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Flash Review, 12-6: Mythic Propensities
Larbi in Purgatory

By Estelle Dumortier
Copyright 2007 Estelle Dumortier

(Editor's Note/NDLR: Pour la version française de cet article, cliquez ici. For the French version of this article, click here.)

PARIS -- Tout le monde was waiting for "Myth," the latest work from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, now unbeatable choreographer and for several years a regular at the Theatre de la VIlle, where "Myth" opened the season September 25. As the curtain rose, it revealed nothing spectacular: a decor delineated at both sides by wooden walls suggesting Moorish panels, and upstage by heavy shelves full of books and plenty of skulls, as well as by two panels and a huge door, at the left of which and on the mezzanine stood the musicians. A group of characters -- including a skeleton -- sat on benches and chairs, reading, knitting, or just waiting. Taken together, the attitude of the players and the scenery suggested a large family waiting at the gates of Purgatory, this place where, in Catholic theology, the souls of the righteous expiate their sins, this place or time for testing and for expiation where man suffers before ascending to eternal felicity.

The creation of "Myth" was initially fueled, the choreographer explained in program notes, by his desire to explore stories focusing on personal traumas, "these irreversible things which happen in life and how man deals with them in his own way." Later he turned to mythologies, "'these moral stories." Therefore the work is still about stories, set like a Brueghel painting where each actor-dancer puts on a role, a moving archetypal image that traverses the two hour performance.

This ambitious choreography for 14 dancers and seven musicians is divided into three chapters. First, waiting. Words are fleetingly inscribed on a screen above the door: "Time opens its doors to those who can wait." To the sound of drumbeat and bagpipe, dog-like shadows creep out from basement windows as a life-sized wolf figurine standing upstairs watches over them. "I have long thought we were all alone," says a woman who is jostled by these shadows. "We know nothing about men and women's stories," she continues. "Everything which is animal takes place in the shadows."

The second chapter opens with a quotation from the Purgatorio chapter of Dante's "Inferno": "Oh i ombre vane, fuor che ne l'aspetto!" ("Oh vain shadows, except on your appearance!") Here Larbi plays with contrasts: entries and exits, positive/negative, an endless crossing represented by a labyrinth traced on the ground like a cathedral pavement.

This small cruel theater continues in the third chapter, with the words of Henry Miller scrolling across the upstage screen: "All growth is a leap in the dark." Christ is evoked, as are Eckhart, medievalism, mysticism, alchemy, modern psychology, and symbolism. Someone says there's no such thing as a "historic future." Someone else speaks of a symbolic fight between cry and silence, between books and gestures, between myths' bookish knowledge and their births.

It's with a rare mastery that the young Belgium choreographer of 30 years old deals with this pack. In contrast with his elder Alain Platel, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui doesn't only work on individuals but intercedes more in what he calls "human links, this in-between which creates harmonies." Here he has created a multi-polaire universe where, as his protagonists say, "The Sun never has shadows," where, yet, "that which is true is the shadow of what we do... where a vacuum exists." Such is his universe, the choreographer's gesture intensifies in a vibrato of continuous electric discharges traversing the bodies on stage, such as that of a weaver, a spider-woman dressed in black who repairs our hearts and tames our fears in a beautiful solo. Spiral motifs, dances on the ground, repetitions -- these sorts of topsy-turvy actions constitute the gestural vocabulary of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, a vocabulary which surfaced in "Foi" and later in "Tempus Fugit" but which is here more developed. These various motifs, ranging from the Alhambra to the Antwerp cathedral, with an incursion into Japanese manga, bear witness to the cultural syncretism which has been evident since the beginnings of this prodigious artist whose origins are Morocco and Antwerp.

Therefore, it is with no fear that Larbi associates his choreography with the musical presence of Patrizia Bovi and of the Micrologus ensemble, who interpret Italian and Spanish music from the 12th century. What music could be more fitting for his eclectic quest into the origins than this mosaique of styles, more singular than this multitude of genres as the only guarantors of our history? In this respect, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui manages to carry us along between imagination and reality, in a polyphonic composition, sometimes confusing and unnerving, but which is also generous, and where the brilliant playing of the interpreters can succeed in attenuating or even erasing our perplexity.


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