Babel (words), Sadler's Wells, London

Zoë Anderson
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:40

Flemish-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is known for his collaborations. He's recently worked with Akram Khan, with Shaolin Temple monks, with the sculptor Antony Gormley. Gormley is back for Babel (words): Cherkaoui's multi-cultural cast argue in a mix of languages, framed by steel Gormley shapes that suggest towers or cages.

In one scene, people queue up at an airport barrier, to be scanned by a robotic woman. Having checked them out, she drops a mechanical curtsy and wishes them a good journey in their own language. Ulrika Kinn Svennson makes a brilliant android, teetering in high PVC boots, with a different public-relations croon for every speech.

The scene is lively, meandering and deliberately repetitive. That's characteristic: Cherkaoui has funny scenes that go on too long, bright ideas and a wandering structure. Babel (words) drifts through ideas about language and communication, before deciding, rather predictably, that we're all human together.

Cherkaoui's recent works have stressed movement and stage design. With Babel (words), he returns to the physical theatre of his work for Les Ballets C. de la B., with a similar mix of music, speech and movement. Cherkaoui spends time pointing out the arrogance of American English, with Darryl E Woods holding forth about the language's power and range. Later, we see Woods as a beggar, remembering when English was the most powerful language in the world. That feels obvious, but I loved the spin Cherkaoui later puts on it. We see Woods, and English, as a stomping monster, a human Godzilla. The other dancers become his reaching, stamping limbs, banding together like a Transformers robot.

In another sequence, a philosophical Frenchman gradually becomes a caveman as he crosses the stage: hunching over, language becoming grunts and gestures. When he moves back, his Neanderthal crouch becomes an urbane stroll again.

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