Among productive and successful choreographers, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui distinguishes himself for variety: in projects, from film collaborations to the Cirque du Soleil’s arena, and in the cultural sources used for his work. Puz/zle is no exception, quite the reverse – and I beg your pardon if I will not explain all the references in it. The taste for simple fusion (cultural or culinary) is apparently no longer adequate, and it has been expanded by attention to regional details (typical of slow food). Produced 2011 for Cherkaoui’s company Eastman (founded in 2010) and performed in a former stone quarry at the Festival d’Avignon, Puz/zle has an epic aesthetic and length, slightly recalling T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922).

© Koen Broos
© Koen Broos

Greeted by synthetic cicadas, we are transported to a summery southern-French evening, though without the typical warmth, and we walk through an empty gallery space as a video is projected onto what looks like a stone wall. Dancers flock like insects onto the surface, and the fake stone panels soon metamorphose into a staircase, a temple and a display rank. Designed by Filip Peeters and Cherkaoui, the Stonehenge-style set is steadily rearranged, producing constant new imagery much like Sutra (2008), the piece of Cherkaoui’s presented only weeks ago at Sadler’s Wells. To that, real pebbles are introduced as one of the dancers is stoned, and the pebbles are also used for simple visual effects or to produce sounds.

The work has no real structure, apart perhaps from a faint temporal development that can be detected in the dancers’ shift of costumes: from black oriental monks, to black-and-white upcycled traditional costumes such as a toga or samurai attire, producing the impression of a moving bas-relief, to contemporary clothing. The changes, guided by musical cues, are more intellectual associations than emotional or visual connections, and the dancers’ movements, somewhere between fluid and robotic, fit into them rather than producing them. The soundscape is outstanding, giving emotional depth to the dancers’ endeavours, with recorded and live music of the Tavagna Choir from Corsica (not just from France), the Lebanese Fadia Tom El-Hage, a female singer who mixes Middle Eastern and Western vocal techniques and the potency of the Japanese traditional percussion and flute of Kazunari Abe. The mood is not fixed, and the work presents variation from lyrical-symbolical, to more trivial, to political, with various references to popular culture that make it possible for the audience to collect pieces of a puzzle.

Concerning human endeavour in general, the choreography is a puzzle with a riddle on it too. As we are given references to assemble – a curious mix of history, religion and culture with a series of references to visual culture, with Greek gods, Roman temples, Buddha, the Statue of Liberty (1886), Rodin’s Thinker (1902), the Diskobolus of Myron (460-50 BC) and echoes from popular culture in the form of a Dragon Ball-inspired duet – the epic scope of the piece begins to emerge. It is our humanity that is at stake. The references to dance are many, including Bèjart’s Boléro (1961) and nuances of Sasha Waltz, Butoh, and of the China Disabled People’s Performing Art Troup (CDPPAT) performing the Taoist Thousand Hands Guanyin. Equally varied are the religious images, starting with a stoning that bringing us back to Christ’s Judea and Lazarus’ resurrection, to Buddha and his life among the ascetics, to Islam.

The dancers, who alternate between undefined crowd and solipsistic individuals, have no personal characterisation if not the tendency to destruction once left alone, as for example in the lonely lunatic Hercules destroying a spiralling Tower of Babel. The movement sequences often display great athletic skills with elements taken from dance, parcour, and acrobatics, and the music creating the perfect musical tapestry for the dancers to move in (in fact, if you cannot do contortions, you’d better find another company). Particularly brilliant is the use of the choir as Greek Chorus, observing and commenting the human endeavour on stage; this is at some point briefly reversed. The general underlying theme is the “tragic” human tendency to construct and destroy creating eternal cycles. And as a final note, once the puzzle is completed Cherkaoui invites us to unravel his core riddle: how to solve the constant conflicts dictated by difference and ignorance?

The effect is of chaos, without any order or solution to the riddle provided. It is an epic stance which Cherkaoui and Eastman, and indeed Sadler’s Wells, are making, as they partially manage to capture aspects of human endeavour in so many fields. The piece’s open end, usually refreshing, does not work its wonder here, and the lack of clear structure and the overlong duration do not make it any easier to sustain either. This was, however, greatly realised by the dancers and musicians, and all that remains is to wonder where Cherkaoui’s curiosity is going to go, and what interesting connections he is next going to make.