Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Sadler's Wells Theatre, London; September 7, 2011
By Charlotte Kasner
It has been a fashion in recent years to present so-called multi-media projects which, all too often, turn out to be dancers moving in front of a video which may or may not have some relevance to the title but that rarely connect with performer or audience. It was never likely that Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui could ever produce such a piece, but, even by his standards, "TeZuKa" is a phenomenal piece of Gesamkunstwerk.
When Wagner coined the term he little could have realised what resources would be available to performers, but it takes the hand of a master to make the fusion seamless and fascinating and a team of incredibly skilled artists to follow through.
The complexity of the work is mind-boggling, with martial artists, musicians, dancers, a calligrapher and a video artist working in complete harmony to present a tribute to manga artist Osamu Tezuka. This is a piece that works even if one is not attracted to manga comics or cartoons. Tezuka has been compared to Walt Disney and he indeed creates similar, child-like round faces with huge white eyes and cutesy, anthropomorphic animals. His subject matter is however, much more hard hitting and it is these elements that are emphasised.
The opening was simultaneously simple in concept and complex in execution: a single performer, holding a text between his toes, contorted in ever increasing positions whilst contriving to continue to read. Clever, difficult, and immediately suggesting an obsession with reading. Other companies, notably Cloud Gate have used scrolls and calligraphy in performances, but the twist here was to project video enabling script to represent an earthquake, to appear to be washed out and to appear to be written by performers. The flying was so smooth and accomplished that it became part of the choreography, now representing sheets of paper and now pages of a comic that sped past or folded in origami like pleats. At one point, a dancer mimicked a calligrapher, folding and tearing paper. It was so compelling that it seemed almost painful when the sheets were rejected and torn.
Nitin Sawney's score was terrific, difficult to pin down but perfectly complimentary to the movement. The use of speech, reminiscent of Les Ballets C e la B, was sometimes indistinct and overpowered by the musicians. Ideas flashed by so fast that it was not always easy to catch hold of them, but perhaps that is how it works when reading comics or watching cartoons too. Of course, for non-Japanese readers, a layer of meaning was unaccessible via the calligraphy, which can only then be appreciated for its beauty. Perhaps that is true of all cultures to which one does not belong, but hooray, hooray for a choreographer and a company who is not afraid to go there.
The evening careered from subject to subject, Japan's atomic legacy following World War II, the recent earthquake and nuclear problems at Fukashima, social isolation, confronting ones demons, ecology…. Somehow, the twining, writhing, jumping, fluid bodies managed to convey it all. Not to be forgotten was Tezuka's clinical background as a medical student. A dissertation on cell biology and bacteriology was brilliantly transferred to the visual as cells were projected onto the drop that then became morphing spaces into which the dancers fitted themselves - a metaphor perhaps for how people fit into their societies, changing as needed to adapt to their circumstances. The cells then morphed into the frames of a cartoon and suddenly a bigger, overarching metaphor was born.
The physical control of the performers was integrated so seamlessly into the production that it almost escapes notice, but jumps were feather light, stretches extraordinary and the fusion of bodies like oil floating through water.
"TeZaKu" is a remarkably sophisticated work that fascinates throughout and engenders much food for thought, although it never forgets to entertain. A consummate piece of theatre that should not be missed.