I went to see two performances this last week – Akram Khan at Sadler’s Wells, and Shen Wei Dance Arts at the Barbican. Akram Khan was presenting “Zero Degrees”, a collaborative project which also involves Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui from Les Ballet C de la B, Nitin Sawhney (composer), and Antony Gormley (sculptor). From the programme, I learned that the piece evolved from many conversations between Akram and Sidi, where they talked about similar experiences of growing up caught between cultures (British-Bangladeshi, Flemish-Morroccan), and shared interests in the narrative of personal histories, in points of difference and return. The piece grew from a process of choreographic and movement exchange, where Akram and Sidi absorbed each other’s styles and ways of working, then produced choreography together. What resulted was a piece that was dazzling in its virtuosity, humorous, and at the same time, surprisingly poignant.
The stage is set with two life-sized sculptures of the dancers, lying inert on the floor. The floor itself is marked in a grid-like pattern, with changing lights highlighting different areas of the playing space. The piece begins with the two men walking in casually, launching into a narrative of Akram’s first trip to India. This journey was a harrowing one, with Akram’s passport being snatched away at one point, and finding out that there was a dead man on the same carriage with him. Both men sit, facing the audience, and talk while gesturing vividly with their hands. What is uncanny, is that both men have managed to match their exact voice intonations and their gestures, so that not only are they saying and doing the same things – they are doing so with the same rhythm and flow. The effect is humorous, and slight unnerving. The precisely choreographed hand gestures come from Sidi’s style of dance making, yet they are also not unlike the hand movements in Kathak, Akram’s native dance language. “Zero Degrees” then morphs into a duet, during which Akram and Sidi become entangled with each other, in these beautiful, fluid arm movements. They resist and compete, yet at the same time, they yield to the demands that the other person places on their own body. This duet eventually broadens out into suspended space of virtuosity, in which the two men spin, turn, jump and somersault around the space and each other. The elasticity and strength in Sidi’s body is astonishing, especially in a sequence in which he flips and contorts his torso endlessly, while keeping his head on the floor. Akram, meanwhile, executes a series of turns that cover the stage, blinding in its speed and precision. When all the action finally quiets down, one gets caught by the sudden stillness of the space.
From this moment onwards, the dance integrates the two rubber sculptures. Akram and Sidi interact with these replicas of themselves: punching them on the shoulders, shaking their hands, leaning on their bodies and falling. At first, the effect is gimmicky. After awhile however, as the sculptures start to sub in for the dancers themselves, like when Sidi stamps on Akram’s sculpture with his foot and Akram seizes violently in response, the whole thing takes on a much more disturbing air. The sculptures are life-like, pliable, and one wonders where the body of the sculpture ends, and the body of the dancer begins.
The two dancers pick up their narrative from time to time, completing the story of Akram’s eventful cross-border journey in segments. In a way, this narrative frames the dance, with its themes of identity, journeys, and confrontations. The dead body in the tale also highlights both men’s pre-occupation with mortality and the weight of history. In one section, Sidi tries to drag around both his and Akram’s sculptures, but he is thwarted by Akram vehemently clinging on to his own. What follows are a series of standstills in which the two men try to connect and move through space with their body doubles, but keep getting blocked or bogged down by the weight of their partners. It was a most moving portrayal of their difficulty in confronting their own histories and identities, embodied in these inert, but living sculptures.
The piece ends on a elegaic note, with Sidi tenderly cradling his sculpture body, singing a mournful song, while Akram trembles, at first quietly, then forcefully, literally shaking and almost overwhelmed by grief. After some moments, Sidi stops singing, and gently picks up Akram, carrying him over his shoulder. He exits the stage, leaving his sculpture frozen in the empty space, and the remaining strains of the music playing, till the end.