Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Apocrifu

Perth International Arts Festival, February 25.

“In the beginning was the Word,” begins the Gospel according to St John, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” But whose god prevails, given that every major religion has its holy book and claims the primacy of its word over all others?

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the Belgian-Moroccan contemporary choreographer born to a Catholic mother but raised a Muslim, has consistently grappled in his work with how language, culture and spiritual beliefs can divide or enrich us, or both. Apocrifu, made in 2009, could not be more relevant than it is today.

Apocrifu

Dimitri Jourde, Yasuyuki Shuto and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in Apocrifu. Photo: Toni Wilkinson

Cherkaoui ardently embraces contradiction. He sees that difference is messy and beautiful all at once, which is why his pieces aren’t join-the-dots narratives but are driven by complex ideas and plumb deep wells of emotion. It is not polite dance. It is visceral, often sweaty and nakedly passionate. Not surprisingly, at 39 Cherkaoui isn’t as lithe as he was in his 20s but his intensity and charisma are undimmed and his curiosity apparently still boundless.

In working with artists as diverse as the Shaolin monks (Sutra), flamenco dancer Maria Pagés (Dunas), tango exponents (Milonga), Kathak star Akram Khan (Zero Degrees), the polyglot crew of Babel (Words) and, in Apocrifu, circus artist Dimitri Jourde, ballet-trained Yasuyuki Shuto and magnificent Corsican male choral group A Filetta, Cherkaoui ignores division and establishes connection, not just on a physical level but more fundamentally on a personal and spiritual plane. We’re all in this together, could be his mantra.

Apocrifu unfolded in a room strewn with books and a wide staircase that led to the unknown. The dancers, doing battle with everything the books represent, threw volumes around violently, used them as stepping stones, treated them with with caution, swapped them around (the music-hall routine was delightful) and brandished them as weapons.

Solo dances emphasised the singularity of each man’s movement but together, particularly in a long, riveting duo for Cherkaoui and Jourde, they were as one, irreducibly human. That point was given poignancy when a Bunraku puppet was introduced and had the oddly moving appearance of life, even as we could see it being manipulated. But when Cherkaoui took on marionette-like qualities the implications were profoundly troubling.

In its physical language Apocrifu – the title refers to writings not regarded as part of the biblical canon – was an almost constant struggle for balance between competing impulses but there was great balm too. The dance was bathed in the glow of glorious music from A Filetta, whose six members filled the air with polyphonic a cappella singing of heart-stopping radiance.

The singers quietly moved around the stage like guardian angels, the air vibrating with voices matched so closely the sound was a tender, enveloping veil. Their songs mixed liturgical, traditional and contemporary texts, mostly to the lustrous compositions of A Filetta member Jean Claude Acquaviva, and their ages-old vocal art brought to Apocrifu the sound of history and belief in the tenacity of culture.

There was at every moment a fierce commitment to our shared humanity despite all its contradictions. Cherkaoui’s ending could well be read as despairing but it was enigmatic too, with something magnificent, even uplifting, about it.

In a piece about the power of the written word it was a great pity there were no printed texts for A Filetta’s songs to pore over afterwards but Apocrifu was, nevertheless, a shining jewel in Wendy Martin’s first Perth International Arts Festival.

Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company

Perth International Arts Festival, February 11.

Mostly when we see Kathak dance it is in the exhilarating contemporary form created by Akram Khan. Khan, who is of Bangladeshi heritage but born in the UK, has made a singular body of work – often with other high-profile artists – from the fusion of the ancient classical dance of his forebears and the Western dance he encountered as a teenager. Next-generation Kathak exponent Aakash Odedra was also born in the UK and is also a hybrid man as anyone who saw his solo show Rising in Perth or Brisbane last year can attest – his program included works by Khan, Russell Maliphant and Sidi Larbi Cherkoui.

Khan’s company tours indefatigably and most of his key works have been widely seen: Ma, Vertical Road, Sacred Monsters (in which he danced with Sylvie Guillem), in-i (with Juliette Binoche), iTMOi, Zero Degrees and Gnosis among them. Desh was a highlight of the 2014 Brisbane Festival; Zero Degrees, in which Khan collaborated with Sidi Larbi Cherkoui and sculptor Antony Gormley, remains one of my most highly prized dance-theatre experiences.

Khan’s dazzling skills have taught audiences around the world much about Kathak’s vivid beauties of whirlwind speed, tight spins, rhythmic complexity and intricate patterns made by stamping feet and agile hands. It’s not museum dance, though. He honours Kathak’s emphasis on storytelling, but presents his own, often deeply personal, stories.

Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company Within Pic Toni Wilkinson

Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company in Within. Photo: Toni Wilkinson

Nor is Aditi Mangaldas’s form of Kathak frozen in time, but with the slightly older star we see something different and fascinating; a presentation of Kathak that is responsive to the world as it is now but more intrinsically attached to its roots. One is tinglingly aware of the ties between form, content and culture, even if able to apprehend the riches only glancingly (we really do not see enough of the traditional classical dances of our near neighbours). Mangaldas, who is greatly admired by Khan, was born in India and her company appears there regularly as well as on international tours. She describes her works specifically, listing them separately: classical Kathak, contemporary Kathak, and a union of both. In the last category Mangaldas places Within, the work chosen by Wendy Martin to lead off the bounteous dance program in her first Perth International Arts Festival.

Mangaldas’s is a more pure form of Kathak than Khan’s, if you like, even though one imagines purists in her homeland might take issue with her introduction of highly political present-day concerns, filtered through time-honoured mythologies. Within starts in darkness and moves into the light in two linked but distinctively different works, the combination of which is greatly moving. The first, Knotted, is a howl of sorrow and rage; the second, Unwrapped, is devotional and ecstatic.

Knotted is impelled by the appalling fate of the young Indian woman so viciously raped in 2012 that she died of her injuries. There is no literal reference to it but the story of Nirbhaya (“Fearless”), as she was known to protect her identity, cannot fail to be uppermost in the mind. Nor can the crushing oppression of many Indian women, particularly the impoverished. Terror and anguish roil through Knotted, particularly in two urgent solos danced by Mangaldas. In the first she is the shivering embodiment of fear; in the second she is discovered spread close to the ground in a confining circle, almost non-human in her abjection. But defiance increasingly takes over and she comes to own and define the space, a burning physical force and a charismatic presence.

Knotted starts with men and women running across a dimly lit stage, their haste speaking of dread. Some drop to the ground for a moment to circle swiftly on their knees as if in supplication and are then off again. Dancers hit their hands together and heads recoil as if struck, or lean perilously backwards and swirl their backs. Sidelights illuminate fallen bodies lying on top of one another, a jumble of humanity where one person is indistinguishable from the next. In this 40-minute, episodic piece the imagery can at times seem somewhat generalised or obvious but Mangaldas’s passion, her eyes burning into the auditorium like searchlights, is thrilling.

In the second half Mangaldas and her lovely company bring balm in the form of Unwrapped’s gorgeous, uplifting classicism. The dancers are accompanied by onstage musicians and the tinkling of the bells wrapped around their ankles; the fitted trousers and dramatically flowing tunics in muted earthy colours seen in Knotted give way to delicately floating gold garments. In an atmosphere of calm and gentle introspection, dancers’ heads are wound about with cloth and then unveiled in a tranquil image of self-awareness and understanding. The finesse and individuality of Mangaldas’s dancers are displayed in formal groupings but the undeniable highlight is a lighting-fast, lustrous solo for the choreographer, who darts and flutters like a joyous hummingbird.

As with other events in the first days of the festival (Claire Cunningham’s Guide Gods, reviewed below; Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donohoe’s Every Brilliant Thing) there was a palpable connection between artists and audience. The feeling of something being generously shared, not just seen, was paramount and even in the most challenging of subjects there was the strongest affirmation of life.

Claire Cunningham’s Guide Gods

Victoria Hall, Fremantle, February 12

It would be so easy, one imagines, for Claire Cunningham’s Guide Gods to be bristling with anger and reproach as it considers how religion deals with disability. At best it is a fast path to heaven, no further heavy lifting required, at worst it’s a manifestation of the devil’s work, and there are variations in between to do with concepts such as karma. Mostly it’s seen as imperfection in sore need of repair.

But brimstone isn’t Cunningham’s way. She is curious, intellectually rigorous and open to experience and new ideas. Most tellingly she is interested in and sympathetic to beliefs that, as a person of no religion, she does not share. Cunningham started out knowing very little and ended, as we discover, with a sophisticated, non-judgmental appreciation of the complexities of the field into which she had stumbled. She packs a lot into about 70 deceptively gentle minutes.

Guide Gods is described in part as a dance work, if you need to give it a label, but labels are not terribly helpful in the world Cunningham inhabits. She has been using crutches since she was a teenager and is, ipso facto, an artist with a disability. So before she even opens her mouth there are perceptions about her that may not be accurate or fair.

