Sadler’s Wells, London
5 out of 5
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 19 May 2010 21.31 BST
Babel at Sadler’s Wells
Fractious world … Babel by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet and Antony Gormley. Photograph: Tristram Kenton
As the son of a Moroccan father and Flemish mother, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui knows in his bones how deep the divisions of culture can go. His previous works Foi and Myth were both inspired, if ultimately unhinged by, the vastness of that subject. But in Babel, which completes the trilogy, Cherkaoui and his co-choreographer Damien Jalet contain their material within the most fiercely resonant dance theatre of the decade.
The work takes its title and tone from the apocalyptic Bible story in which God punitively divides his people into competing nations and tongues. Long sections work up to a vivid chaos of snarling, multilingual chatter, some of it angry, some funny, and all delivered by an astonishingly multitalented cast of dancers, actors and musicians.
Then there is Antony Gormley’s set. This installation of light-catching steel cubes is transformed into a series of towers and rooms, in which the cast alternately herd and isolate themselves. The choreography elaborates the dynamic of connection and withdrawal: when a dancer slips out of the warm, slithery embrace of a pas de deux to be enclosed by one of the cubes, the fact of his isolation delivers a cold shock.
His solitude is intensified by power-ful drum beats, yet it’s the music – a rhythmic, vocal fusion of east and west – that also gives the work its heartbreaking beauty and hopefulness. Even within the fractious world that Babel presents, the cast seem drawn to sing and dance with each other. And it’s a tribute to the work’s knife-edge precision that it contains optimism and despair in such brilliantly equal measure.