Review: Sasha Waltz & Guests - d'avant - Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre

Performance: 6 & 7 May, 2015
Reviewed by Sarah Kent - Monday 11 May 2015

Sasha Waltz & Guests 'd'avant' Photo: Sebastian Bolesch

Performance reviewed: 6 May

Two men sit on the ground staring at one another in dismay. Their bodies have fused; no matter how hard they try to extricate themselves, their limbs remaintangled in odd configurations. One wears a red velvet suit, the other dark grey so it should be easy to differentiate one body from the other, except that they’ve swapped jackets – we saw them do it. This is pure slapstick, but watching it work makes it even more enjoyable. The sequence ends with a man in a red suit climbing a ladder; the pair have amalgamated into a single entity.

d’avant (from before) was devised in 2002 by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet from Les Ballets C de la B, and Luc Dunberry and Juan Kruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola from Sasha Waltz & Guests. It’s an exploration of the push and pull of attraction and aggression – the incongruous mix of love, cruelty, empathy, indifference and passion that permeates male relationships, and the bonds and rituals that hold men together or drive them apart.

The piece could have been shambolic. With long silences and seemingly random incidents of kindness or cruelty, it flirts with chaos; but these performers are skilled enough to keep the boat blissfully afloat. All four have trained voices and share a love of mediaeval music; as they dance, they create glorious a cappella harmonies whose measured solemnity contrasts with the bizarre antics on stage.

The humour is dark and often surreal. Cherkaoui is hoisted aloft on a rope, his arms held out stiffly as if crucified. Each time he is lowered, a bell tolls as though his tormentors were bell ringers and he the clapper. After his release, he passes on the crucifixion pose, like a contagious disease, to Jalet who embraces him. With arms intertwined and hands held fast, the pair then wrestle their way through a rubber-limbed duet.

Designed by Thomas Schenk, the set – a wall of scaffolding overlooking a circular pavement – is flexible enough to accommodate numerous readings. Sometimes it feels like a building site, sometimes a piazza and, when the singing is especially sublime, a ruined Armenian church.

Nothing stays the same for long. An explosion transforms four whirling dervishes into a boy band gyrating obscenely as they slaughter Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart. They soon morph into a noisome rabble comprised of flagellants, protestors, football hooligans, rioters and terrorists who carry banners, wave flags, throw missiles and scatter leaflets.

Using Jalet’s head as a football, Cherkaoui and Dunberry manhandle his writhing body, while he rolls and somersaults round the space blowing a whistle in alarm. Meanwhile Esnaola lifts paving stones to build a group of plinths on which the others perch precariously and sing blissful harmonies in a moment of peaceful accord.

Esnaola disappears, but emerges dressed as a penitent. Deftly reversing his clothing, the others transform him into a blushing bride, a doleful mourner and a corpse zipped into a body bag. While Cherkaoui buries him, Jalet pisses from a pedestal in an endless stream with which Dunberry washes his hands and feet and slicks back his hair.

This magical piece draws to a close with a mournful dirge. There’s no conclusion, only the wry acceptance of the coexistence of opposites such as the scared and profane, and the thought that anything can be what you make of it – refreshing water or stinking piss.

Best known as an art critic, Sarah Kent began writing about dance for The Arts Desk in 2012, only stopping last year when she was invited to serve on the dance panel of the Olivier Awards. A keen dancer herself, she brings a fresh perspective to the role of commentator.

Photos: Sebastian Bolesch

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