Spoken language and body language, both mix in an exquisite way in the latest piece of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui en Damien Jalet – BABEL (words). The piece fascinatingly shows a wide variety of expressions including aggression, humor, an almost slapstick-like behavior and a deep sensuality for the forms and languages of the body, – and not to forget a high awareness for its sounds and rhythms, and its transformations into music in general.
The piece, with Belgian thoroughness, has been choreographed by Cherkaoui and his frequent partner Damien Jalet, assistant-choreographed by an assistant, and then created and interpreted by 13 others, which I guess makes 16 choreographers, plus the dramaturg, all of which probably accounts for the extreme bagginess of the evening, which could easily lose 40 minutes and become a nice absurdist divertissement. But maybe that wouldn’t be Belgian and serious enough for all its army of co-producers.
BABEL (words) begins promisingly with a tall, very skinny Swedish dollface in black PVC trousers and big hair (Ulrika Kinn Svensson) giving us a po-faced lecture about the potential for eloquence and delicacy of hand gestures, and how they can say much more than words can – all the while fluttering a tiny, butterfly-delicate ballet of her hands. She complains, hands continuing to dance, that this wondrous filigree language was overtaken when the hand became a weapon – cue the other 12 dancers who have been lining quietly up behind her to break into a harsh, heavy martial arts routine to the beat of two kodo drums high up on a ledge behind.
This is the first of two parallel themes, the other being Babel, the tower of multiple languages and (of course) of cross-cultural misunderstanding. The tower of Babel is symbolically re-imagined by Antony Gormley with five skeletal aluminium box frames, which the performers do a great deal of shuffling and erecting and re-erecting and generally pushing around, often to not much visible purpose than to give the scenery something to do. The fact that Cherkaoui’s dancers are multinational (he himself is Flemish-Moroccan) allows for some amiable linguistic games, including a very long disquisition on the superiority of English over all other languages (presumably rephrased in each country that this huge co-production with French, British, Dutch, German, Italian and Arabic backers must go?). The essential phrase nobody seems to know in any language is, “Shall we all go home now?”
Various characters stand out – a thickset middle-aged woman with a baritone singing voice, generally to be found scrubbing or sweeping up (at one point she’s sweeping up sleeping bodies, which roll aside obediently); a skinny camp black American in a sharp suit (Darryl E Woods) who gives us real-estate spiel or a breakdancing parody of an African emperor; a spivvy young French guy with Ginola hair who talks much about lerve and amour. Above all there’s the rather magical, rickety-legged presence of PVC Dollgirl, who staggers about the stage apparently in an Amy Winehouse state, toppling off her spindly platform boots into useless heaps. At one point two chattering Japanese chaps find her slumped, identify her as “Ikea” and start, as it were, assembling her – all the while Svensson inventively obeys all instructions, arms and legs as weirdly illogical as an Ikea wardrobe. One of the Japanese “inflates” her by blowing on her finger, and her cheeks puff up, her arms seem to bulge, she miraculously appears to rise from the floor fit to burst. ….