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Sydney Festival 2012 in association with Sydney Theatre presents BABEL (words) – Sidi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet and Anthony Gormley.

Sidi Cherkaoui has been a recent visitor, twice, to our theatres. I first saw him in an astounding duet with Akram Khan in a piece called ZERO DEGREES (also featuring an Anthony Gormley design) and later in the Concert Hall showing a work called SUTRA a project in collaboration with Anthony Gormley, Syzmon Brzoska and monks from the Shaolin Temple in China.

This work BABEL was co-commissioned by the Dash Arts 2010 programme on Arabic Arts. Eastman vzw is company in residence at Toneelhuis (Antwerp) works in association with international arts campus deSingel (Antwerp) and is supported by Asano Taiko (Japanese drums). With the support of Garrick Charitable Trust and the Flemish authorities.

BABEL is the third part of a trilogy, that includes FOI (2003), and MYTH (2007). BABEL begins at the pivotal point in the bible story “when God punishes the people who dared build a tower in his name by creating linguistic, ethnic and geographical chaos among them.” [1]

“On Day 1 of rehearsal, a microcosm of 18 performers from 13 countries, with 15 languages, seven religious backgrounds and numerous performance modes between them, joined choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet, as well as visual artist Anthony Gormley, to embark upon a new journey.”[1]

The language of this work is both verbal and physical and the integration works smoothly and constructively throughout the piece. Anthony Gormley has created six giant three-dimensional metal frames that work as the cities (the towers of Babel) that man builds, spaces “where wanderers wander blindly, making decisions by the millisecond, not knowing what they do, or why they do it, what it means or where it will lead. People stumble into choices of belief, community and identity that, as well as giving support, closes doors, build boundaries and set limits.” [1] The metal cubes are managed, dragged, carried, interleaved and spun throughout the weave of the work. Images of shape, meaning and imaginative action are constantly offered.

The live musical ‘language’ uses Indian and Japanese rhythms as well as some medieval polyphony. The musicians also move from their heightened platforms, at the back of the stage, and join the dancers in the spaces and like a huge human caravan of wanderers traverse the many landscapes that Mr Cherkaoui and Jalet propose for us to endow the space and time of the work with. The foolishness of our species in its inability to exist in harmony is related over and over again. The grasping needs of individuals and groups to be the power seat is sadly re-iterated across the multi-cultural political ‘boxes’ of our civilization.

Duets  and group dynamics using the sculpture forms from Mr Gormley burst out and retire, burst out again and again. The individual scenes are what I take from the work: the ecstatic whirl of the group running pell mell in circles around the space, spinning the metal cubes dangerously, especially for us in the front rows – exhilaration galore; the witty interaction between man and woman from ape to cave man and ‘robot’; the endearing exploration of the mechanics of invention by the two entranced Asian explorers; are some of my remembered highlights. The dancing-movement by all the company is athletic and astonishing. Dressed in ordinary street-looking habiliments (although, obviously cannily designed, Alexandra Gilbert), the expertise of the physical prowess of the dancers is, in form, less clearly apprehended in physical details but certainly engaged with by the wow factor of the wonderment of extraordinary ability. These inhabitants of the work interestingly keep our attention without being highly sexualised – next to no nakedness – unusual in my contemporary dance experience.

Lou Cope, the dramaturg of this work, tells us in her notes, “During the (rehearsal) process, the show revealed to its makers that what they were doing was turning the Tower of Babel upside down: what mattered was not the external multiplicity of our (regional, linguistic, physical …) differences, but the underlying bond of what unites rather than divides us, and therefore the responsibilities we all share. … That we are left with each other. Chained together …. entirely, literally by our neurons and separated only by our skins.”

The work is almost two hours long, extremely generous in its offer to the audience, caught in the thrill of wonderfully controlled bodies in motion. But it is the length and the many different modes of communication that needs editing and tidying. Some times the joking usage of the creation of Ulrika Kinn Svenson, seemed to be over indulged, for instance. Like the SUTRA  experience of Mr Cherkaoui, editorial discipline would perhaps streamline the work into a more satisfying , more readable ‘intellectual’ statement. The whole of the work is not nearly as satisfying as the pieces within it. The answers to understanding this world, these journeys are not  always clear, it  is a jumble of pleasing work that the artists just can’t let go of. The individual pleasure of the result of physical creativity kept at the expense of edited intellectual shaping?

Despite the overall lack of intellectual clarity, the exhilaration of the performers and the obvious delight that they demonstrated combined with all the other creative elements in the doing of the work is impressive and infectious and we, on the night I saw the work, responded loudly and enthusiastically.

[1] Quotes are from the essay notes of Lou Cope, April 2010: ABOUT BABLE (words) in the Festival program.