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Claire Cunningham in Guide Gods. Photo: Brian Hartley

Osteoporosis has given Cunningham wonky legs that need a lot of support, although as she reveals late in the show she can do without crutches for short periods. That fact can create problems, as Cunningham explains in a video in which she discusses Give Me a Reason to Live, her second Perth International Arts Festival show (it opens March 2 and also explores religious themes). Disabled people can be damned if they do and damned if they don’t. They need to show they can be useful participants in society, but also disabled enough to have a right to the help they require. Marginalised people have to prove how capable they are but also prove their failings, she says.

This is territory both knotty and delicate to which Cunningham brings considerable wit and wisdom in a label-defying performance. Let’s just say Guide Gods involves the following forms: dance, song, theatre, conversation, reportage, investigation and activism with the offer of a cup of tea and a biscuit at the end. And that in Cunningham’s hands it’s a persuasive, seductive mix.

The setting is simple. In a lovely, unpretentious hall the audience is seated on chairs or cushions on the floor on either side of a smallish performing area. At one end there is a set of steps, at the top of which are shelves holding objects with religious significance. At the other end is an archway constructed from crutches (Karen Tennant designed) through which Cunningham’s first appears. It looks rather splendid and gives Cunningham’s entrance a degree of surreal pomp while eschewing extravagance.

The atmosphere of a humble church gathering is also greatly enhanced by the contribution of musician Derek Nisbet on that most excellent instrument, the harmonium. Yes, there are hymns involved – Cunningham has a sweet, small, true voice – although she makes you think anew about sentiments you might once have thought praiseworthy. Take a trawl through Amazing Grace and you’ll see where she disagrees with it.

Central to the piece is Cunningham’s movement language, her strong upper body providing a strong contrast to her softer lower half. Cunningham starts in shoes but soon her feet are bare so one can see how different they look from those of most dancers, with their high arches and sharply defined outlines. But then she doesn’t do what most dancers do. Cunningham also asks her audience to remove their shoes, something that echoes the requirements of some religions but can suggest a comfy casualness or, more interestingly, vulnerability, or all of the above.

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Claire Cunningham in Guide Gods. Photo: Brian Hartley

Cunningham sometimes sits on the floor and there, her legs are on more equal terms with her upper body but when the crutches come into play there’s a whole new dynamic. Cunningham can project herself forward at perilous angles or create big swirling patterns as if she were a slalom skier. Ascending and descending stairs becomes a detailed choreography in itself and when dancing around and on the teacups that bring this discussion of big ideas to the personal level, her crutches describe graceful, sweeping arcs that potently extend her reach. The way she covers ground makes her look commanding and powerful.

Those choreographic decisions aren’t just physical and theatrical. They do what we go to dance for: they transform a multiplicity of ideas into eloquent, illuminating gestures that may have a variety of interpretations and excite a range of emotional responses, depending on the viewer. In Guide Gods Cunningham quietly makes a case for autonomy, freedom of expression, empathy, tolerance, open-mindedness and open-heartedness. No wonder PIAF artistic director Wendy Martin has asked her to be artist in residence at this year’s festival.

Guide Gods is performed in Perth at Burt Hall, St George’s Cathedral, February 17-21. Cunningham’s Give Me a Reason to Live is at PICA March 2-5. Cunningham performs Give Me a Reason to Live at North Melbourne Town Hall as part of the Festival of Live Art, March 9-11.

The festive season

THE last crumbs of Christmas cake have scarcely been brushed from the lips, the last Champagne bottles are not yet in the recycling bin and New Year’s resolutions are still full of shiny potential. ‘Tis the season for rest, recreation, family and friends. Or, for those of us whose calendars are ruled not by the earth’s rotation or religious observance but by cultural activity, it’s festival time.

And I don’t just mean in my hometown Sydney, where the annual festival – this year celebrating its 40th birthday – starts on January 7 and runs until Australia Day. The Perth International Arts Festival, with new artistic director Wendy Martin at the helm, starts on February 12 and goes into early March, overlapping with the Adelaide Festival, starting on February 26 and ending March 14.

I include the New Zealand Festival too – February 26-March 20 – because it’s about as easy for an east coast resident to get to Wellington as Perth (less flying time; more queuing for airport security).

That’s the first quarter of the year accounted for, right there.

