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Flash Review 2, 10-12: Mr. Khan, Meet Mr. Larbi
On the Road to Calcutta with Akram and Sidi

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- This morning, after taking my thermos coffee and croissant by a fountain in the Tuileries Garden, under a brilliant partially cloudy sky, I thought I'd walk home by way of the courtyard of the Louvre. Easier said than done; both the Tuileries and, across the street, the Louvre are now barricaded, with only narrow, security-guard manned entrances. How did we get from curiosity to fear? It's the same question that looms over "Zero Degrees," the new collaboration between European super-stars Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui which received its French premiere last night at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, danced by the choreographers.

Hands and arms figure prominently in this dream team meeting of fire and wind (the Kathak-trained, London-based Khan) and earth and water (the rubbery Belgian Larbi, who, crawling around the stage anchored by his head, often seems to be trying to squirrel back into the ground and, slightly disoriented, to have emerged from the sea). Neutrally at first as, sitting 'Indian style' at the lip of the stage, they recount first-person and synchronized when things began to go wrong on two British cousins' journey to Calcutta. The narrative action is simple: Plainclothes guards at the Bangladeshi border take their passports, and the cousins follow the papers as they are passed from one guard to another, receding from view. Without their passports, they realize, they are no one. It's a terrifying moment, but it's relayed with almost dispassionate rhythm by the miming and indicating of their hands and arms from their seated positions. Later, standing now and facing each other, they use their hands to greet and almost caress one another; a tender encounter. Nearer to the end, though, almost the same physical interchange is infused with aggression and violence, as one slaps the other.

These are some surface contours but really, I suspect "Zero Degrees" is one of those works whose impact can't adequately be assessed so close as the morning after seeing it. I can tell you more about the narrative: The pair eventually get their passports back, but are far from secure. Aboard the train, they encounter someone who at first inspires them to reflect on the quality and uniqueness of stillness, until they realize he's still because he's dead; then confronts them with their impotence: Doing the humane thing -- obliging the dead man's wailing wife by carrying his body off the train -- would put them at risk of being accused of complicity in his death, so instead they stand idly by until the police arrive, complicit in callousness.

Beyond this, I'm hesitant to simply give you a blow-by-blow description of Larbi vs. Khan, because this would be reducing what they've come up with: a choreographic response to our fear-ridden times. A way to by-pass, in movement -- these are two of the most articulate bodies in dance right now -- the filters and guards we put up to avert our eyes from the existential morass with which seemingly endless natural catastrophes and man-made horrors confront us. It's a poetry of images against which we have no protection. I can't experience the deaths of 33,000 people in an earthquake. I can't write about it with words that do the tragedy justice. Nothing I can say will illuminate it. But dance can add to my understanding. And I can be moved by what two dancers have to say about our epoch with their bodies. Too jaded to respond with the immediacy of the 7-year-old girl who had to leave the theater, in tears, after watching Larbi beat a prostrate dummy while Khan, laying next to the mannequin, reacted spasmodically to the blows, I still can't shake the sadness and, even amidst some of the most beautiful statuary the world has produced, strolling in the Paris sunshine in the courtyard of the Louvre, I find the sadness inescapable. Not just because of the message that Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui have produced so eloquently, but because the times are now so dire that even bodies so prodigious as these cannot explore beauty but must dedicate themselves to probing the dark, with no guaranty that they will find us a way out.

They try for a lament, with Larbi singing a Hebrew chant as he cradles one of the two dummies' heads in his arms, stroking it, but in the final tableau one dummy still lies unmoving and dead, as the other marches immovably into an ominous future.

"Zero Degrees," choreographed and danced by Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, continues at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, a co-producer, through Sunday. It premiered at Sadler's Wells in London this past summer, and will likely find its way to the theaters in the nine other cities that co-produced it, in Antwerp, Gand (Belgium), Berlin, Dusseldorf, Rotterdam, Torino, Bordeaux, Ottowa and Columbus, Ohio, home of the Wexner Center for the Arts.

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