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Eastman is the name of the institution created to produce and promote the work of Belgian-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui — work that is clearly untamable into the kind of product art that institutionalized repertory dance companies tend to prefer in their struggle for survival. Eastman is the literal translation into English of Cherakaoui's surname, and that gives you a hint that identity and language are among his interests. Babel is a madly energetic piece of motile philosophizing made by 18 performers, two choreographers, a sculptor and assorted designers, with 13 countries and 15 languages among them. The work, nearly two unbroken hours in length, will repeat in Memorial Hall on the 10th, in this return engagement to Carolina Performing Arts.
Along with choreographer Damien Jalet, and sculptor Antony Gormley, Cherkaoui (see more background here) takes us on a jolting journey from the Biblical destruction of the ancient Mesopotamian Tower of Babel and the splintering of language into a whirlwind of misunderstanding, through to the ludicrous proliferation of the meaningless languages of contemporary commercialism and then towards a neural language of touch and gesture. But first comes a spoken and gestured meditation on the modes of communication "in the time of silence" which clues us in to the idea of — the hope for — commonality among the diverse peoples of the world that will underlie the ritualized strife, boundary-making and re-unification to follow. It is an ideal work for presentation at a university that still struggles with the mix-not-match nature of modern populations.
While this is a heady piece of dance-theater, it is highly physical, with superb, high-intensity movement throughout. Structurally, it separates into skits — some of which go on just a little longer than I perceived idea enough to support them. Overall, I thought the work could be trimmed by 10 or 15 minutes and given even greater intensity. Sometimes the music obfuscated the words spoken into headsets by the performers. This was especially unfortunate in what seemed to be the key speech, about neural connections between people, given by a tall, slim black dancer, dressed like choreo-philosopher Bill T. Jones, right up to the black-framed glasses. (There are many other clever visual and spoken references as well.) These things were irritating at the time, but in retrospect, they are just quibbles. The artwork as a whole is very much worth your time.
This is in great part because of the unique spatial manipulations allowed by Gormley's open-sided box constructions. These open metal forms are large, but light, and are easily danced by the performers into an amazing range of configurations. All the linear pattern created by their angling and nesting and stacking is doubled or tripled by crisp low side-lighting (the clean lighting is by Adam Carrée) that casts sharp shadows onto side and back walls. Sometimes the stage space opens up further as windows of light appear on the back scrim, each window filled with a musician on a high platform behind. Sometimes their traditional Turkish music sounds without our seeing them. Sometimes one or two musicians join the fray below. In the end the dancers form a line across the stage, hooking leg over leg into a chain. Tentatively, they edge forward, pulling, tugging and clinging — awkward, slow, and together, they slouch towards Bethlehem.
Note: Babel repeats 10/10. For details, see the sidebar.