There was once one language, a common speech shared by all humans. Together humans decided that they would build a tower that would reach the heavens and thereby make their name and unify all humanity. This tower was called Babel.
But the Lord saw this and said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” And so the Lord confounded the words of men, scattering them over the fact of the whole earth.
– Genesis 11
Words. Language. Communication. Understanding. Belief. Story. Romance. Passion. Anger. Emotion. Human.
Last Thursday night I experienced Belgium choreographer’s Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet’s Babel (Words). I say experience because Babel went beyond my expectations of what I thought was a ‘dance show,’ rather it was a total exploration of humanity – expressed through dance. On for just three evenings as part of the Auckland Arts Festival Babel was the conclusion piece of Cherkaoui’s exploration of human behaviors and emotions, a journey that began with Foi (concerning what you believe in), centered with Myth and concluding with Babel (Words).
What I saw performed on stage was the creation of a realm of human potential. A sparse set of massive silver frames, a band hovering in space, revealed as need be from behind a screen and the dancers, an ensemble of humans whose movements transcended reason, defied gravity.
Babel begins with a simple explanation – at the beginning all humans communicated using gesture. A sole android of a dancer explains that the desire to communicate was such that people’s arms were moving constantly, constantly communicating, constantly trying to explain something. There is a chorus of movement and then things start to move. You get the impression that each dancer on stage and also the musicians as they join them are representative of a unique story, a different aspect of human society. Languages start to peel out (apparently 17 in total) and relationships are made and destroyed. There is chaos, the set flying around the stage at the hands of the cast but also unity as a female dancer, topless wraps her body over that of a dancer of the opposite sex. There’s moments that you recognize – the American salesman using architectural design and literary theory buzz words but then there’s the music which seems familiar but at the same time not at all. Modern pop songs performed with an ancient music twist – a touch influenced by composer Patrizia Bovi’s interest in ancient and folk music.
The end result is a piece of work that is entrancing and thought provoking. Sitting after the show in the Q and A with Jalet and Bovi they talked about territory and boundaries. It struck me that Babel is a hugely self aware piece of work embedded in literary theory – my English lecturer would be in heaven. With this in mind it’s almost inappropriate to describe Babel as a dance performance, it’s an essay writ large, illustrated in movement and cast across a three dimensional sheet.
Besides that it’s essentially beautiful. A sparse and relatively clean wash of light sheds an understated elegance across the stage. This simplicity makes it both ephemeral and overwhelmingly human and tangible at the same time. With huge screens lining the sides and back of the stage, it’s a space that is confined but also totally malleable. Like was seen in Hui, with a simple shine of light these screens were rendered invisible, revealing the musicians behind it. Similarly the scope of human potential is manipulated through the play of shadows on these screens. Shadows enhancing the influence of the dancers on stage. The set is a transformer being manipulated at the whims of the cast. At one moment the set is constructive, being used to create new spaces while at the next it is a trap, confining and limiting. It’s a matrix. A creation.
What I absolutely loved about Babel was the fact that not only did it turn on my mind but it also opened it up. The world Cherkaoui and Jalet had created was sure, ‘a show’ but it was also a functional space for play and exploration. A zone where anything is possible. And so in that way it was a good show to end the festival on, a show that caught my heart and my imagination and made me want to create more of my own. It was a show for artists.