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Flash Flashback, 12-19: Mr. Khan, Meet Mr. Larbi
On the Road to Calcutta with Akram and Sidi
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005, 2006 The Dance Insider
(The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Archive. This Flash was first posted on October 12, 2005. Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's "Zero Degrees," more relevant today than ever, returns tonight to the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, where it continues through Saturday. For more information, please click here.)
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 themessage 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