Three tonnes of clay spread out across the stage in neat slabs is not something you might expect to see at a dance performance. Then again Sidi Larbi Cherkaouis’s work is full of surprises. Icon, first premiered in 2016 is another fruitful collaboration between Anthony Gormley and Cherkaoui in which clay moulds both the theme and the dancers. There’s plenty of modelling and sculpting of this malleable, putty looking material by the performers as well but it takes on an emotional quality and functions as an integral part of Icon.
At the beginning of the show, clusters of miniature clay figurines occupy downstage spaces. As members of the GoteborgsOperans Danskompani and Cherkaoui’s company Eastman fill the stage in diaphanous waves, rising and falling in soft undulating motion. Resembling an ancient biblical tribe, wearing loose, earth coloured kurtas and voluminous trousers they make sure to stamp on the vulnerable clay objects in a decisive act of iconoclasm before they continue. As the remains of these carefully crafted figures lie in messy piles like dog poo, it becomes clear that Cherkaouis’s main preoccupation here is with humans’ need to endlessly destroy and rebuild.
The dancers start reciting text as they move, taken from the writing of Lynne McTaggart, an author who believes that connections made between people and things brings greater harmony and prosperity than the cult of the individual. Flowing, liquid physicality changes to angular gestures as they talk about shaping a future by changing what has happened in the past, framing their faces and bodies in geometric designs that seem to build architecturally in space.
The choreography builds on interconnectedness between dancers and across body parts: movement circulates horizontally and vertically through muscle groups linking fingers with toes, heads to shins, shoulders to hips making bodies appear as pliable as the clay with which they play. Folding from the centre of the torso or crumbling at knee joints, bodies melt into one another or collapse onto the ground. It’s quite remarkable to watch. But the dancing, intoxicating as it is, contributes to only half of what’s fascinating about Icon. When not ‘dancing’ the performers work intensively with the clay: peeling it off the floor in slabs, folding into pillows, fashioning it into masks, crowns and garments which they put on, transforming themselves into creatures from some strange Star Wars’ galaxy. Other objects from contemporary society also emerge such as a camera, a sip cup and a book, just to remind us of the present.
The hard manual labour of the eighteen dancers/artisans as they create numerous artefacts only to destroy them in a second by dropping them on the stage, crushing them in their hands or trampling them underfoot is as rewarding to witness as the sequences of loose-limbed, oozing dancing. Cycles of death and birth, renewal and destruction are communicated more effectively through both the pedestrian and the stylised action rather than by the slightly pretentious spoken text.
Cherkaouis always likes to add a twist of humour to his work and reflect on the basic needs of humans as well as promoting them as intellectual, spiritual beings. A female dancer appears with large clay breasts while a man joins her with a huge grotesque phallus. After trying to work out who should have which and how they fit together, they couple together like frenzied animals in the mating season. It’s silly but the solo dances by several members of the company astound in their throwaway virtuosity – like the man who manipulates his body as if it were squidgy clay, morphing into shapes and expressions that resemble those of horrendous gargoyle figures.
Live music with Japanese, Italian and medieval influences played by an eclectic group of musicians and singers provides a rich soundscape for the work, enhancing its culturally generic quality. A startling image occurs as the two women singers, Anna Sato and Patrizia Bovi recite a haunting song travelling across the stage, stepping over several clay-covered ‘human’ bodies like visitors arriving in the aftermath of some apocalyptic event.
The final triumphant feat of clay modelling is a large sitting statue with its head bowed, and as the dancers settle in positions which mirror this resting giant, there is a great sense of well-being as we reflect on the still, natural, rich-brown earthy matter. This work of art also serves as a testimony to the collective efforts of this remarkable Swedish company, seen for the first time at Sadler’s Wells, and of course to their inventive collaborators.