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SIdi Larbi Cherkaoui and Maria Pages in their "Dunas."

Copyright 2011 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has a strong intuitive sense about working with choreographers with whom he can create fertile collaborations. He pairs himself up successfully again and again with dance artists who on the surface may seem totally different from him in terms of style and genre, but whose intellectual approach and investigative physicality are very similar to his. He establishes another such collaboration in "Dunas" with modern flamenco goddess Maria Pages.

On stage, seen at Sadler's Wells May 5, Cherkaoui and Pages at first seem an unlikely combination: She comes from the impassioned, rigorous, and traditional conventions of flamenco and he the explorative, multi-disciplined ones of contemporary dance. Their common ground lies in their roots and their artistic vision. In "Dunas," through dance, song, rhythm, visual imagery, and costume they celebrate their collaboration and their journeys of discovery.

The music, by Szymon Brzoska and Ruben Lebaniegos, is a rich mix of Arabic and flamenco cante, with singers, guitar, violin, piano and percussion. Like the choreography it's a powerful fusion of sounds, the smooth tones of the piano or plaintive violin blending with the percussive and raucous grain of the cantes.

The two artists have chosen 'sand' as a symbol of their unity, both in its literal and metaphorical meaning. In Spanish "Dunas" means "sand dunes," which alludes to Pages's and Cherkaoui's shared North African heritages: Cherkaoui's father was Moroccan and Pages is from Andalusia, which is the most African-influenced region of Spain. The sand dunes are visually prominent throughout the performance, represented by huge sand-colored drapes which are suspended from the lighting rigs and cascade onto the performance area. They are versatile props: When lit from behind they appear semi-transparent like veils and while they shape or partition the space they are also used by the dancers like costumes in which to wrap themselves.

At the beginning of "Dunas" the two performers appear veiled by these drapes as if lost in a sandstorm, finding each other and making contact by reaching out through the flexible material. With the help of the fabric they explore common themes of their past, most urgently that of identity. At the end they are bound together by the material in a symbolic seal of their deep friendship. The drapes are effective both in their simplicity and in the images they conjure up: Bedouin tents, deserts, Arabic dress and sand itself, which, due to its ever-shifting qualities, becomes a metaphor for movement and transformation.

One of the many imaginative ingredients Pages and Cherkaoui include in "Dunas" is sand drawing. Inspired by the technique involved, Cherkaoui, using a large glass mirror covered in sand as his canvas, doodles. A camera focused on the underside of the mirror captures his cartoons and patterns, which are projected onto the cyclorama upstage. Pages is positioned center stage in front of the cyclorama and as she moves, Cherkaoui follows her action with his drawing, extending her gestures into huge swirling motifs. It's a quirky scene, visually fascinating, but also typical of the curious and eclectic mind of Cherkaoui. Other highlights of the invention and artistry of both include a solo sung by Cherkaoui in an Arabic and Latin and a fiercely articulate rhythmical dialogue between Pages on her castanets and the other musicians.


SIdi Larbi Cherkaoui and Maria Pages in their "Dunas."

Juxtaposed against each other, the pair's styles create a curious tension: Cherkaoui's is athletic -- often floor-based -- and rubbery and fluid, whereas Pages's is accented, angular and gravity defying, as when in a stamping sequence, the effort forces her to jump or leap while her arms are reaching high above her, head tilted skywards. Their bodies, too, make for striking contrasts. She has a pulled-up, muscular torso defined by her tight-fitting flamenco dresses; his body has a softer musculature and more casual stance. She is statuesque, while he is petite. During their first duet, they establish their differences, but also explore how they are prepared to meet half way. Cherkaoui imitates flamenco-style stamping and clapping, but performs it with a loose, relaxed body. He takes from the flamenco what he's interested in pursuing, whether it be a step, a rhythm, an attitude or a musical sound. She relaxes her severe flamenco posture, releasing more through her upper body, and uses a variety of spatial levels and contrasting dynamics. Her long arms, always sculptural, slice through positions but are never static.

In the middle section of the piece the drapes are removed to reveal an exposed, intense duet by Pages and Cherkaoui -- she clad in a long, fitted purple dress, he in a dark green shirt and loose harem pants -- symbolizing their artistic vision and self-discovery. It is as if they have been stripped away to the bare bones of who they are as artists and the physical struggle they've had to undertake to get there. They take the passion that is inherent in flamenco and create a physical dialogue with each other, a conversation expressed in movement. She towers over him with dramatic vertical motions while he responds by dancing entirely on his knees, or through sequences of back-flips and somersaults. At one moment she looks like she's pummeling him into the ground.

Neither Pages nor Cherkaoui compromises the strength of his or her own artistic personality; rather, each picks from what the other possesses in order to create new physical languages. It works because both have such solid identities and such a mutual understanding of each other's work that they are able to delve deeper into the creative process.

Throughout this pursuit of shared territory, the relationship between Pages and Cherkaoui at times resembles that of lovers, but more predominantly that of an older sister and her younger brother. There are arguments, misunderstandings. He is cheeky, she is strict. She is less willing to compromise but embraces his ideas and plays along with his games. However, what ultimately shines through is their affection and respect for one another.


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