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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era