Review: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui - Puz/zle - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 24 & 25 April
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Monday 29 April 2013

Eastman/Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui 'Puz/zle'
Photo: Ambra Vernuccio

Performance reviewed 25 April

Over the past few years, the Sadler’s Wells stage has played host to a number of Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s inventive collaborations. Monks, martial arts, migrants and musicians have all worked with the award-winning dancemaker; with his Eastman company, Cherkaoui now presents his most ambitious work to date.

Puz/zle was originally created for the Avignon Festival on the site of a disused stone quarry. For this touring version, Cherkaoui and set designer Filip Peeters bring the quarry indoors with a huge, kinetic set of stone-coloured slabs and blocks. The set is as much a part of the choreography as the movement that animates it; dancers form and re-form the blocks into an ever-changing vista of locations and themes. The set becomes a stairway, a prison, a pit, a wall; lit with projected film it becomes a never-ending corridor into which the dancers slam themselves. There’s a constant play between order and chaos; the careful arrangements of the stones into familiar patterns repeatedly blown open with violent force, scattering both the set and the order it suggests.

It would be easy for this formidable stage furniture to dominate the piece if the choreography itself were less impressive, but Cherkaoui’s company of 11 dancers easily match their surroundings in power and visual interest. Like the set, they dissolve and re-form, coming together in undulating waves and revolving group shapes of mesmerising beauty, then exploding apart into kinetic solos and duets that give each company member a chance to quietly shine. The dancers come from a variety of movement backgrounds, and the solo and small group sections reveal these disparate influences: whirling bursts of kung-fu, upturned b-boy freezes, melting contemporary floorwork, balletic pirouettes. In ensemble sections, the dancers resubmit to the anonymity of the group, combining into a single liquid entity. The tension between group and individual gives the work an entrancing ebb and flow.

Adding richness to the puzzle are Lebanese singer Fadia Tomb El-Hage and Corsican choir A Filetta, who surround the dancers with lush polyphonic strangeness. El-Hage in particular is a singer of expressive beauty, whose voice seems to wrap around the whole with opulent fluidity. Together, the set, movement and music create an atmosphere of engrossing otherworldliness, even as the images flickering through the choreography are worldly and familiar.

Puz/zle is not without its flaws. At nearly two hours in length, the piece does start to stretch its themes a little thin; there are sections which extend the work without adding to the experience. In particular, a sequence about DNA, narrated with a nasal American voiceover, disrupts the magic with its sudden thudding dip into factual explication. A later section set to sounds suggesting gunshots, in which the bodies of the dancers end scattered lifeless about the stage, is bizarrely not the end; what could have been a powerful moment in which the constant, busy motion of the performers is suddenly, brutally stopped instead becomes yet another image among many, fleeting rather than final.

Cherkaoui is gifted with a clarity of vision and an ability to summon images and stories to the stage with deft, deceptively simple movement choices. Slightly fewer pieces might have made his puzzle even more enthralling, but even with a few moments of excess this makes for a strikingly memorable night at the theatre.

More on Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui:
www.east-man.be

Lise Smith is a dance manager and teacher, as well as a regular contributor to londondance.com, londonist & Arts Professional

Photos: Ambra Vernuccio

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