This week, Lincoln Center hosted Babel (words) a 2010 dance-theatre work jointly staged by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet, as part of its White Light Festival. This annual event, dedicated to presenting music and performing arts works with a spiritual dimension, has been illuminating New York’s fall for the past seven seasons; this year, it’s focus is on “what it means to be human (…) in an increasingly fractious world.” The Cherkaoui/Jalet collaboration thoroughly probes this question over the span of nearly two hours, executed with bravura and gusto by a wildly diverse, multicultural cast of thirteen dancers and five live musicians, and featuring scenic design by renowned British visual artist Anthony Gormley.

© Koen Broos
© Koen Broos

In the show’s opening moments, a gaunt, otherworldly Goth figure (a mesmerizing Ulrika Kinn Svensson, who pretty much steals the evening), emerges from the shadows, calmly explaining the universal nature of body language while executing a highly gestural sequence – an abstract sign language of sorts. This rare moment of quietude and intimacy gives way to a monumental succession of highly theatrical vignettes by the ensemble cast, who also submit Gormley’s set – consisting of five oversized aluminum wireframe structures – to a dizzying array of transformations, suggesting such locales as a luxury condo, a crowded subway, an airport security checkpoint, a wrestling pit, etc. Speaking easily a dozen different languages, the cast explores issues of kinship and misunderstanding across cultures, embodying both conflict and tenderness that emerges as they ultimately discover the universality that binds us as a human race.

Some of the stand-outs include a scene in which a Québécois hipster (Francis Ducharme) puzzlingly transforms into a groveling cave man who then attempts to “seduce” an inflatable – and inscrutable – IKEA robot (Svensson again), with disastrous results. Later, the entire cast astonishingly morphs together, turning performer Darryl E. Woods into a menacing Transformer figure. And, near the end, as the ensemble lowers one of Gormley’s frames to the ground to create a pit of sorts, a violent group fight breaks out while two singers sit of the edge, calmly performing a piece of medieval musica sacra; the contrast between the peaceful chant and ensuing violence is fascinating, and as the impeccably choreographed stage fight is rendered in mesmerizing slow motion, one cannot help but laugh at the absurdity of it all.

© Koen Broos
© Koen Broos

Many of such vignettes effectively (and humorously) illustrate the plight of humankind – there is, however, a middle section of Babel(words) that weakens the peace overall: as the cast spends a rather extended section manipulating the towering scenery, the piece begins to drag on, reducing the otherwise talented cast into glorified stagehands of sorts, mere puppeteers at the service of showcasing Gormley’s versatile designs. Thankfully, the scenery is integrated with the choreography much more purposefully elsewhere, suggesting that towers seem to be built to imprison us, while the gestures that we inherit within out bodies set us free. Babel(words) is an ambitious work, albeit with broad mainstream appeal; it is performed by an undeniably talented cast with a light touch, immersed in an eclectic soundtrack with a global reach.