A danced double-bill under the heading Spirit, choreographed by two of the top names of the contemporary dance world, makes for a thematically promising evening. At the Gothenburg Opera, the combination of Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Japanese choreographer Saburo Teshigawara vouches for high quality throughout. But the promise also harbors a danger: the danger that the the level of abstraction which permeates the two works, Noetics and Metamorphosis, might undermine the urgency of the embedded message.

Both works have the elusiveness of conceptual art, but are saved by the sensuality of the danced expression. And there are contrasts. Where Noetics is elegant and formal, Metamorphosis is nearly painful to watch. Where Noetics wears the aesthetics of graphic art – characters dressed in black suits, glossy high heels and smart dresses outlined against a white  backdrop – Metamorphosis adapts the plasticity of sculpture to human bodies dressed in costumes the color of flesh.

There is an undeniable beauty to the circling motions of the formally dressed dancers (costumes by Les Hommes) in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Noetic, and the contrast when they start assembling geometrical shapes from artist/set designer Antony Gormley’s pliable, black coal fibre shafts. The choreographer describes the idea behind the ballet as being about non-verbal communication: the patterns that crisscross our daily lives – the inner wisdom – ‘noetics’ – which guides us. The initial impetus comes from the percussionist on stage right, Japanese Shogo Yoshii, launching into cascades of intense rhythms on his taikodrums, which gradually soften as he trades them for the bamboo flute and the plaintive, Chinese violin. As the forceful rhythms recede, the orchestra takes over presenting the minimalist and repetitive, yet romantically surging score of Szymon Brzóska.

Flitting across the stage like swarms of birds, the dancers gather in small groups to interact briefly, only to disperse again. A lone figure, a gaunt male in dark suit, finds no one to communicate with: his angular movements and backward bending seem awkward and strained, underlining his abandoned state. Echoing his loneliness, the fragile soprano voice of Miriam Andersén chants in the manner of medieval hymns as she advances slowly across the stage. In stark contrast to the softness of the musical score, a mechanically recitated text on the topic of ‘vortex based mathematics’ from a TED video echoes in quick, angular gestures. Ultimately, as the curtain descends, one lone human being remains on stage, encircled by a spherical shape constructed by the ensemble out of the coal fibre shafts.

It is interesting to see an intellectual side of Sidi Labri Cherkaoui, soon after enjoying his 4D – Four Duets – at Dansens Hus in Stockholm. In these extracts of duets, I was disturbed by the cliché portrayal of the role of women in romantic relationships, finding it disempowering and rather removed from reality. In Noetics, relationships are supposedly abstracted at the level of atoms and molecules. This should be more of an equality of expression between the sexes – but the choice of costumes adheres to the sexist convention of women exposing as much flesh as possible, while the men are properly dressed in suits and neckties.

Following an intermission, a different kind of motion inspires the choreography of Teshigawara’s Metamorphosis – the restlessness of seekers, desperation of men and women grasping for the meaning of existence. Again, spiralling shapes echo the swirling motions of the dancers as they are propelled by their desires and longings – a motion that stops intermittently as they drop to the ground. They break the stillness only to twitch and switch into another sculptural pose or return to the restfulness of a headstand, a forest of toes pointing skywards.

The theme of Metamorphosis dictates the constant alteration of shapes, given the preconditioning that all of human existence equals change. Musically, the landscape is reminiscent of the more serene moments of Noetics, as Teshigawara has chosen choral pieces by French impressionists Duruflé, Ravel and Messiaen as backdrop to his ballet. The costumes of the choristers, black cloaks with hats barely concealing the eyes from the audience, turn them into eerie spectres observing the contortions of the dancers with cool distance.

Unlike Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the Japanese choreographer Teshigawara makes no distinction between male and female bodies. His beings don’t possess the conventional definition of beauty, and there seems to be only one constant to which he adheres – constant change. In the sea of change, beauty, sexual identity, happiness and pain are nothing but fleeting concepts. Therefore, although the ballet Noetics appears to be more accessible because of it’s airy, surface beauty, it is Teshigawara’s disturbing, Kafkaesque Metamorphosis which opens the mind to existential questions.