Les Ballets C de la B, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

A brilliant ethnic mi

Nadine Meisner
Saturday 01 December 2001 01:00
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The title Rien de rien translates as "nothing about nothing", but Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's piece for the Flemish company Les Ballets C de la B is about plenty, given by six extraordinary performers. Together, they form a motley collection of skills, ages, cultures and languages. Separately, each is a star, etched sharply into individuality by Cherkaoui's direction.

The ex-Zap Mama singer Angelique Willkie cuts an unforgettable figure in a huge streaked wig, sliding effortlessly from English to French, from speech and song to dance. Marie-Louise Wilderijkx, a 60-year-old Belgian ballerina, first enters with classical bourrées, trailing giant diaphanous wings. Cherkaoui, a Belgian-Moroccan, who is also in the cast, makes his big impact near the end.

At times the performers go about their isolated, idiosyncratic business – a cellist plays at the top of stairs; Laura Neyskens, 15, plaits her hair; Willkie engages in a mute monologue, hand movements underlining the silent words; Wilderijkx dances – and your attention is torn between everyone. At others they gel into dancing groups where gestures link up in choreographic phrases, or in a chorus narration of travellers' tales.

They give all this a riveting vitality, creating images that are varied, gleaming and brave, and weaving humour into the tourists' accounts of being confronted by alien customs. Willkie and Neyskens tell how, as vegetarians, they endured a feast where they had to watch a goat being slaughtered and then eat it. The action throws up similar surprises; a happy jitterbug ending with the woman chucked into the wings like discarded potato peel, or Cherkaoui cutting his arm with a big knife, reminding you of the goat story.

At the same time, a theme begins to emerge – about cultural diversity, the gaps that divide, the emotional yearning that overrides all differences. The strata of music, dance, speech and song appear like different ethnicities. Visual references merge, so that when Wilderijkx spins with her robe circling about her, she might be a whirling dervish or, just as plausibly, a ballerina performing pirouettes.

By the end the tone has darkened and the piece claims its casualty. Willkie is now naked, performing broken-down movement and speech. Jurij Konjar, from Slovenia, escapes by clambering up the wooden back wall, using its decorative Arabic calligraphy as holds. All the while Cherkaoui is slowly expiring against the same wall, which is streaked with his blood. When the Frenchman Damien Jalet sprays an "English Rules!" graffito, Cherkaoui's bare back becomes the canvas for the exclamation mark. Yet Rien de Rien was presciently created before 11 September; it was back in London after its hit showing early this year.

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