Eastman & Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui – Puz/zle – London

Eastman and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in Puz/zle.© Foteini Christofilopoulou. (Click image for larger version)
Eastman and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in Puz/zle.
© Foteini Christofilopoulou. (Click image for larger version)

Eastman & Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

London, Sadler’s Wells
24 April 2013
Puz/zle Gallery by Foteini Christofilopoulou – 20 pictures

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Sutra has been one of Sadler’s Wells’ most popular and successful productions, returning earlier this month for a fourth run. It was an ingenious work, which combined the martial arts skills of Shaolin monks with a set of moveable wooden boxes, reconfigured by the cast to suggest anything from a fortress to the petals of a flower. Puz/zle is his latest work to visit Sadler’s and it shares some of Sutra’s DNA. Again here we have elements of the set moved and reshaped by the dancers as an integral element of the performance, and an energetic and committed cast with no fear of heights. It remains to be seen whether Puz/zle turns out to be as successful at the box office as Sutra but it is deeply absorbing and inventive, and merits another look. This run is very brief. Let’s hope it returns.

The set, designed is by Cherkaoui and Filip Peters, is made up of a dozen or so large square grey blocks, a couple of feet thick, taller than a man but not so tall they can’t be climbed. These plus some smaller cubes prove capable of suggesting a range of different environments. The production was first staged in a old quarry in Avignon which must have been a fascinating backdrop out of which these would have grown more naturally.

The work opens with a video, projected on to one of the blocks, of movement through the doorways of empty rooms in a museum. A man walks as if to enter and walks into the wall. The dancers all bang their heads against it blindly. Over the course of the performance these blocks will become walls, staircases, houses, barriers and towers. They are both something that impedes and confines us, but also things that we painstakingly build, create and celebrate. The smaller rocks that the dancers carry can be used both for violence (a man is pelted with them, just out of sight) or can be lifted and deployed by the cast in elegant, rippling patterns.

Eastman and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in Puz/zle.© Foteini Christofilopoulou. (Click image for larger version)
Eastman and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in Puz/zle.
© Foteini Christofilopoulou. (Click image for larger version)

The initial construction shifts the blocks into a giant stairway reaching upwards which the dancers attempt to climb. Their bodies tumble down like sacrificed bodies falling down the steps of an Aztec temple. Later the dancers build a tower which could perhaps be the Tower of Babel: it’s a clever construction but its building doesn’t seem to bring any happiness to the cast.

They then build what might be a temple with pillars supporting a flat roof. A woman climbs up there and stands, calm and unperturbed, gazing at the audience when, in a heart-stopping moment, the pillars are kicked away and four men underneath are left as human supports for the platform with her on it. Everything constructed is torn down again someday.

There are three women and eight men in the cast, an interesting mix of nationalities and body type, including a bearded character looking older than the rest. They register strongly as individual presences, presenting humanity in all its variety but still come together as a convincing community. They are a remarkable group and all bring with them flavours of different types of dance experience and training which Cherkaoui, always a magpie, incorporates into the work.

The dancers must love weight and gravity, and almost conduct duets with the floor. Yet they are also fearless climbers. There is a broad range of movement. One dancer may go skittering over the floor like an insect on a pond, and then slide into a hip hop dance move. One solo, so fast the arms began to blur, looked like a martial arts warrior tormented by an invisible wasp. In a duet for two men, one appeared boneless and almost weightless. The cast form circles and lines to wave small rocks in elegant, rolling patterns. These are oddly reminiscent of the moves in the candle dance in the final act of La Bayadere, as currently performed by the Royal Ballet (probably not the source Cherkaoui had in mind, but everyone brings their own reference points.)

The cast begins dressed in black with baggy martial arts-style trousers. Part way through the costume changes to more elaborate white tops influenced by historic Japanese costume. (Costume design is by Miharu Toriyama). In the closing sections the cast gradually shift to everyday street wear, jeans and t shirts and the like, as we seem to approach the modern era where a different kind of wall is being built.

Eastman and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in Puz/zle.© Foteini Christofilopoulou. (Click image for larger version)
Eastman and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in Puz/zle.
© Foteini Christofilopoulou. (Click image for larger version)

The music is a mix which sounds unlikely but which works well in performance. There is an electronic soundscape from Olga Wojciechowska supplemented by live music from the Corsican group, A Filetta. These six male voices provide a deep resonant wall of sound. They are accompanied by the Lebanese female singer, Fadia Tomb El-Hage, and the voices mesh very well. The singers are very much part of the action, moving out on stage to view the course of the proceedings, handing out rocks. There is also a Japanese musician, Kazunari Abe, who appears on stage to intervene more directly in the proceedings: his bamboo flute can serve to sooth the dancers or agitate them into action. He periodically attacks the drums with a ferocity which makes the floor vibrate.

There are moments of humour in the piece. Two dancers with hammer and chisel or drill “sculpt” the others into a variety of poses to giggles from the audience. But not all of this is funny, as one of these sculptures looks like a crucifixion.

The final section of the work is bleaker. The blocks become a towering wall scrawled with graffiti of helicopters attacking. The Berlin Wall? The barrier being built in Israel? There is the sound of gunfire. Bodies tumble. But they rise again, and the wall finally crashes dramatically flat. There is a note of qualified optimism at the close.

This is a long work, just short of two hours. It is right that it was done without an interval which could break the spell. The final section seems to have a series of false endings and could perhaps usefully be pruned by 10 or 15 minutes for a more concentrated and intense effect. But Puz/zle, despite its irritating title and its length, is still a fascinating and rewarding work, and a harmonious and closely-integrated collaboration of what might seem quite different sources. Cherkaoui is back at Sadler’s Wells in the autumn with a new work with Argentine musicians based on the tango, and it will be interesting to see how inventively he can respond to that.

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