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Paul White in Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s Nelken, to be performed at the Adelaide Festival. Photo: Alexandros Sarakasidis

There is, of course, a great deal of non-festival activity in every big Australian city. In Sydney, for instance, Sydney Theatre Company ran King Lear through the Christmas period and it closes on January 9. Belvoir opened Jasper Jones today, January 6, Melbourne Theatre Company hosts the transfer of Queensland Theatre Company’s new musical Ladies in Black from January 16 and so on. These companies provide year-round nourishment but the festival experience is something else: concentrated, distinctive and heightened.

Yes, there can be an element of déjà vu as old favourites return (I’m thinking Batsheva Dance Company, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkoui and director Robert Wilson, for instance) but there are, almost by definition, performances and performers one would never otherwise see: The Giants in Perth last year and the Berliner Ensemble with The Threepenny Opera in 2013; Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episodes 1-4 (2013) and the heart-stoppingly wonderful Trisha Brown retrospective (2014) in Melbourne; and Semele Walk (2013) and The Black Rider (2005) in Sydney to name very, very few.

Go further back and there’s Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota, which I saw in Perth but it also went to Adelaide, in 1998, and in the same year Belvoir’s theatrical adaptation of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (Sydney and Perth). All these things are big and mostly far-from-mainstream events that wouldn’t be likely to happen outside a festival. In 2016 the equivalents are Thalia Theater Hamburg’s Woyzeck in Sydney (Robert Wilson is a co-creator), William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour in Perth and Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch and The James Plays Trilogy in Adelaide.

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Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase, to be performed at the Sydney Festival. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot

The very small equally finds a festival footing. Leafing through some old programs I am reminded that in 2006 About an Hour, the powerfully affecting and effective (and very affordable) mini-festival within the Sydney Festival was deliciously devoted to contemporary dance from Australia and abroad, although there was one ring-in in the form of The Tiger Lillies, the anarchic British punk cabaret outfit who, as it happens, return to Sydney this year.

Events whack up against one another in fruitful or clashing combinations. There’s something about a festival that encourages viewers to take risks – risks our hometown arts organisations might perhaps eye a little enviously. But one has to remember that the festival material brought in from abroad comes to us well-honed, sometimes over years, and has survived the brutal winnowing process all new work goes through. So in some ways it’s not at all risky while having the potential to broaden the experience and perspective of viewers.

On a pragmatic level, this first-quarter cluster of festivals enables some sharing of events, although there are fewer double-ups than you might think. The cities are far-flung enough that only the truly dedicated audience member will travel to each, but are sufficiently in the same neck of the woods for an international artist wanting to maximise travel time. This year Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, The Tiger Lillies, theatre pieces The Object Lesson, The Events and Every Brilliant Thing, circus spectacular La Verità and new cabaret show Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid will be seen in more than one festival city. Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs! was seen in several (non-festival) Australian cities leading up to the Sydney appearances.

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The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, Perth International Arts Festival. Photo: Martin Tulinius

A comparison of programs reveals some very tempting changes of repertoire in two cases. For instance, in Sydney The Tiger Lillies gives us The Very Worst of the Tiger Lillies while Perth is treated to The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, a mind-boggling prospect. I don’t think I can get to it unfortunately, which is a huge, huge regret.

I will, though, move heaven, earth and frequent flyer points to get to Wellington for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch where, from March 17-20, the company performs a double bill of Café Muller and The Rite of Spring. Bausch’s Rite is considered one of the very best of the more than 100 (and counting) choreographies to one of the greatest of dance scores.

But before that, on March 9, the company performs the full-length Nelken (Carnations) in Adelaide. As a bonus, it offer the rare chance to see one of Australia’s most inspiring contemporary dancers, Paul White, who has been a member of the company since 2012. There are two other Australians with Pina Bausch – Julie Shanahan, a member since 1988, and Michael Carter, who joined last year.

An incomplete list of things I’d like to see, in no particular order:

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch (Adelaide, Wellington)

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs! (Sydney)

Alan Cumminh Sappy

Actor and singer Alan Cumming 

Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid (Sydney and Perth festivals; also Melbourne and Auckland)

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich and Vortex Temporum (Sydney)

Woyzeck (Sydney)

The Rabbits (Sydney; premiered in Perth in 2015)

The Tiger Lillies (Sydney, Perth)

The James Plays Trilogy (Adelaide)

Apocrifu, by Sidi Larbi Cherkoui

Every Brilliant Thing (Perth, Wellington)

Simon Stone and Belvoir’s The Wild Duck (Perth