Babel (Words)

By Kelly Carmichael

Date / Venue:  Thursday March 21st, 2013, Civic Theatre, Auckland

Performed by: Navala Chaudhari, Darryl E. Woods, Damien Fournier, Ben Fury, Valgerdur Rúnarsdóttir, Christine Leboutte, Majon van der Schot, Kazutomi Kozuki, Sandra Delgadillo Porcel, Helder Seabra, Jon Filip Fahlstrøm, James O'Hara, Damien Jalet

Music by:  Patrizia Bovi, Mahabub Khan, Sattar Khan, Gabriele Miracle and Kazunari Abe

With an intense vocal, musical and choreographed fusion of East and West, Babel (words) took to the Civic Theatre stage for its New Zealand premiere on Thursday evening. Opening to a spartan stage set of metallic cubes and monologue on gestural language, the performance delivered an unexpected lesson in spatial politics, imagination, and humour.

The work is inspired by the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel, in which God punishes and divides the people into competing nations and tongues. Babel (words) unites a whirlpool of 18 performers and musicians speaking 15 different languages from 7 religious backgrounds into a cohesive, playful, and fiercely resonant production. The astonishingly multi-talented cast skilfully explored issues of communication, connection, and cultural division against a thrilling soundtrack of thunderous Japanese taiko drumming, Hindi rhythms, medieval, and Arabic music.

Choreographed by the Moroccan / Flemish Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Belgian Damien Jalet, this was not only an outstanding piece of contemporary dance, but also a comedy of cultural and social stereotypes. From a cuddly babushka to a striking and androgynous woman in shiny latex trousers, via Japanese tourists, the audience were led on a journey into the world of cliché.  Playfulness aside, however, the incredible performances from the cast are at times explosive, captivating and poignant.  Combining Western contemporary dance with different global and indigenous styles of movement, the choreography segued into unexpected formations and situations. Although it dragged a little and seemed to resolve the action too slowly towards the end, there were some standout performances.

Then there is British artist Antony Gormley's stage set.  An installation of light-catching metallic frames allowed the cast to move, shape and endlessly transform the structures.  For an artist like Gormley - celebrated as a master of the human form - the set was, at first, a stark and unusual thing. However, it soon became clear that Gormley had pulled of another incredible artwork. The sparse set was a perfect foil, not only illuminating the dancers' sinuous form, but also contributing something unique in sculptural-architectural dance theatre.  Manipulated effortlessly from rooms to towers and countless other recognisable designs, the structures continually created and dissolved space, becoming both shelters and prisons for the cast.

One of the most spectacular of this year's Auckland Arts Festival offerings, Babel (words) is a masterpiece of contemporary dance. And if UNESCO had a theatre company, it would probably look something like this...