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.
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.