Crikey. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui states sternly in the programme booklet that his new work for Eastman, Fractus V, is based on the ideas of linguist and political philosopher Noam Chomsky. Gulp. That sounds a tad heavy and challenging as subject matter for dance and doesn’t seem to promise much fun in an unbroken span of 85 minutes. But don’t worry. Yes, there are some voiceovers about how difficult it is to break free of prevailing influences to think for yourself, but Cherkaoui has transformed his inspirations into his characteristic inventive, fluid and sometimes playful movement. He manages to stitch all his components – five dancers with very different backgrounds, four musicians representing different traditions – into a coherent and persuasive whole with some striking moments reflecting on violence and how we perceive it in modern life. It was adored by the audience who gave it an enthusiastic standing ovation.
The work began life in a shorter version, originally created for the 40th anniversary of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal. In this expanded form it features an eclectic cast of five male dancers including Cherkaoui himself, who appears as one of the company rather than any star turn. Dimitri Jourde’s earlier experiences were in circus, and London audiences may remember him from a previous appearance in London with Cherkaoui in Apocrifu. Johnny Lloyd, Fabian Thomé Duten and Patrick Williams Seebacher / Twoface have backgrounds in Lindy Hop, flamenco / contemporary, hip hop and breakdance. All of these different origins shine through at different moments and yet they still form a cohesive unit, with nothing jarring.
The wide-ranging influences also apply to the musicians, who include Shogo Yoshii from Japan, Woojae Park from Korea, Soumik Datta from India and Kaspy N’dia from the Congo. They all sing, and play anything from percussion, piano, flute, and Indian stringed instruments. There is an easy, relaxed interchange between musicians and dancers which is pleasant to see and hear. The musicians sometimes join the dancers in performance, and occasionally the dancers join in the music making and also provide some moments of wonderfully resonant singing. You may glimpse Cherkaoui playing the harmonium at one point. The work is clearly a collective act of all nine of them.
As we hear a voiceover about getting rid of the thoughts that the prevailing orthodoxy wants you to think, we see three men standing in a line facing us, the second and third hidden behind the first but with all arms on show like some six-armed Indian god. The various arms make gestures, hands link with other hands, and all pat the head of the first, speaking, performer. Cherkaoui used this concept of multiple hands behind a speaker before in zero degrees (where the hands belonged to him and Akram Khan) but he plays with the idea further and with greater inventiveness here. At different points we again get this line up with interlaced limbs where it stops being clear who owns which hand or foot in a mass of bodies that has become a single unit. Later there is a pile up of all five of them, interlocked in a human pyramid which moves, slumps and shifts like a single organism.
The different influences of the dancers are visible. For example, Fabian Thomé Duten gets a chance to show us his staccato flamenco footwork early on. But Cherkaoui is just as much interested in his sinuous qualities, and later gives him a solo that demonstrates the pliancy of his spine and his deep backbends. This solo, like so many others, ends up on the floor, which seems to exert a force on the dancers that goes beyond mere gravity for Cherkaoui but has some more deeper and elemental pull. His dancers learn to feel it under their bodies and can’t resist rolling on it.
The scenery for this work (designed by Cherkaoui) which most of the time is used as flooring is a series of wooden triangles, white on one side, black on the other. If I have a quibble it is that quite a bit of time is spent by the cast assembling and reassembling these in different configurations. At one point they all end up standing on end ranged around the stage in a semi-circle.
This is the setting for one of the more uncomfortable scenes. Cherkaoui sits on a chair at one side with a TV remote control in his hand, and we might be seeing what he is watching. One man is repeated menaced by another with a gun, and “shot”, time after time, with the “shots” effected by percussion. The body shudders and jerks each time, but the killing continues on and on and the perpetrator is now joined by others. Then the performers begin to photograph and film the victim, time after time without let up. It’s like all the violence in the world today on your TV, on an endless loop which you can’t turn off. Finally, the victim kicks over the end of line of triangles and they all fall down in a domino effect, knocking Cherkaoui (by this time hiding his head under a magazine as if he can’t bear to watch any more) off the stage into the front row of the stalls.
Later there’s another sketch featuring fighting. One man repeatedly beats up others, bashing their heads and thumping them in the stomach. We are now so desensitised to violence it becomes knockabout comedy. It has a cartoon like unreal quality: just like in a film, no one really gets hurt and just gets up to be bashed again and again. Cherkaoui underlines the point by repeating the blows in slow motion. It’s funny and very cleverly done, and the audience giggles. Yet it remains rather disturbing at the same time, because we are laughing at something that would be horrible if it was real.
The structure of the work is episodic with the reordering of the white panels sometimes interrupting the flow. But the quality of the music and dancing is extraordinary. Cherkaoui has a magpie mind and a fondness for collaboration that absorbs different influences and cultures, and you don’t need a degree in linguistics or philosophy to connect with the concerns he has encapsulated here. The work itself is a statement of faith that collaboration is better than confrontation. Each dancer has a powerful presence but Cherkaoui has forged a remarkable unity from these disparate elements and they have absorbed his rubbery and liquid vocabulary to morph into a tightly disciplined but fluid ensemble that melds together seamlessly.