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Flash Review 1, 11-11: Song & Dance
Riding the Next Wave with Sidi Larbi

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

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PARIS -- Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui may have been born in the wrong epoch. As pure a dancing talent as we have in these times -- with Gumby-like limbs and a Nijinsky-like purity -- as a choreographer he's about 12, and I mean that as a compliment: Full of ideas and a seemingly limitless zeal to explore them, Larbi -- as he's short-handed -- has not yet connected his many tools as he needs to be able to do in order to clearly articulate all these ideas to us. He's an embryo, really, not fully defined, and yet fascinating to watch as he struggles to find a language. His times, however, now almost demand a response to the corporeal world, and here he can get de-railed, if only temporarily. In his 2003 "Foi," reviewed here by my DI colleague Rosa Mei, an eye-patched woman clad in boxing trunks and gloves patterned after the American flag strikes out blindly at anyone and everyone. In "Tempus Fugit," his latest work seen last Thursday at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, a woman in a black slit skirt and face-obscuring veil dances frenetically on pointe, as if dancing for her life, in a segment that goes on and on until long after its point is made. And yet it's so intriguing to watch Larbi and his versatile performers -- here, dancer-singers -- at work that one indulges these not-so-subtle choreographic editorials.

As we began to dissect the performance on exiting the theater, my actress colleague told me she liked the senses conveyed and appealed to in specific moments, but missed an over-all sense of the spectacle (as we call shows here). I agreed, but added that maybe it's my occupational hazard to always be searching for a story. And yet a choreographer is a story-teller, even if those stories are kinetic and non-narrative. If Larbi paints interestingly, no unified canvas emerges from "Tempus Fugit," created in collaboration with the performers and with composer Najib Cherradi, and performed under the rubric of Belgium's Ballets C. de la B. and the musical Ensemble Weshm. Here, though, are some impressions.

The pleasant surprise of "Tempus Fugit" is that the dancers can actually sing. Seeing the interpreters (as performers are called here) described in the program material as 'creator-dancer-singers' before the show, I'd cringed. Not at the 'creator' credit; as I already knew from Rosa's review, for productions of Ballets C. de la B, a collective of which Larbi is a member, "the multi-cultural dancers, actors and musicians all contribute improvised material based on questions from the choreographer." No, what made me nervous was seeing them described as singers. A dancer doesn't become a singer simply by opening her mouth; like her own profession, mastering the craft demands life-long training. Yet Larbi's dancers here, including himself and musically coached by Christine Leboutte and Isnelle da Silveira, didn't embarrass their second calling. The singing was mostly in harmony, and their still being students at this art was even acknowledged within the script. In one segment, an anal Frenchy-type chorus-master tries to navigate the cast through Jean-Baptiste Clement's classic "Le Temps des Cerises," (The Time of Cherries), only to be constantly de-railed by what to him is their less than perfect pronunciation. ("It's difficult!" one performer whines after being corrected repeatedly. "French is not an easy language," the chorus-master points out sternly. I could relate.) The session comes to an end when one singer suddenly adjusts the lyrics to "The time of bananas" as an ape swings downfrom the trellis.

The trellis -- silvery foliage strung along the tops of flexible vertical poles lined up across the upstage, behind which video landscape projections add depth -- is the setting for some of "Tempus Fugit"'s most transcendentally magical action and tableaus. Repeatedly and with the agility of circus artists, performers -- usually male -- descend between two poles, seemingly balancing on a wrist, an ankle, or another body part not typically used for clinging. One even suddenly plummets upside-down -- prompting gasps from the audience -- before stopping with his head a hair's breadth from the stage.

Where the commentary (on the current Situation) works is where the social message only becomes obvious at the end of the given segment, as when a gypsy-clad man and a woman in black evening wear meet, are attracted, try to dance together, and then dissolve into bickering that -- apparently Hebrew and Arab text scrolling across the backdrop more than hints -- reflects the inability of Arabs and Israelis to just get along. Even the above-referenced section featuring the obviously oppressed apparently Muslim woman has it's lyrically subtle moment of pain, when a man pours mint tea over the kneeling dancer, who, immobile and tense, must take it.

There's an obligatory Larbi solo, which has the choreographer-dancer, manipulated marionette-like by another performer with invisible strings, rising and collapsing and jerking in what, for any of us mortals, would be considered unnatural directions. There's no question this man-beast can move as he likes as can no one else I've seen on this planet. But I think to get to the next level as a composer of air-tight works of art, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui needs, if not a puppet-master, at least a mentor who can help him focus his unique tools to create a more coherent canvas.

Having said that, Larbi is already overdue for a major tour of US shores. Forget Angelin (Preljocaj), dance insiders; Sidi Larbi is the veritable nouvelle vague.

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