The word made flesh

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui turns his dancers' attention to religion at the Brighton Festival.

You can see why the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui was attracted to the idea of "apocrypha" - non-canonical religious texts that are considered peripheral to the main body of authorised scripture. Part Flemish, part Moroccan, Cherkaoui began as a backing dancer on a pop music programme, and did vogueing, hip-hop and jazz dance before studying contemporary dance. Now 35, he's become one of the foremost as well as most idiosyncratic choreographers in the field, also with a number of commissions from ballet companies to his name.

In the mainstream but not of it, a figure of doubtful, hybrid origins - Cherkaoui is himself in a rather apocryphal position.

The 2007 work Apocrifu, seen this year at the Brighton Festival, is one several pieces in which Cherkaoui circles the subject of religion. Here, he's interested in scripture - the word, and the word made flesh. In one telling scene, Cherkaoui relates how the story of Cain and Abel appears in different forms in the Koran, the Bible and the Talmud - in effect, how the story has a history, of borrowings, additions and rewritings.

Cherkaoui deftly gives his tale a choreographic form: he and his two dancers Dimitri Jourde and Yasuyuki Shuto clump into a kind of composite creature (a favourite Cherkaoui device) that playfully passes three books around its six arms, its triple heads sneaking peeks at pages over its various shoulders. The delight at seeing such a felicitously realised physical metaphor freezes when the scene is recapitulated later, with swords instead of books; at its conclusion the trinity splits apart, the dancers step towards a row of three books on the ground, and each stabs his blade into a book. The sword, it seems, is mightier than the pen.

Entwined brotherhood, violent separation, the powerplay between text and body - these images run like undercurrents through Apocrifu. Cherkaoui and Jourde tangle together in a fluctuating duet in which they keep their heads together - sometimes leaning towards each other for support or balance, sometimes straining against each other, like rams, but ending with gently subversive finish: a kiss. In another scene, Jourde is stripped to the waist and Shuto daubs Japanese characters over his skin, so that Jourde's very self seems to be circumscribed by text. Yet his body writes back: as Jourde flounders on the floor, his skin leaves behind a smeared, inky imprint of his struggle. Elsewhere, text itself becomes support (books used as stepping stones to navigate the stage), impediment (dancers stumbling blindly, pages pressed across their eyes) or weapon: Cherkaoui literally throws the book at Jourde.

The most intriguing imagery, though, comes from a puppet. Sometimes this blank-faced, grey-suited creation appears controlled by the dancers, for example in a succession of pietà-like tableaux. In one memorable scene, the puppet struggles against the dancers, grumpily kicking at their shins or shooing away their arms. It wins the fight - and so, of course, collapses. Sometimes the illusion of puppetry is reversed, with the model sitting atop Cherkaoui's prone body as his limbs move as if tugged by strings.

The dancers push the puppet imagery still further: slumped on the ground, they try to hoick up their heavy limbs, as if their own bodies were mere imitations of life, galvanised into sputtering action through force of will. The final scene sees Cherkaoui collapsed on the ground, his legs twisted like the lifeless puppet beside him, knocking his head painfully on the ground as if it were wood (Cherkaoui is a master of the suffering solo: he can do abjection and mortification like no one else), before rising up to join with the puppet, as if reclaiming his brother.

Cherkaoui has created some of the best works I've seen, but for all its suggestiveness and the intensity of its performance, Apocrifu is not one of them. It feels under-realised: though it uses a characteristic montage structure, here the effect is less to build up layers of meaning than to string them out. Indeed, what holds the scenes together most is not the choreography - strong though some of that is - but the set and music. The stage design (by Herman Sorgeloos) is on two levels, like an upper echelon and an earthly plane, and on one side is a long, toplit flight of steps; a stairway to heaven, perhaps.

Best of all is the presence of Corsican male choir A Filetta, a group of ordinary-looking blokes who sound like angels. They follow the dancers' passionplay like solemn witnesses, their celestial harmonies and soul-squeezing Maghrebi melodies bestowing gravitas and spirit to a work that might otherwise seem stretched too thin.

