No matter how adventurous the director’s eye, filming dance on a proscenium stage is generally a poor substitute for watching it live from the auditorium. However, this revival of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Memento Mori represents a paradigm shift in that aesthetic, having been purposefully re-staged to captivate a digital audience. The viewers have been taken from their seats and placed inside the cameras’ lens, variously witnessing this extraordinary performance from amongst the dancers, looking down from above the stage, or up from the orchestra pit.

Memento Mori
© Filip Van Roe

Memento Mori was originally made for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, premiering in 2017; the belated finale of Cherkaoui’s trilogy for the Monegasque company, following In Memoriam (2004) and Mea Culpa (2007). In June 2018, it was premiered by Opera Ballet Vlaanderen (where Cherkaoui has been artistic director since 2015). While the inevitability of death somehow flavours the work, it is neither morbid nor macabre; rather, it is compellingly beautiful. The one great advantage of digital dance is the capacity to immediately watch it all again, as indeed I did with the second and third viewings even more arresting than the first.

The ballet opened with a child’s voice repeating the phrase “Hello from the children of planet earth” and it is regularly punctuated by the sound of NASA communications, including the countdown to lift-off and the immortal words of astronaut, Neil Armstrong, as he left Apollo 11 for the Moon’s surface: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. It also contained an early sequence of choreographed and unified speech combining concepts of overexposure to social media, seeing the world through the eyes of a child and the disruption of short-term memory. Highfalutin academic references came with quotations from a pair of American Scientists.   

Memento Mori
© Filip Van Roe

Not for the first time, Cherkaoui has shared the headline credit with Woodkid, the professional name of Yoann Lemoine, since they worked together on I Will Fall for You – a gentle, haunting duet for Drew Jacoby and Matt Foley, which integrated Woodkid’s melancholic song, Land of All, with Cherkaoui’s choreography from Fall (2015). That same song appears late in Memento Mori with Foley beginning a solo similar to, but strategically different from, the choreography with which Jacoby had started the music video. Her place in the duet has been taken here by former ENB dancer, Nancy Osbaldeston. Whereas I Will Fall for You remained a soft, fluid duet, Cherkaoui has now expanded the movement range to encompass a full ensemble before landing back on the duet to conclude the ballet with the circular light fitting lowered to surround Foley and Osbaldeston, as the unseen young girl’s voice once again reaches out with repetitions of “Hello from the children of planet earth”. 

Prior to this there had been another beautiful acoustic Woodkid song (I Love You) also performed superbly as a lyrical pas de deux by Foley and Osbaldeston, latterly expanded to unified, simultaneous duets for six couples, concluding with all twelve dancers reaching up to the lit disc above them.

Memento Mori
© Filip Van Roe

Lemoine is an artistic polymath, a graphic designer (he is an alumni of Swindon College) who also directs videos for popular music’s current “A” List (including Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Lana Del Ray and Harry Styles). But, he also makes music of arresting quality and his composite score for Memento Mori combines melodic instrumental numbers, opening with the triumphal Towers (percussion-led with strong vocal and woodwind support) and the electronica of Shoot Them Down, with a trio of excellent neofolk songs (Land of All, I Love You and Iron).

After Towers, a quiet electronic piece (Sam and Moises) took over, interpreted in a hyper-flexible solo by the extraordinary movement quality of Nini de Vet; and following the interlude of spoken text, came the haunting Woodkid instrumental of Winter Morning 1, initially as a neoclassical solo for Osbaldeston before growing into an ensemble dance. It is worth noting that the women wear pointe shoes throughout.

Memento Mori
© Filip Van Roe

Memento Mori enjoys a superb score and a stunning design aesthetic but its core ethos lies in the unwavering fluidity of Cherkaoui’s movement with each section flowing seamlessly into the next just as each step, smooth rotation or other choreographic motif seems so perfectly placed to follow what went before while preparing for what has to come next. Dancing in ensemble, his performers move with the organic grace of leaves gently rustling in the wind. This is dance (and music) possessed of a truly gripping and magical quality.  

 

This performance was reviewed from the Opera Ballet Vlaanderen video stream

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