Dance is about sensuality – no question about it. Watching bodies as supple as instruments laying bare human emotion with grace and delicacy is extremely pleasurable, and few moments are as ecstatic as those where two dancers meet in a duet. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui capitalizes on those special moments in an effort to create a theme with variations, with his ensemble, Eastman. But the general impact of the evening at the Stockholm venue, Dansens Hus, is one of sameness – very much because of what it reveals of the choreographer’s view of women, and of romantic love. 

The opening duet, Matter, starts on a humorous note – a happy orangutan enters the stage, and becomes silent when a woman with regal bearing appears. A complex relationship is revealed as he shadows her, becoming everything that she needs in her life: a coat, a bed, a shower, or a lover. Their meeting is accompanied by a woman’s voice – a Sephardic chant and a Syrian hymn. The theme of the duet is one of power and submission, but also of spirit and matter. A relationship that rests on material needs, not on love, is empty, Cherkaoui seems to say, illustrating his point with the lack of communication between the two bodies. She (Guro Nagelhus Schia), mastering the language of yogic poses to perfection, is wrapped up in the beauty of her own body – balancing effortlessly while she manifests her cool independence. He (Kazutomi ‘Tsuki’ Kozuki) , painfully adaptable, folds his body with the selflessness of a slave, erasing his ego on the command of his superior. The image of the orangutan all of a sudden doesn’t appear so humorous, after all.

After this, it is a relief to enjoy the romantic abandon of two young lovers in the duet Pure. Dressed in white, their ecstacy bears the insignia of youth and freshness, their bodies mingling, stretching, intertwining, rocking close together, and becoming one. A sudden explosion throws them apart. Out of the stillness a restlessness grows. The woman (Schia again), left alone, picks up a paintbrush – as though to narrate the story of their love when he is gone. The pain of loss is released through quick, black brushstrokes, violently splashed across her own body – and, as her lover (Vebjörn Sundby) reenters, across his body as well. Her gaze is empty, detached, seeing right through him. Desperately attempting to cleanse both of them of the filth – of accusations, sadness, misunderstandings of broken love - with a rag, he finally gives up and lets her go as he walks off alone into the red glow of the sunset.

In the third duet, Sin, romantic love is replace with lust as a couple is thrust together underneath a mirror-clad ceiling. Strangely enough, the violence and force of their meeting is akin to that of the previous pair – only this time, the bare-chested woman (Navala ‘Niku’ Chaudari) refuses to be victimized and slaps him in the face before abandoning her lover (Damien Fournier).

The evening is wrapped up with Faun, a duet based on Debussy’s famed symphonic poem L’après-midi d’un Faune. The moment when the backdrop is revealed to show a photo of a beech forest, is when the feeling of sameness strikes this reviewer. Again, a siren – this time a woodnymph (Olivia Ancona) – appears to bedazzle and ignite a lone man (Jon Philip Fahlström) with her sensuality. From a feminist standpoint, it is fascinating to see how much power Cherkaoui bestows on women – but he also elevates womankind to the traditionally cemented position of existing through her sexuality alone.

As an interlude between the four duets, the dancevideo Valtári (translated as Roller) by Christian Larson produced for Icelandic post-punkrock band Sigur Rós sets two gorgeous young dancers in a crumbling factory setting. Raw, sensous power, fixed gazes and elasticity of movement as they crouch, bend backwards and blend into one make the couple akin to two preys meeting to mate. Again, this is a singular moment. No complications, no conflicts arise, and it is the role of the female to awaken the male. But the slick, commercial prettiness of the images and the lack of complexity in the characterization make for enjoyment of the lighter kind.

Thus, however skilled the dancers, this evening with Sidi Larbi Charkoui left me with a feeling of emptiness: satiated with superficial beauty, but in the wrong way, as though after a sugar high.