Babel (Words) by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet and Antony Gormley – Eastman VZW


From Genesis 11:1-9,

1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. 3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. 4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children built. 6 And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. 7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. 9 Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

For better or worse, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet and Antony Gormley didn’t quite follow that script. Instead they kind of use it as a launching pad for their production.

Mostly dance, but not all dance, it comes across as a highly charged and extremely political piece of performance art. Personally, I’m not so certain that the politics and the non-dance parts needed so much time, but as you might have expected, no one asked me.

But let me back up a little. The show is performed by 12 dancers, one actor and five musicians (who also do some acting). They do about 30 separate vignettes that are held together by the five, large, box-like, aluminum, (or at least I presume that they are made out of aluminum, since they are moved around an awful lot) structures that are used as scenery and props during the show.

It starts off with everyone marking out their space, turns into a lecture about real estate, some people start manipulating others like puppets, they build a skyscraper, board a plane, get into arguments, and apologize among other things. This is the video that was published on YouTube last February as a promo for the show:

And this is the video that was published on YouTube last June as a promo for the show.

There are some bits in the February video that were not performed when I saw it on Friday, and everything I saw on Friday is not represented in the June video, but you get the picture. In short (and extremely simplistically as well) it’s a plea for us to all get along despite our differences. Kind of like the song by War from 1975.

The first thing that struck me about the dancers (Navala Chaudhari, Francis Ducharme, Darryl E. Woods, Damien Fournier, Ben Fury, Paea Leach, Christine Leboutte, Ulrika Kinn Svensson, Kazutomi Kozuki, Sandra Delgadillo Porcel, Leif Federico Firnhaber, Mohamed Toukabri and Paul Zivkovich) was how tight they were. Everyone hit their marks at the same time and in a troupe that large, mainly composed of independent performers, it is quite the feat.

Although I don’t know if in fact I saw Moya Michael, Helder Seabra, Jon Filip Fahlstrom and James O’Hara in place of, or as well as the fine folks above, because in my program their names only appear in parenthesis and there was no mention if they were only there as injury replacements (as you can see the piece is extremely physical) or if they were there as alternate performers. I’m not certain I like this move towards nameless performers where the directors, choreographers and all the other folk who do not appear on stage get the glory. Especially for a performance where there are very specific characters. But I digress.

The second thing that struck me was how painful and superfluous the lectures by Mr. Woods were in comparison. Not to slight his performance – in actual fact, his performance of them was spectacular. But if you stick the words “Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui” into Google, the first things that come up talk about dance and choreography. Not writing, not comedy, not theater. And while I do recognize that just because someone in very good in one thing does not preclude them from being very good at something else, M. Cherkaoui is most definitely not a comic, nor is he a comic writer. And I don’t think M. Jalet is either. So I don’t understand why they chose to stick in an attempt a comic theater in the middle of their very impressive dance performance. It just doesn’t make sense. And come to think of it, I doubt that either one of them spoke English as a mother-tongue, although that would not necessarily disqualify him (them?) from writing kick-ass stuff in English, just make it tougher. Heck there are some times I can’t write English to save my life.

However once you start to think about the concept and the ideas behind Babel (words), it strikes me (and perhaps you as well) that M. Cherkaoui and M. Jaret might have decided to sacrifice some dance in order to get their point across. But it’s just like like eating a whole big bag of potato chips before dinner. There’s only so much you can consume, and no matter what you think, the potato chips are not going to be as tasty and delicious as a good dinner. There’s only so much time for a performance at Place des Arts before the unions require time-and-a-half and that and the other costs end up making a ticket unaffordable. No matter what you think, the spoken word part of a dance show is not going to be as visually spectacular and breathtaking as the dance itself.

Because as M. Cherkaoui states on his website: “Equality between individuals, cultures, languages and means of expression” are something that is very important to him. And my guess is that despite the eclectic backgrounds of all the dancers, actually choreographing 12 different types of dance styles (one for each dancer) so that they can be identified by the way that they dance, isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. As a consequence, falling back on the actual languages and religions that the dancers know and either practice, or were born into is a nice and easy safety net to get the point across.

