A happy union

It doesn't seem like an obvious meeting, but the project of a Moroccan-Belgian contemporary dancer and performer, and an Andalucian flamenco artist, both highly respected internationally, produced an amazing espectaculo which I saw this weekend at the Maestranza theatre in Sevilla. Based around the theme of "Dunas", sand dunes, the work by Maria Pages and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui explored big themes like life, death, religion and race, but in a light and not-hitting-you-over-the-head way. The two dancers communicated, swayed and moved together in a way which was, at times, funny - not a reaction usually associated with the intense, passionate world of flamenco. She tapped on the floor with her feet; he banged his body, making himself into a percussion instrument. Using just clever lighting and two swathes of sheer, nude-coloured cloth, they draped and wrapped themselves and each other, outlining their bodies as if they were naked, illustrating the super-fine movements of sand as it blows in the desert. While Maria moved her incredibly fluid arms, Sidi tried to copy her; while she used strong, emphatic gestures typical of this Spanish dance form, he repeatedly fell on the floor as if knocked out by her emotion, using hip-hop and jazz moves. The music was astonishing, taking the audience on a journey to the very roots of the flamenco tradition. Haunting Arabic singing (harking back to Sidi's Moroccan parentage) accompanied by violin (as heard on movies set in the desert, usually featuring by doomed lovers and camels) brought a feeling of pathos, and worked seamlessly with the melancholic flamenco taranto voice. Sidi is the least dancer-ish looking dancer I've ever seen, wearing a top with sleeves so long they hid his hands, like something a student would wear, and bombachos, baggy trousers cinched in at the ankle. But he is incredibly bendy, performing somersaults and rolls, moving his hands as fast as Maria's, though not in the same distinctive flamenco way. Apparently, when they first met, their hand movements were one of the things which attracted them to each other. Sidi, one of the most popular contemporary dancers working today, is known for his preference for collaborating with performers with different techniques, ages, nationalities and languages (Shaolin monks, Anthony Gormley). As one article puts it (better than I could) "rather than trying to unify them, he mobilises their physical and personal differences. The result is... multiplicitous, pop-ridden sprawls that harness the performers' idiosyncracies into loosely-knit episodes that are stuffed with allusions to history, mythology, everyday life..." Oh, and Kate Bush is one of his biggest influences. What's not to like about the guy? On a more personal level, Maria and Sidi seem to get on very well, both the Andaluza and the Belgian saying that they love the fact that this is their very own project, as opposed to a commission for a dance company. It's something from which they both derive enormous satisfaction and pleasure. They've become firm friends and enjoying and sharing each others' considerable creative talents, energy and ideas. By far my favourite part, and that of many others, I suspect, was the sand art. Sidi drew figures and forms on a screen, which was projected onto the back of the stage. Its large-scale effect was ideal for those in audience who were in the cheap seats, up in the gods, like me. With astonishing speed and artistry, he drew trees, whose branches and roots Maria followed with her arms. One of those ideas that is so simple, yet so effective. At one point, he drew two mirror-image profiles of heads, opposite each other, and identical. In about five second flat. This is Take Hart on speed. His other themes in this early section of the show, were religion (tree, man, woman, apple, serpent) and life/death - crawling baby, toddler, adult, old person with stick, followed by a cross. It may sound facile, but when it's done so fast, and so well, and then swept away before your eyes, the effect is extraordinary - live art. Other religious references were the many-armed Hindu god, as drawn by Sidi; Gregorian chants, to complete the musical tour; and Maria wrapping herself from head to toe in the sheer fabric, creating her own burqa. Another simple technique was the use of light to create shadows: at the beginning of the show, Maria danced, her shadow sharply profiled on the side of the stage, while Sid's head was shown on the screen at the back; later, Sidi fought against himself behind the draped fabric, thanks to more clever lighting. And they were both seen to strike each other down, again using the softening effect of the screen - a comment on Spain's appalling domestic violence, perhaps. For me, Dunas had everything - wonderful, emotional music; superb dancing (Maria even used castanets, the first time I've ever seen them); extraordinary creativity; cultural variety; social and religious commentary; and an absorbing visual spectacle. Shame it only last just over an hour. I was left wanting more. You can watch a video about Dunas here Maria Pages and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
Blog published on 4 October 2010