Sydney Festival: Babel (Words)

17 January 2012

'Babel (Words)' evoked the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel.
'Babel (Words)' evoked the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel.

Dr Andrew McGarrity, who teaches Indian Sub-continental and Buddhist Studies in the University of Sydney's School of Languages and Cultures, responds to the Sydney Festival production Babel (Words).

Evoking the Biblical account of the doomed Tower of Babel as its motif, Babel (Words), choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, embodies our desperate attempts to communicate with each other; attempts that are meant to bring us together but often end up driving us further apart.

Although there is no narrative as such, there are hints of what Cherkaoui envisaged, which is no less than the hubris of civilisation stripped back to reveal its fragile foundations in the desperate, primordial longing of individual beings who yearn for recognition amidst their isolation.

The dancers evoke beings that are by turns bewildered, nervous or tentative as they approach each other, embodying all the paradoxes of communication.

They transform from human to animal and back again, hinting at the primal depths hidden beneath our most basic encounters; physical intimacy that appears at first glance to evoke delicate beauty slowly reveals itself to be in fact the intimacy of conflict and violence. Punches, kicks and headbutts are slowed down to precisely choreographed freeze-frames set to a soaring and beautiful operatic score.

The dancers themselves frequently become the structures within which the action takes place, while the three-dimensional frames created by sculptor Anthony Gormley frequently become choreographed into the action.

The three main characters take the form more of archetypes around whom the action takes place, each embodying the competing value systems we find ourselves caught between. The first, played by Darryl E Woods, provides the voice of ironic swagger and self-confident bravado; the second, portrayed by Christine Leboutte, the voice of earnest propriety and moral rectitude, carrying bucket and mop. Finally the extraordinary Ulrika Kinn Svensson embodies the voice of pneumatic, and ultimately sterile, sexuality, mincing in impossibly tight PVC pants.

Between these characters, as we are pulled from one to the other, swirls the maelstrom of our emotions and conflicts. The rest of the company brings this to life as they enact the many small encounters that collectively make up our lives with others.

If there is a weak point, it is, to my mind, the rather over-earnest monologues, spoken mostly by Woods, which are dotted throughout. They seem almost attempts at self-justification, a means of proving the worthiness of the performance.

The points they make about connections and what brings us together (for example the evoking of the neuroscientist VS Ramachandran, filtered through the lens of pop-science, and the promise of 'virtual simulation' via motor neurons), all seem rather forced, not to mention the superficial reference to 'Eastern Philosophy'. The points about the role of racial and religious prejudice in separating us from each other also seem laboured.

Despite their heavy-handedness these points do provide us with an overarching theme, which is our attempts to invoke what unites us.

But equally perhaps we are not meant to take all of these claims at face value, nor are we meant to completely believe in them. Cherkaoui is too clever for that.

Perhaps instead we are meant to see through all such bold claims for commonality. Indeed, our claims of shared humanity are certainly exposed as rather trite when hauntingly confronted further on in the performance by the pleas of a homeless and desperate individual - perhaps a victim of the global financial crisis? - who cries out to us in his moment of need.

There are moments of such exquisite beauty throughout the production - when the dancers are not so much led by the music, but rather seem to trail it behind them like silk - that there is simply no need for any forced justification.

As the dancers aspire to the heavens, becoming their own tower, the soaring Qawali vocals of Mahabub Khan and the Medieval madrigal-style vocals of Patrizia Bovi seem to evoke a primordial yearning for transcendence, for union within separation, revealing with such care and gentleness the aching of the wounded animal, the hurt beneath the snarl of self-affirmation.

For a moment, the bluster and cacophony of our individual self-assertion is hushed and our bare need for connection, for recognition, for love, comes out without any fear of exposure. A moment of much-needed pure light is let in to the spectacular and ultimately ridiculous edifices in which we hide ourselves.

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