of Cherkaoui's lament into an electrifying and disturbing climax.

Nitin Sawhney's score is tremendous, performed live with the musicians at the back of the stage who are occasionally lit through the backdrop.  They encompass a whole spectrum of 'East meets West.' Particularly gorgeous is the use of cello and violin at the close of the piece.  The instruments take the place of Khan and Cherkaoui, who abandon their dummies to the stage while the heartbreaking strings cast an emotional intensity around their absence.

This was truly a collaborative piece, succeeding not only on the merits of its charismatic and vastly talented performer/choreographers but in the combination of all its elements.  Moving, innovative, beautiful and accessible: what more could you ask for?

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