English National Ballet’s Digital season of five newly commissioned short works continues with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Laid in Earth, a film directed by Thomas James. And this is very much a film: though it is based on an earlier Cherkaoui work When I’m Laid in Earth, its dreamlike tone and unnerving effects owe much to James’s imaginative camerawork and his interest in the supernatural. It was staged and reimagined by Cherkaoui’s assistant Jason Kittelberger, who is part of an extensive creative team. The Purcell aria was arranged by ENB music director Gavin Sutherland, sung by mezzo soprano Flora McIntosh, plus new electronic music by Olga Wojciechowska, a long-time collaborator of Cherkaoui’s. There’s a lot of different hands at work here but the result looks remarkably coherent, a vision of intense encounters in surreal parallel worlds, with a lot packed into a twelve-minute running time.
Laid in earth might be a literal instruction. The work was filmed in ENB’s production studios. The floor of the set consists of blasted dead trees and tangles of thorns, covered with fine soil. The dancers roll and slither in this: their limbs are sweaty and stained with it. The director admits he had seen Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring with its peat floor but had underestimated the level of difficulty involved in implementing the approach. The most striking device of the film is to sometimes split the screen horizontally and show us two scenes at once, the murkier one below, upside down, with each world inhabited by a different performer mirroring each other’s steps. Simple but very effective. It provokes much speculation: is it this life and the afterlife, this world and the supernatural one? The dancers flit between both and neither world looks welcoming.
The split screen is one of the reasons that it’s hard to imagine this being performed live, and yet that was contemplated when ENB planned to show the digital works at Sadler Wells’s this November. Another reason is the elaborate make up effects which sprout from the performers’ skins (quite literally) from time to time and then vanish. It’s as if James Streeter has roots suddenly growing out of his chest ready to burrow into the earth. These effects are glimpsed briefly but do make a disturbing impact, as do the subliminal shots of a skull tanged in the thorns. The deliberate visual non sequiturs give it a dream like quality.
Wherever they are, the cast seem caught in a tangle of unhappy memories. The hands reaching out to touch a partner, hesitating then grasping only barbed undergrowth, suggest the pains of past experience. Reality is slippery in this world: faces blur, twist and distort. Cherkaoui’s movement reinforces the twisting, fluid quality. His dancers melt into the floor, springing up again to scatter the soil. James Streeter and Erina Takahashi have a fine duet to the Purcell where she winds herself up and around him, with a lot of implied but unstated emotional history. Precious Adams is a strong presence, and all that dirt on the floor can’t slow Jeffery Cirio down when he jumps. Yet it’s probably not the pure dance elements that you will come away thinking about, but the haunting atmosphere of it all.
Laid in earth is a very curious piece. If you come at this looking for a dance performance or a film of a dance performance you might be perplexed. If you want to know where Cherkaoui’s choreographic imagination has taken him to, you may not be that much the wiser. It’s best to just hand yourself over to the experience and go with it – it’s a memorable, curious, unsettling experience, in a category all of its own.