Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London; April 25, 2013
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Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is guaranteed to produce work that is dangerous and complex and “Puz/zle” is no exception.
His collaboration with Filip Peeters on the set bears some of the familiar hallmarks. It is monumental and has a tendency to look as if it is threatening to flatten the dancers as great slabs tumble and slide across the stage, with or without effort from the performers.
The music has a distinct Middle Eastern flavour, although sung by an acappella Corsican group that, in addition to providing a drone backing for the Lebanese soloist Fadia Tomb El-Hage, sing in a polyphonic style that is similar, although less complex than, Georgian singing. They are accompanied sporadically by a flautist, playing in a simple, at times rather crude, style, his breath escaping from the bottom of his embouchure to bounce against the bottom of the mouthpiece and set up ringing harmonics. Needless to say, the sound is of the all too usual poor standard that really lets the Wells down. I resorted to ear plugs which reduced it to a level that was comfortably audible and that did not leave my ears ringing for half an hour after the performance.
So what is the puzzle? Nothing less than humanity itself. The opening is populated by insect-like dancers crawling around the stage dressed from head to toe in black. They bang and bang against the apparent solidity of the set until it gives way and they scramble up the giant blocks of foam that they assemble as they go into a massive set of steps. Some fall along the way until they form a spine down the centre. They then set up a wave that travels up and down the vertebrae of the shape; a collective triumph from so much individual effort.
Many choreographers use the width and depth of the Sadler's Wells stage, but Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui uses the height as well. Dancers stand at dizzying levels, at one point, a single dancer standing on a huge horizontal block without a wobble as her colleague lower her down from the height of the supporting pillars that they have kicked away.
Echoing its origins in the first performance in a quarry, the dancers pick up stones and, almost inevitably, stone each other in a frightening reminder that this is not an obsolete punishment. Eventually, some stand at the top edge of the blocks until one person at the bottom bumps into it and a dancer ‘falls’ off with startling alacrity. The blocks are then slid aside to reveal the ‘fallen’ dancer sandwiched in between.
It is rather like the opening of 2001, but instead of apes, we see a form of human evolution as the movement develops from crawling to writhing to walking. The blocks are built into architectural forms that resemble classical architecture. The dancers add white drapes to the black and form a frieze around the columns that they have built. Two dancers fight, punches and slaps thrown at a distance, each dancer reeling and rolling away, only to go back for more. The whole work is quite brutal and violent at times. It’s no easy thing, this evolution.
We move on to a Renaissance-like section which provides a few giggles as dancers hammer and drill their colleagues, arranged on several levels, into sculptural forms. It is ushered almost as far as it can go without becoming dull, almost as if someone said, “Oh, go on, just one more robotic jerk as I squeeze the trigger on the drill.”
A solo introduces the concept of the discoveries of genetics, courtesy of a voiceover. Later, another astonishing solo sees one of the male dancers performs like a rubber cat. His landings are absolutely silent and the strength in every movement is breathtaking. He then extends a developpé à la second to 180 degrees and falls laterally onto his thigh - astonishing enough but all accomplished without making a sound and with seamless fluidity.
The peace is soon shattered as is the set, thrown around to form a wall on which the dancers scrawl graffiti. The blocks are then thrown flat with a whump that reveals clouds of smoke. Dancers kneel as a Latin text is sung and lower themselves fittingly to leave single, outstretched arms silhouetted against the light until that too fades.
It is a monumental work. A brief two hours that would easily repay several viewings. If you get the chance, go see; or you will regret it.