In its biennale “Steps” festival this spring, Migros Kulturprozent is staging performances by leading international dance companies in 36 different Swiss cities. Belgian-Moroccan Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is among the choreographers who figure prominently; renowned for his unlimited fascination with the human body, his work has been cited as “grandiose”. Cherkaoui’s own Eastman ensemble, along with dancers from the renowned GöteborgsOperans, Scandinavia’s largest and best-known contemporary dance company, recently gave Swiss premières of two Cherkaoui works in Winterthur.

<i>Noetic</i> © Mats Bäcker
Noetic
© Mats Bäcker

Both ballets were created in cooperation with renowned sculptor Antony Gormley who, in Noetic, masterminded the malleable strips the dancers used as their only props. The ballet’s white-walled cube-form stage was bare, save for the pattern of carbon-fibre bands that divided the floor into regular squares. Heralded by a strike of taiko, the traditional Japanese drum that startled like a thunder clap, the twenty dancers on stage started inside their respective “squares” in groups of threes and fours before intermingling. The costumes, by Belgian fashion designer Les Hommes, saw the male dancers in black business suits, the women in tight-bodice, black dresses and conspicuous knee pads. Not surprisingly, there were two cross-dressers in the bunch: from the very start, egalitarianism and a liberal mindset seemed the blocks this ballet was built on.

The amount of spoken language was, however, unexpected. There was a lot of it, and it was delivered at warp speed, not always intelligibly. At the same time, many of the movements evidenced a “circuit on a pathway to a motion” as cited by one of the dancers: movements that almost defied the laws of gravity. These were uninterrupted, unlimited numbers of contortions, continuous turnings in every direction that had the effect of a mantra on stage. The patterns and digital models were also underscored by a strong soprano soloist. 

That Noetic draws its inspiration from attempts to give emptiness the attributes of physical form was more evident in the second half of the ballet, where Gormley’s fibre strips were used in a variety of ways. Once garden arbour, once barrier lines, once oversized gymnastic hoops, even waving stalks of wheat, the ultimate figure the strips made was of a globe that the dancers raised centre-stage above their heads like a huge votive object. Otherwise moving between a crowd-swarm and other solo, pair and group configurations, the dancers gave us everything from classical ballet to breakdance, and should be commended for their precision: despite the tremendous momentum, there were no overlaps, no interferences, no misappropriation of space. A kind of physicist-cum-prophet shared with us that “nothing in the physical world moves in a straight line”. So be it, and that was a challenge the dancers mastered without incident.

<i>Icon</i> © Mats Bäcker
Icon
© Mats Bäcker

The second Cherkaoui work, Icon, also dealt with the balance between the intellect and the material. Jan-Jan Van Essche’s costuming at its start evoked Biblical times, and indeed, the ease and lightness the whole body of dancers showed was refreshing. In short order, each slipped down to unisex flesh-coloured skivvies, somewhat equating them with the swimmers of the world. A narrator explained how human beings are “empowered, enraptured” with the capacity we have for language to change our past. “You can choose the story you tell” seemed particularly fitting for the diverse vignettes following, each of which demanded superb acting skills; a couple reeled in the throes of old age; a helpless man radically changed physiques simply by drawing his hands over his tortured face. 

Most remarkable, though, was the 3.5 tonnes of ochre-coloured clay integral to Icon. The dancers used this malleable, most humble of materials to fashion the crowns and armour they wore, the cover they put over heads, the babies they birthed, and the final totem figure they assembled. It was also used as an audio embellishment; once hurdled, the clay landed on a juicy thwack. The delicious mess on the stage also added a novel theatrical dimension.

<i>Icon</i> © Mats Bäcker
Icon
© Mats Bäcker

Cherkaoui’s choreography took us to places we’d never been in dance before. A devotee of unbounded energy whose work is often underscored by a philosophical treatise, he assigns a whole new aesthetic to the art of dance. But with so many moving parts, both ballets also ran a tremendous risk of sensory overload; some of the sequences hammered the same family of movements repeatedly into one’s scope. Here was dance for its tremendous athletic achievement, but one fixed on what can also be seen as over-stretch and distinctly under-emotive. While the dancers and musicians were highly commendable, and the work itself targeted the far bigger picture, I missed the heart and soul of more subtle poetry. 

***11