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