Originally presented in Berlin in 2002 under the aegis of resident company Sasha Waltz and Guests, d’avant is the collaborative work of four dancers-singers-creators: Sidi Larbi Charkaoui, Damien Jalet, Luc Dunberry and Juan Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola. (Waltz herself is not credited in the programme sheet.) When Esnaola set up the project with the intention of giving equal emphasis to singing and movement, he found that the three performers he’d chosen shared his love of the vocal music of the Middle Ages. All four are fine singers, more than capable of harmonising as they dance and prowl around the set (designed by Thomas Schenk).
The stark stage resembles a construction site, with three tiers of scaffolding at the back and sides and what appears to be a brick-paved circle in the centre. Maybe it has religious significance, representing the universe or the cycle of life and death. Cherkaoui stands within it at the start, arms outstretched, turning slowly, ritually. When the others join him, chanting, they use and abuse him, standing on him before lugging him about like a wooden toy or a plaster saint
Just when he seems inhumanly rigid, a rod down the back of his suit is removed and he is clasped in an intimate duet with Jalet, sharing lifts and wrestling holds. Their duet is paralleled by Dunberry and Esnaola, exchanging jackets in a music-hall turn. This combination of solemnity, cruelty and silliness alternates throughout the piece, much as it does in Pina Bausch’s work. Timing is everything if contrasting sequences are to set off a train of ideas, surreal though they may be. A coherent motif emerges as d’avant (‘from before’) progresses through collective gatherings across the ages, ranging from mediaeval processions to modern football crowds, pop music hysteria, riots and carnage.
A spinning dervish trance to deep-throated chants is interrupted by a fire cracker that transforms the four performers into a truly terrible boy band, singing ‘Turnaround’ from the sentimental Bonnie Tyler song, Total Eclipse of the Heart. Screaming and yelling like teenage groupies, the men segue into football hooligans, political demonstrators and riotous anarchists. The dusty stage becomes messier and messier, littered with leaflets, cans, vegetables, eggs and other projectiles. Mindless violence includes stomping over Jalet’s twisting body, kicking his head like a football. All this to mediaeval hymns, madrigals and folk songs, executed with admirable breath control.
In a change of tone, ceramic bricks are taken from the circular floor pattern to construct ever-growing towers. Three of the dancers pace on top of them while Esnaola patiently piles up more bricks. His efforts are defeated by a domino effect that topples a line of bricks he has carefully upended. He is to be the next victim, dressed and undressed by the others as a bride in white, then as an aged mourner in black. Encased naked in a body bag, he is ritually laid to rest with coins on his eyelids and lilies on his chest, before being buried beneath a layer of bricks.
Cherkaoui, who conducts the burial, remains impassive. Jalet stands with his back to the audience, peeing an unending stream of water. Dunberry removes his shoes, washes his feet in Jalet’s arc of water and kneels to sing a mournful dirge. The others harmonise during the final sequence in which nothing more happens as the light fades, leaving us to contemplate the shallowly buried corpse and the debris of a vandalised civilisation.
Mankind, it seems, has degenerated since the so-called Dark Ages, learning little from the past. D’avant is both precisely detailed and deliberately generic, leaving plenty of space for interpretation. The skullcap on the back of Cherkaoui’s head, for example, makes him seem a devotee, but of which religion? The songs originated in different parts of the world; the wrecked set could be the archaeological remains of an ancient sect or a modern battlefield. The contemporary choreography, generated by all four dancers under Cherkaoui’s direction, refers to folk and ritual dances while requiring agile bodies prepared to suffer pain.
Yet because the associations are so non-specific, the piece no longer seems a fresh response to the world we live in – a world that has grown even worse since 2002. Though d’avant isn’t intended to be about current affairs, it lacks a topical dimension: the political references, like the ceramic bricks, have been crafted over a decade ago. It’s a set piece.