Build it up and tear it down: ‘Babel’ by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet and Antony Gormley

How often does it happen that the audience applauds, spontaneously, dúring a contemporary dance performance? And even at several occasions? It’s impossible not to be swept away by Babel, the new performance by choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet and visual artist Antony Gormley, which premiered at De Munt/La Monnaie (Brussels). But that applause is an indication of a rather annoying aspect of this performance too: it is too eagerly trying to please.

Babel? Yes, you get what you expect. Dancers of all kinds of nationalities, speaking in different languages. And of course they have to try and build a tower. I was in awe, during that first part of the performance of the ingenuity of Antony Gormley’s concept of those five aluminum, transparent ‘boxes’. It felt as if I was watching somebody playing with a giant Rubik’s cube: each time again the dancers came up with new shapes and ways to put one box into another.

There’s a rather important theatrical aspect to Babel. It is not so much a long choreography as it is a sequence of short scenes. There’s a guy explaining, in a heavy American accent, how we are all linked to each other, in a neuroscientific way. There’s a funny scene with some sort of border control at the airport. ‘Un bon voyage!’ One older woman is walking around looking like a cleaning lady. A younger dancer is moving like a mixture of a robot and a fashion model. And that same American guy later on is explaining that English is thé most important language spoken on this planet: it is the language of Shakespeare ánd Lady Gaga.

Yes, Cherkaoui and Jalet are not afraid to throw in some cheap jokes. Nothing wrong with that. But what I really didn’t understand was the need for an embarrassingly silly scène that had to question, all of a sudden, in the midst of all these Babel references, Belgian choreographers from the eighties. Maybe it’s time to return to…, a Canadian dancer said, and all of a sudden he started walking around like some sort of caveman, trying to seduce robotwoman. The audience almost fell out of their chairs laughing, but for me this was the moment that I surely knew that however beautiful Babel might be at times, it is fishing too eagerly for laughs and approval too.

It’s a shame, because it goes without saying that Cherkaoui and Jalet are gifted choreographers. There are many wonderfully choreographed segments in Babel. At one moment the dancers are forming a throne for that king to sit on, the next they are horse and carriage. Later on they are all involved in a great fight in slow motion. All of this gets fused with ethnic-sounding music by Italian baroque specialist Patrizia Bovi, some Indian musicians and a Japanese Kodo-drummer. But there as well it sometimes went wrong as the combination of movement and music got frighteningly close to Cirque Du Soleil-territory.

Babel undoubtedly has some poetic and impressive moments and it’s surely going to be a hit with a broader audience and on the festival circuit. But in my view Cherkaoui and Jalet are skating on thin ice here.

Fore a touring schedule of ‘Babel (Words)’ click here. You’ll find more images of the performance on that site as well.

Postscript on 27 June 2016: a new version of “Babel” will be created for the French Festival d’Avignon this summer. Info here.





One Response to “Build it up and tear it down: ‘Babel’ by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet and Antony Gormley”

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this review. I saw his work “Orbo Novo” last fall in NYC and had mixed feelings about his use of humor amidst the more enjoyable passages of fluid choreography – similar, I think, to your feelings about this new work. “Babel” will be performed in Paris this July – when I’ll be there – so I have to decide if it’s worth seeing…

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