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Ambiguities of the Word and the Flood

Jonathan W Marshall

Apocrifu Apocrifu
photo Toni Wilkinson

In Apocrifu, director/choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui performs alongside ballet-trained dancer Yasuyuki Shuto, former circus performer Dimitri Jourde and a near life-sized, visibly manipulated puppet. The framing is starkly modernist, a wide staircase running upwards at the left, echoing the ‘divine’ off-stage spaces alluded to by Gordon Craig. A loft runs across the upper horizontal, within which the Corsican men’s choir A Filetta clusters, composer-conductor Jean Claude Acquaviva’s gestures evoking the rising, spiritual urgency of this work’s slow burn. Amid the bare supports and struts below lie books. We begin with Cherkaoui dropping onto the stage a line of tomes and stepping out.

The profusion of bound volumes and a brief, rapid-fire monologue by Cherkaoui signals the theme as the relationship between the words of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Their common roots and subsequent conflicts were seeded from now little-known apocryphal texts. Reciting an online speech by evangelist Jay Smith, Cherkaoui resembles a multi-limbed Hindu deity. His fellow performers’ arms snake out to punctuate his conclusions or flip through scripture as he observes that the same characters appear in all three creeds, and that subsequent scribes have incorporated their exegetical commentary.

Smith’s claim is that the Qur’an is a “corrupted” version of an earlier Hebrew text which evangelists like himself now interpret. Lise Uytterhoeven points out that it is surprisingly Orientalist for Cherkaoui (who is after all of Moroccan-Flemish descent) to construct the Qur’an as a secondary, derivative and “corrupted” text. Cherkaoui’s interest however is not the restoration of the undiluted messianic truth which Smith is seeking. Cherkaoui quotes from the Qur’an that “He who takes the blood of one, takes the blood of all, and he who saves the blood of one, saves the blood of all.” Cherkaoui’s thematic contention is that these dimly perceived origins should lead us to consult texts with care and to recognise our shared holy lives.

Choreographically, Apocrifu is defined by the curve. Performers remain low, folding, gliding and collapsing into the ground before rising arcs bring them back to crouching and spin them before heading down again. Shuto’s ballet solo provides a counterpoint, but here too suppleness and circularity dominate. One is tempted to see echoes of the curve of the brush or pen here. Cherkaoui borrows from the films Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964) and The Pillow Book (Peter Greenaway, 1996) to stage a section in which one dancer disrobes to be manipulated, twisted and turned while kanji are inscribed across his skin.

Apocrifu is above all measured and meditative. Concepts are played out at length in a dreamy fashion. Its lessons are light not firm, and hence distinct from Jay Smith’s speech. The puppet metaphor, with Cherkaoui himself also becoming a puppet, poses questions of volition and control. Are our acts already imprinted within these books, and is this good or bad? The at times muezzin-like ambience of Corsican folk singing epitomises Apocrifu’s ambience, not least in the way that any melodramatic potential is held at bay. Ecstasy, joy and pain are alluded to, but do not emerge.

Pindorama Pindorama
photo Sammi Landweer

Brazilian choreographer/director Lia Rodrigues’ Pindorama, by contrast, is an intense, often harrowing experience. Performers strip, pour water over themselves, before moving onto a massive central ribbon of clear plastic. The remaining performers take the ends and undulate the sheet, first in gentle ripples, then in great angry waves. The sound of sheeting tearing the air dominates. A lone woman, and later a collective of dancers, enter this maelstrom. Water-filled condoms are rolled out, and initially the crouching figures massage and split these in fluid explosions. The anguished arched backs of performers on all fours are replaced by recurrent rolling, collapse and signs of failure. The central figure repeatedly falls, and in the subsequent group, bodies pathetically gesture towards each other. Even the reassuring clasp of one to another is not allowed. There is a spastic lack of cohesion and direction as they turn hopelessly into the waves and towards or over each other. A spray of mist reaches the audience, seated or standing at the margins. Empathy seems cruelly vexed. The values of Artaud and his imperious theatre of bodily necessity and non-human action are very present.

While Rodrigues cites Brazilian practices and performance art as influences, one might relate her practice to the Living Theatre or butoh. Certainly, the piece is close to such work. Once themes of physical struggle and failure are established, they are staged for a protracted period, as physical sculpture or durational performance. Rodrigues’ program notes explain that Pindorama’s watery allusions were originally conceived as elemental, evoking a fraught but positive relationship to landscape. Pindorama is an indigenous title for Brazil, “land of the palms.” However, since Pindorama’s 2013 European premiere, the vision of citizens standing by as migrants drown has become a frequent interpretation.

Pindorama Pindorama
photo Sammi Landweer
In Pindorama’s final act, the plastic is removed and the space carefully mined with condoms before the performers crawl amid us. Rodrigues, like butoh pioneer Tatsumi Hijikata, is obsessed with the architecture of the back. We observe the slippery, slithering crawl of the figures while deep grooves form and disappear along their spines. The depersonalisation of the dancer as flesh, face obscured, evoked for me Goya’s Disasters of War series: bodily fragments of a cataclysm both human and cosmic. After crushing the condoms, dancers come together and slowly exit from one corner. Figures roll and turn, their eyes facing downward or parallel to the floor (but rarely upward). A soundtrack of deep breathing replaces that of plastic thrumming.

Pindorama’s dramaturgy is experiential. Interpretative gambits are built into it, but it does not ‘speak.’ Its focus is the pathos and sensuality of flesh and water, with all that might flow from them.

Perth International Arts Festival 2016, Compagnie Les Ballets C de la B with A Filetta, Apocrifu, choreographer, director, performer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; Heath Ledger Theatre, Feb 25-27; Pindorama, creator Lia Rodrigues; State Theatre Centre, Perth, 2-6 Mar

RealTime issue #131 Feb-March 2016 pg. web

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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