The fascinating hybridity that occurs by mixing extreme talents has been a notable feature of 21st century dance, especially in expanding its boundaries through otherness and interculturalism in the explorations of Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. It is not a question of blend or fusion (which is 1 + 1 = 1) but a hybrid performance that brings out the best of both talents and adds a boundless potential (1+1 = infinity).    

Shantala Shivalingappa and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in <i>Play</i> © Koen Broos
Shantala Shivalingappa and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in Play
© Koen Broos

Khan brought his background in kathak and contemporary dance alongside ballet (Sacred Monsters with Sylvie Guillem), theatre (in-i with Juliette Binoche) and nuevo flamenco (Torobaka with Israel Galván); Cherkaoui also partnered a flamenco star (Maria Pagés in Dunas), and brought his immense dance capacity to bear on Chinese modern dance (Genesis with Yabin Wang) Shaolin kung fu (Sutra) and Argentine tango (Milonga); and, of course, the genesis of this journey had begun with the collaboration of Khan and Cherkaoui themselves, making and appearing in the full-length duet, zero degrees (back in 2005).

Having worked with a great kathak dancer, Play is Cherkaoui’s partnership with a great kuchipudi dancer. Kuchipudi, like kathak, is one of the eight major forms of Indian classical dance (while kathak comes from the north; kuchipudi is rooted in south-east India). Shantala Shivalingappa is a graceful and sensitive kuchipudi artist but she is also well-remembered for her charismatic performances in Pina Bausch’s work for Tanztheater Wuppertal; and this creative relationship with Cherkaoui came about through the invitation of Bausch to whom this one-off performance was dedicated. 

Play is a play on words. It revolves around the twin influences of role play and playing games.  It also turns on two enormous talents, both of which impress in the ways we might expect (the refined aesthetic of Shivalingappa’s kuchipudi language; and the elastic, always unpredictable, movement of Cherkaoui); but also in so much more besides. We might have guessed that Cherkaoui would harmonise kuchipudi with his partner and do it with a similar grace; but play the harp? And, Shivalingappa is equally dextrous, delivering a lengthy monologue, sitting at the front of the stage, with the faultless ease of a consummate dramatic actress. 

The success of this work, first performed in 2010 (a fact that evades the programme note), is also built upon the presence of four outstanding musicians (Patrizia Bovi, Olga Wojciechowska –a composer of past Cherkaoui works – Gabriele Miracle and Tsubasa Hori, formerly part of kodō, the taiko drumming ensemble based on the Japanese island of Sado). The multiplicity of their vocal and instrumental talents was mesmerising – at one point seven hands, belonging to six bodies, played a melodic tune on an ordinary piano! Hori evidenced that the taiko arts include spoken text with her own voluble intervention than transitioned between two sections. The musical instruments (and the set in general) were positioned on moveable platforms (designed by Filip Peeters), which were wheeled and bolted into many configurations by two black-suited assistants (Kazutomi Kozuki and Nicola Leahey) who deservedly took a curtain call, because the split-second timing of their interventions was as much a part of the performance as any other contribution.

Superbly supported, as they were, the evening belonged to the intercultural pairing of Cherkaoui and Shivalingappa. They played games, notably including the fastest game of chess ever, in which the moves of one player came before the other had finished, leaving just the two kings canoodling centrally on the board (what is that? Check-checkmate?); they operated life-sized puppets to be remarkably expressive, additional performers (there is a tradition of giant puppetry throughout south-east Asia – such as nang yai in Thailand, noh theatre in Japan, ondel-ondel in Indonesia – but I’d love to discover if there is a link to kuchipudi; and – most unexpected of many surprises – a quick, full vocal duet of A Whole New World (the sentimental ballad from Disney’s Aladdin), sung with an understated elegance, while Cherkaoui singled out an audience member for an intimate partnered duet akin to the last drunken dance at a wedding: a few minutes of Bauschian genius to add to the rich mix of joyous entertainment in an extraordinary and uplifting performance.

Bausch clearly knew this was a marriage made in dance heaven and she was right.  Her suggestion – not so long before she died – for these uber-talents to work together is an important adjunct to the immense legacy of her own legendary contributions to dance.