Review :: Sydney Festival – Babel (Words)

January 14th 2012

The opening night of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet’s internationally renowned dance-theatre piece, Babel (Words), inaugurated the 2012 Sydney Festival program by investigating the violence of words. Playing to a packed house at the Sydney Theatre Company, Walsh Bay, the insistently multicultural yet sardonic landscape theatricalises the slippages and instances of conflict in a dystopic imagining of our ‘globalised’ milieu. Reveling in a multiplicity of dialects and dance styles, the clashes in culture, religion, spoken language and most significantly, the dancers’ bodies delivered a resounding distillation of the uncertainty and danger intrinsic in language.

Choreographers Cherkaoui and Jalet explore the growing disconnect between everyday verbal and gestural language and the human body itself. The title, a biblical allusion to God’s ‘corrective’ measure of dividing humans into rival dialects and nation-states, forms the narrative framework. Divided into scenes ranging extensively, from slapstick sketch-comedy – a robot Jane and caveman Tarzan, to pulsating drum-driven contemporary dance, and balletic, romantic passages. The production is underpinned by the theme of division – how division operates and culminates in the isolation and disillusionment of the individual human subject, and ultimately the impossibility of collective harmony.

Such a reading could be construed as overly bleak, but the performance unquestionably seeks to jar the audience out of a detached repose with its vivid rendering of these ‘globalised’ truths. What one witnesses is a process of uprooting – a limb-by-limb deconstruction of normative modes of representing human interaction, both on the level of language, but more significantly, the body. The overpowering dissonance makes for some truly hilarious moments of cultural disjunction. There are real moments of laughter, such as an absurd scene involving two Japanese men and a Lady-Gagaesque Scandinavian cyborg – sexual innuendo and the sheer contrast in body types create humour beyond words.

A political edge to the work comes out in the satirical treatment of the hyperreal technocratic language of U.S. – the language of the hegemonic Western system of capitalism the audience and the production itself are effectively a product of.

But what really stands out about Babel (Words) is the eighteen-person strong and highly diverse troupe, reflecting the production’s inherently multicultural spirit. Exhibiting a corporeal virtuosity, which is simultaneously kinetic yet disengaged from normative experiences of the body.

The production provides, as Cherkaoui himself states, “no easy answers.” Instead, we are privy to a constantly shifting gaze of critical examination, which manifests itself metaphorically in the construction and reconstruction of geometrical structures with steel frameworks. (Set design by Antony Gormley). The interplay between the set and props, and the troupe of dancers demonstrates their complicity in the theatricalisation of linguistic limits.

In the opening monologue, an androgynous figure states that “nothing that was now could be said”, from there Babel articulates how the incapacity to express and impress upon the present, on both the linguistic and physical level, forecloses on what it means to be human. The culminating scene, elided of language, hypothetically poses our movement towards an empty language. The recurrent motif of an outstretched palm, signifying ‘Forgive Me’, reveals a sentimental undertone that appeases the production’s almost nihilistic critique of the obsession with individual material satisfaction, or as the grotesque American figur


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