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Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: "TeZukA"

By Barbara Newman

Sadler’s Wells Theatre
London, England

September 6–10, 2011

Performance Reviewed: Sept. 7


Photos: Moments from Cherkaoui's
TeZukA. By Hugo Glendinning, courtesy Sadler's Wells.

 

Onstage as everywhere else, size matters. Any larger-than-life projection, whether static or moving, renders normal dancers insignificant, nearly unnoticeable. Yet choreographers rush to embrace the infinite magic of technology, either ignoring the power struggle it produces or believing they can control it. Aiming for enhanced impact, they sacrifice their dancers to their ambition, because once they divide their creative energy between film or video and bodies, the manipulated effects invariably steal the stage from the live performers.

 

The Flemish-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has built this sacrifice into his latest creation, TeZukA, an elaborate 90-minute fantasy exploring the work of the Japanese artist Osamu Tezuka, whose popular comic-strip cartoons, or manga, address history, philosophy, Buddhism, science fiction, and the artist’s own life. Enlarged to fill the proscenium or cover the cyclorama, tilting in space, shifting shape, size and color, Tezuka’s manga dominate TeZukA. In the end, along with ingenious animated videos designed by Taiki Ueda, they completely overshadow the choreography intended to celebrate them.


Over the years, Cherkaoui has developed an eccentric, athletic vocabulary that fuses tumbling, Contact Improvisation, capoiera, and sculptured poses. Slow it down, and the movement resembles mercury, flowing in unexpected directions each of which seems wholly inevitable. Speed it up, and the dancing acquires an angular impatience that pushes one shape over the next, hurrying to some unforeseen resolution.

 


Either way the distinctive vocabulary can easily be likened to physical calligraphy; fragments accumulate like brushstrokes, lending each sequence its individual flavor. In this instance, the danced episodes reflect the wide-eyed innocence and superhuman strength of Tezuka’s cartoon characters as well as Japan’s ancient artistic traditions and modern industrial might.

 

Unfortunately, most of the movement unspools against larger, more inventive filmed activity. Columns of Japanese characters, kanji, drip down hanging paper scrolls like melting wax or coalesce into whirling flocks of birds. When two men box, striking each other without contact, we focus on the cartoon symbols exploding behind them, depicting the sound of their blows. When the dancers “write” on the scrim in sweeping arcs, we watch the kanji materialize, line by squiggly line.


Narration that jumps from Tezuka’s comics to his biography only adds to the confusion of overlapping images, never lending them a focus. Neither does body painting, trios of  interlocking limbs that evoke circuit boards, intricate duets, or projected hands that draw and erase one another.

 

As always, the choreographer has assembled a remarkable international cast: nine talented dancers, led by the engaging Daniel Proietto; two martial artists from the ensemble of Shaolin monks who appeared in Cherkaoui’s stunning Sutra; and an actual calligrapher. Nitin Sawhney’s score backs them with meandering tuneless melodies and thunderous drumming as needed, and Sasa Kovacevic’s black-and-white costumes echo the palette of the projections.


A riveting piece lies somewhere inside TeZukA, maybe half its length with half the visual elements, fashioned almost exclusively of dancing. If only Cherkaoui would choreograph that one.