Cherkaoui will be at Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, from 6-10 September with a new piece inspired not by religion but by "the god of manga", theJapanese animator Osamu Tezuka

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Only Drake could wow the O2 by pointing out random audience members' clothing

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through.

On the last London night of his Boy Meets World tour (20 March), Drake doesn’t come on stage until 10pm, which is enough to kill off most gigs at the O2 Arena (hello, Bieber), as people are worried about getting the Tube home. The amount of rum and Coke in the room – a steaming, unrecognisable space with a false ceiling of globular lights and a stampeding crowd split in half by a fence – certainly helps keep the buzz. But who’d have thought that a man standing onstage diligently pointing at audience members and saying what they’re wearing (“You in the blue dress shirt with the ­lager!”) would constitute one of the most exciting nights the O2 has seen in a while?

“Tonight is not a show, not a concert, not about me,” says Drake, who runs an annual “Drake Night” in Toronto and once visited Drake University in Iowa.

So far, the world’s favourite rapper – his latest album, More Life, recently got 90 million streams on its first day of release on Apple Music alone – has had a shifting identity. His songs capture a new strain of emotionally literate but solipsistic hip-hop, which can feel intense or whiny depending on how you look at it. His offstage behaviour is Type-A rapper – he has been accused of throwing beer bottles at Chris Brown, he has been punched by Diddy and he has had altercations with Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Ludacris.

But Aubrey Drake Graham, the son of a white, Jewish mother and an African-American father who once played drums alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, does skits about his petulance on Saturday Night Live (see “Drake’s Beef”). Emotionally demonstrative, openly dysfunctional, a bit of a bruiser, with an ability to flit between a dozen styles of music while expressing a desire for crowd participation that borders on the needy . . . Could this man be the ­Michael Bublé of hip-hop?

Drake’s sprawling two-hour roadshow is held back from chaos by the force of his physical presence. Blunt-headed with muscular, sloping shoulders and mesmerising, nimble feet, he prowls the edge of the stage. He has had so many hits (and has so many guest stars tonight) that he is not interested in playing them all the way through. Instead, recalling Prince in the same venue ten years ago, the show becomes a series of medleys. With just a drummer and a synth player at the back of the stage, he demonstrates an invisible, physical control over the music, operating it like a string puppet, stopping or starting songs with the drop of a foot or the shrug of a shoulder, so they collapse in the middle and are gone.

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through. Pointing at people in the audience, real or imaginary, is a music hall thing. Bruce Dickinson and Metallica’s James Hetfield do it too. Amid a hokey message to follow your dreams, he recalls his time spent singing for $200 a night as a John Legend tribute act. Cue a perfect demonstration of Legend-style singing – before he suddenly sloughs off “all this bathrobe-and-candle-sexy acoustic Ed Sheeran shit”, while huge columns of flame engulf the stage.

Drake is still at his best with blue, slinky songs of alienation – “9”, “Over”, “Feel No Ways” and “Hotline Bling”, which doubles up as make-out music for the couples in the crowd. One pair of lovers, Drake establishes during one of his crowd surveys, have been together for ten years. “I can’t even make a relationship last ten days,” he laments. In 2012, he told the Guardian, “I’ve had too many girls to ever feel uncomfortable about the man that I am.” An old-school boast from a modern man.

The guest stars serve to highlight Drake’s variety, rather than shine on their own. Their songs, too, are started, suspended, chopped and screwed. Drake is more macho when there’s another guy onstage with him – doing “Successful”, with the literally named Trey Songz, or dueling with thefrenetic Skepta, who sounds so much tougher (maybe because he’s a Londoner). The two whirl around the stage like helicopter seeds.

Nicki Minaj, apparently Drake’s one-time lover, rises fembotishly from a hole in the stage and says in a London accent, “I want some fucking crumpets and tea.”

She adds, of her host, “This nigga single-handedly changed the game.” Minaj sings her song “Moment 4 Life”: “I call the shots, I am the umpire . . .” But she doesn’t really. Even her presence flares up quickly and is gone.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution