Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet have collaborated with Japanese artists for about a decade (TeZukA and Apocrifu) They are both fascinated by the Japanese treatment of individuality within a group ; which seems to differ greatly from its perceived perceptions in western cultures. 

Babel (words), Cherkaoui and Jalet's latest work looks at how people from different cultures – thus who might also speak different languages – communicate with each other and how they overcome these barriers while respecting each other's cultures. The inspiration comes from the episode of the apocalypse, in the Old Testament, in which God punishes the 'arrogants' by mixing them along with people of different languages and nations. In Babel, 13 performers from different nationalities, and diverse dance backgrounds – hip hop, kung-fu and Shaolin, contemporary dance and ballet– share the stage. How can they understand each other with so little in common?

Babel © Yoshisato Komaki, presented by Sapporo International Art Festival
Babel
© Yoshisato Komaki, presented by Sapporo International Art Festival

The performance begins with a tall, android-like blonde girl lecturing all concerned about how hand gestures can act as a universal language, her eloquent and elegant hand movements a ballet of their own. But as the performance goes on, two Japanese performers tease her, telling her she is only a doll retailed at IKEA...they even try and inflate her. What makes this work unique is its use of dialogues. An American man insists on the superiority of English in a lonely speech, while other performers speak in different languages, which are, in fact not so difficult to understand.

On the stage, there are light, versatile, frame-like steel cubes (designed by Antony Gormley)  which the performers put to great use. In one moment these raise high and symbolize the tower of Babel. At other times they become a small cell that shows the borders of the introspect mind of those who hide into themselves. It also transforms into an immigration border control, a clothes' rail and a climbing frame. Within those walls, the performers are either isolated, strife or attempting to communicate. Although there is much more dancing here, the manner in which the performers are here trying to express themselves through movements and dialogues reminded me of Pina Bausch’s Tanzteater.

A hairy man passionately approaches a woman, and her rejection of him is a heartbreaking moment. A very clever and powerful moment impacts on the audience, when several dancers assemble like a gigantic monstrous robot from the movie Transformers. And a stunning, memorable choreography made of extremely slow movement is born when the dancers create a huge chaotic human wall, which seems to symbolize people from different backgrounds, nations, languages and cultures struggling to understand each other.

Babel © Yoshisato Komaki
Babel
© Yoshisato Komaki
The music has a large role in this work; with six musicians on the rear stage playing and even joining the dancers in the movements. Nomadic, nostalgic melodies with middle eastern flavour blend with Italian medieval music, chants of Buddhist sutras, Indian Tabla and Japanese flutes, percussions, strings. The music evolves as the performance goes on. One of the performers Christine Leboutte, who hangs the laundry and does the cleaning, sings in a hauntingly beautiful, deep and melancholic voice. Here we can see that dancing and singing done together do not break down borders, but that, perhaps, people could  live alongside each other, and together,through mutual understanding.

Cherkaoui and Jalet' talent undeniably lies in their ability to choreograph creative works. Although the theme is intellectual, both in looking at how the human brain instructs movements to the body, and how the issue of globalization and isolation in culture is dealt with, there is also much entertainment and even comedy in this work. With Babel we can see an optimistic hope in how dance and music can break down walls.

****1