Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s PUZ/ZLE – Avignon Festival 2012

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui came with his company, Eastman, to a disused stone quarry outside Avignon to present his newest production Puz/zle, and to share with the audience his ideas on who we are and how we find our place in the scheme of things. Inaugurated in 1995 by Peter Brook, the British theatre director based in Paris, to present his epic production of the Mahabharata, this unusual venue has become a favoured performance site during the annual Avignon Festival. Nestling below the huge, craggy walls of the quarry, the stage is set with grey stone-like blocks, forming pillars and platforms, almost like a modern Stonehenge. The Mistral wind whipped gusts of grey dust over the stage and over the expectant festival audience obliged to await nightfall at ten o’clock. The performance opened impressively with a group of singers, the Corsican polyphonic male choir, A Filetta, joined by the Lebanese soprano Fadia Tomb El-Hage, placed on a ledge high above the stage, filling the huge space with their other-worldly voices. The dancers enter the stage one by one, dressed uniformly in black, and what follows is a great deal of fluid and energetic movement, performed by an extremely homogeneous, hard-working group of dancers, supported by an unusual and surprisingly effective musical ensemble.

  Cherkaoui won the Nijinsky prize for choreography at the Monaco Dance Forum in 2002, and I found his early works had a sense of honesty and a lively imagination which is missing in this rather contrived new production. He has not set himself an easy task in translating the meaning of life in dance, as well as what he calls ‘a universal interrogation into where one finds one’s own place among it all’. In attempting this I find he is constantly restricted by his very limited choreographic vocabulary, much of it based on hip-hop and acrobatics. If there is a great deal of movement in the early scenes, there is little actual dance; the company form lines and circles, their heads roll, their arms sway and their bodies undulate in formation, reminiscent of synchronised swimming routines. At other times they form circles and patterns, holding hands, dipping and rising, looking curiously like modern European dance of the 1930’s, tantalising snippets of which were shown in films during the Danser Sa Vie exhibition in Paris earlier this year. In another scene each dancer holds small square stones, crashing them together rhythmically, in the style of workers’ propaganda films from Soviet times. As the work develops and the movements become freer, personal contact between the dancers, which is mentioned in the programme notes as vital, is lost in a relentless rush of movement, jogging and gyrating, falling and rolling. The company members are also kept busy constructing different shapes with the building blocks, dragging and pushing these around, climbing all over them, only to demolish them, leaving them crashing to the floor after which the construction work starts again. Of the eleven-strong company, the three female dancers seemed the most proficient and made the strongest impression.

  In the latter part of the programme, the dancers don ragged white costumes over their black ones, forming tableaux. The most unusual is when they wrap themselves around a huge plinth, formed by the blocks, to resemble an elaborately sculptured war memorial, leaving the singers and a Japanese flautist to hold centre-stage in several very long scenes.  Cherkaoui’s lengthy solo towards the end of the evening is admirably performed with extraordinary suppleness, but with many curious, and deliberate distortions in the movements which didn’t appear to add anything to the meaning of the work. He has also given free rein to a Japanese dancer in another very long solo, which became crude in its contortions. Almost two hours in length, and without a break, the performance seemed over-long, becoming repetitive and ever more drawn-out. If the puzzle of the title remains unsolved, it seems that Cherkaoui’s continuing success is guaranteed as Puz/zle will be on tour throughout Europe during the 2012/2013 season, including performances at Sadler’s Wells in April..


copyright : Christina Gallea Roy