Review: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui - Apocrifu - Queen Elizabeth Hall

Performance: 24 - 25 January 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 31 January 2014

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui 'Apocrifu' Photo: Bettina Strenske

Performance reviewed: 25 January

Ten men occupy the same stage in this work but only three of them dance. In almost every extant piece of writing about Apocrifu – a work that Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui created in 2007 – the main focus has been on these three but it is the magnificent seven of the polyphonic Corsican choir, A Filetta that kept taking my breath away. Dressed in black, they haunted the inside-out guts of the two-storey building comprising Herman Sorgeloos’ fascinating set, like a group of middle-aged Mafioso on the fringes of a “Family” funeral. They could have graced an episode of The Sopranos save for the fact that they sang with heavenly harmonies.

The set was crucial, providing a wide staircase down one side of the stage bridging two levels, perhaps leading from the ground floor of earth to the upper tier of an imaginary heaven. Books are piled everywhere, including at the far side of each tread on the stairway, and bodies rest on mounds of books in what appears to be a refuge underneath the upper platform. One of these recumbent forms turns out to be the eleventh performer, a near life-size traditional Japanese Bunraku puppet, in the guise of a hairless, faceless old man in a grey suit. The puppet is manipulated by Cherkaoui and his co-dancers so sensitively that it is easy to believe in him as part of the pathos in this deep, dark work. When “he” is abandoned in a heap, crumpled and alone, it is as if the spirit has left him. And this is a spiritual work that explores the nature of religion as handed down through the generations in written texts, noting how each belief has apocryphal stories that often follow similar narratives. Cherkaoui interrogates these texts through speech and movement, in one section using the skin of Dimitri Jourde as a parchment on which to write. All three dancers begin wearing unseen Kathak – or ghungroo – ankle bells that are discarded midway by which time their soft chiming has added to the monastic atmosphere.

The three dancers are extraordinary. Cherkaoui himself appears boneless with his rubbery hyper-flexibility, in one solo holding a book high while flopping and flapping into the most outrageous positions. There is also a significant amount of self-flagellation, either using a heavy book or the puppet’s limbs to slap his own face or head. At a distance, the bearded Jourde is a vague doppelganger for Cherkaoui. Jourde is a graduate of the Centre National Des Arts Du Cirque and unsurprisingly his own movement is also athletically fluid and acrobatic. His ‘Siamese twin’ duet with Cherkaoui in which their foreheads remain conjoined is a memorable feat. The third dancer is Yasuyuki Shuto – a classical ballet dancer from Tokyo –appearing as the odd-man-out in contrasting movement styles, more lyrical, less earthy than the other two; dressed in white, he appears to be the guardian angel come down from heaven (and, in fact, the long opening sequence is all about his slow descent down the stairway).

There were times when the length of danced, spoken and puppetry episodes began to lose me in a soporific haze but it was always possible to refocus through the arresting singing of the A Filetta ensemble. It has taken a long time for this work to come to London – it last appeared in the UK, for one day only, at the Brighton Festival, in 2011 – but it was well worth the wait.

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Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He writes for londondance.com, Dancetabs.com, Dancing Times, Dance Europe and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards in the UK. His book about the Czech ballerina, Daria Klimentová, was published earlier in 2013.

Photos: Bettina Strenske

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