Auckland Arts Festival: Biblical tale inspiration for dance masterpiece

The Babel ensemble show music joins us at the heart. Photo / Supplied
The Babel ensemble show music joins us at the heart. Photo / Supplied

Choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet take the biblical story of the Tower of Babel with its smiting of the human race into painful divisions of nationality and language. They add a glistening modular set of metal structures designed by English sculptor Antony Gormley to define borders and boundaries, populate the stage with an extraordinary cast of multitalented dancers, actors and musicians and come up with a masterpiece of contemporary dance theatre.

There are long sections of spoofy spoken languages - very much a plurality of languages - the most hilarious of which involves two Japanese gentlemen and a stunningly presented beautiful robotic woman (think slender Barbie doll proportions in tight, shiny, black vinyl pants and towering boots) as they try to cross the communication divide.

Barbie-bot weaves her teetering way throughout the proceedings (including a starring role in another explosively funny scene from an airport check-in counter) and with the appearances of an MC-ish character, lends the structure a feeling of cabaret: dark and satirical but also bursting with hope.

The movement is magnificently chaotic but supremely orchestrated and performed through the tumbling and turning of those huge aluminium structures as they take and make myriad shapes and patterns. Standout sections include the bare-souled and bare-breasted solo, the sudden separation of a pair of entwined young lovers and the shock of his isolation, the devolution of the sophisticated French roue to grunting Neanderthal, the manifestation of rich and clever tableaux, both biblical and brazen.

But the whole stunning work rides on its music. Five musicians perform live on stage, pouring out a rich east/west fusion of Hindi beats, Japanese drumming and plaintive medieval flute and harp. Two gorgeous female voices seem to arise from the beginning of time, and when the whole cast joins them, the sound is transcendent.

After such dramatic and extensive elaboration, the final of three works in which Cherkaoui explores the depth of cultural divides - seems almost a cliche. In music, we are joined at the heart.


What: Babel (words)

Where: The Civic, to Saturday

- NZ Herald

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