As you might guess, I wish that there had been more dance. By my notes there were four (maybe five) vignettes (tableaus, scenes, whatever) that absolutely made my head explode (in a good way). The opening with the hands, the fight right after that, the second hip hop solo (I unfortunately did not note when the first hip hop solo was, and it is quite possible that it impressed me as well, but that I just didn’t write it down) and what I called “the chainsaw” which was another group number towards the end, which started out with the dancers appearing to pretend to start a chainsaw. Beyond that there was an awful lot of chanting, some comic lectures, some comedic dance bits, and then the one bit that wasn’t dance, but was spectacular. The building of the skyscraper – which is movement, just movement of objects not of a body. But yes, it was quite cool seeing them build the structure. And movement in certain circumstances can be considered dance.

Speaking of bodies, using my best Google-Fu I was unable to come up with pictures or other things that would have enabled me to identify Damien Fournier, Sandra Delgadillo Porcel, Mohamed Toukabri, Paul Zivkovich, Moya Michael, Helder Seabra, Jon Filip Fahlstrom and James O’Hara. And while I could guess as to who did what, I am loathe to be wrong on something like that, because if I was it would undermine everything else I wrote. So I’ll leave it as a polite request to whomever creates the programs for Danse Danse; would it be possible to get pictures in future programs? Please and thanks.

But that does mean I was able to identify the nine other performers. Woo-Hoo! Paea Leach, despite not having a completely identifiable character, was very impressive as a dancer. You can get an idea of how she moves here (unfortunately, she won’t let me embed the video here, pity). I can’t quite put my thumb on the reason why, but she moved with a certain authority, and about halfway through the performance I realized that in the group pieces my eyes had been watching her more than not. So I can only presume that I was either completely and totally smitten with her like a 16 year-old schoolboy, or that she is a kick-ass dancer. Given that I have absolutely no desire to be, let alone act like a 16 year-old schoolboy, I go with the later.

Ulrika Kinn Svensson was at the opposite end of the spectrum. Her character was completely and thoroughly identifiable. Wearing what appeared to be at least eight inch platform shoes that made her tower over everyone. To which was added shiny black plastic (or patent leather) boots that came halfway up her thighs she was hard to miss. Depending on what “scene” you’re watching, she functions as a sex-kitten, narrator, tour guide or gate. But what left me slack-jawed was that even though she was in a pair of boots that would have made Kiss or Funkadelic proud she was able to dance as well.

Christine Leboutte also had an easily identifiable character, the washerwoman. Although I have no clue as to why there was a washerwoman. She’s got a great voice (if I remember correctly, when I was searching about for information about her, some website mentioned that she taught Damien Jalet how to sing).

One other thing that impressed me with the piece was how M. Cherkaoui and M. Jalet had choreographed what I call “girl lifts.” Or in other words women lifting other dancers. For most of time immemorial, the chicks have been lifted up and the guys have done the lifting. I think the first time I saw a woman lift another dancer it might have been Louise Lecavalier, but I don’t know for certain. Anyhows it has taken over 25 years for it to get closer to the mainstream, Navala Chaudhari did them on admirably on Friday night.

Then also going by my sketchy memory, I think it was Ben Fury and Leif Federico Firnhaber (that’s almost as good a name as Juan Tyrone Eichelberger) who did the aforementioned hip hop solos.

Which only leaves me Francis Ducharme and Kazutomi Kozuki as dancers who I was able to identify and therefore need to be mentioned. Unfortunately the things about their characters that stand out to me most are the comedic bits, that while memorable didn’t really strike me as particularly good. M. Ducharme, as the hometown boy, could do no wrong, and had everyone rolling in the aisles with laughter during his caveman routine. Kozuki-san also worked as a foil to Kazunari Abe (or Shogo Yoshii) in the parts that required some really fast Japanese to be spoken.

In the videos, I’m certain that you can catch more than glimpses of them and decide for yourself if you like the way that they dance.

Babel (words) is now the second piece I’ve seen that was choreographed by M. Cherkaoui and this one didn’t leave me as angry as the first one, and it is quite easy to see how and why everyone thinks he is such a wonderful and amazing choreographer. I only wish that he would stick to choreographing. Because his attempts at comedy and proselytizing fall incredibly short in comparison.

And then the final video version of Babel (words) from about July of this year…

BABEL (words) (long trailer) 2010 from Damien Jalet on Vimeo.

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